Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thinkin' about Lincoln

Historical genre . . . or historical "genre" . . . . where is the cultural energy these days?

I've been thinking for some time about Steven Spielberg's Lincoln - without coming to any clear conclusions regarding it.  Perhaps because there is no clear conclusion to come to regarding it.

Well, actually, there was one conclusion I came to - I wish I'd liked the movie more; for me, it amounted to a literate, but fussily damp, cinematic squib.

Without a doubt, though, it is a fine, high-minded piece of craftsmanship.  It boasts a script, by Tony Kushner, that occasionally hints at the political eloquence he's known for.  And it showcases a central performance, by Daniel Day-Lewis, that in technical terms accomplishes something uncanny: like the robot Lincoln at Disney World, it conjures a weirdly "accurate" fantasy-recollection of a man whom no one alive has ever seen or heard.  Watching Day-Lewis, the audience all but nods, "Yes - that must be what he was like."  It's an odd kind of achievement, surely - the impersonation of a collective impression rather than an actual man; and yet it works cinematically, at least on the surface.

Beneath that surface, though - ah, there's the rub; Day-Lewis remains a folksy, flinty cipher to the finish, for all his wry grinning and quotes from Shakespeare.  And to be fair - maybe the actual Abe Lincoln was a cipher, too.  But movies used to be able to tell us more than that about their mysterious heroes; T.E. Lawrence was his own kind of sphinx, for instance, but David Lean and Robert Bolt limned his charismatic essence with far more power than Spielberg and Kushner manage here.

Okay, Lawrence of Arabia is a pretty high bar - and to be fair, Spielberg and Kushner were apparently working from a celebrated text, Team of Rivals, by famous plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is nobody's idea of a literary stylist. Goodwin's writing (if it is her writing) often plods with calm authority from one cliché to the next (so unsurprisingly, she's fond of chapter titles like "The Gathering Storm," etc.).  And her ideas, at least the animating ideas of Team of Rivals, often feel like the same kind of lesson-plan boilerplate: there is an objective, with which we can all agree, and which the Great Man in question brings about through clever gamesmanship on a political chessboard that is constantly in flux.  Ta-da! That's history, folks.

An uncanny robot inhabited by the ghost of Atticus Finch.
Thank God Tony Kushner is a lot smarter than that, but throughout Lincoln Goodwin's concept drags on him like some pseudo-intellectual anchor. Kushner's at his best in pitched dialectical battles between characters (like Belize and Roy Cohn in Angels in America) whose very lives are antitheses, and who therefore operate as what Hegel might have called "history personified."  But Team of Rivals offers no such foil to Lincoln (and let's be honest, any such conceptual depth is a bit beyond both Goodwin and Spielberg) - so Kushner's hands are kept from the trusty dramatic tools which might have helped him limn his hero's strange depths (I mean even Peter O'Toole had Omar Sharif, know what I'm sayin'?).

And thus Lincoln feels weirdly flat despite its high period detail, and its lead character - well, as I watched Day-Lewis, I was reminded of Kushner's own words from Angels: we probably cannot make the crossing that Lincoln made, for such great voyages in this world do not any more exist.  But what a grand goal even attempting such a voyage would have been!  The trouble is that such a goal would have immensely complicated the Hollywood audience's relationship to "No. 16." In particular, it would have meant lifting the veil on his own curious (if admittedly "enlightened," and always evolving) brand of racial politics.  We would have had to ponder how someone could move from something like a separate-but-equal racial stance, and a deep reluctance to endanger the Union by declaring slaves free, to the final realization that only that very freedom could validate the sacrifices of the war, and even weld the Union together for good.

In other words, we would have had to experience a dialectic.

Maybe that's what bugs me most about Lincoln - they hired the right playwright for the job, but then wouldn't let him write his play!  At least Kushner comes through with a far more sophisticated and successful script here than he did with Munich (his last effort with Spielberg); this time there's something close to an actual rhythm to many scenes, and there's a sprinkling of genuinely funny jokes.

So Spielberg doesn't quite manage to scramble things as he has before; he just manages to prevent them from coalescing into anything really insightful or new.  Thus the surface of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance may be striking, but its mold is almost too familiar: inside the Hall of Presidents, we find Atticus Finch all over again.  And while Day-Lewis is surrounded by a gallery of fine actors, many of whom (particularly James Spader and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hold their own against him - even in the funerary feathers of the period - they, too, are all playing familiar types.  Actually, sometimes they're just blanks, like Sally Fields' curious take on Mary Todd Lincoln; we never quite understand what she's doing in the movie, because Kushner isn't given the space to accurately chart a central moral paradox about his hero, who was willing to risk other men's lives to save the Union and free the slaves - but not his own son's.

So my attention drifted during the film's longeurs, and I found myself re-considering the paradox of Spielberg's later career, and his self-thwarted attempts to revive the mojo of such legends of popular cinema as David Lean and Stanley Kubrick.  Those auteurs were able to cross high and low with astonishing skill - while Spielberg (let's be honest) keeps flubbing it despite the best of intentions.  He seems to understand "high," but it's just not in his bones; he's basically low, through and through.  He's more at home in pure genre (science fiction in particular) than he is in what used to be called "the historical genre."

Of course to be fair to Spielberg, "low" keeps getting lower and lower.  Indeed, we've already seen Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (poster at top), which posited the sixteenth president as a hatchet-wielding slayer of blood-suckers; and Quentin Tarantino, who concocted a Jewish revenge fantasy out of World War II (in Inglorious Basterds), is about to turn the same trick with a cinematic money shot for African-Americans in Django Unchained.  Yes, pop has once more found the Civil War, and the results are almost as dismaying as Gone with the Wind; left to its own devices, "genre" will only distort the conflict's meaning and twist it to predictable uses (generally, adolescent revenge).  Lincoln stands as a kind of valiant attempt at a riposte to all that - it's the sort of movie we know we all need, a movie that might tempt the culture back from the millennial cliff.

And we'd get that kind of movie, too, if David Lean were still around.

Only he's not.

Lincoln leaves Lincoln a cipher to the finish.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

There's little dramatic music in The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Photo: Michael Lamont
Okay, I'm just going to get through this one fast - that way I won't dread writing it.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane (at ArtsEmerson through December 16), a memory play performed by well-known pianist Mona Golabek (at left), and drawn from the memoirs of her mother, noted pianist and author Lisa Jura, sounds on paper like a sure thing.   Ms. Jura was a Viennese (and Jewish) piano prodigy who escaped the Holocaust on a kindertransport, lost her parents to the death camps, then survived the blitz in London in a house full of other "orphans" (on the eponymous Willesden Lane) - only to eventually triumph in an Albert Hall debut, after which she was wooed (and won) by a Freedom Fighter.

It's a terrific story, and given all that biographical gold, it's hard to believe that adaptor Hershey Felder has managed to spin quite as much dramatic dross from it as he has here. His script is supposedly designed to reveal the way in which music "has the power to help us survive" - and it's actually kind of an objective proof of that thesis; for Golabek's musical talent does, in fact, repeatedly help us endure Felder's turgid dramaturgy.

The evening is styled as a "story told through music" - Ms. Golabek repeatedly turns from a poised recitation of her mother's memoirs to the Steinway parked center stage, to tinkle a virtuosic passage from Beethoven, Chopin, or Grieg (whose Piano Concerto serves as a kind of leitmotif for the evening).  We understand that this was her mother's repertoire - it's the world's repertoire - and if only she'd keep playing, we'd be in clover, for Ms. Golabek proves herself an accomplished and deeply musical pianist (a much stronger performer, btw, than Mr. Felder himself, who has starred in several similar vehicles over the years).  We don't really get a sense of Golabek's own interpretive personality, I admit, but her takes on Chopin and Bach sounded particularly strong, and her Grieg, though not perhaps distinctive, was always persuasively grand.  And of course it's fiendishly difficult; indeed, perhaps the evening's central theatrical gambit is simply the calm with which Ms. Golabek turns from one type of performance (theatrical) to another (musical).

Needless to say, she has been trained as one kind of performer, and not the other - still, this pianist doesn't lack for theatrical presence, and her elegant demeanor is somehow streaked with a survivor's tears; she's actually well-suited to serve as a guide to her mother's travails.  But as directed by Mr. Felder (yes, he also directed) the tour proves strangely, actually relentlessly, dull - kind of amazingly dull, in that it's a mix of Oliver Twist on steroids with Anne Frank Plays Albert Hall.  The young Ms. Jura brushed against some of the greatest evils of the twentieth century (encountering many endearing eccentrics on the way) - and eventually found herself playing for the heroes who destroyed that evil; and yet Felder's script trudges listlessly from scene to scene, and seems to drain the color out of everything; indeed, it often reads like this: "A handsome young man waved to me from the audience. He said he loved me.  He was a Freedom Fighter." (That's a paraphrase, but you get the idea.)  We never really get inside the embattled Ms. Jura's head, and never sense her desperate longing for her lost parents, in fact nothing of the special magic of childhood (even under such terrible circumstances) is conjured, and we don't even really feel her music "develop" as she matures in the midst of the firestorm raging around her (the Grieg at the opening of the evening sounds much like the Grieg at the end).  This counts as a gigantic missed dramatic opportunity - perhaps the largest in recent memory.

As I said, however, the evening is partially saved by the beauty of Ms. Golabek's playing, and its juxtaposition against heartbreaking visuals by Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder: "Clair de lune" shines over Ms. Jura's last glimpses of Vienna's lost Jews; and a gentle "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" echoes with terrible irony over a ruined London.  At moments like this, we can sense what The Pianist of Willesden Lane might have been, in the hands of a more talented dramatist and director.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bringing Orfeo to life

Mireille Asselin and Aaron Sheehan - photo: Kathy Wittman
Unlike many art forms, opera kicked off with a masterpiece - Monteverdi's Orfeo, probably the first opera evah, still ranks as one of the most gorgeous ever written. Which makes it all the stranger that the work was rarely performed for nearly four hundred years; after its initial bows (around 1607) in the Duke of Mantua's living room, it was largely lost to the repertoire before early music aficionados began reviving it in the late twentieth century - as the Boston Early Music Festival did in a memorable semi-staged production last weekend at Jordan Hall.

Well, maybe that long silence becomes somewhat more understandable when you realize how much of the sheer beauty of Orfeo depends on the timbres of the original instruments for which Monteverdi composed it.  This deep sympathy between medium and message is so arresting, in fact, that often during the BEMF production, I found myself wondering - would I even want to hear Orfeo steamrolled by the RCA-Victor stereophonic sound of, say, the Boston Symphony Orchestra?  Well - maybe; but it's so much more ravishing in the delicate, plaintive voices of its period that I'm very glad to have the chance to hear it in something like its original form.

And luckily, BEMF had drawn together a sterling period ensemble for the production - long gone are the days when musicians were still figuring out how to play these curious forbears of the familiar members of the modern orchestra.  As always, BEMF Musical Directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs were superb on the chitarrone, but Maxine Eilander was if anything even more poignantly seductive on an exquisite baroque harp; the string section, under concertmaster Robert Mealy, was likewise supple and vibrant, and even the horns this time were clean and robust - probably the best I've heard in Boston, actually - thanks to the visiting members of Concerto Palatino.  Instrumentally, the evening was a triumph.

Vocally, it was often just as strong, although slightly less consistent.  What gap there was lay right at the production's center, I'm afraid - as Orfeo, the musical demi-god who (as we all know) attempts to rescue his lover Euridice from the land of the dead, tenor Aaron Sheehan seemed to be warming up in the first half - to be fair, he did come through with real musical and emotional power in the heartbreaking finale (when Orfeo loses his beloved a second time - although in this version, he and Euridice are transformed into stars by Apollo, so they can gaze upon each other forever).  Sheehan was playing catch-up by then, however, to Mireille Asselin's radiant Euridice, Teresa Wakim's haunted Prosperina, and the skillful countertenor  Ryland Angel, who smoothly negotiated shifts from one register to another in various roles.  Perhaps even a little further ahead was tenor Jason McStoots, who sang elegantly throughout (in beautifully phrased Italian, btw), but who shone brightest as Apollo, along with soprano Shannon Mercer, whose recitatives on Euridice's death were devastating, and the astonishing Douglas Williams, whose bottomless bass seemed to send a reverb throughout the underworld as Charonte, the recalcitrant boatman of the river Styx.

I must add, however, that for once stage director Gilbert Blin's Pippin-style concept (in which traveling players seemed to be putting on the show for an unseen Duke) felt a bit out of focus.  The production was always engaging and affecting, but in Blin's best work the costuming and blocking coalesce into deeper intellectual ideas than seemed to be the case here.  Likewise I cared less for the dancing than usual.  The group roundelays weren't quite confident on opening night (classical singers are rarely natural dancers), and so made an uneasy contrast with the cleanly etched "professional" cavorting of the one trained dancer, the skillful Carlos Fittante (but weren't they all supposed to be trained entertainers?). More importantly, some of Fittante's numbers in the second act seemed to intrude, in an oddly ironic way, on the tragic action.  Still, this was a small caveat in a luminous production that I'll savor in my memory for a long time to come.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

It's a wonderful replay for this Frank Capra classic

A few folks have e-mailed to ask that I reprise my analysis of It's a Wonderful Life (gif at left) - perhaps, like my "Highbrow Halloween" post, this will become a kind of Hub Review classic.  At any rate, I'm always glad to revisit this wonderful film, so here it is for those of you who missed it the first time -

I took last Saturday night "off," as it were, and let the performing arts fend for themselves - and instead curled up at home before the TV. And to my happy surprise, I found It's a Wonderful Life had begun its holiday rotation. It's by now a commonplace, of course, that Shakespeare seems to map to every age; and maybe great films do, too. For certainly Frank Capra's last masterpiece qualifies as great, and certainly in today's hard times it seems more resonant than ever.

 Of course to some, the movie's sentimental message makes it a tough sell - and I won't make any apologies for the angels and twinkly stars that overlay much of Life; Capra lays it on pretty thick in spots. But I've often noticed that the movie's skeptics always miss the hard core beneath the soft surface of what used to be called "Capra-corn."

For there's a worldly awareness at the bottom of Capra's vision that you won't find at the multiplex today - not even in the best from Spielberg or Pixar. Indeed, Capra regularly trades in situations we just wouldn't tolerate in family entertainment anymore. Consider that It's a Wonderful Life features (right off the top) a little boy who, playing with no supervision, almost drowns in a frozen pond - his brother saves him, but as a result loses his hearing in one ear. This is disturbing enough, but then a drunken (and heart-broken) druggist boxes that boy on his injured ear until it bleeds (as he wails in pain); in Spielberg, retribution would be swift: such a character would be eaten by a dinosaur or shark. Yet in Capra's movie, it's natural that innocents are left unprotected, and suffer as a result - and that people who under some circumstances can be terribly cruel are also redeemable, and even perhaps basically gentle and good (that druggist, Mr. Gower, becomes one of the hero's closest friends).

In fact throughout It's a Wonderful Life a highly un-sentimental view of existence prevails, beneath the sticky-sweet fairy tale of angels getting their wings. People cut ethical corners left and right (like hero George Bailey's handsome brother Harry, who leaves George stuck with the family building-and-loan), and are constantly tempted by the blandishments of money and sex (like Gloria Grahame's Violet, at top,who's always on the edge of slipping from "bad girl" status to something worse). Or they're simply weak, like George's Uncle Billy (the great Thomas Mitchell), who fumbles through life, making messes of things, then drinks to console himself. The seemingly bucolic Bedford Falls is really no kind of utopia - something serious is always at stake there, and someone or something is always hanging in the moral balance.

Of course the film constantly reminds us, too, that people can surprise you. The callow Harry becomes a war hero - just as Mr. Gower turns out to be a saint - and even Violet thinks better of her ways. The movie's conceit is that there's a kind of moral force field in town that keeps nudging people back on, or at least near to, the straight and narrow (and which draws its only real power from the sacrifices of people like George). Thus no one in It's a Wonderful Life is precisely, or only, what they seem to be; they're always capable of far better, and far worse.

The dark side of Life - George in crisis.
Even the idealistic George himself (Jimmy Stewart, at right) isn't really what he at first appears. The townsfolk always seem delighted with him, but every time I see It's a Wonderful Life, I'm struck by the angry frustration roiling around in Stewart's performance. All George wants to do is escape from Bedford Falls, and he's often furious when over and over again, his moral duties frustrate that desire. And yet in that very frustration, he eventually finds something - well, wonderful (and so do we).

Which leads me to something else intrinsic to the movie that you won't find at the multiplex: the admission that moral action demands sacrifice. The sentimental, consumerist bromides of our own age insist you can become rich by being virtuous - which easily bleeds into the sleazier insinuation that riches operate as their own moral validation. But Capra (pardon my French) calls bullshit on all that. Morality has its rewards, the director tells us - and great ones - but they're not physical or financial. George saves his brother only by losing half his hearing; and he and Mary only preserve the building and loan by giving up their honeymoon. Being good will cost you something. 

All this, of course, speaks to a kind of moral scope (and sense of everyday moral danger) that's all but lost to us today. And it's hard not to feel that this moral dimension is tied to something else that's striking about It's a Wonderful Life: the fact that it offers the most sophisticated view of economic life ever committed to American film.  Indeed, the famous "bank run" scene (below) is so complex that - even though its developing situation is described quite accurately and explicitly as it unfolds - everyone I've ever spoken to about it essentially mis-remembers it (the Bailey Building and Loan isn't actually in any trouble, for instance, even though most people imagine that's the case - the crisis has been precipitated by a bank run down the street).

Some viewers have watched this scene and claimed the moral points it scores are false, assuming that the Bailey Building and Loan must have been involved in the kind of high-risk mortgages that contributed to the Great Recession of 2008. But nothing could be further from the truth. First, as I stated earlier, the Bailey Building and Loan is presented as solvent (Uncle Billy only locks its doors because a different bank, in full melt-down, has demanded its liquid assets on short notice, sparking a panic). And we understand that while the Bailey collection policy has involved flexibility in hard times, its customers aren't deadbeats. Indeed, George Bailey certainly hasn't off-loaded his debts in the derivatives market, because he knows his customers - whose character has sometimes operated as their collateral.

All of this is utterly alien to the economy of 2008, where there was no connection between the person who took out the loan and the person who "owned" it.  But wait, it gets "worse" (if you're a libertarian, that is): George Bailey bails out the Building and Loan (note the pun in his surname) by giving Ayn Rand the swift kick in the ass she deserves, and offering up his own assets - he and Mary's nest-egg for their honeymoon - to cover the day's cash demands. He also makes a slew of promises and statements to his customers that are perfectly illegal, and swings the entire deal without ever consulting his Board. The whole scene is a short course in how when the bottom falls out of a market, only personal commitment can assuage the panic. And thus George holds the building and loan together - but only by ignoring both his legal "responsibilities" and the mores of the free market.

Which is no surprise to anyone who has spent time in real life, as opposed to Second Life, and knows that the "invisible hand of the market" must always be guided from self-destruction by another invisible hand - that of the community. But if the people like George Bailey who gave that guidance were to vanish, then there would be no salvation possible - which is why we are living the film's final nightmare vision of the world as it would be without him. The new main street of casinos, honky-tonks and pawn shops that George faces there plays today as amusingly hysterical - but is it so far from the truth?  Indeed, isn't that precisely what Massachusetts is turning into even as we speak? To be blunt, to today's viewers, "Pottersville" is no hypothetical dystopia - indeed, it looks utterly familiar; it's a Las-Vegas vision many people promote every day with a straight face. Only look at the faces you find there - this is when It's a Wonderful Life becomes far more frightening than its ultimate source, A Christmas Carol. In the world as run by Ebeneezer Scrooge, Mr. Gower is humiliated and utterly abject - desperate and dazed, he even chuckles along with his own abuse; Ma Bailey runs her flophouse with a face like a hatchet and eyes like a vulture; and we see poor Violet, screaming at the top of her lungs, as she is thrown out into the street for lewd behavior.

Of course maybe all this seems more poignant now because we're so lost as a nation, so unable to even envision what we must do to prevail over our current crisis. When It's a Wonderful Life was first enshrined on cable, the Reagan Republicans had only just begun to tear at the social fabric - and the movie's liberal platitudes sounded amusingly quaint. Now, of course, free market theory is triumphant, and It's a Wonderful Life has quickly morphed from a corny Hallmark card to a sad memento of a paradise lost. For there are no George Baileys left to save us from Mr. Potter, and we all live in Pottersville now.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Takács weaves its magic with Marc-André Hamelin

The Takács Quartet in action

You can tell a lot about a string quartet from its moniker, and the fact that the Takács Quartet (above) named itself simply "the weavers" (the meaning of takács in Hungarian) I think tells you something about their essential humility.  That this humbleness is yoked to the highest level of artistry, however, only makes its gentle restraint all the sweeter. Indeed, the Takács Quartet seems almost self-effacing when its members enter the concert hall and gaze at each other (like craftsmen long familiar with one another), before quietly raising their bows.

And the music begins.

Hub Review readers already know that I probably cherish ensemble chamber music above all other forms. And let's just say last Friday's Celebrity Series concert reminded me why.  The Takács delivered sterling performances of three deep musical statements - Haydn's String Quartet in D Major (Op. 76, No. 5), Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, and especially Shostakovich's sprawling Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 - played with the virtuosic Marc-André Hamelin (another Hub Review favorite) on the keyboard.

The Shostakovich was the rarity, but first I'll consider the Haydn and Schubert, two highly opposed emotional essays which the Takács negotiated in different keys of brilliance.  Haydn's D Major quartet showcased two of this great composer's opposing musical "faces" - by turns he seemed a melancholy sage and a witty raconteur.  The melancholia was most pronounced in the work's famous Largo, whose melody here unfurled like a gorgeously prolonged sigh; in contrast, the opening Allegro features a clever musical feint into another key, and the final Presto is one long delightful joke: it opens with the kind of flourish one normally associates with the close of a movement, then struggles and fusses to actually end with variation after variation that amount to an endlessly extended musical farewell; then suddenly, it's over.

It takes not just virtuosity but maturity, as well as an unstated familiarity between a quartet's players, to bind all these different facets together - but then Takács has precisely that, in spades. Violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér are the two original members of the group, and they remain its anchors and engine, seemingly grounding the more spectacular talents of lead violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Geraldine Walther.  Dusinberre may have the most sweetly eloquent high end of any violinist I can think of; meanwhile a weathered Romany fire still smolders in Walther's bow.  It's a winning combination, and seemed to limn every emotional detail of the Haydn.

Then came the Schubert - and, of course, tragedy.  Written as the composer's health continued its decline, and drawn from his own incidental music for the play Rosamunde as well as his setting of a Schiller lament, the work has a deep sense of having been re-worked, of tapping once more into familiar veins of pleading hope and encroaching despair.  Even the minuet is somehow fraught with dismay - the melancholy only lifts (slightly) in the closing rondo, which has little in common with what has come before.  And as with much Schubert, the quartet is both compelling and somewhat awkwardly structured - we are a world away from Haydn's sense of knowing control (even over heartbreak).  So it was no surprise the Takács streamlined things a bit here and there (with few repeats), but impressed nonetheless, particularly in the opening, almost tremblingly fraught Allegro.

Finally came a far more striking shift in tone - to Shostakovitch's half-mad, but truly great, Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57, which closed the evening in both high and disturbing style, with Marc-André Hamelin (a local boy - these days - whom we just don't hear enough from) on the keyboard.  The work is sprawling, and as it was written just prior to the Nazi invasion of Russia, channels with more than usual power that distinctive note of destructive insanity that's typical of the twentieth century, and which informs so much of Shostakovich's oeuvre.  Here the piano echoes with a cold chime (the musical lines are often spare melodies doubled an octave apart) that seems to hover over, and eventually descend upon, the more distracted scribble in the string parts.  These often quote, or hint at, earlier composers (particularly Bach in the second movement fugue), but are eventually overcome by a familiar Shostakovich motif: a strange, evil itch that scratches happily through the third movement, but then is overcome by a sadder self-awareness in the final Allegretto.

It's a stunning statement - a terrible vision of civilized history on the verge of destruction - and a brilliant exemplar of the sense of historical embedment which makes Shostakovich so special (and which distinguishes him from those many modernists who wound up in Shangri-Las like Hollywood). And these performers simply played the hell out of it.  Hamelin sometimes seemed dominant (but then the piano, one senses, should sound more loudly than the strings, as was the case here), but also proved a responsive ensemble player, particularly in the opening movements.  The Takács, for its part, was at its most poignant in the finale, which is riven with mournfulness.  It was a remarkable close to this remarkable concert, whose only real disappointment was the fact that there was no encore.

Friday, November 23, 2012

It's he-e-e-re!!

Yes, Thanksgiving is over - so it's h-e-e-e-re!  CHRISTMAS!  The Tokyo Christmas decoration above kind of sums up how I feel about the mother of all holidays (reportedly it occasionally breathed deadly fumes, thanks to a well-placed fire extinguisher).  But thank God that, as these are the end times, I can do most of my shopping online.  In between those purchases, I will be catching up with the Takács Quartet at Celebrity Series, and pondering Spielberg's Lincoln.  So stay tuned!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving from the Hub Review

Uncle Sam is inflated for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

As I grow older, Thanksgiving means more to me, it seems; perhaps because when I was younger, I hadn't really lost anything yet.  But loss is a part of life, and of course a part of aging; so every year there is someone else missing from the Thanksgiving table.  Someday I'll be missing, too.

Even when I was young, I was struck by the day's stillness; for a time, on Thanksgiving, everything simply stopped - before the relatives arrived, while the turkey was basted in the oven and far away, in television-land, enormous balloons drifted through Manhattan, or football players suited up for their ritual struggle.  Then the stillness seemed, well, just empty; now perhaps it sounds a melancholy note.

Still, thankfulness only has meaning when its opposite is understood, and there is much to be thankful for this year.  I have my health, I'm employed; I have my family and friends, and of course you, my readers!  I have somewhere to go on Thanksgiving (not everyone does).  None of those I love were washed away by a hurricane (not everyone was so lucky); the country seemed to regain its grip on political sanity; and inch by inch we seem to be working our way out of our dire economic straits. That's enough - more than enough.

Thankfulness implies hope - in a way it is hope.  So I try to be hopeful, remembering that may the essential message of Thanksgiving.  We are of course still on the precipice of various disasters; we always will be.  But this Thanksgiving I think we have hope.

Monday, November 19, 2012

I just realized I write at least a 500-page book every year

It began with my noting (as I often do) that I had more to say about the Huntington production of Betrayal than anyone else in town did.

Then I remembered how I'd scribbled something like 3,000 words in my two-part review of Mamet's Race early this month. (Actually make that close to 4,5000 words total I've expended on Race, as I also blogged about the play back when it was on Broadway.)  Nobody else in Boston clocked in with even a quarter of that.

Then I suddenly got a little obsessed, and began tallying up all my reviews for the past thirty days or so, combining them into one super-long document - which ran close to 21,000 words.  Which would mean I write something like 250,000 words over the course of the year.  But the blogging goes down by at least a third over the summer, I suddenly remembered - so I'm guessing I come in at about 220,000 words annually on this blog.

At 400 words per page, that's a 550-page book.

I've written a 550-page book on the Boston cultural scene every year for the past five years.

No wonder I'm always tired.

Keeping faith with Pinter

Gretchen Egolf and Alan Cox in Betrayal.  Photos: T. Charles Erickson.

A year or two ago, after several failed Pinter productions at the ART and elsewhere, I wondered aloud, "Is Pinter still possible?"  It seemed to me then that pop culture's absorption of this playwright's menacing comic tone had fatally undermined his dramatic impact - or rather, had swallowed up his acid irony in the new, glib, millennial mode of "irony."

Since then, however, I've seen one or two productions (all by women) which have demonstrated that the famous Pinter pause can still conjure something of its old power - just in a new, more poignant key; and that the playwright's disturbing ellipses can still unsettle even a millennial audience that is quite sure it has all the answers.  In short, the chill may be gone, but the thrill can still be there.

Or at least that's what fascinates about the new Huntington production of Betrayal, as subtly directed by Maria Aitken.  It's probably the warmest piece of Pinter I've ever seen; and yet it delivers in spades on the playwright's questing, unstable subtext.  Indeed, for once, during it the Huntington audience was clearly at sea - in a good way: you could feel them trying to piece something together that wasn't at all what it appeared to be on the surface.  Thus the theatre grew more and more quiet as the drama progressed (or rather regressed; it mostly moves backward in time) - only this was the silence of mental absorption, not boredom.  It has been said that art is supposed to be about questions, not answers; it was nice to see the Huntington had realized this concern lies at the very heart of Pinter.

A word more about Aitken; we've seen a lot of her work at the Huntington - and I'm quite, quite glad.  After a false start with the clever but superficial 39 Steps, she revealed sudden interpretive depths with Educating Rita (of all things), and since then has only gone from strength to strength with two more British dramas (a wonderful Private Lives preceded Betrayal).  Three stylish, fully imagined productions in a row - there may be no other Boston director who can currently make that claim.

But I want to note something special about Aitken and her oeuvre - it has mostly been composed of works with lead roles she has already performed herself (in a distinguished acting career), or by authors with whom she has had a working relationship (like Pinter).  There's nothing at all wrong with this - indeed, it's a type of directorial career I very much admire (the great Brian Bedford, up in Canada, has had a similar artistic trajectory).  I call these folks legacy directors - they clearly mean to hand the torch on to the next generation, while the academy (which should be doing that job, of course) fusses with this or that -ism or trend. Would there were more like Ms. Aitken!

The betrayers of Betrayal - Pinter and Joan Bakewell.
Which isn't to say that her Betrayal doesn't have an intriguing and original spin.  As I mentioned, it's far warmer than most; it's clearly sourced from within the experience of its female protagonist, "Emma" (here played by the luminous Gretchen Egolf).  This is in and of itself actually remarkable, as Pinter-land has long been assumed to be a masculine province.  But Pinter's no Mamet: great female roles exist in his work, and now Aitken has demonstrated that Betrayal (along with, I'd argue, Old Times and The Homecoming) is open to a fresh, feminine perspective.

The tale the playwright tells, of course, is one he knows from experience: Betrayal delineates one of the adulteries (with Joan Bakewell, interviewing the author above left, during their long relationship) that he was notorious for during his marriage to the actress Vivien Merchant - who, we seem to have forgotten, did not actually survive her husband's infidelities: after her divorce from Pinter she sank into alcoholism, and was dead within two years, at age 53 (their son, Daniel, disavowed his father and even changed his name after his mother's death; you can still see the wonderful Merchant, btw, in the film version of The Homecoming, and Hitchcock's Frenzy).

But Betrayal was written during the emergence of another Pinter affair (with Lady Antonia Fraser, whom he eventually married), the one that "officially" broke up his marriage, and became "permanent."  Thus it's quite apropos that broken dreams of domesticity and commitment - the ghost of what Joan Bakewell might have been, if you will - should haunt the play; although the sturdy and very successful Ms. Bakewell is still very much with us, in case you're wondering, and seems to have been hardly crushed by the collapse of this particular romance -indeed, she has even consulted on productions of the script, as you can read here.

The betrayals mount in Betrayal - Gretchen Egolf and Mark H. Dold

So the ruefulness and emotional wreckage that Betrayal charts are probably Pinter's, and not his paramour's.  No matter; Ms. Egolf eloquently channels the devastation (whoever experienced it in real life) as the various betrayals - of love, of friendship, even of adultery itself - are revealed in Pinter's haunting, back-and-forth narrative. And she's almost matched by Mark H. Dold as her cuckolded (but himself unfaithful) husband, "Robert"; Dold has the right hawk-like demeanor for the part, and hints, particularly in the famous "Torcello" scene (above), at a ruthlessly suppressed tragic depth.  My one caveat about his performance - and perhaps about the production generally - is that the edge of cruelty I feel Pinter intends for Robert is never quite made forceful enough (he "jokes" in one scene about actually striking his wife, and we should feel somehow that's no joke).

Perhaps a small step further behind is Alan Cox's adulterous "Jerry"(who betrays not only his wife but his best friend), even though Cox is experienced at Pinter; but even his is a skillful, if perhaps too light, performance, and closes with a memorable outburst of true feeling and affection - which we realize, in a brilliant coup de théâtre conjured by Aitken and designer Allen Moyer - will prove the font of all the heartbreak to follow.  But then that may be what is most mature about this late Pinter opus (the last - and frankly perhaps the least - of his "great" plays): its adult awareness of the way in which the better and lesser angels of our nature often fly hand-in-hand.

One last note on the striking design of the production (this is a play which is quite a challenge in design terms, btw).  The Huntington's stellar sets have actually become, in some circles, almost a kind of aesthetic albatross flapping around its neck (as in "Oh, of course the set was wonderful, they always do incredible sets at the Huntington, but as for the production itself . . . ").  But Mr. Moyer's design is one example of a set that does not merely dazzle, but works as metaphor for both the themes and history of the play.  A lynchpin of Pinter's technique is the telling detail (even if it's merely a sudden silence), and its relation to an unstable, or unknowable, power struggle, or past life; thus at the Huntington, scenes end with scrims "closing down," like the iris of a lens, on a single facet of the set - and the settings themselves float in a kind of pale studio, a twilight zone whose true nature and location remains forever unknown (and which inevitably recalls the television studios where Bakewell and Pinter first met).  Frankly these brilliant strokes, like so much else in this remarkable production, seem absolutely perfect for Pinter.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Labadie reaches Jupiter with Handel and Haydn

Labadie in action.
When I first heard French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie a few years back, I wrote, "Remember that name -  and if you get a chance to hear him . . . by all means take it."

Well, since then a lot of people have had that chance, and as a result Labadie's career has exploded, with debuts at the Met, Tanglewood, and all over the map.  He returned to the Hub last weekend in a concert with Handel and Haydn that might have been dubbed "Mozart in Context" - and quickly demonstrated that he's still got it going on, and how; his closing rendering of the "Jupiter" Symphony, conducted from memory, was the kind of home-run that brings a crowd immediately to its feet, shouting and stamping.   In fact, I admit I have a serious musical man-crush on this guy.  Smarts, sympathy, superb control and command - Labadie's got it all, plus he does what I call "full-body" conducting: the musical cues seem to ripple through every fiber of his being, so his connection with the orchestra is dramatically palpable.  With Labadie conducting, a concert is also a show.

Of course, this was also a wonderful musical statement, thoughtfully programmed and exquisitely interpreted.  The idea was clearly to compare and contrast the evening's warhorse, the "Jupiter" (No. 41) - the one H&H could count on to draw a crowd - with obscurities by the forgotten Henri-Joseph Rigel and Joseph Martin Kraus, as well as a minor Haydn symphony, No. 26 ("Lamentatione") - all three variants of what has been dubbed the "Sturm und Drang" Germanic school (with, in the case of Rigel, a lovely French largo sandwiched between two Teutonic allegros).

This is where the curation of the concert did run into an intriguing set of cross-currents, it seemed to me.  Rigel, Kraus, and Haydn seemed to be speaking to each other as much as to Mozart; or perhaps Haydn was speaking to them (although the final movement of the Kraus at least clearly counts as proto-Mozart).  And certainly both Rigel and Kraus intrigued as demonstrations of just how alluring great craft can be - I was much taken with the second and third movements of the Rigel in particular - still, did either have a unique "voice"?  It seemed that Haydn turned that corner rather early for the form; the flowing second movement of Lamentatione (partly derived from an Easter chant) exudes a depth that Rigel and Kraus lack, and the third movement abounds in that sense of subtle, almost conversational surprise that typifies this great composer.

Perhaps simply ordering the concert by composition date might have clarified all this.  At any rate, under Labadie's attentive eye, the orchestra performed all three with sensitive passion, and a pleasing sense of forward momentum - but it wasn't until the "Jupiter" that everything came together. Which is indeed appropriate, as the "Jupiter" seems to pull its entire period together and then kick it up a notch. The symphony is a landmark for many reasons; its simple size and grandeur (hence its nickname), the unprecedented complexity and inspiration of its textures, the way in which it shifts the emphasis of the form to the final movements (which here conclude with a truly stunning fugue) - all these perfections still stun audiences today.  And Labadie and his players seemed in complete command of every facet of the piece; Mozart's memorable motifs seemed to expand and intertwine just as they should, and then coalesced at the finale with a truly thrilling force.  Sometimes Labadie seemed about to levitate, in fact, as the momentum built; the strings were exquisitely supple, the winds superlative - it was the kind of performance that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.  What can I say?  If you get a chance to hear Bernard Labadie conduct - by all means take it!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Postcards from over the edge

One of the remarkable Sandglass puppets.
Last weekend the Charlestown Working Theater, which has earned a local reputation for taking surprising theatrical risks, presented the premiere of  D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks, the first attempt that I know of by anyone - here the adventurous puppeteer troupe Sandglass Theater of Vermont - to mine a piece of theatre from the experience of Alzheimer's patients.

As my father died of that dread disease (and as I'm probably carrying the genetic markers for it), the production was inevitably of interest - but I was somewhat surprised to discover the theatre was pretty much packed for the presentation, which gave me the impression an effort like this one is long overdue.

And the evening proved intriguing - it's a solid first step toward a full text and production.  But it's still only a first step.  The idea of (sensitively) portraying Alzheimer's patients with puppets proved inspired, and Sandglass has developed some superbly realized marionettes (designed by Coni Richards) to impersonate the nursing home residents interviewed to create this script.  It was clear that these folks are attempting to grapple honestly and honorably with the unique challenges of creating a "story" out of the fragments and fractures that count for narrative among the victims of this affliction.

Still, the production rarely limns the terror of a world descending into chaos and meaninglessness - which is what Alzheimer's patients experience every day - nor does it convey the incredible gallantry of those patients who fight the encroaching dark with all their might, desperately trying to paste together some explanation (any explanation) for where they are and how they got there.  Nor does it even begin to engage with such patients' tortured relationships with their families.

Instead, perhaps understandably, the actor/puppeteers allowed themselves to drift into affectionate, but slightly patronizing, comedy a little too often.  And the discombobulated "story" the interviewers eventually drew from their interviewees (using a suggestive technique they call "Timeslips") too clearly betrayed their own desire to build a kind of comforting fairy tale (perhaps for the audience, perhaps for themselves) from this very-raw material.  (The chaotic video, by Michel Moyse, struck me as closer to my father's experience.)

The performance was probably most effective when it conjured the poignant memories still haunting these patients' minds - such as the moment one elderly lady suddenly floated free from the confines of her wheelchair and danced as she did when she was a girl.   It may be that it will simply take Sandglass many more interviews, and many more workshops, to bring the entire production to that same high level.  But it's an artistic journey well worth taking.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Maeterlinck mystery

The Imaginary Beasts get lost in Maeterlinck's web.

Perhaps no reputation has fallen faster - or further - than that of Maurice Maeterlinck.  A century ago he was thought to all but personify highbrow theatre.  He was awarded a Nobel Prize; had a clutch of high-minded hits (Pelléas and Mélisande, The Blue Bird); and over the course of his career inspired a treasure trove of early modern music.

And then he was completely forgotten.

In fact I can't think of a production I've seen of Maeterlinck in years - his name probably only survives piggy-back, as it were, on Debussy's, whose landmark score for Pelléas and Mélisande has entered the standard repertory (although you could argue the opera itself has not).

So I was intrigued to see that Matthew Woods and his Imaginary Beasts had programmed a revival of The Death of Tintagiles (at the BCA through November 17).  My first thought on hearing this, frankly, was that if anyone in town could revive Maeterlinck, it would be Woods - he's Boston's only home-grown theatrical visionary.  A Woods show is always a strange kind of tableau vivant mixing the surreal, the sophisticated, and the whimsically superficial into a kind of staged soufflé that feels simultaneously innocent and worldly. And perhaps due to his consciousness of his own singularity, Woods is always  drawn to the esoteric and the eccentric; I mean who else would have programmed their past few seasons with Gertrude Stein, Lorca, Witkacy, Ionesco, and Maeterlinck?

Still, Woods doesn't quite manage to breathe theatrical life into Tintagiles.  Like much of Maeterlinck, it's intentionally static, only half-revealing a bizarrely fraught situation: young Prince Tintagiles is threatened by the Queen (his grandmother), who waits for him, hidden in her castle like some enormous spider; his sisters attempt to protect him, but all is in vain; in the end, he's murdered (offstage) by Grandma as his siblings scream for help.

That's pretty much it.  Maeterlinck does spin from this slim premise a heady atmosphere of fatalism, as well as an associated mood of masculine impotence; he's a bit like Kafka with an Oedipus complex.  Unlike Kafka, however, he doesn't fully develop his themes - short as it is, Tintagiles gets repetitious, and it relentlessly resists any apparent dramatic pay-offs.

Woods does illuminate brilliantly a patch of aesthetic ground he shares with the playwright, however.  Maeterlinck was so opposed to what we think of as the life's breath of theatre - risk, spontaneity, emotion - that he sometimes said he preferred marionettes to actors.  (In that way he's a bit like Robert Wilson and other avant-gardists; perhaps his impulse has survived, even if he hasn't.)  And Woods himself has occasionally been called a puppeteer - his highly-determined form of stage "play," which sometimes amounts to choreography, certainly isn't for every actor.

So it was intriguing to see this director had followed Maeterlinck's instincts and cast a marionette as Tintagiles - and what's more, the supporting cast often dons masks and behaves as if they were (life-size) puppets, too. What all this amounted to was a curious kind of symbolist bunraku in which puppets were manipulating puppets - and everyone was not only negotiating their own strings, but a literal onstage web apparently spun by Maeterlinck's Shelob-like monarch.  Woods even brought his action to an added level of disassociation by often separating the voices of characters from their bodies; the theatrical experience itself was thus a kind of sensory web.

Still, despite these resonances, the piece felt slightly inert; whatever psychopathology drove Maeterlinck's doomy sense of foreboding here, I'm not sure Woods actually shares it.  Certainly the cast - Kendall Aiguier, Mauro Canepa, Molly Kimmerling, Amy Meyer, Christopher Nourse, Amy S. West, and particularly Kiki Samko - did their best to put over a building sense of terror, and the piece does prove an exquisite formalist object; like all Imaginary Beasts shows, it's gorgeous, with exquisite pre-Raphaelite costumes from Cotton Talbot-Minkin, and evocative lighting and design from Christopher Bocciaro and Brian Choinski (the evocative puppets are by Elizabeth Breda and Bill Hawkins). But despite its high finish, the production never quite grabs you. We get the puppets, yes - but we have no idea what, or who, is pulling the strings.  I admit that this gap is actually Maeterlinck's intent.  The trouble is that's probably why he has been forgotten.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Today was MIThenge . . . a.k.a. "The Infinite Sunset"

The view down the Infinite Corridor during "MIThenge."

In mid-November and late January every year, the arc of the sun aligns with the central axis of MIT, my alma mater, sending a shaft of sunlight down the 825-ft.-long "Infinite Corridor," which opens out through Building 7 (every building is numbered at the Institute) onto 77 Mass. Ave, the lawns before Kresge Auditorium, and beyond that Institute's athletic fields.

And today was the day.  The Infinite Sunset occurred at 4:22 pm (above).

I think I saw my first Infinite Sunset in 1979 - 33 years ago.  Which I admit gives me some pause.  I don't often think in technical terms anymore, much less feel that strange thrill, from contact with the deep mechanics of the world, that nerdy events like the Infinite Sunset conjure.

But that's for me to work on!  For technical data on MIThenge, go here. The next Infinite Sunset should occur at the end of January 2013 (but generally the November ones are the ones to see).

Tales from Ovid

Silky perversity in Tales from Ovid. Photo by Jenni Wylie.

I think what's most remarkable about the ArtsEmerson production of Whistler in the Dark's Tales from Ovid (through this weekend only) is that it has happened at all.  That the production has retained most of its intensity and muscular poetry in its new setting is just an added bonus - the real news is that the powers that be have actually deigned to notice a fringe troupe, and have elevated it to what counts as the local "big time."  Which frankly counts as a watershed.

To be fair, similar opportunities have opened up for Boston writers, like Melinda Lopez and Kirsten Greenidge, who have both won full productions at the Huntington.  But now another wall in Boston's cultural compartmentalization - which only reflects the way the pillars of our community generally face New York - has at last fallen, thanks to Bob Orchard's willingness to take a risk on the city's artists in a way none of his predecessors or current peers has been willing to do.

Of course I've long identified, and been identified, with Whistler - I was the first critic to notice them, years ago when I wrote for the Globe, when I raved over what I later learned was their very first show (the great Howard Barker's The Possibilities).  And I've followed them since (sometimes to theatres where I was the only audience member, and they put on the show just for me). And of course I banged the drum loudly for Tales from Ovid two years ago, so I couldn't agree more with Mr. Orchard's decision to program it - and it's also nice to see the production counts as one of the best productions at ArtsEmerson so far this season; the local kids have indeed made good.

Although (as always at the Hub Review) a few caveats do apply.  Director Meg Taintor's vision is perhaps not quite as gripping this time around as it was in its original, grittier incarnation at the Factory Theatre.  There was something about the sheer verticality of that rough space (much of the show occurs overhead, on silks) that gave the show's aerial stunts a visceral punch that's somehow lacking here (don't worry, though, those of you who dig physical danger - the Whistlers do seem to be risking their necks).

And Taintor has understandably wanted to flesh out her production with additional tales from her source - but the very leanness of the pithy original (which was all muscle) likewise gave it a startling charge that it takes longer for the performers to generate here.  Don't worry, they do - the production becomes more and more absorbing as it proceeds; and all the "greatest hits" of the original return - ingenious imagery that includes Arachne weaving a web above our heads, Narcissus encountering his own reflection dangling upside-down, Actaeon sprouting antlers before our horrified eyes, and Phaëton falling headlong from the chariot of the sun.

Yeah, it's good stuff - raw and smart and bracing, the way all the best Whistler shows are.  Although, just btw, it's almost nothing like Ovid - the tone is all Ted Hughes, the British poet laureate who is perhaps most famous as the betrayer of Sylvia Plath, and who "translated" the urbanely balanced Latin original into his own wounded, masculine idiom - which to be fair may be closer to the earlier Greek - where calm cruelty and terrible transformation are the order of the day.  (Even when one of these stories does end sweetly, like Atalanta's, Hughes is careful to add a grotesque epilogue.)

But you know what?  Pain makes great theatre.  Still, be warned: the Whistlers set about this savagery with such deadpan alacrity that you may be somewhat taken aback by their ruthlessness.  People looked stunned when poor Philomele's tongue was torn from her mouth, or when Actaeon was ripped to shreds by his own hounds (or when incest suddenly loomed);  somehow the Whistlers have a way of conveying these traumas with a force that's all the more potent for being entirely poetic.

Too bad they still don't quite convey the vocal poetry of either Ovid or Hughes - my biggest complaint about the first version was the voice work - and here, clearly only Danny Bryck has had the training to convey the beauty of his lines (without tipping over into grandiosity).  Happily, the musical accompaniment has been expanded, and improved, greatly - Shaw Pong Liu's violin (and other percussive effects) are now beautifully integrated into the action.

Of course the poetry is still there - it's just visual now.  It still has the power to imprint your memory, though.  I'll never forget Bryck's desperate death as Actaeon, or Aimee Rose Ranger's delightfully cool Atalanta, or the eagerness of Mac Young's Phaëton as he hauled his way up to the sun, hand over hand, or the deadly calm of Jen O'Connor's perversity as Myrrha.  These actors are all operating brilliantly, and on the edge of palpable physical risk (much of the performance is like a dance, in fact - only a dance in which if you put one foot wrong, you could fall ten feet).  That risk parallels the Whistlers' artistic wager with this production, which has paid off in a way which I can only hope will at last open a door to a wider audience for other talents on Boston's fringe.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Midori matures

The prodigy today - it's not about her, it's about the music.

We haven't heard from the great violinist Midori in these parts for some time - maybe a decade?  So her return to the Hub was most welcome last week - thanks to Celebrity Series, in a program of sonatas for violin and piano (or were they for piano and violin?) with Turkish-American pianist Özgür Aydin.

Midori is now far from her prodigy days; but if she was once a prodigy, she was never a diva, as you could tell by her "well-if-I-have-to" gown, and the no-nonsense way she wore her hair at Symphony. That attitude was all the clearer when you scanned her program - mostly Beethoven, who of course was a pianist, not a violinist, and whose sonatas are exquisitely balanced between the two instruments.  There would be no showboating or hogging the spotlight here!  And Midori and Aydin truly played as one - a sophisticated classicism was their shared keynote; although a seeming chill between them onstage made me often wonder if it wasn't Midori who was really calling the shots.

Still, Aydin was always subtle and responsive, and his touch was superb - while Midori has lost none of her peerless command, and by now has learned how to infuse her technical perfection with feeling (even fire).  It was the program itself that sometimes puzzled; in between distractions from Webern and Crumb, you could limn a rough (rough) arc corresponding to Beethoven's development - still, even this arc was highly arguable; you could easily read the "Kreutzer" as an unexpected outburst rather than the end of this chain of development.  What's more, until we got to the finale, the programming choices felt diffuse, and persistently small in scale.

This doesn't mean there weren't many pleasures along the way.  The opener was Op. 12, no. 2, in A major - written when the young genius was still under the clear influence of Haydn.  Thus the piece is light and warmly urbane, almost breezy; the instruments intertwine in a sophisticated call and response, and there's a sweet melody anchoring the closing rondo.  It's hard to believe it was written at the same time that Beethoven was first admitting to himself that he was losing his hearing - the emotional pressure of that terrible realization would only later crack open the form of his musical approach.  Still, for Midori's listeners, those storms were easy to forget, as she and Aydin sailed through the opus with attentive sympathy.

Next came a curious interlude from Webern, his Four Pieces (Op. 7), which taken together last only a few minutes.  Clearly Webern intended the work as a concentrated, destabilizing miniature, and Midori in particular played in daring pianissimo, as parts of the composition are marked by Webern himself as "barely audible" (this was chamber music designed for a far smaller chamber than Symphony Hall). Whether its diminutive intensity had its intended effect in that large space remains an open question (the sheer quiet of the piece reminded me again of Beethoven's deafness, but the connection there seemed very oblique).

Midori and Aydin then returned to the great Ludwig van - this time the later Op 30, No. 1, in A Major, which is rarely heard in the concert hall.  And I'm afraid that despite their lovely rendering, I understand why; the sonata boasts a singing, almost dreamily bucolic opening, but it's structured in a set of repetitions of approximately equal weight and intensity, and so seems to meander slightly.

Next came a more recent obscurity: George Crumb's Four Nocturnes (Night Music II), which is much of its era (the early 1960's), and milieu; it's essentially another postmodern miniature from the academy (where Crumb has spent most of his career).  It calls for various fiddling with the piano's mechanics, the better to exploit its "timbral resources" - which led to an amusing opening moment when the audience assumed Mr. Aydin was administering an emergency repair to his instrument.  The piece proved sweet, and certainly harmless - it's a gentle evocation of night sounds, from the chirp of a waking bird to the random creaks of an old house settling on its foundation.  But again, one got the impression of an attempt at the kind of intimacy that's hard to sustain in a hall the size of Symphony.

Finally we got to the "Kreutzer" (Op. 47), a "sonata" statement so grand it feels like a mini-concerto.  This is one of those Beethoven masterpieces that does indeed seem to "crack" and spill over its own form - perhaps partly because it was written in great haste (Beethoven was still filling in the first two movements at curtain time of the premiere).  It's famous for its emotional intensity, of course, and the sense of impassioned argument (rather than conversation) between the violin and piano.  This kind of thing used to be thought of as Midori's weak spot, but she was fiercely committed here, and utterly dominant.  The audience burst into applause after the first movement - then something of the earlier poise and gentility returned in the later variations (was that the underlying point of the program?), but the furious finale brought the crowd to its feet.

The duo returned for two encores, both of them showpieces for violin - a lovely arrangement of Debussy's familiar "Girl with the Flaxen Hair," and the inevitable Kreisler, "Tambourin Chinois," selections which seemed to hint at the young, sparkling Midori of years past, and brought the afternoon to a satisfying close.  We hope it won't be a decade before we see her again.

Friday, November 9, 2012

High and holy rollers at the North Shore

Kelly McCormick expects the denizens of Runyonland to "Follow the Fold." Photos by Paul Lyden. 
By now there's little doubt that Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls is one of the signature achievements of Western civilization - after, I suppose, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and maybe King Lear.  In fact I may have never met anyone who didn't enjoy, or at least appreciate, this sublimely sardonic valentine to the milieu of Damon Runyon, who  during Prohibition (and after) famously chronicled New York's demi-monde of Jewish gangsters (Runyon himself was pals with the Dutch Schultz gang).

Runyon is one of those writers whose style has been accorded its own moniker - "Runyonese" - and even if you haven't read him, you'll recognize it immediately, so deeply has its lingo influenced the culture. In Runyonese, everyone speaks in the present tense, and the characters, known by such nicknames as "Liver-Lips Louie" or "The Seldom Seen Kid," converse in a robust patois that mixes pungent slang with naïvely elaborate construction, as in "I would respectfully suggest that this ever-lovin' broad find herself another world in which to live!"

Loesser hangs onto the Runyon vibe with perfect pitch in his  lyrics, and is essentially responsible for the book, too (it was basically built around his songs), which bemusedly matches irony for irony in its tale of Sarah Brown, the holy roller out to save the soul of high roller Sky Masterson.  Loesser's own additions to Runyonese are deliciously ingenious, too (he actually works "streptococci" into a lyric), and of course, as always, everything is set to unforgettable hooks.  In short, Guys and Dolls is unadulterated pleasure, certainly one of the best musicals ever written.

So why does the solid, but not quite inspired, North Shore production take so long to kick up its heels and shake a tail feather? I'm not quite sure.  It does get somewhere, but only well after we think it should have.  Part of the problem is that lead Sky Masterson is miscast; another is that second leads Miss Adelaide (Mylinda Hull) and Nathan Detroit (Jonathan Hammond), though individually strong, share little chemistry; finally, for once the great Michael Lichtefeld's choreography feels thin - at least until the showstoppers kick in.

Wayne W. Pretlow and Ben Roseberry in full  gangsta regalia.  
Or perhaps, for whatever reason, director Mark Martino simply was unable to pull his strong team of individual performers into a really tight ensemble.  Even so, Loesser's magic takes over much of the time; there are wonderful renditions here of "Miss Adelaide's Lament," from Mylinda Hull,  and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Wayne W. Pretlow - and Kevin Vortmann, though too callow to convince as Sky, does warm up to bring off a lovely "I've Never Been in Love Before" with sweet, spunky Kelly McCormick, and then scores with a high-energy "Luck Be a Lady Tonight."

And the second act generally cooks with more heat than the first, with "Sit Down" truly rocking not just the boat but the house, as choreographer Lichtefeld hits a hotter groove both here and in "The Crap Game Dance." The finale is likewise a sweet hoot (the gangsters improbably bend to their women's will, of course), and the crowd leaves the house with a smile.  This version hardly hits Cloud 9, I'd say, but it still leaves you plenty high.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

I'm sorry, but you just gotta love this guy

Obama gets choked up while thanking his campaign workers.

Madama Butterfly takes flight at BLO

The heart-stoppingly gorgeous first act chorus - photos by Eric Antoniou

Puccini's Madama Butterfly is one of the most oft-performed operas in the world - probably because it's among the most beautiful ever written.  From the title character's arrival in her new home in Act I, surrounded by a chorus of well-wishers (above) to the ravishing duet with her new "husband" that brings down the curtain, Puccini operates at the absolute peak of his powers; and his second act, though slightly more variable, is still studded with languidly stunning arias, including one of the most recognizable in the world, the haunting "Un bel di."

Yet surprisingly, Butterfly famously faltered on its first outing in 1904, and Puccini tinkered with it repeatedly (there are five versions!) before finally "getting it right" - if he did get it right, that is - in 1907.  Even before the composer had finished his labors, however, the opera had caught on around the world, and its popularity has never flagged since. It's a staple at the Met, we saw it in Boston just a few years ago, and now Boston Lyric Opera is presenting the final "standard version" in a simple, but sumptuous production at the Schubert (the last performances are Friday and Sunday, so hurry).

Now up front, I'll admit that BLO, and director Lillian Groag, haven't quite triumphed over Puccini's still-awkward structure (call it two-and-a-half acts) - and there are a few balance problems, and the scenic design feels mannered here and there.  Still, it's all held together by a towering central performance that no Puccini fan will want to miss: Yunah Lee simply is Cio-Cio-San, the eponymous "Madame Butterfly" who is faithful (to the suicidal end) to Pinkerton, the American cad who "marries" but then deserts her.

Yunah Lee and Dinyar Vania as Butterfly and Pinkerton.
Lee is blessed with a rich, flexible lyrical soprano, and a subtle sense of vocal taste; she never forces Cio-Cio-San's famous pathos on you.  Instead she inhabits the role with unusual dramatic force - she has played it more than once before (see Youtube below), and it shows in the concentrated detail of her interpretation; I've rarely seen an operatic performance as deeply and thoughtfully acted as this one.  Lee is simply as great an actress as she is a singer.

I'm afraid I can't shower the same praise on Dinyar Vania's turn as Pinkerton, however; this young tenor clearly hadn't a clue how to identify with the callow anti-hero he was playing.  And alas, his voice sounded a bit strained at its top - although to be fair, it bloomed gorgeously in its middle range, so that his duets with Lee in the first act were just as transporting as they should be.  In musical terms these scenes built so beautifully, in fact, that they left you a little weak.

There was fine singing elsewhere, too - Kelley O'Connor, whom we've heard in these parts before, brought her signature dusky tone, as well as a fund of heartfelt sympathy, to bear on the role of Suzuki, Butterfly's faithful (and worldly) servant.  There was also a solid vocal turn from local bass-made-good David Cushing as the uncle who denounces Butterfly's turn to the West.

But perhaps the finest singing of the night came from baritone Weston Hurt, who opted for subdued dramatic restraint as Sharpless, Pinkerton's hapless American friend, but whose confidently powerful vocal lines easily cut through even the richest of Puccini's textures.

Those textures were, to be honest, a bit overwhelming at times at the Schubert.  Conductor Andrew Bisantz led the BLO orchestra with passionate finesse - but often at slightly too high a volume; thus there were balance problems when a few of the supporting singers (though not the leads) were at the back of John Conklin's cavernous set.

That set, btw, sometimes enchanted - but also sometimes puzzled.  Conklin often cuts his naturalism with abstract strokes, and here he seemed to take a reference to the sliding doors of Japanese architecture as the cue to float all manner of design ideas on and off the BLO stage.   This aligned well, actually, with the static, nearly dream-like atmosphere of the opera - little actually "happens" in Madama Butterfly (which may be why Conklin had the newlyweds' little bungalow literally float over the stage until the curtain fell on the first act).

I likewise found the Rothko-like panels of color that sometimes descended from the flies intriguing (Rothko, after all, committed suicide too), as well as the blue "horizon line" that bisected the set's paneled "frame"; but a few other flourishes, like the bouquets that briefly drifted over the action, felt forced.  Meanwhile director Groag interlarded the action with her own abstract ideas; at the opening, for instance, we saw Butterfly's father commit seppuku in a Noh-style mask.  This was quite effective, but other gestures were less persuasive - and in the end, Conklin and Groag didn't seem to be on the same page, and at any rate their separate stylizations were a world away from what most of the singers were doing.

Still - do Lee, O'Connor, and Hurt make up for a slightly fudged concept?  In a word, yes - in spades.  At its best, BLO does Puccini proud; indeed, at some particularly ravishing musical moments, you'll wish this Madama Butterfly could float on forever.

Yunah Lee in a previous performance as Butterfly.

Chorus Pro Musica goes to Chichester

Chorus Pro Musica at a previous performance.

I'm quite late with an appreciation of Chorus Pro Musica, and their "Poets and Psalms" program at Old South Church two (!) weekends ago.

I left the program thrilled, frankly, after encountering - in a row - three of the great choral works of the twentieth century: Charles Ives' Psalm 90, Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, and Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (two of these, btw - the Britten and the Bernstein - were commissioned by the same vicar, Walter Hussey, who therefore has his own niche in the cathedral of choral music). There was also a light opener to the program, Night, Sleep and the Stars, by Daniel Gawthrop, from a text by Walt Whitman, which was lovely in its way, but paled next to its fellows in performance.

Taken together these amounted to some very heavy lifting for Chorus Pro Musica, which I suppose is an "amateur" chorus - if by amateur you mean motivated by love, not lucre, as the original Latin tells us.  Their music director, Betsy Burleigh, is obviously a lady of talent and ambition, with a career that spans several chorales and several American cities (word has it, alas, she's moving on soon), and she drew from her assembled forces and soloists (bass David Godkin did particularly well) clear, vibrant tone and reliably secure intonation, even in the tricky passages of the Ives and Bernstein (alas, one sweet voice got a little lost in an exposed passage, but found a way home again).

Like a lot of large, good choruses, however, Chorus Pro Musica grew a little fuzzy when it came to diction (okay, some of this text was in Hebrew) and more importantly the complicated polyrhythms demanded by Ives and Bernstein, which here sometimes lacked a clean, syncopated edge.

But at what point does "good enough" become "great" despite its shortcomings?  Because Chorus Pro Musica often passed that bar, wherever it is.  And the sad fact is that there is no "professional" chorus dedicated to this repertoire - which contains some of the greatest music of the twentieth century.  For some reason choruses aren't "cool," I suppose, so there's no general clamor for this legacy - an attitude which I wish would change (I mean it happened for cupcakes, didn't it, so why not chorales?).

And to be honest you simply cannot discount the experience of hearing a complex statement on faith like Ives's Psalm 90 in an actual church, particularly one as spectacular as Old South.  Legend has it this is the voice of Moses himself, which Ives honors with a musical statement shaped into stern, muscular metaphors - a deep "C," for instance, sounds throughout the piece from the organ (skillfully played by Jacob Street) as a reminder of God's continual presence, and at times, to conjure the many confusing facets of our relationship to the divine, the composer splits his chorus up into as many as 22 separate voices.  Psalm 90 closes with one of Ives' greatest conceits: church bells ring against the dying sound of the chorus, but they're dissonant - a poignant reminder of the flaws of the faithful.

In contrast, Benjamin Britten limns the line between confidence and madness in Rejoice in the Lamb, which is set to a remarkable, and disturbing, text by one Christopher Smart, who wrote it from within the walls of an eighteenth century asylum.  Thus it's no surprise the piece swings from ecstasy ("Hallelujah . . . from the heavenly harp in sweetness and magnifical and mighty!") to crackpot whimsy ("For I will consider my cat Jeoffry . . . for he knows that God is his Saviour,") to piercing cries for salvation from the madhouse ("For I am under the same accusation as my Savior - for they said, he is beside himself . . . and the watchman smites me with his staff!").  Britten loved this text (you can feel it in his attentive settings) - he even asked that parts be read at his memorial service - and it's easy to see why; rarely have essential questions of sanity and faith been probed so naively, yet so powerfully.

Finally there was Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, which has a claim to being the most gorgeous thing this great composer ever wrote.  Perhaps tellingly, its loveliest passages were drawn from melodies he had composed, but discarded, for West Side Story (or the unrealized musical The Skin of Our Teeth); and the text of course is a mosaic of psalms set in juxtaposition - sometimes simplistic juxtaposition, to be honest, but the music always carries us over that bump (below is a rendition of the incredibly beautiful Psalm 23/Psalm 2 "second movement," featuring countertenor Lawrence Zazzo).  The work is famously ravishing throughout, and closes with a hushed fade on the word "unity," as the talented accompanying musicians (not only Street on organ, but Judy Saiki Couture on harp and Craig McNutt on percussion) resolved to a peaceful major chord.  It made a haunting, memorable close to what had been quite a moving concert.  You can hear Chorus Pro Musica next in "A Victorian Christmas," again at Old South Church on December 21.

The most gorgeous thing Bernstein ever wrote?  Possibly.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Whew! We did it!

I had to check the news this morning - was I dreaming last night?

But the feeds all told the same story they had before: Barack Obama was re-elected with both an electoral and popular-vote victory - and what's more, we can say good-bye to Scott Brown (for the time being), and hello to a binder full of new women in national politics: our own Elizabeth Warren, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin - our first openly gay senator!

And Maine and Maryland passed gay marriage!

I admit I was hoping the Romney vote would be limited to 47% - a fitting number, no?  But that was not to be.  Nor can we ignore the fact that huge swaths of the country seem desperately deluded and confused, if not by prejudice then by religious blinders or plain old ignorance.  And the road ahead is as tough as ever, with fiscal cliffs looming before a divided Congress, a stacked Supreme Court, the machinations of Wall Street, and an ever rising tide of Republican obstruction.

But for the moment, victory is sweet, isn't it?  Even I had begun to believe the lies about America from the Roger Ailes echo chamber - just a little bit.  But in the end America came through.  More tolerance, more connection, more inclusion, more community - more sanity - it was hard to miss what (most of) the country was saying.  A black president, a gay senator, gay marriage in more states, healthcare for everyone - I think even Romney, as he bade good-bye to his all-white audience here in the Hub, began to get the idea.  Certainly many strategists around him did.  But can the Republicans truly "pivot," as David Brooks likes to put it, toward a more humane politics that can serve us all?  Only time will tell.