Sunday, March 31, 2013

Making good on Our Country's Good

Mac Young is puzzled by Jesse Wood's theatrics in Our Country's Good.  Photo: Christopher McKenzie

As readers of the Hub Review know by now, Boston's fringe is where the intellectual action is  - indeed, the brain waves emanating from our various theatres are all but inversely proportional to their supposed status.  At the top of the heap, Harvard's A.R.T. has long been brain-dead (before you write in, I know, The Glass Menagerie wasn't bad - hooray!), and the Huntington, despite a sterling commitment to lighter classics, has been edging away from any highbrow heavy lifting as well. Meanwhile, after a strong start, even ArtsEmerson is getting a little light in the loafers these days. Face it, the local stage is steadily being dumbed down to the level of PBS (and frankly, most local critics are only too happy to see that happen; big ideas make them a little nervous, too).

There are a few candles in this encroaching dark - or at least there's Whistler in the Dark, which reliably programs challenging fare with a touchingly earnest faith in the Boston audience. And perhaps indeed not all hope is lost, for the Whistlers have slowly built a solid base of support, despite their devotion to the likes of Caryl Churchill and Ovid.  (They've certainly built a base among the actors of the fringe; the cast of their current production, Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good - through April 6 at the Charlestown Working Theater - is stacked with local performers who remind you that an Equity card doesn't always count for that much artistically.)

Still, despite several galvanizing moments, I felt that the Whistlers stumbled slightly with Country, perhaps because their own post-modernist methods blinded them to what in the end ties the play together. Wertenbaker's breakout hit from 1988 is based on an evocative historical fact: improbably, when the British founded Australia as a penal colony, the first prison ships also seeded the Land Down Under with the acting bug.  For the jailers and their convicts took it upon themselves to stage a production of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer for their own entertainment; and in this poignant episode the playwright finds much to ponder about the manner in which civilization (and even romance) take root in a harsh climate.

Indeed, the civilizing power of the stage is openly debated by this Country's characters (most of them based on historical figures) - and that includes the officers as well the convicts; they're all almost as skeptical of the value of the theatre as today's governors of Harvard.  Artistic director Meg Taintor, and the Whistlers in general, do well by these disputes - after all, they've long specialized in the dry barbarism of the Greeks and Howard Barker - and they likewise crisply conjure the cruelties of the British penal code (some actors must rehearse the frothy Recruiting Officer while facing new punishments and charges - even capital charges).

But the episodic nature of Wertenbaker's text seems to throw Taintor and her cast ever so slightly.  Or perhaps their efforts to simultaneously mount The Recruiting Officer itself in rep with Country proved an exhausting challenge.  Or perhaps they've just become a little too used to the formal questioning of the likes of Caryl Churchill, who seems to undermine her own premises with each passing scene. Timberlake Wertenbaker is different, however; the epic-theatre episodes of Our Country's Good are built on a stable, even sturdy, melodramatic structure.  But several actors, despite convincing accent work and a calm conviction within each scene, seem unable to connect the various dots of their characters' actions into convincing arcs - and thus the overall impact of The Recruiting Officer on its players and audience never quite makes theatrical landfall.  

Farquhar's farce, of course, has its own unexpected resonances (it's funny how often history works this way!), in that it's a roundelay of disguised courtship pirouetting on the edge of military indenture. But the Whistlers have trouble mining the veins of feeling this romance suggests; indeed, mainstay Mac Young looks merely perplexed at the increasing commitment of the officer he plays (Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, an actual person) to the production he himself has proposed - even though it's obvious that Farquhar's play sparked his own longing for a lost love (and indeed eventually delivers a new romance into his arms).  Likewise Chris Larson, as Clark's nemesis, Major Robbie Rose (again a historical figure) can't seem to limn much in his character's punitive persona.  Of course such people are often a mystery - who knows what drives Justice Scalia? - yet their intrinsic vengefulness is always a potent political force; here Wertenbaker conjures in these two British officers an epochal social showdown, but the Whistlers don't seem to realize this.

The performances are generally stronger among the convicts (intriguingly, each member of the cast plays two parts, one in each stratum of Australia's penal society).  Here the standouts are the reliable Zach Eisenstat and Lynn Guerra, who worked together to such memorable effect in The Play About the Baby, and who bring a subtlety and surprising charm to their parts here.  Not far behind is Jesse Wood - late of Heart & Dagger - who brings not only his usual confident sex appeal but also a remarkable technical command to the role of convicted thief Robert Sideway, who was so moved by The Recruiting Officer that he founded the first theatre in Australia upon his release.  Wood's technique is pretty impeccable (and, like Eisenstat, he nails a complex accent - the production's dialogue coach was Liz Hayes, hire her) but I felt he too missed the role's passionate dimension; after all, Mr. Sideway had a touch of the poet in his soul that apparently elbowed aside the Artful Dodger once it had been awakened by the theatre.

Elsewhere Alejandro Simoes threw himself into the tormented role of a haunted hangman, while Lorne Nogueira (whom we see far too rarely on stage) this time, oddly enough, underplayed things a little too much as Simoes' love interest.  But then it's that kind of production - slight miscalculations and a few missteps undercut what at other times is an engrossing evening.  In the end, the Whistlers put over Wertenbaker's thesis - just without quite all the power her play deserves.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The entertainer

Sir James works the crowd. Photo: Robert Torres.

The classical audience loves its institutions - and flautist Sir James Galway (above) is beyond all doubt an institution. "The Man with the Golden Flute" (by his own approbation), Galway parlayed first chair in the Berlin Philharmonic into a solo career that has now spanned decades, and brought him into alignment with much of the pop firmament.

Such success stories are becoming rare (how many flautists have become superstars of late?), which speaks to a sea-change, I'd say, in the relationship between classical and pop.  Still - all the more reason to see Sir James while you can; even though at 73, he shows little sign of slowing down.  Indeed, he can still fill Symphony Hall, as was apparent at his Celebrity Series concert (dubbed the "Legacy Tour") last weekend.  

Galway's program was a bit short on serious music, it's true, and a little long on patter; but then Sir James long ago transitioned into the role of entertainer rather than interpreter.  His indomitable persona - and elfin sense of humor - still make his stage presence a warm, easy sell, and if the intonation isn't quite as secure as it once was, well - all the more reason to favor Mancini over Mozart.

Indeed, the concert's opening salvo, Mozart's Flute Quartet in D Major, never quite caught fire (despite a strong supporting ensemble); then came a dreadfully saccharine Clair de lune (accompanied by pianist Michael McHale), in an arrangement which I'm sure if Claude Debussy had ever heard, he would have burnt.

Things began to look up immediately, however, with a duet with Lady Jeanne Galway (the missus), on themes from Rigoletto, and the following Fantasie brilliante drawn from Carmen was clean and spirited (although it mysteriously lacked Bizet's loveliest melody for flute, from the Entr'acte of that opera). Here Sir James acknowledged his position as the inspiration for a thousand young flautists when he absent-mindedly asked the crowd, "How many of you are working on Carmen right now?"  (Unfortunately, I couldn't answer in the affirmative, but plenty of kids around me did.)

The second half of the concert tilted further toward light repertoire, with even more pleasing results. Pieces by François-Joseph Gossec and Marin Marais both charmed ("They're in F major, so they're easy," Galway quipped.  "That's why I'm playing them!"), and we got a solid serving of Irish nostalgia, of course, via poignant arrangements of such Gaelic favorites as “Spinning Wheel,” “She Moved Through the Fair,” and “The Star of the County Down.”  One nice surprise was the "Irlandaise" section of Claude Bolling's durable Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, one of the major "crossover hits" of the 70's (and a signature of Galway's former rival, Jean-Pierre Rampal).  Here pianist McHale largely redeemed himself for his sins in Clair de lune, and impressed even further in an unexpected solo turn with Schubert's Impromptu in E-Flat Major.

Finally came a suite dedicated to the under-rated Henry Mancini, who, like so many figures on the scene in the 50's and 60's, cut his pop profile with hints of deeper musicality.  Galway offered the infectious "Pennywhistle Jig," as well as "Baby Elephant Walk," which he cajoled the crowd into interrupting with syncopated shouts of "HENRY!"  But Galway may have saved his best for last - the encore was a magnificently wistful orchestration of "Shenandoah" (with bits borrowed from Dvorák) that left more than a few in Symphony Hall a little misty-eyed.  Including yours truly, who admits there's nothing like nostalgia - as long as it's your own.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A misstep from Moonbox

The cast of A New Brain.  Photo: Sharman Altshuler.

Moonbox Productions counted as my big "find" on the fringe last year; their Floyd Collins was a remarkable achievement for a fledgling troupe, and their revival of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was almost as strong.  But everyone hits a sophomore slump sooner or later, and I hope that's the only significance of their problematic production of A New Brain, William Finn's quirky, over-rated account of his own brain surgery (through April 6 at the BCA).

But let me say up front - many of the company's familiar strengths shine through this show; there are several talented newcomers in the cast, and Allison Olivia Choat, the auteur behind Moonbox, directs and designs with her usual remarkable flair (this time the whole show is organized around a white grand piano, which becomes a sailboat or hospital bed as required, and even undergoes surgery). Indeed, Choat's work at the interface of direction and design ranks among the most imaginative I've seen locally; it's actually better than Finn's script.

Which only makes me wonder whether she's choosing projects that are worthy of her talent.  Floyd Collins - okay, interesting; Of Mice and Men - sure, it's flawed but powerful; but Godspell, and now A New Brain?  I sense a kind of earnest victimology linking these choices, but not a whole lot more (and arguably Finn's song cycle - it's not quite a musical - is the weakest of the lot).

The basic trouble is that William Finn is more a lyricist than a composer - indeed, his signature achievement is fitting his tunes to the idiosyncratic rhythms of conversation (particularly self-conscious conversation).  But he's a monotonous melodist; it's telling that the children's songs in the score (the lead supposedly writes for a kiddie show) don't sound that different from the heart-felt ballads, and many of the show's numbers - there are something like thirty of them! - are relentlessly similar in their chord progressions.  As for the book, which is partially credited to James Lapine - well, it's odd how pre-fab it feels, given that it's supposedly a kind of confession.  Overbearing mother, pre-occupied boyfriend, obnoxious boss - there aren't many new ideas in this New Brain.

The Moonbox actors, to their credit, throw themselves into the show regardless, and for a while they can coast on the weirdness of doing a musical about brain surgery.  But they're hamstrung by the decision to put the instrumental ensemble backstage, with no screen, which means they have to shout over the orchestrations - with some lyrics inevitably being lost (and remember Finn is a basically a lyricist . . .).  What's more, director Choat and likable lead Tom Shoemaker haven't figured out a way to make Finn's rather bland factotum, "Gordon Schwinn," hold our interest for the whole show (the underdeveloped book is little help).

Still, there's witty choreography on tap from Rachel Bertone, and Fabian Aguilar's costumes are pretty fabulous (the amphibious outfit for "Mr. Bungee," the vicious kiddie star who impersonates a frog, is a particular hoot).  And the supporting cast is packed with talent, including local light Shana Dirik as Schwinn's complicated mom, the fearless Matthew Zahnzinger as the evil Mr. Bungee, and Allison Russell, Aaron Michael Ray, and particularly Lori L'Italien (whose belt reliably cuts through her accompaniment) in various roles.  I left wanting to like the show because I liked all these people.  But I'd like them all a whole lot more in a stronger script, and in a theatre where I can hear them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Musical bliss with Jonathan Biss

Photo: Jimmy Katz

I'd never heard pianist Jonathan Biss live before his Celebrity Series debut at Jordan Hall (he's back on April 12 with the Elias String Quartet).

So I wasn't quite prepared for just how great a pianist Mr. Biss actually is.  The greatest of his young generation?  Perhaps.  I don't like to go out on a limb like that, but - it did occur to me that things could work out that way; he's certainly among the greatest already.  He seems to have it all - the touch is focused yet flexible - and secure even in the face of fiendish challenges - while the rubato is superbly calibrated; Biss simply seems to make the piano respond; there's a constant sense of perceptive insight, a subtle eloquence about his playing - the kind of thing that's hard to define, but immediately evident whenever and wherever it's present.

Here's the strange part, though: I became convinced of Mr. Biss's greatness despite the fact that his concert was built around a thesis regarding Schumann that I only agreed with in part - and that he never came close to proving at the keyboard.

But somehow I just didn't care.  Damn, this kid is good; so what if he's got a few crazy ideas about Schumann?  Actually, that's not fair, Biss's ideas aren't crazy, they're just a bit over-stated.  The pianist is stuck on Schumann, and, perhaps like the proverbial man with a hammer who sees only nails, he seems to see Schumann in half the post-romantic repertoire.  Thus his Celebrity Series concert (titled "Schumann: Under the Influence") was built around connections between Schumann and Janácek (somewhat convincingly) and then Alban Berg (not very convincingly at all).

Still, Biss isn't entirely wrong; Schumann's influence does, indeed, run deep; his vision of the lonely artist forging his own structures from an internal dialogue certainly resonates throughout late romanticism, and yes, on into modernism, too.  But it's one thing to make that statement on paper, and quite another to make it at the keyboard.  And I'd argue Biss, for all his talent, hasn't quite figured out how to make his proof in musical terms.

Take the first juxtaposition of the concert - Schumann's familiar Fantasiestücke against Janácek's lesser-known (but perhaps unfairly so) On an Overgrown Path.  Only this proved more of an interpolation, actually; the two piano cycles were entwined together in a manner which shattered their own internal development, but was meant to throw their parallels - and particularly Janácek's debt to Schumann - into high relief.

And at first the effect was striking, particularly as Mr. Biss effectively took two clearly delineated approaches to the two composers; his touch for Schumann was light, forceful, but supple, while the Janácek felt more ruminative (which only seemed appropriate, as indeed, the Janácek pieces are generally thicker in texture than the famously transparent themes of Fantasiestücke).

But here's when things got sticky: Mr. Biss contrived to have his two approaches converge into a blended kind of Schumannian/Janácekian sound - a goal which is provocative in the abstract, but  problematic in practice.  For neither song cycle actually maps to such a development - and what's more, it was hard to see what Mr. Biss was limning from this convergence; instead of forging some new, amalgamated style, he seemed more to be simply denuding both Schumann and Janácek of their idiosyncratic particulars, in order to find some sort of common denominator between them.  And you know what they say about common denominators.  Fantasiestücke famously ends in a kind of parlay between  its composer's combative internal personae (the dreamy "Eusebius" vs. the more gallant "Florestan"); Biss seemed to be hoping for some similar synthesis in his face-off between Schumann and Janácek, but it was hard to see, sans any shared musical text, precisely how this could be brought about.

Still, despite the failed experiment in stylistic curation, Biss carried off evocative renditions of Janácek's "A Blown-Away Leaf" and "The Madonna of Frydek," and he never quite lost sight of the playfully contentious thread that binds together Fantasiestücke.  He didn't convince me, but he certainly seduced me along the way.

And his sheer musicianship saved him from a similar folly in the second half of his program: an attempt to limn Schumann's influence in Alban Berg.  Again, intellectually, there's a case, although surely Schumann's shadow pales next to Schoenberg's when it comes to Berg's Piano Sonata, Op. 1, which self-iterates from an opening phrase into a shifting landscape of tonal clusters rippling over and through the key of B minor.  Berg's neurosis is, to be blunt, far grander and more febrile than Schumann's, and his morphing tonality tends to swamp any hint in the sonata of Schumannian musical debate.  Still, Biss's playing was so clean and committed that the sonata was often thrilling anyway.

From this challenge, Biss then seemed to retreat from his thesis a bit, to the Davidsbündlertänze (Dance of the League of David), Schumann's joyful peroration upon his engagement to Clara Wieck (the title of the cycle refers to yet another of Schumann's rather narcissistic conceits - he imagined himself a follower of King David in his battle against "the Philistines").  Once more Eusebius and Florestan make their appearance, and seemingly quarrel - but I've never felt their dialogue in this case really comes to much; instead, the eighteen "dances" of the Davidsbündlertänze cohere mostly in their passion and energy.  Still, Biss articulated them brilliantly, and at least suggested a kind of architecture - well, a kind of arc - to their progression (the performance was greeted by one excited audience member with an exultant "Bravo!" that seemed to visibly shake Mr. Biss, who plays as if from within a trance).

The crowd called the young pianist back for one encore - the last of Schumann's Gesänge der Frühe ("Songs of Dawn"), which ironically enough, were the final works for piano he composed.  This time no theory got in the way of Biss's subtle, simple, poignant performance.  And the crowd left the concert hall perhaps unconvinced, but clearly impressed all the same.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Welcome to Columbine, Charlie Brown

Peanuts meets Glee - and Columbine.  Photo(s): Debut Cinematic/Karen Ladany

I don't think the Charles Schulz estate (much less United Features Syndicate!) looks kindly on Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, Bert V. Royal's foul-mouthed parody/paean to Peanuts, which imagines the whole gang as dysfunctional teens in some millennial high school hell.  Thus the names of the characters have all been changed to protect their innocent, earlier incarnations - the only clue (at first) that we're watching a kind of Charlie Brown Columbine Special lies in the lead's tell-tale initials - "C.B."  But gradually we realize that, yes, his buddy "Van" is what you'd get if Linus traded in his blanket for a bong, and "Matt" is lot like Pigpen with some Vanilla Ice attitude, and "Beethoven" could be Schroeder if his Dad had molested him on their baby grand.

We also begin to wonder whether Schulz himself (as opposed to his heirs) might not be able to see the bitter joke at the bottom of Royal's conceit: that the "good grief" which made the Peanuts crew so adorable has metastasized into a litany of addictions and abuses that poignant winsomeness could never keep at bay.  These kids need help, and desperately - but there aren't any adults to be found in their strangely empty landscape - just the usual muted trombones.  To give you some idea of just how bad things are for this crew, Dog Meets God opens with a rabid Snoopy tearing Woodstock limb from limb (or wing from wing).  And things don't get much better from there.

The first Peanuts comic premiered in nine newspapers on Oct. 2, 1950

C.B. is now (a bit improbably) a jock who sits at the cool table in the cafeteria - but inside, he's still sensitive, and this trauma sends him trotting from character to character, wondering "Do all dogs go to heaven?" just as he might have when he made his debut in 1950 (yes, it has taken these kids a long time to get to high school).  He finds little support in his existential crisis, however, because everyone else is battling some other, more clinical crisis - Sally has gone goth and Linus (now "Van") is a pothead, while Schroeder ("Beethoven") is struggling with his sexual identity - and if Pigpen ("Matt") now has the manners of a pig, he has likewise developed an obsessive-compulsive hygiene disorder.

Michael Underhill as "C.B." in crisis.
All these foibles are set up for ridicule as well as sympathy (except for the crass braying of the "mean girls" that Peppermint Patty and Marcie have become, which is pretty much ridiculed throughout). But if Royal sometimes draws his characters with crayons, still - they are cartoons, and his strokes are broadly accurate, even if some of his observations sound amplified from second-hand sources (perhaps tellingly, the playwright himself was home schooled - he never actually attended high school).

Likewise the plot - which begins to center on C.B.'s and Beethoven's possibly-romantic relationship - feels slightly recycled (although to be fair, Dog Sees God was written well before the premiere of Glee).  But you can't deny it's punchy, and potently mixes millennial concerns over bullying with a double shot of gay fantasy (What if the captain of the football team was gay, but didn't know it?? OMG!!)

Happily, at Happy Medium, sexy fringe mainstay Michael Underhill (above right) throws himself into C.B.'s heartbreak with almost frightening conviction, and gets fearless support from an ensemble that rarely opts for subtlety, but also rarely drops the ball, and keeps the satiric electricity crackling on stage. Kiki Samko nails poor Sally's desperately bad dance performances, and Joey C. Pelletier, through a poignant strategy of self-containment, makes Schroeder/Beethoven's sexual indecision quite believable; meanwhile Nick Miller seems unafraid of any and all political correctness in his hilarious turn as Matt/Pigpen.  Audrey Lynn Sylvia and Lesley Anne Moreau were likewise a scream (sometimes a screech) as "Tricia" and "Marcy," while Mikey DiLoreto made the most of Linus/Van's hazy philosophizing.  Indeed, only director Lizette M. Morris's own turn, as an updated "Lucy," was subdued - perhaps too subdued, given that Lucy is in rehab after setting the hair of the "Little Red-Haired Girl" ablaze (Morris was right to go for contrast, but some weird spark should still be flickering in Lucy's eyes).  Aside from that small misstep, I'd argue this is the best showing from Happy Medium in some time; a punchy script and strong ensemble, matched with an effectively scrappy (if minimal) production, means this intrepid fringe outfit is looking at a hit.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Egarr's, and Beethoven's, Seventh

Richard Egarr
There are very few sure things in this life, but Richard Egarr standing at the podium is surely one of them.  His versions of Beethoven's Eighth, and Haydn's "The Clock," in Handel and Haydn's previous seasons, linger in my memory as among of the most original interpretations of a classic I've ever heard.  So my expectations ran high last weekend, when Egarr took the stage, again at Handel and Haydn, to take on two masterpieces, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

And I'll admit I was not disappointed.  It was pretty fantastic. The Clarinet Concerto was merely superb; the Seventh was thrilling - although not, perhaps, quite the full-bore re-invention that Egarr achieved with the Eighth.  This was more a probing investigation that turned the work into a personal statement of painful liberation; in effect, over its course you could feel Egarr painting a harrowing portrait of the tormented composer himself.

Of course he had the huge advantage of working with period instruments; after recently sitting through thoughtfully lumbering versions of the Second, Third, and Fifth from Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Jurowski, it felt like heaven to hear Beethoven done by a nimble ensemble, in an atmosphere more like a salon than a stadium.  With period instruments (particularly under Egarr's direction), the orchestra becomes less an amplifier of power chords, and more of a ruminative intellectual group - indeed, the subtleties and eccentricities of early instruments highlight the almost conversational quality of classical and early romantic music.  The tapestry of statements, repeats, hesitations, echoes, and subtle shifts becomes an intimate debate, an internal dialogue; hearing Beethoven on period instruments, you can forget about World War II and (other, even more titanic) clashes, and simply listen to the music of a great mind at work.

In the Seventh, for instance, Egarr seized on the percussive sighs that punctuate the opening movement and transformed them into an organizing leitmotif for the entire work.  Thus the symphony proper only began when a single, stuttering flute - after almost failing completely (you could feel the remaining movements hanging in the balance) - found the first hopeful notes of the Vivace.  And the famous opening phrase of the second movement, beset by the same stuttering rhythm, was likewise transformed into a tragically self-aware march.  The dialogue between freedom and the weight of weary pain continued unabated; the shackles were first thrown off in the third movement - but then recalled poignantly, and transcended in triumph; and then finally forgotten entirely in the concluding Allegro con brio, which Wagner dubbed "the apotheosis of the dance," and which Egarr drove to the level of frenzy (the orchestra seemed to respond almost preternaturally to every gesture); the response from the crowd was almost as crazed.  But I was meanwhile wondering whether I had discerned in that finale something of the nihilistic mania that Egarr had brought to the Eighth; it occurred to me that this conductor might have an entire symphonic biography of Beethoven up his sleeve.

But I shouldn't forget about the Mozart Clarinet Concerto - the last work Mozart completed, and one which is blessed with one of his most tenderly devastating melodies (thus making it easy to imagine it a kind of unconscious requiem in its own right).  It's also intriguing, however, in that it showcases an instrument, the basset clarinet, which is all but lost to the modern orchestra (the concerto was actually written for a basset clarinet virtuoso, Anton Stadler, a friend and fellow Mason of Mozart's).  

Hoeprich and horn.
That's right: you can only  hear Mozart's last completed work as he intended it on period instruments; for the bulbous, vaguely Seussian basset clarinet has not only a richer, more plaintive tone than its modern counterpart, but also a few extra notes at the bottom of its range (which Mozart makes full use of; modern versions require a re-write to get around this obstacle).  The piece's exuberantly rippling passagework is also a challenge for any soloist; luckily, however, Handel and Haydn could turn to one of its own, Eric Hoeprich (at right), who's a specialist in the basset clarinet, and who darted dazzlingly through Mozart's most demanding sequences.  And I have to admit, his reading of the famous dying fall of the Adagio actually brought tears to my eyes, it was so gorgeous.  My only complaint was that, at least in Symphony Hall, the strings sometimes covered the basset's unique low end when Hoeprich wasn't playing at full force; so perhaps there's still half an argument for the modern clarinet here after all.

The program was filled out with a worthy, but more variable, rendition of Mozart's poignant Masonic Funeral Music (K. 477), which began with a touchingly mournful decorum, but seemed to wobble in tone despite its brief length.  Preceding all was a charming appearance by choruses from Boston Latin, Brockton High, and Lawrence High, who essayed excerpts from Handel's Utrecht Te Deum with clarity and commitment.  Handel and Haydn is making a brilliant move in including these young singers from their outreach programs in their concerts (it not only instills in them a respect for classical music, but no doubt seeds the organization's future audience).  My only comment is that the repeated success of these appearances argues for more stage time (the audience was clearly happy to listen to more from these kids) as well as more support in the program notes.  These performances are no longer experiments, I'd say; they're part of the Handel and Haydn experience - and a very enjoyable part, to boot.  Let's treat them that way. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Making the most of Mozart at BLO

Facing the facts of love: Caroline Worra, Thomas Allen, and Sandra Piques Eddy.  Photos: Eric Antoniou.
Sometimes, particularly when I'm watching his operas, I think Mozart's face (below) should have really graced the sphinx.

Take Così fan tutte, the last of his works with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, and the one with the most checkered performance history - indeed, the Victorians considered it so risqué they rarely staged it, or produced it in bowdlerized versions; Così only returned to the repertory in something like its original form as the twentieth century progressed.

This seems strange given the glittering surface of the opera, which appears to be merely a witty roundelay of temptation, and is obviously based on an ancient trope: the jealous lover who tempts his beloved (in disguise) to test her fidelity.  The theme had been previously treated by Shakespeare, Boccaccio, and even Ovid - but Da Ponte and Mozart added what would proved an epochal twist: their heroines not only eventually succumb to temptation, but more shocking still, they are forgiven for their lapse.  Love accommodates itself to its own flaws, and in the opera's finale - a Shakespearean double wedding - each bride marries the man she has betrayed with the other groom (who is also his best friend).

Even the Bard never went this far, and Mozart's worldly acceptance of feminine humanity has troubled opera lovers - and the public at large - ever since.  And amusingly, it bothers modern feminists as much as it did Victorian chauvinists; both camps, it seems, would like to keep the ladies on their pedestals (if for different reasons).  Even the opera's title has fallen victim to sexist polarization; its literal translation is "So do all," which many have twisted into something like "So all women do" - as the men of the opera sing - when rather obviously "So do all" implies the guys do it, too; a subtler reading would even hint at Mozart's true message, that infidelity is a constant of the human heart, and so all must come to terms with it.

Of course, acceptance comes more easily when it is helped along by Mozart's ravishing melodies, with which Così is all but over-stuffed (and which conductor David Angus and his orchestra deliver nimbly from the pit).  And Boston Lyric Opera sweetens the amorous medicine still further with a production (through this weekend) that is consistently lovely, if somewhat unadventurous.  The silvery sheen of Così often glints with more rue and complexity than you'll find here - but perhaps after the rigors of Clemency, BLO felt like relaxing a bit with a sure-fire hit.

Phyllis Pancella's Despina just cannot deal right now, okay?

Not that I blame them; nor can I pretend it isn't wonderful to see and hear Così fan tutte again.  (It is always wonderful to see Così fan tutte.)  Still, in a way this is "gateway" Mozart.  If you've never seen a truly superb Così, it may stun you; if you have, however, be prepared to find the BLO version diverting, with gorgeous highlights, but perhaps not at the top of this company's achievement.

It is diverting, though, and craftily dodges the question of cynicism that sometimes dogs the opera, thanks to the knowing twinkle in the eye of Thomas Allen, the distinguished British baritone who not only directed, but also plays and sings Don Alfonso, the psychological Machiavel who stage-manages the deception driving the plot.  Don Alfonso wants to prove to the irritatingly naïve young soldiers Ferrando and Guglielmo that their fiancées are only human; and so he contrives (with the help of the ladies' lusty maid, Despina) to have them seemingly sent off to battle - only to reappear disguised as amorous "Albanians," who lay seige to their ladies' affections.

If you think you can guess the rest, be ready for a few surprises.  For of Mozart's two heroines, only one, the heartier Dorabella, succumbs to sensual temptation.  The more self-aware Fiordiligi surrenders to something subtler and more troubling - she actually falls in love with her new suitor, just as she once did with her betrothed.  This places Fiordiligi at the beginning of a new tradition of alienated psychological complexity, and lifts Così fan tutte out of its original era and into our own.

Perhaps that timelessness is what led designer John Conklin to turn this Così into a day at the beach, onto which he dropped - as is his wont - various portraits and props (the love seats with hearts built right into their backs were a nice touch).  Alas, Allen's Don Alfonso only occasionally took part in these scenic shifts, despite the fact that he was literally the director as well as a character - still, you could always feel him sizing up the audience just as he was his supposed comrades (and Allen's celebrated voice remains a burnished marvel).  The vocals from his young cohorts in crime perhaps weren't quite as strong - as Ferrando, tenor Paul Appleby boasts a warm lyric timbre, but at his high end seemed to still be fighting an earlier cold; still, his admission that his love has survived his fiancée's infidelity was (as always) immeasurably touching. Meanwhile, as Guglielmo, young barihunk Matthew Worth once again intrigued (we've seen him before) with vocal potential that hasn't quite come into its own.

Caroline Worra, Matthew Worth, Paul Appleby, and Sandra Piques Eddy before they all change partners.

The vocal news was better among the opera's women; local girl-made-good Sandra Piques Eddy stole the spotlight with a mezzo that's simultaneously pure, rich, and gloriously agile (it's no surprise she'll be making her debut at the Met shortly).  Her elegant, slightly distant persona suggested she might make an attractive Fiordiligi, but she also brought an appealingly sweet earthiness (and serious comic chops) to Dorabella's downfall.  Meanwhile, soprano Caroline Worra took the lead with her customary gusto and witty aplomb; I'm a big fan of Worra, but her natural heartiness sometimes worked against her here, and her golden soprano, though forceful, was never quite transfixing.  Still, she knew to pull out all the emotional stops for Fiordiligi's crisis of conscience; and while begging forgiveness for the sin she knew her love would compel her to commit, Worra was heart-breaking.

Rounding out the cast was the irrepressible Phyllis Pancella, whose Despina sang with a drop more malice than most, but whose witty timing was impeccable.  Pancella is clearly a comedienne who could make Così work in any language, but she got a little help from BLO's English adaptation, which was somewhat oddly accented in the arias, but was hilariously alliterative in the recitatives. Pancella and Allen together kept nudging this Così from the dark to the light; whether in the end it's a shade too light, you will simply have to judge for yourself. 

CitiCenter millionaires like their mimes to work for free

Why so sad, George?
Fellow blogger Ian Thal has a brave and damning post up at the Clyde Fitch Report regarding recent shenanigans over at CitiCenter.  It seems that Ian, a local commedia performer and teacher (among other things) was recently solicited by the organization's education department to perform at an "interactive arts festival" at a local library.

Oops - I meant to say "perform for free."

But as you may know by now, Ian Thal is not one to take that kind of "offer" lying down.  He digs into CitCenter's tax returns, and not only names names, but salaries. As Ian notes, the leaders of CitiCenter (and Josiah Spaulding actually is not the highest paid) walked away in 2010 with exactly 2,909,547 reasons why the organization can't afford to pay their mimes a single dollar.

As Ian notes, Amanda Palmer would be proud of CitiCenter.  But should the rest of us be?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

From Denmark with love

Caroline Henderson
I admit it. I left Danish Dance Theatre's Love Songs (at Celebrity Series last weekend) a little bit in love myself.

But not, I'm afraid, with Danish Dance Theatre.

No, I fell - and fell hard - for Caroline Henderson, the Danish-Swedish chanteuse (at right) whose moody croons from the American songbook made up the low-key soundtrack to the show.

Ms. Henderson is a find, I'd say, and long overdue for a major Atlantic crossing (and her arrangements, as well as the ensemble backing her, were all equally smooth).  This singer's voice is a languid coo, her tone weathered and knowing, and her heart - well, it may be beaten down, but it's still beating.  In short, Henderson is a new jazz voice worth listening to.  (Her take on "I'm a Fool to Want You" is below.)

I wish I could say I was carrying the same torch for the actual choreography of Love Songs, by British wunderkind Tim Rushton, but alas, I'm not - even though at first Rushton's touch seems as sure as Henderson's, and the opening sequences are subtly wonderful.  

We initially watch the dancers warm up onstage before a vaguely Chorus-Line-ish line of chairs; this feels slightly kitschy, but you know, whatever. Then the work proper starts, and Rushton's fearless performers throw themselves - sometimes literally - into a smooth, suave series of lifts and tumbles that in its nonchalant lyricism feels just right for a kind of choreographic club date.  The permutations pile up - couples morph into trios and solos and back again (see teaser video below) - and as one number follows the next, a loose set of "characters" begins to take shape; so we fully expect the dance to eventually get to the sadder-but-wiser place that Henderson's vocals are calling from.

But that never happens.  In fact not much really happens - the casual-Friday romances just grind on, although the same offhand virtuosity is maintained from song to song.  And so we begin to wonder, is "Come Rain or Come Shine" really so much like "All of Me," and are either at all like "My Funny Valentine"?  Watching these young players churn through a millennial version of La Ronde, you begin to sense the naïve suggestion that the American songbook amounts to little more than sophisticated elevator music.

Love Songs - Trailer from Danish Dance Theatre on Vimeo.

Rushton does take a few breaks from the rush of this ongoing choreographic stream.  When one dancer stole a kiss that another turned down, the absent Ms. Henderson seemed to stop her set dead in its tracks to offer some romantic advice to the overeager Romeo.  This was cute - as was Henderson's recounting of her own first kiss - but little more.  Later the dancers all undressed and changed into more sparkly duds.  This was hot - but little more; as the curtain fell I found myself struggling to remember much about what I'd just seen.  Of course if "cute and hot" is all Rushton is aspiring to, then Love Songs counts as a triumph.  But to my mind, he's short-changing his own talent - as well as the obvious talents of his company.  Dancers like Maxim-Jo Beck McGosh, Emily Nicalaou, Ana Sendas, Fabio Liberti, and Arina Trostyanetskaya could obviously all dig far deeper than they're ever given the chance to here - there are poignant flickers of genuine connection and lonely loss throughout their performances. Which makes you think that with something like a real emotional (as well as choreographic) arc, Love Songs could sing a song worth remembering.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Shining new light on A Raisin in the Sun (Part I of a series)

LeRoy McClain and Ashley Everage in A Raisin in the Sun.  Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

I'm not sure whether the theatre is more obsessed with race these days, or real estate.  But the two topics have certainly been entwined on our stages, in production after production pondering the question of black families moving into white neighborhoods.  Last year saw The Luck of the Irish premiere at the Huntington, after Clybourne Park took its regional bow at Trinity; and right now Clybourne is enjoying a return engagement at SpeakEasy, while the grandmother of the whole genre (and yes, by now it's a genre), Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun, has just been revived at the Huntington (through April 7) under the direction of Liesl Tommy.

I'm not really complaining about the sudden intensity of this focus (in fact I think I'm the only local critic to ever call for somebody, anybody, to treat Boston's de facto policy of racial apartheid).  But I'll admit that by now I've become a little concerned about the limits of these texts - I'd like to see more plays like Invisible Man, that treat race without recourse to a realtor.  Still, I'm aware that the theatre is responding in its usual half-baked way to the deep realization that rocked Fox News on election day, i.e. white people don't own the country anymore (they just own Wall Street!).

Of course of these works, Raisin is by far the greatest - and now I'd argue it's the most poignant, too. For seeing it again - particularly after taking in Clybourne Park for the second time - means facing the touching quaintness of its essential optimism.  It's not that the hopes of Hansberry's family (tellingly named the Youngers) are doomed - not exactly.  It's more that they don't quite guess what's ahead, much less how their dreams will be co-opted.

The critical response to the current juxtaposition of Raisin and its derivative satellite, Clybourne, has been enthusiastic but, alas, rather vapid.  Everyone agrees, for instance, that the two works 'have a lot to say to each other,' but precisely what that might be remains unspoken; meanwhile Raisin is lauded (as always) for being "searingly human," "achingly true," etc., etc.

Which it is - but the Huntington revival also reminded me of the play's many flaws.  A Raisin in the Sun was completed by Hansberry at the ripe old age of 28, and it's a young person's play - overlong and overstuffed with thematic tangents.  It's also unevenly structured, as the author juggles a mosaic of rambling scenes that cluster around its central trio (or is it a quartet?) of protagonists.  Indeed, what many recall as the spine of the play - Mrs. Younger's purchase of a home in the all-white neighborhood of (yes) Clybourne Park - is only one of several thematic threads (the debate between assimilation vs. isolation, the tension between the sexes in African-American culture) that bind the play together.

Keona Welch and Kimberly Scott; photo: T Charles Erickson
What also binds the play together, of course, is Hansberry's sheer passion, and her desire to pack into her script everything she knows about being "young, gifted and black" - even if the history of the Younger clan doesn't quite match her own (her family was the first to fight - and win - a battle against race-restrictive covenants, but the Hansberries were far more moneyed and middle-class than their fictional counterparts).

And luckily for us, the author's passion is matched by that of the cast at the Huntington, whose production is sustained by remarkable performances, despite a few odd flourishes from its director.  Tommy has chosen to incorporate the ghost of the family's dead patriarch - whose insurance money is funding their new dreams - directly into the action of the play (Corey Allen stalks the set in age make-up), which alas, feels a bit cinematic and Disney-fied. The set, by Clint Ramos, is likewise slightly problematic; it's a turntable that we can feel is meant to spin with the family as it whirls in indecision; but like the appearances of Ghost-Dad, this sometimes feels forced, and various lighting effects and Tommy's trademarked bursts of extraneous rap are similarly distracting.

But if the director hasn't solved the structural issues in Hansberry's text, and has perhaps even exacerbated some of them here and there, I have to admit that she has also drawn memorable performances from her cast pretty much across the board; so the uplifting, traditional core of Raisin survives the odd accoutrements of this revival.  Perhaps first among equals is LeRoy McClain, whose performance as Walter Lee Younger (the son who squanders much of the family inheritance on a liquor store scheme) is a fluid, fevered marvel of anger, ambition, immaturity, and wounded sensitivity.  He's pretty much matched, however, by the luminous Keona Welch as his very Lorraine-Hansberry-like sister, whose brilliant idealism is tempered by a winningly bemused self-awareness. Meanwhile the formidable Kimberly Scott, as matriarch Lena Younger, was beset by a few memory lapses on opening night, but as these settle down the understated strength of her heart-breaking performance will only become more apparent.  Even subtler than Scott was Ashley Everage, who brought a disappointed (but unbroken) strength to the role of Walter Lee's wife Ruth.  The supporting cast - Jason Bowen, Corey Allen, Maurice E. Parent, and Will McGarrahan - was likewise strong (while the youngest role, of Walter Lee's son Travis, is charmingly handled by either Cory Janvier or Zaire White).  Indeed, the acting alone at the Huntington was enough to give you hope for the future - or at least until you see Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park.  But more about that in the second part of this series.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Top Gunn

He's not bad with his shirt on, either.
Nathan Gunn.  

With a name like that, he could be James Bond's arch-rival.  

Or perhaps a long-lost cousin of Philip Marlowe.

But no, Nathan Gunn (at left) is actually a baritone - in fact, he's what is known today as a "barihunk."  For Gunn has left audiences shaken as well as stirred in revealing operatic roles (Billy Budd foremost among them, below) in which his pecs garnered almost as much attention as his pipes.

So I ventured to his Celebrity Series concert last weekend with but a single thought:

Would Nathan Gunn sound as good as he looks?

Well, haters, I'm afraid the answer is - yes, he does; Gunn boasts a baritone (as well as a bod) to die for - the voice is rich as chocolate, smooth as caramel,  and so resonant it seems to be coming out of a well rather than his (ahem) barrel chest. Given its weight, Gunn's sound is also surprisingly supple, and his range stretches into tenor territory sans any apparent strain. I've heard a handful of baritones with a shade more power; but in Jordan (or even Symphony) Hall, that hardly matters - and I can't think of anyone with more artful technique.

Of course it helps that his earnest eyes alone could melt your heart (with no crooning required); but honestly, it also helps that Gunn seems not at all vain, and perhaps even something of a regular guy. Damn it, he even has a shy smile, despite a stage charisma most performers would kill for; so as the old joke goes, it's hard to hold his body against him. What also cut against the bodice-ripper quotient was the presence onstage of his talented wife, pianist (and vocal coach) Julie Gunn, who was on hand to hold back the fans, as well as accompany her husband in a program that ranged from Schubert and Schumann all the way to "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (with pitstops in Barber, Ives, and Bolcom along the way).

Intermission divided the Germanic and American portions of the program, with Schubert and Schumann - including the full Dichterliebe ("The Poet's Love") - delivered first. Here, as expected, Gunn excelled at songs of yearning, from Schubert's haunting "Die Taubenpost" ("Pigeon Post") to a poignantly understated take on Schumann's "Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen" ("I hear the dear song sounding").  He likewise rose to the demands of other passions, giving Schubert's paean to inspiration, "Im Walde" ("In the Forest") a windswept rendering, while a sudden, surprising fury gripped the finale of the famous "Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bright" ("I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking").

Gunn as Britten's Billy Budd.
Still, even that outburst didn't quite limn the bitter twist at the bottom of "I bear no grudge . . .," and in general Gunn's take on the Dichterliebe was long on technique but low on psychological complexity; thus its closing coda, "Die alten, bösen Lieder" ("The old, angry songs") in which the poet's love and pain are buried together in one coffin, hinted at little of the cycle's emotional ambiguity.  And alas, while Julie Gunn gave poetic support at the piano to the slower songs, whenever Schubert or Schumann hit a gallop, her touch tended to thud.

But Mrs. Gunn was generally stronger in the program's second half, which after a set of Samuel Barber ballads tilted toward works (by Ives and Bolcom) that had one foot in the music hall or the revival tent.  Gunn himself at first seemed very much in his element with the Barber; in particular his rendering of "Sure on this Shining Night" (which after Adagio for Strings could be the most gorgeous phrase Barber ever penned) was absolutely ravishing, and made me realize this staple of sopranos and chorales the world over may be best served by a baritone.

Alas, Gunn then seemed hard-pressed to conjure the subtle irony that pervades Charles Ives (he's just not an ironic guy); but as I expected, he found his feet as soon as the composer turned more straightforwardly soulful, as in the tender ballad "An Old Flame."  And with the great William Bolcom, Gunn's natural forcefulness generally carried him home; he did surprisingly well by the wicked "Song of Black Max," and his campy take on "George," Bolcom's valentine to a doomed drag queen, felt like a bemused bow to certain members of his own fan club. The last song of the program proper, "Over the Piano," was likewise sweet, but might have been even more so if delivered directly to Mrs. Gunn; the true finish to the concert came with the sole encore, a stunning rendition of the Depression-era ditty "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?."  Here Gunn gave the banked anger that had flickered in earlier songs its full force, and the effect was galvanizing - and then, like many an old pro, he left the crowd longing for more.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A tour of Boston's vocal riches with Boston Baroque

Jeptha's Daughter, by Chauncey Bradley Ives
Boston Baroque's intriguing program last weekend, "De Profundis," marked for this venerable organization a renewed focus on the chorus - and as is often the case for conductor Martin Pearlman, it was also built around a musical argument, a "case," if you will.  To be frank, I found that case not entirely convincing, but it was certainly worth a listen (if only more classical programming could boast Pearlman's intellectual rigor) and what's more, the concert not only resurrected a musical figure who has long been neglected in local performance, but offered a kind of survey of local singers as well.

That neglected musical figure is Giacomo Carissimi - a name well-known to choral enthusiasts, as he taught Charpentier and influenced Handel - but not to the general public (perhaps not even the classical public).  I myself had never experienced Carissimi in performance, so I was grateful to hear Jephte, a masterpiece whose impact is hard to over-estimate (it was held up as a model of the nascent oratorio form, and Handel even quoted it in Samson).

Jephte is most famous for its concluding lamentation, which is riven by daringly plaintive dissonances; but the oratorio proved quite effective - and affecting - throughout its length (I'm often struck by just how quickly a new musical form reaches an artistic peak).  The tale is the Biblical version of a myth that has long served composers well (a Cretan variant provides the core of Idomeneo); Jephtha (one of the judges from Judges) promises in prayer that if he is granted victory in battle, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees upon his return home.  Fans of tragic irony will be unsurprised to learn that his beloved daughter greets him before anyone else at his homecoming (that Yahweh - such a joker!).

Pearlman didn't quite conjure the plunging emotional arc that Carissimi has constructed (Jephte is a roller coaster ride from victorious joy to catastrophic grief), but his work with the chorus, which seemed beefed up for the occasion with many of Boston's best singers, was exemplary, and he drew remarkable solos from Owen McIntosh (who's a bit young for Jephte, but made you forget that), as well as Kamala Soparkar, Brenna Wells, Ulysses Thomas, and particularly the reliable Teresa Wakim, whose pure soprano imbued the doomed daughter's lament with a devastating ache.

The concluding chorus, Plorate, filii Israel, was likewise poignantly intense, and did seem to lead seamlessly into the melancholy dissonances of Charpentier's late mass, Missa, Assumpta est Maria. But to these ears as the Charpentier progressed, Pearlman's argument, thoughtful as it was, slowly fell apart; this composer is simply sui generis, and the ingrown complexity of his structures seemed to quickly leave Carissimi far behind.

Friday, March 15, 2013

This Phoenix won't rise from the ashes

No more Phoenix, apparently - although we've heard this rumor before, this time it's apparently true. The paper that hijacked the counter-cultural bona fides of what became The Real Paper, and then ruled the alternative-paper roost for decades, is finally no more.  Hmmm. I guess the "personal" ad market finally dried up.  Oh well - will this mean fewer critics (let's hope!), or just more second stringers and hangers-on at whatever print outlets and sites survive (meaning fewer spots for fresh voices)?  Or (oh God no) more blogs?  I can't wait to find out . . .

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Killer Kylián at Boston Ballet

Paulo Arrais and Lia Cirio in Wings of Wax. Photos: Rosalie O'Connor
"All Kylián," the current offering from Boston Ballet (at the Opera House through this weekend) may not tell the entire story of Jiří Kylián, one of the leading choreographic lights of the millennium. But it does convincingly chart the arc of his career, from the late apprenticeship of Symphony of Psalms (1978), to the glory days of Wings of Wax (1997), to such latter-day explorations as Tar and Feathers (2006).  

The only conceptual trouble with the evening is that its chronology is muddled (we get the earliest piece last, and the last in the middle). So for the uninitiated, the development of this remarkable artist may be a little hard to parse amid what amounts to artistic background noise. Symphony of Psalms, for instance, is too indebted to other choreographers, and the dance tradition of Stravinsky in general, to quite count as all Kylián. And Tar and Feathers more than meets Samuel Beckett half-way, in a daring attempt to meld dance with absurdist theatre. Only in Wings of Wax (at left), from roughly the mid-point of his achievement, does Kylián's unique style "come clear," if you will.

Thus I'll be treating this trio of dances in their historical (rather than programmatic) order.  Which means I'll begin with Symphony of Psalms, a sweeping, if slightly stiff, evocation of Stravinsky's late work of the same name (which was a BSO commission, btw, back in the days when the BSO commissioned important stuff).  This choral piece is, as you might guess from its title, vaguely liturgical in character, but somewhat restless in form; perhaps most striking is that Stravinsky dips into octatonic scales, the basis of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring; hence even though Psalms is grouped in the composer's "neoclassical" period, echoes of his early breakthroughs haunt it (and especially so in the forceful performance at the Ballet by the New World Chorale).

Kylián, for his part, conjures a complex ceremony that might be a courtship dance - or even a group marriage.  (Perhaps inspired by claims that octatonic scales are sourced in Persian music, the choreographer sets his couples before a cascade of carpets.)  Or is the action some kind of purge - as much of it takes the shape of combative duets alternating with exultant gestures - or perhaps even a form of funeral, as the entire community marches off into suicidal darkness at the finish (with one poor girl looking back)?  Whatever  Kylián may be aiming at precisely - and ambiguity became one of his signatures - the choreographer often echoes not only Rite of Spring but also Les Noces, so clearly the general idea is metaphoric extension of those works' cruel, communal religiosity.  In stylistic terms, this sometimes gives the piece the air of apprentice-work. Still, you can make out in its lineaments the beginnings of Kylián's mature style: couples tend to pivot against each other in what amount to choreographic co-shares; the stage is almost unconsciously laid out into a metaphoric grid, with dancers often obliquely plotted to the audience; and almost every gesture admits to at least two interpretations.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Loud and clear with the London Philharmonic

Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic with Vadim Repin on violin.

There's always something to be said for taking on a warhorse, even if it's Beethoven's Fifth, that warhorse of all warhorses - which conductor Vladimir Jurowski (above) sent through its paces with the London Philharmonic in their Celebrity Series appearance at Symphony Hall last weekend.

That said, I'm not quite sure what (if anything) new Jurowski had to say about the Fifth - yet oddly, I have to admit, whatever it was, he said it well.  And loudly, too.  For Jurowski assembled enormous forces for the Fifth - not quite the army Daniel Barenboim mustered for his siege on the Second and Third a few weeks back, but close. And as you know, I'm not all that sympathetic to arena-rock Beethoven anymore; almost every investigation of the grand Ludwig van I've heard in the past half decade has been on original instruments, with smaller, more probing ensembles.  I've read that Jurowski nodded to period performance by utilizing period horns and timpani, but somehow the individual profiles of these instruments were swallowed in the onslaught of the rest of the orchestra. I admit the idea of a post-modern orchestral sound, drawn from both the modern and period traditions, is highly intriguing - but solving the problems of balance inherent in such a new formulation is going to require a deep re-consideration of orchestral forces, rather than just a handful of period add-ons.  Meanwhile, when it comes to the grand gesture, the titanic climax - I hope we can agree they're pretty much played out. I mean by the time bad rock bands are imitating your sound, you know the intellectual jig is up; can't we leave the heavy orchestral metal to Emerson, Lake and Palmer (or von Karajan), wherever they are?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Jeremy Denk touches down

Jeremy Denk at the keyboard - yes, this is a typical pose, and yes, it's a bit much.

Yesterday I considered the case of Hilary Hahn, a brilliant violinist who seemed to only find her voice while playing Bach.  Pianist Jeremy Denk (above), a rising light among keyboard stars, made his own Celebrity Series appearance in the same hall just 24 hours later - and displayed something like the same syndrome as Hahn.  He, too, aligned technically and interpretively with only one artist on his program - Franz Liszt, whose works he illuminated spectacularly; perhaps almost definitively.  But alas, Liszt was only one of four composers on the program.

And the first of these, Béla Bartók, is about as far from Liszt in many ways as as you can get - even if they shared the same birthplace (Hungary) and an intense interest in that nation's folk music (tellingly, though, their approaches were opposed - Liszt's was fundamentally sentimental, Bartók's almost scientific).  Bartók penned only one piano sonata, which Denk essayed in a style that seemed almost mysterious (looking at the notes in my program, I can see I scrawled a big "??" next to it). Based loosely on folk motifs, the sonata is a fractured, percussive thing - although beneath its surface it's quite perfectly structured: surrounding a moody central meditation are two bouncing, happily savage dances.  Denk gave it the energy it demands, but his touch was gently blurry, the rhythms were pounding but hardly dancing, and the whole thing felt indulgently academic; if this was savagery, it was Oscar Wilde's idea of savagery.

Friday, March 8, 2013

To Bach and back with Hilary Hahn

The performer in repose.

Artistic affinity is both a fact of life and an utter mystery - and much on my mind of late, as last weekend's Celebrity Series performances by violinist Hilary Hahn (above) and pianist Jeremy Denk were almost case studies in this curious phenomenon.

You all know what I'm talking about - indeed, the concert-hall crowd senses this kind of thing immediately; suddenly, after respectful applause throughout a program, the house goes wild for a piece, in the kind of instinctive response that performers live for.  A critical answer to the question of what, precisely, the audience is sensing remains elusive, however.  What secret link sparks the exciting synergy between a musician and a composer that yields that ineffable thrill?  Sometimes a critic can point to this or that technical skill which gives a performer the edge with certain material - that was definitely the case with Denk, whose touch and demeanor mapped to some composers, but not to others - but far less so with Hahn, whose command was impeccable, and indeed seemed adjustable to the technical demands of everything she played.

No, with Hahn the crux of the issue came down to - well, soul, for lack of a matter word.  For she performed everything in her program expertly (almost beyond expertly).  It would have been hard to argue with a single phrase. Yet strangely enough, of the composers on offer, only one - Johann Sebastian Bach - sounded anything like a soulmate.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Painting the town Red - again

Mark Zeisler and Ryan Barry see red in Red.  Photo: Meghan Moore.
Bostonians rarely get a chance to see a new script from two different perspectives - but we're enjoying just such a chance right now, as Merrimack Rep presents John Logan's Red (through this weekend), which SpeakEasy Stage produced in town only about a year ago.

I was probably the lone voice questioning the success of that earlier production (partly because I have a special place in my heart for the play's subject, Mark Rothko).  And to my mind the Merrimack version - helmed by its incisive artistic director, Charles Towers - is more serious and satisfying than the SpeakEasy model, which I found far too slick and manipulative.  Indeed, it was so devoted to flattering its audience that it almost became an unconscious travesty of Rothko's ideals, as the artist famously dedicated himself to a lonely mode of transcendence in his luminous, abstract "multiforms."

But you know - I have to admit that the show-bizzy calculations of SpeakEasy weren't entirely in the wrong.  For it eventually becomes apparent at Merrimack that there's only so far even a forceful theatrical intellect like Charles Towers can take this particular vehicle; there's greatness in Rothko, yes, but in the last analysis, Red is only a slick little play about that greatness.  The SpeakEasy boys may not have known from Mark Rothko - but they did know from John Logan.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Snowbound with The Shining, or How Stanley Lost Stephen in a Maze of Mixed Metaphors (Part II)

The Native-American holocaust strikes back - or does it? - in an iconic image from The Shining.

There has been a long delay in my return to The Shining - and sorry for the tease; it has largely been due to my responsibilities to review local performances.  But I know by now from Facebook pokes that there are a lot of people out there who rarely read the Hub Review, and don't give a damn about Boston culture, but who are dying to read my full exegesis of a thirty-year-old movie that has loomed larger in their movie-going lives than perhaps it should. So here, at last, is Snowbound with The Shining, Part II.

But to recap: I spent the last blizzard holed up with Stanley Kubrick's paranoid 1980 opus - it seemed the ideal picture for white-out conditions - and I gradually worked out, as the wind howled around me, exactly what I think is wrong with it.  Now there's no bigger Kubrick fan out there than me (or I!) but I've noticed something funny about the worshippers at the altar of the Divine Stanley: the hardcore Kubrick crowd places The Shining well down the list of his achievements; but the pop contingent of the congregation worships it wildly. Indeed, there's something like an interpretive cottage industry on the Internet devoted entirely to The Shining - there's even a movie about the interpretation of this movie, featuring avid partisans of such possible explanations for the film's many lacunae as the Native-American Holocaust Thesis and the Apollo 11 Hoax Theory.

But in a word - why?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Meet the beetle

Gísli Örn Gardarsson as Grego Samsa in Metamorphosis.  Photo by Eddi. 

As we all know, one morning, after a night of troubled dreams, Gregor Samsa awoke to find that he had been transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

Whether poor Gregor had morphed into a giant cockroach or an outsized dung-beetle remains a topic of some debate.  But whatever his genus and species, the shock of his translation, rendered in the calmest prose imaginable, has echoed throughout literature (and the culture) ever since Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis first crept into print.

And now, almost a century later - another shock: The Metamorphosis has been translated to the stage, in a production that was born in Iceland (at the Vesturport Theatre), then wowed them in London (at the Lyric Hammersmith), and has now touched down at ArtsEmerson through this weekend only.

And I'm happy to report that, amazingly enough, much (though perhaps not all) of Kafka's weird vision has survived the leap from page to stage, thanks largely to a gymnastic performance by lead Gísli Örn Gardarsson that is not only convincing emotionally and intellectually, but also insect-ually.

There's solid work elsewhere in the production (tough little Selma Björnsdóttir is a standout as the initially-sympathetic sister) but it's Gardarsson who holds us fascinated. His evocation of Gregor's six-legged scamper is only made possible, however, by the production's ingeniously imaginative set, by Börkur Jónsson, which offers on the first floor a happy bourgeois home in which all is as it should be, while upstairs, in Gregor's lonely aerie, all is topsy-turvy: indeed, we seem to be looking down on his pathetic bed as if we were (yes) a fly on the wall.