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An Evening of Choir & Music with the Budapest Festival Orchestra

Photo by Jennifer Taylor
A superb season at Carnegie Hall continued magnificently with two concerts on consecutive evenings—beginning on Friday, April 5th—given by the superlative musicians of the Budapest Festival Orchestra—one of the finest contemporary ensembles—under the brilliant direction of Iván Fischer, one of the greatest working conductors.
The first program, devoted to music by Béla Bartók, opened exhilaratingly with a mesmerizing account of the extraordinary Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, one of three works the composer wrote for the stage. The conductor then announced that the next portion of the evening would pay tribute to Bartók’s contributions to music education, involving pieces that he composed for students to play. He invited a high school group from eastern Hungary, the exquisite Cantemus Choir, with the lovely girls in traditional dress, to perform a cappella selections from Twenty-Seven Two- and Three-Part Choruses, directed by Dénes Szabó. After this, Fischer led the orchestra—“pretending” to be a high school ensemble—in support of the singers in the five choruses for which Bartók later provided accompaniment in 1937, as well as the two arrangements for small orchestra he completed in 1942. It was especially exciting to have a chance to hear this glorious music live given that it presents a less familiar dimension of the composer’s repertoire—here traditional folk music is expressed in an idiom influenced by Italian Renaissance polyphony.
The second half of the program featured a thrilling rendition of the late masterpiece, the Concerto for Orchestra, in probably the best version I have yet heard in the concert hall. The first movement was effectively unsettling while the second was abundant in wit, and the Elegia was haunted if enigmatic. The ingenious Intermezzo was thoroughly bewitching while the delirious finale was notable for its unusually accelerated tempo. An ovation of unbridled enthusiasm was rewarded with an enjoyable encore, a traditional folk tune called “Banchida”, a forecast of the following evening’s concert, the first half of which was devoted to Bartók’s ethnomusicological inspirations.
That program opened with three instrumentalists—István Kádár on violin, András Szabó on viola, and Zsolt Fejérvári on bass—performing the music that served as the basis for Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances in a form that may have been similar to how the composer originally encountered it. The entire ensemble then enchantingly played Bartók’s beautifully scored version.
The same trio as before then accompanied the celebrated Hungarian folksinger Márta Sebestyén as she performed the songs that the composer orchestrated for his gorgeous Hungarian Peasant Songs, which the whole ensemble then executed ravishingly. Fischer and the programmers are again to be applauded for affording us the opportunity to appreciate these works in a live presentation, as they are seldom heard in the concert hall. Sebestyén then returned to the stage to perform an encore, supported by the trio of instrumentalists.
The concert concluded arrestingly with a powerful realization of Bartók’s mysterious operatic masterwork, Bluebeard’s Castle, featuring two outstanding singers: mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi and basso Krisztián Cser. I look forward to the next local appearance of these marvelous artists.

April '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week

The Mule 

(Warner Bros)

In Clint Eastwood’s most entertaining film in years, the octogenarian writer-director plays Earl Stone, a retiree with money problems who starts transporting drugs across state lines for a Chicago-based criminal cartel as a way to make some easy money.





Several of Eastwood’s recent films (Gran Torino, American Sniper, 15:17 to Paris) have been borderline jingoistic and crude, but there’s a bluntness to The Mule’s true story that’s refreshing; it also helps that good actors—Dianne Wiest, Bradley Cooper, Eastwood’s daughter Alison—take the onus off Clint in the lead, although he acquits himself charmingly. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras are a music video and on-set featurette.


The Great Buster—A Celebration 

(Cohen Media)

Buster Keaton was one of our great screen comedians, and Peter Bogdanovich has created a decent overview of his life and career—including voluminous clips from many of his indelible films—but unfortunately places himself front and center as well.





He also peppers the film with interviews of people who have little of interest to say about Keaton (Cybill Shepherd, Bill Hader, Johnny Knoxville) and the self-indulgence makes this less than ideal: even the structure, first strictly chronological then backtracking to focus on his 1920s silent classics, is also wonky. There’s a great hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Bogdanovich Q&A.






Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase 

(Warner Bros)

(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)

In this guileless reboot of the teenage sleuth’s adventures, spunky Sophia Lillis plays Nancy, who investigates a curious case of a haunted house involving a classmate’s grandmother (Linda Lavin) and also involves herself with her father’s dealings with some unsavory types. It’s only 90 minutes, which helps, as does the energetic cast.




Whether we see any sequels out of this attempt to revive a franchise remains a question mark. There’s a crisp and clean hi-def transfer.


DVD of the Week

Jupiter’s Moon 

(Distrib US/Icarus)

After his stunning White God—featuring dozens of canines outacting the humans in a disturbingly gripping post-apocalyptic drama—Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó returns with a fantasia about a Syrian refugee who is shot after crossing the border into Hungary, and who begins to levitate, a condition a dissembling doctor tries to use to his own advantage with ultimately fatal results.




Mundruczó is unafraid to tackle bizarre but compelling subject matter to show the corrosive effects of xenophobia and fear, and even if there’s much too much, the dazzling effects and camerawork and Mundruczó’s keen eye for the truly weird make this a fascinating watch.






CDs of the Week

Lutosławski/Dutilleux—Cello Concertos 


Salonen—Cello Concerto 

(Sony Classical)

Two of the seminal cello concertos of the late 20th century on one recording, and a world premiere by a prominent 21st century composer on another: I guess I can’t complain about music labels not taking chances in 2019. Johannes Moser thrillingly plays touchstones of the modern repertoire, Witold Lutosławski’s and

Henri Dutilleux’s masterly concertos, superbly accompanied by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Søndergård. 




And none other than Yo-Yo Ma gives the world premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s cello concerto, a typically winding and moody work (including electronics), persuasively brought to life by Ma’s dramatic playing and Salonen himself leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Musical Review— Rodgers & Hart’s “I Married an Angel” at Encores

I Married an Angel

Music & lyrics by Rodgers & Hart; directed & choreographed by Joshua Bergasse

Performances March 20-24, 2019

Sara Mearns (far left) in I Married an Angel (photo: Joan Marcus)

City Center’s Encores—now in its 26th season—regularly resurrects forgotten musicals for a week’s worth of sleek, semi-staged performances. Rodgers & Hart’s I Married an Angel, a frothy concoction based on Hungarian playwright János Vaszary’s play Angyalt Vettem Felesegul, certainly fills the bill: the dance-heavy show ran on Broadway for three years in the 1930s, choreographed by Charles Balanchine for his wife Vera Zorina. Similarly, for Encores, Joshua Bergasse has staged and choreographed it for his wife, Sara Mearns, a principal dancer at New York City Ballet.


The show is silly nonsense—a beleaguered Budapest banker wants nothing to do with women and wishes an angel would come down from heaven to be his wife, which, of course, she does—and is mainly an excuse for some hummable (if not especially memorable) Rodgers & Hart tunes and many nicely executed dances for the angel courtesy of Bergasse. Mearns is a terrific dancer, and her movements are expressive and beautifully done: she even walks around the stage en pointe (on her toes), quite impressive in this context. That her vocal delivery is less on point is nowhere near not fatal; luckily, she has no songs, a blessing of sorts. 


The rest of the cast works hard and, for the most part, effectively: leading man Mark Evans is a mite goofy but capable; Nikki M. James, as his sister, is always charming but occasionally vocally strained; and Hayley Podschun, as a man-chaser extraordinaire, steals every scene she’s in, often tap-dancing up a storm.


The distance between I Married an Angel’s caveman view of women and our #MeToo era seems centuries greater than a mere 80 years, but even the wince-inducing lyrics and dialogue don’t erase its minor pleasures. Encores ends its 2019 season in May with another title straight out of its mandate: High Button Shoes, a Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn musical that premiered on Broadway in 1947.


I Married an Angel

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Review— Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Marys Seacole”

Marys Seacole

Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury; directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

Performances through April 7, 2019


Tyler Quincy Bernstine (center) and cast of Marys Seacole (photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Marys Seacole, based on the true story of a 19th century Jamaican woman whose behind the lines “British hotel” helped wounded soldiers convalesce during the Crimean War, is certainly an ambitious play. But Jackie Siubblies Drury has taken Seacole’s life and added on so much— including Mary’s fellow nurse Florence Nightingale’s own battlefield exploits to the selfless nurses and caregivers on a modern-day hospital ward—that the on-the-nose writing becomes suffocating, even eclipsing her own heroine as an exemplar of someone who values the well-being of others over her own survival.


Taking the outline of Mary’s eventful and worthy life (in 1991, she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit, and in 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton), Drury has thrown linear biography to the wind, instead reordering Mary’s life through a funhouse mirror of different eras, characters and events. There are several other female characters, all with the initial M—including Mary’s mother, Druppy Mary—who are embodied by skillful actresses, including the always incisive Ismenia Mendes. Mary herself is played by the endlessly resourceful Quincy Tyler Bernstine, a magisterial performer in whatever she does. (I still remember her cameo in Kenneth Lonergan’s masterly Manchester by the Sea.) 


Unfortunately, Drury’s writing and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s directing isn’t insightful or gripping enough to allow the many segments and tonal shifts to cohere in any meaningful way. The capable cast is encouraged to shout and scream much of its dialogue, making for much shrillness amid the cacophony of sights and sounds. Chaka Khan’s hit “I’m Every Woman” not only is sung by Mary as a showstopper midway through but returns at the end so no one misses the apostrophe-less title’s very obvious point, a point which is laboriously hammered to death over the play’s 90 minutes. 


Despite such waywardness, there’s a kernel of a good play here, and the best moments hit on the same points with humor and simplicity. Even more subtlety would have made for a far more penetrating play.  


Marys Seacole

LCT 3 @ Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

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