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Film and the Arts

Cleveland Orchestra Presents the Music of Vienna

Franz Welser-Möst conducts Cleveland Orchestra  and Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. Photo by Chris Lee

At Carnegie Hall, on the evening of Wednesday, January 18th, I had the enormous privilege to attend a magnificent concert of Viennese music—continuing an unusually strong season at this venue—performed by the extraordinary musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra, under the exceptional direction of Franz Welser-Möst, one of the finest contemporary conductors.

The marvelous first half of the program interwove movements from two outstanding works masterfully played: Alban Berg’s indelible Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite—originally scored for string quartet and rearranged for string orchestra—and Franz Schubert’s incomparable Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759, the “Unfinished.” (Playing movements of works out of sequence is a violation of their artistic integrity but as the music was consistently thrilling, it was not difficult to overlook this.) The opening Andante amoroso from the Lyric Suite was compelling and intricate while the ensuing, brief, less accessible Allegro misterioso functions structurally as ascherzo—replete with a Trio section—but is not especially playful in character. The piece concluded arrestingly with the Adagio appassionata.The Allegro moderato from the Symphony No. 8 was enchanting, although also solemn and dramatic, even with several portentous moments; the often charming Andante con moto is strangely Mendelssohnian at times—lyrical passages alternate with both majestic and more serious ones.

Also exhilarating was a brilliant realization of Schubert’s too infrequently heard but awe-inspiring Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major which featured the wonderful Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and a slate of superb soloists: soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman, tenors Julian Prégardien and Martin Mitterrutzner, and bass Dashon Burton. The Kyrie was exalting while the Gloria that followed was intensely joyous with the Domine Deus section in a more subdued register, although with some overpowering moments; the movement concludes with an astonishing fugue. The Credo was more introspective—its Et Incarnatus was especially moving. After a forceful Sanctus and an ineffably beautiful Benedictus, the Agnus Dei is deeply emotional but acquires a more affirmative character in the amazing Dona Nobis section. The artists deservedly received an enthusiastic ovation.

January '23 Digital Week III

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Saint Omer
French documentarian Alice Diop’s powerful debut feature dramatizes a stunning story based on the real-life trial of a Senegalese woman who killed her infant daughter, and its complex layers of morality, culture, politics, sexism and racism make this one of the most provocative and disturbing films in recent memory. Diop drops us into the courtroom alongside her protagonist—a stand-in, of sorts, for herself—who must take in the young defendant’s reasoning for an inexplicably horrific occurrence in this claustrophobic location, further accentuated by the nearly still camera.
Diop’s film is nearly all talk, but that talk is always compelling and challenging, much more so than something like Sarah Polley’s mediocre Women Talking, which of course did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. (Saint Omer was stupidly shut out of any nominations.)
All Eyes Off Me 
(Film Movement)
Young adults’ sexual and social exploits are explored in Hadas Ben Aroya’s physically and emotionally naked drama, which follows Avisheg who, after having energetic bouts of intercourse with her new boyfriend Max (who has unknowingly impregnated another woman, Danny), has an unexpected flirtation with a middle-aged man.
Ben Aroya knowingly shows how intimacy intersects with mundanity, although occasionally that banality creeps into the movie itself. Still, the director has cast several daring performers, particularly Elisheva Weil, who is particularly astonishing as the always intriguing Avisheg.
Chess Story 
(Film Movement)
Based on the final novella of the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, Philipp Stölzl’s intelligent adaptation follows Josef Bartok, a Hungarian Jewish accountant who nearly escapes with his wife to North America in 1938 but is taken away right before boarding the ship and is constantly tortured by his Nazi captors to get him to share information about wealthy Jews’ bank accounts that he denies having.
Stölzl’s visually striking embodiment of mental stress, a book of great chess matches, is found by Bartok, who memorizes and relives those moves to try and outlast his fascist torturers. This indomitable tribute to the human spirit in the most perilous of times is highlighted by Oliver Masucci’s splendid performance in the lead role.
Only in Theaters 
(Wishing Well Entertainment)
Raphael Sbarge’s timely documentary explores the Laemmle family, longtime proprietors of the one of the most adventurous movie-theater chains in California, part of the cinematic education of generations of filmmakers, scholars and movie fans. What starts as an engaging chronicle of the family’s longtime business—focusing on Greg Laemmle, current head of the theaters—soon becomes something else entirely when COVID-19 enters the picture and shuts everything down.
The urgency of a family-owned business in an entertainment industry seeing the massive popularity of streaming and further changes in audience’s moviegoing habits makes the film a cautionary tale about the survival of the fittest. Cameos by filmmakers Allison Anders, Cameron Crowe, Ava DuVernay, Nicole Holofcener, James Ivory and Bruce Joel Rubin provide further gravitas to the Laemmle theaters’ place in cinema history.
Blu-ray Release of the Week 
Voodoo Macbeth 
(Lightyear Entertainment)
The fascinating true story of how actress Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) shepherded a Black-cast version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to the Depression-era New York stage through producer John Houseman and 20-year-old wunderkind director Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges, in his film debut), who gets the idea for a “Voodoo Macbeth” set on a Caribbean island—it could either be a masterstroke or a laughing stock.
A conglomerate of 10 directors, 8 writers and 3 producers as part of the USC Originals project shepherds this dramatization effectively if unsurprisingly: it’s a credible reenactment with fine performances but not as earthshattering as what Welles and company created onstage (sadly, McClendon never played her dream role of Lady Macbeth, dying of pneumonia soon after the production opened). The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras comprise footage from the original 1936 play as well as a commentary by Bridges, Tudor, one of the directors and writers along with two producers.

"Catamorphosis" is The Music of Catastrophe

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts New York Philharmoinc performing US Premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir's "Catamorphosis" and also with violinist Nemanja Radulović. Photo by Chris Lee

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, on the evening of Friday, January 14th, I had the enormous privilege to attend an outstanding concert—continuing an exceptionally strong season—presented by the New York Philharmonic, under the superb direction of the brilliant Finnish conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali.

The program opened marvelously with a stunning performance of the U.S. premiere of celebrated Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s avant-garde, mysterious, and haunting Catamorphosis, co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic—as part of Project 19—with the Berlin Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Thorvaldsdottir—who was present and entered the stage to receive the audience’s acclaim—provided the following note on the work:

The core inspiration behind Catamorphosis is the fragile relationship we have to our planet. The aura of the piece is characterized by the orbiting vortex of emotions and the intensity that comes with the fact that if things do not change it is going to be too late, risking utter destruction — catastrophe. The core of the work revolves around a distinct sense of urgency, driven by the shift and pull between various polar forces — power and fragility, hope and despair, preservation and destruction.

The relationship between inspiration and the pure musical feeling and methods, for me, tends to shift at a certain point in the creative process of every work. The core inspiration provides the initial energy and structural elements to a piece and then the music starts to breathe on its own and expand. InCatamorphosisthis point in the process became more apparent and tangible as it aligned with an event that has had such dramatic impact on our lives and reality. The notion of emergency was already integrated into the music and, to counterbalance that, a sense of hope and belief. The meditative state of being needed to gain focus, in order to sustain and maintain the globally important elements in life, also became increasingly important and provided another layer to the inspiration.

Catamorphosis is quite a dramatic piece, but it is also full of hope — perhaps somewhere between the natural and the unnatural, between utopia and dystopia, we can gain perspective and find balance within and with the world around us.

The amazing, Serbian-French soloist, Nemanja Radulović, then joined the musicians for a sterling account of Sergei Prokofiev’s extraordinary Violin Concerto No. 2, which begins with a solemn theme that recurs throughout the initial Allegro moderato,with lyrical passages alternating with more playful ones. The glorious second movement starts in a neoclassical mode, eventually increasing in tempo, and then recapitulates the music at its outset. The concluding Allegro ben marcato is the most animated of the three movements and ends excitingly. An enthusiastic ovation was rewarded by Radulović with a delightful and dazzling encore: Niccolò Paganini’s famous Caprice No. 24 for solo violin.

The second half of the event was even more splendid: an unusually memorable reading—all the more remarkable since it is one of the most frequently played works in the orchestral repertory—of Igor Stravinsky’s magnificent ballet score,The Rite of Spring.

The next set of subscription concerts, which take place from January 20th through the 22nd, feature the beautiful Symphony No. 2 of Jean Sibelius and the wonderful Violin Concerto of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, performed by the astonishing Lisa Batiashvili.

Juilliard Orchestra Takes a Trip to The "Pines of Rome"

Conductor Speranza Scappucci

At Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, on the evening of Monday, December 5th, I had the great pleasure to attend a superb concert featuring the Juilliard Orchestra under the estimable direction of Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci.

Appropriately, the emphasis of the program was on Italian music and it opened magnificently with a beautiful rendition of Giuseppe Martucci’s gorgeous Notturno. An impressively precocious soloist, Zhouhui Shen—who wore a lovely sparkling gown—then joined the artists for a highly accomplished account of the powerful Piano Concerto No. 1—an epitome of Romantic music—by Johannes Brahms, who was Martucci’s “idol,” according to the informative program notes of Thomas May. The ambitious, opening Maestoso movement, which defies brief description, is forceful and grave, with some introspective passages, but eventually becomes sunnier in character. The ensuing Adagio is more inward and song-like, while the finale is impassioned, vivacious and dynamic.

The highlight of the event, however, was its second half: a sterling realization of the glorious Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi, who had been one of Martucci’s students. The first movement, “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” is sparkling and busy; “Pines Near a Catacomb,” which follows, creates a hushed atmosphere that continues into the third movement, “The Pines of the Janiculum,” which is enchanted and more lyrical. The closing movement, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” is propulsive and builds to a dazzling conclusion. The musicians received an enthusiastic ovation.

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