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Film and the Arts

Juilliard Orchestra Unleashes (Dance of) Vengeance Upon Lincoln Center

Jeffrey Milarsky Conducts Juilliard Orchestra

At Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, on the evening of Monday, November 21st, I had the pleasure to attend an excellent concert featuring the musicians of the Juilliard Orchestra—playing at their near best—under the direction of Jeffrey Milarsky.

The program opened brilliantly with a marvelous performance of Samuel Barber’s outstanding, rarely heard Medea’s Dance of Vengeance from 1953. A very promising young soloist, Amelia Krinke, then entered the stage for an admirable rendition of the late Juilliard faculty member Michael White’s underrated Concerto for Viola and Orchestra of 1994. The first movement is—after an Adagio introduction—playful and energetic if somewhat spiky and even unsettling. The ensuing Adagio is highly introspective and solemn, even disquieting, while thefinaleis dynamic with some quieter passages.

The highlight of the event, however, was the second half of the concert: a superb reading of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s glorious “Pathétique” Symphony, possibly the composer’s most personal work. The first movement—after a despondentAdagiointroduction—is exciting and passionate and then longingly ardent and turbulent and the Allegro con grazia that follows is charming and waltz-like but not without Romantic intensity. The ultimately thrilling third movement is a captivating march while the concluding, extraordinary Finale is powerfully tragic. The artists received an enthusiastic ovation.

The Sounds of Fate at Lincoln Center & Carnegie Hall

Manfred Honeck

At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, on the evening of Monday, October 17th, I had the privilege of attending an excellent concert featuring the remarkable Juilliard Orchestra under the admirable direction of Manfred Honeck.

The event’s beginning was auspicious with a confident account of the impressive Fate Now Conquers from 2020 by Carlos Simon who, according to the program notes, is “now in his second year as composer in residence at the Kennedy Center.” About this work he has said, “I wanted to pay homage to Beethoven but yet remain true to my artistic voice.” The annotator, Thomas May, provided some valuable background:

Gabriela Lena Frank, whose new opera about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera will be premiered at the end of this month, served as Simon’s mentor while she was composer in residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra and asked him to write a piece responding to Beethoven’s seventh symphony (composed in 1811-12) for a survey of the cycle to be presented during the 250th anniversary season. Because those performances could not take place as the pandemic unfolded, Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a virtual premiere in October 2020.

Simon chose his title from an entry in one of Beethoven’s notebooks dated 1815, which quotes a passage from Book 22 of the Iliad: “But Fate now conquers; I am hers; and yet not she shall share/In my renown; that life is left to every noble spirit/ And that some great deed shall beget that all lives shall inherit.”

Simon’s musical ideas suggest what he described as “the unpredictable ways of fate: jolting stabs along with frenzied arpeggios in the strings that morph into an ambiguous cloud of free-flowing running passages depicting the uncertainty of life that hovers over us.” He commented:

We know that Beethoven strived to overcome many obstacles in his life and documented his aspirations to prevail, despite his ailments. Whatever the specific reason for including this particularly profound passage from theIliad,in the end, it seems that Beethoven relinquished himself to fate. Fate now conquers.

An adept, highly promising young soloist, William Lee, then entered the stage for an admirable performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s wonderful Violin Concerto No. 4. The opening Allegro was joyous while the ensuingAndante cantabilewas lyrical and more serious. The finale was witty and spirited, the most inventive of the three movements.

The highlight of the evening, however, was its second half: an uncommonly strong presentation of Gustav Mahler’s magnificent, enthralling First Symphony, which Honeck conducted from memory. After a mystical opening, one is led into an enchanted pastoral world with the first movement. The second is an ebullient Ländler with a charming, dancelike trio. The celebrated, haunting third movement is for much of its length grimly sardonic and eccentric but ascends to an unearthly realm. The suspenseful finale opens intensely dramatically and is exuberant with quieter passages and builds ultimately to a triumphant conclusion at which the musicians arose for the final bars—they received a very enthusiastic standing ovation.

At Carnegie Hall, on the evening of Monday, October 24th, the musicians returned under the estimable direction of David Robertson for another terrific concert.

The program opened with a New York premiere, a compelling version of Claude Vivier’s intriguing, ambitious, powerfully orchestrated Siddhartha—inspired by Hermann Hesse’s classic, eponymous novel—which proved to be unexpectedly accessible. In her program notes, Noémie Chemali commented on the work’s background: “In the early 1970s, Vivier’s voracious musical appetite drew him towards Asia, as he embarked on a musicological expedition of Thailand, Japan, and Bali, whose musical influences can be heard in his first and only orchestral suite,Siddhartha.” She added that:

[it] was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Company for the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, which shelved it due to its difficulty. Its premiere would not come until years later—after Vivier’s death—by L’Orchestre Métropolitain led by Walter Boudreau, one of Vivier’s classmates at [the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal].

But the second half of the event was even more memorable, with a marvelous realization of Igor Stravinsky’s extraordinary ballet score,The Firebird.The opening was sinister and mysterious but with the appearance of the Firebird, the music became even more fantastical. One of the most beautiful sections was “The Princesses’ Khorovod” while one of the most thrilling was the “Infernal Dance of Katschei and His Subjects.” Nothing could have been more beguiling, however, than the thoroughly enchanting “The Firebird’s Lullaby,” which was followed by a glorious, stunning finale.

I look forward to the next appearance of these remarkable artists.

Broadway Play Review—Adrienne Kennedy’s “Ohio State Murders” with Audra McDonald

Ohio State Murders
Written by Adrienne Kennedy; directed by Kenny Leon
Performances through January 15, 2023
James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY
Audra McDonald in Ohio State Murders (photo: Richard Termine)


Some playwrights aren’t made for Broadway—which is not a knock on their work, obviously. Adrienne Kennedy has won awards and acclaim for her stage work over the past half-century, but it wasn’t until Audra McDonald advocated for her that Kennedy has finally made her belated Broadway debut with Ohio State Murders, which premiered in 1992 at the Great Lakes Festival in Ohio with Ruby Dee in the lead; its Off-Broadway premiere, starring LisaGay Hamilton, was in 2007. 
The story, about Suzanne Alexander, a Black author who returns to her alma mater, Ohio State, decades after a couple of tragic deaths occurred, is told mainly through a speech she gives at the university that begins “I was asked to talk about the violent imagery in my work.” She then describes her student life on campus—just a few years after the OSU dorms were desegregated—where she meets David, whom she will later marry, and Robert Hampshire, an English professor, who will figure heavily in her tale. (Robert—played by a jumpy Bryce Pinkham—makes periodic appearances throughout the 75-minute play.)
To give away more would ruin the play’s lone narrative surprise, but then again Kennedy is not interested in mere plot twists. Her dense, clinical language for Suzanne keeps the audience at arm’s length even as we sense where her monologue is heading. After she describes the title crimes and how and why they occurred, she ends by returning to her opening: “And that is the main source of violent imagery in my work. Thank you.”
Despite subtly dealing with the effects of systematic racism, it all seems like a grotesque shaggy-dog story. Kenny Leon directs sympathetically, Beowulf Boritt’s set is jaggedly symbolic, and Allen Lee Hughes’ astute lighting accents the dark places of memory. But, although McDonald gives an intense, focused performance as Suzanne, she is unable to unlock anything deeper than numbness. 

January '23 Digital Week II

Streaming Release of the Week 
This true story of Jesse Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first Black fighter pilot during the Korean War, is turned into an earnest, well-made but overlong drama by director JD Dillard—in between some exciting aerial sequences, there’s an almost reverential treatment of Brown (and his family), which makes for heavy going over 135 minutes.
There are wonderful moments when Jonathan Majors (Jesse) and Glen Powell (wingman Tom) are shown bonding while training for their missions, and Christina Jackson as Jesse’s devoted wife does well with an underwritten part. But Devotion is content to be a straightforward biopic rather than a challenging one.
4K/UHD Release of the Week
Invaders from Mars 
(Ignite Films)
This obscure 1953 sci-fi thriller directed by William Cameron Menzies, both low-key and low-budget, effectively tells the story of an alien invasion through the eyes of young David, who is initially disbelieved then helps mankind fight back after his parents are transformed by the malevolent visitors.
The effects are chintzy—the “Martians” are risibly bad—but the air of naiveté and innocence from David’s POV actually works. The film’s new 4K restoration is spectacular; extras include a featurette on Menzies, interview with actor Jimmy Hunt (David), a look at the restoration led by Scott MacQueen, and a documentary about the film’s legacy featuring directors Joe Dante and John Landis.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
The Gang of Four 
(Cohen Film Collection)
I’m no Jacques Rivette fan, but the French director did make two standout films in the early ’90s: 1991’s magnificent, four-hour chamber drama La belle noiseuse and the even longer but intimate two-part 1993 study of Joan of Arc, Joan the Maid. But this 1988 feature is what I’ve come to expect from Rivette: an overlong, meandering and superficial chronicle of a quartet of young actresses living in Paris and rehearsing a play by 18th century French playwright Marivaux.
Even at more than two and a half hours, Rivette never gives these women any plausible individuality, and he never makes the most obvious connections between reality and performance cohere. The film looks fine in a new hi-def restoration; the lone extra is an informative commentary by film scholar Richard Pena.
Memories of My Father 
(Cohen Media)
Spanish director Fernando Trueba’s heartfelt 2020 drama about Héctor Abad Gómez, a doctor and human rights advocate in a war-ravaged part of Colombia in the ‘70s and ‘80s who was murdered in cold blood for taking on the regime and Catholic Church, is centered on a beautifully nuanced performance by Javier Cámara as Gómez.
Almost as good are Juan Pablo Urrego as his son Héctor as an adult and Nicolás Reyes Cano as Héctor as a child—the son’s book, Oblivion: A Memoir, was the basis for this emotional movie. Trueba loses his way near the end with melodramatic sequences surrounding the assassination, but that’s a small quibble. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include interviews with Trueba and Cámara as well as five making-of featurettes.
DVD Release of the Week 
The Celluloid Bordello 
(First Run)
Made by Juliana Piccillo, an sex-worker advocate, this alternately enlightening and enraging  documentary dissects how movies have treated sex workers—often as victims, outcasts, killers, or simply easy punchlines—but rarely as real human beings. Piccillo interviews several people in the sex industry, including former porn actress Annie Sprinkle, and they engagingly discuss what Hollywood gets right and (mostly) wrong. (Piccillo herself has the most insightful things to say.)
The myriad clips on display demonstrate how over the map filmmakers have been when it comes to dramatizing a subject that’s a lot more nuanced than what’s seen onscreen: the movies range from Gone with the Wind, Pretty Baby and Taxi Driver to Risky Business, Trading Places and Pretty Woman.

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