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Zen & Mahler with the Philadelphia Orchestra

Xi Wang (L) with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo by Steve Sherman

At Carnegie Hall, on the evening of Tuesday, December 13th, I had the privilege to attend an excellent concert featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The event opened promisingly with a superb account of the New York Premiere of contemporary composer Xi Wang’s remarkable, impressively orchestrated Ensō. Sean Colonna, in an informative program note, provides some useful background:

Xi describes Ensō as a “sister piece” to her 2021 double concerto for violin, trumpet, and orchestra titled Year 2020. Written as something of a musical and emotional journal of Xi’s observations of the global tumult during 2020, she describes Year 2020 as “full of struggle, pain, crying, memory, and, eventually, hope.” She explains that she “felt emotionally and physically exhausted after writing [Year 2020] and decided that [her] next piece had to be a ‘healing’ piece.”Ensōis the result of this compositional process of self-healing and is in many ways more introspective than its outwardly oriented predecessor.

The title Ensō refers to a sacred symbol in Zen Buddhism that takes the form of a hand-painted circle. The circle is traditionally drawn in a single, unbroken gesture that is understood to both represent and enact the experience of total spiritual enlightenment. Painting an ensō is therefore both a creative and meditative practice, as is the process of assembling the ink, brushes, and paper. In addition to the form and symbolism of the ensō, Xi also drew inspiration from the life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Having grown up as a wealthy prince whose family attempted to isolate him from deprivation and pain, Siddhartha’s spiritual journey began with his first encounter with the suffering of others outside of the royal palace. Xi describes Ensō as a piece that tells the story of the spiritual seeker; she explains that the music “can be considered as representing the journey of looking for answers or enlightenment, the journey of freeing and understanding oneself, the journey of looking for the Buddha within oneself.”

Equally admirable was a sterling rendition of the immaculately constructed Clarinet Concerto of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, executed by the exceptionally accomplished Ricardo Morales, principal clarinetist of the ensemble. (According to annotator Christopher H. Gibbs, for this performance he played “a basset clarinet in a reconstruction of Mozart’s original concerto.”) The complex, initial Allegro is mellifluous and largely ebullient while the awesome Adagio is lyrical and exalting. Thefinaleis sprightly at the outset but more serious in places.

The second half of the evening was even more memorable—a presentation of Gustav Mahler’s marvelous Symphony No. 4. Gibbs says the following on the context for the piece:   

Mahler addressed the issue of the differences among his early symphonies while composing the Fourth. As he resumed work on the piece in 1900, he confided to a friend his fears of not being able to pick up where he had left off the summer before: “I must say I now find it rather hard to come to grips with things here again; I still live half in, half out of the world of my Fourth. It is so utterly different from my other symphonies. But thatmust be;I could never repeat a state of mind, and as life progresses I follow new paths in each new work.”

He adds:

The Fourth Symphony has a rather complicated genesis that is important for understanding its special character. For more than a decade, beginning in the late 1880s, Mahler was obsessed with Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), a collection of folk poetry compiled in the early 19th century. One of the poems, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”), relates a child’s innocent idea of blissful existence in heaven. Mahler first set the poem for voice and piano in February 1892 and orchestrated it soon thereafter. A few years later, he decided to end his Third Symphony—destined to be the longest symphony ever written by a major composer—with that song as its seventh movement. He eventually changed his mind and chose to divert it to conclude his next symphony instead.

Mahler originally planned for the Fourth Symphony to have six movements, three of them songs, leading to “Das himmlische Leben.” Although he eliminated the other vocal movements, and suppressed as well most of the programmatic elements he had initially envisioned, the heavenly Wunderhorn song remained and in fact helped to generate the entire symphony. Mahler called attention to this on a number of occasions, such as when he chided a critic that his analysis was missing one thing: “Did you overlook the thematic connections that figure so prominently in the work’s design? Or did you want to spare the audience some technical explanations? In any case, I ask that that aspect of my work be specially observed. Each of the three movements is connected thematically with the last one in the most intimate and meaningful way.”

On Mahler he records:

He told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner: “I know the most wonderful names for the movements, but I will not betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners so they can subject them to banal misunderstandings and distortions.” She also reports Mahler remarking: “At first glance one does not even notice all that is hidden in this inconspicuous little song, and yet one can recognize the value of such a seed by testing whether it contains the promise of a manifold life.”


Mahler remarked on the mood of the Fourth being like “the uniform blue of the sky … Sometimes it becomes overcast and uncanny, horrific: but it is not heaven itself that darkens, for it goes on shining with its everlasting blue. It is only that to us it seems suddenly sinister.”

The first movement begins charmingly but eventually becomes more ominous in character before recapturing its more affirmative spirit. The ensuing Scherzo has an eery quality but is playful and pervaded by ironic humor. The haunting, slow third movement is mysterious, enchanting and ethereal but not without its darker moments. The concert reached its pinnacle with the gloriousfinale,gorgeously sung by the amazing soprano, Pretty Yende, who wore a sumptuous floral gown. The artists received an enthusiastic ovation.

Nézet-Séguin and the ensemble return to this venue—with the incomparable soloist, Yuja Wang—on January 28th for a program devoted entirely to the celebrated piano music of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Broadway Musical Review—“Some Like It Hot”

Some Like It Hot

Book by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin; music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Whitman
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Opened December 11, 2022
Schubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, New York, NY
The cast of Some Like It Hot (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder’s 1959 crossdressing farce, is one of the classic movie comedies, with music, romance, gunplay, Marilyn Monroe and one-liners galore, including one of the great closing lines ever. So why turn it into a Broadway musical?
The entertaining but way overlong Broadway version answers that question…sort of. Much of the skeleton of Wilder’s film remains with a few notable departures. This isn’t bad in itself, especially if one remembers that slavishly copying the movie did the recent Almost Famous no favors. 
Book writers Matthew López and Amber Ruffin have made saxophonist Joe and double bassist Jerry—musicians in Prohibition-era Chicago who are on the run after witnessing a mob hit, disguised as women in an all-female touring band—brothers from another mother: although Joe (the indefatigable Christian Borle plays the Tony Curtis role) is still white, but Jerry (the imposingly talented J. Harrison Ghee stepping into Jack Lemmon’s heels) is now Black, leading to occasionally amusing jokes about their long friendship.
Lopez and Ruffin have also moved the band’s destination from Florida to San Diego, which lets them pivot toward Hollywood in the back-story of Sugar Kane, played by Marilyn Monroe in the movie as the ultimate dumb blonde. Instead, the musical’s Sugar is a self-possessed, no-nonsense performer with her sights set on the silver screen, and she falls for Joe while he’s in the guise of a German scenarist with writer’s block. Adrianna Hicks makes Sugar a fiery femme fatale with a soaring voice to match, but there’s little romantic chemistry between her and Borle, who affects an intentionally horrible Teutonic accent as opposed to the tongue-in-cheek Cary Grant impression Curtis did in the film.
The plot is more convoluted onstage than onscreen, and even though the show sprints along in its first half—adroitly assisted by Scott Pask’s exquisite sets, Gregg Barnes’ sparkling costumes and Natasha Katz’s snazzy lighting—the second act bogs down with a few clunky songs. (All of the tunes, by Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Whitman, are proficient big-band pastiches, though less of them would be more.) And when we get to a tour de force of literal door-slamming and tap-dancing in the final chase scene, “Tip Tap Trouble,” choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw with the frenzied determination that marks all of his work, it’s simultaneously breathtaking and exasperating.
And where are the movie’s classic lines? The second-most famous, buried in the lyrics to “Vamp!”—“this fellow won’t be mellow/more like jell-o that’s on springs”—describes Joe and Jerry in women’s attire rather than, in the movie, how Sugar moves as she walks past them. It’s a minimally clever repurposing of a great, but objectifying, line. Then there’s that last bit of dialogue, which is completely MIA since the musical’s final scenes move the plot in a different direction than the movie—there’s really no room for it in this context.
For all its hyperkinetic busyness, Some Like It Hot the musical only fitfully succeeds at fusing old-fashioned show biz with new-fangled gender attitudes. Well—to paraphrase that immortal line in Billy Wilder and I.A. L. Diamond’s original script—no show’s perfect.

December '22 Digital Week II

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films chronicles the lives of outsiders, those people on the margins who create their own family dynamic, however tenuous. His latest hard-edged drama, and his first shot in South Korea, follows a pair who steal babies from drop boxes, sell them for adoption and eliminate the security camera footage of the thefts; they are soon join by a young woman who wants to meet the family that has adopted the baby she reluctantly left behind, while a couple of detectives are on thir tail.
Kore-eda is honest and sympathetic to all of his flawed but humane characters, and if Broker falls short of his best films—Like Father Like Son, Shoplifters, After Life—it nevertheless is propelled by his precise observational insights.
(Outsider Pictures)
Fernando Guzzoni’s downbeat but powerful drama introduces Blanca, an 18-year-old single mother who accuses a noted politician of  rape and imprisonment; this accusation soon provokes people on both sides—those who are supposed to be her advocates as well as those pushing back against her accusation—to question her story.
Guzzoni navigates this prickly subject matter with a keen eye, never tipping the balance into exploitation, and the film’s searing indictment of a society that doesn’t (or won’t) protect its children is made more immediate by Laura López’s fearless portrayal of Blanca.
The Treasure of His Youth 
(Little Bear Films) 
The career of the legendary Italian photographer Paulo Di Paolo is recounted by director Bruce Weber in this beguiling documentary that showcases many of his classic images alongside often charming tales of how he started in the business—he’s 94 when Weber starts shooting.
Most touchingly, Di Paolo discusses his close relationships with some of his most famous subjects, like actress Anna Magnani along with director Pier Paolo Pasolini, the latter of whom was viciously murdered in 1975 in Rome. Di Paolo’s eyes still well with tears upon discussing Pasolini.
4K Releases of the Week
(Warner Bros)
Will Farrell was never more in his element as Buddy, who was raised by the elves in Santa’s workshop until he discovers that his real father is a rich executive in Manhattan in Jon Favreau’s cute 2003 holiday perennial.
Although it goes on a little long, Farrell has moments of supremely silly strangeness, while he’s matched scene for scene by Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, the Gimbel’s employee who falls for his innocence; she’s never been better than she is here. The film looks quite good in UHD; extras include Favreau’s and Farrell’s commentaries, deleted/alternate scenes, a 90-minute on-set doc hosted by Farrell, and other featurettes.
Laura Hasn’t Slept, a creepy 2020 short by writer-director Parker Finn was expanded into this crude feature about a psychiatrist haunted by a malevolent entity that is causing its victims to commit suicide. The concision of the original short gives way to a flabbiness that wallows in jump scares—how many wine glasses does the heroine have to keep dropping on the floor?—and contrived situations than even The White Lotus would consider too much.
Still, there’s a lively performance by Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) in the lead, which makes the repetition more palatable. Extras include Laura Hasn’t Slept with Finn intro, Finn commentary, deleted scenes, and a making-of and making the score featurettes. 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Michael Haneke—Trilogy 
(Criterion Collection)
Austrian enfant terrible Michael Haneke has made a career out of cleverly devised cinematic provocations, and it his first three films—The Seventh Continent (1989), Benny’s Video (1992) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)—are the most original and memorable of the formal experiments and unsettling narratives he has spent more than three decades creating.
The horrors of isolation have never been so savagely dramatized, and the films’ powerful moments outweigh the more obvious ones. The hi-def transfers in this set are immaculate; extras comprise 2005 interviews with Haneke about each film; interviews with Benny’s Video actor Arno Frisch and film historian William Howarth; Benny’s Video deleted scenes; and a 2013 documentary Michael H., Profession: Director. 
The Ambush 
(Well Go USA) 
Director Pierre Morel has already shown, in Taken and The Gunman, a talent for ratcheting up tension, which he does in this potent recreation of a real-life firefight during the Yemen War between United Arab Emirates soldiers and the rebels who have pinned them down in a valley.
Although the claustrophobic life-and-death situations might become repetitive in lesser hands, Morel is able to keep things moving, which accentuates the drama’s ferocity. There’s a superior hi-def transfer.
Attack of the 50-Foot Woman 
(Warner Archive)
Nowhere near the top of the list of ’50s sci-fi thrillers, this 1958 B movie about a woman who grows to enormous proportions after an encounter with a giant alien has a cheesy charm that’s undermined by its cheap-looking effects and less than impressive performances.
Director Nathan Hertz has a minimal amount of talent, but there’s a campy “so bad it’s good” feel that makes it all watchable—like a 66-minute car crash of sorts. The Blu-ray transfer looks terrific; lone extra is a commentary by actress Yvette Vickers and film historian Tom Weaver.
The Ballad of the Sad Café 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Edward Albee’s play of a Carson McCullers novella about a domineering woman running the lone café in a small Southern town was turned into a stagey, not entirely convincing film by novice director Simon Callow in 1983, starring Vanessa Redgrave in a physically imposing but emotionally distant lead performance.
While Keith Carradine, Austin Pendleton and Rod Steiger give colorful portrayals as the various men in her life, director Callow never finds the proper handle on material that needs a more subtle guiding hand. The hi-def transfer is very good; lone extra is a commentary by critic Peter Tonguette.
(Music Box Films)
In Anita Rocha da Silveira’s toughminded satire, Mari and a group of likeminded evangelical young women prowl the streets physically abusing those they deem to be too sinful, even while remaining blissfully (or willfully) unaware that they are helping to promote a fascistic, misogynist regime.
The problem is that, after setting up this unsettling glimpse of an hypocritical society—with parallels to what is really happening in her native Brazil and elsewhere—da Silveira concentrates on eye-popping colors and stylish visuals, which becomes grating after two hours. But, in lead actress Mari Oliveria, the director has a remarkably vital collaborator. The film looks stunning on Blu; extras include a director Q&A, video essay, deleted scenes and interviews.
Ticket to Paradise 
Pairing George Clooney and Julia Roberts in a rom-com would have seemed a no-brainer 20 years ago; putting them together now—as the divorced parents of a daughter who surprises them by announcing that she’s getting married to a local guy she met while vacationing in the tropics—seems kind of desperate, as through most of Ol Parker’s movie they basically insult each other while trying to sabotage the wedding.
There are a few laughs along the way, as the pair does have chemistry together, but movie has the feel of an extended gag reel (there is one actually shown over the credits). There’s a nice-looking Blu-ray transfer; extras are on-set featurettes and interviews.
CD Release of the Week
Martinů Operas
Czechoslovakia’s Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959), one of the most underrated 20th century composers, had an estimable musical career that ran the stylistic gamut from solo piano and chamber music to orchestral and stage works. This superb disc collects two of his wonderful one-act operas, the early Larmes de couteau (Knife Tears, 1928) and the masterly—and perfectly titled—Comedy on the Bridge (1935, revised 1951).
There’s no shortage of frothy but arresting music on display, performed with the necessary lightness of touch by the Stuttgart State Orchestra and vocal soloists under the direction of conductor Cornelius Meister.

The New York Youth Symphony Present Gabriela Lena Frank & the Sounds of Peru

Michael Repper conducts the New York Youth Symphony

At Carnegie Hall on the afternoon of Sunday, November 20th, I had the pleasure of attending a fine concert featuring the terrific musicians of the New York Youth Symphony under the effective direction of Michael Repper.

The event opened auspiciously with a confident account of contemporary composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s Escaramuza from 2010–which is especially notable for its excellent orchestration—in this venue’s premiere performance. I here cite her note on the work:

Escaramuza, which signifies "skirmish" in the Spanish language, is inspired by the kachampa music of Andean Perú. Celebrating the pre-Hispanic Inca warrior, the kachampa dance is executed by athletic men who convey a triumphant, even joyful, spirit. Inspired by the kachampa dances done with fast-snapping ropes that I've witnessed in Perú, especially in Paucartambo during the Virgen de la Carmen festival, I've created a brightly chiseled romp in an asymmetrical 7/8 rhythm that is launched after an extended bass drum solo. Through most of Escaramuza, no section of the ensemble is allowed to rest for long, maintaining the high energy typical of kachampas.

The impressively promising soloist, Francisco Fullana, then entered the stage for an admirable version of Édouard Lalo’s popular Symphonie Espagnole. The initial movement, marked Allegro non troppo, is lyrical despite a bold beginning, while the ensuing Scherzando is charming and dance-like. The more dramatic Intermezzo  is a habañero and the Andante that follows is moody and introspective. The Rondo finale is ebullient and virtuosic.

The second half of the concert was even better, beginning with a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem and then a marvelous performance of the world premiere of contemporary composer Ari Sussman’s compelling aleatoric work, I hope this finds you well, which was commissioned by this ensemble. The evening concluded magnificently with what was the highlight of the evening: a thrilling realization of George Bizet’s exquisite L’Arlésienne Suites 1 & 2. The opening Prelude is substantially a thoroughly captivating march. The waltz-like Minuet is succeeded by an elevated Adagietto. The Carillon which ends the first Suite is exultant with a pretty wind chorale in its middle section. The second Suite’s Pastorale is evocative with moments of grandeur. A majestic Intermezzo, a gorgeous Minuet, and a bewitching, irrepressible Farandole that recapitulates the initial march, complete the set. Enthusiastic applause prompted the conductor to repeat the final part of the last movement as a welcome encore.

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