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American Symphony Orchestra: The Key of Dreams
Leon Botstein, music director
March 22, 2019
Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů
For decades, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have consistently put on the most innovative and exciting classical-music programming in New York. Usually thematic in nature—the ASO’s first concert this season in October, A Walt Whitman Sampler, featured a rare live performance of Vaughan Williams’ expansive A Sea Symphony—the annual slate also features an annual performance of an obscure opera, usually from the 20th century and often overdue to be heard by audiences.
Last season was Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960, an unabashedly modernist and explicitly socialist work rarely presented in New York (or anywhere else, for that matter). On March 22 at Carnegie Hall, Botstein and the ASO present Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s Julietta, which many consider his operatic masterpiece. Botstein recently discussed Martinů, choosing operas to resurrect and what’s coming in a few months at his other job, running the annual Bard Music Festival, which looks at the musical world of a single composer each summer.
Kevin Filipski: With so many worthy but underheard 20th century composers from which to choose, how did you pick Martinů?
Leon Botstein: First of all, it’s the quality of the composer, the significance of the composer and the consistency of his music. Over the years, interest in Martinů has grown. There are the orchestral works, of course, and he was an avid opera composer. Two of his operas stand out: his last, The Greek Passion, and Julietta, which is considered his finest opera, a real masterpiece. The more you look into it, the more you see how unusual it is. I like to think of Julietta as a psychoanalytic opera, with extremely innovative use of speech and music, and melodrama and dialogue. It’s really a fantastic piece. I didn’t really know much of its performance history, and it’s never been done in the U.S.
Sara Jakubiak sings the title role of Julietta (photo: Ashley Plante)
KF: Julietta was originally done in French. Why perform it in Martinů’s original language, Czech?
LB: This is a long back-and-forth. If I remember correctly, I retranslated it from French into Czech. The original story and novel are French. A Martinů scholar has done a new critical edition for the Czech version. Given its performance history and Martinů’s own relationship to the Czech language, he was quite like Janáček, who believed that the actual sound of the language was a crucial element. In Martinů’s case, it’s his own revision of the original version: if you will, an analogy might be made between Beethoven’s Fidelio and Leonore. Fidelio is what we play on the stage, but it’s Beethoven’s distillation of his complete work on this project. The Czech Julietta appears to have the same status. There’s a feeling that Czech is sonically more effective and that this version is the final statement by the composer.
KF: I know you have a list of many worthy operas you’d like to perform. Can you explain your process of choosing them?
LB: This opera was definitely on my list. There’s a whole fantastic repertoire of Czech opera, and two Smetana operas have always been on my list: Dalibor and Two Widows. In Martinů’s case, Julietta and The Greek Passion, as I said earlier, have been on the list of operas that need a fresh look and a fresh hearing. Julietta has been on my mind for awhile: in the 90s, I had the honor of working with Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny, for whom Martinů wrote his piano concertos. He was a good friend of Martinů and lent me his own score of Martinů’s piano concertos and encouraged me to look into more of his music. For many of us, Martinů was a name but just in a general sense, not for any specific work. There was a tremendous output—he was tremendously prolific—but not anything that was so far in view that you could follow the trail, like Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for example. When I was preparing for the Dvořák Bard Music Festival (1993), I stumbled on a whole bunch of names that I didn’t know anything about, including Suk and Martinů. Suddenly a whole Czech tradition opened up in the 19th and 20th century. My first encounter with Martinů was with the symphonic music: a few seasons ago I conducted his sixth symphony.
Leon Botstein (photo: Ric Kallaher)
KF: Speaking of the Bard Music Festival, what’s on tap for this summer?
LB: This summer is Korngold, which will be fascinating, because he’s somebody who had 2-1/2 careers. He was an opera and chamber music composer before the mid-1930s, and he was also a phenomenal prodigy. Die Tote Stadt, which we’re doing a concert performance of, was one of the most highly performed operas in the early 1920s. He was a sensation, and his serious opera is Das Wunder der Heliane, which we will perform in a staged version. So we’ll look at Korngold’s career, and in the process, we’ll also hear how he was engaged in operetta along with his contemporaries. We’ll show how he took music he wrote for movies and turned it into concert music, because he really didn’t make a big distinction between them. And we’ll do a serious sampling of his orchestral and instrumental output.
KF: In this fragmented culture, how does serious music stay relevant for audiences?
LB: There are essentially two pillars of our art forum that seem to do well. First, it’s the new: new work, new names on the scene and premieres; in that category I would put new artists like pianists, violinists and conductors. So in that sense it’s a new performer and new composer-based structure. Then there’s the standard repertory, what I would call a Ferris wheel, which goes around and around. We’ll see a lot of it in the Beethoven year (2020 is the 250th anniversary of his birth) and it changes almost not at all. What’s vanished completely is the third absolutely essential pillar, maintaining the vitality of the rich history of this art form, which is what we do with Bard and the ASO It’s the hardest thing to bring across. We’re in the business of engendering curiosity, not having an aesthetic war of, say, tonal vs. atonal. That kind of nonsense is no longer relevant. What is relevant is to get listeners to hear music with a sense of curiosity and not nervousness if they don’t recognize something. You have to build trust with the audience, which is what we are doing with Bard and the ASO.
Blu-rays of the Week
Spider-Man—Into the Spider-Verse
Winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Film, this enjoyable “alternative” Spider-Man origin story follows a teenager who, after a bite by a radioactive spider, becomes another Spider-Man—just as the original superhero supposedly dies. Crammed with inventive visuals, a creatively offbeat script and enough humorous asides to keep parents interested while their kids are enthralled, this may be the beginning of a new wave of cartoon superhero flicks.
The film looks sparkling on Blu; extras include an audio commentary, alternate universal mode, several featurettes and a new animated Spider-Man short.
The Kid Brother
The latest Criterion release of a 1927 feature by Harold Lloyd—who was, after Chaplin and Keaton, the greatest silent film comedian—might not equal earlier Lloyd releases like The Freshman and Safety Last!, but it has the writer-director-actor-stunt man’s best qualities in abundance, from spectacular sight gags and physical humor to unexpected poignancy.
Criterion’s release includes a wonderfully detailed restored hi-def transfer, two musical scores to choose from and the usual plethora of extras: audio commentary, new and archival interviews, video essays and the newly restored Lloyd shorts Over the Fence (1917) and That’s Him (1918).
Man from Atlantis
This 1977 TV movie—starring Patrick Duffy as an amnesiac man with gills and webbed feet washed ashore and taken in by U.S. officials, who need his help neutralizing a mad eco-terrorist—is typically silly stuff saved only by ahead-of-its-time environmental awareness.
It’s surprising that all four of these Atlantis movies were not released together on Blu-ray, as they were earlier on DVD; their initial popularity helped green-light the short-lived (13 episodes) series. Luckily for Duffy, another series, Dallas, soon came along. There’s a vivid hi-def transfer.
(Film Movement Classics)
French director Vera Belmont’s lusty 1997 costume drama is a terrific showcase for Sophie Marceau, who has never been more charming than as the title character, a dancing girl from the sticks who works her way up the social ladder to become a member of Moliere’s acting troupe and performer for the royal court.
Belmont’s sharp eye for political satire is more muted than in her wonderfully evocative 1985 film, Red Kiss—which also needs to be restored and reevaluated—but this is still a delicious glimpse at a bygone (17th century) era. The movie looks great on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a new interview with Belmont.
Mary Poppins Returns
In this long-gestating sequel to 1964’s Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt takes on the role that Julie Andrews is beloved for: the irrepressible supernanny, who comes back to the same family she was with before. Blunt is fine, as is the rest of the cast—Lin-Manual Miranda, Colin Firth, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, and especially the welcome return of vets Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury—and Marc Shaiman’s songs are tuneful echoes of the Sherman brothers’ originals.
Director Rob Marshall loses control over the final 30 minutes, but as family entertainments go nowadays, one could do a lot worse. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include a sing-along edition, deleted scenes, deleted song, featurettes, interviews and a gag reel.
Director John Andreas Andersen has made what could be called a thinking-mans’ disaster movie—at least up to a point. His hero is a Finnish geologist trying to sound the alarm about an 8.5 earthquake about to devastate Oslo and its citizens, including his family.
For its first two-thirds, The Quake is fun, even brainy stuff, but when the quake arrives—and there’s tremendous, and sparing, use of special effects that show Oslo’s destruction—character development unfortunately takes a back seat to disaster movie clichés. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are several making-of featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
Divide and Conquer—The Story of Roger Ailes
In her incisive documentary about the man who created Fox News and today’s negative political campaigns, Alexis Bloom charts the rise and fall of Roger Ailes alongside oft-incriminating interviews with those who knew and worked with him—including, unsurprisingly, women who describe his sexual indiscretions and harassment.
There’s nothing too surprising, but it’s put together so meticulously that it becomes a compelling if grotesque portrait of our benighted era.
Over the Limit
Marta Prus’ gripping fly-on-the-wall documentary follows Margarita Marun, a world-class Russian rhythmic gymnast, practicing and participating in tournaments with an eye toward the 2016 Olympics. She seems a focused young woman, but her coach has decided that psychological bullying will ensure that she keeps that focus.
Marun appears to accept such behavior as part of her reaching for greatness—up to a point. Immediately after the Olympics, she retires at age 20, shows the ambivalence. A bonus short film is Johnson Cheng’s Olympics-set Iron Hands.
CD of the Week
Stéphanie D'Oustrac: Sirènes
For this intelligently programmed recital, Stéphanie D'Oustrac is joined by pianist Pascal Jourdan for a journey through lynchpins of Romantic-era music by Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner. Although her renditions of six Liszt lieder are precisely phrased and she treats Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder with the reverence they deserve, it’s in the Berlioz, not surprisingly, that finds the French mezzo most in her element.
Both Les Nuits d’ete and Le mort de Cleopatra, usually heard in their orchestrated versions, have never sounded so elegant and intimate as they do here, only hearing D’Oustrac’s lustrous voice and Jourdan’s refined accompaniment.
My Fair Lady
Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe; directed by Bartlett Sher
Performances through September 22, 2019
Laura Benanti in My Fair Lady (photo: Joan Marcus)
Laura Benanti has said that Eliza Doolittle is her dream role: and this coming from a Tony-winning star who has already lit up productions of The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Wonderful Town, Nine and She Loves Me. But as she proves again (and again) throughout the delectable Bartlett Sher staging of My Fair Lady, some dreams do come true—for Benanti and for her audience.
Benanti is simply a splendid and sympathetic Eliza right from the start, nailing the feisty flower girl’s nearly impenetrable cockney accent when she meets chauvinistic linguist Henry Higgins, who takes a bet to transform her from guttersnipe to princess. Benanti beautifully embodies Eliza’s evolving personal journey from an ignorant to an enlightened young woman, cherishing her own values even more when she sees how the pompous one percent lives.
Benanti does everything right. She has a wicked sense of humor and a proportional sense of tragedy; she has the feistiness to stand up to Higgins (a drolly superior Harry Hadden-Paton) and her own father, the indefatigable Alfred P. Doolittle (the agile and winning Danny Burstein), but also treats Henry’s mother Mrs. Higgins (the ageless Rosemary Harris) with respect and her own rich, besotted suitor Freddy (velvet-voiced Christian Dante White) with tenderness.
And, of course, Benanti’s singing is peerless, from her joyful on “I Could Have Danced All Night” to her fierce “Just You Wait” and heartbreaking “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” She also looks the part, wonderfully and authentically, in Catherine Zuber’s exacting costumes. Praise is also in order for Michael Yeargen’s remarkably precise sets, Michael Holder’s exquisite lighting and Christopher Gattelli’s clever choreography. Lerner and Loewe’s classic songs sound sumptuous thanks to Ted Sperling’s musical direction.
Bartlett Sher’s fresh reinterpretation of Lerner and Loewe’s show—based on Bernard Shaw’s still-relevant exploration of class and gender differences—puts a 21st-century gloss on one of the greatest musicals ever. But above it all is Laura Benanti, who makes another iconic role expressly her own in a masterly performance.
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
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