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Film and the Arts

"Midsummer" in Winter with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s

David Hyde-Pierce with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, photo by Chris Lee

At Carnegie Hall, on the evening of Thursday, November 17th, I had the great fortune to attend a terrific concert featuring the superb Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the estimable direction of Harry Bicket.

The event opened exhilaratingly with a dazzling performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s pleasurable Piano Concerto No. 1, with the extraordinary soloist, Benjamin Grosvenor. The first movement opens in bravura fashion, and after the introduction of the exquisite, song-like second theme, it becomes the model of the virtuoso Romantic concerto. The delicate Andante that follows is the most beautiful of the three movements while the propulsive, playful finale is astonishing too in its way. Grosvenor stunned with an amazing encore: "Gnomenreigen" from Two Concert Etudes by Franz Liszt.

But it was the balance of the program that was especially memorable: a magnificent account of Felix Mendelssohn’s marvelous Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring David Hyde-Pierce as narrator. The celebrated Overture is of course enchanting and was followed by the sprightly, charming Scherzo. The song “Young spotted snakes”—an instance of heavenly vocal writing—was gloriously sung by the lovely soprano Elena Villalón, mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall, and the wonderful Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The effectively suspenseful Intermezzo was succeeded by the majestic Notturno, while the inordinately familiar Wedding March was nonetheless stirring and exultant, preceding the delightful song, “Through the house give glimmering light,” which proved to be a gorgeous conclusion.

This outstanding ensemble returns to this venue on February 9th, 2023 with Franz Schubert’s unforgettable Ninth Symphony and on April 13th, 2023 with a program devoted to Georg Friedrich Händel, including the fabulous Royal Fireworks Music.

November '22 Digital Week III

Streaming Release of the Week 
The King of Laughter 
(Film Movement)
Eduardo Scarpetta, one of the biggest Italian actors of the early 20th century—who was beloved by his fans for his clownish, larger-than-life stage persona—is the endlessly fascinating if problematic subject of Mario Martone’s illuminating, vastly entertaining biopic.
This lavish costume drama doubles as a warts-and-all character study of an gleefully adulterous artist on his way to becoming irreleveant in a new entertainment world (in one scene, he berates his son for wanting to appear in a movie, then a mere curiosity) with a blistering, detailed performance by the great Toni Servillo as Scarpetta, who gets a final chance at delighting an audience when he’s taken to court for plagiarizing a work by Gabriele D’Annunzio, one of Italy’s greatest writers. 
4K/UHD Releases of the Week
A Christmas Story 
(Warner Bros)
It’s easy to see why this beloved 1983 holiday movie has been a cult item for years: director Bob Clark’s sentimental but heartwarming comedy-drama is off-kilter enough to survive multiple seasonal viewings, including a healthy dose of satiric touches.
As the bemused parents, Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon were incapable of giving a bad performance and Peter Billingsley and the other kids are pitch-perfect, while the beloved set pieces—the Red Ryder rifle, the leg lamp, the visit to Santa—are hilarious. The UHD transfer looks terrific; the 4K disc includes a Clark and Billingsley commentary, while the Blu-ray disc includes the commentary and several new and archival featurettes.
Don’t Worry Darling 
(Warner Bros)
For her sophomore feature as director, Olivia Wilde shows striking visual control but a shaky narrative handle in this overfamiliar Twilight Zone-esque story of a ’50s housewife who discovers that nothing is as it seems in her seemingly perfect marriage, friendships and lifestyle.
The movie takes forever to set up its plot reveal, and director Wilde stumbles badly, leading to a rather wan conclusion. Still, it all looks antiseptically feverish, Florence Pugh is tremendously good in the lead and even Wilde herself is divertingly sardonic—too bad her real-life beau, someone named Harry Styles, is pretty much a zero as Pugh’s hubby. The UHD images look spectacular; extras are a making-of featurette and deleted scene.  
Halo—Complete 1st Season 
In this often grim sci-fi drama series, the first to be based on an X-Box video game that’s been popular for two decades, a cyborg supersoldier who goes by the moniker Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) may just well be the last line of defense for earth in a seemingly hopeless battle with the Covenant, a lethal alien threat from other galaxies.
It’s as convoluted as it sounds, and the series seems a threadbare knockoff of Dune. Still, its visuals look majestic in 4K; the voluminous extras comprise several hours of making-of featurettes and interviews.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
The Doom Patrol—Complete 3rd Season 
(Warner Bros)
In the third season of this weirdly watchable superhero series, the “disposable” outcasts once again take on the mantle of saviors and survivors as they do battle with many more otherworldly adversaries.
The cast members, which are led by Timothy Dalton, Brendan Fraser and Dianne Guerrero, keep everything tongue-in-cheek throughout, and the shameless blend of sappiness and sarcasm keeps the show from becoming too melodramatic or self-parodic. As always, the series’ 10 episodes look stunning in hi-def; extras include featurettes and interviews.
Entre Nous 
(Cohen Film Collection)
French director Diane Kurys made this moving 1983 drama about the decades-long friendship between two women—beginning in the 1940s in occupied France—based on her own mother’s story.
At times almost too painfully intimate, it’s not only an insightful and perceptive character study but also a stupendous showcase for two great French actresses: Isabelle Huppert and the redoubtable Miou-Miou are magnificent in their emotional but clear-eyed portrayals of these very individual women. The film looks good on Blu; lone extra is an interview with Kurys.
Jeepers Creepers Reborn 
(Screen Media)
In this latest sequel to a movie I’d completely forgotten about, our young heroes find their way to Horror Hound festival, where they and others are terrorized by an unknown but overly familiar assailant: could it be the return of the Creeper? (I won’t tell.)
There are a few amusingly bloody set pieces and a couple of decent scares amid the 85 minutes of director Timo Vourensola’s otherwise predictable flick. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer.
A Knife in the Head 
(Cohen Film Collection)
In director Reinhard Hauff’s gritty, unsettling 1978 drama, Bruno Ganz plays Hoffman, a German biogeneticist who is shot in the head at a protest and spends the rest of the movie slowly getting his memory back and trying to discover what happened. Meanwhile, the police tag him as a terrorist and the protestors say he was summarily shot by the cops.
Hauff’s penetrating study of the merging of the personal and political has highly charged acting, especially by Ganz and the affecting Angela Winkler as his wife. The film has a perfectly grainy look in hi-def; extras are interviews with Hauff and producer Eberhard Junkersdorff.
This prequel to the mediocre slasher film X, which combined porn and the gothic to no discernable end, assumes viewers want to know the killer in the first movie’s backstory: so director Ti West and his cowriter and lead actress, Mia Goth, are going to show us—over and over, to ever diminishing returns.
A skewered Technicolor homage to The Wizard of Oz, of all things, Pearl has a bright look that underscores the constant blood flow, about the extent of its cleverness. The aptly named Goth is properly intense, but she holds to that one note—often impressively, just as often impassively—for an inordinately long time. The always hungry alligator is not even the most ridiculous thing here. There’s a terrific hi-def transfer; extras include two making-of featurettes.
Der Ring des Nibelungen 
Any time Richard Wagner’s epic Ring tetralogy is staged, it’s a big deal, and last year’s Berlin production was no different: but director (and co-set designer) Stefan Herheim went for a no-frills staging, based around a piano at center stage that stood in for, well, everything.
But it is musically that this Ring thrives, beginning with Donald Runnicles conducting the Berlin Opera Orchestra in a vivid reading of Wagner’s massive four-opera score, while the most of the performers do well: Nina Stemme’s Brunnhilde, Iain Paterson’s Wotan/Wanderer and Elisabeth Teige’s Sieglinde lead the way. The heroic role of Siegfried is punishing for most tenors, and Clay Hilley does at least give it the old college try. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are making-of featurettes.
DVD Release of the Week 
Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam All-Stars 
For several years—from 1992 to 1997 and again from 2006 to 2008—Def Comedy Jam showcased some of the most promising comics performing in front of audiences crowded with even bigger celebrities. This 12-disc, 23-hour-long set contains three dozen episodes, plucked from all the seasons, with standup appearances from, just for starters, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappelle, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, D.K. Hughley, Queen Latifah, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac and Tracy Morgan.
Extras include a bonus episode, 2 Raw 4 TV; a bonus DVD comprising Shaq & Cedric the Entertainer Present: All Star Comedy Jam, which includes more standup by the likes of Kevin Hart, Tommy Davidson, Aries Spears and DeRay Davis; and a 24-page collector’s booklet.
CD Release of the Week
A Golden Cello Decade 
Cellist Steven Isserlis always curates intelligent concert programs, so it’s no surprise that his latest CD release is also a fascinating historical and musical journey, through the years 1878 to 1888. Isserlis surveys several cello works that are highlights of that fertile decade, like two substantial sonatas: one of Richard Strauss’ earliest major works, his Sonata in F Major, followed by the D Major Sonata by a female German composer of whom I was unaware, Luise Adolphia Le Beau.
Both sonatas are splendidly performed by Isserlis and pianist Connie Shih, who also play Isserlis’ own arrangement of Antonín Dvořák’s 4 Romantic Pieces as well as the CD’s opener, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (with a valuable assist from harpist Olivia Jageurs) and two brief but lovely “footnotes,” as Isserlis calls them, by Ernst David Wagner and Isaac Nathan. Not only is the music making prodigious but so are the program notes—as everyone who follows Isserlis on Twitter knows, his musical insights are second to none, and his notes are as entertaining as they are educational. 

New York Philharmonic Brings Stravinsky To Life

Hannu Lintu conducts the New York Philharmonic. Photo by Chris Lee

At David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, on the evening of Saturday, November 19th, I had the great pleasure to attend an outstanding concert presented by the New York Philharmonic—who performed at their rare best—under the extraordinary direction of Finnish guest-conductor, Hannu Lintu, in his debut with this ensemble.

The event opened with a superb account of Igor Stravinsky’s challenging, even puzzling Symphonies for Wind Instruments, which I’ve never heard more effectively played. James M. Keller, in his unusually informative program notes, provides some useful background to the work:

[ … ] as the decade of the 1910s progressed, [Stravinsky] seems to have grown increasingly suspicious of the tendency of string instruments to be “expressive,” a characteristic that did not jibe well with the way his particular form of sonic modernism was playing out. When he did use strings, he increasingly did so in a non-traditional way, as in the entirely “objectified,” partly percussive approach to string playing required in his Three Pieces for String Quartet of 1914. Symphonies of Wind Instruments is an orchestral work that disposes of the string component entirely. Stravinsky found the wind instruments well suited to the kind of uninflected sound he was after. In a commentary he prepared to accompany early performances of this work, he described Symphonies of Wind Instruments as “tonal masses ... sculptured in marble ... to be regarded objectively by the ear.”

Stravinsky dedicated the work to his fellow composer, Claude Debussy. They had met in 1910, when Debussy congratulated him enthusiastically following the premiere of The Firebird, and they remained friends from then on. In 1913 Stravinsky dedicated his cantata Zvezdoliki (Le Roi des étoiles) to Debussy; in 1915 Debussy dedicated the third movement of his two-piano suite En blanc et noir to Stravinsky. The latter felt the loss keenly when his older colleague died, in March 1918. Not long after that, Stravinsky inscribed in a sketchbook the sonority that became known as the “bell motif” that would later appear inSymphonies of Wind Instruments— very possibly, some scholars believe, inspired by thoughts of Debussy.

In 1920 the Revue musicale, a distinguished Parisian publication, began planning an issue in tribute to Debussy, and the editor approached various composers about contributing memorial pieces that might be included in a musical supplement titled Le Tombeau de Debussy. Stravinsky had recently sketched a solemn chorale, tentatively for the harmonium, and decided to submit that as his piano piece. In orchestrated form (beginning with brass choir) it would serve as the conclusion of Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and Stravinsky expanded it with preceding sections as he built up his single-movement piece.

Also excellent was a brilliant realization of Béla Bartók’s powerful—if not often performed—Concerto for Two Pianos, which is also not one of his more accessible works; it featured two outstanding soloists—Sergei Babayan, in his Philharmonic debut, and his former pupil, Daniil Trifonov—along with percussionists Christopher S. Lamb, Daniel Druckman and Markus Rhoten. Keller is again helpful in laying out some context:

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra was originally crafted as a piece of chamber music. “What kind of chamber music should it be?” asked Bartók when, in the spring of 1937, the billionaire Swiss philanthropist Paul Sacher approached him about writing a chamber work to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Swiss Section of the ISCM (International Society of Contemporary Music). “Could it be, for example, a quartet for two pianos and two groups of percussion?” Sacher signaled that such an unorthodox combination would be acceptable, and Bartók moved ahead quickly, completing it by the end of the year. The composer, his pianist-wife Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, and two Swiss percussionists played the premiere at that anniversary concert, and the work scored so great a success that subsequent performances were quickly arranged for London, Brussels, Luxembourg, and Budapest.

In 1940 Bartók’s publisher convinced him to recast the piece as a Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra. This was not intended to supersede Bartok’s original conception, but rather to broaden the work’s possibilities for performance, particularly in the American market, where the publisher doubted that the chamber version would be programmed often.

He adds:

About the transformation of the sonata into a concerto, Bartók wrote:

It seemed advisable, for certain technical reasons, to add orchestral accompaniment to the work, though, as a matter of fact, it gives only color to certain portions of the work. The two-piano and percussion parts remain practically unchanged, except for some of the climactic parts which are now taken over from the two pianos as tuttis by the orchestra.

Even in this orchestrated version, the piece retains much of the spare quality that was inherent at its conception.

In 1938, to coincide with the premiere of the original sonata, Bartók penned an analytical introduction to the work, in German, which was published in theBasel National Zeitung.His observations remain relevant to the concerto version.

He explained that he had initially planned to use a single piano but decided to use two, the better to balance the frequently very sharp tones of the percussion instruments. ... The role of the percussion sounds varies: sometimes they reinforce the more important accents; in places they carry motifs serving as a counterpoint to the piano parts; and the timpani and the xylophone frequently play themes that act as principal subjects.

The first movement begins ominously and becomes spirited and dramatic at times. The ensuingLentois more sinister in character with some mysterious accents, while thefinaleis ebullient and propulsive. Babayan and Trifonov returned to the stage for a marvelous encore: the wonderful third movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448.

The second half of the evening was even stronger, opening with a confident version of contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s beguiling, evocative and enigmatic Ciel d’hiver from 2013, a re-arrangement of the second movement of herOrionfrom 2002,which program annotator Nicky Swett describes as “massive” and as the author’s “second large-scale orchestral piece.” She adds: “‘I am interested in choosing stories with a timeless quality,’ [Saariaho] explained in a 2018 interview, when asked about the mythological tales she approaches in many of her pieces and operas.”

The concert concluded magnificently with what was the highlight of the entire evening, a mesmerizing performance of Jean Sibelius’s glorious Seventh Symphony. Keller again offers valuable commentary:

He worked on his final three symphonies concurrently for several years beginning in 1918. The Fifth had been premiered in 1916, but was undergoing a severe rewrite that would last through 1921; the Sixth reached its end in February 1923, and the Seventh occupied him for yet another 13 months beyond that.

In its early stages Sibelius sensed that this final symphony would unroll through three separate movements. In the end, he brought everything together into a single movement lasting some 21 minutes. The form is certainly not one traditionally associated with a symphony; in fact, Sibelius intended to title the piece Fantasia sinfonica. That name was used when he conducted the premiere, and the manuscript score shows traces of the inscriptionFantasia sinfonicaNo. 1, an interesting wording that suggests that Sibelius was holding open the possibility of writing additional pieces in the same vein. In any case, he changed his mind about the title shortly before the work’s publication, thereby admitting it to the roster of his full-scale, “proper” symphonies.

Strange Aeons of Orchestration from the New York Philharmonic

Stéphane Denève conducts the New York Philharmonic. Photo by Chris Lee

At David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, on the evening of Saturday, November 26th, I had the enormous pleasure to attend a terrific concert of French music presented by the New York Philharmonic—once again playing at their rare best in an already very strong season—under the outstanding direction of guest conductor, Stéphane Denève.

The program opened promisingly with an excellent performance of contemporary composer Guillaume Connesson’s remarkable, impressively orchestrated Céléphaïs, from his Les Cités de Lovecraft of 2017. Program annotator Kathryn Bacasmot explains that “Celephaïs is a city in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands that he wrote about twice, first as an eponymous short story and again as a featured location in the novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” I here quote Connesson’s comments on the work:

The Lovecraftian geography is so precise and brimming with imagination that I wanted to paint it with a teeming orchestral palette. I used highly differentiated writing techniques according to the movements to echo this “baroque” folly, so typical of Lovecraft, with the multiplicity of my orchestra’s colors. Céléphaïsis a gleaming port city with marble walls and bronze gates. In four parts, this first movement is marked by its brilliant colors and diatonic melodic writing, with the haunting presence of the fourth. After the introduction (Les portes de Bronze) in which orchestral shocks are superimposed on brass fanfares, the first theme bursts forth (Entrée dans la cité aux rues d’Onyx) in the violins and develops in an orchestral effervescence that depicts the bustling streets. In Le Temple de turquoise, a second theme (still based on the interval of the fourth) appears in the trumpets, giving life to a colorful pagan celebration. The third part(Le Palais de cristal rose des Soixante-dix Délices)is a moment of calm in which we again find the first theme transformed in a chorale of translucent strings surrounded by shimmering sonorities in the winds, harp, and celesta. After a bridge, made up of three trilled chords, begins Les sept processions des Prêtres couronnés d’orchidées, a great crescendo over a seven-beat ostinato led by a theme in fourths (new mutation of the first theme). The “visit” to Céléphaïs concludes with a dazzling fortissimo.

The extraordinary Icelandic soloist, Víkingur Ólafsson, then entered the stage for a brilliant rendition of Maurice Ravel’s classic Piano Concerto in G major. In his very informative notes for the program, James M. Keller provides some useful background to the piece:

Maurice Ravel composed both of his piano concertos more or less simultaneously from 1929 to 1931: the Concerto in D major for Piano Left-Hand and Orchestra (1929–30) and the Concerto in G major for Piano “Both-Hands” and Orchestra (1929–31). As early as 1906, he reported that he had begun sketching a piano concerto on Basque themes, provisionally titled Zazpiak-Bat, and in 1913 he informed his friend Igor Stravinsky that he was re-focusing his attention on it. But in late 1914 Ravel, by then installed in the south of France due to the disruptions of World War I, wrote to his student and colleague Roland-Manuel that he had to give up work on the piece since he had left his sketches behind in Paris. And that was the end of it, except that some material from the project was reworked when Ravel came to write his G-major Piano Concerto.

He adds:

When he described this concerto to his friend the critic M.D. Calvocoressi, Ravel called it “a concerto in the truest sense of the word: I mean that it is written very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saëns.” He continued:

The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects. It has been said of certain classics that their concertos were written not “for” but “against” the piano. I heartily agree. I had intended to title this concerto “Divertissement.” Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so because the title “Concerto” should be sufficiently clear.

The initial, eccentric, percussive, and jazzy Allegrmente was sparkling, with some lyrical moments. The introspective Adagio as saithat followed was gloriously beautiful while thefinalewas simply dazzling. Enthusiastic applause was rewarded by the pianist with two exquisite encores: the Alexander Siloti transcription of the Johann Bach Prelude in B minor and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseux,the latter of which at least he has also recorded.(At the Philharmonic concert on Wednesday, November 23rd, Ólafsson played his own transcription of Rameau’s “The Arts and the Hours,” a piece that he has recorded too.)

The second half of the concert was even more memorable, beginning with the seldom performed but admirableBacchus et ArianeSuite No. 2 by the now underrated Albert Roussel, a work also notable for its masterful orchestration. Keller remarks upon this piece derived from an eponymous ballet score:

Bacchus et Ariane, composed in 1930, reflects the contours of the libretto that Abel Hernant created for what must have been a most interesting ballet as staged at its premiere in May 1931. It was directed by Jacques Rouché, with choreography by Serge Lifar and sets and costumes by Giorgio di Chirico [ . . . . ]

He adds by way of explanation that “Roussel extracted two orchestral suites from his ballet, of which Suite No. 1 essentially comprises the music of Act One and Suite No. 2 (performed tonight) corresponds to Act Two.”

The event concluded stupendously with a sublime account of Ravel’s sensuous, unearthly, astonishing Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, the supreme, ineffable achievement of the evening. To close this review, here is some interesting context from the program note on it:

In his “Autobiographical Sketch,” a brief document Ravel prepared in 1928, he described Daphnis et Chloé:

a great choreographic symphony ... a vast musical fresco, less scrupulous in questions of archeology than faithful to the Greece of my dreams, which identifies quite willingly with that imagined and depicted by late 18th-century French artists. The work is constructed symphonically according to a strict tonal plan, by means of a small number of motifs, whose development assures the symphonic homogeneity of the work.

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