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Film and the Arts

The "Fountain of Youth" Springs Forth from Carnegie Hall

Yuja Wang on piano with the New World Symphony, photo by Richard Termine
 
A terrific season at Carnegie Hall continued most memorably on the evening of Wednesday, May 1st, with the exciting appearance of the accomplished young musicians of the New World Symphony under the illustrious direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.
 
The program began thrillingly with the New York premiere of Julia Wolfe’s impressive, percussive and arresting Fountain of Youth, co-commissioned by this ensemble along with Carnegie Hall. The piece marvelously sustained interest across its full twenty-minute length, proving to be one of the most enjoyable new orchestral works of recent years.
 
The immensely popular, extraordinary virtuoso Yuja Wang, looking characteristically stunning in a sexy, sparkling green gown, then took the stage as soloist for a dazzling performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s quirkily brilliant Piano Concerto No. 5. The exuberant initial movement cleverly contrasted with the more eccentric second. The ensuing Toccata was requisitely energetic. Most enchanting was the magnificent Larghetto, while the finale recaptured the ebullience of the remarkable opening. After an enthusiastic ovation, Tilson Thomas introduced a superb encore, a jazzy composition of his own for solo piano and dedicated to Wang—entitled You Come Here Often?—which opus she executed with breath taking éclat.
 
The second half of the program was also superlative, devoted to an excellent account of Hector Berlioz’s perennial masterwork, Symphonie fantastique. In the first movement, the artists achieved the necessary, Romantic intensity,precedingan entrancing rendition of the second-movement Waltz. The following Scene in the Fields was unusually lucid, leading into the enthralling March to the Scaffold. The work concluded with a mesmerizing, vertiginous realization of the stunning Witches’ Sabbath. Tremendous applause elicited another wonderful encore, Richard Wagner’s sublime Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin—a perfect ending to a great concert.

"Pepperland" Shakes Up a Beatles' Classic for the Stage

Photo by Stephanie Berger
 
I predict that the finest premiere of a new dance work this year will be Pepperland by Mark Morris—one of the best of contemporary choreographers—which I attended on the opening night of Wednesday, May 8th, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Howard Gilman Opera House, and which runs through the 11th.
 
Apart from Morris’s marvelously inventive choreography—my favorite of his alongside that of The Hard Nut, which was presented at BAM last December — I’d like to especially highlight the delightful, colorful costume design of Elizabeth Kurtzman, as well as the lighting design by Nick Kolin. The piece is an homage to, and adaptation of selections from, the landmark record album by the Beatles released in the summer of 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with original music and arrangements by Ethan Iverson, performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and with vocals by Clinton Curtis.
 
Morris’s artistry here is very much in the tradition of the the extraordinary populist ballets of Jerome Robbins and the satiric works by Paul Taylor, as well as the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, although on this occasion I was reminded of nothing so much as the fabulous dances conceived by the underrated Irish choreographer Norman Maen for the magnificent film by Jacques Demy, The Young Girls of Rochefort, also released in 1967.
 
The dazzling opening recapitulates the album’s immortal title track followed by a hilarious episode recreating its celebrated cover. The beautiful “With a Little Help from My Friends” was written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon for Ringo Starr who was never more memorable. McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four” was cleverly arranged as an instrumental. George Harrison’s contribution, the exotic “Within You Without You” struck a more serious note amidst the ebullient proceedings.
 
McCartney’s brilliant, nostalgic “Penny Lane” was originally released as a single (along with Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”) and was first intended for the album but instead appeared on the subsequent Magical Mystery Tour. Morris wittily inverted the order of the two concluding tracks, with the haunting “A Day in the Life”—quirkily arranged here replete with an unexpected theremin—preceding the glorious reprise of the title track, which was the accompaniment to an exhilarating finale. I hope that this exquisite opus will receive the abundant exposure and acclaim that it deserves.

Dance and Opera Reviews—The Beatles and Britten in Brooklyn: “Pepperland” and “Owen Wingrave”

Pepperland

Music by the Beatles; choreographed by Mark Morris

Performances May 8-12, 2019

 

Owen Wingrave

Composed by Benjamin Britten; directed by Philip Shneidman

Performances May 9-12, 2019

 

Pepperland (photo: Mat Hayward)

For the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the city of Liverpool commissioned Mark Morris to create Pepperland, a dance fantasia inspired by the Beatles’ classic album. Finally arriving at BAM last weekend, the hour-long work has flashes of Morris’s wit and playfulness but often feels like something done in half-measures, only intermittently catching the Fab Four’s gleeful exuberance and restless experimentation.

 

Comprising Ethan Iverson’s arresting arrangements of seven Beatles songs and his own compositions—he was also in the pit playing piano as part of a bright septet—Pepperland glistens with “summer of love” sights and sounds. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s brightly colored costumes hint at the flamboyant uniforms the band wears on the Sgt. Pepper cover, and Nick Kolin’s clever lighting follows suit, especially in a sequence where the dancers strike poses of various celebrities—among them Albert Einstein and Shirley Temple—adorning the album’s cover collage. 

 

Iverson’s tunes—which take a Beatles riff or chord, winding their long and winding way around them—and arrangements of seven songs from the Sgt. Pepper sessions (title track/reprise, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “When I’m 64,” “Within You Without You,” the single “Penny Lane” and “A Day in the Life”) are compressed or stretched out, depending on their usefulness for Morris. The musical highlight is the bizarrely apposite “A Day in the Life” for piano and theremin, the latter “singing” Lennon and McCartney’s vocal lines as spookily as the original track.

 

It’s too bad, then, that in “Penny Lane” and “A Day in the Life,” Morris seems content to coast, letting his talented dancers mime the actions in the words. “On the corner is a banker with a motorcar/and little children laugh at him behind his back/And the banker never wears a mac/ In the pouring rain, very strange” and “Found my coat and grabbed my hat/Made the bus in seconds flat” are rather routinely acted out. 

 

There’s far more inventiveness in other numbers, notably “When I’m 64,” as the dancers delightfully pair off in varied configurations, changing partners at will, and “Within You Without You,” conveying the pseudo-profundities of George Harrison’s earnest lyrics and tuneful Indian-influenced melody as the troupe fans out across the stage, embodying the song’s introspective universality. If only more of Pepperland was that musically and balletically engaging. 

 

Augusta Caso and Michael Weyandt in Owen Wingrave (photo: Tina Buckman)

Benjamin Britten’s opera Owen Wingrave has never been performed in New York before—not surprising, since it was a TV opera written for the BBC, premiering in 1971—but thanks to the enterprising Little Opera Theatre of NY, it finally arrived last weekend in Brooklyn.

 

Based on a story by Henry James and with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper (who also did the honors on Britten’s adaptation of James’ ghostly The Turn of the Screw), Owen Wingrave deals with a subject close to Britten’s heart: pacifism. The opera’s title character makes the decision, while in military school, that he wants out: unlike the long line of military people in his family, war is not in his blood. 

 

Owen returns home where he finds his family against him: even his grandfather disinherits him. Lurking in the background are the specters of his ancestors, visualized by their formal portraits projected onto the back wall. While didactic in its war/peace dichotomy, the opera contains much haunting and tautly dramatic music, its spare orchestration (the chamber version was arranged by David Matthews) anticipating Britten’s final operatic masterpiece, Death in Venice, completed three years before his own death, in 1976 at age 63.

 

This often captivating staging made striking use of the GK ArtsCenter’s cramped quarters, as Philip Shneidman’s resourceful direction went a long way toward making the opera less a soapbox tirade and more an unsettling morality play. Richard Cordova persuasively conducted Britten’s gripping score, and his fine orchestral ensemble was up to the challenge. 

 

The performance I saw was sung superbly by the ensemble cast, which included a quartet of young boys that deftly handled the difficult vocal writing, along with the staging (offstage for much of their time singing, they also had to climb up a staircase while performing). Best of all was Augusta Caso, whose Kate, the young woman who loves Owen (a stentorian Michael Weyandt) but cannot reconcile her feelings with his hardened anti-war stance, was the most touching and tragic figure in the opera.

 

Pepperland

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

bam.org


Owen Wingrave

Little Opera Theatre of NY; 29 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY

lotny.org

May '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Funny Games 

(Criterion)

German enfant terrible Michael Haneke made this provocative, self-reflexive thriller in 1997, and its defects—obviousness, humorlessness, pointlessness—are still in glaring evidence, although it must be admitted that, thanks to committed performances by two great actors, Ulrich Mühe and Susanne Lothar (both died far too young), and nasty turns by young Aldo Frisch and Frank Giering, it’s an effective piece of trashy claptrap.

 

 

 

But Haneke’s thesis—that audiences are complicit in onscreen sadism and violence—rings hollow; still, this Criterion release makes little sense without Haneke’s own shot-for-shot 2007 American remake as a “bonus.” The hi-def transfer is immaculate; extras comprise new interviews with Haneke, Frisch and film historian Alexander Horwath and the Cannes Film Festival press conference featuring Haneke, Lothar and Mühe.

 

Hal 

(Oscilloscope)

Hal Ashby (who died in 1988) was beloved for several ‘70s films ranging from The Landlord and The Last Detail to Coming Home and Being There, films championed even while they—and he—never broke through to a wide audience.

 

 

 

Amy Scott’s engrossing if overly reverent documentary recounts his difficult career surviving in Hollywood (the 80s were one disaster after another for him), aided by ear-opening archival interviews of Ashby and new interviews with many who worked with (and worshipped) him, from Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Norman Jewison to Robert Towne and Lee Grant. But conspicuous by their absence are Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. The Blu-ray looks excellent; extras are a commentary and additional interviews.

 

 

 

 

 

The Young Debussy 

(LSO Live)

This 2018 concert by the London Symphony Orchestra is built around a recently discovered early work by French master Claude Debussy: his Premiere Suite for Orchestra, which sounds like the kind of attractive, occasionally soaring piece a talented 21-year-old composer might write. The excellent performance—conducted by Francois-Xavier Roth, the last of his three programs commemorating the centenary of Debussy’s death—opens with Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and ends with a suite from Jules Massenet’s ballet Le Cid.

 

 

 

After the Wagner work is the formidable cellist Edgar Moreau playing Eduardo Lalo’s Cello Concerto; he follows that up with a masterly encore of a Bach cello suite. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch. 

 

DVDs of the Week

Bosch—The Garden of Dreams 

(Film Movement)

Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th/16th century Dutch master, created some of the most strangely compelling images ever committed to canvas, and his painting in Madrid’s Prado, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is a magnificent if unsettling triptych that has mesmerized and mystified art historians, other artists and the public for half a millennium.

 

 

 

José Luis López-Linares’ superb documentary delves into the painting—at times literally—with fascinating discussion from talking heads as diverse as soprano Renee Fleming, novelist Salman Rushdie and conductor William Christie, along with dozens of artists, writers and historians who take in this gorgeous if baffling masterpiece. The lone quibble with this release is that a film crammed with exquisite visuals is not available on Blu-ray.

 

 

 

 

 

Never Ever 

(Film Movement)

This is yet another routine drama by French director Benoit Jacquot, whose breakthrough, 1995’s A Single Girl, got by on the magnetism of leading lady Virginie Ledoyen; his latest—a wobbly adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel—wastes both of his stars.

 

 

 

Although Julia Roy (who also wrote the messy script) has an undeniable presence, she and her usually interesting co-star Mathieu Amalric can do little with the forced, pandering ghost story that Jacquot shovels at us.

 

Nina 

(Film Movement)

Polish director Olga Chajdas’ incessantly gloomy debut feature follows Nina and her husband Wojtek, unable to have a baby, who decide that free-spirited Magda can be their surrogate: then Nina inconveniently falls in love with the young woman.

 

 

 

Chajdas’s direction tries to be too flashy at the expense of her own characters, and incongruous plot twists and implausible plot twists don’t help. Her committed actors, especially Julia Kijowska (Nina) and Eliza Rycembel (Magda), give fierce portrayals in a vacuum. Lone extra is a short, Social Butterfly, by director Lauren Wolkstein. 

 

CD of the Week 

American Rapture 

(Azica)

This disc’s title refers to the three works the intrepid Rochester Philharmonic plays under its music director Ward Stare: Jennifer Higdon’s new harp concerto, Samuel Barber’s exhilarating first symphony and Patrick Harlin’s Rapture; both Rapture (2011) and Higdon’s 2018 concerto receive their world premiere recordings. 

 

 

 

Rapture is an exuberant closer and Barber’s classic sounds great even in a perfunctory reading, which this decidedly is not. The concerto was composed for and dedicated to American harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, who brings out the many subtle facets of her instrument throughout the four movements, from the chamber-like lyricism that most associate with the harp to exhilarating rhythmic bursts.

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