Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Atlanta "Nutcracker"

The Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is creative and engaging.  It is choreographed by Artistic Director John McFall, and differs from the Balanchine version.  The story is set in St. Petersburg, Russia and the colorful costumes reflect appear authentic to the period.  The original “Nutcracker” was not specific to time or location so a little creativity is welcome.  My only criticism of the choreography is that the Divertissement of the second act seem disconnected from the story of the first act.  In fact, Marya mirrors some of the solo of the Sugar Plum Fairy- I was not sure what that was all about.  Also the wonderful coda, of the Fairy’s dance, played by the celesta, was not used in this version.  The Atlanta Ballet was fortunate to have it own orchestra accompany the story.  This is so much better than having a recording. 

Several of the dancers were outstanding.  Cortney Funk and Tommy Panto were outstanding in the Spanish dance.  Panto performed some outstanding kicks.  Stephen Word was funny and creative as Mother Matruska.  He inserted contemporary mannerisms that were wonderful, e.g., he pointed to an audience member and with his finger to his ear, mouthed the words “call me.”  Jonah Hooper was a polished Cavalier, although the choreography did not allow him some of the flashier moves familiar in the Balanchine version.  Trepak was a gymnastics routine with comedy built in.  The crowd liked it- I didn’t. 

The performance took place at the Fabulous Fox Theater in Atlanta.  The Atlanta Ballet scheduled 23 performances of “The Nutcracker.”  I attended a Thursday performance and the theater was packed. 
The Fabulous Fox is a historic venue.  It has nearly 5000 seats, and it seems to be perfectly preserved from its days as a movie palace (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fox_Theatre_(Atlanta,_Georgia).  I took a few pictures before the photo Nazi’s nixed my efforts.  The style of the theater is not to my taste, but the fact that it remains as it was is a real tribute to the community.
This “Nutcracker” is well worth spending a few hours to enjoy it and the Fox Theater. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Great Holiday Gift

New Trinity Baroque (NTB), conducted by Predrag Gosta, presented its Baroque Candlelight Christmas concert last evening. The program included:

• Georg Friedric Handel:

Concerto for Organ in F major, "The Cuckoo & The Nightingale," HWV 295

• Johann Sebastian Bach:

"Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen," cantata for soprano, trumpet and orchestra, BWV 51

- intermission -

• Johann Sebastian Bach:

"Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme," Chorale Prelude for Organ (Schübler Chorale No. 1), BWV 645

• Antonio Vivaldi:

"Gloria" for soloists, choir and orchestra, RV 589

This was a wonderful concert in a nice setting, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta. The Handel was performed by Brad Hughley on the church’s Rosales Organ. The music is delightful, well-known, and here, played sublimely by NTB and Mr. Hughley. Amanda Pepping, of Georgia State, played the natural trumpet. After a few warm up problems, Ms. Pepping mastered the devilish instrument admirably. The Bach Cantata was performed by the NTB, Miss Pepping and Wanda Yang Temko, soprano. Ms. Tempko is well-known around Atlanta and has developed an international career also. Her voice is smooth, well-controlled, and warm. She is not the least breathy. Her performance of the “Alleluia” at the end of the Cantata was exciting. I was fortunate to sit in the first row, middle seat during the performance and her voice was thrilling.

The Bach Chorale is a very familiar piece that was played in a clipped style by Hughley, which was entirely appropriate for this baroque masterpiece. Too often it is played in a bloated romatic style that makes it “pretty” rather than authentic. Hughley provided both- pretty and authentic.

The Vivaldi was performed with a small chamber choir, which was entirely appropriate for the setting and for the small size of the NTB. I recently heard the Gloria performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber chorus, which was a large-scale concert performance. Bopth approaches are valid, but the NTB performance was so intimate that it provided an opportunity to share what the experience must have been like in the royal courts of Vivaldi’s day. The chamber choir at times had to struggle against the volume of the NTB, but this is a miner quibble. The soloists for Gloria were Tempko and Zorica Pavlovic. The power of the voices of these two women was perfectly suited to the music.

The conductor of NTB is Predrag Gosta, who gives a brief review of the music before each performance. His enthusiasm for what is does is palpable. And he does a lot, from controlling the house lights, to helping move the harpsichord off the stage. He deserves much credit for the success of the NTB. In spite of it being made up of contract players, the NTB plays as if it were a well-established period orchestra. Gosta should take pride in what he has accomplished.

This was a great concert.

"Tron: Legacy"- something to avoid

“Tron: Legacy” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tron:_Legacy) is a sequel to the creative “Tron” from 1982. “Legacy” is an excuse to have 3-D (in order to charge more for admission) effects, a loud soundtrack (the music of which is quite good), and one more movie with the grizzled Jeff Bridges. I used to like Bridges, especially in “Starman”, but lately he has adapted to his casting as the disheveled older guy, who can be be a good guy or a villain. He was particularly awful in “Ironman”, with that ridiculous beard. In “Legacy” he is both a good guy and a villain. For the bad guy he looks like he did in “Starman” ; for the good guy, he is back to being old and grizzled. This movie has more exposition that any in recent memory. The characters have to narrate what is going on since understanding the plot from the movie’s action is simply not possible. The movie seems to be a series of motorcycle races for no immediately obvious reason.

I had read that the 3-D effects were wonderful. It must have been another movie because I sure didn’t see any that were worth the additional $3.00 admission.

While I consider the whole movie to be a waste, there was one grave injustice in it. Olivia Wilde plays a character named Quorra. Wilde is a beautiful and photogenic actress, but in “Legacy” she wears a terrible short wig. It has all of the grace of a straw brush and does nothing to enhance her striking face. But appearances aside, I hope that Wilde begins aiming higher in her choice of movies. “Tron: Legacy”, “Year One”, and “The Next Three Days” a strong resume do not make.

First Plymouth

Last week I was in Lincoln, NE for a few days. It was the best of times and the worst of times. When I arrived the weather was beautiful, with temperatures in the upper fifties. I drove around quite a bit and took some pictures that do not do justice to the beauty of the plains (see photo album). But on Friday night and Saturday the weather turned, well nasty. The wind picked up at the same time the temperature dropped. Then came the ice and snow. The wind and the precipitation created the perfect situation to have my flight back to Atlanta cancelled, as well as those on Sunday. As one flight is cancelled, the next one fills up and it appeared I might not leave until Tuesday. With a bit of planning, I was able to fly out on Monday. But this extended stay gave me the opportunity to brave the bad weather and attend a service at First-Plymouth Church (http://www.firstplymouth.org/).

To see more my my photos of First Plymouth, click here:  http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=101221&id=1510516273&l=2211a1f0f6.

First Plymouth is a magnificent building that was finished in 1931. Is architecture reflects early church designs and it integrates beautifully with the neighborhood in which it is located. The interior of the church is magnificent. It is one of the most beautiful I have seen, especially with the addition of the Lied organ. The organ is a large instrument that can be subtle and forceful, when needed. The church is not so large that a large reverberation causes the music to become muddy. The organ supports the Plymouth Brass and Choir quite nicely. The music alone is worth a visit to the church.

The interior of the church is predominately blue, gold, and walnut, which when combined, provides warmth without being ostentatious.

First Plymouth is a first-rate piece of American church architecture and worth seeing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A New Take on an Old Tradition

“A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Lessons_and_Carols) was performed last evening at the Glenn Memorial Auditorium at Emory University.  It is based on the English tradition but contained many contemporary choral pieces.  The performance was by the Emory University Chorus and Emory Concert Choir, the latter being of some renown in the choral music world.  A brass quartet accompanied some of the pieces. 

I am very familiar with the traditional English version and was somewhat surprised by the introduction of the new works, but it is a University music department-sponsored event, so they probably feel some responsibility to recognize contemporary music.  I really liked “The Dream Isaiah Saw” by Glenn Rudolph.  It was spirited and rhythmic. 

The brass quartet had some major intonation problems, especially the French horn. 

The director was Eric Nelson, who is a professor, choral conductor, church musician, and composer who is director of choral studies at Emory.  He is a self described “passionate apologist for the choral craft and its importance in contemporary society.” It was a joy to watch him turn to the audience to conduct its choral pieces. He did it with obvious joy.
The chorus and choir were very good.  I was surprised how few people of color were in the ensembles, and in the audience, given the demographic makeup of Atlanta.  As has been said, the most segregated hour in the country is between 11:00am and 12:00 pm on Sunday.    

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Spivey, dear Spivey

I attended a faculty recital last evening at Clayton State University, Morrow, Georgia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clayton_State_University).  The campus is beautiful- it is full of trees and has a nice pond with nicely landscaped roads throughout.  It bothers me, however, that the President of the University has to have his name listed as Dr. Thomas J. "Tim" Hynes, Jr.  Why the “Tim”.  I never have understood that who thing, but I digress. 

The recital was by Dr. Daniel Pyle.  By the way, I don’t get the whole “Dr.” thing either.  Why not a simple “Ph.D.”?  Mr. Pyle performed on the Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ.  This is no box of whistles, but a wonderful full-throated organ that has some of the lowest notes I have ever felt.  The program included works by Bach, Reincken, Schumann, and Persichetti.   Mr. Pyle was kind enough to share a bit of musical history about the Bach and Reincken pieces.  The Persichetti piece was the outlier in the program.  He died in 1987 but not before having influence on his students, such as Philip Glass and Thelonius Monk.  I generally like modern composers, but the Sonata played seemed like random (loud) sounds that only an academic could love.  But all in all, it was a nice recital, and Pyle seemed up to the task, although there were occasions where he seemed to have some technical difficulties.  

The recital took place in Spivey Hall (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spivey_Hall).  A major feature of this small hall is the Organ which was installed by Fratelli Ruffatti of Italy.  The entrance to Spivey Hall reminds me of a Marriott Hotel lobby.  It has that fake Queen Anne appearance with mahogany furniture, tapestries, and brass chandeliers.  Not my taste- at least not this year.   The biggest disappointment to me was the design of the hall itself.  As can be seen in my photos (surreptitiously taken before the photo Nazis came) is an insipid Greek-revival, with trompe l’oeil  paintings on the organ.  While I am sure the benefactors had a lot to say about the design of the hall, it seems like a missed opportunity to design a small contemporary performing space.  Oh well, when I give millions to a university to build a vanity building in my name, I will make it so. 

Oh Charlie....

Every Monday, on one of the hi-def cable channels there is a marathon of the original “Charlie’s Angels” TV shows (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie's_Angels).  The show is mind numbing- much like a shot of novocaine directly to the brain.  But, I like to watch the show because being brain-dead every so often is enjoyable- at least to me, and as long as it is figurative. 

“Charlie’s Angels” cycles through the same actors as the bad guys every three or four episodes.  The music is usually some variation of late-1970’s wah-wah guitars with a disco beat.  It would quite a contest to decide who the worst actor of the three women would be, but my vote would be for Cheryl Ladd.  Whenever she tries to play “dumb” she invokes some variation of a southern accent.  Jaclyn Smith, to her credit, seems continually in a daze.  Kate Jackson was supposed to be the smart one and I guess she earns the title by default. 

The series was somewhat controversial in its time.  It was described as “T & A” or “Jiggle” TV.  These three actresses, and the other actresses who cycled through the show, were simply not built to jiggle or to cause one to focus on their collective Ts and As.  It was the late 1970s and the American public had not yet developed its fascination of having everyone grow to the size of an NFL linebacker.  These were petite women who would not have had a muffin top or camel toe because their stretchy clothing was way too tight.  Kate Jackson, in fact, may have had the tiniest waste I have ever seen on an adult woman.  She also had the shiniest hair, but HD shows that she needed to borrow Katy Perry’s Proactiv solution. 

The “Angels” usually never invoked physical violence, and use their savvy to catch the bad guy.  But there was one episode, the title of which escapes me, that maybe should receive special recognition.  The plot was the usual but it required that Kris (Cheryl Ladd) shoot the villain.  She did, as duty called, but she actually had a reaction to it.  She trembled and needed to be comforted by one of the other Angels because “it was her first time.”  This may be one of the few times on TV where someone seemed to feel remorse after shooting someone, even if it was a bad guy.  I liked that, and it was a moment that made sitting through the episode worthwhile. 

So I will, from time to time, shoot up with the mind-deadener that is “Charlie’s Angels.”  They are a beautiful trio caught in bad scripts- but they have nice hair and small waists.   

Redemption- bah! Humbug

“Skyline” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skyline_(film)) is an alien invasion movie starring Eric Balfour AS Jarrod and Scottie Thompson as Elaine.  The movie received almost uniformly negative reviews, but I must differ.  It’s not the worst I have seen, and it is certainly better than any Jennifer Aniston movie.  I like the notion of an alien invasion movie that has no exposition to explain where they come from, or what their intentions are.  No one needs to explain that they come to kill and harvest as many of us as they can.  “Skyline” is certainly not original- it draws its inspiration from “Independence Day”, “Cloverfield”, “V”,   and the last (and worst) of the original “Alien” series.  The special effects are pretty good in “Skyline” and the creatures are frightening and disgusting.  I thought the film did a nice job of showing how totally confused and afraid we would become if these ugly-ass killing creatures descended upon us.  We would be powerless and most sources of information would be shut down.  We would be left to our own devices, which, I am afraid judging by the last election, are not all that great. 

There are things I didn’t like about the movie.  The first is that Balfour and Thompson have no chemistry.  She is supposed to be pregnant but the way the two characters relate to each other, the procreation must have been by way of artificial insemination.  The film also has Jarrod be something of a wimp.  The part of the movie that I liked least was the ending.  If the final ten minutes could have been eliminated and all humans were destroyed, I would have found it more satisfying than what the ending actually was.  Screen writers and directors seem to have a requirement that love has some great redemptive power and can survive through all kinds of adversity, including having your brain sucked out by some horrible looking creature machine.  Given the havoc that was being visited on human by the invaders, I think it would have been every person for themselves and love-be-damned.  Maybe that’s the cynic in me.  I also don’t understand why aliens would back off hurting its prey because she is pregnant.  Does that mean after the baby is allowed to be born; the aliens will then suck out its brain?  Sounds to me like conservatives who want to save the unborn at all cost, and then throw them to the wolves after they are born.  Well, when I write the next installment of “Skyline”, I will correct these problems. 

I did not feel that the 90 minutes spent watching “Skyline” was a total waste.  It was not nearly as bad as watching the president feign anger at republican shenanigans, when he is actually one of them!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Folk Music?

During a fit of insomnia, I watched one of the semi-annual PBS pitches for funding.  The hawking was wrapped around a retrospective show of the folk-music craze of the late 1950s and 60s.  It was hosted by John Sebastian.  The show was a fascinating look at a phenomenon that I remembered as reflecting and to some degree encouraging the peace and civil rights movements.  I was surprised to hear how bland the music was. Many of the songs had no edge or grit.  The performers often seemed smug and cute.  “If I had a Hammer”, sung by Trini Lopez was a great example of a fine song being trivialized.   In fact, some of it was just silly, e.g., “Don’t Let the Rain Fall Down, “and   “Tom Dooley.” To include these novelty songs with Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the same category does an injustice to some really good music. 
There were, however,  some notable exceptions to the white-bread nature of this music. One was “Kingston Town” by Harry Balafonte.  In the video of him performing the song, he was smooth and handsome and he had a wonderful smoky voice.  Another was Jesse Colin Young singing “Get Together,” which became an anthem for peace and brotherhood.  Young continues to have a great voice and passion to go with it.  There was a duet of Pete Seeger and Judy Collins singing “Turn! Turn! Turn!”  Seegar had written the melody for the song, the lyrics of which came from the biblical Ecclesiastes. Collins’ voice was pure and without the cold edge that had come to characterize her more mature voice.  However, this beautiful song was like easy listening music.  In contrast, Roger McGuinn reprised the Byrds’ rock-tinged, grittier version of the song. It was a wonderful contrast to the Collins-Seeger rendition and it was apparent that the Byrds had transformed the song’s lyricism with musical power. 

The most powerful portion of the show, however, was sung by, of all people, Bobby Darin.  This rat-pack-in-waiting singer had written one of the most potent lyrics for “A Simple Song of Freedom:”

Come and sing a simple song of freedom
Sing it like you've never sung before
Let it fill the air
Tell the people everywhere
We, the people here, don't want a war

Hey there, Mister Black Man can you hear me?
I don't want your diamonds or your game
I do want to be someone known to you as me
and I will bet my life you want the same

Come and sing a simple song of freedom
Sing it like you've never sung before
Let it fill the air
Tell the people everywhere
We, the people here, don't want a war

Seven hundred million are enlisted
Most of what you read, most of what you read, is made of lies
But speaking one to one, ain't it everybody's sun
To wake to in the morning when we rise?

Come and sing a simple song of freedom
Sing it like you've never sung, never sung, before
Let it fill the air
Tell the people everywhere
We, the people here, don't want a war

No doubt some folks enjoy doin' battle
Like presidents, prime ministers and kings
So let's all build them shelves so they can fight among themselves
and leave us be those who want to sing

Come and sing a simple song of freedom
Sing it like you've never, ever, sung before
Let it fill the air
Tell the people everywhere
We, the people here, don't want a war

Come and sing a simple song of freedom
Sing it like you've never, ever, sung before
Speaking one to one
Ain't it everybody's sun
To wake to in the morning when we rise
Speaking one to one
Ain't it everybody's sun
To wake to in the morning when we rise

This powerful paean to peace and freedom stills strikes home some 50 years later.  It surprised me that Darin, a wannabe Vegas entertainer, penned this and had the chutzpah to sing it on national television.  Go Bobby Darin!  I hope that it might be heard by Bush/ Obama, Kim Jong Il, Ahmajinedad, Netanyahu,  Bin Laden, the pope,  radical Christians and Muslims to name just a few of the tyrants and warmongers on the world stage today.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Next Three Days is not such a long time

“The Next Three Days”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Next_Three_Days) is directed by Paul Haggis and stars Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks.  There are also appearances by Liam Neeson and  Olivia Wilde.  Having Banks and Wilde in the same movie provides for some great eye candy.  Crowe ,  on the other hand, is becoming a bigger star- literally. 

The movie was filmed in Pittsburgh and concerns a loving husbands attempt to rescue his unjustly imprisoned wife from life of incarceration.  The main part of the story involves Crowe’s meticulous planning for and implementation of a prison-break plan.  The plot is full of holes, and for the most part, stretches credibility.  But it does have some great qualities.  Did I mention Banks and Wilde?  But seriously, I was very troubled by the moral ambiguity of the story.  I have led a life seeing mostly gray, so moral ambiguity is an old friend.  But here, Crowe and Banks are nice people, but I didn’t know enough about them to like them.  So when Crowe develops his plan to rescue his wife, he is willing to take the lives of others (undesirables, yes, but people nonetheless) in an effort to recapture his wife and family.  After he killed the thugs, I found his situation less compelling.  In addition, I wondered how he ever thought that his family life could ever be untroubled in the future after what he had to go through in order to save it.  It’s like our foreign policy where we believe that the way to save another country is to destroy it.

There is one scene where Banks demonstrates her acting chops.  She is in an elevator after he recently sprung her from a civilian hospital.    She has a look of fear in her face when she looks at Crowe that is so believable and compelling.  I felt her terror.   Maybe to get into the mood she was contemplating what would happen if Crowe fell over on her. 

The soundtrack was quite good.  The music by Danny Elfman fit the grittiness of the film’s image.  There is one song, I believe by Moby, which has his trademarked sadness and gloom.  It was also fitting for the subject matter. 

It’s been about an hour since I saw the film.  I still feel anxious- so maybe the film was a success in spite of itself. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Nebraska October 2010

 To see the rest of my album, click here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=93981&id=1510516273&l=0e984ca5dd

Some recent musical events

The Atlanta Opera.  I went to see and hear Puccini’s La Boheme (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Boheme) at the Cobb Energy Center in Atlanta.  I have never been a big opera fan and I still am not.  The occasional “show stopping” aria is not worth wading through the other stuff.  I find the librettos sort of silly.  They are grand productions and I admire the wonderful singing technique, but this art form just doesn’t do it for me.  But…I do like more modern works, such as “Dr. Atomic” and “Einstein on the Beach.”  Maybe I am really not a romantic at heart.  The Cobb Energy Center is beautiful on the outside.  The inside- not so much.  The auditorium looks like latter day Rockefeller Center, only not as nice.  The grand lobby has a huge window, but the building skeleton behind the window looks like the Nashville Airport. 

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, October 1, 2010.  The program began with a fanfare called “Up!” by Adam Schoenberg in celebration of Robert Spano’s 10 years with the Symphony.  Aside from the title which sounds suspiciously like a movie, the piece was unremarkable.  I forgot it as soon as it was played.  Emanuel Ax was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.   He is a master and the orchestra provided an appropriate supporting role.  Balances were right on target.  I was able to hear a bit of Ax rehearsing for the performance.  Wow!  The program ended with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.  The ASO seems to be a very good Mahler orchestra.  Mahler’s music seems to emphasize the various sections of the orchestra individually rather than the orchestra as an integrated whole.  This suits the ASO’s style and the acoustic of Symphony Hall.  Overall the concert was a winner.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, October 15. This concert featured the Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss. During the performance, I thought of two things:  “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the fact that maybe it should be re-titled “The Red Danube.”   This was followed by a 15-minute discussion of the Berg Violin Concerto, especially its use of music from a Bach Chorale.  Julian Rachlin, the violin soloist, also participated.  This little lecture did not make the Berg any more likeable.  It is 12-tone or serial music that seems only designed for those who are in on the joke.  I had hoped that I would finally find this music enjoyable, but it was not to be.  It seems random to me- without melody and without rhythm.  That is probably just what the composer intended, and if so, he succeeded wildly.  The concert finished with Brahms Symphony No. 2.  This may be one of the greatest of all symphonic works, in my opinion.  Brahms took the symphonic form to its pinnacle, not only regarding form and development, but also melody.  Unfortunately this performance was not outstanding.  Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles did not seem able to obtain the smooth integration of the orchestra’s various sections that this music requires.  For example, Brahms frequently uses the wood winds and French horn together.  The horns should wrap around the winds and the sounds should be as though the two sections are one.  I did not hear this sublimely warm integration with this performance.   Maybe it’s Symphony Hall again. 

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, October 21.  This performance, under Spano’s direction, was to begin with Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”- again used in Kubrick’s 2001.  However, a last minute change resulted in the substitution of Arvo Part’s “Fratres.”  This music is wonderfully rich and warm, like most of Part’s compositions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arvo_Part).  They are immediately accessible, but undeniably modern.  This piece featured a drone bass figure throughout.  It provided a buzzing quality that could be both irritating and beautiful.  The ASO strings performed the piece flawlessly.  This was followed by Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin.”  For me, Bartok is a greatly underappreciated composer who has influenced many a film composer, but in spite of that, he is great.  “Mandarin” is loud, grimy, aggressive, dirty music.  I love it.  It is gut- grabbing sound uses the resources of the full orchestra, from the bass drum to the celesta to the organ.  This music is loaded with eroticism and danger.  The dry acoustics of Symphony Hall were perfect for this performance.  The program ended with Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass.” Janacek (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janacek) is another wonderful composer of the twentieth century.  His music is full of brass flourishes and woodwind runs.  It is frequently loud and not always subtle.  The Mass is unlike any that most of us will hear.  It is bold, masculine, and rapturous.  The piece incorporates a large orchestra, including organ, four soloists, and a full chorus.    I really liked the performance except regarding balances.   The tenor, John Mac Master, struggled to be heard above the orchestra and chorus.  He is a large man and he looked like he might blow a vein trying to be heard.  The chorus was entirely too loud.  At points, the sound level became uncomfortable.  It is a skilled chorus, that sings with precision, and in this case, great volume.  Again, maybe it’s Symphony Hall, but cutting back the chorus by about 30 percent of its members might have helped.  But the Mass is great and satisfying music.  I heard one patron say that she never heard a mass performed in a church like that- I say “indeed”- that’s part of the reason it was so good.  

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mining Disaster- an American Tale

It all started when 33 miners were trapped one half mile below the desert surface south of Phoenix, Arizona.  The copper mine where they worked was in a hill composed of dense rock. The miners, five of whom were women and six of whom were African-American were employees of the Arizona Mining Company, one of the largest copper mining concerns in the world.  The country was stunned by the plight of these miners and the cable news services provided non-stop coverage of the event.  President Obama took time to address the nation about the tragedy.  He spoke from the White House Rose Garden about the bravery of the miners and their families and was about to ask for everyone to pray for them, and to urge Congress to appropriate $10 million for the recovery effort and to compensate the miners and their families.   Unfortunately, the presidential teleprompter malfunctioned so the President had to cut his comments about five minutes short.  The noise of the presidential helicopter soon drowned out the proceedings, as the President and his family were whisked away to Andrews Air Force base, where they boarded their flight for a vacation in the south of France.  Soon thereafter, Speaker Pelosi introduced legislation to appropriate the $10 million.  It passed the House and made its way to the Senate, where debate over the measure was intense.  Many Republicans argued that the portion of the bill designed to provide support to the miners and their families was simply another unnecessary government bailout.  They instead moved to cap the liability of the Arizona Mining Company in this situation.  As a result, each miner could sue to recover no more than $5,000 in damages. 

During the debate, TV commentators opined about the maneuvering in Congress.  Pat Robertson said that the mine disaster was God’s retribution for the recent federal court action that ruled “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” unconstitutional.  Glenn Beck decried the notion that the government would involve itself at all in what was essentially a private sector matter.  He urged Christian churches to open their pocketbooks to assist the miners and their families, and urged members of Congress to defeat the aid bill.  Ed Shultz, on CNBC, was outraged that the government wasn’t doing more. He urged that $20 million be appropriated with no liability cap.  He also interviewed both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who accused the Senators who did not support the bill of being racist, given that some of the miners were African American.  Similarly, Rachel Maddow interviewed attorney Gloria Allred who, on behalf of the female miners, accused the recalcitrant Senators of sexism.  On the O’Reilly show, Maricopa County (AZ) Sheriff Joe Arpaio said that he had reviewed the employment records of the miners and found that two of them may be in the country illegally.  He announced that he would station two of his deputies at the mining site these undocumented workers should they be rescued.  Sharron Angle, Republican candidate for senate in AZ, announced that several Caucasian miners, who were also employed by Arizona Mining, had been found beheaded in the desert.  She urged all Americans to pray that this would not happened to any of the miners now entombed below ground, although she would not address reporters’ questions about whether she was saying that the allegedly illegal immigrant miners posed a threat to their colleagues.

Tea Party members demonstrated night and day in front of the Capital with signs saying “Another Obama Bailout” and “No more deficit spending, even for miners” and “No government funds for Health Care for Miners.”  An elderly couple had to be rushed to the hospital when their oxygen concentrators shorted out in the rain.  Another demonstrator was seriously injured when his electric scooter tipped over.  HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that her department would do all it could to expedite payment for new medical equipment for these brave Americans.
After two weeks of debate the Senate was poised to vote on a $4 million appropriation to help rescue the miners and support their families.  The Administration signaled that it was happy with this bipartisan compromise. Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) ultimately filibustered the bill and it died. No money was to be forthcoming from the government.  

The Arizona Mining Company had worked feverishly to drill a hole into the stone to enable it to regain contact with its workers.  Everyone was elated when the drill broke through and contact was again made with the miners.  Seemingly in good spirits, the miners asked for some of their favorite food to be sent down.  Thirty three Big Macs and supersized fries and cokes were carefully delivered down the new shaft and the miners were heard cheering to celebrate the arrival of food.  The McDonald’s crporation offered to provide an unlimited supply of it menu to be delivered to the miners every day. 

Mining company officials began to drill a two foot in diameter shaft that would enable them to send  a rescue capsule to bring each of the miners up one-by-one.  After two months of drilling, the new shaft was complete.  The capsule was introduced to the public at a news conference held by Harry Pennington, CEO of Arizona mining.  The rescue vehicle was about six feet long with a diameter of just less than two feet.  After the unveiling, the capsule was lowered in a test run, where all seemed to go well. 

After about a day, Mr. Pennington announced that there were some major technical difficulties with the plan.  Apparently, only about 13 of the miners would fit into the capsule because of its limited size.  He said that his company would do all it could try to address the issue. Unfortunately, it would not be possible to increase the size of the new shaft without endangering the integrity of the shaft itself.  The unionized miners, in a show of solidarity, said that none of them would return to the surface unless all of them could. 

Today, the New York Daily News announced in its headline “Game Over for Dead Miners.” President Obama, at a photo op with Hamid Karzai, expressed his sympathy to the families and announced that violence on the ground had been reduced in Afghanistan.  He also declared that, in its pursuit of Afghani peace, America shows itself again to be the greatest country in the world.  He ended by saying “God Bless America.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal

While in Rome a few months ago we visited the Spanish steps, one of the famous tourist sites in that great city.  I mentioned to my traveling companions that the steps played an important role in the Tennessee Williams penned “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.”  I attempted to summarize the plot for them, but they did not seem all that interested, if at all.   As fortune would have it, the movie, based on the novel was on TCN last night.

“The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” was released in 1961 (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Roman_Spring_of_Mrs._Stone).  It starred Vivian Leigh as a faded actress (Karen Stone) who travels to Italy with her husband after having a disastrous stage performance as Juliet.  The critics said she was too old for the part.  En route to Rome, her husband died on the airplane.  The story has Karen meeting the Contessa Magda Terribili-Gonzales (played by the wonderful Lotte Lenya), who is a not-so- high-class pimp.  She introduces Mrs. Stone to Paolo, played by Warren Beatty.  Paolo is a gigolo who makes his living off of rich older women.  Karen falls for his charms, realizing all along that she is being used, but in spite of herself, falls for the cad.  In the end, he deserts her and she is left taking the risk of allowing a man who has been stalking her to enter her apartment. 

The beautiful Vivian Leigh was in the waning years of her illustrious film career, although still beautiful.   She was one of those actors from the golden age of cinema who was elegant and who brought refinement to her acting.  She didn’t put her fingernail in her mouth to look coy or cute.  She didn’t have to giggle her hair around to look beguiling.  She played Karen as a dazed woman who had lost her career and her husband.  Thus, Karen’s attraction to Paulo did not grow from lust or a new found sexual freedom, but rather from the numbing loneliness and loss of the anchor of her marriage and career.  She was like a pinball being bounced from bumper to bumper - without thought or reaction.  Sex with Paolo was a tranquilizer and a way to make her numbness subside just a bit.  Sometimes she would be exhilarated by the thought of having such a handsome man pay attention to her, but she would quickly return to automatic pilot after that thought left.  Leigh’s performance was not large and grand, but she captured the existential numbness perfectly. 
Beatty, while very handsome, was no match for Leigh.  His supposed Italian accent was more like Russian.  Beatty got Paolo’s petulance correct, but the smoldering sensuality was simply not within his grasp.  Beatty successfully pulled off Paolo’s wondering eye and his disdain for Americans, including Karen from time to time.

Lotte Lenya was perfect as the sleazy countess.   She was cynical and took delight in making fun of Karen behind her back.  A particularly powerful scene for me was when the Countess asked Karen for $1000.  She did not hesitate to ask.  Karen, in a robot-like fashion, offered $500.  With all of the chutzpah in the word, Lenya came back as ask for $750.  Karen stayed at $500, but this bargaining made the Countess seem even slimier. 

After begin rejected by Paolo, and having been made fun of by the Countess Karen is desperate, and throws the keys to her apartment out the window to a young man who had been following Karen throughout Rome.  He was dirty, and unkempt, but attractive.  It was clear that to Karen, at the moment, any port in the storm would do.  It was a powerful ending to the story.

Rome looked wonderful in the movie.  It was nice to see it without graffiti.  It was fun to watch Karen being driven around in a huge 1960s American car that was twice as long as the everyday Italian variety.  There were several cars of this vintage in the movie, including a Chrysler Imperial with its gun-sight tail light mounted on huge fins.  There was also a Continental with sharp grand fins.  The cinematography was luxurious and made the most of the Italian vistas. 

By today’s standards, this movie seems tame.  It does not have overt sexual acts, but it alludes to them.  It does not have heavy breathing and clawing, but the passion is assumed.  But, to see a great actress at work is worth two hours. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Devil Made Me Do It

“Devil” is a film based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan and it was directed by Brian Nelson.  See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil_(film).  It is very au courant to be critical of MHS’s movies.  When someone is at the pinnacle on their first film (“The Sixth Sense”), it likely will only be downhill from there, but “Devil” is not so bad. 

There were some shocking parts, thanks to good editing, dark lighting, and the sense of being trapped in an elevator.  Those scares alone were worth the admission because there are so few scares in movies today.  Lots of blood and guts yes- but scares- no.  The photography was very good and the amount of dark green post-production lighting was kept to a minimum.  In fact, the elevator scenes were filmed in normal light and color.  Only when it was necessary for scare did the lights dim.  The extra-elevator scenes did sometimes have that green tint that directors recently seem to equate with “Be afraid, dammit.”  I particularly like Logan Marshall-Green, who is one of the main characters of the film.  He is in the cast of TVs “Dark Blue” and is credible in it also.  The title sequence was wonderful.  It was a helicopter fly-by of the Philadelphia skyline only inverted.  It was effective in setting us up for a film where the bottom (the devil) comes out on top.  I also liked the theme of how one man’s redemption can lead to the redemption of another, even if it is not intentional. 

Lest I be accused of being soft, I do have some criticisms.  For example, I did not get the feeling of claustrophobia of four people being trapped in an elevator.  Most of the time, we were looking into the elevator from a security camera.  I would have preferred to have five or six people trapped and I would have preferred camera work that would have captured the kind of “in your face” personal space that such cramped quarters would have engendered.  The story also had to rely too much on exposition to explain what was going on. This included not only a voice over, but most of the explanation came from a religious Hispanic guard who knew what was going on from the get go because of a story that his grandmother had told him.  His genuflecting and crossing became tedious, as well as his ever-so-knitted brow.  Of course, no one believed him (like the sheriff in “Jaws”) until it was nearly too late.  Such a plot device was not really needed in that the audience could come up with their own interpretation without a lot of difficulty.
I have never fully understood why those religions that posit the presence of a devil seem to make the devil more powerful that their deity.  If not more powerful, at least he or she does better tricks.  Why don’t four people get stuck in an elevator with god who makes them do good things?  What- that would be boring.

Roswell and Chopin

Last evening, Joyce Yang played the piano at a recital sponsored by the Chopin Society of Atlanta, but more of that later.

 The recital’s venue was the Roswell Cultural Arts Center (I assume that the Roswell Noncultural Arts Center is around the corner).  This facility, located in of all places, Roswell, GA, is shares the campus of the Roswell City Hall.  I have been looking for some information on the cost of constructing the Center, but a quick Google lead me nowhere.  The facility looks like it was designed and built by the lowest bidder.  Unimaginative and plain to the nth degree is the best I can say for the facility.  It looks like a high school auditorium.  That aside, I am not sure why our tax dollars should be footing the bill for this hall anymore than for the numerous sports stadia located across the country.  Atlanta has many performing arts venues located all over the city and its suburbs.  The problem is that there are more venues than there are performances in this city of 6 million.  Its culture may be wide, but it certainly isn’t deep.
Back to the recital.  Ms. Yang (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joyce_Yang) is a young pianist who won the silver medal as the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano competition.   The program began with a work titled “Gargoyles” by David Lieberman.  I could find scant information about Mr. Lieberman on the web so I doubt that his has yet become a “big name” in music circles.  Judging by Gargoyles, that may take a long time.  The most memorable part of the piece was the very beginning when I was attempting to silence my cell phone.  It rang loudly once at about the second note of the introduction.  Oooops. 

The second piece was “Estampes” by Claude Debussy who the program says was born in 1962 and died in 1918.  He must have been the inspiration for “Benjamin Button.”  This piece was influenced by American jazz and Ms. Yang became very animated during these sections.  I like Debussy’s orchestral music, but his piano music- not so much. 

The third piece was Chopin’s Andante spinato and Grande Polonaise.  It never ceases to intrigue me about how Chopin so fully understood the piano and was able to use that understanding to make such romantic and lush music. 

Following the intermission, Ms. Yang treated the audience to some pieces by Scarlatti, which had not been part of the program.  I believe that these pieces were originally written for the harpsichord.  Being that it is one of my least favorite instruments, I am happy that she played the piano versions.
A Chopin Nocturne and Ballade followed.  I am a fan of the nocturnes- they are beautiful and full of romance.  Ms. Yang performed them with skill.  The recital ended with Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6.” I know this piece mostly in its orchestral version.  It is bombastic and big music and it is always a crowd pleaser.  There was a standing ovation for Ms. Yang, and she mostly deserved it. 

Now, for some complaining.  The recital began at 7:00 pm.  I wondered why such an early hour until I entered the hall.  It was full of children who were dragged by their parents to get some culture.  A few sitting close to me were in constant movement during the first half of the program- fortunately they left at intermission.  There were two young women sitting behind me who were complaining-during the performance- to each other about the kids being so noisy.  One even went so far as to imitate the sound of a creaking seat that had a wiggly child in it.  Again this was during the performance!  I had to listen to both the kid and the two women.  Bummer.

The audience was full of people who spoke Polish.  I had the good fortune, however, to sit behind a beautiful Russian woman who was dressed in a black slip-like dress. I usually don’t like fragrances, but she had on a delicate coconut and fruit concoction that only added to Chopin’s romantic music.   

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New Trinity Baroque

I have never been a big fan of baroque music, except for the compositions of Bach and some Vivaldi.  The music has struck me as elegant and pleasant enough, but mannered and devoid of feeling.  Even with Vivaldi, I often hear “sewing machine” music.  I have not liked recordings of Baroque music since they so often have the harpsichord so closely mic’d that it seems like it is driving the music rather than supporting it.  I also have not liked recordings of period instrument recordings.  The strings often sound strident to me.

Two weeks ago, however, my views were challenged.  I had an opportunity to hear a concert, titled “Italian Baroque Extravaganza”, by the New Trinity Baroque Ensemble (NTB).  The venue was St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, which is an attractively contemporary structure in a suburban neighborhood.  The building’s acoustics seemed to be a flattering fit for the ensemble’s period instruments.  Predrag Gosta is the conductor.  When addressing the audience between works, his enthusiasm is engaging and fun. 
There are ten musicians in the ensemble and Gosta conducts from the harpsichord or chamber organ as required.  Two instruments of particular note in the ensemble are the baroque harp and the chittarone, which is largest of the lute family, developed in Italy during 16th century. It was designed to improve on the bass register of the lute.  The sound of the NTB was wonderful and golden.  There was no stridency in the higher registers and the harpsichord took its appropriate role as an integral part of the ensemble, without receiving undue highlighting.  The sound was indeed elegant and without the harshness that I have come to associate with period-informed recordings of Baroque music.

Six pieces comprised the program.  There were three pieces by Vivaldi.  The standout for me was the Concerto for 2 Cellos, which contained some of the richest and warmest melodies that I have heard from the Baroque period.  The Vivaldi “Stabat Mater,” with soloist Magdalena Wor, was also beautifully performed.  All of the pieces were fairly short, which is not all bad considering the uncomfortable chairs in the church!

Gosta, and the NTB, rekindled my interest in the Baroque and period-informed performances.  I also think that this concert was the best I have attended in Atlanta over the last three years.  I look forward to attending again.

I need a new maid

“The Handmaid’s Tale”  is another dystopian view of the not so distant future.  For a summary, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Handmaid's_Tale_(film).  Natasha Richardson stars, along with Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, the latter with a terrible black hair color.  In the story, the women of the Republic of Gilead (which looks alot like New England) have been made sterile as a result of pollution.  Gilead seems to be the good o’ US of A after a fundamentalist revolution.  Duvall’s character says that the revolution was necessary to stop the influence of the liberals, big-government worshippers, atheists, and homosexuals.  Does any of this sound familiar?  Anyway, Richardson plays Kate who is abducted while mistakenly crossing into Gilead’s borders.  Her husband was killed, and she becomes a Handmaid, that is, a still-fertile woman whose job is to spawn with one of Gilead’s men, in this case, the Commander (Duvall).  The procedure is that the couple has intercourse while the barren wife (Dunaway) watches and holds onto the handmaid’s hands.   The procedure is designed so that the wife can ensure that nothing affectional goes on.  I am not sure why in vitro-fertilization, or artificial insemination would not have worked just as well, except that it would not have been as interesting and oddly un-erotic.
I did not care for the movie much.  The premise is interesting and is probably is consistent with men’s fantasies to have sex without attachment.  But, Richardson just did not seem convincing.  While Jane could not openly express her feelings because of the nature of the governing regime,   Richardson did not effectively convey Jane’s simultaneous public stoicism and private anger, angst, and sadness over losing her husband and daughter.  Dunaway was great as the conflicted wife, who had to make her life meaningful through her flower garden.  Duvall was very good as the in-charge, macho, slimy Commander, who wanted both sex and affection.  Aidan Quinn served as a love interest for Richardson, but this relationship was not so intimate that Jane shared her feelings about her losses.  As a result, the relationship seemed cold and not compelling. 
The fundamental problem with the film was that it was as sterile as Gilead’s woman.  There was little emotion with which to identify and Richardson did nothing to heat it up. 

I would like to see the film redone with today’s sensibilities and a more mature actress who could find the right mix of public aloofness and private turmoil.  Likely the story will not be retold, however, since it wouldn’t require guns, computer graphics, and a very loud soundtrack.  

Sunday, August 29, 2010

American Public Policy

I have been thinking a lot about the sorry state of our country. For the last 10 years we have had incompetence in the White House and things are looking bleak for the middle class. Our government has been reduced to two- or three-word slogans that define our public policy. Here are some of the most memorable:

1. Redistribution of Wealth (mostly from the middle to the top)

2. Government Takeover

3. Family Values

4. Cut and Run

5. Pro-Life and Pro-Choice

6. Support our Troops (particularly vacuous)

7. God Bless America (and presumably no place else)

8. America- the great country in the world (its more than three words)

9. God Fearing

10. Main Street vs. Wall Street

11. Socialism, Communism, Capitalism, Fascism

12. America is the Greatest Democracy in the World

13. Corporations are People

14. In God We Trust

15. Death Panels

16. Welfare Queens

17. Sanctity of Marriage

18. State of Israel

19. West Bank

20. Anti-Semitism

21. Racism

22. Islamophobia

23. War on Terror

24. War of Drugs

25. Ground Zero

26. Mission Accomplished

27. Weapons of Mass Destruction (a particular favorite of mine)

28. Zionism

29. Nation Building

30. Axis of Evil

31. Nuclear threat (usually applied to a country we don’t like, e.g., Iran but never Israel)

32. Activist Judges

33. Radical Islamists

34. Obamacare

35. Hope and Change (a true bill of goods)

36. Deficits

37. Insurgency (as opposed to freedom fighters)

38. Transformational

39. Old White Men (a phrase that is racist, sexist, and ageist- quite some accomplishment)

40.  Patriotism

I am sure if I were really clever, I could put this to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Friday, August 20, 2010

Nick Drake

From the Morning- Nick Drake
A day once dawned, and it was beautiful
A day once dawned from the ground
Then the night she fell
And the air was beautiful
The night she fell all around.

So look see the days
The endless coloured ways
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning.

And now we rise
And we are everywhere
And now we rise from the ground
And see she flies
And she is everywhere
See she flies all around

So look see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning.

One thing AT&T gets right is finding music for its TV commercials.  The latest, the one that looks like it was done by Christo and Jean-Claude but was not, uses a song by Nick Drake.  The song, titled “From the Morning,” is gentle, and sung by Drake in a melancholy yet intimate way.  I knew nothing about Drake, so found this information on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Drake).  Drake had an all too short life, yet has become an admired artist in England and elsewhere.  If you listen to his other songs, they too are sad, lonely, and isolated.  His use of marijuana, combined with his depression hung heavy over his lyrics and his death.  He died not from a life of excess, as many singers have, but from a life of isolation and sadness.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I am Faithful to Marianne

“Irina Palm” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irina_Palm) is a film that is blessed by the presence of Marianne Faithful, whose career began in the 1960s.  She has morphed from pop singer to pop concubine, to drug addict, to author, and finally to actor.  She has had a tough life but she does not seem to be weary or tired.  She looks like she has doubled in size over the years, but she still has that beautiful face and smoky voice.  Her breasts have grown and her shoulders have rounded, but she remains a stunning person.  Faithful plays Maggie, a grandmother whose grandson is very ill and who has a son who seems to be caught in a loveless marriage and who also seems to be unemployed.  As luck would have it the only way to save the boy’s life is to receive treatment in Australia, which his parents cannot afford.  Maggie must set out to find a job to help raise the funds for the life-saving journey.  She is untrained, unskilled, and has never worked.  She finally lands a job as a “hostess” in a sex emporium in London.  Her initial revulsion to her job duties fades as she begins to excel in her craft and begins to earn money.  Ultimately, she earns enough to send the son, his wife, and the grandson to Australia.  This is not the first movie to have a plot where someone’s illness jumpstarts a new career for a loved one, but usually it has involved robbing banks rather than rubbing a body part.
Faithful makes the movie.  She is totally believable and does not condescend to the material or the character.  I was moved by her determination to succeed even in an industry where success may come naturally- if you’ll pardon the pun. 

The movie begins with aerial shots of one of those picturesque English towns where everything is made of field stone, and nothing has changed in 100 years.  I cannot imagine living in one of these hamlets where all there is to do is watch the BBC and go to the local pub.  I suspect they are much better to look at than to live in.  The film shines light on some of Maggie’s friends and neighbors, who are stuffy, unattractive and judgmental.  Faithful does a good job of portraying her character’s glee at sharing her job duties with her circle of friends, one of whom had an affair with Maggie’s dead husband.  Maggie delights in outing the woman in a local store where the local women gather to pass judgment on each other.  The other woman was played by Jennie Agutter, who is years past was in “Logan’s Run” and “An American Werewolf in London.”    At least from how she appears in the film, the years have not been as kind to her as they have been to Faithful. 

For me, there are two very powerful scenes in the film.  The first is at its beginning where Faithful in cramming into a small car with her son who is driving them to the hospital.  She has a huge teddy bear on her lap to give to her grandson.  The trees are leafless and the weather is cold.  The ordinariness of these two people came through so well.  It could have been any of us, and no matter how special we may think we are, we live in drab towns and we must go to the hospital to visit loved ones- without so much as a sound bite on Fox news as to our nobility.  The film captured this nobility within the mundane very successfully.  The second strong scene is where Maggie’s son confronts her about her new career.  He calls her a whore and forbids her to return to her work.  Faithful captures Maggie’s hurt and incredulity at her son’s ungratefulness.  She also conveys Maggie’s fear that she will lose the excitement and worth that she feels from having a job in London- even if that job is on the margins of society.
“Irina Palm” is a very good movie with a great actor. It is the kind of movie that Hollywood just could not pull off.  It would have to be very judgmental and sensationalized.  Instead here we have a slice of life where a person of modest background is trying to do something decent with limited resources, like most of us, I think.  Finally, it is very worth the investment of two hours to see Marianne Faithful in action.