Sunday, March 28, 2010

Caprica- a disappointing first season

It is the end of Season 1 of “Caprica.” I still revel in the relationship between Daniel Greystone (Eric Stolz) and his daughter Zoe, played by Alessandra Torresani. Daniel knows that his daughter’s avatar is resident in a cylon. He has attempted to get some acknowledgement of this from the avatar, but to no avail. He has used her fear of fire and her love of her pet to try to coax her into revealing herself, but she steadfastly refuses. There are two issues for Daniel- he loves his deceased daughter and would like to experience her again and he must fulfill a government contract for a working cylon. He has been unsuccessful in making a successful robot except in the model that has Zoe’s avatar. If he doesn’t produce, he will lose his company. If Zoe doesn’t acknowledge him, he will not experience his daughter again. Stolz plays Greystone as very controlled and detached, yet we feel his longing for his daughter. The confusing part for me is that Zoe is not all that nice of a person. She seems to dislike her father and is avoiding communication with him. She is an adolescent who believes that she will make a big difference in the world and, at the same time, is in open rebellion with her parents. I just don’t particularly like her no matter what future history may have in store for her.

There is a subplot that has Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) searching for his deceased daughter’s avatar in the virtual New Cap City, a virtual world of violence and odd characters. Morales is not very good. In one scene in a nightclub, he is asked a riddle by a drag queen master of ceremonies. Morales acts frightened as if he was a 6-year old child. He stamps his foot and says that he just wants to find his daughter. It was silly and unconvincing. This whole New Cap City part of the plot hasn’t really engaged me and seems like a waste of time since I can’t tell where it is going.

The subplots with Amanda Greystone, Daniel’s wife, are equally frustrating. We learn that she has had psychiatric hospitalization in the past after she accidentally was responsible for the death of her brother. Now she is seeing him wherever she glances and she has visions of running after him, apparently in the hospital where she was treated. All of this is too similar to the famous opera house marathons in BSG, and thus seems repetitive and unoriginal. There is also a relationship developing between Amanda and Sister Clarice Willow, played by Polly Walker. At times the relationship seems very intimate, but we know the Sister is paying respect to Amanda only because she is the mother of Zoe, who is believed to the one who will bring monotheism to Caprica, whose inhabitants believe in multiple gods, the names of which are similar to the names are those of the ancient Greek and Roman deities.

I was more excited about “Caprica” at the middle point of this season. Now I think it is going in too many directions and it’s leaving me a bit unclear of what its ultimate destination is. Maybe that is the way it should be, but it should tantalize me a bit more so that I will be sure to return for the next season. I am only hanging on by a thread at this point.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Passengers- dead on arrival

“Passengers” is a fantasy starring Ann Hathaway and Patrick Wilson. I have never thought that Hathaway is much of an actress, but Wilson has a sort of disaffected quality that I like. Maybe it’s that he seems like a big kid- in a pleasant way. This is a story about a psychologist who is called in to treat the survivors of a plane crash and the movie has a surprise ending. Hathaway’s character does things that are so inappropriate and gives the profession a bad rap. She sleeps with a client (Wilson), she continually offers psychological interpretations and diagnoses when not asked, and she violates confidentiality repeatedly. It’s certainly not a great movie, but I didn’t see the ending coming. Maybe my brain hadn’t kicked in since I was numb from it all.

Small thoughts

• The other day I heard Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Italien” on NPR. It was played by the Malaysian Philharmonic. Let’s see- a Russian composer’s tribute to Spain played by an Asian orchestra. I guess it’s no worse than having an American orchestra play it. However, the Malaysian performance was so unidiomatic.

• Today I listened to Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy.” I haven’t heard it in years and I ran across it on Amazon. The performance was by Stokowski and the Houston Symphony. Jane used to hate it some 30 years ago. When I listen to it now, it seems like warmed over Wagner with a few discordant notes. No wonder we don’t hear it a lot.

• I am currently listening to Schoenburg’s “Verklarte Nacht.” This unabashedly romantic piece predates his 12-tone adventures. It is sweet and loving music about forgiveness and redemption.

Charlotte, NC

To see my full album, go to

I stopped in Charlotte, North Carolina to see what the buzz is about. Charlotte is beautiful by my perception of today’s standards for urban areas. It has wide tree-lined streets, plentiful public art, water features, amenities (e.g., a downtown stadium, a performing arts center, a design museum). It also has a light rail system with futuristic cars that has a modern trestle just on the border of the downtown core. It has some very nice architecture. So what’s not to like? Well, there are several things. The first is that the city looks like it sprung whole in the 1990s and early 21st century. The downtown has very few old buildings. In 25 years, I think we might think of Charlotte as a museum to this time period. Most of the retail is inward, that it, it is in enclosed malls strung between buildings. My guess is that the retail is designed mostly to support the lunch-time crowd. There are no department stores that I found. This is not the kind of retail that draws people for a day of shopping. In fact, it is so well hidden that many suburbanites might not know that it is even there. There are many residential developments that border on the downtown that have the same 1990’s architecture as many of the main office buildings. Many of the skyscrapers are quite beautiful, but there are several that are exceedingly ugly, which is true in most cities. There is construction still going on, but several buildings have only their shells and no further work is being done on them. Charlotte is a monument to the boom years, and the bust years.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra- incredible music making

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert on March was in two words, nearly perfect. There is nothing quite like sitting in the sumptuous Heinz Hall for Performing Arts listening to wonderful classical music.

But first- prior to the start of the concert, a 16-year old young woman, Elenora Pertz, gave a recital in the Grand Lobby. She was sponsored by the Steinway Society of Western Pennsylvania. Her program contained works by Scarlatti, Chopin, and Haydn. The two Chopin Nocturnes were particularly beautiful. Ms. Pertz performed them admirably and it was apparent that she deeply felt the music.

The PSO program included:

Gianandrea Noseda, conductor

Benjamin Hochman, piano

Gioachino Rossini: Overture to La Cenerentola

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 19, K. 459

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3, "Polish"

The Rossini overture is, well, so Rossini. The orchestra played it flawlessly. It’s not particularly memorable but it’s enjoyable enough. I really began to appreciate the artistry of the PSO, as well as the talent of Hochman, in the Mozart piano concerto. This is not a frequently heard concerto, so I did not have any history with it. Both the orchestra and the soloist played elegantly. The balances between the two were impeccable, especially when a theme is tossed back and forth between them. The orchestra plays with incredible precision. It seemed at times as though three different woodwinds were being played simultaneously by the same person, rather than by three different musicians. The audience gave repeated curtain calls for Hochman, Noseda, and the orchestra. During intermission, I met Hochman, who was in the Grand Lobby signing autographs. I now have another to add to my collection.

The real treat of the evening was the Tchaikovsky Third Symphony, subtitled “Polish”, although that was a name attached by the published rather than the composer. The final movement is marked “Tempo di pollacca,” or polka, but it bears no resemblance to actual Polish music. The first of the three Tchaikovsky symphonies are not performed nearly as much as his final three. The first three are obviously less mature, but they also don’t show the composer’s emotional state nearly as much as the final three do. Because of his depression, Tchaikovsky’s final symphonies are full of despair and sadness. But, that cannot be said of his Third. It is bright, melodic, balletic, and colorful. Tchaikovsky’s symphonies do not have a lot of melodic development as one might find in the works of the classic and early romantic periods, such as Mozart and Beethoven. In fact, Beethoven could take a few notes and build a whole movement around them by changing the key, inverting the notes, embellishing the theme, and so on. Tchaikovsky on the other hand created more fully developed melodies and built a movement around having the melody picked up by the various sections of the orchestra, and adding various types of accompaniment. He frequently used the woodwinds, for example, to provide ascending and descending runs behind the melody. But the melody remained paramount. The Third is so full of melody and wonderful orchestration that structure is less important. This symphony is in five movements, rather than the traditional four. The PSO played this music with great aplomb, for example, the end of the third movement, the composer included some of the most piano of pianissimos. This includes plucked strings and French horns. This section was played with such skill that the sound never wavered and even the horns remained smooth and controlled. Throughout the work, the trombones sounded polished and never shrill or piercing. The strings had great ensemble, and played with precision. As noted above, the winds played so accurately that I find it hard to believe that there are multiple musicians involved. Tchaikovsky’s music was so brilliantly and confidently played that the PSO and Noseda received at least four curtain calls.

Heinz Hall plays a role in the PSO’s sound. I sat near the rear of the orchestra section and it was apparent to me that the hall’s reverberation did not blur the sound, and it is not so dry that the brass, for example, sounds cold or harsh.

Kudos, however, must be given to Gianandrea Noseda. He is a tall man in his mid-40s and he connected well with the orchestra. During the curtain calls, they refused his invitation to stand and they too applauded Noseda. His conducting style is interesting. Because of his height, he seems to reach over the orchestra, providing the beat as well as direction to the players. He has long fingers that seem flexible, almost as if he had no bones in them. The last time I saw such hands were those of the legendary Leopold Stokowki, who was a great showman when he conducted. Noseda’s interpretations seemed right on the mark, even if I thought that the tempo in the second movement of the Tchaikovsky was a bit fast. But that is such a small quibble. It was a great pleasure hearing this concert. Noseda and Hochman have great futures, given their ages and talents. The PSO never fails to impress.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Cyborg Soldier- the title says it all

A thoroughly silly movie starring Tiffany Amber Thiessen and Bruce Greenwood. I always wonder how actors can emote when they know they are acting in a trash movie. Greenwood, once in the sublime and heartbreaking “Erotica”, overacts here to the degree that maybe he was trying to breathe life into “Cyborg.” The continuity is terrible. The actors are driving down the street in the winter and turn the corner and its fall. Hamilton, Ontario’s weather is stranger than I thought. If Ms. Thiessen isn’t careful, she will become the next Kirstie Alley, starring in her own fat-actor TV show. This flick went straight to DVD and then to Showtime. And I pay extra for premium channels? I guess the joke is on me.

The ASO- March must be a good month


LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2

BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3


Vassily Sinaisky

Kirill Gerstein

Last evening’s ASO concert was one of those opportunities to appreciate greatness. The orchestra sounded like it is a top-tier ensemble. And I think I know why. More on that later. .. The Beethoven overture is enjoyable with the nice touch of an off-stage trumpet. At the start of the piece there were some missteps in the winds and brass, which lead me to believe that it was going to be another mediocre concert, but fortunately that all changed with the performance of the Liszt piano concerto. I am not all that familiar with that piece, since I have not paid much attention to the oeuvre of Liszt. Of those pieces that I know, they are bombastic and colorful. He did not hesitate to write fortissimo, using bright and colorful orchestration. I am more familiar with the works of movie-music composers Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, and Dmitri Tiomkin, who drew upon the Liszt tradition. This piano concerto is not in the traditional three-movement structure and it is played without break. It strikes me as more of a rhapsody, but I guess Liszt could call it whatever he wanted. The orchestra and soloist were finely coordinated without either dominating the other- it was a real partnership. Kiril Gerstein was wonderful. He has a large and strong tone that resonated beautifully in the weird acoustics of ASO Symphony Hall. His fingers flew with great accuracy and Sinaisky paid close attention to the pianist in order to ensure that the orchestra provided sure accompaniment. The piece requires the use of the entire keyboard, with many runs swirling around themes. Gerstein was certainly up to the task, and he received a deserved standing ovation with numerous curtain calls. In response, he played an encore of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”, arranged by Earl Wide, who, to our collective loss, recently died. Wild was frequently a purveyor of light classical or pop classical music. His arrangement here was full of Lisztian-like runs swirling around the Gershwin melody. Again, Gerstein was masterful and again received several curtain calls.

One note, in the middle of the Liszt there is a slight silent pause. Unfortunately, a cell phone went off in the middle of the row in which I was seated. It had an obnoxious ring tone. In addition, the owner must have been perplexed about how to turn it off since it went on for awhile. I looked to my right and saw the phone was in the hands of an older lady who was struggling to master the errant phone. Sinaisky briefly delayed continuing until the phone was silenced. He looked perturbed, as he should. I found the incident both irritating and hilarious!

Stravinky’s “Petruska” is one of the masterpieces of 20th century music, along with the composer’s “Rite of Spring” and “Firebird” ballets. This is complex music requiring virtuosic playing from all the sections of the orchestra. At times, it has an unusual rhythmic structure that must be very difficult to count! The ensemble of the orchestra as first-rate, and the soloists throughout were excellent, save the tuba in its solos. I can’t be too critical because it’s an unwieldy instrument that does not frequently have the spotlight on it so I am not really sure what to expect anyway. The bassoon solo at the beginning of the piece was wonderful. Its deep and rich reedy tone was powerful. The percussion section played admirably, underscoring and focusing the rich rhythms. The brass had a golden sound, so much different than the stridency that I have come to expect from them. This is exciting music with occasional dissonance that anticipates the much grittier and thunderous “Rite”. All in all, this was a fine performance.

So, you might, ask, why did I like the ASO so much more this time? First, I was seated about three rows in front of the stage, to the left. This is the second time I have sat this in section. In most halls, this is not necessarily a desirable location, but at the ASO Symphony Hall, it seems to mute the stridency of the brass. Second, I believe, was Sinaisky. He walked onto the stage with hair so high he looked like “Eraserhead.” He walked as if his patent-leather shoes were too tight. But on the podium, he took command of the orchestra. He uses a baton that he moves from hand to hand. He is no mere human metronome. He cues the orchestral sections and, through his motions, instructs them on what he wants. He particularly focused on the violins seemingly to encourage more rubato. I have noticed in the past that the ASO strings do not play with the passion that I have seen in many orchestras. In its halcyon days under conductor Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia strings swayed with synchronicity when they played. Only the first chairs in the first violins have this same intensity in the ASO. Sinaisky is not a well-known conductor but I believe he is of the first order. While I don’t have a real clue about this, he seemed to have a real rapport with the orchestra. Robert Spano, the ASO music director, strikes me as having a bit of an intellectual approach to conducting, that is, he seems less involved, in contrast to Sinaisky’s total involvement. In spite of high hair and tight shoes, Sinaisky is a winner.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Book of Eli- a movie only Kirk Cameron could love

“The Book of Eli” is a bad movie.

From Jason Buchanan, All Movie Guide “ In a post-apocalyptic America where the once-picturesque countryside has become a desolate and violent wasteland, one man (Denzel Washington) fights to protect that sacred tome that could hold the key to the survival of the human race in this futuristic thriller from filmmaking duo Albert and Allen Hughes (From Hell and Dead Presidents). Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, and Ray Stevenson co-star in the Warner Bros. production.

Where to begin, where to begin…

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t been a fan of Denzel Washington since the “St. Elsewhere Days.” I also have post-apocalyptic fatigue, after have seen “The Road”, although the latter is a better movie. But I had two hours to kill and murdered them with Eli.

The plot has to do with a hero, Washington, who is trekking across the US to the west coast. The apocalypse was briefly described as the sun touching the earth and had something to do with religion. I interpreted this to mean that there was a nuclear war between two or more religious traditions. As was once said, “God, protect me from your followers.” The long and the short is that Washington has the only remaining copy of the Christian bible. How these folks know this is not made clear. Maybe a message from the deity? There is a character named Carnegie who is a book collector (get the reference?) who wants the last copy of this valuable text. Why is it valuable to Carnegie? Because he believes it will be the vehicle he can ride to increase his power over more people. Sounds right to me. Anyway, he and Washington have their own mini-war over the good book. Along the way, Washington goes into a house with his female companion, Solare, to seek shelter. They meet George and Martha (oh, come on). Given today’s health care reform debate, Harry and Louise would have been better. Martha had the shakes, which according to Washington, was because she had eaten too many humans.

Washington eventually gives the book to Carnegie, but with a twist. I won’t reveal it, but at the point in the movie it is revealed, I couldn’t have cared less. In the end, Washington ends up dictating the book from memory to a grizzled Malcolm McDowell (shades of “Fahrenheit 451,” a much better movie). Throughout this journey, Washington displays martial arts skills that are better than Jackie Chan, but there is no explanation of why is he is such a super killer.

Did it not occur to anyone that the major conflict causing the devastation of the civilized world was fought, in part, because of the bible? Did it not occur to anyone that another war was being fought to gain ownership of the bible because it would give the owner a greater opportunity to control others? My guess is that Carnegie couldn’t wait to put on a pair of red slippers, a pointy hat, and gold-decorated robes. I wonder if Muslims who watch the movie wonder why no one was fighting over the Quran.

Washington never cracks a smile throughout this whole ordeal, and come to think of it, no one else does either. It is a lugubrious movie that is silly in its use of the bible as its centerpiece. Frankly, given what happens I can’t imagine why anyone would want to have this book around given its capacity to encourage such evil in people. Oh, I forgot that’s how it’s used today and we still put up with it and believe that it’s god is better than other people’s god. God save us.

Monday, March 1, 2010

"Embarrassing Bodies"- Lets schedule it opposite Oprah at dinner time

There is a TV show on BBCs Channel 4 called “Embarrassing Bodies.” The show presents various illnesses and diseases that occur usually on intimate parts of the body. This past week we saw a quite close up look at a severe case of hemorrhoids, a rash on a male pubic area, and a scar from an episiotomy. Only Larry Flynt’s “Hustler” had closer views with a brighter light. It’s unfortunate that the show is not called “Embarrassing Conditions” because the current title seems to stigmatize the patient’s body rather than the illness. The show is hosted by one Christian Jesson, MD. He is a blond Nordic-looking fellow who seems to find any excuse to remove his shirt. He is usually delegated any activity that requires examining female breasts. He is openly gay, according to Wikipedia. There is also one Pixie McKenna, MD, who peers under sheets covering spread legs. While doing her exams, her forehead becomes wrinkled, almost as if she is frightened. I assume she is trying to look sympathetic to the itch or pain, but she looks like she is horrified. I would not want her looking at my intimate parts. The third physician is Dawn Harper, MD. Not much to comment about her. The show is interesting, but I find myself looking away from the TV. Have you ever seen a close-up of roids? If the show were on American TV, everything would be so pixeled out that there would not be much to see. Thanks goodness for our Puritanical heritage. It protects us from so much reality, especially during my dinner time.