Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Man and a Woman- a case for great genes

I watched “A Man and a Woman” last evening.

From Wikipedia: A Man and a Woman is a 1966 French film. The movie was written by Claude Lelouch and Pierre Uytterhoeven, and directed by Lelouch. It is notable for its lush photography (Lelouch had a background in advertising photography), which features frequent segues between full color, black-and-white, and sepia-toned shots, and for its memorable musical score by Francis Lai. The film tells the story of a young widow, Anne (Anouk Aimée), a film script supervisor whose late husband (Pierre Barouh) was a stuntman and died in an on-set accident, and a widower, Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a race car driver whose wife committed suicide after Jean-Louis was in a near fatal crash during the 24 hours of Le Mans. They meet at their respective children's school in Deauville. They share a ride home to Paris one night after Anne misses the last train, and their mutual attraction is immediate. The story follows their budding relationship over the course of several trips back to Deauville, and as they fall in love despite Anne's feelings of guilt and loss over her deceased husband. After a night together in Deauville, Anne finds herself unable to be unfaithful to the memory of her husband, and decides to leave Jean-Louis. While she is traveling back to Paris by train, Jean-Louis races to meet her at the station, and when she gets off the train she is surprised to see him there. Happy that her lover had come back for her, they embrace as the film ends, the final outcome of the relationship left open to interpretation.
The movie holds up very well after all of these years. One could quibble about the editing or about some of the artsy color effects, but the love story is strong and compelling. Anouk Aimee is stunning. She has beautiful hair that is cut about shoulder-length. It continually falls in her face and she brushes it back in a wonderfully feminine way. Her eyebrows are natural and not overfly harvested like is the fashion today. Trintigant is very handsome. He has an incredible profile. Even Pierre Barouh was no slouch in the looks department. These are a trio of the genetically blessed. There are also two child actors who play the golden couple’s offspring. They are natural and unaffected.

There are several memorable scenes. The first is when Trintignant is driving from the Monte Carlo race to Paris to see Aimee. He plays out in his head how the scene will unfold. He will go to the door and will rouse the concierge in order to find the right apartment. He will walk up the steps and ring the bell, but only once since he didn’t want to frighten her. She will open the door and he will walk in. He remembers, however, that he forgot to say something and rehearses what he will see. Of course when he gets to her apartment, none of this transpires since she isn’t there! This scene rings so true for all of us who rehearse what we are going to say in a particularly circumstance, only to find in actuality it is inappropriate or not necessary. There is a scene where the golden couple are in bed attempting to be intimate. The scene is overly long, but during this close contact, she begins to think of her dead husband and how much he meant to her. The film cuts between the love making and the memory. Trintignant mostly stays on top and rolls around. It looked silly, but was an important scene to set up the end of the movie. Another great scene is when they are at the Deauville beach watching a man walking his dog. Trintignant asks if she knows of the sculptor Giacometti. She says yes. He quotes the artist as having said that if there was a fire and he had a choice to save a Rembrandt or a cat, he would choose the cat. She finished the quote by saying “and then I would let it go free.” This was a very literate piece of dialogue the likes of which we don’t hear in movies of late.

One thing that I did notice is that a cigarette appears in every scene. In fact, it becomes an actor. The way that it is held, lit, and extinguished reflects the characters’ moods and attitudes. It was interesting to watch but all I could think of was how it was going to make her beautiful hair smell!

The score was beautiful and obviously French. It was a big hit in the US- yes, at one time we actually admired what other countries produced. No so much today.

In researching this review, I found that Aimee was married to Barouh and also to Albert Finney. Trintignant was married to Stephane Audran, another French actress. Wow, what a bunch of great genes!

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Big Bang- or not

I was watching a show last night about the “Big Bang.”  I have been intrigued by the notion that if we peer far out enough in space we would be able to see the “Bang”, but I have never really heard how far we have been actually able to see.  I now have my answer.  According to astronomers and physicists, the universe is about 14 billion years old.  We have been able to see, through heat signatures from the bang, out to about 380,000 years after the dawn of creation.   In proportion to the age of the universe, that’s not bad, but of course, in relation to our short life span it seems like forever.   At 380,000 years out, the expanding universe is just beginning to form stars and galaxies.  If we were able to peer 300,000 years from creation, we would mostly only see the gases and dust that still existed after the bang.  Thus, we can see when celestial bodies begin to form, but we may never be able to actually see the bang itself.   Some theoretical physicists, who seem more like religious mystics than scientists, postulate that there are multiple universes, all created from their own Big Bangs.  Each of those universes could have laws of physics quite different from our own, since it likely that the actual laws governing each are determined fractions of seconds after the creation.  Some physicists hypothesize that our universe, and indeed all of the universes, will collapse inward only to start everything all over again. 

There apparently is still no answer to why the bang in the first place and also no description of what the compressed matter that caused the explosion was surrounded with.  Maybe that will wait until another Discovery Channel show. 

I have recently become dubious of some theoretical physicists, including Stephen Hawking, who talk about string theory and m-theory.  Their theories have arisen from attempts to reconcile Einsteinian macro physics, which explain fairly well the functioning of the macro universe, with that of quantum mechanics, that explains equally well the micro level universe.  Theoretical physicists want to develop a theory of everything that can explain it all.  In their efforts, they develop models that include hypothetical constructs that can explain the universe, but the hypothetical constructs themselves are totally immeasurable.  For example, m-theory posits that there are 12 (some say 11) dimensions, only four of which are currently  measurable (height, width, depth, and time).   These theoreticians are not even sure that they will ever be able to measure them.  If this is the case and measurement is the sine qua non of science, why then introduce immeasurable  hypothetical constructs?  It seems no different than saying that god is the theory of everything.  Just because it appears to explain doesn't mean that is how it actually works 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Annis horribilis

Suzanne Vega was on “Sunday Morning” today.  She is a singer who reached her peak in the late 1980’s with songs like “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.”  She is 51 years old.  She said several things that rang the proverbial bell for me.  The first is that fame is like a next door neighbor- you often wave and say hello, but you can’t call them in the middle of the night when you are in trouble.  The second was about her annis  horribilis, 2002.  In that year, her brother died, she got a divorce, and her record label dropped her.  Now, in 2010, she married the love of her youth, after recently reconnecting.  She also has recently recorded a new album. 

Her experience resonated with me.  We all have terrible years where we feel that things can’t get much worse; where we say to ourselves that this is the worst experience of my life.  Sometimes we only recognize a terrible year in retrospect.   Sometimes the terrible year’s events send us into tailspins, the harmful effects of which we don’t appreciate until years later.  And sometimes, we come out stronger as a result and sometimes we don’t.   Life deals all of us bad hands from time to time.    But life is a process and we are beings that are always evolving.  But in this case, evolution does not necessarily mean the survival of our best characteristics. 

I have had several bad years.  1985 was one, 1994 was another, as was 2005. Have I learned from these terrible years and circumstances?  Indeed I have, and some of the lessons are still being revealed.  Maybe at some time I will be able to paint a mental picture of it all in order to fully comprehend what happend.  I am not there yet, but will continue to try. 

 At least to some degree then, Suzanne Vega and I share something in common.  But my guess is that it’s something we all I.  

Fahrenheit 451- a hot movie

Fahrenheit 451 was a movie released in 1966.

From Wikipedia: The novel (on which the movie is based)presents a future American society in which the masses are hedonistic and critical thought through reading is outlawed. The central character, Guy Montag, is employed as a "fireman" (which, in this future, means "bookburner"). The number "451" refers to the temperature at which book paper combusts. The "firemen" burn them "for the good of humanity".

The movie starred Julie Christie and Oskar Werner.  Christie plays Montag’s wife, Linda.  She is a selfish woman who is into appearances and totally mesmerized by television.  Christie also plays another character Clarisse, who is the opposite of Linda.  Through the movie, Montag finds himself drawn to Clarisse as a person, but also for her love of books, which are of course outlawed in this American-based future.   The movie was mostly filmed in a studio, but had some interesting outdoor scenes, especially those that used the experimental monorail constructed near Orleans, France.  There are also scenes of 1960’s English apartment and housing developments that presaged Brutalism.  All of these buildings emphasize repetitive architecture that is likely a statement by Truffaut of the dehumanization of society.
Christie is a magnificent actress, save for her acting in “Doctor Zhivago.”  Here she portrays the airheaded zombielike wife in a way that would make Stepford wives proud.  Yet, she portrays Clarisse as an intriguingly bright woman who is charming, intelligent and graceful.  Werner portrays Montag as constricted, depressed person who finds his marriage and his job unfulfilling.  Werner was an Austrian actor who did not have many movies to his credit when he died in 198.  His death  was  related to alcoholism.  Apparently he and Truffaut did not get along during the making of this movie, which may have accounted for his intensely controlled performance. 

The ending of the movie shows how books are protected for future generations and it contains scenes from the beautiful English countryside. The photography was by Nicolas Roeg, who went on to fame with “The Man who Fell to Earth”, another movie about a sad future where corporations run and ruin people’s lives. 
It is interesting to look at movies about the future from times past.  Truffaut accurately predicted flat screen TVs and helicopter-based law enforcement, yet the telephones looked antiquated even by 1960s- standards.  One can argue whether we have reached the point of de-individualization predicted in the movie.  But for me, the attack on knowledge, as represented in the movie by the books, is certainly a part of our culture today.  Our fears of experts, of statistics, of evolution, and of science in general are all part of this war.  

I have been a fan of monorails for some time.  They seem to be a wonderful response to public transportation needs but have failed to attract much attention.  They can be built with mostly off-site construction; they can wend their way around buildings, and can have a minimal impact on regular traffic flow.  Instead, we have a tremendous rush by public officials to build at-grade light rail system that interfere with other traffic and which are very expensive to build.  The monorail in “Fahrenheit 451” was a demonstration track that has unfortunately been dismantled.   By the way, in the early 1960’s, a German manufacturer, Alweg, offered a free monorail system to the city of Los Angeles, which was turned down in favor of buses.  Subsequently a subway system has been built in LA that seems to go where no one wants to go, and which does not cover as much area as the free monorail would have.  Go figure! 

I like “Fahrenheit 451” and believe that the time is ripe for a remake.  Maybe it is too hot to handle today (pardon the pun) but done by the right director, it could tell a larger audience much about ourselves and the culture we have created. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

Verdi's Requim- oh hell no!

Angela Brown

Dimitri Pittas

ASO and Chorus

Big Hair

Last night’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert presented Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, written in 1874. The performance was quite good, especially the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. There were also four soloists: Angela Brown (soprano), Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-soprano), Dimitri Pittas (tenor), and Burak Bilgili (bass). Of the four, Maultsby was the weakness, particularly in her lower range. She struggled with volume, and was sometimes drowned by the orchestra and chorus. The opening section, titled “Requiem” was very good. The chorus began with a wonderfully soft sound that seemed to rise out of the air handling rumble of the auditorium. It was quite impressive. The chorus had great ensemble, which is stellar with 200 voices. The only misstep is the beginning was the introduction of the French horns, which were a bit pitchy. The Tuba Mirum section highlighted the ASO brass very well. The off-stage trumpets were very effective. Symphony Hall seems designed for large choral works like this. The sound was big and clear. All in all the performance was very competent, and the audience afforded the performers a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls.

Several things bothered me during the performance. First, the person sitting in front of me had the biggest hair that managed to block my view of the stage. Given that I was in the nose-bleed section, it had to be really large hair. Second, a person sitting behind me kept sniffling with every breath. Now I will grant that the pollen levels have been very high in Atlanta of late, but it would have better had the person enjoyed the concert from the aisles and sucked in whatever they were sucking in in splendid isolation. Third, a cell phone went off in the audience during a quiet portion of the Requiem. It took all of us just a few seconds to locate with our ears where the phone was. Apparently the owner was not so swift and it took maybe 30 seconds for her to figure out it was her phone. This is nearly inexcusable, especially since a pre-concert announcement was made to turn off phones.

Finally, I must say that I do not like Verdi’s Requiem very much. It strikes me as very angry music. But why shouldn’t it? The text is full of “This day, this day of wrath shall consume the world in ashes”,” What shall I, a wretch say?”, “I groan, like the sinner that I am”, “When the damned are cast away and consigned to the searing flames,” “Just judge of vengeance”, etc. The fear and dread in the text seem so contrary to what I want when my loves ones or I die. The god portrayed here is all about judgment of weak and sinful man that seems not very comforting in a time of deep sorrow. Christians have designed for themselves a terrible god of wrath and vengeance. I for one would like a requiem that acknowledges the terrible loss of someone that will never been seen again. I would like a requiem that helped me grieve without focusing on the evil that men do. I would like music that keeps good company with the sadness, e.g., Gorecki’s Third or Kilar’s Piano concerto (2nd movement), or even the overused Barber Adagio. I would like music that pays homage to the life of the person who died. I would like music of hope for the future of mankind e.g., a movement of one of Bach’s Brandenburgs. Much great and wonderful music has been written for the Christian liturgy (e.g, the chants and English plain songs) but the negativity and fear of some of it is just not for me. I am pretty certain that I shall never hear another performance of the Verdi Requiem. Too angry, too fearful- which makes me sad.

But Verdi has his bright side. He was suspicious of organized religion. He cautioned a member of his family “Stay away from the priests.” Good advice, particularly if the family member was a young boy.

Friday, April 16, 2010


I just spent a few days in Chicago.  I had not been there is a few years and was surprised how beautiful it is.The city's architecture is wonderful, with few misses.  The mix between the old and the new is exciting and the Millennium Park is a jewel.  The Gehry-designed Pritkzger amphitheater is awe inspiring.

To see my complete album, go to http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=54887&id=1510516273&l=483fe6333b

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The PSO and a new Prokofiev

Yan Pascal Tortelier

Stephen Hough

The program for the April 9th Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was:

Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor

Stephen Hough, piano

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

The Tchaikovsky is a rarely heard piece and it is unusual to begin a concert with a concerto. It results in late comers being seated after the first movement. This is a sure way to interrupt the flow of the music. It also results in a few uncomfortable moments for the conductor and soloist who must wait until everyone is in their seat and finished coughing. The second piano concerto is nowhere as popular or famous as the composer’s first. The first movement is full of nice sounds but, for me, there were no great melodic moments. There is a grand cadenza that looks fiendishly difficult and which Hough mastered quite nicely. The second movement begins with an unusual three part dialogue between the first violinist, the first cellist, and the piano soloist. It is nothing like a triple concerto, but it may be more like a piano trio. The final movement is easily recognizable as Tchaikovsky- at various places it sounds like the beginning of the “1812 Overture”, or “March Slav” or the three ballets. The concerto is also characterized by few instances where the piano and orchestra play together. Rather it’s the orchestra, then the piano and back to the orchestra. All in all, this piece is not one my top ten list. Hough acquitted himself quite nicely. He is master technician and his playing is large and well controlled. The audience applauded after each movement. This is the first time that I have heard this in Pittsburgh. It is annoying and interrupts the progression of the piece. Mr Hough also received several curtain calls, and he was generous enough to play an encore. Unfortunately I did not recognize it.

The second half of the concert was magnificent. The Prokofiev Symphony is a real 20th century masterpiece. I heard it in Atlanta this year and that review appears elsewhere. The first movement begins with an ascending melody of indistinct rhythm which sets the direction for the entire piece. (Another symphony that begins this way is Tchaikovsky’s first symphony “Winder Dreams” where the introductory theme captures the cold and isolation of winter). Prokofiev as a master of theme development and each movement is characterized by themes being subtly changed and bounced around the orchestra. But Tortelier did something that I have never heard before, and it was thrilling. Prokofiev could be quite lyrical in a sometimes discordant and rhythmically obtuse way. This lyricism often appears in the violins and woodwinds. But then, Prokofiev would use the brass to “melt” the lyricism. It is as if Prokofiev was saying to himself “enough of the sweet stuff”! Tortelier let the Pittsburgh brass play more loudly that I have heard in other interpretations. The conductor seemed to accentuate the tension between the lyrical strings and the discordant brass. This made for a darker and more sinister (in a good way) version of the piece. And when the Pittsburgh brass play, they are precise, taut and magnificent. Tortelier’s interpretation was thrilling and the PSO played magnificently. Unfortunately there was that annoying applause between movements.

I must mention one other small point. I was sitting at the rear of the orchestra under the dress circle overhang. Someone opened a cellophane wrapper and the sound, which bounced off the ceiling, was everywhere! I kept looking up to see if some apparition had a cough. It was a good demonstration of how important acoustics can be.

Friday, April 2, 2010

ASO for April- a "C" with a large standard deviation

 STRAVINSKY: Suite from Pulcinella

BACH: Concerto in D minor
STRAVINSKY: Suite from The Firebird
 The Perfectly Awful Atlanta Symphony Hall
Kristjan Jarvi
Simone Dinnerstein
The April 1 Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert was a mixed blessing.  The guest conductor was Krisjan Jarvi along with pianist Simone Dinnerstein. 

The Pulcinella suite…..(From Wikipedia) is a ballet by Igor Stravinsky based on an 18th-century play — Pulcinella is a character originating from Commedia dell'arte. The ballet premiered in Paris on 15 May 1920 under the baton of Ernest Ansermet. The dancer Léonide Massine created both the libretto and choreography, and Pablo Picasso designed the original costumes and sets. It was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev.

Diaghilev wanted a ballet based on an early eighteenth-century Commedia dell'arte libretto and music he thought was composed by Giovanni Pergolesi. Although the music was then attributed to Pergolesi, much has since proved to be spurious; some of it may have been written by Domenico Gallo, Carlo Ignazio Monza, and possibly Alessandro Parisotti and Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer. Conductor Ernest Ansermet wrote to Stravinsky in 1919 about the prospect, but the composer initially did not like the idea of music by Pergolesi. However, once he studied the scores, which Diaghilev had found in libraries in Naples and London, he changed his mind. Stravinsky rewrote this older music in a more modern way by borrowing specific themes and textures, but interjecting modern rhythms, cadences and harmonies. Pulcinella is scored for a modern chamber orchestra with soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists. Pulcinella is often considered to be the first piece of Stravinsky's neoclassical period.

To me Stravinsky was the greatest of composers of the 20th century. His three early ballets (The Rite of spring, The Firebird, and Petrushka) changed the course of music and opened the door to new rhythms, chords, dissonance, etc.  I was disappointed right at the start of  Jarvi’s interpretation.  The orchestra seemed disinterested, as did the conductor.  He led the orchestra as if he was a human metronome, not giving much direction to the players and not attending to balances.  Key sol pieces by the concertmaster and the lead cellist were drowned out by the sound of the orchestra. The rhythms were lax, and the whole piece was marked by excessive legato.  The result was a boated, fluffy performance, the aural equivalent of the Sta-Puft marshmallow man.  There were also several intonation problems in the French horn, once called “the ill-wind that nobody blow good.”  But, an amazing coincidence happened on my drive home that reinforced my view.  The local NPR station, in its New York Philharmonic broadcast, carried a mid-1970s recording of Pulcinella conducted by Pierre Boulez.  After getting over the somewhat bright acoustics of the recording, it became clear to me why Jarvi’s interpretation displeased me so much.  Boulez’s take on the music was characterized by a brisk pace, with lean and disciplined instrumentals.  The orchestra was focused and its ensemble was tight.  The solo pieces were nicely etched against a more subtle orchestral background than Jarvi produced with the ASO.  Boulez also made the music a bit menacing as if the comedy of the story had a dark underside, but isn’t that how comedy is?  In addition, the flute work by the Philharmonic winds had a wonderful rich tone, rather than the more metallic sound produced by the ASO.

So, after Pulcinella, I did not have high hopes for the rest of the concert. 

After furniture rearranging (something I wish I didn’t have to see), Ms. Dinnerstein appeared with Jarvi to play the Bach concerto.  Ms.  Dinnerstein’s major claim to fame, and it’s a big one, is based on her Bach interpretations.  This concerto, composed in about 1738, is a wonderful example of Bach’s art.  It is inventive- it takes its themes and deconstructs them, moves them between the soloist and orchestra, and modifies them within the piano solos and the orchestra separately.  It is not “sewing machine music”, like that composed by Bach’s contemporary, Vivaldi.  Ms. Dinnerstein has the technical competence to pull off this fairly complicated music.  Her greatest strength in this performance, however, was her total control of the dynamics of the piano.  She is subtle in using the pianissimos and fortes that Bach used throughout this piece.  The same could not be said of Jarvi.  He seemed to be conducting without listening to Dinnerstein.  At times, the string orchestra again drowned out the soloist, particularly in the Adagio movement.  I am always will to blame the lack of balance on the hall, but I am not so sure in this case.  Notwithstanding this, Ms. Dinnerstein made the piece enjoyable. 

So far, the concert had been a major disappointment, and then came The Firebird.  Jarvi’s take on this piece was incredible.  From Wikipedia:  The Firebird (French: L'Oiseau de feu) is a 1910 ballet by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Michel Fokine. The ballet is based on Russian folk tales of the magical glowing bird of the same name that is both a blessing and a curse to its captor. The ballet has historic significance not only as Stravinsky's 'breakthrough piece' ("Mark him well", said Diaghilev to Tamara Karsavina, who was dancing the title role: "He is a man on the eve of celebrity..."), but also as the beginning of the collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky that would also produce Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

Jarvi seemed to revel in the music.  He became alive, controlling the orchestra with his movements and facial expressions.  He obviously enjoyed the music and the ASO responded accordingly.  Their playing was first rate, with only an occasional issue of pitchiness (with all due respect to Randy Jackson).  The percussion section was wonderful, as were the trombones and tuba.   The latter had a wonderful bite when it was called for.  The “Infernal Dance” section always bursts forth from the wonderful rondo that precedes it.  This “Infernal Dance” was far more that simply loud.  It made the hair on my arms tingle.  It was big, bold, and powerful.  This was the way a first-rate ensemble would sound.  The “Final Hymn” section was also ear opening.  Jarvi’s pace was rapid and quite staccato.  I was able to hear this familiar music with new ears.  His interpretation was powerful and exciting.  “The Firebird” performance was worth the price of admission, even in spite of the mediocre that came before it. 

I will make just a few other comments.  Jarvi’s first wife was Leila Josefowicz, who was soloist with the ASO this year and the Pittsburgh Symphony last year.  His daughter’s name is Avalon, which I think is quite nice.  Jarvi wore a long black velvet coat, which was nicely tailored to his trim frame.  The reason that I comment is that so many conductors today wear tents.  And finally, I couldn’t tell who had shinier hair- Jarvi or Dinnerstein, but both were advertisements for healthy hair.