Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Duck- here come the swans

“Black Swan” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Swan_(film))  is a powerful film that showcases Natalie Portman’s skill as an actor in her role as Nina.  Much has been said about the movie and I have only a few observations.  The storyline reminded me, as it has others, of Polanski’s “Repulsion” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repulsion_(film))  Both are about beautiful and women who begin to have hallucinations and delusions.  The hallucinations that Deneuve had in Polanski’s film were really creepy and very well done.  I remember seeing hands coming out of walls grabbing at Deneuve’s character.   Director Darren Aronofsky created equally frightening effects, especially when Nina’s skin begins to look like the skin of a swan without its feathers.  Similarly, when she becomes the Black Swan, she sprouts some pretty amazing swan wings.  This, of course, signaled her emotional transformation to the swan character, which had previously eluded her.  Barbara Hershey was effective as Portman’s mother.  She had just enough menace in her relationship to Nina to make one uneasy, but not so much that the viewer blames her for her daughter’s flame out.  Vincent Cassel is also notable as the sometimes smarmy but always narcissistic choreographer.  Aronofsky is quite skilled at not revealing to us whether the smarminess is real or part of Nina’s deteriorating mental health- or both. 

Aronofsky is a great director.  He has done the quirky “Pi”, the gritty “The Wrestler”, and the beautiful “The Fountain.”  He also has used Clint Mansell to write soundtrack music for his films.  I particularly liked Mansell’s lyrical pieces for “the Fountain,” but I found the music weaker for this film, yet the music of Tchaikovsky that is used is so majestic and powerful.
Much of the choreography is the movie is done by Benjamin Millepied, who also serves as the Swan’s cavalier.  Millipied  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Millepied) is also the father of Portman’s child. 

Finally, I read a review of the movie by members of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater.  They were generally positive about the film, as it does fairly represent the angst of auditions and the power of choreographers.  However, one of the dancers made a comment that as well as Portman dances in the film, her arms are not long enough to be a really great ballet dancer.  After having that drawn to my attention, I think I agree. 
This is a great film- short arms to the contrary.  

Help- I've fallen into depression and I can't get up.

I caught the second-half of “The Ice Storm” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ice_Storm_(film)) the other night.  Not having seen it in awhile, I had forgotten what a good cast it had:
Obviously many went on to bigger and better things in their careers.  Watching the movie is a perfect way to become seriously depressed and verging on the suicidal.  It is unrelenting in its depiction of the hopelessness of the characters and their struggle to make sense of their lives.  Even the ending provided little hope for the survivors to create something positive in their lives.  All in all, I think it is an overly bleak view of these characters.  Not all films have to be uplifting, but this is so devoid of positives that it left me wanting Prozac. 

As an aside, Joan Allen looks terrible in her role.  She is tall and thin, but her wardrobe accentuates her angularity.  Her face is gaunt- maybe good for the character she is playing, but probably not good for her health.  Her hair appeared dry and thin.  Maybe she has anorexia.  Pass me another pill.  

A Warm Cello

Karen Freer, from the Emory Department of Music and the ASO, performed in a recital with pianist Laura Gordy.  The program included” Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Major for Viol da Gamba,” Britten’s “Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello, op. 72,” Boccherini’s “Sonata in A Major,” and Brahms “Sonata in D Major, op 78.” This was an outstanding recital with an outstanding program.  The Back has a melancholic Andante that is so beautiful.  Bach understood the value of writing slow melodies that use the entire bow, rather than the quick bowings that characterized the work of many of his contemporaries.  The Britten was a startlingly original work.  Its Lamento section was deeply elegiac and touching.  It is followed by the Canto Secondo section that reacts to the lament through quiet and sad contemplation.  The section titled Marcia, according to the notes by Ms. Freer, “suggests the approach and retreat of a fife and drum corps.”  Indeed, it was easy to visualize this through Britten’s use of harmonics and tapping of the bow.  The final movement, Moto Perpetuo, has a rapid mosquito-like sound that alternates with the slow theme presented in the earlier Canto section.  Again, according to Freer, “there is an epic battle as if between serenity and hyperactivity, the old and the new.”

The Boccherini Sonata was elegant and also beautiful.  The Brahms sonata was a perfect piece for the cello, even though the music was originally composed for the violin.   The cello’s dark sonorities matched the lush romance of the music.  Brahms had a way with a melody, as well as an understanding of how to develop it.  This was music-making at its best. 

Freer’s playing was superb.  She has a large tone when needed, and the acoustics of Emerson Hall were perfectly suited to the cello.  Ms. Freer is a petite but hard-bodied woman (and I mean that is the sense of physically fit) and I am sure that her strength supports to her ability to tackle such a demanding program.  She also had committed to memory the Britten, which seemed like no small task. 

After the recital, there was a wine and cheese reception for the artists and audience.  Ms. Freer was charming while greeting people and the champagne was quite nice. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Delighful Afternoon

Cecylia Arzewsky (http://www.hambidge.org/FellowsNews/HambidgeDistinguishedArtistAward/tabid/111/Default.aspx) played a noon time recital at the Emory University Carlos Museum. The program included two works by Bach: a partita and a sonata. Ms. Arzewsky performed these difficult works with great aplomb and assurance. My only complaint about her playing was that, at times, her bowing seemed to be off and a subtle screech was apparent. Her instrument was also bright and not all that warm. But I quibble.

Afterward, I had lunch with a friend at a nice little Italian restaurant near the Emory Campus. It helps to have the person recommending an Italian restaurant be Italian herself. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

A Loud "Missa Solemnis"

The Atlanta Symphony with conductor Donald Runnicles is presenting Beethoven’s monumental “Missa Solemnis” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missa_Solemnis_(Beethoven)) this weekend. The soloists include: Christine Brewer, Soprano; Karen Cargill, Mezzo-soprano; Thomas Cooley, Tenor; and Eric Owens, Bass-baritone. Norman Mackenzie prepared the ASO Chorus for the performance. The soloists were outstanding. They were uniformly strong, especially when singing with the full orchestra and chorus. I particularly liked Cooley, who has a rich and strong voice. This is a demanding work not only on the soloists, but on the orchestra as well. It was played without intermission and nonstop, save for a few between-sections tuning. The ASO played quite well, although the French horns still seem to me to have intonation and ensemble problems. David Coucheron, the new ASO, concertmaster was particularly good in the beautiful violin solo in the Sanctus portion of the work. He manages to get every ounce of volume from his instrument. His intonation was spot on and he has a very impressive vibrato.

ASO audiences love choral works, possibly a legacy of the years that Robert Shaw was the music director of the symphony. The ASO chorus (http://www.asochorus.org/) has 200 singers who sing often as if with one voice. Their diction is precise and they never fail to elicit a warm response from the audience. But for me, they are simply too loud, possibly due to the smallish Symphony Hall. I find that they drown out the orchestra and soloists. Because they have such tremendous volume, they seem to sing without subtlety. They lack nuance. For me, the “Missa Solemnis” would have been better served with about 60 fewer voices.

Payback is a bitch!

On Thursday, I was anticipating my trip to see the ASO.  I stopped at my mailbox to gather the mail.  And what came screaming out at me?  An ad for Weight Watchers New PointsPlus with “It’s a new day” blazoned over a picture of Jennifer Hudson.  The tag line is part of that awful TV commercial she made, about which I have already made known my displeasure. 

Ageism Rears it Ugly Head

Yesterday I read an article about Calvin Klein. As I like to do, I read the comments that people left. Many said that Mr. Klein looks very good for his age. It brought to mind a joke my Dad used to tell. It seems that this was this 12-year old who was going to his first school dance. He told his father that he didn’t want to go because he was afraid to talk to girls. His Dad advised to ask a young lady to dance and then when they start to dance, say something nice about her. So Saturday evening comes and the young man has been standing alone for about 20 minutes. He screws up his courage and asks a young lady to dance, who had been sitting by herself. They get out on the dance floor and his palms were sweating, but he remembered his Father’s advice. So he says to the young lady “Gee, for a fat girl, you don’t stink much!”

To me this joke is funny because the father’s advice, well intentioned as it was, did not impart good manners, and the boy’s comments reveal his feeling about heavy girls.

To me, comments about a person that include the phrase “for his age (or other similar constructions) informs me about how a person thinks about others in the same category. If someone said, “She’s not loud, for a black woman,” or “He’s nice looking, for an Asian man,” or “She is thin, for a Latina”, we would be shocked and probably appalled. It’s no different when referring to someone’s age.

To me, Helen Mirren is beautiful- not for her age. The same is true for Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergin and millions of other mature women. The same is true for mature men. So the lesson is, next time you see me, you can say I look good, but forget about adding “for my age.”  Ageism isn’t pretty at any age.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

This Week's Deep Thoughts

This week’s deep thoughts:
&   Flo has definitely jumped the shark.  Progressive: it’s time to retire her character.

&  “V” has definitely amped up torture on TV.  When Anna (Morena Bacarrin) skins someone, she is evil.  But when the Fifth Column does the same thing, isn’t it equally evil? Or, do the ends justify the means, whether you’re the occupier or the freedom-fighter?  A nice parallel is drawn between Anna trying to subvert Erica’s son Tyler (Logan Huffman, who makes the character seem like a vapid wuss) and Erica trying to subvert Anna’s daughter (a very beautiful Laura Vandervoort).  Bacarrin is superb playing Anna with saccharine sweetness while being totally evil.  She is good in this role.
      Jennifer Hudson is so irritating in the Weight Watchers commercials.  I wonder who decided she can sing.  She screams with no subtlety whatsoever in her voice.  I cringe when I hear her. I think this is the kind of singing that Simon Cowell likes but I don’t- she is terr

Beautiful Guitars!

William Hearn presented a program featuring the guitar, 19th-centery guitar, lute, and chitarrone (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theorbo) at Clayton State’s Spivey Hall.  I was familiar with Mr. Hearn’s playing from his work with the New Trinity Baroque.  The lute is a delicate instrument that is usually too closely microphoned in recordings so that its elegance is often lost.  In playing the Gypsies Lilt, the strident chords were displayed nicely in the Spivey ambiance.  The chitarrone was featured in a piece by Piccinini.  This is a fascinating instrument- it has the usual strings like a lute, but has a large extension for 6 bass strings, which are plucked but not fretted.  This too produces a delicate sound that is pretty spectacular.  Hearn played a piece by Sor using a 19th-century.  While more forthcoming than the lute, this guitar also had a light sound.  The modern guitar was used in a work by contemporary composer Dusan Bagdanovic.  “The Little CafĂ© Suite” (1992) is in four movements each named after a coffee.  Particularly pretty was the Decaf, malinconico.  I was a dreamy, somewhat sad piece.  The final work was by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.  It had influences from both Italy and Spain, at least to me. 

This was a delightful concert.  Mr. Hearn is a skilled performer and he addressed the audience to broaden our understanding of the guitar and music written for it.  For me the only thing missing was the ability to sip a nice warm latte during the performance.  

Sunday, January 16, 2011


To see all of my photos, click here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=105427&id=1510516273&l=94e3124b87

A series of Toccatas were presented in concert by the Emory University Graduate Organ Alumni yesterday.  The venue was the Emerson Concert Hall Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.  The program consisted of 14 toccatas written by composers from Frescobaldi to Ad Wammes.  I was not familiar with several of the modern composers (e.g., Len Bobo).  There were several standout pieces for me.  The first was the “Toccata all’Elevazione” by Frescobaldi.  This early baroque piece did not fare well on the Jaeckel organ.  The structure of the piece was lost in the large romantic organ.  “La Campanella” by Liszt is so over-familiar that it seemed almost silly in the context of the sophistication of the rest of the program.  I particularly like Moonikendam’s Toccata.  It had wonderful pedal notes that underscored the fast keyboard fingering.  I also liked Bobo’s “Toccata from Appalachian Prelude.”  It demonstrated the full range of effects possible on the organ.  The program finished with a nice performance by Hyoun Joo Song of the “Toccata from Symphony V” by Widor. This is a well known piece that is joyful and written to be performed on an organ like the Jaekel.  Some of the pedal notes didn’t have quite the sweep that I have heard from others, but Ms. Song played it very competently. 

The day was beautiful, with just a bit of the snow from Atlanta’s recent winter storm.  The Emory Campus is beautiful with nice architecture that is in keeping with the surrounding residential area.  The area it is in also has a small-town college vibe.  Spent some time at a local coffee shop reading and drinking a latte.  First latte I have enjoyed in some time.  It was a great afternoon. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mental Illness on the National Stage

The shootings in Arizona (and the recent school shootings in Nebraska that did not receive much national attention) (see: http://www.action3news.com/Global/story.asp?S=13826122) were sad for those involved as well as for our nation.  I hope that all involved can endure the pain of their losses and find strength as a result. 
My condolences also go to the parents of Jared Laughner, the alleged shooter.  Their pain, shame, and guilt must be tremendous; particularly as they ponder their contributions to his behavior- as we all do when our offspring do something that is unacceptable.  In time, they may come to realize that, in fact, they are not nearly as responsible as they likely think they are.  I hope that they can endure their pain and find strength also.

I am troubled by the national discussion that Mr. Laughner is mentally ill and that he somehow “slipped between the cracks.” No one bothers to define what they mean by “mental illness” so the analysis is particularly specious.  Further, this kind of analysis is wrong on so many levels.  As best I can tell, there seems to be an assumption that only mentally ill people could shoot innocent people in this manner. (Note that we never called the 9/11 perpetrators mentally ill, but rather “terrorists.”  The national discussion after the Columbine shootings labeled Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as mentally ill also.  Maybe the difference in labeling is that foreigners (especially Muslims) are called terrorists while American killers are “mentally ill.”)

I do not make the assumption that someone who shoots another is mentally ill.  To me, it gives the vast majority of persons with mental illness a bad name.  In fact, people who shoot others are angry, disaffected, marginalized, lonely, unhappy people.  Even with all of that baggage, it does not make all shooters mentally ill.  I have read some of the material written by Laughner that the news media cite as evidence of mental illness.  So far, I have not seen anything that is particularly wild, paranoid, or out of touch.  He may seem angry, disaffected, marginalized, lonely, and unhappy, but so far, I have not seen anything that would lead me to believe he is mentally ill. Because he writes material that is esoteric or focuses on out-of-the-mainstream thought also does not justify calling him mentally ill.  In fact, I was listening to NPR the other day and heard a discussion of poetry on the Krista Tippet “Being” show.  I am way too concrete a thinker to understand poetry and the satisfaction people get from reading it.  But Tippet and her guest talked about poetry in ways that I thought was esoteric and possibly outside of the mainstream.  Tippet kept using the term “the other” to reference people who are different.  If I were like so many discussing the Arizona shooter, I might call Tippet mentally ill, which is likely very untrue. 

If we allow ourselves to tie up Mr. Laughner in a little package called “mentally ill”, we will miss the bigger picture about how people become shooters, for example, what are the political, cultural and societal issues that permit shooting to be an acceptable way to deal with grievances.  We know that there are a myriad of individual, social, family, spiritual issues that make shooting acceptable, but those issues float within a cultural pool.  Let us not fail to address the larger issues while we focus only on the individual and his hypothesized mental illness. 

Finally, if Laughner is found, by competent authority, to be mentally ill, then may we not then say that “he fell through the cracks.”  In fact, there may have been nothing in his behavior that was remarkable (except when people apply present facts to interpret past behavior) that would have caused him to come into contact with a social service agency.  There may have been no cracks to fall through.  Let’s not blame the mental health safety net for somehow failing to see the raging demons in Laughner when there may not have been any that were visible. 

It’s just too easy for us to let ourselves off the hook by saying that shooters like Laughner, Kelbold, and Harris are mentally ill.  To do so says that we want to only hold “sick” individuals responsible rather than examining our own roles in setting the occasion for these tragedies to happen.  Maybe we have no collective guilt, but if we do, let’s be sure we find out why and address it so that situations like Arizona, Nebraska, and Columbine don’t happen again. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

How sublime....

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Robert Spano presented a most intriguing and memorable concert this week.  The program included:
Gandolfi:  Pageant
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
Bartok:  Viola Concerto
Brahms:  Piano Concerto No. 2

The Gandolfi is a fanfare written for the tenth anniversary of Mr. Spano’s directorship with the ASO.  The music struck me as if it was an overture waiting for an opera, ballet, or whatever.  It was pleasant, with a few hummable melodies, but in general I forgot each note as soon as it was played.

The Liszt is colorful, tuneful, but certainly not profound.  It would be equally at home on a pops concert playbill.  The ASO did a wonderful job with the piece and Spano seemed to enjoy it. 

I am a great admirer of Bartok.  Some of his music is undeniably the best of the 20th century.  His “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta” has inspired so many movie rip-offs, but it is eerie, startling, and wonderful.  His “Concerto for Orchestra” is dark, sometimes moody, and clever.  The “Miraculous Mandarin” music is so primitive, colorful, and strange.  So if Bartok composed nothing else, he would have made his mark with these three pieces.  The Viola concerto is another matter.  It was a work left unfinished at his death but was “completed” by various others including his son (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viola_Concerto).  I thought the work does not feel like an integrated whole.  It lacks a strong rhythmic or melodic focus.  The viola, by its very nature, is dark-toned and a bit somber. The soloist for this performance was Reid Harris, the principal Violist of the ASO.  Mr. Harris had not committed the piece to memory, so when he played he frequently was looking down to the music score.  His posture reminded me of students who have yet to master the music.  He seemed to lack confidence and, at times, his sound was totally overwhelmed by the orchestra.  I think this contributed to my feeling that this was a rather lackluster performance. 

After the intermission, Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra to be the soloist in the Brahms.  This concerto is, for me, some of the most sublime music ever composed.  Brahms ability to write a wonderful melody and then develop it is the pinnacle of the romantic period.  It is a long piece- 50 plus minutes, but it went by so quickly.  Bronfman is a master musician.  He is a commanding presence and his strength was evident in the first few notes as well as the last bombastic notes in the finale.  I so thoroughly enjoyed this music and performance.  My only sight quibble was with the French horn players, who are not the best section of the orchestra.  There were a few intonation problems, but they were insignificant when compared to the success of the total performance. 

Our Greatest Actor?

I recently watched three movies starring Jeff Bridges.  Some reviewers are absolutely smitten with the actor- some even calling him our greatest actor.  (What happened to Keanu Reeves and Ryan Reynolds?)  The movies were :  “The Door in the Floor,” “Tron: The Legacy,” and “True Grit.”   Bridges is a very large presence in these movies, much like Meryl Streep is in her movies.   Both Bridges and Streep bother me, but for different reasons.   Streep’s “great acting” reputation went down like the Hindenburg for me after seeing “Doubt.”  She was so unsubtle and I had the sense that each time she over-acted she was saying to herself “Yes, another Oscar.”  Bridges bothers me because he has settled into the “grizzled old man” role, using his beard, commanding size and mumbling to create his characters.  Yet, he was wonderful in “Starman”, for which he won an Academy Award nomination.  I really liked his intensity, especially when he said “I love you Jennie Hayden.”  But now, he strikes me as an old stoner who has become the next big thing.

In “Floor” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Door_in_the_Floor)  he  plays a womanizing heavy drinker, Ted,  who is married to a spaced-out wife, Marion, played by Kim Bassinger.  The source of their current distress is the death of their two sons.  The story is odd and almost seems like the two main characters were created, then the end of the story was written, and then the story was written backwards to justify the ending.  But Bridges is large and powerful.  Bassinger is truly in touch with the despair and hopelessness of Ruth.  The movie was nonetheless powerful because it shows some of the terrible ways we behave when we are trying to cope with the disasters in our lives.  Alcohol and sex dominated the lives of Ted and Marion when what they were really feeling was loss, hurt, anger, and disruption in their lives as a result of the terrible accident that took their two sons.  I thought both Bridges and Bassinger were top notch in a story that seemed a bit over-the-top.  The good news also was that I could actually understand what Bridges was saying, most of the time.
I have already reviewed “Tron: The Legacy.”  The only good acting from Bridges in this movie was that he could say those ridiculous lines with a straight face.  But, one saving grace was that I couldn’t always understand him so the ridiculousness was muted a bit.

Now there is much “chatter” (as we love to say today) about Bridges being a favorite for the Oscar for “True Grit” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Grit_(2010_film). Actually, I thought the best actor in the movie was  Hailee Steinfeld.  She did a wonderful job of pulling of the role of the precocious and officious character Mattie Ross.  Again Bridges was the hefty, grizzled old man with a beard, who mumbled. Worse, the Coen brothers, for some strange reason, did not allow the use of contractions, which made the dialogue stilted and unreal. 

I did not like the movie all that much.  I will give it credit for making 1877 Arkansas seem like a dirty, dusty, and generally nasty place.   Bridges character, Roster Cogburn, was equally dirty, dusty, and generally nasty.  But that was not enough to make it a good movie for me. 

So who is our greatest actor?  I have some suggestions: Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Depp, or Anthony Hopkins.  So far they have not lapsed into being old, grizzled, and bearded.