Monday, November 28, 2011

Brief Reviews

Brief reviews:

Atlanta Opera’s presentation of Lucia di Lammermoor was top-notch.  I am not opera savvy, but this powerful story of madness and love was effectively presented.   Special kudos go to Georgia Jarman who played the title role.  Not only is she a good singer, but she was convincing in the role.   The blood effects were also very well done. 

The ASO presented a program that included Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.  II,  Mozart’s Flute concerto No. 1, and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.  I was really tired during the performance and thus I think I became a Grinch.  The conductor was last minute substitution Alexander Mickelthwate, who was the ASO’s former assistant conductor.  The flute soloist was Christina Smith.   Ms. Smith is very talented and played the Mozart impeccably, but I found the piece to be rather boring.  The Beethoven was played quite well- I suspect the ASO members can play it while half unconscious.  I found the Sibelius to be a bit odd.  This composer, like other late-Romantics, could wander off into episodic themes and melodies.  Usually I don’t mind it, but I thought Mickelthwate’s interpretation to lack a grand overarching approach to the music that to my ear made the symphony sound like it was lurching from one thing to another.  Again, maybe I was just tired.

The ASO presented a Pops Concert.  I don’t like reviewing such concerts because I generally find that playing soundtrack music, Broadway show tunes and Beatles music to be nothing short of wretched.   Thin music played by a bloated ensemble.  But this recent pops presentation was wonderful and harkened back to the programs of Arthur Fiedler.  It included such pieces as the Flight of the Bumblebee, Jupiter from the Planets, Also Sprach Zarathustra, the 1812 Overture, a medley of Puccini’s greatest hits, among others.  The only nod to Broadway was a few dances from West Side Story.  This music was played with gusto by the orchestra, under Michael Krajewski’s direction.   There were also some great visuals to accompany the festivities.  I was happy that I went.  

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A curmudgeon at work....

Often after attending a concert, I am asked “What did I think?’, “How did you like it?” etc.   When I have reservations about the program, or the performance, I try to honestly express my opinion.   I am not one of those people who say “I tell it like it is.”  For me that means the person is giving him- or her- self permission to be rude.  Rather, I try to tell it as I see it- who really knows how it really was.  When others give glowing comments, and I have reservations, I sometimes seem like a curmudgeon.  So, I will be clear- when I review a concert I am sharing my perceptions, which doesn’t make them right or wrong, nor should another assume that their opinions are any more than that. 

So that brings me to this week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert.   The program included:
Britten- The Building of the House Overture
Brahms- Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra
Knussen- Symphony in One Movement
Britten- Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell

The conductor was Oliver Knussen.  I had not heard of Knussen before, although I understand he has appeared with the ASO before. 

The Britten overture was well played and again the ASO showed off its increasing virtuosity. The Brahms featured concertmaster David Coucheron and principal cellist Christopher Rex as soloists.  The double concerto is one of my favorite pieces of music and it demonstrates Brahms’ gift for creating wonderful melodies and skilled theme development.  The opening melody in the second movement is one of his most beautiful. Both Coucheron and Rex are talented virtuosi and can be expected to perform wonderfully.  I have great respect for the skills of both.  Now here is where I feel like a curmudgeon.  I am very familiar with performances of the double concerto and I believe that this performance fell a bit short.  It certainly was not bad but it lacked a certain cohesiveness that made it less that truly outstanding, at least for me.  The problem was that there did not seem to be agreement between the soloists about how they should approach the music.  Coucheron has a big tone and great control over his instrument.  He plays with maximum drama, accentuating the passion in the work.  Rex, however, seemed meek in comparison.   Maybe it was due to Coucheron’s sound board beings perfectly aligned with my ear, where Rex’s cello was aimed directly at the audience.  Maybe it is the tricky acoustics of symphony hall.  But, the result was two distinctly different approaches to the music.  In addition, it seemed that Rex was a bit shaky in the introduction to the first movement.  Once, he warmed up, that disappeared.  Singly they played admirably, but together, it was a bit unsatisfying.  

Knussen’s Symphony is One Movement is a revision of an earlier Concerto for Orchestra written by the composer/conductor.  There were several nods to jazz-like themes, especially in the trumpets and piano.  I am not a fan of what is an essentially improvisational musical style being written so as to limit improvisation by the players.  This symphony is not unpleasant and maybe with a few hearings I might actually like it.  I was surprised that the composer conducted from a score.   The ASO violin section was particularly strong in this performance.  They played together precisely. 

The final piece by Britten, usually know as the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” was well played by the ASO.  But I wonder why this piece is scheduled for a concert audience.  It is simplistic music that is designed to show off the orchestra, but it seems like preaching to the choir when played in concert format.  Fortunately we were spared having to listen to a spoken narrative abut each instrument or section of the orchestra.  The brass and percussion sections of the ASO were standouts in this performance.
Knussen’s right hand is like a rapier when counting the beat.  He was in control of the orchestra and they performed very well under his direction. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Lied me on....

The Munich Symphony Orchestra played at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, NE.  I had not been at the Lied for about 15 years and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the facility.  The auditorium, with a capacity of 2200 is painted in a warm terra cotta color.  The acoustics match the warmth of the paint.  I had forgotten how large the auditorium is and how the lack of large overhangs provides great sight lines.  This is one facility where the inexpensive seats have as a good a view as the pricier variety.  The stage also seems quite large, easily accommodating an orchestra and chorus.  The hall is simple and streamlined. The light and sound rigging over the stage is finished in soft silver.  This simple design should ensure that the auditorium should age well.   The Lied lobbies, however, are another matter.  They seemed cramped with very low ceilings.  They are decorated in 1980’s chic and are in need of some updating.  The entry to the facility contains the box office and two flights of stairs lead up to the main lobby.  This entrance area is utilitarian and cramped.  There is a woven wall sculpture which looks a bit old.  A large oil painting of Ernst Lied, the benefactor for the facility, is in the stair well to the main lobby.  He apparently looked a lot like Henry Kissinger.  The architects of the facility seemed to have made the auditorium their priority, which makes sense. Lincoln should be proud to have such a nice facility.  If only Atlanta could have as nice a facility for its symphony, but that discussion is for another day. 

The Munich orchestra was conducted by Phillipe Entrement in an all Mozart program, although the orchestra’s website indicated that “Transfigured Night” by Schoenberg was scheduled.  I would have preferred the Schoenberg.  The orchestra was rather small.  I am not sure if this was a touring ensemble or whether this is indeed as grand as it gets.  It was about half the size of a typical orchestra.  In the service of full disclosure, I must admit that Mozart is not my favorite composer.  I know that all other classical music fans think he is the greatest but I think his music is predictable and, yes, a bit boring, while being very elegant.  The program started with his Serenata Notturna, K 239.  I actually liked the piece and the all-string ensemble played very well.  The sound was warm, helped out by the Lied’s pleasant reverberation.  The second piece was he Piano Concerto No. 12.  Entrement, who first came to public attention as a result of his pianistic skills, was the soloist and he conducted the orchestra from the piano.  This is one of those Mozart pieces that seems formulaic and rote to me.  

The final piece on the program was the monumental Mozart Requiem in D minor.  This is one of the cornerstones of the western classical tradition and it deserves the reverence for it.  The Gloriae Dei Contores was the chorus, supplemented by singers from Nebraska Wesleyan, although the program was rather vague about this.  The soloists included Valentina Fleer, soprano; Julie Cherrier, Soprano; Eric Barry, tenor; and Benjamin Bloomfield, baritone.  Of these capable soloists, the weakest was Bloomfield who often could not be heard over the combine symphony and chorus.  Entrement generally kept very good balances between soloists, orchestra, and chorus.  The chorus was not so large as to drown out the other forces, as happens in Atlanta.  The chorus sang with precision and had very good ensemble.
This was a very enjoyable concert.  The Lied is a treat and the near capacity audience was grateful, did not provide a standing ovation after each piece, as happens all too frequently in Atlanta.   Maybe the contrast is due to Midwestern reserve versus Southern manners. 
Just one more small quibble- the Lied should lose the plastic trees on the stage.  They are, if you will pardon the pun, bush league. 

My short career in the movies

Being an extra on the set of “Parental Guidance” was a great experience.  Yes, there is a lot of downtime, and yes, I only had a few seconds of camera time (that may not make into the film), but I learned a lot.  Here are my observations:

1.        I am surprised at how much movie-making takes place in Atlanta.

2.       I was surprised at how many people showed up to be extras.  My estimate is that 200 showed up to be in the concert hall scene.

3.       Seeing an experienced actor like Billy Crystal develop his line delivery through various takes was exciting.  He became more involved in the character each time the scene was repeated.  Bette Midler was impressive in her understanding of the timing of a scene so that its flow was more realistic and funnier.

4.       Crystal and Midler have developed styles of walking through a set that keeps them from engaging extras and crew.  I can understand that easily enough.  Why would anyone want to say hello to all 300 people involved in a scene.  Of course, the crew is used to seeing the talent more than the extras are, but the self protective style of not making eye contact helps maintain their privacy.

5.       Breakfast and lunch were provided for the extras.  I thought it was decent but others complained a bit about it.  It was free, so I didn’t feel the need to be too critical.  The crew had access to a buffet throughout the day. there is no doubt that extras are at the bottom of the food chain.

6.       I am allergic to the makeup used.  I was very aware that I had something on my skin; maybe with time I will get used to it.

7.       The work day could last up to 14 hours.  Both Crystal and Midler were on set most of the day.  They didn’t retreat to a trailer.  It takes a great deal of stamina to maintain that pace.

8.       There were three child actors.  One seemed to be about five-years old.  Of course a child that age needs constant encouragement to stay focused and to tolerate the need for retakes.  It is also important to allow them to be kids.  But, this young made was told repeatedly how great he is by person after person.  He also had people taking care of his hair and his clothing.  He was hanging around with A-list celebrities and crew.  It is no wonder that some of these young people begin to overestimate their value, and when they no longer have marketability, feel cheated, angry, and unhappy.  It is easy to see why they run into problems as they age.

9.       I was surprised at how each scene has to be planned so carefully and shot multiple times because of camera angles, the substitution of stunt actors, timing, continuity, and acting, including flubbed lines.  I now look at scenes differently when watching a story, that is, I now appreciate how much went into getting it just right.

10.   The good news for film actors is that don’t have to memorize long scripts before each scene is shot.  Since each lasts at most a few minutes, it’s seems relatively easy for the actors to memorize the lines for the next few minutes of filming. 

11.   The scene I was involved with was filmed at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in Atlanta.  A symphony orchestra was on stage, and a violin soloist had to play a few bars of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto over and over.  She had to stand for some time between takes.  I was surprised that she wasn’t offered a chair.  I have been tired of the Tchaikovsky for some time- it is over programmed in the concert hall.  The repetition for the film did not make me like it any more. 

12.   There are a large number of people on a set.  Each seems to know what to do next.  Because I don’t understand the flow of work, I was wondering how each person knew what to do next, but I know that we all learn our jobs over time and we don’t need a road map on how to do them. 

13.   I admire the steadicam operator.  According to one crew person, the camera and mount weigh about 50 pounds and seems to put a great deal of stress on the camera person’s back.  The operator didn’t seem to wince once. 

14.   The lighting of the set seemed very white.  I suppose that when it is photographed or when the film is in post-production, the light is softened.

I really enjoyed my short career as an extra.  I learned a lot, and I also met many enjoyable people.  I hope that I can land similar parts in the near future.   

Lied Center for Performing Arts, Lincoln, NE

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