Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review Dump 2 - non classical music edition

The Conversation - Charles Theater - September 19th

The Conversation, the immortal movie made by Francis Ford Coppola between his two immortal Godfather movies, is the essential Coppola movie for right now. The original Godfather was essential for the period when it was made and the world longed to return to traditional values of family and ethnicity, on the cusp of forgetting the authoritarianism made the first world divorce such values in the first place. The second Godfather was essential for the eighties and nineties, when the success of America was so enormous that in trying to liberate ourselves from fear and want, we'd become privation and terror we set out to defeat. Apocalypse Now was essential for the Bush era, when neo-imperial hubris made us strike out into unknown places and assume that we could assume such ventures with little sacrifice of and change to our essential natures and without the essential darkness and chaos of these dysfunctional parts of the world rubbing off on us.

In the corporate world of Big Data, in the government world of Homeland Security, in the intelligence world of Putin and PRISM, The Conversation is a textbook lesson in how our own paranoia becomes self-fulfilling. Harry Kaul, being America's greatest expert in wiretapping, knew forty years before the rest of us how easily our privacy becomes compromised. We're all stuck in a world where it's possible for the entire world to know our secrets, and we have no idea to whom we're surrendering our privacy. Is it possible that some of them are in this to try to fight back against the people who'd exploit our lack of privacy, and should we ultimately let them, or do they then, like Michael Corleone, become as evil as the people from whom they wish to protect us? We have no idea how to answer these questions, and better perhaps than any other movie, The Conversation articulates this vague dread that follows us all throughout our days. It is essential viewing for any movie buff, any politically active person, anyone who's ever experienced their privacy has ever been compromised (which is probably all of us). So of course, hardly anybody these days has seen it.

Heaven Can Wait - Charles Revival - August 27th 

It's often said that America's greatest contribution to world culture is the 'studio era,' the 'Golden Age of Hollywood,' the star system. Other countries do literature and theater, but we Americans do movies.

But what remains so strange about the Studio Era is how utterly un-American it was. The movies were generally about high society types that dress immaculately and trade flirtatiously witty barbs that could at least as easily be found in London, Paris, or Vienna as on the Upper-East side of Manhattan. No doubt, there was a kind of wish-fulfillment to it - the wish of the unsophisticated and hard working American bourgeois to have the charmed lives of the European bourgeois - and in the days before FDR liberalism, to be bourgeois signified far more wealth and class and leisure than it did among later generations. The director upon which the very bedrock of high style Hollywood became known for is Ernst Lubitsch, who lived in Berlin until he was 30, and in so many ways, he never left Berlin.

Heaven Can Wait is about a spoiled high society cad who barely ever works, seduces women whenever he can, and relies on his innate charm and good looks to get him through a charmed life and stay married to a saintly wife whom he knows he does not deserve. You don't expect that such a movie can stun you with its quality, and yet by the end it utterly does. It's a completely overlooked movie, even among Lubitsch's output, in which the many seasons of a man's life are portrayed with both humor and unflinching accountability for his flaws, even if the situations are sometimes rather implausible - this is Hollywood after all... I have no doubt that you could find men like this in many American cities, but the way they lived their whole lives were based on the many more society men who lived like this whom you could find in any European city.

All the qualities we claim, or at least seem, to value in traditional Americans: industry, honesty, selflessness, are precisely the opposite of the qualities which Lubitsch and his followers valued. Sure, there were plenty of movies that advanced traditional American values from directors like John Ford and Frank Capra, but the vast majority of movies from Hollywood glorified the selfish, the idle, the liars, who charmed their way out of situations in precisely the manner Americans never did.

Othello - Chesapeake Shakespeare Company - September 24th

I have a soft spot for Othello. It's odd to talk of one of the pinnacles of Western Literature as having a 'soft spot', you don't have soft spots for Othello, you have soft spots for 80's hair metal and reality television. And yet, when it's placed next to Hamlet, Lear, the Scottish Play, and the underrated Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps you have to talk about Othello as though it's something resembling a soft spot. It's perhaps the most magnificent flawed work ever conceived, with dry spots that even make Hamlet fly by. Obviously Hamlet and Lear have their own problems with bloat, but the problem of Othello is that it's basically two plays shoehorned into one. and yet perhaps I prefer Othello to even Hamlet or Macb*th. It is a stretch to say that you can be moved rather than thrilled or in awe by the respective Scot and Dane. But like Lear, Othello is a genuinely moving play.

It's also very difficult to speak about Othello properly because contemporary politics dictates that Othello must be coopted for today's social justice agenda when Othello is hardly a play about race at its most fundamental level. In many ways, if Othello is a play about race, then it is a play about race the same way that The Merchant of Venice is about Judaism. Shakespeare probably does view Othello as an archetypal hot-blooded African who cannot control his moorishly animal instincts to jealousy and lust no matter how thoroughly he tries or how thoroughly he's considered by white society to have mastered them. And yet, whatever the truth of that matter, there is unmistakable sympathy for Othello's plight, and his tragedy is in some ways more meaningful because the stench of racism in how he's drawn is unmistakable. Shakespeare is large enough to contain all interpretations, and to place him within any one of them is to limit him.

The greatest performance I've ever seen of Othello, perhaps the greatest performance I've ever seen of any Shakespeare play, is the 1980 BBC television rendering with Jonathan Miller in the directors chair while starring Anthony Hopkins as Othello, Penelope Wilton as Desdemona, and an absolutely immortal performance by Bob Hoskins as Iago that should be studied for hundreds of years as a textbook of how to interpret Shakespeare so that every potential character nuance registers. There are very, very, very few actors worthy of the Shakespearean parts they play, and perhaps no performance I've ever seen comes even close to the pure and infinitely sophisticated evil Hoskins accomplishes here.

I very nearly left a quarter of the way through this production because, like most American theater troops, the actors wreak such havoc on Shakespeare's language. It's not really an issue of being American, there are plenty of English and British actors who have terrible trouble with Shakespeare, though Shakespeare meaning as much as it does to the British, I'm sure they're spared the unperceptive murder of his verse and character we so often get here; but stage actors are not the most thoughtful bunch of people to begin with, and many of them have little ability to render the most intellectually thoughtful writer since whoever wrote The Bible in any meaningful way. Both Othello and Iago were utterly unworthy of the parts they played, and spoke their lines with a woodenness that tells you they might as well be appearing in a Broadway musical made from a movie as one of the cornerstones of human creativity.

To leave would have been a shame, because it was the leading ladies who shone through in this production and forced Shakespeare's magic to take over when it's leading men stood thoroughly in The Bard's way. I do wish that there was a bit more of the shrinking violet in Diane Curley's thoroughly assertive portrayal of Desdemona, the sacrificial virgin element of Desdemona's character is unmistakable and part of her tragedy, and you could feel the actress recoiling against that element as though her inner monologue were saying "I'm not going to be just another 'Victim Desdemona.' And yet, it certainly worked, because the more assertive Desdemona is, the more 'justification' Othello has to meet her questioning with violence. Given the fact that her Othello was such a damp squib, it only served to help the energy of their scenes to see a Desdemona who would not take such treatment willingly.

But the true star was Emilia, Brianna Mamente, who made her final scene into a truly magnificent display of defiance. In such a production you begin to wonder how the women of Shakespearean society could be so subordinate when they're so much more charismatic, more intelligent, more interesting than their male peers.

The Flower Queen - Yellow Sign Theater - October 24th

There's an obvious conflict of interest here, because if my compositions are going have a 'star' in them for the foreseeable future, it's Ali Clendaniel. But the reason I've made her that is because if there are two better performers than she and her partner, Connor Kizer, I have yet to see or hear them.

This is Baltimore ultimate hipster power couple, and unlike the usual Baltimore hipsters who affect with such effort a pose that they don't give a fuck what you think in precisely that way that tells you they give many fucks indeed, these two are two of the only ones who convince me that they really don't. Most performers in local scenes exist in one dimension, they play it cool and flat, and put any of their minimal effort into appearing still more effortless than they really are. But these are two performers who throw themselves into all ten, spilling as much blood and guts and sweat into a minute of what they perform as many performers do in a decade.

The best evidence of the above is probably Connor's band, The Creepers. The name alone should tell you everything you need to know. To front a band in which every song is from the point of view of a stalker in 2016, when the hipster set is scared to laugh at his or her own shadow for fear of giving offense and being thought insufficiently committed to social justice (and therefore uninvited from certain parties), is the mark of an artist with brass balls. Even if you don't think its funny - and I really, really do, all the moreso because some people seem to get so worked up when the band is mentioned - anybody in the arts should admire the courage to court that kind of controversy. 

The first time I heard Ali Clendaniel sing in her two-woman band, Nudie Suits, I was thoroughly amused. They were just starting out, and the music wasn't all that interesting yet, and yet here was a singer who was literally throwing in every vocal effect but the kitchen sink, seemingly prepared to fake an orgasm onstage to keep the audience listening. The second time I heard them, I was stunned at how much better they'd gotten in such a short period. The third time I heard them, I honestly wondered I was listening to someone summon some kind of daemon from the shadow of the deep. Ruby Fulton, manning the electronics and ever the perfect supporter in a hundred Baltimore bands that make the principal artist better than they ever were, found a way to harness the viscralness of Ali's performances so that there were seemingly twenty of her singing at once. I instantly knew I'd found the only person who could sing King David for my Psalms settings. 

So now that I've thoroughly kissed up to them. I have a strong feeling that I was not supposed to understand the first thing about what their play, The Flower Queen, was about, and I didn't. I would and probably will watch either of them in just about anything, but just about anything was pretty much a description of what we watched. I could not tell you a single thing about what the play was about, and Ali was stuck with not much to do, but Conor chewed up the stage like he was on a three-day-bender, and that alone was hilarious enough to merit anyone seeing the play. But I have the sense they don't much care what others think of what they do, me least of all, and that kind of courage of conviction alone is reason enough to follow their careers with interest. How many artists have the courage to simply do what they think is meaningful or funny and take us along for the ride? It's not a long list. Even when the artists misfire, you have to be grateful to be along for the ride. 

Academy Chamber Ensemble - Shriver Hall - October 24th

OK. One classical review... No doubt, it's bad form to give a bad review to musicians from Academy of St. Martin in the Fields when their founder and guiding light, Sir Neville Marriner, just passed away after as rich a life in music as the world can bequeath, but here we are. 

Back in the day, Sir Neville, Snev, was a frequent guest conductor for the Baltimore Symphony, and when David Zinman left, rumor was afoot that the BSO courted him unsuccessfully. The truth is that Sir Neville was the perfect musician for the recording studio, where his natural good taste made for musicmaking that was always pretty and often bland. Never was there anything in Snev's musicmaking that could be construed as an ugly sound. A very fine musician Sir Neville certainly was, but culling through a thousand recordings to find ten revelations is a tall order to place for too little reward.

The main work was the Schubert Octet. A beautiful and exhausting piece of music - exhausting no doubt to play, and exhausting to listen to unless the performers exhaust themselves. One can't fault touring performers for husbanding their resources through an hour-long tour de force that they probably have to repeat ten times in as many days, but any performance of a Schubert work of 'heavenly length' (Schumann's term for Schubert's hour-long excursions through sonata form) that does not demand our attention will not receive it. It was thoroughly well-played, thoroughly pretty, thoroughly tasteful, and thoroughly bland. As I snuck into the front row, spotting a rare open seat next to my grandmother, Shriver Hall's venerable 96-year-old front row institution who never misses a concert, I glanced to my right and spotted Evan Drachman a few seats over - a relatively famous local cellist who is the grandson of Gregor Piatagorsky - and he was there with what appeared to be his teenage son. His son looked even more bored than I was, and his father kept having to silently tell his son to stay calm, because there were still 40, 30, 20 minutes left in the piece. 

Book Rec: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

What we're missing from the American experience today is Willa Cather. I don't mean precisely that we need to read the writer more often as a magic palliative for our ills, though we could do much worse - she should be better appreciated even than contemporaries like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner who are rated her betters; but what's currently missing from this country is the American experience which Willa Cather writes of in her books.

Everything in America is now known. There are no new adventures, no new sights, no new necessities, nothing to discover or uncover. For the first time ever, we are an old country, adrift in too many memories, too little discovery, too much wealth, too little commitment, too much preservation, not enough construction of the new.

My Antonia is perhaps a greater book, about the suffering and striving of Americans come to Nebraska, where the winter is as bitter as life, life is lived on the edge of death, and all that can keep a family, and a community, together is the common bonds of struggle. The suffering in Death Comes for the Archbishop is not quite so close at hand, it is about the experience of two foreign priests, come to the deserted Southwest to save souls, hear confessions, instruct catechisms, and loyalty to one another. A lesser writer would try to make something a bit more overtly homoerotic out of their friendship, just as has been made out of Willa Cather's life. But there is very little erotic at all in this book, if sex is mentioned at all, or even implied, it is in the context of the great suffering which some women undergo at the hands of husbands. The essence of this book, the essence of Cather, is not nearly so monomaniacal to reduce to anything bodily at all, it is pure compassion and Christian love.

Cather is hardly unaware of the mixed motives of people. One of the two priests is clearly vain and arrogant, the other clearly fanatical and temperamental. And yet, their flawed motives are what spur them to rise to occasions of greater humanity. The privations they undergo, the suffering to which they minister, the bonds which they create with their communities, are the bonds that build a country. They are characters whom, through motives as flawed as they are pure (not as large a contradiction as it may seem), created communities where communities did not before exist. Cather is often talked of as a novelist of nostalgia, a conservative who bemoans a lost America. As time marches forward, the America lost is far more essential than mere nostalgia. From the view in 2016, the lost America she bemoans is an America that had hope and vision for its future. 

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