Thursday, March 15, 2018

Art Diary #1

Works of art I've experienced lately. There will be another one of these soon. This is not unlike Review Dump, but with more concision and self-respect:

Eugene O'Neill: A Long Day's Journey Into Night: Everyman Theater

What a love/hate relationship I have with this play about love/hate relationships. In some ways it's a work of genius and fire, but also it's, deliberately, a deeply unpleasant piece of work. I completely relate to it in that way that you relate to people who are so directly opposite from your way of looking at life that you realize that they've become the people they've become by starting from a place so similar to your own. All O'Neill plays should be retitled: 'Goyim Get Drunk.' Gloomy as I so often find myself, it's odd that I find it difficult to take the problems of upper-middle-class white people so seriously as though they're deserving of the kind of dignity O'Neill gives them (perhaps that's why I find it so hard to make the gloom go away...). There's certainly humor in the play, there just isn't enough to justify three and a half hours of claustrophobic gloom. The terrible family is the mainstay of American drama, probably because it's the only obvious subject small enough to be contained on a stage rather than in a movie. But it rarely ever does justice to its subject because, as horrible as family life can be, it's all we've got. It's the shadow self to most musicals, where everything is light and frothy and trivial. Really just excepting the glories of Stephen Sondheim, both of them utterly under-deliver on what they promise because they simply don't take in enough of human experience - most of the time you leave the theater convinced that life is either all good or all bad. We have to, if we can, do better by both genres and show that there's real reward and dignity in muddling through life. This is why, in my opinion, Our Town is the singularly great American play. Anyway, it was a perfectly competent production, though the only actor who had any real sense of the play was the father, and he wasn't exactly 5 stars either. It's almost better to see it badly acted - the intensity of the play is almost unbearable if the actor does right by it. The mother was clearly the weak link, her 'mad scene' was a damp squib, basically just reciting lines, on the other hand, on a human level I can't quite blame any actor who has to do that scene six times a week if she was trying to conserve her resources. Laurie Metcalf was clearly much much more skilled when I saw her do the role in London, but the play was so claustrophobic and airless that I had to leave before the end - I was on vacation damnit.

Naguib Mahfouz: Midaq Alley

For a while, I've had in my mind a class on 'Modern Shakespeares.' Writers, usually from small countries, whose work is compelling enough that it has the visceral impact of the Bard himself. Like Shakespearean English, these are works by authors from small, perhaps developing, nations, who don't have enough money to make movies with much production value, and whose written word is still utterly connected to the oral tradition. Everybody who reads has a few of these writers who come to mean something to them, though a lot of the writers from the Latin America Boom never did anything for me the way they do for so many others. But among these Modern Shakespeares I'd certainly put Isaac Bashevis Singer in Yiddish, Bohumil Hrabal in Czech, Jose Saramago in Portuguese, and Naguib Mahfouz in Arabic. It's not like Arabic doesn't have a huge and glorious literature that's more than a millennium long, but the Novel was never really part of it, the form was both too Western and too close in spirit to 1001 Arabian Nights, which is, of course, the work that towers over the whole thing. Mahfouz, from Cairo, is apparently a writer whose original Arabic is compared routinely with Shakespearean English. Midaq Alley has so many vivid characters, all of whom have chapters that can double as flawless short stories, and all of whom get into situations as dramatically vivid as they themselves. It's Winesberg, Ohio, with action! Like the greatest fiction writers, Mahfouz's imagination is completely androgynous, and very few writers have a better sense of how women are trapped by their circumstances or the Stockholm Syndrome that besets them within their imprisonment. The gallery is drawn with a thoroughly modern sensibility: there are closeted gay characters, secret psychopaths, outright spousal abuse, major tragedies and unbearable minor frustrations, and the smaller bickering of normal families. Life in Midaq Alley is something which one muddles through, just as we all must. This book is a masterpiece for which no praise is too great.

Guillermo del Toro: The Shape of Water

The world is, apparently, a beautiful, wondrous place full of magical things and people who deserve to be loved, except Baltimore. As always, Baltimore is shorthand for the shitty American city where life is mundane at best and horrific at worst. The truth is that the movie could have taken place anywhere, and Baltimore has absolutely nothing to do with it except to be the most mundane possible place. The movie is not deserving of Best Picture, but it's still a very good movie, and like many good movies, it will have a bit of a backlash when people (rightly) point out that it's not great. Like everything del Toro does, it's a story of incredible invention, told in visuals of genius in which every detail has a deeper meaning. Unfortunately, del Toro's tricks are getting a little predictable. We've basically seen the end of The Shape of Water in Hellboy. Furthermore, The Shape of Water is targeted so precisely for the zeitgeist of 2018 that it feels more than a bit cynical. I have no doubt that there's a couple dozen PhD theses in the making for this movie and its allegories for gender queer relationships. del Toro can't make a movie that doesn't have very deep points of interest, even the Hellboy movies have their fascinating passages, and the key relationship in The Shape of Water, between a mute woman and a fish man, is gorgeous, primal, and deep as the sea. The deliberate obfuscations of reality - like Sally Hawkins's musical number, are just as gorgeous. On the other hand, Michael Shannon's character is literally the personification of contemporary definitions of toxic masculinity - a personification so on the nose that because his character is thoroughly realistic in every detail, it takes us out of the story every time he's on screen - it just seems so calculated. It doesn't bother me much from a moral point of view when non-insert-identity-here plays a role of an identity not their own. What the hell is acting for? I'd like to think that I understand that it creates a deep inequality of opportunity, but even in this era, great art takes no back seat to politics. If a person with a disability has the same opportunities, it's no longer a disability. In a movie that is so deliberately unrealistic as this one, it would literally be impossible to find an actress whose voice is precisely what that role required. I don't care what year we're living in, this is still a made-up scandal. On the other hand, I've sat through enough goyim playing Jews without proper comprehension to know that aesthetically, there's a big problem if Sally Hawkins did not learn sign language fluently. Given the short cuts taken with some of these characters - we've discussed Michael Shannon and it can't be denied that there's something a little Mammy-ish about Octavia Spencer's character, it doesn't surprise me that the main character did not quite hold up to close scrutiny. But then again, this is just a good movie, not a great one.

Verdi: Don Carlo: Washington National Opera

I know that Don Carlo is a great masterpiece, and I know, objectively, that this is a very rare great production of it, with five leads that fundamentally can (gasp) sing their parts and some of them could even act them! But I was curiously unsatisfied. It had a decent orchestra with exceedingly well paced direction by Philippe Auguin - though never really enflamed or taking flight the way Gianandrea Noseda might have made them. The Elizabeth and especially Princess Eboli were magnificent, filling the hall with glorious sounds of their agony, the three male leads were certainly quite competent if not really transcendent. Part of the problem though is that Don Carlo is one of my less favorite Verdis, 3 1/2 hours of unremitting gloom. If you love Verdi, you REALLY love Don Carlo. I like Verdi, and I'm a bit indifferent to Don Carlo. Verdi certainly knows how to build a head of steam, and by halfway through the opera almost cooks with unstoppable momentum - almost, what kind of prevents it is the unvarying sameness of one downer aria after another. Verdi usually has a sixth sense to know where to put the dog-and-pony show when we've had our fill of gloom, but there's hardly any such thing in this one, and certainly none in this production - hardly anything on the set but dark dystopian greys and barbed wire. The ridiculous plot contrivances of Verdi rarely ever bother me because the expression is full of such heart, but the absence of the opening Fontaineblau act certainly does - there was an article in the Washington City Paper complaining about the ickiness of the incest in the opera, and the writer didn't seem to realize at all that Elizabeth was not the blood mother of Carlo but his intended spouse who was then forced to marry Phillip, Carlo's father - all of which is covered in the five-act version that opera companies rarely do because of the extra expense and length.  The Aida that the WNO did last year was objectively not quite as impressive a tour de force, but Verdi shorn of vulgarity is not Verdi. The best part of the production, excepting Andrea Silvestrelli as the Grand Inquisitor, an Italian born to the Verdi tradition who knows how to freeze your blood and cut straight through the orchestral mass, was watching Auguin take swigs of Fireball whiskey whenever there was applause.

Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary: National Symphony

Yet another in John Adams's assembly line of pieces too long by over an hour with libretti by his best friend, the theater director Peter Sellars, who yet again seems hellbent on wrecking Adams's music. Like so many of their collaborations, there is just so much text in this piece that there's barely any room for the music - and it's not like anybody could ever hear the text anyway over all that orchestral sound... It is, however, hardly terrible. Adams, even at his worst, is never without interesting passages. Much of the writing in the second half is downright inspiring. I just don't understand it; Adams is probably the most inventive writer for the standard orchestra since Respighi or Ravel, and even this piece is chock full of fascinating orchestral sounds. But isn't that enough for him? He clearly has no idea how to write for the voice - and even an experienced opera conductor like Noseda has no idea how to make the voices heard over that din. Adams, no doubt his ambition fed by Sellars, suffers from an extreme case of 'important-itis' that needs to make every piece into a major politico-philosophical statement. But this is not his gift, his gift is for the orchestra. His muse cries out for a symphony, and the more he neglects his gift for the orchestra, the more frustrated his faithful audience grows still more. The hero of the night was Gianandrea Noseda, who at the Q and A afterwards said that he learned the whole piece in a single week, studying for seven hours every day. Not a single cue was missed, plenty of shaping, incredible discipline from this notoriously undisciplined orchestra, and, most impressively, an ability to energize an orchestra to play confidently when they first saw this music two days ago! Noseda is clearly the real thing, and so long as Alsop is our director here in Baltimore, the NSO will quickly find itself (finally) the better orchestra.

Mahler: Symphony no. 10: National Symphony

I'm just grateful for the chance to hear Mahler 10 complete, we all should. It's much more complete than Mozart's Requiem, and yet people treat it like the ugly stepchild. Until people play it more often, the standard of performance won't get better. Donald Runnicles is a very good Wagner conductor, one of the few, but he's clearly no Mahlerian. For four movements, this performance managed to be both quick and listless. I didn't begrudge the NSO's orchestral mistakes, what I begrudged was the lack of animating force. In just about every movement, this was a rather quick performance that made it sound like a generic work of chromatic tonality that could have been written by Kurt Atterberg or Ernst Toch. In the finale, we finally saw what Runnicles was saving up for. I didn't think it was a great conception, typical of the kind of Diet Mahler we generally hear in which this composer who demands everything from musicians can be played as though he's a jaunty walk in the park, but at least the conception made sense and showed that Runnicles operates with a real musical mind. Large parts of the last movement were truly beautiful and did justice to this all-inclusive masterwork by a composer who wrote little but. When Mahler 10 goes forty years between performances in Washington DC, I'm simply grateful for the experience of hearing it. Like every symphony by Mahler, what a piece of vibrant substance this is, hailing from a new and undiscovered country in the mind of the greatest symphonist of all. I doubt Mahler would, as many allege, have fully decamped to the Second Viennese School - they are of a new generation and spirit, but the Tenth shows that Mahler clearly viewed atonality with growing fascination, and there should be no doubt that he would have found an ingenious way to incorporate it within many parts of his always evolving musical tapestry. Would that we had forty more years of Mahler Symphonies, music would have become something so very, very different.

Anna Clyne: Some Piece
Ibert and Milhaud: Some Saxophone Pieces
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Baltimore Symphony

It was kind of hilarious because a friend and I were joking about Branford Marsalis being the runt of of the Marsalis family, and then unwittingly going to a concert the next day in which he was the soloist. With the NSO, I make a trip when the program earns it. With the BSO, I usually look at the main work on the program and then show up, whatever happens before it happens before. Marsalis is an incredibly impressive instrumentalist. Milhaud's Scaramouche is one of the most insipid pieces ever written, the first movement begins with one the worst ear worms ever composed - chromatic sixteenths doing a version of the Meow Mix song, but the virtuoso effects take your breath away. Branford is nobody's ugly stepchild. The Anna Clyne piece was forgettable, but I will refrain from further comment (though I don't know if I have any), because while she probably forgets who I am, we had a bit of an unpleasant run in a number of years ago before she was Anna Clyne. When Alsop goes back to pieces with the BSO, the performances generally get much better. The last time I heard them do the Rite of Spring four years ago was thoroughly adequate, but relied on noise to generate the excitement that should be generated from detail. Maybe it's where I was sitting this time, but there was so much more detail, both coloristically and harmonically, that I thrilled to it. When Marin Alsop is good, she's really really good. I wish it happened more often, but somewhere in there there's a real master lurking. She's the MD we've got, she's proven herself, again and again, truly a class act against lots of people who owe her better than they give. When she's on, which is usually in 20th century music starting with Mahler, the Meyerhoff truly goes electric. I wish she seemed half as interested or perceptive in the meat and potatoes, at the beginning of the year I was so bored with a Tchaikovsky 5 that I walked out in the middle of the slow movement. Perhaps she's taken an appointment in Vienna to 'learn the secrets.' Next year's schedule looks like a list of potential suspects for new Music Director. Her contract is up in 2021, and I suspect she realizes that she's (very wrongly) courting a mutiny from certain quarters if she stays much longer. I yearn for Markus Stenz, but I suspect it will either be Peter Oundjian or Hannu Lintu. Both would be satisfactory picks, no worse than you'd expect our C-List city to get, and perhaps better than we deserve. But the fact that we managed to nab Stenz even as a principal guest is already such a miracle that I think it's within the realm of possibility that he could be convinced come here more permanently.

Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals
Phillip Glass: Concerto for Two Timpanis
Debussy: La Mer
Ravel: La Valse
Baltimore Symphony

Alsop brought her A-game tonight. And when she does, it's truly a gift unlike anybody else's. The Hip-Hop version of Carnival of the Animals was as bland as you'd expect from hip-hop neutered for white dotards who'd avoid any African-American on the street, but it didn't get in the way either. Saint-Saens, well-played and in small doses, is inevitably gorgeous. There was a funny moment when the poor pianists deliberately played wrong notes in their famous solo piece, and the audience had no idea why, so you clearly saw audience members squirming, thinking that these were simply bad pianists. The Glass was, of course, kind of stupid but not much harm not much foul. Better this than just another Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. It was pretty hilarious seeing the whole hall hear the rhythm at the beginning (Dum -- Dum-- Dum- Dum-) turn to their spouse to say "IT SOUNDS LIKE MISSION IMPOSSIBLE!" Glass is not a fraud, but when you write the same two notes over and over again, 19 out of every 20 pieces are probably unnecessary. However much our generation of American composers holds him up as the great model - moreso than Reich and certainly more than Adams, Glass is not a genius, he's a composer who's done some very good work, but his best music was written by the time he was forty-five. La Mer and La Valse, on the other hand, had all the things it needed - lots of color, dynamic range, instrumental detail. La Valse had some truly lovely rubato too. Alsop is, as a rule, too cautious by half - covering the safety of her interpretations with loud dynamics. She has her places where she decides she's 'going to do rubato', and La Valse proved again that she does it extremely well when she decides to, but I do wish there was some of the Munch/De Sabata/Bernstein hell-for-leather too. Cutting loose is not her thing, even if she does it more often than Zinman ever did. If she had the confidence of her own ideas, perhaps she could live up to the Bernstein legacy she goes to such lengths to play up. As it is, being Andre Previn 2.0 is not really anything to sneeze at for a conductor based in Baltimore. She has her wonderful nights in the concert hall, at least a few every year, when I have no regrets at all for her being here for fifteen years or more. I regretfully wish, though, that those nights were more frequent.

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