Surrounding Beethoven

Whenever a Beethoven piano concerto with a prominent soloist appears on an orchestral program, it is likely to be the highlight of the evening. Yet concert protocol dictates that something more traditionally “substantial,” like a symphony, has to come last, with the piano concerto appearing before the intermission. And because the concerto is likely to be shorter than the symphony, something short generally has to be added up front to pad out the pre-intermission period.

In the past few days, the San Francisco Symphony and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra handled this situation in two different ways, both persuasive. For conductor Edwin Outwater and the San Francisco musicians, the solution was to go entirely with Beethoven. Thus Orion Weiss’s performance of the Fifth Piano Concerto was bracketed by the rarely heard Overture to King Stephen (one of Beethoven’s pieces of incidental music for the stage) and, at the back end, the always-thrilling Seventh Symphony. This was a sage if safe choice. Edward Gardner, conducting the Mostly Mozart orchestra at Lincoln Center, opted for a more adventurous approach, starting his program with a snippet of Mozart (the Masonic Funeral Music in C Minor, a beautiful thing I’d never heard live before) and ending with Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. This set up the Fourth Piano Concerto, performed by Jeremy Denk, as the clear jewel in the crown, while also extending our sense of how closely Beethoven’s work was connected with that of his eminent forerunners and followers—a connection that was duly cemented when Denk performed the lovely slow movement to Mozart’s K545 sonata as his encore.

Comparing great piano soloists is as much of a mug’s game as comparing great Beethoven concertos: it’s the proverbial apples and oranges, with distinct virtues and risks in each case. (And the virtues wouldn’t be so commendable, of course, if the high-wire risks of these performances weren’t so very much in evidence.) But someone has to be the mug, so I will volunteer.

Orion Weiss’s solo in the Fifth Concerto, which I heard last Thursday night, was an exemplary exercise in intensity. The piano and the huge orchestra seemed to be fully equal partners, as the individual player held his own against the vast group. There was perfect coordination between their two parts, but the deep communion—the sense of intimate accord—was between the pianist and his instrument. Moving his lips in a constant silent exhortation as he played, Weiss seemed to be crooning privately to the piano, urging it on to greater and greater accomplishments as he hunched over the keyboard. When he fell silent and the orchestra took up its role, he relaxed into a seemingly passive state, and then, when it was his turn again, he came back to life in a thrillingly demonic fashion.

In Denk’s case, on the other hand, the entire concerto, both the orchestral and the piano parts, seemed to be emanating from his body. In his non-playing moments, he watched Gardner attentively, occasionally twitching his shoulders or his head in sync with the orchestra’s most emphatic notes, remaining alive and attentive to every turn in the music. And when he played, he made it look almost easy: even though we could see and hear how complicated the solo passages were, Denk’s own relaxed and companionable relation to the piano transmitted itself to us. His rhythms and dynamics were much more eccentric and variable than Weiss’s, and this too suited the performance, for the Fourth Concerto is not so much a meeting of equal partners as an orchestral piece into which some kind of miraculous beast has been introduced—a winged horse, say, descending onto a racetrack of normal thoroughbreds. Jeremy Denk’s Pegasus was a wonder to behold, and I am exceedingly grateful to have been there on Saturday night to witness it.

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Very Full Spring

Once again I have been so busy going to things that I haven’t had time to write about any of them. I will try to do a bit of catchup here, and I hope more about some of these singular events will emerge in the coming months.

Film: In April, Film Forum began running a series on the complete early works of Frederick Wiseman. Though I have seen most of these before, I couldn’t help returning once again to Titicut Follies, his first film and in some ways my favorite. (No, I think Welfare might be my favorite; no, actually, I think my very favorite is Near Death.  Well, you see the problem.) Titicut was as great as it ever was, and so was Wiseman’s brief commentary afterward: honest and funny and bitingly accurate. Earlier in the run, I had a chance to see Juvenile Court for the first time—another excellent early one, made in 1973, only a few years after Titicut Follies. Like all his greatest films, Juvenile Court was heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure, with some people doing their best to solve insoluble problems and others doing their best to aggravate them. Not unlike today.

Dance: It was Alexei Ratmansky season at both the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and I took this opportunity to see as many dances as I could by the man who is shaping up to be the best modern ballet choreographer in the world. At NYCB, I saw Russian Seasons for the first time and liked it very much; the folk-pastiche score by Leonid Desyatnikov (a living Russian composer) allowed Ratmansky to display his folk-dance-related and narratively inclined strengths. Namouna, on the same program, struck me as much less successful than it had seemed the first time I saw it years ago, but a friend who knows Ratmansky’s work well told me that part of the problem lay in this year’s casting and the slower-than-molasses musical performance. Later, I had a chance to see his newest piece for this company, Odessa, based on a film score (again by Desyatnikov) for a 1990 movie about Isaac Babel’s Jewish gangster figures. I would have to see Odessa again to decide what I think about it.  It was certainly the best dance on its program that day, but the conflict between the notable Jewish strains in the music and the decidedly un-Jewish gangster figures (slicked-back hair, tango-like dances with their molls, and other Slaughter on Tenth Avenue qualities) gave me pause. And then, at the ABT gala, I watched the New York premiere of Ratmansky’s evening-length work Whipped Cream, set to a score by Richard Strauss. This was exactly what I expected it to be—a well-danced confection, trivial in the extreme, with no emotional content that I could discern—and I will be just as happy never to see it again. But that is what happens with a prolific choreographer who is trying out everything in all directions at once:  some dances work and some don’t. My highest praise, so far, is still reserved for his multiple Shostakovich pieces and, especially, his recent Serenade After Plato’s Symposium, set to Leonard Bernstein (and discussed in this summer’s issue of The Threepenny Review).

Music: This is always the richest category of my New York art experience, and this spring was no exception. I have already praised Carnegie Hall’s offerings in my preceding post, but I can’t help mentioning the single Carnegie weekend (April 28–30) when I managed to see both Marc-Andre Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes performing piano pieces for four hands (a great thrill, especially the two-piano score of Rite of Spring), and an amazing Ariodante from Harry Bicket’s English Concert. I thought nothing could be better than their Alcina from last year, but this performance might have been even more inspiring. Joyce Di Donato was typically terrific as the title character, but no one in the cast was less than superb, and the contralto playing the pants part of Polinesso, a woman named Sonia Prina, was so convincing in her role that my companion initially thought she actually was a man. The great things about these English Concert versions of Handel is that you get acting and singing without staging: the plots and characters come across richly and fully, but nobody is mucking up the works with expensive sets and outrageous costumes.

My spring adventure ended with two operas on a small scale:  Heartbeat Opera‘s productions of Madame Butterfly and Carmen, both performed at the tiniest, deepest auditorium on the Baruch College campus. If the singing and acting quality is high (as it was in this case), it is always fun to go to little operas in New York, but they can be hard to find; I would not have known to go to these had I not been alerted to Heartbeat’s existence by one of its co-directors, Louisa Proske, whose Così for Loft Opera I loved so much last fall. And indeed, her rethinking of Carmen in this spring’s Heartbeat program was so outstanding that I am still reflecting on its brilliance. But I don’t have time to go into details here, and you will just have to wait for my full account in the Fall 2017 issue of Threepenny if you want to hear what I really thought.

 

 

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Carnegie Hall

Sometimes I think that my main reason for spending a lot of time in New York is Carnegie Hall. The city boasts many other attractions: great dance performances, occasional good theater, several opera companies (including some very good small ones), excellent chamber-music concerts all over the place, and art museums and galleries that, for range and depth, triumph over those in just about any other metropolitan area. But for pure consistency of pleasure, night after night, nothing else can beat Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie offers a different program on every day of the week—sometimes two or three programs a night, given its multiple halls—so when I plot out my New York stay, I always start with the Carnegie listings, since if you miss one performance, you miss everything. This spring’s visit was planned in part around two Mitsuko Uchida performances: the solo concert she gave on Thursday, March 31, in Stern (the largest hall) and the joint concert with clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann that took place in Zankel (the medium-size hall) on Sunday, April 2. A single piece—Widmann’s Sonatina facile, receiving its New York premiere—was repeated in both programs.

Uchida began her solo concert with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, a piece you have probably heard a thousand times (and may even have played yourself, if you took piano as a child). Miraculously, she made this old chestnut sound like something new as it shyly and delicately emerged from beneath her fingers. But it was her performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which came next, that really knocked me out. I had heard the virtuosic Daniil Trifonov perform it with great brio at Carnegie last fall, and had imagined then that nothing could be better; now I realized that his rendering, while extraordinarily skilled (“Like a piano-player from outer space, come down to show us how it’s done” was how I thought about it at the time), lacked the human touch that Uchida gave it. In her hands, the Schumann had immense feeling—as did another difficult Schumann work, the Fantasy in C Major, which she gave us after the intermission. That C Major key pointed back toward the Mozart work with which she had started the program, but the real echo, loud and clear, came in the Widmann Sonatina, which actually borrowed some of the familiar Mozart phrases for its repeated theme. Hence the whole program felt, in a way, like one extended composition, with various hands contributing to the music—including, not least, Uchida’s.

The very different program she and her co-star offered on Sunday afternoon gave me a chance to reconsider the Widmann work in a different context. Placed after a Berg selection of Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano and Widmann’s own Fantasie for Solo Clarinet, both of which had a jazzy, appealingly erratic, brave-new-modernist quality, the Sonatina now sounded more like a player-piano run wild and less like a sedate imitation of the classics.  It’s great when a new piece can contain multitudes in this way, can be one thing on one night and another thing on another; it suggests that it will have legs. The two well-matched performers closed out the second half of the program with Schumann again — this time his Fantasiestücke for piano and clarinet. That was certainly a deep pleasure to hear, a fitting end to a great program. But I think the work that will stay with me the longest is the Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F Minor with which they opened. Companionable, occasionally plaintive, sometimes passionately warm, it was an eye-opener for many of us—a new aspect of Brahms for people who thought they had already taken his measure. In the hands of masters like these two, even the old pieces keep growing.

Less than a week later, I was back at Carnegie to hear my hometown orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, under the inspired direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. (“How do the orchestra members know how to follow his strange gestures?” a New Yorker asked me afterward, and I didn’t even understand what he was talking about: to me, the way MTT conducts has become the watchable norm.) My reason for going to this concert was the presence on the program of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, written in 1959 for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich. I thought I appreciated this work already, but I had no idea. Whether it was due to the brilliant soloist (a Frenchman named Gautier Capuçon) or the excitement of performing in Carnegie before an enthusiastic and surprisingly young audience, the orchestra shone in a way I have rarely heard it do before. Every minute of the Shostakovich was galvanizing, and though I liked the Cage and Bartok works that surrounded it, they couldn’t compare with that high point in the middle of the program. It felt as if the cello had been invented for Shostakovich to use it at the center of his piece, and as if the rest of the orchestra had been developed for this precise purpose as well. That sense of profound inevitability cannot be laid wholly at Carnegie Hall’s door; surely the composer, the orchestra, and the cellist deserve some credit, too. But I can’t help feeling that the warm, welcoming, historically important, acoustically blessed auditorium helped create the experience that gave me so much joy.

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song and Dance Man

The two operas directed by Mark Morris that appeared at BAM last weekend were as different from each other as they could be, and yet each bore the mark (so to speak) of their choreographer-director. What this means, among other things, is that I cannot imagine a better production of either.

First up in the program was Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, an opera I had never seen before in this or any other form. Based on a Noh drama and using musical elements that seemed faintly Japanese-y, it is a strange yet affecting composition which (like so much of Britten’s work) seems to hinge on an evocation of the sound and feel of water. Unlike every other Morris-directed opera I’ve attended, this one did not employ the Mark Morris dancers; instead, the choreographer gave subtle, interesting movements to the all-male group of singers who populated the stage. He was particularly lucky in his choice of the main performer, the brilliant young tenor Isaiah Bell, who played the central part of the Madwoman with a gestural and vocal delicacy that made the whole opera come to life. But luck, of course, had very little to do with it. Morris has long had a good eye for new talent among singers, and here he had someone whose innate abilities combined with his own choreographic genius to produce a performance in which a man dressed as a man was entirely believable as a grieving mother.

Every decision Morris made here — keeping the instrumentalists onstage throughout, dressing the chorus and the main performers all in identical white shirts and trousers, using minimal sets, and having the “ghost child” who appears at the end not appear, but instead sing from offstage (in the voice of countertenor Daniel Moody)—worked to heighten the effect of this unusual Britten work. It was at once austere and moving, weird and familiar, and though its seventy minutes did not feel short, they all earned their keep.

Dido and Aeneas, which I have been watching steadily since a few years after its 1989 premiere, is in many ways the opposite of Curlew River. The dancers are onstage while the singers and musicians are in the pit (this time led by Morris himself, as conductor); the emotion is jagged and intense and sometimes even funny, and only occasionally (as at the end) beautifully austere; the performers are garbed all in black, not in white; and the music is Purcell’s melodious best, a far cry from the modernism of Britten. The piece may well be one of the greatest things Morris has ever done, and his fans never miss a chance to see it again. This time, with Stephanie Blythe singing the roles of Dido and Sorceress (and making them even more emotionally wrenching than they usually are), the music was outstanding—so gripping, indeed, that one almost wished one could see the singers (who also included the excellent baritone Douglas Williams and a host of other Morris regulars) as well as hearing them. But there was so much great dancing to watch onstage that perhaps we wouldn’t have had time to look at anything else.

I have to admit that I have trouble seeing anyone but Morris himself in the dual role of Dido and the Sorceress; he so inhabited that part, for so many years, that any later dancer risks looking like a replacement. A few of his successors (notably Amber Merkins and Bradon Macdonald) have been able to make the role their own with marvelous results, but otherwise the gap has been insurmountable. I found Laurel Lynch to be an able but not a compelling central figure; she possesses the grace and skill but not the power or charisma to take it over fully. But this had its plus sides, in that my eye for once was free to wander to the background, where I noticed, almost for the first time, how beautifully choreographed the rest of the company’s steps and gestures were. Lesley Garrison and Rita Donahue, as Dido’s two handmaidens, and Dallas McMurray and Noah Vinson, as the Sorceress’s two witches, were especially outstanding in their roles, but everyone in the dance group looked wonderful. Dido is an example of Morris’s musicality at its most intense: not a note goes by that doesn’t get its corresponding motion, and not a gesture occurs that doesn’t echo the sense and feel of the score. It is pure pleasure. Even Dido’s final unhappiness, tear-inducing as it is in this production, brings a strange kind of painful pleasure—maybe the most intense form of pleasure there is, to those of us watching and hearing it from a distance.

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Louis Kahn

I guess I should mention that my book on this great American architect, You Say To Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, just appeared this past week from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  I hope you will feel tempted to buy it at your local independent bookstore, but in case there are none left in your neighborhood, here is the Amazon link to the book. And here is a sampling of my favorite reviews thus far: from Booklist (a starred review); from the Washington Post; from Architect (the magazine of the American Institute of Architects); and from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

(Not to mention one from the good old New York Times.)

I would be very curious to hear from any of my regular blog-followers who happen to read the book, so please don’t hesitate to put your comments below, if you have any. For the next few weeks I will be touring for the book—a March 25 appearance at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, an April 6 event at the Philadelphia Free Library, and so on—but I hope not to let these activities blot out my usual performance-attending, concert-going, reading life.  In other words, I promise I will soon get back to reporting on the various cultural events taking place around me!

 

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Tetzlaff, Wonderful Tetzlaff!

As I sat in Stanford University’s spacious yet intimate Bing Concert Hall last night, listening to Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt play a series of violin sonatas together, I found myself searching for the source of the violinist’s mysterious allure. It is not just that he is technically brilliant, or musically knowledgeable, or capable of great feats of memory; all these are true enough, but they are also true of other great violinists. Tetzlaff has something else besides. He is, I decided last night, the Baryshnikov of violinists. You cannot take your eyes off him when he is performing, and that aspect of the performance—his physical embodiment of the music—is essential to the pleasure he gives us.

I have said, in regard to other excellent violinists, that the instrument seems an extension of themselves. With Tetzlaff, I would go even further and say that the music actually seems to be emanating from his own body. It is as if he is singing to us: sometimes in the dulcet tones of Joyce Di Donato (as he did, for instance, in passages from last night’s Mozart sonata in F Major or Schubert’s Rondo in B Minor), sometimes in the hoarse growl of Bob Dylan (as in the Bartok Violin Sonata No. 2), and sometimes in a lullaby mode (which characterized, for example, the Janacek Ballade he played as an encore). But in any case, whether sweet or harsh, soft or loud, whispering or keening or swelling with sound, Tetzlaff’s “voice” is ever-present. That is why, when he plays the violin, the instrument seems to be speaking to us—not in words, exactly, but in ways that are as dramatic and intense as a playwright’s or a poet’s words. The music, in Tetzlaff’s hands, has a seemingly visceral desire to communicate with us, to get across to us.

I attribute this in part to how he moves his body when he plays—and here, too, is why Baryshnikov came to mind. Just as the great dancer cannot move a chair or lower his head without evoking the idea of dance, Tetzlaff does not make a single gesture that is unrelated to the music. And yet he is moving all the time: lifting himself up on his toes at the pinnacles of excitement, tilting his head to listen to the quieter notes, shifting from one leg to another to match the rhythms, even stamping his foot when the music’s force compels him to. These are not show-offy performance gestures; I doubt they are even conscious. But because they mark essential changes in the music itself—minute distinctions of rhythmic pattern, repetition of phrases, volume level, transitions, and so on—Tetzlaff’s incessant motions are a crucial key to what is happening in the score.

That is why we can’t take our eyes off him, and that is why the music seems to be coming from his body itself: because that very body is in fact telling us how to listen, guiding us through intricate passages that might otherwise be obscure to us, and allowing us, in a kind of faint imitation, to feel the music coursing through our own bodies. As a violinist, Tetzlaff is superb. But it is as a transmitter of the music itself, a veritable communicator of the music’s essence, that he truly excels.

 

 

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Available Light

In a 1986 interview, Jerome Robbins attempted to define choreography by saying that it was concerned with not only the way dancers move, “but the way they move in space— because that’s what ballets are about, which is that volume of space which is the stage. And the drama is how they move in it and around it, or separate from each other, or more come in, or are more on one side of the stage, move forward or backward. Unfortunately we can’t use as high as we would like, but we try.”

By the time he said that, there had actually been a modern-dance experiment which tried and even succeeded in using “high” as well. Available Light, choreographed by Lucinda Childs to music by John Adams on a set by Frank Gehry, seemed exactly created to fulfill every aspect of Robbins’s definition. It was, essentially, about how bodies move in space and in relation to each other; and it was performed on a two-story set, with one or two figures often appearing on a level above the rest, echoing and at times leading the group’s gestures. Acclaimed at its initial performances—first in early 1983 at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles, and then later that same year at Brooklyn’s BAM—the dance has hardly been seen in the decades since.

Fortunately for those of us who missed its initial incarnation, this collaborative achievement has now been revived, and last night it was performed to an extraordinarily appreciative Berkeley audience, courtesy of Cal PerformancesAvailable Light is a highly mathematical work, which fits the aesthetic of both the steel-based construction-materials set and the synthesizer-plus-brass music. Ten dancers dressed in minimal costumes—four red, four black, two white—perform a series of steps in canon and segmented unison, facing diagonally in the same direction or straight forward or straight backward, but always aligned with the dimensions of the set. Three of these dancers are male and seven female, but the steps assigned to them do not vary by gender at all; the men could all be replaced by women, or vice versa, and the dance would feel the same. The colors matter, though: there are times when all four reds or both whites are doing the same thing at once, and other times when one of each color dances in unison with the other two, followed by the next red-black-white trio doing the same thing, and so on. Meanwhile the music pounds (or at time whispers) forward, and the steps relentlessly mirror its beat, sometimes even when the beat is absent. If this sounds boring, I have misconveyed it: there is something actively soothing in the ongoing repetitiveness of the movement, and at the same time something fascinating in the precise and highly organized variations.

Three moments in the hour-long performance stood out for me in particular. The first was when the John Adams music, after a brief silence, resumed with a honking beat that occurred at regular intervals. The dancers, who had been still, started to dance about two or three measures in—but the beat that they were keeping started with the off-beat (the silence between the honks) rather than with the honk itself. This was soon remedied and explained, because the music then developed a secondary, softer note that occurred between each honk, rendering the dance steps both prophetic and perfectly timed.

A second brilliant choreographic move entailed the introduction of an eleventh dancer—a man dressed in white—for certain sequences in the second part of the dance. He came seemingly out of nowhere and disappeared the same way, if you were not focused on his presence; but his inclusion altered all the arithmetical structures, so that if a black and a red person were placed on the second-story, for instance, that left exactly three trios garbed in the three different colors down below. Two and nine give altogether different possibilities from two and eight, and the choreographer made full use of them before banishing her extra man to the wings, only to call him back again for the dance’s conclusion.

The third moment was not, precisely, due to either the choreography or the music or the set, but to some combination of the three, enhanced by the remarkable lighting (credited to Beverly Emmons and John Torres). At a certain point in the seemingly measureless performance, the music fell completely silent, all the dancers disappeared from the stage, and the lights died down to a mere back-lighting of the lower part of the set. A normally oblivious dance or concert audience would have burst into automatic applause at this break, but in this case the Cal Performances crowd was so gripped, or obedient, or in some other way held that it maintained perfect silence for over a minute, waiting to see if this was indeed the end. That it was not the end only became clear when the music softly started up again and the dancers one by one appeared onstage—but it proved we had been right to wait so long, and the silence itself was memorable.

My one complaint about this excellent piece is that the dance alone, which uses an extremely restrictive movement vocabulary and never allows the dancers to touch one another, suffers from a lack of emotional content. But the dance does not have to stand alone here: it is supported by and enriched by the music, which does have an emotional content. The music moves toward something, and in doing so moves us—and it is also what moves the dancers, who have collectively and individually taken this music into their body (as John Adams so eloquently put it in his remarks afterward), thus making it into something it could never have been without them.

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pacifica Shostakovich

When I’m in New York, good music is only a short subway ride away. But now that I’m back home in Berkeley, I have to range somewhat farther afield. Last night, my husband and I drove for well over an hour on post-rain, pre-rain, rush-hour highways to get down to Music@Menlo’s mid-winter concert, featuring the Pacifica Quartet.

And of course it was worth it. The Pacifica Quartet is always worth it, in my experience, and in this case they were playing a delicious program in which Shostakovich’s Third Quartet was sandwiched between Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 6 and Ravel’s sole quartet, the F Major. These four outstanding players—great individually, but even better together—do Beethoven beautifully, as I’ve learned over the years; and getting to hear them do the Ravel, which I haven’t heard live since about 2006, was also a notable pleasure. But the standout of the evening, for me and I think for the rest of the audience, was Shostakovich’s Third. First performed in 1946, this five-movement piece speaks not only to all the difficulties of Shostakovich’s era (the Second World War, Stalin’s persecutions, the deaths of close friends) but also to the difficulties of ours. Not a moment in it is wasted on trivialities or anodyne prettiness; not a moment is without deep, persuasive emotion. This quartet seems to say, Yes, things are terrible now, and they will continue to be terrible, but perhaps we will survive for a while yet, if we manage to retain our sense of being human, collectively and individually. 

From the long, attentive silence that greeted the end of this powerful piece, I presume the rest of the audience was getting the same message I was. And it would not at all surprise me if Shostakovich’s quartets, which address so clearly the troubles of our time, were to experience something of a resurgence in the next four years.

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Swing Time

I’m in the middle of reading Zadie Smith’s new novel, and it’s one of her best, I think. It addresses all her usual topics—race and its various mixes, growing up in North London, power relationships between girls, sexual relationships between men and women, the allure of a special talent (whether it be beauty or intelligence or something else), and so on. But in addition there is a new subject, which is dance.  And Smith is very, very smart about dance, both in terms of how it feels to the dancer and how it affects the viewer.  Here, for instance, is one of my favorite passages in the novel: “…for a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.”

Perhaps I am primed to appreciate Swing Time even more than I usually would, because in December I had an experience that mimics one of the key experiences of its narrator—the experience, in fact, that gives the book its title. Watching Fred Astaire perform in the movie Swing Time, this unnamed narrator is shocked to realize that a “shadow” sequence she had particularly loved features Astaire wearing blackface: obliviously, almost carelessly, as if it were completely normal.

A few weeks ago, fleeing from the inadequacies of La La Land, I resorted for comfort to an old Busby Berkeley musical, Babes on Broadway, that happened to be playing at Film Forum. It was made in 1941, and it featured the young Judy Garland, whom I have always loved, and the young Mickey Rooney, whom I have often hated—though in this case his virtues, and especially his dance virtues, came to the fore. The plot was typically silly, but the dance numbers were terrific, and I was just congratulating myself on having chosen this gem when we came to the final number, which lasted about ten or fifteen minutes in real time and seemed endless. It consisted of about eighty white dancers in blackface, backing up a blackface Mickey Rooney and a blackface Judy Garland—all performing in full Busby Berkeley style, with tapping and singing and stage-craft galore. As if to make matters infinitely worse, Judy Garland’s song (emerging from a white-rimmed pinkish hole in the middle of that heavily blackened face) was all about the birth of a baby named Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones. The thrust of the song—the thing we were meant to find hilarious—was the pride-filled mother’s ridiculously mistaken notion that her black son might actually become President someday, just like his namesake.

As we left the theater, I turned to my husband and said, “Sometimes nostalgia deserves a punch in the face.” We had been so confident in our retreat to the past, our choice of this particular alternative to the reduced present, that we had forgotten how naively cruel that old America was. And however bad things seem now (and they do seem very, very bad), I am pretty sure we will never go back to a time when it was ludicrous to imagine that a black man could be President of the United States.

 

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

White Light

Every fall for the past few years, at the instigation of Artistic Director Jane Moss, Lincoln Center has put on its “White Light Festival” during October and November. The title comes from a phrase by Arvo Pärt, a famously religious Estonian composer, and the festival is meant to stress the spiritual qualities inherent in music, dance, and other kinds of performance. Even for a confirmed atheist like me, such a focus can be balm for troubled times, and this year the distraction from our anxieties (pre-election) and sorrows (post-election) seemed more essential than ever.

Of the twenty-some events offered over the course of four and a half weeks, I made it to only five, but that was enough to reap the benefits. In my case, the festival began—as all festivals should, I think—with a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group on October 28. The four-work program, done without an intermission over the course of 70 minutes, including two works from early in Morris’s career (the 1983 Tamil Film Songs Pas de Deux and the 1984 O Rangasayee), one from the prolific middle period (Serenade, from 2003), and one brand-new work, Pure Dance Items, set to music by Terry Riley. All four dances had something to do with Morris’s focus on and interest in Indian dance and music, and each in its own way was revelatory. Serenade was charming, Tamil Film Songs was hilarious, and the new work was both structurally complicated and visually compelling, but the highlight for me was the incredible solo O Rangasayee, devised by Mark Morris for himself but this time performed by Dallas McMurray. It’s a famous work among Morris fans, because those of us who arrived after 1984 never got to see it: no one else, we thought (and apparently he thought), could perform this 20-minute masterpiece, set to Indian music and demanding unbelievable skill, energy, expressiveness, and control. McMurray, it turned out, could do it beautifully. It was if these extreme gestures and eccentric expressions of feeling had been generated not by another body and mind, but by his own—as if the past had been brought back to life again, but in a new form. Like everyone else in the audience, I watched it raptly, and it moved me beyond anything else I have seen this season.

The MMDG performance was part of a sub-festival within the White Light Festival, something called Sounds of India that was curated by Morris himself. Included in the array of offerings were a selection of concerts by Indian and American musicians, two dance performances by Indian dance troupes, several films, and a display of photographs by the Indian photographer Dayanita Singh (whose photos graced the Fall 2014 issue of The Threepenny Review). Of these, my schedule only allowed me to see the photos and the incredible November 2 performance by the all-female Nrityagram Dance Ensemble. Surupa Sen and her co-dancers were terrific in themselves—sinuous, precise, intense, and passionately expressive in their gestures, in a way that seemed to combine harem-girl sexuality with high-priestess seriousness. But beyond that, their performance gave me an insight into Morris’s own choreography that I had heretofore lacked, for the interpenetrations between his mode of dance and South India’s mode of dance have been long and long-lasting.

Between these two dance programs I had a little Western European interlude, in the form of Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra‘s performance of Verdi’s Requiem. All I can say about this is that it was perfect (except for the interruption of one particularly quiet moment by an audience member’s cellphone—but we all soon got over that). Again, I sat engrossed for over an hour without intermission, this time being bombarded by choral and orchestral expressions of intense religious fervor. I let the religious part wash over me and just fell into the music, which I have never heard done so well before. It left me with a new understanding of why Simon Rattle might choose to abandon the marvelous Berlin Philharmonic for this sparkling English orchestra, and also with the conviction that whenever Gianandrea Noseda is conducting in my vicinity, I will go hear him.

And then, in the darkest days of mid-November, came two more events to brighten my life. One was William Kentridge’s puppet production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, one of the earliest extant operas. I have seen this three-hour opera performed in the usual live-human manner, and though some of the music was great, it was otherwise a snooze. Kentridge, by shortening the production to 100 uninterrupted minutes, and by giving each of the central roles (Ulysses, Penelope, Telemachus, the three suitors, an old shepherd, assorted gods, even a character representing Human Frailty) to a nearly life-sized puppet devised and handled by members of the Handspring Puppet Company, managed to reinvigorate the piece completely. I was especially taken by Penelope—both the puppet representing her, whose still face seemed to alter in its expressions as she moved and “sang,” and the mezzo-soprano Romina Basso, who voiced Penelope’s lines and also helped manipulate the puppet. All the puppets had silent but visible human handlers (as in Bunraku), and all were tenderly cared for by their respective humans; Human Frailty, for instance, who spent the whole performance in bed (and who physically resembled an older, possibly dying Ulysses), was given breath by his handler, who tenderly moved the puppet’s ribcage up and down from beneath the covering blanket. Lighting and projections—which included moving and still images either drawn or assembled by Kentridge—helped magnify the setting to something that was never realistic but always touchingly appropriate. It was certainly the best production of Ritorno I ever hope to see.

Last in the series, both for me and for the festival as a whole, was one of Jeremy Denk’s stunning performances on the piano. The program, accurately titled Medieval to Modern, took us step-by-step from Machaut in the fourteenth century to Philip Glass and Ligeti in the twentieth, with stopovers at Byrd, Gesualdo, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and a host of others. It was strange and oddly touching to hear the Tristan and Isolde Liebestod (as transcribed by Liszt) come back from the Met performance I heard last month, just as it was weird to have Monteverdi reappearing so soon; I felt as if not only the entire history of Western music, but also my recent listening history, were being recapitulated before me. I had seen Denk do something similar at Carnegie Hall, where he linked together a series of pieces that all seemed to foreshadow or be influenced by ragtime; but this performance, if anything, was even more powerful emotionally, especially given the eloquent and pointed introduction Denk gave us beforehand. Technically, too, the concert was amazing: Denk had memorized all but one of the 23 highly varied pieces (he needed a score to help him through the Stockhausen), and to see and hear them performed this way, in unbroken sequence, was an experience I will not soon forget. At the end, as if to round out the story and return us to a prior moment of innocent happiness, Denk went back to the fifteenth century and played a lovely little piece by Binchois. It was called, appropriately enough, Triste plaisir et douleureuse joie.

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment