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.



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