Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Performers: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus,
Robert Spano, Conducting
Repertoire: Fratres (Arvo Part),The Miraculous Mandarin
(Bartok) and Glagolithic Mass (Janacek)
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald Perelman Stage,
Carnegie Hall
Date: October 30, 2010

Back in 1989, when I stayed in New York for the summer, I used to pass by Carnegie Hall and contemplated attending one of its concerts. I never did. Last night, I finally fulfilled a longtime wish to experience a symphonic concert in its main hall. The concert in question was a performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, its 200-strong chorus in tow.

There are three concert venues in Carnegie Hall. The Weill theatre is small and is used for intimate chamber recitals. The Zankel hall is a slightly larger configurable space. The Stern Hall (named after Isaac Stern) is the main, large hall where orchestras show off their mettle. The Carnegie was almost razed to the ground back in the 60’s. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, its main tenant, was going to decamp for Lincoln Center that was being built by the city. No resident orchestra, no income. But for the efforts of a band of New York fans of Carnegie Hall, led by Isaac Stern, Carnegie hall would have been demolished and a condo erected in its stead. Listening to the glorious acoustics of this famed hall, my gratitude knows no bound to Stern and company for preserving this magnificent building.

I will not go into the specifics of the program played by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Suffice it to say that there were three pieces. The first one, a sort of prelude, was the hymn-like piece for strings and percussion by the Estonian composer Arvo Part. This was a study in dynamics, starting from pianissimo to fortissimo, a la Ravel’s Bolero, but slow, church-like and infused with the melancholy of a Baltic winter. Having been to Estonia, specifically Tallinn, I imagined myself in one of the ancient, medieval churches there at the break of dawn, waiting for the light to creep in through the stained-glass windows till it grew brighter and brighter with the approach of morning. I think Robert Spano, the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, chose this piece (instead of the advertised Atmospheres by Varese) to take advantage of the clarity and warmth that the superb acoustics of the hall inevitably confers on an equally superb ensemble. I could even feel and detect the pitch of the softest thud of the bass drum from three stories up on the balcony, where I was. I transferred to a seat with better sightlines after the intermission and this I can say: there is no bad seat in Carnegie Hall. Its acoustics is truly astounding. You are caressed (or blown away) by the sound with equal force whether you’re in the orchestra or in the rafters.

The second piece the ASO performed was Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin”, a symphonic suite derived from the music to a seldom performed ballet with a rather lurid scenario. The storyline of the ballets involves a dancing girl who attracts a mandarin (obviously an oriental) who falls in love with her. He goes after the girl, but thugs get in the way. They rob him, torture him, put a sword into him, hang him, but he doesn’t die, doesn’t even bleed (hence the “Miraculous” title) and just keeps on longing for the girl. Finally, the thugs cut him off from the gallows, the girl expresses her love for him, and the mandarin starts to bleed and die. The shocking tale is reflected in the dissonances that Bartok informs on this suite. Any ordinary orchestra will wilt under the complexities of the composition. The Atlanta Symphony is one of the best orchestras in the USA, and indeed the world, and made mincemeat of the suite, in a muscular fashion. There were equal dollops of brilliant brasses, silken rivers of strings, and since this is Bartok, thumping percussion galore. Listening to this piece on my iPod (the recording by the Toronto Symphony, Paavo Järvi conducting), I found the piece cacophonous. Listening to it performed at Carnegie Hall, with a live orchestra reveling under the extraordinary acoustics of the venue, it was hair-raising, exciting, distressing, sensuous and vital.

After a short intermission period, which I used to change seats (it wasn’t a full house, but still very well attended, considering how commodious Carnegie Hall is), the orchestra with the addition of its famed chorus embarked on the rapturous Glagolithic Mass by the Czech composer, Leo Janacek. This is a setting of the Latin mass translated into a Slavic language called Glagolithic. It is a long piece where orchestra, chorus and even a pipe organ alternate duties. Impressed as I was by the Atlanta symphony, I was even more floored by the size of the all volunteer chorus: 200 all in all, not counting the soloists. Somehow they all fit on the stage. The exciting introduction by the orchestra seemed to me like a motoric repetition and variation on the first four notes of the final section of Beethoven’s Symphony # 9, but there the similarity ended. The choir, which was established by the late Robert Shaw (ever heard of the Robert Shaw chorale?), has gained fame for the richness of its harmony and polish of its performances. The Glagolithic Mass gave them a chance to shine at full cry. Together with the orchestra, their sound was rich and devastating.

My spirit soared to the tremendous sounds of the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus. The gilt moldings on the creamy walls of Carnegie Hall glinted in assent. The New York concert-goers stood up and emitted loud "Bravos!"' I am sure to be back here for another symphonic outing.

On the way out, I noticed a plastic dispenser by the door practically brimming with individually wrapped Ricola mints. Evidently they were there for the taking. No one seemed to be helping himself to them. I scooped up enough mints to supply me for a month. The black, plump lady usher looked at me disapprovingly. I slunk off into the chill night air on busy 57th St. I know I will be back to Carnegie Hall to listen to more glorious sounds. Hopefully, there’ll be more freebies, too. Maybe Swiss chocolates next time?

Only in New York.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Juilliard's Sonatenabend

Event: Sonatenabend
Performers: Juilliard artists
Place: Paul Hall, Juilliard School of Music
Time: 6:00 pm, October 28, 2010
Free event
There was a moment during the performances of the works of Beethoven, Hindemith and Prokofiev given by three duos at the Paul Hall at Juilliard during the free Sonatenabend (“Evening of Sonatas”) event when I caught myself thinking: “These musicians are world-class!”
And so they were: Hannah Sloane, cellist, playing Beethoven’s Sonata # 3 and accompanied by Jillian Zack; Kyle Miller, playing Hindemith’s Sonata for Viola and Piano in F major, Arthur Williford on the piano; and finally Sheryl Hwangbo, a Korean artist giving a stirring rendition of Prokofiev’s angular Sonata # 2 for violin accompanied to perfection by John Arida. The way they gave their accounts of the sonatas said it all: polished, articulate and in this case of Sheryl Hwangbo, dazzling.
I admit that the Beethoven bored me a bit at first. There is something about the works of classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven (who I love to bits) that is so comforting in their structure and conventionality that, upon hearing them, I start to relax and drift into the initial stages of sleep. I know there are a lot of people who claim that ALL classical music puts them to sleep. My case is different. I care, I really do, but I could only keep at bay this impending sense of dreamitude by physically rubbing my eyes and stretching out my eyelids till my eyes pop out. The last thing I needed during this recital was to fall asleep and snore, which I have been known to do, alas. In extreme cases, I have actually pinched myself on the arms and legs just to keep myself awake. I probably would stick a pin in me just to spare myself the ignominy of interrupting the concert onstage with my own. As the Bible has said, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, especially when you’re over 50.
I managed to keep myself awake through the Beethoven sonata, helped by the fact that Hannah Sloane’s cello playing was as robust and silky as the gown she was wearing., not that the dress mattered. I have this sonata, performed by Yo-yo Ma, on my Ipod. The sound of a cello has never failed to lower my blood pressure and take me to that same kingdom of slumber in no time flat. Tonight, I had to not only hear it, but watch this sonata being played onstage by an attractive woman, accompanied by another attractive pianist on a seriously attractive piano, a Fazioli concert grand. It starts with a dramatic solo line by the cello, joined in later by the piano. For me this beginning exemplifies the terrifying, but necessary process, of creating something out of nothing, something artists, whether composer or performer, have to do constantly if they are to remain true to their profession.
Things perked up a bit during the Hindemith portion of the program. This time two guys took to the stage: Kyle Miller on the viola and Arthur Williford on piano. Both were reedy, wore black, and had that slightly diffident but relaxed air that made me think: “Brooklyn”. After launching into the sonata (subtitled Thema mit variazonen), Mr. Miller had to stop to retune his viola because one the strings had gotten loose. After the gravity of the Beethoven, I found this snafu delightfully refreshing and pulled me out of the classical stupor I was sinking into. This set of variations was a tonal piece that, Hindemith being Hindemith, was prevented from lapsing into triteness by subversive placements of discordant notes and chords. Mr. Miller’s performance gave me a new insight of just how lyrical a viola, the poor cousin of the cello and violin, can be.
To me, the highlight of the evening was Sheryl Hwangbo’s performance of the fiendishly difficult Sonata # 2 for Violin and Piano in D Major by Prokofiev. In this Miss Hwangbo, playing a Joann Blafius Weiggert violin was accompanied to perfection by John Arida on the piano. This was collaborative playing of the highest order. From the first chords I knew that I was in for a treat. My drowsiness had completely fled and I was all ears for the acid dissonance of this Prokofiev sonata. From having played a smidgen of Prokofiev, I knew how difficult it is to play this particular composer. That Sheryl and John played all parts of this sonata with verve, clarity, accuracy and polish showed how they have honed their playing through years and years of practice. The bravos and standing ovation at the end of their account were well deserved.
I am now a fan of these free concerts at the Juilliard. Many other schools in Manhattan present professional and student performances that won’t cost anyone a penny. No more $50 tickets, not even $10 cover charges, but instead blissfully free and fully realized performances of music, plays and, hopefully, musicals! There will always be that Broadway play and musical that I will have to attend (Spiderman:Turn off the Dark is on my sights right now; everybody says it's going to be a dud, so I have to be there), but I am glad to discover this alternative source of performances that won’t break the bank!

Review of Clifford Odets'"Golden Boy"

Performed by 3rd year students of Juilliard School
Place: Harold and Mimi Steinberg Drama Studio
Date: October 28, 2010

Clifford Odets was as American playwright who wrote socially-conscious plays in the late 30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s. He wrote the plays “Awake and Sing”, “Waiting for Lefty” and the pugilistic drama “Golden Boy”. An avowed socialist, he succumbed to the lures of Hollywood and subsequently ratted on some of his socialist colleagues during the McCarthy witch-hunts. He fell out of fashion in the late ‘40’s and 50’s. He died in 1964. His plays are considered classics of American dramatic literature.
As luck would have it, the Juilliard dramatic department was staging Odets’ “Golden Boy” roughly 45 minutes after the chamber music recital finished at Paul recital Hall on the mezzanine of Juilliard School (more on this later). I went up to the 3rd floor and was waitlisted at #22, but I managed to get into the theater where the play was going to be performed..
I had no preconception of what I was going to see. Back in my college days I had a read a bit of Clifford Odets but I had never seen a play of his staged in Manila. I felt very much like exploring unknown territory as I took my (free) seat in the theater expressly designed for the student actors of Juilliard. This was a theater in the round, mostly just one line deep for the audience, so seats were extremely limited. All the action was on a square raised platform viewable from every side. There was no scenery, just a table and a few chairs that were configured according to the scenes. In this regard, the play indeed was the thing. And did I mention it was free?
The play had a somewhat incredible storyline. An Italian-American guy named Joe Bonaparte with a talent for playing the violin decides to become a boxer, against the wishes of his father (talk about reverse ambitions!) We get to hear him play the violin offstage just once..a surreal piece of stage business and bittersweet as well.He proceeds to get himself booked for fights by a reluctant and skeptical manager, wins fights through defensive maneuverings that protected his hands (to assuage his father’s concerns), becomes cocky and arrogant, falls in love with his manager’s girlfriend, and in a gesture of defiance at his father, deliberately breaks his hands in a brutal fight, thus ruining them forever for violin-playing, elopes with the girlfriend and dies in a crash while driving his Duisenberg (the “it” car I suppose of those bygone years).
For a boxing play, “Golden Boy” uses tough, but somewhat polite, even romantic, language. That’s hardly the kind of talk you hear from real boxers (think Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather). But this play was set in the 30’s, so swear-words were a no-no. I did notice an undercurrent of misogyny in the play. I wonder if Clifford Odets hated women because he sure made out Joe’s love-object here to be a verbal punching-bag, a two-timer, and eventually tragic quasi-heroine. The zeitgeist of the 40’s America of course took a lot of things for granted, such as the second class stature of women and the inferiority of blacks. Judged against this background, “Golden Boy” was understandable, a logical product of its age.
The play was in three acts. This is unheard of in today’s Broadway, where the attention spans of modern theater-goers do not extend beyond two acts. Still, at the end of the play, when we learn of Joe’s death together with his girlfriend in a car crash, I realized that I had just seen a great play.
This was thanks in no small measure to the terrific “student” cast of this production. “Student” is a misnomer in this case, because I found the performances of the actors to be of a stunningly high caliber, at par with those I’ve seen on many repertory companies, and indeed, on Broadway. The only giveaway that this wasn’t really Broadway was the youthfulness and general prettiness of the twentysomething actors who played everyone from an old father to a loudmouthed manager to other characters of the rough world of boxing. Also, this casting of an originally all-white play was colorblind. You had black actors playing Italian and Anglo managers and hangers-on. The dialogue wasn’t rewritten to reflect the casting. It is to the credit of the actors that the color of their respective skins in no way detracted from the unfolding of the dramatic story of the rise and fall of a violinist/boxer. In the end, the message that Odets managed to convey through this play (perhaps a mea culpa of sorts for his success as a playwright, socialist that he was), was that when an individual turns away from idealism (playing the violin, with its doubtful economics) to crass commercialism (boxing with its monetary rewards but brutalization of the spirit), he destroys himself and those around him eventually. Sounds familiar?
Outstanding in the role of Joe “Golden Boy”’ Bonaparte was Michael Curran-Dorsano, who looked like a young Paul Newman. Only problem was, he didn’t really look like a boxer, physique-wise. I guess it would be too much to ask that a Juilliard actor have the body of Manny Pacquiao LOL. Ismenia Mendes as Lorna, the conflicted girlfriend, looked like a slimmed down Christina Hendricks of Mad Men, with the same archy attitude, period skirt and all. Sekou Laidlow (who is black) playing the manager had the brash and loud attitude down pat. Every actor in this 17-member cast (a number that would bankrupt a straight Broadway play), one year short of graduation in Juilliard, performed in a way that you knew they were already deep within effective, functioning theatrical personalities, fearless and un-shy. I see a bright future for them in the theater and movies. After all, Kevin Kline and Patti Lupone, among others, graduated from Juilliard. A couple of years from now, I will take great pleasure in remembering that a suddenly hot Hollywood actor used to be in a play by Clifford Odets at Juilliard, one cool evening in October,2010, and I was there in the audience, marveling at his performance. I know this will happen because years ago, I saw John Malkovich and Kevin Spacey in plays on and off Broadway when they were relatively unknown. Look where they are now. I’ll keep the (free) souvenir program just in case.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Countess of Bohemia

    “Thank you for everything.’’
     The countess said this while firmly clutching my arm with claw-like fingers.Her wide, gray eyes that were framed by extravagant false eyelashes gave her the look of a medusa who could turn you into stone if she had a mind to.
     Her blonde, bouffant wig clung to her head like an immoveable, hairy alien that, having sucked out her youth, had left behind a withered  parchment of a face  on which a nose, a mouth and those wide, staring eyes had been painted on artfully in order to present to the public the semblance of a living, glamorous being. Large, fake pearls hid the lobes of her ears. The wig hid the rest.
     Robert, the production manager, should have warned me, but he never did. He merely snickered when the countess invited us for a drink after the show. He had worked with her before, so he knew what was coming.
     I was the first to show up at the lobby café of the Costa Genoa.  As I sat down, the countess  swept in and immediately pounced on my arm like a hungry tigress.
    “What will you have, daahling?”she asked.
    “Campari with soda, please,” I replied, uncomfortable at her commandeering of my arm.
    She called the waitress over and imperiously ordered my drink and hers,  plain Perrier.
  “Your drummer has an attitude and your bass player is a nincompoop, but you're okay.  Why don’t  you come with me to my next ship? You can’t believe the incompetent pianists I’ve had to deal with.”
The waitress brought over our drinks.
  “Thank you daahling,” she said to the waitress, emphasizing the "aah" a la Zsa Zsa Gabor.
     The waitress  gave a sidelong glance at the countess's wide shoulders.  The padding, coupled with the  extra six inches that her high-heeled shoes added to her height,  gave the countess a formidable, even a threatening look. She looked like Darth Vader in drag: a dominatrix in a shimmery dress.
    Robert, a fleshy-faced Mancunian with an unquenchable thirst for lager,  had told me  that she once called him to her stateroom for instructions regarding her show that night.
    When she opened the door, he got the fright of his life. The countess wore no makeup, wig or any of the adornments of a glamorous cabaret singer. She had also forgotten to put on her false teeth. In the instance of seeing her in that state, Robert said, he saw the spectre of death on her face.
   “Do you want to know something?” said the countess.
     As if I had a choice.
   “ My father was the president of Bohemia before the war. When the Nazis came, they threw the prime minister out of the window.  We hid in the countryside. My father fled to England. He entrusted me to a group of nuns. I was okay for a while. When the allies came, the Germans started shooting everybody, so we fled. Somehow I got separated. I met a group of German soldiers, they were five I think. They all raped me, each one of them. Then they left me in a ditch. Thank God they didn’t kill me. I walked in the snow and finally was rescued by some American soldiers. They fed me, brought me back to health. Those were terrible times but I survived. I was fifteen then.”
     I stared at the countess, speechless with surprise. I don’t know what shocked me more, the story  that she just told me without so much as a finessing  preamble, or the fact that she would confess to having been gang-raped as a teen-ager. She looked back at me unflinchingly, with just a hint of a satisfied smile on her rouged lips that seemed to say: ‘’Gotcha!’’
     Robert and the other musicians joined us . The countess spoke of her days as a starlet  at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome back in the 50’s.
   “ I was friendly with Vittorio de Sica,” she said. “I knew Yves Montand.”
    The stories and the namedropping went on and on. An hour passed, then two, three.  The guys left, leaving just me and the drummer  with the Countess.The drummer was enthralled by the Countess’ tales, never mind that they had a problematic relationship during rehearsal. I managed to say goodbye, and her claws transferred their clutch over to the drummer's arm.
     I never saw the Countess again. She died in Florida soon after our meeting. When they found her, she was surrounded by a huge number of cats, strays that she had picked up and given shelter to. In her backyard were kennels with as many stray dogs. She left no heirs. Her innumerable pets were given over to the animal shelter. Most of them were in such a bad state that they had to be destroyed.


Two Museums in Cimiez, Nice

Cimiéz is a hilly, affluent suburb of Nice, in the south of France. It is the site of the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement. There are two museums located here that are on an art-lover's must-visit list: the Matisse Museum up the hill in a Genoese villa, and the Chagall museum in a Perret-designed building (similar to the concrete modern style of Frank Lloyd Wright) located some way below the hill.
The best way to get to these museums from the Nice train station is by taxi, but if one is willing to wait, one can reach them by local bus.

To get to these important museums, I boarded the train in Cannes for Nice early in the morning. The train was delayed by a few minutes, but I started early enough to allow for plenty of time to get back to the M/V Royal Princess should there be another delay in the train back to Cannes.

Thirty minutes later, I was in Nice Centre-Ville (Town Center). Distances between major towns in France are not that great.
Since it was still early morning, I decided to take a stroll down to the seaside. The cafés were full of people having their morning espressos. I walked through the Parque Albert into the famous Promenade des Anglais, the seaside boulevard lined by extravagant, turn of the century palaces and villas. There were not that many people yet, but come midday there would be a lot of tourists here, as well as bathers and sun-worshippers spread out on the pebbly beach.
I imagined Nice as small and quaint. Instead, I found it to be a big city with big-city qualities and big-city problems. Beneath the crust of Belle Époque villas lay thousands of years of history – Greek, Ligurian, Roman, Italian, and French - that formed the basis of a high level of culture and urbanity.
 Nice could give Los Angeles or New York a run for their money for the amount of graffiti on its embankments and walls in the suburbs and around the train terminals. In fact all over the Côte d'Azur, if one took the train, one got an eyeful of ugly graffiti scrawled in abandon over entire sides and walls of buildings, railings and fences. One saw little of these graffiti if one took a bus from Cannes to Nice. By bus the well-appointed fronts of villas, hotels or apartment buildings paraded by in a dizzying display of French affluence. Roofs and buildings sported neutral colors of beige, white,ochre and the occasional dash of pink. But the train rolled behind these buildings and from this vantage point the anarchic scrawl of graffiti artists in France Sud confronted the visitor with the reality that there is a different side to this paradise, and it 'ain't pretty. At least Los Angeles tries to clean up its graffiti with murals, buckets of paint, and law enforcement. Here they crawl on paintable surfaces like parodies of Picasso.
From the Nice train station, I caught the bus to Cimiez. I walked, first, through Roman ruins then into a park full of gnarled, ancient olive trees. At the edge of this park, overlooking yet more parkland was the Genoese villa that housed the Matisse museum. The pathways in this park bore signs naming them after American jazz musicians: avenue Louis Armstrong, avenue Miles Davis and so on. This villa used to be owned by Italian nobility back in the days when Nice belonged to the Savoys of Genoa. Its entire façade was painted rose-ochre with trompe l'oeil (false) windows. A striking building in a lovely setting.
Entrance to the museum was free. The museum inside housed many of Matisse's personal belongings, sketches, paintings, sculptures and maquettes of larger compositions. It came as a surprise to me to learn that Matisse painted in a severely academic fashion early in his career. If he had continued in this endeavor, he would have been just another unremarkable painter in the tourist trade. But he found his own style, to the benefit of the art world.
One thing I took away from visiting this museum was the conviction that Matisse was a master of drawing, or, as they like to say in the art world, "the line". He was the master of the sure stroke whether it was in describing a nude or scissoring out a paper flower.
Backtracking down the hill, again via bus, I visited Chagall's museum. This museum was devoted solely to biblical subjects. Illuminating as the Matisse Museum was, I was floored by the luminous paintings of Marc Chagall.
The building itself was the complete stylistic opposite of the Matisse Museum. It belonged squarely to the Wright and Corbusier style of undressed concrete. Designed by August Perret, the architect-planner of the city of Le Havre, it's sensibility was functional and pragmatic. Expansive windows brought the outdoors inside and provided great natural lighting for the works of art. As for the paintings themselves, what else can I say that hasn't been said about these colorful, voluptuous works: Abraham and Isaac, Paradise, The three angels, etc. Only an actual viewing of these paintings can give one a sense of the coloristic grandeur of these masterpieces. Add to that the fact that these were practically wall sized paintings. Merci, Marc Chagall!
The museum had a chapel, or at least a solemn space that was used for lectures, services, and even concerts, this, by the presence of a grand piano in the center of the room. What made this room magnificent were its stained glass windows whose deep, penetrating, gorgeous blues in all permutations and variations made you feel you were suddenly transported to heaven. Chagall made similar stained glass windows that can be seen at the UN in New York City. This blue is so distinctive as to be designated "Chagall blue".
I left Cimiez the same way I arrived, by bus back to the train station of Nice, then on to Cannes.   It was a day to remember and cherish. Filled with a lingering delight at seeing Matisse and Chagall's masterworks, I was glad I made the extra effort to go visit these relatively out-of-the-way museums. And I was eternally grateful for the chance that working as a musician on a cruise ship had given me to visit this incredibly rich side of the art world.