Saturday, December 25, 2010

Chekhov's "The Seagull"

What: The Seagull
Playwright: Anton Chekhov
When: December 13
Where: Stephanie P Mclelland Drama Theater)
Performed by the 4th year Juilliard Drama Students

I have read Chekhov’s plays back in high school and found them boring.

Nothing seemed to be happening in them, just ordinary chitchat by sometimes excitable people. There is a lot of fulmination, blood and thunder in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ibsen but in Chekhov, just plain ordinary conversation. I wasn't too impressed by them.

Yet, Chekhov is considered a great playwright who has greatly influenced the course of modern drama, so obviously I was in the minority in my assessment of Chekhov’s qualities as a dramatist.

Perhaps I would change my mind if I saw an actual production of one of his plays.

My chance came with the Juilliard Drama Department’s production of “The Seagull”, which was the first of four plays that he wrote, plays that are still performed today ( "Uncle Vanya", "The Cherry Orchard"and "The Sisters" were the other three.)

“The Seagull” is basically a play about unhappy people who want what they want but cannot get it (success, love , artistic fulfillment, wealth). It starts with a home production of a play by Konstantin, a budding playwright who wants to change the face of dramatic writing (natch) performed by the girl he has a crush on, Nina, who doesn’t return his affections. Konstantin’s mother is a popular actress-diva, Irina, who tactlessly belittles his son’s play, forcing him to abort the performance and leave in a huff. There are other characters in the play, which I will not recount as anyone can get a copy of “The Seagull”from Gutenberg Project and familiarize himself with them.

All I can say, in regards to the production was, it was an illumination of how turn-of-the-century Russians, especially the artistic types, thought and felt. I had been to St. Petersburg, where the play itself was premiered ( it was a big flop), so I felt a special resonance in the conduct of the play. I especially felt that I was watching real people dealing ( or not dealing) with others in the non-dramatic way that we do in our everyday lives. The action was all in the words and the little, intimate tableaus Chekhov set up that showed how miserable and unfulfilled these people were, like many of us.

The only physical action to be had in the play was in the offstage suicide (or not) of the temperamental Konstantin which was merely announced, not revealed.

I’m grateful to have seen this Juilliard production. All the actors were great and delivered their lines with easy naturalness.

In the end, I was not bored. Nor was I excited either. Watching "The Seagull"pretty much felt like watching grass grow. although you took care to see the veins and interstices of the grass. Had to.

No. I became more thoughtful,. I may read this play again, just to gain more insights into the play because frankly it didn't set my pulse pounding. I am an artist like these characters in this play. I've had feasts and famines and have dealt with them as best I could. I don't believe in trying to kill yourself because of artistic frustrations. Suffering writer's block? Go to Starbucks and have a nice cup of coffee. I know, I can be shallow in this regard.

I do love many of Chekhov’s short stories.

Maybe I’ll stick to them for a while.

Mozart's "The Magic Flute" Staged by Julie Taymor

There were several things that delighted me in Julie Taymor’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for the New York Metropolitan Opera ( I saw the performance on Dec 24). First and foremost: the effervescent music of Mozart (especially the famous aria of the Queen of the Night); secondly the wondrous staging, costumes, sets and puppetry for which Ms. Taymor is rightly renowned (just look at “Lion King” or, according to reports, “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark”); thirdly, the impeccable singing by the cast; fourthly, that it was abbreviated to less than two hours in length (as opposed to the interminable three);and last, but not least, the fact that it was sung in clear, understandable English.

The last one is important because opera is usually sung in Italian, French, German and sometimes Russian, which can detract from your enjoyment of the action onstage if you don’t understand these languages. Even if you do understand a little bit of these operatic tongues, the stilted way that singers often sing their lines will insure that you will have no idea whatsoever what they’re singing about. Hence, the importance of the translations that you can follow in the imbedded LED screens on the headrest in front of you, which the Met has provided thoughtfully for its American audiences (you can even choose French, Italian or German translations). And, even better, actually hearing the lines in English. “The Magic Flute”(or Zauberflote) was originally written in German. A poet, J.D. McClatchy provided the very clear and funny English translation.

Having understood what’s going on onstage, you are now free to enjoy the delights of this very colorful production of “The Magic Flute”. This production dates back to 2004, about seven years after Julie Taymor achieved great acclaim and success with Disney’s “The Lion King”. It was originally in three acts, but for this holiday season, and for the sake of the kids, this was abbreviated to one intermissionless act. By doing this, the story gained a lot of clarity. It actually looked more like a Broadway show, except of course, the music was by Mozart.

Thoroughly enjoyable was the comic turn by Nathan Gunn, tenor, as the birdcatcher Papageno, who looked like a bird himself. Astounding for her coloratura pyrotechnics was soprano Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night. Her jaw-dropping costumes, operated by a retinue of black-clad assistants in the style of Bunraku, have to be seen to be believed. Susanna Phillips as Pamina, Russell Thomas as Tamino,Morris Robinson as Sarastro, Ashley Emerson as Papagena and Tom Fox as the Speaker, were also outstanding in their respective roles. Conducting with authority was Erik Nielsen.

This opera, to me, was the best I’ve seen, better even than Zefirelli’s “La Boheme” which I honestly found to be a downer, as well as the “Il Trovatore”, which was the same ( people die in the end). In the Magic Flute, nobody dies, dreams are fulfilled, love triumphs, and Mozart’s music and the story spun by his librettist Schikaneder found perfect and spectacular realization courtesy of Julie Taymor’s genius. Visually, Ms. Taymor borrowed a lot from Japanese imagery with Egyptian symbolism thrown in (perfect to portray the theme of the opera, which is the Masonic ideal of universal brotherhood). I noted the Kabuki-like robes, the vivid primary colors of black, red and white, the joyful arts of kite-flying, the onstage puppeteers rendered almost invisible in their ninja clothing, the all-purpose giant transparent cube that revolved to change the scenery … the list was endless. I should not forget to mention the three black-clad sopranos, minions of the Queen of the Night who matched her for vocal dexterity, and the three boy sopranos portraying guiding spirits who wore white beards and, at one point, had to ride harnesses close to the ceiling of the opera hall, a terrifyingly long drop to the floor! Ms. Taymor seems to get a kick out of getting her performers to emote at a height (again, refer to the accident-prone “Spiderman”musical currently playing on Broadway.

Still, I will say this: this was the most spectacular and enjoyably-staged opera I have ever seen this season, period. I would never have expected to say this of a Mozart opera, but there it is.

Below, a short video of the four dancing bears in the opera.

As viewed from the nosebleed section:

As viewed from the DVD video posted on YouTube

Friday, December 24, 2010

American Ballet Theater's "The Nutcracker"

Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Ballet" has always been a big part of the experience of Christmas, at least in the affluent Western world . I know that many people nowadays (musicians, especially) look down on Tchaikovsky's music, and especially the music of this ballet, as treacly-sweet and nauseatingly popular. Even Tchaikovsky reportedly came to hate his own music. Tell that however to a wide-eyed kid for whom this music conjures a world of fantasy involving toy soldiers battling dastardly mice, a dashing nutcracker prince fighting a many-headed rat-king, a dreamy petit-bourgeouise girl, furniture that grow in size before your very eyes (including that Christmas Tree, of course) and various dance scenes that give inventive designers license to create fabulous costumes and scenery.

This was what I came for when I watched the American Ballet Theater's production of the Nutcracker at the Booklyn Academy of Music (affectionately known as BAM) on Dec 23, 2010 and I was not disappointed. The ballet was choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky of the Bolshoi Ballet and current artist-in-residence of ABT.

True, I had seen the movie based on the production of the Northwest Pacific Ballet featuring phantasmagoric and playful designs by Maurice Sendak (which I would have loved to have seen live), but watching a movie doesn't compare to enjoying an actual production onstage, in a jewel-box of a theater, with the attendant noises and shuffling of an excited and expectant audience. I had not seen the current production of Balanchine's very popular version at the New York Ballet because I refused to expend the $50 ticket minimum to see it. At $20, the ABT production was well within my budget. If I missed anything by not seeing the Balanchine I didn't know or cared because, by any standard, the staging by the ABT of this classic was, to my eyes and senses, absolutely superb.

The orchestra was a bit pared down, but hearing Tchaikovsky's introductory march in context gave me as good a set of goosebumps as if the New York Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic was playing it.The first third of the first act of the ballet involved little dancing, just a lot of posing. There were hilarious slapstick actions by sneaky mice and unruly children, some grandstanding by put-upon adults and of course the entrance of the mysterious Drosselmeyer. For me the highlight of the first act was not the Christmas tree that grew in size (I heard the Balanchine one was more spectacular), but the dance of the snow-flakes, a performance of the corps de ballet that was as pure and sparkly as driven snow (which, naturally, was falling down on the stage).

The second act involved elaborations of the various scenarios in the suite to music so familiar one could whistle them in one's dream. My favorite was the pas-de-deux by Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes. A perfectly matched pair of really good looking dancers performing flawless pirouettes and what-have-you. My other favorite was the "Waltz of the Flowers"by the corps de ballet: fifteen or so girls in graduated pink-petal tulle dresses being romanced by four semi-realistic yellow and black bumblebees! They performed an incredibly acrobatic cross-hoisting of ballerinas that provoked wild applause from the audience at the end of the routine.

I sat beside two elderly ladies from Queens who had seen the Balanchine ballet and had grown rather weary of it ( it had been performed nonstop every December since the '80's). They were ready to see a new one. One lady told me she preferred this production. It was something new, she said, something different. Most of all, she said, it gave the children in the ballet more things to do.

Much later I overheard another lady at the lobby profess her disappointment at the production being too "neo-classical". She probably wanted more spectacular effects. Perhaps she should have seen "Spiderman"instead?

To me the ABT production was all about the dancing and the music, and on this count, it rated a 10 in my book. This was my first live Nutcracker, so I may be forgiven for my enthusiasm, but I will always judge other productions by this one, if I ever get a chance again to watch the Nutcracker in the future.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Frick Museum

My favorite museum in New York is not the Metropolitan Museum. Nor is it the Museum of Modern art. Or, for that matter, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, etc.

My favorite museum in New York City is the Frick Museum.

Yesterday, 16th December 2010, was the Frick's 75th anniversary as a museum and was free to the public. Previously it was the mansion of the steel baron Henry Clay Frick who loved art as much as he hated giving money to his workers.

Hateful though this man was to the steelworkers of Pittsburgh back in the 1900's, you have to admire the richness and depth of his taste as a collector as evidenced by his acquisitions.

There's the famous Holbein painting of Sir Thomas More above the fireplace. And the familiar painting of St. Francis in the Desert (actually Tuscany) by Bellini. Add a couple of top-notch Rembrandts, Vermeers, Velasquez, Goyas, El Grecos and Gainboroughs and you have a museum that is well-laid out and viewable in half a day without the visitor incurring art-fatigue or Stendhal's syndrome. It really wasn't a museum, in the first place. It used to be the home of a very wealthy man who just happened to have a great, if conservative, taste in mainly European art. In his will, Mr. Frick stipulated that the paintings should remain where he originally put them and that none should be lent out. Only paintings acquired after his death were allowed to be borrowed by other museums.

My favorite room in this mansion is the one with the four panels by Fragonard depicting the "Progress of Love". You've seen these paintings in reproduction. They were created by Fragonard for Lous IV's mistress, Madame duBarry. They're here in their original settings created for them by Mr. Frick.

Down in the basement was an exhibition of Spanish drawings featuring the works of Ribera, Murillo and Goya. This was in itself worth the visit to the Frick.

Best of all, there is a covered indoor garden with a large marble fountain and a reflecting pool. One can rest here and be soothed by the sound of falling water. Even for a free day, the halls were not crowded because numbers were limited to what the rooms can hold. No jostling or trying to crane one's head above other's .

If there is one museum to visit in New York, and you only had a day to do it, I highly recommend visiting the Frick Museum. You won't regret it.

Shostakovich's #5 and Ravel's " Daphnis et Chloe"

In a fall and winter season full of concertgoing highlights, two New York concerts stood out for me: the Mannes School of Music Orchestra playing Shostakovich’s “Symphony # 5” at Norton Symphony Space and the Juilliard Orchestra performing the full-length concert version of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe”, complete with chorus at Alice Tully Hall. The Shostakovich was conducted by Korean conductor Taeyoung Lee who recently moved to the US to finish his masters of music in conducting at Mannes, and the Ravel was conducted by the Montreal native Yannick Nehnet-Seguin, who will take over as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra come 2012.
The Symphony #5, which is very popular and considered a warhorse in symphonic repertory, was Shostakovich’s do-or-die attempt to get in the good graces of Stalin, who disliked his previous work, the opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District”. A negative review of that opera appeared in next day’s communist gazette. This review was widely believed to have been written by Stalin himself. What to do when your head was literally on the chopping block? Shostakovich came up with this stunning symphony which, while satisfying the need of the comrades for quasi-patriotic bombast, contains enough ambiguity that hint at sarcasm and satire. Its true heart and highlight is the 3rd movement, the Largo. It sounds like a cry for help and a requiem at the same time for the Russian people who were caught up at that moment of history in the infamous Stalinist purges. This is a triumphant symphony in every sense of the word, yet it hints at layers of meanings that Shostakovich refused to divulge or elaborate on. In fact, he did not put any markings on the score that could be open to political interpretration, just indications of dynamics.
The Mannes Orchestra is composed of students and alumni of the Mannes school, so naturally it sounded tight, secure and assured. Under the conductor Taeyoung Lee, who showed great acumen and insight into the interpretation of the piece, the symphony shone sharp, acerbic, grave and yes, bombastic, especially in the finale. How can one not be thrilled by the final poundings of the timpani that some wag had interpreted as Shostakovich’s version of Stalin forcing people to show great joy and happiness for party and motherland?
The “Daphnis et Chloe” suites 1 & 2, on the other hand, were a glorious mishmash of episodes from the music that Ravel wrote on commission from Serge Diaghilev for the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo. Normally orchestras play only the more popular 2nd suite, and oftentimes without the chorus. On this occasion, the Juilliard Orchestra played both suites with the Desoff choir. I have heard the 2nd suite played on video by the BBC proms orchestra without the chorus. The difference is palpable. The sound is so much richer with addition of the wordless voices. Of course, it helped that the performance was live, at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln center, and the conductor was Yannick Nezet-Seguin.
The suites represent the summit of orchestration and reveal Ravel’s mastery and skill in this artform.
The opening of the 3rd act of suite #2 is considered by many the most perfect orchestral evocation of breaking dawn.
The orchestra was in fine form. Really, it was heads and shoulders above other school orchestras. Like the Mannes, the members of this orchestra were performing artists in their own right. The choir was the professional Desoff choir, which has been in existence since 1929 and has tackled everything from Monteverdi to Stravinsky.
“Daphnis & Chloe” was a ravishing sensuous, impressionist triumph and maestro Yannick proved to the savvy but adoring New York crowd who occupied every seat in Alice Tully Hall and stood in line for two hours in freezing weather for (free) tickets, that all the hoopla about him was well-deserved and warranted.
On a side-note: I read that Yannick was born in 1975, the year I was in Tokyo competing in the Yamaha Organ Festival. Time flies, indeed, for many of us!