October 2008 Archives

Here's my latest entry, to ARTicles, the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program. It's about the possibly corrupting influence of personal contact on critical judgment.
October 28, 2008 2:28 PM |

Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic are celebrating Leonard Bernstein this fall, on the occasion of what would have been his 90th birthday this past Aug. 25. Of all the myriad events between Sept. 24 and Dec. 13, none was more anticipated than the staged (or semi-staged, with the orchestra flanking the singers, as originally intended) performance of Bernstein's "Mass" last night at Carnegie. (This was scheduled to be followed this afternoon by one of Carnegie's Berlin-Philharmonic-style community events at the United Palace Theater in northern Harlem, complete with school choirs singing related songs of their own devise.)

"Mass" had a mixed critical response when it helped open the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1971. Paul Hume of the Washington Post called it "the greatest music Bernstein has ever written," while Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times was famously vituperative. What seems to be have stuck as the provisional judgment of posterity is a modified version of Schonberg's negativity. The score's pot-pourri stylistic melange seemed unfocussed and the story an epitomization of the composer's mawkish, maudlin, kitschy side.

As such it resembled too much of Bernstein's later music (compared to the brilliance of the earlier shows and ballets), often weak or patchy or sentimental, as he guiltily devoted time to his lavish (and also brilliant) international conducting career. And yet advance rumblings before last night, no doubt parrly engendered or encouraged by Bernstein partisans, had suggested "Mass" was ripe for reconsideration. To my taste, it emerged sounding far stronger than I had remembered, even if I had been guardedly sympathetic all along. This was partly because the score itself holds up, and partly because the conductor Marin Alsop and the stage director Kevin Newbury and a mostly strong cast made such a persuasive case for it.

Musically, Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant, who is transformed from a comman man to a priest to a paranoid megalomamiac before settling back humbly into the community, was a tad too theatrical, and his baritone struggled sometimes shakily as a crooning quasi-falsettist. But the rest of the cast was affecting, and Alsop did a terrific job with her Baltimore Symphony and various choruses (but what happened to the Stony Brook University Marching Band? no room on stage for them?).

Alsop's control was impressive on two counts. She held this sprawling score together, one in which the disparate idioms closely entwine; William Bolcom's similarly grand and diverse "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" more rigorously segregates the idioms into discrete numbers. And the use of amplification (except for occasional anomalies as the dial-twiddlers struggled to project some of Sykes's crooning) helped smooth out disconcerting disjunctions between unamplified classical music and the more poppish material.

This musical unity had the added effect of minimizing one aspect of the score that bothered me back in the 70's, when I was chief rock critic of the Times. Lenny fell on the wrong side of the pop standards and show biz vs. rock generational divide. "Mass" owes a lot to "Godspell" (Stephen Schwartz did much of its lyrics) and to "Jesus Christ Superstar" (as well as to Britten's War Requiem), but the younger Andrew Lloyd Webber was a lot surer rock composer than Bernstein. Last night, one didn't mind the unconvincing blues-rock passages because they were subsumed into an overall musical voice that Alsop helped articulate.

But the "rock" wasn't missed also because Newbury, the director, did something simple and clever. He purged the staging of the dated hippie trappings that made "Hair" this summer in Central Park so lame. Bernstein was inspired by the counter-culture of the 60's and anti-Vietnam War protests. Newbury made the piece into a broader, more timeless drama about ego-mania and youthful renewal, which come to think of it is pretty timely today, after all.

Was it a perfect evening? Of course not. Some of the performers were still a little too pushy/Broadway for me. The Celebrant's mad scene goes on too long. I, for one, sitting on the aisle in the parterre, could have done without the fresh-faced, church-robed young choristers with electric candles lining up, shaking my hand and blocking my view of the stage.

That curmudgeonly moment out of the way, this performance of "Mass" did much to resurrect (to use a too-apt verb) a score that may not have needed resurrection but surely welcomed rehabilitation. Alsop and Carnegie are to be congratulated, and thanked.

October 25, 2008 12:41 PM | | Comments (1)

OK, you can relax. Here it is, at long last, my report on a bunch of mostly non-balletic dance events in the New York area in recent weeks.

"Mostly" because while I made mention of Christopher Wheeldon's Morphoses at City Center in an Oct. 8 posting, there was also some ballet in the non-annual Fall for Dance pop-pourri programs, again at City Center. I missed most of these, being out in California or up at our country place. Still, the one program I did see included an utterly anodyne account of Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" by Sara Webb and Connor Walsh of the Houston Ballet.

The rest of that program was pretty patchy: Boring and muddled modern dance from BeijingDance/LDTX, yet another effusion from Willy Tsao, who seems to be the driving force behind every Chinese modern-dance company that ever was. An amusing, snappily danced duet by Richard Siegal for Ayman Harper and Mario Zambrano for Siegal's Bakery company. The always riveting Fang-yi Sheu in a portion of her sensuous table-top solo, "Single Room"; this was choregraphed by Bulareyaung Pagarlava, who despite his Thai name is involved with the Cloud Gate company from Taipei (and also involved with Sheu, professionally and personally); it still looked great but had been tricked up with fancier production values than it originally enjoyed in the intimate studio it the Baryshnikov Arts Center. And The Gentlemen of Halau Na Kamalei (I'm dropping a lot of umlauts, of whatever you call them in Hawaiian), who gave male hula dancing a risible bad name. Ah, well, even at $10 a ticket (or free, for us critics), you can't win 'em all.

One of the more piquant series in this early fall was a festival called Crossing the Line. This was yet another production of the French -- the Alliance Francaise in New York, as backed by French state money. The reason we see so much French stuff is that the French still take cultural diplomacy seriously. The Americans did too, at the onset of the Cold War, but our politicians soon lost interest in winning the hearts and minds of arts lovers.

Crossing the Line kicked off with yet another deft, amusing, annoying, thought-provoking endeavor from Jerome Bel, the uncontested master of French dance conceptualism. This was supposedly called "The Last Performance," billed as a "response to a poorly received performance he had done." But he decided -- at extreme short notice, he said -- to cook up a new lecture-demo consisting of recollections from an observer's (his own) point of view of performances he had seen. Conceptualists make good critics, and Bel could be a terrific critic if he weren't so busy teasing us with his thinking and his acting out of his thinking. His talk was amusing, punctuated by his own deft movement illustrations. It made one, even those ones of us who have done it for a living, think about what it meant to watch a performance. It was not his best work, but it was plenty good enough.

So was Ivana Mueller's "While We Were Holding It Together." This consisted of a quintet of dancers (or actors or people) holding a frozen pose and talking. It sounds boring; it turned out to be gripping. Mueller is based in Paris and Amsterdam. She enlivened the static scene (and relieved her performers) with occasional blackouts, and eventually started making individual performers speak with others' voices (via recordings and lip-synching). It was maybe more entertaining than deeply affecting. But entertaining it was.

My former colleage at The NY Times, Gia Kourlas, disdains most British contemporary dance in favor of the continentals. For me, though, the long-awaited return to the U.S. of the DV8 Physical Theatre company from London was a cause for celebartion. Lloyd Newson has done some of the best work in British physical theater ever; indeed, he's the pioneer. He had a bad experience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the late 80's, though his company did tour elsewhere here in the mid-90's. He was lured back  to Jed Wheeler's lively Peak Performances series at Montclair State University in New Jersey, not that far from New York, and a couple of other East Coast venues, and his "To Be Straight with You" was worth the wait.

This was a piece about being gay, male and female, based on the thoughts and recollections of the dancers. It sounds didactic, but Newson has such a gift for movement, for physicality, that the whole piece pulsed with life. I do hope DV8 comes back soon; in the meantime, get ahold of the 35-minute film of "The Cost of Living," one of the grreat dance films ever made.

Finally, there were three New York-based modern-dance performances, all interesting but none as successful as the two French and one British -- with one exception. Tere O'Connor's wonderfully titled "Rammed Earth" at the Baryshnikov Arts Center has been rapturously received in previous appearances. I am fully willing to concede that I just didn't get it, but I didn't. O'Connor, who is a lynchpin of the New York scewne, as a choreographer, teacher, impresario and polemicist, is full of ideas, including having the audience move about between sections to present different perspectives on the performance. His quartet of dancers was first rate. But for me the actual movement vocabulary and shape of the group as a whole seemed prosaic. Maybe someone could clue me in. But if you have to be clued in, maybe the performance is missing something.

Ann Liv Young, the southern belle queen of trailer trash sex, has a following, too, but maybe it's dwindling. Apollinaire Scherr in her blog really labored to appreciate her latest, "The Bagwell in me," and I admire Apollinaire for all her hard work. Me, I just found it kind of gross. I mean, penetrating yourself with a dildo (her last dance) and eating out her female collaborator while the father of her baby was favoring us with closeups from a hand-held video camera seemed, well, of limited artistic potential as Young further develops her art. But God knows she's a strong performer, and some of her past work was reportedly better than this, so you never know.

Bill T. Jones is a more established character, he would be no doubt horrified to read, and one who himself is hardly a stanger to racially charged provocation, or, as he would surely (and maybe correctly) put it, fearless exploration of racial and other socio-political issues. (One wonders what he would have thought seeing the black Isabel Lewis, in blackface, in Young's piece being eaten out by her white collaborator. Makes one nostalgic for the relatively demure Karen Finley.)

Jones's piece, "A Quarreling Pair," started life out at Montclair. It is based, of all things, on a puppet play by Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles's partner of yore. Two old (white) sisters bicker symbiotically, and finally one runs off to fulfill herself. The rest, presented as a series of vaudeville sketches, is sometimes disturbing, sometimes charming, never confrontational in the old Jones manner and deeply touching.

Jones resists the thought that he might be mellowing, or maturing; he worries that maybe he's just selling out. But I think he's mellowing and maturing, and his recent work has shown a wonderfully new-found depth and gravity. Maybe, one day, Young will get there too.  

October 23, 2008 5:53 PM |
Here's my latest posting to ARTicles, in which I tie myself in unseemly knots trying to justify an ill-considered phrase I deployed in my posting last week to the same blog. Read it and weep.
October 21, 2008 7:26 PM |
Here's a link to a review by me that appeared in the NYT Sunday Book Review of the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff's memoir, "The Voice."
October 16, 2008 9:54 AM |
Here's a link to a short entry I just posted to ARTicles, the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, about a good day for reading an actual, old, trees-cut-down-for-the-cause print newspaper.
October 15, 2008 6:38 AM |

To further postpone my long-promised, hotly awaited modern-dance entry, I offer some pontifications on the Metropolitan Opera's new production of what it bills as "John Adams's 'Doctor Atomic.'" That formulation omits Peter Sellars as co-conceiver of the opera and assembler of its collage libretto, though Sellars is credited on the first page of the program.

Peter Gelb decided to jettison Sellars's original staging, first seen in San Francisco three years ago and since, I believe, in two other cities, and to replace it with a new one by Penny Woolcock. Ms. Woolcock, a documentary television filmmaker in England, is making a career of reworking Adams operas sans Sellars. Her film of "The Death of Klinghoffer" was a big success; her production of "Doctor Atomic," her first-ever opera staging, is a big failure.

The reasons are simple, and speak to either Gelb's misjudgment or hubris. Maybe he dislikes Sellars's work; maybe he dislikes Sellars. Maybe he didn't want a production by someone closely identified with Gerard Mortier and the new New York City Opera. Maybe he just wanted (at considerble expense, though the production looks cheap) to do something different. What he got was sharply inferior to the Sellars original.

Ms. Woolcock's "Klinghoffer" was successful because she transformed it from a static meditation to a hard-hitting, realistic film, full of intense acting seen in telling closeups. "Doctor Atomic" is also static, especially in the second act, which begs to be cut (apparently Ms. Woolcock wanted cuts, which Adams successfully resisted). Those interminable scenes with Kitty Oppenheimer and her Indian maid Pasqualita drag on and on; maybe they would have worked with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, originally intended as Kitty.

On the big stage at the Met, Ms. Woolcock looked lost. People stood around (or were caged in tiered boxes on movable walls, shades of Mark Morris's "Orfeo ed Euridice"; maybe they were the same rig). Or they ran about frenetically, distractingly and to no obvious purpose. Whatever skills she has in closeups were vitiated by the vast scale.

The lack of tension -- exacerbated by the earnest ponderousness of some of the music, at least as heard in Alan Gilbert's lush but slack conducting -- seeped away. Sellars and Adams deliberately chose not to end with a literal bang (the program insert warning that the production would contain "loud noise" was pretty funny given that this was supposed to be the ATOM BOMB) but with a recorded scream and an eerie silence, followed by a female Japanese voice begging for water, a sign of radiation poisoning. At the Met all that was undercut by a lack of clarity as to what was happening when. Sellars's staging of this scene, critcized by some, was far superior, with everyone in sun glasses lying down, filling the stage and facing the audience, and then bathed in sickly green light.

The Met's set, hemmed in by those walls, looked cramped and unatmospheric. The design was by Julian Crouch, who did the recent Met "Satyagraha," and featured a similar spherical "gadget," based on the original, that was seen in San Francisco. But the rear was dominated by an awkward assemblage of fabric draped over some sort of support structure. Maybe this all was supposed to evoke the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; in the end the fabric struggled upwards to dimly suggest the explosion.

Adrianne Lobel's San Francisco set was far more evocative. The rear of the stage was open, with a low horizon of mountains; one always felt the vastness of the New Mexico sky. The bomb hung ominously. Lucinda Childs's fussy dances intruded (here the Met's choreography, by Andrew Dawson, and the sternly static American Indians in full costume were better). But Sellars's direction of the principals was generally more pointed, especially the remarkable bodily contortions of Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer, the titular doctor, in the incontestably greatest scene in the opera, a setting of John Donne's sonnet "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," which closes the first act.

Otherwise, the Met cast equalled San Francisco's, with Finley again singing beautifully and Eric Owens as the blustering General Groves returning from 2005, and telling contributions from Sasha Cooke, Richard Paul Fink and the rest.

That said, what was saddest about this disappointing evening was how it masked the true beauties of the Adams score. "Doctor Atomic" has its flaws, but it is a great opera, and  Gelb, Woolcock and the Met don't let us realize that.

October 14, 2008 9:50 AM | | Comments (2)

Before I launch into my early-fall New York modern dance roundup, a word about Stewart Wallace's and Amy Tan's new opera The Bonesetter's Daughter in San Francisco. I went to this with several non-objective agendas, and wound up liking it a lot more than I thought I would.

My first agenda was resentment with how David Gockley had handled his predecessor as general director of the company, Pamela Rosenberg. Pamela, now Intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic, is an old and dear friend of mine, and with a few exceptions (those damnable Germanic Fedoras in production after production, or so it seemed), I much admired her abbreviated tenure in San Francisco. In particular her big-ticket items, like St. Francois d'Assise, Le Grand Macabre and Dr. Atomic, which she commissioned. Gockley has not been exactly generous in his public comments about her.

Gockley is an odd duck, weirdly recessive in person, a curious mixture of bravery and conservative timidity (or practicality) in his policies. Like most out-of-town critics who would swan in for his premieres in Houston, I often admired them, and hence him, while regretting a certain conventionality in his choice of musical idoms, production styles and conducting. Still, he did terrific work there, and may do terrific work in San Francisco. I enjoyed collaborating with him in presenting Robert Wilson's production of Four Saints in Three Acts in 1996. But I went out to SF last month with attitude: I resented his pandering to San Francisco's often provincial, arrogant board of directors (stars! stars! stars!) and his choice, after Messaien, Ligeti and Adams, of Wallace to compose his first world premiere in San Francisco. He had turned down this project for Houston, but accepted it for SF because of that city's large Chinese population and Tan's iconic local reputation.

I went, then, out of curiosity. But also because my friend Shi Zheng Chen, whom I had hired a decade ago to direct the 18-hour kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion at Lincoln Center, and his prima donna in that production, Qian Yi, were the director and the "Precious Auntie" character in The Bonesetter's Daughter. Before I went and at lunch on the day I saw the opera, I heard from Shi Zheng of tensions backstage during rehearsals, about clashes among him, Gockley and Tan. Furthermore, I had Wallace pegged as an eclectic lightweight.

Surprise: I really enjoyed the opera and its production, as did everyone I read or talked to about it (except for Alan Rich, who ran amok in his sometimes amusingly denunciatory way; when he dislikes something, he REALLY dislikes it). Wallace steeped himself in Chinese music and came up with an idiom that was focussed and personal and never mere Chinoiserie. Tan's tale, simplified from her novel probably to its benefit, is a fraught, emotional saga of three generations of Chinese women, one dead (Precious Auntie, though there are flashbacks), one dying (her daughter, who moved to America in her maturity), and her Americanized daughter.

For me, Shi Zheng's staging captured all that beautifully, though some of the flying acrobatics looked a little gratuitous; had they been more pervasive, as he had hoped, maybe they would have stood out less. But he shaped the acting surely, and what he did with Qian Yi was magical. She was often suspended, floating in mid-air and gorgeously costumed, with her wig streaming out like blond flames. Her singing (she was lightly and unobtrusively amplified, and hence they all were) was a fascinating blend of East and West; all the singing was very good, in fact. And her upper-body movements, torso and arms and especially hands, were as exquisite as they had been in The Peony Pavilion and in all her American stage work since, most of it with Shi Zheng. She really was a ghostly presence, and to my satisfaction she earned the biggest audience cheers of the night. The final scene, as Precious Auntie leads her daughter into the shadowy darkness of death, was profoundly moving, a tribute to everyone involved. Despite my grumpy agenda going in. 

October 8, 2008 4:17 PM | | Comments (1)

Oi, as we say on the cusp of Yom Kippur. I see I haven't filed anything here since Sept. 11. Bad me. BAD. Tina Brown has started a new online magazine called The Daily Beast. Trivial though it seems to be, like Ms. Tina herself, I can relate to the title. After I named this blog Rockwell Matters, picking up on the title WNYC had suggested for my late and (by me) lamented raido program, I toyed with calling it Ravenous Beast. The idea was that the blog was this growling creature demanding to be fed, daily or more, and copiously. It would become very angry were it sentient and had not been fed since Sept. 11.

My problem is not coming up with topics; there's always something, and something (to me) interesting. It's carving out the time in day after day filled with frenetic activity, some semi-important and much trivial, but frenetic nonetheless. As it happens, though, the last few weeks have been packed with cultural events that lured me into attendance. This after a summer that had its cultural moments, but a thin Lincoln Center Festival schedule (due largely to theater renovations) and a consequent greater amount of time spent in our upstate New York country place. That afforded me easier access to Bard and Glimmerglass (oddly, not Jacob's Pillow and, it's been like that for years, Tanglewood), but the cultural density was less.

Now, though, the New York fall seaaon has opened with a bang. At least in dance; I've skipped the Metropolitan Opera until Dr. Atomic opens this coming Monday, and seen nothing much at the big concert halls, let alone rock & roll. I was a music critic most of my life, but I find that I go to more dance now than music, at least in recent weeks. That's partly because I thought when I was the NYT chief dance critic, and still think now, that dance is in a particularly exciting, lively creative place now, across the board.

In ballet, even, what with a raft of wonderful dancers, from the international and local star veterans to the latest sensation, unveiled in the short Morphoses season at City Center, the lyrical, subtle 15-year-old Beatriz Stix-Brunell. (I love a program bio that rattles on about a dancer's fabulous training and glamorous worldwide performances and ends "She is in the 10th grade at the Nightingale-Bamford School.") And she's black, though I have no notion of her actual racial background, which might seem unseemly to mention except that black ballerinas have been woefully underrepresented in our major companies -- cf. Alica J. Graf. But ballet is now further blessed with two terrirfic young choregraphers: Christopher Wheeldon, of Morphoses, and Alexei Ratmansky, late of the Bolshoi and now to be artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre. They're temperamentally distinct -- Wheeldon cooler and more classical, Ratmansky more emotional and, well, Russian -- but both use academic vocabulary to expressive ends.

But the real dance buzz and bustle this early fall in New York has been in the realm of what we used to call modern dance, or what the Europeans call contemporary dance. In other words, more or less formal dance in which a whole range of post-balletic steps and theatricality and conceptual puzzlements are the norm. Among major dance critics in New York, this whole area has been grievously slighted in recent years, in favor of ballet. But it's the source of much of the innovation even in ballet; just ask Mikhail Baryshnikov, who avidly fosters it.

But this posting has gone on too long. I'll file again, soon, on all of that, from Jerome Bel to Fall for Dance to Bhutanese cham to Tere O'Connor to Ivana Mueller to Bill T. Jones to Ann Liv Young to DV8. Plus something on "The Bonesetter's Daughter" at the San Francisco Opera.   

October 8, 2008 3:17 PM |


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