John Rockwell: March 2008 Archives
Despite the peculiar fact that Paul Giamatti's father Bart (subsequently president of Yale and the commissioner of baseball) was in my French class in high school, I have never responded to Paul as an actor. Didn't hate him, like others who recoil viscerally from his whininess. But he always seemed nerdy and mannered to me.
Now, a plug for his performance in the HBO miniseries (sorry: miniseries EVENT; everything is an event these days, like car sales) "John Adams." Maybe the last five episodes will tank, but the first two were terrific, and aside from the always-winning Laura Linney and a host of good character actors bringing the Framers to life (David Morse looks like he stepped stiffly out of a portrait as George Washington), the central performance is Giamatti's.
What's impressive is that this is real acting. He looks something like Adams, round and a little frazzled, but more to the point he doesn't look much like Giamatti. He catches the character's contradictions (kindly, irascible, patriotic, vain) superbly. Alessandra Stanley panned him in some detail in her NY Times review, and maybe other Adams actors have been better or Giammati descends back into weak eccentricity later on in the series. But so far he seems pretty fine to me, and his performance augurs well for a greater range in future roles.
Haydn's "Creation" dominates the concert programming at this spring's Salzburg Easter Festival, with its second and final performance set for Easter Sunday. Haydn' text descends from Milton and paints a benign Enlightenment view of God as the world's divine architect. The seven days of the creation conveniently end before the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, though there is a hint at the very end that "false madness" might one day taint their idyll. Before such madness can work is snaky wiles, though, everything God does is perfect. Very much including the creation of man (and women, though women play second fiddle here) "in his image".
With all due respect to the fluty soprano Genia Kuhmeier and the beefily earnest tenor Michael Schade, and to the ethereal, sturdy singing of the Berlin Radio Choir and the brawny (those trumpets!) playing of the Berlin Philharmonic and the
Herbert von Karajan would have been 100 on April 5, and at least in the German-speaking wo rld, in those places he was prominent, he is again ubiquitous. His legacy as a conductor, preserved in a myriad self-adoring videos, has not established him as one of the defining maestros of the previous century, however sumptuous he helped orchestras sound and however sovereign he was in some repertory, Bruckner uber alles.
But at least his institutional legacy is tangible: the Berlin Philharmonie, home of his Berliner Philharmoniker, and the almost-but-not-quite-as-wonderful-sounding large Festspielhaus here in Salzburg, which he built to house his Berlin orchestra in his productions of Wagner's operas, especially the "Ring," are impressive monuments, rather like what Carnegie Hall is to Isaac Stern.
The "Ring" is back in Salzburg, where we are currently in the midst of the first cycle of opera and concert performances. I was paid to come over here and give a music-appreciation talk, which I duly did. That would have invalidated me from commenting on the festival were I still at the NY Times, but I'm not so here goes:
H. Wiley Hitchcock's memorial service was last Saturday in St. Peter's Church. Wiley was a remarkable man. He was a WASP aristocrat, a true scholar, an expert leader of instititions and a warm friend to several generations of musicologists, critics and musicians.
Wiley won his reputation -- "earned his union card," as he put it -- in sometmes stodgy musicological circles as an expert in the properly old music of Caccini and, especially, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, as the author of the catalogue of Charpentier's works (they go now by "H" numbers), the editor of a myriad scores and the author of the basic biography.
But I knew him, as most people did, as an Americanist. He ran the Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College, which spawned a generation or two of Americanist musicologists and helped make the scholarly study of all kinds of American music academically repsectable. Ives was another specialty, and another composer now with "H" numbers in his catalogue.
Wiley was the author of "Music in the United States," a standard text laudable for its openness to all kinds of music, cultivated and vernacular (to use his terms).
He carried that openness into his editing of the New Grove Dicitionary of American Music, which swelled to four volumes largely through his insistence on the inclusion of all manner of pop and avant-garde weirdness. I was the area editor for those two fields, and I deeply appreciated his friendship and support.
Not everyone can make as many marks on their fields and their times as Wiley did. I know that everyone in St. Peter's Church was grateful to him.
Nico Muhly's "Skin, Bone, Hair" concert at the Kitchen this past weekend -- I went to the early show on Friday -- was a delight. For me, though, with my categorizing mind, it was a delight even better appreciated in context.
That context is cuteness, or more exactly cuteness masking deep emotion. Muhly has worked for Philip Glass and loves Renaissance English church music. Yet his music owes more, it might seem, to a whole skein of 20th-century experimentation that veils whatever seriousness may be intended in a shining coat of charm and fey allure. One thinks of Cowell, of Partch, of Nancarrow, of Cage's prepared-piano music. Or more recently of Golijov and Stephin Merritt and Laurie Anderson (who was sitting behind me on Friday; Lou Reed was enraptured -- by Muhly, not by sitting behind me).
A recurrent complaint, not to say howling cry, in the world of ballet is the dearth of new choreographers -- dance makers who can make dance using the academic vocabulary and not distort it by alien idioms. (Of course, there are some of us who think the best modern-dance and world-dance choregraphers are enlivening the classic vocabulary, not besmirching it, but that's another story.) Of those who remain firmly in the ballet traditon, there are Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky and a few others (Elo, Bigonzetti), but the pickings are slim.
Conversely, there has been considerable suspicion in the ballet community about the value of historical re-creations of choreography previously thought to be lost. Given the relative newness of video and its inherent limitations, and the failure of any one system of dance notation to be widely accepted, great dance remains an almost oral tradition, or one of muscle memory, handed down from dancer to dancer and teacher to teacher, in a line that must stretch back unbroken to a dance's creation if it is to have any validity. That makes choreography a living art, perhaps, but it also means that the "authenticity" of past dance is even more questionable than an "authentic" performance of Baroque music. Some traditions seem to form a pretty solid chain back to the past, as with Bournonville in Copenhagen. But most are pretty sketchy.
Still, there has been a lively subgenre of historical re-creation in recent decades: one thinks of Ivo Cramer in Sweden or Pierre Lacotte in France and a legion of Baroque dance specialists like Catherine Turocky in New York. Not to speak of Millicent Hodson in Britain, who with her husband Kenneth Archer has attempted to re-make the steps and decor of many lost dances, most famously Nijinsky's "Sacre du Printemps."
Such efforts have tended to be looked at askance by dance critics, and by many dancers and dance scholars, too. The Kirov Ballet tried to present an historically accurate "Sleeping Beauty" in 1999, but it was quickly modified after protests from the dancers and others in the local, national and international ballet communities.
So it was fascinating for me, as a devotee of historical re-creation, to read Tuesday in the NY Times that Yuri Burlaka has been appointed Ratmansky's successor as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet. Burlaka is an active specialist in historical reconstruction, or re-creation. How successful his work along those lines has been, I cannot say. Especially since "success" can be judged either on its present-day effectiveness or on its fidelity to what we can learn about the ballet being reconstructed. If it's pretty much pure guesswork, as critics have complained about Hodson's efforts, than it's less historical veracity than mere bad choreography.
My interest in such reconstructions was quickened when I saw, some 20 years ago, a Cramer version of Noverre's "Jason et Medee" at the Ballet du Rhin. I can't speak to its scholarship, but it made a strong, evocative impression on me. It was like looking through a long-obscured window back into a distant era. Similarly with Chen Shi-Zheng's production of the 18-hour, 55-scene kunju opera "The Peony Pavilion," which I engendered as director of the Lincoln Centrer Festival and which toured the world. Chinese opera contains ample dance as well as singing and acting, but over 400 years its reconstruction in all aspects had to be largely surmised. Yet the result, however true to 1598 and however at variance with debased modern kunju tradition, was wonderfully poetic.
Dance has lagged behind music in historical terms, starting with music's far more detailed and widely accepted notational system. Perhaps a renewed interest in historical reconstruction, at such a prominent ballet center as the Bolshoi, will result in fuzzy guesswork and just dampen opportunities for vital new choreography. Perhaps Burlaka will be seen to look backward while Ratmansky looks forward (despite his own re-imagining of the choreography for Shostakovich's score for "The Bright Stream"). But for me, the potential rewards far outweigh the dangers. Ballet's history is rich, and any serious effort to dig into that past, to draw out details and lost choregapahic inspiration, can only be welcomed.
William Bolcom is a profoundly sympathetic composer and person. Earlier in his career he was known for his pre-rock pop-song collaborations with his wife, the singer Joan Morris, and for classical works that embraced every kind of musical idiom with a Whitmanesque fervor.
The apex of that era was his masterpiece, the mammoth "Songs of Innocence and Experience" (1984), a setting of Blake's complete poems of that name. To hear the last song, "A Divine Image," as a huge orchestral reggae "in memory of Bob Marley" was a trumpet call for post-modernist eclecticism like no other.
More recently, to my ears, a kind of gray shadow of classical respectabilty has settled over Bolcom's music. Neither the huge operas "McTeague" nor "A View from the Bridge" fulfilled his earlier promise (I haven't heard "A Wedding," from 2004).
James Levine has been a lifelong Bolcom advocate, so when word came that the new Bolcom Eighth Symphony (first heard with the Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall and then in its New York premiere on Monday night at Carnegie Hall) was a setting of four extended Blake poems, my own optimistic curiosity perked right up.
The result was gigantic and impressive, but to my ears angular and empty. Blake's bizarre images of the apocalypse tumbled forth and the superb Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang on and on, without the vernacular drive or melodic elegance of Bolcom's earlier work or, needless to say, the popular songs he has championed.
But then, in the last five minutes, Bolcom abandoned dogged text-setting and let his musical impulses loose. Initially a setting of the last line ("For every thing that lives is Holy") of the last movement, "A Song of Liberty," it began as a layered, overlapping, fugato-like choral effusion and evolved into a Mahlerian orchestral hymn. Bernard Holland in The Times pronounced himself deeply moved, and so was I.
This blog is linked to my weekly radio program of arts commentary on WNYC.FM, which is also called Rockwell Matters and is broadcast on the Evening Music program on Mondays (and here and there on other days). It is also available to hear, to read or listen as a podcast on the wnyc site. For my latest program, about the relation of ballet to the modern dance tradition, along with an archive of past shows back to their onset in October 2007, go here.