Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I'll Never Be Art Garfunkel

I mentioned earlier this month that BAM celebrated Paul Simon during the month of April, and of all the living American songwriters, he certainly deserves it (up there with...Bob Dylan and Stephen Sondheim??? eh?). The final set of concerts featuring Paul Simon and his music was titled "American Tunes" and were essentially some of the great hits and hidden gems in Simon's vast collection.

It is something of a pity then for me to say that it wasn't the greatest show ever, and I mean it totally could have been. The curating of a "special guests" evening can be complicated and fraught with challenges, and this night showed how a grab bag of performers honoring someone else is almost always hit and miss (and this goes for cover albums too, always a few good artists picking some good songs, and then about 8 or 9 bands you have never heard of and/or don't care about reaching for their moment in the sun).

(tribute albums I should have been on)

I am not sure who picked the artists - Paul Simon himself, the programming powers at BAM or a combination? - but I do know that the line up was diverse to the point of diffuse...ambient mellow indie rock, straight up blues, and heart-on-the-sleeve male Celine Dion. The uniting element of the night was of course Paul Simon and his music, which luckily for everyone, could have made a great night of high school choirs showcasing his songs (or wait, is that a level of hell?).

The Roches started out the evening, a group of sisters who've known Paul for years. The highlight of their tiny set was "Cecelia," which Paul guested on. Frankly, I think it is next to impossible to f--- up"Cecilia," so of course everyone loved it. It also featured some of the most ridiculous, amazing dancing ever by the eldest sister.

The groups that followed - Gillian Welch, Grizzly Bear, Olu Dara, Josh Groban...(wait who? really? what? more on him in a second) - played two or three songs, usually a classic and a lesser known item, but with the exception of Grizzly Bear, the musicians stuck pretty closely to the original conception of the song. Grizzly Bear's "Mother and Child Reunion" was slowed, a bit melancholy, gauzy. Their "Graceland," a recent staple of their own shows before this, was incredibly wistful. I am a biased observer - Grizzly Bear is one of my favorite bands - but I couldn't help but feel that everyone else would have benefited from taking a few more chances musically, making their songs their own in a similar vein. Well, everyone else but Josh Groban.

Now, how Josh Groban, he of the ubiquitous Christmas album, and something of a BIG STAR, got on this program I will never know, though I imagine that he found out the shows were happening, and told his agent, "hey I REALLY want to do that! That sounds cool!" and because he has sold about 500 times more records than all of the other guest artists combined, BOOM he was on the list. Though...he was sort of perfectly placed in what we shall call the Art Garfunkel role, singing two of the more over the top songs, both requiring fairly large ranges - "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "America." And here is why he is the male Celine. He can sing! He can belt out those top notes! Boy is his voice full of emotion! But it was sort of shallow as all get out, though well sung, and even better, well-played (he accompanied himself on the piano). Still, in the context of a night where few musicians took artistic chances, he didn't stick out nearly as much as by all rights he should have.

Lest I be perceived as a nasty grouch, I should say that the musicianship all around was great, and Gillian Welch especially was just lovely...I wish she could have had a few more songs. Still, being a smorgasbord night, there was no room for any one star, so in a way everyone was slighted.

As with Songs From the Capeman, which I wrote about earlier this month, the best moments ultimately came whenever Paul was on stage - and he peppered his appearances through the night, singing with different acts and then coming out in the end for his own mini-set.

Despite my complaints about the selection of artists, or the interpretations from these artists, ultimately I enjoyed the show immensely. I soared high with Joshy when he counted the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike and I felt the warm fuzz of tenderness when Dan Rossen in Grizzly Bear told us that losing love is like a window in your heart.

Now if you will excuse me I am going to pound out Bridge Over Troubled Water" on the piano and pretend I have a very lovely A-flat for that last phrase.

Dangerous Linneyiasons

I find there is something a little tragic about realizing a truly talented actor has limitations, like when the world discovered that not even Meryl Streep could make something like She Devil funny, or that Cate Blanchett's Russian accent is shoddy at best (oh and poor Ewan Mcgregor and HIS attempts at an American accent...). This was my feeling while watching Laura Linney in Les Liaisons Dangereuses presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre.

In movies like You Can Count on Me and The Squid and the Whale, Laura Linney is fantastic, creating complex characters full of contradictions - loving traits mixed with selfishness, standing aloof to loved ones while seeking to do what is best for them. You like or hate these characters because they are real, they are your mother or your sister or your wife. But...Laura Linney as the Marquise de Merteuil? Surely not.

The Marquise de Merteuil was a great role for Glenn Close in the 1988 film (oh also Annette Bening in the 1989 film Valmont and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the Dangerous Liaisons-for-teens film Cruel Intentions). But whereas Glenn Close can cast a disturbing warm/cold radiation, like she is a minor god toying with her subjects, Laura Linney does not have the same armor - there is always some sort of vulnerability there. And the role, whether played in feminist revision (as in this production) or not, needs to come across as a woman who has learned very well how to play a manipulative game to not just succeed but win in a battle of sexes where women are viewed openly as the lesser sex.

Laura Linney comes from a theater background, and I would definitely be interested in seeing her on stage more often, but perhaps as characters who can express need a little more. She would have made a marvelous Joyce in Top Girls now that I think about it...
This however is not to say that she did not have moments or that there weren't other highlights to the show. The men in general were strong (and the show tipped its hat in other feminist directions by having male nudity but no female nudity), and several supporting female players made the production seem more alive while onstage - Sian Philips comes to mind. The set and direction were fine as well - mirrors and filigree that slowly decay as the spider web created by the Marquise becomes fragile and dirtied.

The show also marked the Broadway debut of Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep's daughter. Her role was too small to really be able to forecast her future, but again I look forward to seeing her on stage in the future. Maybe as the daughter in Sisters Rosensweig, with the sisters played by Meryl Streep, Laura Linney, and Glenn Close? Ha. Okay I'll leave casting to others.


Years ago a friend told me I needed to see De la Guarda, a show in what looks like an old bank (I'm guessing) on Union Square, which was "sexy, and fun." Alas, I never made it. So I was happy when the same people who created De la Guarda came back to the space with something new, hopefully equally sexy and fun, Fuerzabruta.

And yay! It was sexy and fun! It was also like a short, expensive rave with acrobatics, where all the performers were WAY TOO HAPPY. I have no idea if there was any meaning to be inferred in the dancing and running through cardboard and getting spayed with water, but something about it suggested I should break out of my office-life rut and live life to the fullest (and be sexy and fun and smile a lot).

Essentially a series of scenes set around and above the audience, which is jammed together as a big sweaty mass, Fuerzabruta combines aerial acrobatics with a thumpin' generic soundtrack, and plenty or scantily clad attractive people, leading to the highlight - a huge transparent sheet of plastic pooling with water which descends to just above the audience's heads, where the cast slips and slides around, wet and pretty, and interacts with the audience in an, "what are these mortals below us, how curious, i love them" sort of way. I would be lying if I didn't say there was something erotic about this, or that I was not jealous of the cast to get to throw themselves around in the water above an enamored audience

There were parts of unexplainable silliness as well, as when the perky dj took out a huge squirt gun and started spraying the audience while throwing her hair around, or when a number of the actors did a choreographed hoe down-type dance and then tore apart the walls around them (live life to the fullest, break down barriers, etc. etc. etc. ?).

The result of all the water and sweatiness and cardboard being ripped up is this: I have recommended Fuerzabruta to people on several occasions, saying "it's a lot of fun. You'll get wet."

You know there is something about perky sexy wet people sliding around just out of arms length that gets me every time.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Un Ballo in Maschera

I Love Stephanie Blythe

Every now and then it is great to see a big Italian opera, full of big tunes, a few deaths, and, when the production is right at the Met, incredible sets. Thus I treated myself on April 19 to 286th Metropolitan Opera performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera.

I don't really think this is one of Verdi's masterpieces. It lacks any truly great showstopping tune, and the plot is fairly rudimentary - boy loves girl who is married to boy's best friend, that's all you need to know - and come to think of it the characterization is fairly rudimentary as well. You don't really feel for any of the characters. Yet when performed by a first-rate cast, it is a satisfying night at the opera.

And the cast was suberb. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the heartthrob Siberian Husky, played Captain Anckarstrom (okay wait, a digression. So this production put the opera back in Swedish with royal Swedish characters, as Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma had originally intended before censors got a hold of it and forced it to be relocated to colonial Boston of all places. However Hvorostovsky's character is more famously known as Renato , and calling him Captain Anckarstrom seems silly. Though I suppose on some levels many operas are silly in this respect. It doesn't really matter that Norma is a Druid, or that Lucia is in Scotland...), Angela Brown played Amelia, Captain Anckarstrom's wife, and Salvatore Licitra was Gustavo III, King of Sweden (ho hum the King of Sweden singing Italian arias, ho hum), all strong singers with good stage presence.

But of course I was really there to see Stephanie Blythe, who has it, whatever it is that makes a performer that much more special. She played Ulrica, the fortune-teller who is only in one scene (but what a scene!), and she was a captivating presence. Her voice is a rich, deeply nuanced thing of beauty, and in my world she is cast in just about every opera (though come to think of it, she has recently been at the Met in Handel AND Wagner, so it is conceivable she could actually be in every opera if she chose to).

The singers had a grand time galavanting through Piero Faggioni's grand production. While not quite on the amazingly gaudy level of Zefferelli, these sets were still stunners. Ulrica's warehouse was like the port scene in Pirates of the Caribbean, with pyrotechnics, and flag-waving, and the final Masked Ball made the Met stage seem about a gazillion feet deep, with roughly 400 people on stage - who cares if these things are accomplished with smoke and mirrors, they are great sets which lend a true sense of grandeur to accompany the music.

Of course people die in the end, but only after proclamations of love and fidelity all around. How can you not love it?

The Walworth Farce and Other Irish Tales

Ah, the Irish.
I can think of no other culture, and certainly none in the English-speaking countries, which has captured its own complex condition in written words so well. Reading the great Irish writers, from Yeats to Joyce to Synge to Roddy Doyle to Frank McCourt, you are drawn into a world in which moments of lyrical beauty transcend a tragic mundane sadness, an inability to escape a past which weighs on the shoulders of the present.

This is not to say that the Irish are fundamentally an unhappy people (or is it?) or that these works of literature are not capable of being incredibly humorous - in fact many of them are quite humorous while pointing out everything I have just written. Martin McDonagh's plays, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the great, bloody The Lieutenant of Inishmore are deeply dark comedies which explore contemporary Irish society in ways that are hilarious but are ultimately deeply unsettling.

Enda Walsh's Walworth Farce, playing at St. Ann's Warehouse, is quite similar, commenting on the relationship between men and women, and the inability of the Irish to escape their pasts, however dysfunctional. I felt the serious moments of the play were vastly superior to the farce, which often felt rushed or too broadly captured, but overall the play came across as meticulously put together so that the climax, grim and bloody, made disturbingly logical sense.

While the bulk of the story deals with three men - a father and his two sons, whom he has coerced into joining him in playing out, literally, the tragic events of his past over and over - the most human moments come from a woman. Hayley, a grocery store clerk, stops by the apartment of this family, checking in on one of the sons whom she clearly shares some chemistry with, and is inadvertanly drawn into the family drama. The actress Mercy Ojelade is suberb in eliciting the audience sympathies - we want her to save the son from this family tragedy, or to at least get out of the apartment alive. One of the best attributes of the play is allowing us to see through Hayley's eyes how dysfunctional the family drama we have been witnessing actually is, and as tragic as it sounds, we realize she might not be able to save any of them, and it might be better for them to play out their grim fates alone.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Easy Breezy Beautiful Cover Girl

The Gossip's show at Webster Hall on April 15 was a rally in disguise, a battle cry to be strong in opposition in society if it opposes you, if you are a minority, if you are a woman, or fat, or gay, that there are a lot of sad, mean, people in the world tryin' to get you down, but you are important. I'm a little too old to think of the world as quite that divided, but I got the point, and it was pretty cool.

It wasn't hard to get the point though when it came from the mouth of Beth Ditto, the famously large and in charge leader of The Gossip. Beth is outspoken about everything, and what I appreciate about her is that while her wildly "I Love You and Fuck You" personality might have started as a defense mechanism, it certainly seems like the real thing now.

While I think Christina Aguilera's claim that "you're beautiful, no matter what they say..." is all very well, it is a little hard to swallow coming from a thin Mickey Mouse Club beauty. Now, when Beth Ditto says this (in not so many words, maybe a little garbled, and maybe slurring a little from being drunk), moving around with her fat rolls giggling, it sinks a lot deeper.

Beth's voice is a full throated meshing of Stevie Nicks and Janis Joplin, lacking the tender beauty capable in either voice, but capturing the primal quality that makes both voices vital. She is capable of a full roar, and turning just about any word, any line, any sound into this roar, and she also profits from a pounding backing band. I am not sure the last time I heard someone sing so well with a band behind them and so poorly without one - Beth felt compelled to sing at almost all times. She sang several covers which revealed I'm not sure what - Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" came out of nowhere, but of course fit in the overall theme of acceptance, and in a moment of odd counterirony, Beth encouraged a sing-along of the theme from Friends.

At the end of the show, Beth lept off stage (actually I have no idea who she got down; I doubt she leaps) and walked through the crowd singing, "You are important," and then "We are important" over and over again, without going into exactly how or why or when, but just repeating a mantra of positivity to everyone around her (there was also some political tie-in somehow, but it was unfocused and confused).

And looking around, there were a lot of women and a lot of queers in the audience, which is understandable (the evening was hosted by Murray Hill, as if to cement the Gay Deal), and I think awesome. Many of Beth's non-sung monologues were drunken ramblings about women in rock and about standing up to people who say no. Much of it was vague and generalized, and you would need to be pretty aware of the music scene to fully appreciate what she was attempting to verbalize. But it roughly translated as, "when I was growing up, there was like one ONE woman rocker on the cover of Rolling Stone, now what kind of image is that sending to young girls? And pitchfork says really incredibly mean things about me, and I can't even figure out why, but whatever they are nasty cruel people and I don't need to listen to them, and you don't either."

It reminded me of the rock 'n' roll camp for girls, which was founded to give girls self-esteem and confidence by finding their inner...well, I suppose once I think about it, their inner Beth Ditto.
Bitch, you're beautiful, no matter what they say.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Brahms and the Babe

Brahms' chamber sonatas, 3 for violin and piano, 2 to cello and piano, and 2 for clarinet and piano, are great works. They tend to be lyrical, slightly introspective, and while quite difficult, lack any sort of showing brilliance.

The 3 sonatas for violin and piano make about 80 minutes of music, and are programmed not infrequently by violinists as a complete recital - I've heard Christian Tetzlaff perform them, and on Monday, I heard Anne-Sophie Mutter perform them at Carnegie Hall (ahem, Stern Auditorium is just TOO BIG for these kinds of things. I know she can sell the place out, but it is ridiculous to hear intimate chamber works with 2600 of your closest friends). Mutter is of course a justly famous violinist, but I wondered how she would fare with these pieces. She is a passionate performer, and I wasn't sure if these pieces were well suited to her temperament.

Things didn't begin auspiciously. She began with the second sonata, and the notes weren't connecting. She also seemed to be adjusting to the size of the space with people in it - her pianos came across as thin rather than quiet. Her accompanist, Lambert Orkis, played well, but there didn't seem to be a connection. The music was being played well enough, but the true beauty of the piece, and the skills of the performers weren't coming across.

Thankfully, things changed with the first sonata, full of profoundly beautiful moments. The third sonata was equally well done, Mutter's tone and dynamic contrast fully meshing with the needs of the space.

And then came the encores. Four of them (the encores and applause added about 30 minutes to the show). And here Mutter's extroverted side came out in flashy Hungarian Dances - great fun, and after the beautiful restraint of the sonatas, a great change of pace for the performer and the audience. Her final encore I predicted before a note was played - "Wiegenlied" Op. 49, No. 4, more famously known as the "Brahms Lullaby." Nice touch.

One more thing: Mutter looked AMAZING in her strapless skintight dress. The woman appears ageless, and she has an incredible, captivating stage presence. Meaning, she's hot.