Another Weekend Culturefest: “Carrie”; Juilliard String Quartet; American Symphony Orchestra

Somehow the various series and subscriptions I have tend to intersect on weekends, and again I ended up attending three varied events over the last weekend in February. 

On Saturday afternoon, it was the musical show "Carrie," a revival of a failed 1980s musical based on a novel by Stephen King, with music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and book by Lawrence D. Cohen.  The MCC Theater production was in its final days of previews at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, with an opening scheduled shortly.  Stafford Arima directed a young, talented cast, with choreography by Matt Williams and musical direction and arrangements by Mary-Mitchell Campbell. 

I'm not sure whether this attempted revival will be a success, but if not, it would definitely not be the fault of the cast, whose talent and energy are on continuous display through two acts of sometimes frenetic movement, special effects, and lots and lots and lots of teen angst.  What was originally mainly a horror-show, according to news reports (I didn't see the original production), has been turned into a somewhat simplistic study of high school bullying. 

Carrie, raised by a fundamentalist Christian single mother with an outsized fear of her daughter's sexual blooming, is the target of fun at school because she doesn't fit in, with her dowdy dresses and goody-two-shoes ways.  Marin Mazzie plays the mother as a character always on the edge of explosion in the thrall of a charismatic preacher.  Molly Ransom plays Carrie as a very vulnerable, picked-upon teen, whose acquisition of demonic powers seems so contrary to her character as to be a very puzzling plot development.  Among the other high school students, Derek Klena as Tommy Ross hits the right note of teen innocence as the boy who is worried about the taunting of Carrie, and proves willing to take her to the prom instead of his regular girlfriend.  Sue, the main tormenter played by Jeanna de Waal, is evil bitch personified, and Christy Altomare gets very well into her part as a teen with a conscience.  The teachers trying to deal with the raging hormone issues of their charges are sympathetically portrayed by Carmen Cusack and Wayne Alan Wilcox.  Ben Thompson is suitable aggressive as a suitably aggressive teen boy who cheers on the harassment and is complicit in the final blow-out.  Other supporting roles are well played by Corey Boardman, Blair Goldberg, F. Michael Haynie, Andy Minetus, Elly Noble and Jen Sese.

I found the dialogue, lyrics and music to be simplistic in the 1980s rock-Broadway-musical genre, but sufficiently spirited to support the story. The staging makes the most of the minimal possibilities provided by the Lortel, a small house on Christopher Street with a constricting stage for a production of this sort, with musicians out of sight somewhere, mainly blasting over the sound system. In short, it's an entertainment with some underlying lessons about the cruelty of teens and the well-meant blinders of parents, but I don't think it's a significant piece of theater.  I would not normally have gone to something like this, but my theater-going companion was interested… so we went.

Saturday evening, the Peoples' Symphony Concerts series presented the Juilliard String Quartet at Washington Irving High School. The big novelty, of course, is the new first violinist of the group, Joseph Lin.  The replacement of a member in a long-lived string quartet can significantly change the sound and style of the group, and perhaps that is going on with the Juilliard.  When I was first discovering music in the 1960s, the Juilliard was the gold standard of American string quartets, with a particular talent for challenging stuff like the Bartok or Ives quartets, which I learned from their LP recordings.  They had a somewhat brash, bright, aggressive style, very incisive, more dramatic than beautiful.  The current version of the quartet, with Ronald Copes in the second violin chair, Samuel Rhodes playing Viola, and Joel Krosnick the cellist, produces a smooth, blended sound and seems more concerned at times with beauty than drama.

They opened with the Stravinsky Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914), which somehow seemed less coherent to me than I remembered from recordings (I don't recall hearing a live performance), and I could have wished for a bit more dramatic tension in the very slow third movement.  They continued with Leos Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata" Quartet (1923), which again I felt as very beautiful but perhaps less dramatic than some other renditions.  They concluded with Mozart's Quartet in A, K. 464 (1785), which I found to be absolutely gorgeous.  Mr. Lin explained from the stage at the start of the concert that they had decided to reverse what would be the normal order of such a program (Mozart first, then Stravinsky and finally Janacek – a classical piece to "ease" the audience into the program, saving the challenging 20th century masterpiece for last) in order to wake up our ears and challenge us first as a set-up for the sublime Mozart in the second half.  The program certainly accomplished that.

I would be interested to know whether other listeners have noticed a difference in the corporate sound of the Juilliard with Mr. Lin in the first chair.  The aggressive Juilliard that I knew from the old Columbia Lp recordings now has a smoother, richer sound in its current incarnation, but I found myself longing for more of the gutsy playing I remembered.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, I attended the Classics Declassified treatment of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913) by Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra, at Symphony Space. 

Botstein provided an interesting lecture that emphasized the technical ways in which Stravinsky's work built on the past while departing from it through the juxtaposition of different melodies, harmonies and rhythms on top of each other, using the orchestra to illustrate his points.  I thought this process could have been made more effective had he added just one bit to the routine: instead of playing the passage in question, then breaking it down in its constituent parts, then proceeding to his next example, I think it would help to drive the point home to repeat the passage all put together again.  Several times I found myself wanting to hear the whole thing reassembled directly after hearing the constituent parts.  At the same time, I understand that this procedure would probably have added substantially to the length of the presentation, which might have been logistically unfeasible.

After the lecture came the performance, as to which I had mixed views.  On the one hand, for Botstein and the orchestra to get through this very challenging piece in reasonably good shape with plenty of honors to go around among the soloists (especially percussion), probably on less rehearsal than a major orchestra would undertake before presenting this work as part of a concert series in a major hall, is quite creditable.  On the other hand, one could tell that some of the orchestra has not had much experience with the piece and a few of the rhythmically tricky bits lost some precision and momentum, especially in the final sections of each half where the series of complex chains of uneven bars really depends upon a high degree of familiarity from a group that has played the piece together repeatedly over time in order to make its greatest effect.  That said, a competent reading of this piece led by a conductor who knows the work well will always makes a big effect, and there were many moments of high accomplishment to balance the occasional feelings of caution.  This piece makes quite an impact when played in a relatively small hall like Symphony Space, where there is not the effect of a vast concert hall to dissipate the impact of the sound, so it is especially interesting to hear it played there.

The orchestra management distributed to subscribers the information about the ASO's 2012-13 season, and it promises to be quite extraordinary.  To celebrate the ASO's 50th anniversary, they will begin their Carnegie Hall series with two major works associated with founder Leopold Stokowski: Mahler's 8th (for which Stokowski led the US and Carnegie Hall premieres with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and Ives's 4th (for which Stokowski and the ASO performed the world premiere and made a landmark recording for Columbia that has never really been better in capturing the spirit of the piece).  Even bigger news: they seem to have secured special underwriting for this concert, since they will be selling tickets at 1962 prices to celebrate the anniversary.  (I was crushed to discover, on consulting my calendar, that I will actually be out-of-town on October 26 and unable to attend this event!!!) :((   But I will gladly attend the rest of the season's offerings, and note especially that next year's Classics Declassified Series will focus on three great German romantics – Richard Strauss (Alpine Symphony), Anton Bruckner (Symphony No. 8), and Richard Wagner (opera preludes).  It will be awesome to hear these works at Symphony Space.

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