I have been so busy with LGBT legal developments over the past month that I have neglected to blog about my various cultural expeditions, so I’m going to play catch-up here with a few brief comments about the events I’ve attended since mid-December.
On December 17, I saw Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Domesticated,” a play by Bruce Norris which seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the hit network TV show, The Good Wife. A public officeholder confesses publicly to patronizing a prostitute and is forced by circumstances to resign his position, resulting in all kinds of stresses on his marriage. This issue has received enough treatment now to raise the question whether another play has anything to contribute. What struck me about this one was that the playwright seemed to have sympathy mainly for the politician, unless the dialogue he wrote for him in the second act is intended to caricature his views, because, having been relatively mute through Act I, the politician spews forth a stream of invective in Act II, the main burden of which is that things seem to be rigged against men in public life who can’t win if they stray even once from the straight and narrow. Anyway…. I thought the show as a whole was rather depressing, although certainly the cast gave it their all.
Next up was the New York Philharmonic’s last performance of a run of five of Handel’s Messiah, which I attended on December 21 with one of my students who won a raffle conducted by the LGBT student group to raise money for a gay charity. The Philharmonic, exhibiting a singular lack of imagination, has fallen into doing Messiah every year for the week before Christmas. As if we don’t have enough Messiahs of every variety in New York City during December. . . At least with the NYP one can be sure that there will be a well-drilled, well-schooled choir in attendance, first rate soloists, and an interesting guest conductor. This year they invited Andrew Manze for his NY Philharmonic debut. Manze, who first came to public attention as an early music specialist, has been doing more conducting of mainstream orchestras, serving since September 2006 as principal conductor of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, and preparing to take up a similar post with the North German Radio Philharmonic in Hamburg, Germany beginning next season after his Swedish gig ends. Manze brings insights from the early music movement, which is useful in Messiah, so this account was fleet and ship-shape. Matthew Muckey, a fine young member of the Philharmonic’s trumpet section, was outstanding in “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” The soloists -Joelle Harvey, Tamara Mumford, Allan Clayton, and Matthew Rose, were all superb, but I was especially taken with Rose, whose marvelous recording of Schubert’s Winterreise I had recently heard. His bass voice was startlingly big compared to the other soloists. I noted that Manze, unlike some other early music practitioners, does not go for excessive speed, and at times indulged much more “romantic” sorts of interpretive moves than I would have expected, especially in the instrumental overture and the Pastoral Symphony. It was altogether a satisfying Messiah, if in some ways a redundant one. The Philharmonic could do us all a favor by injecting some more variety into holiday season concert-going by finding other suitable music for that third week in December. They are releasing next year’s schedule soon. Will it include yet another run of Messiah?
My next outing, with my usual concert/theater companion (who had been away on a business trip for much of December), was the Prototype Festival’s NY premiere presentation of the one-act opera, “Paul’s Case,” with music by Gregory Spears and libretto by Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat, heard on January 9. Robert Wood conducted the American Modern Ensemble instrumentalists and a fine cast headed by Jonathan Blalock in the title role. The opera is based on a Willa Cather short story about a Pittsburgh teenage boy in the early 20th century who suffers the torment of being “different” from his contemporaries – concerned for poetry and music and art and a bit of a dandified dresser, he suffers ridicule and dismissal for not being a “real boy.” Thus oppressed, he steals enough money from his employer (he is working in a boring retail clerk job) to fund a trip to New York City, where he falls in with a Yale student down from New Haven for a slumming weekend, but he eventual perishes in the snow as he runs out of cash and has to leave the sumptuous hotel where he had stayed. Today, he would undoubtedly fall into bed with the Yalie, “come out,” and become a gay liberationist. But this is all subtext in the Cather story, and the composer/librettist appropriately leave it as subtext to be true to the period. Blalock impressed me a few years ago when he sang an important role in the Ft. Worth premiere of my friend Jorge Martin’s opera “Before Night Fall” (get the recording!!) and he was most impressive in this intimate “black box” opera production. The music was rather minimalist and at time monotonous – I found myself nodding off a bit toward the end of the Pittsburgh segment — but it really came alive when the action shifted to New York. The same performers who provided the supporting roles in Pittsburgh changed their costumes to become the New York performers, and Michael Slattery particularly impressed as the Yale freshman down for his wild New York City weekend. The inventive production was directed by Kevin Newbury, who used a few key props to establish the scenes.
On January 10 it was back to the Philharmonic for a bit of a hodge-podge program led by Alan Gilbert in anticipation of the Philharmonic’s upcoming tour. There would seem to be little thematic sense in bringing together Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and First Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Except, of course, for the fact that the NYP plays all these pieces well, and perhaps the contrast between the Symphony and the Gershwin provided a refreshing second half to the program. Shostakovich’s concerto, which received its American premiere from this orchestra in the 1950s with the dedicatee, David Oistrakh, and then-music director Dmitri Mitropoulos, who left a CBS recording done a few days after the concerts that has never really been surpassed, has now become a frequently-played showpiece for young violinists. Lisa Batiashvili, one of the legion of extraordinarily gifted young violinists now gracing concert platforms worldwide, brought plenty of passion and high technique to her playing. I thought that perhaps in the context of this program the orchestra did not spend lots of time rehearsing the Beethoven symphony, which came off as untidy in spots, especially in the first violins. They last played the symphony in 2012, so perhaps they didn’t pay so much attention to it in rehearsal. The Shostakovich concerto was last done by this orchestra in 2012 as well, and the Gershwin they played this past summer during their Vail, Colorado, residency. In other words, this program harked back to the “lazy programming” characteristic of the Maazel administration, when it was rare, apart from the very occasional premiere, to hear anything at the Philharmonic that had not been played within the previous five years. (The Fidelio Overture managed to evade this, having last been played by this orchestra a decade ago.) Each of these pieces is worth playing, of course, and a joy to hear, and otherwise this year the Philharmonic’s schedule has a fair degree of variety in it, so I won’t complain to hard. But when you put this together with the Messiah from December. . .
The next afternoon, I was at the Metropolitan Opera with my usual opera-going companion to attend a matinee performance of Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus,” performed to a new English libretto by Douglas Carter Beane. The Met rationalizes performing this piece in translation because it is really an operetta with lots of dialogue, but sometimes the English sounds a bit odd sung to Viennese strains. The production is lavish and seems to work well enough. In an age of countertenors, Orlovsky is no longer a “pants” role for a woman, so we had Anthony Roth Costanzo, one of my favorite young singers, as the Prince, although I agree with the Times critic that he seemed a bit stretched by the vocal range of this part. His acting and dancing was spot-on, however. The entire show seemed very well cast, with Christopher Maltman a superb Eisenstein, and Danny Burstein doing a well-crafted comic turn in the non-singing role of Frosch, the jailer. Adam Fischer’s conducting was not quite as frothy as one usually encounters in this piece. The sets were worthy of applause.
On January 18, I attended my second Prototype Festival production, “Thumbprint,” a world premiere of a one-act opera by Kamala Sankaram (music) and Susan Yankowitz (libretto), directed by Rachel Dickstein, with Steven Osgood conducting. Although I was laboring under a bad cold, which distracted me at times with the business of breathing and stifling coughs, I was quickly drawn in by the intense drama of a young woman, Mukhtar, in a Pakistani village, who gets pulled into a situation where she is subjected to an “honor rape” by men from another village who accused her young brother of looking the wrong way at one of their women. Mukhtar, at first devastated and resigned to being damaged goods and perhaps fading away locked up in her room, is encouraged by her parents to fight back, and finds the courage to go to the police and testify against her assailants. She is lucky to appear before an honest judge who believes her story and convicted the leader of her assailants. Composer Camala Sankaram was glorious singing her own music as Mukhtar, and Theodora Hanslowe was superb as the mother. (I have a soft spot for Hanslowe, since her father was one of my favorite professors when I was an undergraduate at Cornell in the 1970s.) The remaining cast, playing a variety of roles, was also superb: Steve Gokol as the father and the judge, Many Narayan and Kannan Vasudevan as, among other things, the assailants, and Leela Subramaniam as the younger sister among other parts. The production was in a rather larger space than “Paul’s Case,” which had been presented at HERE. This production was at Baruch College, and used projections and props to create the Pakistani setting most evocatively. The music was a piquant mix of eastern and western motifs, using some ethnic instruments as well as western ones to produce the requisite exotic sounds. I hope this will receive lots of productions. It should be within the range of university music departments, and deserves wide exposure.
I also saw several movies over the course of the holiday season — The Book Thief, the Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Saving Mr. Banks — but have let time go by without comment and won’t bother to comment here, other than to say that every film I saw had some redeeming features and that 12 Years a Slave struck me as a particularly important production. I haven’t seen all the films nominated for Best Picture by the Motion Picture Academy this year, but if I were voting I would vote for 12 Years a Slave.