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Art Leonard Observations

Cultural Diary – January 27 2014 through February 9 2014: From Marc Andre Hamelin to Bill Finn

Posted on: February 13th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Didn’t expect to see those two names in the same headline? Well, I’m multicultural…. I’ve been so consumed with writing about legal developments that I now have a backlog of cultural events upon which to comment, so here goes:

On January 27, I attended a recital by the Canadian-American pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, the recital auditorium under the main stage. Hamelin likes to play unusual repertory, so the biggest single piece on the program was Nicolas Medtner’s Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 2 “Night Wind”. He is also a composer, so we got to hear the New York premiere of his “Barcarolle.” Finally, for the second half, reverting to the core repertory of every serious pianist, he played Franz Schubert’s Impromptus, D. 935. On the one hand, this was an exceptionally fine recital in that the pianist brought his usual magical technique to the diverse array of works, playing with intense concentration mixed with the requisite humor and wistfulness when called for. On the other hand, the Medtner was a bit of a “black hole” in the middle of the recital. There is a reason almost nobody plays Medtner in public. Despite the high regard in which he was held by such as Rachmaninoff, it is difficult to give sustained attention to his music. The themes are not memorable enough to sustain such attention through a long and convoluted development. Perhaps the first movement of his sonata is in sonata form (I don’t know) but it is difficult to follow this as a listener without a score in my lap, because it all seems so diffuse and wandering. There were many distinctive parts to arouse interest, but the whole just seems to sprawl. I don’t think one could blame Hamelin for this — he always provides about the most persuasive case one could imagine for anything he plays — and he has recorded all of Medtner’s sonatas and much of his other music, so I would treat him as authoritative in this repertory. It’s just repertory that I find less absorbing. Hamelin’s own piece, the Barcarolle, seemed to owe heavy debts to Debussy, and I thought it slow going at times. I would certainly want to get better acquainted with it. The Schubert was absolutely magnificent. Robert Schumann had observed that these four impromptus could together make up a monumental piano sonata, and Hamelin treated them that way. Each is a masterpiece, and each received the treatment it required. This was totally effective playing, sensitive to nuance and variety of sonic color. I can’t imagine these pieces being better played. The audience’s ovation earned three encores: a Debussy piece, a weirdly fantastic take on Chopin’s Minute Waltz, and a virtuosic etude by de Schloser that is a genuine rarity — probably because few pianists can manage to play it. But Hamelin can play just about anything. (Proof of this statement: Try his complete recording of Godowsky’s take-offs on the Chopin etudes – a total wow and you won’t believe that one pianist is responsible for what you are hearing.)

January 29, I attended Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” a play based on a short story by Alan Sillitoe adapted for the stage by Roy Williams and directed by Leah C. Gardiner. This story achieved a fair amount of fame as a result of a movie based on the story that made a splash decades ago. This production puts a different slant on the story by having an extraordinary young black actor, Sheldon Best, played the lead role which Tom Courtenay, a white actor, played in the film. The essence of the story is that a young, somewhat aimless tough guy gets caught in a robbery and sent to a reformatory, where his talent for running is discovered and leads to his extended training for a long-distance race against students from a private school. He is encouraged in this by the authorities of the reformatory, including one particular counselor, but conflict emerges from his fear that he is being “used” and, ultimately, this leads him to make a difficult and controversial decisions as the end of the race draws near. I thought this staging was superb, and the performance by Sheldon Best was pure magic. According to the bio in the program Best is a graduate of Brandeis University and has already performed in a wide variety of stage productions both in New York and elsewhere in the U.S., ranging from classical theater (Romeo & Juliet, playing Romeo, at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival) to the most contemporary stuff, like a production of The History Boys. He’s also been on CBS TV’s “Person of Interest.” Be on the lookout for him. Very impressive! The rest of the cast was fine, too, but Best really stood out.

The American Symphony Orchestra presented “This England” at Carnegie Hall on January 31. The program was intended to show a range of British music from mid-20th century by composers whose music is infrequently encountered on American concert programs. None of the music could be deemed totally neglected — I have recordings of everything on the program — but I had never heard any of it performed live prior to this concert directed by Leon Botstein. They began with a suite from Sir Arthur Bliss’s music for the British film “Things to Come”, which was based on work of George Orwell. This was the most “listener-friendly” piece on the program, as one would expect from a 1934-35 film score, falling close to the category of “easy listening” and being at times so simple-minded that I found my own attention wandering. Frank Bridge’s Phantasm (Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, 1932) followed, with the excellent Piers Lane as soloist. Lane has been a mainstay of Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano Concerto series, and has a serious interest in unusual repertory for his instrument. The Bridge piece has moments of interest, but using the word “rhapsody” to describe a piece can frequently be a sign of formlessness and sprawl, and such was the case here. Lots of interesting moments, but they didn’t add up to a really coherent musical statement. After intermission, we heard Robert Simpson’s “Volcano,” a brief tone poem for brass and percussion which is avowedly pictorial and which did not hold much interest for me. I first became aware of Simpson as a leading biographer of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen as well as being an important Bruckner scholar, and over the years I’ve acquired recordings of most of him symphonies and other major pieces. I wish the ASO had played a symphony instead, because I found those to be works of great substance, but the length of this program limited them to a shorter piece. Finally, the one real masterpiece on the program, William Walton’s Symphony No. 2, which I have long enjoyed on records and despaired of ever hearing in live performance (unless I happen to travel to England and really luck out with the concert schedule). I love this piece, but I was really let down by the ASO performance, which I found underpowered and lacking the requisite virtuosity from the orchestra. Whether this is a function of limited rehearsal time, the leadership from the podium, or the limitations of the players (who don’t have the kind of full-time working relationship of an orchestra that plays together week in and week out) is hard to say, but, especially compared to my favorite recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, this one seemed to lack impact. Szell takes everything faster, which keeps the occasionally loose structure from falling apart and gives sharper point to the complex rhythms. There is a big fugal passage in the last movement that is a highpoint of the piece, but the ASO strings seemed to be struggling to stay together during that episode, which the Cleveland strings take in their stride in the recording. I would urge anybody who was at the concert and hearing the Walton symphony for the first time to withhold judgment until you’ve heard a recording by a major orchestra. I don’t know if the Szell is still in print – it was a 1960s Columbia stereo that achieved brief CD reissue, coupled with the composer’s Hindemith Variations (another fine work almost never played) and the Partita for Orchestra. We really should hear more Walton in U.S. concert halls. I would love to hear what Alan Gilbert and the NYP would do with this piece. I would also highly recommend Walton’s Symphony No. 1, especially in the old RCA recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony, which has been intermittently available on CD.

On February 2, I was back at Carnegie Hall for a performance of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Theodora” by conductor Harry Bicket, the Choir of Trinity Church, and The English Concert, an early music ensemble, with soloists Dorothea Roschmann as Theodora, Sarah Connolly as Irene, David Daniels as Didymus, Kurt Streit as Septimius, and Neal Davies as Valens. This is a tale of Roman times, when the governor of Antioch is trying to stamp out the heresy of Christianity. Theodora is a proud Christian who will not be swayed to honor the gods of Rome, and Didymus is a Roman soldier secretly in love with Theodora (and secretly a Christian). Tragedy ensues, at great length. (This three-act oratorio, when performed uncut, is as long as a Wagner opera, and some impatience in the audience express itself in early departures, especially during the second intermission.) Theodora was not a success at its first performance. The program note by Janet Bedell suggest that the subject matter had something to do with this, mid-18th century Brits having little interest in works celebrating early Catholic martyrs, but I suspect it is also the heaviness of the last act and the absence of the more rousing elements – especially choral – that made such works as Judas Maccabeus and Messiah such monster hits in the composer’s lifetime. In any event, this was all-star casting with expert direction from the podium, spot-on choral singing, and an instrumental group that provided a rich, colorful framework for the vocal acrobatics. I found it totally absorbing through the entire, lengthy proceeding. But I rather suspect this is a piece that would work best on recordings, where one could take it one act at a sitting and not be overwhelmed by its length.

Looking for an extremely unusual and effective theatrical experience? Imagine Tolstoy’s great novel “War and Peace,” stripped of the war scenes, leaving only the soap opera of the home front, transformed into a rock musical, played in large space decked out in the style of a Russian night club, with musicians and singers distributed throughout the space, the singers in constant motion, threading their way through the space and around platforms surrounding the audience. This is “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” currently playing at Kazino, a large tent-like structure raised on a vacant lot on West 45th Street near 8th Avenue. The adaptation and music is by David Malloy, as directed by Rachel Chavkin and commissioned and developed by an outfit called Ars Nova. It is super-fine, and super-charged, and loads of fun. The program book and production are designed to help the audience quickly sort out the numerous characters and their relations to each other, and then the fun begins. Some of the members of the cast play musical instruments from time to time, and there is singing and much athletic running about. The title characters are played by David Abeles (Pierre) and Phillipa Soo (Natasha), but the character who emerges as the most memorable and central to the plot is Anatole, a Polish aristocrat played by Lucas Steele who is the brother-in-law of Pierre and who makes it his goal to seduce his friend Andrey Bolkonsky’s fianc√©, Natasha, while Bolkonsky is off with the Russian army fighting the forces of Napoleon. Lucas Steele as Anatole is HOT, HOT, HOT. And I don’t mean just because he is handsome and talented; I mean because he radiates an intensity that is positively electrical. He’s helped in this by the plotting and dialogue, of course, but Mr. Steele is ideally cast in this part. Also quite effective: Blake Delong in the dual role of Andrey Bolkonsky and his father; Nick Choksi as the saturnine Dolokhov, Grace McLean as Natasha’s aunt Marya, Amber Gray is Helene, wife of Pierre and sister of Anatole, and Brittain Ashford as Sonya, Natasha’s cousin and confidant. But everybody is truly excellent in this, and conductor Or Matias keeps it all together and constantly driving forward. It’s a long show, even without the war scenes (yes, a War and Peace without General Kutuzov or Napoleon Bonaparte), but it never seems long because the staging is so lively and absorbing. A total hit that should run forever… I was there on February 5.

Interesting coincidence. Sid Caesar, the great TV comedian of the 1950s, passed away the other day, just as City Center Encores! was reviving a show that was written specifically for his talents, “Little Me” – book by Neil Simon (who wrote for Caesar’s TV shows), lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and music by Cy Coleman. The show is based on a novel by Patrick Dennis (famous for “Mame”) which purports to be the autobiography of the great fictional entertainer Belle Poitrine, reminiscing about her life and loves (all seven of her loves, some of whom she even married). In the original production, Caesar portrayed all seven, requiring quick costume changes and changes or characterization (appearance, gestures, costumes), of which he was a master. Although the show was a success, it was not a big hit and faded from view after its initial run. This revival cast Christian Borle, star of the ill-fated “Smash” TV series and Tony winner for Peter and the Star-Catchers on Broadway, playing all the Sid Caesar roles with great success. Veteran Judy Kaye was superb as the elderly Belle, reflecting on her past, and Rachel York was stunning as the young Belle. The cast was packed with excellent people, as is the norm for Encores!, with the extraordinary dancers being a special highlight. Somehow, choreographer Joshua Bergasse managed to recruit an outstanding crew. (Bob Fosse was the original choreographer for the Broadway production.) Rob Berman led the excellent Encores! orchestra, and John Rando created a production that managed to feel complete even without any elaborate sets or many props. I’m glad to have had a chance to hear a live performance of this piece. It’s not a great work – Cy Coleman went on to do many extraordinary shows – but many of the songs are quite attractive, and I’m inspired to go back to the original cast album.

I attended the matinee performance of “Little Me” on February 8, and topped off the evening with an excellent program at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, which presented the conductor-less East Coast Chamber Orchestra at Washington Irving High School. ECCO was started by a bunch of Curtis Institute students who enjoyed playing together and wanted to keep doing so after going their various professional ways. Now several years out of school, they are members of major symphony orchestras, established chamber ensembles, but make a commitment to come together a few times a year to rehearse a program and present it in various venues, including PSC now for several years. Their performances are always a highlight of the series. They are a true democracy, rotating seats so that everybody gets a change to play first-desk and to deal with solo passages at some point. They are also innovative in programming, mixing new music with established repertory. For this program, they gave a stylish rendition of Mozart’s Divertimento in B, K. 137, followed by the NYC premiere of David Ludwig’s “Virtuosity: Five Microconcertos for String Orchestra,” Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, Judd Greenstein’s Four on the Floor, a string arrangement of a motet by Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (an Italian Renaissance master), and concluding with a string orchestra rendition of Ravel’s String Quartet. The entire program was wonderful because of the total commitment and high technical skill of the players, as well as their collective interpretive insights. The Ludwig piece gave the first desk in each section a chance to shine in solo passages, and they truly shone. I found both Ludwig and Greenstein were worth hearing, challenging in some respects but not straying too far from the mainstream of tonal contemporary composition. The arrangement of the Satie, originally a piano piece, for string orchestra by a former member of ECCO, Michi Wiancko, superbly captured the piece’s mystery. I’ve heard Debussy’s orchestration of this piece, which also uses some wind instruments, but this all-string arrangement was fine, with the inspired idea of having the theme assigned to different sections rather than keeping it in the heights as the piano version might suggest. Hearing a rich string orchestra sound transformed the Ravel Quartet into a much “bigger” statement without losing any of the delicacy and gossamer of the quieter passages. I would account this concert a total success.

Finally, and a bit off the beaten path, on February 9, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, NYC’s LGBT synagogue, presented its annual “Shabbat Shirah” concert at Merkin Hall. This year the program was a tribute to CBST member William Finn, a prominent member of the Broadway community whose musicals have brought LGBT issues into the mainstream, especially through his three early shows that were combined to make up Falsettos. For this occasion, Finn helped to assembly a group of performers who have taken part in various productions of his shows, with a fine young pianist, Joshua Zecher-Ross, as musical director, and Shakina Nayfack as overall director. The result was a marvelous program that ranged over Finn’s achievements, including selections from the Falsetto shows, Stars of David, Elegies, A New Brain, LIttle Miss Sunshine, Royal Family (a work in progress), and Songs of Innocence and Experience. This was a one-of-a-kind event that could not be topped, especially when one includes Mr. Finn’s performance of a song conceived for the occasion!

So, my past few weeks were packed with cultural events. This week has provide a bit of a break, but my cultural calendar resumes Saturday night at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series with a concert by Jonathan Groff, whose work on “Spring Awakening” caught my attention and whose current venture – the HBO series “Looking” – is bringing him to an entirely new audience beyond his Broadway theater achievements. I look forward to this with much anticipation. Also on the schedule in weeks ahead: A Man’s a Man, Werther (Metropolitan Opera), Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall, Prince Igor (Met Opera), Alexandre Tharaud at Peoples’ Symphony (quick, get tickets, this is going to be so exciting on March 1), Goerne and Eschenbach performing Schubert’s Schoene Mullerin at Carnegie Hall, Enchanted Island (Met Opera), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and that takes me up through Spring Break.

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