Cultural Updates: Some Summer Films & Some Mostly-Mozart

While visiting Mom in Florida, I saw two of the current crop of summer movies: "Ted" and "Total Recall." 

"Ted" is the saga of a teddy bear that comes to life and ultimately wreaks havoc in the life of the little boy to whom he is given as a Christmas present.  It seems to have had a wildly popular few weeks upon its release, probably because people love the foul-mouthed, raunchy teddy bear, who gets away with saying things that nobody would tolerate in "polite society."  I thought the main acting accomplishment in this movie was the ability of the human actors to keep a straight face while delivering their lines — which was no doubt enhanced by the absence of the teddy bear, who was inserted through the miracle of contemporary computer graphics, no doubt.  Mom turned to me early in the movie and said "this is really silly" but in fact it was entertaining, there were a few good belly laughs, but I don't think it's going to win any awards.

"Total Recall" is a remake of an old Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick, with Colin Farrell in the Arnie role.  I always enjoy watching Colin Farrell, who shows off his fine physical condition in an early scene wearing nothing but boxer shorts.  Apart from that scene, the film is largely forgettable.  It is really just a variation on a typical "chase" film, in which Farrell is constantly on the run once it turns out that he seems to be not who he seems to be.  It's a bit confusing, and the ending doesn't necessarily sort everything out, either.  Lots of noise and gruesome special effects are on display.  So I guess it's a typical summer film — but the choices were limited at the Ormond Beach multiplex….

The annual Mostly Mozart Festival is well under way at Lincoln Center, and I've now been to two programs.  Last Wednesday I attended the all-Mozart evening directed by Louis Langree, the Festival's Music Director.  The big works on the program were a piano concerto with Nelson Freire as soloists and the Prague Symphony (No. 38).  They started with an old favorite, the overture to La Clemenza da Tito (which I learned as a kid from a 78 rpm recording by Sir Thomas Beecham and the LPO), and also brought on Lawrence Brownlee, a fine tenor, to sing two numbers.  It was certainly a pleasant evening, although from my vantage point, a side-stage seat behind the tympani, it felt at times like a tympani concerto (especially in the symphony). 

This Wednesday we had a very different sort of concert – no Mozart!  In the first half, Susanna Malkki conducted the Festival Orchestra in Luciano Berio's "Rendering," a realization of sketches that Franz Schubert left that could have become his 10th Symphony.  Because Schubert hadn't fully sketched out the symphony when he turned to other projects and then died, things were not far enough along — at least in Berio's view — to just do a reconstruction and orchestration job.  (Although others have done that.  I remember at least two recordings or "realizations" of Schubert's 10th Symphony based on these sketches.)  What Berio did was to just orchestrate the sketches and then connect them with aimless canoodling of an orchestrally diaphonous sort.  The result is curiously unsatisfying.  I think that Malkki and the orchestra did what could be done with it, but I didn't think it really worked as a coherent piece of music.

After intermission, Garrick Ohlsson appeared for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor" concerto.  Every time I hear this concerto in concert I am awash with nostalgia for my youth, since it was on the first program in which I played as a double-bassist in the Cornell University Symphony Orchestra.  We were joining orchestras all over the world in marking Beethoven's 200th birthday in December 1970.  Our conductor, Karel Husa, was acquainted from his student days in Prague with Rudolf Firkusny, the great Czech pianist, and had landed him as our soloist for the concerto and the Choral Fantasy.  It was a spectacular concert, and thrilling for me.  I think of it every time I attend a performance of the "Emperor."  That Ohlsson was the soloist was icing on the cake, because I first hear him perform that very year at Cornell.  He was fresh from triumph in the Warsaw Chopin International Competition and performed as part of the University's concert series.  So, double the nostalgia and gratifying it was to see him thriving in concert 42 years later.  (I've heard him perform many times over the years, and he's never let me down yet.)

Ohlsson is a big man, but looks can deceive, and he plays with incredible delicacy and finesse when these characteristics are called for.  In the first movement of the Beethoven, there are many such interludes, and it was a pleasure to watch and listen.  Ohlsson projects an air of calm engagement which is quite reassuring to an audience.  You know he is master of the situation, you sense he is totally comfortable with the music, and you can just sit back and enjoy.  There is no nervousness about things going wrong.  There is also rarely any venture beyond the mainstream of interpretation, but that can be very satisfying in this concerto when everything just clicks.  I was impressed again, as I always am when I heard this, by how transcendantly beautiful the first few pages of the second movement can be in the right hands.  Beethoven at his most Mozartian, which may by itself justify its inclusion at the Mostly-Mozart Festival.

Responding to tumultuous applause at the end, Ohlsson played Chopin's Eb Waltz with great panache and at least 5 cellphone interruptions.  (He just played right through them, apparently oblivious since he was focused on playing the music.)  Why do people turn their cellphones on before the houselights have come back on????

Prior to the concert, there was a brief recital by pianist Conrad Tao, an 18-year-old Juilliard-Columbia student.  He played two Rachmaninoff Preludes and Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petroushka.  He certainly has the big technique for these pieces, but not yet the finesse that he will achieve with age and experience.  I thought the contrast with Ohlsson was interesting.  Ohlsson's dynamic range seemed to me about twice as large – from softest to loudest – as Tao's, and his molding of the music and sensitivity to phrasing and touch put the youngster in the shade.  But it's an unfair comparison.  Heard on his own, Tao was fine for his current stage of development.  I just hope he hung around to hear Ohlsson and kept his ears open.  There is lots of room for growth. 

This weekend I head with my regular concert companion for Cooperstown, N.Y., to sample the wares at Glimmerglass Opera Festival.  We will be attending all four of this year's productions, squeezed into two evenings and two matinees.  The NY Times did a summary review of last week's performances, and it sounds like we will be having a splendid time.

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