Grading Breaks – Mindless Movie and Great Music

"Grading season" began for me on Tuesday, my Contracts students having taken their final exam on Monday afternoon (Dec. 12) and my Employment Discrimination students on Friday afternoon (Dec. 16).  So now I face two little mountains of exams to grade.  I try to do some grading every day, take a culture break when I can squeeze it in, and get in some office time preparing for spring semester, working on Lesbian/Gay Law Notes, and making progress on my current book project.  December is, as usual, a busy time despite the lack of classes.  This week was very busy: the annual holiday party at the LGBT Center in Manhattan on Monday evening; a book party in honor of Prof. Dale Carpenter of University of Minnesota Law School, whose fantastic "Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas" will be published in March, on Tuesday evening; some mindless movie entertainment on Wednesday: "Breaking Dawn, Pt. I" – the latest installment of the "Twilight" film series based on the popular books; a magnificent concert by the Orchestra of St. Lukes with guest conductor Robert Spano (music director of the Atlanta Symphony, who brought along that orchestra's chamber choir for works by Messiaen and Bach) in Carnegie Hall on Thursday night; and capping the week, co-leading Shabbat services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah on Friday night with Judy Ribnick and Joyce Rosenzweig.  Today I took a break from grading, having done some four days in a row, and will be attending Gounod's Faust at the Metropolitan Opera tonight, particularly to hear the Met conducting debut of Pierre Vallet!

But here just some reflections on the "culture breaks" of the week:

Breaking Dawn, Part I.   Taking inspiration from the Harry Potter producers, who prolonged their valuable franchise by chopping the last novel into two films, the producers of the Twilight series have done the same.  I haven't read the books, so I have no idea whether the last book was substantial enough to support this.  I found this installment to be reasonably entertaining, although it seemed to me that it stretched rather thin plotting over a full-length film.  The pace sometimes seemed to me more like a European art film than a commercial Hollywood product, satisfied to dwell on its pleasant-looking young actors rather than get into anything complicated in the way of plotting.  The central issue of the movie seems to be whether it is a good idea for a male vampire to get a "normal" human being pregnant and then have her carry the "baby" – whatever it is – to term.  The film is rather casual about the passage of time, but it seems as if the entire pregnancy consumes a matter of weeks.  One of the main attractions of the Twilight films – the hunky Taylor Lautner undraped – is rather sparingly employed in this segment, thus making it a bit of a disappointment for fans of youthful male pulchritude, a major attraction of some of the previous films in the series.  But everybody fulfills their assigned roles – Kristen Stewart pouts her way through her wedding, looking continuously worried, and later manages to convey the difficulty of carrying a vampire's spawn in her belly; Robert Pattinson continues to mumble his way through the role of Edward the Vampire, looking continuously worried as well; and Taylor Lautner, who still hasn't figured out much about conveying emotion and could stand for some work on his vocal projection, conveys stalward rectitude.  So the saga of vampires vs. wolves vs. humans continues, and we all wait for the inevitable conclusion in Breaking Dawn, Pt. II.  I solemnly request that nobody who has read the book send me any hint as to how the thing continues…

Orchestra of St. Lukes is a reliably excellent ensemble, and their presentation of what passes for an unusual Christmas concert Thursday night at Carnegie Hall was an involving event. 

Robert Spano, reliably excellent as well, conducted the orchestra and women of the Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus, in Olivier Messiaen's Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine (1943-44), in which the composer tried out the strange coloristic mix of Balinese gamelan with western harmonies, bird song motif, and whistling sounds of the Ondes Martenot.  I first became acquainted with this piece through an LP release – Westminster? – acquired in college, Marcel Couraud conducting a French radio ensemble, with the composer's wife at the piano, recording during the composer's lifetime and, presumably, with some participation on his part.  I wasn't ready at that age to appreciate his music, but found this piece an easier entry than some of the later works I had heard on records.  It retains its charms more than 30 years later.  I don't have a sense that it is frequently performed – certainly I haven't come across it in live performance in almost 35 years of regular NYC concert-going – but it is worth a hearing.  I hadn't guessed from recordings that the orchestration was so sparing – no wind instruments, just strings, percussion, piano and Ondes Martenot (the strange electronic instrument that sounds sort of like whistling with an edge) with a female chorus – since the sounds are so rich and varied and bright.  This proved a good entertainment for the season, although the text, compiled by Messiaen, is rather bizarre to anyone not "of the faith."

The rest of the program was devoted to Johann Sebastian Bach.  Ten members of the orchestra's string section (3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, 1 double bass playing continue with the inaudible harpsichord) began with the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto, played chamber-music style without a conductor.  From my experiences attending concerts in the big main hall at Carnegie, it makes almost no sense to have a harpsichord with an instrumental ensemble of any significant size if you're not going to amplify it.  I know purists will blanch at this, but the hall is just too big for the harpsichord to have any real presence unamplifed.  It might as well not even be there; one hears some distant jangling and little else from it.  The performance struck me as sprightly but a bit vacant.  That is, the tempi were rather unvarying to my perception, and underinflected compared to performances one has come to expect from recording and concerts by groups using period instruments and versed in the latest musicological discoveries about Baroque performance practice.  Of course, Bach well played by talented professionals will always sound beautiful, but there is a lot more interest to be mined from the 3rd Brandenburg than we heard on this occasion.

On the other hand, the Magnificat in D was magnificently done.  This time we had the full chorus, of course, women and men, and four vocal soloists: Susanna Phillips (soprano); Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), NIcholas Phan (tenor) and Joshua Hopkins (baritone).  Spano set excellent tempi and the orchestra played to its high standard, the high trumpets being especially notable, as well as the excellent woodwind soloists and timpanist Maya Gunji, whose outstanding work with both St. Luke's and Orpheus are highlights of the Carnegie season.  Of the soloists, at first I thought Cooke might be a weak link, as her first solo (Et exsultavit) seemed to lag a bit beyind the beat, but she was extraordinary in the Et misericordia duet, and her other solo (Esurientes implevit) was confident and spirited.  Soprano Phillips was excellent in her one solo, Quia respexit.  Baritone Hopkins, who made a big impression on me with his first solo recital disc and his performance in Bernstein's "A Quiet Place" at NYC Opera last season, also had but one solo – Quia fecit – which he sang with excellent warmth but some strain in the extended melisma.  Tenor Nicholas Phan does not quite have the heroic tenor sound needed to make the most of Deposuit potentes (I'd love to have heard Pavarotti sing this!!  or Lauritz Melchior!!!), but did his best.  I thought he was more effect as Cooke's duet partner.  The chorus was splendid.

This performance reinforced my judgment that the Magnificat in D is among the very best works of JS Bach, and should be a regular feature of Christmas-time concerts.  There are altogether too many performances of Handel's Messiah in NYC this time of year.  I'm managing to give it a miss.  I like the piece very much, it is certainly Handel at his best, but one doesn't need to hear it every year and I wish our large choral organizations would bring a bit more originality to their seasonal concert programming.  St. Luke's ingenuity with this concert was much appreciated in this quarter.

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