For every professor who has shared this feeling: after turning in the exams to the Registrar's Office, there is this bloody hiatus while waiting for the students to take them. I try to stuff lots of culture into the hiatus, so herewith a brief report on the past few days.
On Tuesday night, I went to see the Atlantic Theater Company's production of two one-act plays by Harold Pinter, "The Collection" and "A Kind of Alaska," showing at Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street. Karen Kohlhaas directed. "The Collection" dates from 1961, "A Kind of Alaska" from 1982. The intervening two decades must have been very significant for Pinter, since I thought the earlier play was awful and the later one was fantastic.
The program had nothing to say about "The Collection," not even specifying where and when it was taking place, but it seems to have been set in early 1960s London. The four person cast involves two couples whose lives become intertwined. One couple is a husband and wife. The other is an older man and a younger man. The husband suspects the younger man is having an affair with his wife. The older man and the younger man may be a "homosexual" couple but my attention had wandered from the play long before any of this got sorted out on stage. I found it boring, boring, boring, and soon slipped away – mentally.
On the other hand, "A Kind of Alaska" was enthralling. The program provided some explanation this time: that the play was inspired by Pinter's reading of Dr. Oliver Sacks' book, "Awakenings," about the phenomenon of something like sleeping sickness that spread over Europe in the 1920s, and the strange events when the sleepers awoke, after decades in some cases, with the administration of the new wonder drug L-DOPA. Pinter's play is a re-enactment of one of those awakenings, of a woman who dosed off as a teenager and awakened as a middle-aged woman. How would one ease such a person into the present, when in their minds it is still decades ago and they feel themselves a frisky adolescent? It was absolutely fascinating.
Lisa Emery as the woman who awakens was transfixing to watch. Larry Bryggman as the doctor who has watched over her is frustratingly inarticulate in the tradition of Pinter characters, as he is in the first play as the older member of the male couple. Rebecca Henderson was convincingly concerned as the sister of the sleeping beauty. In "The Collection," Henderson played the wife, Darren Pettie the younger of the male couple, and Matt McGrath the jealous husband. Sorry, I just couldn't get excited about "The Collection," but I thought "A Kind of Alaska" a masterpiece.
On Wednesday I drafted my Employment Discrimination Law final and went home exhausted after a very full day. On Thursday, I was able to take off early, finishing my various office chores, and went to see a matinee performance of "I Love You Phillip Morris," the latest Jim Carrey vehicle. This is the one that was kicking around for a few years looking for a distributor, since it seems few in the movie industry are willing to take a flyer on a film that could be called "gay romance." Anyway, Carrey plays a scam artist who comes bursting out of the closet and ends up in prison, where he promptly swoons over a blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty portrayed by Ewan McGregor. The rest of the film concerns his various plots and schemes to keep them together and out of prison. Carrey is, as usual, just frenetic and exhausting to watch, a real contrast to McGregor's soft-hearted gentle soul. It was entertaining, but I didn't think it was a great movie, and it was certainly not as funny as I was led to expect.
Better reports on Thursday evening, went I went to Carnegie Hall for the Orchestra of St. Lukes' second program of their subscription season. Guest conductor was Edo de Waart, who led a beautiful performance of the little orchestral piece that John Adams has made out of the Franz Liszt piano work, the Lugubrious Gondola, said to have been inspired by observing a funeral gondola conducting a body to the cemetery while visiting in Venice. The music sounded to me like something from a film noir soundtrack – gorgeous. Then they had Susan Graham singing some orchestratal songs by Alban Berg based on piano lieder he had written as a young man and orchestrated later in his mature style. They struck me as drab.
Finally, they concluded the concert with Felix Mendelssohn's 3rd Symphony, the "Scottish," which was well played but without that final degree of inspiration that makes a performance great.
I was struck by the contrast with the concert I attended a few days earlier by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The program was similar: a short orchestral work, followed by a work for voice and orchestra, followed by an early 19th century romantic symphony. The Orpheus concert was miles above the St. Luke's concert. Some of it may have just been the choice of music, but I put some of it down to the fundamental difference between a group that lives on guest conductors and one that performs without a conductor. St. Luke's is constantly getting used to a different musical personality on the podium, but since they rely on that personality to shape the performance for them, the performers are not quite personally invested. By contrast, Orpheus painstakingly works out its interpretation of each piece through a core group of players, and every musician on the stage seems totally involved in defining that performance as they go along. The result, while substituting a corporate identity for the individual conductor, is to produce a much more involving musical experience….
Or was I just reacting in particular to Beethoven 7th vs. Mendelssohn 3rd? I love the Mendelssohn, but I consider the Beethoven 7th to be one of the greatest symphonies of all time, top of my hit parade….
This afternoon I went to see "The King's Speech," the latest British historical import, which depicts the story of Lionel Logue, an Australian self-made speech therapist who suddenly found himself engaged on the sly to help the stuttering Duke of York try to overcome his impediment. When, in rapid succession, the Duke's father dies and then his brother renounces the throne to marry "the woman I love," poor Bertie is thrown into the monarchy just as World War II is about to break out. Luckily, Mr. Logue is there to assist him through that important live broadcast in which he is to arouse the peoples of the British Empire to struggle for victory against Hitler. While the film is predictable – after all, it is basically a true story whose outcome is known – it is worth seeing for the splendid performances, especially Geoffrey Rush as Logue and Colin Firth as the Duke of York who becomes George VI. I was especially struck by two ironies. First, the casting of Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, who upon discovering that Logue has no professional credentials, tells the King that he should have a proper speech therapist whom the Archbishop will recommend. Irony: Derek Jacobi was first famous in the U.S. as the star of the BBC series "I Claudius," in which he portrayed the stuttering Roman emperor! Second, a bit of sleight of hand with the music. It seemed like most of the music in this film was "found music" – i.e., music of the period or classical music. During the famous first wartime broadcast, the allegretto from Beethoven's 7th Symphony, with solemn tread, is underscoring the scene. But as George VI triumphs over his impediment and manages to give an inspiring speech, the soundtrack music changes to the adagio from Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto (No. 5). Just as Bertie comes of age as King and Emperor with his stunning speech, the soundtrack changes from sombre tread to the calm majesty of music that struck an early listener as "imperial" in flavor, hence the nickname. (They could just as well have used the opening of Elgar's 1st Symphony, and it would had produced the same effect with music more unmistakenly British. Maybe using German music at that moment was intended as further irony.) This film is highly recommended for history buffs and fans of great acting.
Anyway, it's been a busy few days of culture. This evening I'm at Washington Irving High School for a violin recital by Daniel Hope (with pianist Roman Rabinovich) ithe Peoples' Symphony series. Tomorrow morning I'll join a friend downtown at "The Winery" for Klezmer Brunch with Yale Strom and his group, and then tomorrow afternoon to Town Hall for a cello recital by Friedrich Kleinhapl (with pianist Andreas Woyke), also a Peoples' Symphony production. Busy, busy, busy, to pass the time until I have to start grading exams!