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Art Leonard’s Cultural Diary – March 22 through April 16, 2014

Posted on: April 17th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve had a busy few weeks, both in terms of attending things and in terms of work having to get done, as a result of which there is a big pile-up of programs for me to write about, so herewith a diary of brief comments about the events I’ve attended from March 22 through April 16. I have omitted comment about the Jeremy Denk piano recital at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, which I wrote about separately right after the event.

On March 22, I attended a concert by Jeffrey Kahane (pianist and conductor) and the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. Mr. Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, has been a frequent guest at the Philharmonic in recent years, and I have always enjoyed his concerts. For this program, he selected George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, Maurice Ravels Concerto in G, and Kurt Weill’s Symphony No. 2. Both concerti had been recently performed by the Philharmonic with other pianists and conductors, but Kahane brought the distinction of conducting from the keyboard. Leonard Bernstein used to do this with the Ravel concerto (I have a DVD of his performance with a French orchestra that is fascinating to watch), to great effect, and Kahane was right up there with him. This is an orchestra that can pretty well conduct itself in familiar repertory, but the musicians seemed very sensitive to Kahane’s direction. His technical proficiency was more than adequate to the occasion, and his sheer enthusiasm for the music was well communicated to the NYP members, who seemed very involved and excited. The Weill symphony was a novelty, as it had not been played by the NYP since its local premiere under Bruno Walter’s direction in 1934. Was the exhumation worthwhile? I thought so. It’s not a perfect piece, but it is interesting to hear the seeds of Weill’s later development as a successful composer of Broadway musicals. Certainly, the piece is worth hearing more than once every 80 years! It’s neglect may be due to symphonic snobbery more than to its actual merits. The orchestra played beautifully, certainly outclassing the recordings I’ve heard.

The next day, I attended a matinee performance of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, in the English-language adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, presented by Atlantic Theater Company. Pure coincidence that I would hear Kurt Weill’s music twice in a weekend! This production was directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke. F. Murray Abraham led the cast as Mr. Peachum, Michael Park sparkled as MacHeath (Mack the Knife), Laura Osnes was Polly and Mary Beth Peil (a favorite from the TV series “The Good Wife” – Peter’s mother!) played Mrs. Peachum. I can’t say it was the most invigorating production I’ve seen of this — the Broadway revival with Sting stands out in my memory, and as a child I was brought to see the original production at the then-Theatre-de-Lys on Christopher Street of which I remember no details, only a general sense of fierce brilliance). The performance I saw was a preview. It has since opened to less than rapturous reviews. I still think it is worth seeing any revival of this work by a professional company, because the piece has so much wonderful music.

On March 27, I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s revival of Max Bruch’s oratorio, Moses, at Carnegie Hall. Sidney Outlaw sang the role of Moses, with Kirk Dougherty as his brother Aaron, Tamara Wilson as the “Angel of the Lord,” with Leon Botstein conducting the orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale (prepared by James Bagwell). This piece was premiered in Germany in 1895 and in the U.S. in 1896 (Baltimore), but after a brief vogue disappeared from view until some recent revivals. It is very long and not particularly memorable, but as usual Botstein and his performing forces provided something worth hearing. Bruch’s music is richly romantic in harmony and orchestration, but his melodic gift is not particularly distinguished. The tunes don’t stay in your head — unlike the Violin Concerto No. 1, which is his main contribution to the standard orchestral repertory and which I think gets more play than it deserves in light of the many other violin concertos that are, in the end, more interesting. It would be interesting to hear what the richer string section of the NY Philharmonic could do with this piece, as the ASO strings tend to sound a bit undernourished in the big moments. I also thought the choir was actually larger than it needed to be for an orchestra of this size. (The ASO is a bit larger than a chamber orchestra in terms of its string body, but substantially smaller than a major symphony orchestra.) They did well with what they had. I’m glad I heard it. I won’t be going out of my way to hear it again.

It was back to the NY Philharmonic for me on Friday, March 28. I had purchased a single ticket for this concert, eagerly anticipating hearing Gustavo Dudamel conducting Bruckner’s 9th. Unfortunately, Mr. Dudamel took ill with flu and cancelled his NYP engagement, but they were lucky enough to land Manfred Honeck, musical director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, as a replacement for the weekend. Honeck had appeared as a guest with the Philharmonic at least once before (his appearance was not billed as a debut) but I couldn’t recall having seen him conduct before. I was very impressed. The Bruckner was superbly done, the orchestra at the peak of its virtuosity, and the third movement Adagio, which concludes this unfinished symphony, was actually devastating in its impact. The program began with Claude Vivier’s Orion, a 1979 symphonic poem that reportedly did much to put its composer on the map when it was first performed by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony in 1980. Unfortunately, Vivier, a gay man, was murdered by a “trick” in Paris in 1983, so his composing career did not get much beyond this piece. The piece itself defies description in words – a mélange of orchestral effects that is intense and colorful but that does not yield up much understanding on a first hearing.

The next evening, March 29, I was back at Carnegie Hall for the last concert of this season’s series by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra put together a “theme” concert of music inspired by Hungary – most particularly, the Hungarian folk music exponents in the first half — Kodaly and Bartok — and a 19th century Jewish violinist-composer writing in what purported to be the Hungarian style – Joseph Joachim. The Kodaly Hungarian Rondo is a charming trifle, the Bartok Divertimento and substantial dramatic statement that belies its name, and Orpheus rendered them well, although I really missed the effect of massed strings in the Bartok that I recall from a thrilling reading years ago by Kurt Masur with the NY Philharmonic. The Joachim Concerto is a bloated, romantic piece with lots of striking moments but not enough originality to make one regret its failure to become a standard repertory piece. Christian Tetzlaff labored hard to bring it off, and it was certainly an honorable effort. I’m glad they thought to revive it, since it is all too easy to offer up yet another run through the Brahms concerto, which is a great work that is perhaps played too frequently for its own good these days. Vive Joachim! Now let’s honorably retire the piece for a while.

On April 5 I attended City Center Encores! performance of Frank Loesser’s musical, “The Most Happy Fella.” I have a great sentimental affection for this piece, as it was the first musical for which I was hired to perform in a full pit orchestra when I was a high school student in Oneonta, New York, in the late 1960s. And that was quite an initiation into playing in a pit, considering that this piece has more music — at times is almost through-composed — than the typical musical show. The Encores! production was predictably brilliant, with Shuler Hensley shining as Tony, Laura Benanti eager and brilliant as “Rosabella,” and Cheyene Jackson studly (but at times seeming a bit unengaged) as Joe. I did have my occasional complaint with this series about the over-amplification of the orchestra. While it is true that placing the orchestra backstage behind the action would justify some amplification, I think they really overdo it, especially for the brass and percussion, to the point of verging on painfulness during the overture. That aside, the musical performance led by Rob Berman was excellently done, and the cast and crew did a great job on the choreography (by director Casey Nicholaw). In the early days of Encores!, one was accustomed to seeing semi-staged readings with performers carrying black loose-leaf books with the music and lyrics. They have now gotten to the point where cast-members seem to feel it a point-of-honor to have their parts memorized and jettison the books. (During the talk-back after the show, it was revealed that there was a difficult period when they had to carry the books due to Equity rules for this kind of production, but that a renegotiation with Equity made the books optional with the performers.) These now verge on fully-staged productions, and the results – in light of the short rehearsal periods – are extraordinary! Can’t recommend Encores! highly enough to those with nostalgia for the great days of Broadway. Last up for this season will be Irma La Douce before and during the second weekend in May. Be there or be square!

After attending Encores! I had a quick turnaround for a snack and then off to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square for the last Early Music concert in Miller Theatre’s 25th Anniversary Season. Fittingly, the performers were The Tallis Scholars, the English group that has regularly figured on this series since its beginning. The group is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and put together a program surveying the realm of Renaissance Polyphony in which it specializes, as well as its more recent practice of commissioning living composers to write new polyphonic works for chamber choir. On this occasion, we had a world premiere, with commission by Miller Theatre, of Two Sonnets for Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz by Michael Nyman. I would like to hear these again! The first half of the program was devoted to continental polyphony (Desprez and de Rore), the second half to English polyphony (Sheppard and Tallis), and as usual, Peter Phillips and his singers were beyond reproach. Some have occasionally criticized Phillips and The Tallis Scholars for a sort of chilly precision to their work, but I don’t hear that, finding a warmth and spontaneity that makes their work very involving emotionally for the listener. This was an excellent performance of an excellent program.

The next day I heard a concert by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet at Town Hall, courtesy of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts. This was in two parts. The first half was devoted to transcriptions of classical music for guitar quartet. We had a suite of dances from Michael Praetorius’s Terpsichore, the grant compendium of royal court dance music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, a suite from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, which drew its thematic material from Baroque sources, and finally Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. None of this music was imagined by its composers as a vehicle for a quartet for modern guitar virtuosi, and I found the sound becoming a bit tiresome. Early music groups usually put together colorful instrumentations for Praetorius, Stravinsky’s orchestration of his ballet makes full use of the coloristic resources of an early 20th century orchestra, and Liszt’s rhapsody exists in numerous colorful orchestral arrangements of the piano original. While the LAGQ is of course virtuosic in its approach to these pieces, I would have preferred the originals. The second half, by contrast, struck me as ideal in every way – a series of shorter works all conceived with the guitar in mind, some actually written for this ensemble, and presenting all the variety of sound that seemed lacking in the first half. I’m happy to have heard the group. I recommend that they focus on modern works written or arranged for them, and forget the Baroque arrangements.

“If/Then” is a new Broadway musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book & lyrics) that I visited on April 9. I had heard complaints that the plot was confusing. Yes, it was. The idea is to depict the alternative realities that could stem from an inflection point in the life of a person, when a seemingly trivial decision to do one thing rather than another is, in retrospect, momentous. The piece seems to have been conceived as a vehicle for Idina Menzel (and the main reason we were there was that my theater-going companion was eager to take in her performance), and I thought she was fine in a very challenging role, although I thought she was painfully over-amplified at times, resulting in a rather shrill sound on her high notes. I did find the plotting confusing and difficult to follow at times. I understand that en route to Broadway a decision was made to have Menzel’s character called Liz in one reality and Beth in the other, to wear glasses in one and not the other, but I failed to pick up on this and was continually confused as the switch between realities took place without transitions, leaving me to think “huh?” all too often during the first act. Things became a bit more understandable in the second act, although again there were moments when things just seemed out of joint. But perhaps that’s the point of the show — how far apart our alternative futures might be, all stemming from a trivial decision early on to do one thing and not another.

On April 13 I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s final Classics Declassified program for the season, at Symphony Space. The subject was Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, an early favorite of mine. I played double-bass in performances of this symphony by the Oneonta Symphony Orchestra when I was in high school and the Cornell University Orchestra when I was in college, so I know the piece from the inside out through extended rehearsals. That said, I found Leon Bostein’s lecture to be disorganized, boring, and seemingly pointless at times. Sometimes he comes up with brilliant insights, but sometimes the lecture is just a dud, and this seemed to be such an occasion. Surprisingly, the performance of the symphony was anything but — it was warmly done by an orchestra that seemed fully engaged. The rather smaller string section than one would get from a major orchestra was only occasionally a deficiency, as much of this symphony has a pastoral character that can work with a compact string body. The woodwind soloists, who get a real workout in this piece, were stellar, and the trombones, whose special tonal qualities in playing choral-like passages are an important feature of the piece, were also superb. I think Botstein needs an editor to work with him on the lectures. . .

Finally, last night, April 16, I saw a performance of Terrence McNally’s new play, “Mothers and Sons,” at the Golden Theatre. This is an ensemble piece for four actors. Tyne Daly plays Katharine Gerard, an upstate NY native who married a Texas businessman, lived in Dallas, raised a son who grew up to be gay and ran off to New York City for a career in the theater and died from AIDS in the early 1990s. In an earlier play, “Andre’s Mother,” dating from decades ago, McNally created this character and showed her alienation from the world of her son and her inability to be emotionally present for his memorial service. Frederick Weller plays Cal Porter, Andre’s surviving partner. This play takes place twenty years later, and Cal is now happily married to Will Ogden, an aspiring novelist, played by Bobby Steggert. They have a son, six-year-old Bud, played by Grayson Taylor, conceived through donor insemination and gestational surrogacy. In other words, a very “modern” NYC gay family, and perhaps the first time such a family has been portrayed on Broadway. For some reason, not really explained, Katharine “drops in” on the Porter-Ogden household on Central Park West. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plot, really, just a picture of colliding worlds as the still disapproving and disgruntled mother interacts with her late son’s lover and his “new” family. There are many affecting moments. Anyone who lived through the early years of AIDS in New York will have memories recalled, aided by a pre- or post-show visit to the lower lobby where panels from the AIDS Quilt are mounted. Presenting this history is important, but I found the show itself, while frequently absorbing, to be rather uneven, and I’m wondering whether McNally might treat this production as a first take on a work in progress and figure out revisions before it gets mounted again. The material is definitely worth exploring, and perhaps the experience of seeing it play out will inspire him to make changes that will strengthen it dramatically. Certainly this cast does a great job with it, although I found Weller’s performance a bit odd — what kind of accent was he trying to present? — and the role of the child is rather challenging for a young actor to present naturalistically, although Master Taylor acquitted himself honorably. I’m a Steggert fan and was happy to get a slice of his work here — I wished the part were a bit longer. And Tyne Daly, who was McNally’s “muse” for this piece, was perfectly cast, effectively projecting the brittle quality of a woman who is totally a fish out of water in this environment, unsure why she is there and how to act and react to what she is experiencing. Certainly this is a show that the LGBT community should be supporting. The audience was rather small, even for what is a relatively small Broadway “straight-theater” house, and I hope word of mouth may pick it up a bit. A play doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth seeing, and I find that anything Terrence McNally does is worth seeing, so I hope people will go.

My cultural calendar coming up: tomorrow night a premiere of new songs by Glen Roven at Spectrum, “All the Way” on Broadway, Music from Marlboro and Alarm Will Sound during the last weekend in April, Irma La Douce with Encores’ in May. . .

Recent theatrical and concert doings – “Little Miss Sunshine”, Orchestra of St. Luke’s & Ivan Fischer, “And Away We Go”

Posted on: November 25th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last Wednesday I attended a perform of William Finn and James Lapine’s new musical show, “Little Miss Sunshine,” at the Second Stage Theatre off-Broadway.  This show as inspired by the movie of the same name from several years back.  Mr. Lapine directed.   I thought the production was well-designed, given the limitations of the small stage, but I did not think this story was crying out for musical treatment.  It seemed more like a play with songs than a musical, and the music was not up to the high standard Mr. Finn has set in some of his earlier shows.  The cast seemed to be working very hard, but without much real effect.  I was delighted, however, to see in the supporting case Wesley Tailor, one of my favorites from the TV series “Smash.”  (He played “Bobby,” a member of the musical ensemble.)  One of my sadnesses at learning that “Smash” was not renewed for a third season was not getting to see more of the entertaining supporting characters such as Mr. Tailor, so I was happy to see him in this show, although I think his talents could be better used in a more substantial role.

On Thursday evening I was at Carnegie Hall for a subscription concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with guest conductor Ivan Fischer and piano soloist Jonathan Biss in the Schumann Piano Concerto.  St. Luke’s was playing up to their high standard.  The program opened with Leo Weiner’s Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 3, composed during his first year of study at the Budapest Conservatory.  It is a reasonably well-made student piece, but not distinctive enough to hold my attention through-out its four brief movements, and despite my general interest in exploring new repertory, I’m not sure this is a piece that deserved exposure at Carnegie Hall.  The Schumann Concerto came next.  I’ve found that this piece, rather low-key for a romantic period piano concerto, works best when the pianist and conductor adopt an interventionist approach, putting some flair and punch into the music.  But that’s not really Biss’s style (although it is clearly Fischer’s style).  I found a mismatch here.  Biss’s playing was very smooth, flowing, technically immaculate, but not particularly dramatic in terms of accents, phrasing and dynamics.  Fischer, on the other hand, was wont to pump things up again, so the tuttis and the solo passages seemed to be coming from different universes, or so it struck me that way.  After intermission, Fischer led an absolutely delightful rendition of Bartok’s Hungarian Sketches, a collection of five short pieces channeling the spirit of Hungarian folk music without actually quoting folk tunes.  I thought this performance was really inspired, especially Fischer’s rendition of the fourth, usually translated as “Slightly Tipsy” but called “A Bit Tipsy” in the printed program.  Most of the recordings I’ve heard of this music have been rather straight-forward, the conductor evidently believing that just playing what was written was sufficient to convey the intended mood, but Fischer exaggerated the lurching tempos, which was great fun.  Bartok intended this movement to be funny, and Fischer clearly shares that sense of humor.  Finally, a performance of Mozart’s Symphony in C, No. 40, K. 551 (“The Jupiter”), which really knocked my socks off.  I am used to hearing this as a very majestic essay in classical form, but Fischer hears it as a very dramatic, romantic piece, and got the orchestra to play it that way.  From the first sharp chords at the opening, I knew I was in for something different, and I came away convinced that this symphony is much better than I had previously thought.  My own rankings of the final three Mozart symphonies composed in 1788 has been to put the G Minor [#40] in first place, followed by the Eb (No. 39) with the old Jupiter bringing up the rear.  Now I’m rethinking that order.

Finally, on Saturday I caught a matinee preview performance of Terrence McNally’s latest, “And Away We Go,” at the Pearl Theatre Company, again off-Broadway.  Since this is a preview, I won’t say very much because a review would be inappropriate while the author and director are still making adjustments.  But I can say that I didn’t find the overall concept very convincing, although I was intermittently amused and even moved.  The rapid changes of time and place (all on the same unit-set with the performers in the same modern street clothes) did not work for me.  But it may work for others.  And perhaps by the time it opens it will be tightened up some.  This performance ran rather longer than advertised, without an intermission, which became a bit wearying.