Three weekend events to mention today: On Saturday night, I attend the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's concert at Carnegie Hall. On Sunday afternoon, I attended a performance of Clifford Streit's play, "Him," at Soho Playhouse. And Sunday evening I saw the new movie "John Carter," which was widely accounted a failure by critics who have little sense of humor and consider a very expensive film to be a failure if it was only the second best attended film in the country this past weekend.
First things first. I've always enjoyed David Robertson's conducting, and so, apparently, does his talented group of musicians in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, where he is in his seventh season as music director. Defying the usual orthodoxy of coming to Carnegie Hall with a program of repertory standards, they played the rarely heard "Printemps" of Claude Debussy, the complete Firebird ballet by Igor Stravinsky, and a Carnegie Hall premiere of a song cycle by Kaija Saariaho, the brilliant Finnish composer who is in the midst of a Carnegie Hall residence. Soprano Karita Mattila was soloist in the Saariaho songs.
The orchestra sounded fabulous. Debussy's piece is rarely heard because if one is going to put on Debussy, why not do an acknowledged masterpiece like Iberia, La Mer, or the Nocturnes? Doing a good job with Debussy is difficult. The orchestra must play with exquisite precision, balances are tricky, and there must be a transparency of sound and an ability to play very softly with full sound. There must be great rhythmic flexibility. "Printemps" lacks some of the memorable tunes that one hears in the more frequently-performed Debussy, but anything by this composer is worth hearing because one always hears something new, and the great wash of beautiful orchestral colors is always stimulating.
The Saariaho songs were a bit more difficult to take on a first hearing. The composer is influenced by the French "Spectralist" school which is mainly concerned with color, texture, and harmonic movement, and much less with traditional notions of melody and thematic development. In the context of a song cycle, this means forget about catchy tunes, that's not what this music is about. It is about creating moods, finding drama in repeated fragments of language (the text is in French), and giving the singer a chance to engage in some histrionics on stage, which Ms. Mattila certainly did with great exuberance. I found it quite absorbing, but I can imagine somebody coming to this kind of music for the first time could be totally baffled.
Finally, the Firebird. I find that the various suites that Stravinsky extracted from the 45 minute ballet are usually enough to fulfill my musical appetite, but it is interesting to hear the full ballet from time to time, keeping in mind that it was written to accompany a dance scenario, not to stand on its own as a concert piece, so there are stretches of music that are not quite as interesting as the "good parts" that show up in the suites. That said, this was a rather restrained performance until they got to the infernal dance, lullaby and finale, which were superbly well done. Few pieces are better caculated to fire up audience enthusiasm than the finale of Firebird, and the excellent orchestra and conduct on stage made the most of it.
The artistic achievement on view Sunday at the Soho Playhouse could barely compete with my Saturday night experience. Despite a reasonably good review in The Times when this play opened in December, I found the material quite thin. The sequence of short scenes with blackouts didn't conduce to dramatic continuity, and the acting — while undoubtedly constrained by the limitations of the script — was not particularly convincing.
The story posits a gay couple suffering the pressures of sudden fame for one of them, accompanied by his agent's attempt to keep the same-sex partner as far as possible from the public eye. Todd Alan Crain as the victim of this activity was probably the most effective of the actors, followed by Julian Mercer as an apologetic publicist. Lead man Jon Fleming, playing the member of the couple suddenly thrust into the limelight with his breakthrough movie role, looked the part and certainly knowa how carry off formal wear, but I didn't feel much emotional engagement with the part coming from him. Lindsay Goranson as the bitchy agent who secretly wants to get her gay star into her bed (and to separate him from his partner) really gets into her part, what there is of it, and Georgia X. Lifsher as the transsexual woman seeking the limelight for her own movie career makes a giggly beard for Mr. Fleming's "Nick Cooper." Rounding out the cast was James Sautter as the agent's sex-toy-in-waiting, who actually struck me as more likely to make a success with the lead role. Mr. Streit directed from his script, with a minimalist production designed by Josh Iacovelli suitable to the limited resources at hand.
From minimalism to maximalism – I was intrigued by the reviews for "John Carter," based on an old novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, so that was the evening's entertainment. The idea is a young veteran of the U.S. Confederate Army of Virginia prospecting for gold in the west when he blunders into a cavern where a tangle with a strange guy in a white robe leaves him waking up on Mars in the midst of tribal warfare between various "civilizations" that are technologically in advance of Earth circa 1868. Well, in science fiction you can do anything you want, but it takes a while to catch on to what is happening since one is thrust into the middle of a situation where bits and pieces are exposed but it takes some time for a coherent story to emerge. Just about everybody who has made a science fiction film in the history of the genre seems to have been a model for something or other in this film, but the entire thing seems to be a $350 million dollar excuse to show off the fine upper body development of Taylor Kitsch, an actor previously unknown to me whose personal trainer should probably get the lead credit for this film.
According to news reports, it brought in the second-highest weekend revenue in its first few days of release, runner up to the second week of a Dr. Seuss cartoon, and thus must be accounted a failure at $30.6 million (even though it also earned over $70 million overseas this weekend), since the estimate of what it will have to earn to turn a profit is over $600 million. Reportedly the studio allowed things to get wildly out of hand out of regard for the "auteur," who had success with prior efforts in different genres. No names here. But it was fun to see actors familiar from their roles in various cable TV series making appearances, including some stalwards from "Rome" and "The Wire." (I know, what are Julius Caesar and Marc Antony doing on Mars, not to mention a Baltimore police detective as a power-hungry dolt set on marrying and then murdering a Princes of the planet? Am I giving away too many surprises here? Somehow I doubt it.) Heads will roll, I guess.