Friday, February 27, 2009

"Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience": it is like being there (and what do we compare JB to?)

Well, this posting seems an about-face from the previous one. I’m treating Walt Disney Company’s “Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience” (dir. Bruce Hendricks) as a “concert” rather than a movie. Yes, we do get to go backstage with “them” (one scene in this G-rated experience is just a bit Freudian), but more than half of the 76 minutes features the Brothers in two big concerts in 2008, one in Anaheim and one in Madison Square Garden in New York City. In fact, in the very beginning, their manager peeks into each bedroom in their suite in a Trump New York City condo, and rouses them from REM sleep at 4:30 AM, on a day that they are headed for Good Morning America. We also see them serenading in Central Park, and on Times Square on New Years Eve (no Anderson Cooper this time).

The Real 3D does help, and it’s used with some cuteness, with violin bows, drums, pigeons. The concerts are all razzle-dazzle, with some pyrtotechnics, some acrobatics (the boys have to maintain the same physical fitness of any boy band) and one number where they stand 15 feet in the air on top of narrow black columns, without any harness. You see a lot of the details, even the earpieces. Yes, the teenage girls create a mob scene.

The music is all so familiar now, with their multiple appearances on Ellen and Oprah. A lot of it is straightforward manipulation of minor modes and simple transition to relative major (to my semi-perfect pitch is sounded like mostly d minor and F Major). That’s the most key scheme in sonata movements in minor keys, after all, and we hear it work in pop amazingly well sometimes (look how effective Slumdog’s “Jai Ho” is as music – it really does work). In one of my teen compositions, I tried starting in major and going to relative minor for the second subject, the reverse process. Many of the songs are written by the three brothers, but some are not.

As for the boys, I got the impression that Joe (the middle “child”) seemed to dominate the group a bit. His body language is just a tad louder than the other two’s. Wikipedia says that there is a fourth brother, born in 2000, who may join in some performances soon.

We’ve all heard about the purity rings and family values (the family did home schooling), but the medical part is amazing. Sixteen year old Nick wears an OmniPod insulin pump on stage and must monitor his blood numerous times a day, for juvenile diabetes that started suddenly at age 13. The only cure right now is a pancreas (or possibly, soon, islet cell) transplant, and Bush’s aversion to stem cells might have held back research other cures, and it’s amazing that there’s no vaccine for the coxsackie virus thought to be involved as a cause. None of this is mentioned in the film, but it has been mentioned in television appearances.

In 2001, I saw ‘Nysnc (a “Popodyssey") in the Metrodome in Minneapolis, which had even more high-chair athletic acts as part of the dance requiring great athletic skill. Justin Timberlake seems to be reinventing himself for the better very lately.

The JB pictures, wallpapers and other downloads are here. It’s not clear from the terms whether we are free to put them on a blog as a picture, but you can see them here. The Jonas Brothers has a visually strong trademark (JB) and now a movie company by that name. You can become a member at their main website. http:

I thought, again, what a change from last week. Well, classical music often mixes into popular genres, but usually with much more harmonic variation. Could the Jonas Brothers dance to the complex Romanian rhythms of Dominik Maican’s music? (Let them try with his now well known Second Quartet.) Maybe they could. It occurred to me that Dom, who is about their age, looks a lot like them and could easily have fooled us on stage with them. Actually, the film offers “fake Jonas Brothers” on a NYC street. Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift did perform with the Brothers.

This “film” and concerts may be the best thing that has happened in the Big Apple this winter, given all the economic gloom. I didn’t see the “Made in NY” label bought it ought to be there.

On Monday, March 2, Access Hollywood showed the Jonas Brothers using a private jet. That sounds like Trump-land. Bring on the Apprentice.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dumbarton: St. Petersburg Quartet premiers Maican Quartet #3, peforms Borodin, Tchaikovsky warhorses: the "D Major Concert"

On Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009 the Dumbarton Concerts (in Washington DC, 2008-2009 season) presented the St. Petersburg Quartet (Russia). The performers are Alla Aranovskaya, 1st Violin, Alla Krolevich, 2nd Violin, Boris Vayner, viola, and Leonid Shulayev, cello.

All three works on the program were in the strings-friendly key of D Major.

The program opened with Tudor Dominik Maican ('s) String Quartet #3 in D. The work is a little sunnier than some of his other, and still sounds a bit like Bartok, but with a slightly Gallic touch – I can sort of imagine myself walking the Bastille section of Paris in the “Allegro Scherzando” finale. Maican’s notes mention Greek folk music (as well as Romanian) as other influences. Now, here I digress more. “Scherzando is an odd notation for a finale – but Rachmaninoff used it in his Second Piano Concerto and built up to his famous climax. (George Perle used this in his Sinfonietta II). Like the Rachmaninoff, Maican assimilates the music from the first two movements to make the final Scherzo, but here something strange happens – the music evaporates quickly, ending in a 5-note figure, almost like this was a kind of chemistry lab experiment! I thought there should be a “real” finale, but, not – that’s what happens here when you put the opposite polarities together – nullification, or “pair annihilation” as in physics. Maybe there is a bit of “The Universe” here. (Come to think of it, something like this happens in the last movement of Haydn's "Farewell Symphony" but there the sublimation takes some time.)

Nevertheless, the first movement was a full sonata (I think) and actually builds up to a majestic climax, with full fortissimo chords filled with overtones at the end. The slow movement really is about thought (not feelings), and ponders a number of slow figurations, almost like a chaconne, it sounded (the marking was Andante molto cantabile but it sounded more like a Lento). I wondered how the quartet learned the music – did he have to travel to Russia, or did he coach them with broadband Internet?

Dom writes an interesting comment (in the notes) comparing the first movement’s source to “people like me: young, full of life, and ready at anytime for new adventures”. Of course, others have to be willing to let you go on the adventures – my own story is about how that got interrupted in college (elsewhere on the blogs – last Thursday on the main blog). I thought of my experiences with the “Paul Rosenfels community” (now, or, previously, Ninth Street Center) – so eager to throw off conventionality for psychological growth – yet, paradoxically back in the 1970s, having to set up a sheltered, almost closed community for itself in the East Village. The psychological language in his notes was familiar to me. Dom, tieless, presented a bouquet of flowers to the Quartet.

The rest of the program comprised two warhorses of Russian quartet literature. Alexander Borodin, remember, was a chemist, and started out with music as an avocation (just as I was encouraged to do – I started out that forlorn semester at William and Mary in 1961 as a chemistry major, advanced into Qual no less). All things considered, he accomplished a lot. Tonight, the Quartet performed his best-known String Quartet #2 in D. Not only the Nocturne is well known (“This Is My Beloved” from “Kismet”), so is the Trio of the Scherzo. The St. Petersburg Quartet took the Romance fast, whereas they took Maican’s Andante slow, which made me wonder if technical familiarity could be an issue. The finale of the Borodin has a “very slow” lead theme (though marked Andante) which leads into the Sonata Allegro and this seems to be a device more common in Beethoven.

At intermission, I brought up my theory that “Smallville” ought to be an opera – yes – he could write it, and the “secret keeping” (or “don’t tell”) has obvious political significance now. The episode name I was grasping for (when talking to him) was “The Pilot”. (Yup, Tom Welling plays the part of Clark like he was performing ballet; Lex, I’m not so sure.)

The “featured work” after the Intermission was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikivsky’s String Quartet #1 in D. The famous movement is the Andante Cantabile in B-flat. The first movement, however, starting as “Moderato e semplice” turns into wound-up winter low-pressure and races toward a ballet-like conclusion that anticipates the Violin Concerto the same key. The last movement seems a little anti-climactic to me, in contrast to many of Tchaikovksy’s works (some of which find there way into the musical background of “Smallville”). Tchaikovksy's other two quartets are less known, but the third is in the unusual (for strings) key of E-flat minor.

The Quartet, as an encore, played a transcription of the “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from Claude Debussy’s “Children’s Corner Suite”. The Gallic spirit is so profuse that it sounds like French cooking.

One other note about Maican’s music: a couple themes (from the Second Quartet, and Solaris) bring the opening motive of Saint-Saens’s Fourth Piano Concerto to mind. It’s probably subconscious. And, Saint-Saens is – after all – French.

Ernst Von Dohnanyi (or Erno) composed his Op. 1 Piano Quintet in C Minor that still thrills chamber music enthusiasts today, especially the finale with its "Amen". That work was composed at age 18.

Back to my telepathy experiments!

Update: March 17, 2009 Important upcoming concert:

Tudor Dominik Maican and Timothy Andres will give a concert at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Montgomery County, MD, Thursday May 14, 2009, with link here. (Note: there has been a change -- please note what the Strathmore link says; anyone with information can comment.)

Note on these pictures: The last picture was taken Feb. 21 but is a bit blurred because of a technical camera malfunction, since fixed. The other two pictures were taken April 4.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"The Car Man": UK ballet/TV "film" from 2001 follows Bizet very loosely (with American gas stations?)

Netflix, Image Entertainment and Warner Music Video offer a DVD of the 2001 “ballet” adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen, as a “pseudo-movie” called “The Car Man”, directed by Ross MacGibbon. The musical arrangement is by Terry Davies and Rodion Shchedrin , and the stagecraft (in the UK) is directed by Matthew Bourne. (The blocked string chords at the beginning of the play may be original music.) The ballet (rather crisp at 90 minutes) was filmed by Britain’s KDM 4 for 2001 broadcast in Britain.

The stage looks American, however; it sets up a small town with gas stations and repair shops in the 50s. The metaphor to the title of the opera seems clever but perhaps a bit artificial. A stranger waltzes into town as a kind of flim-flam man, stirring up rivalries leading to murder. The ballet plot very roughly parallels Bizet’s opera, and practically all of the music sounds like a chamber orchestra arrangement of the famous orchestral music and dances from the opera. Although the same rivalry from the opera occurs, there is a lot of homoerotic overtones (almost like a “gay” Carmen), with some “dirty dancing” (both among the “couples” and among the men themselves) and a big (male) kiss in one climactic scene. There’s a jail house scene that reminds one of the way Will Kemp is stunning as the agile, smooth-skinned and conniving Angelo. But not everyone fits into the fantasies of gay perfection, as at least one major dancer is actually overweight (and gets shot).

I don’t know if the “film” was aired at LGBT festivals in 2001.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Christopher Nupen offers DVD about Jacqueline Du Pre (playing Elgar, Beethoven)

The work of English cellist Jacqueline Mary Du Pre, who would die tragically at 42 in 1987 after battling multiple sclerosis, is honored in a Netflix DVD from “Opus Arte” and Allegro Films, with two performances filmed by Christopher Nupen. The title of the DVD is “Jacqueline Du Pre: in Portrait”.

The longer film is a 1967 performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s last major work, the Cello Concerto in E minor (Op 85), with which she is particularly associated. The film points out that it is a particularly melancholy work, ending on a loud minor chord rather than in triumphant major (as would Dvorak’s). The performance is shown in black and white, and is conducted by her husband, Daniel Barenboim, very youthful then. He points out that she was very much a free spirit in her performances. The film starts with a 40-minute biographical prologue covering her career.

For my money, my own favorite Elgar has always been the Enigma Variations (portraits of friends), and the Symphony #1 in A-flat, which opens in that key but which migrates to the distant tritone key of D minor for the main body of the first movement Sonata Allegro. The 1984 film by Hugh Hudson “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” used this symphony heavily.

The second film is a color performance of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio No. 5 (Op. 70, #1) , with Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zuckerman. There is an opening reference to a negative comment made by Beethoven contemporary Ludwig Spohr about its premier performance.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mozart's Don Giovanni, 2000 Met Performance available on DG/Universal from Netflix

Deutsche Grammphon, Universal Pictures and Netflix offer music lovers a two-disc performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (K. 527), performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2000, conducted by James Levine, released on DVD in 2005. Franco Ziffirelli and Gary Halvorson direct the visual staging and film part. The cast includes Bryn Terfel as Don Giovanni, Paul Groves as Don Ottavio, Rene Flemming as Donna Anna, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Leporello, and Solveig Kringelborn as Donna Elvira. The opera comprises two acts and runs just about three hours plus intermission. The complete title of the work is “Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovann” or "The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni". The libretto is by Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Like most earlier operas, this one starts with a formal overture, famous and well structured (with the d minor introduction and a D Major Sonata allegro), but rather than ending conclusively, in an operatic performance it transitions into the first vocal scene.

During that lost freshman semester (fall 1961) at William and Mary, I had a “music friend” from California who loved to sing a couple of the arias from this opera, one of which, as I recall, was “Là ci darem la mano”, while I sightread piano in one of those soundproofed practice rooms in Ewell Hall (at least it was called that then). The music sometimes sounds declamatory, and has some recitative-style connections, but the music gains speed toward the end of each act. The music, where Don Giovanni is dragged down into the underworld, has a kind of controlled wildness, but is a match for comparable passages in Berlioz, Gounod, Boito operas on some of the same themes. The concluding chorus is performed as originally intended. Titled “So ends he who evil did. The death of a sinner always reflects his life" (Questo è il fin)”, it tells us the “moral theme” of the opera. To a modern writer, it would seem odd to structure a work that way, with a final strophe to state the moral “theme”. But, you get what you deserve – that’s the law of karma.

The story, in fact, almost seems like an 18th century novella about vigilantism, against a rogue (that is, here a reckless "Don Juan") whose behavior seems predatory to modern standards. Think about Dateline.

It is said that when Gustav Mahler died, the last word out of his mouth was “Mozart.” Late Mozart has some strangeness unmatched since, such as the continued dissonance in the finale of the F Major Quartet, and in the slow movement of the D Major Quintet. Perhaps it was Mozart who discovered the value of prolonging the tension that dissonance provides. And that Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat (K 364) has always sounded so romantic to me, as does the second movement of the D minor piano concerto, #20, K 466.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Washington Auto Show denies the recession, auto bailouts: a $12 entertainment value?

The Washington Auto Show, (link) at the DC Convention Center on Mount Vernon Place, certainly was packed today. It runs through Sunday Feb. 8, 2009. Credit card kiosk sold tickets for $12. Senior tickets were supposed to be $10 cash.

In fact, the “Green” exhibit didn’t require a ticket, as it was in a side pavilion on the main level. Various plug-ins and all electric vehicles, some of them small and one shaped like the black stealth B1 plane, were shown, often with subtle paint colors. Plenty of technical information on mileage was available. On the main floor, Ford seemed to dominate the eye, and seemed to have more innovation to offer than anyone else. Maybe Ford really is in better shape among the three major auto manufacturers. There were plenty of engines and transmissions on display, especially for the Fusion.

There was a green theater SUV, with movies behind each seat, airlines style, PG-13 only. There was a stage act in the Mustang area. The guy said, “Life is short, so eat dessert first.”

But Mazda had an interesting exhibit with its available colors showed on rotating globes made to look like gas giants in other solar systems (the planets close to their stars would have a lot of vaporized metal in their atmospheres -- is that the Japanese auto maker's scientific "point"?).

In the main area, there was also an eight-foot “Rock-It Robot” performing, more or less looking like the supertall guy on the disco floor.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Leos Janacek: "From the House of the Dead"

The opera “From the House of the Dead” (“Z Mrtvého Domu”), composed by Czech composer Leos Janacek and premiered in 1930, two years after his passing, certainly offers an interesting combination of precepts. Netflix offers the Deutsch Grammphon recording with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg Choir conducted by Pierre Boulez, performed at the Grand Theater of Provence, and the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2007, with the film directed by Stephanie Mange. Boulez is often shown conducting the chamber orchestra, The composer adapted the libretto from the episodic novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky “Memoirs from the House of the Dead.”

The music has the typical brassy progressive dissonance familiar with Janacek (even the Sinfonietta) but also has some of the transparency of a lot of Mahler, with some early passages vaguely recalling Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The work is said to have been not been quite complete and filled in by students. The opera has a prelude that amounts to an overture, a practice less common in the 20th Century.

The story takes place in a Siberian prison camp, and it could almost work as a commentary of Josef Stalin’s gulags, except that it takes place in the mid 19th Century. The stage in bleak (the roof collapsing in one scene, leaving great rubble) and the concept minimalist. A (mechanical) eagle is used as a symbol of “freedom” (and of the czar). (Remember: eagles don’t flock!) The isolation and distance from civilization is part of the oppression. The cast is almost all male, and the plot reaches out into the past for complications. The noble Goryanchikov arrives in the camp and befriends Alyeya, teaching him literacy (recalling the hit film this year “The Reader”). The story develops a love triangle of sorts, but the practicality of prison life comes out (pun intended) in the opera’s middle section, at least in this performance, with some simulated situational homosexuality (in an amount unusual in concert opera), which almost harkens for the abandon of a disco floor. I thought, will someone write a modern “real” opera based on the disco scene? It could be done.

Students of Janacek have also restored a “bleaker” ending that what used to be performed in the past. In this recording, the music sounds upbeat at the very end, as in Janacek’s symphonic works.

John Rockwell has a review in the New York Times of an American premiere, Aug 30 1990, here.

Last Saturday, as I was out and about and heard some of a Met performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto on the car radio, I heard the commentary that many 19th century operas had alternate endings to get past the censors of the days. The version performed ended violently, with loud minor chords. Yet, I remember a outdoor performance at Carter Baron in Washington in the summer of 1962 (a troubled time for me) thinking that it was light and trivial. Not now.