Thursday, June 26, 2014

"The Totalitarians" at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, political satire with four characters

Tonight, I saw a performance of “The Totalitarians” at Woolly Mammoth Theater in downtown Washington DC (link), running about 150 minutes with intermission. 
The political comedy is by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, and the performance is conducted by Robert O’Hara.
The play covers a lot of ground with just four characters and spectacular stage sets.  It supposes that a candidate for governor of Nebraska, Penelope Easter (Emily Townley), somewhat a Sarah Pailn type and appealing to Tea Party sorts of people, would turn the state into a separate fascist country.  As such, the play seems to be an allusion to at least two recent films, “Nebraska” (Movies, Nov. 23, 2013) and “Game Change” (the later is an HBO film on Sarah Palin’s candidacy, Movies blog, March 11, 2012).

It starts with Jeffrey (Sean Meehan) and Francine (Dawn Ursula), a mixed race couple.  Francine is already working on Penny’s campaign as manager.  It seems that Penny and Francine have a near lesbian coupling.  In the meantime, Sean examines a young man Ben (Nocholas Loumos), in a partial set of a doctor’s office.  That scene is quite suggestive, with Jeffrey holding Ben’s hairy thighs, and then doing comedy on a rather indelicate exam.  Ben’s appearance is a mix of paradoxes:  clean-cut but with misplaced tattoos; strong and lean and yet with a tiny paunch.  Jeffrey doesn’t tell Ben that he has cancer.  The doctor’s office has an interesting chart showing melanoma. Ben gradually confronts Jeffrey with Penny’s (his own mother’s) evil intentions.  In the meantime, a mildly homoerotic bond develops. 

The comedy and satire build up to a rather gruesome climax, with very good stage effects for blood.
I guess you could call this a true satire.
The theater lobby had a lot more props, showing the clutter of a typical political candidate’s campaign office.  It makes running for office (and begging for other people’s money) look like silly business.  Better to remain a blogger and journalist.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Does Carl Nielsen's Symphony #5 anticipate John Williams's "Star Wars" in the way the work ends?

Recently, someone commented to me on Google+ (in response to a comment on a video) that Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony (Op. 50)  inspired the motto theme that John Williams used for the “Star Wars” movie franchise.

I got out the BIS recording (1987) with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, and listened to the two-movement, five section 33-minute work today.  The first section is practically atonal, but so skillful that it sounds like hyper-chromaticism.  But the second section, Adagio, while brief, rises to Brucknerian grandeur with a simple hymn theme, in G Major (an unusual key for romantic slow movements, although I used it in my own second sonata).  The third section (starting the second movement) starts with a robust scherzo that becomes a jumpy fugue.  Then there is another slow section, leading to the coda, where the fugue theme returns, and now it does resemble “Star Wars”, although it isn’t identical.  The symphony ends in glory in E-flat.  (I think the Star Wars theme is in C Major.)   

The CD also has the Nielsen Violin Concerto (Op. 33), with Dong-Suk Kang, violinist.  Every composer worth his salt, at least if with any pretense of romanticism or post-romanticism, composes a D Major violin concerto, right?   Well, the Prelude starts with a G Minor chord, but then shifts to D Minor and then major as the dominant key.  But the real “allegro” is the second movement, “Allegro cavalleresco” (fast and chivalrous) in G Major, with a huge, triumphant climax to end the movement (resembling the way Tchaikovsky ends his violin concerto first movement).  Then there follows a sweet adagio movement in A Minor.  The Finale finally asserts D Major.  It seems odd to call a finale “Allegretto scherzando” (Beethoven used “allegretto grazioso” to close a couple of piano sonatas, like #4), but Nielsen, as some other composers (d’Albert, Rachmaninoff) shows that scherzo-like music can turn triumphant.

I also played the Symphony #3, the “Sinfonia espansiva”, Op, 27, a 1989 Sony recording by Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Swedish Radio Symphony.  The work is nominally in A Minor.  It opens with tremendous energy, pretending it’s centered on D Minor before switching to the dominant A. and the movement ends in triumphant, major key.  The second movement, Andante pastorale, follows the example of Mahler with two vocal parts, but here voiceless, a soprano (Pia Maria Nilsson) and baritone (Olle Persson). It’s in the tritonal key of E-flat (but Mahler did the same thing in the Sixth).  There is a passage near the end of the movement that recalls the slow movement of the Sibelius Fifth, so it’s a curious mixture of post-romantic styles.  Then there is a scherzo in C# Minor, with a slow middle section, before the grand finale, which is also controversial.  It is said to be a theme and variations, but to me it sounded more like a Haydn monothematic sonata-allegro with a fugal development section. It starts in D Major but goes through two dominant exposition key transpositions to reach E Major, which is the normal Sonata key for a second subject in an A Major movement.  The whole movement will end with brazen triumph in A Major at the end. 

I won’t get into the Sinfonia Semplice (#6) right now (I don't get the work at all), but I have a DG of the 4th (the “Inextinguishable”), in E Minor, which I heard performed in Minneapolis around 2000 while I lived there. 

Nielsen’s third and fifth symphonies, particularly, contain a lot of percussion and military march-like passages, perhaps inspired by Mahler, a bit like Shostakovich, and probably prescient that WWII would come.  Leonard Bernstein made Nielsen popular in the 1960s, particular with a record he did of the Third for Columbia with the New York Philharmonic around 1966.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ojai, CA music festival for 2014 offers videos of concerts, includes Andres, Norman, Ives, Ligeti, and Beethoven Choral Fantasy

The Ojai Music Festival (held in Ojai, CA, in Ventura County, about 40 miles N of downtown LA) has put the concerts from the festival online, and I watched two of the outdoor sessions in Libbey Bowl.

On Saturday, June 14, there was a concert (link; it starts 17 minutes into the file) that offered the “recomposition” of the Mozart Coronation Piano Concerto #26, with the left hand part composed by Timo Andres and performed by him, with “The Knights” chamber orchestra (Eric Jacobsen conducting).  The “polytonal” experience lasts almost 40 minutes, and some find it “disturbing.”  I noticed that Andres’s cadenza in the finale starts out slowly and sounds quite impressionistic this time.  Andres plays from his iPad.  I wonder how a solo musician travels with so much tech hardware, and equipped for days of performances.  It’s hard to keep everything together and from breaking when traveling by air, at least for me.

The work was preceded with a substitute work, “Light Screens” by Andrew Norman, a 10 minute work for flute and string trio (at least that’s what the work seems to be), link here.  The work actually sounds familiar, with the snappy rhythms and gradual rise in register toward the vigorous conclusion.   

I also played through the Sunday night concert at 5:30.   It started with the sensation two books of Piano Etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti, performed by Jeremy Denk. No iPad, just sheet music this time, and a page turner.  The work (running about 40 minutes) features stunning virtuosity, and bizarre effects in the highest piano notes near the end.  Remember that the Ligeti Violin Concerto had been used in the score of the 1996 film “Heat”.

After the intermission (with an interview with the music director) the concert continued with Psalm 90, by Charles Ives, a rather gentle piece ending in C, with Kevin Fox conducting the Ojai Festival singers and the Knights.

The concert concluded with the rousing Beethoven Choral Fantasy in C Minor, Op, 80, for piano, chorus and orchestra, again with Jeremy Denk at the piano and Eric Jacobsen conducting.  The piece, a warmup for the finale of the Ninth, seems always a bit like a rhetorical exercise to me. 

Wikipedia attribution link for "Long Lonely Road" near Ojai. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Digital orchestra for opera, at least from smaller production companies? A threat to musicians?

Could opera companies, at least smaller community ones, start using digital orchestras?  The idea is quite threatening, of course, to the musicians’ union establishment, as explained in a front page New York Times article Thursday by Michael Cooper, link here. The specific plan concerns a staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
I recall that the Ring was staged on PBS in 1992 with James Levine conducting the Met.  I recall that “Gotterdammerung” ended at 1:30 AM (on a weeknight) with the famous sunrise and the concluding D-flat major held soft chord.  In fact, I do have a EuroDisc BMG CD of the first opera (“Das Rheingold”) with the Dresden State Opera conducted by Markek Janowski.  That first opera ends with a brazen brass conclusion, also in D-fat (according to my Casio) that anticipates Bruckner.  The only Wagner that I have seen in an opera house was “Die Meistersinger”, at the New York City Opera (not the Met) in Lincoln Center, I think in 1975. 
There’s another concept of digital orchestra, with the performers playing iPads, in the travesty above of the Beethoven Fifth.  I’m not sure if this is a case of “pulling your legs” (off).
I have noticed that local community musical groups sometimes use recordings for the orchestra parts of musicals in stage presentations.  That doesn’t seem controversial.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Gabriel Kahane issues song set "The Ambassador" on CD

For me, there is nothing better in life (really?) than the view from the “top of the world” restaurant in the Angeleno Hotel on the I-405, where I settled for dinner after a very long day flying to LA (gaining three hours) in May 2012.  The splendor, not too obscured by smog, of the city in the evening lay before me. 
Vocalist Gabriel Kahane (b. 1981, now working in Brooklyn, NY) lays all this out in a ten-piece set called “The Ambassador” (named after the famous hotel in LA, where RFK was shot in 1968), on a 2014 Sony CD, available on Amazon.   Cahane sings with a chamber ensemble comprising two violins, a viola, cello, trumpets, French horn, tuba, trombone, and saxophones.  Each piece is based on a different location, with street address given, in “centerless” Los Angeles.
The songs are recorded in various studios and homes in New York, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.
The program notes, by Christopher Hawthorne, note that the centerpiece song may be “Empire Liquor Mart”, about the shooting of a teenager by an Asian shop owner about the time of the Rodney King incident in 1991.   
The artists view Los Angeles as a bit like the entire universe.  Wherever you are, you are at the center of your own world.  I like West Hollywood the best. 
Kahane also often sings while playing piano, as he did in a concert with Timo Andres at the Library of Congress on April 5, 2013 (review here).    

Update: June 18

Rolling Stone has a review by Dave DiMartino that has a lot of becoming photos, link here

Saturday, June 07, 2014

"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" plays at that the Forum-Round House in Silver Spring, MD

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”, a play by Adly Guirgis, is playing through June 14, 2014 at the Round House Theater (also cohosting the Forum Theater) in Silver Spring, MD, in a facility adjacent to the AFI Silver Theater (link).  The production is directed by John Vreeke.  The original production of the 2005 play by the London West End had been directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  

The stage production is quite intimate.  The seating is stadium style, on temporary stands, but the entire depth of the stage is used, and the actors walk right up to the audience, in a few cases up the steps.  The play runs about 160 minutes, with one intermission.  It started at 8 PM; given the length, an earlier start would have been desirable.

The play sets us a trial of Judas in Purgatory (which means the play could have been titled “The Trial of Judas Iscariot”).   Purgatory looks like a real place.  The characters are inside a huge courtroom, with white vertical bar lighting behind them, and an open air courtyard in front.  Judas (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) lies on a circular pedestal.  For much of the play, he is just there, breathing, not speaking.  But he comes to life to give backstories.  But this is Judas’s “Day in Court”, to follow an old daytime TV series.  

The Judge (Brian Hemmingsen) sits on high, from his bench, as if he could deliver a manifesto himself.  Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Julie Garner) plays the defense attorney, and is rather assertive.  Sister Glenna (Kecia A. Campbell) appears as an angel, early, with wings, and seems to have the capability to travel back to Earth and communicate with people.  She really doesn’t explain how she got to become an angel, and that’s an interesting question for some of my own media projects.

Various testimonies try to explain Judas’s motivation.  It seems ambiguous.  Judas seems to have wanted to force Jesus to live up to his own prophecy.  Judas starts to interact with Satan (Jim Jorgensen), and at the end will interact with Jesus of Nazareth himself (Patrick Bussink), who wears a red cross on his tunic.  At times, the visual contrasts among these characters is striking.  Judas is depicted as bald with a hairy body, but the other two (Satan and Jesus) are smooth.  Is this just an artifact of casting, or was it intended?

Pontius Pilate testifies near the end.  The was to be played by Frank Britton.  But after opening night (May 22) Britton was robbed and assaulted at a taxi stand on Colesville Road in Silver Spring, near the 7-11, in a poorly lighted area.  Such crimes are unusual in the area and frightening.  According to media reports, at least one suspect has been apprehended.  There is Crowdfunding resource for the actor here. See the Issues blog on June 6, 2014 for more perspective.

The play ends with a sad lamentation for cello and piano.  I think the music is a Bach Prelude, but I seem to recall a passage by Shostakovich that sounds like this. 

I did think about the movie “Judas Kiss” (Movies blog, June 4, 2011).  In that film, there are four strong male leads, and two of the characters are arguably the same person, brought together by an Einteinian time travel paradox.  But among the characters it’s possible to speculate several ways in which there is a Jesus-Judas correspondence.  The most obvious occurs early when the young Daniel (Richard Harmon) “identified” an older incarnation (Charlie David) of himself in a bar.   The name of the film, ironically, applies to a short film made by Danny, in which there is a kind of family betrayal.  I thought that the portrayal of Jesus by Bussink somewhat resembled the charismatic character Shane (Timo Descamps) from that movie,
The National Geographic Channel had aired a film “The Gospel of Judas” by James Barrat. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

A Mendelssohn organ sonata (#2 in C MInor), looking back to Bach, ahead to Liszt

Lawrence P. Schreiber played two movements from the powerful Organ Sonata #2 in C Minor. Op/ 65 #2, by Felix Mendelssohn for Communion Sunday June 1 at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC.

Dr. Schreiber the Introduction (Grave) and Adagio as the Prelude, and then the whimsical “Allegro Maestoso Vivace” (effectively the second movement, a kind of scherzo) as the Postlude. The movement often pivots on subdominant chords.  The complete work, about 11 minutes, then follows with a deliberative Fugue (Allegro Moderato) which concludes with in C Major in massive fashion which anticipates the effects that Franz Liszt would achieve with his “ad nos” variations and fugue.  Since the work is relatively short, it might have been nice to play the entire work as a prelude, announced, and starting it at 10:45. 
Music students learn of Mendelssohn’s work as being “happy” compared to a lot of other composers.  One of his most glorious conclusions is the end of the Scotch Symphony, #3.   Mendelssohn Mendelssohn is generally credited with having made the works of J.S. Bach (both choral and organ) “popular” in his day, as in the Library of Congress article here

The service also offered Max Reger’s “Wondrous King, All Glorious”.