Friday, September 18, 2015

"The Spoils": Jesse Eisenberg explores self-serving values in his new play (a "comedy")

As anyone learns in high school English (here I am, talking like “The Sub”), the next best thing to going to a “legitimate” stage play is to read one. 

That’s particularly true with young playwright Jesse Eisenberg, the actor who has played Mark Zuckerberg (and imitated Zuck on SNL), as well as a Pulitzer journalist and then a CIA retread. 
The Spoils” was produced at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York in May and June of 2015. On my next Amtrak visit to NYC (need to ride up the new Freedom Tower), I’ll visit the facility.  The website for the production is here. I don’t know if this is defined as “Broadway” or not. Don’t know if Signature in New York has any connection to the ample Signature Theater in Arlington VA (in the Shirlington Village), which could be a good future venue for this play if it comes to DC.

The “book”, 104 pages paper, is published by Grove Press, which used to be right next door to me when I lived in the Cast Iron Building in the 1970s.  The ISBN is “978-0-8021-2390-9”.

The play has five characters, and is set in “modern apartment in New York City”.  It’s probably more spacious than my old pad on the sixth floor of the Cast Iron Building, where I once hosted an event with 30 people (“Understanding”, back in 1976).  Maybe it has high ceilings.  Maybe Donald Trump built it.  Well, the furniture is dumpy; Trump wouldn’t live like that. There are two acts, and eight scenes.

The protagonist is Ben, whom Jesse played in the NYC run.  Ben is a late-20s-something who has been kicked out of grad school and lives on his parents’ dime. Yet he has a roommate Kaylan  from Nepal (Kunal Nayyar), who seems to live off him. Kaylan has published a book on international third-world economics (quasi dissertation) that no one has bought, and seems to need a job himself.  OK, Kaylan is working on his MBA.  (I used to call a particular friend “The Young MBA.”) Then Ben has an ex-girl-friend Sarah (Erin Drake), who now dates (and is actually engaged to) Ted (Michael Zegen), who still likes to sell derivatives on Wall Street.

Ben also pretends to be a filmmaker, and brags about a “reality” short he has made about homeless street life.  Ben sets out to win Sarah back by showing her the film and pretending it is more than it is. 
The play seems to focus on character.  Ben bullies everybody and doesn’t care.  But Kaylan and Ted are both na├»ve about the trials of the real world and insensitive to others in their own ways. (Kaylan is above minimum wage work.) The play has an undertone of protesting inequality, even as demonstrated by the paradox of how he handles the “shitty” subject matter of homeless people.

Will the play become an indie movie?  The round-robin of interactions between the characters is somewhat parallel to that of one of my favorite films, “Judas Kiss” (Movies blog, June 4, 2015).  While this play is in the straight world, the parallels are rather striking. Ben could be compared to the character Shane Lyons (in Judas),  a college student whose actor (Beligan-born Timo Descamps) describes as “rich, kind of spoiled, and a little mean”.  But, as Timo plays the character, Shane (majoring in music) comes across as clean-cut and overpowering, if self-serving in the way he manipulates others into dependent relationships with him. Jesse plays his own character with a someone uncouth cast, with the dirty language and the smoking.  Jesse has sometimes said that Ben could have represented the worst in himself if he had let it happen.  I wondered, could Timo have played Ben on stage and could Richard Harmon play Ted?

There’s one particular line on p. 85 where Sarah says to Ben, “But we had all the same interests. I’m marrying Ted because he love back in an adult way. In a real way. He takes care of me.” (My emphasis.) On p. 270 of my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book, the short story “Expedition”, p. 270, the character Randy, ambushing “me” by talking about his fiancee, says to me at dinner in a coal country remote cafe, “I depend on Karen, That’s got a lot to do with why I date her. I find I need her presence to enjoy things. No doubt she’s made a few significant changes in me, and that’s all for the good.” I have to wonder something else:  Is it good to expect someone to love you back just because you think you love him/her? 

Stage acting would seem to be very demanding, to perform the same work night-after-night, even if you wrote it. Jesse says actors and playwrights make very little doing this compared to movies.

Kunnal has a new book, “Yes, My Accent Is Real” and Eisenberg has a story collection “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”.  Eisenberg has two other plays, “The Revisionist” (with John Patrick Shanley) and “Asuncion”.

Update: Aug. 3, 2016

Ezra Klein of Vox has a piece on Eisenberg's work here

Friday, September 11, 2015

"Spirit of America": Stage play with music depicting entire US military history, at DC Armory, free, from US Army

This morning, I attended the U.S. Army’s “Spirit of America” at the Armory in Washington DC (near RFK Stadium).  The basic website is here

The multi-media "almost arena" stage presentation has two major acts, and a third act epilogue of “Stars and Stripes Forever”.

The two major acts include various skits and testimonials by soldiers, along with singing and drill exercises.

The first act dramatizes US military history through the Civil War, but (with a slow Metro this morning) I got there toward the end, in time to hear the Service Medley honoring all branches of service.

During the Intermission, I could watch the orchestra rehearse.

It is Act 2, about one hour, that really is the heart of the show, and about more familiar history.  After a guitar performance, it starts with World War I , then spends more time on World War II, particularly FDR’s charge that the war would affect every American (something we don’t buy today with the Middle East). It focused particularly on the Battle of the Bulge.  It moved on to the Korean War, and offered a brief fireworks stage show.  During the Vietnam era piece, it mentioned the draft, and then the issues faced by Vietnam era veterans returning home.  It moved on to the Persian Gulf War and then to 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, showing humanitarian work by soldiers in Afghanistan. At the end, there was a sensational performance by the drill team, which included drill and ceremonies with M14 rifles with fixed bayonets, and even the passing of weapons through the air to teammates, to show trust and unit cohesion.  During that portion, patrons were asked not to use flash photography, out of concern of distracting the team members and creating a hazard, but there was a projection on a screen on a wall to the side, where one could film.

The presentation mentioned President Truman’s integration of the military in 1948, and of all-black units that fought in Europe during World War II.  It mentioned the leadership role of women, but it did not specifically address “don’t ask, don’t tell” or its 2011 repeal

Generally, the presentation sidestepped the political controversies of American military engagements. 
The act includes the African-American song “Make Them Hear You” by Richard Dixon.  The lyrics mention “the power of the pen”.
It also performed “Citizen Solider” by 3 Doors Down. 

In the first act, it performed “Till the Last Shot’s Fired” (Trace Adkins).

 At the end, the entire cast, from many Army units, paraded.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Discovering the music of Moritz Moszkowski

I found a recording on YouTube of another youthful romantic piano concerto and near masterpiece.  This is the Piano Concerto #1 in B Minor, Op. 3, of Moritz Moszkowski, completed by age 20 in 1974,

Moszkowski was born in Germany but some of his piano style resembles Russian composers sometimes, as well as Chopin, and even some Spanish style. 

The concerto was said to be unpublished, but seems to have been published in France, here.
The work is one of the longest piano concerti (excerpt for Furtwangler’s), running 51 minutes, and comprising four connected movements. Structurally, it perhaps resembles D’Albert’s youthful masterpiece (1884) but is not as harmonically daring and is somewhat loosely constructed.

The opening has a majestic orchestral introduction in ¾ time with an odd effect, before introducing the piano. Up to this point, the effect is a little but like that of the Brahms Piano Concerto #1.  The development begins but seems abbreviated, as at the 10-minute mark, the work moves to a romantic adagio, with soaring melodies.

A scherzo follows, leading to a 20-minute finale, a rondo-Sonata which will recap all of the material before.  Before the coda the Concerto has its one big cadenza. The Coda starts with a flowing theme, which, rather than becoming majestic, turns into wild dance with a Russian character, perhaps Balakirev.  Still, the themes sound familiar, as if Hollywood had pirated them before for movie scores without attribution.  The final conclusion is very bombastic.

The performance occurred at the National Philharmonic of Warsaw Rzeszow Philharmonic Vladimir Kiradijev, pianist Ludmil Angelov .  The comments on YouTube say there will be a professional recording for sale (CD or MP3) soon, at least by 2016.

I also found a recording of Caprice Espagnol in  A Minor, Op. 37, played by Balazs Szokalay, about six minutes.  I used to play this when I was a senior in high school, but I could not play it at this furious tempo (especially the repeated notes).  There is a middle section in F, and then a return with a race to a brilliant conclusion in A Major.


Thursday, September 03, 2015

Bruno Walter, famous conductor of Mahler, composed his own symphonies

When I was a teen, Bruno Walter was the main accepted interpreter of Mahler, and he only conducted the symphonies thought to be the “best” (he skipped 6, 7, 8, and 10, as well as the “Blumie” movement of #1). Over time (largely because of the effort of Leonard Bernstein in the 1960s) middle Mahler became a lot more mainstream.  A few conductors like Scherchen and Horenstein had also conducted Mahler on recordings before 1960.

Walter was also popular with Brahms and Beethoven, and usually appeared on Columbia Records, with his own Columbia Symphony Orchestra (recording in California).

Not too many people realize that Walter also composed.  His Symphony #1 in D Minor (1907), with an unknown orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, can be played on YouTube.

The work, running 59 minutes, has been compared to the Mahler Sixth by at least one comment, although the layout and sonic environment is a bit different (sometimes sounding like Richard Strauss more than Mahler or Bruckner). The first movement, Moderato, is rather dour, with long sad melodic lines in strings, but it is followed by a true slow movement, that is not that remarkable.  The most interesting part seemed to be the lively Scherzo, which is in the oddly matched key of B Minor and Major.  The Finale seems to recapitulate earlier movements (as would happen with Mahler and Bruckner), and toward the end, it does adopt the martial mood of the Mahler “Tragic”, ending on loud minor chords (without dying away as in the Mahler). If Walter did not want to conduct the Sixth, it’s interesting that he composed his own symphony to convey a somewhat similar message to listeners.

Walter would not leave Germany (to escape the Nazis) for over 25 years after composing the work, but maybe he sense what could come.

Something about the art work on many YouTube classical performances.  Note the “Middle Earth” landscape, where the jagged mountains dwarf (by orders of magnitude) the settlement below, but where there may be towers on top of the highest pinnacles.  Imagine a luxury hotel room in a high castle on another planet.  Maybe this is Clive Barker’s Yzordderrex.

Some other memory occurred to me listening to this music.  There’s a relationship between the “Octave” theme in the first movement Bruckner Ninth (which comes back in the completed Finale in fugal form) and the opening theme of the Mahler Sixth.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Timo Andres performs Beethoven, does WQXR interview from pad in Bed-Stuy (videos); more on the "loud ending" (v. "soft") debate

I discovered a couple more interesting video interviews of Brooklyn-based composer-pianist Timo Andres.  The most interesting was filmed in his “Bed-Stuy” apartment, an episode of “Q2 Spaces” (“Interviews with artists in their space”) by WQXR.

The Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn was the backdrop for the film “Naz and Maalik”, which I reviewed Aug. 30 on my movies blog.  I think I spotted his street in the movie.

An older interview is here.   Note that when he pronounces his name, the vowels are shortened, rather than pronounced as they would be in Europe.

But most interesting is two videos of Andres performing Beethoven piano sonatas, at the WQXR Green Space in New York City. 

The first one is the curious, 2-movement Piano Sonata #24 in F#,Op. 78.  This Sonata has double repeats in the first movement (even the development and recapitulation is repeated), and Andres takes both.  The key of F# would later fascinate Alexander Scriabin.

The other performance is the Piano Sonata #21 in C, Op. 53, the “Waldstein”.  The first movement offers a second subject in the unusual key of E Major (mediant). The slow movement, in F, is “just” and introduction to the Rondo Finale in C.  At the very end, Andres follows the dynamics markings literally, reducing the volume on the final two chords from “FF” to just “F”. I understand that is a function of the descent in the top line (on an older instrument), but I don’t think it’s effective on a modern piano. (Likewise, I don’t like to see some conductors dimuendo on the last octave of the Schubert Great C Major, or even the first movement of the Unfinished). Otherwise, Andres’s performance is rather straightforward and classic.

This would be a good place to mention the curious Piano Sonata #22 in F, Op. 54, in two movements, opening with a curious Minuet.  (What other piano sonata does this?)

A very early version of a chapter intended for my first “Do Ask. Do Tell” book, a text passage dating back to Oct. 1995, had said this about the opening of that Sonata:

“The music of Beethoven, more that of any other composer, tells us "how it is" (rather than how it “ought to be.”) The moral paradoxes of life seem to be arranged like DNA strands, in strettos and off-beat cadences.  One middle-period work that strikes me particularly is the 22nd Piano Sonata, in F Major - the most pastoral and unassuming of all keys.  This 2-movement sonata begins with, of all things, a Minuet!

“It is the simple theme in drop-rolls, constrained by the stately, courtly 3/4 rhythm, with keeps the progression of song under wraps. Ever so gradually, the theme, asking “Mother, May I?”  reaches for higher top notes, and finally earns its right to expand into triplets, still tied to the underlying, steady triple meter.  In the finale, the same motives are let loose in virtuoso arpeggia, except that they seem constrained by the same structures.
“So, Beethoven imagines world order within the constraints of his own encroaching deafness.  In the simplest terms, the structures of courtship, and marriage, and then a new freedom.  This is the paradigm of "family values," so succinctly stated in "absolute" music.”

Update: Sept. 3

As a result of a twitter conversation, discovered this blog post by Timo where he says most loud endings of modern compositions are ineffective.  Most of his pieces end quietly (notable exception, "Flirtation Avenue" in "Shy and Mighty" and the "Home Stretch" concerto (as I remember).   But then there is even a theory that Bruckner would have ended the "ultimate finale" of his Ninth Symphony quietly, following the example of the first movement of the Eighth, link here.  For the Eighth (Oct. 25, 2014), one could argue that the quiet first movement ending simply allows the Wagnerian triumph at the end of the "Apocalyptic" Finale to seem more conclusive (true of my own Sonata 3).  Actually, the same dilemma is true with Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake", where a recent Bolshoi performance picks the soft ending, where as a UNC orchestra performance makes such a case for empty triumph instead (as in the movie "Black Swan").

See post July 29 for posting about the way (soloist) performance depends on the piano itself.