Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hit and Miss – Beethoven: The Symphonies w/ the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, Franz Bruggen, conductor

A certain rite of passage is writ large for conductor and orchestra when it comes to Beethoven’s nine symphonies, their commercial interests notwithstanding. What was once a serious musical statement has now become a novelty. Since the advent of recorded sound, there are dozens of Beethoven Symphonic cycles, including such prestigious conductors like Herbert von Karajan (4 versions), Bernard Haitink (3) Arturo Toscanini (2) and more recently Emmanuel Krivine's in 2011, the latter on so-called, period instruments dating back to Beethoven’s era.

For Frans Bruggen (b. 1934) the Dutch-born musician and conductor, whose recent set was released last year on the Glossa label, he had the desire to re-create the sound of Beethoven’s music. When he formed the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century in 1981, he sought to reproduce something close to the original instrumentation. As listed in the All Music Guide, “All its members play instruments either built during the Baroque or Classical eras, or on modern-built instruments that are replicas of authentic period instruments.” The orchestra was originally set up to perform a few times a year due to the international make-up of its members.

In the early 80s, the period instrument concept was the new wave of classical music. Suddenly it wasn’t just a modern orchestra playing Baroque and 18th Century music; it was an orchestra looking to re-create sounds that once filled the concert halls of Vienna, London and Berlin, 200 years ago. Bruggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century made a safe start with their early recordings on the Philips label, featuring compositions by Mozart, Haydn and selected works by J.S. Bach. Meanwhile, similar period-instrument ensembles released several Beethoven symphonic cycles: Monica Hugget and the Hanover Band (1982), Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (1986) and John Eliot Gardner and the Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra (1993).


Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century first released the complete symphonies of Beethoven in 1994. In spite of the competition, it made the musical world wake up and listen anew. Bruggen’s careful research into the instrument tuning; tempo markings and the composer’s intentions were critically acclaimed. Suddenly the battle between the modern orchestras and period orchestras was on. It wasn’t so much about the differences in orchestration, as it was the shapes, colours and emotional content of Beethoven’s music that was revealed to listeners. I’m happy to report that this new complete collection of Beethoven’s Symphonies has quite possibly surpassed Bruggen’s recording 18 years earlier, and timing has a lot to do with it.

In 2011, in a dedicated effort to present the Beethoven Symphonies as a whole, the orchestra was booked in Rotterdam to perform a Beethoven cycle like no other: all nine symphonies in ten days from October 6 to 16th. Individually the symphonies aren’t that long, except for SY 9, which is usually over an hour. So it is possible to play 2 per night depending on the length of the program, which is exactly what they did. This new collection, released last October, captured those performances and for the most part, the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century delivers the goods. But with every Beethoven "cycle" some hit and some miss.

I tried to recreate that Rotterdam experience by listening to the entire symphonies within 2 weeks. These are my impressions in numerical order:

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hearing History: Peter Whitehead's Charlie is My Darling

Toward the end of Charlie Is My Darling – Peter Whitehead’s documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 Ireland stopover, recently recovered, restored, and released on DVD – bassist Bill Wyman is informed that a young female fan fractured a leg in the mob rush that followed that night’s show. “Oh,” he sighs, appearing as genuinely distressed as it is possible for someone as inexpressive as Bill Wyman to appear. His response calls back the moment in Gimme Shelter (1970), chronicle of the group’s 1969 US tour, when Mick Jagger, after viewing footage of the murder that occurred while the Stones performed at the Altamont festival, murmurs, “Oh. It’s so horrible.” From a fractured leg to a knife in the back: the arc of the ‘60s is there, if you are into arcs. Other moments in the Whitehead film likewise seem ripe for omen-spotting – like the interview with Brian Jones, his speech articulate but his eyes gazing from some decadent darkness to the drugged and drunken ending he met in his swimming pool less than four years later; or the little riot that devastates a Dublin concert stage, as neatly-dressed lads and lasses maul their idols in a grade-school run-through of uglier scenes to come.

Many of us enjoy reading history backward in this way, and investing innocence with auguries of corruption. Maybe these moments aren’t really there; maybe Charlie Is My Darling is only what it seems, an unlikely retrieval from the period just before rock ‘n’ roll celebrity collided with general apocalypse and glimpsed its true soul in Keith Richards’s rotting tooth.Yet Whitehead too is clearly tempted to see a dark future foretold in his footage. The Charlie DVD contains three separate versions of the film – a new, 65-minute cut; the director’s original cut (35 minutes); the producer’s original cut (49 minutes) – and the Dublin fracas climaxes all three; but it is most lengthy in the newest, post-Altamont cut. And Wyman’s suggestive sigh is missing from the two earlier iterations.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Goin' Down the Road, Feelin' Numb: Two-Lane Blacktop

Laurie Bird, James Taylor, and Dennis Wilson in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

    After the Altamont concert disaster in December 1969, when a fan was killed a few feet from the stage where The Rolling Stones were performing, psychedelia lost its middle-class appeal. More unpleasant news followed in 1970 the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the Manson Family trials, the deaths by overdose of famous rock stars. And even more quickly than it had sprung up, the media fascination with the counterculture evaporated. 
    But the counterculture, stripped of its idealism and its sexiness, lingered on. If you drove down the main street of any small city in America in the 1970s, you saw clusters of teenagers standing around, wearing long hair and bell-bottom jeans, listening to Led Zeppelin, furtively getting stoned. This was the massive middle of the baby-boom generation, the remnant of the counterculture a remnant that was much bigger than the original, but in which the media had lost interest.
 Louis Menand, “Life in the Stone Age” (The New Republic, 1991)

A few years ago, the Criterion Collection came out with a box set devoted to the movies produced by Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner’s BBC productions in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, including Easy Rider, Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, the Monkees vehicle Head, and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. The set established that the ‘70s renaissance in American movies resulted in a fair amount of unwatchable slop both Henry Jaglom’s debut film A Safe Place and, for anyone not enjoying an acid flashback, most of Easy Rider qualify but, taken as a whole, those movies represent a thrilling moment in popular culture, a time when a group of people who’d been excited by the French New Wave and other breakthrough European films in the ‘60s tried to bring something new to American movies, while keeping one foot in the studio system.

There might be another box set waiting to be assembled from the product of Universal’s “youth division,” which was set up in direct response to the success of Easy Rider and other counterculture hits that the studio bosses of the time simply found bewildering. Under the supervision of youthful studio executive Ned Tannen, a motley assortment of filmmakers, including two heavy hitters from Easy Rider, were basically given about a million dollars apiece and instructed to go nuts. The results including Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Milos Forman’s Taking Off, Frank Perry’s The Diary of a Mad Housewife, John Cassavettes’s Minnie and Moskowitz were, again, a mixed bag, but they add up to a snapshot of a fascinating time in American history and movie culture.

Laurie Bird and Warren Oates
The experiment also yielded one strange, near-masterpiece: Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, which Criterion brought out in a gorgeous two-DVD set in 2007, which has now been upgraded to Blu-ray. The movie looks great. That said, I discovered Two-Lane Blacktop in the ‘80s, when the local CBS affiliate in New Orleans, which started showing all-night late movies back when round-the-clock TV broadcasting was still a novelty, used to run it in the late-late night, early-morning hours, its final moments leading directly into Sunrise Semester. I was living in Mississippi then, and the movie, snippets of which were jammed in between commercials for Al Scramuzza’s Seafood City and PSAs for animal adoption and those little informative booklets from the U.S. government, used to get fuzzier and fuzzier as dawn approached and the signal began to die. A part of me will probably always feel that this was the ideal way to see Two-Lane Blacktop, and not just because the movie ends with the film appearing to catch fire in the projector, so that it ends by literally burning itself out.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Conversations in Color: French and Japanese Prints at the Smart Museum of Art

Kanae Yamamoto, Bathers in Brittany (1913)

When Japan re-opened trade routes to the West in 1854 after two centuries of economic seclusion, the influx of Japanese art into Europe and the United States was transformative. You can hardly look at the major Western painting and printmaking movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries without factoring in the influence of Japanese woodblock prints; Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Cubism all took inspiration from the forms, styles and techniques of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” adapting the new possibilities these prints provided for color, space, decoration and illusion to startlingly different effects.

France was the cauldron of artistic innovation during this period, and Japonisme was everywhere in the culture. The canonical nineteenth century writers and literary critics Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were avid collectors of Japonaiserie; so was the composer Claude Debussy, who reproduced a detail from Hokusai’s famous print “The Great Wave” from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji on the 1905 cover of the sheet music for his symphonic work La Mer. The ukiyo-e-inspired lithographs of artists such as Edouard Vuillard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec were commissioned for the playbills and posters of Parisian theaters, cafes and cabarets. The exhibition Awash in Color: French and Japanese Prints, which was on view this fall at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, looks at the conversation between French and Japanese prints during this decadent period of artistic flowering. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Interview with Matt Dusk and Steve Macdonald

Singer Matt Dusk's new disc is called My Funny Valentine: The Chet Baker Songbook

Talented singer Matt Dusk continues his exploration of the great songs of a bygone era with his new disc, out today, My Funny Valentine: The Chet Baker Songbook (EOne Entertainment). Dusk doesn't call the album a 'tribute' record, which would suggest a copy or aping of Baker's soft singing style, something that Dusk accurately maintains would not fit his crooner voice. Rather, he takes on Baker's catalogue, and finds a happy ground between how he normally swings and how Baker sings. Dusk sat down with Critics At Large's David Churchill to discuss extensively the making of the CD. David also wanted to look a little behind the scenes of how the live performance side of Dusk comes to fruition, so he asked for Steve Macdonald – Dusk's sax player, musical director and “wing man” – to sit in and offer his insights into that side of putting out a disc like this, and ultimately performing the material live.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Picnic: Sexual Confusion in a Small Kansas Town

Sebastian Stan, Maggie Grace and Ellen Burstyn (back) in Picnic (All Photos by Joan Marcus)

William Inge was a medium-range playwright with a talent for getting at the way sex makes people of all ages restless and sometimes desperately unhappy. That was his subject, and he explored it in different forms in Come Back, Little Sheba and the movies The Stripper (fashioned on his failed play A Loss of Roses) and Splendor in the Grass. But he never got closer to it than in Picnic, which was a hit on Broadway in 1953 and again two years later as a movie starring William Holden and Kim Novak. (Joshua Logan directed both, but his inexperience behind a camera gives him away in the movie, which is clunky and overwrought.) Picnic, which is currently enjoying an engrossing revival, directed by Sam Gold, at the Roundabout Theatre, is set on Labor Day (the occasion of the annual local picnic) in a dead-end Kansas town where the dry laws and the banning of “degenerate” books like The Ballad of the Sad Café from the local library reflect the repressed, restricted lives of the disappointed characters. The play is about sexuality in the days just before rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis Presley brought it to the surface of American culture. A twenty-ish Arkansas-born drifter named Hal Carter (Sebastian Stan, who played Bucky Barnes in Captain America) wanders into town, hoping he can land a job with the help of his moneyed college roommate, Alan Seymour (Ben Rappaport, in the role that Paul Newman originated, in his stage debut). Alan was the only person who ever treated him decently at the fraternity that only admitted him to benefit from the prestige of having a gifted athlete on its roster. Hal immediately draws the attention of Alan’s girl friend, Madge Owens (Maggie Grace, of TV’s Lost). She’s working-class and she’s employed at the five-and-dime, but she’s the prettiest girl in town, so – as her mother, Flo (Mare Winningham), understands – she has a ticket into the local aristocracy if Alan marries her. (The play’s secondary subject is class.) But Alan doesn’t turn her on the way Hal does.

Ellen Burstyn, Ben Rappaport and Maggie Grace
The cast of characters in Picnic is mostly female, and Hal’s appearance sends all the major ones into a tailspin; he’s like a rock that cracks the surface of a serene-seeming pond, sending ripples all around it. When Flo’s next-door neighbor, Helen Potts (Ellen Burstyn), hires him to clean her yard for the price of a home-cooked breakfast, she’s dazzled by the sight of his glistening torso as he works bare-chested in the sun. (Stan mines the comic possibilities of the scenes where he gets to show off his muscles.) Helen lives alone with her nagging invalid mother – a voluble offstage presence – whom she’s never forgiven for wrecking her one chance at happiness, when she had Helen’s runaway marriage annulled. But she’s not a bitter woman; she enjoys the presence of young folks without resenting them for reflecting her own dashed hopes. Her opposite number is Rosemary Sydney (Elizabeth Marvel), who teaches secretarial skills classes at the high school and boards with the Owens family. Rosemary’s good-time-gal humor and forthrightness mask – not very well – her terror that, at about forty, she’s let romance pass her by. She makes self-deprecating jokes about being an old-maid schoolteacher and crows that she sends her beau packing as soon as they get serious. But when, in a holiday mood, Hal starts to dance with Madge, Rosemary gets so furious that he’s not paying attention to her that she paralyzes the boy with a vicious tirade, oiled somewhat by the illicit booze her shopkeeper boy friend, Howard Bevans (Reed Birney), has smuggled in.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Walking Museum of the Blues: Dave Van Ronk Remembered

As music luminaries prepare to strut their glitzy stuff at tonight’s Grammy Awards, I am thinking back to a 20th-century hopeful who was the antithesis of glitz and who died on this date in 2002....

Why now, in particular?” a bewildered Dave Van Ronk asked rhetorically, a few days after learning about his Grammy nomination for a 1995 album titled From...Another Time & Place. “I made something like 26, actually closer to 30 records but nobody noticed before.” Well, hardly nobody. The blues performer had been in the game for four decades at the time of our January 1996 pre-Grammy interview. He was a legend whose career had returned to the kind of cutting edge made possible by that curious what-goes-around-comes-around law of the universe.

Ironically, the Brooklyn native, a grizzled guy with a gravelly voice, found himself in the same awards category – Best Traditional Folk Album – as a longtime colleague from the same New York City borough, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. “That puts me in a helluva position,” Van Ronk quipped. “If I win, I’ll feel guilty. If I lose, I’ll tear his throat out.” Elliott won for South Coast but still has his throat intact at age 81. Van Ronk succumbed to complications from colon cancer treatment when he was 65. Both men gained fame, if not fortune, back in the salad days of the folk revival during the early 1960s, when Greenwich Village musicians were doing the hootenanny thing. Elliott, a self-styled hobo of the Wild West in cowboy garb, and Van Ronk, never a slave to fashion, were pals with a younger talent who went by the name of Bob Dylan.