Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gimme shelter! (Opera Carolina version)

This is a video of Marcello Giordani singing "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot" five years ago at the Metropolitan Opera. He will sing it at Belk Theater in January in Opera Carolina's new production. But he may be rehearsing it here in an abandoned hosiery factory.

Singers don't mind suffering for their art, but blocking a show in an unheated building in January takes dedication too far. Opera Carolina learned that last year while preparing Puccini's "Il Trittico" in NoDa. (Its shop and rehearsal space are in the empty factory near the Amelie's building, the one with "Chadbourn" written on the smokestack.)

I didn't sing in that show, but I'll be in the chorus of "Turandot." So I'm grateful that OC is looking for a place warmer than Carl Icahn's heart this time around. The cry is out for help: Who wants to host N.C.'s oldest opera company, as it prepares Puccini's last and greatest opera?

For more than a decade after Belk Theater opened in 1992, OC rehearsed in a small rectangular room behind the stage, one where passers-by at Fifth and College streets could look in and watch. Blumenthal Performing Arts decided to covert that space to a black box theater (the Stage Door Theater) and gave Opera Carolina the boot.

The company moved around (notably to the gym and community hall at Avondale Presbyterian Church) but has rehearsed for the last couple of years in the dusty space at the back of the Chadbourn plant, where it builds sets and stores costumes. Giant fans make that room tolerable in hot weather, but when the frost comes....

That's why the company recently asked choristers if we knew of any place that can host staging rehearsals for a couple of weeks: "A first-floor, gymnasium-type room would be adequate, as we anticipate bringing portions of the scenery in for rehearsal. If a piano is not available, we will bring one of the opera's. The period is from January 4 through the 18th. We are prepared to pay something for a facility, but free is always good also."

So there you are. If you have a good idea, e-mail director of production Michael Baumgarten at Don't make us put Marcello Giordani at Trade and Tryon streets at Christmas with a sign around his neck reading "Will sing for shelter."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Farewell to a music master

I found out about Marc Setzer's retirement dinner too late to attend. That may have been a good thing, as I'd have been pressed into the impromptu chorus singing "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," and I don't know the words.

That number was sung as a benediction at the ends of concerts and graduation ceremonies Setzer conducted, and the metaphor is a happy one: Music can serve as something that comforts and sustains us through life. It's also a song of goodbye, and that fits: Setzer, who taught choral music for 35 years, retired from South Mecklenburg High School this spring. Here's a a video of that song at his final South Meck performance in May:

Former students gathered Saturday night at Stone Mountain Grill in Ballantyne to see him off. Bill Smoak (class of '88) wrote in an e-mail that "Many alumni shared humorous stories and anecdotes. Most common and powerful, however, were the serious and often emotional stories about how Mr. Setzer not only taught them choral lessons but also life lessons...they have carried with them to the present day." (To see the Facebook page for the event, including video, go here.)

Dozens came back to honor him. Patricia Davis, a violinist who has played everywhere from the American Symphony Orchestra to the pit orchestra for "The Phantom of the Opera," was there. So was Metropolitan Opera tenor Tony Stevenson. Not everybody who attended makes a career in music, of course: Jeep Bryant, executive vice president for marketing and corporate affairs for Bank of New York Mellon, came too. (He's on that company's Global Diversity Council, and few organizations are more diverse than a high school chorus. Maybe he learned one of those life lessons at South Meck.)

Setzer's celebrated brother Phil came through Charlotte last September with the Emerson String Quartet, in which he plays violin. I wrote a story then about the world traveler and the fixed point, the Grammy-winner who makes a living mostly on the road and the pedagogue who has quietly shaped generations of musicians along Park Road.

Phil gets more ink and more dough for what he does, yet the thing that struck me most about the interviews was how happy each man seemed. Both have influenced innumerable young musicians; both have shared the joy of making music, whether as a professional or as an amateur.

Phil gets to hear a roar of approval and satisfaction more than 100 times a year at his concerts. On Saturday night, Marc drew an audience that showed him a different but perhaps deeper and longer-lasting kind of love. He leaves big shoes to fill. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A death in the online family

If you're a regular reader of Arts a la Mode, you already know what I'm about to tell you. If not, you're never going to be. After seven years, the website has shut down.

Founder Ann Marie Oliva has been running it since the beginning, and I understand her exhaustion: I used to see her covering movie screenings and plays and wondered how she did that in addition to keeping the site going and having a busy life. (She's also a writer in other fields, most notably drama.)

She wrote a lot of pieces for her own site, though other contributors weighed in: UNC Charlotte theater professor Mark Pizzato and Limestone College theater professor Tim Baxter-Ferguson did some of the heavy lifting. Their work was always contemplative and occasionally made me see movies or plays in a new way.

And now that stops. Although the site remains up for a while, and you can browse the back catalog of reviews, no new ones will be added. A one-paragraph farewell on the home page will remain the last posting.

​A friend​ asked half-jokingly if I was happy to have less competition. But I never did consider Arts a la Mode or Charlotte Viewpoint or even Creative Loafing competition. Maybe I would if I covered banks or schools and wanted desperately to be the first person to share some tidbit of news. But criticism is one of the few areas in journalism where, to use an old economic phrase, a rising tide really does lift all boats.

The more people read about the arts, the more they're likely to attend performances. The more performances they attend, the more local companies thrive. The more those thrive, they more they can do material that stretches them artistically and challenges audiences -- and the more interesting a critic's job becomes.

The flip side is also true: Silence an advocate for the arts, and you may lose a reader whose life could have been transformed by a cultural experience, the way mine has been changed many times. That's a sad thing indeed.

Monday, August 18, 2014

I miss CAST. I wish more people did.

I'm putting together the fall-spring arts calendar for 2014-15 this week, and I realize the hole Carolina Actors Studio Theatre left when the board shut it down in June. The company that did more plays than any other in the 2013-14 season won't be around to bring us the likes of "Angels in America." (The photo is of J.R. Adduci as God in "Steambath" from a few seasons back.)

Post-mortems don't interest me. I don't care whether the board acted precipitously, whether money could have been raised to move the company to a different venue, whether local producers were interested in chipping in but told "no dice," whether founder-producer Michael Simmons (pictured below, rehearsing "August: Osage County") was right or wrong in his battles with the board. I've heard all of these things and more.

I would have been interested in writing about the crisis, if anyone had asked for help or attention before the company shut down. But I'm reminded of a sign on the wall of the American Red Cross office on Park Road: "He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured."

The indisputable thing, however, is this: Audiences failed CAST. I can't remember a single opening night where every seat in the small theater was full. (Or any night, period, on the occasions I went after opening or saw a show twice.) Despite a strong, two-decade track record, despite generally positive reviews, despite advance articles explaining what shows were about, theatergoers didn't make CAST a habit.

In 35 years of writing about Charlotte culture, I have occasionally lamented the timidity and lack of adventurousness of local audiences. Year in and year out, from the Charlotte Symphony and Opera Carolina down to small drama companies, people generally buy tickets to see what they know and skitter away from anything they don't.

Cultural groups often tell me they're trying to build trust. If audiences like a Blumenthal tour of "Wicked," maybe they'll trust the same programmers if they import a terrific but less-known "Peter and the Starcatcher." If they take to "The Nutcracker" at Charlotte Ballet, maybe they'll take to an unfamiliar work by Jiri Kylian. Sometimes this philosophy works; more often, it doesn't.

In CAST's case, it never seemed to. The company had a small, loyal following -- I often saw the same faces at shows -- and occasionally scored a blockbuster hit. But the people who flocked to see "August" didn't come back in force for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" two months later. So if we're asking who really killed Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, and you never bothered to find out how good they could be, the answer is: You did.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ruining every movie surprise in history

There are lots of ways to deflate the twist ending of a motion picture. A clumsy friend can blurt out too much information. A reviewer can spoil the plot by revealing secrets. You can cruise YouTube looking for videos of a favorite actor and stumble across one that gives away a finale, such as this excerpt from the 2004 thriller "The Secret Window:"

But until I accidentally discovered Greatest Plot Twists, I had no idea someone had devoted an entire site to giving away surprise endings -- in fact, surprises all the way through a movie.

It's helpful if you want to read about "Saw" without sitting through it, because you're afraid the film would be too gruesome. And other places (notably Wikipedia) also offer long plot summaries that can be full of spoilers. But this site simply ruins one movie twist after another.

It's alphabetized into 50 sections of roughly 6 to 10 films each, and it devotes itself to revealing death dreams ("It was all a fantasy"), conspiracy theories, identity switches, films-within-films and every other possible thing that could make us jump.

Nor does the site stick with famous movies. The "S" section includes not just "The Shining" and "Se7en" but "The Screaming Skull," "Session 9" and "Sex and Lucia." And sometimes the explanation can be as baffling as the film itself: The account of "Memento," which I've seen multiple times, left me scratching my head.

Running through this list is addictive and harmless, as long as you stick to movies you've already seen ("Chinatown") or movies you know you'll never see ("China Moon"). It's also possible to appreciate a film such as "Thelma and Louise" when you know the startling ending. But reading the finales to suspenseful films such as "Tell No One" or "Hard Candy" is moviegoing suicide.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Yehudi Menuhin changed my life

Most days, I'm inclined to agree with Nietzsche when he said, "Without music, life would be a mistake." I could live on a deserted island without DVDs or even books, I think, as long as someone let me take along a library of music -- about two-thirds of it classical -- to pass the time. But I never knew I felt that way until I heard something like this 40 years ago this month:

I had never been to a concert by a professional orchestra when a fellow reporter asked me to accompany him to an outdoor performance in 1974. I was a 19-year-old summer intern at the Burlington County Times, a suburban paper in southern New Jersey, and he knew a guy in the cello section of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (More importantly, I had a dependable car.)

I don't remember the shorter pieces on the program, but it concluded with Beethoven's only violin concerto. If you know this piece, you realize the first movement lasts as long as some concertos in their entirety. When Menuhin finished, I clapped wildly and hollered "Woo-hoo!" -- until I realized nobody else was applauding. "Ummm...we clap at the end," said my cohort, not realizing I hadn't known. And by the end, I was hooked forever on Menuhin, Beethoven and classical music.

You could simply walk behind the stage at Robin Hood Dell, the outdoor venue in Fairmount Park, so my buddy shuffled off to say hi to the cellist he knew. I stood around on the grass, eyes goggling, until an old lady (or so she seemed then) approached, her features obscured by too much makeup and a scarf.

She asked if I'd enjoyed the concert. I began to gush incomprehensibly, leaving out the "Woo-hoo" incident. "Ah," she said. "You should meet my brother." She turned around and called, "Yehudi. Come and talk to this young man!"

The great violinist obediently ambled over. "Larry chose you for his first orchestral experience ever," she said. (I later learned this was Hepzibah Menuhin, a talented pianist.) "That's an honor, isn't it?"

Menuhin acknowledged, smiling wryly, that it was. He said he hoped it wouldn't be my last classical concert. I made incoherent noises of approval. Then, to the best of my embarrassed recollection, the chat went like this:

Him: "Are you familiar with Beethoven's music?"

Me: "Not as much as I'm gonna be. I really like the Fifth Symphony, though."

"That's a good place to start. You should really get to know the violin concerto, too. I never get tired of playing it."

"Yeah. Uhhhh...did you ever make a record of it?"

He smiled. "Well, yes. Six recordings, I think."

"Really? Which one is the best?"

Another smile. "I recently recorded it with Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonia. That's closest to the way I feel about the music right now."

I knew I could remember THAT name, because Klemperer's son played Colonel Klink on "Hogan's Heroes." I was probably going to blurt that out when Eugene Ormandy or somebody called my pal Yehudi off to another conversation.

A few minutes later, the other reporter came back and said, "Sorry I took so long. Hope you weren't bored."

"Nah," I said. "I had a nice talk with Menuhin." He replied with an unprintable expression of disbelief, and I never did get him to take my word for it.

I bought that Klemperer LP the next day in a record store. I played it until I knew every breath Menuhin took before a downstroke. (I have the CD version now.) I later bought his wonderful performances of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos with Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Menuhin, who died 15 years ago, influenced a lot of people as a teacher and humanitarian -- but in one way, none more than me. I have listened to classical music with attuned ears, an open mind and a devoted heart since the day I heard him.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Music of the past, music of the future

Two piano discs have come across my desk in the last few weeks, one representing romantic works of the 19th century and the other introducing me to new pieces whose worth will be decided and classified by posterity. (I enjoyed them.)

The first consisted of Pavel Kolesnikov's performances of Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons" and six Tchaikovsky morceaux hardly anyone plays; it came out on Hyperion, which has lately specialized in neglected corners of the piano repertoire. The second offered Robert Auler playing compositions by Jonathan Pieslak, a 1996 Davidson College grad who now teaches at City College of New York; it came out on Albany, which records a great deal of American music.

Here's Kolesnikov playing the Russian master's first piano concerto at the 2012 Honens Competition, which he won.

And here's a clip -- a much shorter one -- of Auler playing Pieslak's "Spiral" from the album titled "Shards." If you like it, I recommend you check out "American Atmospheres," a collection of etudes that shows off the composer's full range of styles, at Youtube.

Tchaikovsky and Pieslak don't have a lot in common stylistically, though both pianists tackle their virtuosic and challenging music with aplomb. (Each disc is not only well-played but superbly recorded.) But the pieces, written more than a century apart, have this in common: They reflect the times they were composed and the states of their composers' minds. And both were written by men in their late 20s to mid 30s, becoming ever more assured while finding their voices.

Tchaikovsky's "Seasons" (also known as "The Months," because there are 12 short works in the 40-minute suite) shows him in many moods: wistful, bemused, pensive, highly stimulated, melancholic, jovial. These and the morceaux (a word that simply means "pieces" in French) reflect the 19th-century demand for short works that could be played by gifted amateurs at home or in salons, though a reflective artist such as Kolesnikov makes more of them. (His performance ranks with Sviatoslav Richter's different take on these works, a favorite of mine.)

Pieslak also brings us into his world. "Prednisomnia" conveys "the sensation that one's mind is forcibly controlled by a drug that permits one to witness his/her uncharacteristic behavior but restrains one from being able to change it" -- an experience he had while taking prednisone for a kidney disorder. "Bhakti (1) unburdening" reflects his interest in Hindu devotional chants, and you hear Pieslak chant a mantra at the end. "American Atmospheres" depicts a series of moods from "Shifting Tides" to "Cuban Carnival" and shows influences from Debussy to Latin dance music.

The Tchaikovsky disc makes for easier listening, because folks with even a slight grounding in the classics have been exposed to his music. (Although "American Atmospheres" is almost as quickly accessible.) The Pieslak selections take us through a wider range of emotional experiences and show us more keyboard colors. Both deserve a crack at your ears.