Friday, November 21, 2014

Auf wiedersehen, Mike Nichols

The obituaries for Mike Nichols, who died Wednesday at 83, rightly mentioned his status as an EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards). They praised his film and theater work over a 50-year career and recognized him as one of the few directors to succeed both on Broadway and in Hollywood -- and with both critics and audiences. Some even mentioned his early years as a performer, notably as a comedian teamed with Elaine May. Here's a sample:

But two of the most important things about him have been overlooked: English was his second language, and America was his second home.

The boy born Mikhail Pavlovich Peschkowsky grew up speaking German in Berlin. He emigrated to America in 1939 and became a citizen in 1944. Like a handful of European-born writers before him, Joseph Conrad and Tom Stoppard among them, he fell in love with the English language and made it his own.

He also had an immigrant's eye for American foibles. Think of the traits he skewered in movie after movie: The obsession with achievement in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," the corporate mentality in "The Graduate," the hollow lies we attach to patriotism in "Catch 22," our childish fascination with sex in "Carnal Knowledge."

Like Elia Kazan, who was born to Greek parents in Turkey, he came to love America but saw its shortcomings clearly. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that Kazan also had dual careers in film and theater. Both men thought verbally and visually and knew how to get the best from actors.)

I was lucky enough to see three plays Nichols directed on Broadway: Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" and David Rabe's "Streamers" and "Hurlyburly." I couldn't tell you why his direction worked: He did nothing showy or obviously clever. He simply elicited remarkable performances from people who had star quality (William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver) or were just hard-working actors (Paul Rudd, Dorian Harewood).

Nothing lay outside his ken. He directed or produced hit musicals ("Annie," "Spamalor") and heavy classics ("Uncle Vanya," "Death of a Salesman"). Nichols directed four Neil Simon comedies from 1963 through 1973, and all four were nominated for Tonys for best play. ("The Odd Couple" won.)

He was busy on Broadway as recently as last fall, directing a revival of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal." Nichols and Hollywood had long since fallen out. After directing an extraordinary version of "Angels in America" for HBO in 2003, he made just two movies in the last decade: "Closer" and "Charlie Wilson's War."

He still had the same cynically appraising eye for romance in the former and politics in the latter. Half a century on, he was proving that someone born to another culture may have the deepest insights into our own.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Dan Locklair has people singing

Charlotte native Dan Locklair has darted all over the musical map: symphonies, chamber music (especially for brass), even a ballet and an opera. Here's a little taste of his style in an organ processional:

But he's probably best known for choral music, and a two-CD package issued by the MSR Classics label will show you why.

The longest piece on this "Tapestries" set owes its existence to Charlotte, specifically the Oratorio Singers and former director Mary Nell Saunders. "Windswept (the trees)" was dedicated to both and premiered by the Singers under guest conductor Catherine Comet 20 years ago; texts come from celebrated poet A.R. Ammons, a Whiteville native. The rest of the set ranges from Christmas motets to a brief mass. Here are some thoughts:

Even in a sacred text, Locklair's not afraid to syncopate. A "Te deum laudamus" may begin as a chant and end with a swing in its hips.

You can't always infer a composer's religion from his work -- Brahms wrote one of the great Requiems -- but a lot of this music has been set to Christian texts, almost all of them comforting.

He's not afraid of dissonance, though he never veers too far from tonality, and he writes for unusual combinations: "Windswept" uses a choir, woodwind quintet and piano. He can switch moods from drama to reflection quickly, as he does in these poems.

He's got moxie. Locklair reset the text we know as "America the Beautiful" to an ethereal wisp of a piece with only a mild climax, renaming it "For Amber Waves."

When he writes melodies, they're extended, rather than concise or catchy. "A Christmas Carol" repeats itself, as a traditional carol does from verse to verse, but it doesn't have a traditional hook.

He has a sense of humor: An inscription on a tombstone inspired his jaunty, 80-second "Epitaph."

He asks for patience. Literally so, in "Instant Culture," a piece mocking our obsessions with short-form events that deliver quick gratification. And metaphorically, in pieces that unspool slowly and require time to absorb. But then, he's a pipe smoker. I never knew a pipe smoker who rushed into anything.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How bad could 'Serena' be?

When "Serena" was announced three years ago, it sounded like a guaranteed Oscar nominee.

Stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper were en route to Academy Award nominations for "Silver Linings Playbook." (She won.) Director Susanne Bier had made the Danish film "In a Better World," which got the foreign film Oscar. Ron Rash's novel about the Lady Macbeth-style wife of a 1930s lumber baron had earned the 2009 PEN/Faulkner award.

North Carolinians took special note, because the story is set in our mountains. (Sadly, shooting took place in the Czech Republic. Shades of "Cold Mountain"!) And then...nothing.

The movie was supposed to come out at the end of 2012. Then 2013. Then, perhaps, the end of 2014. But every major distributor passed after seeing it. Now Magnolia has picked it up for a Feb. 26 release in 2015, during one of the dead spots in the filmgoing year. (The production company 2929 is a sister company, so perhaps Magnolia couldn't say no.)

The reaction of the British press and public may explain why. According to the snarky site, these are actual lines from reviews after the film played the BFI London Film Festival last month:

"Have you ever wanted to punch a film right in the face if it, you know, actually had a face to punch? Well, that’s 'Serena' for you."

"Considering the chemistry Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper have – both as friends and frequent co-workers – they fail to fizzle here, and that’s down to the wafer-thin prose they have to spit."

And (my favorite): "The movie seems to know it’s outstayed its welcome, stumbling loudly to its conclusion like a scream queen chased through a field in high heels by an axe-wielding maniac."

Audiences spurned it, too: It opened on 185 British screens and earned less than $1,000 per screen. Naysayers suggest it'll go straight to video, though Magnolia generally releases its films for brief theatrical runs.

Now I want to see it even more, partly because I can scarcely believe so much talent would fail spectacularly and partly because I like an occasional cinematic train wreck. Bring it on!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

If you're going to the mountains...

No nature lover needs another excuse to visit the N.C. mountains in mid-November, even if the peak leaf weekends have passed. But if you're headed west, here are two arts events worth checking out. The first runs through early December in Boone; the second runs only this week in Tryon.

If you've never heard of Alsatian-born artist Carlo Demand, the two pictures above will show you the scope of his work: He illustrated for MAD Magazine (that's Alfred E. Neuman with ABBA) and was one of the greatest illustrators ever of aircraft, planes, dirigibles and other forms of moving machines. (When you see his work, you know he inspired the fantastical American artist Bruce McCall.)

Gastonia doctor Mark Moscowitz has mounted a retrospective of Demand's work at Appalachian State University's Turchin Center for the Visual Arts, where it runs through Dec. 5. Demand had an interesting life: This son of a French father and German mother was drafted into the German Army during World War II (when Alsace came under German control) but finished the war fighting for the French Army and the Allies. He retired from painting in 1991 and moved to the United States with his wife, dying here in 2000.

If music's more in your line, you'll want to be in Tryon for the opening of "The Joy of Bernadette" at Tryon Fine Arts Center. Writer-composer Sonja Karlsen relates the story of 14-year old Bernadette Soubirous, who saw an apparition in a grotto near Lourdes, France, in 1858.  The apparition came to her 18 times; one visit led to the discovery of a pure spring which has become known worldwide for alleged healing powers and miracles.

The musical will run at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. The 45-person cast, crew and orchestra mix performers from the Carolinas, New York, Florida and Europe. Karlsen has held readings of parts of the work elsewhere and recorded 10 songs from it, but this will be the world premiere of the full-length version.

I'm not familiar with either of these personally. But if I were headed to the mountains, I would check them out.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Is the Atlanta Symphony going under?

A deadline looms Saturday that could determine the future of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which has been locked out since Sept. 7. You'll find the most recent story from last week's Atlanta Journal here, but the gist is this:

The musicians' ranks have been reduced over the years by retirement, deaths and departures to 76 contract players. Management wants to keep the number there for the indefinite future, with the hope (but no promise) that the total will rise to 90 over time. The musicians want a written commitment to increase the orchestra to a minimum of 88 by the 2017-18 season. Management has also offered a graduated 4.5 percent raise over four years; the musicians have proposed a raise closer to 10 percent.

So far, the ASO hasn't played a note of its season. Federal mediators have come and gone without finding a solution.

Apparently, this mess has been exacerbated by countless factors, including other financial moves made by Woodruff Arts Center management, the nonprofit parent group for the orchestra. I don't know all of those, but here are three thoughts:

1) Both sides probably have a point. For whatever reasons, management may not now be able to support an orchestra of the size to which players and audiences are accustomed. As far as I can tell, no ASO recordings have been issued for more than three years, so that source of income has dried up.

On the other hand, musicians are right to say they cannot play certain pieces properly -- Bruckner, Mahler, Richard Strauss -- without an adequate number of players onstage, and they won't sound the same if they consistently sub in per-service musicians. (Although the Charlotte Symphony imported two dozen people last week to play Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben," and it went well.)

2) The loss of an orchestra ripples throughout a community, not just a concert hall. Ballet and opera performances suffer. School groups don't get exposed to masterpieces. Outreach programs dry up. If this orchestra goes under, the people who buy weekend concert tickets represent a small fraction of the ones who will suffer from the fallout.

3) If this can happen in one of the nation's top dozen cities in population, it can happen virtually anywhere. The ASO has won 17 Grammy awards, mostly for its beautifully engineered recordings on the Telarc label, since the middle of the 1980s. Now its entire 70th season is in doubt.

Major cities with long-standing orchestras get used to having them around, as if they were parks or libraries. They're more like teeth: If you don't take proper care of them, they can decay quickly.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The curse of the standing 'ovation'

Are you one of those parents who think each child in a competition deserves a special medal for taking part? Do you believe every employee in a workplace should get a raise, regardless of accomplishment? I think I saw you at the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night.

You plodded dutifully to your feet at the end of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto to applaud pianist Abdel Rahman El Bacha, who had played with staid competence. You didn't leap to your feet. You stood, zombie-like, and clapped long enough for him to return to the stage once, though barely long enough for him to get off again. 

You do this with such regularity that neither I nor the longtime symphony fan next to me could remember the last artist who didn't get a standing O at the Belk. I thought back over 32 years in the Opera Carolina chorus and couldn't remember the last time that audience didn't stand.

Do you really think every performance deserves such a tribute? Performers, myself included, know better; we can tell when we've had a blah night. Do you think it's bad manners not to stand, because you're saluting a guest in our city? Are you trying to justify the cost of the ticket? ("I spent $89. This MUST be great!") 

I'm not knocking El Bacha: You may have responded more strongly to his playing than I. But to rise at every concert means you can't distinguish between magnificent and mediocre performances or don't choose to.

If you're compelled to rise by playing far above the norm, more power to you. I do that myself: Wu Man's CSO appearance this month in a pipa concerto shot me out of my seat. But please don't do it as a ritual, because that devalues performances that really deserve a standing O.

To paraphrase country singer Aaron Tippin, you've got to stand for something special -- or you'll fall for anything.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Boo! Give me your money, sucker!

"Ouija" earned $19.9 million Friday through Sunday, making it the top-grossing movie in America for its first weekend of release. This happened despite almost unanimously bad reviews (a 90% "rotten" rating on and negative word-of-mouth (a paltry 4.2 out of 10 from the notoriously easygoing voters at the Internet Movie Data Base). Observer entertainment editor Theoden Janes, a knowledgeable and avid fan of all kinds of horror, said he couldn't remember seeing a worse movie this year. A sample:

What can we deduce from this?

1) Horror audiences are so desperate and/or grateful for product that they will see anything at all. Literally anything, including a movie about a demonic spirit in a Ouija board that destroys people who use it. They don't wait to hear opinions from anybody else, including their friends: They bolt to theaters on opening weekend.

2) If you can make a movie for $5 million or less in this genre, you're virtually certain to get rich. The people behind "Ouija" have already quadrupled their investment before fans could circulate the word that the movie's a dud.

3) One key to box-office success with horror is a PG-13 rating. Would-be horror fans whose parents keep them out of R-rated movies demand tickets, boosting the take. Older fans may balk, believing the picture won't be terrifying enough, but younger ones will make up for them.

4) And the saddest conclusion of all: There's no need to make treasures if people will pay for trash. "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Orphanage," "Mama" and "The Others," my four favorite horror films of the 21st century, all scare me while making me feel something for the characters. (And all four come from Spanish-speaking directors. Hmmm....)

They don't rely entirely on bogeymen jumping out of dark corners, a fright so easy to achieve that any first-time filmmaker can manage it. They spook us by making us think about our own mortality, about what it means to risk death in a meaningful way. Nor does a film have to be deep to be good: "The Cabin in the Woods," another of my favorites, has plenty of screams but turns horror conventions on their heads.

I know I'm in the minority. "Pan's Labyrinth," which won three Oscars, took six months to gross less than the disposable "Ouija" will make in three weeks. As long as Americans are willing to buy junk, filmmakers and distributors will flood the market with it.