Friday, March 29, 2013

Charlotte Concerts rebounds, drives and scores!

Why should March Madness be limited to basketball? Those of us who love classical music and dance have equal reason to be glad: Charlotte Concerts has announced its 2013-14 season, which boasts the biggest names in recent years and expands the roster from four concerts to five – including, for the first time in seven seasons, a Russian ballet company. (Get details at

The Observer wrote about the group’s struggles four years ago. It had moved into Central Piedmont Community College’s Halton Theater, a smaller venue than the Belk, trimmed its offerings from five to four and begun to book smaller ensembles.

These moves to save money have paid off, and the upcoming season boasts two of the biggest names in classical music: the Emerson String Quartet and Joshua Bell, new music director of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. (No word yet on whether the violinist will play with this great chamber orchestra or simply conduct it.)

The season should bring interesting programming, too. The Emersons, who open the season Sept. 20, specialize in modern music: They have won Grammys for Classical Album of the Year for the quartets of Bartok and Shostakovich.

Bell and the Academy, who close the cycle on March 27, will undertake a European tour next month playing works often done by bigger orchestras: Beethoven and Mendelssohn symphonies, violin concertos by Brahms and Bruch. (Bell is both playing and conducting on that trip.)

As usual, Charlotte Concerts will bring us the Van Cliburn Gold Medalist, whoever that may be: The pianist will be chosen in Texas this June and play in Charlotte Oct. 18. As unusual, Moscow Festival Ballet will be on the bill March 5; it last appeared here, doing “Swan Lake," in 2007. (Moscow Ballet has also done "Giselle" and "Don Quixote" in Charlotte. It specializes in 20th-century works, so maybe we’ll get some Prokofiev this time.)

The fifth concert on the season comes Jan. 29, when the Vienna Concert-Verein will play. If you were at its Austrian home last week, you’d have heard concerts pairing Mozart and Haydn with less-familiar fare, the Busoni Clarinet Concerto and Larsson’s Concerto for Clarinet and Strings. We should be so lucky!

Season subscriptions for the 84th season have gone on sale. You can get them only by calling the CPCC box office at 704-330-6534. That’s worth the effort; early bird subscriptions, which will be available through August 1, offer substantial savings. They range from $140 for the upper balcony to $220 for the center of the orchestra. The idea that I could hear the Emersons from a prime seat for $44 makes my ears smile.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The region's best-buried book bargain

I haunt used book stores and the Friends of the Library's annual book sale in Charlotte, which comes up again April 12-20. But until a pal tipped me off, I never knew I'd find a bonanza in Salisbury. Like a lot of fabled treasures, it's hidden.

When I walked into the Literary Bookpost on Main Street last week, no sign directed me to the discount shelves in the basement. I'd been told to go straight downstairs and turn to the left, where I'd find hundreds of works of fiction -- apparently, all of them new or remaindered -- at 75% off the purchase price. (The nonfiction shelves to the right offered the same discount but fewer choices.)

Bingo! Metaphysical Latin American writers mingled with American mystery writers. Meditations by W.H. Auden shared space with scary stuff by Stephen King. Obscure works by Samuel Beckett stood within shouting distance of psychological thrillers by Barbara Vine and the sardonically nostalgic humor of Jean Shepherd. I unearthed a Charleston-based novel I'd long heard about but never seen, let alone read: "The Treasure of Peyre Gaillard," a 1906 novel by John Bennett about an adventurer digging for a rumored trove of fabulous value. (Very apt, in this case.)

The books all were, or looked, virtually untouched. Many were out of print or no longer available in these editions. I recognized dozens of titles I already owned, a good omen in any bookstore.

I had agreed in advance to limit myself to one armful, and I kept to that self-made bargain. I'm not going to be more specific, as my wife sometimes reads this blog. (Hi, honey!) I have long arms, they were indeed full, and every book within my clutch cost less than $5. I can't imagine any reader would go away empty-handed, so here's info about the store: (After you visit, walk farther up Main Street and get a latte at Tastebuds Coffee and Tea.)

While I was paying for my books, cackling inwardly at the amazing bargains, the woman behind the cash register casually remarked, "I see I'll have to restock down there." Restock? MORE books will be going onto the 75 percent off rack? Hmmm...Downtown Salisbury is only about 45 minutes from downtown Charlotte, when I avoid rush hour. If I take three months to read the stash I've already acquired....

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Old people = dead people

From Hollywood's point of view, it seems. I say this because "Phil Spector," the best movie I've watched so far this year, couldn't get released there; it's currently playing on HBO.

The movie depicts preparation for a 2007 trial in which Spector was arraigned for the murder of would-be actress Lana Clarkson, who died in his home. Al Pacino gives his best performance in years as the reclusive record producer; Helen Mirren matches him as the sympathetic attorney trying to put the best public face on her famously eccentric client.

Hollywood would have been scared off by the sympathetic take on a man who's now serving a sentence of 19 years to life for second-degree murder, by the talkiness of the drama, by the fact that the main male character stopped being famous around the time Jimmy Carter was president.

But what REALLY would have put people off is old age. Spector is 67 when we see him in the film; Pacino, who wears a series of outrageous wigs, is 72. In fact, everyone involved in a significant way in the production is over 60: co-stars Helen Mirren and Jeffrey Tambor, producer Michael Hausman, executive producer Barry Levinson and writer-director David Mamet.

In Hollywood, two kinds of people are allowed to be stars past 60: ageless women who have been canonized (Meryl Streep, maybe Judi Dench) or perennially juvenile men, who play with guns to show their undiminished testosterone levels (Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Older actors are allowed to be supporting characters or co-leads, such as Harrison Ford in the upcoming "42." But a picture entirely about older people -- say, the well-liked "Quartet" -- has to be cheaply made and gets a limited release.

This process fits in with the prevailing attitude in the United States: Eternal youth is not only achievable but desirable. This has countless drawbacks and no advantages, except for plastic surgeons. In Hollywood, it leads to the Botoxing and face-carving of actresses once as fiercely independent as Jane Fonda or Jessica Lange and the marginalization of people who simply want to grow old while looking like ordinary human beings. The mad desire to remain forever young has made America forever childish.

Friday, March 15, 2013

An orchestra that can afford cojones

It's always interesting to compare programming in different cities. Music director Christopher Warren-Green has rightly said that Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, which he'll conduct tonight and Saturday along with Brahms' Violin Concerto, lies near the edge of the comfort zone of his Charlotte audience.

So what are we to make of Saturday's concert by the Asheville Symphony? Conductor Daniel Meyer and soloist Tim Fain will combine for Philip Glass' Violin Concerto #2, known as "The American Four Seasons." (Fain played on the soundtrack of the movie "Black Swan.") Meyer will conduct one of Handel's "Water Music" suites, Copland's "Latin American Sketches" and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2 -- where the orchestral instruments will combine with Moog synthesizers. (Very apt, as Robert Moog died in Asheville eight years ago.)

Direct comparisons are impossible. The orchestras have vastly different budgets, thus different needs to sell a certain minimum number of tickets. Asheville's a city unique to the Carolinas; despite its small size, the potential audience is well-educated and cosmopolitan, maybe more so than ours.

But I can't help being envious of a group that has the luxury of choosing such a rare concerto as its centerpiece. (In a strange twist, Adele Anthony -- who is playing the Brahms here -- is a specialist in the first Glass violin concerto, should we ever want to raise a Glass.)

The Charlotte Symphony does do cool things in its KnightSounds concerts; as I've said before, the one on April 19 will contain seven American works premiered in the last 85 years, and that's impressive. But the mainstream Classics series that plays Fridays and Saturdays in the Belk remains musically conservative.

I can't blame the programmers, as long as the orchestra continues to struggle with budget deficits. I can't blame the musicians, who play new music enthusiastically when they get it. The responsibility lies with those of us who buy tickets -- or, when presented with the unfamiliar, often don't. We get what we're willing to pay for.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Uptown Charlotte gets what it needed

I'd argue that no great city in the world -- certainly none I've visited -- is without a movie theater downtown. (Or, to use Charlotte's snooty term, uptown.) But until last week, we didn't have one.

EpiCentre Theaters provided one from 2008 to 2012, though the programming was unadventurous, the food (in the adjacent Mez) was too expensive for me to buy, and the movie end of the venue seemed like a graveyard on the two occasions I went there. (When you get only eight people in the theater for "Kung Fu Panda 2," then the nation's top-grossing film, you're in trouble.)

Now the space has a new tenant, Studio Movie Grill. My colleague Theoden Janes will talk about his experiences visiting SMG -- which were pretty close to mine -- in Friday's CLT section. The important thing (and one on which we agree) is that SMG seems to be taking movies seriously, rather than making them an adjunct function of food service or night-club atmosphere.

I talked to the Texas-based programmer for SMG at the grand opening last week. She spoke about special events other locations have provided, from curated film series (including classics chosen by local critics) to morning screenings of family-friendly films for children with special needs and their caretakers. (Learn more at

But the most important thing about SMG is simply that it exists. Before last week, uptown residents who wanted to see a movie had to drive for 20 minutes to Phillips Place or Northlake to see mainstream releases. Now they can walk to the Epicentre at Fourth and College streets. (Those of us who drive to SMG get free validated parking.) That could save energy, which is always a boon.

But it also means that one more crucial amenity has made downtown more vibrant. I'm thrilled that we have performance centers, art museums and restaurants of all price ranges within a 15-minute walk of my office at Stonewall and Tryon. I can't wait to walk to a Knights baseball game next year. But until we got a movie theater back, our sparkling downtown could never seem complete.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The painting that made people crazy

Exactly 100 years ago today, a painting was making people froth at the mouth. Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" was on display at the Armory Show in New York, which ended March 15, 1913. The painting, which mixes Cubist and Futurist elements, seems to show the body parts of a figure merging into itself as it comes down a flight of steps.

Reporters and reviewers were not kind. One critic referred to it as "an explosion in a shingle factory." Another redubbed it "Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour in the Subway)." A world that had yet to come fully to grips with Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," a much more figurative work from six years earlier, had no idea what to make of Duchamp. Naturally, most folks raised on realistic art mocked him. Duchamp couldn't have been surprised: He had already submitted the piece to the Cubists' Salon des Independants in France, and even one of their jurists had asked him to withdraw it.

The hubbub was somewhat forgotten after an even more famous artistic riot, the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring" in Paris that May. (Audience members actually exchanged blows at that event.) But Duchamp's painting intensified a discussion we're still having today. What IS a painting? Do we have to recognize elements in it? Does it have to have some kind of back story or narrative meaning?

I have seen the painting, which hangs permanently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It immediately looked to me like a figure walking downstairs, as if seen in a succession of movie stills that break motion down to its rudimentary forms. The person next to me saw nothing but "a stack of sticks," if I remember rightly. And one of the great things about art is...both of us were right.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A film festival full of hope

Somehow, three specialty film festivals in town ended up right on top of each other this year: The Charlotte Jewish Film Festival (which is running through March 17), the Charlotte Black Film Festival (which ran during the CIAA last week) and the Projecting Hope Film Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday. (Get details at

The latter gets less attention than the others, because it takes place at one suburban theater -- the Ayrsley Grand Cinemas, off South Tryon Street near the intersection with I-485 -- and because all the films are faith-based, meaning the Christian faith. Yet even within that field, the festival explores diverse themes.

"Not Today," which screens Friday night, deals with human trafficking and the caste system in India. "Jimmy," which screens Saturday and was made around Charlotte, focuses on a mentally disabled Southern boy who sees "watchers" -- his mother would call them "angels" -- and has to testify in a murder case. "Return to the Hiding Place," which closes the festival Sunday night, pairs a World War II resistance fighter and a journalist who try to save an orphanage full of Jewish kids marked for execution.

Hollywood will never market films like these to a mass audience, because they don't rack up the kinds of numbers distributors care about. As well-loved as "Facing the Giants" was, it earned just $10 million over the length of its run; that's 1000 times what it reportedly cost, but a mediocre comedy can earn three times as much  in one week of wide release. ("The Passion of the Christ" was an anomaly, one that hasn't been repeated in the last nine years and won't be for a long time to come.)

So I'm glad these pictures are getting big-screen outings in Charlotte. In fact, some of them (such as "Home Run," "Not Today" and the Raleigh-made "Secrets in the Snow") will be shown here before they hit theaters elsewhere or come out on DVD. Every niche film deserves to find its audience, and this city should be big enough to accommodate them all.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Yellow Peril strikes again!

Yes, once upon a time in America, people wrote and spoke like that. (White people, anyway.) And the main character that inspired their fear of "the inscrutable Oriental," the first potentially world-dominating supervillain in our culture, turns 100 this year.

Dr. Fu-Manchu, the brilliant scientist whose adventures run through a series of book by Sax Rohmer, actually made his debut in a short story in 1912. But the first novel, "The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu," introduced him to most fans in the United States and United Kingdom in 1913. (It came out in America as "The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu." You could use "Insidious" in book titles back then.)

Without Fu-Manchu, we don't have Dr. No, Dr. Doom, Dr. Evil or any of those guys who wanted to control  the planet (or be paid for not destroying it). Before Fu, even the greatest minds of the criminal underworld were satisfied to mine their little plot of ground: James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, merely wanted to be rich and powerful in London; his interest didn't extend to the rest of England, let alone Europe.

Like Moriarty, Fu is a polymath: a chemist, a biologist, a linguist, an inventor, an art collector and many other things. Unlike Moriarty, he travels with a daughter: Fah Lo Suee, who is nearly his equal in intellect, and whose ivory skin and ruby lips prove irresistible to all men.

Rohmer borrowed his format from Arthur Conan Doyle, who was still writing Holmes stories through the late 1920s. Rohmer's dogged, intelligent Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie stand in capably for Holmes and Dr. Watson, though the stories are told not by Petrie but by archaeologist Shan Greville. His main purpose was to be loved by Fah Lo Suee, whose affections he returned when under her (usually chemical) influence. Otherwise, he loved and eventually married Rima, a woman from his own culture.

Titan Books is reissuing the Fu-Manchu catalog. This month brought "The Mask of Fu-Manchu," in which the doctor attempts to bring down the British Empire by reviving a long-dead prophet and inciting a Muslim revolt. The writing can be a little pulpy: "Transfixed by the glow of those green eyes, I seemed to become rigid; their power was awful...I was fascinated but appalled -- fascinated by the genius of the Chinese doctor, appalled by the fact that he employed that genius not for good, but for evil."

Yet Fu-Manchu has a rigid moral code, too. He never breaks his word. He never hurts individuals who do not directly oppose him. (He thinks in terms of nations, not people.) He's a gentleman toward women, though he never courts any. He shares scientific knowledge, when it cannot be used against him. He has an inherent nobility that none of the wicked doctors who would come after him showed.

Before World War I, it was still possible to respect your enemy and treat him as your equal or even your superior, while you tried to undo him at the same time. After the madness of the trenches, that would never be possible again.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Van Cliburn leaves the stage

America's first classical music superstar died Wednesday, nearly 55 years after he'd set the world afire with a performance at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. Our culture never produced a more immediately popular performer in that field and, now that classical music has been marginalized from the mainstream of American culture, may not again.

At this distance, it's hard to believe that his win earned him a photo on the cover of Time magazine and a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York. (Five years later, only astronauts were getting those.) His subsequent recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, the piece that earned him an eight-minute standing ovation at the competition, became the first million-selling classical album in history.

I spent the weekend revisiting his recordings. The cheapest way to explore them is through a Sony box, "Van Cliburn Plays Great Piano Concertos," which contains seven CDs (though no commentary or photos) for about $20. It includes that still-dazzling Tchaikovsky, plus 15 other concertos. (An expensive but socially useful way to learn more is to give $500 to WDAV-FM. As I drove to work today, the station was offering a 28-CD Cliburn collection as part of its fund drive.)

You can see why he conquered even the Soviet judges, who allegedly asked Premier Nikita Khrushchev if they were allowed to give an American the prize. The playing has a quality Germans call innigkeit, a poignant intimacy of feeling. Most pianists power through Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov; Cliburn doesn't dawdle but isn't interested in fireworks. This is less of a virtue when he plays Liszt or Prokofiev, which require more percussiveness than poetry, but he makes you rethink these pieces.

His passing reminds me of three things. First, a great musician knows when to take a rest. By the mid 1970s, when I saw him with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he seemed tired and unfocused, missing notes in the Tchaikovsky First. (He took a hiatus from 1978 to 1987, after which he reportedly came back strongly.)

Second, a great musician does more than just play. He was an ambassador for the instrument, creating a Van Cliburn Foundation that has run an International Piano Competition in Texas for 50 years.

Third, Cliburn represented the triumph of art over politics. It's hard after so many decades to remember the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1958. The Cold War closed borders, split the city of Berlin, set off a nuclear arms race and a space race and various other kinds of unhealthy contests.

The Tchaikovsky competition was created that year to show the superiority of Soviet musicians. The now forgotten Valery Klimov won  the gold medal for violin in 1958, and Soviet pianists won or shared the top prize in the following six competitions. But even hard-line Soviets had to acknowledge the beauty and spirituality of the 23-year-old American's playing. We forget sometimes that music has such power to remove barriers and heal broken places, but it does.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Death to all stars! (Long live letter grades)

If you like movie criticism accompanied by star ratings, savor the reviews in today's CLT section. As of next Friday, we're switching to letter grades. I have hoped for this change for years, and the boss has said OK.

Our sister paper, the News and Observer in Raleigh, uses letter grades; my reviews often run there, so this simplifies the ratings chore. I've always felt people raised on letter grades in school had a better idea of what they meant, especially as we'll use five levels -- A, B, C, D, F -- instead of four, as with stars. (I didn't give even the worst movies "no stars.") Most importantly, the change gives me more flexibility: Instead of half-stars, I'll have pluses and minuses.

The two-and-a-half-star ratings were the breaking point. People have often told me, "If a movie gets less than three stars, I blow it off." I appreciate their trust, though that statement suggests they don't read actual reviews. But plenty of two-and-a-half-star movies deserve your consideration.

That 2.5 translates into either a C plus or a B minus. A C plus says "slightly better than mediocre, so not worth much." A B minus says (at least to me), "This film is flawed but ought to find an audience that would appreciate it." When I ship reviews to Raleigh, I use a B minus to encourage readers to look more closely. 

The common misconception about critics is that we want people to attend films or stay away on our say-so. We're little Roman emperors, deciding which gladiator should be spared in the arena and which should get a sword through the neck. But good critics want to tell readers what kind of experience they'll have at a movie, then let them make up their own minds whether to go.

Maybe the letter "B" will make folks stop for a moment, even if there's a minus sign attached. That's my goal: To get them to consider all of a mixed review and decide whether the film's accomplishments outweigh its shortcomings.