Monday, September 30, 2013

What happened at the Charlotte Symphony concert?

After the first movement of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's rendition of "The Planets" Friday night, my wife leaned over and said, "I have never heard 'Mars' played like that." Neither had I. An orchestra I've frequently enjoyed had rocked me in a new way, and it continued to do so up to the mysterious end of Gustav Holst's symphonic suite. I felt like I was watching an ever-reliable baseball pitcher throw a perfect game. Had a recording of this performance been available, I'd have dropped $20 for it on the spot.

I've since heard from three people that the CSO accomplished the same feat Saturday night with its second performance of the piece. So, to quote one of them, what was going on?

Maybe the sheer size of the orchestra, which used larger forces than it did in the KnightSounds "Planets" three years ago, made the difference. Maybe conductor Christopher-Warren Green communicated his love for the piece (and/or British music in general) more deeply this time.

Maybe, to continue the athletic metaphor, the players upped their game for a new coach. (This happens all the time in sports: Teams suddenly play better under new management.) Robert Stickler, recently appointed as the permanent executive director, started the concert by announcing that ticket sales were up for every CSO series this year.

Maybe sentiment made a difference: The concert was dedicated to bassist Ivan Zugelj, who died of pneumonia this month after 39 seasons with the CSO and was acknowledged with a wreath laid on a chair at the edge of the stage. Maybe the nearly full house provided a boost: Most performers give their best when faced with an appreciative, alert crowd. Maybe the fact that WDAV-FM was broadcasting live (as it has done for opening concerts over the last five years) gave players added incentive.

For whatever reasons, the musicians made magic. Pianist Artur Schnabel liked to say he was attracted to music better than it could ever be played, music that could be explored infinitely without revealing every aspect of it. "The Planets" belongs in that category, I think. But Friday night, the Charlotte Symphony came as close as anyone I've ever heard to sounding its depths.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bashing Vladimir Putin at the Met

Did you read about the furor at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night on Monday? The auditorium was jammed for a black-tie gala presentation of "Eugene Onegin," with Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in the lead and Valery Gergiev (artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg) conducting.

Before anyone could sing, a man shouted "Putin, end your war on Russian gays!” He went on to address the two artists, both of whom campaigned for Putin's re-election last year, and shouted, "Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” The New York Times reported that four protesters in the Met's Family Circle seats were asked to leave and did.

This prompts a flood of thoughts. First, the protest was pointless. Operagoers no doubt wrote it off as the work of kooks. If Netrebko and Gergiev were going to re-think their support of Russia's virtual dictator, this wasn't going to make them do it.

Second, protesters outside were already chanting in front of a 50-foot rainbow banner that read "Support Russian gays." That might have encouraged people going in to think harder about their stance on Russia in general and Putin's anti-gay laws in particular. (In June, he signed a bill banning "propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships." Naturally, any public mention of LGBT behavior might be construed as "propaganda.")

Third, it's tough to judge what "support" for an authoritarian means in a place like modern Russia. If a rumor reached Gergiev that the Mariinsky's budget would be slashed unless he put in a good word for Vlad the Impaler, he might well have said kind things to keep himself and other artists on the payroll.

Fourth, we'd have few performances of operas or anything else if we insisted they be cast with people whose political, religious and social ideas were in accord with our own. Scholars still debate the extent to which artists who remained in Nazi Germany aided Hitler. The honorary Oscar given to director Elia Kazan in 1999 provoked a storm of anger from people who felt his testimony to government witch-hunting committees cost innocent people their careers. Trying to draw lines in the moral sand is a tricky business.

Fifth, although Putin is dead wrong on this issue and many others, he and his nation must be in an astonishing state of denial. Their most famous composer -- the one whose opera was being performed at the Met on the night of the protest -- is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who was homosexual himself and may have committed suicide in 1893 at the behest of a court of honor that learned of his affairs. (This debate, too, rages on.)

Does Putin simply deny Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation? Does he wish Russia still functioned as it did in the late 19th century, with himself as virtual tsar? Either way, we can be sure that, if Tchaikovsky behaved now as he did then, he'd be likelier to be in jail than in a conservatory.

Photo:  An anti-Putin protestor demonstrates in front of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, in New York. AP PHOTO/JAMES WAGNER

Friday, September 20, 2013

Emerson String Quartet: True teachers never quit

12:15 p.m. today, South Mecklenburg High School auditorium. Four brave young string players from Providence High School perform the last movement of a Mozart quartet before a couple of hundred peers, having learned it shortly before the performance.

Onto the stage come two members of what may be the premiere string quartet in America: The Emerson, which plays a concert tonight at 8 p.m. at Halton Theatre. (Tickets are still available here for the Charlotte Concerts season-opener, though it's almost sold out.)

Violinist Phil Setzer and violist Larry Dutton warm the crowd up with a couple of gentle jokes: The other two members of their quartet, violinist Gene Drucker and cellist Paul Watkins, haven't arrived yet. If they're unavoidably delayed, could the Providence players work up tonight's program and sit in?

Dutton mentions that neither of his parents played classical music, and a chance exposure in third grade to a school concert made him want to take it up. "It's important that we learn about music in public schools. It doesn't mean everyone's going to be a professional musician, but they'll know this great repertoire."

Then, gently, they begin to make suggestions. Dutton repositions the young musicians, so they can see each other better and project sound more efficiently. Setzer suggests new fingering for one player and helps him work on bowing. They explain how a string quartet has to give the illusion that it's a tiny orchestra by using dynamic contrasts, though its loud-to-soft range will be less than that of a symphonic group.

Some folks in the audience have simply come to hear the group play. They'll get their wish in a bit; when all four players reach the stage, the Emerson plays one movement from each of the three pieces on the bill tonight (Mendelssohn, Britten, Beethoven). Yet nobody's talking or distracted during the teaching moments, because they're hearing sound basic advice from masters of the craft.

South Meck music teacher Marc Setzer is Phil's brother, and Marc's wife teaches at Providence. So some special pleading may have been involved to get this 75-minute event to happen, though Charlotte Concerts regularly asks touring musicians to spend time in the community while they're here.

But you can see that these quartet players, who are in residence at State University of New York-Stony Brook, are having a good time. They love talking about the sound of the music, the mechanics of the music, the ideas of the music.

Globe-trotting and Grammy-winning though they be, they are teachers at heart. Performing matters to them, of course: That's how they make a very good living. But if you watched them at South Meck, you got the sense that sharing what they know matters just as much.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Best movie of the year*

Why the asterisk? Because we have another three months left in 2013, and Oscar-contending heavyweights get packed into them like commuters into the Tokyo subway on Friday afternoon. So I'm keeping an open mind, but I'm having a hard time imagining what's going to be more impressive than "Captain Phillips."

My full review will run Oct. 11, when it opens. My first take, two hours after walking out of the theater, is that Tom Hanks has never given a more impressive performance than he does as Rich Phillips, a shipping captain whose vessel was taken over by Somali pirates four years ago. The film's director, Paul Greengrass, took a similar kind of documentary-fiction approach to "United 93," about the doomed flight crashed on 9/11/2001 with al-Qaeda hijackers aboard. (He also did the second and third "Bourne" movies.)

Here's a trailer:

I came away from the film with three impressions. First, top-rank artists can always surprise us. I thought I'd seen everything Tom Hanks had to show us, for good ("Philadelphia") or ill ("Cloud Atlas"), but he made me forget I was watching one of the most recognizable actors in the world.

Second, suspense movies always require an emotional component. Not sometimes, but all the time. And I don't mean a happy hug between John McClane and his son after blowing up chunks of Russia. I mean a deep sense of what's at stake personally for the people in danger of their lives.

Third, Hollywood needs to find a better way to spread release dates for movies of this quality throughout the year. Shoving them all into a three-month period is like telling a hungry person to fast for a week, then cram all the delicious food down his gullet that he can stand. There must be a way, among the "Lone Rangers" and "Supermen" and "White Houses Down," to accommodate a film as great as this one during the summer.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ivan Zugelj: The man in the shadows

Had Ivan Zugelj lived another three weeks, he'd have begun his 40th season as co-principal bassist for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Destiny was especially unkind to Zugelj: The basses play in virtually every piece of orchestral music yet virtually never get a spotlight. Yet when the CSO opens its Classics season Sept. 27 at Belk Theater, it'll play Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" -- which includes a section demonstrating the value of the lowest strings.

I first met him when he called himself John Zugel, before he embraced his Croatian roots (and the new spelling of his names) and grew his hair into a long ponytail. He always seemed to me like a kind of elder statesman, so I was surprised to learn he was just 66 when he died of pneumonia Sept. 9. Here's his official symphony photo:

Like most concertgoers, I had no idea that he had a string instrument repair shop, served as President of Local 342 of the American Federation of Musicians since 2009 and was an avid amateur astronomer, working on the Observatory Committee of the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club. (The CSO will dedicate its opening concert to him; appropriately, that show also includes "The Planets.")

For me, he remains a symbol of all the unsung musicians who underpin the sound of any symphony orchestra without seizing our attention.

Cellist Alan Black knows he'll get a lovely third-movement solo whenever a guest artist plays Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. Oboist Hollis Ulaky knows she'll have a chance to shine in the adagio of Brahms' Violin Concerto. The tone of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is set by clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo's first upward slide. Many musicians get a time to sparkle somewhere throughout the season, even if only for a few bars. 

The basses occasionally have a moment of their own, but it's almost always a unison moment: striding forth in a Beethoven symphony, setting a somber mood in Wagner. Almost nobody in the audience would know whether Ivan Zugelj was making a significant personal contribution or not.

Yet there he stood at the left of the stage all those years (as we faced him), invariably with a serious and attentive expression, contributing his sonic thread to the overall tapestry. Without the basses, that tapestry would fray. So here's a toast to one unheralded man who helped the CSO rouse us, soothe us and speak to our souls.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Sparrow who has never been silenced

A friend challenged me a few years back to name the 10 greatest popular singers of the 20th century. After we compared rankings, only three names had made both our lists: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Edith Piaf.

Piaf was the first to die -- she passed away 50 years ago this fall -- was the one with the shortest career and is the least remembered today. Yet her voice, which throbbed with emotion, had the power to shake you even when it was all but shot at the end of her career. In that way, she was like Billie Holiday with more vocal energy. Here's a sample of Piaf singing her late-life anthem, "Je Ne Regrette Rien" ("I Regret Nothing"):

If you've seen Marion Cotillard's Oscar-winning performance as Piaf in the 2007 movie "La Vie En Rose," you know a little about her life. She began as Édith Giovanna Gassion but was nicknamed "La Môme Piaf" ("The Little Sparrow") by a nightclub owner, who also told her to wear her trademark black dress. Her life was a whirlwind: Though she married just twice, she had numerous affairs, including one with actor/singer Yves Montand and another with former middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, who died in a plane crash while flying from New York to Paris to reunite with her. Liver cancer claimed Piaf at 47. You'll find her unostentatious but much-decorated grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, overshadowed by the monument to Oscar Wilde and the shrine-like tomb of Jim Morrison.

She appeared in seven obscure French films and one in Spanish, where she sang her famous "La Vie en Rose" in that tongue. At her best, with careful coiffure and makeup, she was modestly attractive but never beautiful. She sang slightly under pitch at times, like Holiday. But she feels every number so deeply that you do, too, even if you have only a one-sentence synopsis of the words. (She re-recorded most of her famous numbers in our language, and an anthology called "Hymn to Love: All Her Greatest Songs in English" deserves a listen.)

Here's a link to "Milord," one of her strongest numbers, with English lyrics displayed as she sings. It's about a streetwalker who encounters a man in a bar whose woman has just left him; she has often seen him from afar, and now cheers him up with no hope of getting him for herself:

Piaf frequently sang about underdogs: poor people, sick people (lovelorn or physically ill), people struggling and often failing to express themselves or make themselves heard. Perhaps, if she'd lived a more comfortable life, she'd have found lasting joy. But I doubt she'd have left behind such a moving catalog of songs.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Hey, City Council: Tours of my house, just $30!

Did you see the story in Saturday's Observer, where the developers of the proposed movie studio complex estimated that 350,000 tourists per year would pay $30 a head to tour their site?

My first reaction was, "Somebody needs to put down the crack pipe." Whatever the merits of the studio's business proposal may be, there's no way a thousand people will visit the refurbished Eastland Mall every day to see a project being shot (though most sets are closed these days), empty sound stages or a classroom in a film school. The notion that this joint could outdraw a well-located McDonald's, let alone the NASCAR Hall of Fame -- especially in a neighborhood with zero foot traffic -- seems like the apex of foolishness.

Then I thought, "This could be seen as a business opportunity for you, L.T. You live in the same Charlotte City Council district as the defunct mall (district 5), so perhaps development dollars would be available to underwrite YOUR proposal." So I'm preparing to offer tours of my home and grounds for the same $30, and I promise a much better bargain. Consider the advantages to having the council support me instead:

1) Activity. There will always be something new to see in my yard. The studio may not always host film projects, but my four backyard bird feeders guarantee constant action in all seasons. Squirrels, chipmunks, possum and deer have been spotted, and our butterfly garden attracts multiple varieties of flying creatures.

2) Food. The studio does not intend to feed visitors for free. My $30 ticket would include your choice of three varieties of cereal, milk (regular or soy) and a plateful of cookies. (Chocolate chip and vanilla cream are always available; maple cream can  be had if you call ahead.)

3) Hospitality. At my house, you'll feel like a member of the family: Our cats will welcome you, you can coo over the pretty new baby next door, and we'll give you the best recliner (the dark green one downstairs) if you need to rest. I'll bet you won't find any recliners at the movie studio!

4) Entertainment. The capacious main building (2100 sq. ft. of heated space), comfortable screened back porch and handsome lot (a full two-fifths of an acre) should provide plenty of pleasure for visitors. But we also offer hundreds of DVDs for your viewing enjoyment, a thousand books on diverse subjects and a trained animal act. (One of our cats turns somersaults, if you're willing to snap a feather back and forth in front of her.)

I don't claim that I'll outdraw the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but I've got a fair shot at outpacing the proposed movie studio at Eastland Mall. I'll start booking tours as soon as City Council gives me the first economic development grant.  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Is the world's greatest painting in Atlanta?

We could dispute the question of greatness forever, and eternal masters can't really be compared to each other. Is Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" more dazzling than Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or Velazquez' portrait of Juan de Pareja or Seurat's "Grande Jatte" or Monet's water lilies or Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa?" (For my money, "Mona Lisa" isn't even the greatest painting in its room at the Louvre: Veronese's "The Wedding Feast at Cana," which hangs on a nearby wall, kept me goggling at it longer.)

I've had the good luck to see all of these in person, and my candidate for the top spot depends on the one that's in front of me at any moment. Last weekend, I finally saw a painting I'd waited decades to encounter: Jan Vermeer's immaculate "Girl With a Pearl Earring," on display at the High Museum of Art through September 29.

No copy could hope to reproduce exactly the olive tints of her clothing, her alabaster brow, the subtle gray-green of her eyes (which I had thought were brown). But here's the painting I'm talking about:

Vermeer's most famous work sits alone, in the last room of the gallery devoted to Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. (It returns there next year, after the Mauritshuis completes a renovation that will nearly double its size.)

When you see"Girl" at the High, you have already walked through rooms devoted to landscapes by Jacob Van Ruisdael (including an extraordinary depiction of winter that's realistic yet fantastic), moral paintings by Jan Steen (one bearing the oddly prophetic title "As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young"), portraits by Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn.

All of them spoke to me, especially memento mori paintings that showed the passage of time and reminded us to make the most of our days (a skull by Pieter Clausz, dying flowers by Abraham Van Beyeren). But "Girl" justified the 250-mile drive to Atlanta.

Her enigmatic expression, with lips slightly parted (to say a word of welcome?) and eyes seeming to approve of the person she observes over her shoulder, has earned this painting the sobriquet of "the Dutch Mona Lisa." It's a tired truism to say we can't fully appreciate a piece of art until we see the original, but that's never been as accurate for me as it was Sunday, when I could study every shade of blue in her headdress.

I learned she was what the Dutch called a tronie: possibly someone from real life, possibly invented or a composite of women the artist knew, but certainly painted as she would never have been seen in Holland in 1665. (Other tronies, two of them by Rembrandt, stand out in this show.)

To see her is to marvel not only at Vermeer's skill, his keenness of eye and hand, but his imagination: He knew this exotic head scarf would set off her Northern European beauty and make her instantly memorable. Not all the postcards and calendars and boxes of mints bearing her picture in the inevitable gift shop dulled my memory of this amazing work.

Is it THE greatest in the world? Impossible to say. But after staring at her off and on for almost half an hour, I can accurately say I've never seen a painting greater than this one. Maybe someday I'll get over to the Mauritshuis to confirm my first impression.