Monday, December 22, 2014

My favorite video of the year

The second half of this video provides the four most enjoyable minutes of watching I had in 2014. (Though the comic buildup helps make the piece, so I recommend the whole thing.) I don't know whether I was more amazed that someone could think this up or that they could execute it. Au revoir until 2015....

Thursday, December 18, 2014

'The Interview:' The faceless cowards win

There's an emotionally stunted kid in every high school who thinks about calling in a bomb threat or pulling the fire alarm, then sitting in the bushes sniggering as people scurry out of the building. My high school had one, and I thought of him when I heard hackers had threatened Sony Pictures and theater owners if "The Interview" opened as scheduled on Christmas Day.

It never looked like a masterpiece to me, but it might have been funny. Here's the trailer:

As you see, it's about a tabloid show host and producer invited to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, then assigned by the CIA to assassinate him. The announcement of its release prompted hackers to interfere with Sony's business affairs (including private internal communications) and threaten violence against movie chains that dared to show it. The film has been pulled everywhere, though I expect it to come out on DVD someday. That's where it would have made most of its money anyhow.

Commentators have correctly pointed out that a movie suggesting the death of a real person is in bad taste, even when he's a brutal swine. They've also mulled over the possibility that threats of real-world attacks were hot air (likely) and that further provocation of the still-unidentified hackers isn't worth the trouble (also likely, especially if the Chinese assisted the North Koreans).

Folks have also discussed whether this backing down by Sony will start a trend. Will ISIS threaten the same kind of reprisal if a movie makes the bad guys Islamic extremists? Probably not, unless someone declares open season on the prophet Muhammad -- we've seen that scenario play out in murder in Europe -- or ruthlessly mocks the Qu'ran. I'll be curious to see whether this incident triggers other kinds of reprisals, such as homophobic assaults on movies with gay themes.

Before the Internet, when bile was harder to spew anonymously and widely, people protested pictures in person. For example, the Catholic Church disapproved of the 1991 movie "The Pope Must Die," a comedy with no real people in it: A foolish priest was elected pope by mistake, arousing the ire of the Mafia and other villains. So church officials asked Catholics not to see it, to write letters of complaint, etc. Those protesters wanted demonstrations, not detonations.

Now the faceless cowards of the world call in their threats and hide in the bushes, laughing. We can't suspend them from school -- or from the Internet, for that matter -- so all we can do is weigh each menace and respond accordingly. No satisfactory solution has presented itself, and I don't think one will.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Goya in Boston: An unmissable exhibit

Before I heard anything more than the words "Francisco Goya" and "Museum of Fine Arts Boston," I knew where I'd be taking a mini-vacation this fall. Here's the scoop:

Goya remains unique in the history of western art. Over his 82-year-life, he evolved from rigorously formal paintings of the Spanish court to what could be considered the first "modern" art, surreal pieces that step out of time and come from some dark psychic place most of us don't dare go.

His brush gave us handsome princes and wizened witches, nabobs and nightmares, deeply religious pieces and savage attacks on corrupt clergy. This show has them all in 170 works culled from his six-decade career. (It represents about one-tenth of his output.) Yet at the end of the exhibit, you come upon a beautiful piece in which a physician comforts the aged Goya -- bringing him back from death, in the painter's estimation -- and you realize he never lost his ability to invoke optimism and hope.

You'd have to go to the Prado in Madrid to see most of the large paintings for which he's famous. But the curators for this show, reputedly the biggest Goya retrospective in America since the 1980s, have done an extraordinary job of revealing the whole man. They've grouped galleries according to topics (portraiture, sport, etc.) rather than chronology, so we can see how Goya thought and rethought about ideas. The show includes paintings, etchings and especially drawings, where he did some of his most unsettling work. Here's a famous example, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters:"

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes lived from 1746 to 1828. That span was marked by wars: The fight for American independence, the French Revolution and Napoleon's two attempts at conquest. In Spain, the latter took the form of the Peninsular War of 1808-14, when Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as king of Goya's native land.

Goya painted war like no one before him. A small drawing in the show depicts severed body parts hung on a tree like trophies, and no one until Civil War photographer Mathew Brady would make the battlefield seem so terrible. War was another form of "unreason," and Goya -- the greatest painter of the Age of Enlightenment -- spent his career attacking ignorance in politics, religion, social roles and the court.

If I had to take the collected works of one artist to a hermitage to study until I died, I'm not sure whom it would be. But if I took three, I know Goya would be one of them, and I would find something new every time I contemplated him.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Symphony Hall: Music like I've never heard it

I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first time Saturday night, and my ears are still tingling.

Guest conductor Leonidas Kavakos led a program of Bartok, Haydn and Mussorgsky. He used the broadest tempos for "Pictures at An Exhibition" I've ever experienced, luxuriating especially in the massive brass chords. And though I've listened to that piece live and in recordings dozens of times, I really heard it for the first time.

Yes, having so many musicians onstage made a difference, especially when they're all first-rate. But the special difference was Symphony Hall. The program notes rate it as one of the three best halls acoustically in the world, along with the Musikverein in Vienna and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I haven't been to either, but it could be so: Every note, from low grumblings in the violins to the high whine of the oboe, came across with perfect clarity and projection. Here's a look at the hall in transition from a Boston Symphony to a Boston Pops set-up:

That's the sound you get when you build a hall specifically for an orchestra, which Boston did in 1900. As the program says, "The walls of the stage slope inward to help focus the sound. The side balconies are shallow, so as not to trap any of the sound, and though the rear balconies are deeper, sound is properly reflected from the back walls. The recesses of the coffered ceiling help distribute sound, as do the statue-filled niches along the three sides."

Contrast that with the Belk Theater, which has 500 fewer seats (2097 to 2625), is shorter front to back and has three tiers above the orchestra, not two. The overhang in the Belk is much closer to the stage, and the seats under it get diminished sound even during the best of mixes. The Belk's a fine all-purpose hall, useful for opera and dance and Broadway tours as well as symphony concerts, but it's not designed for one purpose alone.

Lest you think only the Boston Symphony can shine in Symphony Hall, check out this video of the University of Massachusetts Marching Band in the same venue:

Charlotte won't build another concert hall in my time at The Observer, maybe even my lifetime. So I'll have to fly to Amsterdam, Vienna or Boston to get a bead on the perfect sound.

P.S. Unlike the organ pipes in the Belk, which are as handsome and useless as a chiseled eunuch in a harem, the ones at Symphony Hall are actually connected to an organ console.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Obsession with The Beatles, 1964

I was perusing a timeline from the year 1964, a watershed year in American and world history in so many ways. A military coup in South Vietnam pulled us into a decade-long war, the passage of a Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the United States, Nelson Mandela went to jail and kicked off the ultimate transformation of South African politics.

And looking at the upcoming week, between the Roman Catholic Church replacing Latin with English in its prayer services and the Nobel Peace Prize being given to Martin Luther King Jr., I see this line: "Ringo Starr's tonsils are removed." (The 50th anniversary will be Dec. 2nd, should you want to plan an anniversary celebration.)

Here's an interview about that event:

People who complain rightly about our fascination with reality TV may have forgotten where this level of obsession first raised its ugly head: With the rise of The Beatles, who in 1964 were not only the most popular entertainers in the world but perhaps the most recognizable people in it, short of a president or pope. I am second to none in appreciation for their amazing music, but did we really need to contemplate the state of Richard Starkey's throat?

Movie magazines and the tabloid press had long carried stories -- most of them invented by publicists -- about stars, often purporting to say what they were "really" like. (As if they would then or now share their deepest secrets with journalists!)

But when The Beatles came along, audiences couldn't get enough information about their most insignificant habits: What they wore, ate, drank, read, smoked or slept on. The fact that Ringo sang in a clogged baritone (when the other three let him sing at all) didn't stop the media from contemplating the effect of the operation on his voice or the band's output.

Psychologists can speculate why people who eat this stuff up remain so attached to pointless minutiae. I just wanted to point out that my generation set the tone for an inanity that has now prevailed for half a century. 

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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Barry Manilow sings with dead people

Let me begin by saying I'm a Barry Manilow fan, in a mild way. "Mandy" got me through all-nighters my senior year in college, when disc jockeys scheduled it incessantly, and I always let him play when I'm radio-surfing in the car and come across his songs. But his new album "My Dream Duets," which landed on my desk Friday, has me puzzled.

It consists entirely of duets with 11 people who have died, some as far back as the 1960s (Frankie Lymon, Judy Garland) and some as recently as 2012 (Whitney Houston, Andy Williams). Manilow was 70 when he made his contributions to these recordings, and even fans who admire his voice can admit it has a noticeable quaver.

Now I'm wondering if this is a trend. And if so, where does it stop? With Tom Cruise inserting himself alongside Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca"? With a "pairing" of Jascha Heifetz and, say, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra? The idea seems pernicious to me.

In the first place, I'm not convinced Dusty Springfield or Mama Cass would have wanted to re-do "The Look of Love" or "Dream a Little Dream of Me" with Manilow or anyone else. Louis Armstrong might have agreed to a duet, but I wonder whether he'd have approved this strange overlapping medley of "What a Wonderful World" and "What a Wonderful Life."

People who control the estates of these artists did have to sign on to the project. But as Dr. Seuss' widow showed by green-lighting atrocious adaptations of his books -- see Mike Myers' film of "The Cat in the Hat" -- an heir's compliance is no proof the original artist would have said yes.

In the second place, some songs can't be improved. Williams' immaculate "Moon River" and Jimmy Durante's ebullient "The Song's Gotta Come From the Heart" (initially a duet with Frank Sinatra) don't benefit from tampering, however much Manilow's sentiments are in the right place.

The technology to do this has been around for a long time. I recall the bizarre union of Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline, who were both dead by 1981 when a remixed "Have You Ever Been Lonely?" went to No. 5 on the country charts. (They never recorded together but had each made solo versions before dying in plane crashes, Cline in 1963 and Reeves in 1964.)

Any artist might be tempted into a recording studio by the chance to "perform" with people he respected, and it's easy to do that when they no longer have any control over their music. But as my mom used to say, "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."

Friday, October 24, 2014

It's never too late to declare your love

A couple of years ago, I wrote a profile of potter Herb Cohen and painter Jose Fumero, who were both in their 80s and living happily together in Charlotte after a long span in the N.C. mountains. (You'll find it here:

A friend e-mailed me this week to tell me that Herb and Jose surprised folks by getting married Monday at the house of a friend. Here's a photo, with Jose on the left:

I don't have anything profound to say about gay marriage being a good thing. I just celebrate two acquaintances who have finally been able to legalize a relationship that began decades ago and has brought both men joy.

You can love another human being openly or secretly, loudly or quietly. But if you mean to spend your life with that person, you want to declare your commitment to the world. As someone who knew his wife for 12 years before he married her, I know whereof I speak.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Has plastic surgery helped ANY actress?

The Internet seems to be abuzz about Renee Zellweger, who no longer looks as she did for the first 44 years of her life. Here are the old Renee and new Renee::

Zellweger has attributed the change to a healthier lifestyle, which pushes credulity past the breaking point. (A healthier lifestyle doesn't fundamentally change the look of your face, unless you were obese or rail-thin.)

I'm not interested in debating whether she should have had work done; she has the right to change her looks if her self-esteem depends on them. But I wonder whether jobs depend on them.

I'm aware that male Hollywood producers and actors think 45-year-old men can be rugged and sexy, while 45-year-old women have passed their primes. (I just saw a trailer for "The Gambler," starring 43-year-old Mark Wahlberg and 25-year-old Brie Larson. I don't think she's playing his daughter.)

I'm merely wondering whether plastic surgery has ever helped an actress' career. Has some producer said, "Wow, that 45-year-old used to be dowdy, but now I want her to star opposite Brad Pitt in my epic about the Revolutionary War"?

Jennifer Gray modified her Semitic looks after "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Dirty Dancing" and headed straight for obscurity. Meg Ryan had work done a few years back and has appeared in just one feature film since: the upcoming "Ithaca," which she herself directed. I can't think of a single actress whose career became busier or more significant after noticeable plastic surgery.

Though I have mixed feelings about Renee Zellweger as an actress, I always thought she looked uniquely appealing. Now she looks generically attractive, interchangeable with other shiny blondes. (When I first saw the photo above, I thought she might be Kristin Chenoweth.) I wish her well, but what was the point?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why no American studio would make "Pride"

I saw just one movie last week on my vacation, the British import "Pride." I'd say Roger Moore, the critic we often use for wire-service reviews when I don't see a film, undervalued it a bit; I enjoyed this early-'80s tale, inspired by a real-life alliance between gay rights activists in London and Welsh coal miners. But the realization that struck me afterward made me sad: Nobody in America would have made this movie.

Why? Three reasons.

First, it shows obvious pro-union sympathies. We like to think of Hollywood power players as unregenerate leftists, but how often do they make films about labor movements? "Little man/woman takes on the system" stories are always popular. But a movie about striking miners being starved out by their government? Not bloody likely.

Second, one of the heroines is fat. And smart. And bold. In America, fat women in movies can be objects of hilarity, sassy best friends, maternal types or desperate loners. They can't be intelligent leaders who also have well-adjusted lives as moms or wives.

Third, the picture doesn't end with the lonely lesbian finding a girlfriend and the just-out-of-the-closet guy marching off to a happy future. (He's happier because he is out of the closet, but he's on his own and nearly broke.) Nor does the main bigoted character have an epiphany.

We don't deal in ambiguity in America; we like stories tied off with neat bows, with the virtuous people all rewarded and the wicked punished. Hollywood knows that and keeps them coming.

Friday, October 3, 2014

America's newest movie critic: Satan!

Reviewers often end up in quote-filled ads, but this is the first time I've seen the Prince of Darkness weigh in on a film:

I personally don't want to see Nicolas Cage's "Left Behind," which opens today. I'm convinced that, after a decade of hilariously awful films interspersed with "National Treasure" sequels, Lucifer will be able to fill the Hell Plaza 12-plex exclusively with the likes of "The Wicker Man," "Drive Angry," "Season of the Witch" and other Cage mistakes.

But I'm fascinated that The Horned One chose this movie to criticize: not "The Passion of the Christ," "The Book of John," "Jesus" or countless other biblical movies. Apparently, this one will provide inarguable proof that some people will be taken to heaven during the rapture, while the rest will be dropped into the clutches of The Father of Lies. And if we see "Left Behind," we'll know that.

If you go to the film's Facebook page, you find that Satan's pronouncement has stirred up hornets:

"Time is running out, but the good Lord will exhaust every opportunity for the lost. I think many will be saved. I plan to invite and pay for several people to come with me. Take that, Satan!"

Or this:

"It was signed "Satan". Meaning he doesn't want unbelievers to go! We are in the last days and he's doing everything he can to pull souls onto his side and creating havoc by destroying mankind!"

This isn't the first time a film distributor fabricated a critic's quote. Sony Pictures famously invented "David Manning" in 2000, inserting his fictitious comments (all raves) in its ads as if he actually worked at a media outlet. The hoax, exposed after a few months, forced Sony to refund $5 to anyone who claimed to have attended one of the movies because Manning extolled it.

But this is the first time anyone has snuck Beelzebub into a blurb, as far as I know. Who's next: Jehovah?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Joe Green, the world's greatest opera composer

That's how my first music teacher referred to this guy, whose name (translated from Italian) is indeed Joseph Green:

And just in time for Opera Carolina's October production of "Nabucco" comes a new book from Amadeus Press in its "Unlocking the Masters" series: Victor Lederer's "Verdi: The Opera and Choral Works."

I had already read "The Great Instrumental Works," M. Owen Lee's installment in this series, so I knew what to expect: A compact, lucid evaluation of all of Giuseppe Verdi's operas (including the obscure ones) and requiem mass, with whole chapters devoted to the most significant pieces.

Lederer separates Verdi's catalogue into major and lesser works (correctly, from my point of view), summarizes plots, indicates key arias and ensembles, and offers brief but pointed critical commentary. Even someone who thinks he's an expert on the composer might find insights here.

Most crucially, the book comes with a 79-minute CD of Golden Age performances of Verdi's arias. (No choruses, though. So no "Va, pensiero" from "Nabucco," the composer's first hit tune and successful show.) The oldest of these arias brings us tenor Edmond Clément singing "La donna e mobile" in French in 1904; the newest come from Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff and Italian tenor Mario del Monaco, both singing in Italian during the 1950s. If your grandfather droned on about the irreplaceable Claudia Muzio and Rosa Ponselle, you'll find out what he meant.

If you've never heard a note of opera, you'll want to start with a different overview of the art form. If you're already convinced that Verdi has no peer as a composer for the stage -- which I believe, Mozart fanatic though I am -- this will be a fine way to familiarize yourself quickly with Big Joe Green.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Great young pianists come to Charlotte

Technically, only one of them is coming in person; the other's arriving on disc. But both these guys knock me out.

I saw Inon Barnatan this spring at Spoleto Festival USA, where he played a revelatory version of Mendelssohn's First Piano Trio with violinist Livia Sohn and cellist David Ying. After 40 years of listening to classical music, I seldom hear performances that make me rethink a familiar piece of music deeply; this one did. I couldn't find a video of it, so here's Barnatan playing the first movement of a late Schubert sonata.

The Israeli pianist wasn't supposed to come to Charlotte. But when Mandy Patinkin cancelled his season-ending appearance with Charlotte Concerts, the group snagged Barnatan and cellist Alisa Weilerstein (herself a Spoleto and Charlotte Symphony alum) for a duo evening. I can't imagine better fortune: We're getting one of the world's most in-demand cellists and the Israeli pianist who has become the New York Philharmonic's first Artist in Association, which means he has been booked there for three years' worth of concerts and recitals.

By the way, Charlotte Concerts opens its Halton Theater season Oct. 10 with a pair of pianists who reportedly cook up remarkable adaptations of the classics. I've never seen Anderson and Roe, except on YouTube. Here's their version of Astor Piazzola's "Libertango:"

And last but by no means least, the other keyboard whiz I've been listening to lately is Igor Levit, who's the youngest of the lot (27 to Barnatan's 35). I praised his late Beethoven sonatas in another post, and now I've been enjoying his set of Bach partitas. Here's a sampling of the first partita that shows his style: fluid, introspective, emotional (not a word I always associate with Bach, especially in the partitas) and warm:

The Russian-born, German-based pianist plays nowhere closer to Charlotte than Cincinnati in the 2014-15 season, so I'll have to be satisfied with the two recordings he has made for Sony Classics.

When I was in college in the early 1970s, a piano fan told me we were living in a Golden Age: not just the last moments of Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz but the rise of Murray Perahia, Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel and many others. Another one seems to be on the way.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The nicest man in country music

George Hamilton IV passed away last week the same way he did everything in his country music career: quietly and with dignity. Here's a long-ago performance of "Abilene," his biggest hit, in a medley with "Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston:"

I covered country music in the early 1980s and regularly interviewed singers and songwriters. (Highlight of my country music career: Profiling lead singer Joe Bonsall for the souvenir book sold on the Oak Ridge Boys' national tour.) And I never met anyone nicer than George Hamilton IV, who was living in Matthews at the time.

Outlaws were common then. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were hot, sometimes performing with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen. The courtly crooners from the Don Gibson-Jim Reeves era had all but disappeared. Yet here came GH IV with his shy smile, his tuneful but unassertive voice and his easy style.

Most folks remember that he started as a gentle pop singer: "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" cracked the top 10 in 1956, "Why Don't They Understand" got there the next year, and he recorded an oddity called "The Teen Commandments" with fellow up-and-comers Johnny Nash and Paul Anka the year after that. Then "Abilene" went to the top spot on the country charts for four weeks in 1963 and changed his destiny.

I interviewed him more than 30 years ago, when I was a green writer in my 20s and he was just nine years younger than my dad. He took all the time I needed for the interview, fed me some history I didn't know about the industry and seemed pleased to share his point of view with a reporter for the smaller paper in town. (I started at The Charlotte News, which died in 1985.)

Over the years, I heard that other writers had similar experiences. His style would never permit him to become one of the most famous or wealthy singers in his business, but he stuck to it for 50 years. I admire that.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Spanish teacher and the rubber duck

When someone you know casually hands you a CD -- especially in the parking lot of a Harris-Teeter -- you think, "I'll listen to this once, dream up something pleasant to say the next time I meet this guy and drop it into the storage closet." Strangely, I didn't.

I listened all the way through "Como estas, mi amigo?" with pleasure. I even listened to a couple of songs twice. Here's an admittedly amateurish video of my favorite, "Pato de hule." That's composer-singer Jay Barron, a Spanish teacher at Providence Day School, onstage, and bass player Isaac Melendez bouncing around in front of him. The title means "Rubber ducky," and it's a tribute to a reassuring bathtub toy:

He created the CD to help beginning students of Spanish wrestle with simple concepts: colors, things found in nature, friendship, a desire to sing. Some numbers are in Spanish and English, some just in Spanish (with occasional spoken interjections in English), and most are rhythmically infectious. Besides Melendez, the album's full of good Latino musicians: percussionist Jaswar Acosta, guitarist Tony Arreaza, sax player Oscar Huerta.

Barron knows which song is his "hit," as he not only made this video at Fantafest last spring -- it's his only video, as far as I know -- but put the tune on the album twice, once in Spanish and once bilingually.

He's giving a CD release concert Saturday at 2 p.m. in the school auditorium at 5800 Sardis Rd. Tickets are $5, and you can get the CD for $10 there or through his Facebook site. Bring your own rubber duck and join in when he does "Pato de hule." I can't get the song out of my ears!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Thanks for 'Frank,' Back Alley Film Series

I would watch Michael Fassbender, one of the greatest actors of his generation, in any film he made. That includes one where he spends the movie inside a giant plastic head, as the leader of a willfully obscure rock band:

This unclassifiable picture also stars Domhnall Gleason as a would-be musician who lucks into a gig with the band -- he replaces a guy who attempted to drown himself, perhaps with reason -- and insists on trying to make the group famous, despite Frank's ambivalence (and possible mental illness) and his bandmates' loathing.

I write this not to recommend the movie to you, although I do, but to thank Back Alley Film Series for giving us a chance to see it on the big screen. It gets one airing at Carolina Cinemas Crownpoint, 9630 Monroe Rd. (at the North Sardis Road intersection), Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Many people haven't yet heard about Back Alley, an arm of the long-running Charlotte Film Society. Folks may know the CFS for its Saturday Night Cine Club, a mix of foreign and alternative films that didn't get full-run distribution in Charlotte.

Back Alley sprang into being to promote films that didn't suit the Cine Club audience, which is often older and more conservative in its tastes. Back Alley has run an odd but appealing gamut from the restored 1927 silent "Metropolis" to an upcoming 40th anniversary tribute to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

It brought both of Lars von Trier's recent features, the provocatively thoughtful "Melancholia" and the four-hour "Nymphomaniac," in which a sex addict recounts erotic experiences to the man who saved her after a beating. If Back Alley applied a motto to its overall programming, it might be "Something for anybody and nothing that's for everybody."

The CFS recently embarked on a third project, Charlotte Film Lab, to bring writers and directors to town to explain their philosophy and process. For most of its first 30 years, the society had a sophisticated, almost highbrow tone. Today it appeals to highbrows, lowbrows and every brow in between, and we're better off for it.

P.S. As of Friday night, Back Alley has added one more screening. (The first sold out.) It's at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the same theater. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Screen Gems, 'No Good Deed' and the big lie

For the first time in my 27 years as a movie critic at The Observer, a distributor has cancelled every advance screening in North America of a movie that was supposed to be shown to critics that night. This is the trailer for "No Good Dead," the film in question:

The official excuse from Screen Gems -- hold your nose -- is this:

"Screen Gems has decided to cancel the advance screenings of NO GOOD DEED. There is a plot twist in the film that they do not want to reveal, as it will affect the audiences' experience when they see the film in theaters. They apologize for any inconvenience."

Now, if this were true, it would be insulting. It implies that critics are so stupid, careless or mean-spirited that they're likely to give the plot twist away, accidentally or otherwise, and readers have to be protected from them. But movies with plot twists get shown week after week, and that doesn't happen: "The Sixth Sense," a masterpiece with a devastating final scene, got reviewed everywhere with no revelations about the ending.

No, it's fair to assume this movie simply stinks. Screen Gems must suddenly have realized that and decided negative response would be so great that the film is better off with no advance publicity. Poor suckers determined to see it will still spend their money on opening weekend; by the time word of mouth spreads, Screen Gems may have recouped its cost.

Studios sometimes decide not to schedule any screening at all, because they don't need reviews (usually, in the case of a huge action movie or a sequel), because the target audience for that film seldom reads reviews, or because the movie is trash. Screenings can even be set and cancelled because the film isn't opening here, after all, or the studio later decides to screen only in North America's top 10 markets. (We're about number 20.)

But I've never been invited before and been told on the day of the screening not to go. The only reasonable conclusion is that "No Good Deed" must be one bad dud.

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 convert 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.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Queen City Theatre Company rides again!

When Blumenthal Performing Arts decided last summer that Duke Energy Theatre would be available to local groups for only two consecutive weekends instead of three, two of its regular tenants -- Charlotte Shakespeare and Queen City Theatre Company -- went on hiatus.

Around Charlotte, that phrase can mean "into a deathlike coma." So I was glad to see Charlotte Shakespeare pop up last month at its appointed time on The Green uptown, doing "Love's Labour's Lost" outdoors. And I was glad to hear that QCTC is getting back on the Duke Energy boards Friday with "Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight." (That's the cast in the photo.)

I don't know Peter Ackerman's play, though I assume it's more transgressive than his script for the animated "Ice Age." He's creating a TV series named after this comedy, so he must figure it has legs. But I have missed QCTC's brand of all-encompassing outrageousness over the 2013-14 season, and I'm glad to hear it will follow "Things" with "The Performers" next month.

Officially, the mission statement at says the company "wishes to present theater that celebrates the many different races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations that exist in both Charlotte and the world." Founders Glenn T. Griffin and Kristian Wedolowski have spotlighted characters seldom seen at local theaters and asked us to listen to voices that are rarely heard, whether in musicals ("Side Show," "Grey Gardens"), dramas ("Bent") or comedies such as this one. They have inevitably provoked thought and frequently provoked comment, pro or con.

An old adage says the duty of a newspaper "is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That's true in a different way of live theater, which can simply amuse us but more worthily gets us thinking about things we take for granted. Queen City can be counted on to do that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hey, Charlotte: Bring on the noise!

Did you see the story in Sunday's paper, explaining that a committee had come to town to advise leaders on how to make Charlotte a more interesting, less psychologically gray city? We were described as being "suit-y" and having a low "funk factor."

Well, the picture above comes from America's funkiest city. I took it Saturday afternoon in Central Park, a place where I heard at least a dozen languages and saw nearly as many skin tones on a two-hour stroll -- much of it within sight of the skyscrapers, as you can tell.

I saw this guy swirling a net through the air and making bubbles of immense size and multifarious shapes. I heard an elderly Chinese man playing traditional music on the zhong-hu, a stringed instrument he called a little brother to the better known erhu. (Later, I came across another Chinese man playing "Oh Susannah" on an erhu.) I saw woman painting elaborate face tattoos for $5, a living statue pretending to be Lady Liberty, guys in the distance forming some kind of loose-knit drum circle.

Mostly, I saw chaos.

A great city has to have room for a sensory mess once in a while. It can't prescribe a few street corners for buskers (not that we get them much in Charlotte anyhow) or designate one out-of-the-way corner for speakers or invite a single artist to some pocket park for an afternoon.

We have nothing as glorious as Central Park, with its antique carousel and sprawling Sheep Meadow and a tract of marsh that seems to make the city vanish. I stood at the edge of that bank, watching ducks and turtles dipping and sunning themselves, and I saw a white egret soar over the trees. Of course, then I looked down and saw an audacious rat foraging for crackers about four feet from my toes. (Perhaps that's the full New York experience: an egret and a rat.)

But if we want funk, we're going to have to stop worrying about controlling every aspect of it. As cities go, Charlotte seems OCD about order and neatness. And nobody has fun at a party where the host runs around constantly, fretting about whether a guest dropped a cheese stick on the rug.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

King of the New York Streets

That was the name of a single released by Dion DeMucci, who turns 75 next Thursday. But he earned his spot in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame with stuff like this:

When he was in his 20s, few people thought Dion would get to 45, let alone 75. He was a heroin addict whose early successes had been many but brief, and he'd tapped out by the mid-1960s. Then he cleaned himself up and cut "Abraham, Martin and John," a soulful tribute to three slain civil rights figures, which sold more than a million records in 1968 and revived his career. Here's a version with Aaron Neville from the show "Nashville Now:"

I pay tribute to Dion partly because he was a key figure in doo-wop music, a genre I have always loved, and partly because he's a seminal guy in rock history: Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed have acknowledged him as an influence on their careers.

But I also salute him because of his quintessentially American ability to reinvent himself. First he led a doo-wop quartet, the Belmonts. Then he took off as a solo singer with the likes of "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer." He disappeared, then came back as a folk singer. After his escape from addiction, he became a born-again Christian and won a Dove Award for his 1984 album "I Put Away My Idols."

He took secular music up again, returned to the faith he'd practiced in his Bronx boyhood and became a Roman Catholic. He served for a while on the American board of directors for Renewal Ministries and, according to Wikipedia, took up prison ministry -- and, in 2012, released an album called "Tank Full of Blues."

Three years ago, he was collaborating with playwright Charles Messina on a musical titled "The Wanderer: The Life and Music of Dion." He described it to a New York Times writer as "a rock 'n' roll redemption story." Against many odds, the tale of Dion DiMucci had a happy ending, after all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The saddest story in American ballet

Tanaquil LeClercq was exhausted. She faced a wearying transatlantic flight with the other members of New York City Ballet and feared a vaccination might further weaken her. So she decided to forgo the inoculation most of the troupe was getting, a shot of Jonas Salk's recently developed polio vaccine.

She began that 1956 tour as a principal dancer at NYCB, an inspiration to master choreographers George Balanchine (who had made her his fourth wife) and Jerome Robbins. She ended it in a wheelchair, never to walk again.

Documentary maker Nancy Buirski has told her story in "Afternoon of a Faun," now playing on PBS stations nationally in the "American Masters" series. (It premieres on Thursday at 8 p.m. on UNC-TV. It's already running on South Carolina's ETV: The next time is 4 a.m. Monday.) Here's a sample:

If Buirski's name sounds familiar, you may know her as co-founder of the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival -- now called "Full Frame" -- in Durham. This is her fourth feature film as producer, her second as writer-director (after "The Loving Story").

She has collected remarkable footage of LeClercq, and you can watch some of it at American Masters. LeClercq's swanlike neck, flexible arms and extraordinarily long legs lent themselves to comedy, drama or romance. Sometimes she was both serious and comic by turns in the same piece, as in Robbins' "The Concert." (He dropped the work when she could no longer dance it.)

The Paris-born ballerina had a rare command of styles: She could be alluring yet distant in Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun," remain elegant in Frederick Ashton's "Illuminations" or whoop her way through dance-hall merriment in Balanchine's "Western Symphony." She even experimented with Merce Cunningham's modern work in 1949, a year after she became a charter member of NYCB.

This all came to an end before her 28th birthday. She went to bed in Copenhagen, weak and shaking, after a performance on NYCB's gruelling European tour. She awoke without the use of her legs.

Besides celebrating LeClercq's greatness, Buirski poses the question every dancer finally has to ask: What do I do when I have always defined myself by physical grace and skill, and my body no longer responds to my will?

Few dancers have had to wrestle with that question as suddenly as LeClercq did, and none so publicly. After a long period of depression, she redefined herself as a teacher. Former NYCB colleague Arthur Mitchell, who co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, invited her to teach there. She did so from a wheelchair, using her arms to demonstrate steps.

Every athlete -- and dancers are athletes -- eventually asks that question. Think of NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, who's dealing with chronic traumatic encephalopathy and reduced brain function, or Muhammad Ali struggling with Parkinson's disease.

In fact, everyone who has chosen a beloved career and been forced to give it up wrestles in a way with that dilemma. What am I after I stop being a teacher, a journalist, an electrician, a physician? "Afternoon of a Faun" explores a profound artistic tragedy. But in some small way, it's about millions of us who've been pierced by a sliver of the same sadness.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A century of brilliant Irish words

If you consider "Dubliners" the greatest short-story collection in the English language -- as I do --- you must regret not being in New York City tonight. Symphony Space will hold its 33rd Bloomsday, an annual tribute to the language of Irish author James Joyce.

The day often commemorates "Ulysses," the novel about Leopold Bloom that takes place on June 16, 1904. (That's the day Joyce had his first outing with Nora Barnacle, whom he'd eventually marry.) This year, though, it's devoted to "Dubliners," a collection of 15 stories that came out 100 years ago this month.

The last and longest of those, "The Dead," became a movie directed by John Huston just before his death in 1987. (His son Tony wrote it; his daughter Anjelica starred in it.) Here's the final scene of that film, in which a man (played by Donal McCann) realizes his marriage and career have begun to slip away from him, perhaps forever:

The performers reading "Dubliners" at Symphony Space won't act it out. They'll simply let his beautiful, pungent, funny language roll along and speak for itself. Joyce was born into the middle class in that Irish capital and set the stories among the children and adults he knew so well.

Before publishing it at 32, he was an obscure poet whose one volume ("Chamber Music") had come out seven years earlier. "Dubliners" won critical approval, prompting him to finish "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in 1916. More poems, the play "Exiles" and the novels "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" followed over the next 23 years.

"Dubliners" remains the easiest of the prose works to read; Joyce hadn't yet begun to experiment with language or deconstruct characters, and the settings are almost all realistic. Yet his insight into peoples' fears, sadness, comic self-importance, loneliness and struggles to be noticed was already keen. If you don't know this book, don't reach the 101st Bloomsday without making its acquaintance.

Friday, June 13, 2014

One man, one dream, one movie

You have to like a guy who calls his company Just a Spark Films. Must be a moviemaking metaphor: You need a spark of inspiration to light a fire and months of sweat to keep it burning.

Don Johns is what French critics like to call an auteur: He's the "author" of "Do No Harm" in the truest sense. He wrote, directed and produced this debut feature, did his own cinematography, edited it after shooting and even composed the score. Here's the trailer:

He shot the film around Troutman. Like many an artist with a small budget and a yen to do a full-length project, he chose a familiar genre (horror) and set it in places where he wouldn't have a big construction budget: a rural house, a convenience store, an eatery off the interstate.

Johns begins in the usual way: Four friends (roughly of grad student age) take a road trip that carries them away from the highway and into trouble. When the "check engine" light goes off in their car, they ask for help at a solitary house. A wheelchair-bound father and his strangely glum son tell them the vehicle can be fixed in the morning and offer them shelter. But what's going on in the shed out back?

One development may catch you by surprise, but this isn't the kind of film that relies on plot twists. Johns wants to make our flesh creep by establish a menacing atmosphere, catching us off-guard or teasing us with camera angles. (One long tracking shot works especially well.) I liked the touch of the "Dies Irae," the ominous eight-note motif Rachmaninov inserted into most of his orchestral pieces, on the soundtrack.

You'll learn more about the movie here. Johns has been selling DVDs directly but says he has just signed a distribution deal with Panorama Entertainment, which means wider circulation for "Do No Harm." I always like to see a realized dream being shared with the world.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

First the killing, then the music

John Allemeier has just released a compact disc titled "Deep Water: The Murder Ballads" on the Albany Records label, which is devoted mainly to work by living classical composers. Allemeier, associate professor of composition at UNC Charlotte, wrote this hour-long set of three pieces for a performance last year, in which dancer/choreographer E.E. Balcos created three works based on famous folk tunes about violent death. Here's a sample:

The album's a Charlotte-centric project. It's performed by local musicians, notably flutist Erinn Frechette and violinist Jenny Topilow; it was recorded at Acoustic Barn Studios and mastered by Rick Dior. (Allemeier produced it himself.)

And all three of the ballads used ("Poor Ellen," "Pieces of Silver" and "Omie Wise") come from North Carolina slayings. In the first, a lover shoots the woman he wants to quit. In the second, an abused wife turns her husband's gun on him, allegedly as he's planning to plug her in a drunken rage. (Both perpetrators were hanged.) In the third and most famous ballad, retitled "Deep Water" here, a man indicted for drowning a woman near Asheboro served 47 days in jail -- not for killing her, but for breaking out of prison while awaiting trial.

James Grymes' comprehensive liner notes provide guides to both the history of these songs and Allemeier's compositions. Though the music springs from murder, it's seldom violent: He uses a string quartet in "Ellen," a mixed ensemble in "Silver" and an assortment of winds with piano in "Water." The sounds are frequently melancholy and reflective; Allemeier isn't so much depicting the acts of the characters as their states of mind before, during and after their misdeeds. (Murder ballads often depict the perpetrators' remorse.)

I didn't see the live performance, so I can't tell you how effectively it reworked its source material. But the music suggests deep emotional waters indeed.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why aren't you in Charleston?

You have four days left to get to one of the best Spoleto USA festivals I've attended in three decades of covering it. Here's a little taste of "Facing Goya," the opera with music by Michael Nyman. The woman in the center has obtained control of the skull of Spanish painter Francisco Goya; the four people circling her are not angels but scientists, who are trying to measure it in hopes of isolating a "talent gene."

This is Spoleto at its most typical: presenting a work you'll see almost nowhere else (this was its U.S. premiere) and hiring an inventive international director to challenge audiences. But not all of the festival was this cerebral: A theatrical adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's suspenseful novel "My Cousin Rachel" wanted nothing but to keep you at the edge of your Dock Street Theatre seat.

It's rare that everything I see there works for me, but I went six-for-six this year. Both operas ("Goya" and "Kat'a Kabanova"), the play, two chamber music concerts and an afternoon of virtuosity and high emotion from Hubbard Street Dance all left me smiling and/or thinking.

Maybe it's not important to love everything at Spoleto, anyhow. Like everybody, I entertain myself in ways that don't stimulate my brain: "Edge of Tomorrow," the excitingly shallow science fiction movie that opens tomorrow, is a perfect example. But I go to Spoleto to have my consciousness expanded.

An interesting artistic failure doesn't provide the same immediate pleasure as a less ambitious success. But I often find myself chewing it over later, wondering what other people saw in it that I didn't. When a festival takes you to new destinations, which Spoleto aims to do, the journey may be as important as the arrival.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Guns good, nipples bad

The Motion Picture Association of America has forbidden Dimension Films to release this poster of Eva Green, showing an image from the "Sin City" sequel coming to theaters Aug. 22:

The reason? "Curve of under breast and dark nipple/areola circle visible through sheer gown."

Dimension, which is run by the Weinstein Brothers, is delighted by the fuss and making as much hay with it as possible. The MPAA is saying nothing. Without making snarky comments about boobs, I have two thoughts.

First, movie posters have been showing racy images for years. Here's one of Jane Russell in the 1943 film "The Outlaw," produced by Howard Hughes (another guy who liked to capitalize on controversy):

Second, the MPAA wasn't put off by the gun in Green's hand. (Based on my memories of "Sin City," it has just been put to some heinous use or is about to be). So it's acceptable to show people preparing to take life in a movie poster but unacceptable to show them preparing to make love.