Friday, January 24, 2014

Academy Awards amnesia

A friend recently asked me why Hollywood can't distribute first-rate movies for grownups throughout the year, rather than shoving them all into the last 20 percent. I was going to be snarky and say "There aren't enough to go around for 12 months." But the real answer is that the average Academy Awards voter has the memory of a house fly.

Think not? Take a look at the current nominees. Of the nine films nominated for best picture, not a single one was released before October, and seven of them came out in the last two months of the year. All five director nominees come from that list, so none of them predates October, either.

Eighteen of the 20 people nominated for acting awards are in movies from the same time period. The lone exceptions, Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins, were in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," which came out at the end of the summer. But actors in Allen's movies frequently get nominated, so they're no surprise.

How about the screenplay category? Four of the original nominees fit the end-of-year mold, with Allen the lone exception. Four of the adapted entries are also late releases; the single exception, Richard Linklater's "Before Sunset," was the final film in a trilogy whose first movie ("Before Midnight") was nominated for a screenplay Oscar, too.

Some release patterns make sense. Big action pictures come out during the summer, when kids out of school can see them over and over; family entertainment blossoms over holiday breaks, when generations are likely to have free time together. But "prestige" pictures seldom dominate the box office -- "Gravity" being a rare exception -- so distributors want a different kind of payoff.

The people who put out "12 Years a Slave" or "Her" know Oscar voters are lazy: They're likeliest to nominate stuff that's playing at the multiplex now or has just left. Distributors cram these films into the waning weeks of the year, often playing them for one or two weeks in New York or Los Angeles to qualify for Oscars before rolling them out to the rest of us after New Year's Day. Sadly, that system won't change any time soon.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cool day of culture -- in Hickory

The Bolshoi Ballet is as likely to come to Charlotte as I am to swim Lake Norman with a bowling ball tied to each foot. So I had to drive to Carmike Cinemas in Hickory to see Olga Smirnova, the hottest new ballerina in Russia, in George Balanchine's masterpiece "Jewels." Patricia McBride fans will recall that Balanchine created a solo for her in the middle section of that ballet, the part titled "Rubies," at the 1967 premiere. She looked like this:

Smirnova was, as advertised, breathtaking: A woman in her early 20s who was both tall and solid yet ethereal and otherworldly. She seemed almost to be listening to music I couldn't hear, as she floated and whirled through the final "Diamonds" section. Now my wife is talking about going to New York this summer to see the Bolshoi at Lincoln Center, and Smirnova would be worth a trip.

Here's a sample of her work in another piece with Semyon Chudin, who partnered her wonderfully in "Diamonds:"

After a quick lunch, I went to Hickory Community Theatre's world premiere production of "The Seamstress," which runs through Jan. 26. (You have four more chances to go.) Christy Rhianna Branch gave an accomplished performance in the title role, playing a woman with ulterior motives who moves into a rich family's household in 1916 to create a new wardrobe for the wife.

Cece Dwyer's play has a double-twist ending, half of which took me by surprise. (I read a lot of mystery novels.) The company is one of six this year -- the only one in the South -- to mount one of these premieres through a contest held by the American Association of Community Theatre. I enjoyed not only the show but my seat, which was part of the $1.25 million renovation that has upgraded the facility.

Like many Charlotteans, I don't think much about culture beyond the county line, unless I'm flying out of town on vacation. But a beautiful Sunday in Hickory reminded me to keep my eyes open.

Friday, January 17, 2014

N.C. Dance Theatre: Innovation that counts

These days, "innovative" has been cheapened to serve as a synonym for "new." On that score, N.C. Dance Theatre's upcoming Innovative Works concert qualifies: The pieces by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Mark Diamond, Sasha Janes and Dwight Rhoden have never been seen before.

But they're also innovative in the old-fashioned sense: They break new ground through collaboration, a noun you don't hear often enough in the Charlotte arts community.

For a brief time in the '90s, collaboration became a buzzword here. NCDT, Opera Carolina, the Oratorio Singers and the Charlotte Symphony came together for a monumental "Carmina Burana." The orchestra teamed with Charlotte Repertory Theatre for a dazzling and funny "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with musicians playing Mendelssohn behind and among the actors.

But economy and desire for autonomy and plain old inertia reasserted themselves, and those partnerships soon stopped. The symphony still plays for Dance Theatre once a year and Opera Carolina at each production, including the current Il Trittico, but only as hired hands. So this program, which runs through Feb. 15, becomes rarer and more valuable.

Rhoden’s "Sit In Stand Out" takes its inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement and incorporates photographs from the Levine Museum of the New South’s “Focus on Justice” exhibit; Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches will be mixed in with music by Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Nina Simone and others.

Guitarist Troy Conn will perform during Diamond's "Contrast," which will reflect the sounds of blues, classical, metal and jazz guitar through contemporary dance. Bonnefoux and Quentin Talley of On Q Productions have worked up "Transformation," a piece combining ballet and monologues written and performed by Talley. And Janes' "Chaconne" may pair a live violinist with seven dancers.

This idea works on a marketing level: People who aren't necessarily fans of modern dance may take more of a risk on it when other elements come into play.

More importantly, this kind of collaboration stimulates artists to see their own work in a different way. Audience members will come away from the concert smarter and with a more open mind -- but the choreographers probably will, too.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mozart and the (nearly) 80-year-old pianist

I've got tickets to the next Charlotte Concerts show: the Vienna Concert-Verein Orchestra, which comes to Halton Theatre at CPCC on Jan. 29 at 8 p.m. They're going to play my favorite lesser-known Schubert symphony (the fifth), short pieces by Franz Lehar and Johann Strauss Jr. and Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos. (It's number 10, if you're counting.)

One of the pianists is Sebastian Knauer, a German with a strong reputation. Here's a sample of his work with another chamber-sized orchestra:

And the other pianist? He's Philippe Entremont, who's now conducting the Concert-Verein -- and who'll turn 80 in June. When I was a preschooler, living in Japan in the late 1950s, my parents brought home the first classical recording I can remember hearing: Entremont's version of Rachmaninov's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

And now I'll hear him in person, though in a much more subdued work. He recorded this concerto live four years ago at the Iitti Music Festival in Finland, conducting and playing the second part, so I assume it's a favorite of his.

What's it like, I wonder, to spent nearly six decades at the keyboard contemplating Mozart? Do you continue to find depths in his perfectly constructed concertos? Or do you find yourself simplifying, stripping away all the excesses of a youthful player to get to the heart of the music?

I had the good fortune to see Artur Rubinstein on his last long concert tour of the United States; he came to Duke University when I was a student in the mid 1970s. I remember reading an interview at the time where he said something along these lines: "I have spent 70 years playing Chopin, trying to get rid of everything in my playing that was me and not Chopin." Perhaps Entremont might say the same about Mozart.

Monday, January 13, 2014

'Pride and Prejudice' and Kardashians

Like many people, I assumed until this weekend that the Kardashian family was merely a passel of talentless, self-serving fools who'd acquired the annoying knack of becoming famous simply because they chose to live entirely in the public eye.

But I suddenly realized they're actually brilliant performance artists who are collectively acting out a modern version of Jane Austen's beloved novel, "Pride and Prejudice." Like Joaquin Phoenix, who grew a "Duck Dynasty"-style beard and pretended to retire from acting for a year, they're cleverly concealing their real motives under a veneer of stupidity and shamelessness. Only the greatest actors can do that.

Consider Anna Quindlen's comment about Austen's novel, published 201 years ago: " 'Pride and Prejudice' is about...that thing all great novels consider, the search for self." What are the Kardashians doing except searching for their true selves, through broken romances and embarrassing photos and boorish squabbles in public?

Like the Bennet family in "Pride," the Kardashians are headed by an excitable, frivolous mother with a narrow world view and a well-meaning, befuddled father -- in this version, a stepfather -- who has no control over the younger generation; he was once an esteemed member of society, but nobody now takes him seriously. Like the Bennets, the Kardashian-Jenner clan has five girls, though one brother (not in the novel) has been added as a modern twist.

Second daughter Kim Kardashian has the leading role. She embodies second daughter Elizabeth Bennet, headstrong and unwilling to take her parents' advice about suitors; like Elizabeth, she plunged forward in pursuit of her chosen husband, Kanye West. (He, of course, is playing the arrogant, wealthy Mr. Darcy, who "stooped" to a lower social circle when he became infatuated with Kim.)

Eldest daughter Kourtney plays eldest daughter Jane Bennet, beautiful (if perhaps empty-headed) and desiring a prosperous marriage after false starts in other directions. Like third daughter Mary Bennet, who's impatient to show off alleged accomplishments in literature and music, third daughter Khloe Kardashian has dabbled in acting, writing and fashion design in a desperate and dilettantish need to be noticed.

You can draw the rest of the parallels yourselves, working out all the relationships among various boyfriends and spouses. I say only that my respect for the Kardashians has increased immensely since I figured this out. It takes a brave cast of performers to expose itself to universal mockery in pursuit of so subtle an artistic goal.

Photo:  In this handout image provided by Feld Entertainment, (L-R) Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian, holding Mason Disick, Khloe Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, the Kardashian family meets one of the pachyderm stars of the Greatest Show On Earth at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents "Dragons" at the Staples Center July 16, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Friday, January 10, 2014

I love chickens

These are Buff Orpingtons. You may now be thinking, "Man, they'd make good eating." Or simply "Those are some amazingly fat chickens. Wonder what kind of eggs they drop."

Me, I'm thinking of them visually. That photograph looks to me like some kind of strange abstract painting. I just think chickens are cool to look at, with their incredible variety of colors, feathers and shapes. (Before you ask: Yes, I have had to take care of chickens at one point in my life. I didn't want to feed or water them or clean up after them ever again.)

I mention this because Charlotte Nature Museum is having Chicken Day next Saturday (the 18th) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Buff Orpingtons will be there, along with Silkies, Araucanas, Australorps, and Buckeyes. There'll be both adults and chicks of the Polish breeds. Here's a Polish:

Guests will make paper-cup chickens and hear from naturalists. (Favorite fun fact: Chickens can run 9 miles an hour in a pinch, which is probably faster than I can go.) But the coolest thing about these beasts, I think, will be their beauty. We take fowl for granted -- especially barnyard fowl -- but they're as visually striking to me as a tiger or a lionfish. As proof, one more image, this one of a Silkie. The head is on the left!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The secret of Christopher Warren-Green

Classical music fans know the white-haired maestro as the leader of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. He'll be back in the saddle Friday after an autumn break, leading a program of Ravel, Debussy and Brahms.

But virtually nobody in the region -- except his wife, talented violinist Rosemary Furniss -- has first-hand knowledge of the skill that put him where he is today. Before he became a conductor, he was concertmaster of the Philharmonia Orchestra in his native England. And though he took over the London Chamber Orchestra in 1988 as conductor, he also made recordings with it as a violin soloist.

What does his playing sound like? Here's a sample from his LCO recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons:

Warren-Green played the violin solos for one of my two favorite versions of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," with Russian conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy leading the Philharmonia. I also own his performances of other Vivaldi concertos, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5. (If you're curious, here's a complete list of his available solo recordings at Arkiv Music.)

His performances on the violin remind me of his conducting, especially when I first heard him: Favoring lean textures, understated but not unemotional, a little cerebral in the Jascha Heifetz vein and, like Heifetz, elegant and subtle. (I believe Heifetz was one of his idols; Furniss favored and even worked with the equally great, heart-on-the-sleeve Yehudi Menuhin.)

Even if you have other recordings of these pieces, Warren-Green has something incisive to say. His Vaughan Williams, especially, speaks to me: As the lark swirls upward, out of sight, the bird seems to merge with the sky and disappear. It's a rare violinist who can make that happen. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

The gobbledygook of 'Mormon'

I broke my vacation to review "The Book of Mormon" and had an enjoyable time, thinking no more about the show after I went back to my days off. Yet over the next two weeks, I have heard more complaints about the sound design than I have for any other show at Belk Theater in years.

I prepared for the review by listening to songs on the CD and reading lyrics in the accompanying booklet. So I have no way to know whether I "understood" the singers onstage because I could hear them clearly or because the songs triggered words in my brain. I'd guess no one else familiar with the show would know, either.

But seven different people who had never heard "Mormon" said they had problems making songs out, whether in big concerted numbers (where a muddle is pretty common) to solos. Comments came from people who sat in the center orchestra, rear orchestra and front mezzanine, so the sufferers weren't plagued by one dead spot in the Belk. (If there are any.) Complainants came from at least three different audiences, and none attended on opening night (when, perhaps, all the bugs might not have been worked out).

Sound checks made before opening remain an iffy business: The house is empty, and engineers can't really know what numbers will sound like in an unfamiliar hall. That's why someone stays at the sound board during a show, fine-tuning as needed. Of course, he adjusts the sound at least partly to his own satisfaction. A sound designer once told me that's why many Broadway tours seem loud to audiences: People managing sound have gotten so used to a certain noise level that they continually believe it needs to be boosted a little.

Critics generally get good seats, so I'm hesitant to apply my own responses to the rest of the audience -- especially, as noted, if I'm familiar with a piece. And even I never expect any chorus, from the one in 'Book of Mormon' to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to be intelligible all the time. But when so many people tell me they couldn't understand what was being sung, I have to assume a sound designer was asleep at the switch.