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.