Saturday, February 23, 2008

2007: Two Extremes

Oscars are coming, and I realize I have yet to relay to you my top ten for the year. My initial reaction is that it was an odd year of particularly good summer movies, high on entertainment, and a strangely bleak and less-inspired fall. Anyway, here they are:

10. Waitress. A charming yet complex tale of imperfect love. Equal parts sweetness and tartness, fantasy and reality, Adrienne Shelly's comic tale of a woman trapped in a relationship, an affair, and a diner yearning for something more hits all the right notes. I especially love the way what could be another clichéd relationship problem is actually fodder for deeper questions about love, freedom, and commitments.

9. Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days. Another grippingly realistic Romanian film, following the course of Otilia as she helps her friend Gabita procure an illegal abortion. Gut-wrenchingly intense and fantastically paced, it never stoops to moral grandstanding nor sentimentality, but pursues an unflinching truth to the characters and realities they face. Chillingly executed.

8. The Bourne Ultimatum. One of the better action films of recent memory, Paul Greengrass's installment of part three features some of the most satisfyingly involving chase sequences. Trimmed down to its basics, the film is never less than superb entertainment, and the rooftop climax is stunning.

7. Away From Her. A mature, deeply sensitive dramatization of Alice Munro's The Bear Went Over The Mountain, Sarah Polley's directorial debut stars a luminous Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer's and Gordon Pinsent as her husband. Acted with subtlety and passion, the effect is starkly beautiful and, quite simply, heartbreaking.

6. No Country For Old Men. The best film since their, the Coen brothers deliver an engrossing, brutal morality tale. Beautifully shot and cleverly filmed, it's bloody and brilliant with indelibly stark performances.

5. Knocked Up. Not only the year's funniest movie, but perhaps the year's smartest. Judd Apatow's tale of a surprise pregnancy delivers the most insightful look at men and women and their differences since High Fidelity. A perfect marriage of male and female comedies.

4. No End in Sight. Charles Ferguson's clear-eyed look at the war in Iraq is the perfect documentary for right now. Side-stepping the spin and smugness of other documentaries, it offers in plain words and painful images the history of the war. He's collected the words of many sources, from scholars to soldiers, and assembled them into an effective, damning, and sobering essay.

3. Ratatouille. Brad Bird has teamed back up with Pixar to deliver one of their best films yet. It offers eye-poppingly clever animation along with a modest yet boundlessly effective tale that delights on so many levels. Reaching beyond the simply clever, Bird hits upon some of the most profound statements to be made by popular art.

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Julian Schnabel does the impossible in crafting a sensually gorgeous biopic about a man paralyzed. Schnabel has made not simply a movie, but a genuine work of art, poetic and beautiful, seemingly liberated from the mundane world of the possible. In encountering the near-death, film is made freshly alive.

1. There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson's epic examination of American greed and obsession fuses everything into a darkly satisfying whole. Amidst the bleak landscapes, the film fills them with large characters and large ideas, recalling the sprawling masterpieces of great cinema past.

It's interesting I think that my top two offer two divergent ideas of greatness, one outwardly expansive the other interior, one wildly new and the other classic.

Ten films I also want to recommend:
The year offered a number of great moments. Several foreign films offered dark realism, including the biting, modest comedy 12:08 East of Bucharest and Ken Loach's insightful look at the Irish fight for independence and internal violence The Wind That Shakes The Barley. In America, I enjoyed the gritty honesty and moral heft of Gone, Baby, Gone and the intelligent hunt for a serial killer in Zodiac. On the lighter end, Juno and Lars and the Real Girl surprised me with their touching charm and originality. Paprika and The Simpsons Movie exemplified the entertaining power of animation, the first to offer a wildly vivid spectacle and the second to induce more laughs than almost any other film this year. And finally, a nod to the clever musicals Enchanted, with its clever reaffirmation-through-satire of love through song and Once, for its extraordinarily simple yet moving tale of music's importance to people.

Five films to avoid:
Becoming Jane. It's sort of a lukewarm casserole of Jane Austen leftovers. It's technically filling, but nowhere near as good as the first servings.
Death at a Funeral. Completely unfunny and predictable. I'll avoid the obvious uses of the word death here.
I'm Not There. I wasn't there either. An intriguing failure, beautiful and devoid of anything resembling a point.
Lust, Caution. A waste of talent, smothered in atmosphere and clichés to stiltifying effect.
Rocket Science. Wildly uneven, a sort of "winning little comedy" that loses.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The choice may have been mistaken, the choo-choo-choosing was not

I've just returned from New Jersey where I participated in a conference celebrating Sondheim. I had the distinct pleasure of reading my paper in the company of Cornel West, with whom I had a quite engaging conversation afterwards. Also thrilling was getting to hear multiple approaches to the works, from literature, theater, and gender studies alongside my own musical one. It was good practice for me too, learning to communicate music on a more layman's level without falling to superficiality (or at least I hope that's what I did). I also enjoyed meeting one other musicologist and a theorist who both are working on Sondheim; we banded together. There was also a performance, a film screening of Hangover Square, and a fascinating Q&A with Sondheim at the close.

As you can see, it was busy, but it made a suitable Valentine's Day gift, spending it with Sondheim's corpus and a couple friends from college. The highlight for me was Saturday, though, in which the conference had ended and I had a day to spend enjoying the city and its musical (and Valentines Day-appropriate) offerings.

First up was the revival of Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim's take on the creation of George Seurat's Sunday on the Island of the Grande Jatte. It takes a couple minutes to get used to Dot's cockney accent and the digital animation, but that aside I found the revival to be beautiful. The first act has such a nice subtlety to it, from the delicate chamber orchestrations to the way George stands helpless in the corner, facing away, as Dot says her last goodbye in "We Do Not Belong Together" (which has the brilliant exchange: "There's nothing I can say is there?" "Yes, George, there is. You could tell me not to go"). And the end of the act, everything comes together in the painting in a magical moment. The second act is a little problematic--it feels rushed, and the characters don't develop as much, but it's hefty emotions as a modern day artist faces not just artistic crisis, but loses his grandmother, his last surviving relative. It's impossible not to get a little choked up at some of the more tender moments, and I love the way themes both dramatic and musical return transformed in the second act connecting the two. And the end not only undoes the relationship problems of "We Do Not Belong Together" but also undoes the creation of the art, leaving a nice open ending. "So many possibilities."

Second, I saw David Robertson conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. They have an amazingly crisp sound, beautifully balanced and tight without feeling mechanical. The concert eatured the NYC premiere of John Adams's Dr. Atomic Symphony. The work feels oddly assembled, with transitions almost nonexistent between material, but the material itself is quite good, especially the famous Act I ending Batter My Heart, Three Personed God, a powerhouse of an ending fusing raw minimalist energy with baroque lament. They also performed Sibelius's Tapiola on the same half, which is a piece I don't get, but in a sure-footed production it's much easier to take, especially the way a single note is seamlessly transferred among several instruments. The two are interestingly paired, since the Sibelius has almost no distinct material, but everything is so interwovenly connected. The first half started with the Brahms Tragic Overture in the best performance I've heard yet that highlighted the thematic solidity of the work without losing the orchestral color of Brahms. But the highlight was Christian Tetzlaff giving a superb rendition of one of my favorite pieces, the Berg violin concerto. My friend Jack was noting how much he loves the opening, stacked fifths that play with the orchestral and violin timbres. I'm partial to the closing. The second movement has that lovely Bach chorale that enters in so clearly before getting submerged among the other material (but always audible). The very last moment, the violin plays the row extending into the uppermost registers of the instrument, and underneath it briefly comes a solid, glowing major chord in the brass. That moment is pretty affirming, but Berg goes even further, ending on the most luminous, rich chord I can imagine. Fitting music for Berg's dedication, "to the memory of an angel." Who needs valentines, when you have this?

Friday, February 8, 2008

The shocking secrets of classical music fans

No, not me. The NYTimes critics "have decided to reveal some of their secret musical passions: works and performances they listen to for sheer pleasure — but perhaps not loudly when neighbors are around to hear." The implication is that classical music fans also like other music, or at least the line "when they are not listening to timeless classics" implies (that only classical music is a timeless classic is itself unnerving).

So what do we get?

Leroy Anderson. OK, who doesn't love a good pops piece. But this is still not a household name, although Sleigh Ride probably is. I do love pops concerts, and think there's a fine art to letting go like that.

Federico Mompou. Apparently, these are "tiny unassuming piano pieces." How is this different from some of Chopin or Schubert? Who knows. But it's Spanish, and obscure, and frankly this seems to be flaunting the nature of the question, saying "Look at me! I know obscure classical music that I like even though it's not a brand name!" I don't know the pieces, but it sounds, well, like classical music. (On a side note, I like the emphasis he places on how simple music can be so engaging, a characteristic often lost).

Beecham's version of the Messiah. Again, this flaunt's the author's knowledge of preferring historically informed performances. And again, I like the message, that many interpretations can be valid and enjoyable without being technically "correct." But is that the best we can do.

Simone Kermes. A soprano.

So, what does this article say? Well, it says several things. It says that classical music is not just a single entity, but a complex aggregate of different interpretations. It speaks quite well for listening to different approaches openly and with awareness, and about what we often undervalue in music--emotion, simplicity, and the act of pleasure. But it also reaffirms something, that classical music is off in its own separate world, that its interests run counter to other musics. But if the article is going to preach individualist interpretation, pleasure, and emotion, how can you still make that claim while completely disavowing other forms of music that rely on the very same idea? If Leroy Anderson is the closest (and apparently most humiliating) you'll come to begrudgingly acknowledging "lesser" forms of music, then we've got ourselves a problem.

Also check out the audio sample of the "Fourth" Symphony. Yeah, if we're going to be elitist, let's at least get it right.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Program NOTs

I went to a concert here the other night. Beethoven 4th piano concerto and Mahler 5. The Beethoven was beautifully elegant, with a stunning display of lyricism by the concerto competition winner, although her tempos were rapidly fluctuating and on the whole ar too slow in every movement for my taste. The Mahler was distinctly excellent, after a rough first movement. It's rare to get an orchestral work of that magnitude so light on its proverbial feet, but the waltzes and fanfares and marches glittered with a very Viennese classical style. I loved the vividness of the scherzo and last movement, the translucent textures in the modestly subdued fourth movement, and the sharpness of the end of the second, where everything drops off into a series of one note gestures. The audience was incredibly quiet at the end of the two even numbered movements. Bravo.

But that's not my point here. Ahem. My point is about program notes. Part of me (the cynical part) would love to see a site where people put up quotes from the worst program notes out there (the other part of me says that I'm being too critical of something that isn't meant to have that level of scrutiny). I remember one that vividly explained that Tristan and Isolde was in a rondo form. I, uh, guess that chord keeps coming back...yeah. The notes for this one weren't bad, except for the following about the Beethoven:
The piano's short introduction ends on the dominant key of D, followed by the orchestra restating the theme down a third, in B major; a harmonic technique that Beethoven used often.
Movement by third, yes common. In between movements, or maybe for the secondary theme. But definitely not for the restatement of the first theme immediately after the exposition. What infuriates me is the way this turns the most magical moment in the entire piece into something apparently commonplace. I love the opening. The piano enters so quietly and serenely, and then the orchestra enters in a new harmonic sphere. The contrast is attention-grabbing, sure, but in the most seductively, transportive way, at once familiar and foreign.

Rant over. What are your favorite program note gaffes? Maybe if there's enough, we can start that website after all.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Film score addendum

I am happy to report that the Academy did well looking at songs. Both Enchanted and Once made good use of songs within their stories (as did the un-nominated Into the Wild). My position is that the song needs to contribute to the movie in an effective way, rather than just play over the credits. It need not be diegetic, but it ought to comment upon the movie intelligently and effectively.

Oil Runs Thicker Than Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is an engrossing tale, as large as the landscape it fills, and about as bleak. It's a modern day parable of greed told through two characters. The central character is Daniel Plainview, first introduced in a stunning, wordless introduction that sets the ominous, gritty tone perfectly, working hand in hand with the stunning cinematography, which negotiates between claustrophobic darkness and expansive sepia-toned frontiers, and Jonny Greenwood's immensely effective score (more on that later). Daniel is an oil tycoon, who fights mercilessly for what he wants, which is power. His rival, and in many ways double, is Eli Sunday, the youthful evangelist who runs the local church. Filling out the relationships are Eli's father Abel who sells Daniel the farm for drilling in hopes of a better life and H.W., Daniel's son who helps soften Daniel's image if not his heart and conscience. Eli and Daniel are locked in a battle of, well, Biblical proportions, equally greedy to not only win the town's hearts but to do so at the expense of the other. This is a dark parable of the American dream, feeding hungrily off the best of American cinematic epics. The characters are large, and their shadows are more than filled by two intense performances, most notably Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel, whose voice ever so slowly slides from slick to mad, often accompanied by sickening smiles and flinty eyes, drool, laughter, and silences. It is a bravura performance, one that towers over anything else, although Paul Dano's quieter Eli often alludes to the same fierceness in his own way. Both men battle each other at the expense of all around them, and the sprawling epic traces this battle to its gut-punching end.

The score, as I mentioned, is fantastic. It's darkly chromatic, working not as your typical score, but at times as its own dramatic agent. The opening strains slide from a dense cluster to a single pitch, saying more than anything else about the opening few seconds about what is to come. It is percussive at times, but the string writing is particularly inventive, alternating between stern passages of intensity to more fluid sections of darkly expressive music that hovers on the edge of sentiment but remains firmly clear-eyed, reminiscent of Berg I thought. This has been a year of exceptional music (I was recently reminded of the brilliant use of Handel's Messiah in Charlie Wilson's War, but this towers above them in its declaration that music can do so much, placing this film among such lofty company as Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey and On the Waterfront. It's a crime this film was overlooked for a nomination for Best Original Score. It is not only the best score of the year (not to mention film), but the most original.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Performances, Dan style

Those of you who know me know I don't really play anything beyond CDs. Bad piano when required, and vivaciously bad singing more often than is probably prudent. But I'm not a performer, and that's how it is. Thus, when I do make music, it's a much more interpersonal activity, everyone engaged and no spectating. Two cases of recent memory that really made my day.

In sections this week, we've been shape note singing. I love it, but the day we combined three sections into a room of about 50 or more people, all singing as loud as possible, it's just incredible. I don't care about wrong notes, I care about feeling, and y feeling I mean volume here.

I went to knock on my friend Simon's door, and heard the faint strains of the Beethoven 4th piano concerto on the other side (2nd movement was just beginning). SO I knocked that stern baroque dotted rhythm along with the recording. He responded with the piano part. This, uh, continued until well into the third movement (which is honestly a blast to tap out that way), eliciting strange looks from people who only heard knocking and couldn't hear the music. That's precisely the level of dorkiness i like to keep up.