Thursday, February 26, 2009

Golden voices

We're on break, and I've spent much of it crafting and drafting a dissertation prospectus (In a 24 hour period I sent off a draft, one of my chairs replied with changes, and I sent in another draft). It's good to be able to focus intently on it, and as a result I got the happy-with-it email from my chairs.

This frees me up to talk about The Oscars! As previously stated, the actual films nominated didn't grab me. I'm glad Man on Wire won, and Heath Ledger, and Sean Penn's win was equally well-deserved (even if I wanted Mickey Rourke (well, actually Richard Jenkins)). And it's nice to see Kate Winslet win, even if it's for one of the worst movies she's appeared in.

In terms of the production, I liked the arc of awards about how to make a film, and thought the multiple presenters were a nice touch, even if the speeches to the acting nominees were uneven and I miss the clips (though I don't dislike the replacement). Some nice funny presenters (Tina Fey and Steve Martin are brilliant), but mostly a lot more music which I was mixed on.

Queen Latifah's song during the in memoriam section was lovely, but I don't understand all the camera movement. Most of the time, I couldn't even see who was being honored. Can we just agree that the point of this section is to remember those who've died, not to look at Queen Latifah. Ugh.

A lot of musical talent- Beyonce, Hugh, Zac, and the lovely Anne Hathaway.

I'm a big fan of musical numbers, but I think the Oscars demonstrates the big problem with film musical numbers today (fitting that Baz Luhrmann's behind all this). Hugh Jackman proclaims that the musical is back, and so it would seem. But as this montage demonstrates, it's only casually back. Apparently we just don't have the patience for a musical, just for brief segments of songs. Or, when we actually get the film, we disguise the lack of choreography with non-stop MTV cutting and the lack of singers with cute faces and big names. In fact, everything in this show was a little too jump-cut, Baz Luhrmann style, from the musical numbers, to the montage tributes to the year in film, and, well, Slumdog Millionaire. It just feels more and more like mindless energy. I really do wish the musical (and I mean that in the full sense of the term) was back.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


We're officially on break, and now that I'm fortified with groceries and books and the streets are fortified with snow, I will expect a productive week of work and baking. And blogging, including last weekend's graduate student conference we held, but I'm afraid there's something more pressing: OSCARS!

Yes, every year I get over my anger at whatever they've done, and refocus it on the awards. But this year, I'm having a hard time mustering up my usual energy since the year has been lacking in great movies, and the awards are even more middling. For best picture, we have 2 films that were good (Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire) but ultimately simple in their strengths and quite problematic. Button takes an awfully long time to get going, and when it does, it's really just a tender love story. Slumdog is a love fantasy whose visual slickness undermines any deeper threads it so desperately tries to carry. And both are hampered by a conceit that proves distracting. Frost/Nixon is fine, but never really engaging. The Reader somehow does the miraculous by making sex and the Holocaust numbingly dull. And Milk is the only thing approaching great, a brilliant biopic that zips along with energy and emotion, occasionally coasting on standard, glossy biopic mode, but occasionally inspiring some truly great filmmaking (not to mention perfect performances). Too bad they missed yet another opportunity to recognize Pixar's brilliance, or a truly excellent blockbuster hit (The Dark Knight), not to mention the smaller films (Happy Go Lucky, Rachel Getting Married, The Visitor).

But whatever, we know it's in the bag for Slumdog. Ugh.

Acting, I'd love to see Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, or Richard Jenkins take it. Jenkins is sadly out of the running, but my heart is pulling for Mickey's honestly moving portrayal of an ex-wrestler.

Actress still enrages me for leaving out the best performance of the year (the irrepressibly vivacious Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky), and while I love Kate Winslet, this movie was so bad (even if she's great). Especially because Meryl (always a hoot!), Anne Hathaway, and Melissa Leo (amazing work here- Frozen River is highly recommended) are all better. But alas, Kate wins for the one she shouldn't.

Supporting actor is Heath's make-up for the one he should have gotten in Brokeback Mountain. Well done.

Supporting Actress is where I know I should go for Penelope Cruz, but my gut says Viola Davis will win. Like Kate, it's for the wrong film, but she deserves it.

Otherwise, expect an evening of Slumdomination (except the sound categories I think, which will go to The Dark Knight), with Benjamin Button getting the effects and art direction, Milk gets a screenplay win, Man on Wire gets the well-deserved documentary, Waltz with Bashir gets the foreign film, and WALL-E gets the animated feature. And Duchess gets the costume award, because it's fancy.

I also saw the short films this year, and I loved La Maison en Petit Cubes, which I think has a shot. And I loved almost all the live actions. Two rules compete here: holocaust vs. cute kid. I'm going with cute kid (New Boy), though the film Manon sur le bitume is the best thing I've seen this year. 15 minutes of ravishing details akin to Amelie or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, utter perfection.

I'l post a best-of-the-year list in a bit after I get to see Waltz with Bashir and The Class here (so slow!). In the mean time, enjoy the Oscars. I know I will.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Vindication, sort of

Remember the concert that failed to live up to its amazingness? Yeah.

Well, tonight I went to the symphony band concert. Following an unremarkable first half (a suprisingly stodgy Dvorak serenade all played at a moderate dynamic and tempo with sort of square, chunky melodies (is it just really hard to evoke the Baroque without sounding stale?) and the classic Holst Suite in E-Flat, which I find enthralling), the second half satisfied the longings set in place weeks ago. They played the Stravinsky (I'm happily awaiting that cheap box set Alex Ross mentioned), one of those pieces that's so nicely textured. It probably would have sounded crisper, unfortunately, with Salonen and CSO, but the performance came off decently. The concert closed with Bolcom's "Ninth," titled "First Symphony for Band" to avoid the death-knell, and what a delightful piece it is. The first movement carries out these hammerblows right out of Verdi's Dies Irae, mixes in some of that Mahlerian brass fanfares, and a sort of churning underbelly of harmonic tightness. The second movement bursts into a luxurious waltz that teeters sweetly on drunkenness, then on sourness with the low brass, and finally explodes into a giddy climax of brashly percussive orchestration. There's something marvelous about the screamingly dissonant chords in Bolcom, the way they get used for lightening, rather than darkening, exuberance rather than angst. The third movement was a dark scherzo, the fourth a brilliant collision of overly demanding marches and dance rhythms. How wonderful to have him here.

Oh, and on the bus ride, sudden Karaoke! Hooked on a Feeling is exactly what was needed to follow. I'd like to see the CSO crowd break into song upon exiting.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Touring the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, I came across a bizarre little note about the waterfall. The man who commissioned, upon its completion, insisted it was wrong and suggested to the engineer that he listen to Mendelssohn's "Spring Song." He did, and sure enough, was able to complete the waterfall perfectly.

I don't really think this is meant to be serious, that music can in fact convey precise engineering structures, but it got me thinking in conjunction with a previous post about what music means these days. Aside from the Elgar example in the post, Scott Spiegelberg notes from the AMS listserv:
ack to the American Musicology Society List (AMS-L), another (Canadian!) music historian (Jim Deaville) pointed out that Vincent Persichetti was commissioned to compose a work, Lincoln Address for Nixon's second inauguration. Persichetti set words from Lincoln's second inaugural address, including the reference to the Civil War as a "mighty scourge." The Presidential Inaugural Committee felt this could be interpreted as an allusion to the ongoing Vietnam War, and therefore replaced Lincoln Address with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. So, replacing reference to one war with another war. Ah well.

As I commented in his blog, does no one think there's an irony about replacing a work because of Vietnam with a work that celebrates Russia's victory over the French when we're fighting them ostensibly on behalf of the French? This is even more perplexing than the use of it on 4th of July programs.

Basically, it comes down to how we hear this music. Is music just a sonic impact, where Elgar can underscore any sympathetic scene, and the victory of Tchaikovsky can be anyone's, where Mendelssohn can convey something so concrete so broadly. There's something pleasantly liberating about this, the freedom to own any sound as your own. It's especially tempting I think now, when music is so available. But the scholar in me rebels. Ultimately, the truth is more complex. For the unknowing audience, what's wrong with Elgar, with Tchaikovsky? The music simply works. But for the knowing, the result can be difficult, and more difficult for those who know and are affected by this find it unpalettable.

This is all stuff I'm dealing with as I move into dissertation territory. I find it interesting to examine, to play example-counterexample, but ultimately fear that there's no real answer here. I can't really ignore the cultural meaning alongside the musical, but I also can't ignore the musical meaning either.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Foss and other losses

I was saddened to read this morning that Lukas Foss has passed away. I certainly can't top Matthew Guerrieri's remembrance, and in fact I realized reading his obituary in the paper that I really don't know his music. I certainly ought to, if not for pure edification, for dissertation work. I do remember the entrancing encounter I had with his Baroque Variations in college, a pure chance pick-the-LP-off-the-shelf decision in the music library at Swarthmore (oh, how I miss just random browsing there- now I have to go to the desk with a CD number). The piece has just such a giddy delight of sounds, old and new, washing up on the same shore.

And a few days ago, I read about Brandeis's decision to sell off their art museum. This is a stranger loss, because the works themselves will still be around. They will still end up in exhibitions, maybe some of them will end up more prominent places. And Boston has a number of museums, so I can't exactly claim that the city will necessarily feel it. But nonetheless, it's a significant loss for the school, and what's more, for all of us in a subtle way. My undergrad didn't have an art museum really, just a two-room gallery with rotating shows, occasionally supplemented by random bits of a permanent collection we supposedly had. But in truth, for all the hours I spent in those rooms, the only works that stay with me are ones where I was friends with the artist. So for me the idea of such a big collection at a school is a little strange. But this decision raises the broader question of the place of the arts in education, and more to the point, what that covers. I'd be angrier if they had cut the department and kept the museum, naturally. At Swarthmore, the music program had a number of student ensembles, but we also had a superb orchestra in residence (Orchestra 2001, which can basically be thanked for enlivening my interest in 20th century repetoire), and a range of visiting groups (I still remember a fantastic concert, ill-timed because of finals, by the Colorado String Quartet, with about 6 students in attendance). And to me, that was every bit as vital a part of it. Same for trips to the Philly orchestra, the frequent assignments for art history classes to go to the PMA, the radio station. Sure, the students will be able to head to the MFA or elsewhere (and should!) but I can't pretend it's not a blow. It's like journalism students losing the school paper, sports teams losing equipment. I can only hope the museum was truly appreciated in its time, and that the art program will be first in line when the time is right for increased funding. I don't think they'll ever truly recover, though.

It's not surprising to lose a venerated composer. It's very surprising to lose an even more venerated institution.