Archive for July, 2009

Cooper’s London

July 23, 2009

Thanks for the Memories, Papa

By Mel Cooper

I used to maintain that, if you wanted to get to know Haydn String Quartets (a form he virtually invented and certainly developed brilliantly), you need not bother with anything before Opus 20.

Now, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, there is a wealth of newly-recorded CDs, re-releases, and compilations of music by this most sane and balanced of composers, and I am compelled to report shamefacedly that I was wrong, wrong, wrong!Haydn_cda67611

Humble pie must be eaten, because the London Haydn Quartet have taken it upon themselves to perform two of his early sets of quartets. Their recordings of the Opus 9 and Opus 17 cycles of six quartets each have made me think again. Not only are these superbly articulated and joyful performances, but they reveal exactly the qualities that Mozart became so eager to develop in his own string quartets.

In gratitude for what he had learned, he even dedicated a set to Haydn, and Papa himself joined Mozart in the premieres of all those quartets dedicated to him, making the dedication even more apt. By the way, if you want to exercise your Inner Meanie, and confuse CD shop assistants who are never sure what you mean when you ask for the Haydn Quartetsthose by Haydn himself? Or the ones Mozart wrote and dedicated to him?pose the question!

I am sincerely hoping that the London Haydn Quartet will now go on to record the rest of the quartets written by Haydn, since they are playing all of them live this year in repertory. They are now touring the world, performing all of Haydn’s Quartets, in cycles of 20 concerts (see if some of them are coming to your neighborhood). They are even playing them in Esterházy, where Haydn lived and worked for over 30 years, and whose 18th-century Count was Haydn’s long-time patron. The London Haydn Quartet was founded originally because of its love for this music; they play it on gut strings with classical bows. Maybe that’s what makes all the difference?

From the same British CD label—Hyperion—that overturned my Haydn Quartet prejudices, we also get the first two volumes of Haydn’s Piano Sonatas, performed with great thoughtfulness, grace, and precision (though not on period instruments)by Marc-André Hamelin.               

Hamelin_Apr09Though Hamelin is a technically brilliant pianist, he never displays his virtuosity for its own sake, subsuming it instead to the sometimes apparently simple, yet always sublime, writing of Haydn and to his own thoughtfulness. Try the jaunty Piano Sonata in C major, or the one in E minor, or the Fantasia in C major, all on the first disc of Volume 2; you will hear how fresh and apt the interpretations are! There is something truly compelling about Haydn’s piano sonata- writing, and Hamelin totally “gets” it. This is high quality playing that is extremely sensitive to the musical idiom. Hear it for yourself:

More Haydn will doubtlessly appear before the end of 2009, but these are my top picks so far. I am also looking forward to the next volume of the Florestan Trio’s complete set of Haydn’s Piano Trios (the first of which appeared a few months ago). To my ears, this is a group that can do no wrong. You should check out their Beethoven and Schubert, too. Florestan rules!Haydn_trios_cda67719 Meantime, Hyperion is already doing Haydn particularly proud, and I am going back to gorge on another sample.

Haydn, String Quartets, Op 9, London Haydn Quartet CDA 67611;
Haydn, String Quartets, Op 17, London Haydn Quartet CDA 6772;
Haydn, Piano Sonatas, Vol 1, Marc-André Hamelin, piano CDA 67554;
Haydn, Piano Sonatas, Vol 2, Marc-André Hamelin, piano CDA 67710;
Haydn, Piano Trios Vol 1, The Florestan Trio CDA 67719



July 23, 2009

Arrows of Desire in Jerusalem

by Mel Cooper

A young fairy named Phaedra comes out on stage before the curtain and sings the iconic hymn Jerusalem (words by William Blake), about England’s “green and pleasant land,” where great and even mystical things happened in ancient timesGD*7816333 (including Shakespearean magic, which is much referred-to) but where, in Jez Butterworth’s new play, things are more questionable, confusing, and difficult
in the here and now.

The story takes place on St. George’s Day; the action plays out in a woodland clearing (a fantastical and beautiful set by Ulz). We are near a new estate, outside the caravan where Johnny Byron, a gypsy, lives (so you are alerted—by the reference to England’s earlier Bad Boy of the same name—to Butterworth’s referential style throughout the play). The council is about to evict Johnny Byron and bulldoze his home. He was once a motorcycle daredevil who could leap a dozen buses at a time, but after a serious accident is now a Pied Piper to the younger kids of the neighbourhood. Half the town at least is ready to attack him for selling their children drugs and booze, and providing a place to escape into anarchy. He is brutal, foul-mouthed, and hilariously funny when we meet him.Jerusalem323_1444309c

In a work that provokes laughter first, then complex thought, then sadness and even horror, constructed to evoke a deepening sense of tragedy, this eclectic story is totally mesmerizing—and over three hours long. The cast is brilliant as an ensemble group, but one has to single out Mark Rylance’s tour de force turn as Johnny Byron. His delivery, his physicality, his accent, and his body language superlatively and totally convey his character and backstory. Mackenzie Crook is also noteworthy as Ginger. But it is Ian Rickson’s brilliant direction that shapes every detail of the entire production.

At Jerusalem‘s conclusion, everything you’ve seen feels inevitable, including the extended ovations. This production achieves what the English Stage Company set out to do in the first place—to make contemporary plays with all the power of classics, that become gripping theatrical events. The run has already been extended due to the response of critics and audiences, and I suspect that a West End transfer will follow.

The Royal Court Theatre, London, presents…
Written by Jez Butterworth
10 Jul – 22 Aug

apollo’s girls

July 12, 2009



July 12, 2009


I’m back, and there’s lots to talk about. Filling in for the past few months of silence, some random notes on movies, art, and music.

Time Capsules

Time and place: scrupulous movies can reproduce them whole, more convincingly (and less fatteningly) than even the most toothsome madeleine. Two recent examples:

yoo hooYoo-Hoo,Mrs. Goldberg, Aviva Kempner’s fond and vivid recollection of the decades when black-and-white small-screen television brought us a sitcom starring a middle-aged Jewish woman from the Bronx who, somehow, spoke for decades to the entire country. Called the second best-known woman in America (after Eleanor Roosevelt), Gertrude Berg and her on-screen dopplegȁnger, Molly Goldberg, shared life lessons and recipes (Berg cooked on camerathough not in her real-life Park Avenue apartment), while carrying on dialogue with family, friends, and neighbors across her air shaft. She also produced and wrote Yoo-Hoo, subsequent incarnations (the Goldbergs moved to suburbia), several plays, and a memoir. Except for Berg’s encounter with the Blacklist, when she was steadfast in her support of co-star, Philip Loeb, it is a memoir of a kinder, gentler time. It’s a terrific story. And it is still very funny.

Vanished Empire recreates Moscow in the mid-1970s with astonishing fidelity. Stalin’s grip has been loosened a little by Brezhnev. Literacy and alcohol are everywhere. Bad girls have Big Hair and mini-skirts. Intellectuals, artists, and Party members have big apartments, once home to the aristocracy, while others are sardined into shared rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. And students yearn for vanished empirewhatever Western icons they can find on the black market: the latest rock-n-roll LPs, books, posters, and especially bluejeans. Change is in the air. The contradictions that will lead to Perestroika, a glut of consumer goods, and the loss of culture are revealed  in Karen Shakhnazarov’s clear-eyed past recaptured. There is no moralizing. But there is evidence that choices have consequences and are food for thought.

Public Enemies, on the other hand,  is a big, fat, guilty pleasure. The cinematography, art direction, costumes, and locations are a trip. Did I mention the lighting? The editing? And the skilled hand and iron grip of director Michael Mann? And, of course, there’s Johnny Depp, and a host of good actors who so wanted to be in good company that many of them (who have starred in other films) seemed happy to take cameo roles. There’s violence, but the camera doesn’t linger on it. The period, with all its contradictions and pivotal place in history, surrounds you. So, it’s a trade-off. In the end, the eyes have it.public-enemies

If I hadn’t seenSlumdog Millionaire and The Reader during the same week, I wouldn’t have noticed that both these stories are set in triple time frames. Yet they’re history so well-scripted that you always know where, and when, you are. If, for any reason, you still haven’t seen them, call Netflix!

About the Metropolitan Museum: much has been (and will be) written about the new incarnation of the American Wing, with its light-flooded center hall,  its double mezzanines with masterpieces of glass, metal, wood, and ceramics, the twelve period rooms (with more to come), and the overall painstaking and imaginative planning by its chief curator and architect, Morrison Heckscher. So, rather than go into detail, I’d like to share some sub-text that shadows the essays and pervades the entire enterprise.americanwing

Almost every object in the collection (paintings have yet to be installed; ETA 2011-12) was made by skilled hands. Hands that had a personal relationship to the materials and objects they created, just as the end-users had a personal relationship to the objects, and often to their makers. Walter Gropius originally believed in the virtues of handarbeit and in man’s innate desire to “make”  things; the American Wing displays the wisdom of his pre-mass-manufacturing philosophy.

Of course, since most of the collection was created by the best artists/craftsmen money could buy, it reflects four centuries of  American high society. No planned obsolescence here! But it also presents a faithful and enlightening capsule of American culturebefore it evolved away from the delights of close encounters with fine materials, hand-made furniture, furnishings, jewelry, and tactile life-enhancementbefore the prevalence of disposable plastic and impoverished language that have become the American Way. Before, in other words, the triumph of Pop Culture. Indulge your Inner Luddite. See it for yourself, and take your time. It will be well spent. metvases

One final caveat for the Luce Collection that here is folded into the American Wing: as at most museums (such as the New-York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum), it provides a rich ancillary context for nearby galleries of the America That Was. But who decided that every label next to every piece should have only a number (presumably one that can be looked up on a nearby computer for further enlightenment)? If labels are to be used, why not include some basic information–like the name of the artist/designer and the date of the work? Note to Luce: the computers are usually down, and viewers come away knowing little more than before they arrived. It’s especially frustrating because of the quality of what’s on view and the curiosity it provokes. But it’s an easy fix, guys, so please fix it!

And There’s More!

After seeing The Soloist (for which I had high hopes), it becomes clearer than ever that Hollywood should never, repeat never, make a movie about classical music. Despite being based on a “true story,” and with a promising cast, its nervous producers could not resist sequences of clouds, and heavenly choirs. It raised the long-gone specter of The Competition. Rumored to have been the brainchild of a Juilliard graduate who knew the territory, it fell into the hands of Ray Stark and emerged drained of all the high passion, tension, and emotion that actually saturate international music competitions in real life─and recreated them strictly by the numbers.

 But there’s an antidote! A recent not-made-in-Hollywood documentary, Throw Down Your Heart, overflows with the joy of making music, with the purely visceral give-and-take at the core of inspired improvisation, and with the high adventure of its unlikely hero, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck,  who strums his way through four countries in Africa to seek the origBelaAfricaSessionsEditins of his instrument. Along the way, he discovers the real diversity of African music (the sequence of a jam session with Fleck’s banjo and a giant marimba played by a dozen villagers is hair-raising). You don’t have to know anything about banjos or Africa to be swept into what music is all about: a deeply satisfying immersion in non-verbal communication. There’s little narration, and not much dialogue: it’s not about the words – it’s about the music!

A recent PBS special, The Music Instinct: Science and Song, elegantly ties it all together so you can actually understand your brain on music. Built around a core of articulate music1scientists who love the subject, and a number of musical prodigies (Bobby McFerrin, Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma), narrated by Audra MacDonald, and produced and written by Elena Mannes, it is exhilarating. And yes, the dancing cockatoo, whose moves are a YouTube sensation, plays his part. One of my favorite factoids (after learning that every living thing, including the cosmos, has its own frequency), was discovering that black holes are a “B-flat…27 octaves below anything the human ear can hear.” It’s in reruns on PBS, and available on DVD. Don’t miss it!

Thinking back, I retract what I said about movies about classical music in one case: Impromptu, directed by James Lapine (often Stephen Sondheim’s director of choice) and written by Sarah Kernochan, with an English-speaking union of a cast (Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin, Emma Thompson, Bernadette Peters), romping through boudoirs, ripping bodices, and occasionally tossing off some then-new music: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (arranged for four hands) and a few Chopin Etudes. It’s witty. It’s wicked. It’s divine. And it’s an exception. But it was shot in France (not Hollywood), so one expects, and gets, a highly sophisticated, nutritious soufflé that gives equal time, talent, and affection to words and music. It was finished in 1991, so you’ll have to explore, the library, or Netflix. Dig it!impromptu

And, while you’re at it, try unearthing a copy of The Mozart Brothers an archival gem from Sweden, made for everyone who treasures the Marx Brothers and opera. It will have you laughing at its insider’s slapstick, then sighing over its ravishing  Mozart.  Either way, you win the prize.

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