Archive for August, 2012

Cooper’s London

August 22, 2012



The Hills are Alive!

The 19th Verbier Festival and Academy ended on 5 August 2012. For the general public it was two weeks of world-class concerts by world-class musiciansthe same people you can hear in Salzburg or at the Proms. In Verbier they are usually trying out something new that will later appear elsewhere; the setting is a Swiss village that is a ski resort in the winter and hence full of hotels, cafes, restaurants, ski lifts and some extremely expensive shops and restaurants. Dress tends to be casual smart all day, and I have never seen so many thin people in one place before in my life. Or so much cashmere.

But the real heart of the event is the Academy, which lasts over three weeks; a place where the same musicians you hear each evening at the big concerts are teaching, giving master classes and generally encouraging the next generation of fine musicians just starting their careers. There are literally a couple of hundred of them working in town throughout the period.

The Verbier Festival Orchestra has auditions all over the world each year, and the “chair” of each orchestra section rehearses its members, who have to be under 30, and who usually get four or five rehearsals for each concert. One-third of the orchestra is turned over each year; many of them graduate to the Verbier Chamber Orchestra.

As well, luminaries such as Martha Argerich (who was performing for the public), Alfred Brendel (who was not performing), Ileana Cotrubas, and Leonidas Kavakos (who performed a stunning Korngold Violin Concerto at the final concert of the season) are living in Verbier, shopping, chatting with fans who run into them in the street, and giving personal tuition and Master Classes. While I was there, the Hagen Quartet was in residence, teaching—and playing—Beethoven quartets. Earlier in the season, audiences could hear Elizabeth Leonskaja in recital, Dutoit conducting a stellar cast in Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande, the Capuçon brothers, Mischa Maisky, Simone Dinnerstein, Paul McCreesh conducting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Nathalie Stutzman, among others. all there to teach as well as to perform. The students get free tickets for any concert they want to attend. The public gets free entry to a range of classes, recitals, lectures and Master Classes. There is a daily Festival newspaper listing and explaining events, and you need to consult it regularly or you will miss something you really wanted to see. Everything is casual except the musicianship and professionalism.

Martin T:son Engstroem, who founded the Festival/Academy and runs the whole shebang, tells the students every year that if they are not exhausted by the end of it, something is wrong.

Their every moment is scheduled with private study, chamber music sessions, and just going to the concerts. There is hardly even time to practice, the schedule is so full. For the music-loversthere are at least two major concerts to buy tickets for every day. Everything else is free and there are also pre-concert talks you can choose to attend. You can hear Academy students and sometimes their mentors in concerts at 11 every morning and 11 every night in the church. There are people who attendeverythingevery day, with very short breaks for food and drink.

The town is very small; you can walk to its outer limits from the centre within ten to fifteen minutes. While walking you are bound to run into a musician you have just heard play, as well as friends you did not know were in town, or the person you have sat next to at a couple of concerts and wanted to talk to. It is, of course, high up in the mountains and everywhere you look the scenery is stunning. Also, by the end of a week or two, you get pretty fit; everything is up or down. They do not do flat in Verbier, physically or musically.

The architecture is generic Swiss chalet, and because the Swiss franc is comparatively strong, everyone else finds it on the expensive side. But it’s worth the visit. The atmosphere’s relaxed—all that clear, clean air!—and you experience a complete lack of city angst or rush. There is nothing much to do other than listen to lots of music; shop in the interesting boutiques that cater to that skiing crowd in winter; eat in the fine restaurants (some of which require a second mortgage on your home to pay the bill), or go up the ski lifts and walk down the mountains. If you prefer, you can jump off the mountain clutching one of those quasi-parachutes the size of a handkerchief and glide down into the valley hundreds of feet below.

For the young musicians in the Academy there are huge benefits—not just in what they learn—but also in the networking they can do among themselves and through their mentors. For the public, there is also the excitement of discovery. On 3 August Yuja Wang cancelled a recital and therefore we heard 26-year-old Dennis Kozhukhin, the 2010 winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize in Brussels and an alumnus who studied, as a teenager, in Verbier from 2001 to 2003. His pianism and technique was perfection, matched by his emotional understanding and strong personal interpretation skills.

But that morning we had already heard the teen-aged David Kadouch, one of the piano students in this year’s Academy who stunningly played, among other things, all of Chopin’s 24 Preludes.

Pamela Frank was teaching this year; Pamela Frank was also performing. And huge praise must go to Manfred Honeck honeck, who runs the orchestral programme and who also gave two brilliant concerts in the final week (one as a last-minute substitute), who elected to play the advertised programme at short notice so as not to throw the orchestra – or René Pape, who gave us masterful moments of Wotan monologues.

The overall winner of the Academy Prize this year was a young violinist named Noë Inui who played in a Brahms Piano Quartet at 11 AM in the church on the final day and was there not only to accept his prize at the final concert in the evening, but also to play Bartok Duos with Leonidas Kavakos just to show us why he had won that prize. Julia Fischer was once a Verbier violin Academician, and Anna Netrebko was a student in the vocal school. Martin Engstroem has plans to keep expanding the work and size of the Academy as well, and next year will launch a music camp. Like Aspen and Tanglewood, Verbier’s big concerts take place in a huge tent that seats 1500 at the moment. Bur the city of Verbier has plans to construct new hotel facilities soon and a permanent theatre for the festival will be part of the deal.

Next year, for the twentieth anniversary, luminaries such as Netrebko and many more of those whowere once Verbier students are returning there to teach and perform. The tradition is for the established stars to do something they have never done before; Netrebko, I hear, will do her first Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. And Verbier will also be celebrating two hundred years since the birth of Verdi and Wagner, and one hundred since the birth of Benjamin Britten.

For an insider’s view of the plans:

Apollo’s Girl

August 16, 2012

Three (Cheers) for the Quad!


When Krzysztof Kieślowski died in 1996 he left behind a huge body of work that was quirky, deep, original, and often—like the Cold War Poland in which he had learned and practiced his art—darkly funny and forever mysterious. Of all his films, it is his Trilogy (Blue, White, and Red) that remains a landmark of European cinema. The colors are those of the French flag, and the films’ themes express liberty, equality, and fraternity in ways that only Kieślowski could imagine them.

Often the Trilogy is shown on the fly, one third at a time. So we owe a debt of gratitude to the Quad Cinema for not only booking all three, but scheduling them so that they can be seen in sequence, the way Kieślowski intended. It’s what cinema is all about, and thrillingly rich enough to warrant an all-afternoon binge. Even better: the Quad is offering a Trilogy special of $24 for all three films. It’s booked to run from August 17-23, so grab it! 

The films are loosely linked, and each is, in a way, about love, but each has its own cast and character: Blue, starring Juliette Binoche (as a widow who has lost both husband and child in an accident), follows her through the pain of grief and isolation, shadowed by her husband’s music. Her liberty is to be won only by navigating a complex tangle of conflicting relationships, memories and, ultimately, emotional transformations. Kieślowski loved music, and it defines the story as much as the actors, the décor, and the cinematography.

White is funny—at times hilariously so—but is also a sly commentary on Poland’s swift embrace of capitalism after its years of domination by the Nazis and the Communists. Its hero has himself smuggled back to his native Poland in a suitcase after losing everything in Paris, intending to start over, while carrying out a revenge fantasy against his unfaithful French wife. Kieślowski proves himself as adept at comedy as he is at the somber depths of grief, and as ingenious at its complications as well.

Red (God, it’s satisfying!) is a masterpiece; Kieślowski’s last film, and the one in which he effortlessly considers all life’s big questions while wrapping up the Trilogy in a cunning and shamelessly romantic finale. We won’t give it away, but you will find it hard not to cheer even as tears run down your cheeks. But that’s Kieślowski for you.

If you want to sustain the mood after the screen goes dark and the lights come up, stroll over to some of the East Village’s Polish restaurants for the real thing. Sweet, sour, light, heavy. And there’s Polish vodka aplenty to help you channel the filmmaker in retrospect.

Fearless (Re)Discovery

August 8, 2012


People who have been going to the Gate Theatre in London regularly know about Carrie Cracknell the director. But attending her production of A Doll’s House at the Young Vic has made me put her in the category of directors whose work I want to follow.

There were many exciting things about this interpretation — not least the very intelligent and dramatic adaptation by Simon Stephens, who was doing Ibsen’s play for the fourth time. This time he has certainly cracked it, and the set and costumes by Ian MacNeill and Gabrielle Dalton completely enhance his concept. This is a reading that makes you think about how revolutionary the play must have been to its first audiences. Cracknel places it in its original period (it was first produced in 1879), but the set itself is a kind of overgrown late-Victorian early-modernist doll’s house inhabited by the characters, a house that turns when people move from room to room so that the action is always near the audience. The performances of Hattie Morahan as Nora, Dominic Rowan as Torvald and Susannah Wise as Kristine, in particular, are astonishing in their detail and how well they convey the various emotions—or lack of same. And the sense of the family and its situation is very comprehensively and intensely conveyed.

But the real discovery is clearly Carrie Cracknell, who has made of this play something fresh, astonishing and strong. The night I went the audience actually gasped at times, it was so involved and somehow so surprised, and even laughed in many places, reminding one of the elements of black comedy in Ibsen that often get overlooked. The sense of ensemble, of everyone on that stage not only inhabiting his or her role but working with and off the others, is very potent. With its swirling and twirling set, it was a brilliantly choreographed production. Nobody tripped and it was only afterwards that I wondered at the sheer audacity of the technique. It was utterly absorbing. I can hardly wait to see what Carrie Cracknell takes on next and how she handles it; and I will keep you informed in good time.

A Doll’s House played at the Young Vic in London until 4 August,
but I would not be surprised if there is a subsequent transfer
to a suitable West End  theatre.                                   —MC

Apollo’s Girl

August 7, 2012



Latinbeat and a Little More

We’ve got two calls to action here: before I get down with Latin Beat  I must warn you that you have less than 24 hours to see Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy. Part of the Film Society’s series of NYFF’s past-perfect picks, it’s being shown only once—tonight at 6pm. Whatever your plans, you will just have to change them. Trust me. Even if you have to beg at the box office or whine piteously on the standby line.

Mike Leigh has a huge palette, but Topsy-Turvy was one of his biggest surprises, and surely one of the best. Like a favorite uncle’s 19th-century chromolithograph come to life, Leigh’s gorgeous take on the Victorian era, its infatuation with all things Japanese during the 1885 exposition, the fabulous Gilbert and Sullivan, their evergreen Mikado, the backstage tumult that made it sing, and the intimate pains of Gilbert’s marriage should not, and cannot, be missed. And if you can’t get in, flood the Film Society’s office with pleas for an encore showing.

And now, back to Latinbeat.

Like its namesake, Chinese Takeaway (Argentina) will fill you up, but leave you wanting more. There is a sly, deliciously loopy humor to the film, anchored by just the right emotional heft and some serious issues. A really ingenious story, told through Sebastián Borensztein’s artful writing and direction and the performances of Ricardo Darin and Ignacio Huang, is matched by technical values that make the entire meal a pleasure. The jokes are actually funny, and the cast has as much fun as the audience. There are surprises, too (also ingenious). In fact, the director claims it’s based on a “true incident”. Maybe. But, on the other hand (no spoilers here), you will have to stay through the credits to find out what that incident was. DO NOT LEAVE THE THEATER! It’s definitely worth the wait. There are few comedies of this skill and wit around. Make sure you find time to enjoy it.

Then, there’s Unfinished Spaces (Cuba). It’s an architectural, political and moral tragedy that had me poised to open my window, like a refugee from Network, to scream “I’m sick and tired and I’m not going to take it any more!” Of course I will tell you why. Please bear with me (second call to arms and digression alert):

When you have seen a lot of architecture, it’s hard not to be aware that it’s not just about the building itself, or the materials it’s made of, but where, and how, it fits into its cityscape. In New York, the cityscape was on a human scale for more than a century, with the occasional iconic skyscraper popping up for appreciative ogling. It made for a uniquely varied and compelling skyline. But no more. Now it’s become all about that scourge of the urban landscape: air rights. So that anyone with enough money and lack of care can snatch them, grab the capital, and put up something both overwhelming and overscale wherever it can be shoehorned in. Designed, of course, by a starchitect who needs to keep his name in the limelight and his staff on salary.

A perfect example: Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street, plunged into a streetscape of once-and-former three-story houses—an ever-diminishing reminder that New York was once both vibrant and humane. Where J & R now stands there was a theater that staged the American premiere of Don Giovanni;  in living memory, there was an aged bookseller nearby whose dusty volumes were on offer near the corner of Park Row and Anne Street. More: the row of modest brownstones opposite Carnegie Hall have been replaced by the current candidate for “New York’s tallest building,” One 57, with 90 stories, by Christian de Portzamparc. The list grows longer every day.

But it’s not just about size: it’s about context, and celebrity. The Hearst Building was designed by Joseph Urban in 1928. It’s understated but sturdy, and was always meant to support a tower. A matching tower, for which Urban’s original design remained unbuilt because the Depression intervened—until 2006, when Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower opened its doors to receive the Hearst Corporation’s working stiffs back to their new glass-and-steel quarters. Foster has specialized in work that calls attention to itself not only for its size, but for its inappropriateness. (Anybody remember when Prince Charles went on a tear about the architect’s proposed addition to London’s National Gallery—the “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”?) So each new hulking contestant is another nail in the coffin of peaceful coexistence of periods and styles; its success depends on how much noise it can make, how much attention it can steal, and for how long.

Which brings me back, believe it or not, to Unfinished Spaces. In 1961, Fidel Castro decided to build a multi-disciplinary national arts school on what had been Batista’s pride and joy: an exquisite golf course for Cuba’s pre-Revolutionary elite. Three architects were commissioned, each one to design different buildings for different disciplines; their designs were unique, free and venturesome for the era. They incorporated historical building materials and iconic themes, and modern technology, driven by Utopian ideas. The ballet school in particular, by Italian architect Vittorio Garatti, was as graceful as the performers it was meant to house. But nothing, in art or architecture, ever goes exactly as planned.

The new buildings attracted a certain amount of spite and resistance; someone whispered in Castro’s ear that they were “not good architecture,” and work was stopped in its tracks. The ballet school was closest to being finished, so it became a repository for a number of interim enterprises. But without maintenance, the buildings decayed and turned into unloved wrecks. Until the pendulum began its return journey, drawing the attention of author John Loomis book filmmakers Alyssa Nahmias and Ben Murray and, finally, the regard of the World Monument Fund and a pending designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Enter Carlos Acosta, a Cuban ballet hero who has achieved superstar status abroad, who will be returning to Cuba to direct the Cuban National Ballet, to be housed in Garatti’s former Ballet School building, to be “converted” (according to the New York Times) by Norman Foster. Acosta and Foster are “working together to transform the buildings for future use”. Unlike Joseph Urban, long dead, whose plans for the original Hearst Tower were simply tossed on the junk heap, Vittorio Garatti’s plans are very much extant, as is Garatti (now living in Italy) himself. How exciting it would be to have the architect’s vision completed (with updated systems), rather than completely obscured by another architect who revels in the practice.

Shooting for almost a decade, the filmmakers have managed to turn a dauntingly complex story into a sizzling narrative and balancing act. It’s sure to haunt you as the final chapters, still being written, are played out. Although the film is scheduled for PBS broadcast in the fall, Latinbeat has done us the favor of making it available on the big screen; for this subject, with its stunning visuals, it’s the way to go. And the filmmakers will be there in person for both screenings (August 11 and 13).

Cogito: John Branch

August 4, 2012



At the Olympics: Then and Now

The modern Olympic Games are many things: a form of public entertainment reminiscent of the Roman circuses, an exercise in marketing, a display of TV craft and technology, a form of contest between nations, supposedly an invitation to tourism, and often an attempt at urban regeneration. (They’re sometimes financial boondoggles as well.). What they’re not is a good likeness of the ancient games on which they’re supposedly modeled.

Take the torch relay, for instance, and the carrying of a so-called sacred flame into the arena. That wasn’t even part of the modern games when Baron Pierre de Coubertin launched them in 1896. It was actually invented by Germany for the 1936 Berlin meet, often called the Nazi Olympics, and the ceremony was documented by Leni Riefenstahl for her film Olympia. (Understanding of the original Greek games owes much to German classicists; it’s ironic that the modern ones owe something to a different breed of Germans, to put it nicely.) The ancients had no need to carry anything sacred, flame or otherwise, to Olympia; the site itself was sacred. Pelops, an ancient mythical hero who won his bride in a chariot race, was venerated there. Far more important than that, though, the site and the games themselves were dedicated to the cult of Zeus—the athletic festival was in fact also a religious one—and his temple dominated the site.

The Greeks had more than one major sporting contest of this kind. In the first rank were the Sacred and Crown Gamesheld every four years at Olympia (the oldest and most honored of these gatherings) and at Delphialong with biennial games at Nemea and Isthmia. Other, more local games arose as well, for instance at Athens, as time passed and Hellenic culture spread around the eastern Mediterranean. But Olympia maintained its primacy, even after the Romans took over Greece; Nero, following a long line of aristocrats, tyrants, and kings, deigned to compete there in a chariot race. (He was awarded the prize, despite falling off and failing to complete the course.)

Women, perhaps not surprisingly, had no role in these contests and little if any place among the spectators. (They weren’t participants in the first modern games either.) Married women were expressly forbidden to enter; one who actually did attend Olympia in disguise would have been put to death, but she was the daughter and sister of Olympic champions.

The modern games have become such a big business that name designers often sign up to fashion the uniforms for major national teams. For the 2012 London Olympics, Ralph Lauren outfitted the American team, Stella McCartney the British, and Giorgio Armani the Italian. (Surely I’m not the only one who finds this hard to detect.) In the ancient Olympics, what did they wear? Except for the charioteers, who donned a robe, the athletes wore nothing.

The London 2012 leviathan features 36 categories of sporting events, though some could be condensed (see list at events); such is the lineup over time that it’s hard to remember what’s in and what’s out. The ancient Olympic games began with a single foot race and, once they reached their full form, remained stable for centuries at five categories: chariot racing and other equestrian contests, the pentathlon, simple foot races, wrestling and related events, and a concluding race in battle armor.

There’s no end of other differences between what the Greeks did and what we do. (Readers wanting to learn more can consult Nigel Spivey’s The Ancient Olympics.) In Greece, athletics were an integral part of training for warfare, achieving physical beauty, even attaining the moral good. Philosophers knew and discussed all these conceptsand were often found at gymnasiums themselves. (When’s the last time you met one at your gym?)

Our winners may appear on a Wheaties box, but theirs became the subject of poems and statues. And the comfort we take for granted today is a far cry from the conditions for spectators at Olympia; they were so unpleasant that a disobedient slave might be threatened with the punishment of being sent there to watch. But the most telling difference was that, during the Olympic Games, a truce among all the city-states of the region was usually observed. The peace was grossly violated at least once, though, when a territorial war broke out at the site during the festival.

There are similarities,however. Our modern habit of paying lip service to pure and peaceful competition among athletes is undermined by the obvious fact that everyone tallies medal counts for their countries. In this the Greeks felt much the same; rival city-states not only competed through their athletes, but also in the monuments they built at the site to their winners.

There’s one thing about our modern games that I admire, and it echoes one aspect of Olympia. Then, as now, athletes competed for a prize with no material value: the prestige of being named victor. That honor often brought the Greek athletes substantial benefits elsewhere, as it does for competitors today, so the point may be moot, but somehow it warms my heart. In this at least, Baron de Coubertin got something nicely right when he re-invented the games of old for the present day.

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