Archive for January, 2016

Cooper’s London

January 17, 2016


Mel snapshot 19Don Carlos’ Dad:
Father of Spain

 Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II.
(Geoffrey Parker, Yale University Press)

Anyone interested in Schiller’s play schiller_fDon verdiCarlos, or in the great Verdi opera based upon it, must be curious about the real historic background to these two major works of art. Anyone interested in the era of the Tudors or Spain’s years of developing an empire, will know of the huge shadow this man cast. There is no shortage of decent biographies of Philip II and also no shortage of his appearances in the biographies of Mary I or Elizabeth I of England, or in books about several of his contemporaries. But this new and parker 2013aextremely scholarly biography by Geoffrey Parker is now my “go-to” book for anyone who wants to know about this troubling, difficult monarch. And, if you weren’t interested in the subject previously, it’s easy to get hooked.

Prize-winning historian Parker has had access to a recent, astonishing archival discovery3,000 documents in the vaults of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City that have mostly not been read since the time of Philip II himself. Many of the documents confirm what is already the widely accepted interpretation of the of this king’s personality and also of his reign; but some require significant adjustments to our understanding of the man and his times. Dealing with Philip’s relationship to his own father, the Emperor Charles V, and ending with this religious king’s supposed ascent into heaven after his death, the book is a very well-written and compelling story.

The Don Carlo story is, of course, only an episode in the tale of Philip II; Carlos’ birth, his upbringing, his erratic behaviour, his arrest and horrifying demise are all thereand are very different from the ways Schiller (and thus Verdi) portrayed them. However, the book manages to examine and reveal Philip’s personality believeably, his likes, his dislikes and his psychological issues; it develops cogently and convincingly and is therefore the perfect place to find out the truth behind the myths and romanticizations. Of course, neither Schiller nor Verdi had access to most of the material that ParkerPhilip_II deals with and were also closer to the gossip and the distortions. Yet perhaps the most exciting thing about Imprudent King for those coming to it from the play and/or opera is that, even if they wildly romanticize the historical details of the man’s life and his relationship with his son, one also comes away from this book convinced that both dramatists instinctively understood the man’ himself.

The authoritarian self-belief, the religious narrowness and bigotry, and the immense loneliness and pain that you find in Verdi’s music and Schiller’s drama are all given greater credence here. Philip micro-managed everything, trusted no one, and wasted too much time on trivia in periods of real crisis when what he really needed was an understanding of the bigger issues and some real breadth and depth of vision. Also, of course, this book gives you the background to the Posa/King Philip friendship and so much more: Charles V’s abdication, the marriage to Mary Tudor, the various wars (including the troubles in the Netherlands), the wooing of Queen Elizabeth I, the terrible religious conflicts of this era which are now often perceived as the protracted and very bloody dawning of modernism; the Imperialism and stretch of Spain’s ambitions; the Armada. All of it is impeccably researched and Parker’s conclusions and understanding are strongly supported. It’s a rich and complex tale that and does require attention to detail. (Note to filmmakers: there is material here for three or four epic films..)

imprudent kingA friend of mine (to whom I gave the book because of his love of Verdi’s opera) complained to me that this wasn’t an easy read. It is meticulous in detailing Philip’s religious attitudes, the background of the period, and the administrative problems of his obsessive control of his empire. And it sets everything in scholarly context. But in the end my friend said it was worth the effort, even though he had previously preferred Alison Weir or Philippa Gregory for learning about the era’s history.

Personally, I felt the scholarship was immensely important in convincing me about the character of this somewhat dour but also sad monarch. There is material here for a long Freudian analysis in addition to the three or four films!

If you want a quick fix on the background of Philip’s life, there are no doubt easier and briefer ways to get it. I would have liked to have more in the book about his zeal for collecting and commissioning art and his use of it for propaganda; and I would have appreciated even more information about the Inquisition. But if you want really to understand the man, his nurture, his nature and the background thinking and conflicts of a time when the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment were being laid down, this is likely to remain the definitive study for some time to come.

Philip was isolated, tormented and, at times, very imprudent as well as wilfully narrow; this book makes it all clear. It also clarifies the great dramatized scene of Philip’s relationship with the Grand Inquisitor, so powerful in both the play and the opera. I recommend it very highly for anyone willing to take the trouble. And before you heave a sigh of satisfaction at the end, go back and see what Schiller and Verdi made of Philip, and their insights into his soul through their art.

Apollo’s Girl

January 13, 2016

apollo and lyre

O, Arturo—O, Sandoval!

Walking into the World Music Institute’s recent concert at the 92nd Street Y, you knew right away that something BIG was going to happen. The stage was packed with things that go bang in the night: conga drums, snare drums, bongos, claves, maracas, three electric keyboards (with attachments for Latin bells and whistles), a piano, a few guitars and trumpets, and loudspeakers and wires. Many wires. If I’m leaving anything out, it’s because before the inventory was completed the lights dimmed, the applause began, and suddenly they were there in the shadows—sidemen and conspirators

Cuban emigre Jazz musician Arturo Sandoval performs on trumpet with his band with Kemuel Poig on piano, John Belazguy on upright electric bass, Johnny Friday on drums, Dave Siegel on keyboard, and Tiki Pasillas on percussion at the Kaufmann Concert Hall of the 92nd Street Y, New York, New York, Wednesday, December 2, 2015. The concert was co-presented by the 92nd Street Y and the World Music Institute. CREDIT: Photograph © 2015 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

CREDIT: Photograph © 2015 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

slipping into place among their instruments. Then he was thereArturo Sandoval himselfundisputed trumpet, keyboard, guitar and percussion meister and, yes, a man of many moves.

From his personal space he dreamily played a few notes on the electric keyboard and, as seamlessly as they had appeared on the stage, the band was with him. Blowing, plucking, striking, fingering, their music flowed by. Standards alternated with Latin classics summoned by fans and countrymen calling out from the audience, joining in a collective swoon. Sandoval moved from genre to genre, from instrument to instrument like a Cuban Pied Piper; wherever he went, everyone followed. The sound of cooking rose from the stage as the evening’s gifts were built to a master plan of his devising. It was the building (as much as the cooking) that defined the program. Because it’s not just about being able to play virtually any instrument in any style or any key, or being able to dance nimbly ditto (often while playing one or more instruments), but about being a born entertainer. So Sandoval’s offerings were brilliantly calibrated between fast and slow, classics and cutting-edge, chestnuts and original compositions, as they shape-shifted to keep the audience close. And, like most great performers, he revels in the connection he spins and keeps alive until the last note of the last encore and the fervant applause.

Sandoval is no ordinary musical genius; born in Cuba in 1949, he studied classical trumpet, served in the Army cleaning barracks while making music at night, and trying every way he could to develop his musical ambitions. After meeting and bonding with Dizzie Gillespie in Havana in 1977, he joined Paquito De’Rivera and Chucho Valdez to found the Afro-Cuban band Irakere a year later. Gillespie 01-ArturoSandoval-Dizzy-Gillespie-Courtesy-of-Arturo-Sandoval-620x384continued to spread the word about Sandoval’s talent and to include him on many of his own international tours. On one of them, in 1990, Sandoval decided to leave Cuba and to live permanently in the United States. Since then, he has racked up astonishing numbers: a search of the Internet serves up over 40 albums; collaborations with pop and jazz icons of every genre; titles of 16 movie and TV scores (including one for the HBO biopic For Love or Country: The Arturo love or countrySandoval Story, starring Andy Garcia); an original ballet score choreographed by Debbie Allen; and a trumpet concerto album with the London Symphony that includes his own classical concerto. Oh, and there’s the memoir (Dizzy Gillespie: The Man Who Changed My Life), the books on trumpet technique, the Oscars, Grammies, and Billboard Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That about sums it up. medal of freedom

Meantime, at the Y, he ran the gamut of his limitless repertoire, giving the adoring crowd a medley of seasonal favorites punctuated by a brief account of his first American gig at Carnegie Hall (straight off the plane and onto the stage) and a display of his monumental technique: first on the trumpet, with a tribute to Maynard Ferguson, then on the piano with a composition of his own, smiling as he scorched the entire keyboard andsomewhere in between—launched the sassiest. most original, anarchic and exhilarating version of Peanut Vendor, ever. There were, of course, a few encores (part of the master plan) and, finally, a valedictory to the audience: “When you go home tonight,” he implored, “instead of watching TV, download the lyrics to this song and you will sleep so well! And you will smile when you wake up…”

Then he raised his trumpet to his lips one last time and played Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”, pulling out all the stops. Shameless? Yes, but it did the job, moving everyone out into the street smiling, their tears mingling with the falling rain.

Arturo Sandoval will be on the road, coming back this way at the Blue Note in late spring: And the World Music Insitute and its new artistic director, Par Neiburger, will have some surprises up their collective sleeve for the rest of their 30th anniversary season: It’s a win-win situation.

Coopers London

January 13, 2016


Mel snapshot 19


Queen and Country;
Sisterhood and Betrayal

I was out of the country when Helen Edmunson’s new play Queen Anne, commissioned and produced by the
queen anne 2Royal Shakespeare Company
opened and so I finally caught up with it only at the very end of December. It has had much praise by critics and audiences and, for me, this praise is largely deserved. Edmdunson’s scriptlike last year’s Oppenheimer, also a commission of the RSCis an historic recreation. In this case, I felt it came across less as a piece of innovative theatre like Oppenheimer and more like a strong BBC costume drama. But it is none the worse for that!

The play is not simply workmanlike, though it’s certainly that too. It tells with both feeling and understanding the personally interesting and historically important story of the friendship between the initially shy and insecure Princess Anne Stuart and the ambitious, glamorous Sarah Churchill. It also covers the complicated, sometimes vicious, politics of the period in ways that make this era come alive. The historic characters (including Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift) are convincingly drawn, and the moments of send-up that reflect the growth of the satiric pamphlets, newspapers and cartoons of the period add welcome wit and theatricality. There are moments of satiric musical interludes as well that are worthy of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and very much in that vein.queen anne 3The design by Hannah Clark enhances the play’s context. Natalie Abrahami deserves praise for her directing of the ensemble. She keeps the action moving; her pacing of the quieter scenes and of the development of the breach between Anne and Sarah strikes all the right emotional notes, indicating the feelings and motivations of both women. Above all, there is not a dud performance anywhere in the evening. jonathan broadbentJonathan Broadbent’s Robert Harley and Beth Park in the role of the favourite who replaces Sarah, the beth parkredoubtable Mrs. Masham, are memorable and the characterizations have a vividness that both explains the background history and also creates a thirst for that fine book about this reign, Queen Anne, by Anne Somerset.

Above all, both Emma Cunniffe as the perpetually sickly, gout-ridden Anne (who experienced 17 pregnancies but left no heir) and Natascha McElhone as the beautiful, supremely confident, ambitious and ultimately thwarted (and increasingly self-destructive) Sarah Churchill, embody their characters and make one feel yes, this is what they must have been like, this is how it must have developed between them. queen anne 4The play does not shy away from the erotic possibilities between the women but, like the film Carol, their implied lesbianism is not really the point. At its heart, the play is about the clash between the expediencies of politics or public responsibilites and personal desires; the fine line between healthy ambition and self-serving corrupt determination; and also about friendship and betrayal.

One of the finest aspects of the play is the way the women and their relationship grow, develop and shift until Anne becomes not only her own woman but a real, intelligent and morally centred Queen, while Sarah is engulfed by her own ego, her venal goals and her self-aggrandizing view of her role and her powers.

john and sarahThere was certainly a power-couple relationship between Sarah and John Churchill (well-played by Robert Cavanah), the first Duke of Marlborough who was a military genius in British history as important as the Duke of Wellington. Nevertheless, advancement in the early days depended on patronage. How Sarah’s relationship with Anne helped John in the early days of his career is beautifully played, and the role that eroticism plays for that couple is mirrored strongly by Anne’s quasi-erotic fascination with Sarah, something the knowing and sometimes smug Duchess uses with real guile to manipulate her friend.

The play makes one reconsider the reign of the last of the Stuarts who presided over a difficult period when the throne was often unstable, the wars were costly but seen as necessary, the Parliament was consolidating its constitutional rights and the succession was very much in question. The story pretty clearly delineates the struggle between the Whigs and the Tories
and their machinations to win Anne’s support. If you become interested in the actual history behind this play, you could start background reading not only with Anne Somerset’s book but also by reading William Makepeace thackerayThackeray’s neglected but masterful and totally fascinating novel, The History of Henry Esmond. It is a brilliant book unfairly overshadowed these days by another of his great novels, Vanity Fair.

As entertaining and informative in its own more circumscribed way as the Thackeray novel (a three-hour play cannot quite do the work of a novel of several hundred pages but it still sketches out a great deal of the background material), Queen Anne is a good start for contemplating not only the politics and difficulties of this era in English history but also the complex friendship of two women that began as mutually beneficial and supportive but ended as bitter and destructive because of the way the two developed and played off one another.

Above all, it is captivating theatre. Watching the growth of Anne’s character as she responds to the necessities of being Queen and observing the over-reaching of Sarah as she becomes too self-confident and too convinced that she is the real power in the land remains fulfilling drama. I hope a proposed transfer to the West End in London comes off. If for no other reason, it’s worth seeing for the superb performances of Cunniffe, McElhone, and Park as the three central figures in the triangle Queen_Anneof female relationships. It’s also worth noting that Anne’s great ambitions as Queen were to end the wars with France and to have Scotland join the United Kingdom; both hopes were achieved before her death. She also wanted a Protestant succession and, with her death, the throne passed to the Hanovers. I think that the RSC-commissioned plays promise to become a welcome tradition, both theatrically and educationally.

Queen Anne will run in repertoire until 23 January 2016 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon, and probably transfer to the West End in London after that.

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