Posts Tagged ‘music’

Apollo’s Girl

February 19, 2019


Another Opening…
suor angelicaAfter coping with a two-year cloud of construction, shuttered bus stops and a quirky online calendar, the Manhattan School of Music celebrated its centennial by opening the doors of Neidorff-Karpati Hall. With new lighting, décor and – best of all – a new entrance direct from Claremont Avenue, MSM’s Opera Theater mounted a double bill: the rarely seen I Due Timidi (by Nino Rota) and Puccini’s Suor Angelica. The Rota was originally conceived as a radio performance (yes, Italy’s national media still actually broadcasts classical music) in 1950. The composer is best remembered for his movie scores for Fellini and others; his librettist (Suso Cecchi D’Amico) known for her script for The Bicycle Thief and work on almost a hundred other films. With a story of thwarted love, it followed the guidelines for many Italian operas and had a limited afterlife on European stages.

Suor Angelica, on the other hand. though first presented in New York in 1918 as part of Puccini’s trilogy, has remained beloved to this day. Running under an hour and delivering intense emotion from the first few measures, it demands the art and craft of a powerful singer/actress who is onstage almost continuously. In MSM’s version, directed by Donna Vaughn (MSM’s Artistic Director of Opera and a national treasure), Sasha Gutierrez delivered the voice, the movement and the wrenching tragedy to pin you to your seat.

NB: With its revamped main stage, other production spaces and streaming master classes, MSM provides Upper Manhattan with a welcome magnet for live music. Even better: it is so far adhering to four performances and double casting of its staged offerings – a boon to its artists who flourish in the light.

A Joyful Noise: Heads Up
musical instrumentsAfter years of neglect by the millions seeking blockbuster exhibitions, the Met Museum fixed its gaze on the André Mertens galleries for musical instruments and showered its glories with a makeover. The walk-through at the press opening was shared by three curators glowing with delight at what they had wrought. What a transformation! This was no silent history; they had managed to translate the contexts and sounds into visual arrangements that reached out to impart joy. The first vitrine gave it away: it was titled Fanfare, with brasses, conchs, pre-Colombian pottery, and mention of the Golden Ratio of the conch prized by later makers of brass instruments seeking to imitate the notes of its scales. History and politics were everywhere marked by treasures meant to be blown, bowed, plucked, beaten. The range? From carved ivory elephants (“Patience: If we wait, the British will leave.”) to a Stuart Davis 1939 mural for WNYC’s Studio B.

Now you will be doubly rewarded. In March and April there will be three concerts adding to the mix; two in Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium, and the third ( on April 6) by Juilliard 415 moving through multiple galleries like historical performance pied pipers. Follow that theorbo!
April 6, 2016;  6 – 8 PM. Free with museum admission.


Cooper’s London

October 31, 2015


Mel snapshot 19



Come and Get It!

As always, the Wigmore Hall season has looked schubertambitious and extremely attractive from start to finish. You could do worse than spending most of your evenings and some afternoons there for fine performances of chamber music or lieder. Next season a survey of Schubert’s complete 650+ songs will stretch to 40 concerts and two seasons, so check it out and take your picks.

Magdalena-Kozena-Sir-Simon-Rattle-c-Deutsche-Grammophon-Sheila-Rock-580x336Magdalena Kozena is doing a five-concert series with her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, playing the piano for her, his first appearance ever at the Wigmore Hall, I believe; and the Heath Quartet is undertaking a complete Bartok Chamber Music series and two recitals by violinist James Ehnes. And that ain’t all, folks! If you want to hear the best music small in scale but big in heart and sound (actually, the cheap seats at the back and up in the gallery have the best acoustics) by both the top names of the day and the most exciting emerging artists also in the mix, go find them at:

And then there are all the orchestral concerts from the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, and all the other ensembles that make London their home; as well as visiting orchestras from all over the world at places like the Barbican, the South Bank Centre and the Cadogan Hall. cadogan hallThe Royal Philharmonic continues its residency at the converted hall that used to be a Mason’s lodge near Sloane Square, but there were also visits this autumn from some of the more interesting European orchestras that don’t often get heard away from home: the Basel Symphony Orchestra, for example, on 24 and 28 September with the redoubtable Elisabeth Leonskaya playing Mozart on the 28th and Alice Sara Ott playing Ravel on the 24th. Conductor Michael Sanderling brought his Dresden Symphony on 5 October; and Gergiev conducted winners of the latest Tchaikovsky competition with the Mariinsky Orchestra on 26 October.

For me, a highly anticipated evening is 5 November when Jan Latham Koenig brings his brilliant Flanders Symphony Orchestra napoleonand teams up with the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus to present music written for or about Napoleon in the 200th anniversary year of the Battle of Waterloo. And I wouldn’t want to miss either Maxim Vengerov or Chloe Hanslip on 8 and 23 November respectively, the latter with the Prague Symphony orchestra in a program that includes Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony along with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Check out the full programme and book your tickets at:

When the LSO returns from a touring summer to Japan, you might want to make your way to the Barbican for some of their concerts. Bernard Haitink, Daniel Harding and Simon Rattle (welcome home!) are among the stellar lineup of conductors for the season and you can find the full list, click links to more information and choose at:

I have had a soft spot for the Philharmonia Orchestra since the days when I was a student and used to attend concerts conducted by the likes of Otto Klemperer, Carlo Maria Giulini and a tyro Daniel Barenboim, not to mention the occasional controversial visit from Herbert von Karajan whose lush concerts got slower and slower, shorter and shorter, and sounded more and more like the interpretation of a mechanical genius with Asperger’s syndrome. Some of these great salonen-sibelius2-1performances are preserved on recordings from that era and even turn up on YouTube (though I wish someone would clear the rights to release on DVD the last revelatory cycle of Beethoven symphonies that Klemperer did, which were broadcast on television in color!and even appeared on YouTube for a while with Japanese subtitles). The orchestra seems to me to be regaining its legendary form under Esa-Pekka Salonen after a bit of a slump.

Not surprisingly, the programming and choice of conductors are selling tickets well. Christoph von Dohnanyi has conducted their 70th anniversary concert at their London home, the Royal Festival Hall, with Beethoven’s 9th included in the programme on 27 September. The highly reliable and usually moving Yuri Temirkanov conducted Brahms on 4 October; star pianist trifonovDaniil Trifonov played Rachmaninov’s 4th Piano Concerto on 5 October to kick off a complete cycle of the piano concertos; and chief conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen returns on 1 November. Paavo Jarvi’s Nielsen cycle is likely to become one of those Philharmonia legends and begins on 19 November; lang langand Lang Lang joins with Salonen for a promising Grieg event on 26 November. The result is that whenever you’re able to spend an evening at a concert, there will be something you’ll enjoy attending. (If you expect to be in New York a little later in the season, both Salonen and Trifonov will be working there at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.) Full information for the Philharmonia Orchestra can be found at:

And keep Liverpool in mind: they have what I think
is one of the liveliest and most interesting orchestras outside the vasilycapital, run since 2006 by Vasily
 Petrenko. You can find them at home or on tour this season in the UK ( or whet your appetite with his Shostakovich cycle with the orchestra on Naxos (multiple discs). 

Cooper’s London

October 26, 2012



New Conquistadors, New Lingua Franca: Spanish!
Funny, Poignant, and Creative

The Unfinished Exploits of
Pedro de Valdiva
André and Dorine (New York)

As with the Spanish novel, I believe the great breakthroughs and innovations in Spanish theatre are coming mainly from Latin America these days. The last show in this year’s festival of Latin American plays in London on 15 and 16 September this year was from Chile and was called The Unfinished Exploits of Pedro de Valdivia. Three actor musicians/mimes/puppeteers in their thirties (Tryo Teatro Banda) told the story of the Conquistadors, how and why they arrived in Chile, the exploited masses, the battles, the creation of cities in 75 minutes of uninterrupted physical theatre that was witty, ironic, hilarious, moving – and a great history lesson. The music was terrific too.

The play was based on the letters that Chile’s first royal governor, Pedro de Valdivia, wrote to King Charles V of Spain and the men did it all, playing about 12 instruments between them (including bandoneon, 17th-century open horn, violin, drums, trumpet, clarinet), singing, dancing, acting many characters, miming and using imaginative puppetry. When they had to stage an epic battle they poured sand on a table, formed it into the mountains, poured sugar on top to remind one of the snow and give a sense of the height, poured out blue crystals to represent the Pacific and the rivers to be crossed, used flags to represent moving armies and rebellious natives, and convinced the audience to partake imaginatively in the building and destruction of various cities. I found the language and movement were so creative (even not understanding much Spanish and having to rely on the surtitles) that I never lost concentration and did notice that the children in the audience were completely captivated.

The audience was varied in age but about one-half Spanish-speaking. Pedro de Valdiva won the Critic’s Award for Best Play of 2010 at home and was shown at Chile’s National theatre. Tryo Teatro Banda also did a brilliant play about Jemmy Button, according to people I met in the bar before and after the show; and there was much praise for the other offerings of this 10-day festival of award-winning theatre from Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. This was the fifth festival of its kind in London and another is promised for next year, so watch out for it. Meantime, you can catch the Tryo Teatro Banda in Chile!

Tryo Teatro Banda: Chile. Web site
Pedro de Valdivia, La Gesta Inconclusa
(The Unfinished Exploits of Pedro de Valdivia)
Written by Francisco Sánchez and Company. Directed by Sebastián Vila.
Performed by Francisco Sánchez, Pablo Obreque & César Espinoza



Apollo’s Girl

André  and Dorine (New York)
Kulunka Theatre Company

The Kulunka Theatre Company from the Basque region of Spain touched down all too briefly in New York recently at the YMCA’s Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. What a triumph! With only expressive soft masks made of fabric and expressive body language, Kulunka tells the story of André and Dorine, their son, and a host of supporting charactersall played by three actors using gesture, movement and fierce theatrical intelligence.

The script follows the life of André and Dorine from the present (their late middle age) back to their youth in the swinging sixties and forward to the heartbreaking progression of Dorine’s Alzheimer’s, Andre’s coping strategies, and the trajectory of their son and his own family. It’s a love story in which the performances are straight from, and to, the soul. When they are funny, it’s like a sudden beacon from the unshaded light bulb that André keeps changing; when they are caught up in the inevitable turns of the tale, the beacon goes dark. But never for long.  André‘s skill as a proudly-published writer, and Dorine’s as a cellist are brilliantly integrated into the story which, because of Kulunka’s minute observations of the human condition and their ability to transform them into a powerful theatrical experience, is a journey we willingly take with them. They will steal your heart, and keep it.

While anyone can understand the atavistic appeal of masks and mime, Kulunka’s outstanding brilliance and lapidary art are truly universal–equal parts of love and genius.  The actors (Jose Dault, Garbiñe Insausti, Edu Carcamo) and their inspired director (Iñaki Rikarte) have been on the road  with this and other plays in their repertoire for years; make sure to keep track of them for the future ( They are sure to be back, and were presented as part of an ongoing program by Spain Culture in New York-Consulate General of Spain ( excellent source of cultural attractions throughout the United States and throughout the year.

Cooper’s London

October 21, 2012


What to See and to Hear:
Opera To See
Francesco Cavalli (1602 – 1676), Il Giasone

I’ve been watching the DVDs of some operas by Monteverdi and Cavalli lately, all of them new, modernist stage productions. For me the real discovery is Cavalli’s Il Giasone from Antwerp. The production has been controversial – some loving it and some hating it. It is definitely part of the new approach to old opera. I am more towards the loving it end of the scale and in no way wish to quibble, because the opera itself has simply bowled me over. It was premiered in 1649 in Venice and was the most popular opera of the 17th century. Why did it fall out of favour? Probably because music moved on into the full flourish of the Baroque era, and possibly because the mix of tragedy, comedy and sheer farce in the libretto was not to later tastes.

Jason is a very modern anti-hero in this telling of the story of how he stole the fleece and a few female hearts along the way. The performance, filmed in the Vlaamse Opera of Antwerp/Ghent, is musically brilliant, with special note having to be made of Katarina Bradic’s brilliant Medea and Robin Johannsen’s moving Isifile, and the idiomatic conducting of Federico Maria Sardelli. But the star of the show is Christophe Dumaux’s sexy, cheeky and wholly captivating counter-tenor Giasone. The DVD and Blu-ray versions are brilliantly filmed and simply stunning to look at.

Francesco Cavalli (1602 – 1676), Il Giasone
Christopher Dumaux, Katarina Bradic, Robin Johannsen/
Symphony Orchestra of the Vlaamse Opera Antwerp/Ghent.
Conductor: Federico Maria Sardelli (Dynamic 55663)


Piano To Hear

Beethoven, Complete Piano Sonatas. H J Lim, Piano.
8 CDs EMI 4 6495222 2 8 Stereo DDD

H J Lim may only be 25, but she has, for my money, such a huge enthusiasm and sympathy for the piano sonatas of Beethoven that she’s certainly one of the leaders of her generation in playing them. She has worked her way through most of them for a new recording (omitting 19 and 20, the two that Beethoven felt he wrote merely as exercises for his students and never wanted to publish) and she has collected them into thematically organized recitals about which she writes copious, sometimes illuminating and sometimes pretentious booklet notes that certainly enhance one’s enjoyment of acquiring the set. They also show her to be committed to the musicology, the history of the compositions and Beethoven’s psychological states.

The moment you put on the recordings, what she says or why she omitted two sonatas is totally irrelevant. Several people have hated the set. I got completely caught up in the pianism, the imagination, the telling interpretations of each individual sonata and was swept away by the profound sense of an overall viewpoint and mastery that astonished me.

Lim plays on a Yamaha that is a bit more astringent and wiry of tone in the upper registers than would usually suit my taste―but I got used to that very quickly and even wondered if it was not, for these performances, the perfect choice. This piano helps you note a technique that is Spartan in its clarity; and speeds that are at times more Baroque than Romantic. It’s like hearing a fortepiano but with much more body and range.

There isn’t one sonata that is unconvincing in the H J Lim’s hands, and the sense of her love of and respect for these works is all-encompassing. I will not give up listening to Schnabel, Ashkenazy, Richard Goode, Aimard, Uchida, Pollini, Brendel, or Barenboim any time soon; but I’m certainly going to add these intensely convincing interpretations―sometimes astonishing, always interesting ―to the shelf that holds the master pianists and listen to them as often as possible. And I sure as hell wish she’d incorporated the two missing sonatas!

Apollos Girl

February 21, 2011


The Center at the Center of the World: No Pain, No Gain

Back when the Whitney Museum mounted SCANNING: the Aberrant Architecture of Diller+Scofidio, the partners were beating back the outer edges of technology and art with conceptual works filling vitrines, marching on little tracks, and (literally) hammering holes in the walls. They had won the only MacArthur Award ever given for architecture, and one could see that they were clever. One could also imagine that they were frustrated, having attracted lots of private art commissions, but only two actual buildings. One, Blur, was more or less made of water; the other was Slither– social housing in Gifu, Japan. Sophisticated and ingenious, but surprisingly free of attitude, it worked at every level.

However, it was lost in SCANNING’s haze of preciousness, which for all its brilliance was off-putting, and obscured what was—within the context of that show—evidence that they could also stand and deliver seriously good architecture. It’s true that they were already at work on New York’s Eyebeam and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, but who knew that the mother lode of Lincoln Center would be waiting in the wings?

This time, they’re still standing (having survived what must have been some scary backstage politics, with many, many hands eager to stir the architectural broth) and have delivered a sophisticated and ingenious program of unimaginable complexity. Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing for results that are, so far, exhilarating—ample reward for years of simply trying to navigate the maze of temporary construction and poor signage lit by naked bulbs just to find one’s way to theater or concert hall. In fact, Alice Tully Hall has been transformed from its conservative geometric stodge into a ringing, swinging multi-purpose wonder. Watch Juilliard dancers in the second-floor practice room, seminars in the WLIW studio fronting Broadway, and try the mini-arena seating to view the passing parade or peer into the corner café. It’s all-glass, all the time, and never repeats itself.

The best way to see new buildings and theaters changing, or taking, shape is simply to get down to the West Side and wander through the campus while it’s still in progress. Definitely worth the trip, even before you’ve set foot in a building to see what’s on stage. Don’t rush – it’s about exploration, about watching the 21st century materialize before your eyes — and the process is fascinating!  Or search before you go. lincoln center  (Only cavil: the roof of the restaurant really looks like AstroTurf.)

Iceberg and Goldmine: WWII

August 1, 2009

Flame & Citron
A Woman in Berlin
The Hurt Locker

World War II is a subject that refuses to quit. With a body count in the tens of millions, it also forever changed the lives of millions more, as survivors criss-crossed the world to find new homes, languages, and cultures. Their stories remain the tip of an iceberg for those who want to see, hear, and read them, and a goldmine for producers, directors, and writers who burn to tell (and sell) them.

Flame and Citron is one: a harrowing real-life tale of two Danish resistance fighters recruited to oppose the Nazis who have occupied their country. Despite their initial idealism, nothing turns out as expected; issues come only in several shades of gray, as sides are chosen and chosen again. Almost disguised as an action-packed thriller, it’s really an engrossing morality tale about the nature of war and man. flamecitronpz2This Danish-German co-production is stylishly contemporary and operatic in its approach – dark in color, with intense closeups, gorgeous long shots, stark sets, costumes, and art direction, and often accompanied by music that owes everything (appropriately) to Wagner’s Gőtterdammerung. There is a great deal of violence, which escalates as the two Danes become—despite their misgivings—heroes of the resistance army, and assassins-at-large in the process. thure and mads

The filmmaker’s closeup lens probes deeply into their character and motivation, and subtly accrues the telling details that draw viewers into the noose that tightens around them, delivering tension, twists and gore in equal measure. Propelled by the spectacular performances of Thure Lindhardt as Flame, Mads Mikkelsen as Citron, and outstanding featured players, plus masterful filmmaking from director Ole Christian Madsen, Flame and Citron is that rare bird: a character-driven film that also delivers a visceral charge right to the last frame. It’s deeply satisfying on both counts. Because the Danish resistance is not as familiar as the European Holocaust, or the war in the Pacific, it feels particularly fresh, and keeps you guessing until a long post-finale scroll brings the story up to date.

A Woman in Berlin, (based on a controversial memoir by “Anonymous,” published in 1959), is stylistically more conventional than Flame and Citron, but reports from the other side of the WWII divide—the last days of Hitler’s Berlin, and the Russian occupation that followed it.4287EC69F764E5C17BF6AA9C5F793 It, too, reveals that black-and-white issues turn gray under the realities of war and occupation.

One thought to take away from both these excellent films: almost every country in the world is familiar with the horrors of invasion and the chaos that comes with it. After seeing Flame and Citron and A Woman in Berlin, the geographical isolation that has long protected North America from invasion seems more enviable than ever. But it has also fostered a lack of empathy that can make “Speak softly and carry a big stick” something of a defining stance. On the one hand, it has kept things tidy at home. On the other, it has obscured the terrible damage the stick can inflict.

Update: after seeing The Hurt Locker (a deeply disturbing edge-of-your-seat film), in which the US is the invader in Iraq, it’s obvious that the here-and-now is still shades of gray. But—judging from the quote by Chris Hedges that precedes the film, as well as the film’s final scene—the filmmakers’ conclusion seems to be that living with the giddy adrenaline rush of high-risk occupations hurt-locker-june2-590x331(defusing intricate bombs planted to destroy anyone who approaches them), renders the risk-taker unfit for the mundane tasks of civilian life. In creating two hours of blighted streets, corpses, bombed-out buildings, and the horror of a country destroyed, there is one burning question that seems to have escaped their scrutiny: what, exactly, were we doing there in the first place? It remains unanswered.

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 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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