March 28, 2007

Feels like it's been ages since I finished a book. Everything I pick up lately turns out to be either really dull or just not what I'm in the mood for that day. Any advice on how to break out of a reading rut?

March 27, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (Gwen Stefani's favorites)

Gwen Stefani came to Idol and brought with her a night of bland competence. Almost everything was OK, and almost nothing was memorable.

The rundown:

LaKisha, "Last Dance" -- I'm less enchanted with LaKisha's technical proficiency every week, because each week, there's less and less personality behind it. She didn't smile once, and her performances are so emotionally vacant that I can't get involved in them.

Chris S., "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" -- the song suits his voice very well, but his performance is off. He's running out of air at the ends of phrases, which is making his pitch sink; he's dropping final consonants like mad (in the opening, for instance, when there's no "t" at the end of "staaaaaaaaaaaaart"). And as the judges note, he's never in the same tempo as the band.

Gina, "I'll Stand By You" -- excellent song choice, and by far her best performance of the competition. There are no major flaws, and if only she had the charisma of Jordin or Melinda, performances like this might keep her in the running.

Sanjaya, "Bathwater" -- the hair! Oh my lord, the hair! As for the performance, well, there really isn't much to say about Sanjaya's singing at this point. Sure, I could dredge though the thesaurus for a few more synonyms for awful, but his presence in the competition is no longer amusing or entertaining. Henceforth, all I will have to say about Sanjaya is this: He tried his hardest. It wasn't very good.

Haley, "True Colors" -- not awful, though it didn't feel so much like a pop song as it did like the big number of the secondary female character in a bad off-Broadway musical. Like so many of tonight's performances, it was entirely competent and entirely forgettable.

Phil, "Every Breath You Take" -- quite nicely done, actually, and pleasantly understated. I could not help, though, but fill in the phrase "I'll be watching you... with my freakishly oversized eyes."

Melinda, "Heaven Knows" -- not spectacular, merely very, very good, which is better than anyone else has managed tonight. Melinda continues to run rings around the rest of the pack. Smart move, by the way, to get her hair off her shoulders; she has a short neck, and hiding it makes her look like a turtle.

Blake, "Lovesong" -- no beatboxing, thank god, but it's not a very interesting song and it's an even less interesting performance. The judges are right that he's the best of the men, but that's not saying a lot, and he can't coast forever on simply not sucking.

Jordin, "Hey Baby" -- who is this bland bore that's taken Jordin's spot on stage? This is flabby where it should be crisp, and there's no spark, no pizzazz to it at all. It's pitched too low for her, and the low notes in the verse are disappearing entirely.

Chris R., "Don't Speak" -- his pitch is all over the place on the verse, and while the chorus is better, his voice is still so unpleasantly thin and whiny that it's no fun at all to listen to him.

For the night: Melinda, Gina, Phil, LaKisha, Blake, Jordin, Chris S., Haley, Chris R., Sanjaya. With the exception of Melinda and Sanjaya at the ends, though, I could be persuaded to move just about anyone up or down a couple of spots; it was a night of uniformly bland pleasantness.

For the season: Melinda, Jordin, LaKisha, Blake, Gina, Phil, Chris R., Chris S., Haley, Sanjaya.

Should go home: Sanjaya. Probably will go home: Haley, though I would not be surprised if it were Chris S.

March 26, 2007

MUSIC: Los Angeles Master Chorale : Rouse / Requiem

Commissioned in 2002 by Soli Deo Gloria in honor of the 2003 Berlioz bicentennial, Christopher Rouse's Requiem has waited four years for a performance. According to Rouse, the wait was due to the piece's difficulty; whenever a music director wanted to perform the piece, their choral director recoiled in shock. Last night, the Los Angeles Master Chorale gave the world premiere of the piece.

The Requiem is 90 minutes long and requires a large ensemble. The 100 singers of the Chorale were joined by 75 members of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, baritone soloist Sanford Sylvan, and a large orchestra (triple winds, quadruple brass, timpani and six percussionists).

As has become common in recent decades, Rouse interpolates non-liturgical texts into his requiem; he has chosen six poems which form a sort of Everyman's progress through life, and the various ways in which death presents itself. These interpolated texts are given to the baritone soloist, which the chorus sings the liturgical text. The interpolations are:
  • Seamus Heaney's "Mid-Term Break," in which a boy returns home from school for the funeral of his 4-year-old brother
  • Siegfried Sassoon's "Suicide in the Trenches," in which a soldier describes the death of a comrade
  • Michelangelo's "Ancor Che'l Cor," on the death of the poet's father
  • Ben Johnson's "On My First Sonne," on the death of a 7-year-old son
  • Milton's Sonnet 23, in which the poet imagines a ghostly visitation from his late wife
  • Michelangelo's "On Immortality," in which the poet contemplates his own death, and concludes that so long as he is loved and remembered by those he knew, he will not truly die

I should note at this point that my memory is not so sharp that I can remember all of the details of a 90-minute work without prompting; I am indebted for much of the following description to Victoria Looseleaf's fine program note, which is unfortunately not available online. The mass begins with the Heaney poem, sung without accompaniment by the soloist; the chorus enters, still unaccompanied, to sing the "Requiem aeternam," a gorgeous, harmonically complex 8-voice motet.

The first instruments enter at the "Dies irae," as the six percussionists go berserk on their battalion of unpitched instruments while the chorus shouts the text in strict rhythm, but on no particular pitch. Each group seems to want nothing more than to drown out the other. For my money, the balance was weighted a bit heavily in favor of the percussionists; it was often hard to tell that the chorus was singing at all, much less what they were saying.

The sound dies away in an instant (Rouse is fond of abrupt volume changes) and a handful of unpitched percussion instruments begin rattling rapid-fire staccato patterns -- perhaps a suggestion of the gunfire of far-off battlefields -- as the baritone sings Sassoon's poem of suicide during war.

The rest of the instruments finally enter, some 15 minutes or so into the piece, with a giant unison blare from the brass that introduces the "Tuba mirum;" there is a brief interlude of relative calm as the choral basses sing the bleak "Quid sum miser" over deep drones from the orchestral basses. The brass returns in full force for the "Rex tremendae;" Rouse gives this text a great deal of emphasis, repeating it three times over increasingly frenzied orchestral runs.

The orchestra has yet to calm down when the baritone soloist returns with the first Michelangelo text; the effect is that he has to fight them for control of the sonic landscape. This is the longest of the interpolated poems, and it finally reaches a place of great calm and sadness, which carries over into the chorus's "Quarens me;" that movement builds to a great climax, which is followed by a long silence of several seconds (I was quite surprised that the audience remained silent here).

In other pieces, Rouse has often paid tribute to the composers who inspired him by quoting them; there are no direct quotes of Berlioz in Rouse's Requiem, but the "Lacrymosa" is meant as a musical homage of sorts, like Berlioz's "Lacrymosa," it is a long, flowing piece in 9/8 meter. Rouse also honors Berlioz by using the same edited and rearranged version of the liturgical text throughout the Requiem.

From this point on, the texture begins to thin and the harmonies become less dense. The baritone returns with a heartbreaking performance of Johnson's "On My First Sonne," accompanied mostly by glockenspiel, vibraphone, and clarinet; in one of Rouse's loveliest inspirations, this poem is directly followed by the first entrance of the children's chorus, who sing the "Sanctus." Milton's sonnet is followed by the adult chorus, who sing the "Agnus Dei;" the baritone sings his only line of liturgical text at the end of this movement: "Dona eis requiem sempiternam" ("Grant them eternal rest").

The piece ends with the intermingling of three texts. The adult chorus sings the English hymn "Now the laborer's task is o'er;" the baritone sings Michelangelo's "On Immortality;" and the children's chorus interjects phrases from the German carol "Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen." The children fade away, followed by the orchestra and the percussion -- a condensed inversion of the piece's gradual accumulation of forces -- and as the baritone fades out repeating the final words of the Michelangelo, which translate as "I'm not dead," the chorus begins a lovely series of echoing repetitions of the word "requiem," which come to a close as the baritone, unaccompanied, sings the final "Amen."

With the exception of a few moments when the balance between chorus and orchestra was a bit off, the performance was nearly flawless. The choruses sang Rouse's difficult music with great skill; intonation and enunciation were impeccable. Solo baritone Sanford Sylvan was superb, and his interpolations were intensely emotional, with the Heaney and Johnson poems being particular high points.

Ninety minutes is a lot of new music to absorb in one sitting, and it would take more hearings (which I would welcome) for me to make any sort of evaluation of the music's overall quality. There are certainly moments of greatness in it -- the "Dies irae" is thrilling; the Johnson setting is devastating; the entrance of the children's chorus is a spectacular coup de theatre -- and I was never bored by the music; the contrasts between the more apocalyptic passages and the ultimate sense of solace and acceptance are very effective. The ninety minutes flew by, and I would not have guessed that I'd been sitting for that long. I hope there will be a recording.

(Edited to add: Victoria Looseleaf's program note is online, after all.)

March 25, 2007

Welcome to Link City!

From the Los Angeles Times, provocateur David Ehrenstein on Barack Obama and the Magical Negro.

Daniel Fienberg makes the case that Stephanie's ouster from American Idol wasn't "shocking" at all, and wasn't even really all that surprising.

A lovely, insightful obituary for Calvert DeForest, aka Larry "Bud" Melman.

Could Porter Wagoner follow in the footsteps of Johnny Cash and be the next veteran country singer to find late-in-life popularity with the hip kids?

At South Dakota Dark, a roundup of summer movie trailers.

An amusing bit of theater casting: Melissa Gilbert as Ma in a musical version of Little House on the Prairie.

It took more than four years, but Christopher Rouse's Requiem finally has its world premiere tonight. (And I'm very excited; he's one of my favorite composers.) Grant Gershon of the Los Angeles Master Chorale talks about the piece here.

March 24, 2007

MOVIES: Reign Over Me (Mike Binder, 2007)

Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle are one of the most unlikely pairs of co-stars we've seen in a while, but both do top-notch work here, making for a fine movie about how we cope with unspeakable grief and horror.

The horror is 9/11, with which all of the movie's New York characters are still dealing in one way or another. Alan Johnson (Cheadle) has become distant and reclusive; his wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) has become more obsessed with controlling her family and keeping them safe. Combine those two dynamics, and you've got a relationship in trouble.

Their problems pale, though, in comparison to those of Charlie Fineman (Sandler), whose wife and three daughters were on one on the planes. Since their deaths, he's withdrawn almost entirely from the world, hiding in his apartment where he plays video games and listens to his favorite old records.

Alan and Charlie were college roommates, but haven't seen each other in many years; when they run into one another, Charlie's inability to interact with the world is so extreme that he at first doesn't even recognize Alan. But the two men do resume their friendship. Alan is grateful for a relationship that gets him out of the house and away from Janeane, and Charlie has someone to talk to who never knew -- and therefore won't always be asking about -- his family.

This is the most serious dramatic role Adam Sandler has taken on, and his performance is a revelation. He doesn't resort to any of his comic "love me, please" tricks, and he shows us all of the pain and anger that Charlie keeps hidden. It's a difficult role, filled with abrupt mood swings; there's one monologue that could easily have wallowed in bathos and sentimentality, but Sandler delivers it with heartbreaking sincerity.

He's helped immensely by having an actor of Cheadle's caliber to play against; their relationship is always convincing, and they rise above the more obvious "wounded people heal one another" elements of the story.

The script doesn't quite rise to the level of its actors; the final act dives headlong into the cliches that had generally been avoided until then, and a character played by Saffron Burrows is introduced in so spectacularly unsavory a fashion that it's very hard to go along when the movie later tries to make her more sympathetic.

But those are small flaws when compared to all of the things that the movie does right, and the two central performances are so superb that I've no qualms about recommending the movie.

March 21, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol: well, don't I feel stupid...

An addendum to my comments on LaKisha's "Diamonds Are Forever": I had never heard the song before last night, and didn't catch all of the lyrics; what I came away with was a song about the joys of material things, and frustration that LaKisha wasn't capturing the fun of that kind of bitchy materialism. As several people have pointed out, when you look at the words more closely, it's actually a bitter lament about how men are all evil backstabbing betrayers, so let's take what cold comfort we can from our diamonds.

This does make my comment about LaKisha not having enough fun with the song seem rather silly, but it may actually strengthen the bigger point: If there had been any emotional substance to LaKisha's performance, if she had communicated any part of the pain and bitterness that's in the lyrics, then it wouldn't have been even remotely possible to think that the song was supposed to be a proto-"Material Girl" romp.

March 20, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (British Invasion)

It's British Invasion week, and with help from Lulu and Peter Noone, the final eleven provide an entertaining evening, with some good performances from unexpected people.

The rundown:

Haley, "Tell Him" -- Lulu gives Haley good advice, telling her that the song needs to be crisper and more staccato, but Haley makes only a half-hearted attempt to follow through on that. Still, it's a fun performance, nicely playful, and Haley's voice sounds much better than usual.

(A quibble, though, about this song being included on British Invasion night. There may have been a British version, but the version that everyone knows and was actually a hit was by The Exciters, a girl group from Queens.)

Chris R., "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" -- he's not working as hard as usual, and it helps his pitch immensely. He's not overdoing the frills, and there's none of his usual frantic edge. I still don't much like his voice, which is nasal and whiny, but this is his best performance yet.

Stephanie, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" -- the song doesn't condense well; it needs more time to make the dramatic build that Stephanie is forced to cram into 90 seconds. The judges are right that her performance is a bit too polite, but she does have a nice vulnerable quality on the opening verse.

Blake, "Time of the Season" -- oy, enough with the beatboxing, already! I would have liked a bit more energy from Blake; it's an oddly laidback and lethargic performance, and he's straining a bit for the high notes. The song doesn't quite suit him.

LaKisha, "Diamonds Are Forever" -- very odd song choice. The notes are there and all, but what's utterly lacking is the naughtiness the song needs, the "yes, I'm a materialistic bitch and what are you gonna do about it?" attitude. She's not having any fun with the song.

Phil, "Tobacco Road" -- the song certainly suits his style, and he's having lots of fun, which is a nice change. But he's shouting more than singing, and I can't understand a word he's saying.

Jordin, "I Who Have Nothing" -- an impeccably controlled, very smartly calibrated performance. She gets every ounce of passion out of the song, and makes it a thrilling bit of melodrama.

Sanjaya, "You Really Got Me" -- well, that was unexpected. On the plus side, he's singing with more power than we've ever heard from him, and the nature of the song is such that he can almost get away with going off-pitch at the end of every phrase. But it just doesn't work, in a weirdly creepy way; Sanjaya trying to be a rocker is like Strawberry Shortcake doing porn.

Gina, "Paint It Black" -- her pitch is off throughout, and it's boring. Whenever Idol contestants try to sing Stones songs, it reminds us that most Stones songs were dull as dishwater, and that what we remember with such fondness is Jagger's personality and performances.

Chris S., "She's Not There" -- not much to be said really. This is also dull, but at least it's competently sung.

Melinda, "As Long As He Needs Me" -- the opening is a bit too rhythmically free for my taste, so much so that it feels as if she doesn't know where the beat is. From the bridge onward, it's a much better performance. An odd song choice, though, and her weakest performance to date.

For the night: Jordin, Melinda, Blake, Stephanie, Chris R., LaKisha, Chris S., Phil, Haley, Gina, Sanjaya.

For the season: Melinda, Jordin, LaKisha, Stephanie, Blake, Chris S., Gina, Chris R., Phil, Haley, Sanjaya.

Should go home: Sanjaya. Will go home: either Phil or Haley.

March 18, 2007

My kingdom for a link!

Let's see if we can keep this small collection of linky goodness going as a weekly Sunday thing, shall we?

Megan Mullally has been cast in the Madeline Kahn role in the Young Frankenstein musical that is scheduled to open on Broadway in October. Very nice casting.

Best unexpected sports reference of the week: Alan Sepinwall, who describes this season of American Idol as "Melinda and LaKisha and pray for rain." (For non-sports fans, the reference is to these guys.)

It's the 10th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and South Dakota Dark has a fine post on the importance of the show and how it's changed what we see on TV.

I'd like to hear this: Chris Thile, of Nickel Creek, has written a 40-minute suite for bluegrass ensemble; the Carnegie Hall program notes compare it to a cantata in form and substance.

BOOKS: A Field of Darkness, Cornelia Read (2006)

As recently as two generations ago, Madeline Dare's family was among the Long Island elite. But the family has, to varying degrees, fallen upon hard times. Some of Madeline's uncles and aunts still live in Oyster Bay, clinging to the lifestyle they grew up with; Madeline's own branch of the family has become, in her words, garbage blanc. She's living in Syracuse now, with a genius inventor husband whose job takes him away from home more often than they'd like. She writes fluffy features for the local newspaper, and is generally dissatisfied with her boring life.

That changes when her father-in-law tells her about a famous unsolved double murder from 20 years ago, and shows her the dog tags that were found at the scene. Much to Madeline's surprise, the tags belong to her cousin Lapthorne -- yes, Lapthorne -- one of the few members of her family whom Madeline genuinely likes. What's a bored young writer to do but investigate?

This is Read's first novel, and it's very good. The writing is lively and funny, and Madeline has a terrific sense of humor about her own quirks and foibles. The contrast between the pretensions of her relatives and the reality of their current financial state is sharply drawn. The supporting cast of sidekicks, relatives, and suspects -- not mutually exclusive categories -- are vivid characters, and the mystery plays out fairly (though the attempt to direct our attention away from one particular suspect is a bit too obvious, I think).

I don't know if Madeline is intended to be a series character, or if Read plans to write stand-alones; either way, I look forward to her next book.

March 16, 2007

March 13, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (Diana Ross songs)

And what did we learn from Diana Ross night, boys and girls? We learned that too much tinkering with the classics is a bad thing, that the women really are that much better than the men this season, and that it is very important to pronunciate one's words correctly.

The rundown:

Brandon, "You Can't Hurry Love" -- I don't demand that performances match the originals note for note, but I do think that this song calls for a rhythmic crispness that's utterly lacking from Brandon's rendition. He's ahead of the beat, he's behind the beat, he's three counties away from the beat, and none of it works. The little "ain't I sexy" hip sway doesn't help, and he blows the lyrics in a big way. There's no personality, no soul.

Melinda, "Home" -- this really isn't a very interesting song, is it? And it's Melinda's least memorable performance of the season, which is to say that it's merely very, very good instead of being superb; there is such richness in her voice that she could make "Vogue" seem like part of the Great American Songbook.

Chris S., "Endless Love" -- No. I'm sorry, no. Paula calls it when she tells Chris he's trying too hard to be hip. He's taken what should be a sweet, gentle, romantic song and given it so harsh and pounding an arrangement that the song is utterly destroyed. There's nothing horribly wrong with the singing as such, but it can't overcome that ghastly arrangement.

Gina, "Love Child" -- The song works better with her slight rock edge than I'd expected, and the performance isn't bad (though Diana is correct that she needs to "pronunciate" more clearly). There are some sweet falsetto notes at the end, too.

Sanjaya, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" -- He looks alternately bored and pained, which is precisely the effect he's having on me. In the original version of this song, you can practically hear the exclamation points at the end of every phrase; not only is Sanjaya not singing the exclamation points, he's singing the whole damn thing in lower case. I can whisper louder than Sanjaya is singing.

Haley, "Missing You" -- Simon is inexplicably not appalled by this bit of bad cabaret singing, with its overly melodramatic crescendos and decrescendos, bobbled words, and vaguely accurate pitch. Ouch.

Phil, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" -- In his pre-song tape, Phil says he wants to take the stage with more confidence, and he does start off better than usual, though there are still a few pitch problems. As always, when he gets to the chorus where he can sing full blast, he sounds much better.

LaKisha, "God Bless the Child" -- This is the first time I've really gotten LaKisha, and felt any genuine emotion behind her singing. It's her best performance yet, and Randy is correct to note that it's restrained and not overblown.

Blake, "You Keep Me Hangin' On" -- The dancing is awful, and Blake occasionally forgets that he needs to sing into the microphone. Voice and raw talent get him through it reasonably well, but it's on the dull side, with no pop or excitement.

Stephanie, "Love Hangover" -- I've been saying for a while now that Stephanie needed to do something sexy, and now I see why she hasn't; she can't. There's no abandon, no sense of loss of control, and this song needs that. She's perfectly polite, restrained, and controlled throughout, which makes the performance a boring one.

Chris R., "The Boss" -- More bad enunciation, and even when he is on pitch, his voice is so nasal that he seems to be flat. In the final chorus, he's cracking in and out of falsetto, making such ugly noises that I'm not sure he's in control of his voice at all.

Jordin, "If We Hold On Together" -- A few of the low notes disappear, and there's one very awkward leap from high head voice into her lower register, but on the whole, this is quite a lovely performance, certainly her best of the season.

For the night: Melinda, LaKisha, Jordan, Stephanie, Gina, Blake, Phil, Brandon, Haley, Chris R., Chris S., Sanjaya.

For the season: Melinda, LaKisha, Stephanie, Jordin, Blake, Gina, Chris S., Brandon, Phil, Haley, Chris R., Sanjaya.

Should go home: Sanjaya. Probably will go home: Brandon.

MUSIC: American Idol: into the finals we go

By now, the East Coast is almost halfway through tonight's show, but it's only about 6:30 here in California, so let's take a quick look at where things stand as we go into the finals.

For the most part, it seems to me that America did a reasonably good job of weeding out the chaff in the semifinal rounds. There are singers who I wish had stayed around for another week or two (Sabrina, Leslie, AJ), and singers who I wish had gone home already (Haley, Gina, Sanjaya), but those are quibbles about people who weren't going to win anyway. What's important is that all of the top singers are still in the competition, and most of the talentless have been dismissed.

The glaring exception, of course, is Sanjaya, who should have been axed on the first night, but is surviving for a combination of reasons. He can tap into the tween girl audience better than any of the other guys; he's got the classic non-threatening appeal of classic 70s teen idols like Donny Osmond and David Cassidy. He appeals to what I think of as the "granny vote," with the same "oh, isn't he a nice young boy that helped people like Kevin Covais and John Stevens survive longer than deserved. And he's the pick of the folks at votefortheworst.com, who (sadly) have enough clout to keep a bad singer in the game for another week or two.

A quick run through the twelve finalists, in order of my preference so far:

Melinda: Does she have a weakness? Her experience as a background singer should prepare her well to perform in a wide range of musical styles, so the theme nights may not scare her as much as they will some of the other singers. Some of my friends think that her shyness and apparent surprise at how much she's liked each week are beginning to feel like shtick; I don't agree, but I do think it would be a good thing to tone it down. One of the analysts at USA Today suggests that she runs the risk of coming as too professional, and thus, too old.

Lakisha: She's got a fine voice, but there is something about her that bothers me. I always feel as if she's studied the song thoroughly and knows precisely what needs to be done musically in order to create the desired effect, but I'm never really convinced that she's genuinely emotionally connected to the material as opposed to simply doing a very fine simulation of emotional connection. The voice alone should carry her at least to the top 3 or 4, but I'm not sure she can win it all.

Stephanie: Stephanie desperately needs to do something raw and sexy, or she is in danger of being this year's Elegant Black Woman, and that's a contestant who always goes home about three weeks sooner than anyone thinks she will (see: Nadia, LaToya, Trenyce). She also needs to convince me that she's not just a terrific Beyonce mimic.

Chris S.: Best of the men, with a distinctive look and a sense of humor that will help him go a long way. And don't underestimate the impact that his background in Contemporary Christian music might have (he's an alum of Bob Jones U); I'm not sure the right-wing Christian voting bloc has ever had a contestant they could call their own. It's a double-edged sword, though, and if he should play it up too much (which he hasn't done so far), it could alienate as many people as it attracts.

Blake: Remember the first week, when we heard Blake actually sing a song? Wasn't that nice? Ever since, though, he's taken Randy's bad advice and thrown the beatbox stuff into every number; it's gotten boring very quickly, and it's not going to carry him far. If he'd stick to singing, which I think he does very well, he could be a dark horse threat to make the final two.

(This is where I draw the line between those contestants who have some chance of winning and those who will be also-rans.)

Jordin: Jordin's problem is that she's a very good R&B singer in a season that has three other excellent R&B singers; she's the youngest of that group, and her relative inexperience shows. If she's smart (and I think she is), she's soaking up as much as she can from those older women. I expect her to improve by leaps and bounds as the season progresses.

Brandon: The most disappointing of the twelve so far, and an early contender for the Anwar Robinson "We Expected More" Award. Last week, we finally got a glimpse of what he might be capable of, but he's really got his work cut out for him if he wants to make it to mid-season.

Gina: Has the good fortune to have a niche to herself, as the only rocker chick; that alone will keep her in the running for a few weeks, and might even carry her to the final six. Unfortunately, she's not a particularly interesting rocker chick; put her on Rock Star, and she'd be laughed off the stage in the first episode.

Phil: His performances fall into a pattern that I more typically associate with female Idol contestants: The beginning is poor to mediocre, but when he gets to the big notes at the end, he can sound pretty impressive. He could be the first guy to go.

Chris R.: Don't remember where I first saw him referred to as "Timberfake," but it's spot on. He's like Justin's adenoidal little cousin, with none of the talent or sex appeal. But he's the most conventionally sexy of the guys, which will help him survive for another week or two.

(This is where I draw the line between the also-rans and the "could not possibly win even if God himself came down to earth and begged us to vote for them" singers.)

Haley: Very smart move last week, grabbing the country/pop niche, which is entirely vacant this year. She didn't do it well, mind you, but if she stays in that style (to the extent that theme weeks allow), that chunk of the vote could keep her around into the top 8 or so.

Sanjaya: He seems like a very sweet boy, but c'mon. We know he doesn't belong here. He knows he doesn't belong here. He's visibly embarassed everytime he's told that he's still in the running, and at this point, it is both unamusing and cruel to keep him around. Let the poor boy leave already.

Only 90 minutes left until Diana Ross night, so let the games begin!

March 11, 2007

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, March 11 (Reich/Liszt/Holst)

Leonard Slatkin was the guest conductor this week, and the program opened with Reich's Triple Quartet. Sort of.

The piece was written for an on-stage string quartet, playing with two pre-recorded tapes of itself; it was performed today by three on-stage ensembles of twelve strings each. This caused lots of problems. Thirty-six instruments create a far muddier sound than twelve do, and the expansion was unnecessary; it's not as if we'd have had trouble hearing a smaller group. This is Disney Hall, for heaven's sake; you can hear a pin drop in that place. You also lose the effect of having two-thirds of the music arrive as disembodied sound.

Even more important, a lot of the piece is built around the recorded quartets echoing what's being done by the on-stage quartet; as written, those echoes are going to be played by the same players on the same instruments, making them sound a lot more like actual echoes than you can ever get from three different players, no matter how fine their ensemble is.

Those reservations aside, the performance was fine, I guess; I'm never really sure with Reich, whose music I must admit to not quite getting. It's all very pretty, I suppose, with its pulsing rhythms and little melodic fragments, but I never really know what it adds up to, and the only way I can distinguish one piece from another is by instrumentation.

Next, Yundi Li took the stage for Liszt's 1st Piano Concerto. It's a flashy, virtuoso piece, and Li was certainly up to its demands -- hands flying from one end of the keyboard to another in great leaping bounds, runs and arpeggios played so fast that the individual notes become a blur of sound.

But oddly enough, what really stuck in my mind was the triangle. The triangle is one of those unimportant instruments that usually sits on a rack with the woodblocks and the maracas and all of those other things that Percussionist #3 gets stuck playing, but there's triangle all over this damned concerto, so much so that there is a percussionist devoted solely to the triangle. Every few minutes, he'd stand up and TingTingTing; I halfway expected a triangle cadenza to break out.

After intermission, we got Holst's The Planets. (Well, of course, The Planets; does anyone ever play anything else by Holst? Talk about a one-hit wonder...) I am an absolute sucker for The Planets, and it was a thrill to finally hear it live, especially in an auditorium like Disney Hall, where every detail comes through with perfect clarity. The performance was spectacular.

There's not much to say about so familiar a piece, but I was particularly struck this time by how much it sounds like modern movie music. Surely John Williams' Star Wars scores were influenced by the fanfares and rhythmic propulsion of "Mars;" "Jupiter" sounds like an entire mini-movie about lovably eccentric English villagers; and there's a lot of Danny Elfman to be heard in both "Uranus" and "Neptune."

March 10, 2007

Why, it's a veritable cornucopia of linkiness!

In keeping with my earlier stated goal to do more linking to nifty stuff at other places:

Nathaniel at The Film Experience offers a generous list of the actresses who might be in the running for next year's Best Actress awards, in two pieces -- here and here.

The Chicago Tribune's Red Eye begins an elimination tournament to find TV's best character. First-round matchups include Denny Crane vs. Adrian Monk and Stewie Griffin vs. Veronica Mars.

If you enjoy the American Idol commentaries here, you can find equally astute post-mortems at Modern Fabulousity, Check the Fien Print, and What's Alan Watching?

StinkyLulu treats what might seem a ridiculously narrow topic -- the performances of supporting actresses -- with respect, admiration, and wit.

Sports Illustrated took it upon itself to ban its own swimsuit issue from schools and libraries this year.

March 09, 2007

I'm doing some tinkering with the look of the place, so bear with me. Things may change several times over the next few days, as I try to settle on a template and a color scheme that I like.

TV: The Wedding Bells

So, there's these three sisters named Bell, and they run a wedding planning agency. They're the Wedding Bells. Get it? Wedding Bells? Ha ha ha ha, it's funny. No...really...it is.

But that's about the level of wit to be found in the first episode of the show. The sisters are cardboard characters, each reducible to a single word: Sensible, Neurotic, and Slut. Sensible is married to the company's COO (we know this because he says at least seventeen times, "But I'm the COO!"); Neurotic won't admit that she's still hung up on the wedding photographer; and Slut has absolutely no other character trait. (Yes, I know that "slut" is a sex-negative, judgmental word, but that's the show's attitude towards the character.)

The best performances in the first episode come from the supporting characters. Sherri Sheppard, who never gets to play anything but the sassy fat black lady, and who always finds a way to bring something interesting to her roles anyway, gets laughs as one of the agency's bride-wranglers; Missi Pyle, as the pilot's principal bride, does tightly-wound and controlling as well as anyone. (She's reportedly joining the cast as a regular, somehow winding up on the agency's board of directors; her presence can only help).

But lord, this is hackneyed stuff. Creator David E. Kelley has done some fine work over the years, but all of his interesting shows have been built around the law; the only remotely successful show he's had outside a courtroom setting was Boston Public, and even there, those teachers and students wound up arguing about legal issues and going to court with surprising frequency. Outside the courtroom, though, he gives us dreck like Snoops or The Brotherhood of Poland, NH. Or this. (Doesn't augur well for his upcoming remake of the British time-traveling cop series Life on Mars, does it?)

March 07, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (women's semifinals, week 3)

The men pulled off the miracle last night of being even worse than they were in Week 1; the women pulled off an even bigger miracle by being better than they were in Week 1. Even the worst of the bunch (while still not good) were much improved.

The rundown:

Jordin, "Heartbreaker" -- the most stylistically adventurous of the bunch, going from Tracy Chapman to Christina Aguilera to Pat Benatar. She's not really a rocker chick at heart, I don't think, but she's got a lot of energy, and gets through the song reasonably well on raw talent.

Sabrina, "Don't Let Go" -- as Simon correctly notes, she's in desperate need of personality, and the song itself is so dull that I'm forgetting it even as it happens. Nothing horribly wrong with the performance, but my mind kept wandering.

Antonella, "Put Your Records On" -- probably her best performance yet, but there are still a lot of pitch problems, and no matter what she does, her voice will never be pretty. The song is wrong for her, too; it's quiet and wistful where she's loud and trashy (which in pop music is not necessarily an insult; entire careers have been built on loud and trashy).

Haley, "If My Heart Had Wings" -- the song suits her, and while she's clearly not in the same league with the top women, this is a pleasant enough performance. Another personal best, but probably not enough to keep her around for another week.

Stephanie, "Sweet Thing" -- She's got a fine voice, solid technique, and she's always lovely to listen to. She is in danger, though, of becoming this year's early-departing elegant black woman (see Nadia, Trenyce, LaToya), and needs to do something with a little heat and passion.

LaKisha, "I Have Nothing" -- what is it that leaves me cold about LaKisha? The notes are all there, the technique is solid; I should be in love. But I don't feel the emotional connection to the material. It's as if she's a perfectly trained singing robot.

Gina, "Call Me When You're Sober" -- as opposed to Jordin, Gina is at heart a rocker, and while she has a few pitch problems, this is a solid performance. Her singing is powerful, and there's more personality than we've gotten from her in previous weeks.

Melinda, "I'm a Woman" -- Oh. My. God. Melinda is teaching a masterclass this season. She just gets better every week, and I'm literally giggling with glee at how much fun she's having, and how incandescent she is on that stage.

For the night: Melinda, LaKisha, Stephanie, Gina, Jordin, Sabrina, Haley, Antonella.

For the season: Melinda, then a great big gap before we get to LaKisha and Stephanie, another big gap to Jordin, Sabrina, and Gina, and bringing up the rear and needing to go home are Haley and (as always) Antonella.
If you're a Battlestar Galactica fan, you'll find this hilarious. (via The Watcher)

March 06, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (men's semifinals, week 3)

Remember two weeks ago, when the guys came out and delivered what was probably the worst night in Idol history? Ah, those were the good ol' days, because tonight, the guys were even worse.

The rundown:

Blake, "All Mixed Up" -- As Simon correctly notes, his enunciation is terrible; the beatboxing feels more like a gimmick (and a tired one, at that) every week; and the performance is so slick and insincere that it makes styrofoam look natural. The energy is good, and his pitch is OK, but it was a creepy and unpleasant performance.

Sanjaya, "Waitin' on the World to Change" -- or, to quote The Roommate, "Waitin' on the Song to End." At the beginning, it seemed that there might be reason for hope; Sanjaya had found a comfortable medium where he was getting some power behind his voice without completely losing control of the pitch. But as improved as it was, it still felt lackluster. And then along came the last chorus, and Sanjaya went for the high notes, missing them in spectacular fashion.

Sundance, "Jeremy" -- not a wise song choice; Sundance is not a hard rock guy, and that rocker rasp he's affecting sounds terribly insincere and unnatural (not to mention ugly). He's also having pitch problems throughout.

Chris R., "Tonight I Wanna Cry" -- maybe you can get away with a thin, whiny, nasal voice when you're doing Timberlake-style pop; but not in country. Country is a harsh mistress, and you actually have to be able to sing. His pitch is wildly off from start to finish; the runs at the end are not only unidiomatic, but unattractive as well.

(Did I mention that this was a really really really bad night?)

Jared, "If You Really Loved Me" -- The key is too high, but aside from that, it's an adequate performance, harmless and pleasant without ever actually becoming interesting. But Jared projects all the warmth and sex appeal of a Ken doll; he desperately needs to up the charisma a notch.

Brandon, "I Just Want to Celebrate" -- It's a dull song that doesn't allow him to show off any real range, but it's the first time that Brandon doesn't feel like a background singer. He's actually got some energy and seems a lot more comfortable on stage than he ever has before.

Phil, "I Need You" -- Like Jared, Phil's put the song in too high a key, which ruins the opening, which he can't sing well at that low a volume level. When he gets to the chorus and is able to sing at full volume, he doesn't have those pitch problems, but by then, it's too late to salvage the song.

Chris S., "Wanna Be Loved" -- Finally, a performance worth hearing. The song suits him; he sings with power, personality, conviction, and stage presence that simply wipes the other men off the stage. Probably the best performance any of the men have given in these semifinal weeks (and still a huge notch below any of the top three or four women).

For the night: Chris S., Blake, Brandon, Jared, Phil, Sundance, Chris R., Sanjaya.

The judges are asked how many of the men really deserve a spot in the final twelve. Randy and Paula say four; Simon says three-and-a-half. They are all generous, as the correct answer is three: Chris S., Blake, and Phil.

Of the other five, Sanjaya most deserves to go home (as he has since week 1); the other four are interchangeable mediocrities, and it doesn't much matter which one is cut. If you made me pick one, I'd go with Chris R.

March 04, 2007

BOOKS: Glasshouse, Charles Stross (2006)

It's the 27th century, and the Censorship Wars have recently ended. Robin, who was a soldier in those wars, has just gone through a memory removal process, not uncommon for veterans who'd like to forget the most hellish parts of their experience. He's still going through post-op rehab when he realizes that someone is trying to kill him, apparently in the belief that he still knows things they'd rather he didn't.

Looking for a place to hide, Robin signs on for a 3-year research project, agreeing to live in a simulated community from "the dark ages" -- the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Participants are given new identities and discouraged from talking about their 27th century lives, so Robin figures this will be a great place to avoid whoever it is that's after him. And hey, it's only three years, which is nothing when people live for centuries. But a community that you can't escape may not turn out to be such a great hiding place after all, especially if those pursuing you are also taking part in the project.

There's a lot going on here, and Stross does a terrific job of laying it all out clearly, especially since his first-person narrator is still mentally and emotionally somewhat unstable from his recent memory erasures. The scene in which Robin wakes up in the Glasshouse is a small masterpiece of misdirection, which establishes his unreliable memory and tendency to leap to conclusions; those things will pay off in big ways later in the book. (To be precise, I should be saying "herself" and "her" at this point; in Stross's 27th century, people change bodies and genders with about as much thought as we give to changing underwear, and Robin's Glasshouse identity is a housewife named Reeve.)

There are moments, especially in the first half of the book, when we -- like Robin -- are floundering a bit, unable to figure out how all of the pieces fit together, but Stross always gives us just enough information to keep us from being too frustrated, and it's great fun watching all of the puzzle pieces fall into place in the final act. I did think it unlikely that his characters would be quite so pleased with their ultimate situation as they are, but then again, it may be another case of nothing seeming quite so awful to people with centuries of life ahead of them. Despite that minor reservation, I liked Glasshouse very much.

MOVIES: Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000/US 2007)

I'd been hearing about this movie for years, ever since it started playing the festival circuit in 2001. Miramax bought the movie, and it became one of the many films that the company bought and never released for arcane financial reasons. Now the movie's finally being released, after having been sold to another distributor, and it's a marvelous thing to see.

Imagine that Douglas Sirk and John Ford collaborated on a movie, a flamboyantly melodramatic Western filmed in color so vivid and lurid as to make Technicolor look like Whistler's Mother. Picture a gang of bandits in turquoise shirts and raspberry ascots, a gunfight set against a painted lemon-yellow sunset, a bride in a wedding gown of carnation pink, and a final shootout that takes place in the rain on the greenest lawn the world has ever seen -- and all of it in Thai. That gets you part of the way to imagining what Tears of the Black Tiger is like.

The beautiful Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi) has reluctantly given in to her father's wishes and agreed to marry police captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), but her heart will always belong to childhood sweetheart Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), whom her father would never allow her to marry because he is a mere peasant. Dum has fallen in with a local gang of bandits, and is their top marksman, feared throughout the countryside as "the Black Tiger."

The plot zips merrily from one classic Western trope to the next. Will Fai, the leader of Dum's gang, pull off his scheme to attack Kumjorn's wedding? Will Dum betray Fai in order to protect Rumpoey? Will Mahesuan (who had been Fai's right-hand man before Dum came along) give in to his jealousy and betray Dum? Will Dum and Rumpoey ever find happiness?

Sasanatieng's movie (he's both writer and director) is both homage and parody to classic Western conventions, and it's gorgeously photographed in rich, saturated pastels that took my breath away. The score mixes Thai pop songs (at least, I assume they're pop songs), Dvorak's "Coming Home" melody (which serves as the unrequited love theme for Rumpoey and Kumjorn), and original music by Amornbhong Methakunavudh that seems equally inspired by Tiomkin and Badalamenti. Some may find the movie's gunfight sequences too gory, but they're done in a cartoonish style, so obviously excessive that it's hard to take it too seriously (I was reminded of Kill Bill, though there's significantly less violence here, and Sasanatieng doesn't pile on the blood quite as thick as Tarantino does).

It's a wild ride, but it's not just visual spectacle. The performances are fun to watch, and by the time that Dum, Rumpoey, and Kumjorn find themselves on that bright green lawn at the end of the movie, I was surprised by how much I cared what happened; the final turns of the plot are deeply moving, and their impact is diminished only slightly by the fact that you can see them coming a mile away.

March 03, 2007

As part of its current pledge break programming, PBS is running a fine documentary called Soundies: A Musical History. "Soundies" were three-minute filmed musical performances that could be viewed on video jukeboxes in bars and nightclubs in the early 1940s; they were precursors to modern music videos. The documentary features interviews with the musicians and producers who made the films, and with historians talking about their impact. Best of all, of course, is the restored footage of these performances, from (among many others) Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Doris Day, Yvonne DeCarlo, Kay Starr -- the list goes on, and the performances are a joy to see. Soundies aired in Los Angeles tonight, and will be popping up in other cities over the next week or two; you should definitely keep an eye out for it.