February 29, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: women's semifinals, week 2

70s week continues with a most unimpressive night from the women. There were very few good performances and lots of bad ones; this is a tough group of singers to get a handle on.

The rundown:

Carly, "Crazy On You" -- Great song choice for her voice and style. She handles the pitch and dynamic range very well, and it's a vast improvement over last week; the power on display is actually appropriate to the song.

Syesha, "Me and Mr. Jones" -- Some songs you can gender switch, and some you can't. The "Mrs." was crucial in the original, as it instantly told us we were dealing with adultery; making it "Mr." robs the song of that element of the forbidden. (And how ballsy would it have been for Syesha to actually sing the original without a gender switch?) As for the performance itself, Syesha's personality -- all bright, sunny smiles -- doesn't match the song, and she's not bringing any sense of taboo to it herself. The notes are there, but the emotion isn't.

Brooke, "You're So Vain" -- Her enunciation is a bit mushy, and that first chorus is badly off-key. But I like the clear tone of her voice, and on a weak night, this will probably be good enough to keep her around.

Ramiele, "Don't Leave Me This Way" -- That chorus is repetitve, isn't it, pounding out those three punched notes every five seconds, and it starts to get dull awfully fast if it's not in the hands of an incredibly charismatic singer. And tonight, Ramiele is not that singer; she's utterly devoid of personality, and the song falls completely flat as a result.

Kristy, "You're No Good" -- Again, a chorus that wears out its welcome very quickly. Kristy gives a solid performance, but it's not a particularly memorable one. I think the judges are right that country would be the way to go for her.

Amanda, "Carry On Wayward Son" -- There may have been a note or two somewhere in there that was on pitch, but if there was, I missed it. This was a godawful mess, and when Amanda started "dancing" during the brief instrumental break, I honestly thought she was having a seizure.

Alaina, "Hopelessly Devoted to You" -- Breathy Alaina and full-voiced Alaina are like two different singers. The breathy Alaina is rarely on pitch, doesn't hold my attention, and feels like a bad Vegas act. At full voice, she still has some pitch problems, but at least you're aware that there's a singer on stage.

Alexandréa, "If You Leave Me Now" -- I forget what a weird, angular melody this song has, and Alexandréa handles the odd leaps reasonably well. But the energy and charisma that made her so much fun to watch last weak has vanished, and it's a dull, flabby performance.

Kady, "Magic Man" -- what is it about Idol women and sex? They keep choosing songs that are all about getting laid, and they sing them as if they're going on a hayride. Aside from her apparent lack of interpretive skills, the low notes in the verses disappear entirely.

Asia'h, "All By Myself" -- Simon nails it: She's almost a good enough singer to pull this one off, but not quite, and when you fail on this one, it's going to be a spectacular failure. To her credit, the low notes at the beginning could be clearly heard and were on pitch.

For the night: Carly, Brooke, Kristy, Syesha, Ramiele, Alexandréa, Asia'h, Alaina, Kady, Amanda.

  • Deserving to be in the top 12: none of the women have given two solid performances yet.
  • Deserving to come back next week and fight it out: Ramiele, Alexandréa, Carly, Brooke, Syesha, Asia'h, Alaina, Kristy
  • Deserving to be sent home: Kady, Amanda

MUSIC: American Idol 08: men's semifinals, week 2

So here I am, back from the hospital, where the surgery seems to have gone just dandy. I'm moving a little slower than normal, but for the most part, I'm perfectly functional.

And having scrupulously avoided spoiler info, I'm ready to pass judgment on the li'l Idols, beginning with the men. It's 70s night, and for the most part, it goes much better than 60s night, with one or two contestants showing remarkable improvement.

The rundown (now with Percocet!):

Michael, "Go Your Own Way" -- The bouncing makes him look very nervous. The song's range is too much for him; there's too much vibrato in the lower register, and he never quite hits the high note (on "go YOUR own way"). Another middle-of-the-pack performance.

Jason C, "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" -- I liked this better than the judges did; the musical reinterpretation was effective (and it wasn't until he hit the chorus that I finally recognized the song). The end of the first chorus was bobbled a bit, but it's a nice performance, and Jason clearly knows what type of material suits him.

Luke, "Killer Queen" -- Well, his enunciation is very good. But it's an overly polite performance, with no sense of danger; just listen to those wimpy "yeah"s at the end of the song.

Robbie, "Hot Blooded" -- He's got a fine voice, and there are no serious pitch problems. But -- and maybe this gets at the rock v. pop thing that the judges go on about with him -- it's a very controlled performance, with not much spontaneity. You know that Robbie could sing this song 50 times and that every note, every phrasing, every breath would be exactly the same; rock music, I think, needs at least the illusion that the singer might lose control.

Danny, "Superstar" -- The opening is weak; when he gets quiet and breathy, his pitch gets worse. By the end, though, when he gets to sing out a bit, it's not half bad, and I begin to understand what the judges saw in him that got him to this point. He's not going to win, but with the right material, he could be entertaining enough to keep around for a few weeks.

David H, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" -- Energy, charisma, personality, and he's telling the story instead of just singing the words. The tacked-on coda is particularly egregious, even by Idol standards, but even there, his melisma is tasteful and on pitch.

Jason Y, "Long Train Running" -- The judges correctly note that this isn't a song to show off a singer's range; even worse, he doesn't always hit the few notes he is asked for. He looks comfortable on stage -- he certainly moves better than Michael -- and it's a smart image change from last week, but it's a forgettable performance.

Chikezie, "I Believe to My Soul" -- Winner of the Most Improved award; this is the type of music he should be singing. His voice is rich and full, there's charisma to spare, and he's having fun. One of the night's best.

David C, "All Right Now" -- The song suits his voice very well, but you still can't get past the fact that neither song nor voice is very interesting. He gets better and more relaxed as he goes along, I suppose, but it never rises above bland.

David A, "Imagine" -- Whaddya mean, he's only 17? This is a freakishly confident, poised, self-assured performance for someone that young. Oh, there are some scattered notes that aren't quite on pitch, but there's such heart and emotion in the performance that they barely matter.

For the night: David A, Chikezie, David H, Robbie, Jason C, Danny, Michael, David C, Luke, David Y.

  • Deserving to be in the top 12: David A, David H, Robbie, Jason C
  • Deserving to come back next week and fight it out: Chikezie, Michael, Danny, Jason Y
  • Deserving to be sent home: Luke, David C

MUSIC: American Idol 08: men's semifinals, week 2

So here I am, back from the hospital, where the surgery seems to have gone just dandy. I'm moving a little slow

February 24, 2008

A note for those who stop by here each week looking for American Idol recaps:

First, thanks for your support.

Second, this week's recaps will be a bit late, as I'm checking into the hospital tomorrow morning for minor surgery. If all goes as expected (and it will, it will, it will, I'm telling myself over and over again that it will), I'll be checked out on Wednesday, and the episodes will be waiting for me on the TiVo, but I suspect that it may be a day or two before I'm up to watching and critiquing the would-be Idols.

February 20, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: women's semifinals, week 1

It's the ladies' turn to take on the 60s tonight. The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and a few early frontrunners are established.

The quick rundown:

Kristy, "Rescue Me" -- There's not an ounce of sex to be found in this performance. What does Kristy think "take me, baby" means? It's a pretty enough voice, but it lacks the horny rawness that this song requires.

Joanne, "I Say a Little Prayer" -- Kudos to her for getting Bacharach's tricky rhythms right, but her pitch is off throughout, and her voice is a bit too strident and piercing for my taste.

Alaina, "More Today Than Yesterday" -- The slow intro doesn't work, but once the tempo picks up, it's a confident performance, and great fun to watch.

Amanda, "Baby, Please Don't Go" -- Frantic, inarticulate shrieking and a remarkably unattractive voice make for one of the most painful performances in Idol history.

Amy, "Where the Boys Are" -- ...and miraculously, Amy manages to be even worse than Amanda. The pitch is disastrous throughout, and it's absolutely the wrong song for her.

Brooke, "Happy Together" -- There's just a hint of country in her voice, and it works surprisingly well on this song. It's not a particularly memorable performance, but it's pleasant.

Alexandréa, "Spinning Wheel" -- From the moment she enters down those stairs, she's in complete control of the stage and the audience. The melisma break coming out of the chorus into the second verse is impeccable. Fabulous!

Kady, "A Groovy Kind of Love" -- Kady seems to be on the verge of falling asleep even as she sings. That makes two of us.

Asia'h, "Piece of My Heart" -- It's a very relaxed, comfortable performance. There's something about her voice -- a slightly choked, strangled quality -- that rubs me the wrong way, but she's certainly got talent, and I do want to hear her again.

Ramiele, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" -- She certainly knows how to work the melodrama, and her dynamics are nicely controlled. Where most singers would be pushing like hell on those big belt notes at the end, you have the sense that Ramiele is just getting warmed up and has a couple more levels of volume to go if she needs them.

Syesha, "Tobacco Road" -- Incredibly dull song, and the arrangement is, I think, a bit too rock for her voice and style. Given those flaws, it was a very good performance.

Carly, "The Shadow of Your Smile" -- the low notes are too low for her, she's working awfully hard for the high notes, and this is not a song that should be belted in the first place. She may have a good voice, but her musical instincts aren't good.

Deserving to come back next week: Alexandréa, Ramiele, Alaina.

Not sure yet, but would like to hear more: Asia'h, Syesha, Brooke, Carly.

Won't miss 'em when they're gone: Kady, Kristy, Joanne, Amanda, Amy.

February 19, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: men's semifinals, week 1

And they're off!

I haven't watched any of the audition or Hollywood week shows, and have managed to avoid any YouTube clips, so this was my first glimpse of these contestants.

It's 60s night -- theme weeks are a new twist for the semis, which had been free choice in previous years. I wished they'd left it that way; it was nice for the contestants to have a few weeks in which they could sing songs they really felt comfortable with before being thrown into the challenges of theme nights.

The goal of the semifinals is simply to get rid of the deadwood, so we'll just do a very quick rundown:

David H, "In the Midnight Hour" -- the slow intro with the organ is fabulous, with a lovely little falsetto break. The rest of the song isn't quite as good, and there's one very sour note near the end, but overall, it's quite nice.

Chikezie, "More Today Than Yesterday" -- a disastrous arrangement makes the song sound like something from a cruise ship lounge. His voice isn't particularly distinctive or interesting.

David C, "Happy Together" -- pitch is off throughout, and he tends to bellow in a most unattractive fashion.

Jason Y, "Moon River" -- if we were looking for the next Perry Como, he'd be our winner hands down, but can he actually sing in a more contemporary style?

Robbie, "One" -- I suspect that the judges are right and he's really a pop singer; his voice is a bit too clear and pure for him to be a real rocker. A solid performance, if not wildly memorable.

David A, "Shop Around" -- he can't quite hit the low notes in this key, but it's a fine, energetic performance.

Danny, "Jailhouse Rock" -- if you can't enunciate, then don't choose a song with lots of words in it.

Luke, "Everybody's Talking" -- Pitch is off throughout, and there's just a bit of rhythmic stiffness, as if he hasn't really learned the song yet and is still frantically counting beats in his head.

Colton, "Suspicious Minds" -- It's an adequate performance (the slow section is the weakest), but there's absolutely no force of personality behind it, nothing to push it off the screen.

Garrett, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" -- It's 60s night, so doing the slow 70s version is a cheat to begin with. Remarkably dull; it is, as the judges are so often wont to say, like bad karaoke.

Jason C, "Daydream" -- I wasn't quite as impressed as the judges were, but there is a nice relaxed warmth to his singing that I like.

Michael, "Light My Fire" -- Stupid song choice; never invite comparisons to one of the most iconic performers in rock history. Reasonably well done, though.

Deserving to come back next week: David H, David A, Robbie.

Not sure yet, but would like to hear more: Jason C, Jason Y, Michael, Luke.

Won't miss 'em when they're gone: Chikezie, Colton, Garrett, Danny, David C.

February 18, 2008

Love this:

February 10, 2008

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic 08-09 season

Renewal brochure arrived this week. Unfortunately, a variety of ongoing minor medical problems have cropped up every time one of my subscription concerts has arrived this season; I was particularly sorry to miss Britten's War Requiem a few weeks back.

Much less new music on the schedule this year; the focus is a celebration of Esa-Pekka Salonen in his final season as music director, with many of his favorite composers and performers on the schedule. There are a few new-ish works, though no premieres: Saariaho's oratorio La Passion de Simone is being programmed again, after having been postponed for two years now; there will be a new work from Salonen in April; Thomas Ades will be conducting some of his own music; and the Labeque sisters will be performing a Double Piano Concerto by Andriessen.

As always, the music that I most want to hear is never on the same series, and there will be a fair amount of ticket-swapping to do, but this, I think, is the season I'll wind up with:
  • Stravinsky: Fireworks; Tchakovsky: Piano Concerto #1 (Yefim Bronfman); Stravinsky: The Firebird (Esa-Pekka Salonen)
  • Copland: Appalachian Spring; Britten: Violin Concerto (Midori); Revueltas: La Noche de los Mayas (Miguel Harth-Bedoya)
  • Turina: La oración del torero; Respighi: The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome (Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos)
  • Brahms: "Tragic" Overture, Violin Concerto (Nikolaj Znaider), and Symphony #1 (Marin Alsop)
  • Janáček: Sinfonietta; Andriessen: Double Piano Concerto (Katia & Marielle Labeque); Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (Esa-Pekka Salonen)
  • Stravinsky: "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto; Khachaturian: Violin Concerto (Gil Shaham); Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances (Stéphane Denève)
  • Stucky: Son et lumière; Schuman: Symphony #3; Glazunov: Violin Concerto (Hilary Hahn); Tchaikovsky: Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture (Leonard Slatkin)
  • Shostakovich: Violin Concerto #1 (Julia Fischer); Prokofiev: Symphony #5 (Christoph Eschenbach)

BOOKS: The Crazy School, Cornelia Read (2008)

Sequel to A Field of Darkness, which I liked very much.

This one finds Madeline Dare working as a teacher at the Santangelo Academy, a private school for troubled teens. It's the late 1980s, and government oversight of private schools isn't as strict as one might like, so the unorthodox -- one might even say abusive -- methods of the school's founder come as a shock to Maddie. Her fellow teachers, however, seem to have fallen into his cult of personality, and most have no objections to what goes on at Santangelo. Maddie's fears prove justified, of course, when there is unexpected death at the school.

This is an odd follow up to the first Madeline Dare book. The setting is different (we've moved from Syracuse to the Berkshires), and the supporting cast is almost entirely different; Madeline's husband, Dean, makes a few brief appearances, but he wasn't much of a presence in the first book, and he's even less of one here. The tone is significantly darker in this book, with much less of Maddie's charming, self-deprecating humor. It barely feels like part of the same series at all, so much so that it seems an odd way to build readership. It would have been better, I think, to simply give this book a new heroine and publish it as a stand-alone.

That caveat aside, The Crazy School is worth reading; there's a large cast of colorful characters, an ample supply of suspects, and the clues to the solution are fairly planted.

February 03, 2008

MOVIES: Oscar season (yawn)...

Maybe it's just that I've been laid up sick for the last three weeks, maybe it's that so few of the movies I really cared about this year got any major nominations, but I'm finding it harder than usual to get terribly excited about the Oscars this year.

The Best Picture field, for instance, includes Michael Clayton, a perfectly serviceable legal thriller, but one that didn't seem to me particularly special or noteworthy; Atonement, which isn't a bad movie until its horrible cheat of an ending; and No Country for Old Men, which is fatally crippled by the fact that its villain is less a human being than an abstract symbol. The only movie in the bunch that I can root for without reservation is Juno; as for There Will Be Blood, I'm not entirely convinced by some of its more over-the-top moments, but I wouldn't be appalled to see it win.

The acting categories? There are more performances than usual that I didn't see, and some of them I can't muster up any enthusiasm to see even now that they've been nominated.

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, for instance; I didn't enjoy the first Elizabeth all that much, and can't imagine forcing myself to sit through a sequel that is, by all accounts, even less interesting. The other Best Actress nominees, I think, comprise the strongest of the acting fields this year; I'll be rooting for Ellen Page, but would be almost as happy to see Julie Christie win, and while I think Marion Cotillard and Laura Linney aren't quite in the same class as those two, they are fine performances, and neither would be an embarassing choice.

Best Actor: Haven't seen Viggo Mortensen or Tommy Lee Jones. Clooney's performance is of a piece with its movie -- perfectly adequate, but nothing exciting or distinctive. Depp's work in Sweeney Todd is too monochromatic to be a really great performance, and his singing is weak, which -- call me old fashioned -- I think counts against you when you're starring in a musical. That leaves Daniel Day-Lewis, by far the best of this bunch.

Supporting Actor: Haven't seen Holbrook; of my "haven't seen" performances, this is the one that I'm the most interested in actually seeing. Javier Bardem does as much as humanly possible in No Country, but Anton Chigurh is written as nothing more than a dull cipher. Casey Affleck is overshadowed by Brad Pitt for the entirety of James/Ford; that's not inappropriate for the character, but the challenge of playing a perpetual second banana is to let the audience see a well-rounded human being even when none of the other characters can, and I don't think Affleck rises to that challenge. Tom Wilkinson's performance is a hammy mess. That leaves Philip Seymour Hoffman as the best of the bunch, and while his work in Charlie Wilson's War was very nice, it was by far the least interesting of the three fine performances he gave in year-end movies (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and, even more so, The Savages were more deserving of nominations).

Supporting Actress: I made it only far enough into I'm Not There to know that the movie had nothing to offer anyone who wasn't already a member of the Dylan cult, and Cate Blanchett hadn't even shown up yet when I grew tired of all of the cutesy inside jokes and obscure references; it was like trying to solve a crossword puzzle in a language I don't speak. Ruby Dee's nomination is clearly a "thanks for a terrific career" nomination; the role wasn't that interesting, or really even large enough to merit nomination. The other three nominations are all well-deserved, and I'd be pleased to see either Saoirse Ronan or Amy Ryan win. The single biggest omission in any of the major categories, though, was Jennifer Garner, who not only should have been nominated here, but should have won the Oscar in a landslide.

Let's see...anything interesting in the down-ticket categories?
  • Seeing the third Animated Film nomination go to Surf's Up was unexpected; I liked the movie more than most people, I think, so I'm not disappointed to see it there. The plot was on the predictable side, perhaps, but the animation itself was skillfully done, especially in the way it imitated various old film stocks as part of its "documentary" footage.
  • The omission of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in the Foreign Language category is inexcusable.
  • I'll be rooting for Atonement and Ratatouille in the Best Score category, and while I don't know the nominated song from August Rush, the rest of that category -- "Falling Slowly" from Once and the three songs from Enchanted -- is a strong field of fine songs.
  • Favorite high culture/low culture clash: La Vie en Rose vs. Norbit in the Best Makeup category.