May 31, 2011

MOVIES: The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011)

The Tree of Life is the first Terence Malick film I've seen, and I don't think I need to see another. This is an insufferably pretentious, artsy-for-artsy's-sake bore.

The setting (mostly) is Waco in the sixties, where Jack (Hunter McCracken) is the oldest of three sons. We view his childhood in a series of impressionistic moments; there's no real plot to speak of, just scenes from a childhood. We see enough to understand that Jack's father (Brad Pitt) is generally a loving man, but somewhat on the cold and withdrawn side, and given to the occasional outburst of rage. (Remind you of anyone? Say, in the Old Testament deity department? Hold that thought...) Mother (Jessica Chastain) is an ethereal presence -- in one brief shot, we see her literally floating on air in the backyard -- who either can't or won't do anything to protect her children from her husband's mood swings.

There are a few brief scenes set in the present, in which we see the adult Jack (Sean Penn) working in a skyscraper in (I think) Dallas; they amount to even less in terms of story than the Waco scenes do. And any time it looks as if a storyline or an actual plot might rear its ugly head, Malick cuts away for no obvious reason to a beautifully composed shot of a tree. Or a sunflower. Or a volcano. Or, in one sequence of nearly 15 minutes, a recapitulation of the history of the cosmos from the big bang through the extinction of the dinosaurs, ending with a shot of Jack's birth.

The movie is, I suppose, meant to be the story of Jack's fall from grace and innocence, his gradual discovery that his father (and by fairly explicit implication, Our Father), loving though he may be, is also capable of being both a pissed-off bastard and painfully apathetic about his life.

The movie opens with a quote from the book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?," which is God's response when Job dares to ask why he has been so mightily cursed. Of all God's appearances in the Bible, this is surely his biggest moment of douchebaggery, and if there's any point to The Tree of Life, I think Malick is telling us that if we've ever expected anything more from God, then we are fools, just as surely as Job was to think that his loyalty would be rewarded.

But the whole thing is so sluggish and self-important. There's very little dialogue; instead, we watch scenes while one of the actors speaks (always in very hushed tones) semi-random lines, apparently addressed to God: "Are you watching me?" "Please help me." "What have I done?" And then at the end, everyone (including both versions of Jack) is suddenly walking aimlessly on the beach, exchanging ostensibly meaningful glances that don't actually mean anything, which makes them the perfect way to end this silly waste of time.

May 27, 2011

MOVIES: Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)

An absolute charmer about the appeal (and the peril) of nostalgia; Allen's best movie in at least 20 years.

It should be noted that the advertising and trailers for this movie have, for once, not given away one of the central plot points. Many of the reviews have, however, which is a shame; I think the movie will be more fun if certain things are allowed to come as a surprise.

Owen Wilson seems an unlikely choice to play the central Woody role, but here he is as Gil, a moderately successful screenwriter who is not content to be such. Gil dreams of being a novelist, and is working on a book about a man who works in a nostalgia shop, selling old tchothkes and memorabilia. He's on vacation in Paris with his obnoxious fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her even more obnoxious parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).

Inez wants to play tourist, which is boring Gil, especially after they run into her old friend Paul (Michael Sheen, giving a precisely pompous performance), a know-it-all professor with a habit of "correcting" tour guides. Gil is desperate to get away, and as he wanders the streets of Paris late one night, he finds himself in the middle of a circle of artists -- writers, painters, composers -- from whom he takes great inspiration. As he spends more and more nights with his new friends, the thought of going back to the States with Inez begins to look less appealing.

Wilson is charming here, and is wisely not attempting to imitate Allen's distinctive rhythms (as many of Allen's leading men have foolishly done in recent years). There are certainly lines that you can't help but hear in Allen's voice, but Wilson's own rhythms are slower, more relaxed, a bit more perplexed and bemused. Marion Cotillard gives her best English-language performance yet (actually, the first good one that I've seen) as Adriana, who is something of a serial muse, providing one artist after another with sex and inspiration.

The cast also includes Kathy Bates, impeccably cast as the unoffficial leader of Gil's new circle; Corey Stoll, never quite overdoing the macho, terse shtick as a particularly manly author; and Adrian Brody, who has a marvelous cameo as an eccentric painter.

There's a moment when Gil talks about the importance of an artist learning from the past, but not dwelling there; your material is the world you live in, and you can't be so obsessed by nostalgia that you ignore the present. It's a little hard not to hear this as a lecture from Allen to his audience, a "stop asking me to keep making my early movies" plea. In light of that, I should perhaps feel a bit guilty in noting that Midnight in Paris is very evocative of some of those earlier movies; there are hints of Sleeper and The Purple Rose of Cairo, among others. It's a delightful movie, absolutely worth seeing.

May 25, 2011

BOOKS: Crunch Time, Diane Mott Davidson (2011)

16th in Davidson's mystery series about caterer Goldy Schulz.

And for a 16th volume, it's a pretty good book. It's not surprising, certainly; you get the usual cast of characters, the standard light cozy-ish tone (though with a bit more on-page mayhem and violence than usual), and ten of Goldy's recipes at the back of the book. But the story is involving and the cast of suspects is more interesting than usual.

The story involves Goldy's friend/assistant, Yolanda, and her great-aunt Ferdinanda, a Cuban refugee and one-time member of Castro's army (a past she loves to talk about). When their rental home is burned down, they move in with a local private investigator; his murder has Yolanda fearful that a stalker-y ex-boyfriend may be out to get her and her aunt.

It's a wide ranging tale, involving missing jewels, marijuana farming, puppy mills, and an MIT-educated hooker. There are, as always, a few moments where Goldy's sleuthing skills seem a bit much for a caterer with no real training in the field, and her cop husband is way more talkative about the case than any real cop would be. But that's par for the course in the amateur sleuth genre.

Half the fun of a good mystery series is dropping in on all of the regular characters, and Davidson doesn't disappoint on that front. But she's also given us some colorful new characters and suspects. Ferdinanda is a delight -- a cranky old woman who knows more than she lets on, and isn't quite as deaf as she'd like everyone to believe.

If you haven't read any of the earlier volumes, you needn't fear being lost; Davidson is very good at filling in the necessary background without making you feel as if you're drowning in exposition. This sort of light mystery doesn't get as much respect as the grittier end of the crime spectrum does, but it's a special kind of art in its own right, and Davidson is one of its best practitioners.

May 24, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: The Finale!!!

And here we are at the finale of Nashville Star American Idol, where Scotty and Lauren fight for the title of America's Favorite Country Teen. In retrospect, this shouldn't be a surprising final; Idol voters do love the southerners, and tonight's winner will be the eighth southern champ in ten seasons.

For Round One, we revisit songs from earlier in the season. Coincidentally, they've chosen songs from the same week.

Scotty, "Gone" -- A bit better than it was three weeks ago, I think; his upper register feels stronger, and he's working the audience even more than usual. There's nothing surprising about the performance, but we've surely learned by now not to expect surprise from Scotty; he's going to give us comfortable, mainstream country-pop performances.

Lauren, "Flat on the Floor" -- I'm a bit surprised she picked this one; I didn't think it was a particularly strong moment for her the first time around. Tonight was better, though some of the low notes are still getting lost, and I don't know why she's been styled to look like one of the Real Housewives of Bugtussle.

Round One: Narrowly to Scotty, though neither was very impressive.

Round Two features choices from the contestants' "personal Idols". (Of course, when asked to  choose their personal Idols at the beginning of the season, Scotty and Lauren chose Garth Brooks and Shania Twain; their tastes are apparently susceptible to the whims of TV availability.)

Scotty, "Check Yes or No" -- I said last week that I thought one of Scotty's problems was that he was a 17-year-old singing grownup songs for which he didn't have the emotional experience, and I'll take this as vindication of a sort. When asked to sing in flashback about the emotional life of a third-grader, he actually can connect to the material. High notes on the second chorus are a bit thin, though.

Lauren, "Maybe It Was Memphis" -- She still doesn't quite have the breath control to handle those long phrases, and is gasping in odd spots in the verses. On the whole, though, this is a very nice performance; the song is precisely her type of material, and (even though she's younger), she's a bit more convincing with the love songs than Scotty is.

Round Two: Narrowly to Lauren, though we still haven't had a "wow" moment that would make me excited about voting for either of them.

And we close with the potential first singles.

Scotty, "I Love You This Big" -- A song precisely tailored to a 17-year-old boy, and we get one of his better performances of the year. It's still lacking in the real passion and emotion that would take it beyond being just a very nicely sung song -- that emotional communication is the biggest thing Scotty needs to learn, I think -- but it's as close to it as he's ever come.

Lauren, "Like My Mother Does" -- Even more precisely tailored to Lauren than's Scotty's single was to him, and she delivers a lovely performance. There were a couple of moments in the second half that made me think her laryngitis was catching up to her (and I'll bet she's glad there's not a fourth round), but she covered them nicely, passing them off as emotional moments or a good old fashioned country break in the voice. The best performance of the night.

Round Three: Comfortably to Lauren, which ought to be enough to give her the title. It won't be, of course; Scotty is going to win this thing by a sizable margin.

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: year-end awards

They're watching the finale on the east coast even as I type, but it won't start here for another couple of hours, so let's give out the annual best and worst awards. As is my usual custom, only the singers and the performances from the final 13 are eligible; no semi-final/wild card entries.

Best performance: Haley, "I (Who Have Nothing)"
Runner-up: Pia, "River Deep - Mountain High"

Worst performance: Casey, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Runner-up: Scotty, "You've Got a Friend"

Voted off too soon: Jacob
Runner-up: Pia

Lasted too long: Naima, who sewed up this award the minute she made the top 13
Runner-up: Paul, the manic hobo

Most disappointing: Scotty, whose consistency masked his lazy complacency. He never cared about being the best singer of the night; he was always content to merely not be the worst.

Most pleasant surprise: Haley, though it took her most of the season to get there

BOOKS: After the Golden Age, Carrie Vaughn (2011)

Chick-lit with a superhero twist.

Celia West is your typical young woman -- mildly boring job, family problems, still looking for the right guy. Of course, her family problems are a bit more complicated than most, since her parents are Captain Olympus and Spark, two of the dozen or so superhuman crime fighters who help to protect Commerce City from evil. And since Celia has no powers of her own, she's the most popular girl in town with the criminal element; she's been kidnapped five or six times already.

Finally, it looks as if her parents' archenemy, the Destructor, is going to get what's coming to him; he's about to be sent to jail for tax evasion (hey, it worked for Capone!). Celia's working on the case for the DA as a forensic accountant, trying to stay in the background, and hoping that her new relationship with a handsome cop (who happens to be the mayor's son) will go somewhere. But her family history, and her own complicated relationship with the Destructor, is bound to become public knowledge, and secrets may be revealed that a lot of powerful people (on both sides of the good vs. evil divide) would rather see stay hidden.

The idea of a powerless child of superheroes is an intriguing one, and Vaughn finds a lot of interesting ways to play with it; Celia's reactions to her unusual circumstances are convincing. There are some marvelous funny moments; the opening chapter, for instance, finds Celia being kidnapped again, which is such old news to her that her captors are frustrated at how non-bothered she is. Vaughn has found a way to put a novel spin on some standard superhero tropes, and those who enjoy that sort of thing should like this very much.

BOOKS: The Murder of My Aunt, Richard Hull (1935)

Edward Powell, the poor young man, has been forced through financial circumstances to share a country home with his Aunt Mildred. She is, alas, not the sophisticate he deserves for a relative; she actually likes living in the country and gardening and taking long walks for no reason at all. She finds his French novels "smutty" and refuses to fix a settlement on him from the family trust. And so, Edward is forced to live in remote Llwll (pronounced roughly "Thoolth;" it's Welsh, so the "w" is a vowel).

Finally, Edward reaches his breaking point. He writes in his journal, "I should be very much happier if my Aunt were dead," and we follow him through several attempts to do Aunt Mildred in.

Hull's novel is (unsurprisingly) old-fashioned, and its twist ending isn't much of a surprise today, though it might have been a shocker 75 years ago. But Edward and Mildred are delightful characters, each set in their ways and neither willing to compromise on much of anything. The book is droll and witty, and I found it a charming little diversion.

May 22, 2011

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, May 22 (Gubaidulina / Brahms)

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Glorious Percussion (Anders Loguin, Anders Haag, Mika Takehara, Eirik Raude, Robyn Schulkowsky), percussion ensemble

The program:
  • Gubaidulina: Glorious Percussion
  • Brahms: Symphony #2
A note on nomenclature: The five percussionists here premiered Gubaidulina's piece in 2008, then joined forces to perform as an ensemble, naming themselves after the concerto that had brought them together.

And a note on programming: This concert had been scheduled to open with Brahms' Tragic Overture, but during rehearsals this week, they discovered that the percussion setup took a long time, and they didn't want to leave the audience sitting for that length of time, so the overture was dropped. Why they couldn't have performed the overture with the percussion already on stage is beyond me.

But there was a lot of percussion on stage. Dudamel's podium was surrounded by xylophones and marimbas; paired sets of Javanese gongs stood at either side on racks about 5 feet tall and 7 feet wide; and five assorted bass drums were spread across the front of the stage. A wide array of chimes, bells, smaller drums, and cymbals were tucked into every available corner of the percussionists' space.

There were a couple of instruments I'd never seen before (and I have no idea what they're called). There's an hourglass-shaped drum that's held against the body in the crook of the elbow; I assume there are cords of some sort along the side of the drum that are squeezed in the arm in order to increase tension on the drum head, changing the pitch; this drum had a spotlight moment trading jazz riffs with the double bass. There was also an instrument that looked rather like a loosely filled beanbag; it was played by tossing it from hand to hand, striking and swatting it in flight. It was like watching someone play with a cantaloupe-sized hacky sack, and sounded like a less agile version of maracas.

The guy playing the hacky sack was perhaps the best example, but all five percussionists were having great fun with the physicality of their performances. The two who played the passages for Javanese gongs got great humor from their differing sizes. He is tall with long arms, and played with his feet mostly planted in place; she is significantly shorter, and was lunging back and forth to hit gongs at different ends of the rack.

Gubaidulina does marvelous things with orchestration here, using the percussion and the orchestral instruments in unexpected and striking combinations -- harp and bamboo chimes, a series of ascending notes for bowed marimba that are taken over by the violins almost without you noticing. There's one moment where I could swear I was hearing a celesta, even though there wasn't one on stage -- high notes on the xylophone accompanied by flute and some sort of small chime, I think.

I couldn't explain to you the structure of the piece, and Gubaidulina's program notes aren't much help. "The central theme here is the agreement of the sounding intervals with their difference tones." Oh. Sure it is. OK. But what I do get is the sense that she's playing with the ways in which the orchestral and percussion instruments can imitate one another. There's that jazz riff for the basses and the hourglass drum; the piece opens with clusters of gongs alternating with similar clusters of low brass.

The piece ends in spectacular fashion, as the ensemble finally approaches those bass drums, which have been sitting there for half-an-hour like Chekhov's gun, and we get a magnificent cadenza for bass drums. A remarkable spectacle that brings the piece to a glorious ending, indeed.

Glorious Percussion is a striking piece that held my interest from moment to moment, and even if I can't tell you how, it does feel like a cohesive whole, and it would be interesting to hear it again to see if the structure begins to reveal itself or remains cryptic.

After intermission came the Brahms, and it was a delight (especially after the letdown of Dudamel's German Requiem last week). One of the joys of hearing an orchestra as good as the LA Phil in a hall as good as Disney Hall is that the full range of dynamics is available; the Philharmonic plays true pianissimos and fortissimos that simply can't be matched in a hall with worse acoustics. While they don't have a lot to do in this symphony, I was particularly impressed by the trombone section today, who made their every moment count.

Next week, "Brahms Unbound" continues with the 3rd Symphonies of Brahms and Gorecki; I am one of the few who missed the Gorecki during its weird little pop-culture moment 20 years ago, so I look forward to hearing it now.

May 20, 2011

BOOKS: The Lover's Dictionary, David Levithan (2011)

The story of a love affair, told in dictionary format.

Levithan presents a series of dictionary words, each with commentary from the narrator (identified only as "I") speaking to his partner ("you"). I and You are never specifically identified by gender. There's a joke about pregnancy early on that, if taken literally, would make I male and You female, but I don't think there's any reason that the joke must be taken literally.

Each entry in this dictionary/journal gives us another tiny piece of their story, which is a fairly typical one -- they meet and fall in love, there is infidelity and a breakup, there may be reconciliation (the ending is a bit ambiguous). And since there's nothing particularly unusual or compelling about the story, the book succeeds or fails entirely on the strength of Levithan's fragmented method of telling the story.

It works pretty well. We get a surprisingly strong sense of who I and You are in a short space; the book's only 211 pages, it's a tiny book, and many of the pages/entries are only a sentence or two long. Levithan chooses words one would expect to find in a love story (ardent, beguile), words one might not (antiperspirant, deciduous), and words one would hope not to (defunct, hiatus). The fragments build on one another in interesting ways; there's a conversation beginning with the words "It's over" that repeats several times, each time getting longer and changing our perception of what's happening.

And some of the individual entries are lovely, almost little poems or short stories in themselves. This, for instance, is the entry at "only":
That's the dilemma, isn't it? When youre single, there's the sadness and joy of only me. And when you're paired, there's the sadness and joy of only you.
It's a melancholy, haunting little book, and Levithan does a lovely job of giving us specific character details that take the story beyond the rather mundane events.

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, May 15 (Mackey/Brahms)

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Leila Josefowicz, violin; Christine Schäfer, soprano; Matthias Goerne, baritone; Los Angeles Master Chorale

The program:
  • Mackey: Beautiful Passing
  • Brahms: A German Requiem
It's taken me a few days to get around to writing up this concert, which surprised me in many ways. I had my first major disappointment with Dudamel, and fell in love with a new work by a composer who I hadn't heard about much before.

Let's start with the Brahms. This was one of the first serious pieces of music I got to sing when I went to college, as my small-town high school choir had been the standard mix of badly arranged pop songs, awful show tune medleys, and treacly originals for the high school market, most of the latter involving (a) rainbows, (b) dreams, and (c) the importance of following (a) and/or (b). So getting to sing Brahms, even in English and with two pianos instead of an orchestra, was a big deal, and it's a piece I've had a soft spot for ever since.

The biggest problem with Dudamel's interpretation is that it was deathly slow, running 77 minutes (I'd like to have seen at least 5 minutes chopped off that). Yes, it's a requiem, but it's supposed to be warm and consoling; the waltzes need to have some lilt, some dancing quality, and here they just plodded. The balance between chorus and orchestra was badly off; when they could be heard, the Master Chorale sounded find, but they were too often buried by the orchestra. As for the soloists, they made very pretty sounds, not a word of which was comprehensible. And finally, even if there are supertitles in the hall, there is absolutely no excuse for an organization with the resources of the Los Angeles Philharmonic not to include text in the program.

Steven Mackey's violin concerto, on the other hand, was a delight. It was written shortly after the death of his mother, and takes its title from her final words: "Tell everyone I had a beautiful passing."

Beautiful Passing is about 20 minutes long, divided roughly into two halves separated by a cadenza. As the piece opens, the violin is playing long, serene phrases and constantly being interrupted by wild outbursts from the orchestra. In his program notes, Mackey stresses that he doesn't see the orchestra as evil here; it's simply uncontrolled, chaotic, random -- all the things that life itself is. (It is, perhaps, in the spirit of drawing from all of life that Mackey gives to the brass a bit of melody which he tells us comes from the ticket-printing machines of New Jersey Transit. "A nice little tune," he says, "as ticket machines go.")

There are occasional moments when some of the orchestral instruments (most prominently, the oboe) join forces with the violin, but they quickly return to the general mayhem. Then the cadenza arrives, and it's the first major virtuosic moment the violinist has been given, filled with triple stops, spectacular runs and arpeggios (all of which Josefowicz played the hell out of).  And when the orchestra rejoins her, it's not as if its outbursts are all that much more controlled than they had been, but there seems to be some method to the madness now, and even if the orchestra and the violin aren't exactly working together, they seem to be not quite so much working at cross purposes any more. The orchestra even calms down and backs off enough at the very end to let the violin end with a lovely, serene moment of the type she's been trying to have since the beginning.

It would be easy to read the piece as the victory of serenity over chaos, but I think it's more complicated than that. That virtuosic cadenza, I think, is the moment at which the violin allows the wildness to enter, recognizes that it has always been (and will always be) present within her, and begins to make peace with it. And in so doing, she channels it, harnesses it, transfigures it into something that's less chaos and more energy. And when you accept that you can't have only serenity in your life, the serene moments you do get are all the more meaningful, not only because they're unexpected, but because you haven't completely burned yourself out trying to force them to happen.

It's a lovely and profound piece which I'd love to hear again, and I need to explore Mackey's music further.

On Sunday, the Brahms festival continues with the second symphony, paired with Sofia Gubaidulina's Glorious Percussion, a concerto for five percussionists.

May 18, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: night of a thousand choices

It's the traditional choice night for the final three. The contestants pick one, Jimmy Iovine picks one, and the judges pick one. I tend to put the most emphasis on the contestants' choices; it's their first completely free pick since the semi-finals, and one would hope that they have learned something about song selection and their own strengths and weaknesses. A bad performance in this round is a very bad sign.

The rundown for round one:

Scotty, "Amazed" -- It's a pretty enough performance, but there's no passion to it; he's not amazed so much as he is very mildly startled. Part of that is that he's a bit young for the song, which is not about the blush of first love; it's about a relationship that amazes by continuing to get better, even after that first thrill has worn off.

Lauren, "Wild One" -- The song is unusually dull, and Lauren is struggling with the tempo; lyrics are disappearing in a mush in the verses, and she's frantically grabbing gulps of breath during the chorus. A serious disappointment.

Haley, "What Is and What Should Never Be" -- It's the right style for her voice, and she generally sounds pretty good, if occasionally a bit hard to understand. She seems to get lost for a moment as she comes back up onto the stage (from the judge's comments, she apparently fell), but recovers reasonably well. Not great, but good enough to win the round.

For round one: Haley, Scotty, Lauren.

On to round two:

Scotty, "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not" -- He's just so damned earnest; it's not until the very last line of the song that he shows any sign of understanding the playfulness of the lyrics. It's an improvement over his first round, but his consistency has turned into blandness. He desperately needs a jaw-dropping moment, and I don't think he has one in him.

Lauren, "If I Die Young" -- What a creepy little song! I don't know how you sing that to make it entertaining instead of morbid, but it's certainly not by grinning throughout. A bit of a mess, but I mostly blame Jimmy's song selection.

Haley, "Rhiannon" -- The song is in precisely the right key to show off the break in Haley's voice, though I think she goes a bit overboard with it on the repeated "Rhiannon"s. And there's a bit of a regression here to the creepy sex-kitten Haley from five or six weeks back. It's another performance that's just a bit better than the mediocrity of the other singers.

For round two: Haley, Scotty, Lauren.

And round three:

Scotty, "She Believes in Me" -- Here's the thing: Scotty has the big grown-up voice, so Jimmy and the judges want to hear him sing big grown-up love songs. But he's 17, and from all indications, a rather shy and geeky 17 at that, so a song like this (which is, like his first song, about love after the first thrill has passed) is beyond him emotionally. It's a very pretty series of notes, but it's nothing more than that.

Lauren, "I Hope You Dance" -- The judges have served Lauren well; her youthful optimism and innocence are well suited to the song. And it's a very nice performance, even if it never quite rises to the level of being exciting or distinctive. (The less said about the glittery blue prom dress, the better.)

Haley, "You Oughta Know" -- The verses are pitched far too low for her, and the bottom notes are completely disappearing. She sounds terrific on the chorus, though, and the song is right in her comfort zone.

For round three: Lauren, Haley, Scotty.

For the night: Haley, Lauren, Scotty.

For the season: It's a very tough call. Scotty's been extraordinarily consistent, but has been content to be very good instead of striving for greatness. He's the kid who shows up to class every day and gets B's on all the tests; you're happy that he isn't failing, but you kind of wish that he'd at least try for an A once in a while. Lauren has shown the most steady growth over the season, and I think her lack of confidence is her biggest weakness. Haley has been wildly inconsistent; mostly awful for much of the season, then suddenly good -- occasionally spectacularly good -- over the last three weeks. The three are so tightly bunched that any ranking would be entirely about personal taste.

Let's send home: It should (again) be Scotty. I think it will be Lauren.

May 17, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: "songs that inspired me" / Leiber & Stoller

We open with a weird "vote for them so they can go home next week" pitch, as if the loser this week will be locked in Guantanamo and never allowed to see their family again. Which sets the perfect tone for a round of "songs that inspired me."

The rundown:

James, "Don't Stop Believing" -- You gotta figure Fox loves the subliminal cross-promotion for Glee. It's an OK performance, but he's over-singing a bit, holding on to notes ("smalltown booooooy") for too long, robbing the song of the punchiness it needs. It's rock, not Verdi.

Haley, "The Earth Song" -- Ecocatastrophe, dying children, war -- this is inspiring? It's pretty enough, but pretty isn't Haley's strong suit, and when she breaks out the raspy stuff at the end, it doesn't suit the song.

Scotty, "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning" -- Do these kids know what "inspire" means? "Hey, remember 9/11?" is not an inspiring message. It's true that Alan Jackson's song was less jingoistic than many of the country world's responses to 9/11, but this is still the most shameless bit of patriotic pandering we've seen since Kristy Lee Cook trotted out "God Bless the USA." Oh, the performance? Meh.

Lauren, "Anyway" -- Finally, someone understands "inspiring." Lovely song choice; simple, understated delivery. She's not laying on the twang too thick, but when it's there, it's just right.

For Round 1: Lauren, James, Scotty, Haley.

Next up, the songs of frequent Idol honorees Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, with mentoring from Lady Gaga, which doesn't intuitively seem like a great fit, but who knows?

The rundown:

Haley, "I (Who Have Nothing)" -- Holy shit. Anyone see that coming? That was the most spectacularly intense thing we've seen on Idol in a long time, and that wail coming back into the verse (after "windowpane") was scary-ass thrilling. Remarkable.

Scotty, "Young Blood" -- More energy than we've gotten from Scotty in a while, and far more playful; he's teasing the audience with the interplay between his high/low registers (love the "looky there" sequence). And yet Steven isn't wrong when he says (meaning to be complimentary, I think) that there's something Pat Boone about it; even at his best these days, Scotty seems like the watered-down, safe for mass consumption version of something that should be more exciting.

Lauren, "Trouble" -- It's not as bad as I'd feared, given her qualms about the word "evil," but why do the nice girls always want to sing this song? Lauren is about as evil as marshmallow.

James, "Love Potion #9" -- Badly out of tune on "selling little bottles," and he's missing the tone of the song entirely. This shouldn't be shouted; it needs to be sly, insinuating, winking. He's doing what he does reasonably well; it just doesn't suit the song at all.

For Round 2: Haley, Scotty, James, Lauren. And special kudos to Gaga for understanding that singing is acting, and for being a damn good drama coach.

For the night: Haley, James, Lauren, Scotty.

For the season: James, Lauren, Haley (though she's given two of the season's best performances in two weeks, and the gap with Lauren is very small), Scotty.

Let's send home: Scotty, though I fear it will be Lauren.

May 08, 2011

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, May 8 (Brahms / Dutilleux)

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Leonidas Kavakos, violin

The program:
  • Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
  • Dutilleux: L'arbre des songes
  • Brahms: Symphony #1
The Philharmonic's 5-week "Brahms Unbound" series begins; over the course of the series, we'll be getting all four symphonies and the German Requiem.

The original plan had been for a new piece to accompany each of the major Brahms works, but the Philharmonic has run into bad luck with its newly commissioned works. Composers Peter Lieberson and Henryk Gorecki died before finishing their pieces (a percussion concerto and a fourth symphony, respectively), and Osvaldo Golijov didn't finish his violin concerto on time.

Those works have been replaced (mostly) with other relatively new works; filling in for Golijov today is Dutilleux's 1985 violin concerto L'arbre des songes; the title translates at The Tree of Dreams.

I'm quite sure I didn't entirely follow or understand the piece; it flows from moment to moment in what feels a very stream-of-consciousness manner, and the logical connections that hold the piece together were not always obvious on first hearing (at least to me). There are some striking moments in it, to be sure.

Dutilleux uses a large percussion section, mostly made up of instruments that ring and resonate for a good length of time -- gongs, suspended cymbals, vibraphone. They're often used to create misty clouds of sound that dissolve into one another as the solo violin floats in and around them. Effective use is also made of the cimbalom, an eastern European instrument related to the hammered dulcimer, and there's a lovely duet passage for the solo violin and the oboe d'amore.

The Academic Festival Overture was Brahms' thank-you gift after receiving an honorary degree from a German university, and most of its tunes are popular beer-hall drinking songs of the period. It's hard to imagine what the contemporary equivalent would be (if only because it's hard to imagine a modern university wasting an honorary degree on a boring old classical composer while Snooki is available to be feted). Perhaps it would be a medley of that year's popular karaoke hits, treated with slighly mocking solemnity, topped off with the school fight song. In any event, it's a charming and jolly piece, even if some of its humor is lost after 130 years.

Brahms' First Symphony is filled with moments of great drama, and the Philharmonic delivered on all of them. The brass section was particularly fine, and timpanist Joseph Pereira made such a feast of his pounds and rolls that he was cheered with great enthusiasm at the end of the performance. The big tune in the fourth movement -- Brahms' homage to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the program notes tell me -- is always a grand moment, and Dudamel took it slightly slower than I've heard it before, giving it remarkable tension and energy.

Next week: the German Requiem and Stephen Mackey's violin concerto Beautiful Passing.

another little bunch of links

At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott discuss the current movie craze for violent young women.

Slate's Bill Wyman explores what it means to be a music collector in an age when the Internet is making rarity an obsolete concept.

On a not entirely unrelated topic, NPR's Linda Holmes comes to terms with the fact that there's just more art out there than any of us can ever keep up with.

And let's close with a bit of Bach:

May 04, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: Now & Then

Y'know, I'm almost getting nostalgic for the tightly constrained, potentially embarassing themes. C'mon, admit it, you're kinda wanting to see Scotty tackle disco, or Jacob squirm his way through George Jones night. But all we get tonight is "now & then," a round of contemporary songs and a round of oldies. Sigh...

Ah, well, the rundown:

James, "Closer to the Edge" -- The song is right in his strike zone, which makes it odd that it's one of his worse performances. He's got the mike so close at the beginning that the words are distorted to the point that they're incomprehensible, and his pitch is off throughout, especially on the big dramatic long notes.

Jacob, "No Air" -- The song is a lot of choppy phrases that don't show off Jacob's style very well, and instead of the dramatic build that he's good at, he seems to be always either screaming or whispering at us. Not terribly effective, and not a good song choice.

Lauren, "Flat on the Floor" -- The song's a bore, the lyrics are being completely lost on the lower-pitched notes, and the big pageant hair's a disaster. She's still gaining in confidence with every performance, though, and this is the type of material she should be doing.

Scotty, "Gone" -- It's not great, but it's pretty good; it's certainly the most interesting thing he's done in the last month or so. And on what is turning out to be a disappointing night so far, that might be enough to save him for another week.

Haley, "You and I" -- It's sung pretty well, actually, though the vibrato at the beginning is a bit too wide and wobbly for my taste. But we're back to Haley trying to act sexy, and there's something about Haley in sexy mode that I find really creepy and offputting. She somehow manages to bypass sexy and go straight to sleazy. 

For Round 1: Scotty, Haley, James, Jacob, Lauren.

On to the oldies:

James, "Without You" -- That was as emotionally connected a performance as we've seen this season, and somewhat unexpectedly, the quiet verse was better than the big loud belty chorus, which got a little shrieky in spots. Overall, though, very nice indeed.

Jacob, "Love Hurts" -- I wouldn't have thought of turning this into a gospel-flavored shouter, but when you get hold of a good song, you can do pretty much anything to it and it'll still work. And that worked really well. The harp at the beginning was a bit on the twee side, perhaps, but the performance was terrific.

Lauren, "Unchained Melody" -- It's a tale of two registers. The higher notes sound OK, and the lower notes are breathy and out of tune. She also runs into trouble because it's a song that doesn't condense well, so the transitions feel awkward and the ending can't build the way it needs to.

Scotty, "Always on My Mind" -- The calm simplicity of it works very well, but he's so laidback that he's not putting quite enough energy into his voice to get it up to pitch on some of those long notes. A missed opportunity.

Haley, "The House of the Rising Sun" -- Excellent, and we've finally found the right context for all of Haley's growling and wailing. The last few lines are a little harsh and screamy, but that's a minor flaw at the end of the night's best performance.

For Round 2: Haley, James, Jacob, Lauren, Scotty.

And so, it's a round of weak performances of new songs and mostly strong performances of oldies. Haley and James help themselves the most, and Lauren has a weak night.

For the night: Haley, James, Jacob, Scotty, Lauren.

For the season: James, Lauren, Jacob, Haley, Scotty.

Let's send home: It really should be Scotty, but I think it's likely to be Lauren.

BOOKS: One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming (2011)

Seventh in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. The two lead characters are the Episocopalian priest and the police chief in Millers Kill, a small town in upstate New York, and the development of their personal relationship is a background plot throughout the series.

As this one opens, Clare has recently returned from deployment in Iraq (she's an Army helicopter pilot) and is meeting with other Iraq vets from Millers Kill in a small veterans' support group. We flash back over the last several months to the stories of their individual returns from war and the challenges they're facing readjusting to civilian life.

Spencer-Fleming takes her time with these stories, letting us get to know each of these characters before actually getting to the murder mystery part of the plot. The body isn't found until almost halfway through the book, in fact, and when Russ and his department conclude that it's a suicide, Clare refuses to accept that, and recruits her fellow vets to help solve what she insists is a murder.

This is a very solidly constructed book; a lot of things that look like unimportant background details during the telling of the various vets' backstories turn out to be more significant, and Spencer-Fleming does a lovely job of tying all the threads together. The fact that all of the vets are somehow tied into the mystery feels a bit overly coincidental, maybe, but no more so than usual for the genre. The post-war struggles of Clare and her fellow vets are neither sugarcoated nor overly sensationalized, and the progress of each feels realistic.

This is one of the best series in recent years, and if you haven't been reading it, you should. The mysteries in each volume are stand-alones, but the development of the Clare/Russ relationship (and some of the relationships among the recurring supporting players) is interesting enough that you'll enjoy them more, I think, if you read them in order. (The first volume is In the Bleak Midwinter.)

May 03, 2011

MOVIES: Making the Boys (Crayton Robey, 2009)

Making the Boys, which is finally getting a theatrical release after a couple of years on the film festival circuit, explores the impact and legacy of Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band. When the play opened off-Broadway in 1968, it was the first major play to attempt an honest depiction of gay men as neither sick nor villainous. Since then, it's faded somewhat in memory; the movie's man-on-the-street interviews find that many younger gay people have a vague sense that they should know what it is, but aren't quite sure. Even among those who remember it, the play is viewed by many as a mildly embarrassing relic; its assortment of bitchy men at a drunken birthday party are not seen as encouraging role models.

And there were those who felt that way from the beginning; Edward Albee thought the play "skillfully written," but refused to invest in it, believing that its portrayal of gay men would be harmful to the burgeoning gay rights movement.

But despite those views, the play was enormously successful. It ran in New York for over five years; there were two American road companies; and the play was translated into multiple languages. The success of the play gave Crowley enough clout to keep the entire original cast for the 1970 film version, and there was even a cast album, a rarity for a non-musical.

One of the strengths of director Crayton Robey's film is how well it shows how quickly things were changing for gay Americans (at least in the larger cities) in this era. When the play opened, a year before Stonewall, the fact that the play even existed was seen as an incredible breakthrough; by the time the film opened two years later, its characters were already seen as pre-Stonewall relics, to the extent that the film was picketed by gay activists in some cities. The play had gone from groundbreaking to dated with remarkable speed.

Robey has assembled a large assortment of playwrights, scholars, historians, and cultural figures to talk about the play. Crowley is a charming and engaging figure, and two of the three surviving cast members are on hand to talk about their experience. (There is one terribly sad sequence where we learn that more than half of the 9 original actors died of AIDS.) Friedkin talks about making the movie; in addition to Albee, playwrights Tony Kushner and Paul Rudnick talk about the play's significance.

The movie isn't terribly exciting stylistically (you won't miss anything if you wait for cable or DVD), but it's a smart and entertaining look at a significant cultural landmark.

May 02, 2011

MOVIES: Exporting Raymond (Phil Rosenthal, 2011)

Phil Rosenthal was one of the producers of Everybody Loves Raymond, and in this documentary, he takes us to Moscow, where he's helping a Russian production company prepare the pilot for a Russian version of the show.

Rosenthal is sure that the show's family humor will translate to any culture, but things don't go as smoothly as he expects. The sitcom is a very new form in Russian television, and the Russian team struggles to find actors who can get the tone right. One early villain is the costume designer, who wants the show's housewife to be dressed in glamorous outfits ("to educate our women about fashion"), and can't understand Rosenthal's insistence that such clothes aren't appropriate for a woman who spends her days cleaning the house and dealing with kids.

There is a fair amount of "oh, those silly Russians" humor here that comes perilously close to ugly-Americanism (there are lots of yucks at the expense of the studio, a gloomy concrete building of which Rosenthal asks "do you know which room it was they filmed Saw in?"), and if you've seen one behind-the-scenes look at TV production, you won't find that the Russian version of the process is all that different from the American version.

Rosenthal is funny enough to keep the movie mildly amusing throughout, and I did find myself rooting for him to get through to his Russian colleagues. Not essential viewing, but if the subject interests you, you'll enjoy it, I suppose.

If you do see it, do stay for the closing credits. One of the movie's best jokes comes at the very end, when we see Rosenthal's visit to the office of the director of the Moscow Art Theater -- the theater where Stanislavski arguably invented modern acting -- and we learn that some humor is indeed universal.

BOOKS: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N. K. Jemisin (2010)

"Such a convoluted patchwork," says Jemisin's heroine at one point, as she tries to piece together the story of who's trying to manipulate her, and how, and why. And that's as good a summary as any of this book.

Yeine is the granddaughter of the king, but he disowned her mother when she ran off to marry a man from a "barbarian" tribe. It comes as a surprise, therefore, when Grandfather summons her and declares that she shall be one of the competitors to be his heir. She's competing against his niece and nephew, who are far more familiar with the Machiavellian politics of the kingdom than she, and it soon becomes clear that she is being used as a sacrificial lamb.

The convoluted patchwork involves the backstory of the Gods' War, a great battle among the three sibling gods who created the world, one of whom killed his sister (except that she's not quite dead) and imprisoned his brother in human form. There are also a bunch of the gods' children -- "godlings" -- running about, also in (mostly) human form, with immense powers that are never terribly well defined, and with agendas of their own.

By about halfway in, I'd entirely lost track of who was pulling who's strings, and I honestly didn't much care. By the time we get to the end, which is about as literal (and cheesy) a deus ex machina as one could imagine, I was just sick to death of the story and everyone in it.

With this book, I've now read all of this year's Nebula-nominated novels, and I am underwhelmed by the field. Two of the nominees -- this one, and Connie Willis's Blackout / All Clear -- also made the Hugo list (I suppose I should move on to the rest of that list now), and they were my least favorite of the bunch. I can understand Willis making the list; she's immensely popular within the field, and has a long (and richly deserved) reputation for fine writing. There's no way her magnum opus wasn't going to be nominated, no matter how badly padded and over-stuffed it is. I'm more perplexed by the Jemisin; she's a first-time novelist, so personal politics is significantly less of a factor. Anyone out there who read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and liked it? What am I missing?

None of the other nominees blew me away, but if you made me vote for a winner, I'd probably go with Jack McDevitt's Echo.