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Film and the Arts

New York Philharmonic Present "Pictures at an Exhibition"

Susanna Mälkki conducts the New York Philharmonic with Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing Ligeti Piano Concert. Photo by Chris Lee

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, on the evening of Saturday, November 4th, I had the exhilarating pleasure of attending a marvelous concert featuring the New York Philharmonic under the exceptionally impressive direction of the Finnish conductor, Susanna Mälkki.

The first half of the program was devoted to music by Hungarian composers, opening with a charming diversion—a performance of the immensely famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 of Franz Liszt, transcribed here for the cimbalom by the admirable soloist, Jenő Lisztes. Encountering this work played on this somewhat exotic instrument foregrounded its affinities with Central and Eastern European folk music but it would have been more enchanting in an orchestral version or even in its original form for the piano. Nonetheless, the audience was apparently delighted, responding with an enthusiastic ovation.

More remarkable was the ensemble’s superb account of Béla Bartók’s splendid Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76, which vary across a range of moods and styles—plaintive, ebullient, lyrical, and so forth—although, surprisingly, these exquisite pieces are maybe equally haunting when presented on the piano. The renowned virtuoso—surely one of the greatest of our time—Pierre-Laurent Aimard, then entered the stage to perform the perplexing Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by the celebrated avant-gardist, György Ligeti, whose centennial is being celebrated this year. I am not really competent to evaluate the merits of this intractable score but the initial movement, marked Vivace molto ritmico e preciso, is vigorous and arresting while the ensuing Lento is enigmatic, meditative, and eccentric, becoming highly dramatic. The scherzo that follows—with a tempo of Vivace cantabile—is not especially playful in tone despite its genre. The penultimate movement—Allegro risoluto, molto ritmico—is forbidding in its inaccessibility while thePresto luminousfinale is ludic if also inscrutable.

The summit of the evening, however, was achieved in the event’s second half—a stunning realization of Maurice Ravel’s brilliant orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky magnificent Pictures at an Exhibition. The “Gnomus” episode—the first of the “pictures”—is uncanny and arresting and the succeeding “Il Vecchio Castelo” is elegiac and mysterious. The “Tuileries” section is brief but effervescent and the “Bydlo” movement—“Polish Ox-Cart”—is strangely ominous. It precedes the jocular “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and the solemn “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.” Next is the lively “The Marketplace at Limoges” and the lugubrious, portentous “Catacombs: Roman Burial Place.” Eerie but serene was “With the Dead in a Dead Language” while “The Hut on Chicken Feet: Baba-Yaga” was exciting, sinister and dynamic. The panoply concludes thrillingly with the majestic and triumphant “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The artists deservedly received abundant applause, closing a memorable concert.

A New Live Production, “Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors,” Reveals A High Camp Side to this Story of The Undead Count

What: Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors
Writers: by Gordon Greenberg, Steve Rosen
Director: Gordon Greenberg
Cast: Jordan Boatman, Arnie Burton, James Daly, Ellen Harvey, Andrew Keenan-Bolger
Where: New World Stages — Stage 5
340 West 50th Street
Run: Through January 7th, 2024

One thing you can count on every Halloween is an appearance of Dracula or, at least, some form of a vampire added to the mix. That could mean a re-run of the many classic films with the undead count such as Universal’s original version of “Dracula” (with Bela Lugosi) or Hammer’s “The Horror of Dracula” (with Christopher Lee). But this scary season doesn't necessarily require an appearance of the original bloodsucker himself. It could include some resurrection of his character in a movie, play or live visual presentation in some Haunted House.

In 1897, when Irish author Bram Stoker published his long-wrought novel “Dracula” for just six shillings, he didn’t realize that he’d created one of the most iconic figures of all time. Though this story of an aristocratic, undead mastermind was popular in its day, little did Stoker know that his blood-drinking, soulless monster of the night would become the source of countless permutations, reinterpretations, and re-examinations of this creature and its implications. There’s even aBram Stoker Festival in Dublin whichcelebrates the Gothic, the supernatural, the after-dark and Victorian as well as the Count himself.

drac posterOf course, along with Stoker’s horror classic, the inevitable humorous satires, parodies, and various send ups cropped up. From a tale of the ageless Count needing to leave his ancient homeland to resettle in England to tap fresh blood, the original gothic narrative has often been revised with sometimes hilarious results.

Now, through “Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors,” this battle with the master of the undead receives an outlandish rethink. Enabled by a compact, five-person cast — Jordan Boatman, Arnie Burton, James Daly, Ellen Harvey, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger — this rapid-fire comedic reimagining of this archetypal tale garners guffaws and lots of snickering. 

Taking off from the original’s classic characters, they’re transformed into these versions: sweet Lucy Westfeldt, vampire hunter Jean Van Helsing, insect consumer Percy Renfield, and behavioral psychiatrist Wallace Westfeldt among others. Here they find themselves in a faux British country estate which doubles as a free-range mental asylum. With its cast of slapstick, quick change comics who switch roles with the aplomb of fast handed pickpockets, this “Dracula” not only makes you scream, it does it with laughter. The show also exposes a fundamental ridiculousness that illustrates just how resilient the original concept is: it can take jabs even at its core of terror and still retain a certain majestic-ness.

Through its compact 90-minute show, elements of goth, camp, and variant sexuality are thrown into a gender-bending, quick-change romp. With all the wacky characters, a pansexual Gen-Z Count Dracula tops the list of existentially challenged characters. 

As a buddy of iconic gay Victorian author Oscar Wilde, the actual Stoker was believed to be a closeted gay man in a repressive England, so his novel was rife with suggestive sexuality and gender reversals. Director/co-writers Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen’s send-up of this novel is meant to be viewed through a very contemporary lens. 

Just as the book transcended other Gothic horror of its day, this comedy rises above being simple holiday fare. Make your way to the Westside’s New World Stages for a comedic jab at the jugular.

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Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Perform Russian Romantic Classics

Soprano Erika Baikoff (L) and pianist Gilles Vonsattel. Photo by Tristan Cook.

At Alice Tully Hall, on Sunday, October 29th, I had the immense privilege to attend a superb concert—presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center—devoted to Russian Romantic music and centered upon that of Sergei Rachmaninoff whose sesquicentennial is being celebrated this year.
The program began beautifully with an admirable account of Anton Rubinstein’s lovely, lyrical “Romance” from Soirées à Saint-Petersbourg for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 44, No. 1, from 1860, which like the Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky piece that followed it, is an epitome of Romanticism—it formed the basis for the composer’s marvelous song setting of Alexander Pushkin’s “Night.” It was performed by the remarkable young violinist Benjamin Beilman along with cellist Clive Greensmith and pianist Gilles Vonsattel.
Even more memorable was a fabulous rendition of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Souvenir d’un lieu cher (Memory of a dear place) for Violin and Piano, Op. 42, from 1878, played by Beilman and Vonsattel. The opening Méditation movement is also song-like and characteristically plaintive, while the ensuing Scherzo is propulsive, virtuosic and sprightly, with a contrasting Trio that is especially enchanting. In thefinale,entitled Mélodie, a sentiment of longing can be discerned but there is nonetheless a joyousness throughout it.
Vonsattel returned to accompany the extraordinary young soprano, Erika Baikoff—who looked gorgeous in a stunning silver and white gown—for an exquisite set of songs. They started with Mily Balakirev’s fine “The Goldfish’s Song” from 1860, which is set to a text from the poem Mtsyri by the major nineteenth-century Russian writer, Mikhail Lermontov. Also excellent was Modest Mussorgsky’s “Where are you little star?” originally composed in 1857 but heard here in its 1860s revision. More theatrical was Rachmaninoff’s Pushkin setting, “Arion,” Op. 34, No. 5, from 1912, described as “an allegory of the 1825 Decembrist revolt.” Their version of Mikhail Glinka’s “The Lark,” the tenth song from his 1840 cycle,A Farewell to Saint Petersburg,was simply glorious. Also terrific was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “It wasn't the wind, blowing from up high”—from his 1897In Spring, Op. 43, No. 2—set to a poem by Aleksei Tolstoy. They finished strongly with Rachmaninoff’s 1896 “These Summer Nights,” Op. 14, No. 5.
The second half of the program was also impressive, consisting of a superior realization of the same composer’s imposing Trio élégiaque in D minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 9—originally written in 1893 and revised in 1917—an hommage to Tchaikovsky with the dedication, “I memory of a great artist,” and modeled on the latter’s Op. 50 trio. The initial Moderato is lugubrious but with powerful, dramatic outbursts; the closing section has a dreamy quality. The middle movement, a theme-and-variations, canvasses a diverse array of moods, and the finale has an Allegro risoluto introduction of exceptional intensity with much of this emotionalism sustained across the length of the movement, concluding with an unforgettable pianissimo chord.
The musicians received deserved and enthusiastic applause.

November '23 Digital Week I

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
The Holdovers 
(Focus Features)
Alexander Payne teams with Paul Giamatti for their first collaboration since the droll 2004 comedy Sideways, but it suffers from a streak of self-seriousness largely missing from their earlier pairing. Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, an ornery professor at a New England prep school stuck babysitting the students who have nowhere to go during the holidays—he soon becomes friendly with bored but bright Angus, ignored by his family.
Giamatti is always terrific and newcomer Dominic Sessa is even better as Angus, but Payne overstuffs his film with incidents and subplots that he didn’t want to part with; a good 20 minutes could have been cut with no loss of integrity. Also worthy of mention is Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who gives a subtle portrayal of Mary Lamb, the school’s cook whose beloved son has just been killed in Vietnam.
Writer-director Carmen Jaquier’s quietly unsettling drama follows Elisabeth, a novice nun sent home from the convent after her older sister commits suicide. After discovering her sister’s secrets, Elisabeth follows her own path to personal, spiritual and sexual freedom.
Jaquier and the remarkable young actress Lilith Grasmug as Elisabeth have made a provocative and intelligent study of psychology and faith. Cinematographer Marine Atlan’s stunning camerawork shows the beauty of the natural world and the ugliness of the interior one in a way that alludes to, but doesn’t ape from, the philosophical musings of Terrence Malick.
4K Release of the Week 
Blue Beetle 
(Warner Bros)
The original story of DC superhero Blue Beetle—young Jaime Reyes, who is transformed into the title character by a powerful scarab—is recounted in this intermittently entertaining popcorn flick, with a boisterous George Lopez as Jaime’s uncle Rudy and a one-note Susan Sarandon as villain Victoria Kord.
Still, there’s an undeniable chemistry between Xolo Maridueña as Jaime and Bruna Marquezine as his love interest (and Sarandon’s antagonistic niece) Jenny, making this watchable until the explosive but routine finale filled with excessive CGI. There’s an excellent UHD transfer; extras are a making-of documentary, Generations: Blue Beetle, and two featurettes.
Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning, Part One 
Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, the intrepid and seemingly immortal operative who this time goes up against not only the usual array of criminals and traitorous insiders but also A.I., which throws an almost impossible-to-fend-off wrench into the usual proceedings. Director Christopher McQuarrie and cowriter Erik Jendresen cram in as many repetitive action sequences as possible, including a car chase on the narrow streets of Venice or, in the film’s main set piece, a runaway train through the Austrian Alps.
It’s all breathtakingly filmed, and if it goes on far too long—more than two and a half hours and this is only part one—there’s a game cast led by the too infrequently seen Hayley Atwell as well as Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby, Simon Pegg, Henry Czerny and Ving Rhames, all outdoing Cruise except for his own stunts. It all looks vivid and immediate on UHD; extras include McQuarrie’s and editor Eddie Hamilton’s commentary, several making-of featurettes and a montage of unused shots.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
French composer Léo Delibes is known for a couple ballets and this opera that’s the last word in romantic tragedy, about a Hindu priestess who falls in love with a British officer who kills herself after he decides the military means more to him.
It’s carried along by shimmering music that reaches its zenith early, when Lakmé and her servant Mallika duet on the justly famous “Flower Song.” Laurent Pelly’s 2022 Opéra Comique staging in Paris is centered by Raphaël Pichon conducting the excellent orchestra and chorus, and as the title heroine, Sabine Devieilhe is heartbreakingly good. There’s first-rate audio and video.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 
For the third—and, one expects, final—installment, Toula’s family travels to Greece for a reunion, which—to no one’s surprise, considering the title—turns into an excuse to have another of the title ceremonies, with camaraderie, laughs, romance, and food and drink.
If episode 3 is stretched very thin—even at a scant 92 minutes—it has a capable cast again led by writer-director Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin and Elena Kampouris, along with the always glorious Greek locations, which look even more spectacular on Blu-ray. Extras comprise Vardalos’ commentary, a gag reel, deleted and extended scenes and on-set featurettes.
Robin Hood/The Black Pirate 
The Three Musketeers/The Iron Mask 
(Cohen Film Collection)
These double-feature releases bring together some of legendary Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920s ouput, with the first disc including Robin Hood (1922) and The Black Pirate (1926), a two-color Technicolor adventure; of course, he plays the eponymous hero in both pictures. The second disc finds Fairbanks playing the dashing D’Artagnan in both The Three Musketeers (1921) and The Iron Mask (1929), based on the classic Alexandre Dumas novels.
All four films are choppily entertaining; the restorations give them added luster, there’s a commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer on The Black Pirate, and there are 47 minutes of Pirate outtakes, 18 of them with additional Behlmer commentary. 
CD Release of the Week
Weinberg—Dawn/Symphony No. 12 
Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96) died before his musical renaissance began with his emotionally shattering Holocaust opera The Passenger, several productions of which were soon followed by the dozens of recordings of his varied orchestral and chamber music.
Of the 22 symphonies he wrote, No. 12, subtitled “In memoriam D. Shostakovich” and composed right after Shostakovich’s death in 1975, is among his most personal, since Shostakovich was a mentor and close friend of Weinberg. John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic’s raw, compelling account of the symphony along with Dawn, a stirring tone poem Weinberg composed for the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution that was never performed in his lifetime.

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