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Film and the Arts

"Fanfare Ritmico" With The Philadelphia Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo by Chris Lee

At Carnegie Hall on the evening of Tuesday, October 17th, I had the incomparable pleasure to attend a superb concert presented by the outstanding musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the brilliant direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The program began auspiciously with an excellent performance of Jennifer Higdon’s propulsive, impressively orchestrated Fanfare Ritmico from 1999. I include the composer’s comment on the piece here:

Fanfare Ritmico celebrates the rhythm and speed (tempo) of life. Writing this work on the eve of the move into the new millennium, I found myself reflecting on how all things have quickened as time has progressed. Our lives now move at speeds much greater than what I believe anyone would have ever imagined in years past. Everyone follows the beat of their own drummer, and those drummers are beating faster and faster on many different levels. As we move along day to day, rhythm plays an integral part of our lives, from the individual heartbeat to the lightning speed of our computers. This fanfare celebrates that rhythmic motion, of man and machine, and the energy which permeates every moment of our being in the new century.

Also remarkable, and even more memorable, was a masterful realization of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s extraordinary Symphonic Dances, his final work. The first movement, marked Non allegro, is dynamic and rhythmic following a brief, quiet opening—and with a more meditative middle section—but ends softly. The succeeding Andante con moto is charming and playful with some dramatic moments while the finale is exuberant for much of its length but with unusual, lyrical interludes and ends climactically.

Even stronger was the amazing second half of the event, a fabulous account of Rachmaninoff’s magnificent Symphony No. 2—with this composition, musical Romanticism reached its apogee. The Largo introduction to the opening Allegro moderato is subdued and solemn but the movement is leisurely for most of its development but acquires great emotional intensity as it becomes more turbulent. The eccentric ebullience of the ensuing scherzo—its tempo is Allegro molto—is offset by the movement’s song-like second theme and its Trio too is especially exciting. The stellar Adagio is incredibly beautiful in its melodious sumptuousness and features some pastoral echoes while the closing Allegro vivace is affirmative if with somber undercurrents.

The artists deservedly received an enthusiastic ovation.

Quartetto di Cremona Perform in NYC

Photo by Pete Checchia.

At Weill Recital Hall, on the evening of Thursday, October 26th, I had the exceptional pleasure to attend an astonishing concert featuring the extraordinary Quartetto di Cremona, the members of which include violinists Cristiano Gualco and Paolo Andreoli, violist Simone Gramaglia and cellist Giovanni Scaglione.

The program began marvelously with a sterling account of Hugo Wolf’s wonderful Italian Serenade, his most famous piece outside the genre of the lied. Even more remarkable was a stunning rendition of Maurice Ravel’s glorious String Quartet—one of the supreme masterpieces of the form—the shimmering textures of which strongly recall the composer’s orchestral works. The initial Allegro moderato has a surprising intensity becoming more lyrical in passages and ending quietly, followed by an especially bewitching, briskly paced and energetic movement—markedAssez vif—with evocative, impressionistic sonorities. The subdued, reflective slow movement that succeeds it is solemn and more unconventional in structure while the dynamicfinaleis the most turbulent of the movements.

The second half of the event—devoted to a magisterial performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s awesome, ambitious String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132—was maybe equally memorable. Much of the opening Allegro is highly charged music although it is interlaced with that of a lighter, more graceful character, preceding an Allegro ma non tanto that is more cheerful, almost Mozartean, but with some intimations of greater seriousness. The weighty, exalting, slow movement—with a tempo of Molto adagio—has a religious gravity but with interpolations of melodious, quasi-Baroque episodes. The fourth movement—Alla marcia, assai vivace—is spirited and charming with contrasting interludes of an almost tragic cast while the exhilarating finale—marked Allegro appassionato—is exultant. An enthusiastic ovation was rewarded with an amazing encore: the incomparable First Counterpoint from Johann Sebastian Bach’s final work,The Art of the Fugue.

October '23 Digital Week III

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
Killers of the Flower Moon 
Martin Scorsese has had a miraculous late artistic resurgence: in the past decade alone, he has made The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence, The Irishman and now Killers of the Flower Moon, all expansive, meaningful moral tales. Killers, the longest fiction film of his career at 206 minutes, absorbingly chronicles the tragic true story of the multiple murders of members of the wealthy Osage Nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s by white men wanting their oil money.
Unlike David Grann’s superbly immersive book, which recounts how the FBI solved the crimes, Scorsese and cowriter Eric Roth begin with the plotting and planning and meticulously work their way through every horrific moment of this painful and shameful chapter in our country’s history. Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio are brutally effective as the Osages’ main antagonists—and there are equally striking performances by a large supporting cast led by Jesse Plemons, Jason Isbell, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow and Cara Jade Myers—but it’s Lily Gladstone who, as next Osage woman on the killers’ hit list, is the heart and soul of this unforgettable but sorrowful epic.
Anatomy of a Fall 
In Justine Triet’s slow-burn of a thriller, German author Sandra (Sandra Hüller) is the chief suspect in the death of her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), who is found by their blind 11-year-old son Daniel (the formidable Milo Machado-Graner) outside their rural chalet one day—did Samuel fall or was he pushed?
Triet builds fascinating layers upon layers—the tantalizing use of French and English, scenes playing out as they occurred while being recounted at trial, Daniel’s precocious intelligence, Sandra’s friendly defense lawyer Vincent (Swann Arlaud) who may not believe in her innocence—and there memorable sequences, notably the couple’s final argument, in which Hüller provides the film’s most gripping moments. But, since it seems that neither Triet nor Hüller have a clue whether Sandra is innocent or guilty, their shaggy-dog story never reaches the tragic complexity it strives for.
4K/UHD Releases of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
Any movie that opens with a lumbering parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey can’t be trusted, and indeed, it’s no surprise director Greta Gerwig and her cowriter/husband Noah Baumbach have created an occasionally diverting but relentlessly one-note parody-cum-empowerment fable about the titular character leaving Barbieland for the Real World, where she discovers her unique femininity. Disappointingly, the movie is far less clever and insightful than it thinks; even the aggressively bright colors, cartoonish sets and garish costumes pall quickly. It ends up as a nearly two-hour mashup of lame SNL skits and ugly-looking music videos. (And why do Barbie Land and the Real World have such similarly awful music?)
Of course, any movie with Margot Robbie at its center is watchable—except Babylon—but eventually she too is defeated by Gerwig’s gimmickry. Although Ryan Gosling is initially fun as Ken, even he begins to glumly repeat himself; Will Farrell’s schtick wore thin years ago. The glittering colors pop all over the screen in UHD; extras include several making-of featurettes.
Meg 2—The Trench 
(Warner Bros)
After The Meg—in which a massive prehistoric shark mauls whomever gets in its way—how can a sequel become even more monstrous? Director Ben Wheatley goes in the direction of doubling down, introducing not one but three such creatures along with an enormous octopus terrorizing the populace, all while returning hero Jason Statham does what he can to save the day.
It’s all nonsensically goofy but it’s done with such singlemindedness that, when Statham on his jet ski goes up against the behemoths in the open water, it’s entirely possible you will root for him as a kind of second-rate Chief Brody from Jaws. The film looks spectacular in UHD; extras are two making-of featurettes.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers 
(Criterion Collection)
Tod Browning might be best known for his 1931 Dracula that made Bela Lugosi famous, but his creepy classic Freaks (1932) is the centerpiece of this three-film set comprising Browning’s unsettling studies of those forgotten people on the margins. Along with Freaks—which retains its power to shock and make viewers uncomfortable nine decades later—there are 1927’s The Unknown, with Lon Chaney and a young Joan Crawford in a sordid story of an armless knife thrower infatuated with his attractive assistant, and the 1925 rarity The Mystic, another offbeat (and downbeat) melodrama.
All three films have been meticulously restored and—in the case of The Unknown—reconstructed; extras include audio commentaries, interviews and featurettes putting Browning’s films—which some might consider worth canceling—in their proper context.
My Father’s Glory/My Mother’s Castle 
(Film Movement Classics)
French director Yves Robert’s two lovely 1990 memory pieces, adapted from the great director and writer Marcel Pagnol’s autobiography, follow the young Marcel and his family—loving mom, hard-nosed dad and pushy older brother—in Marseille and Provence in the early 1900s.
With wonderfully lived-in performances by the entire cast—especially Julien Ciamaca, who’s spot-on as the young Marcel, and Nathalie Roussel, who’s heartbreaking as his doomed mom Augustine—Robert has made two humane films tinged with humor, drama, tragedy: life itself. There are superb new hi-def transfers; extras are two informative featurettes.
(Film Movement)
Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi made his mark with the mammoth character study Happy Hour and last year’s international breakthrough—and Oscar-winning best international film—Drive My Car. That notoriety led to the release of his 2008 student film, in which the themes and directorial hallmarks of his later works are given rough, choppy form.
Unlike his mature features, where dialogue is meaningful and has its own kind of narrative propulsiveness, here the characters falling in and out of relationships don’t have much to say that’s memorable. Still, this is an interesting blueprint for what would be (mostly) perfected later. The film looks good on Blu; extras are a Hamaguchi introduction and a video essay, From Passion to Fortune.
CD Releases of the Week
Krzysztof Penderecki—Symphony No. 6, “Chinese Songs” 
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki began as an avant-garde destroyer whose atonal works of the ‘50s and ‘60s made his reputation, but he morphed into a modernist who also harkened back to older forms, and this disc collects three memorable titles from the last 15 years of his composing career (he died at age 86 in 2020).
The Trumpet Concertino (with soloist David Guerrier) and Concerto doppio (with cellist Hayoung Choi and violinist Aleksandra Kuls) are magnificent showcases for those instruments, while his Symphony No. 6, “Chinese Songs,” is one of Penderecki’s most luminous vocal works—it’s sad to realize the imposing soloist, Polish bass-baritone Jarosław Bręk, died two years ago at age 46. Antoni Wit ably leads the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra in these energetic performances.
George Walker—Five Sinfonias 
Culminating his lengthy and impressive career, George Walker (1922-2018) wrote a series of sinfonias—short, compact works that are weighty without being ponderous—over the course of his final three-plus decades of composing.
The first three sinfonias each have two or three movements, but the last two are even more compressed, single-movement works; the shattering fifth, written after the murder of nine Black members of a Bible study group by a racist gunman in a Charleston church, is the only one with a vocal section. These five sinfonias make a remarkably coherent artistic statement, and these gripping performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Gianandrea Noseda, provide Walker with a wonderful musical epitaph.

Emerson String Quartet Give Farewelll Performance at Lincoln Center

Emerson String Quartet receive standing ovation. Photo by Da Ping Luo.

At Alice Tully Hall, on the evening of Sunday, October 22nd, I had the exceptional privilege to attend the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s excellent farewell performance of the celebrated Emerson String Quartet. The members of the ensemble were violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins.

The first half of the program was devoted to an accomplished account of the remarkable String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, of Ludwig van Beethoven, presented here in its original version. The initial movement has a somewhat solemn, brief introduction marked Adagio, ma non troppo, with the main body an Allegro with more vivacious, brisk passages organized in a highly unconventional structure. The ensuing, short Presto is propulsive and ebullient and is followed by a slower movement—with a tempo of Andante con moto, ma non troppo—that is elegant, charming, graceful, even Haydnesque. The exquisite Alla danza tedesca movement that succeeds it—with an Allegro assai marking—is also delicate. The contrasting Cavatina—an Adagio molto espressivo—is ruminative, but not without lyricism—with a middle section that achieves an even greater intensity—and ends quietly. The astonishing, avant-garde, unusually ambitious finale—the famous, even infamous Grosse fuge, which the composer also published as an independent work—is agitated but gripping.

After intermission, the ensemble received the CMS Award for Extraordinary Service to Chamber Music in a modest ceremony. The second half of the concert was maybe even more memorable, consisting of an admirable rendition of Franz Schubert’s sterling String Quintet in C major, D. 956, which also featured cellist David Finckel, an original member of the group who left it in 2013. The opening Allegro ma non troppo movement is animated, melodious, and cheerful but not without darker undercurrents and more dramatic episodes, preceding an ethereal and enchanting Adagio with a tempestuous interlude. The marvelous, familiar Scherzo, marked Presto, is energetic and exhilarating, with a slower, more serious and inward Andante sostenuto Trio, and the finale, marked Allegretto, is dancelike and lively although with more pensive moments.

The artists received a very enthusiastic standing ovation.

The next Chamber Music Society program is on the evening of Sunday, October 29th, centered upon the great Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff.

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