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National Symphony Orchestra & “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice”

Gianandrea Noseda & James Ehnes with the National Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Stefan Cohen

At Stern Auditorium, on the night of Monday, February 12th, I had the enormous pleasure of attending a superb concert—as part of Carnegie Hall’s current festival, “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice”—presented by the sterling musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra under the exceptional leadership of Music Director and Conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, who recently led the New York Philharmonic in an extraordinary program of works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gustav Mahler at Lincoln Center.

The event began auspiciously with a confident account of Alban Berg’s Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite, which is surprisingly accessible for an atonal piece and was beautifully arranged for string orchestra in 1928, although originally composed for string quartet. In the initial Andante amoroso movement, the composer created a solemn atmosphere that becomes more agitated; it closes suddenly and unexpectedly. The second movement might be described as skittish, even if much of it ispianissimo,but it grows more animated, also concluding abruptly. The final Adagio appassionato too is grave in sensibility with both slower and more propulsive passages, ending powerfully.

The renowned soloist James Ehnes then entered the stage for an excellent performance of the splendid Violin Concerto of Erich Korngold. The first movement—which is marked Moderato mobile and begins lyrically, becoming more dynamic in tempo, but with reflective moments—drew applause. The Andante that follows is even more passionately Romantic in inspiration even if it is not without its eccentricities. The Finale—Allegretto assai vivace—is energetic, virtuosic, buoyant in mood, and concludes triumphantly. An enthusiastic ovation elicited two impressive encores from Ehnes: the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, "Ballade,” of Eugène Ysaÿe—which is both a bravura work and one of considerable seriousness—and the magnificent Largo from the Solo Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005, of Johann Sebastian Bech

The second half of the evening was even more memorable, a brilliant rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s extraordinary Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” The first movement, with a tempo marking of Allegro con brio, has a certain majesty but is often suspenseful and dramatic—although with some meditative episodes—and contains a fugue-like section, while the second, an Adagio assai funeral march, is contrastingly gloomy but gains in intensity. The ensuing Scherzo, an Allegro vivace, is characteristically playful if turbulent; the more jubilant Trio has a pastoral quality. In his program note, Peter Laki wrote this about the Allegro molto that closes the work:

The main theme of the last movement appears in no fewer than four of Beethoven’s compositions. Beethoven first used it in a simple contradance for orchestra, then in the last movement of the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (both in 1800–1801), followed by the Variations for Piano, Op. 35 (1802), and lastly in the Third Symphony. The elaborate set of variations in the “Eroica” finale is integrated into a single, continuous musical form, culminating in a short Presto section that gives the symphony its dynamic conclusion.

After a more tentative introduction, the music acquires a pronouncedly affirmative character, with fugue-like interludes, ending exultantly.

Ute Lemper & “Fall of the Weimar Republic" at Carnegie Hall

Ute Lemper, photo by Stephanie Berger

At Zankel Hall on the evening of Friday, February 9th, I had the privilege to attend a memorable concert entitled “Weimar Berlin and After the Exodus”—as part of Carnegie Hall’s current festival, “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice”—featuring the marvelous Ute Lemper, with Vana Gierig on piano, Matthew Parrish on bass, Todd Turkisher on drums, and Cyrus Beroukhim on violin.

Lemper is the foremost contemporary interpreter of cabaret music of the Weimar era, a current successor to legends like Marlene Dietrich or Lotte Lenya. (Other precursors include Zarah Leander, who famously was directed by Douglas Sirk in prewar German films—Hildegard Knef, Hannah Schygulla, and Barbara Sukowa; Nina Hoss brilliantly portrayed such a singer in Christian Petzold’s extraordinary 2014 film,Phoenix.)

The program opened with two songs from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s immensely celebrated “play with music,” The Threepenny Opera: “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” and “Kanonen-Song.” She then performed her own song, “On Brecht,” followed by the most famous number from The Threepenny Opera, the magnificent “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.”

A significant figure in Weimar musical culture was the less familiar Mischa Spoliansky—Lemper sang his “Life’s a Swindle,” followed by two more compositions from The Threepenny Opera: “Salomon-Song” and the popular “Pirate Jenny.”

The next set began with two more Spoliansky songs performed in English: “Maskulinum-Femininum” and “When the Special Girlfriend.” Maybe the foremost Weimar cabaret composer, alongside Weill, was Friedrich Hollaender—Lemper sang his “Chuck Out the Men!” and then Spoliansky’s “The Lavender Song” and Leonello Casucci’s “Just a Gigolo.”

Streets of Exile” by contemporary minimalist composer Philip Glass transitioned into “Surabaya-Johnny” from the Brecht-Weill musical comedy, Happy End and Lemper also combined Hollaender’s “Sex Appeal” with Spoliansky’s “I Am a Vamp.” The first section of the program concluded with Hollaender’s “Ich bin die fesche Lola”—from the 1930 film that made Dietrich a star, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel—and his “Münchhausen.”

The next section, “Cabaret in Exile,” consisted of music by another major figure of the era, Hanns Eisler: a medley of “On Suicide” and “The Mask of Evil” was succeeded by “The Ballad of Marie Sanders,” which is a setting of a poem by Brecht, one of the composer’s collaborators.

The final portion of the event, “From the Ghettos and Concentration Camps,” began with two Yiddish songs: Rikle Glezer’s “S’iz geven a zumertog” and “Shtiler, Shtiler” by Alexander Volkoviski and Shmerke Kaczerginski. The eminent composer Viktor Ullmann was represented by “Margarit Kelech” alongside Ilse Weber’s “Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt” and concluding with the anonymous “Auschwitz Tango.”

Broadway Musical Review—Kelli O’Hara in “Days of Wine and Roses”

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine and Roses (photo: Joan Marcus)
Days of Wine and Roses 
Book by Craig Lucas; music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
Directed by Michael Greif; choreographed by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia
Performances through April 28, 2024
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, NYC


Based on the 1962 Blake Edwards film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, the musical version of Days of Wines and Roses hews fairly closely to the script by JP Miller (itself based on Miller’s 1958 teleplay), exploring the relationship between go-getter ad exec Joe Clay and the boss’s attractive secretary Kirsten Arnesen, which begins when he charms her into having her first drink (she dislikes the taste of liquor but loves chocolate, so he orders her a Brandy Alexander—and she’s hooked). They are soon married, but Joe’s excessive drinking while keeping up appearances with his clients and superiors kills his work ethic and gets him fired.
Meanwhile, once Kirsten discovers a taste for liquor, she becomes an even worse alcoholic than Joe. He is able to clean up his act but can’t convince his wife to do so—she soon leaves Joe and their daughter Lila to sleep with strangers she picks up to fuel her drinking habit. It’s certainly not an original story, but Days of Wines and Roses works effectively, even touchingly, because Joe and Kirsten are an ordinary couple whose relationship is destroyed by addiction. 
While I doubt anyone was begging for a stage musical of Roses, it does have a quiet power. Craig Lucas’ book distills the essence of Joe and Kirsten’s descent into darkness in a series of fleet scenes, even if it lays on the water imagery too thickly, apparently to show that these lives are awash in liquid. Adam Guettel’s music (his lyrics are mostly commonplace, sadly) often excitingly adapts the musical idioms of the ’50s and ’60s setting, the jazzy and bluesy chromaticism underscoring the initial ecstasy and culminating agony of the couple’s long and winding journey.
Most tantalizing is how the song interludes are used. Aside from Lila briefly joining in near the end, only Joe and Kirsten sing, and only occasionally in a duet; it’s usually one or the other. It’s an interesting way to separate the couple from those around them, even close to them (like Kirsten’s skeptical elderly father or Joe’s frustrated Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor), underlining their walled-off world of pain and addiction. The subtly imaginative choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia visualizes both their togetherness and separation.
Michael Greif’s exemplary staging keeps its focus on the couple even as it sketches the surrounding, and vibrant, New York milieu. (Miller’s teleplay and movie script were set in San Francisco.) Especially helpful in this regard are Ben Stanton’s illuminating lighting, Dede Ayite’s on-target costumes, Lizzie Clachan’s expressive sets and Kai Harada’s clever sound design. 
Of course, nothing would work without powerhouse performers at its center. Brian d’Arcy James’ natural charm, likability and stellar singing gain sympathy for Joe even when he’s selfishly sending his wife to her ruin. And, as Kirsten, Kelli O’Hara is again spectacular, another indelible portrait of a woman damaged by the man and the circumstances around her in a career filled with such characters. (See The Light in the Piazza, Far from Heaven and The Bridges of Madison County, for starters.) O’Hara’s exquisite vocals are nearly unmatched at harnessing pure emotion from a single note, and she and her scene partner together become a singular, memorable vision.

February '24 Digital Week I

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
American Fiction 
Writer-director Cord Jefferson’s often savagely funny satire of how deeply racism is embedded in the American psyche, based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, Erasure, explores the many ramifications of frustrated author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison’s transparent attempt to write a banal novel that white publishers and audiences will lap up as “authentically Black”—and is disgusted when it becomes a major phenomenon. 
The film also tenderly chronicles Monk’s dysfunctional family, and these scenes, playing off the sardonic episodes, provide its heft. The magisterial acting comprises Jeffrey Wright’s towering portrayal of Ellison, Sterling K. Brown’s wounded brother Cliff and a fabulous female quartet: Tracee Ellis Ross (Monk’s sister Lisa), Issa Rae (successful author Sintara Golden), Erika Alexander (Monk’s love interest Coralie) and the ageless Leslie Uggams (the family matriarch Agnes).
(Film Forum/Music Box)
Ennio Morricone, the great Italian film composer, is the subject of Giuseppe Tornatore’s loving 2-1/2 hour glimpse at the incredible career of a musical artist who worked with many different directors—including Sergio Leone, Marco Bellocchio,  Bernardo Bertolucci, Roland Joffe and Tornatore himself, for whom Morricone composed the score of the international breakthrough, Cinema Paradiso—and in many different styles, from conservative to postmodern; it’s exhilarating to simply watch Morricone discuss his music so casually and so charmingly. 
Of course, Ennio is also crammed with paeans from adoring colleagues and admirers, including Bellocchio, Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, Pat Metheny, Hans Zimmer and even Bruce Springsteen.
My Sole Desire 
In director-cowriter Lucie Borleteau’s intriguingly off-kilter character study, Manon, a young woman, starts performing at a Parisian strip club under a new name: Aurora. While working there, she becomes very close to Mia, one of the place’s star attractions, and finds herself falling in love, confusing the issue for herself, Mia and Mia’s boyfriend. 
Borleateau paints a dramatically effective portrait of the grimy milieu in which these people interact, making it much more than a spectacle of the flesh—although it succeeds at that too. In the leads, both Louise Chevillotte (Manon/Aurora) and Zita Hanrot (Mia) given complexly layered performances. 
Perfect Days 
Nominated for best international film at this year’s Oscars, Wim Wenders’ sensitively directed feature follows Hirayama, a Tokyo public-bathroom cleaner, in his quotidian activities and daily interactions whether his usual routines or occurrences that shake him out of his comfort zone. 
It may seem prosaic, but Wenders has made one of his best and most persuasively understated character studies, centered by Kôji Yakusho’s exquisitely low-key portrayal of Hirayama, who has a slightly bemused look on his face no matter how absurd or offbeat things become.
The Taste of Things 
(IFC Films)
Culinary eroticism—a better euphemism than food porn—is at the heart of Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s film, set in 1885 at a rural French chateau, that explores the relationship of a wealthy epicure, Dodin, and his beloved cook for two decades, Eugénie. Hung—who won best director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival—and his expert cinematographer, Jonathan Ricquebourg, linger over Eugénie or Dodin making meals, ther camera roving about the kitchen trying to catch every detail…and the viewer can almost savor the aromas. 
As Eugénie and Dodin, Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel are beautifully restrained; they may not create conventional sparks but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of chemistry. Rather, the joy in their lives comes from subtle moments like culinary creations and not overt emotion. The same could be said of the movie itself, whose subtext is largely “food is love,” which isn’t very illuminating. But a marvelous ending links past and present satisfyingly, as Eugénie finally gets the final word.
Blu-ray Release of the Week
A Creature Was Stirring 
(Well Go USA)
In this bizarre but surprisingly dull horror flick, Chrissy Metz (This Is Us) plays Faith, a nurse who keeps her daughter (named Charm, of course) uncomfortably numbed by methadone—soon they both find themselves battling, first, a few dumb intruders and, later, an lethal entity that is both figurative and literal. 
First-time feature director Damien LeVeck tries to make this into something quiet and subtle early on, but Shannon Wells’ flimsy script doesn’t help out, so the geysers of blood and monster appearances pop up at regular intervals to try and save face. The elaborate effects and creature design by master Tate Steinsiek help overcome the undercooked addiction theme. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer.
DVD Releases of the Week 
Magnum P.I.—Complete 5th Season
Magnum P.I.—Complete Series 
The final season of this breezy reboot of another beloved TV series consists of 20 episodes that highlight the entertaining interplay of actors Jay Hernandez and Perdita Weeks, whose portrayals of the investigators (and couple) Thomas Magnum and Juliet Higgins make these familiar tales of crime-solving in visually stunning Hawaiian locales pleasurable. Extras on the five-disc set are deleted scenes. 
The complete series set, which comprises 24 discs holding all of the five seasons’ 96 episodes, includes more than two hours of special features, including on-set featurettes, a Hawaii Five-O crossover episode, deleted/extended scenes and gag reels.
CD Release of the Week
César Franck—Les Béatitudes
(Fuga Libera)
French composer César Franck (1822-90) is best known for his innovative Symphony in F Minor and a pair of lovely chamber works, the A-major Violin Sonata and F-minor Piano Quintet. But this remarkable oratorio (which took Franck a decade to write, between 1869 and 1879, and which he only heard in a reduced version before his death), nearly two hours and composed for a huge array of instrumental and vocal forces, might even eclipse those masterpieces as his greatest work. (And I say this as someone unfamiliar with it until now.) 
The sheer beauty and majesty of the music even surpasses what one would expect from such a thrilling religious vocal work, particularly in this monumental performance by the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, led by conductor Gergely Madaras, the Hungarian National Choir and a superlative group of eight vocal soloists

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