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New York Philharmonic Play Webern & Scriabin

Karina Canellakis conducts the New York Philharmonic with Alice Sara Ott on piano.  Photo by Erin Baiano.

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on the evening of Saturday, April 6th, I had the enormous pleasure of attending an extraordinary concert presented by the New York Philharmonic under the brilliant direction of Karina Canellakis, in her uncommonly auspicious set of debut performances with this ensemble.

The event began admirably with a very impressively executed account of Anton Webern’s challenging but compelling, superbly scored Six Pieces for Orchestra. According to the useful program note by Christopher H. Gibbs (who is James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College and co-author, with Richard Taruskin, of The Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition):

Webern composed the initial version of Six Pieces for Orchestra in the summer of 1909, using as a model Schoenberg's recent Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, and offering the dedication: “To Arnold Schoenberg, my teacher and friend, with greatest love.” 

He adds:

He revised the pieces in 1928, writing to Schoenberg: “Everything extravagant is now cut (alto flute, six trombones for a few measures, and so on).” In a later program note he said that the new version, heard on this concert, “is to be considered the only valid one.”

Webern wrote to Schoenberg before the premiere, saying that:

The first piece is to express my frame of mind when I was still in Vienna, already sensing the disaster, yet always maintaining the hope that I would find my mother still alive. It was a beautiful day — for a minute I believed quite firmly that nothing had happened. Only during the train ride to Carinthia — it was on the afternoon of the same day — did I learn the truth. The third piece conveys the impression of the fragrance of the Erica, which I gathered at a spot in the forest very meaningful to me and then laid on the bier. The fourth piece I later entitled marcia funebre. Even today I do not understand my feelings as I walked behind the coffin to the cemetery.

The composer also “provided the following explanation of the pieces for a German music festival in 1933”:

They represent short song forms, in that they are mostly tripartite. Thematic relations do not exist, not even within the individual pieces. I consciously avoided such connections, since I aimed at an always changing mode of expression. To describe briefly the character of the pieces (they are of a purely lyrical nature): the first expresses the expectation of a calamity; the second the certainty of its fulfillment; the third the most tender contrast — it is, so to speak, the introduction to the fourth, a funeral march; five and six are an epilogue: remembrance and resignation.

The individual movements of the work themselves somewhat deny my powers of description so I shall rest content here with Webern’s commentary quoted above.

The proceedings continued excitingly with a marvelous rendition of Richard Strauss’s magnificent, neo-Wagnerian, and highly dramatic tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24. Annotator James M. Keller records that, “In 1895 Strauss acquiesced to a friend's request to provide an explanation of the piece's action”:

The sick man lies in a bed asleep, breathing heavily and irregularly; agreeable dreams charm a smile onto his features in spite of his suffering; his sleep becomes lighter; he wakens; once again he is racked by terrible pain, his limbs shake with fever — as the attack draws to a close and the pain resumes, the fruit of his path through life appears to him, the idea, the Ideal which he has tried to realize, to represent in his art, but which he has been unable to perfect because it was not for any human being to perfect it. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body, in order to find perfected in the most glorious form in the eternal cosmos that which he could not fulfill here on earth.

The second half of the evening was also memorable, starting with an exceptionally accomplished realization of Maurice Ravel’s awesome Piano Concerto in G Major, dazzlingly played—in another amazing debut with the orchestra—by the meteoric Alice Sara Ott, who was dressed in a fabulous, sparkling, silver-white gown. About the composer, Keller records that: 

As early as 1906, he reported that he had begun sketching a piano concerto on Basque themes, provisionally titled Zazpiak-Bat, and in 1913 he informed his friend Igor Stravinsky that he was refocusing his attention on it. But in late 1914 Ravel, by then installed in the south of France due to the disruptions of World War I, wrote to his student and colleague Roland-Manuel that he had to give up work on the piece since he had left his sketches behind in Paris. And that was the end of it, except that some material from the project was reworked when Ravel came to write his G-major Piano Concerto. 

To the critic M.D. Calvocoressi, Ravel called it “a concerto in the truest sense of the word: I mean that it is written very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saëns.” He continued:

The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects. It has been said of certain classics that their concertos were written not “for” but “against” the piano. I heartily agree. I had intended to title this concerto “Divertissement.” Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so because the title “Concerto” should be sufficiently clear. 

The initial, virtuosic Allegramente movement is ebullient and jazzy with some moody passages, strongly recalling the music of George Gershwin, and ends forcefully. The exquisite Adagio assai begins with a long, introspective introduction for solo piano; the movement becomes more lyrical with the entry of the orchestra and continues to build in intensity. The propulsive and spirited Presto finale is another showcase for piano technique; the composer’s affinities with Igor Stravinsky—in the latter’s early phase—are at their most pronounced here. Exuberant applause elicited a terrific encore from the soloist, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina from 1976—the Ravel concerto appeared almost sheerly profligate beside this minimal work.

The night concluded stunningly with a thrilling version of Alexander Scriabin’s glorious The Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54. The composer’s own program note for “a performance in Moscow shortly after the Russian premiere,” is gnomic and confounding:

Le Poème de l'extase is the Joy of Liberated Action. The Cosmos, i.e. Spirit, is Eternal Creation without External Motivation, a Divine Play with Worlds. The Creative Spirit, i.e. the Universe at Play, is not conscious of the Absoluteness of its creativeness, having subordinated itself to a Finality and made creativity a means towards an end. The stronger the pulse-beat of life and the more the precipitation of rhythms, the more clearly the awareness comes to the Spirit that it is consubstantial with creativity, immanent within itself, and that its life is a play. When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity, when it has exhausted completely its substance and its liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy shall then arrive. 

Scriabin told his friend Ivan Lipaev, “When you listen to Ecstasy, look straight into the eye of the sun!” In 1909, Sergei Prokofiev interestingly remarked about the work that: 

Both the harmonic and the thematic material, and the voice-leading in the counterpoint, were completely new. Basically, Scriabin was trying to find new foundations for harmony. The principles he discovered were very interesting, but in proportion to their complexity they were like a stone tied to Scriabin's neck, hindering his invention as regards melody and (chiefly) the movement of voices. Nonetheless, Le Poème de l'extase was probably his most successful work, since all the elements in his manner of composing were apparently balanced. But it was hard to imagine, at first hearing, just what he was trying to do. 

In one of his notebooks, Scriabin inscribed the following poem, which served as the basis for The Poem of Ecstasy:

The Spirit
Winged by the thirst for life,
Takes flight
On the heights of negation.
There in the rays of his dream
Arises a magic world
Of marvelous images and feelings.     
The Spirit playing.     
The Spirit longing.
The Spirit with fancy creating all,
Surrenders himself to the bliss of love. …
I call you to life, mysterious forces!
Drowned in the obscure depths
Of the creative spirit, timid
Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity! …

With the piece’s astonishing and exalting close, the audience delivered an enthusiastic ovation.

April '24 Digital Week I

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
La Chimera 
Alice Rohrwacher has been one of our brightest filmmakers since her unforgettable debut, Corpo Celeste, debuted at the 2011 New York Film Festival. Her 2014 follow-up, The Wonders, relied too heavily on forced Felliniesque whimsy, but 2018’s Happy as Lazzaro got the balance between reality and surrealism right. Her latest cinematic fable again traverses that thin line and is as pointed and poignant as anything she’s done.
It follows Arthur (Josh O’Connor, excellent in a bilingual role), an English archeologist who robs Truscan sites of artifacts while pining for his girlfriend Beniamina, his own chimera—an impossible-to-find treasure—and remaining in touch with her family, especially boisterous grandmother Flora (Isabella Rossellini, in her liveliest performance in years). Rohrwacher’s sumptuous film is alternately humorous and sad, angry and melancholic—an enormously affecting exploration of coming to terms with one’s past.
Against All Enemies 
(Mighty Pictures)
Necessary but scary is a good description of Charlie Sadoff’s incriminating study about how and why so many veterans of the U.S. armed forces gravitate toward militias and other white supremacist groups, which look ahead—or even forward—to what many of them consider the next civil war.
Sadoff talks with military vets, generals and civilians, along with experts on the subjects (especially Kathleen Belew, who has written expertly about the white power and paramilitary movements), all illuminating a subject that will probably be relevant indefinitely—unfortunately. But why Sadoff ends the film with the fact-free rantings of the unhinged Eric “General E” Braden is a real head-scratcher.
The Lie—The Murder of Grace Millane 
(Brainstorm Media)
The awful story of Grace Millane—a 21-year-old English woman who was brutally murdered while vacationing in New Zealand by her Tinder date—is recounted in Helena Coan’s documentary that’s cannily structured like a procedural.
After Grace goes missing, the police question a man who was seen on CCTV cameras with her hours before her disappearance—and his version of the story is methodically debunked by the cops and by Coan, who uses the voluminous footage captured of the suspect’s movements to definitely show that he was, in fact, her murderer. What’s most heartbreaking is his not-unusual excuse that they had rough sex and her death was accident—something she could not rebut. 
4K/UHD Release of the Week
All Ladies Do It 
(Cult Epics)
Now 91, Italian director Tinto Brass has made playfully erotic films full of pulchritude falling just  short of hardcore for several decades, and this 1992 riff on the Mozart opera Cosi fan tutte—also the film’s original Italian title—is a prime example: Diana, the gorgeous, teasing wife of a bespectacled husband, titillates him with made-up tales of sexual escapades, but when he angrily throws her out after seeing marks on her body, she goes further than before.
As usual with Brass, there’s a surfeit of simulated sexual sequences, and his lead performer, the Romanian actress Claudia Koll, is a histrionic knockout. The superb UHD transfer allows viewers to gaze at Koll as intimately as her director did; extras include a commentary, Brass interview and on-set footage. 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Doktor Faustus 
Italian composer Ferrucio Busoni’s greatest opera—which was completed after he died in 1924—is rarely produced for some reason but has two meaty roles for the leading protagonist and antagonist. This 2023 staging in Florence, directed by Davide Livermore, is a well-paced reading of this complex parable about the nature of good and evil.
Busoni’s imposing music is performed superbly by the orchestra and chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, conducted by Cornelius Meister, while the exemplary cast is led by Dietrich Henschel’s Faust and Daniel Brenna’s Mephistopheles. The hi-def video and audio are also excellent.
Norwegian composer Carl Nielsen wrote two operas, neither of which is frequently performed—the underrated Biblical tragedy, Saul and David, and the frisky comic romp, Maskarade, the latter getting an enjoyable 2021 production by director Tobias Kratzer at Frankfurt Opera.
Despite his reputation as a self-serious composer, Nielsen’s engaging music keeps the pace moving fluidly, and Kratzer’s staging is abetted by a fine and large vocal cast and the Frankfurt Opera orchestra and chorus led by conductor Titus Engel. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
Polar Rescue 
Born to Fly 
(Well Go USA)
These Chinese films home in on the basics of storytelling to create effective flicks for unfinicky audiences. In Polar Rescue, an 8-year-old boy wanders off into the wilderness after his dad punishes him for his misbehavior, and while they search for him, guilt becomes an overwhelming factor; despite some sloppy writing, director Chi-Leung Law constructs a tidy thriller that has the guts to end on a down note.
Liu Xiaoshi’s Born to Fly has exciting aerial sequences that compensate for more moribund segments on earth as daring pilots test updated fighter jets to try and keep pace with the meddling American air force. Both films have crisp, clean hi-def transfers.
CD Release of the Week
Noémie Chemali—Opus 961 
Noémie Chemali, a gifted Lebanese French-American violist, has titled her first solo album after the area code for Lebanon as a tribute to the people there following the devastating 2020 explosion that damaged the seafront area—as she says in the disc’s program note, her grandmother’s house in that neighborhood was destroyed. Chemali’s disc comprises works by six Lebanese composers written in the past decade, including her own Kadishat, a lovely miniature with a yearning viola line.
Chemali displays her formidable technique on the other works, including Mary Kouyoumdjian’s The Revolt of the Stars, inspired by an Armenian fable, and Wajdi Abou Diab’s rhythmically challenging The Moraba’ Dance. Chemali and her musical cohort (including Yann Chemali, who plays the cello on Kadishat) make beautiful, engaging music together.

Off-Broadway Play Review—“Corruption” at Lincoln Center Theater

Written by J.T. Rogers; directed by Bartlett Sher
Performances through April 14, 2024
Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street, NYC
A scene from Corruption (photo: T. Charles Erickson)
In Corruption, playwright J.T. Rogers tackles what he considers an early salvo in our ongoing—and, seemingly, losing—war with alternative facts and media manipulation: the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, News Corp, and specifically his now-defunct tabloid News of the World and its editor Rebekah Brooks. 
Rogers and director Bartlett Sher have constructed a breathless real-life drama that plays like a nail-biting thriller: even those in the audience who know the outcome are on the edge of their seats as it plays out, since Rogers’ writing and Sher’s staging create a kaleidoscope that alternates between the expansive (media shenanigans and the government’s initially hesitant investigation) and the personal (the effects on ordinary people, especially the family of polarizing politician Tom Watson, who made it his crusade to take down Brooks and Murdoch) in an absorbing 2-1/2 hours.
In 2016’s Oslo—which told the complicated story of the attempt to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine—Rogers and Sher created the blueprint for making lively theater about recent history. Like Oslo, Corruption at times moves too quickly and tries to cover too much, sometimes skating superficially across issues. Some of the scenes between Watson and his understanding but frustrated wife Siobhan, while dramatically necessary, simply move the play forward without being truly gripping.
Far more successful are the dramatizations of behind-the-scenes movements by Brooks and Murdoch—the latter through the unseen Rupert’s CEO son, James, and Tom Crone, the mogul’s legal counsel—as well as the unlikely coupling of Watson’s small office and journalists from The Independent and The Guardian, who hope to collect enough evidence proving the culpability of News Corp (whose upper management’s standard line was that they didn’t know what was going on—and, by the way, we’re not doing it any more) and somehow dent the Murdoch empire’s ubiquity.
It’s these scenes—shuttling back and forth among News Corp machinations, Watson and the journalists’ probes (often at great personal risk) and the government’s tardy but welcome inquiry—that are the racing heart of Corruption, as Rogers’ fleet scenes are given an excitingly cinematic sheen by Sher on the small Newhouse stage with major assists from Michael Yeargan’s sets, Donald Holder’s lighting and 59 Productions’ projections. A ring of video screens above the stage displays various news broadcasts’ “breaking news,” also projected onto the rear wall, along with various tweets Watson sends out in a desperate attempt to gain attention for his initially foundering investigation. 
There’s an amusing moment when, despondent, Watson realizes he needs some sort of public acknowledgement of his efforts; suddenly, none other than George Michael approvingly retweets his posts and Michael’s “Freedom ’90” rings out, closing the first act with the song’s supermodel-stuffed music video playing on those very screens. 
In a play with more than three dozen speaking parts, nearly all of the actors in the excellent ensemble do double, triple, quadruple duty, among whom the very able Dylan Baker, Anthony Cochrane, Eleanor Handley, Robyn Kerr and Michael Siberry stand out. In a tricky role, Saffron Burrows makes Rebekah Brooks formidably sinister without ever turning her into a stock villain. 
At the play’s center is Toby Stephens as the fascinatingly flawed Tom Watson, an unlikely whistleblower at the center of a scandal that threatens to destroy previously held norms of democracy and what’s considered the truth. Watson was no stranger to lowdown dirty politics, and Stephens catches every nuance of his abrasive, aggressive personality. 
Stephens even gives Rogers’ concluding soapbox dialogue (“We will fight because the truth matters, and we will not allow it to be chopped up and sold for parts. We will fight, as long and hard as it takes, because this is our democracy. And that is worth fighting for. So you stand up. You hear me? Stand up.”) the honest commitment it needs to end Corruption with a bang.

"The Firebird" & "The Rite of Spring" Brought to Life by the Orchestre de Paris at Carnegie Hall

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Orchestre de Paris. Photo by Fadi Kheir.
At Stern Auditorium on the evening of Saturday, March 16th, I had the almost unsurpassable pleasure of attending a magnificent concert—presentedas a part of Carnegie Hall’s current festival, “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice”—featuring the superb musicians of the Orchestre de Paris, amazingly led by its energetic, almost impossibly dashing Music Director and Conductor, Klaus Mäkelä.
The program began marvelously with an outstanding performance of the complete score of Igor Stravinsky’s fabulous ballet, The Firebird, informatively described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as follows:
The ballet is based on the Russian legend of the Firebird, a powerful good spirit whose feathers supposedly convey beauty and protection upon the earth. Other characters from Russian lore are also included: the heroic Prince Ivan Tsarevich and the evil sorcerer Kashchei, from whom Ivan must rescue the princess he loves. It is only through the intervention of the Firebird, whose life he spares early in the ballet, that Ivan is able to destroy Kashchei and his followers and marry the princess. The folk origins of the story inspired Stravinsky to borrow a few folk melodies in his score. Yet most of the ballet, especially the fluttering dance of the Firebird and the memorable wedding march at the ballet’s conclusion, was his own creation.
The brilliant Introduction and the opening episode, “Kashchei’s Enchanted Garden,” are hushed, unsettling and enigmatic, not unlike the “night music” in the scores of Béla Bartók. The entrance of the Firebird has a highly animated—even whirling—and unearthly, if playful, quality; the music becomes more hurried as the Prince proceeds to capture the Firebird, and more plaintive and fraught as it begs to be released. The “Emergence of the Thirteen Enchanted Princesses” is especially beguiling but the score becomes almost frantic as they play their game with the golden apples. As Prince Ivan appears, the music becomes serious and then exquisite in the more Impressionistic “The Princesses’ Khorovod.” At “Daybreak,” the score becomes turbulent, as Kashchei’s Monster-Guardians attack and capture the Prince, and then uncanny and suspenseful with “The Entrance of Kashchei the Immortal.” After the Firebird reappears, one of the most exciting sections is the dazzling “Infernal Dance of Kashchei and His Subjects under the Firebird’s Magic Spell”—which seems to be a precursor to the soundscape ofThe Rite of Spring—immediately preceding the magnificent “Lullaby,” which is probably the most astonishingly lovely episode in the entire ballet and was used as the score for Lewis Klahr’s incomparable film, Altair from 1995. The music becomes quieter as Kashchei awakens and then dies, which ushers in the enchanting Second Tableau that concludes the work triumphantly.
The second half of the event was equally exhilarating: a superlative rendition of the complete score of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which Britannica says “is considered one of the first examples of Modernism in music and is noted for its brutality, its barbaric rhythms, and its dissonance.” It notes that:
The piece was commissioned by the noted impresario of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, who earlier had produced the young composer’sThe Firebird(1910) andPetrushka(1911). Stravinsky developed the story of The Rite of Spring, originally to be called The Great Sacrifice, with the aid of artist and mystic Nicholas Roerich, whose name appears with the composer’s on the title page of the earliest publications of the score. The production was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and its sets and costumes were designed by Roerich.
Like Stravinsky’s earlier works for the Ballet Russes, The Rite of Spring was inspired by Russian culture, but, unlike them, it challenged the audience with its chaotic percussive momentum.
And adds:
In the mid-20th century, Stravinsky revised the orchestration for concert performance, and that version of the score remains the version that is most commonly performed. In 1987, however, the ballet as it was first conceived and performed, with original set and costumes and Nijinsky’s choreography (which had been seen for only seven performances before it was superseded by new choreography from Léonide Massine), was painstakingly reconstructed and re-created by the Joffrey Ballet. The centenary of the ballet’s premiere prompted other ballet companies, notably the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, to also revive the work in its original form.
The eccentric “Introduction” to the First Part: Adoration of the Earth is haunting but the score quickly becomes rhythmically spellbinding with the ensuing “The Augurs of Spring: Dances of the Young Girls.” More turbulent is “The Ritual of Abduction” which leads to the solemn, portentous “Spring Rounds” and the tumultuous “Ritual of the Rival Tribes.” The intensity builds with the “Procession of the Sage” through the “Dance of the Earth” that closes the First Part.
After the mysterious “Introduction” to the Second Part: The Sacrifice, the episode that follows, “The Mystic Circles of the Young Girls,” has a more meditative character. The “Glorification of the Chosen One” is impassioned while the sense of foreboding increases especially in the propulsive “Ritual Action of the Ancestors,” climaxing with the stunning “Sacrificial Dance” that concludes the work.
The artists, who have commercially recorded both scores, were enthusiastically applauded.

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