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Film and the Arts

Romeo & Juliet with The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Lahav Shani conducts Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo by Fadi Kheir

At Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, on the night of Saturday, March 9th, I had the incomparable pleasure of attending a magnificent concert presented by the outstanding musicians of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, brilliantly led by its Chief Conductor, Lahav Shani.
The evening began marvelously with a superb reading of Arvo Pärt’s stunning, meditative Swansong, a visionary work that concludes quietly. In an excellent program note, Jack Sullivan provides some useful background about it:
Composed in 2013, it was the result of a commission of the Mozart Week Festival in Salzburg—where Pärt was the festival composer in 2014—and was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Marc Minkowski. It is an orchestral version of Littlemore Tractus from 2000, which was composed for choir and organ to celebrate the 200th anniversary of cardinal John Henry Newman’s birth. That work is based on a fragment of Newman’s sermon “Wisdom and Innocence,” which contains a prayer for “a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.”
The fabulous soloist, Daniil Trifonov, then entered the stage for a sterling performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s wonderful 1777 Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271, the “Jeunehomme.” The initial, appropriately cheerful and energetic Allegro movement has some slower, dance-like sections and features some sparkling piano writing. The Andantino that follows—a characteristically beautiful slow movement with an inward orientation—is seemingly almost religious in inspiration and evocative of the Baroque style at times—with some majestic passages—while the finale, a Rondo marked Presto, is propulsive and playful but contains a contrastingly reflective, almost melancholy, minuet. Enthusiastic applause was rewarded with an amazing encore played by the pianist: the Bill Evans arrangement of the classic song of 1952, "When I Fall in Love,” composed by Victor Young with lyrics by Edward Heyman, and famously recorded by Nat King Cole among many others.
Truly awesome, however, was the second half of the event, consisting of a stupendous realization of selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s glorious score for the ballet, Romeo and Juliet, some of the greatest music ever written. The enthralling march, “Montagues and Capulets” that opened the set has a lovely central interlude. “Juliet as a Young Girl,” the next selection, is effervescent and the ensuing “A Scene” is jocular. The ebullient “Dance” preceded the rhythmic “Masks” and the romantic “Balcony Scene.” After this was the exciting and dramatic “Death of Tybalt,” which also has comic elements. The charming “Dance of the Maids from the Antilles” is succeeded by the mesmerizing “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting” with its ominous inflections. The concluding “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave” is simply astounding. An ardent ovation elicited another delightful encore: the same composer’s March, Op. 99.

March '24 Digital Week III

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
(Music Box)
In the Australian Outback, Travis, a burned-out cop, arrives to look into the still unsolved case of a young Aboriginal girl’s murder two decades earlier—his presence dredges up old wounds and bad feelings for many of the locals.
In writer-director Ivan Sen’s impressive feature, the investigation is secondary to the character interactions: his moody B&W cinematography, in tantalizing shades of grey, mirrors the depths that Travis (a superb Simon Baker) goes to in his futile hope to find some closure.
Carol Doda Topless at the Condor 
Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker’s fascinating documentary sheds light on the life and times of the pioneering performer Carol Doda, who danced in San Francisco in the early ‘60s, helping to pave the way for more permissive rules and more daring artistic expression alongside other legends like comic Lenny Bruce.
With valuable archival interviews and footage interspersed with current talking heads who place Doda’s actions and the reactions to her in historical and social contexts, McKenzie and Parker have made an informative, enlightening look at a world that’s not as distant as it seems in our own era of closemindedness.
Club Zero 
(Film Movement)
Austrian director Jessica Hausner has always been provocative, and her latest film is no different: in an exclusive private school, Miss Novak arrives to teach students about responsible eating, which seems innocuous enough at first but it soon dominates their every breath to the point where their closest relationships are damaged and their very lives are endangered.
It’s too studied and obvious to be effective, since Hausner and cowriter Géraldine Bajard stack the deck from the start and provide no insight, just shock value (one of the students eats her own vomit). The sleepy performances contribute to the flatness, with even good actors like Sidse Babett Knudsen and Mia Wasikowska reduced to poses. Hausner’s clean, unfussy filmmaking works against her this time. 
House of Lust 
When 27-year-old Emma decides to moonlight as a prostitute in a high-class Parisian brothel in order to research a novel about sex workers that she’s planning to write, she finds herself in over her head as she must deal with being isolated from her family as well as her newly formed relationships with fellow workers and the complications of getting too intimate with the customers.
Director Anissa Bonnefont treads a thin line between exploration and exploitation, sometimes blurring it so she seems unsure what point she’s making. But Ana Girardot’s Emma is a resilient and persuasive center of an occasionally confused film.
Reckless Summer 
In French writer-director Rodolphe Tissot’s erotically charged character study, 15-year-old Solange—whose parents have just separated—discovers her own sexuality and how it affects the males in her life (including her heavy-metal loving former babysitter).
Solange is a precocious young heroine whose creator sometimes muddies the dramatic and psychological waters, but the sensational, openly raw performance by Louisiane Gouverneur makes the teenager worthy of our attention throughout.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
The Crime Is Mine 
(Music Box)
French director Francois Ozon, who turns out films quickly like a Gallic Woody Allen, returns with a tongue-in-cheek drama about Madeleine, a struggling actress who uses her trial for killing an elderly letcher (she’s acquitted, thanks to Pauline, her close friend, roommate and struggling lawyer) as a springboard to fame and fortune on the stage and screen.
Ozon’s direction wavers between excessively campy and wittily on-target, and the large cast has a blast: Nadia Tereszkiewicz as Madeleine, Rebecca Marder as Pauline, Isabelle Huppert as a possible rival killer, Fabrice Luchini as an investigator and Andre Dussolier as Madeleine’s fiancée’s rich and unhappy father. The artificial settings look deliriously colorful on Blu; extras include a making-of featurette, interviews with Ozon, Marder and Tereszkiewicz, deleted scenes, and a blooper reel.
The Iron Claw 
Writer-director Sean Durkin’s solidly entertaining biopic of wrestler Kevin Von Erich and his cursed family—including all four of his brothers, three of whom also wrestled and all of whom died way too young—is also quite touching, even if it pushes sentimental buttons like the cringy finale of a reunion among his brothers.
But it’s well-paced, with excitingly done wrestling sequences and truthful intimate moments as well as a top-notch cast led by Zak Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Lily James and Maura Tierney. There’s a quite good hi-def transfer; extras are a making-of featurette and a cast/crew Q&A.
Wednesday—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Bros)
The hit Netflix series—which is returning for a second season—follows the dark daughter of the Addams family in her exploits trying to solve murders at the school her mother Morticia also attended. If the show’s eight episodes are too jokey-scary in the way of Tim Burton’s own films from Beetlejuice to Alice in Wonderland, it’s because Burton had a big hand here, executive producing and even directing four of the episodes.
Of course, it’s demented fun, with a distinctive cartoonish visual look; best of all is Jenna Ortega’s bullseye portrayal of Wednesday, charmingly winning and wittily spiteful. It all looks eye-popping in hi-def.
CD Release of the Week 
Echoes of Eastern Europe—Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
(Beau Fleuve)
For their latest first-rate recording, JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra presents two works separated by over a century but linked by their Eastern European roots: Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 (1885) and David Ludwig’s Violin Concerto (2015).
Written for his then new wife, the superb violinist Bella Hristova, Ludwig’s three-movement concerto includes musical references to her father Yuri Chichkov’s violin concerto and Ludwig’s Czech ancestry and gives Hristova plenty of room to show off her elegant and emotional playing. The Dvořák work might not equal his final two symphonies—the masterly Eighth and “New World”—but contains much lovely music nevertheless. Falletta and the BPO shine mightily throughout.

Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal Play Carnegie Hall

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal with Tony Siqi Yun at piano. Photo by Chris Lee.
At Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, on the evening of Wednesday, March 6th, I had the great pleasure of attending a superior concert performed by the outstanding musicians of the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, brilliantly led by its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The program began memorably with a New York premiere, an impressive account of Cris Derksen’s bewitching, impressively scored Controlled Burn from last year, featuring the composer on cello. An unusually promising soloist, Tony Siqi Yun, then entered the stage for a marvelous account of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s enchanting, enormously popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18. The initial Moderato movement opens solemnly and Romantically with a beautiful Russian-sounding melody, which leads before long to a gorgeous lyrical theme. The Adagio sostenuto that follows is meditative but also song-like in character, with another exquisite melody as its main theme; it concludes quietly and delicately. The Allegro scherzando finale is grand, virtuosic, propulsive, and often moody; it also has the passionate quality to be found in the other movements as well as some inward moments, and ends triumphantly. Enthusiastic applause was rewarded with a wonderful encore: the same composer’s Prelude in B-flat Major, Op. 23, No. 2.
The second half of the event was even stronger: an extraordinary reading of Jean Sibelius’s glorious Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43. The captivating, initial Allegretto movement starts majestically, although with tragic inflections; at its finish, the music fades into silence. The ensuing slow movement—marked Tempo andante, ma rubato—is more mysterious, with a brooding quality, but it acquires a more agitated character. The succeeding Vivacissimo is suspenseful, almost frenetic, while—contrastingly—its Trio is relatively serene. The Finale—an Allegro moderato—is almost incomparably thrilling—frequently mystical, at times eccentric, with some emotional passages. Abundant applause elicited another fabulous encore: Edvard Grieg’s lovely "The Last Spring" from Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34, No. 2.

Bruckner & The "Fall of the Weimar Republic" at Carnegie Hall

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Vienna Philharmonic. Photo by Chris Lee.

At Stern Auditorium, I had the exceptional pleasure to attend three terrific concerts—presentedas a part of Carnegie Hall’s current festival, “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice”—on consecutive days—beginning on the evening of Friday, March 1st—featuring the outstanding musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic, under the extraordinary direction of Franz Welser-Möst.
The initial program opened exhilaratingly with a marvelous account of the great Anton Bruckner’s magisterial final symphony, the Ninth. The first movement starts with a quiet, Wagnerian fanfare and the music quickly attains a towering grandeur, imbued as it is with a soaring Romanticism. Proto-Mahlerian passages alternate with quieter, often enigmatic, sections; the music is not free of eccentricities, such as a highly agitated episode midway through. Given its extravagant length, it’s not entirely surprising that, structurally, it often seems amorphous, until its powerful ending. The Scherzo that follows is energetic and propulsive—almost menacing—with softer, appropriately playful interludes; its sprightly Trio is almost Mendelssohnian in character. The concluding Adagio begins with another Wagnerian prologue, succeeded by much music of a meditative or tragic cast, and closes peacefully.
The second half of the event was also striking: an accomplished performance of Alban Berg’s intriguing Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6. The initial Prelude is uncanny and dramatic, finishing abruptly, while the ensuing Round Dance is also mysterious, with almost sinister inflections, and is somewhat aggravated in mood. The concluding March is perhaps even more agonistic in character, building to a stunning close.
The concert on the next evening began with an effective version of Paul Hindemith’s admirably scored, if challenging Konzertmusik für Blasorchester, Op. 41, from 1926. The Konzertante Ouvertüre has a ludic, if also fraught, quality and the quirky, ironical second movement consists of six variations on the German folk song, “Prinz Eugen, der edle Ritter,” while the work ends with an exuberant March. More remarkable was a sterling rendition of Richard Strauss’s dazzling 1946 Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau home Schattten—itself a supreme operatic masterpiece—which builds to a sumptuous finish.
The second half of the concert was also strong, starting with a superior reading of Arnold Schoenberg’s difficult but not unrewarding Variations for Orchestra from 1928, the composer’s “first orchestral work to employ the 12-tone method,” according to the program note by Jack Sullivan. Unforgettable, however, was a vigorous realization of Maurice Ravel’s mesmerizing La valse, completed in 1920. Sullivan explains:
As early as 1907, Ravel was haunted by the idea of creating a gigantic apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, a work to be called “Vienna” that would glorify the waltzes of Schubert and the Strauss family. But by the time he got around to composing the piece—at the behest of Sergei Diaghilev, who had already produced hisDaphnis et Chloé—the culture he wished to celebrate was collapsing into the abyss of World War I.La valsebecame not simple glorification but, in Ravel’s words, the depiction of a “fantastic and fatefully inescapable whirlpool.” Glitter and opulence are part of the scenario, but so is “the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.”
He adds, “According to the scenic directive appearing with the score”:
Clouds whirl about. Occasionally, they part to allow a glimpse of waltzing couples. As they gradually lift, one can discern a gigantic hall, filled by a crowd of dancers in motion. The stage gradually brightens. The glow of the chandeliers breaks out fortissimo.
The final program, on that Sunday’s afternoon, was possibly the finest of all: a brilliant execution of Gustav Mahler’s astonishing final Symphony, the Ninth. The initial Andante comodo—which movement Berg thought was the “most glorious he ever wrote”—has a quiet opening that eventually becomes highly agitated for much of its length and includes some curious passages before concluding gently. The second movement, which begins slowly but acquires a brisk rhythm, has something of the sardonic quality of the Ravel. The satirical Rondo-Burlesque that follows is tumultuous—but with an ethereal Trio—and closes emphatically, while the Adagio finale is incandescent, with a celestial ending.
The artists, deservedly, were enthusiastically applauded.

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