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Film and the Arts

February '24 Digital Week II

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
Kiss the Future 
(Fifth Season)
The Bosnian War waged in the mid ’90s in the former Yugoslavia not only destroyed lives and neighborhoods but also shook ordinary citizens’ souls to their core. Nenad Cicin-Sain’s riveting documentary looks at that fraught time through the lens of music—first through the ordinary people who used it as a mechanism to have some sort of normalcy during the war but also through the Irish band U2, whose ZOO-TV tour captured the zeitgeist of the 24-hour news cycle, which was exploited by American aid worker Bill S. Carter (on whose memoir this film is based).
He managed to interview Bono, get comments from Sarajevo residents played on stadiums’ video screens via satellite during U2’s European tour to raise awareness and finally get the band to come to the beleaguered city for the a concert that would bring together thousands of jubilant fans. New, emotional interviews with many of the those involved—Bono, the Edge, Carter, news correspondent Christine Amanpour, and several Bosnian journalists and citizens—are contrasted with vividly horrific archival footage of the murderous siege of Sarajevo to paint an unforgettable picture of how music helps heal the worst wounds.
Io Capitano 
(Cohen Media Group)
In Italian director Matteo Garrone’s intensely dramatic—if slightly manipulative—new feature, Senegalese teens Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) take what little funds they have and try to get to Europe, little realizing the horrors that await them. They are captured, separated and tortured in Libya, abandoned but reunited in North Africa, and finally go via the Mediterranean to southern Italy—but only if 16-year-old novice Seydou can pilot the boat filled with dozens of migrants. Garrone captures the humanity of these people desperate for a new start alongside the inhumanity of many others.
If manipulation and contrivance didn’t intrude, Io Capitano would be a masterpiece, not simply a superior melodrama. But there’s that staggeringly moving final shot of Seydou, the face of non-actor Sarr going through so many conflicting emotions that he should be in the running for every award there is.  
Veselka—The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World 
(Fiore Media Group)
The famed Ukrainian restaurant on Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village is the subject of Michael Fiore’s engaging but often enraging documentary narrated by David Duchovny that shows how the current owner Jason and his father Tom, the previous owner, allow their place to double as a safe haven for locals after the COVID-19 lockdown and for fellow Ukrainians after Putin’s forces invaded their home country in February 2022. Fiore perceptively follows Tom, Jason and several of their employees as they first navigate COVID and its aftermath, then find themselves worrying constantly about family members still in Ukraine when the invasion starts.
Some are able to leave and arrive in New York, where they must acclimate to a new country and culture, even though the familial feel of Veselka itself and their loved ones who are already working there helps. 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Hungarian director György Fehér, an associate of Béla Tarr—whose use of slow tracking shots and stark B&W camerawork became ubiquitous in his films—made his debut in 1990 with this strikingly composed procedural. Although he only made one more film (Passion, a fiery if convoluted 1998 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice) before his death in 2003 at age 63, the accomplished Fehér has made a resonant exploration of a detective who investigates horrific child murders.
Instead of Tarr’s existential dread, Fehér zeroes in on society’s alienation; there are several extraordinary sequences—shot by master cinematographer Miklós Gurbán, who also did the grading of this brand-new, beautifully restored hi-def transfer—including very unsettling close-up “interviews” with two young girls. Extras include interviews with Gurbán and film editor Mária Czielik, along with two early Fehér shorts: 1969’s Öregek and 1970’s Tomikám.
Tchaikovsky—None But the Lonely Heart 
The music of Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky is inherently theatrical—witness his operas and ballets that are centerpieces of the modern stage repertoire—but his songs are less well-known; but even resourceful director Christof Roy comes to grief trying to stitch together several of the master’s songs and a few chamber pieces into a workable narrative.
In this 2021 staging in Frankfurt, Germany, the music is lovely, the singing (especially by soprano Olesya Golovneva and mezzo Kelsey Lauritano) is gorgeous, but it comes off as a stylized recital, the performers moving robotically onstage while two pianists alternate in their accompaniment. It’s certainly nice to hear, but not so much to see. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
Wagner—Das Rheingold 
The first opera of Richard Wagner’s epic Ring cycle is also by far the shortest: he himself refers to it as a “prelude,” a 2-1/2-hour set-up of the story to come in the next three mammoth-length music dramas. In this 2021 Berlin Opera staging by director Stefan Herheim, the setting is modernly nondescript, which to my eyes loses some of the grandeur of a timeless conflict among gods and humans.
But the music making by the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Donald Runnicles is first-rate and the singing by a hugely capable cast is led by Derek Welton’s Wotan, the supreme god, and Markus Brück as the dwarf Alberich, whose curse fatally haunts the rest of the tetralogy. There’s excellent hi-def video and audio.
4K/UHD Release of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
Steven Soderbergh’s nail-biting 2011 suspense drama, which realistically paints a horrifying glimpse at the outbreak of an unknown disease that engulfs much of the planet, has only grown in stature since the COVID-19 pandemic. In a series of plausibly shot, edited and acted sequences, the movie scarily shows how our globally connected 21st-century world looks like when it’s affected in such a monstrous way.
A superb ensemble cast, from Matt Damon and Kate Winslet to Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle, make this a most entertaining but truly frightening film as well as an uncanny predictor in its final scenes. On UHD, Soderbergh’s stark, documentary-like style has brilliantly preserved; the extras comprise archival featurettes about the film and the science behind it, including interviews with cast, crew and experts.
CD Release of the Week
Neave Trio—A Room of Her Own 
This superlative disc comprises piano trios by four important women composers of the late 19th and early 20th century—Ethel Smyth from England and three Frenchwomen, Lili Boulanger, Cécile Chaminade and Germaine Tailleferre—and although all were written when they were in their 20s, the moods are vastly different, from the strikingly dramatic Deux pièces of Boulanger (she would die within a year of completing the work) to the attractively lyrical Chaminade trio.
But for my money, it’s the Smyth trio (clocking in at 31 minutes) that’s the most substantial work, both in its length and artistry. All four works have been given lovely and restrained performances by the always compelling Neave Trio.February

Off-Broadway Play Review—Kate Douglas’ “The Apiary”

The Apiary
Written by Kate Douglas; directed by Kate Whoriskey
Performances through March 3, 2024
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
Taylor Schilling and Nimene Wureh in The Apiary (photo: Joan Marcus)

The Apiary, Kate Douglas’ clever speculative sci-fi/horror hybrid, takes place 22 years in the future, in an underfunded research lab, where three women—supervisor Gwen and her employees Zora and Pilar—are trying to figure out, despite neglect from the higher-ups, why bees have been dying almost to extinction and whether it can be stopped. They discover how accidentally after a former employee, CeCe, succumbs to cancer while in the lab and they realize the bees have ingested her flesh, enabling them to start reproducing normally again.
With the hard-nosed Gwen (an impressively brittle Taylor Schilling) out of the loop, brainy Zora (a stellar April Matthis) and emotional Pilar (the excellent Carmen M. Herlihy) surreptitiously experiment late at night and on weekends, bringing in people with terminal illnesses who want to further the cause of science by allowing their bodies to be used as fertilizer for the bees. But their experiment is almost too successful, leading to greater visibility, publicity and, soon, adequate funding for the apiary. But can they keep up the pace of supplying human bodies so the bees will continue to multiply?
Despite its offbeat, Twilight Zone-like plot, Douglas smartly keeps The Apiary small-scale. It opens with an evocative monologue about the magical quality of bees that’s spoken by CeCe (persuasively played by the chameleonic Nimene Wureh, who also pops up as some of the experiment’s subjects). Director Kate Whoriskey’s savvy staging comprises Walt Spengler’s striking set, Amith Chandrashaker’s resourceful lighting and Christopher Darbassie’s canny sound design. But Whoriskey misguidedly adds a dancer who appears periodically, wearing a gas mask, her lithe movements representing the bees…or something.  
These unfortunate stylized interludes have the effect of breaking the play’s often hypnotic spell, which is too bad, because Douglas’ stinging dialogue more effectively complements the bizarre but realistic world she has created.

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.”

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