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Film and the Arts

Juilliard Orchestra Are In "Absolute Jest"

Juilliard Orchestra conducted by John Adams. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on the night of Monday, April 29th, I had the privilege of attending an excellent concert presented by the precocious members of the Juilliard Orchestra under the assured baton of guest conductor—and eminent composer—John Adams.

The event began auspiciously with a pleasurable account of Ludwig van Beethoven’s marvelous Overture to his opera Fidelio, Op. 72. In her note for the program, Georgeanne Banker—who holds a Master of Music degree in Historical Performance from Juilliard—provides some useful background: “With a libretto derived from Jean-Nicolas Bouilly's 1798 play Léonore, ou L'amour con-jugal, the opera follows its titular heroine, disguised as a man named Fidelio, on her quest to rescue her husband Florestan from the depths of a Spanish prison.” She goes on to quote the composer:

“The affair of the opera is the most troublesome in the world, and there is scarcely one part of it which quite satisfies me now,” Beethoven wrote to Georg Friedrich Treitschke, who edited its libretto in 1814. “But what a difference between this and giving oneself up to freely flowing thought and inspiration!”

And she adds:

The first iteration of the opera premiered in 1805 to a hall of French soldiers in occupied Vienna. After years of revisions (and after composing Symphonies 4 through 8), Fidelio in its final form was revived in May 1814, just weeks after Napoleon Bonaparte was shipped off to Elba. 

In his quest to revise the opera, Beethoven prepared no fewer than four distinct overtures for it.

The ensemble was then joined by the accomplished musicians of the string quartet, The Dolphins—with violinists Luke Henderson and Isaac Park, violist James Preucil, and cellist Ian Maloney—for a rewarding performance of Adams’s own ambitious Absolute Jest from 2012. About the piece, he wrote that its “creation was for me a thrilling lesson in counterpoint, in thematic transformation and formal design. The ‘jest' of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, ‘gesta': doings, deeds, exploits. I like to think of ‘jest' as indicating an exercising of one's wit by means of imagination and invention.” 

Banker explains, “Composed in six movements, Absolute Jest is scored for a solo string quartet and large orchestra with harp and piano tuned in meantone temperament.” Adams records: “The rolling 6/8 patterns recall the same Ninth Symphony scherzo but also summon up other references—of the Hammerklavier Sonata, of the Eighth Symphony, and other archetypal Beethoven motives that come and go like cameo appearances on a stage.” 

The composer also said: 

The high-spirited triple-time scherzo to the F-major Opus 135 (Beethoven's final work in that medium) enters about a third of the way through Absolute Jest and becomes the dominant motivic material for the remainder of the piece, interrupted only by a brief slow section that interweaves fragments of the Grosse Fuge with the opening fugue theme of the C-minor quartet. A final furious coda features the solo string quartet charging ahead at full speed over an extended orchestral pedal based on the famous Waldstein Sonata harmonic progressions.

Banker concludes, “The final Prestissimo, running straight out of the preceding Vivacissimo, distills motifs from Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, to their elemental state, rallying the orchestral forces in a sort of maximal minimalism that brings Absolute Jest to a close.”

Although certainly distinguished, this is not one of my very favorite pieces by Adams but it does build to a thrilling climax with a quiet ending. Reflection upon the work elicits the thought that much of its effectiveness depends on the rhetorical figure of allusion which, for it to fulfill its purpose, requires recognition of its antecedent—in Absolute Jest, this affords considerable enjoyment.

The second half of the evening would have been extraordinary even if only for what began it, a sterling version of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun from 1894, one of the most glorious compositions in the canon of Western symphonic music. Also admirable was the final selection, a compelling realization of the same composer’s beautifully scored Ibéria from his orchestral work, Images. About the piece, Manuel de Falla recounted:

However, as far as Ibéria is concerned, Claude Debussy expressly said, at the time of its first performance, that he had not intended to make Spanish music, but rather to translate into music the impressions that Spain awakened in him. Let us hasten to add that this was achieved in a magnificent manner. The echoes of the villages, including a kind of sevillana—the work's theme—seem to float in a clear atmosphere of sparkling light; the intoxicating magic of Andalusian nights, the joy of a festive people marching and dancing to the joyous chords of a banda of guitarras and bandurrias ... all this swirls in the air, approaching and receding, and our imagination, constantly on the alert, remains dazzled by the strong virtues of an intensely expressive and richly nuanced music.

The initial movement, entitled “In the Streets and Byways,” is ebullient on the whole, although with some more subdued episodes, while the ensuing movement, “The Fragrances of the Night,” is more meditative, purely impressionistic, and anticipatory. The final movement, “The Morning of a Festival Day,” is propulsive and dance-like, with some gentler interludes; it concludes forcefully. 

The artists were enthusiastically applauded.

The final Juilliard Orchestra concert of the season, which will be conducted by Marin Alsop, will occur on May 23rd at Alice Tully Hall.

Off-Broadway Play Review—World Premiere of “Jordans”

Written by Ife Olujobi; directed by Whitney White
Performances through May 12, 2024
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Kate Walsh, Naomi Lorrain and Toby Onwumere in Jordans (photo: Joan Marcus)

Before it goes completely bonkers in the second act, Ife Olujobi’s Jordans is a bluntly effectively satire about how ingrained American racism affects Blacks, specifically receptionist Jordan, the lone Black employee at Atlas Studios, a Brooklyn event space that’s populated by interchangeable white employees and led by a stereotypically fiery middle-aged white woman named Hailey.
Jordan hopes to move up in the company but is treated like a mere servant (or worse) by the others, for whom she makes coffee or cleans up after when there’s vomit or backed-up sewage. When the company hires a second Black employee, a man also named Jordan (the playwright cheekily names him 1. Jordan, and his last name is, yes, Savage) who’s in a position of supposed power as the new director of culture, our exasperated heroine at first is on her guard, then drops her guard, then…well, that’s all in the second act.
The first half of Jordans moves swimmingly and has some pointed laughs, although there are easy jokes as well, since the targets (clueless whites, office politics) are obvious. Then act two begins, and Olujobi’s play awkwardly moves toward more abstract, surreal lunacy that includes a surprising pregnancy (the two Jordans increasingly become interchangeable, to themselves and the others) and a literally bloody denouement.
Jordans climaxes with its heroine staring hauntedly at the audience, but in this context, the ending makes little sense, either as reality—it’s not as if Jordan is brandishing a gun and can’t be subdued—or as a stark metaphor for unleashing her cumulative anger over her subjugation. 
Whitney White’s brisk production plays out on Matt Saunders’ antiseptically white set, dominated by a large, curved wall that acts as a mocking hulk against Jordan’s aspirations, all cleverly underscored by Cha See’s lighting. The script has Jordan moving around chairs, tables and props between scenes as a way of showing both her subordination and indispensability to all, but since it’s the third straight off-Broadway show where I saw performers move props, it was less than effective. 
The supporting cast provides amusing caricatures, while Toby Onwumere, as 1. Jordan, and Kate Walsh, as Hailey, are better, making Olujobi’s lines far more biting than they are on the page. Best of all is Naomi Lorrain, who as Jordan carries the weight of this serious but stretched-out joke on her shoulders, giving a colossal performance that is funny, sympathetic and even touching. 

May '24 Digital Week II

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
Evil Does Not Exist 
In the slow-burn follow-up to his Oscar-winning, nearly three-hour Drive My Car, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has created a mythic journey into the ongoing—and possibly eternal—tug of war between human civilization and the natural world. When a clueless entrepreneur plans to turn an unspoiled rural village into a new “glamping” site for the affluent, the local citizenry fights back in a carefully calibrated town meeting—then Hana, the young daughter of easygoing widower Takumi (our erstwhile protagonist), goes missing.
The film has its share of seeming longueurs that are actually part of the director’s scheme (Hamaguchi rarely goes where he think he will), and the final moments of this melodrama-cum-environmental plea-cum existential horror film are as confoundingly powerful as anything he’s ever done.
When dancer Elena and sign-language interpreter Dovydas meet, they are instantly attracted to each other, then Dovydas admits that he is asexual, with no interest in physical intimacy. How this revelation affects their relationship is at the heart of Marija Kavtaradze’s intimate character study.
Despite the bumpiness of the narrative, Kavtaradze has a real ability of homing in on this couple’s psychology, and that—coupled with persuasive performances by Kęstutis Cicėnas (Dovydas) and especially Greta Grinevičiūtė, who creates in Elena a character of intensity and lived-in truthfulness—makes this worth watching.
In-Theater/Streaming Release of the Week 
Catching Fire—The Anita Pallenberg Story 
She was best known for being the girlfriend of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones followed by the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards—and the muse who inspired the songs “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—but directors Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill want to show Anita Pallenberg as much more. She was a model and actress who had a life of her own after splitting with Richards in 1980. Included are numerous interviews with Pallenberg’s children, Richards, and others who knew her (she died in 2017), along with priceless archival video, audio and photographs, and even excerpts from her unpublished autobiography narrated by Scarlett Johansson.
Yet the directors hedge their bets by only devoting the last 15 minutes of a 110-minute running time to Pallenberg’s post-Richards life and career, even dragging in model Kate Moss to speak on her behalf. It probably wasn’t intended that way, but it comes off as special pleading for a woman who didn’t need—or want—it. 
4K Releases of the Week
Ocean’s Trilogy
(Warner Bros)
When Steven Soderbergh got together with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac (RIP), Brad Pitt, et al, for a trio of supremely entertaining, infectious heist movies, it was the last word in ultra-cool Hollywood glamor—Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is the best of the lot, but both Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) are excellent time-wasters as well, slickly made and directed by Soderbergh with generosity for his many stars on display.
All three films look perfectly coiffed on UHD; extras include commentaries on all three films, making-ofs and other on-set featurettes as well as deleted scenes for Twelve and Thirteen.
Peter Gabriel Live in London—Back to Front 
Like most classic rockers, Peter Gabriel decided that a gimmick for his 2013 tour would draw audiences, so he played his breakthrough 1986 album So in its entirety in order—or, at least, in the order Gabriel wanted to play it. He stuck “In Your Eyes,” side two’s lead track, at the end, so the concert would finish with a rousing audience participation number rather than the offbeat “This Is the Picture.”
Filmed in London, Gabriel and his crack band—the same musicians he toured with in ’86, when I saw him twice—tear through the nine So tunes and a dozen other Gabriel classics with often wild abandon; the show climaxes with the always emotional encore “Biko.” The 4K image looks incredibly sharp, and the surround sound is even better; lone extra is an interview with Gabriel and tour director Rob Sinclair.
Blu-ray Release of the Week
The Enchantress 
Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1887 opera has never held the stage as memorably as his masterpiece Eugene Onegin or the flawed but fascinating Queen of Spades, although this 2022 Frankfurt production by director Vasily Berkhatov makes a credible attempt to wrestle with this riveting but unwieldy tragic romance, updated from 15th-century Tsarist Russia to modern times.
Although the music is often beautiful, there are stretches when it’s not—still, this is an impressive musical performance with Valentin Uryupin conducting the orchestra and chorus master Tilman Michael leading the chorus. Canadian baritone Iain MacNeil is a tower of strength as antagonist Prince Nikita while Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian makes a gorgeous-voiced heroine Nastasya. The hi-def video and audio are unbeatable. 
CD Release of the Week 
John Adams—Girls of the Golden West 
John Adams’ operas have often taken the pulse of 20th century history, from Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer to Doctor Atomic (which preceded—and bettered—Christopher Nolan’s overrated Oppenheimer by more than a decade). His most recent opera—premiered in 2017 and extensively revised in 2019 and now, for this 2023 concert performance—goes back another century, to the California of the 1850s gold rush. The only similarities to Puccini’s own The Girl of the Golden West are the title and setting; otherwise, Adams and librettist Peter Sellars strike out in different territory, like miners panning for gold in a new stream.
This forceful recording reunites much of the original cast with Adams conducting the LA Phil and the Los Angeles Master Chorale in a riveting performance of a richly textured if occasionally meandering work. The vocal soloists, led by Julia Bullock, Davóne Tines, Paul Appleby, Daniela Mack and Ryan McKinny, are unimprovable, as is the magisterial chorus. If it’s ultimately not as gripping as it could be, perhaps a future filmed performance will give it its due as music-theater, not simply a concert version.

Dance Theater Review—“Message in a Bottle” to Songs by Sting

Message in a Bottle
Songs by Sting; directed and choreographed by Kate Prince
With Zoo Nation—The Kate Prince Company
Performances through May 12, 2024
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, NYC
The cast of Message in a Bottle (photo: Christopher Duggan)
Set to 27 songs by Sting—with the Police and from his solo career—Message in a Bottle is a story of the global refugee crisis told through the mesmerizing movement of choreographer Kate Prince’s brilliant dance company, ZooNation. Although it does get cheesy entwining the music and the dancers, as jukebox shows go, it’s much closer to Twyla Tharp’s take on the Billy Joel catalog, Movin’ Out, than to something like the Abba megahit, Mamma Mia.
In an unnamed desert country (hence the unsurprising opener, “Desert Rose,” with its North African feel), a family of five—father, mother, two sons and a daughter—becomes separated when a civil war throws the entire region into turmoil. Happy events like the marriage of one son are soon overtaken by awful 21st-century realities: abuse, trafficking, displacement, death. Prince and dramaturg Lolita Chakrabarti have fashioned a narrative of sorts from which to hang Sting’s words and music, which, with a few exceptions, have been extensively rearranged and rerecorded (with Sting’s and others’ solo and ensemble voices).
As the songs and the tale unfold, musical motifs from “Fields of Gold” and “Brand New Day” hover over the proceedings, hinting at the happy ending to come. There are times when the relationship of Sting’s lyrics to what’s happening onstage is tenuous—several men sexually abuse a young woman to “Don’t Stand so Close to Me,” which narrates a completely different kind of inappropriate relationship—or, conversely, too on the nose—the second act opens in jail as a chorus intones “Free, free, set them free” and, later on, the married son discovers his bride, forcibly separated from him, works in a brothel, so on comes “Roxanne.” (When she rejects him, we get “So Lonely,” of course.)
But the marriage of music and movement is spot on in several spots, notably in the show’s most affecting number, a tender pas de deux between the younger son (Deavion Brown) and the man (Harrison Dowzell) he’s fallen in love with, set to one of Sting’s loveliest songs, “Shape of My Heart.”
Whatever one thinks of the way Prince and her excellent music supervisor and arranger Alex Lacamoire have manipulated Sting’s tunes to fit into the contrived narrative—sometimes it’s a disservice to the songs and at others it’s a disservice to the story—the breathtaking dancing of Prince’s company, which specializes in effortlessly combining contemporary and hip-hop styles, is beyond reproach. Although the entire ZooNation is magnificent in its athleticism—the leaps, the flips, the freestyling, even the break dancing—the main dancers (as the children) are particularly dazzling.
Brown, Natasha Gooden and Lukas McFarlane convey as much with simple gestures as they do in the more athletic movements (too often, the stage is filled with busyness just for its sake). At those moments, the music and the stunning visuals—Anna Fleischle’s costumes, Ben Stones’ sets, Natasha Chivers’ lighting and Andrezjh Goulding’s projections—take over. 
But however bumpy the journey, when the final healing strains of “They Dance Alone” arrive, Message in a Bottle delivers its message.

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