Performing Arts

Jiri Belohlavek, 71, Czech Philharmonic Conductor

DvorakSymphonies A few days ago I learned that Jiri Belohlavek had died. I actually heard the news one month to the day since I had seen him conduct the Czech Philharmonic at Prague's Rudolfinum, in a masterful performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No 5 featuring Nikolaj Znaider and Mahler's Symphony No 5. I hadn't known he was sick, although it was clear when I saw him in Prague that he was recovering from a serious illness: he had lost so much weight and the trademark chock-full of hair I had grown accustomed to seeing, from picking up my favorite CD set [the Complete Dvorak Symphonies and Concertos, with cover pictured to the left], had disappeared.

Since his contract with the Czech Philharmonic had been renewed earlier this year, I hoped that his illness was behind me and that I would be able to attend another concert by him were I to return to Prague, which I hope to, some day. In fact I chose the dates of this trip to attend a performance by Belohlavek. That was one of my requirements: I would not go all the way to Prague for my first trip ever without attending a performance by the maestro with the Czech Philharmonic. And I'm just so glad I made it happen. The concert was almost sold-out when I bought the ticket, the same evening I booked the plane tickets and the hotel. I will always cherish the memories of that concert.

Belohlavek has done so much to raise the profile of Czech music and the Czech Philharmonic. Thanks to him I discovered much great Czech music I didn't know before, such as Martinu's Piano Concertos. His Dvorak moved me like no other conductor's can, and it is only fitting that I am listening to the CD1 of his Dvorak's Symphonies (Symphony 1 and Cello Concerto featuring Alisa Weilerstein) as I type this. I don't remember being so stunned and sad by the passing of someone I didn't know personally since the death of David Halberstam, ten years ago. But we can all be grateful for what he did to advance classical music.  

A side note about the New York Times and Washington Post obituaries, available here and here, respectively. I have included screenshots below. The NYT went with an older picture of Belohlavek (from 2008), which would be familiar to the music amateurs around the world who own his records. In it he is strong and vigorous. It resembles the one on the cover of my Dvorak Symphonies set. The one in the WaPo obituary is more recent, and matches the Belohlavek I saw when I went to Prague. There isn't much resemblance between the two, is it? And I was thinking, I doubt he wants us to remember him with the WaPo picture. But I will always remember him from the covers of his CDs anyway.

BelohNYT
BelohWaPo


Finally, I have to wonder if he already knew he was about to die when he gave that concert of Mozart and Mahler at the Rudolfinum. He looked frail, but his conducting was not frail. I remember the enormous standing ovation we gave him at the end - Europeans, contrary to Americans, are much more parsimonious in their acclaim, but everyone was on their feet - and how touched he was when he faced us, even bringing his hand to his heart. My opinion (without proof) is that he knew, but music carried him forward as long as it could. "Music is my life," the WaPo reports him to have said. I hope he knew how much we love him and are grateful to him for making music our lives too.


Review of Play "Icebergs"

Icebergs(Photo credit: Geffen Playhouse) I recently saw "Icebergs" at the Geffen Playhouse, and not only will this play transfer to Broadway if I know anything about the theater business, but it will win a Tony if the judges have any sense. It is light-years better than Pulitzer-Prize winner Clybourne Park, far better than The Humans (winner of the 2016 Tony for Best New Play, among other things), and on par with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, winner of the Tony Award for Best Play in 2013. The audience connects with the characters in a far more effective way than in the plays mentioned above - we root for the aspirations of the L.A. couple in their mid-thirties, the husband a filmmaker and the wife a struggling actress, who attempt to pursue their dreams of career success while struggling to have a baby and also (for the wife) struggling with the consequences of having a baby in today's world, with the threat of global warming, but we also root for the African-American scientist friend, married with one child and another on the way, who stays with them while he's in town for a conference and who ultimately gives the most moving speech about being black in America today that I've heard in a long time. The other supporting roles (the wife's friend and the husband's agent) also feel real rather than cardboard characters. We're truly treated to a slice of life for people we care a lot about from the start, and it is refreshing that the play is rooted in L.A. I loved everything about it.

I had two minor comments about specific dialogue points that made me cringe: (1) after the powerful speech by the African-American actor, the "well said" of the other cast members seemed superfluous, and (2) when the wife's friend decides to give her cat to the husband's agent - don't ask - it felt cheesy for the agent to ditch the date he had lined up and say "let's go and meet the love of my life" when he talks about meeting the cat. And that's it. The rest of the play is flawless. Everyone who has hung on to the pursuit of his/her dreams long after it was looked upon with benevolence by relatives will relate to the play - not just aspiring actors in NYC or LA. The play manages to tackle big issues, such as bringing a child in a world threatened by global warming and the continuing dangers faced by African-American today. Of course it was helped by the brilliant delivery of the fantastic cast, in particular Nate Corddry as the husband filmmaker and Keith Powell as his friend the African-American scientist. The play got a lot of laughs the day I attended - it is not really a comedy but its insights into human nature and the life of the struggling actor are spot-on.

This was a great play, the deserving recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. It'd be a big loss for the East Coast if it doesn't make it to New York City and the Great White Way.


Piano Great: SMU's Joaquin Achucarro

SMU really is fortunate to have had the great Joaquin Achucarro on its piano faculty for the past 25 years. (Everyone who knows me knows how appealing it was for me to join a university with very strong performing arts programs.) I thought of Achucarro, who just turned 84, in early November when I attended a performance of the Schumann piano concerto by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra with Ingrid Fliter as guest artist and Pinchas Steinberg guest-conducting. The piece had last been performed by the DSO in September 2012 with, yes, Achucarro himself playing the piano under the baton of Jaap van Zweden. In the performance I attended, Fliter kept jumping up and down on her bench like a puppet jerked in all directions, her flowing hair falling into her face. I had seen Fliter at the 92nd Y back in 2011 in a program of Beethoven sonatas and I don't remember her as being so over-the-top. In Dallas she was so ridiculously overdramatic (people laughed in the audience) that I found myself yearning for an artist who doesn't try to steal the show away from the composer and lets his playing speak for itself - a consummate professional like Achucarro. Anyway, I felt sorry I missed Achucarro playing this great concerto by only four years. 

By coincidence, the students in his master class presented an event connecting music - piano recital - and literature - poetry reading - at SMU Meadows the other day, with music by Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Ravel, and texts by Petrarch, Goethe, Shakespeare, Verlaine and Bertrand. I wish more of Achucarro music was available on Amazon.com but I still recommend the few recordings on sale (Schumann: Fantasy and Kreisleriana, Schubert and Schumann: Masters of Art, Brahms Piano Concerto No 2, Musica Espaola Por Un Poeta Del Piano) - as a side note, I find it fascinating that Achucarro didn't go the route of his contemporary Alicia de Larrocha in making a primary reputation for himself as advocate for Spanish composers such as Albeniz and Granados, although he did play them to some extent and you can find his Granados recording on YouTube. He was just as well-known for his playing of Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Brahms. Performances available on YouTube include the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor and the Mozart Piano Concerto K.467, although I hope you will consider buying the music so that he can receive royalties.

Below is a video posted on the YouTube channel of SMU Meadows, to honor Achucarro's 25 years of teaching at SMU, with a few musical excerpts by himself and his students and plenty of good words from people who know him, including SMU President Gerald Turner himself. The concert given in his honor is described here. Dallas is fortunate to count Achucarro among its residents.


Movie review: "Theater of War"

TheaterOfWarI watched this DVD over the weekend and if you care about Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, the business of war, or simply want to have a behind-the-scenes look at a first-rate production, Theater of War is the documentary for you.

(Admittedly, not everyone cares about Bertolt Brecht. Their loss. He was one of the great genius playwrights of the twentieth century who witnessed the defining tragedies of our times, in particular Nazism - he fled Germany in 1933 with his wife and their children, first to Denmark, then Sweden, then Finland and finally the United States - the Second World War - most of which he spent in exile in Los Angeles - the beginning of the hunt against Communists, which prompted his return to Europe after the war, and then of course the oppression of Eastern Germany, although he served as a poster child to the party in power, since he had returned from the mecca of capitalism).

The first-rate production in question is the 2006 staging of Mother Courage at the Public Theatre in New York City. It doesn't hurt that Meryl Streep plays the title role, although there were fewer snapshots of her process in creating the role than I expected. At least we were treated to scenes from rehearsals, which was better than nothing. But for me the true value of this documentary is in the insights it provides about Brecht, the testimony of his daughter Barbara, the stills of the original Mother Courage production in Berlin which marked the beginning of the Berliner Ensemble and where Brecht's wife, the great Helene Weigel, starred as the mother. 

As much as I admire Streep as an actress, her casting as the mother is not a perfect match (this is better explained in the New York Magazine's review of the production; put another way, it is hard for Streep at this point in her career to make a theater audience forget she is Streep, while it is easier to do in movies). For another review of the 2006 production, here is the New York Times's take on it. I thought the excerpts on DVD were far better than the reviewer implied of the whole production, but maybe it was too early for its time. Ten years later with certain wars dragging on and others having broken out, the theme of the 30-year-war resonates far more with the viewers.

I was stunned when I saw the stills by how good of a fit for the role Helene Weigel seemed to be. She directed the Berliner Ensemble after Brecht passed away in 1956 and survived him by 15 years. Magnum Photos has some great photos of hers at the height of her fame and power in East Germany. Buy the DVD for Streep and watch it for Weigel.


Stella Adler on Ibsen

StellaAdlerIbsenIf you care about good theater and in particular wonder what separates good actors from the rest, you really only need the books by William Esper teaching the Meisner technique, which I wrote about here, and the books by Stella Adler, whether on craft or on playwrights. Most recently I got Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, and I was stunned by the quality of her insights into Ibsen and Chekhov (I'm sure she gives an outstanding an analysis of Strindberg too, but I skipped over that part, having little interest in Miss Julie since I saw a widely overhyped production of it in Paris a few years ago with Juliette Binoche in the title role.) Her key argument is that an actor needs to know the context of the play in order to act his role convincingly, and for Doll's House in particular, Adler made a very convincing argument that Nora faces a bleak future after leaving her husband - she even suggests suicide - and her behavior, which makes the play's ending, had the effect of a bombshell in the nineteenth century. (She also has piercing insights into the supporting characters, but you'll have to read her essay to learn about that.)

I saw Doll's House at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) a few years ago and I very much enjoyed the performance, especially the rotating set that allowed the house to turn and show the audience different rooms where characters are presented behind closed doors, which reminded me of the Metropolitan Opera and was well-suited to the play. It was a good production. The revolutionary aspect of the play in its time, though, was lost in that Young Vic production, in the sense that the production was competently done but far from earth-shattering, and I say that as someone who did enjoy it. I suppose we have to put the blame on the way Hattie Morahan played the leading role, which seems so different from the way Adler tells us Nora would have behaved in that time period, in that small Norwegian village some distance from Oslo. I tend to side with Adler in everything.

My first introduction to Adler's teachings was through Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights. She has such depth of insights that one wishes she had been a theater professor at a university so that generations of students had benefited from her knowledge, but in the end she had just as big of an impact on aspiring actors through her acting schools in New York City and Los Angeles, and now on theater lovers through her books, although she died in 1992. 

Anyway, if you ever have to prepare for a role she covers in one of her books, start by reading what she has to say.


Review of "Mothers and sons" by the Uptown Players

MothersandsonsI went to see this play by Terrence McNally (of Master Class fame) on a whim, because I was nearby and I had missed the NYC premiere of it 2 years ago with Tyne Daly in the role of the mother. I knew the play was about a mother who arrives unexpectedly to visit the lover of her dead son who died of AIDS 20 years earlier - and finds him married to a 15-year-younger man with a 6-year old son. You can read the review of the 2014 NYC production here.

The play hit closer to home than I had expected because the dead son had been an actor and it is explicitly mentioned in the play that he died at 29 shortly before a cure was found and dying of AIDS is not a pretty thing. It turns out that an actor acquaintance of mine in Paris died of AIDS in the summer of 1996 in his mid-thirties. (There have been a few deaths of people I was close to during my time in Paris, and the people who know me know what I'm talking about. We're all affected by the deaths of people close to us sooner or later and I was affected sooner. This one was neither sudden nor unexpected but it was tough in different ways.)  

I hadn't expected the play to remind me of him as much as it did. But of course the same questions are there: what life didn't he have, what did his friends become? His entire generation was deprived of some amazing artists and thinkers because of that plague. (In the U.S., the names of Alvin Ailey and Robert Mapplethorpe come to mind.) Those were the days where in France obituaries would talk about "deaths after a long illness" as an euphemism for AIDS because that word was taboo but people could read between the lines.  

I remember reading an article in the New York Times along the same lines, on how some people were saved from certain death within days by a dramatically effective treatment found in 1996, although it only made the cells inactive and didn't make them disappear, which opened a whole new range of health issues. And when I looked at the timeline, I thought: it was really a matter of months. Some people lucked out and some didn't. That acquaintance didn't.

The performance was particularly poignant because it was held the Sunday after the shooting in Orlando happened, and many middle-aged gay couples were in attendance - the age of Cal and Andre in the play. And I had to wonder, what friends did they lose, what did they have to go through to be here today? 

The play was spellbinding and made its points without being preachy, in spite of the difficult subject. The quality of the direction, acting and costumes/sets was extremely high. The lines about Dallas got many laughs - I hadn't realized the mother was coming from Dallas and the local color provided some lighthearted moments in a heartrending play. 

It is always tough to lose young people. What makes the AIDS case different is the epidemic that ravaged creative communities in New York City (where Cal and Andre lived) and elsewhere - the then lack of understanding of how the disease spread, the speed of the illness, the lack of a cure (even now there is no cure, only a treatment that makes the cells dormant). Plague is not too strong a word to describe what it was like 20 years ago.

One gets out of the theater feeling for Cal - who doesn't have AIDS, doesn't know who gave AIDS to Andre or who Andre cheated on him with, and who was deprived of the future he had envisioned with the man he loved - Katherine - who lost her only son, holds a number of prejudices about gay men ("he wasn't gay when he left for New York!") and doesn't seem to have an existence of her own - Will - who has had to put up with the ghost of his husband's dead lover for years - and their young son Bud, who ultimately offers Katherine redemption in a way I won't disclose. A far more beautiful play than the quick description of "AIDS tale" would suggest, it is a story about how loved ones continue to haunt the people they have left behind and how they come to terms with the loss. 


Shostakovich and dance

Back in May I saw both the Shostakovich Trilogy at American Ballet Theatre - an all-Ratmansky program on Shostakovich music - and the 21st Century Choreographers II program at New York City Ballet, which ended with Ratmansky's DSCH Concerto again set to music by Shostakovich. The NYCB program also included a new piece by Justin Peck, which was far better than I expected, a new piece by a choreographer whose name I forget and then a new work by Christopher Wheeldon shamelessly capitalizing on the success of An American in Paris via a ballet set to Gershwin's music with Robbie Fairchild in the title role, although Amar Ramasar stole the show. (The sad part was, the Wheeldon ballet played before the last intermission and the Ratmansky program, for which a number of supposedly cultivated New Yorkers didn't stay, having seen the Wheeldon one.) While the works of his competitors had moments of brilliance as well, Ratmansky unquestionably emerged as today's leading choreographer in the difficulty of the moves and the interplay between the music and the dance. He doesn't go for facile or expected choreography.

I did like the DSCH Concerto a bit better than the 3 works he showed at ABT because the ABT Program was darker - I thought it was a pity to only show the tormented side of Shostakovich's music, since he was capable of so much more. DSCH Concerto is set to Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No 2, which, according to the NYCB website itself, "displays the composer's optimistic energy after the repressions of the Stalinist era." It is well-known by now that the 4 notes of the title, D, S, C and H, also spell the beginning of Shostakovich's name in its German spelling. Here is the New York Times review. The ballet deserves every single word of praise Alastair Macaulay heaps on it. And below is a glimpse of the ballet in rehearsal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, posted on PNB's YouTube channel.

Shostakovich Trilogy is set to excerpts of Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony and Piano Concerto #1, and the website of the Metropolitan Opera (where ABT performs when in NYC) quotes the New York Times back at the 2013 premiere as follows: "Fascinating, poetic, enigmatic. Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy includes expressions of ebullience, heroism, affection, wit and inspiration." Although I preferred DSCH because it had less soul-crushing angst, the performers of Shostakovich Trilogy were superb. Let me mention in particular Jeffrey Cirio in Chamber Symphony, who recently joined ABT from the Boston Ballet, and Calvin Royal and Gabe Stone Shayer in Piano Concerto #1. Here are excerpts thanks to San Francisco Ballet on its YouTube channel. 

The great New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay himself singles out Gabe Stone Shayer for praise in his recent review of ABT's Swan Lake. I'm always amazed by his careful read of dancers' gestures and acting. Here's to wishing Stone Shayer much success to come in the company's ranks!


"Shostakovich against Stalin: The War Symphonies" DVD

ShostakovichAgainstStalin This is my favorite DVD about my favorite composer, hands down. It contains beautiful excerpts of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Kirov Orchestra led by a much younger Valery Gergiev (who has, it seems, his own complicated relationship with the top man in power) and is fascinating not only because of the discussion of Shostakovich's war symphonies but because it provides an amazing glimpse into life in the Soviet Union during the war. (The pictures of dead bodies in the snow and the discussion of cannibalism are eerie.) Thus, it is an important document both for musicians and historians. 

My favorite moment was when Shostakovich is interrogated on a Friday and is told to come back on Monday at noon for further questioning, which looks like it will surely lead to arrest and long-term imprisonment if not death, and when he reports to the place (not sure if it was the police headquarters or the prison) on Monday at noon he learns his interrogator himself was arrested on Sunday. So Shostakovich survived because of that.

I first discovered the DVD last year but for some reason never got around to writing a post about it. This is actually the DVD that got me interested in "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk", for which I particularly recommend the remarkable movie version "Katerina Ismailova" with Galina Vishnevskaya  - Mrs Mstislav Rostropovich, the greatest cellist of the 20th century - in the title role.  

In addition to a 76 minute documentary, the DVD also has 70 minutes of audio extracts that you can listen to without the documentary if you are so inclined. It samples Shostakovich's war symphonies and so provides a good introduction to his symphonic music. And if you want more Shostakovich after that, I love this collection of his complete symphonies by various artists, that one of his concertos, and the box set of the Emerson Quartet playing his chamber music.


Review of "Long Day's Journey into Night" on Broadway

RoundaboutI like to think I've seen great theater before (the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffmann in Death of a Salesman comes to mind) but absolutely nothing compares to the revival of Long Day's Journey into Night currently on Broadway at the Roundabout. I knew the cast and crew were stellar (Jonathan Kent directing, Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone, Gabriel Byrne as her husband James Tyrone), the reviews have been excellent and the revival has gathered 7 Tony nominations, but that doesn't always paint an accurate picture of a show - I was underwhelmed by Ivo van Hove's take on Arthur Miller's View from the Bridge, for instance, and didn't Once win a Tony Award? But from the first few minutes at Long Day's Journey I sat just riveted in my seat. To say this production is spellbinding (all 3 hours 45 minutes of it including a 15-minute intermission) almost sounds like an understatement when you have sat in the American Airlines Theater transfixed by a cast of phenomenal actors.

What I will remember most of this production is how the actors react to each other's lines as if they were a real family, caught in the moment - they talk over each other, their body expression changes at the precise moment they hear something from another character, nothing is telegraphed, nothing sounds rehearsed, they embody their roles with such perfection you can't even tell they've learned lines. It is fascinating to watch. Having some training in theater, I am familiar with the Sanford Meisner/William Esper technique (William Esper teaches the Sanford Meisner technique, but his books about it are much more insightful than Meisner's) but it is the first time I see it in action with such fire.

Also, the play was particularly poignant because it gives the best description (that I'm aware of) of people who started life with high dreams and slowly went down. Both Mary and James share the same fate in a way but the stakes are much higher for Mary since she has become a morphine addict and it doesn't seem that the status quo will be tenable for her, while James could spend many more years as a cheapskate. The play will wring the heart of anyone who has seen friends, colleagues or relatives on a similar downward path, which is why I wanted to see it in the first place - it is a rare play that can have such relevance today, sixty years after its premiere. 

The production is far superior to the Hepburn movie of Long Day's Journey (where Hepburn massively overacts, a rare false note in the career of a very reliable actress) and gives you insights into human nature that will stay with you long after the performance is over - in addition to having you witness for yourself what top-caliber acting means. Go and see it while you can.


Shostakovich's "Katerina Izmailova"

51gbxf4uAXLThis is the 1966 movie version of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District", starring famed Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (1926-2012), who was the wife of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). I hope that if you're reading this blog, I don't have to tell you Rostropovich was considered to be one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century. I watched the movie before Christmas and just loved it, not only because of the beautiful voices, Shostakovich's music and the Russian words I could understand (the movie also has subtitles in English), but also because of the outlandishness of the movie premises, where the actors sing throughout and with the exception of Vishnevskaya the actors are dubbed by opera singers. The singing is remarkable, the acting is great, the music is mesmerizing - a masterpiece.

You can read Vishnevskaya's obituary in the New York Times here.  I'll quote the opening paragraph: "Galina Vishnevskaya, an electrifying soprano who endured repression and exile as one of the postwar Soviet Union’s most prominent political dissidents, died on Tuesday in Moscow. She was 86." What a life summarized in those few words!