Strung Out

July 4, 2011

This week I saw a particularly incredible performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and the only way to describe it is in sports terms.  (Fitting, I think, since at least one critic has described the piece as “athletic.”)  Anywho, when I was younger I was a real Olympics junkie.  It didn’t matter what event was on.  If I could find a way to be home, then I was glued to the tube.  I particularly liked the ‘pretty’ sports – figure skating, gymnastics, diving, etc.  And more than the sports, I liked the human interest profiles of the athletes – especially if they were orphans from the Soviet bloc.  But my biggest thrills came from those rare athletes who sacrificed victory to push their bodies and their particular sports to the very limit.  I think of those figure skaters who suffered through disastrous rehearsals in the days before their competitions.  Any one of them stood a chance to win if she just avoided tricky combinations and performed cleanly on safe, boring, judge-pleasing routines.  Instead, she bucked safety and went right for those ill-advised triple lutzes – often late in her program after she’d already fallen.  The medal was gone, but glory was hers.

This is the only comparison that seems worthy of the moxie on display by 21-year-old violinist Nadir Khashimov on Wednesday night.  The Curtis student strutted a musicality that was just unimaginable – especially in someone so young.  I’ve been consumed by this piece for the past several months, spending too much time searching for recordings of different soloists and repeatedly listening to those that I prefer.  What I’ve learned is that this is a piece in motion.  It is utterly ruined by a purely technical interpretation; it is propelled by passion.  None of its ideas or emotions are communicated when it is played politely and the notes are merely hit.  Khashimov’s interpretation was a curious mix of skills and thrills.  I was expecting something polished, yet a little too safe.  What else could be expected from an eager student making his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra?  Instead, I was led to new revelations about the familiar piece; I profited from the discoveries of a true and intrepid musician.

For string players, it was a gratifying listen in just about every way. He danced through his double stops and made his harmonics sing.  And when he jumped down to his lowest notes, he landed on the velvet tones of a well-built cello.  My ears couldn’t quite keep up with the piece; they wanted to catch and savor every last particle of sound, but they kept falling just a few beats behind.  I was constantly reminded of that serious question from THE SOUND OF MUSIC: “How do you pin a wave upon the sand?”  How, indeed!  How do you truly enjoy any time-bound experience?

This was not a flawless performance, but a performance that was better for its flaws (and not in spite of them).  I greatly admired Khashimov’s willingness to take chances and to let a few details sour so that the major part of his performance could soar.  Hats off, sir!

Fem Porn

March 5, 2011

I am knee deep in the worst kind of Anglophilia.  These past two weeks, I have been gorging on episode after episode of The House of Eliott, an early ’90s British television confection.  Even though it’s a strangely paced and predictably written soap opera, I cannot get enough of it.  Somehow I only just realized that its pleasures are nakedly pornographic: it is a period piece about two enterprising sisters in 1920s London who design clothes and go to fabulous parties.  The older sister, solidly in her 30s and slightly less gorgeous than her much younger sister, is adored by fine men who devote themselves completely to her.  She eventually marries a society photographer and reformed playboy who goes on to look good in tuxedos and to direct motion picture films.  He cooks supper—because she doesn’t—and generally attends to her every complaint.  She is often unsatisfied and prickly, but he doesn’t mind one bit because she’s a woman with drive and ambition.  What could be more irresistible than her total self-preoccupation?  Later, he develops a political sensibility, making socially conscious films, writing passionate exposes of industrial working conditions and, eventually, standing for a seat in Parliament.

This is pornography for a certain kind of feminist.  Or a feminist of a certain age.  Or a feminist who harbors romantic delusions.  I’m sure there are suave yet goofy men like Jack Maddox who bow to the whims of their imperious women, but I’m sure that I’ve never met them.  And I just keep trying to remind myself that I am way to old to be swooning over a character, no matter how perfectly accommodating he may be.

Nellie McKay vs. Stephen Colbert

January 30, 2011

I just don’t know what to do with Nellie McKay.  I’ve been following her radio appearances for years, but I only recently saw her live for the first time.  She glided onstage wearing a good imitation of Judy Garland’s red velvet “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” gown from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.  In general, it’s this knack for winking nostalgia that most delights and unsettles me about McKay.  She looks the perfect blond with her tailored vintage clothes and every hair in place, but she inhabits a mysterious space between parody and sincerity.  Like Stephen Colbert, she’s designed an uncompromisingly extreme persona:  Colbert absorbed the victim mentality of mainstream America and created a narcissistic monster.  McKay learned the lesson that women should be  charming and adopted the dress of a Stepford single gal.  But a funny thing happens when she smiles widely and her eyes start twinkling: she gets to riffing on political injustice or social inequality.  Truth be told, I have a hard time making sense of it all. I’m not sure how much of her appearance is critique and how much is a genuine attraction to classic Hollywood glamor.  (I kinda assume it’s both, but I can’t quite reconcile the opposing impulses.)

Her cheeky “Mother of Pearl” opens with the declaration that “feminists don’t have a sense of humor.”  And that’s only the first line of her straight-faced musings about women who dare to demand political power, protection and equality.  She lists the sins of self-righteous left wingers—be they feminists or vegetarians—and ably sings the part of their loudest critics.

Her political hide-and-seek makes me think that the joke’s most likely on me.  Aren’t we all implicated in the culture, no matter how much we want it reformed?  It’s probably too soon to predict what kind of lasting impact she will have, but she has the potential to be one of the great cultural critics of our time.  And she’s made a good beginning for herself even if she’s a shade too quirky for mainstream appeal.  So, America beware: hers is a wit you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.

Beatific

December 17, 2010

It’s not every book reading that a rock goddess interrupts to sing an unadorned version of her ode to passion.  But, I suppose, it’s the rare  book reading presided over by Her Beatness, the great Patti Smith. Just Kids, her newish book about life and love with Robert Mapplethorpe, is nothing if not delicious.  (Who doesn’t want to hear about a benevolent Allen Ginsburg sporting her lunch at an automat because he mistakes her for a “very pretty boy?”)  Don’t bother with gratuitous name-dropping unless you know what you’re doing… even if you do, you still might take a tip or two from Patti.  She’s got a good way with a story, but she’s also got a nice collection of characters to drop into her yarns:  all your favorite celebrities from just this side of the fringes.

Charmingly vagabond as her life may be, her reading was fairly polite.  She stood at her podium and read well-chosen selections, adding occasional embellishments and further impressions.  As the evening was getting near over, but not quite there, she took center stage and announced that she was going to try an experiment.  And she started singing her first big hit.  What else but “Because the Night”?  She invited the audience to join in, but, before they did, it was nothing short of revelatory to hear her voice so exposed.  I don’t think I’ve ever really heard her voice before.  I love her records, but they’re all bravado and swagger to my ears.  Hell, her first record opens with the taunt that “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”  I never found the person behind the shrieks and guitars and exquisite punkability.  Turns out the voice is not only remarkable, but startlingly raw.  Even in the basement of a public library she summoned all the spirit of this powerfully erotic song.  Throwing back her head, throwing down the song, I couldn’t help blushing.  She was channeling her greatest pleasure and there was nothing to hide behind.  No instruments, no drums, no bored recitations of the well-traveled lyrics—just Patti and her voice and enormous grin. In those moments, the library might have been a little bit sullied. But, let me tell you, the library loved it.

King of the Chick Flick

October 14, 2009

I think Quentin Tarantino has finally inched ahead and snatched that tiara off Pedro Almodovar’s head – Tarantino is reigning king of the chick flick!  Many people have given me puzzled looks when I’ve declared my preference for Tarantino’s ‘chick flicks’ over his earlier output.  I believe any film dishing out a goodly helping of pleasure to female viewers qualifies as a chick flick.  All of Almodovar’s early films and some of his recent ones are chick flicks.  Tarantino’s chick flicks include KILL BILL 1 and 2, DEATH PROOF, and now INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.  They offer something extraordinary to women viewers – the opportunity to revel in their violent fantasies.  There are so few places in culture where women’s violent urges are acknowledged and it’s a real comfort to have these films as an outlet.  One reason these movies work so well is because the women are survivors.  Many of them have overcome violation or physical attacks.  They aren’t riot grrls ranting on about their petty outrage.  They are powerful women out to avenge every circumstance where they were underestimated [by a man].  Most excellent!  What woman can’t relate to that on some level?

Most importantly, they are fun!  Why is it that mediocre weepies have been the mainstream definition of women’s pictures?  The gals I know are enchanted by a fast car and a stylish  catsuit as much as the next feminist.  Thank you, Tarantino!  But thank you most of all for giving us a lady projectionist!  And in a pretty gown, no less!  I’m a film geek who will love you for incorporating nitrate film and vintage projectors into your movie theater fantasy.  But I’m also a projectionist wondering if my next gig will, finally, be the first that I work in heels.

Are We Not Queens?

September 25, 2009

Funny that I’ve been meaning to write about Mary Stuart since July and I’m only getting around to it one month after the end of its limited run.  I so regret that my adored Aunt A. didn’t live to see this production.  She was a well known figure in the Philadelphia theater scene and she surely would have loved this play.  She cherished fine words and compelling drama.  She was a firm – though playful – feminist and a powerful figure in her own right.  I’ve been feeling the loss of the conversation I’ll never have with her about this play – it’s not every day that such filling food for thought comes along!

Recently, I’ve been missing her conversation in other ways as well.  She died soon after I started university; at the time, I had no plans other than to spend as much time as possible at the movies.  Ten years later, I’m trying to create arts programming for my local community.  I would love to have my aunt as a resource – to guide me through the strange process of starting a small business and to be a mentor with a stake in my success.  I did co-found a business this year, but it’s only a side project for the time being.  Somewhat more dramatically, I decided to apply for an interesting position at my real job… a position for which I was highly unqualified.  Strangely, the thing that gave me the courage to apply was an interview with Janet McTeer. 

I have too many things to say about the treasure trove of interviews offered up on the Charlie Rose website.  The joint interview with Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter about Mary Stuart is so unexpectedly erudite.  For once, these actresses seem to approach their research as historians would.  They don’t brag about all the research they’ve done and the experts they’ve become.  Instead, they’re fascinated by all that’s unknown about the queens Mary and Elizabeth.  They concede that there’s no consensus among historians – so much of what is understood about these women is informed speculation.  I’m amazed at how susceptible I can be.  I trust these actors completely simply because they avoid describing their preparations in absolutes.  But, as always, I digress.  I am just coming out of the most difficult years of my life  (so far).  I have been suffering a bad case of professional frustration and I’ve belatedly discovered that it’s entirely possible to make my own fun.  If I can’t find the job I want to do, then I should create it myself.  This isn’t as hard as I’d imagined it would be and it is certainly never boring!  I’ve been moving in this direction for over a year now, but the thing that made me appreciate all the possibilities in front of me was a late ’90s interview with McTeer after the opening of A Doll’s House on Broadway.  Her easy confidence is such a revelation.  She doesn’t worry about success or what will come next or even which words she should use in a television interview to make her sound smart.  She just talks excitedly about the things that interest her as an actor and a person.  I guess that’s really the key – a certain generosity towards others and a willingness to engage with them.  But two months later I’m still amazed at how 40 minutes with an interesting actor gave me the confidence to turn so many things in my life around.  Two months ago I wanted to be more like Janet.  This short time later I’m so happy to be me.  So thank you, Janet, for somehow – magically – showing me the way to be the woman I wanted to be.

The Beaches of Agnes

September 10, 2009

I’ve not seen many of Agnes’ films, but I think my brain is in love.  If Agnes Varda is anything like the woman we observe in THE BEACHES OF AGNES, then she is ever so much more than pure delight.  My head is ready to explode rainbows!  This film is something of an 80th birthday present to herself and it somehow feels unearned.  If she is leaving behind a celluloid memoir or an accounting of her life, then she should look something more like a shriveled old lady whose days have grown shorter.  Instead she is vital and vibrant (though ever tender towards the dementia that has struck so many of her childhood friends). 

Agnes’ is a beauty without warts.  She doesn’t wince at sad truths and painful episodes – she tells them evenly and without pride.  And the good times – of which there are many, many more – are ecstatic.  The whole film gives the impression of dreams really coming true.  Varda stages the images that have most powerfully captured her imagination throughout her life.  There is something so poetic and delicious about this acting out of dreams in the flesh.  To be a courtesean inside a whale or a house made out of film!  Her ambitions are nothing more than reveries.  I have more than 50 years to go, but I wonder what I will be at 80.  How will I play and what visions will I see?  What will I even have the capacity to communicate?  I love this film and the woman who made it.  I want to be this filmmaker and to live within the wonderful beaches of Agnes.  And now I’ve finally had just enough gulps of wine to approximate the swooning feeling this film gave me.  Bliss!

Art is in the details

July 27, 2009

Last Saturday I sat in a hall and listened to a Stradivarius.  I spent much of the day wondering if I knew anyone who could be persuaded to join me.  As the hours passed, I realized that none of my local friends have any knowledge of or interest in classical music.  Though it is one of the most famous signifiers of elegance, beauty, and craftmanship, “Stradivarius” is an empty word to these folks.  I confess that I’m fairly ignorant of music myself, but I’m grateful for my familiarity with a few of the classic showstoppers.  I’m more of a pop hound by nature, but I find that most of the pieces I play again and again and again are the few instrumental pieces I know well – Beethoven’s 7th, Brahms’ violin concerto, Bach’s cello suites, Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa…

This got me thinking about the most significant disconnect in my present life – the fact that I work at a seminary and my spirituality is organized entirely around beauty and art.  My friends and colleagues at work ponder God and speak of being ‘present.’  I can only contemplate God in the presence of astounding beauty.  When I visited Toledo as a wide-eyed 17-year-old, I had my sole discernible near-God experience.  I walked into the city cathedral and stared at a ray of light shining through a slanted window in the cupola.  The image was so indescribably affecting that I though, “aha!  This is why people build cathedrals; people can fathom God when it is dressed up so nicely!”  Of course that only underlined just how superficial I really am.  I’ve struggled with this realization that I only find the divine in things that are beautiful.  And yet, I wonder if this is really so different from people who shape their lives around a conception of God as a force more special than anything else.  The God they imagine is benevolence and all that is right in the world – what are these if not pure beauty?  The God I entertain as possibility is one whose doorway is graced with art.  I cannot picture what lies beyond, but I’m sure that Irving Berling’s “Cheek to Cheek” will be there to greet me if ever I happen to cross the threshhold.

There Will Be Blood

May 31, 2009

…just wait for it.  Tonight was the night that I saw Brahms’ violin concerto performed live for the very first time.  This is one of those pieces that will always make my mother cry and will always remind me of THERE WILL BE BLOOD.  Rarely has a piece of [existing] music served a film so well.  I was really looking forward to this performance and, in the end, I was disappointed.  Or, I was disappointed until the end.  I’m not quite sure what the problem was.  There were moments when I was less-than-impressed by the soloist, but I’m not sure if she was really to blame.  I think her instrument went out of tune during the first movement and it was sometimes difficult to hear her solo lines over the rest of the orchestra.  But it was impossible to get any sense of the orchestra because the piece sounded like it was swimming under water.  I couldn’t really hear the piece because it was moving so slow.  I wondered if this was one of those pieces that sounds better on record than live in the concert hall.  Nope!  The third movement SUNG!  I always found it curious that my recording of the piece appears to invite in a choir at the end.  Were there singers?  I had the same impression tonight when everyone dug into those first dramatic notes of the third movement.  Who was singing!   No one – just all those instruments blended together in perfect harmony.  I imagine that the sensation of flying feels something like the sound of this piece – nothing short of glorious!

Sweet, Sweet, Sweet, Sweet!

May 31, 2009

Heh heh heh.  That’s a little inside joke for anyone who was lucky enough to catch Neko Case this past Friday night.  And that is very much THE problem with Neko – the woman makes you hungry.  Friday was something of an ‘off’ night for her.  She was visibly tired and she finally just announced her discomfort to all of the sold out house.  And yet, she is the consummate professional.  Her voice will not sit down!  She’ll stand there feeling sick and still belt her tunes like there’s no tomorrow.  How can that not make you hungry or greedy or just plain desperate for more?

I have no idea where I was going from there!  I just found this post from over a month ago.  It was sitting there with my swooning thoughts about a long ago Gwen Ifill book signing and my total admiration for an astonishingly reasonable speech by Marjane Satrapi.  It’s probably best to dispose of all three posts and just declare my love outright for these righteous, righteous ladies.