The 2015 – 2016 Symphony season began last weekend with a program that included Beethoven’s Symphony #9 as well as a relatively new piece by a contemporary American composer named Adam Schoenberg (not that Schoenberg!). Both pieces were well performed and well received. Both Friday and Saturday night’s performances were sold out, a little unusual for a Classics series concert.
Once again this year, I am ushering. Because of that, we are trying something new this year. In the past we have purchased two subscriptions to the Classic series and I would generally limit my ushering efforts to the Pops concerts. Occasionally I would usher a Classics concert but, when I did, I would be seeing the same concert a second time. With a nod to the budget, this year we purchased only one subscription, for Harper’s Other Dad, and I signed up to usher the same performances. We don’t get to sit together during the concert but it saved us more than $1000 so it was well worth it.
The theme for this season is “Symphony Unexpected”. I’m not entirely sure what that means, perhaps the combination standards with 21st-century pieces. Whatever the rationale, it is a significant improvement over last year’s theme, “It’s Tito Time” in honor of our then-new conductor. The season brochure shows a close-up of a tux but rather than the typical black tie, it is orange sequined. I guess that is the unexpected.
To continue that theme for opening weekend, Symphony Hall was decorated with orange bow ties on the glass doors and mirrors. And the ushers was asked (well, not really ‘asked’) to wear them. I didn’t mind. It was festive. I wish they’d told us before we arrived however so I would not have spent time tying a black bow tie before I left home.
Of course putting a large orange bow on the men’s room mirror creates a self opportunity too good to pass up. At least in my case, I’m not sure this can really be called “unexpected”.
I enjoy live theater. With the energy from the stage and the shared experience of being part of an audience, I think almost any live theater is worth seeing. Jukebox musicals and Neil Simon comedies test that theory, but I can usually find something interesting in whatever I see. The exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad stay with me. The rest fade from memory as pleasant evenings. Sometimes, for reasons unrelated to the production, events conspire to make a theater outing a night to remember, but not in a good way. Such was the case this weekend.
A few months ago a friend asked if Harper’s Other Dad and I would be interested in seeing Wicked. I’d seen the show before and enjoyed it but I’d not considered seeing it again on this tour. Still, it’s a good show and I have committed the Original Cast Recoding to memory so, why not. It sounded like a nice way to spend a social evening with a friend. Thanks to a virtual cosmic convergence of unrelated events, however, it did not turn out that way.
I’d unwittingly gotten us off to a bad start by being cheap and buying seats in the upper balcony. Having seen the show before, I didn’t mind not having great seats. Being familiar with the venue, I knew it was better to stay toward the center and move higher rather than moving to the sides in the orchestra. I had never experienced the upper balcony however. The same design features that make it better to avoid the sides, also mean the balcony is very steep. Walking to our seats in the third row, when I diverted my gaze even slightly to the right, I was looking over the edge, past the lower balcony, and to the orchestra seats below. As someone with a touch of vertigo this was unsettling.
Our friend ended up with a family commitment in the afternoon so we were not able to meet him for dinner or drinks before the show. As it turned out, we never saw him.
Harper’s Other Day was beginning to feel the effects of food poisoning, he thinks from a bad avocado at lunch. We got to our seats but he fled to the men’s room before the lights went down. I was able to watch Act I from our seats. Poor guy, he was able to see some of it on the lobby monitor when not skipping to the loo. At intermission, I cautiously crept my way down the row to the lobby to check on him. He was feeling worse. I was not thrilled about making the pilgrimage back to the seats in the center of vertigo row so we left before Act II. There was more fun yet to come.
Because the show was sold-out, parking would have been challenging. This, plus my dislike for driving in the city of Tempe, even in good conditions, gave me the idea it would be better to park remotely and take the light rail. The train stop is only about seven blocks from the theater. It worked out fine on the way to the theater. Decorum mandates I withhold details but, owing to the food poisoning, the seven-block walk back to the train featured several impromptu stops. Happily, the wait on the platform was not long. I cannot say the same for the train ride back to the car.
Sitting beside someone trying mightily, and with only limited success, to retch quietly into a plastic cup is not a pleasant, even less so for him. Neither is the experience enhanced by the presence of a group of malodorous folks who were using the air-conditioned train as a much-needed respite from the triple-digit heat. None of my five senses was spared assault. Eventually, we reached our car. I drove home in silence while H.O.D. dozed uncomfortably in the back seat.
But the sun also rises. The next morning Harper’s Other Dad was weak but recovering after a long night spent up-close & personal with porcelain. We’d purchased season tickets with our missed friend so, if we don’t connect with him before. we will see him in a few weeks at The Book of Mormon. The only lingering effect of the evening is there is now a vague association in my mind between “Defying Gravity” and projectile vomiting. I wonder how long that will last.
The local 2015-16 entertainment season started, at least for me, with Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria. The play premiered in London in 1993 with the formidable title; “Hysteria: Or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessive Neurosis” As such, it joins Brad Fraser’s “Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love” (1989) and Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (2009) in a three-way tie for most awkward title of a contemporary play that I’ve seen and enjoyed. Honorable mention goes to Edward Albee’s “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?”. It appears the subtitle was dropped when Hysteria was published in 1995.
The play is a fictionalized account of a real-life meeting between psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and surrealist artist Salvador Dali. They met in 1938 in England where the Jewish Freud was living, having fled his home in Vienna ahead of the ‘Anschluss‘ between Austria and Nazi Germany. Afternoon tea shared by an analyst who plumbs the depths of the human subconscious and a painter whose work captures the stuff of dreams seems a natural inspiration for drama but an unlikely springboard for farce. In playwright Johnson’s hands it is both. Most of Act I is laugh-out-loud funny as Johnson employs every cliché of farce; scantily clad women, rapidly opening & closing doors, panicked attempts at misdirection, and a break-neck pace are all in evidence. There is so much more. The word hysterical has more than one meaning. Not all are funny.
The conflict of the play presents itself in the character of “Jessica”, a mysterious young woman determined to speak with Freud by any means necessary. Her presence, in various states of undress, fuels the farce but, as the reasons for her, seemingly obsessive, need to talk to Freud are revealed, the play becomes dark. It is not dark in the ‘dark comedy’ sense. The play becomes dramatically, viscerally, almost painfully dark. There are still elements of farcical humor but for much of Act II the audience must decide what is real and what is not and neither is particularly humorous.
Jessica’s revelations present layers of memory. Are Freud’s recollections of a his sessions with a past analysand real, or are they a self-serving rewrite of his personal history? Are the events that surface in the previous session notes recovered memories of horrific childhood trauma, or are they figments of the analysand’s imagination rooted deep in her psyche? There is no reliable narrator and the mantel of audience surrogate changes hands more often than Jessica’s scanties. The audience is challenged to make these decisions and the outcome affects how we interpret the actions of the characters on stage.
At times Hysteria is riotously funny. For those with even a passing familiarity with Freud and Jung it is also witty. The audience is left to create its own punchline about ‘Freudian slips’ as Jessica’s delicates change hands but the playwright is not above utilizing an obvious pun or double entendre when the opportunity arises. That said, Hysteria is not a play for the faint of heart. The themes explored are complex and incidents of trauma, while not depicted, are described in most graphic detail.
Another local company, sadly now defunct, described their productions as “talk provoking”. That description fits Hysteria perfectly. We talked about the play all the way home… and the more we talked about it, the more I liked it.
Being both one of nature’s bachelors and ‘of a certain age’, Judy Garland has been a fixture in my consciousness for as long as I can remember. The Wizard of Oz was an annual television event when I was a youngster. There were also A Start is Born, Judgment at Nuremberg, Easter Parade, and all those films with Mickey Rooney. As I got older, in addition to her work, I became aware of her public persona; the divorces, the drugs and alcohol, and the suicide attempts. She died in 1969 at the age of 47, I was 13. Garland has been dead nearly as long as she was alive and yet, on some level, the legend endures.
Englishman Peter Quilter’s 2005 musical play, End of the Rainbow, is set in London during what would turn out to be the last weeks of her life. Broke, ill, unsuccessfully battling addiction, and desperately in love with the younger man who would become her 5th and final husband, Garland was booked for a 5-week run at the Talk of the Town nightclub. Interestingly, the play includes relatively little exposition. Aside from a few humorous nods to ‘Oz‘ and a couple of references to two of her ex-husbands, there is not much back-story offered. The playwright assumes the audience will know who she was and what came before she arrived in London in 1969. He’s not wrong.
The play has an interesting provenance. It premiered at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and had successful, often award-winning, runs in Scotland, The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Finland, Poland and New Zealand before coming to England. After a regional run it opened in the West End in November of 2010 where it was critically acclaimed and ran for six month. After productions in Spain, Germany, and Brazil, End of the Rainbowhad its American premier at the Guthrie in Minneapolis before opening on Broadway in March 2012. It ran for 176 performances and garnered 3 Tony nominations.
I have only seen one other play by Quilter, also a musical drama. Glorious!, a biographical piece about Florence Foster Jenkins also premiered in 2005.
The title of End of the Rainbow, of course, refers to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow“, from The Wizard of Oz. In many ways the song served as the leitmotif for Garland’s career and life. Everyone who remembers her knows the song but Garland fans know there are actually two of them. There is the version Dorothy sings near to beginning of “…Oz” which is yearning and optimistic. Then there is the version from Garland’s later-in-life concert performances where the song is darker and fraught with irony. Yearning was replaced by regret and optimism had morphed into desperation. The young Dorothy’s dreamy hopefulness becomes heartbreaking when viewed from the other end.
The local production is tight and well executed. The set is representational and very effective. The costumes successfully conjure the 1960’s as well as Garland’s on-stage style.
The actor (female) portraying Garland gives a well-crafted performance in, what must be, an exhausting role. Not only is the characterization an emotional rollercoaster fueled by equal parts of desperation, drugs and alcohol but, in a couple of scenes she transitions from emotional peaks directly into singing. I thought the dialog performance were (just) slightly uneven but the vocal performances were spot-on. The onstage mannerisms, the phrasing, and the open-throated vibrato are the Garland I remember.
I joked about it before seeing the performance but it was surprisingly difficult for me to suspend my disbelief seeing Garland portrayed by a female. I’d seen her portrayed on television, notably by Judy Davis in the 2001 made-for-television biopic; Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, but all the times I’d seen performers ‘do Judy’ onstage it was by female impersonators and drag performers.
So what is it with homos and Judy Garland? The play acknowledges the link, going so far, at one point, as to suggest the idolatry of the gay community may have contributed to the dysfunction in her personal life, but it offers no theory as to the root of the undeniable connection. I wonder how this play speaks to younger generations of gays? Is the story familiar to those whose icons were Barbra and Bette, …or Madonna and Gaga? I’m not sure. For that matter, does the story resonate for younger straight people? Does it speak to people who, if they remember Garland at all, remember the perceived bookends of here career, “Oz” and “Witness” but know little of what came before, between, or after? Again, I’m not sure. In the end they likely find relevance in the ultimately tragic story of a gifted artist whose life was larger than life. She had great successes and great failures. She struggled and survived, until she didn’t. End of the Rainbowevokes all of that. It was a nice evening in the theater.
In September 2013 I shared an article on Facebook from the New Republic called “America’s Orchestras are in Crisis“. Published in the August 25, 2013 edition, Philip Kennicott’s article explores not only the financial crisis affecting orchestras around the country but the struggles of these institutions to define their mission for the 21st century. I’ve attended many performances in our local Symphony Hall recently and have been struck how, 18 months later, the strategies discussed in Kennicott’s article have been so aggressively pursued. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter of opinion but the direction taken, at least for our local symphony, could not be more clear.
To paraphrase the article, orchestras are confronting the new reality that audiences buy tickets for individual performances rather than in the traditional ‘season subscription’ model. Aside from increasing promotional cost, this means, to a degree, each event has to stand on its own to attract an audience. This leads the organization to confront the issue of how to balance their responsibility as leaders in their artistic communities bringing audiences to concert hall for traditional classic fare vs. putting programs in the hall that will fill the seats. Kennicott quotes The New York Times’ Edward Rothstein; “Cynically led by its managerial class, the orchestra is explicitly urged to lean toward pop and make courting audiences its primary activity.”
The opposing view is represented by a quote from Richard Dare, then the CEO and managing director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, who compares the tradition philosophy of classical music venues to “A musical North Korea.” ” Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.”
Our local symphony seems more closely aligned with the latter point of view. They stage not only the traditional “classics” and “pops” series but a buffet of concerts and special events designed to fill the seats. It may be anecdotal but when I compare attendance to the classical concerts to which I subscribe and the Pops and special events for which I often usher, the strategy must have a positive impact on the ‘bottom line’. There are usually large numbers of empty seats for the classics concerts while the special events are frequently sold at or near capacity. And for many of the attendees, this event is their first visit to the symphony. Say what you will about ‘cultural decline’ or ‘dumbing down the arts’ but there is much to be said for selling enough tickets to meet payroll, not to mention, giving audiences what they seem to want.
Box Office Blockbusters
All Night Long – The Music of the 1980’s
replay: A Video Game Symphony of Heroes
Sound of Speed (an evening of music inspired by auto racing).
There were popular guest vocalists:
The Texas Tenors
And the group I like to call “Symphony as Tribute Band”;
Evenings of the music of:
The 2015-2016 season seems to continue the trend. The classics series is an extremely conservative offering of what Harper’s Other Dad refers to as “Old War Horses”. These are pieces that classical music aficionados love and have seen a dozen times before. I imagine the hope is a list of recognizable favorites will retain, if not attract, subscribers.
For the ‘butts in the seats’ concerts there are some repeats and some new events targeted toward audiences that might otherwise not be drawn to Symphony Hall.
The Music of John Williams
Pixar in Concert
Cirque de la Symphonie
A Night at the Oscars
“Pitch Perfect: a Celebration of Sports and Music”
The Gershwin Experience
Star Wars: The Music
The guest vocalists will include:
Human Nature (“Bigger than the Beatles in Australia”)
The ‘Symphony as Tribute Band’ offering includes the music of;
Sinatra Sings Sinatra
Returning to the Kennicott article, there is a quote that strikes me each time I read it. “Americans tend to draw the line between connoisseurship and fatuousness at a level just slightly higher than their own degree of appreciation.” In context that might be viewed as a negative but I actually find it a little optimistic. It means the sophistication of our tastes is aspirational. We want to be lead to a level of cultural appreciation slightly above where we are. Whether the audience will actually follow the lead of any arts organization that seeks to take them there, however, is to be determined.
One of the great things about volunteering as an usher is the opportunity to see entertainment one would otherwise miss. Recently, Phoenix’s historic Orpheum Theatre played host to the Bollywood America 2015 Filmi-Fusion Dance Competition.
I had almost no idea what that was when I signed up. I recognized “Bollywood” as a genre of South Asian film which often includes elaborately choreographed dance sequences but “Filmi-Fusion” was a complete mystery. Also, I had no idea that, whatever it was, there were team competitions for doing it. Silly me! It was kind of amazing.
According to their website and brochure; “Bollywood America is the most prestigious and esteemed nonprofit Bollywood dance competition in the country….” The Phoenix event was the final, “all-star” championships of winners from the competitions organized around the United States. The teams are associated with universities and professional dance teams and compete on an intercollegiate basis “akin to the NCAA tournament“. There were 11 teams representing universities in the United States and Canada.
For definition, “filmi” is music composed for the Indian popular film industry, using traditional and modern instruments, with melodies and vocal styles derived from Indian folk and classical music. This music was mashed up with contemporary popular and hip-hop musical styles; hence “Filmi-Fusion”. Similarly, the choreography and dance styles are a fusion of traditional Indian dancing with hip-hop and a little hint of cheerleading. Imagine Indian folk dancing in a Busby Berkeley musical, but choreographed for a high-impact aerobics class by Twyla Tharp and M.C. Hammer.
The competition format is structured. Each team creates a video with voice-over narration establishing some scenario to be portrayed in the dance number that follows. The videos all ran about two minutes in length. Some were inspirational, touching on topics like post-traumatic stress disorder and immigrant families struggling to assimilate while remaining connected to their cultural heritage. Others were sentimental stories of young love. Still others were humorous takes on popular culture artifacts like “How I Met Your Mother” or Las Vegas ‘Caper’ movies. After the video, the screen rises and the dance number begins. The set pieces were creative, if occasionally amateurish looking. The costumers were lavish and colorful. Periodically there would be some lip-synced voice-over narration furthering the story covering some set change or musical transition. The dance sequences all seemed to run about 10 minutes in length.
The competition was judged and awards are given in the categories of; Best Introduction Video, Best Mix, Best Costumes, Best Theme Storyline, Best Male Group and Best Female Group. Individual awards were giving for Mr. and Miss “Bollywood America”, kind of MVP awards to continue the NCAA theme. Ultimately two of the teams are selected as winner and runner-up.
Most of the teams and the overwhelming majority of the audience, more than 1400 in all, appeared to be ethnically South Asian. At the start of the competition, the audience was asked to stand for the national anthems of the United States, Canada (one the competing teams was from Ryerson University in Toronto), and India. I could sing along with the first two but was respectfully clueless on the third. I was definitely in the minority in not knowing the Indian national anthem but I was proud I was able to help out the Ryerson team on “Oh Canada”. Between the dances there was a lot of ‘be-true-to-your-school chanting back and forth.
The eleven teams represented; Northwestern, Ryerson, hometown favorites Arizona State, the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), Georgia Tech, Rutgers, Penn, and four campuses of the University of California, Irvine, San Diego, Berkley, and Los Angeles. There was a good distribution of the awards but, in the end, it was U.C.L.A. taking home the cup.
As one might expect of an event staffed by and for undergrads, there were some organizational and logistical challenges. At 6 hours, it was a long shift for the volunteers. My overall impression, however, was it was a well-behaved group of young adults who were passionate about the activity being cheered on by friends and several generations of family. There was too much ‘downtime’ but when the teams were performing on stage they were nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s too bad so many ushers opted not to volunteer for this one. They missed a great show which was quite unlike anything I’d seen before.
As I’ve written before, my knowledge of ballet is limited. I’ve never studied dance nor taken any kind of ballet appreciation course. I’d never even attended a ballet before about 10 years ago. As such, my opinion about the quality of a production or a performance is uninformed. I can usually tell if something goes terribly awry. The audience response usually lets me know if something is particularly good. What lies between the two extremes eludes me. A “C-” performance looks pretty much the same as “B+” to my untrained eye. That said, I have learned a few things about my taste as an audience member. I may not have the words to articulate what I like but, like pornography, “I know it when I see it”.
I prefer pieces that are more abstract and less tied to a narrative plot. Ballets based on fairy tales or other stories spend a lot of time with the exposition movement needed to set the scene and tell the story in a medium without words. That is not to say I prefer modern dance to classical ballet movement, only that I enjoy the beauty, grace, and expressiveness of the movement when it is not attempting to communicate a linear plot. For that reason, one of the productions I await most eagerly each season is “Modern Masters”. This year’s production was all I’d hoped for. To my eye it was outstanding.
The first of the evening’s three pieces was choreographed by Alexi Ratmansky (1968- ) to Saint-Saens’ Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886). It was bright and energetic and very funny. Harper’s Other Dad particularly liked the Fossils. I most enjoyed the Roosters & Hens which portrayed the gender politics with a playful, free-spirited, seemingly adolescent style. I also liked the section Saint-Saens called “Personnages à longues oreilles” (Personages with Long Ears). That has less to do with the dancing, however. I just smile at the term ‘Personages with Long Ears’.
Carnival of Animaux Kangaroos
The second piece, and my favorite, was choreographed by Ballet Arizona’s Artistic Director Ib Andersen (1954- ) to Respighi’s Pines of Rome (1924). The Symphony performed Respighi’s symphonic poem recently so I was somewhat familiar with the music. The dance was athletic, modern, and very expressive.
The last piece was the most intriguing. Choreographed by Brazilian Nayon Iovino (dob unknown but young!) and set to Pink Floyd’s Echoes (1970), the piece was visually haunting. I was not familiar with this particular music, my Pink Floyd experience being, pretty much, limited to 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, but I knew immediately it was Pink Floyd. The dancing was ethereal and every bit as impressive as the previous piece but I liked it slightly less because I found it set decoration unsettling. The dance opens with a large round piece of fabric at the center of the stage, picture a very large parachute. Between the abstract coloring, the lighting effects, and the dancers lying beneath it, the visual impression in very textural. The fabric is slowing lifted off the dancers until it hangs at the back of the stage, maintaining its circular shape. The movement of the dancers makes it move subtly and the movement is exaggerated by the lighting. At one point during the piece the center of the fabric is drawn back and up changing the shape from flat circular to something that was both billowy and suggestive of something anatomical. HOD and I spent some time after the performance discussing the possibilities. Objectively it was very dramatic but I found it disturbing and distracting.
The weekend’s high culture was not limited to the local ballet. Saturday morning found Harper’s Other Dad and I at our local multiplex for the Met’s “Live in HD” simulcast of a double bill of one-act operas; Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta paired with Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. I’ve read a number of articles commenting on the unlikely pairing of these two operas. They are stylistically different to be sure. But I found them well suited to each other. The action of both pieces centers around the female lead’s (I am reluctant to call Bartok’s ‘Judith’ a heroine.) relationship to light in its literal and metaphorical sense. The director of both operas, Mariusz Trelinski, whose resume lists more credits as a filmmaker than an opera director, ties the two pieces together visually. In an interview shown in the intermission after Iolanta and before Bluebeard’s Castle, Trelinski observes that the two plots could be the stories of a woman at different points in her life. After seeing the second piece, I am not sure I see that. I see two different women whose lives are determined, albeit in very different ways, by their experience of the transition from darkness to light. One is liberated, the other destroyed.
Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, first performed in 1892 (it had its premier on the same night as Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker), is a traditional fairy tale. The title character, a blind princess has been shut away in a cottage deep in the woods by her father. He wants to protect her from knowledge of her blindness and she is unaware that others experience the world differently. She believes eyes serve no purpose aside from the shedding of tears. She lives in the care of servants and is unaware that her relationship with them is substantially different than their relationship with her. A doctor tells Iolanta’s father he may be able to restore her sight but doing so requires she be made aware of her blindness. She must have the will to change. The father refuses. As the story progresses, she meets and falls in love with a stranger, a visitor to her forest. Through him she becomes aware of her blindness but, inspired by her love, she has the will necessary change and regain her sight.
Trelinksi uses the set and pre-recorded visuals to reinforce the darkness of Iolanta’s life. Some of the trees in her forest hover with exposed roots and images of roots closing in on the cottage from all directors give the impression she is living underground, where no light can reach her. The cottage set is used to wonderful effect as well. It is a white cube open at the top and on three sides. The fourth side is a realistic wall with a door.
On one level the cube is her cottage. It separates her from the forest. People enter and leave it through the door. One another level it represents ignorance; her ignorance of her blindness, and her father’s ignorance in sheltering her. As light is shone on their ignorance, as the become enlightened, they interact with others outside the cube through the invisible walls. As they gain knowledge or reach any form of epiphany, the step out of the cube by passing through the absent walls. On a third level, the cube seems to represent Iolanta’s blindness itself. After she gains awareness and has stepped outside the cube, she reenters it to confront her blindness. She emerges again with her sight restored. In the end she regains her sight, her father grants her permission to marry the man she loves and they look forward to their ‘happily ever after’.
Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, written in 1911 and first performed in 1918, is another kind of fairy tale. Darkly brooding and fraught with psychological and psychosexual overtones, there is no small irony that the live broadcast was the same weekend that the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey opened nationally. This opera is ’50 Shades of Grey’… with an atonal score.
Bluebeard, reputed to have killed his previous wives, brings his new bride, Judith, home to his castle. Judith has heard the rumors but her love for Bluebeard is so obsessive she chooses not to believe them. The castle contains 7 doors. Judith want all the doors opened to bring light into the dark and forbidding castle. Bluebeard opposes this. As each door is opened, illuminating what lies beyond, Judith is confronted by the increasing horror of her new life and her husband’s past. Yet each time she is given the option of stopping or retreating, she chooses to open the next door. Ultimately, all the doors are opened and the light of day exposes all the castle’s secrets. There is ‘no happily ever after’ on the horizon.
Bartok’s score is spare and atonal but not minimalist. The orchestrations are simple. There are many moments of silence for both the orchestra and the singers. The pace is, be design, almost excruciatingly slow. The actor’s movements are stylized with Bluebeard, at times moving in slow motion.
Bluebeard’s Castle is not as accessible as Iolanta. I found it more intellectually interesting but far less emotionally engaging. I don’t think I would want to see it performed without a companion piece. That said, performed together, I think it is a great contrast to Iolanta.
Valentine’s Day weekend 2015 will be remembered as my ‘Napoli weekend’. I wish I could say I spent a romantic weekend in Italy. Sadly, that is not the case. It is, however, the weekend I saw August Bournonville’s ballet Napoli, or The Fisherman and his Bridefor the first time. Actually it is the weekend I saw it for the first, second, third and fourth times. I had tickets for Friday evening’s performance. Then I received an “SOS” message from the Symphony Hall volunteer coordinator saying they were in desperate need of ushers for the Saturday and Sunday performances. Luckily, I enjoyed it on Friday so seeing it again (and again and again) is not as burdensome as it might otherwise have been.
My BFF, Wikipedia, tells me August Bournonville (1805 – 1879) was a Danish choreographer who initiated a unique style in ballet known as the “Bournonville School” which was inspired by 19th century French dance techniques. From 1830 to 1848 he was choreographer for the Royal Danish Ballet, for which he created more than 50 ballets known for their exuberance, lightness and beauty. Only a limited number of these works have survived. His best-known ballets are La Sylphide, Napoli, Le Conservatoire, The Kermesse in Bruges, and A Folk Tale.
First performed in 1842, Napoli is a popular ballet in Denmark but had never been performed in the United States before Ballet Arizona’s current production. Ib Anderson, the Danish-born Artistic Director of BalletAZ had done the ballet with the Royal Danish Ballet, first as a student and later as a principal dancer in the company.
Set in three acts, the story is a simple one, The beautiful Teresina falls in love with a poor fisherman, Gennaro. While out in his boat, they encounter a storm. He is brought back to Naples unconscious but she is lost at sea. Everyone assumes she has drowned. Happily, though unbeknownst to anyone in Naples, she did not drown but, instead, washed ashore in a mysterious blue grotto. The grotto is an enchanted place ruled by Golfo, his minions, and a harem of Naiads (Sea Fairies). Golfo turns Teresina into a Naiad and she forgets all about poor Gennaro.
Back in Naples, Gennaro grieves the loss of his beloved until a priest gives him a pendant adorned by a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). At the priest’s suggestion, Gennaro sets back out to sea armed with the magical jewelry in search of his lost love.
* * * Spoiler Alert * * *
Gennaro finds his way to the blue grotto. At first, Teresina does not recognize him, being all Naiad-ish now, but he jogs her memory with the help of the BVM pendant. Golfo and his minions rough up Gennaro in an effort to stop him from leaving with Teresina but Gennaro scares them off with his BVM icon. They send them both on their way, back to Naples, with some really cool undersea jewelry as a souvenir. Gennaro and Teresina return home to Naples where they marry and everyone (and I do mean EVERYONE!) dances at the reception.
The score, with music by Edvard Helsted, Holger Simon Paulli, and Niels W. Gade is delightful, if not particularly dramatic. BFF Wikipedia notes the Latin hymn “O Santissima” is used in Act II to underscore the power of Christianity over Golfo’s demonry. O Santissima is an old Sicilian hymn but the melody was familiar to me as the German Christmas carol “O du fröhliche”.
On the whole, I enjoyed Napoli. The sets and costumes are lavish. The dancing in Naples, especially in Act III, is very much in the style of folk dancing. It is high energy, fast-paced, and athletically executed. The blue grotto (Act II) is beautiful, more in the style I think of as “ballet” and includes some nifty effects when Teresina turns into a Naiad and back again before our eyes.
There were a couple of elements that disturbed me. Performed in three acts with two intermissions, it has a running time of about 2.5 hours. This is long for ballet. Much of the time in Act I, and, to a lesser degree, in Act II is spent with exposition with a resulting reduction in the time they actually dance. The exposition is certainly needed given the surreal nature of the story. Act III has a lot of wonderful dance but, and I admit this is a pet peeve of mine in any form of the performing arts, Act III is the longest. I would have enjoyed the ballet more had they danced a little more in Act I and cut about 10 minutes from Act III. Of course, Napoli has been performed as it was presented for more than 150 years so others must like it as written.
Linda Ronstadt’s 2013 book, Simple Dreams is subtitled; “A Musical Memoir“. And so it is. While the book covers her life beginning with her preschool days in Tucson, it is decidedly not an autobiography. It is all about the music. Her musical influences, the extraordinary journey her career became, her unparalleled successes and her infrequent, but very-public, failures; it’s all there.
For fans of Ronstadt or the bluegrass/folk-influenced music of the 1970’s that came to be called the “California rock”, this book is a delightful read. If you are not a fan but want a glimpse into the career of one the most successful pop singers of the 20th century, it’s still probably a good read. I can’t say. I am definitely in the former camp.
My first memory of hearing Ronstadt is still vivid, despite having been more than 45 years ago. I was 13 years old. We were moving, yet again, and I was unpacking in the new apartment. The AM radio DJ introduced a song called “Different Drum” by “Linda & the Stone Poneys”. At that time, I didn’t have the knowledge to articulate what it was, exactly, but there was something about her voice I connected with immediately.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her, in person, three times. The first was in 1977 at an outdoor concert venue in Wisconsin. Coincidentally, she was promoting the album “Simple Dreams“. The title song of that album, written by J.D. Souther, is the source of her memoir’s title. She appeared on-stage wearing a cub scout uniform.
The next time I saw her was 6-7 years later. She was touring to promote her “What’s New” her first album of standards from the Great American Songbook recorded with Nelson Riddle and a full orchestra. That time she was wearing a vintage prom dress.
The last time was a few months ago in 2014. It was a wonderful evening in an intimate setting, the patio of Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). She talked, à la “Inside the Actor’s Studio” with John Boylan, her long-time friend, former producer, and one-time manager. Parkinson’s has left her a little unsteady on her feet and, as she puts it; “unable to sing a note”, but she talked about her career and her life in music.
That she was asked to write a book is not surprising. In a 50-year career that included 38 studio albums (plus 15 compilations) in 5-6 different musical genres, more than 100 millions records sold, 27 Grammy nominations with 10 awards, Broadway runs, a feature film, and decades of touring from small clubs to stadiums, she has led a life that would make entertaining reading. She declined previous book offers, however, because she knew the publishers wanted a tell-all autobiography. She had no interest in talking about the details of her life and, as she put it, “all my old boyfriends”. It was Boylan’s suggestion she write a book about her life in music that convinced her to do a book. It was a bestseller.
From a musical family, her influences were opera, folk, American standards, and traditional Mexican music. She lists among her most significant influences Lola Beltrane, Maria Callas, and Frank Sinatra. She’s said the only music she ever recorded was the kind she heard at home before the age of 10.
Her earliest recordings are clearly rooted in folk music but she would morph this into the California rock sound which made her famous. She moved to California while still in her teens and proceeded to meet the people who would become the Who’s Who of popular music for the next 20 years. Don Henley and Glenn Frey, later founding members of the Eagles, were in her back-up band after she left the Stone Poneys.
At the height of her success as the queen of “Torchy Rock”, as she was called on her first cover of Time magazine, she decided to set aside her schedule of recording and touring to pursue other musical challenges. Her success and the nature of the music business had changed. She was now playing in stadiums and large venues, often with poor acoustics. The music had to be performed so loudly there was little room for nuance or interpretation. She wanted other opportunities. She starred in The Pirates of Penzance, first in Central Park, and then on Broadway, where she received a Tony nomination. She reprised her role in the film version. She would return to Broadway in a production of La Bohème which was a critical disaster. She admits she did not have the technical ability to sustain her voice for a role as demanding as ‘Mimi’. She shrugs it off. One learns more from failures than successes.
Intermittently, she would return to rock. She feels the 1989 album “Cry Like a Rainstorm Howl Like the Wind” is her best in that genre. In between, she recorded albums of American standards. Her record company feared her rock fans would reject style of music and they were largely correct. But she found entirely new fans for those records. The same was true of her Spanish-language recordings of mariachi and traditional Mexican songs. Again, they were different fans but they were legion. Her final recordings were of jazz and Cajun folk music with friends she’d wanted to work with; new challenges, new opportunities.
She was good to her word in writing a book that is not a ‘tell all.’ She takes about friends and collaborators but there is very little in the book that is critical. She mentions her father calling in England where she was filming “Pirates…” to tell her that her mother had died. She was very close to her father but mentions in the Epilogue only that he died in 1995.
She talks about moving back to Tucson because she thought it was a better place to raise her children. She offers no details about the children, both are adopted though she does not say that in the book, or her decision to become a single mother in her 40’s. She is close to her siblings and extended family but only discusses them in the context of their musical careers and their influence on her own.
Her only references to her ” old boyfriends” relate directly to the musical work she was doing at the time. “I was living with J.D. Souther at that time and we were listening to ….”. “Jerry Brown, who was staying with me at my house in Malibu, answered the phone when Joe Papp called…..” “I was keeping steady company with Pete Hamil and he introduced me to the books of…”. Other high-profile relationships like Jim Carey or George Lucas, to whom she was engaged, are not mentioned at all.
Most telling of all, she never mentions Parkinson’s specifically. The disease caused her to lose muscle control of her vocal cords. In her conversation at the MIM, she talked about her voice. Voices change as singers age. She could get by with “screaming” for her rock material but not with her other music she was doing. She said she retired when she started to be embarrassed that people were paying money to see her when she could no longer sing well. She retired before the cause of her difficulty was diagnosed as Parkinson’s. None of that is in her memoir, however. The closest she comes to mentioning what must have been a traumatic transition in her life is when she recounts a friend commenting, late in her career, that he’d seen her perform “with a still-healthy voice but he’d never seen her happier”.
If one wants the gossip, there are biographies out there. Other people have written that story, accurately and otherwise. But in Simple Dreams all she wanted to write about was her music. It worked for me.
I could never choose a favorite recording but this song, written by Karla Bonoff, from her 1976 Hasten Down the Wind album will always make my top ten.