Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mariinsky, Card, and art despite politics

Last week I joined my concert buddy Mark and some of his friends for the Mariinsky Ballet's performance of Prokofiev's Cinderella at BAM. Outside the venue was a group of people protesting the group's artistic director, Valery Gergiev, a supporter of Putin's annexation of Crimea and anti-LGBT legistation. I thought nothing of entering the concert hall and enjoying the performance, which was possibly the first live ballet I've seen as an adult. The last time I saw a staged Prokofiev production, it was his opera The Gambler at the Met, which I didn't care for, and it being the last of three operas I saw that year, I finally had to admit I simply don't care for opera. Dance seems to be a difficult medium by which to tell a story (it felt a little like a game of charades), but I enjoyed the music more.  There's much more that can be said about how Prokofiev's style changed in the thirty years between composing The Gambler and Cinderella, but this is neither a concert review nor a scholarly paper.

Victor Melamed's illustration from this New Yorker article about Gergiev
The program booklet showed the other performances in the Mariinsky's US tour, and I noticed that the orchestra would be performing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 at Carnegie Hall. I love that piece, so I gathered Mark and Álvaro, another percussion friend, and bought tickets. Snow caused Carnegie Hall to close on Monday night (sadly postponing our friend Ian Shafer's Carnegie debut), but it reopened Tuesday for the Mariinsky concert, and I subwayed into Manhattan after two days of hunkering down in Brooklyn. I was remembering parts of the piece in my head on the way there, but there's a truly beautiful, climbing-out-of-the-darkness theme in the third movement that I'd forgotten about until a minute before it happened in the music. When it occurred to me, I gasped a little, and it was a wonderful way to experience the music, sort of like a surprise. After the third iteration of the theme, the music rushes to an end, which is appropriate.

The second half of the concert was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4, which the program notes told me Shostakovich was forced by Stalin's government to withdraw (this is a supposition), and thus was not premiered until 25 years later, long after Stalin's death. Its compositional style was controversial and not in line with Russian standards of the time, which made it an interesting choice considering Gergiev's staunch support of the current Russian government. The protesters were outside Carnegie Hall just as they were outside BAM the week before, and on our way out, one of them screamed, "I hope you had a bloody good time!" implying that our attendance at the concert contributed to the deaths of thousands in Ukraine. Unexpectedly, seconds later, I was within earshot of another protester who said to us quietly and amicably, "Have a good night."

At both concerts I felt conflicted, the same way I felt reading Ender's Game on the subway ride there. Every liberally minded person must set aside at least a little trepidation before picking up a book by Orson Scott Card, the outspokenly anti-LGBT author of the Ender Quartet. When I posted on Facebook that I was considering reading Ender's Game, the overwhelming response was to read it despite Card's views, which manage not to make it into the novel in any noticeable way. In fact, the message of the book is largely positive and progressive.

It seems silly, and missing the point, to make decisions about which art to consume based on the political views of the artist, especially when the art is not in furtherance of said views. Yet, on the contrary, to call anti-LGBT sentiment a "political view" is also missing the point. Conservatives minimize the issue when they call LGBT rights political, which for LGBT people are deeply personal. I'm glad the protesters were there in front of the concert hall both nights. I went in anyway, and I don't think their goal was to keep me from doing so. They raised my awareness of the issue and I educated myself further, and I may decide to stay home and listen to a CD (or patronize a pro-LGBT ensemble, like, say, QUO) next time they're in town.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Please and Thank You (a premature book review)

I am reading Amy Poehler's Yes Please, and I am almost done, but I find I can't wait until I finish to write down a few thoughts. I'll make this post the staging area for what will eventually become my book review on Goodreads.

First of all, I really love Amy Poehler's writing. I'm not laughing out loud as much as I thought I would, but it's a memoir so that's okay. She's not just relating the story of her growing up, getting into improve, achieving success, etc. She's telling the tale but also drawing you in.

I like that she grew up in a town next to a much more affluent town, "the Eagleton to our Pawnee" as she puts it. I smiled when I read that.  I especially like that Rachel Dratch grew up in that Eagletonian town and they have a playful rivalry about it to this day.

Finally, I super, super love the "let's build a park" chapter (which I'm reading now) in which she talks about the genesis of Parks and Recreation. Annotations from Parks & Rec head writer Michael Schur are in the margins, and they are both hilarious and sweet.

"I am the common denominator in two failed Judd Apatow projects. Judd Apatow with me: zero dollars. Judd Apatow without me: two hundred trillion dollars."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Happy New Woods (a movie review)

In the past, when I was no more than a babe (well, no more than ten years old), I got my first glimpse of Into the Woods. It was my sleep-away camp's theater production, and I saw the prologue (that was all they showed the younger kids). Years later in high school, I watched the American Playhouse video recording at a friend's house. We got to the end of act one and I thought, "Well, that was delightful," and when I realized we were only at intermission I exclaimed, "It's not over?" I watched it many more times over the years and it became my favorite musical, and a gateway to other Sondheim shows, and from there, the rest of the genre.

Much has been said of the new Ron Marshall film adaptation, and I have read none of it (if there's anything worthy, links please), so at the risk of repeating what's already out there, here are my thoughts (WARNING: spoilers):

  • Loved it from beginning to end. I can play most of the original cast video in my head from memory, so I flinched when the movie deviated from that (which it did almost immediately), but went in prepared to forgive that, and forgive it I did.
  • Meryl Streep? Amazing, of course. I wondered how they were going to restore the Witch's "youth and beauty," and joked that Meryl has some of that serum from Death Becomes Her left over, but they did a fine job. Also Emily Blunt: amazing.
  • Christine Baranski: amazing and underused (of course it was the part, not much expanding to be done there). Tracey Ullman: amazing, and although her part was small I was satisfied. Frances de la Tour: of course way underused.
  • Johnny Depp: he was fine. His costume seemed to be an awkward compromise between wolf and human. No comment on the neutering of the sexual tension. Honestly that whole storyline has always been problematic, I feel, but at least the tone of the original Broadway production was silly and ridiculous. The tone of the movie was serious (see next bullet), so carving a live (and dry, and physically unharmed) Red and Granny out of the wolf seemed out of place, as was their treatment of "I Know Things Now."
  • The PBS telecast of the original Broadway production was laugh-out-loud funny, self-aware, and self-mocking, although dark. The movie is a fantasy adventure with funny moments, but an overall serious mood. In an interview with Playbill Rob Marshall notes that this was his intent. I suppose the stage show was for adults and the movie is Disney family entertainment.
  • The aforementioned Disneyification didn't bother me much, but I do object to the omission of Rapunzel's death. Rapunzel getting crushed underfoot by the giant throws the Witch over the edge, giving her the motivation to find Jack and deliver him to his death. It also makes her a sympathetic character for the first time in the story.  Without it, the Witch appears to be trying to, what, save the kingdom?
  • The Narrator/Mysterious Man was another casualty of the change in mood, but honestly I didn't mind. I think killing the Narrator in the stage show is a stroke of brilliance, but obviously they were trying to cut down on the killing.
  • I missed the "one midnight gone"/"two midnights gone" aphorisms ("Slotted spoons don't hold much soup"). It gave Granny something to do, for one thing, and for another, it gave us, "How do you know what you want 'til you get what you want and you see if you like it?" but again, it wouldn't have made sense with the mood.
  • The stage production was subtler about things, like the Witch's reason for sending the Baker out for the items. I guess they had to spell it out for the kids.
  • "Last Midnight" was amazing, and for the first time I was able to make out all the words at the end of it.
  • "Agony" was hilarious. Out of place, but not in a bad way.
  • The Baker isn't a funny character, so it's a shame we missed out on James Corden's comic genius.
  • I am not sad that they cut "No More." At that point in the musical, I'm always like, "Yes please god no more."
I suppose that'll do. Just bought tickets for the Roundabout Theater production, can't wait!