Sunday Comic: Closed-Door Write-Up of Anti-Abortion Bill by GOP Leaders  

By S.E. Barcus

Any laws outlawing abortion, written by a majority of males, that do not simultaneously enforce a father’s financial responsibility, are misogynistic. It takes two to tango. If you forget the father, you prove your hypocrisy, that “all you care about is human life.” That you’re “good Christians.” You prove that all you care about is subjugating women once again, like it was in the good old days, like you have done for millennia.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Or for those of you who like GIFs…. (I think it goes too fast…)

Copyright 5-7-2022.

S.E. Barcus is also on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

Sunday Comic: Closed-Door Write-Up of Anti-Abortion Bill by GOP Leaders  

Macbeth and Macbeth and Macbeth: Three Weird Macbeths

By S.E. Barcus

April 30, 2022

Part 1.  The Name’s MacFindley.  Macbeth MacFindley.

Part 2.  Fair Is Fargo, and Fargo Is Foul.

Part 3.  Macbeth – the multi-million-dollar art-world Chelsea installation.

Through the month of April, I had the chance to see and compare three Macbeths: a NYC live production with Daniel Craig; a film by one of the Coen brothers; and an immersive performance installation in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood.  They were all great, and yet different enough to make each one – even the third one experienced in just a month – still feel fresh.  It probably doesn’t hurt that the script is one of the greatest tragedies ever written.

Three Weird Macbeths

Part 1. The Name’s MacFindley.  Macbeth MacFindley.

Daniel Craig’s Shaggy-to-Murderer Dichotomy

By S.E. Barcus

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, at the Longacre Theatre

Previewed from March 29, Opened April 28, runs through July 10, 2022

Directed by Sam Gold

Starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga

On Wednesday, April 13 (oooo…!), I saw a preview of the new production of Macbeth, directed by Sam Gold at the Longacre Theatre.  Sorry for this review’s title.  Cheap reference to James Bond, I know.  But who can resist — folks (like me!) wanna see the stars live like they wanna see their favorite singers live, even if it means shelling out a buncha dough, sitting or standing uncomfortably sandwiched for hours betwixt a bunch of potentially-covid-infested public….  (Not a joke – the previews were cancelled April 1-11 due to some of the actors testing positive.) 

Christine Jones photo from the Macbeth official site.

On sitting down, the curtain is already drawn and the stage is bare, no illusions, appropriately desolate for this play.  The empty stage’s back wall stares at us with its pipes and whatnot.  Just a stage, just a lightbulb, a la Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt.  (Perhaps we should call it, ‘verfremdungsaBrecht’?)  This “set” is actually subtly genius, as it (spoiler alert!) physically blows the whole set budget at the very end just to complement one of the main themes of the play, that nothing is as it seems….   “False face must hide what the Scenic Designer, Christine Jones, doth know.”  ‘Props’ for that surprise ending.  Never seen anyone take a V-Effekt-set and then do the shim-sham with it.  (It’s just a stage – or is it?!  It’s like a … well …  a secret double agent….)

Stage right there are some chefs as we sit down, putting together a little amateur cooking class for us while we sit and wait for the show to start.  (They were really chopping and cooking something, but I couldn’t smell it.  Granted, hard to do so through the masks – were there even onions? Increase the heat, man!  Get that smellovision into effect!  …  Hey! – did they just pour some pre-made Thai-curry-to-go-looking thing in there! Cheaters!) 

Then the play starts.  Daniel Craig is there initially with the whole cast as no one in particular yet, just one of the army, spitting on the floor.  A man, presumably Thane of Condor, is then executed to disturbing music – and then our fair, innocent cooking-class chefs in jeans come over, grab some of the blood trickling down the cut throat, and … pour it into their foul soup!  Ah! They’re the witches, of course, who then begin the famous setting of the stage for us, where fair is foul, and foul is fair etc.  But why are the two techs also with them?  I mean, these techs move around all night with their spots and smoke machines, but they also “act” as if they’re witches, too, on the stage, at times (again, possibly a reverse of the alienation effect, where actors are supposed to be just like real-life people on the stage with no illusions.  These techs – who are supposed to be real-life stage-hands – at times, then, become ‘actors’…?   Ok.  Got it.   But now you have friggin five witches instead of the classic three?  I mean, Hecate’s not in the first scene…. Kinda confusing….)

Soon we are at the scene where Macbeth and Banquo confront the witches, where we finally get into Daniel Craig’s acting.  And you know what?  He was great.  Perhaps it was his years playing that spy, having to pretend you’re something that you’re not, that made him a good Macbeth, although he really only had two main emotional dynamics – humorously worried and threateningly murderous.

Daniel Craig photo from the Macbeth official site.

I admit I didn’t know what to expect from Daniel Craig the theater actor.  I think the most pleasant surprise is that he turns out to be bona fide funny. In this production – similar to his surprisingly pleasing Knives Out CSI:KFC-detective role – he shows a totally different side from his Bond role.  This famous hunky guy has a pleasing, goofy sense of humor!  (Weird to figure this out in a Macbeth lead!)  Although, again, it often goes disturbingly back and forth to an angry potentially violent man, like someone with a dissociative identity disorder.  Or a psychopath who only intermittently feels empathy out of nowhere for some reason.

He starts right away with a fairly evil ambitious take on the role, the way he presents the line, “The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies.” 
Let’s just say that he says the end of that line in a pretty creepy way.  But then he’s funny again, like the way he tells Banquo, re: the prophecy and witches, that “I think not of them,” in a way that could’ve been accompanied by a cartoonish guilt-filled whistling.  Or the way he changes his mind on the assassination, telling his wife “we will proceed no further in this business” with a Little Rascals’-like determined and humorous cross-armed ‘harumph’.

But then, suddenly he is creepy again, close to a possible wife-beater when he yells at Lady Macbeth’s pressing, to “Pray thee piece!”  Or when he follows the dagger (a tech on stage with a spot light) and does the deed, with a single stab that doesn’t quite kill the king, so then a harrowing series of stabs, over and over again. 

Then back to goofy again.  He comes back from the deed, freaked out, making use of the bare-staged-alienation-style by going to the offstage cast-and-crew refrigerator that is viewable to us all – grabbing a beer, plopping down on a chair, and “unwinding” from his ‘hard day at work,’ while his “Married With Children” Lady berates him for bringing back the daggers.  His “sleep no more” lines, and refusal to go back to the site of the murder, could just as easily have been told by Shaggy: “like, no way, man – you go back there!”  (Lady Macbeth should’ve offered him a Scooby snack.)

But then back to psychopath.  “I care not!” he yells at the taunting Lady Macbeth just moments later, again giving me the creeps that he’s likely an abusive husband.  Or when he decides to murder Banquo.  And soon after Macduff’s entire family.  This Macbeth can find the evil within and ride it.  But then hysterically scaredy-cat again!  Like with Banquo’s ghost, where, if Lady Macbeth could hold him, he’d probably jump up in her arms like Shaggy often does with Scooby.  (I once saw an ambitious Klingon-Macbeth, but they didn’t pull it off….  Has anyone ever done a Scooby-Doo-themed Macbeth?  Macbeth and Banquo like Shaggy and Scooby with the Witches?  …  DM me.  Lol.)  When Banquo’s ghost is finally gone and the psychosis/spell is broken, Craig’s line, “Oh, I’m a man, again,” has the timing of a good stand-up comic. 

OK, enough of Craig.  Needless to say, I personally loved his performance overall, if a bit emotionally limited, and perhaps at times not being 100% present.  (Oh – but for you who want the sexy – he can also deliver lines like, “How now you secret, black, and midnight hags,” in a quite a flirty way….)

Ruth Negga’s Lady Macbeth was very noble and refined when she was in public, gracious with big gestures.  Then very plotting and devious in private with Macbeth.  The serpent et al.  She, too, could grab her own laughs, with her take on lines like, “O, never shall sun that morrow see!” — which seemed to demand two snaps up after she said it.  Neither of these two actors are Scottish, but Negga’s Irish background and accent gave her the more realistic Celtic feel to the role.  (Of course, everyone else was speaking Amurkin, so it wasn’t really a “who’s more Celtic than who” sort of version of the play….)  However — on at least one of her laugh-lines, it was the set up by Craig that gave her the laugh. Craig: “we shall proceed no further with this business!” (harumph.)  Negga’s follow-up with, “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?” got a big laugh after this, but only because it was set up so well by Craig’s Shaggy-like hesitancy and cowardice.

Ruth Negga photo from the Macbeth official site.

Negga plays well the multitude of Lady Macbeth lines dealing with disturbing de-sexing language in a calm, rational manner — like a psychopath, with little feeling.  From worrying about the mother’s milk of human kindness, to wanting to “unsex me now”, to Macbeth hoping she’ll have nothings but males, to dashing the gummy baby’s brains out….  Eesh.  (I’m surprised, in this current era of dramatically and rapidly evolving gender identity politics, that none of the Macbeths I saw really did a “deep-dive” into Lady Macbeth’s and Shakespeare’s total-warfare attack on what it means to be a “woman”.  Even Lady Macduff gets into the action with her lines about “the womanly defense to say I have done no harm….”)  On her “make thick my blood”, we are definitely dealing with an ambitious Killing Eve-like Villanelle.  Her sleep-walking scene was amazing.  “Out! Damn spot!  Out I say!” was filled with such deep-throated exasperation.  Deep sorrowful mourning and moaning with her “what’s done cannot be undone.”  It made me downright uncomfortable … which means … great acting. 

Of the rest, I enjoyed Paul Lazar, a Wooster Group member and frequent performer with Classic Stage Company.  For our show, he really shined as the porter. The way he delivered his ‘knock knock knock!’ monologue – with his gestures – brought home the sexual inuendo better, and got more laughs, than anyone else I’ve ever seen do the part.

Michael Patrick Thornton photo from the Macbeth official site.

Also great was Michael Patrick Thornton. Disability advocates – who rightly often bemoan the fact that people with disabilities are arguably the last bastion of acceptable discrimination — will be ‘happy’ to note his inclusion despite – perhaps because of? – his wheelchair throughout the play.  (For how kinda over-the-top-P.C. Broadway can be, the righteous and conscious sense of inclusion – even more so than in “liberal Hollywood” — is overall very cool.  Broadway and New York City culture just has this honest Sesame Street, Free-To-Be-You-And-Me sort of quality to it, pushing America’s progressive culture every chance it gets.  Very cool.  … Cuz I mean, why the fuck wouldn’t you have an actor like Thornton in a major Broadway production?!  Just because of a stupid wheelchair?!)  The way Thornton creates Lennox, as he relates the death of the king — and the ‘guilt’ of his guards, with daggers which “unwiped we found upon their pillows” — is so hysterically deadpan, I thought he was Steven Wright for a sec. 

It did make me uncomfortable, though, that Craig – back in his evil mode – face-palmed Thornton and pushed him, thus rolling his wheel-chaired-self away from him, when he said, “take thy face hence” in Act 5.  It was a bullying sort of move that disability advocates probably hated – but was also completely realistic that the psychopath king would do such a thing…. But that it got a laugh — including from me — made me uncomfortable; felt guilty.  It shouldn’t have been funny, I think.

Banquo, played by Amber Gray, a woman, mixed it up a little with genders.  Interesting acting/directing choices, such as tapping her lower abdomen when talking about how her children would be kings in the future.

Finally, in our night, Understudy Peter Smith, stood out as well, but not in a good way.  As Malcolm, his acting was tired and affected, sounding more like Al Gore in South Park, wanting everyone to be “super super Cereal about that ManBearPig, Macbeth!”  They’re giving out free tickets to high school kids, according to Craig on Colbert.  Well … one of those kids literally shouted out “THIS IS BORING!” (with better projection and enunciation than Smith) during Smith’s long and tiresome monologue in Act 4 scene 3 (which to be fair, really should have been cut, as it was in the Coen film).  Maybe not a good idea, giving out those free tickets!  😊 

Director Sam Gold (geez what a movie-industry name!) was also initially going for Gore, although not the South Park type, more the “I’m gonna get all Coriolanus on his ass” type, from the beginning with the slit throat, to the pilot’s thumb being cut off on stage, all the way to the bloody fight scene at the end with Macbeth and Macduff.  The directing, overall, was odd.  Taking off from the V-Effekt set, the unifying direction seemed to want a combination of an alienation affect combined with nothing being as it seemed.  For example — the degree to which the chorus sounded amateur HAD to have been intentional.  After hearing of the “merciless Macdonald,” everyone yells, “Boo!,” trying to seem like a large army crying out, but it was as lackluster as a bunch of kids in a high school English class reading Shakespeare aloud.  (“This is boring!” one can hear in the “subtext” of that ‘boo’….  Holy crap!  The kid bad-mouthing the play — was he a plant!?  Gold’s a GENIUS!) Goodness help me, if this intermittent listlessness wasn’t somehow intentional, on BROADWAY….  Then.…   Wow. 

Sam Gold photo from the Macbeth official site.

Thus – intended or not – this was an uneven production – some of the actors (the stars) were amazing – while many of the lesser roles seemed like high school actors they brought up to Broadway for the night to ‘put on a show!’  Some folks had issues with all the double casting. It was definitiely confusing at times, but worth it. Theater is expensive, and things were understandable enough. But, I will say — what was with the very end, when one of the witches, Bobbi MacKenzie, sings with a beautiful voice, dishing out soup to all of the cast, and we just watch as they sit around eating it quietly, while she sings, for 3 minutes…?  But she was a witch – and that soup was foul – so it made the whole sweet ending seem as creepy and sardonic as the song “Still Alive” at the end of the game, “Portal”.  The song sounds like some Celtic folk song, with the chorus, “I wish I had known it wasn’t meant to be perfect.”  Is Gold fucking with us, or what?

Gaelynn Lea photo from the Macbeth official site.

The music, composed by Gaelynn Lea, was wonderfully disturbing (sometimes crashing on us at possibly above the legal limit of decibels at times, however?), punctuating the end of scenes here, coming in softly and menacingly within tense scenes there. Often the music just long held onto one menacing tone/chord, somewhat late-Hans-Zimmer style.  Other times more disturbing with her simple but loud violin riffs, Laurie Anderson style, and loud drumming accompaniment, or gongs or rock cymbals, at times something like Tom Waits’ Black Rider.  My favorite – although it made me deaf – was the “owl that shrieked” during the king’s murder, a seriously ear-piercing steam engine whistle, distorted with Godzilla sound effects or some shit, like a Banshee out in the woods.  This shriek returns during the murder of Banquo.  Often with a frenetically tremulous violin, a sorrowful cello, and background thunder and rain always seeming to aurally color the stage.  I guess this is Lea’s Broadway debut.  Great job, totally fantastic.

Finally, I also enjoyed the lighting, designed by Jane Cox – from simple and barren with just a light bulb to suddenly harsh, with disturbing sharp blue blinding lights from above that at times turned to the audience like an arena rock show’s special effects.  There is a stylistic synergy to the lights and the sound, and the overall production.  At times on stage, we’re in a high school show, REALLY verfremdungseffekting it, but then at other times suddenly totally living vicariously through someone else in a psychologically horrifying and evil world in an old-school Aristotelian manner.  Back and forth.  I gotta think Gold intended a lot of this?  But if so, it’s not clear, nor very effective, so does that matter?  This road to Macbeth might have been paved with good intentions.

I mean, but overall, it’s not hell — this production isn’t horrible.  Craig and Negga are great and fun to experience.  And the play itself is still a classic, a tradition, to experience every few years, no matter what.  So, you could do a lot worse.  Again, the main titillating reason to see the play is for the stars.  (Tell me how many folks are seeing Macbeth on Broadway because of Shakespeare or Gold – and how many are seeing it to see Negga, and especially Craig?) Folks spend as much or more on their Radiohead, or Tyler, the Creator, or Billie Eilish, or Mitski tickets all the time.  It is mos def worth the price of the ticket to see Daniel Craig live, doing a wonderful job, for perhaps the only chance in your life.  Anything else you might happen to also enjoy that evening you should just consider cherries on the top.  And there are plenty of those, too, see above.

It’s interesting, actually.  There is a recent shift away from the ‘star system’ in Hollywood, with films not produced around stars as much, anymore, but rather focusing on directors or ‘cinematic universes’.  This Macbeth is a definite star-system-Broadway type of play.  But Broadway, too, seems to be shifting toward “universes”.  Disney musicals in their case (except sorry, Marvel, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark didn’t really go so well!), or the sad more recent trend of turning Hollywood movies into cheesy musicals.  When Hollywood doesn’t take risks, and only makes sequels, and Broadway doesn’t take risks, and only does musicals of rehashed Hollywood movies, we will soon learn why replicas of replicas and clones of clones get so degraded and broken and unhealthy over time…. So, more power to Daniel Craig for trying to get our butts in the seats for a Shakespeare play!  He doesn’t HAVE to do this.  You get the feeling he WANTS to do this.  I take it back – give the tickets out to those unruly high school kids.  It’s the whole point.  Go stars, go!  Do your thing!

Stars – do not hide your fires!

Copyright April 30, 2022

S.E. Barcus is also on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

Macbeth and Macbeth and Macbeth: Three Weird Macbeths

Sunday Comic: Critical Race Theory

By S.E. Barcus

Well, I stand corrected. I guess the reactionaries were right. Someone just sent me a PDF sample page from one of those math books Florida and Ron DeSantis banned.… They definitely had some sneaky CRT information tucked in there, after all….

Copyright 4-24-2022.

S.E. Barcus is also on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

Sunday Comic: Critical Race Theory

The Have Nots! Have Lots, Piccolo Spoleto Review

1999 Archives

MAN! Brandy, Tim, and Greg are still kicking it! They just performed this past Saturday, April 16th! Charleston is lucky to have such dedicated comedy and theater artists successfully bringing it to the Lowcountry. I have been to Second City in Chicago several times. I always had just as much fun with The Have Nots! Other cities Charleston’s size do NOT have this. Support it.

This was a review for Charleston City Paper back in 1999…. One wonders how the transexual idea thrown at them might be played differently today, if at all? Leave it to good comedians to know the room, and know how the larger culture evolves (and hopefully improves), and act appropriately — while always JUUUUST testing that line, that gray area, for safe-space questioning and cathartic release. Comedy. Stand-up and improv. Some of America’s greatest gifts to humanity…. And these guys do it very well.

(Oh, I really was there for the review — even though, duh, I guess I could have heard someone in the audience say, “Dominatrix” in that webcast….)

I see from their calendar that ‘their’ theater, Theatre 99, has not scheduled much yet during the huge local counterpart to Spoleto, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. (And I also see that Piccolo itself has yet to release their schedule — and won’t until May 18?!?!? … For a Festival that opens May 27?!?!? … WTF??!?!). Look out for a plethora of performances at Theatre 99 that 2 weeks, likely of high quality, if ‘archived’ history is any judge, when they brought in the likes of Spalding Gray to perform.

S.E. Barcus is also on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

The Have Nots! Have Lots, Piccolo Spoleto Review

Ghosts — The Play that Returned

By S.E.Barcus

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, April 1 – May 1, 2022

New Translation by Paul Walsh
Directed by Carey Perloff
Original Music Written and Performed by David Coulter

           The Seattle Rep brings back perhaps one of the most esteemed theater directors at “modernizing classics”, Carey Perloff. She was head of New York’s Classic Stage Company for years, and then ran San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater for another 15 years. She returns to Seattle (last here in 2018) as guest director to try and make the “father of realism,” Henrik Ibsen, and his Ghosts, relevant to us in 2022 — literally 140 years after it world premiered in Chicago in 1882 (which Seattle Rep audiences might recall, having seen the world premiere of the play about the play, in 2018…).

           Ohhhh, “Classics.”  How doth one modernize thee?

Photo by Sayed Alamy, from The Rep’s program. With David Strathairn, David Coulter, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Thom Sesma in rehearsal, 2022.

           This particular production premiered in 2019 at Williamstown Theatre Festival with Uma Thurman in the lead.  Big-wig Hollywood stars are one way to “modernize”, or at least make sexy and titillating, and we gots your Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn, here in Seattle, playing the free-thinking Helena Alving and the prudish Pastor Manders, respectively.  So…, check.

           Another way to bring us into the 21st century?  With a new, fresh translation.  This one, by Paul Walsh, promised us it would not feel so stuffy, like the original Victorian translation.  And I think he succeeded; the play does seem to have more of an American vernacular to it.  Although — Ibsen reportedly did not like the English translation of his title.  He would have preferred something closer to the Danish word (the lingua franca of Norway at the time), Gengangere, which is closer to “Revenants”, or “The Ones Who Return”, and would have had the triple entendre of meaning not only people who came back from the dead, such as ghosts, but also the return of memories and events, and perhaps even the return of living people who had left and come back, such as Helena’s “prodigal son,” Oswald Alving.  One wonders if Mr. Walsh was tempted to tamper with the well-known title itself, in his new translation, but backed off?

           Another way to try and modernize an older play?  A groovy, inspired set design, which Dane Laffrey does quite well.  It is complete with modern architecture, with great glass windows (reflecting the actors on stage as if they were … ghosts?  Aaaah!).  And the house had sod and grass on the roof, hipster-wheatgrass-juice-style, to give us that Scandinavian culture/feel.  But then other aspects of the production were more Victorian, from that remote era, such as the furniture (and costumes), all from at least a century ago.  The stacked-up furniture behind the glass was a constant reminder of a cluttered storage room, recalling and symbolizing the mementos / physical memories that most of us keep (at least, if we have not been subjected yet to Marie Kondo’s ‘joy’).

           But overall, none of the above quite drags this play out of the 1880s for me. It is all so much window dressing on a still very old, creaky house, with little actually updated inside of it.  And it’s the important stuff.  I’m not talking the electrical wiring, nor a nice, new updated kitchen, I’m talking about the words.  The language.  The play, itself.  Despite the modern American lingo, that old, stuffy morality still threatens to suffocate these characters and plot, and thus – knowing how it is relevant to modern politics, or not – still threatens to make this seem more of the dreaded “museum piece” to a modern audience.  (Showing that Schopenhauer’s idea — that nothing can be truly effectively translated from one language into another — might not actually be the case, as demonstrated in recent cog-sci news.)

           Actually, the irony is that, while this show uses a realistic style of acting — and while Ibsen himself is known for realism, which by its nature should be the antithesis to the melodrama form of his day — the plot has so many scandalous turns packed within its two hours that the story itself, today anyway, feels much more like a soap opera. 

           The plot involves (and I think there’s a 100-year-rule on ‘spoiler alerts’), in this order:  Mr. Alving was an adulterer and rapist, but his wife Helena stayed with him out of “duty”; he had a son, Oswald, who got syphilis from him (don’t worry about the outdated medical knowledge; or, at least, they don’t imply anywhere that Mrs. Alving had subclinical syphilis, though I suppose she could have); Mr. Alving died, but his memory lives on to haunt everyone; they build an orphanage in his name, but don’t insure it because that would be looked down upon by “the right sorts of people” as not trusting enough in God (like, wtf?!);  the maid, Regina, is the bastard daughter of a prostitute and the adulterer-ghost, Mr. Alving; the syphilitic son falls in love with Regina – who – egads! – turns out to be his half-sister (enter either Luke-and-Leia joke, or the old-school melodramatic gesture, “whoa is me,” here);  the ORPHANAGE burns down, fer chrissakes;  and the young man who is dying asks his mom to give him morphine to euthanize him….

Ibsen, by Henrik Olrik, 1879

           Whew!  …  Like.  Wow.  The writers I have known, who worked and snickered in their TV soap opera writer-rooms as they got paid to dream up some nasty thing or another every day that will befall some character or another?  They have NOTHING on Ibsen.  While he famously had Strindberg’s crazed picture there to spook him more into rational thoughts, and realism, it seems this didn’t completely work.  (btw, I wonder if Apollo carried Dionysus’s’ picture on his chariot?)

           The one touch that really did add something bona-fide-contemporary, for me, anyway, was the music. David Coulter, who has been musical director for the likes of Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson (holy crap, really?!) gives touches of musical ambiance with an eclectic array of instruments. Director Perloff nicely places him on the stage for us to see, back within the clutter of the storage room of old furniture, behind the glass, which acts as a sort of scrim when the lights were up or down or out front or above or from behind (all nicely designed by lighting designer, Robert Wierzel, thank you). Coulter was only subtly lit up as he played, whether with his upright smaller version of a glass armonica, or the eerie sounds from an instrument lower down that we couldn’t see, sliding a bow downwards over a … what is that? A saw? A theremin? 

           And he could get very different feelings out of the same instrument, played in unique ways.  Perhaps he would dribble pebbles on a Timpani drum over here, to assist Victoria Deiorio’s sound design when it rained, but then pound the living shit out of it to give us the terrifying feeling of chaos and destruction, as the inferno at the orphanage raged.  But then?  A single strumming of some zither or another, if that’s what suited the scene. I think my favorite sound was of Oswald’s neck pain, from a presumed tertiary syphilitic gumma.  As the pain was being described, Coulter circled his finger around the largest glass, creating a deep, low menacing tone, and then when the pain stabbed, a quick, sharp high-pitched tone from the smallest glass, bowing it piercingly.  (Was that bow strung up with some metallic wire? … Perhaps he stole this idea from Laurie Anderson/Bob Bielecki?  Or Jimmy Page?  Or both?  Oh, hell, give it to him – Coulter is the bowing armonica master….)

           “Fine,” though, is otherwise the word of choice for this production.  Throughout, the acting was fine, with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Helena rebutting the Pastor with stern retorts that were yet stiff-upper-lipped in a reserved, Scandinavian manner.  Free-thinking rebuttals that were undoubtedly courageous in their day for a woman, and for a playwright, based on the scandals with which the play was originally dealt.  Strathairn, likewise, played the finger-wagging killjoy, Pastor Manders, as well as could be done, one thinks.  He was appropriately stiff of posture, himself — but oh, what a drippy, pompous role to have to play.  Ugh.  I mean, I know this is how women are oppressed, then and now.  Not only with the domestic violence and the literal assassinations of Ob/Gyn physicians, but also by the insidious self-righteousness of these ubiquitous asshole-religious-leaders, who inspire laws and a culture where the threat of violence against women is omnipresent.  The whole “banality of evil”, and all, I suppose.  But … while actors typically enjoy playing the villain … I’ll betcha not many enjoy this one.  Too subtle.  (I know, I know — and there I was, saying there was too MUCH melodrama!  🙂 

           Albert Rubio III played Oswald … fine, looking rather the 1920s mustachioed Clark Gable…. And Nikita Tewani, as the maid Regina Engstrand, was likewise … fine.  All of the actors were believable, their stories were told, and all in all it was … fine — but the night was just not especially riveting.

           The only really inspired performance, the one that got the most reactions from the audience – and that felt like we were acknowledged as an audience and encouraged to participate — was from Thom Sesma, who played Regina’s step-father, the carpenter, Jakob Engstrand.  With just the wave of his hands and looking out at us, a simple joke about a dance was more engaging than even the climactic euthanasia scene.  To be fair, Sesma was allowed non-Scandinavian/Germanic bigger gestures — freer “working class movements” and struts — that made him much more physically interesting.  There is an interesting cog-sci study that showed that the assumption that Italians gesture more than Germans is incorrect.  Northern Europeans use an equal number, but just have subtler gestures — a slight finger movement here, a slight eyebrow raised there — while Southern Europeans use more proximal muscles, bigger wavings of the arms, etc.  I think, while Strathairn and Mastrantonio’s acting might have been better than I am appreciating, the fault might lie in this very difference.  A subtle facial expression is harder to pick up on in a large theater, and might be better suited for film…?  In any event, Sesma was a breath of fresh air in this otherwise misty set and suffocating play.  (Sesma is the only member of the cast who performed his role in the 2019 production, so perhaps that’s why he seems to have a comfortable, intuitive knowledge of the play?)

Photo by Sayed Alamy, from The Rep’s program. Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff in rehearsal, 2022.

           Perloff’s direction was, likewise … you guessed it … fine, with realistic acting and blocking, and the occasional breaking down of the fourth wall with characters running out into the audience, or the aforementioned Brechtian placement of David Coulter on the stage.  One assumes that with all of the above strategies employed to modernize this old 19th century morality lesson, it would highlight that these issues are a present-day problem, as well.  Perloff says in her interview in the program that she hopes audiences will take from the play that “women have only really begun the fight for autonomy and cultural value.”  Amen.  But, for me anyway, the play doesn’t walk that walk.  I don’t know.  I think perhaps a good rule of thumb, for me, is that, when doing realistic plays that really capture their time – but that come from a time countless generations ago — perhaps use the LEAST realistic style as possible.  Or perhaps, if playing it straight, one might simply project a supertitle in the beginning, that places the whole otherwise-crusty-bygone-era play in a creepy-near-future setting?  “The year is 2045…,” or something?  Make it feel more Handmaid’s Tale-y somehow? Or have giant photos of current misogynist rightwing leaders shown when Manders says “right sorts of people”?  Something less subtle, less realistic, LESS Ibsen is needed to make this 1880s play fresh.  Because as it is, I feel only the highest-of-brow theater majors of the Generation-Millennial-and-Z set will be able to enjoy this. 

           It looks increasingly plausible — with the Federalist Society succeeding at packing the Court, with the far right essentially succeeding at dismantling democracy at every level, with dozens of states enacting laws to put women “back in their place,” and with this dark cloud of nazionalism otherwise sweeping over the entire West these past 10 or so years — that the hard-won human rights of the first waves of feminism are imminently at risk, and that women’s lives are in danger right now.  Thus, on the topic of religion/morality oppressing women, which this play covers, we need a MUCH more impassioned art, that speaks to all women, not just Gen X and Boomer Rep audiences.  An art that really captures today, the here-and-now.  While I love the idea of this play, this production just doesn’t do it for me.  It feels more like … well, Gengangere.  A play that has returned.

           I get it. The oppressive society of the past, of Ibsen’s world, is alive again, today.  I get it.  This production might drive that home for you.  But for me, it was all … I dunno … just, fine.

Copyright April 17, 2022

S.E. Barcus is also on Facebook and Twitter.

Ghosts — The Play that Returned

Sunday Comic: A Day in the Life of another Disney Boycott

Copyright 4-3-22 SEB

Well.  There they go again.  … The far right is boycotting Disney. Reminds me of the ’90’s boycott, which was also a joke. Friggin’ right wing leaders and their incessant strategy of dividing Americans and pushing stupid culture wars.  How tiresome. Well, at least Disney parks might be a little less crowded and more enjoyable for a while. (I mean, where are these folks supposed to go?  Dolly Parton was never called an asshole. And there’s only so many trips to a big dorky fake Ark you can make, you know? …  Their poor kids….)

This piece of shit is calling for a boycott against Disney because she claims Disney is a bunch of ‘pedophiles’. With no evidence — just off-the-cuff slander. Really screwed up with how much the far right is obsessed with the left being a bunch of pedophiles.  From the whack-a-doodle QAnon pedophile-ring bullcrap, to the recent attack on Ketanji Brown Jackson, trying to link her with child pornographers somehow or another, to this latest Disney smear….  These people are just plain creepy-disturbed….  Their poor kids….

As usual, the boycott and current grand standing, and DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and on and on, aren’t meant to actually harm Disney.  (They won’t.)  They are meant to ante up in the ‘Who is more mean-spirited than everyone else?!’-race.  And — ‘May the most mean-spirited win!!’  …  That’s GOP politics for you, at least for the last 10 years or so…. They say they will make their own wholesome entertainment. … Uh…. Good luck with that….  Can anyone say “Veggie Tales” or “Stryper”?

Their poor kids….

Copyright 4-3-22.

S.E. Barcus is also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday Comic: A Day in the Life of another Disney Boycott

Jan Lisiecki, A Tale of Two Washingtons

Chopin Piano Concerto in DC; Chopin Nocturnes and Études in Seattle

March 17, 2022

By S.E. Barcus

Over the past two months, I had the chance to check out pianist Jan Lisiecki, a relatively young man (about to turn 27) who is marketed as pretty hot stuff.  He is Polish-Canadian, and his claim to fame started when Poland recognized him as something special, awarding him as a young teen to play both Chopin piano concertos, both of which were recorded and released, which immediately led to Deutsche Grammophon sucking him up with a recording contract like the behemoth Yankees stealing up the best ball-players.  And all of that happened by the time he was 15.  I mean, I know classical music is obsessed with child prodigies more than any other artform, but … JFC.  15?!

So … I checked him out.  Twice.  Once in Washington State this past January 25, when he played a plethora of Chopin Études and Nocturnes, and again last night in Washington DC, when he performed what seems to be his calling card piece with the National Symphony Orchestra, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. 

I’m not privy to the inner working of the classical music business, but one cannot help but cynically think – “Polish-ancestry.  Check.  Seeming to corner the Polish-composer Chopin’s market (as if a “Polish” sensibility is inherited somehow).  Check.  Sprinkle in some of that “best pianist to come out of Canada since Glenn Gould” schtick for good measure.  Check.  In a good-looking young man who can definitely play the keys. Check.”  It all seems a little … “markety”.  It seems he very very very often plays Chopin.  Like, almost every single performance he gives.  At least in the recent past and upcoming European performances (with some Prokofiev thrown in here  — and Denver/Colorado Orchestra seems to get a special treat with some Grieg).  But overall … mostly Chopin.

Lisiecki at Benaroya Hall, Seattle, January 25

Lisiecki says in one of his online interviews that he’s being pretty adventurous by ‘forcing’ his record company to let him do some Mendelssohn, something not as frequently played.  For this young man, this is his “bad-ass rebellion”.  And to be sure, that’s cool that we got the 20th version of some Mendelssohn rather than the 500th version of whatever Chopin they wanted him to do again.  But….   I witnessed so much talent here.  And being older, I am hopeful that the young man will realize his power with every passing day, and demand not only Felix, but perhaps continue on his current path into the 20th century with the likes of Prokofiev.  (I hope neither he nor the Europeans change these performances due to the war, as some have done, in “freedom fries” fashion.  Good Russian people should not be vilified, but supported; supported in their own efforts to overthrow their despot.  Besides which … Prokofiev is amazing!)  I am hopeful in my lifetime I will be able to buy a recording of Lisiecki playing Ligeti.  (Hey!  That has a nice consonance ring to it!  Are you hearing me, Deutsche Grammophon?!)

All that said, when you see and hear him for yourself, it is apparent that Lisiecki is quite obviously his own person now.   Perhaps his sensibility truly is one similar to that found in the 19th century, and that’s what he’ll play the rest of his life.  He has described the joys of being a pianist due to the nearly-infinite quantity of literature available.  With hundreds of years to select from, one could easily spend one’s lifetime in just one century and still be as happy as a clam, still re-discover jewels and gems and pearls a-plenty.  So … you do you, Lisiecki.

SEATTLE

Lisiecki said, in the program for his night at Benaroya Hall, that he organized his Études and Nocturnes by a progression in keys, which is odd, given they initially progress to the next piece by moving a third down or a 5th up, but then after intermission mostly a 4th up with even some 2nds thrown in….  I’m sure the goal, like any composer doing some book of Preludes or something (or some rock album figuring out its ”track list”), was for a nice variety that would flow seamlessly.  Given the performer of another’s work does not compose the piece, I get the feeling pianists enjoy this curatorial sort of work, which considers the emotional ebbs and flows of an evening as carefully as a composer does within each piece.  It must be a creative and fun aspect of “their job”. 

Lisiecki wanted an evening that gave the impression of “poems in a book”, and I think he succeeded.  Although, perhaps more like “entries in a diary”, for me, given Chopin is so emotionally wrought that it feels almost too private and intense than the more-often artistic façade of a poem.  Which, of course, is why Chopin is to this day – without hyperbole — one of the greatest composers in all of human history, especially in regards to writing for the piano. 

To hear Nocturnes at night is dangerous.  They are so quiet and peaceful at times that if you didn’t get much sleep the night prior, or had too much booze before the show or during intermission, you might just be lulled to sleep.  (Don’t be that guy snoring at a performance!)  For myself, the Nocturnes instantly transport me to someone’s living room in Paris, with all hipsters quietly surrounding the piano like 19th century goth kids, as Chopin wows them with his virtuosity and sensitivity, somehow hypnotizing everyone into a calm and pensive night, altogether, often with that happy-sad sense of melancholy. 

Frédéric Chopin

Whenever Lisiecki hits the sweet spot, the tender moments, his body stiffens, and he sits straight up as if he were having tea with the Queen (which — holy shit — he actually did once?!).  If I were to interview the lad, I’d ask him if this posture does not somehow subconsciously help his performance with these delicate spots.  With the pianissimo.  Does it relax the arms, to really focus on the hands for those quietest moments, which are, after-all, the hardest to control and vary and play well?  Or does the posture somehow mentally transport him to a place where everything is dainty and refined, and so such feelings just naturally exit the hands due to this corporeal trick? I dunno, but he returns to that posture several times, and in DC as well, when proper delicacy is required. 

Performatively, I also like the way Lisiecki nods and bobs his head around while he’s playing.  Keeps things interesting for the spectator, expresses visually what is often aurally coming your way, as well.

The Études always seem as difficult to me as a Bach 5-voice fugue when I hear them, mixed in with virtuoso passages meant to wow and amaze (and terrify, if you are a performer, yourself).  Here, too, Lisiecki doesn’t disappoint.  For these pieces, when they really get rolling, his style is to stand slightly off the chair and literally lean over the keys, attacking them with downward thrusts of his arms, likely getting more force this way.  (Again, he does this several times in DC, as well.)  It’s not a personal little stool he’s on, and he’s not humming along with the music (as far as I can tell), but something about this performative technique was quirky. A technique that was odd, and might be frowned upon as something that might distract our attention, and thus avoided.  And it was with this impression — the feeling that the kid (er, young man) doesn’t seem to care what he looks like as long as he’s going about his job and business of playing this piece as well as he can, his way, even if it’s a little “weird” — that he reminded me at those moments of his fellow Canadian and genius, Glenn Gould. Quirky and unique and not giving a damn … and being really, really good.

All of these pieces are undoubtedly well-known to everyone, we’ve heard them a million times.  But if he is getting tired of these pieces, now that he has played them over and over (he says in an interview that he likes to practice as little as possible, just enough to be able to execute, but no more, so as to keep music as fresh as possible), it does not show itself.  The night was wonderful at expressing the famous composer’s works.

Lisiecki does have more rubato than I think I’ve heard on various recordings.  Perhaps it is his true personal feelings coming through, or perhaps it is that tendency for performers to want to make their unique mark on a piece that you otherwise cannot quite modify or control.  Or both.  But it was noticeable.  And it was fine.  It was beautiful.  Domo arigato.  Mr. Rubato.

The last piece in Seattle was the biggest crowd-pleaser, the Revolutionary Étude, and he performed it with great passion, ending the night with a standing ovation and a curtain call.  But no encore.  (Insert sad-face emoji here.)  Of course, the Revolutionary Étude is often other pianists’ encore, so … we’re good. 

DC

I wondered if, given my sense in Seattle that Lisiecki’s tendency was to dramatically vary his tempi, I wondered, would the orchestra and he stay together?  Would Conductor Thomas Wilkins keep them together, or would Mr. Lisiecki perhaps stray off into his own thoughts and tempi?  He exploited rubato in his solo parts, but yes, they seemed to stay together very well, otherwise.  At times, maybe, things seemed to get too fast?  And Conductor Wilkins would turn to Lisiecki with bigger gestures (hard to get a pianist’s attention as they are playing difficult passages), which seemed to settle things down.  If this was truly the case, it was hardly noticeable, given most of the time the piece seemed to flow as effortlessly and near-perfectly as any recording, with only a few wrong notes here and there.  But to be fair, whatever transpired between conductor and soloist, the music sounded great, and shortly after any look of consternation – as well as after each movement, during the pause – Wilkins never failed to turn to Lisiecki with a literal subtle wink of the left eye, communicating either “atta boy” or “damn, are we not knocking this out of the park, or what?!”

For not writing much music other than for the piano, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 sure does have a long orchestral opening – 3 to 4 minutes — before the piano rears its beautiful head. One almost forgets there’s a piano up there, at all, until that first E minor chord crashes on top of you, fortissimo, in your face.  Lisiecki almost seemed to slightly jump the gun with it, which I liked.  If one knows it’s coming, as the strings slowly fade away, the quicker that attack, the better the effect, I think.

There are then several minutes of more virtuoso passages, that were probably designed to showcase the young composer as he bid farewell to his Poland.  And they are great, with all of their cascading arpeggios and little waterfalls essentially based around the third interval, whether modified as a 6th or 10th.  (My own preference, of course, but … when his solo parts are over, especially the more extravagant show-offy ones, and the orchestra picks up the music again, I believe the jazz culture does it better.  We should be able to acknowledge and applaud sections by soloists who just completed an outstanding passage.  I have lost too many arguments to classical folks about this opinion to know that this behavior will never happen in classical music culture – or at least, if it did, that that person would be kicked out tout de suite if they ever acted on the impulse!)

But somewhere around the 8th minute or so of the 1st movement is when the piece gets its “dolce” back, becomes more lyrical, beautiful, “sublime” – all of the things that come to mind when one hears the word “Chopin”.  Of course, great composers have a mastery of all emotional expression, and Chopin is no different.  Just in this first movement, every expression seems represented at one time or another.  The first movement then ends as if Forman’s Salieri were with us, “end it with a bang, so they know it’s done”.  I would’ve preferred the “whimper” sort of ending, with tenderness, thank you T.S. Eliot.  Perhaps I am influenced this particular month by the current war?

But, of course, Chopin knows best.  A whimper wouldn’t have segued into nor contrasted with the 2nd movement nearly as well.  The second movement, the Romanze, is like a lullaby.  Chopin said it was dedicated to the tenderness one feels, being in a familiar place with 1000 sweet memories. Hearing this in DC, where I was born, and where I was visiting all of my old haunts, and knowing that Chopin had intended this for the movement, made a special impression on me.  Music is, of course, an abstract artform, but if we bring to it all of the contextual features, its history, and if the composer is a genius for whatever “programmatic” story he wants to tell, and we are still yet within their cultural milieu enough to overcome the passage of time or space, and understand the composer’s intended symbolism – music then can be moving and meaningful beyond just what sound frequencies are known to provoke in the deeply-rooted non-dominant hemispheric musical/emotional centers of our brains.  Music has the power to stir things in the consciousness – memories, images, feelings – that other artforms just cannot match.  Which is why it is so powerful and beloved, of course.

At some point, as he plays, Lisiecki’s hands seem really big to me, at least from the audience.  Like he’s a puppy and still growing, with giant paws.  (They are most definitely not Trump’s hands….)  This would seem to be physically perfect for the piano. I might ask how such a young man can possibly have and convey such a wide range of emotion, with relatively few experiences?  But then, Chopin WROTE the damn thing when he was just 20!  Which should make us sit down, take a breath, and realize … it is hopeless for us!  (Of course, Lisiecki first played the piece for that Warsaw festival when he was … what? … 14?!  ….  We are doomed.)

One of the more memorable performative gestures was a swooshing of Lisiecki’s trunk to the left, at the end of a solo section, almost flipping his short hair back, as if literally “throwing it back” to the conductor and orchestra.  I loved it.  (It was probably here that I wanted to applaud, like at a jazz show.)

Roger Daltrey as Liszt, from Lisztomania

The third movement is much more lively, filled with dances and grand-sounding marches, filled again with more of the ”look at me” virtuoso stuff one expected from a piano concerto back then, more arms than hands, swinging around both ends of the compass almost perfunctorily.  This isn’t what I come to Chopin for – I prefer the Nocturnes, for the sublime, which again Lisiecki did equally well in Seattle, of course.  But if you wants tha glitz – the concerto gives you the Liberace-schtick better than anyone, as well. (Except for maybe that true “Liberace of the Romantics”, Liszt.)  And if you wants bouncy-fun country dances, that’s in this 3rd movement in spades. 

Why do we perform and experience old works that have been recorded a hundred times?  Even if Lisiecki or any performer were the greatest of all time, no matter how they adjusted a work to suit their own expressive needs as an artist themselves, overall, mostly the same emotions and expressions are communicated if they’re following the composers wishes, i.e. notes and tempo and expressive markings. So, we’re here to experience, what?  Skill – “look what I can do?”  Look, human beings still got it, in 2022?  We’re still cultured? We care about our history? Is it so we can experience the work together, as a community?  Is it nostalgia, and thus no wonder classical music gets the bad rap for being the artform for the older and more conservative audience?  Obviously, it is probably all these things and much more. (And there are undoubtedly several PhD theses on the topic from musicologists, so I’ll stop now!).

They might be marketing Lisiecki as the master of Chopin because he’s Polish, or the next Glenn Gould, or whatever.  But, hearing him in interviews, and reading about the guy, I’m not sure Lisiecki is that Machiavellian.  My guess is it is more the agents or the companies that want to sell him.  And you know what?  Cynicism aside, more power to them, given how tiny and fragile our classical music world is, at least in America.  Whatever works – more power to you.  Go out there and get more people coming back to the symphony halls, you Madison Avenue whiz-kids!  Get busy!  And I am most pleased to announce that whatever the hype, when you see and hear the fellow, you won’t be disappointed.  He is professional, embodies the music, performs it as well as anyone.  So, do – do – do, do – do believe the hype.

(Be careful though, Lisiecki!  The lady next to me was disappointed that, after your three curtain calls, you did not give us an encore.  “I saw Lang Lang here at the Kennedy Center, and he came out and gave us an encore….”  It’s a tough business, man!  Find yourself some of those Yuja Wang show-stoppers!  In DC, the civil servants are restless!) 

As in Seattle, he has played this concerto so many times, so he risks “being a caricature of himself”, as he has worried publicly.  That he might, himself, become bored with a work, and thus play it without feeling.  “Calling it in.”  If he was, we didn’t get that sense.  The performance was excellent.  He seems to play the Romantics very well.  I do think his own soul might just be that schmalzy? 

But not to be flippant — he also does the work.  He’s professional.  He hits the notes, conveys the emotions, expertly varies the tempo and dynamics (including those pp moments, in a sense, the most difficult sections) in a confident and – yes – already very “experienced” manner (at 26!).  Have no fear — you pays your money, you will gets your product.  Close your eyes, and the performance is as good as any recording that needed 30 takes.  And it is live, and in front of you, surrounded by your community, sharing in the sublime.  These were good nights.  Lisiecki deserves the title of “professional”.

NSO

Let’s give the National Symphony Orchestra their due for the works they did the rest of their night.

They were led this St. Patrick’s Day by the seemingly-pleasant-but-strict, Conductor Thomas Wilkins, who comes out punctually (I was warned by the event staff to get to my seat – they start right on time!).  He makes little fanfare, climbs the podium, and jumps right into the music.  He conducts with very small gestures, more subtle ticks of the baton, only slightly leaning in here or there to various sections of the orchestra.  (To my joy and surprise, at the end of the evening, this stern-seeming man had a giant boyish smile on his face and even fist-bumped people in the first row – so … you know what they say about the covers of books….)

Marine helicopters roaring by Kennedy Center patio, March 17.

People are posting on social media about various symphonies around the world opening with the Ukrainian national anthem.  Here, in DC, while the war drums are pounding loudly, with military helicopters literally freaking me out as they roared over the Kennedy Center’s patio … no such thing.  The night began with a somewhat cheesy Romantic-era piece, Franz von Suppé’s Die schöne Galathée, the Overture.  Suppé was forced to compete with Offenbach and his Can Can, and the opera buffa sensibility shined.  It starts ceremonial/militaristic, pomp-and-circumstance-like, like a John Philip Sousa passage (I guess apropos for a National Orchestra), and definitely wakes you up to start the night.  There are sweet moments, as well, not to mention some very Austrian um-pah-pah’s here and there, so overall, it was a fine divertissement.

The second half of the night in DC, after the concerto and intermission, featured the 20th century German composer, Paul Hindemith, and his Mathis der Maler Symphony.  (On March 17, tonight was nothing but Austrian and Polish and German? So, to honor the day on my own, I felt obliged to have an Irish whiskey at intermission….)  (And no, I wasn’t the guy snoring!)  Hindemith was an alternative to the Stravinsky version of a neoclassicist, and Baroque forms sneak in here and there, but he was still open and searching, promoting the music of Webern and Schoenberg when he led festivals in the 1920s. 

Conductor Wilkins and the National Symphony Orchestra, March 17

The symphony is based on his opera of the same name, about a painter living in a time of warfare between Catholic and Lutheran, and what it meant to be an artist making sense of his profession in a time of conflict, which Hindemith himself was doing in the 1930’s, with the Nazis on the rise, and he, negotiating how far he could go with his art, while keeping a careful eye on whether or not the racist pieces of shit might actually continue to rise in power, especially keeping in mind his wife was Jewish….  (Artists in Russia who have recently fled to Finland and Armenia, or artists in America in the age of Trump, couldn’t possibly relate to such a theme, could they?!) Hindemith himself had to flee Germany in 1938, to Switzerland.  Perhaps the current global nationalist creepiness is why the artists of the NSO chose to perform this piece…?

This piece opens with what a modern audience might recognize coincidentally as Danny Elfman’s Batman theme (of course that would be the other way around!), but in this case quickly evolves into a cheerful three angels German folk music theme (that actually comes near the end of the associated opera), and from there, a bantering off and on of those angels with atypical tonal themes, starting with flutes, bouncing around the sections of the orchestra for most of the movement, at one point with fugal-like elements in the strings about halfway through.  The third movement has a lot of drums in the beginning, and lots of colors at the end, until the finale, which sounds to me like it was ripped right out of Pictures at an Exhibition. I wasn’t as familiar with this work, and am thankful to the NSO’s musicians and Conductor Wilkins, for this great performance and well-done, enjoyable evening, overall.

I’ll say this about these two nights.  Between Washington State and Washington DC, there is a continent.  The former has a season-ticket-holding crowd that attends in sweaters and jeans (“come as you are”…), while the Kennedy Center crowd was much more dressy, and much older, in general, as well, as if JFK himself might be in the upper balcony tonight.  But at the end of both nights, there was warm and sincere applause, a shared experience of a young, living performer who reincarnated the ghost of Chopin for us, as he seems to be doing throughout the world.  As a borderline Gen Z’er, this is Lisiecki’s time, and there is now no doubt that Chopin, for whatever reason – whether marketing or talent or ancestry or otherwise – has become his responsibility.  He owns Chopin.  … And frankly, that’s a big fucking terrifying responsibility, so I really feel for this guy.  But … he’s meeting the moment.  He’s doing it really well, and we should be thankful we have moments like the ones he gave us these two nights.  I truly believe that all of the Northwest Bro-mazons, and all of the DeCeit policy-wonks, the folks on both coasts, were, for these two nights anyway, amazed and transported by a Lisiecki séance.

Copyright 3-18-2022, S.E. Barcus

Follow S.E. Barcus on Facebook and Twitter.

Jan Lisiecki, A Tale of Two Washingtons

Beethoven and the War of February 24

Night at the an der Vilar
Review of Colorado Symphony performing Beethoven’s 5th and 6th Symphonies

Beaver Creek, CO

By S.E. Barcus (and Vladimir Putin)

February 24, 2022

The Colorado Symphony (CS) perform Beethoven’s 6th and 5th Symphonies for the (mostly) wealthy skiers of Beaver Creek and Vail, February 24-27, 2022, at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, CO.  I had a chance to see the opening night, and am SO glad I did (if for no other reason than it was a brief reprieve from Putin’s homicidal start to Europe’s greatest tragedy in over 70 years).  Not knowing what to expect, I was thoroughly impressed with this Rocky Mountain state’s symphony by the end of the evening.  (Looking through their season seemed worrying; kinda cheesy.  In between classics from the usual repertoire, they will be performing ‘works by Queen’, a collaboration with Ben Folds (ugh), among other things.…  This is not surprising, though.  When Vaclav Havel took over the Czech Republic after the Soviet block disintegrated, and they went full-on freedom and democracy, people didn’t entirely jump to the highbrow arts.  Did they flock to Kafkaesque theater?  Heck no!  They demanded sit-coms!  And so, too, America.  If you want to sell the season tickets for classical music, you might need to throw in the music from the video game Final Fantasy VII….)

The introduction to our concert pointed out that it was the most musicians (~60) on that stage at one time ever in the history of the Vilar, and that they’d always strived to host symphonic works.  The usual pretty panels of the ceiling were removed in an attempt for better acoustics.  Overall, hats off to Vilar, as well as the CS, this weekend, for pulling it off.

Theater an der Wien.

But why 6th before 5th?  Perhaps because it is the longer piece before the intermission?  Perhaps – as Beethoven did when he turned the tables on many of his sonatas and symphonies — to end, rather than begin, with the bang?  Or, perhaps because this is how they were originally performed, together, at their world premier at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on that famous night of December 22, 1808?  (Only, without the other world premieres of that same evening, including:  Ah! perfido; the Mass in C Minor;  the Piano Concerto No. 4;  an extemporized fantasia for solo piano; and finally (what he hoped would be the ‘end-with-a-bang’) — the famed precursor to the 9th Symphony — the Choral Fantasy.  I could argue this almost gives near-certainty to a diagnosis of mania.  So, the world premiere of these two beloved symphonies came with all the rest of that music – four hours in total – with an under-rehearsed, shoddy, community orchestra, in a cold, unheated theater, with Beethoven ranting and raving around like a lunatic all day and night. … In short, it must … have … been … AWESOME!  If anyone wants to produce my screenplay of the happening, “Night at the an der Wien”, please email me!)

6th Symphony in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral”

The 6th should be considered a special challenge, and should terrify anyone having anything to do with performing it.  More ‘holy’, perhaps, than even Beethoven’s epic late-period Missa Solemnis.  While everyone always raves about the odd-numbered 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th Symphonies (as if Beethoven’s symphonies were like the San Antonio Spurs’ Championships), the even-numbered 6th in many other ways stands alone.  (It’s like that one year Timmy Duncan got his even-numbered ring in 2014 … his “Pastoral Championship”?).  Remember that Beethoven was not a very religious person.  If he was anything, it seems he was more ‘spiritual’, and the forest canopy was his cathedral.  Beethoven: “My miserable hearing does not trouble me here. In the country it is as if every tree said to me: ‘Holy! Holy!’ Who can give complete expression to the ecstasy of the woods! Oh, the sweet stillness of the woods!”  … So, you’re performing the most revered-composer-of-all-time’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, the greatest work he ever made that was dedicated to Nature? … Um, ok, good luck with that.

Markus Stenz.

First Violinist and Concertmaster, Yumi Hwang-Williams, who herself was excellent through the evening, brought out the maestro.  Markus Stenz was our Guest Conductor tonight.  A German fellow — so the Beethoven spirit he summoned might have been in the bones? — he trained with Leonard Bernstein, among others.  

The opening movement of the 6th, “Joyful Feelings Upon Arriving in the Country”, is ‘literally’ magical.  It is awe-inspiring, how – within just the first 20-30 seconds of strings – Beethoven so instantly transports one to a casual stroll through a quiet woods.  You can listen to it a hundred times and it never, ever, fails.  And on this night — after hearing probably dozens of various orchestras play this — the Colorado Symphony with Stenz captured that feeling with an even gentler walk than I have ever heard.  Not sure if it was just a little more pianissimo, or if Ms. Hwang-Williams and her ‘team’ just played it more warmheartedly than others have, but it was beautiful.  (Another contribution might have been – despite Vilar’s applaudable efforts – the acoustics, as later on, whenever fortissimo was needed, it just never quite got there.  But hey – we can’t all have an ear-shaped auditorium like the Walt Disney Concert Hall….)

This conductor is FUN to watch.  If you don’t know much about the music you’re experiencing, it’s a good idea to watch the conductor.  If they’re good, like Stenz, they’ll lead you just as well as they’re leading the symphony players.  Stenz bounced up and down through the night, trotting like a horse as the rest of the symphony entered in with the galloping theme, baton-less, bopping his fists rhythmically whenever things danced on the off-beats here, waving his fingers around like an enchanting magician there.

And then again with the opening of the second movement – “By the Brook”– such exceptional tenderness produced by this Colorado Symphony’s strings to begin the movement!  I’m kinda sappy, but the openings of these first two movements tonight brought tears to the eyes, the music was just so gentle.  I wish they made a recording out of this night.  Sweet flute sounds, like Pan in the woods (Disney got the mythological spirit right in its Fantasia-Bacchus-filled rendering of this symphony), signify the approaching end to both the first two movements, played here and throughout the night by the excellent Principal Flutist (I assume Ms. Brook Ferguson).  

“Peasant Merrymaking”, the third movement, has a hint of the 7th Symphony, with its bouncy dancing rhythms, perhaps George Thomson’s Scottish dance tunes were sticking in Ludwig’s head by that point?  (Oh!  Look out!  There goes Stenz trotting again, actually needing to hold that bar behind him at times, so he wouldn’t fall off the podium!)  The French horns were on ONE note a little squeaky, but they quickly found their legs (lips?), and were excellent for the rest of the night.  Actually – this might have been the single moment there was any detectable faux pas, for the whole night.  (Sorry to stick that on you, French horns!)  So given that, in a live performance, this Symphony gave us a night of excellent execution.  

The 4th movement brings the “The Thunderstorm”, of course.  Ah!  Our poor timpani player, William Hill (I presume), finally gets to do something!  Pounding thunder, then rolling away, then pounding again, then rolling away, until rumble … rumble … and gone….  But then Mr. Hill had to sit down in the corner for the rest of the symphony, once again, solemn and alone – shooed off like a Black Bart cowboy villain at the end of that storm/conflict.  Near the end of the movement, there is one of those color-adding piccolo parts that reaches so high it makes you hold onto your seat like a roller-coaster that might fly off the rails because it seems so difficult.  Yet each note was hit precisely by that expert of the tiny flute, Julie Duncan Thornton (as she did again in the 5th, as well!).

Then, as Beethoven himself said about the C Major ending to his C Minor 5th Symphony, “Joy follows sorrow, sunshine – rain!”  The last movement, “The Shepherd’s Song After the Storm”, is like pure sunshine made out of sound.  Near the end, Beethoven brings the strings to such a rising fortissimo that they fill your lungs with air to the point you cannot exhale until they stop.  It literally takes your breath away, a spiritual sylvan moment, presaging that powerful ability of the strings that Samuel Barber would later exploit with his Adagio for Strings

So, you’re performing the most revered-composer-of-all-time’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, the greatest work he ever made that was dedicated to Nature? … Yes, Colorado Symphony did do that, and did it superbly.

5th Symphony in C Minor, Op.67

S.E.:  And now, folks, I reluctantly turn the 5th’s review over to President Putin of Russia, given he has a gun to my head….

Putin:  Ah!  Spasibo.  I do love ski!  And up here in Vail, I both ski and catch up with fellow world oligarchs; strategize with them on how we might soon have to adjust our methods of criminal laundering (thanks to nuisances like Alexei Navalny and those damned Panama-and-Pandora-Papers, or the studies from the likes of Thomas Piketty proving just how ridiculous-much I have pilfered from my idiot Russian serfs!  But I am confident, overall, no need worry, since to really attack criminal off-shore accounts, would mean West needs to attack its own corruption-laden white-collar crime, which I know they would never do.  Too weak, and their own people too stupid, as well!)  

Beaver Creek – you are not for me splendid like Sochi (where is beautiful, and I can kill anyone with impunity — not even needing to use poison there, if not want!), but is still nice, nonetheless….

And behold!  While here — Beethoven!  I think I as Russian psychopath, in particular, have had soft spot for Beethoven ever since Kubrick film – one with all Russian slang…?  And to mark this day, the 24th — when I have militarily invaded the peaceful democracy of Ukraine for no good reasons other than my petty revanchist desires or my childlike insecure hurt feelings that the old Warsaw block for some strange reason would rather be with EU over ME!?  Thank goodness they did not perform that damnable 9th Symphony!  All ‘brotherhood of man’ nonsense – ya ya ya!  (I do see that they do that one May 27-29 with their newly-named Principal Conductor, Peter Oundjian.)

No!  We got Beethoven’s Fifth!  Thank goodness!  I do love that symphony!  As you know, First movement is full of ‘Fate knocking on door’, from most famous motif in all classical music, those first four notes, those first five bars, and most beautiful development onward.  Stenz went with the quick, crisp opening, not the drawn out melodrama.  I like this! And Principal Oboist Peter Cooper (I presume) really stood out in this movement, I thought.  Just enchanting to hear him play.

S.E.:  Yes, I agree, I think he and Ms. Ferguson next to him both stood out.  They were quite a team together through both symphonies.

Putin:  Da.  Now shut up, or I pull trigger.  …  Where I was?  … Ah!  And so ended first movement of ‘Fate’ beating down on poor Ludwig — with deafness, with illness, with unrequited love, with financial struggles…. And yet, as we know, by end of symphony, he rose up to create one of greatest symphonies in human history, representing strength and resilience of human spirit!  The 5th is also “V” for “Victory” symphony after World War II, again something I, as Russian, appreciate.  (The Eroica would’ve been nice, too, as everyone knows I am “great man”….)  The audience loved this movement so much they applauded it by itself, as if wanting encore right then, like 2nd movement of 7th Symphony world premiere.  And who can blame them?  This Colorado Symphony perform most excellent.

Second movement, Andante con moto, with variations and rousing horns remind me that I would have military orders to go back and give when this all done.  Allegro was wonderful, especially that little fugue – oh, how I loved how Principal Cellist Seoyoen Min would bop her head, dancing to the rhythms and intertwined themes.

Last movement, another Allegro, just magnificent!  (I swear there is section there, with French horns playing a brief martial C Major into G Major theme before strings take over — John Williams blatantly ripped off for a Star War theme, da?! Or perhaps was Superman?)  And C minor symphony ends how?  With C major chords — 29 straight bars of them right up to end!  (I am surprised Schoenberg thought anything else could be written in C Major.)  As old KGB man who saw lands lost but now takes back, to bring back into my sphere of cronyism, repression, corruption, and murder?!  This ending warms my heart.  Little Russia, you know, did not fall in love with U.S, or ‘the West’, or NATO, or the E.U.  Let us be clear.  What Ukraine fell in love with were ideals of Enlightenment.  With idea that people should be “free”, and choose their leaders in a “free and open election”, that there should be a “rule of law” that is filled with principles of “Justice” and ”fairness”.  …  I – and my good friend Xi – are against these values to the fullest and stand together against such biased Western hegemony.  These values make people behave very badly, as you can plainly see.  They make them do unspeakable things like … like … speak truth, or stand up for so-called “rights” and “freedoms”.   Very bad ideals.  Do nothing but get people hurt.

Without inspiring music like the 5th, I myself might not have had the strength to overcome my own adversity.  But I have done so!  Ukraine will return to flock!  The world will become filled with C Major for Putin!  As all was not lost in 1989! 

S.E.:  But what about the innocent civilians being killed in Ukraine?  Or the drafted young Russians who you throw into battle, who don’t even want to fight, but who will die in large numbers killing their brothers? 

Putin:  Alas, if only your past leader, that useful idiot, had disbanded NATO like I told him to, none of this would have happened.  (What a ‘loser’.  Ha!)  But as for needless suffering and death of thousands and thousands of Ukrainians and Russians?  Eh.  I am psychopath, I not really have ‘feelings’, so is of no concern for me, personally. 

S.E.: Oh Vlad?

Putin: Da?

S.E.: Given Beethoven created the 9th Symphony, I think we can honestly say that the 5th is not meant for people like you.

Putin:  What?!  How dare you!

S.E.:  And also, did you not see that you were currently surrounded by many Russians who came here to ski and hear the performance tonight?

Putin:  Oh!  No, I did not, hello there, brothers!

S.E. And that they heard every word you just said.

Putin:  Oh.  So?  What do I care — Hey!  Wha –  !  Stop that!  … No!!!!

(Putin is picked up and run out of town like Black Bart….)

S.E.:  Thank you, good Russian people from the glorious land of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, of Rimsky and Prokofiev and Stravinsky and on and on and on and on….  

Good people of Russia, we love you and wish you well in your own struggle against your tyrant.  Please take him down asap. Good people of Ukraine, we hope and/or pray for you in every conceivable way.  Good people of the West, try and summon the strength and courage yourselves, to crack down on oligarchs and white collar criminals everywhere — including here.  And make sure your own idiot leaders don’t make the same mistakes that they made at the end of WWI and the Cold War, but instead the correct policy of love-bombing any perceived ‘enemies’ at the end of wars, like we did after WWII with the Marshall Plan.  Germany in the ‘30s and Russia now sure evolved differently than Germany and Japan did after WWII…. Thanks a lot, Bush Sr. and Jim Baker.

The world is just such a horrible place.  February 24 shows us that once again — and (hopefully!) near the final end of this 2-years-long damned plague, no less!  Thank goodness there are immortal works of art like Beethoven’s 5th and 6th that we can turn to, when we need to, when things just get too incomprehensibly depressing.

OK, sorry, CS – no more politics.  In sum, Colorado has proven to me that it needs to add one more S to all of its famed “S’s” (Steers, Skiing, South Park, Stoners…).  Colorado is also home, it turns out, to a very decent Symphony, one that I will look out for any and every time I hit the state.  They could not have expressed these two masterworks any better.  Kudos.

Copyright S.E. Barcus, 2-24-2022.

Follow S.E. Barcus on Facebook.

Beethoven and the War of February 24

Music in Time, Spoleto Review 2001

2001 Archives.

A review of some amazing days of contemporary classical music, curated by John Kennedy, with superb work by pianist Sarah Cahill, including playing a world premiere by Kui Dong.

(Photo credit — hinnk — of Ms. Cahill performing at Berkeley Art Museum.)

Follow S.E. Barcus on Facebook. Listen to Kui Dong’s Earth, Water, Wood, Metal, and Fire on YouTube.

Music in Time, Spoleto Review 2001

Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Spoleto Review 2001

2001 Archives

More from the archives. I think to this day Dido’s Lament, the aria “When I am laid in earth,” stands as the most moving melancholic singing I still have ever heard in my life, which soprano Deanne Meek performed wonderfully.

Nancy Santos, photograph for Charleston City Paper

Follow S.E. Barcus on Facebook.

Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Spoleto Review 2001

Music in Time, Spoleto’s Contemporary Classical Music Showcase, a Preview

2001 Archives

My interview with John Kennedy. Every Spoleto, I was most reliably excited by Kennedy’s curated contemporary classical music series. For this year, 2001, we got to hear music by Ruth Crawford Seeger, in honor of her centennial, including Nine Preludes for Piano, Music for Small Orchestra, and Three Songs, as well as some of her own folk music (before her son Pete took off with the form…!). I was so blown away by Sarah Cahill‘s piano playing the Nine Preludes, that I bought her CD — and still have it! … And I don’t have a CD player anymore! 😦

Sarah Cahill was also the pianist for pieces by Hyo-shin Na (Variations for Piano), Mamoru Fujieda (Patterns of Plants), Evan Ziporyn (Pondok), and Kui Dong (Earth, Water, Wood, Metal, Fire).

This festival year also included music by Giya Kancheli (Exil) and Philip Glass (One Plus One, Head On, Piece in the Shape of a Square, Two Pages, and Company).

Follow S.E. Barcus on Facebook.

Music in Time, Spoleto’s Contemporary Classical Music Showcase, a Preview

Philip Glass’ “New-World-Fusion-Chamber-Music-Quartet”, a Spoleto Festival Preview

2001 Archives.

My archives, June 6, 2001, posting by coincidence w Philip Glass’ 85th birthday bash. Happy Birthday! My interview with Philip Glass just before his 2001 Spoleto performance of The Screens, a collaborative piece composed along with West African-born composer and griot, Foday Musa Suso. What an honor for me. My fellow-critic/friend, Robert T. Jones, then critic for Charleston Post and Courier, and editor for Glass’ “Music by Philip Glass”, hipped me to the composer (and fellow Marylander!). See for yourself in the interview, he’s a swell guy!

Featured image photo by Pasquale Maria Salerno, posted on Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/71349915@N00, posted on Wikipedia by Axel Boldt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:AxelBoldt

Follow S.E. Barcus on Facebook.

Philip Glass’ “New-World-Fusion-Chamber-Music-Quartet”, a Spoleto Festival Preview

John Adams and the Noir of January 6

Composer John Adams Conducts his Coming-Coup-Collage for the Seattle Symphony

By S.E. Barcus

January 6, 2022

John Adams with the Seattle Symphony, January 6, 2022.

“Don’t know what it is, Adams’ interest in private eyes, but there are two pieces on the program tonight that reference them. These films about a gritty anti-hero, trying to solve a crime, but also doing anything it takes to solve that crime.  You hear that sense of threat in the piece; a very unsettling sort of mood….”

              –Dr. Anne Searcy in the pre-concert lecture.


Ah!  Going back to live performances, an acceptable risk for myself (with everyone vaccinated and masked, anyway!).  One sits and relaxes, listening once more to the crazed chaotic cacophonic tone cluster of the artists practicing and tuning simultaneously, playing that universal “opening piece” of any symphony (or of Sgt. Pepper’s, thank you George Martin…). Then out comes concertmaster Noah Geller, an excellent violinist (and a very tall fellow, with an aura of some kind of jovial, good-looking Hogarth, bringing an aura of friendliness to the Seattle Symphony, such as when he fist-bumped the pianist, Jeremy Denk, tonight in the Devil piece…).

Then quiet.  Then out comes John Adams himself, guest conductor of his own works tonight, with his stark white hair, thin stature, reminiscent of the Jeff-Bezos-like villain in the recent movie, Don’t Look Up (although with a normal voice). Much deserved applause was given for this American icon.

He came here, during this plague, with looming precarious national elections, to Seattle.  What would he choose to conduct; what would tie tonight’s program together?  Surely, he knew he was coming on January 6, the first anniversary of the fascist insurrection that attempted to overthrow our democratic government, a trial run by the American brown shirts/red caps?  Why did he choose — besides the ubiquitous crowd-pleasing opener of Fast Machine, and the new-ish devilish piano concerto he’s still promoting — why did he choose to highlight City Noir, of ALL the countless wonderful pieces he has composed over his long, eclectic, and amazing career?  I believe the two quotes, at the top and bottom of this article, answer that question.   And with a name like “John Adams,” after all, it is no wonder he seems to be a (true) patriot.  

And also no wonder that he was born and raised in New England.  His parents were musicians, and his father knew Charles Ives, after all (or so his earlier piece claims!).  He was forced to study and adhere to 12-tone serialism like everyone else in his generation, but after graduation, he blew his mind out in a book — John Cage’s, Silence, to be exact, and moved to California to join forces with the minimalists.  

Adams is often not afraid to give evocative titles that embrace programme music, never hiding what his own feelings and intentions are, as so many Derrida-dada-dada postmodernists often did/do, concealing their own works’ intentions with curtains of “it means whatever you want it to mean” bullshit (if their works “meant” anything to them, at all!).  Adams is a purposeful and transparent Artist, which I admire.

In California, he helped bring us the style of “post-minimalism”, sharing the postmodernist idea of pastiche, pouring into the rhythmic, driving blender of his own “minimalism” whatever was appropriate, whether older Romanticism forms or jazz music.  And also, all with that postmodernist “kitsch” sensibility, seen perhaps more often in the Art and Theater realms.  John Adams shares that playful sensibility that California has often so wonderfully given our world, from Henry Cowell to John Cage to Frank Zappa … to John Adams.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)

Great way to start any concert.  A spicy musical appetizer, gets the juices flowing.  A “thrilling … white knuckle ride”, as Adams has described it.

The piece starts with a fast pulse from the simplest instrument in the orchestra, the woodblock, which never stops until the end.  Not sure who you were, oh dearest woodblocker in the back (either Michael Werner or Matthew Decker, I presume, from the program’s listing of percussion players), but I wish you could’ve been up front and center, like a soloist, beating away on it for us like a Will Ferrell, belly hanging out, dancing and beating away on that little block with joyous sexy confidence!  … Guess what?!  I got a fever … and the only prescription … is more woodblock! 

Then come whirling strings, pulsating horns like the horns from Whoville – “fanfare” indeed!  The flutes and piccolos have a very hard screeching section right there in the beginning (likely trying to convey the slipping and sliding on the road?).  As Dr. Searcy told us in the pre-talk, give those musicians in particular a break, that’s a pretty difficult-almost-impossible section!  Beethoven himself couldn’t have been meaner to a group of instrumentalists, demanding such notes!

The music abruptly “changes gears” throughout.  Fast Machine is a fun drive, a Ferrari through Beverly Hills, sharp high-speed turns, at times slowing down to take in a view, beautiful interludes of natural California landscapes or ocean fronts. (Disneyland Los Angeles should have a special event where they let you ride the Americana Cars ride with this piece playing.  That would be awesome.  Maybe a fieldtrip one day for the LA Phil?)

Per Dr. Searcy’s opening lecture, this piece was one of the first pieces ever to use the minimalist technique of incessant repetition to represent machines — a match made in heaven, and something that was done many times since. And it is quite breathless!  (Ah!  “Breathless” – like the film!?  Perhaps that’s how we can fit this into our “noir” theme for the night!)  It is perfectly the programme music of a fast car weaving in and out of high-speed traffic, always nearly skidding out of control….  Fun, yes, but also definitely music that was written by someone who was surely thinking, “I seriously might die tonight.”

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018)

Jeremy Denk, pianist

The quote, taken from Martin Luther, bemoans that bad guys seem to have all the fun.  And the answer to the question, based on the composition, is “yes”. 

I loved the energy of the pianist, Jeremy Denk, as he skipped out in the beginning, as excited as a little kid. Throughout the piece he’s bobbing and jiving while he plays, occasionally looking out to the audience with some Liberace-like subtle smile, periodically tapping his tablet to turn the page, like a jazz drummer smacking a cymbal.  Really wonderful performance.  Dreamy where needed, ferocious when called for.  (I guess he trained at Oberlin and Juilliard and has a memoir coming out about studying the piano, “Every Good Boy Does Fine”.  I’m looking forward to that!)

I also loved this concerto.  And how the symphony only gradually, progressively takes over the piano solo of the beginning. John Adams’ other two concertos are somewhat more traditional going back-and-forth between the piano and orchestra, but not this piece. The piano never really stops.  I don’t know if Adams gave the writer of Seattle Symphony‘s program notes, Christopher DeLaurenti, this quote, or if DeLaurenti wrote it himself, but it encapsulates this piano concerto quite adroitly:

“Inverting the old adage ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop’, the pianist plays continuously, with only a few measures of rest throughout the piece”.

In the first movement — in typical kitschy pastichey John Adamsy postmodern fashion — he also references TV music. The main musical motif driving the piece, from the beginning and throughout, is a variation on the theme from Peter Gunn, by Henry Mancini.  Here’s that noir theme for the night coming in again, if we choose to see it. 

The quieter second movement is creepily meandering, but at times sweeter, perhaps more melancholic. Spooky, like walking through a dark cave, or an abandoned dusty (haunted?) house.  Perhaps this sojourn was Jesus in the desert with the devil?

Dr. Searcy noted that the 3rd movement’s dance-like rhythm harkens back to the many bouncy rhythmic pieces of the 19th century that referred to the devil, most famously to the 5th movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath….  Also, harrowing bells abound in the 3rd movement – inverted church bells — another trope of the 19th century for demons.  And filled with tritones, “the devil’s interval”.  Everything creates the scene – from the cello and bass players periodically slapping their strings like the whip of a devil, to the dark farting-burbling-laughing of the trombone (a seeming necessity for any comical devilish piece).

Also, the third movement has just an awesome electric bass guitar riff.  Absolutely funky. Again, not sure of the guy’s name in the back who was playing (come on, program, give us the names!), but he was bobbing and jiving back-and-forth just like Denk.  At times, they were in sync with each other, very groovy, digging it.  Like the woodblocker, I wish he was front and center.  (I hate the rigidity of the, I dunno, “Rimsky-rules for orchestration”.  All these soloists are always hidden in the back where we can’t see them!)

By the end, for myself, similar to Adams’ two other piano concertos, I felt like the piano really seemed more like a percussion instrument. (Oops — yeah yeah, it IS a ”percussion instrument”…. You know what I mean. I mean, like, drums….) It’s mostly blocked chords or broken up blocks as arpeggios.  Not sure what to make of that, but it’s somewhat distinctive for Adams’ piano concertos at this point.

City Noir (2009)

Timothy McAllister, saxaphonist

This is considered a symphonic piece, but really it’s a saxophone/trumpet/vibraphone triple concerto. Should probably throw in the jazz drums, too.  Timothy McAllister, at least, gets props for his saxophone work in the program.  Presumably it was David Gordon on trumpet, but again, the program doesn’t say specifically. And the vibraphone? Or the amazingly groovy jazz drummer? Michael Werner or Matthew Decker, we presume, as (again) the program doesn’t specify. (Isn’t that a shame?)

As Adams says, the music of City Noir recreates the feeling of the noir films, but also of the 1950’s — and there we get the imbuement of jazz entering into the symphony.  Gershwin did it perhaps most famously.  But Adams’ jazz is of the more recent era – the jazz of the 1950s, of Charlie Parker on sax and Miles Davis on trumpet.  McAllister comes right out of the gate with that fast-paced bebop virtuosity.  Just wonderful.

This is cinema-inspired programme music, with not very many repeats, just a constant wandering between movie styles and feelings and, again, “tropes”.  You will get the déjà vu feeling you are in a movie theater, at times, watching many different films, thinking you are recalling snippets of many different composers’ scores.  Halfway through the first movement, there is a definite resemblance to John William’s “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter, for me, at any rate.  (Don’t believe me? Go to minute 7:40 of this YouTube clip with the St. Louis Symphony — and again Timothy McAllister! … Listening to this again — is this whole work a collage of famous film scores? Listen to 4:30 — is that a subtle reference to “Some day my prince will come?”) But then, off in another new direction, perhaps filled with shadows and smoke and dark alleys, or to a Hitchcock film, but then quick cuts to a sultry, sexy femme fatale, shimmering like the glass art of Chihuly that hangs in the Seattle Symphony’s lobby. And even at times, a mysteriousness and creepiness enter, almost Ligeti-like-atmospheres, textural style.  But then back to the jazz, with the groovy drum beats and snares, and saxophonist McAllister standing back up to play and jerk around abruptly, off-rhythmically — soulful but frenetic sounds, like we’re in a night club, somehow.    

The third movement, Boulevard Night, starts out slower, with a sexy Miles Davis/Chet Baker sounding trumpet.  There’s a stillness, a Nighthawks at the Diner feel.  Then the sax galloping in again, eventually evolving into what makes for a nice bookend for the night as the music speeds up on these streets, and turns into the feeling of a fast machine, an intense car chase scene.  With sudden hitting of the brakes.  Silence.  Drums like gun shots.  Then peeling away again, a sax wailing somewhere up high on a fire escape.  The sudden changes of this intentionally dramatic music is very intense.  I wish I could have had popcorn to eat!  Finally, near the end, something menacing, horns repetitively start out quietly but get loud fast, like cars whizzing by. … Similar to Fast Machine – I think we’re probably in for a crash.

“…  With City Noir … I wanted to write a work of symphonic scope that had the feel and dark tonality that we saw in the noir films in that post-war era – late 1940’s, ‘50s, even into the ‘60s.  There was a lot of happy PR around the country that we had won the war and America was great, but I think noir really told a different story about American society – one that I think unfortunately has come home to roost in recent years….”

John Adams, January 6, 2022, words before conducting “City Noir”

Copyright 1-6-22, S.E. Barcus

Follow S.E. Barcus on Facebook.

John Adams and the Noir of January 6

Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.

Ms. Wang, preparing to take her classic whip-bow.

LA Philharmonic brings back the piano prima donna.

By S.E. Barcus

Perhaps you do not know who “Yuja Wang” is…?  Well, judging by her commanding performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall February 18, 2020, in Los Angeles, along with her confident demeanor and skyrocketing fame over the past decade … I really do not believe that she gives a shit.

As we minions gathered within the sultry wooded panels of Frank Gehry’s beautiful hall, awaiting our Beijing-born diva, I glanced at the program.  Ah, a sensible, linear progression of piano history tonight, from Baroque to mid-19th century, then to a mélange of 20th century pieces to fill the 2nd half of the night.  Nice and reasonable.  Except for that one little issue that Ms. Wang gonna do what Ms. Wang gonna do.

She entered, adorned with one of her usual eye-catching dresses, some goldish sequinned thing, and after one of her “I-acknowledge-that-you-exist”-quick, whipping bows, she sat down, alone on the stark stage, just her and the beautiful Steinway — and we were off!  She started orderly enough, with the 1st piece on the program, a delicate delicate DELICATE little Baldassare Galuppi piece, the Andante from his Sonata No. 5.  With hindsight, it seems tenderness would bookend this night.  If you’re foolish enough to think that Ms. Wang is just all flash and virtuosity, she demonstrated that she can also equal anyone in terms of gentleness, such as with this quiet, precise little piece.

But then, oh dear, the program immediately goes out the window.  As the crashing waves of the second piece — Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic “A Ship on the Ocean” (“Une barque sur l’océan”) — came flooding in, we realized … uh … this ain’t no Bach.  We hath leap-frogged over the Intermission and 19th century entirely!  Wang’s gone rogue!  Wang’s gone rogue!

Now Beethoven might have sneered at this “programmatic” sort of piece by Ravel, but this one is just fabulous.  If you didn’t know the title, you would likely name it the exact same thing, as tumultuous seas interplay with gentle calm waters.  A genius display in terms of showing off what one piano and one performer can produce.  Following was Alban Berg’s “sort-of B minor” atonal Sonata Op. 1 (the only piano piece to which he gave an opus number), where she and Berg manifested as much emotion and technical skill as anything the tonal world ever gave us, just as rocking at times as the Ravel, and just as tender at others as the Galuppi.

Ah! We then returned to Baroque, and J.S. Bach’s C minor Toccata and Fugue.  Simple and clear, like the Galuppi, with a fun and accessible fugue that had none of the monstrous complexities found in later Bach (or Beethoven!).  If only Ms. Wang knew how to play that big opulent organ staring at us in the back part of this concert hall!

But then (a whiplash-inducing back-and-forth!), we were yanked back to the 20th century again – to Scriabin and his Sonata No. 4, with his own back-and-forth between soft and crazed.  Amazingly – (is it just me?)  — somehow this Russian piece at times presages by decades a nascent Gershwin in tonality and style.  She ended the piece pronto / tout de suite / bing-bang-boom.  Did she just completely ignore those last few rests at the end!?   Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.  And neither did we.  That ending produced spontaneous — practically reflexive — rousing applause to end the first half of the night, as a great performer knows how to do.

If the second half of the night had kept with the program of early 20th century music, I had hoped that – given her M.O. – she might come out adorned in some extraordinarily bizarre costume reminiscent of the Bauhaus Ballet, which was concurrently on exhibit at the Disney Hall, the display designed by Frank Gehry.  But no, her costume change (and with the consciously performative Ms. Wang, that’s what these have become – “costume changes”), was into some crisp white skimpy 80’s dress.  “Stripper-wear,” one previous article has called her attire, shaming classical artists the way they tried to shame the Madonnas of pop culture decades ago.  Perhaps she provokes like this to create a David-Bowie-like aura, a product, a “performer-package”?  Perhaps she does it to sell tickets?  Perhaps she is like some cultural “nouveau riche” — a person raised in a repressive Communist China who woke up a global citizen, with fame and fortune? … Who knows?  But I believe that if Ms. Wang didn’t want to wear sexy clothes, she wouldn’t.  Or, to put it another way, I don’t think she gives a shit.  Because, meanwhile, her audaciousness and coolness are only matched by her being one of the greatest pianists in the world right now, likely the top of her generation.  I mean, my God – look at this ridiculously hipster cool promo?!  Just look at it, and be dismayed!

Ms. Wang don’t care if the building is burning.

In the second half of the night, Ms. Wang started with a few Chopin Mazurkas sandwiched between a few Brahms Intermezzos (or perhaps that’s the other way around?), luxuriously transporting us back to a French salon.   No strangeness of the modern age, no strict Baroque rules.  Just lounging with a couple of mid-19th century masters for a bit.  Perhaps, like me, you saw from the program that we would hear — and be able to compare/contrast — the composers similarly-styled short pieces back-to-back in the same keys.  There would be two A minor pieces, one from each composer.  And then two C# Minor.  And two F major.  (And a C major/E relative minor thrown in for good measure….)   But like the rest of the night, the program turned out to be misleading.  The A minor Brahms Intermezzo was not played at all, as she started right in with the trill and passionate melancholy of the A minor Mazurka instead, followed by the very Chopinesque Brahms Intermezzo in E Minor.  Followed by — just to throw you off again — the C-sharp Mazurka and C-sharp Intermezzo, just as programmed!

She asked that we not applaud between the pieces, but instead take them all in as a whole (like listening to Ms. Wang’s own personal ordering of a book of … I dunno …  Wang/Brahms/Chopin Preludes, or something…?).  For myself, though, it was very hard to not applaud that C-sharp minor Intermezzo, which seemed the most moving piece of this group, at least for me, filled as it was with such an operatic-like pathos.  The last Chopin piece was a pleasant dance, with its nice “surprise” bouncy ending.  Was it the F major as planned?  Of course not.  It was a piece not in the program at all — Op 33 No 4 in B minor.  Completely off script!  I love it!  It was as if Ms. Wang was saying, “if you, the peons in the audience, want to appreciate my work and art, you have to earn it.  You, too, have to work for it.”  (Yes, I had to look up what the piece was – come on, I don’t know all these Mazurkas by heart!)  I think Ms. Wang must have learned a lesson or two after playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.  “What is difficult is also good and beautiful.”  For composer, performer, and audience.

I’m not sure it was intentional, but Ms. Wang-as-musical-curator prepared us nicely for the 20th century piece to come….  To have a B minor piece slide into the F major Brahms finale for the section (the gallant and promenading Romance) was creating an augmented 4th tonality.  A tritone.  A “Devil in music,” if you will.  And something loved by Scriabin, and so a perfect tonal-modulation to ready us for her penultimate piece of the night.

She took a quick break, then came back, and – no terse polite bow this time – she practically stormed out – sat down – and immediately attacked the low rumbling fortissimo trill to start Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, even as a few people were still mid-clap!  She was acting, of course – doing performance art, essentially.  She was the arrogant and egomaniacal Scriabin himself, like a method-actor getting into character.  And it worked.  She played the piece perfectly as far as I could tell, angrily pounding out the difficult Rachmaninoff-like chords, careening into the ending with arms outstretched on both sides of the keyboard like a goddam fireworks spectacle!  The audience, needless to say, went absolutely freaking nuts.

BUT!  She was not done.  Finally – at the very end – the most under-appreciated impressionist of them all, the brilliant Catalan composer, Federico Mompou, and his Secreto!  Lullabies are odd.  We know they should be happy and loving, yet they are always grounded by a melancholy.  Ms. Wang’s performance of the Mompou piece had this quality.  Somewhere between that and a sort-of mysticism, and a range in dynamics from p to pp to ppp and hell, I’m sure there was probably even a pppp in there somewhere.  Like the myth that Inuits have 100 words for snow, it’s like she has 100 levels of pianissimo.  After a night that ranged across styles and across centuries, variegated in skill and emotional levels, to end the program with such a brief and precious little jewel?  Very nice.

Not that she was “really” done.  This was Yuja Wang, who has been known to play more encores than you’d hear at a Bruce Springsteen concert.  (She only gave us two, however – I feel somehow we were not worthy…?)  The first encore was the crazed and phenomenal show-piece, Prokofiev’s Toccata, which is like some Bela Bartok “Diary of a Fly” jacked up on ‘roids.  The piece ended with the biggest bang of the night, bringing down the house.

But then, with the absolute true finale, she returned to the melancholy sweetness of the Galuppi or Mompou, leaving us with her often-played-encore, Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, as rendered by Liszt.  All this softness this evening?  I quite liked it, even though she was sending us off with a cruel joke – “you have to leave now, back to the incessant monotony of your spinning wheels.”

In sum — if you haven’t heard of Yuja Wang, or haven’t heard her play, you are missing out.  If she continues this near-perfect ascent as a pianist, she will gobble up more and more stardom until by the time she has achieved Pavarotti status, you will have missed your chance at being in with the cool kids because you knew her beforehand.  So, come on – be a cool kid!  Get to know Yuja!  She da bomb, yo!

Not that she gives a shit what you think….

Copyright 2-20-2020

Follow S.E. Barcus on Facebook.

Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.

Sunday Comics: Bathrooms and Classrooms

Sunday Comics v.1

image

for more:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bathroom_bill

piketty3

for more:  https://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/pikettys-inequality-story-in-six-charts

All cartoons Copyright 4-3-2016.

S.E. Barcus is also on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Image

Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” is a French-styled “Total Work of Art”

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Pelléas and Mélisande

The “hero’s welcome” for composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at the opening night performance of the L.A. Philharmonic’s production of Debussy’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” hit with a refreshing coolness of modesty; with an apropos absence of fanfare perfectly suited to the production at hand. Salonen so casually enters while other philharmonic members are still trickling in that one thinks, “huh, I guess that’s not him”.

But then suddenly the lights dim, and we’re off — the invented Narrator speaks abruptly, and when finished, Salonen pops up from between violins and starts conducting without a beat. No grand entrance. No applause or cult worship. Just the music. Just a plea to have us all experience this music together without an “us” and a “them”; without an “orchestra” and a “audience”.

And what music! The sounds of Debussy’s only opera are mostly soothing or melancholy, dominated as they are by strings, winds, and at times French horns (with the rest of the forlorn brass and percussion sections sitting in the dugout except for an occasional spooky cave, and such). No songs/arias, no A-B-A, no verse-chorus-verse, just a flowing river of sound that intermittently and seamlessly includes singers as if they were but more instruments with which to play. Except for the end of Acts 3 and 4, (when sweat finally forms on Salonen’s brow), perhaps it is because of the sweet strings’ dominance through most of the opera that the orchestra’s layout is shifted a bit, with all of the violins downstage, including to the left where the cellos typically are heard.

Like Debussy’s own conflict between pilgrimaging to Bayreuth and wanting out from under Wagner’s shadow, critics over the years have proclaimed the opera’s various interpretations as either too “Wagner-like” versus a resounding “French response to Wagner”. Of these, the L.A. Philharmonic’s production is surely the latter. The music is so full of rich, sublime French Impressionism, uniquely Debussy, undeniably from the same musical mind responsible for “Afternoon of a Fawn” and “Claire de Lune”, with perhaps some motifs here and there more akin to Grieg or Sibelius then to Wagner.

The singing employs the opera’s signature talk/sing style, just a stream of incessant-but-melodious recitatives. Every syllable of speech has its own note, with no braggadocio vowel allowed to upstage another with some bravura “ah-ah-ah” arpeggio.  Here, the music serves and becomes one with the text. (It is arguably, in musicology terms, more respectful and truer to a dramatic text than all other styles of opera.)

All of the singing is masterful and spot-on. Tenor Stéphane Degout sings the child-like innocence of Pelléas wonderfully, while the crisp baritone of Laurent Naouri perfectly matches the sternness of Golaud. Both are quite moving with their strong, mellifluous voices. Singing King Arkel, Sir Willard White perhaps has the most sonorous voice. His bass booms such that the vibrations move your chest as if you are next to a rock concert’s speakers.  Our soprano Mélisande comes to us via Camilla Tilling, and while admittedly hitting all of her notes with a lovely timbre, she is at times too pianissimo to be heard over the orchestra.  Perhaps an ethereal intention?

Although not a “full” opera production, it is surely just as satisfying. With its shuffled staging — a chorus back here, a bell ringing backstage there, or a group of homeless actors lying atop a perch up there — it is impossible to tell where the musicians end and the singer/actors begin. Or indeed where we the audience begin and end, as the singers sit “off-stage”, Brecht-like, within a tier of the audience, visible to all, alongside symbolically-blindfolded mannequins (whose arms are as outstretched and hopeful for light as the yearning Mélisande’s). With how well all of this works, one can’t imagine how some bloated operatic sets would have added a single thing. Which is a big thumbs up for Director David Edwards and Lighting Designer Colon Grenfell. This is not a “semi-staging” at all. The exquisite design fits the unmistakable delicacy of Debussy. Thus, we are surely still experiencing Gesamtkunstwerk (Wagner’s “Total Work of Art”), but in a fine, discreet — dare I say, French — manner, with a minimalism that in actuality perfectly captures the original intentions of the Minimalists in a way playwright/librettist Maurice Maeterlinck might have never gotten away with in his own day!

The minimalism actually heightens the conveyance of the emotions of fear or desire, or of the dramatic actions such as the boy, Yniold, up on Golaud’s shoulders, by using the simplest of gestures. Wounded? Lose the jacket and hold your side. In love? Open your arms and twirl. For “sets”? Each Act has one large representative prop placed on a pedestal down stage left; a sword here, a wig of flowing long hair there. And – that – is – all – we – need. If only contemporary opera would stop constructing decadent Doll Houses and employ this style more often, we might bring in a new audience with the reduced ticket prices….

Scenes end with characters slowly walking upstage, as if spirits, almost butoh-style. But the music almost never stops, instead melding into interlude music between the scenes, but then sliding, without even a sixteenth rest, right back into more singing. This is all very much like enjoying a D.C. go-go band (“and you don’t stop”), you just keep going and going. These interludes are themselves whole separate Debussy pieces that can be enjoyed in their own right. It is amazing to think that these were an afterthought, composed because the Parisian Opéra-Comique of the day, at the opera’s premiere in 1902, couldn’t change the sets as quickly as Debussy and Maeterlinck demanded.

The libretto is nearly straight prose from the play, with some edits. Maeterlinck initially allowed these edits, until a feud over who would sing Mélisande caused him to become as jealous and violent as Golaud himself, due to Debussy’s Pelleas-like falling in love with and taking control over the (Mélisande-like) production. Yes, that historical irony is also the story of the opera, in a nutshell. While the emotions of jealousy and love, of yearning and hopelessness, might be human and eternal, the worldview itself is somewhat foreign with its ancient, sexist representation of women. Thankfully, that is the only element of the production that makes us feel like we are in a “performative museum” rather than experiencing a living art form.

The opera is performed in a concert hall, with the philharmonic itself at center stage. If you’re going just to dress up, or for some spectacle to compete with Der Ring, you don’t understand why this opera survives — Debussy’s music itself (“Total Art”, aside). However, it is admittedly intellectually challenging music to experience. Without an aria’s repeated choruses, and with the music’s emotional, rhythmic, and dynamic ideas literally changing as rapidly as a human conversation, the style demands that you either just jump in and flow along in your inner tube, or be forever perplexed as you wait for some snappy leitmotif to whistle. (About a fifth of Friday’s audience shamefully gave up and left these rarely played sounds at intermission. Alas.)

But these demands are rewarded. Such perfect sounds to match the actions and emotions. The cold somber cave with its low, creepy notes. The sweetness of the strings as Pelléas asks Mélisande to “Give me your hand.” Then quickly again to a stern Golaud with a sharp, tight musical phrase. An amazing achievement in opera, to do this continuously for nearly three hours, like a musical cousin to one of James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness works.

Oh thank goodness this conductor chose this work in 1995 and recreates it for us again! (And –oh! — if only Debussy had lived to complete one of his Edgar Allen Poe operas!) While Salonen begins with a forced modesty that fits the overall inclusive postmodern style of the production, he ends with a well-deserved standing ovation.  Sorry, it is hard not to hero-worship this guy, with his groovy black tunic, his handsomely Finnish James-Bond-villain features, and his palpable desire to get us excited about the music he so obviously loves.

Copyright 2-21-2016

Follow S.E. Barcus on Facebook.

Link

The Good, Hard Work of “Hail, Caesar!”

Josh Brolin in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar!”

The Coen Brothers’ new movie, Hail, Caesar!, shows you the man behind the curtain at a Hollywood studio. 

Set during the 1950’s, the story involves Josh Brolin’s “Everyman”, Eddie Mannix, which is also a fortuitous alliteration. 

The first shot of the film shows Eddie deep in remorse, alone in a Confessional.  He has failed to quit smoking and has lied to his beloved wife about it — he smoked 3 cigarettes that day!  This is at once funny, as we hear the subtext of the Priest’s heavy sigh (“this fellow really needs to give himself a break”) – and yet, Brolin’s earnest crying is heart-wrenching.  One cannot help but love this Eddie, despite his, at times, stern hand (shown in the very next scene).  He is an honest, good man.  Which, by the way, is NOT a comment about the real, historical, Eddie Mannix.

Eddie is a studio head’s right-hand man, a “fixer”, and his task is to oil the gears of Capitol Studios (not so-subtly named).  Which is hard.  This devout Catholic, Eddie, sees that the workers within the studio contain the entire gamut of human “sin” – greed, homosexuality, pregnancy out of wedlock … communism….  And his main job is to make sure the studio itself, like a film, keeps up its illusion of glamour and purity.  He is The Director and Writer of the studio itself, for the gossip columnists and the public.   He is protective, wheeling and dealing to protect the employees, and never judging (“let him who is without sin…”), except when they are disloyal to the one True Cause – making movies.  In one scene, in his own modest “Father Knows Best” kitchen, he asks his wife for advice at choosing between his current job and an offer of an easier, higher-paying job.  His wife literally says, “you know best” – a TV-sitcom clue that Eddie is the metaphorical father to all of these misfits of Hollywood. 

Meanwhile, a competing capitalist industry of the 1950’s tempts Eddie to work for them.  And what do they produce, exactly? The Lockheed recruiter gleams and brags, “the H-bomb”. (“Armageddon,” notes our religious protagonist instantly.)   What about the ideological competition of the world — the Communists?  These are portrayed as coffee-house liberals living in luxury, talking about philosophy and economics, but not actually working at all.  (A bit of a cruel joke by the Coen Brothers…).  It seems the Coen Brothers see artists as trying to do something good, despite living in an irrational world.  Making art, is “the right thing” in Hail, Caesar!, similar in theme to the Italian’s current response to terrorism – giving youth money to spend on Art and Culture. 

Hollywood should not be completely flattered, however.   Could there possibly have been a message in the fact that actors seem so easily malleable, duped by the latest fad?  Or that the writers all seem to be bitter and smug?  Yet, this goes along with the Christian theme of “sin”.  No one is perfect (ok, except for maybe the real-life Lone Ranger, Hobie Doyle, played with boyish-charm perfection by Alden Ehrenreich).  These are fallible people.  But in scene after scene, all we see are people who are working, and working hard.  The work is palpable.  From the extras on the Roman set, hanging and literally suffering on the cross, waiting patiently all day for their lunch break, to the guys hauling plastic trees on and off the set, to the exasperated directors, to the lawyers, to the editors holed up smoking in their dark caves — this place is WORKING.  And with every pan over the mega-studio’s seemingly infinite number of warehouses/soundstages, one realizes that this is a factory as immense as anything the Lockheeds of the world can flaunt.  Hollywood, too, is a major industry, the Entertainment Industrial Complex shown in all its glory. 

Cinematically, Hail, Caesar! is just so much beautiful eye-candy, typical of the Coen Brothers.  Many scenes are homages to various genres — from spy thrillers with enemy submarines to film noir with a shady detective and femme fatale.  There are whole scenes dedicated to movies-within-the-movie, likely the most expensive and arduous scenes to produce, such as the over-the-top western, kaleidoscopic water dance, and the musical number (where the quite-talented Channing Tatum gets one of the bigger laughs of the film).  The Coen Brothers put their money — the film’s budget — where their mouth was — the theme that movies are freaking expensive and a lot of hard work, just for your pleasure, buddy! 

And what to make of the main movie-within-the-movie, Hail, Caesar!, a movie about Faith, which involves a cocky Roman, played by superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who meets Jesus and immediately feels compelled to kneel humbly before Him.  Filming the climactic scene, Baird actually moves everyone on the set; they pause briefly in a spiritual moment.  But — he forgets the last line (ironically the word “faith”), curses “Goddamit!”, and dispels the illusion instantly, and people continue their secular work without a beat.  Just as we do when the lights come up.

There is a scene with Eddie, sitting in a screening room watching a rough edit of the opening for Hail, Caesar!, and right after the opening title appears, we cut back to Eddie, watching the rough cut.   Eddie is the star.  Eddie is Caesar.  Eddie is not the studio head (who is the appropriately named fat-cat, Mr. Skank).  He’s just a guy who works his ass off and isn’t worth a whole lot of money himself.  He represents the real heroes of the movie industry.  And by the end of the film, we have just shared in a very sweet love letter, thanking all of the people who work so hard to make us movies — or any Art, really — in this chaotic, horrible world. 

Yes, Hail Caesar.

Copyright 2-6-16

The Good, Hard Work of “Hail, Caesar!”

College of Charleston’s Macbeth, Review

1999 Archives

Well…. This will be a nice segue for what I’m about to write….

From the archives. College of Charleston sure had (hopefully still has) an awesome theater program.

S.E. Barcus is also on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

College of Charleston’s Macbeth, Review

Review of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Scotland Road, at Footlight Players

1998 Archives

Continuing posts from the archives…. From October 14, 1998, a review of Footlight’s production of Scotland Road, by Jeffrey Hatcher. Look — more ghosts!

S.E. Barcus is also on Facebook and Twitter, and has some silly videos on YouTube.

Review of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Scotland Road, at Footlight Players

You Can’t Take It with You

Review of Charleston Stage Company’s Production of the Kaufman and Hart Classic

Archives 1999.

Loves me some Kaufman and Hart. Shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that Kaufman worked with the Marx Brothers. And this play? — They had me at “whacky loveable anarchist grandpa.” I can’t think of another play that has that. And so — to all our quirky families everywhere — CSC’s April 7, 1999, review. …. (Holy crap, this thing is almost exactly 23 years old!! …. We’re all doomed….)

S.E. Barcus is also on Facebook and Twitter.

You Can’t Take It with You