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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mind-bending "Brooklyn Rider" at Town Hall (music review)

Pina Bausch - The Rite of Spring
Occasionally a cultural experience emerges indelibly as a peak life event. By grace or luck, I made it to Pina Bausch's 1984 Rite of Spring at Brooklyn Academy of Music after reading a review in the New York Times while living in Manhattan in the early 80's. That electrifying performance opened my eyes to hitherto unimagined dimensions, as though from a balcony-seat view of the sun, a most elemental force of nature teeming with energy and creativity. I bounded out of that venue a changed man.

Joshua Roman
I no longer live in New York, and can't depend on cultural events around every corner to kindle flames in my soul. Thankfully, on Sunday night, January 29, despite my low spirits, I decided to join my partner Warren at Town Hall for a concert by Brooklyn Rider, a string ensemble invited to Seattle by cellist Joshua Roman as part of his TownMusic Series.

O...M...G. This foursome, members of Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, hooked me in the first startling seconds of their new composition, the mind-altering Seven Steps, a journey through texture, dissonance, harmony, fluidity of sound and movement unlike any piece of music I have heard. Riveting is too weak a word. Music beamed in to Earth via radio from another inhabited world somewhere in the galaxy (as could happen any time) would possibly recreate my first exposure to Seven Steps. By its conclusion I felt certain I was in for an unforgettable evening. 

Philip Glass' Suite from the film Bent followed, and fulfilled the prophecy of the first. Brooklyn Rider has made Glass' music a specialty, evidenced by their disc Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass. The Bent suite, thrillingly enlivened by the mastery and cohesion of this talented team, further soothed my spirit and opened my mind. These dramatic, contrasting short pieces throb with currents of life and transformation, despair and apotheosis. 

Glass, and the Brooklyn Riders, take familiar musical cadences, chord progressions, rhythms, and bend them through a prism, stretching out, slowing down, remolding, reinventing our experience of melody and form. The organs of sense must bend to encompass such aesthetic alchemy; in its thrall one feels almost a physical metamorphosis of the self.

Brooklyn Rider: Johnny Gandelsman, Eric Jacobsen,
Colin Jacobsen, Nicholas Cords
Photo credit: Sarah Small
It takes special chemistry among performers to achieve this. Brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen on violin and cello, Johnny Gandelsman and Nicholas Cords on violin and viola, almost dance to the music they draw from their 16 strings. I’ve never seen a string quartet perform on its feet before (Eric Jacobsen sits on a raised platform to be at eye level with his colleagues), nor infuse its playing with such visual movement and appeal.

This band of musical brothers goes beyond chemistry into physics, with quantum connections nowhere more evident than in the last work before intermission, company member Colin Jacobsen's amusing, exhilarating Sheriff's Leid, Sheriff's Freude, a weirdly cartoonish fusion of classical, bluegrass, and the-yet-to-be-labeled. 
Photo credit: Sarah Small 
At this point in the program parallel universes began to shimmer in the staid concert hall. Wandering through fun-house mirrors of convention, hip-shooting at expectations, Sheriff astonishes with its originality, culminating in Colin Jacobsen's utterly unexpected, laugh-out-loud funny vocal solo near the end, and the trippy Looney-Toons climax. Space-time warps near creations of this magnitude. Art so close to the edge of the known universe does not lightly touch an audience. Like certain drug-induced or psychic experiences, there is no going back: you will never see or hear the world quite as before.

This remarkable first half laid the groundwork for the Beethoven String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, which followed John Zorn's solemn Kol Nidre at the top of the second set. Artists take liberties with a musical score by the mere act of lifting it from the page to the stage; the extreme technical challenges of Beethoven's late magnum opus demand new insight and intuition from every group that takes it on. I was aquiver to hear Brooklyn Rider’s approach, and was not disappointed, or fully prepared for what followed.

Brooklyn Rider infused the quartet's first movement with lusciously fluid tonalities and shapes; again images of the sun come to mind, as seen through a powerful telescope: impossibly huge and distant, but through the power of optics near enough to discern its vast, slow welling of energy and power, explosive force restrained by its own gravity.

The following movements, some seamlessly flowing into one another, others separated out like beats in an unfolding chant, highlighted contrasts of pizzicato and legato, fortissimo clashes and pianissimo reconciliations, quantum waves of multi-layered sound and brittle particle interactions sparking muons of audio delight. While unerringly true to Beethoven’s score, Brooklyn Rider thrusts the German genius to the forefront of 21st century avant-garde. I will never hear this quartet, or possibly any Beethoven quartet, with quite the same ears. My doors of perception have been thrown open, and it's a new world.

By the end of the concert and that Seattle rarity, a third curtain call, my Sunday-night doldrums were dissipated, my heart and spirit refreshed and uplifted. Amazing, the power of music to transform the human condition.

Galaxy core
I suspect that music holds a deeper mystery than we yet fully conceive, in its correlation with elemental forces of nature, the fabric of the universe(s), and the unique role of human life in its discovery and exploration. I have no doubt that sentient beings on other worlds have also discovered its power through whatever organs of sense nature has created in countless permutations across the wide orchestral score of the cosmos. 

I hope, on the day human beings first thrill to the music of an alien race, that cutting-edge composers and artists like Brooklyn Rider will be credited with having prepared us to appreciate it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Onyx Chamber Players at Town Hall (music review)

January 15, 2012, Town Hall, Seattle
The Onyx Chamber Players:
Meg Brennand, David White, James Garlick

Braving the snow and bridging the centuries with Schumann and Brahms

On Sunday night, January 15, 2012, with snow blanketing Capitol Hill in Seattle, a small but dedicated Town Hall audience was rewarded with a sparkling concert by the Onyx Chamber Players, Seattle's best-kept chamber music secret. Following the group's outstanding October concert of trios by Mozart, Debussy, and Shostakovich, Sunday's pairing of Schumann's 1842 Piano Quartet in E-flat with Brahms' Quartet in A, composed two decades later and five years after Schumann's tragically early death, was a fascinating musical and psychological study of the two composers.

Guest violist Melvin Butler
Pianist David White was in fine form in his brief pre-concert lecture, sharing insights into the music and the intertwined fates of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. White and his Onyx partners, violinist James Garlick and cellist Meg Brennand,  joined for this concert by Melvin Butler on the viola, flung themselves into the contrasting pieces with their inimitable élan and playfulness. The alternating sostenuto, allegro, scherzo, andante cantabile, and finale vivace of Schumann's quartet require a high level of ensemble discipline. After a slightly nervous start, the players quickly found their usual seamless cohesion, elegantly navigating Schumann's almost bi-polar changes of mood and rhythm.

The andante movement makes a special demand on the cellist, who must perform an unusual mid-movement "scordatura," or retuning of a string, from the low C string to a B-flat, and back again, all to produce a single note, or "organ point." Meg Brennand handled this potentially awkward maneuver graciously, though one is tempted to ask Schumann, posthumously, whether he mightn't have found a simpler way to achieve his desired effect.

The blazing finale, which echoes the quartet's "Finlandia"-like opening theme with an abbreviated three-note motif, achieved an intensity of emotion and energy spearheaded by James Garlick's ever-charming bravura and David White's unflagging piano work. The resounding finish brought closure to the work's battling elements, no easy task for a composition which, as Meg Brennand noted after the concert, struggles to "rise from the page," requiring an intuitive reach beyond the notes themselves to kindle Schumann's conflicted and fiery spirit.

In the second half of the program, Brahms' Quartet in A, the Onyx Chamber Players were at their very best, rendering the broad, layered strokes and romantic passion of Brahms with breathtaking subtlety of dynamics and tone. The standing ovation was a spontaneous response to an uplifting aesthetic experience and, perhaps, an acknowledgment of the genius and journeys of the two featured composers, who, across their overlapping lifetimes, built a bridge from the high classical periods of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, so influential on Schumann, to Brahms, who missed the 20th century by a mere three years.

Several opportunities remain to hear Onyx Chamber Players before the end of the season. A reprise of the Schumann-Brahms program is offered on February 25th at the Battelle Auditorium in Richland, WA, as part of the Camerata Music Series, and their annual all-Beethoven concert, March 18 at Town Hall, is always a delight. The final concert of the year, June 24th at Town Hall, will feature music from America and the British Isles.

Next in Seattle:
Annual all-Beethoven concert, Sunday, March 18th, 2011 at 7:00pm  - Downstairs at Town Hall Seattle -- 1119 Eighth Avenue, Seattle, WA

"Kommt mal, wer noch hört!"

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Hope for Haiti" and "Soccer Dreams" (books reviews)


On Saturday I attended an author reading/event at Secret Garden Books in Ballard, featuring my friend Clare Hodgson Meeker reading from her book Soccer Dreams, and author/illustrator Jesse Joshua Watson with his picture book, Hope for Haiti.

Both books center around the game of soccer, and bring out inspiring, world-broadening themes that children can relate to on emotional, imaginative and physical levels.

Jesse's book deserves a wider audience than it has so far received. Haiti's misery in the aftermath of its devastating earthquake has largely disappeared from the media and hence from the minds of most Americans. As Jesse said at his reading, on this small island just a short hop from our shores "the quality of life is beyond bad, it's just shameful, it's so difficult there. So I just want to help our kids understand something about what's going on in the world."

Like Soccer DreamsHope for Haiti uses the internationally popular game of soccer as a vehicle to express hope and build bridges between children of incredibly different backgrounds, but who can relate experientially, as children so readily do when given the opportunity, through play.

Author Clare Hodgson Meeker
Soccer Dreams creatively weaves fiction and non-fiction, a trademark of Clare's style evident in earlier books like Hansa: The True Story of an Asian Elephant Baby and I Could Not Keep Silent: The Story of Rachel Carson. Soccer Dreams  tells the story of Todo, a boy from a Nairobi, Kenya who plays soccer in an empty lot with a ball made of plastic bags wrapped in twine.

When his family moves to Seattle, Todo gets recruited onto a neighborhood soccer team, and begins to learn about much more than soccer as he transitions to his new culture and home, facing universal challenges of childhood and growing up.

Todo is based on the real life story of a Kenyan boy, Tolosa, an avid soccer player and now high school student in Seattle. The parallel story in Soccer Dreams consists of profiles, photos, and quotes from Seattle Sounders players, which complement the narrative of Todo's journey. The result is a unique combination of fan-book, picture book, and inspirational resource for kids, parents, and any sports-minded reader.

Even I, who am no more a sports fan than a nuclear scientist, am drawn into the story and its message, and at events like Saturday's reading and book signing (which also featured opportunities to make soccer balls out of plastic bags and string) I was swept up in the soccer fever and excitement filling the bookstore.
Jesse Joshua Watson and colleague in Haiti

Both Jesse's and Clare's book are great for kids, for soccer lovers, as gifts or to share in families and among friends. Support your local bookstores, and buy a copy!

By the way, Seattle Sounders star player Steve Zakuani was also at the bookstore event, signing books, autographing soccer balls and shirts, and making a humble pitch for his foundation, Kingdom of Hope, through which Steve is helping low income children and youth discover the life-changing possibilities of cooperation, teamwork, diligence, and fun through the great game of soccer.

All these creative efforts to use sports, writing, and imagination to inspire children as readers, team players, and world citizens, are worth lending our support!

For that matter, so are independent bookstores like The Secret Garden Bookshop!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why "Hugo" Stinks (film review)

Why Hugo Stinks

Despite fawning reviews and a Golden Globe award, Martin Scorsese's indigestible blob of treacle stinks. Not one frame of this bloated, purposeless film has a gram of authentic charm. That won’t stop the Academy of Motion Picture blah blah blah from heaping praises on it.

The child actors, preciously over-dressed and made up, look like pampered dogs going through their show routines. Every moment the camera lingers on those pretty little faces betrays the heavy hand of their handlers, presumably starting with Scorsese, who seems to have as much chemistry with kids as he does with wives.

The adult actors show calculated mastery of film and TV conventions, telegraphing their intentions to an audience the director assumes is so deadened and starved by contemporary culture as to be impervious to any but the most belabored semaphores. Ben Kingsley seems to be perpetually watching himself in the mirror; Sacha Baron Cohen’s wooden station master looks terrified of losing his mustache; Ray Winstone, the evil-incarnate uncle, finds one note and toots it like a bratty 5-year-old with a kazoo.

The repetitive musical score grinds familiar grooves: tinkling chimes for magic, throbbing legato in the heart-warming bits, pizzicatos of excitement for moments like the chase scene with the Doberman pinscher in the mall – sorry, train station. Sentiment like this is available in a gingerbread box with built-in digitized Christmas carols -- a fair description of this film as a whole.

As warm-hearted and uplifting as a prostitute in fairy-tale drag, Hugo screams "fake me" while wriggling seductively through its 3-D effects. The faux Belle Epoch décor and costumes pander to that peculiarly American yearning for the fake that drives hordes to palaces of banality like Disney World and Las Vegas. Over-engineered set pieces and badly-directed actors seem rented from a literary/cinematic chop-shop: great ideas from literature (and the decent book by Brian Selznick) have been stolen, dismantled, and repackaged as trivial bon-bons.

Hugo is a huge, steaming plate of candy-crap dolloped with sugar sauce. Underneath, it’s an over-lingering glimpse of American movie-making that celebrates excess and mocks its audience's ever-rising threshold for mediocrity. Whether there was any shred of redeeming originality or humility before the end of this overblown sugar-puff of a movie, or not, I cannot say, as I left well before it ended, clutching my friend's elbow, fearing for our souls. If it got better before the end, well, good for Mr. Scorsese, and exc-u-use me!

Sadly, the fact that Hugo stinks is exactly why it is likely to garner the biggest, loudest, smelliest blasts of praise at the Academy awards. It's a pile of crap, but to Americans inured to the self-congratulatory Hollywood blockbuster assembly-line, it's a piece of cake. So let those eat it who will; I will happily gnaw bread.