Performance diary: ST. MATTHEW’S PASSION at Park Avenue Armory

October 5, 2014

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10.4.14 – The two performances (October 7 and 8) that Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival scheduled of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic with staging by Peter Sellars at the Park Avenue Armory, apparently sold out almost instantly. (Or almost – there are a few seats left.) I hadn’t really thought about going, but when I got an email saying that they’d added a couple of open rehearsals, I decided to buy a ticket. I can almost never pass up an opportunity to see anything Peter Sellars does. I’ve been following him since he was a freshman at Harvard, and of course there he was at the Armory. We shared a nice hug, and I told him I’ve been trying to count how many productions of his I’ve seen in 35 years. Could it be almost 100? Definitely over 50, in Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, La Jolla, and Amsterdam.

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This staging of St. Matthew’s Passion originated at the Salzburg Festival in 2010 and played in Berlin the same year. Peter said they’ve been trying to bring it to NYC ever since. And the Armory provided a perfect opportunity to create an unusual intimacy between the audience and the orchestra. I was lucky to get a seat (in section 107) that was the equivalent of sitting onstage, behind the musicians (two sections of orchestra) and next to one of the two sections of chorus. The brilliant conductor Simon Rattle was spitting distance away. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the Berlin Philharmonic live, but this performance could not have been more exquisite. They had rehearsed part 1 in the morning, and in the afternoon we saw part 2.

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This piece is almost always performed as an oratorio, but Sellars staged it as a ritual and had not only the featured singers moving around the stage reenacting the trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus Christ but also brought musicians with key solos forward. So at times John the Baptist (here called Evangelist and sung by Mark Padmore with what one review aptly called “heartbreaking eloquence”) would be addressing the cellist, or the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena (playing Mary Magdalene) would be standing in a circle with two violinists. Asking chorus members to emote in unison could sometimes verge on corny but mostly Sellars’ staging had the intended effect of making an already sublime piece of music extra-dynamic. When it was over there was a silent pause of deep satisfaction for at least a minute before the applause began, morphing into a (justified, for once) standing ovation.

Big props to Park Avenue Armory for adventurous programming and the extra care involved in creating a beautiful, thorough, free program with the text and translation and essay material about the event.


Photo diary/Culture Vulture: Jeff Koons at the Whitney Museum

October 4, 2014

(click photos to enlarge)

Parental Advisory: there is at least one photo below that is NOT appropriate for viewers under 18. NSFW. Be forewarned! Scrolling further down this feed means that you agree that you are over 18 and agreeable to viewing explicit sexual images.

Andy and Ben and Tom and I made an expedition to see the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum last weekend. It was about what I expected. A lot of Koons’ work is monumental and jokey, an elaborate but pretty obvious commentary on art history and practice, like this reference to Michelangelo’s David, with the naked male figure’s modest genitals and disproportionately large hand.

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But a lot of Koons’ work trafficks openly and unapologetically in banality as commentary on contemporary American consumer culture, like this porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles (one of Koons’ most famous images):

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The artistic ethos gained currency in the early 1980s, embracing kitsch with a deadpan attitude, both mocking and celebrating it.

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Sometimes there is genuinely admirable craftsmanship at work, as in this gargantuan and deceptively difficult to produce sculpture of a cat on a clothesline:

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But a lot of it just seems cutesy and not especially witty to me.

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The segments of this show exhibiting big chrome balloon toys and collages riffing on images from antiquity struck me as inferior to the survey of similar pieces that the Gagosian Gallery showed last year.

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Of course, perv that I am, I was most drawn to the pieces Koons made during his tempestuous marriage to Ilona Staller, a beautiful and well-known Italian porn star whose nom de porn is La Cicciolina. They collaborated on a notorious show called “Made in Heaven” that featured a lot of hardcore photos and artwork featuring the two of them in flagrante.

Okay, here come the images I warned you about. No kids past this point.

If you’re reading this at work, with someone looking over your shoulder, you might not want to scroll any further.

These are shown in galleries that have parental advisories very discreetly posted. I found this crystal sculpture kind of witty.

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Whereas this just seems both funny and hot, especially considering that someone has the job of guarding it all day:

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As a major museum retrospective, the Koons show wasn’t especially nutritious. We needed to check out the selection from the Whitney’s permanent collection on the top floor and on the mezzanine, which included an excellent Basquiat, Hollywood Africans:

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as well as a beautiful Calder wire likeness of French modernist composer Edgard Varèse, always championed by Frank Zappa, whose early albums quoted Varèse’s motto: “The present-day composer refuses to die!”

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Performance diary: Bridget Everett’s ROCK BOTTOM at Joe’s Pub

October 3, 2014

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My favorite thing about seeing Bridget Everett’s show Rock Bottom at Joe’s Pub was tracking the various elements that Charles Isherwood was unable to cite in his rave review in the New York Times. Such as the title of her second number, “Does This Dick Make My Ass Look Big?” A reference to “finger-banging” whizzed by, along with something about a “bloody little rectum.” She mentioned that she has two sisters: “one’s dead, one’s a cunt, both are single.” And Isherwood never said anything about Everett’s lengthy story about an erotic overnight with a movie star, the morning after which she woke up aware that “my mouth smelled like Liza Minnelli after she went down on Kathleen Turner.”

Everett is a big hefty gal with a deceptively middle-American innocent face, blonde hair, blue eyes, operatic training, good chops, a dirty mind, a filthy mouth, and equal amounts of comfort with inhabiting her fleshy body and rubbing it (sometimes literally) in the audience’s face. She does very little to cover up her enormous jugs. Her persona combines Bette Midler’s Sophie Tucker impersonation with Amy Schumer’s sweet/shocking demeanor, with a scantily clad bow in the direction of Justin Bond. (In an interview with Artforum, Everett mentions Kiki and Herb as a major influence.)

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She’ll say and do anything. She stashed two bottles of Chardonnay onstage and swigged from them continuously throughout the show, spitting the corks into the audience and occasionally spraying the front row with a mouthful of vino. She suggested that her drinking helps her combat her social anxiety: “If I have 8 to 10 alcoholic units, I come out of my shell.” But she was clearly taught by experts. A reminiscence of home life began with Mom “listening to Manilow and getting shit-faced. Just before she blacked out, she’d say, ‘Get in the car, we’re going for a ride,’” usually to spy on Everett’s father and his new girlfriend.

Her material is nothing if not edgy. (The songs were written mostly by Everett with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, of Hairspray fame, with additional contributions from Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, who plays in Everett’s band, and Matt Ray. They’re not credited individually, but I assume that any song with the word “dick” in the title came from Shaiman and Wittman.) A story about terminating numerous pregnancies led to a song from the point of view of a month-old fetus; halfway through, Everett was joined onstage by a skinny boy naked except for a diaper and a stocking-cap singing “Let Me Live.”

The audience was an unlikely mixture of gays and straights, young and old. A hetero couple up front apparently talked so incessantly for the first half of the show that Everett stopped and told them to leave – a first, she said, and clearly unnerving even to her. Sitting next to me (in the back, safely out of range of Everett’s aggressive audience interaction) were four gals in their twenties who laughed loudly when Everett said, “Some of you may recognize me from the Hamptons…”

I always cringe when female cabaret performers come on sexually to obviously gay audience members. I guess I’ve never forgotten sitting ringside at a cabaret performance when Nell Carter shoved my face into her capacious bosom, which felt only humiliating to me. So I watched with some disapproval as Everett bore down on a shy theater queen I know from my gym, who gave every evidence of wanting to disappear under the table. She approached another guy in the audience commenting about his letterman jacket (it actually said Ptown on the back, which doesn’t have any varsity sports teams as far as I know) and tried to get him to lick a line of whipped cream off of her inner thigh. He was rescued by a 22-year-old girl named Phoebe who was sitting nearby with her parents and cheerfully simulated eating pussy.

Everett’s finale involves dancing with an audience member and then bringing him up onstage, laying him down, and sitting on his face. At this performance, she started out dancing with Phoebe, but before long she swapped her out for an enthusiastic Englishman named Paul. Apparently, she couldn’t in good conscience sit on a 22-year-old girl’s face onstage with her parents watching. “Maybe if she was 25…”

 


Quote of the day: GOOGLE

September 29, 2014

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Google doesn’t publish its own material, but the [European Court of Justice] decision [granting citizens the right to demand that Google remove links related to their names] recognized that the results of a Google search often matter more than the information on any individual Web site. The private sector made this discovery several years ago. Michael Fertik, the founder of Reputation.com, also supports the existence of a right to be forgotten that is enforceable against Google. “This is not about free speech; it’s about privacy and dignity,” he told me. “For the first time, dignity will get the same treatment in law as copyright and trademark do in America. If Sony or Disney wants fifty thousand videos removed from YouTube, Google removes them with no questions asked. If your daughter is caught kissing someone on a cell-phone home video, you have no option of getting it down. That’s wrong. The priorities are backward.”

–Jeffrey Toobin, “The Solace of Oblivion,” The New Yorker

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Performance diary: Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet at BAM

September 28, 2014

Brooklyn Academy of Music
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BAM’s month-long tribute to Nonesuch Records continued with Landfall, another legendary collaboration, this time between Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet. It was a bit of a high-wire act – more speaking than you would get from a Kronos concert, more instrumental music than you would get at a Laurie Anderson concert, a theme (having to do with decay, erosion, corruption, extinction, glitches in verbal communication, technology, environmental integrity, cosmic meaning…) but not exactly a narrative, a visual element (generated by a program called Erst) of language streaming up and down and across the back wall, often too fast or cryptically to read or comprehend. The score fell into numerous discrete pieces, none of them songs exactly, not quite movements — in a program note, Laurie refers to them as “stories with tempos.” The first and last spoken pieces refer to Hurricane Sandy, but otherwise the stories stray to lists (extinct species, galaxies) and dreams (or rather, “Don’t you hate it when people tell you their dreams?”). There is no mention of the reality that during the time the work was created, Laurie’s husband Lou Reed was sick and dying, but there is a melancholy undertow to the surging, keening strings. The last words spoken, describing a basement full of water in which are floating all the things you’ve spent your life saving, are “beautiful, magical, catastrophic.” The piece kept me guessing every minute as to where it was going and how all the pieces fit together. The New York Times review was reprehensibly stingy – the music was challenging, varied, beautiful, adventurous, and well-played.

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