Posts Tagged ‘dessoff choirs’

Culture vulture: THE STEINS COLLECT at the Met, Wu Tsang’s WILDNESS at the Whitney Biennial, and the Dessoff Choirs

May 15, 2012


May 11 –
I finally got around to checking out the 2012 Whitney Biennial. I arrived before the museum opened, though, so I had half an hour to kill, which motivated me to bicycle over to the Met to see another show on my must-see list: “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde.” Gertrude Stein has been a lifelong culture hero of mine, and I’ve read all the major biographies, yet this show succinctly and powerfully made me understand certain crucial things about her and her family (above) for the first time. For one thing, they were rich kids whose European adventures were bankrolled by their family’s successful real estate and manufacturing businesses. I just recently watched the fascinating documentary Herb and Dorothy, which depicts the Vogels, a retired librarian and postal worker who have spent their entire adult lives and earnings buying contemporary art from emerging artists they’d befriended, one $100 piece after another, carrying them in their hands or in taxis to their rent-controlled Upper East Side one-bedroom apartment. They amassed a collection of pieces which they have now donated – not sold – to the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Gertrude and Leo were a little like those two. They had more money to start with but not vast fortunes, so they started buying work by artists of their generation and inviting friends and strangers to their apartment in Paris to view work that was not otherwise on display. Ten of the first 19 paintings they bought circa 1904 pictured naked women, which tells me that Leo, unmarried at age 32, was a horny lad. When Leo moved out of the apartment – largely because he couldn’t stand Gertrude’s grandiosity, ambition, or writing (he thought she and Picasso were frauds) – they divvied up the artists they loved: Leo got Renoir and Gertrude got Picasso. Meanwhile, their older financially savvy banker brother Mike and his wife Sarah (called Sally) cultivated Matisse. How these personalities meshed is beautifully and clearly articulated in this terrific exhibition, full of great familiar and unfamiliar paintings (such as Picasso’s Melancholy Woman, below) as well as tons of family photos. Kudos to curator Rebecca Rabinow!

I went back to the Whitney, where I found the Biennial somewhat less exciting than I thought it would be. There is a large performance element to this Biennial – the entire fourth floor is given over to Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran’s mini-festival BLEED. When I walked through, though, the performance happening was a demonstration of Alexander technique on massage tables at either end of the room (with the Morans serving as demo models for practitioners Gwen Ellison and Jessica Wolf — see below), not especially interesting to observe. There was an installation elsewhere on the fourth floor with a recorded text by Dennis Cooper that I would like to have heard, but it was switched off during the performances.


I had heard about Dawn Kasper’s installation, This Could Be Something if I Let It, which consists of everything in her home/studio packed up and moved to a gallery at the Whitney. She wasn’t on the premises when I walked by, but I got a kick out of having permission to peer at her stuff.


Otherwise, I was surprised at how little of the work grabbed me. I peeked into the screening room on the second floor, where Wu Tsang’s Wildness was just beginning. At first glance, I took it to be an ethnographic documentary about Latino neighborhoods and I was about to leave when the narrator said something about having being involved in the queer punk scene in Chicago before moving to L.A. That piqued my interest enough to sit down and watch, and it turned out to be a phenomenally engrossing film.


Wu Tsang (above) is a 30-year-old Chinese-American transgendered artist who stumbled upon the Silver Platter, a historic gay bar in the predominantly Latino community of MacArthur Park. The bar was owned by Gonzalo Rodriguez and his sister Rosa, who inherited it from their brother Rogelio, who founded the bar and then died (AIDS is implied), and they ran the place with help from Gonzalo’s ex-boyfriend Koky and his current boyfriend Javier. The Silver Platter mostly catered to discreetly gay Latino guys in Tejano hats and work boots but Friday nights was a drag show that made the bar a haven for trans gals, many of them immigrants. Wu and several club-kid/DJ friends  proposed a Tuesday night party called Wildness that caught on and quickly became a dynamic crossroads and de facto community center for transpeople. (It reminded me of San Francisco’s legendary Trannyshack, of which this film makes no mention.) The film, shot over the course of two years, traces the excitement and challenges that met this kind of collaboration/clash of races, cultures, and classes in a very smart and self-questioning way. (Among the lessons learned: for all the club’s efforts to create “safe space” for transpeople, the biggest danger came from the straight white hipster who wrote up the club for the L.A. Weekly as if it were a sleazy south-of-the-border stand-up brothel.)

The film is formally inventive and very honest. You can watch the trailer online (above), but it only hints at the complexity and quality of the overall film, which I highly recommend. It screened three times a day for one week during the Biennial; there may be a theatrical run at some point and the inevitable DVD release. This was the highlight of the Biennial for me, though I intend to go back and revisit. There’s also a recreation of the Silver Platter upstairs on the fourth floor with two-channel video of excerpts from the film.

May 12 –  Andy sings with the Dessoff Choirs, who gave their annual spring concert at the Church of the Epiphany on the Upper East Side. The program of music for choir and organ (well-played by guest artist Sean Jackson), titled “Lux Aeterna,” included two works by that name, Elgar’s and Morten Lauridsen’s, as well as five anthems by Henry Purcell and three pieces by Frank Lewin. The concert was beautifully sung. My single favorite piece was the a cappella hymn “O nata Lux” from Lauridsen’s suite, but I also loved the three Benjamin Britten pieces they performed: the gorgeous “Jubilate Deo” and “Festival Te Deum” and the weird, exhilarating “Rejoice in the Lamb.” The latter was a 1943 setting of a poem written by Christopher Smart (1722-71, pictured below) in an insane asylum. As music director Christopher Shepard understates in his program note, “The text is brilliant though fantastic; it is a song of praise to God that relies heavily on animal imagery.” You can read the whole poem here – refreshingly nutty.


We went out for dinner afterwards to Malaga, a tapas and wine bar on E. 73rd Street – yummy food and good wine, reasonably priced.

Performance diary: Neil Gaiman, BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK, Dessoff Choirs, and GOOD PEOPLE

May 19, 2011

Quick and dirty notes on stuff I saw that I don’t have time to write about in more detail:

April 27 – “Magical Realism: The World of Marvelous Stories with Neil Gaiman” at Symphony Space was Andy’s choice. He’s a huge fan of Gaiman (the deluxe edition of the Sandman series on his bookshelf is testimony to that), whom I know only from seeing the stage and film versions of Coraline, which I enjoyed very much. I’m always impressed by the cool New York actors that show up for these Selected Shorts evening. Tonight it was Marin Ireland, Boyd Gaines, and Josh Hamilton joining Gaiman himself, who is very well-spoken and rock-star hip. The thread through all the stories had to do with stories eating themselves. I especially enjoyed Gaiman’s “The Thing About Cassandra,” performed by Hamilton with a surprise return appearance by Ireland. And the evening was introduced by the legendary Isaiah Sheffer, who does political literary stand-up to match the best of them.

April 30 – went with Misha Berson to a matinee of Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. It’s essentially an essay about how black women in three different eras were affected by Hollywood’s reflections of their lives. It’s well-performed by a good cast (I especially admired Stephanie J. Block as the pampered Gloria Mitchell, Karen Olivo as super striver Anne Mae, and David Garrison as the late ‘60s TV talk-show smoothie Brad Donovan) and well staged by Jo Bonney (with a terrific black-and-white film by Tony Gerber that opens act 2). The first act is often funny watching the ridiculous and humiliating lengths perfectly intelligent black actresses went through to get cast in stupid demeaning roles as housemaids and eye-rolling slaveys. But I can’t say that Nottage conveys anything especially new on the subject, and the second act traffics in tired trashing of academic jargon about pop culture (too easy a target).  The play is nowhere near as original and impressive as her last three – Intimate Apparel, Fabulation, and Ruined – but those three were pretty damned good, so topping them would be a tough job for any playwright.

May 14 – The Dessoff Choirs, which Andy sings with, gave their spring concert at St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square, a fascinating eclectic program called “Dance On! Music for Pianos and Percussion.” The first half consisted of Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” selected “Liebeslieder Waltzes” from Brahms, and a long interesting song cycle for double chorus by the contemporary British composer Jonathan Dove called “The Passing of the Year” set to poems by Blake, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Nashe, and George Peele (my favorite, “Hot Sun, Cool Fire”). The second half contained another odd mixture of pieces by Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, Henryk Gorecki (a gorgeous a capella “Tonus Tuus”), David Conte (“Invocation and Dance,” a setting from Leaves of Grass), and a composer new to me named Gwyneth Walker. The acoustics in the church sounded a little muddy at first but overall the singing was exquisite, conducted by Christopher Shepard.

May 17 – I avoided seeing David Linday-Abaire’s Good People for a long time, because I’ve never liked his plays. I don’t always agree with John Lahr’s opinions, but his review in the New Yorker described this one as Playwriting by Numbers, which is one of my pet peeves. But enough people I respect spoke very highly of Good People, so I broke down and actually bought tickets. The play did bug me, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and trying to figure out why. I know that it bugged me that the play (and/or the production, directed by Daniel Sullivan) seemed to encourage the audience to laugh at and feel superior to the working-class Bostonians portrayed by Frances McDormand, Becky Ann Baker (loved those shaved eyebrows), and Estelle Parsons (loved her costumes by Mr. David Zinn). And the schematic set-up of the second act, which pits McDormand’s tackily dressed Margie (so desperate for a job that she’ll stalk a high-school boyfriend to beg for janitorial work at his office) against the suburban chic of said boyfriend, now a successful doctor with a beautiful young (and black! ooooh!) wife, totally replays God of Carnage’s bogus, self-congratulatory, guilt-trippy drama of class-consciousness. I think what bugged me most was what how thinly drawn the character of the doctor is – we know nothing about what happened to him between high school and Margie’s knocking on his door asking for work, except that he’s kept his (over-broad) Southie accent and married a doctor’s daughter from Georgetown. Meanwhile, we’ve learned a lot of nuanced information about Margie’s life (although the playwright also stacks the deck to make her as put-upon and victim-y as possible). This is lazy, manipulative playwriting. For better and fairer treatment of similar material, look at the plays of Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens). Nevertheless, little scenes stick with me. Except for Tate Donovan, playing the thankless role of Mike, all the actors give terrifically honest performances. I think I was most touched by Patrick Carroll in the smallest role of Stevie, who has to fire Margie from her job at the Dollar Store and takes shit from the peanut gallery because he likes to play bingo.

Performance diary: The Dessoff Choirs at St. James’ Church

November 21, 2010


November 20
The Dessoff Choirs, which Andy sings with, have spent all fall rehearsing with their new conductor, Christopher Shepard, for a concert of French choral music. The concert, titled “In Paradisum: French Masters from Josquin to Duruffle,” was sublime. I’m no expert on the history of choral music, but I love a lot of French impressionist music (Faure and Debussy), and this concert turned me on to a lot more. It opened gorgeously with Faure’s “Cantique de Jean Racine” and closed with Duruffle’s “Requiem,” which is sterner, less lush than Faure’s famed Mass but exquisitely performed. Poulenc’s “Four Motets for Christmastime” were spectacular – for one thing, the acoustics at St. James’ Church gave unaccompanied voices an almost perfect environment. The church was chosen partly to show off its new organ, and keyboardist Christopher Jennings got a slot to play something without the singers. I’m no fan of organ music, but he plays Saint-Saens’ “Prelude and Fugue in B Major,” which was beautiful and weirdly made me to understand that Brian Wilson must have looked to Saint-Saens as an inspiration. The most ambitious and thoroughly successful segment of the program was Shepard’s selection of Madrigals and Chansons, alternating between Renaissance church music and modern art songs. Out of eight pieces, two struck me particularly: Vincent d’Indy’s “Madrigal dans le style ancient” and Faure’s “Madrigal.” The latter had a text by Armand Silvestre so deep and wise that it made me cry. The English translation by Miriam Lewin goes:

You should know, o cruel Beauties,
That the days for loving are numbered.
You should know, fickle gents,
That the fruits of love are fleeting.
Love when someone loves you,
Love when someone loves you!

The same destiny awaits us
And our folly is the same:
To love the one who flees us,
And to flee the one who loves us!

The Dessoff were supposed to be spending next week accompanying Ray Davies on his East Coast tour, singing choral arrangements of classic Kinks songs. But Herr Davies fell ill and had to cancel. So their next performance will be Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé with the Julliard Orchestra December 13 at 8:00 pm at Alice Tully Hall.

Performance diary: A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE and MR. & MRS. FITCH

March 10, 2010

March 3 – I’m in awe of Martin McDonagh as a playwright for his humor, for his theatricality, for his sly storytelling, and for his sheer mastery at composing sentences that explode in the air. His new play, A Behanding in Spokane, had me from the very beginning and never lost me. First of all, there’s Christopher Walken with his wild hair and ruined face, sitting on the bed in a crappy hotel room with one hand and one stump, looking grim. That gets a laugh all by itself, somehow. The flimsy latticed wardrobe door starts rattling, being kicked by someone apparently bound and gagged inside. That gets a laugh. (The crappy hotel room is beautifully designed by Scott Pask: the wardrobe has been built as an afterthought to the room, without any attention to the wallpaper pattern.) Walken goes to the wardrobe, opens the door, leans in and fires two shots. That gets a laugh. He closes the  door, walks over to the phone, dials a number, and speaks the first line of the play: “Hi, Mom.” Laugh. This insane mixture of menace, goofiness, surprise, and mundanity – the essence of McDonagh’s dramatic universe – may not be everybody’s cup of tea but it’s absolutely mine.

The play occupies a territory midway between David Mamet and Sam Shepard. Like American Buffalo, the play is a caper that involves bumbling low-level thieves, terse sentences, and fast-flying obscenities. Walken’s character, Carmichael, has spent the last 47 years trying to retrieve the hand that a gang of hillbillies chopped off when he was 11 years old. Somehow he ends up in small-town Arizona (?) where two young dumbass pot dealers (Toby and Marilyn, played by Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan) claim to know where they can get his hand for $500. There’s always been a strong connection to Shepard in McDonagh’s plays – as here, at the center is a showdown between two guys who are more or less alter-egos, and there’s a wittily self-conscious theatricality afoot. Carmichael’s unlikely sparring partner is Mervyn (played by Sam Rockwell), the guy who works at the front desk of the hotel. Mervyn, who is quick to insist that he’s NOT “the receptionist” and was apparently doing sit-ups in his boxer shorts when Carmichael arrived to rent the room, is the play’s Fool, meaning he seems like a loser but winds up being the voice of truth and reason, sort of. He’s both a character and a device, the picture pointing to the frame, the writer talking to himself and punching holes in his own story.

The plot is very slight and not especially plausible, but key moments tell us to let go of naturalistic drama and pay attention to McDonagh’s postmodern hijinks. Mervyn first appears at the door to inquire about the gunshots he heard, and after repeating back the ludicrous explanation Carmichael gives him he asks, “Where is this story going to go?” Carmichael says, “We’ll find out as soon as you leave the room.” And although it wouldn’t seem too hard for two energetic kids to run away from a one-handed man, even if the other hand was holding a gun, all Carmichael has to do is whistle and jerk his head and his two captives willingly walk across the room to be handcuffed to heating ducts, as if under a spell. There’s no intermission, but the action is interrupted by an interlude in front of a drawn curtain in which Mervyn steps out to give us his hilariously discursive back-story. It’s a kind of vaudevillean moment that contributes to lifting the play out of the kitchen sink and conjures both Beckett and Brecht. And the scene is written and played in a manner very close to the bravura letter-reading monologue in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the play that introduced us to Martin McDonagh.

Directed by John Crowley, the cast is spectacular – David Zinn called it “the character-actor Olympics,” although as he pointed out, the roles of the two kids are so thinly drawn that you end up feeling sorry for the actors, especially Anthony Mackie, an excellent actor (see him in The Hurt Locker!) who has to spend most of the show playing a stoopid guy with vocabulary that ranges from “motherfuckin’ this” to “motherfuckin’ that.” The New Yorker’s Hilton Als was enraged by the shallow stereotypical nature of the character and Carmichael’s casual racism, and DZ objected to Carmichael’s needling Toby for “crying like a fag.” Somehow those things didn’t bother me – I saw them as part of McDonagh’s edgy examination of theatrical language, which included Marilyn’s hilariously earnest/lame challenging Carmichael for his homophobia and his use of “the n-word.” If anything, I wound up thinking that Mackie and Kazan were miscast. They’re terrific actors, up-and-coming stars (in Ian Rickson’s production of The Seagull last year, she was the best Masha I’ve ever seen), but a little too squeaky-clean to really represent small-town losers. Christopher Walken is, of course, amazing – ceaselessly inventive, scary, present, vulnerable, and as DZ put it, he has the deadest deadpan on earth. I was knocked out by Sam Rockwell’s performance because he goes nose-to-nose with Walken and holds his own without budging, and his performance is a comic triumph of its own.

The show got mixed reviews – Ben Brantley in the Times called it “erratically enjoyable” – but then so did McDonagh’s debut as filmmaker, In Bruges, which I think is one of the funniest and best-written movies of the last decade. David was much cooler toward the play than I was, but we had a good juicy conversation about it over drinks at Angus McIndoe, where McDonagh apparently does all his interviews and post-show drinking. I didn’t see him there, but he was at the theater greeting well-wishers, and I got a kick out of seeing the silver fox in person (see above).

March 5 – DZ called Behanding “the slightest excuse to gather 1000 people in a room,” but that encomium is much more appropriate for Mr. & Mrs. Fitch at the Second Stage, Douglas Carter Beane’s hard-hitting satire about…celebrity journalism. In an attempt at Noel Coward-style brittle and topical comedy of manners, John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle play gossip columnists who drop about 100 literary names to suggest that they’re superior to everybody else. But it’s thin, hasty stuff that recycles old jokes (“Bi now, gay later”) and dispenses with character continuity altogether (one minute She’s avidly encouraging Him to invent a fake celebrity – the play’s major plot point – and the next minute she’s castigating his journalistic ethics for doing so). The funniest idea is that headline writers at the New York Post use “Camptown Races” as the rhythmic model for their creations – you can tell they’ve hit on a classic if you can follow it with “doo-dah, doo-dah!”

March 6 – Andy sings with the Dessoff Choirs, a volunteer group that symphony orchestras job in for massive choral works (like Britten’s War Requiem). Every so often they do a concert by themselves, and this program at Merkin Concert Hall consisted of three contemporary pieces: three Psalms by the recently deceased Lukas Foss, a pretentious and ugly piece by Harold Farberman called Talk inspired by dialogue overheard at an upstate diner, and Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets, based on a series of poems by Jones Very (1813-1880). The Foss and the Gann at least provided some beautifully lush choral singing, and the two soloists were excellent – tenor Jeffrey Hill and soprano Megan Taylor.

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