Posts Tagged ‘dessoff choirs’

Culture Vulture: Walt Whitman, Netta Yerashalmy, R. Crumb, Okwui Okpokwasili, and more

March 22, 2019

[Note: this post contains some NSFW images.]

 

The last 10 days have been unusually dense and rich with cultural experiences. I NY!

March 9: My husband Andy sings with the Dessoff Choirs, the prestigious choral group that has been performing continuously for 95 years. The current musical director, wunderkind Malcolm J. Merriweather, brings an ambitious taste in repertoire, a theatrical flair for staging, and impeccable musicianship to the mix. He chose to devote the entire current season to settings of Walt Whitman on the occasion of the great American poet’s bicentennial. Today’s concert at Union Theological Seminary started at 4pm (one of Merriweather’s strokes of genius – it’s a perfect time to assemble an audience without competing with shows observing the traditional 8:00 curtain time), after a fascinating lecture by Whitman scholar Karen Karbiener. I arrived a bit late and didn’t get to hear Malcolm (below) perform Kurt Weill’s settings of two Whitman poems (including “Oh Captain! My Captain!” which she reminded the audience was about Abraham Lincoln) but caught enough of her talk to pique my interest in checking out his pre-Leaves of Grass prose writing.

The concert began with “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf,” finishing another Malcolm project to perform all of Bach’s motets. Gorgeous. Then came the world premiere of “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” an exquisite short piece for piano (Steven Ryan), chorus, and solo soprano (Tami Petty) composed by Dessoff member Ian Sturges Milliken (who’s 35!), followed by Jeffrey Van’s 1994 “A Procession Winding Around Me,” four Civil War poems accompanied only by guitar (Lars Frandsen) that had many of us in tears with its extraordinary compassion: “My enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead.” (The lines from “Reconciliation” about how “war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost” reminded me of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s epic The Warrior Ant, which counsels that “All wars are lost.”) The score also included a passage requiring several performers to whistle (including my talented husband).  After intermission came Rene Clausen’s very beautiful “Three Whitman Songs” (1992), and the concert concluded with Charles Villiers Stanford’s 1884 “Elegiac Ode,” sort of stuffy and Victorian and not to my taste.

The final concert of the Whitman season will be May 31.

March 10: The annual music issue of the New York Times Magazine always intrigues me with its theme of “The 25 Songs That Matter Right Now.” (A more accurate headline would admit “That Matter to 25-Year-Olds Right Now.”) It’s an opportunity for anyone who doesn’t read Pitchfork religiously to catch up on what’s hot and provocative in contemporary pop/hip-hop. I got a lot out of reading Lizzy Goodman’s profile of emerging pop-country star Kacey Musgraves (with an astonishing photo of her alongside two contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race, below), Nikole Hannah-Jones interviewing Meek Mill, Wesley Morris riffing on a non-hit Lady Gaga number from A Star Is Born, and learning about a few artists brand new to me (Tierra Whack, Rosalía). But the best thing about the feature is listening to the Spotify playlist of all 25 songs, some of which I’ll never need to hear again (“Baby Shark”) and some that will definitely join my music library (James Blake’s “Assume Form,” Sharon Van Etten’s “Comeback Kid,” Robyn’s “Honey,” Julia Holter’s “I Shall Love 2”).

Kasey Musgraves with Monet X. Change and Trinity the Tuck, photo by Devin Yalkin

March 12: I’m super-picky about TV shows. Hardly any appeal to me, and it takes a lot for me to get past the first episode of any series. All-time favorites: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under,  and Looking, the only ones I’ve seen from beginning to end. New favorite: High Maintenance. Recently, enough people have raved about it to lure me into Schitt’s Creek; I’m liking it, but I suspect that I will lose interest halfway through Season 3, as I did with Girls and Orange is The New Black. Tonight I gave Russian Doll a shot. Color me intrigued. I’ll watch more.

March 14: On the strength of Keith Hennessy’s recommendation, I bought a ticket to Netta Yerashalmy’s six-part four-hour performance Paramodernities at New York Live Arts, in which the Israeli-born New York-based Yerushalmy pays tribute to six canonical dance artists: Nijinsky, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, and Alvin Ailey.  Waiting for the show to begin, I found myself thinking, “Why am I here? This isn’t really my world. Okay, two intermissions, I can leave whenever I want…” But I stayed to the end and was really glad I did.

Each of the six sections responded to the legendary dance/choreographer differently. None was exactly a reproduction; each was an homage to the subject, or better yet an essay, given that Yerashalmy enlisted a dance critic/scholar as key collaborator for each section, which I loved as a critic/scholar/word-person myself. Their contributions really helped expand the frame of the work and felt deeply collegial. I think it’s especially valuable in dance to have a bridge of words between the audience and work that is (usually) non-verbal.

Not overly reverent, Yerashalmy “queered” each investigation. For instance, in the first section, she originally planned to perform Nijinsky’s 1913 Le Sacre du Printemps but decided instead to have Marc Crousillat perform in her costume (a red smock) while she lounged onstage watching; meanwhile, her life partner David Kishik, a philosophy professor at Emerson College, sat at a table playing cassette tapes of his scholarly remarks about Nijinsky read by someone without an accent (Michael Cecconi). The next piece looked at Martha Graham through the lens of “Trauma, Interdiction, and Agency in ‘The House of Pelvic Truth.’” The response to Fosse’s work on the 1969 film Sweet Charity struck me as the weakest, trafficking in shallow readings of Fosse, but its cast of four dancers included Joyce Edwards, a fiery and funny presence I want to see more of.

The evening built from there. The section on Merce Cunningham had the two dancers (Crousillat and Brittany Engel-Adams) chatting extemporaneously with the charming critic Claudia LaRocco, with a five-minute interlude by a guest artist, in this case Bill T. Jones himself, who read from snippets from his published journals relating to Merce, including a story about John Cage showing him around their loft and pointing to a closed door: “That’s where Mercy sleeps.”

In “The Choreography of Rehabilitation: Disability and Race in Balanchine’s Agon,” NYU professor Mara Mills (on video) told an elaborate and riveting story about Balanchine’s relationship with Tanaquil Le Clercq, his fourth wife. When Le Clercq was fifteen years old, Balanchine asked her to perform with him at a benefit for The March of Dimes; he played a character named Polio, and Le Clercq was his victim who became paralyzed and fell to the floor until children tossed dimes at her character, prompting her to get up and dance again. Twelve years later, Le Clercq contracted polio while on tour with Balanchine’s company in Europe and was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life. Balanchine suspended his career and spent a year with her at a rehab center in the South (whites-only, incidentally) learning exercises to try to restore her mobility. When he returned to work, he used those exercises to create the 1957 piece Agon, the first ballet to feature a black male dancer in a leading role (Arthur Mitchell, who would go on to found the Dance Theater of Harlem). This section also included text by Georgina Kleege, a blind author who appeared onstage with a support cane, which she put down in order to do some simple choreography with two other dancers. (The Saturday night performance would feature audio description of the entire event for visually impaired audience members.)

The final section focused on Ailey’s 1960 Revelations. Duke University professor Thomas DeFrantz spoke very frankly and powerfully about how Alvin Ailey made space in Revelations for black gay male experience/existence, likening it to his savvy grandmother’s making it safe for young Tommy to be openly gay in his Indiana family. In this section, as in two previous sections, seating was set up onstage and the audience invited down to sit there. The evening ended with the dancers (three black men, one black woman, and Yerashalmy) dancing up the aisles through the audience, followed by DeFrantz (above, toting his laptop) chanting over and over again: “DON’T YOU WANT TO BE FREE? DON’T YOU WANT TO BE FREE?”

March 16: In the afternoon Andy and I fled the St. Patrick’s Day parade madness in midtown to the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, where we looked at two terrific exhibitions. “Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact by the Illustrious R. Crumb,” curated by Robert Storr, displayed rare sketchbooks and tearsheets from the prolific artist’s early years – underground comix at their most sexually and racially provocative.

“The Young and Evil,” a group exhibition curated by Jarrett Earnest, focuses on a fascinating cohort of artists whose social, sexual, and professional pathways were intricately intertwined, as this diagram cleverly illustrates.

Some fantastic drawings and paintings by Paul Cadmus, his lover Jared French, and Pavel Tchelitchew; beautiful portraits by George Platt Lynes (who lived for many years in a thruple with writer Glenway Wecott and publisher Monroe Wheeler); work by artists new to me (Margaret Hoening French, Bernard Perlin, George Tooker, Jensen Yow); and an astonishing vitrine of explicit erotic art work by various members of this crew commissioned by pioneering sex researcher Alfred A. Kinsey and rarely seen outside of the Kinsey Institute in Indiana. The title of the show comes from an extremely edgy-for-its-time 1933 gay novel co-written by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler (the latter also famous for his pre-Vito Russo study Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies).

Cadmus by Platt Lynes

Cadmus for Kinsey

Tchelitchew, GOD OF RAIN

Tchelitchew erotica

From Chelsea we headed over to the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side to catch Adaku’s Revolt, the latest performance piece by Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born. Although it was commissioned for the French Institute Alliance Française’s Tilt Kids Festival, the show was every bit as sophisticated, dense, and imagistic as their terrific previous pieces (Bronx Gothic and Poor People’s TV Room). Adaku’s Revolt tells a story about a young black girl (played by AJ Wilmore) who resists “normative standards of beauty” – i.e., having her hair straightened with the dreaded hot comb. But the narrative is decidedly non-linear, utilizing physical rigor, dance, music, text, and imagery in unpredictable combinations, adding up to a very satisfying and original hour-long piece of theater with five excellent performances (including Okpokwasili) and imaginative staging and design by Born. We enjoyed discussing it over a delicious North African meal at Nomad in the East Village.

 

 

Culture Vulture: Dessoff Choirs and Alice Coltrane, or how many black female harp players can you name?

May 24, 2017

5.21.17Malcolm J. Merriweather – remember that name. He’s going to be famous in the music world one day, and you can say you heard it here first. He’s currently the music director of the Dessoff Choirs, the distinguished group that has been performing choral works in New York City since 1924 (my boyfriend Andy has been singing with them since 2008). On Sunday they closed their season with a beautifully conceived, musically ambitious, philosophically inspiring concert at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Central Park West called “A New Amorous World,” which took on the theme of love as it is viewed all over the world not just as a personal human emotion but as a spiritual and political force.
The title of the program comes from the work that opened the concert, an eight-part 20-minute wackadoodle piece called “The New Amorous World” by a young composer named Lembit Beecher based on the writing of 18th century French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier. I knew nothing about Fourier until I read Beecher’s program note about him, and now I want to know all about him. In this piece he lays out his conception of the impending end of Civilization as we know it, to be replaced by what he calls Harmony, which will see “the establishment of perpetual peace, universal unity, the liberty of women.” The score mainly has the choir singing a cappella, lightly accompanied by two horns and a harp (all played by young women) – who does that??? And the text, mostly sung but sometimes spoken by individual singers, veers far beyond what you usually hear a choir singing, on the subject of love, work, and passionate attraction.

Sample passage: “Manias relating to love will be common in Harmony. Manias will be completely equal before the law in Harmony. People forget that love is the domain of unreason. The more unreasonable a thing is, the more closely it is associated with love. Some manias are spiritual; some manias are physical in harmony. How can people assume that God intended love to be no more than an agent of a tyrannical bond called marriage? How shameful it would be for God if he had created the most noble of passions only to yield the most contemptible result. How impertinent of man to impute such ineptness to God. Amorous heel scratching, hair plucking, fondness for lesbians, desire to eat spiders – all varieties of love.”

Did I mention Fourier’s concept of the Archibras, a sixteen-foot-long tail that men and women living on the sun will have in the time of Harmony? “It has a firm grip with retractable claws. It enables man to swim like a fish, dig in the ground, slide down a tree, grab onto rigging. It is infinitely useful!”

Imagine singing lines like that! The music is pretty tricky and difficult yet quite beautiful, and the Dessoff pulled it off spectacularly, which must have been gratifying to the composer, who was sitting just a few feet away from me.


And that was just the beginning of a program that moved through traditional Arabian muwashshah, Syrian, Turkish, Chinese and Japanese folk songs, Hebrew liturgy, Haitian and Sufi songs, and an amazing wordless piece called “Past Life Melodies” by Australian composer Sarah Hopkins performed by the United Nations International School Senior Chorus (conducted by Daniel Stroup), who also joined the Dessoff for two numbers, including the finale, the Navajo prayer “Now I walk in beauty” set to music by Gregg Smith.

The singers did a spectacular job with these contrasting styles and multiple languages. The acoustics were superb for largely unaccompanied (or lightly accompanied) singing. And besides his canny, knowledgeable sense of programming and fine-tuned conducting, Merriweather has a distinct flair for theatricality from the way he has the singers process to the stage area to the way he arranges soloists and small groups around the house to distribute the sound. He’s young (31), tall, handsome, gay, black, super-talented, and clearly going places. Here he is with Andy, after the concert.


I was amazed to see Ashley Jackson playing the harp (below) because I knew that right after the Dessoff concert I was running out to the Knockdown Center in Maspeth (a neighborhood in Queens I’d never heard of before) to see a concert paying tribute to Alice Coltrane, the most famous black female jazz harpist in the world — not that it’s a gigantic population, but two in one day!?!


Well, Alice Coltrane (above) died ten years ago, but for this occasion her parts were played by Brandee Younger, in a ten-piece band led by Coltrane’s son Ravi that also included Reggie Workman (erstwhile sideman for Ravi’s legendary father, John Coltrane) and the great pianist Geri Allen. The event, entitled “The Ecstatic World of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda,” was presented by the Red Bull Music Academy NYC and was inspired by an album of the same name recently released on Luaka Bop, the label formed by David Byrne (who showed up for the concert, bicycle helmet and all).


The event had two parts. For the first part, “The Sunset Set,” half of the Knockdown Center had been converted into a temporary ashram, to reproduce the Sai Anatam Ashram that Coltrane created in Santa Monica in 1975 for the study of the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. Central to Coltrane’s spiritual practice were Sunday communal ceremonies of singing and chanting the original gospel-tinged arrangements of Sanskrit chants that made up the entirety of her musical output for the last ten years of her life.


For the event on Sunday, audience members were handed cloth bags for their shoes and comfortable pillows for sitting on the floor, both saffron-colored, as well as songbooks for singing along with the Sai Anatam Singers, a group from the California ashram led by music director Surya Botofasina. I assumed that anyone who showed up for this event would be familiar with the tradition of kirtan and eager to join in, but noooooo, this was a respectful quiet crowd of Brooklyn hipsters who treated it as a concert and barely responded, which made it much less fun.


Then there was a break, during which the audience was served free tasty vegetarian samosas while the band set up for part two, “The Evening Set,” in which Ravi Coltrane’s ensemble played selections from his mother’s jazz compositions. I daresay there’s no Alice Coltrane fan who doesn’t consider her essential track to be “Journey in Satchidananda” – it’s her “Love Supreme,” her “Thunder Road,” her “Smooth Operator.” I never thought I would hear it performed live in my lifetime, but there it was, opening the set – an ecstatic stretched-out 25-minute version with three different horn players and a flautist filling in for Pharoah Sanders’ solos on the original recording. They worked through four or five other classic Alice Coltrane pieces as well as a completely improvised interlude featuring two dancers. I went home happy.

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.

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