Friday, October 30, 2015

NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC: BYCHKOV, BATIASHVILI, CAPUCON WEAVE MAGIC IN BRAHMS VIOLIN,CELLO CONCERTO

NY PHILHARMONIC CONCERT TAKES THREE CONTRASTING VIEWS OF BRAHMS


by Dwight Casimere



 Conductor Semyon Bychkov leading the New York Philharmonic with (below) soloists Lisa Batyiashvili on Violin and Gautier Capucon on Cello (photos: Tina Fineberg for The New York Times)

NEW YORK--The esteemed Russian-American conductor Semyon Bychkov conducted an enthralling program that viewed the wide-ranging compositions of Johannes Brahms through three prisms; first through the eyes of a modern composer, then, as a showcase for two string virtuosos, and, finally, as the enduring voice of conservative Romanticism as spawned by Beethoven at the beginning of the 19th century.

The concert began with German composer Detlev Glanert's Brahms-Fantasie' Heliogravure for Orchestra. Thanks to the leadership of Music Director Alan Gilbert, a champion of new music, its not an uncommon occurence for the works of modern composers to be presented in season repertory. The sight of living composers to arise from the audience to receive accolades for their work has become an almost weekly occurrence.

German composer Detlev Glanert's Brahms-Fantasie makes music reference to Brahms' Symphony No. 1, which is performed later in the program.(If one listens closely, there are also the opening strains of Wagner's Parsifal. The composer was Brahms' nemesis.) The work is subtitled "A Heliogravure for Orchestra," which, I later learned, was a reference to a 19th century photographic technique in which phtographs are painted over with a chemical substance which essentially transforms its visual and material.

As confounding as the Brahms-Fantasie may have been for some listeners, the Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra with young Geoirgian megastar Lis Batiashvili playing her 1739 Guarneri del Gesu violin and French virtuoso Gautier Capucon playing his rare 1701 Matteo Goffriller cello, was a sheer delight. To say the performance was exquisite is an understatement. This was the most gratifying performance thus far this season, even surpassing Lang Lang's impassioned brilliance on Opening Night. 

This was music-making at its finest, with the orchestra, its conductor and the soloist in complete sympatico. Batiashvili and Capucon finished each other's musical phrases the way long-time lovers finish each other's sentences. Their ringing tones at times emulated each other and Bychkov's deft handling of the orchestra took great pains not to overshadow them, but to provide both a framework and a spiritual reference that  highlighted the colorful playing of the two soloists.

 Even principal orchestra members got into the spirit of things by playing long, heartfelt solos; principal oboist Liang Wang and concert master Frank Huang. 

The woodwinds and Batiashvili traded passages that were among the most sensitive and the cello and orchestra played spirited passages both separately and in unison.

 The height of the performance was when Batiashvili and Capucon played intertwining passages that sounded like two lovebirds in full flight.

Brahms' Symphony No. 1 is the Evander Holyfield of all symphonies. When it arrived in the U.S. a year after its European premiere, it set off an intense rivalry between the esteemed conductors and intense controversy among critics.

Bychkov and the New York Philharmonic rose nobly to the occasion, setting out the pinderous thematic material with great deliberation.  The pounding pulse of the timpani provided backdrop shrouded in angst. The strings and horns further established the elegiac mood. 

 At times, the orchestra  rose to a collective voice, like a choir singing an impassioned requiem. The violins sang expressively in the ensuing Andante,  ending in hushed reverence as the oboe rendered its haunting theme. The clarinet, a beautiful instrument that is not heard often enough, took charge of the theme that introduced the Allegretto, with Bychkov skillfully building the orchestra to a finale that brought all of the thoroughbreds thundering home.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"BURNT" A TEPID WARM-OVER OF THE BAD-BOY CHEF GENRE

STELLAR INTERNATIONAL CAST AND CREW WASTED IIN HASH OF A COMEDY/DRAMA

by Dwight Casimere




NEW YORK--"BURNT' is the latest offering to portray the bad/boy star chef phenomenon. Starring Tony (Elephant Man)  and four-time Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper, who received his latest nod from the Academy for his stellar work in Clint Eastwood's  American Sniper). and directed by TV's John Wells (ER, Third Watch, The West Wing, Shameless), the film lacks any of the punch and drama that you can see on any of Well's TV shows.

Cooper plays Adam Jones, a burned-ouot rock star chef who is battling drug addiction and is on-the-run from a pair of mobster who are dogging him for some old gambling debts. Along the way, he leaves behind a string of wrecked relationships and shuttered restaurant failures. The film centers on his last-ditch effort to redeem himself and earn a coveted Michelin star.

Beautifully filmed in New Orleans and London by 2009 Sundance Award-winning director Adriano Goldman, who is himself a noted director in Brazil, and edited by the stellar British director and editor Nick Moore, who did just about any British comedy/drama you ever loved  (starting with The Full Monty, the 1999 smash-hit Notting Hill, About a Boy, Love Actually), how could this project possibly have gone wrong?

The film has a stellar international cast that is largely wasted in this vehicle. Britain's  Emma Thompson (Remains of the Day, Howards End) plays Jones' therapist.  British/American hottie Sienna Miller (played opposite Cooper in American Sniper as wife Taya Renae Kyle, who co-wrote the source autobiography, American Wife: A Memoir of Love, Service, Faith, and Renewal, upon which the movie was based) is Jone's love interest. German actor Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds) is his loyal sidekick and Welsh actor Mstthew Rhys (ABC's Brothers and Sisters, FX's The Americans, plays his arch-rival Reese. And, oh yes, Uma Thurman is thrown into the mix in a forgettable role.

Cooper played a similar role in a short-lived Tv version of Kitchen Confidential, but why bother to see his latest film when you can watch the real bad boys, like Gordon Ramsey of Alan Bourdain, or real-life do-or-die chef's competition on Top Shelf.

Compare Burnt to the recently screened documentary "For Grace" which was featured at this year's Chicago International Film Festival, and is headed for Video On Demand and limited release in art houses around the country, which portrays the struggles of real-life chef Chris Duffy, who battles the ghost of his parent's murder/suicide, divorce, emotional depression and crushing debt from his year's long effort to open his dream restaurant. Now that's the stuff of a dramatic film!

THE ROYAL ROAD: 2015 SUNDANCE SELECTION IS A POETIC JOURNEY THROUGH CALIFORNIA AND LOVE


Tuesday, October 27, 2015


THE ROYAL ROAD: ARTFULLY INTERWOVEN THOUGHTS  CONNECT U.S./MEXICO BORDER TENSIONS WITH UNREQUITED LESBIAN LOVE

by Dwight Casimere


'Simply poetic' are the two words that best describe Jenni Olson's 2015 Sundance Selection, The Royal Road. This cinematic essay begins with a recollection, spoken in voice-over (we even get an official dictionary entry on the origin of the term), of the final scene of the Hollywood Classic "Sunset Boulevard," in which the central character begins to explain why he's been found face down in an aging Hollywood film legend's swimming pool, to intimations on California's colonial past and the conquest of Mexican territory from the Mexican-American to the Mission system created by Father Junipero Serro and the trail of blood and repression that became known as the 'Royal Road,' from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
 The director Jenni Olson in a pensive moment


 Scenes of Mission Dolores and Potrero Hill in San Francisco


Olson's meandering journey of conscience and observation is beautifully shot in 16mm film, using breathtaking panoramas and Ansel Adams-like stills of the urban and pastoral landscape that marks the road and its distinctive Mission-bell signage. Along the way, Olson reflects on a never-realized lesbian love-affair (more like a case of sheer unrequited love than anything) and the tangential relationship between the almost never written or talked about Mexican- America War, which made My Lai look like a Sunday picnic. 
Her near hypnotic voice further creates an atmospheric portrait that connects the creation of the Mission system with nostalgic shots of Mission Dolores and romantic scenes of the pineapple tree-lined Dolores Street in San Francisco and beautiful shots of Dolores Heights, Potrero Hill and the Golden Gate Bridge.
 Director Jenni Olson-The Royal Road

Cinematographer Sophia Constantinou's images (she also shots Olson's debut effort, The Joy of Life), uses the images of barren urban landscapes, unpopulated streets and buildings and wide-angled highway and railway shots to convey the vastness and emptiness of the director's own internal landscape.  It's an unusual premise, but somehow it all works, and Olson's internal monologue leaps from the screen to captivate the soul. 

The Royal Road
Written and Directed by Jenni Olson
Narrated by Jenni Olson with a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner
Documentary
65 minutes
Opens in New York City October 30
NYC Theatrical Run Anthology Film Archives
October 30-November 5
Filmmaker Jenni Olson in person at screenings the weekend of October 30



Wednesday, October 28, 2015

LANG LANG DISPLAYS QUIETER ARTISTIC SIDE IN CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT


Showy piano virtuoso digs deep into emotive sides of Tchaikovsky, Bach and Chopin

by Dwight Casimere



NEW YORK--Piano megastar Lang Lang is known for his glitz at the piano, sometimes with acrobatics bordering on an Elton John or Jerry Lee Lewis. He's been billed as charismatic and exuberant. At times, it can seem annoying.

Happily, none of those  histrionics were evident in his recent masterful performance on the Perlman Stage of Carnegie Hall. Lang Lang chose a more contemplative approach in which he revealed the emotive side of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in his almost Impressionistic The Seasons, Opus 37b, Tchaikovsky being another artist best known for his more dramatic and sometimes over-the-top  compositions.

Tchaikovsky's The Seasons is a set of suites in which the months are noted with situational settings. January, for example, is "By The Fireside, June, "Barcarolle" (referring to the lovely songs sung by the gondoliers in Venice), August is "Harvest." Lang Lang painted a musical portrait of each, using varied pressures of his supple fingers to emphasize interior melodies. Some of his most impressive playing was during the quieter moments, when he almost made the silence between passages ripple with emotion.

Italian Concerto, BWV 971 by Johann Sebastian Bach similarly showed the artist's full command of his Steinway. At times technically dazzling and alternating between exacting counterpoint and fluid expressionism, the piece commanded your attention at every turn.  This is a young artist who has truly turned the corner from youthful showman to mature practitioner.

Frederic Chopin's Scherzos are challenging to present, even by the most skilled of artists. The composer's blend of dazzling technique with contrasting introspection make them difficult to perform with any degree of integrity. Performers often sacrifice one element for the other, thus losing the overall dynamics of the music. Lang Lang found the perfect balance. His arpeggios were filled with a sense of revelation, with emotion building to a grand epiphany.There were flashes of  turbulence that would suddenly descend into a whisper. The effect was breathtaking.

The overflow audience was well armed with bouquets of flowers that were showered upon the artist as he raised his arms, almost as if in triumph. It was a grand  gesture which appropriately punctuated  his impactful performance.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"THE GIN GAME" UNITES JAMES EARL JONES, CICELY TYSON IN POWERFUL PLAY

PULITZER PRIZE WINNING DRAMA A PERFECT VEHICLE FOR TONY-AWARD WINNING DUO

by Dwight Casimere



NEW YORK---A unique opportunity to see two legends of the stage and screen on the same stage is "THE GIN GAME" NOW THROUGH JANUARY 10 on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. Starring James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by D.L. Coburn pits the 84 year old Jones and 90 year old Tyson as the mis-matched odd couple who find themselves thrown together in a dilapidated nursing home in God-knows-where. The two Tony Award-winning actors (Jones for The Great White Hope, Tyson for The Trip To Bountiful) are in top form as the sparring oldsters who meet over a begrudging game of Gin Rummy.



Jones, as the irascible Weller Martin lures newcomer Fonsia Dorsey, played with coy deftness by Cicely Tyson, into learning the finer points of the age-old game of Gin Rummy. The game turns out be a type of Rorschach Test for the human psyche of the two actors. We quickly learn that Martin/Jones is a poor loser and somewhat of a bully who, we later learn, was just a poor a loser in his personal life as he is at playing his beloved Gin Rummy, which he claims to be a master at. Fonsia/tyson, in her unassuming way, picks up the game right away and starts winning every hand. Martin gets more frustrated as the play unfolds and the ugly demons of his personality start to surface as Fonsia pricks away at his fragile ego by continuing the win.

By the play's mid-point, the friction between the two is so palpable, you could literally cut the bad air between them with a knife. Even though the plot is somewhat thin, the extraordinary acting skills of Tyson and Jones send this performance into the stratosphere, making it an electrifying experience. Credit Director Leonard Foglia with orchestrating the skillful pacing of this parlor drama.

The sets and costumes by Riccardo Hernandez excellently convey the throw-away, haphazard environment of the nursing home, which outwardly reflects the sociological positioning of the main characters as two elderly people, literally cast away by society like so much used and discarded furniture. Indeed. the card table which the Martin/Jones character uses to 'school' Fonsia is something he found behind the trash bins.

Tyson's character is not so fragile as one would initially believe. She challenges Martin and nearly pushes him over the emotional edge. There's a lingering feeling that there's much more to this play and the dramatic scenario it posits. Perhaps that's another play, yet to be written. Suffice  to say that the opportunity to see two such enduring legends on the same stage is not to be missed! For tickets and showtimes, visit telecharge.com

Thursday, October 22, 2015

NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PRESENTS GREAT AFRICAN AMERICAN SINGERS AND THEIR LEGACY

"IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS" A TRIBUTE TO MARIAN ANDERSON, BETTY ALLEN, GEORGE SHIRLEY AND WILLIAM WARFIELD
Curated by New York Philharmonic The Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-In-Residence
Eric Owens

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere

 Eric Owens backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House and (below) as Alberich in Wagner's Das Rheingold


NEW YORK--"In Their Footsteps: Great African American Singers And Their Legacy" was a celebration by the New York Philharmonic of the legendary voices of artists of color from the last century; Marian Anderson, Betty Allen, William Warfield and George Shirley, who was in the audience to receive thunderous adulation.

 Curated by esteemed Metropolitan Opera Baritone and the Philharmonic's The Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-In-Residence Eric Owens, the concert not only celebrated the voices of the past, but gave attendees an opportunity to hear some of the greatest black voices currently gracing concert stages and opera houses around the globe.

African American artists are no strangers to the New York Philharmonic Stage and its newly named David Geffen Hall. Marian Anderson appeared with the orchestra on multiple occasions before her historic debut at The Metropolitan Opera in 1955. William Warfield similarly, was a frequent and beloved figure on both stages. Yet, there is no denying, there is still much work to be done.

The concert featured a stellar cast of singers in repertory linked to each of the named legends. Most notable was the Philharmonic's long overdue debut of selections from Scott Joplin's opera "Treemonisha", an overture that masterfully blended classical motifs with ragtime, which was conducted with exhuberance by Conductor Thomas Wilkins in his New York Philharmonic debut.

Soprano Laquita Mitchell dazzled as the soloist in the 1910  aria, "The Sacred Tree."
Mitchell, in her New York Philharmonic Debut, is no stranger to opera lovers. She was hailed by the New York Times for her portrayal of Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata in NewYork City Opera's 2012 season. She can also be seen on San Francisco Opera's DVD of her performance as Bess in Porgy and Bess, which opened their 2014 season.

 Soprano Laquita Mitchell with Eric Owens in the title roles in San Francisco Opera's Porgy and Bess


All of the singers have significant pedigree anda long list of operatic and symphonic triumphs with major orchestras and opera companies around the world.

 Besides being the Philharmonic's artist-in-residence, Eric Owens has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera in Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" as Alberich in the opera Das Rheingold in the 2010 season. He will appear as Orest opposite legendary Mezzo Soprano Waltraud Meyer in Richard Strauss's Elektra April 14-May 7, 2016 at the Met.

A two-time Grammy Winner (Best Opera 2012-Wagner's Der Ring, Deutsche Gramophone, 2011-Adams: Doctor Atomic, with the Met),   Owens is also the 2003 winner of the Marian Anderson Award and took First Prize in the Placido Domingo Operalia Competition.

Owens, who gave his own pre-curtain 'artist indisposed' speech, due to a bronchial condition, none-the-less sang brilliantly, reprising his own triumphs, and those of baritones past, in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in a scintillating duet with Laquita Williams in "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" and "Bess You Is My Woman Now." He later channeled the late, great William Warfield in the show-stopping "Ol Man River"  from Jerome Kern's Show Boat.

Tenor Russell Thomas gave a commanding reading of the emotive lecture "Wrong Is Never Right" and soared in  "Ingemisco" from Verdi's Requiem.

All of the singers gave stand-out performances, with each one eclipsing the previous.
Janai Brugger, the 2013 Placid Domingo Competition winner, gave a shimmering rendition of Bach's "Ave Maria."

The entire cast came together in a celebratory rendition of a selection from Aaron Copland; "Simple Gifts" from Old American Songs, historically premiered by William Warfield in 1955 at the Philharmonic, and later  famously recorded in by him in 1958. The orchestra concluded  with  Wilkins conducting a rousing Selection from Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite.

The Dorothy Maynor Singers of the Harlem School of the Arts made an impressive showing in their New York Philharmonic Debut.


It was a wholly satisfying evening that made one yearn for more representation of these great artists on the world's major musical stages.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Thursday at Chicago Film Festival Profiles Personal Sacrifice for Dining Excellence, Abuse of Women in Palestine


Thursday October 22 lineup includes DOC Milano 2015, For Grace about Chicago super chef Curtis Duffy, and Degraded, a dramatic look at the turmoil in Palestine and its effect on women


by Dwight Casimere

Chef Curtis Duffy in the Documentary/Food film FOR GRACE, screening at Chicago Film Festival


The 51st Chicago International Film Festival continues with a Thursday, October 22 lineup that reprises some of the memorable titles of its opening week, such as Motley's Law (2:30pm)  and A Very Ordinary Citizen (4pm), but profiles the struggles of Michelin-starred Chicago Chef Curtis Duffy and his struggles to open his dream restaurant in FOR GRACE, screening at noon at the AMC River East 21. As seen through the cinematic eyes of Chicago Tribune James Beard nominated food critic Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski, the film documents the struggles of Duffy to perserver in the demanding world of haut cuisine restaurants against the backdrop of a troubled life. Plagued by personal demons in high school that led to him taking refuge in the kitchen, Duffy lost his wife and children and a huge chunk of his emotional stability and self-esteem to pursue his dream. Pang and Helenowski use their camera to probe deep below the emotional layers of a complex individual with more stamina and can-do spirit than he probably has lucky chances. It all adds up to a celebration of not only the art of cuisine, but a triumph of the human spirit against all offs. Screening at AMC River East 21 at 3:30pm with a repeat Monday, October 26 at 5:30pm.

The famed opera house La Scala is depicted in the Architecture Documentary  Milano 2015

The screening day begins at Noon with the Architecture Documentary Milano 2015. From producer  Cristiana Mainardi and a team of directors, incuding Roberto Bolle, Silvio Soldini, Walter Voltroni, Cristina Capotondi, Lionello Carri and Giorgio Divitto, the film is a sort of visual cinematic fresco that looks at the architectural, cultural and spiritual soul of the great architectural, artistic and industrial city of Mlan through the images of its fantastic building, its art and its people. The camera creates a collage of images from the highest skyscrapers in Milan, to the excellence of its theaters and the great opera house, La Scale, to the cloistered walls of a nunnery to the streets of Milan and the lingering faces of its habitu├ęs to the pristine countryside of Lambardi. The six directors combine their images and sensibilities to weave a varied portrait of an historic city and its variegated people. 103 minutes. In Italian with English subtitles. It screen Thursday, October 22 at noon.

A scene from the France/Palestine drama DEGRADE which is a World Cinema presentation

The piece de resistance of  Thursday's screenings is the France/Palestine chamber drama DEGRADE from directors Tarzan and Arab Nasser. The film takes place entirely in the cramped quarters of a beauty shop in the war-torn Gaza Strip. "Fried Green Tomatoes" it is not! The story features a panoply of Arab women trapped inside the beauty salon, attempting to go about their weekly beautification rituals while the vagaries of the political conflict outside are waged in varying degrees of danger. The ironies within are only overshadowed by the atrocities that occur without. Yet, the women continue their interpersonal banter, recounting failed affairs, miscarriages, loves lost, even illicit affairs. It's amazing how we westerners consider those in the Middle East so different, yet, to hear the stories of these women, except for the suicide bombs and gunfire outside (unless you're in Englewood or the West Side of Chicago), this slice-of-life drama could have happened anywhere. There's a ton of incongruous thoughts, actions and characters, which melds comedy with tragedy. Like the arduous resistance leader, hunted by Hamas, who sits outside the beauty shop attempting to woo its owner, a pet lion on a chain in tow, which he occasionally use to menace the women to get their attention. There's also the pregnant woman, constantly experiencing labor pains, whose set to deliver at any minute, while the war rages outside.

Then there's the drug addicted house wife, whose having an affair and encouraging the devout, prayerful woman-in-a-burka sitting next to her to try some artificial heroine. Another pair of women are getting all dolled up for either their weddings, or a date on the sly with a new beau. (It probably won't happen though. All the roads are closed by the constant combat outside.) Yet, they continue to get gussied up, even after the lights and power go out multiple times and the gunfire outside rages on with varying degrees of mounting personal danger.

If you're a devotee of foreign films and film festivals, you'll instantly recognize foreign film icon Hiam Abbass, a bit older, but still captivatingly beautiful! This film takes you right to the barricades of the Gaza Strip, with all its ironies, absurdities, comedy and tragedy, where you'll leave your heart. DEGRADE screens Thursday October 22 r 6:15pm, Friday October 23 at 8:30pm and Friday, October 28 at 12:30pm.









MET LIVE HD "OTELLO" IN ENCORE PERFORMANCE IN THEATRES WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 21 AT 6:30PM LOCAL TIME

Met Season Opening production sheds new light on the plight of Shakespeare's fallen Moor in Verdi opera


by Dwight Casimere
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera




NEW YORK--The Met Live HD performance of Giuseppe Verdi's OTELLO occurred several week's after the Season Opening Gala Performance of Broadway Tony Award winning director Bartlett Sher's black face-less production, so the controversy over the choice had died down. Therefore, audiences at this week's Live HD performance could simply sit back, relax and enjoy one of the finest renditions of the live cinema-for-opera medium, directed by veteran television Live Cinema Director Gary Halvorson (tv's Two and Half Men, ABC Sports). 
Having seen the production both live at the Met and in the movie theatre, it became apparent how readily Shakespeare's drama lends itself to the medium of Live Cinema.  Set to operatic libretto and orchestration by Guiseppe Verdi, with a set designed by Es Devlin, Costumes by Catherine Zuber, and production design by Luke Halls,  the production seemed to sparkle with renewed vitality when viewed through the dozen or so lenses of Halvorson's cameras and his team of directors. They employed camera angles from every corner of the opera house, from the raptors, to behind stage and used cameras on runners,  like those used to follow runners during the Olympics,  which Halvorson revealed in an interview in a film segment shown during the intermission about his behind-the-scenes camera work.
Met baritone Eric Owens was the superb backstage host and interviewer. His pre-broadcast comments set up the ensuing action  with insightful commentary and he had a brilliant command of the Russian, Serbian and Italian languages in introducing the singers and their characters in the production. His questions during the backstage interviews were well thought out and allowed the singers to elucidate their personal thoughts on the elements of the production. Its notable that the capacity movie-theatre audience listened with rapt attention to all of the backstage commentary and stayed on to watch the behind-the-scenes video on Gary Halverson and his crew's elaborate preparations and execution of  Met Live HD productions.
The use of Halvorson's cameras heightened the drama, especially in the early scenes when the singers are paired off in simultaneous exchanges where key points are made concerning the plot in parenthetic vocal statements. The camera was able to zero in on each of the paired singers, so that you could keep up with the action and the unfolding of Iago's devious plot. A sweeping slow pan of the chorus, meanwhile, made what was otherwise a very static stage setting on the Met stage, appear more mobile and visual join the cinematic setting. 
Aleksandrs Antonenko, with his stentorian voice and robust demeanor, could not have made for a more commanding Otello. His voice literally rang forth above all the others in the ensembles and his acting capabilities seemed light years above the somewhat wooden performance he gave on Opening Night. The fact that he was not in darkened makeup was of little concern, as one got deeper into the layers of the character as it unfolded in his superb portrayal. To tell you the truth, the time I saw Placido Domingo play the role some years ago, I found the getup distracting. Antonenko's appearance, in fact, is not too unlike that of many Moors I observed during my trip to Morocco a few years ago. If he were to walk down a street in Marrakech, he'd blend right in!
On with the rest of the production. The beauteous Sonya Yoncheva gave an intuitive portrayal of Desdemona. As she revealed in her backstage interview with Owens, she wanted to portray her character as a strong woman, who is firm in her conviction that she is innocent of the claims of infidelity engineered by Iago (Zeljko Lucic, in a deliciously villainous performance), and foolishly believed by the vainglorious Otello. Her Ave Maria
The unraveling of Otello's mental state is perfectly built up over the course of the opera as it swells toward its tragic conclusion. Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin was masterful in his handling of Verdi's lush, multi-layered score. In other less-skilled hands, the music could have crushed the production under the sheer weight of its complexity. In Nezet-Seguin's capable hands, it was at times dark and forbidding, with flashes of light, that underscored the needless tragedy created by Iago's cunning, feeding on Otello's fragile, twisted ego. His (Iago's)  rueful declaration to the Cypriot's cry, praising the "Lion of Venice' as he stands over an Otello, crumpled by the weight of his encroaching insanity, "Behold The Lion!" is one of the high points of the operatic drama.
If you were already at the original MET LIVE HD cinema cast, it wouldn't hurt to see it again. I certainly plan to. Verdi's Otello, MET LIVE HD, Wednesday, October 21, 6:30 pm local time. Check local theatre listings. Visit metopera.org or fathomevents.com



   




Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin leads an inspired program of Grieg, Bartok and Sibelius

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere


                                       

NEW YORK--The Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin is one busy young conductor. Besides leading performances of Verdi's Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, which recently concluded performances, he joined his 'home team' across town for the orchestra's first appearance of the season at Carnegie Hall. In every way, the performance bristled with excitement and suspense.

First, the suspense part. Orchestra members had just signed a new contract the day prior to the concert, which averted the possibility of a strike and cancellation of the concert. Nezet-Seguin himself has renewed his commitment to the orchestra with a deal that has him at the podium through the 2021-2022 season. So much for the behind-the-scenes cliff-hangers. The real drama unfolded on the stage of the Isaac Stern Auditorium with a thrilling program of Edward Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Bela Bartok's heroic Violin Concerto No. 2 with Philadelphia Orchestra favorite and Grammy-winner Gil Shaham as soloist and Jean Sibelius's stirring Symphony No. 5 in E-flat as the conclusion. It was an exciting evening of great, inventive music at every turn.

Nezet-Seguin is a conductor who finds the rhythmic heart of a piece and isn't afraid to break out in a sort of balletic dance at the podium to emphasize his point. He marshaled the full force of the orchestra's legendary brass section to give the "In The Hall of the Mountain King" section all of the pre-Halloween atmosphere it is famous for.

Gil Shaham used the full power of his interpretive skills to imbue Bartok's moody Violin Concerto with a sense of controlled passion. The music spans the breadth of human emotions and Shaham's playing expressed them with lucidity.

Sibelius's Symphony No. 5 is an almost impressionistic tone poem. Nezet-Seguin utilized all of the orchestra's superb soloists and section leaders to great advantage. He gave the piece a  luster that allowed each of its shifting themes to shine in the shimmering light. He built a dramatic tension throughout that showcased that famous "Philadelphia Sound."

The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall for three additional programs this season. Visit carnegiehall.org for details.

Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall: The Triumphant Return of Piano Master

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
                  
NEW YORK---Those who packed Carnegie Hall to see Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini, in a long-anticipated appearance, were not disappointed. They were treated to the spectacle of a master craftsman at work. The few barely noticeable flubs in execution were overshadowed by the deep emotional connection and intelligent interpretation in the nearly all-Chopin program.
 Pollini settled into the afternoon with Robert Schumann's Allegro in B minor, followed by an impassioned reading of his Fantasy in C. His ability to allow the contrasting themes in the former to ring with clarity, showed his superior pianism.
Polonaise Fantaisie in A flat major gave a clear indication of what  was to come. Majestic chords were followed with inventive themes that darted here and there with curious exploration. Pollini made this time-honored work seem fresh and alive.
It was on to the business at hand in the second half of the program. The audience had come to hear his masterful interpretations of Chopin and Pollini did not disappoint.  He aptly portrayed the swaying motion and dreamy Italian romanticism of the Venetian gondolier songs which are at the heart of the work. 
His skill at interpretation and technique were most evident in the ensuing Nocturnes in F minor and E flat, in which he contrasted lyrical themes with restless invention. The concluding Scherzo No. 3 was bright and lyrical throughout.
The enthusiastic applause Pollini received brought three encores that brought a satisfying conclusion to the performance; the Etude "Revolutionary," Ballade No. 1 and the Nocturne in D flat, all played with uncanny skill and aplomb. Pollini returns to Carnegie Hall Tuesday, October 25 with a program of Beethoven and Schoenberg. It is not to be missed. For information, visit carnegiehall.org.





Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday, October 9, 2015

51ST CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OCTOBER 15-29


THE 51ST CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OCTOBER 15-29



The 51st Chicago International Film Festival presented by Cinema Chicago begins Thursday, October 15 and runs through Thursday, October 29th.  Festival passes and individual tickets are available online at chicagofilmfestival.com or ticketmaster.com/chicagofilmfestival, at the Festival Hotline, 312-332-FILM (3456) or at the Festival box offices, AMC River East 21 , 322 East Illinois St., or the Festival Office, 30 East Adams, Suite 800 in Chicago.

Featuring 130 films from over 50 countries, the festival is highlighted by 6 World Premieres, 10 North American Premieres, 27 U.S. Premieres and over a hundred Chicago Premieres.

This is the longest-running international competitive film festival in North America and, as in festival’s past, there are more than a few landmark events planned as well as some surprises.

Opening Night, Thursday, October 15th from 5:30pm-10:00pm is the screening of the film MIA MADRE from master film director Nanni Moretti, at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress Parkway, Chicago. John Turturro provides the comic relief as the self important American actor in this film about the violent clash of art with reality. The film is a personal tour de force that details the struggles of a harried director who tries to complete her new movie while caring for her beloved mother, who lies dying in the hospital. The film makes a powerful statement about  the personal cost of artistic integrity.




Michael Moore is scheduled to attend the Midwest Premiere of his latest film WHERE TO INVADE NEXT on Friday, October 23 at 7pm. This Special Presentation received its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and drew a standing ovation as well as critical acclaim and was a sellout at the recent New York Film Festival. Director Moore and the Festival have a rich history. His groundbreaking film, ROGER AND ME, received its premiere at the 1989 Festival. He returned to present his 2002 film BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary.





Closing Night, the Chicago International Film Festival features the film SPOTLIGHT, directed by Academy Award-nominee Tom McCarthy. Featuring an all-star cast of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liv Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, the film traces the steps of the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.


Other festival highlights include OUT-LOOK, aa competitive LGBTQ+-themed program which showcases new artistic perspectives on sexuality and identity. Everyone from Oscar hopefuls to first-time filmmakers will compete for the Festival’s Q Hugo Award.

This year’s Cinema of the Americas Program features 25 films from Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay, including nine US Premieres.

Also, the Festival is proud to present the City and State Program, with the largest number of local film selections to date. Led by 3 World Premieres the films will compete for the coveted Chicago Award.


Among the films receiving its World Premiere is the film BREAKFAST AT INA’S, from director Mercedes Kane. The film lovingly focuses on the “Breakfast Queen,” restaurant proprietor and chef Ina Pinkney,  owner of a Chicago institution, Ina’s, which closed after 33 years in business. The film follows the restaurant’s final month. Besides paying homage to a beloved Chicago eatery, it tells the story of one woman’s struggle to achieve her dream against all odds.

The 51st Chicago International Film Festival runs through October 29. For tickets and show times, visit chicagofilmfestival.com.
















Thursday, October 8, 2015

JASON AND SHIRLEY: A PORTRAIT OF A GREAT PRETENDER ON THE LGBT FRONTIER


JASON AND SHIRLEY LAYS BARE THE TORTURED SOUL OF AN EMOTIONALLY HAMPERED GENIUS

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere



Theatrical Premiere: The Museum of Modern Art, October 19, 2015

Jason and Shirley is a cinematic recreation by NYC-based filmmaker Stephen Winter (Chocolate Babies). Based on  Oscar-winning avant garde filmmaker and director Shirley Clarke’s groundbreaking documentary, Portrait of Jason, released in 1967 and premiered at the New York Film Festival that same year, winter’s version shows all of the stuff that may or may not have happened behind the scenes while the camera was rolling. It’s an intriguing concept that takes the old ‘fly on the wall’ concept to new heights.

 Jason Holliday, the central character, is black and gay at a time when the legitimacy of both hung in the national balance.  At times hilarious, and alternately desperate and heartbreaking, the film is a brilliant reincarnation.  Veteran downtown New York actor and filmmaker Jack Waters is superbly cast as Jason and renowned writer and activist Sarah Schulman is spot-on as director  and sometime adversary Shirley Clarke (we later learn in the film that her real name is Sarah Brimberg. That her father was a manufacturing scion, and that she grew up on Park Avenue in the lap of luxury). 
 Shirley Clarke was an anomaly of her time and was on the short list of groundbreaking female directors working in the 1960s ; Ida Lupino, an actress (often with husband Howard Duff) and pioneer of the ‘film noir’ genre, Mai Zetterling, another actress-turned-director, Sara Aldredge, an innovator in experimental film, and Carolee Schneemann, who pioneered films dealing with the issues of sexuality, power and gender.  Clarke won an Academy Award in 1963 for Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With the World, and was co-nominee for Skyscraper (1960). Clarke made Skyscraper with two other documentary filmmakers. In 1964, The Cool World became the first independently-made film to be screened at the Venice International Film Festival.


Sketch of Jack Waters as Jason Holliday by Bizzy Barefoot 
The genesis of Jason and Shirley is almost worthy of its own atmospheric film, evoking the free-wheeling era of the 1960s. The original documentary was filmed on the evening of  Saturday, December 3, 1966. Director Shirley Clarke and her crew, consisting of her unwilling son, Nico, who needed the practical experience for film school ( she filmed Jason for twelve straight hours. The shoot started at 9pm. To say that it was exhaustive is an understatement). I saw the restoration of the original at the IFC film center in the Village last spring. In it, the only person you see on-camera is Jason Holliday (who we learn is actually named Aaron Payne (1924-1998) of Trenton, New Jersey). This was the ‘60s. Yet, in spite of The Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, free love, drugs and the Hippie Culture, it was still a time when it was illegal to be gay in the US.
In the original film, we hear the director and others commenting off camera, but we never see them. Here, director Winter fills in all the blanks and fleshes out the imagined drama behind the scenes, which is only hinted at in the original film.
Director Stephen Winter (r) on the set at the Chelsea Hotel with actor Gordon Beeferman 

The film is set primarily in the claustrophobic world of Clarke’s penthouse apartment in the Hotel Chelsea. Before you get too carried away with an image of unbridled lavishness and wealth, consider that the ‘penthouse’ has beaded curtain room dividers between the living room and the kitchen (a totally hippy-ish glamour touch) and, by her own admission, wrinkled bed sheets on a pull-out bed covered with Madras-print pillows in the living room. The nicest thing in whole apartment is the faux fireplace mantle with its fake lilacs in a vase and an African mask on the wall.
A director friend who loaned her the camera equipment, who turns out to be a virulent racist and homophobe, first suggests throwing it all out, but once he learns the drill, feels the tacky backdrop may be just right. Too bad he couldn’t stick around, he might have made an excellent source of running conflict throughout the film, but the tension between Jack and Shirley proves to be enough.
Early on, the director has to practically beg her son and boom mike operator, Nico, to straighten up the place (played with appropriate reluctant uneasiness by Eamon Fahey, who is, at times, the queasy object of Jason’s wandering gay eye “Ohh! You cookin’ up some juicy chicken meat up in here!” he declares upon entering Clarke’s apartment and spying her young son). 
Bryan Webster is absolutely delightful as the dope dealer friend Candy Man, whose long-awaited arrival propels the film to its denouement. He does his best to look like a barefoot Ray Charles, delivering the much-demanded dope that Jason says he needs in order to relax and ‘be real’ on-camera.
In the film, Jason, in his exaggerated manner of speaking through his alcohol and drug fueled haze, spins extraordinary tales about his a career as a quasi-drag nightclub entertainer, which appear to be more imaginary (especially when he’s high) than real.  In real life, there’s only one known performance of his cabaret act in a one-night-only performance in the theatre district.
His confrontations with his father; growing up in Trenton is at the center of his internal conflicts. He describes in creepy detail one encounter with his father as a toddler that may or may not reveal the origins of his sexual preferences. He is similarly vague about the sexual encounters that occurred later in life when he was arrested and imprisoned at Rikers Island and was, presumably, raped and driven to the point of attempted suicide.
The one thing he is perfectly clear about is that he is a hustler, who is not above sex play-for-pay and who willingly lowers himself to work as a sex slave/servant to wealthy white women who are thirsting for companionship.
“We’re all ‘niggers’ Jason declares more than once, taunting director Clarke because of her Jewish heritage and wealth. In his derision, he also makes his point about the role-playing and masquerading that everyone does in one way or another to keep the grist in their mill.

Along the way, he reveals some harsh truths by way of raw, entirely classless humor. “What do you call a nigger whose been shot 14 times?!  A botched suicide attempt!” presciently referencing the present day ‘black lives matter’ protests over the unlawful killings of young black men.
Another ‘Bon Mot;’ ‘Niggers are constantly in pain. They won’t open an aspirin bottle because they refuse to once again pick cotton,” referring to the cotton ball enclosures in aspirin bottles of the time. In it’s own way, the comment makes a sort of lame social statement.
Jason repeatedly avoids director Shirley Clarke’s probing questions. “Tell me about your old man,” she asks repeatedly, asking him to address his obviously rocky relationship with his father. He finally remits, after his good friend and dope dealer Carl Lee, a fellow would-be actor caught up in his own snake-pit of sexual identity and drug addiction belatedly arrives on the scene.
When he finally arrives on the scene, Clarke enlists his help in breaking Jason down to finally reveal his true self, sans the posturing and the bullshit. Even when Jason finally crumbles in tears at Lee’s incessant prodding, we still wonder if he’s is leveling with us, or just embarking on another of his charades.
Sadly, Jason Holliday died a pauper in 1998 at the age of 74. He was cremated and there was no funeral service or memorial and no relatives of record. His burial place is unknown.
 Jason and Shirley is, as was the original, an important film in the LGBT film lexicon. The brilliant acting and meticulous recreation of historic and psychological time and place alone make it worthy of attention.

Director Stephen Winter does a masterful job of recreating the shoot-from-the-hip style of the original, groundbreaking documentary by the Oscar-winning Shirley Clarke, with terrific performances by Jack Waters in the title role and Sarah Schulman as director, Clarke. It’s a short, but highly engrossing film.
There’s a lot packed into its slight 79 minutes and the viewer isforced to pay attention to every spoken word and nuance of meaning.  Jason/Waters provides plenty of quotable lines, all laced with dry humor and a hint of simmering rage. I’ll leave you with one of the more delectable ones. “I’m tri-sexual. Which means I’ll try anything!” And there you have Jason Holliday and the lingering impression of Jason and Shirley in a nutshell.
MOMA PRESENTS
JASON AND SHIRLEY.A NEW FILM BY STEPHEN WINTER
DRAMA, COMEDY, HISTORICAL RE-IMAGINATION
79 MINUTES
PREMIERE ENGAGEMENT-NEW YORK MUSEUM OF MODERN ART  OCTOBER 19-27 CHECK LOCAL LISTINGS FOR FUTURE DATES AND THEATRE LOCATIONS NATIONWIDE