Thursday, January 21, 2016


Naz and Maalik, Opens in NYC Friday, Jan 22

by Dwight Casimere

Director Jay Dockendorf's first feature, Naz and Maalik is a light, breezy look at a day in the life of two freshman college aged African American teens living in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, whose lives are complicated by the fact that they are black, gay and Muslim. Taking place sometime in post 911 New York, the film attempts to shed light on the growing pervasiveness of unauthorized surveillance of Muslim citizens and the taboo against the homosexual lifestyle, especially among orthodox religious groups. In the shadow of today's presidential campaign, with one of the leading candidates calling for barriers to Muslim immigration and veiled code words that beat the drum for increase scrutiny of the indigenous Muslim population, Naz and Maalik, which is debuting to audiences in select theaters beginning this weekend, is particularly resonant. 

The lead actors, Kerwin Johnson Jr. (Naz) and Curtiss Cook Jr. (Maalik), handle the characters with just the right touch of offhand, devil-may-care likability. They're just a couple of young dudes happy to be alive, spending their time hustling lottery tickets, religious tarot cards and scented snake oils on the streets of Brooklyn. The items they sell, ostensibly, Maalik says, to save money for college tuition, are purchased by passersby. The items are practically worthless, but people buy them anyway, largely because they are charmed by the youth's sense of humor and carefree attitudes. They're a  bright light in an otherwise grim environment. 

The characters of Naz and Maalik are fun to watch, even if very little of what they do makes any sense. But such are youth! They're actually quite refreshing, and their portrayal gives an appealing patina to a story that could otherwise turn very dark in a hurry. 

There are references to the weighty subject matter of the film. The two are closeted gay in a community that largely frowns upon it, especially their devout Muslim family, (The opening scene shows their outraged sister questioning them about a used condom found in her bed) and the local Imam (Muslim priest) who consistently admonishes them about the gay lifestyle, hinting that he already knows, no matter how much they try to hide it.

Oh yeah, about the surveillance thing. That comes out pretty early in the film too, with a shabby looking guy, played by Bradley Brian Custer  (whose obviously a narc of some kind) offering to sell them an illegal gun, which the guys playfully refuse. They at first pretended to be interested, then faked him off. Their cat and mouse game, however, backfires, and lands them squarely in the cross-hairs of an over-eager rookie FBI agent, Sarah Mikell (Annie Grier). She questions them about their whereabouts the night before and, of course, the two bungle it by giving conflicting stories in order to hide the fact that they were sleeping together. That just gets them deeper into Mikell's psychological dragnet. Outside of the fact that they're selling petty stuff illegally on the street, she can't seem to find anything else wrong with them, but she's determined to find something. Her's is the only performance that doesn't quite ring true, but, that may have been the director's objective, to make her character a cardboard cutout caricature, totally out of place in the gritty reality.

The film sort of ends on a flat note of irony. I guess that's part of the director's point as well, that none of what's happening now, the unwarranted and unlawful scrutiny of religious groups and the marginalizing of certain lifestyles is counterproductive, at best, and makes very little, if any, sense. 

The steady cam work of cinematographer Jake McGee, give the film a fluid, almost dance-like quality that works well with the loose, almost improvisational acting by the lead characters.
Production designer Dylan Metzger really brings the mean streets of Bed Stuy to life in a way that shows their humanity and diversity and the score by Adam Gunther captures just the right mood throughout. Kudos to casting director Holly Buczek for finding the two neophyte actors who play the lead characters as if they were living in their skin from day one.

The film is a little thin for such a weighty subject but, given the Twitter generation, with their short attention span and penchant for condensing weighty concepts into a 120 character haiku, Naz and Maalik may be just the right vehicle to spark discussion on a subject that otherwise might get swept under the carpet.

Naz and Maalik, a  Pecking Wilds Production
Opens theatrically in New York City Friday, Jan. 22 at Cinema Village, also available in DVD/VOD through Wolfe on Jan. 26
Cast: Kerwin Johnson Jr., Curtiss Cook Jr., Annie Grier, Bradley Brian Custer, Ibrahim Miari, David Farrington, Monciana Edmondson
Director: Jay Dockendorf 
Screenwriter: Jay Dockendorf
Producers: Jacob Albert, Margaret Katcher
Executive producers: Margaret Katcher, Jay Dockendorf, Nylkoorb
Director of photography: Jake Magee
Production designer: Dylan Metzger
Editor: Andrew Hafitz
Composer: Adam Gunther
Casting director: Holly Buczek

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

NY Philharmonic U.S. Premiere: Magnus Lindberg Violin Concerto No. 2

by Dwight Casimere

Violin soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann

 Composer Magnus Lindberg at the U.S. Premiere in New York
NY Philharmonic Music Director conducts the U.S. Premiere of Lindberg's Violin Concerto No. 2

NEW YORK--New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert conducted a stunning concert of Respighi's Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) and Stravinsky's captivating Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring).  The first was extremely atmospheric and evocative of the serene image of church steeples and ornate windows cast against the bright awakening of dawn and the hushed silence of approaching evening. By contrast, Stravinsky's primal Rite of Spring, displayed the full array of the orchestras percussive powers and exceptional strength in the brass and woodwind sections.

The centerpiece of the concert, however, was the U.S. Premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Violin Concerto No. 2, in its U.S. Premiere, with the esteemed German violin virtuoso Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist. Lindberg, formerly the New York Philharmonic's Composer-In-Residence (2009-2012) and currently in the same position with the London Philharmonic, was personally on hand to present an on-stage discussion of his piece with conductor Alan Gilbert and to welcome Zimmermann to the stage. In his remarks, Lindberg discussed the work's many difficulties and his collaboration with violinist Zimmermann in ironing out some of the rough spots. "There were parts of it that I had written for him that I thought would be difficult to work out," Lindberg said of the violin solos. "But Frank would always call me back and say, 'No,No. I think this can work!"

The proof of those words were evident as soloist and orchestra embarked on a probing journey through the labyrinth of Lindberg's challenging work. At times, there was a constant ebb and flow between the soloist and orchestra, with the violin leading the way. Zimmermann dispatched the complex series of stops and runs with ease, making even the most difficult parts seem like child's play. The orchestra, with Gilbert keeping a sprightly pace, seemed right in cadence, without rushing tempos. The overall effect was of lightness and movement, in spite of the obvious complexity of the music. The piece conveyed a wide ranging exploration of harmony and pitch which came off as engaging the audience, rather than holding them at arm's length.

Its been a couple of years since Gilbert conducted Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. This time, he seems to have found an even deeper emotional connection to this powerhouse of a piece. There was a great deal of restraint in keeping an emotional lid on the thundering percussion and constantly shifting melodies before allowing the music to erupt in a series of ever-building crescendoes. Gilbert managed to find new gems hidden within this treasure of the modern repertoire. It was a thrilling ride, well deserving of the thunderous ovation which followed. 

Met Live HD The Pearl Fishers a Cinematic and Operatic Triumph

by Dwight Casimere

Wednesday, January 20 at 6:30pm local time marks the Encore Performance of the Met Live HD transmission of  Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" (Les Pecheurs de Perles). Last seen at the Met a hundred years ago, with the great Caruso in the title role, this current staging, a co-production with the English National Opera, incorporates unique staging which involves space-aged technology that only could be imagined at the time of Bizet's creation in the mid 1800s.

Met Live HD director Matthew Diamond did a superb job of realizing the global cinema transmission.

Brilliantly staged by British director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock, who previously mounted the Met's groundbreaking production of "Doctor Atomic" and "The Death of Klinghoffer," employed acrobatic dancers suspended from invisible wires on tracking devices borrow from NASA to simulate weightlessness in space flight, and a multi-dimensional video projection that made them appear to be actually swimming in the deep, like real pearl fishers. This opening effect alone is worth the price of admission!

Although this is one of Bizet's earliest works and it is rarely performed, opera lovers might recognize two of its oft-sung arias, the gripping male duet "Au fond du temple saint, which features tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Nadir and Zurga, the two pearl fishers, who compete for the love of the virginal high priestess Leila, sung with exquisite style by soprano Diana Damrau.

Costumes by Kevin Pollard, and sets by Dick Bird, combined elements of  Far Eastern tradition and the hard-edged reality of modern day shabbiness to create the time-shifting atmosphere of the opera, which married ancient ritual with the realities of natural disaster (a Tsunami and a massive fire).

The story makes almost no sense, the fishermen, Nadir and Zurga, are locked in a headlong struggle for the affections of the priestess, Leila, who must remain a virgin in order to stem the fury of the impending tidal wave. When it hits, and the high priest Nourabad (sung with regal authority by bass-baritone Nicolas Teste)  discovers that Nadir and Leila have been doing more than holding late night seances, the pair get blamed for inciting the calamity. Pile on the Zurga's jealous rage brought on by the realization that Nadir has broken  their mutual vow to steer clear of the royal beauty in the name of lasting friendship and you have the makings of a love-triangle bent on a tragic outcome.

Kwiecien is especially protean as Zurga, when he sings of his jealous rage in the third act after removing his shirt, drenching wet from the tsunami. Leila/ Damrau, gives the most stirring performance of the opera as she pleads to Zurga to spare Nadir from the ritual death he has decreed for both of them.

The opera ends, implausibly, with Zurga setting a huge fire to distract the villagers, so that he can free the two lovers from the ritual execution he has ordered. No matter, the sets, the singing and the pearl fishers, both onstage and behind the video screen, were magnificent and worthy of a second viewing, which tonight's Met Live HD Encore Presentation affords. Check local listings for theatre locations. The next Met Live HD transmission is Saturay, January 30, at 1pm,  Puccini's Turandot with sopranoNina Stemme as the vengeful ancient Chinese princess.


Thursday, January 14, 2016


by Dwight Casimere

Opera  lovers got a preview of what New York Philharmonic Orchestra Artist-In-Residence, bass-baritone Eric Owens will deliver in the title role of Wotan in Lyric Opera of Chicago's next ring cycle. The Philharmonic featured him in a concert performance of the final scene of Act III of Die Walkure with soprano Heidi Melton in her Philharmonic debut as Brunnhilde. 

Owens sang the role of the sinister Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera's Ring cycle in 2011 to critical acclaim, but that outing only  showed a fraction of his capability. As a dramatic singer, Owen's proved more than equal to the contrasting textures and moods, both vocally and dramatically, inherent in the role of Wotan. He displayed both vocal power and range as well as emotional substance in the demanding passages. Conductor Alan Gilbert kept a tight rein on tempos, allowing the ebb and flow of Wagner's seething kaleidoscopic passages to build momentum without appearing rushed.  The preceding "Ride of the Valkyries was one of the Philharmonic's finest moments.

The concert began with a stirring rendition of Sibelius' tone-poem 'En Saga.' The colorful images created by the orchestra were almost cinematic in their breadth.  At times awash with lush crescendoes that melded into quiet moments of reflections, the music at times seemed suspended in time. 

Heidi Melton scored a memorable debut performance with Strauss's two songs, "Caciile" (1894) and "Ruhe, meine Seele" (1894). Her voice was full and expressive throughout with beautifully rounded tones and exquisite diction and delivery. Its certain that she'll be welcome on the Geffen Hall stage on many more occassions. 

This was truly a music lover's concert and an excellent opportunity to preview the superb Wagnerian talents of Eric Owens, a Wotan for our time.