Saturday, October 29, 2011

Lang Lang and the Philadelphia Orchestra probe inner emotions of Beethoven at Carnegie Hall

Photo: Lang Lang at Beijing National Stadium

Photo courtesy of

New York—Pianist Lang Lang is the hottest Classical music star on the planet. Known for explosive pyrotechnics on the keyboard, combined with youthful panache accented by his spiked hair and ultra-hip designer wardrobe, he attracts attention and critical praise wherever he appears. He is certainly the most popular Classical music personality of our time. Mozart and Beethoven were similarly popular in their times, but they weren’t viewed by four billion people in a single performance. That’s how many people watched him perform at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Here in New York, a capacity audience greeted him at Carnegie Hall for a program that included Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major with The Philadelphia Orchestra and it’s Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit.

A subdued Lang Lang strode onto the Perelman stage in the Isaac Stern auditorium and adjusted his seat at the Steinway. Instead of wearing his jazzier Armani duds, he was serene in traditional white tie and tails as he began to sway to the dance-like early bars of the Allegro con brio in the First Movement of the Beethoven under Dutoit’s stately baton.

The soloist’s sprightly introduction of the opening piano theme set the tone for the imaginative, probing display that would ensue. This is Beethoven’s shortest piano concerto, but in brevity, there is truth. The work displays the mind of a mature composer and Lang Lang’s approach gave it the justice it deserved.

This was a measured, introspective performance by Lang Lang, devoid of any of the physical histrionics he has been known for. At 29, he has certainly matured into a performer who has transcended technical prowess to exhibit real artistry. The second movement, Adagio, certainly exemplified that fact.

Both the orchestra and soloist moved into high emotional gear for the final Rondo: Molto allegro, ending on a spirited note that brought a prolonged ovation, which Lang Lang obliged after several false exits with a probing reading of Franz Liszt’s familiar “La campanella” Etude (Grand Paganini Etude No. 3).

Lang Lang honored Liszt’s 200th Birthday in a two-night concert celebration, October 22 &24 with Charles Dutoit and The Philadelphia Orchestra that was transmitted live in movie theatres around the world by Fathom Events. Past experience has shown that Encore Presentations are often scheduled for such popular events, so check your local listings or, for future dates.

Maestro Dutoit and The Philadelphia Orchestra ended their Carnegie Hall stand with a lively rendition of Dmitri Shostakovich’s showy Symphony No. 10 in E Minor. The Philadelphia Orchestra, on the rebound after filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy a couple of years ago, sounded rejuvenated as its percussion and brass blazed to the triumphal finish.

History tells us that Shostakovich suffered endless humiliation and persecution at the hands of Russia’s cruel despot, Joseph Stalin. With news of his passing just months before the completion this piece, this may have been the composer’s version of an end-zone victory dance. Maestro Dutoit and company aptly captured his spirit in a stirring finale full of musical fireworks.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Yuja Wang, piano in her New York Recital Debut at Carnegie Hall

Yuja Wang reveals a kalaidoscope of piano genius in Carnegie Hall Debut

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October 20, 2011

Yuja Wang Photos courtesy Getty Images

Earl Wild in a 2005 Carnegie Hall recital/Photo by Steve J. Sherman for the Associated Press

New York—The 24 year old Chinese-born piano sensation Yuja Wang made her New York Recital Debut at Carnegie Hall. With echoes of the raging controversy she caused last summer at the Hollywood Bowl by wearing a thigh-hugging bright orange micro-mini dress while playing Rachmaninoff with the L.A. Philharmonic, it was a much more demure version of the Deutsche Grammophon recording sensation that greeted a capacity audience in a program of Scriabin, Prokofiev and Franz Liszt at Carnegie Hall.

However, she still did not disappoint in the sartorial department. A daring slit down the side of her long, black velvet evening gown revealed plenty upon her exit at intermission. Her fiery, passionate style of playing on the Steinway, however, far outshone her physical beauty.

Scriabin was always the composer of choice when music instructors at the Chicago conservatory assigned what we students called “knuckle busters” to improve our skills. Wang chose a series of his Preludes (B Major, B Minor, G-sharp Minor), Etude in G-sharp and Poeme in F-sharp as a warm-up. She breezed through all of them with a lightness of touch. Her long, delicate fingers seemed to caress the keys. She eschewed extensive use of the pedals, allowing the pressure of her fingers to create sonic length and depth.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 in A Major is a groundbreaking work that literally throbs with the passion of the modern age. It is anything but a typically staid “classical” piece of music. Its pulsating rhythms and loud, almost boisterous themes were probably the model for Leonard Bernstein’s fight of the sharks and jets in his award winning musical West Side Story.

Wang explored this monumental work and all of its driving, primitive themes with a force that belied her diminutive stature. Rapid-fire 32nd notes were like shots from an AK-47 as she articulated the difficult passages. Her acuity heightened the sense of drama in the final movement, Vivace, which deservedly brought the audience to their feet in thunderous ovation.

Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor brought another gown change, this one slit on the opposing side to reveal her shapely legs. She immediately threw herself rapturously into the music.

As dazzling as the Prokofiev was, her approach to the Liszt was truly astounding. The last time I heard this piece played, it was at the hands of the great Earl Wild in one of his last recitals. Mr. Wild died last year at the age of 94. He had the distinction of being one of the few living pianists with a direct musical lineage to Franz Liszt. In his formative years, he began studies with Selmar Jansen, a pianist who studied with the composer-pianists Eugen d’Albert and Xaver Scharwenka, both of whom were students of Liszt. While Wang cannot claim such pedigree, her handling of the opening passages proved her innate understanding of Liszt’s enigmatic and innovative genius. Her playing revealed all of the work’s underlying drama, yet her restraint and command of Liszt’s constantly shifting dynamics brought out its tender moments with startling emotional clarity. There was a quiet tension throughout that revealed the fiery passion that burned beneath. At one point, she raised her hands above the piano in crescendo. She swooned with ecstasy as the notes reverberated from the Steinway and echoed into the upper reaches of Stern auditorium only to vanish like so many fireflies in the night sky. It was an exquisite moment.

As encores, she played Franz Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, D.118 (arr. Liszt) Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice (arr. Yuja Wang) Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice and Johann Strauss Jr. "Tritsch-Tratsch" Polka (arr. Cziffra). Each explored the many facets of Wang’s skill at interpretation as well as her full command of her instrument. At times, particularly during the Gluck Melodie, she made the Steinway literally sing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Audra McDonald at Carnegie Hall: A Broadway superstar comes "home"

Broadway’s brightest star returns home to the concert stage

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October 22, 2011

Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor

New York—Audra McDonald looked absolutely stunning in an regally hued off-the-shoulder gown, which showed off her figure beautifully. Standing in front of an orchestra conducted by her long-time music director Ted Sperling, the outpouring of adoration was palpable from the over-flow audience. After four seasons on the ABC TV series “Private Practice,” this was a homecoming of sorts. She was back on the concert stage in her beloved New York City and on the cusp of tackling the role of a lifetime on the Broadway stage in the American Repertory Theater adaptation of "The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess," set to premiere in December at the Richard Rogers Theater.

The air literally bristled with excitement. From the opening number, Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York,” it was obvious that she was right at home and the audience was about to experience an evening with one of the consummate singers of our time. This was part of a 17-city concert tour across North America, but in every way this was the most personally significant night for the Tony Award-winning performer.

The concert brought out a virtual “whose who” in American theatre. Composers Adam Gwon and Gabriel Kahane were in attendance and heard their works performed by Ms. McDonald. Diane Paulus, the director of the upcoming Broadway production of The Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, was also there.

Irving Berlin’s “Moonshine Lullaby” was one of the triumphs of the evening as was the Gershwin’s “He Loves and She Loves.” Stephen Sondheim’s “Moments in the Woods” showcased the type of vocal command and acting capability that has won her four Tony Awards (Raisin in the Sun, Master Class, Ragtime and Carousel) and nominations for her work in Marie Christine and 110 in the Shade.

Her ringing soprano voice filled the auditorium to the rafters, particularly on Kandner and Ebbs’ “First You Dream.”

By contrast, she seemed to reduce the massive Isaac Stern Auditorium to the intimacy of a cabaret lounge when she took to the piano to accompany herself on Adam Guettel’s Migratory V.” It was a command performance fit for royalty, only this time; the Queen herself was on stage doing the performing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra in homage to the patriotic Romanticism of Jean Sibelius

Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra

Symphonic Masters at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October 19, 2011

Sir Colin Davis- President, London Symphony Orchestra

Photo credit: Stephanie Berger

New York---Sir Colin Davis has been associated with the London Symphony Orchestra for more than a half century. All of that rich history of music collaboration came together in a magnificent way as he led the London Symphony Orchestra in an all-Sibelius program at Avery Fisher Hall as the opening night of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. With the brilliant young violinist Nikolaj Znaider performing Sibelius’ enigmatic Violin Concerto in D minor at the outset of the evening, this was one of the most artistically satisfying programs to emanate from Avery Fisher Hall this season.

At 84 years old, Sir Colin Davis is in firm command of the orchestra and its repertoire. His only concession to his advanced years is his conducting while seated rather than standing. His precise control and razor-sharp delineation of tempos and dynamics remains as crystalline as ever. The brightness of the first violins and the clear rubato of the cellos with their amber sound and the burnished resonance of the bass are distinctive to the ears of music lovers and contribute to the signature sound of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Jean Sibelius is one of the most challenging and stylistic progressive composers of the early twentieth century. His works often combine classicism with an overtly modern, individualistic approach. His propensity toward celebrating the folk rhythms and melodies of his native Finland has made him a cultural icon in that country. His symphonic poem Finlandia is regarded as among his finest works and its central theme, the Finlandia Hymn, is regarded as one of Finland’s most important national songs. More recently, it found its way into the film score for the 1990 Bruce Willis film, Die Hard 2.

Action movies aside, this program of Symphonic Masters saw one of the world’s greatest orchestras and its venerated 84-year-old leader at the top of their form in a concert that bristled with excitement.

Znaider charged into the difficult double and triple stops of the Violin Concerto with a ferocity that literally leapt from the stage. Sir Davis kept a firm hold on Sibelius’ wildly varying tempos and shifting themes with the firm grip of a Formula One racing driver. There were moments in the final Allegro, ma non tanto that were literally breathtaking.

In contrast to his previous fiery solo performance, Znaider obliged the enthusiastic audience with a heartfelt encore, Bach’s Sarabande, from Partita No. 2 in C minor, which he dedicated in a spoken salutation, as tribute to Sir Colin Davis and his more than 50 years of service to the orchestra. It was a touching moment that added a note of poignancy.

Sir Davis walked to the podium for the second half with a distinct air of purpose. Touching the step to the podium with his baton to ensure his footing, he proceeded to conduct Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, infusing it with a youthful vitality that explored its universal themes of hope in the face of adversity and its obviously triumphant, yet romantic underlying theme. The strings played the final theme with a sense of majesty. The brass and percussion displayed a unity of sound and purpose that was spine chilling. It was an inspired performance.

It was not without of touch of irony that I noticed that the world awakened to the news of the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. In the time of Jean Sibelius, Finland was under the hob-nailed boot of Mother Russia. In many ways, his music represented a veiled protest to their oppression. It seemed fitting that the strains of Sibelius’s heroic music and its myriad political metaphors would still be ringing in memory.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Met Live in HD Anna Bolena brings Henry VIII palace intrigue into full frontal focus


Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October 15, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Photos by Ken Howard

  1. Anna Netrebko gave an electrifying performance in the first-ever live transmission of a Met Opera to her native Russia
  2. Anna Netrebko as Anna Bolena and Ildar Abdrazakov as King Henry VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena
  3. Anthony McGill, a Chicago native, is the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s Principal Clarinetist

NEW YORK—Anna Netrebko and her two Russian co-stars, Ildar Abdrazakov as Henry VIII and Ekaterina Gubanova as her lady-in-waiting and later, betrayer, Jane Seymour, must have been playing to the hometown crowd in last Saturday’s Met Live in HD matinee transmission of Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena. This was the first time ever that a live broadcast of a Metropolitan Opera performance was transmitted to Moscow, and in spite of a hefty ticket price, ($30-$40 American dollars, 930-1240 Rubles, a sizable amount, even in the post-Soviet Union), there were few empty seats at the local Red Square multiplex. In this new production by David McVicar, the quality of this matinee performance surpassed even that of the already superlative ones during the Met’s opening week run of the opera.

One key difference was the flawless camera team of Live HD Director Gary Halvorson, the veteran of many Met Live in HD transmissions, best known for his work as a TV situation comedy director on the hit, Emmy Award winning show Friends (47 episodes), Two and a Half Men and The Drew Carey Show. Trained as a pianist at Julliard, he brings a unique sensibility to the moviecasts as both a trained classical musician and a spot-on TV director who wields a steadicam like a Light Saber!

Halverson’s cameras hone in with almost surgical precision on the inner workings of Henry VIII (Eduardo in the Italian, here) and his murderous court. We are immediately swept into the vortex of intrigue and deception, with his hapless second wife, Anne Boleyn, already on the outs as he seeks to unfurl his codpiece and share his kingdom to her lady-in-waiting and close confidant, Jane Seymour. Anna has failed to bear him a male heir and, paraphrasing "Ah-nold" in "Total Recall," he would say 'considerer this a "dee-worce," as he escorts her to the gallows.

The terrific acting and singing sends the performances over the top. Ever-mindful of the close-up cameras, they seem to give their all at every turn, Anna, especially, lived up to her namesake and literally threw herself into the part. In a backstage interview with Met General Manager Peter Gelb (who started at the Met as a teenaged usher), Netrebko talked about her role of a lifetime with an almost child-like wonder and guilessness. She often looked directly at the camera and mugged like a giddy teen as she talked about the role that has become a defining moment of her career and ranked her right up their with such opera goddesses as the great Maria Callas and Dame Joan Sutherland.

“It was very interesting playing her because she’s such a complex character,” Netrebko said in her endearing Russian accent, alternately mugging to the camera just at her left elbow. “I listened to several recordings but, in the end, I found my own way to play her. One of the things I really like about the role is the incredible costumes. They really let you get into the character.”

At one point, according to reports, Netrebko complained that her costume was too tight and that she couldn’t breathe sufficiently in order to sing the demanding role. That degree of discomfort is due in large part to the hard work of Costume Designer Jenny Tiramani, who went for authenticity and historical accuracy in designing the costumes for Anna Bolena. She told backstage interviewer and Net diva Deborah Voigt that she spent countless hours scouring the museums of London and looking at old costumes and original garments from Elizabethan and Tudor England and at paintings by court artists of the period in order to create costumes that were historically accurate. “You can see the detail in the costumes from some of the old paintings that I researched," she explained to an awed Voigt. " In Anna’s costume, you have a complete gown underneath a very ornately embroidered silk blouse and over that a doublet and another complete gown. All that is sewn in with lace ribbons that go all the way around. It’s really a snug fit and once you’re in there, you’re IN THERE!”

Halvorson does two things that are truly masterful. He allows the camera to back off of the action to show the full scope of the sets and the drama of the moment. He frames the lead characters so that they are at times totally dwarfed by the castle walls. It gives a sense of how they are completely at the mercy of the awesome circumstances around them and how their predicament is larger than they are. In that way, the staging and camera artistry really put the drama into perspective.

Conductor Marco Armiliato and the Met Opera Orchestra sparkle with vitality. The Overture is a showcase for the superb quality of their playing. Particularly noted were the beautiful solos by Principal Clarinetist Anthony McGill, a Chicago native who is the only African American member of the orchestra. McGill is a distinguished performer who played with Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman at the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. He is also winner of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Tamara Mumford gave a dramatically riveting performance as Smeton, the court page and musician who falls in love with Anna. Her emotive demeanor and silvery voice gave depth to her character. In the close-ups during her opening aria, she added further authenticity to the role by fretting her instrument, the lute, as if she were actually playing. It was a nice touch. The makeup artist did a particularly splendid job of conveying the horrors her character suffered at the hands of Henry VIII’s torturers. Her appearance in the final scene brought gasps from the audience.

Stephen Costello was superb as Lord Percy, Anna’s lover and possibly, former husband. The duet between he and Keith Miller as Lord Rochefort, Anna’s brother, in the third act as they march to their doom, is one of the seminal male duets of all opera and is performed brilliantly here. Eduardo Valdes is appropriately smarmy and despicable as the court official Sir Hervey. The fact that he has such a velvety bass/baritone voice makes him a pleasure to listen to, even though you hate his character, especially when he delivers Anna’s death sentence with such obvious relish.

Ildar Abdrazakov as the vainglorious King is in spectacular voice and has a commanding, regal presence onstage.

The close-ups of Anna Netrebko as she delivers her final arias are breathtaking. There’s just one tiny moment when the camera goes out of focus for a fraction of a second but that’s forgivable given the superior level of the seamless camera direction throughout. Donizetti’s Anna Bolena will be repeated in an Encore presentation Wednesday, November 2 at 6:30pm local time. I plan to be there, and, if you love great opera, you will too!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic present contrasts of Mozart, Debussy

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October 14, 2011

Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic in ‘homecoming’ concert

New York—Lorin Maazel, former Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 2002-2009, conducted the orchestra in an exquisite, yet understatement performance, presenting contrasting works by two of the music world’s most beloved composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Claude Debussy.

The first work, Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major, The “Prague,” show the young composer in his prime. Maazel and the orchestra mined its majestic themes and forward-looking modulations, revealing all of its hidden gems. Maazel once again displayed his uncanny ability to bring out the inner voices of a piece, often stepping forward on the podium in the direction of the first violins to urge them deeper into the melodic line. His attention to the brass in the sprightly Allegro and his elongated approach to the opening bars of the Andante were among the sublime moments of this performance.

The Concerto in C major for Flute and Harp featured the considerable talents of the orchestra’s Principal Flute Robert Langevin and Principal Harp Nancy Allen. Both are accomplished players with a flair for the extraordinary. Langevin possesses an even, rounded tone that soared above the orchestra particularly in the cadenzas he offered in the Andantino. Ms. Allen’s delicate filigree of triplets and glissandos created a contrapuntal contrast to Langevin’s fluid, even-handed approach to the music.

Claude Debussy’s Jeux: Poeme danse was all airs and atmosphere. The composer’s final completed orchestral work, it is a signpost pointing in the direction of music yet to come. Originally written for dance and the choreography of the great Nijinsky, Maazel chose to emphasize the work’s more contemplative nature. He and the orchestra explored its more droll rhythms and sonic depths. The title, Jeux (Games), suggests children or young adults at play, but with its translucent tone, suggesting fading light and clouds bathed in the crimson after-glow of dusk, Maazel’s interpretation leaned more toward the quiet whispers of the approaching nightfall.

Debussy’s Iberia was all crackling castanet’s and the sound of distant tambourines. Maazel and the orchestra captured the very essence of Spain in this romantic fantasy. This was music emanating like the smell of perfumed flowers from the gardens of the Generalife in Granada or the distant singing of Gypsies in Andalusia.

Piccolos and flutes sparked daring melodic excursions, with the oboes and English horns giving the melodic lines further clarification. Maazel gave the percussion lots of running room with tuba, timpani, triangles, cymbals, celesta and harps joining in the festive atmosphere. The chimes underscored the brilliance of this fine performance.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wynton Marsalis at 50: A Jazz at Lincoln Center celebration

Wynton Marsalis at 50:Jazz at Lincoln Center concert traces musical roots from Congo Square, New Orleans to Ghana

Backstage photos by Dwight Casimere

New York—Wynton Marsalis at 50 was the theme of the celebratory concert at the Rose Theatre, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which was telecast live over on PBS as part of the series, Live From Lincoln Center. The broadcast will be repeated on the PBS network's Live From Lincoln Center series and online at

Seated near the rear of the stage in the practically ‘in the round’ environment of the Rose Theatre, the electricity in the air was almost palpable as Jazz At Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and special guests, Marcus Roberts, piano, Mark O’Connor, violin, Gregory Porter, vocalist, Jared Grimes, dancer and vocal and percussion ensemble Yacub Addy & Odadaa! of Ghana and Damien Sneed & Chorale Le Chateau, made a joyful noise unto ‘Lord Marsalis’ and raised the roof of the Time Warner Center where JALC is housed.

In a program that featured the compositions of Wynton Marsalis exclusively, jazz in all its forms and many shores was explored in depth. From the “Chant to Call the Indians Out” to the Ring Shout (from Congo Square) to the drum and chanting celebration of the Ga people of Ghana and the spiritual Doxology from the founding of the Abyssinian Church in Harlem, this was a concert that not only celebrated the life and work of the nine-time GRAMMY ® winning composer but at least 200 years of jazz history.

“We’re about so much more than doing concerts,” Marsalis said toward the end of the exhilarating evening of music making. “We’re about training and education, too. When Chick Corea came to work with us, he was amazed how everyone here is an arranger and not just a performer. He kept asking, ‘who arranged this? Who arranged that?” He was amazed to learn that everyone here is capable of arranging and composing great music. We’re also developing talent like that in the schools.”

Enough of the history lesson. Marsalis & Co. quickly got down to the art of making music. After a first set that explored the basics of ‘jazz according to Wynton Marsalis with Back to Basic (from Blood on the Fields) and a rollicking rendition of Jelly Roll Morton’s Tom Cat Blues with a dynamite stride piano solo by Marcus Roberts, followed by some heavy hoofing from dancer Jared Grimes. It was amazing how, at times, Grime’s thundering feet matched rhythm for rhythm the drumming of Ali Jackson.

There were terrific solos from members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra throughout. Tenor saxophonist Victor Goines (“we first met in kindergarten in New Orleans,” Marsalis reminisced) channeled the late, great John Coltrane in Delfaeyo’s Dilemma, the evening’s only straight-ahead jazz piece. Marcus Roberts dazzled with his stunning command of the keyboard vernacular, alternating between the stride and swing styles of Bud Powell to the improvisational prowess of Oscar Peterson, blended with the soulfulness of Ray Charles. Violin Mark O’Connor nearly overshadowed the Maestro himself in the Sleeper Car (from Big Train). Vocalist Gregory Porter did some powerful scattin’, trading licks with an inspired Marsalis on trumpet. It’s clear that he has no plans to slow down over the next 50 years!

After Odadaa! brought the music of Ghana and New Orleans into complete fusion, the Chorale Le Chateau took the ‘Big Train’ straight to Heaven. They were particularly effective in emulating the sounds of the train, delivering them in an almost haunting manner before Marsalis revved the whole thing up and marched everyone offstage in a New Orleans-styled ‘second line.’ It was just like being down home in the Vieux Carre!

New York Film Festival: "Shame" another blockbuster from Britain's Steve McQueen

Review by Dwight Casimere October 12, 2011
Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight and IMBd

NEW YORK--Black British director Steve McQueen (Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 2011) is back at the New York Film Festival with another blockbuster film, Shame. The man who brought us Hunger (2008), the story of the IRA's Bobby Sands 2008 Hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison, which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes for first-time film directors and the Diesel Discovery Award at Toronto, won takes us to contemporary Manhattan and the hip, young ingenues of lower Manhattan and their lives filled with sexual addiction.
Shame has already garnered the Best Film Award at the Venice International Film Festival and from the overwhelming response here in New York, it appears to be a shoo-in here.
The plot revolves around the life of 30-something Manhattan resident Brandon (Michael Fassbender, in a searing performance) who lives alone with a libido the size of the Statue of Liberty. When he isn't masturbating or seeing prostitutes, he spends his downtime indulging in online porn. His free-wheeling lifestyle is suddenly interrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) sneaks into his apartment and sets up camp indefinitely. Brandon loses it. His rage only fuels his downward spiral.
The film, with its over the top, explicit sexuality is played out against the backdrop of a score dominated by the spare, solo piano of Glen Gould, playing Bach's Goldberg Variations and the Prelude and Fuge in C-minor. The controlled, restrained precision of Bach's music contrasts sharply with the smoldering animalism and torrential rage that lurks beneath Brandon/Fassbender's skin. The eloquent score by composer Harry Escott, with its brooding cello, further illustrates Brandon's deep-seated self-loathing.
Brandon, with his Charlton Heston good looks, is a chick magnet, who could really have just about any woman he wants, but his low self-esteem and his slavish addiction to his urges is a constant obstacle to any real human contact in the form of a lasting relationship. "What's the longest committed relationship you've had," the character Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a young black woman who works in his office, who actually arranged a 'real' date with asks. "Four months," he says sheepishly. That's a great start! When he later tries to make love to her, he completely fizzles and withdraws into his world of self-sexual abuse.
His sister, Sissie is equally as self-flaggelant, only she expresses it by mutilating herself. The flashpoint created by the interaction of Sissie and Brandon finally erupts, pushing Brandon over the edge. After a day and night of completely self-destructive sex, Brandon is brought to his knees emotionally when his sister tries, once again, to commit suicide. There's a tender moment that serves as the denouement to the film, when Brandon gently touches his sister's many self-inflicted scars. We see a closeup of his hands which have long, supple fingers of a piano player's. He strokes her arm gently. In one moment, the Bach score, and the underlying theme of the film all come into focus with stark clarity.
Shame is a superb film, which is directed, shot and acted brilliantly. The original screenplay by British television and playwright Abi Morgan and McQueen's superb directing make this a must-see when the film is released.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg presents dazzling piano performance by Daniil Trifonov at Carnegie Hall

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October 11, 2011

Photos: Valery Gergiev at the podium (c) 2011 Steve J. Sherman

Daniil Trifonov, Piano

NEW YORK--Fluent Russian was the primary language heard as I muscled my way past the throng on the streets, anxiously seeking last minute tickets to the Marrinsky Orchestra if St,Petersburg's final concert of the season at Carnegie Hall.

In addition to celebrating Carnegie Hall's 120th Anniversary, the concert also marked the premiere of Carnegie Hall Live, WQXR Public Radio, New York City, Carnegie Hall and American Public Media's vibrant new radio broadcast and digital media series that will present twelve live performances from the stages of Carnegie Hall during the 2011-2012 concert season. Live national radio broadcasts will air on public radio stations across the country. Digital partner NPR Music will also host live chats during every live broadcast.

Mariinsky Orchestra Music Director and Conductor Valery Gergiev presented a stellar program of Russian composers, Sergei Prokofiev's sprightly Three Selections from Romeo and Juliet and ending with Dmitri Shostakovich's bombastic Symphony No. 1 in F Major. The centerpiece was a deliciously inspired performance by Grand Prize and Gold Medal Piano winner in the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition, Daniil Trifonov in Tchaikovsky's imperial Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor.
The Concerto No. 1 is the bane of every young pianist with aspirations to conquer the concert stage. Its arching melodies and thunderous crescendoes can either lift a career to the heights or send it crashing to earth, like Icarus flying to close to the sun. Trifonov flew with wings of an eagle, doing aerial acrobatics in the process. It was a performance than merged poetry with dazzling technical skill. It is amazing that a performer so young can capture the emotional depths of a piece of music and navigate its complexities with such ease to reveal its emotional heart behind the musical maze.

Audiences might have been similarly dazzled in 1891, when the composer, Tchaikovsky, was the solo pianist at the opening night concert for Carnegie Hall.

At this performance, the Mariinsky Orchestra, under Gergiev's inspired direction, chose a tack far different than any I have heard before. Instead of opening with an explosion, he chose to focus on the score's dance like rhythm, proceeding to allow the melody to unfold in a relaxed pace. He allowed the melodic line to emerge in a seductive manner, giving ample running room to his thoroughbred performer. It was exquisite to behold!
Trifonov was especially riveting in the second movement, the Andantino semplice. His later handling of the thunderous octave runs in the Prestissimo showed his real merit. Here, every measure was played in direct connectivity. There was not a break in continuity anywhere. His crescendoes were less for dramatic affect than to create a musical statement that was precise and cohesive. Rather than dazzling with pyrotechnics, he allowed the composer's music to shine forth with great emotional clarity. He obliged the audience with a surprise pair of encores; the familiar Chopin Grande Valse Brillante in E-flay Major and Listz's La Campanella, Grandes etudes de Paganini. The former showed his ability to reimagine a piece that is so familiar to most music lovers and find its inner truth and make it sound new and alive. The second piece showed his sheer genius and power at the keyboard. He is a breath of fresh air on the classical music stage with a fluid delivery that is as natural as breathing. His ability to generate an almost magical aura that engaged both the ear and the spirit is inspiring.
The final piece, Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 showed the Mariinsky Orchestra at its best and confirmed its place in the apex of the world's classical music constellation. The burnished strings delivered the composers brooding melodies with a dark, moody air that contrasted sharply with the militaristic staccato of the crisp brass. The woodwinds gave a lilting heavenly air to Shostakovich's sometimes troubling score. The Mariinsky orchestra possesses one of the finest percussion and brass sections to be heard anywhere and they were utilized by Maestro Gergiev to tremendous advantage in the thundering conclusion.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

New York Film Festival: The Kid with a Bike

New York Film Festival: The Kid With A Bike explores adolescent estrangement

Chicago—Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, The Kid with a Bike is a poignant dramatic film written and directed by Belgian brothers Jean-
Pierre and Luc Dardenne. A joint production of companies in Belgium, France and Italy, it can truly be called, on a small scale, at least, an international production. In many ways, its message is also international and universal.

The Kid with a Bike tells the story of Cyril, an 11-year-old boy who is left in a home for homeless children. His father tells him that the move will be temporary, but, the time approaches for Cyril to go home, it becomes abundantly clear to him that he is abandoned.

The film begins as Cyril makes his violent escape from the children’s home, biting and clawing his way past the counselors and paramedical staff and then finally using deception and guile to make his way to freedom. Once out, he sets upon his father’s trail.

Cyril’s personality and behavior are a dichotomy. On the surface, Cyril is troubled youth with the flashpoint of a dripping tank of petrol (a petrol station plays a pivotal role in the plot late in the film). When he goes back to the dingy housing project apartment where he and his father lived, he finds it abandoned, his father having disappeared more than a month previous. Not only is the apartment emptied of all possessions and his father flown the coop, his precious bicycle is also missing. It is at that point that the elements of the movie begin to kick in. As he is exits from the apartment feeling dejected, he is met by Samantha, the local hairdresser who tells him that she has purchased his bike from the father of a boy who had bought it from his father.

Cyril doesn’t believe her for a minute, asserting that the bike was stolen and sets out to exact revenge against the young thief and recover his bike.

He locates the suspected henchman and his young cronies on the local playground. Here, we get to meet the other side of Cyril’s split personality. He becomes a raging banshee, a vicious hyena who corners his prey around the watering hole in the Serengeti and attacks with fury. Needless to say, Cyril gets his bike back and rides off in a wave of retribution.

The curious thing about Cyril is that once he’s back on the scent of his father’s trail, he becomes centered and focused. He doggedly pursues him with intensity and deliberateness to the fury equal he displayed against the supposed bike thieves. Along his tracking mission of his father, he is directed to a local gas station where he sees a sign posted that, indeed, confirms that his father advertised and sold, not only all of his worldly possessions, but his precious bike as well. It is a crushing moment.

Miraculously, and with the help and support of his newfound Guardian Angel Samantha, he finds his estranged father, toiling away with his new wife or girlfriend as a cook in her small restaurant in a distant town. Not surprisingly, the father rejects him, this time to his face. Cyril is destroyed and attempts to disfigure himself on the solemn ride home.

This was a difficult film to watch because it raises some very tough questions about displaced and abandoned youth, particularly those who have been rejected by their fathers. It took a European film to bring home with thundering clarity the truth behind the issue of all these fatherless boys running around the ghettos of America, seeking a sense of belonging and mentoring in the street gangs and creating father figures and heroes out of the gang leaders and drug dealers that terrorize our streets. Transport the story of Cyril four thousand miles to the streets of Chicago’s south side and substitute the two-bit teenaged thug who recruits Cyril into his gang for Rev. John Fry and Jeff Fort and his Blackstone and later P Stone Nation and then take it back about eighty or so years to the streets of Berlin and Adolf Hitler and his Youth Brigades and their older siblings, the SS. But, I digress.

A thug named West (Egon Di Mateo-an enigmatic young actor with a smoldering undercurrent) trains him like a ninja in the art of thievery. Instead of creating sensei, he is developing monsters that use violence to rob and steal to pay tribute to their newfound evil Zen master.

The movie particularly hit home with me personally. I was about the same impressionable age, as Cyril when my parents divorced and my father outright disowned me to my face, in much the same manner experienced by young Cyril. Just like Cyril, my father cast me aside at a time when I needed him the most. Fortunately for me, I had loving grandparents to guide me and a love of sports and music that absorbed my attention and served as vehicles to absorb my hurt and anger.

Cyril’s journey is not without its obvious pitfalls. Somehow, his determination, and his precious bike, become vehicles to his salvation.

The Dardenne brothers have presented a beautifully crafted film that deserves recognition. You should go see it.

The Kid with a Bike is also a Special Presentation at the 47th Chicago International Film Festival.

Two views of the End of the World at New York Film Festival


Reviewed at the New York Film Festival September 22 & 26

Story and post news conference photo by Dwight Casimere

1. Opening image of Kirstin Dunst as Justine in Melancholia

2. Willem Dafoe as Cisco and Shanyn Leigh as Skye in 4:44 Last Day On Earth

3. Shanyn Leigh in a post news conference conversation with Dwight Casimere

New York—Each successive decade, directors seem to pounce on a universal theme and create a new genre of film around it. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, alien invaders seemed to be crossing the threshold of the atmosphere at an alarming rate. Post Anti-War and Civil Rights era, a lingering skepticism fueled a string of political satires and conspiracy movies. The excess of the ‘80s brought another round of self-absorbed cynicism, evidence the 1987 film Wall Street. Now, in post 9/11 America, a new threat has arrived on the horizon, the end of the world.

Within days of each other, two films were screened for members of the press and industry that viewed the apocalypse from the vantage point of a controversial Danish director and a brusk, Bronx-born independent American filmmaker. The film Melancholia directed by Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark-Cannes Palme d’Or winner 2000, Dogville-2003, starring Nicole Kidman), in which the narrative revolves around the aftermath of the wedding of one of two sisters, played by American actress Kirsten Dunst (Interview with the Vampire-1994, Little Women-also 1994, Spider-Man 2002) and British actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (Jane Eyre-1996, I’m Not There-2007). Gainsbourg is a von Trier veteran, having worked on several directed by him.

Melancholia is von Trier’s finest work. Unfortunately, he undermined it with his controversial comments about Nazism during a news conference at the Cannes Film Festival in May. In spite of his skewed comments, Dunst received the festival’s Best Actress Award for her performance. Von Trier has been banned from the festival.

Melancholia is almost operatic in its scope. In fact, it begins with the musical backdrop of the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music is epic in scope, no less so than the theme of the movie, the end of Earth. Visually, the overlay is a series of dream-like tableaux that hover somewhere between Salvador Dali and Francisco Goya; a bride drags her dress through the grass until it is in taters, a horse sinks into the mud, a child languidly carves a long tree branch as a woman looks on pensively from a distance, a view of the midnight sky shows what appears to be two moons. Already, you know where this is going, but, like watching a train crash, you can’t turn away.

Director von Trier has said the idea for Melancholia grew out of therapy sessions he was undergoing for treatment of depression. The idea for the cataclysmic collision was inspired by websites devoted to the event’s potential. Setting the event in during the course of a family event, he said, made it possible to examine the human psychological response during a disaster. He achieved that goal and more. Melancholia is a riveting film that draws you in and engages you, even though you know the ultimate outcome.

There is fine acting by a superlative cast throughout. Dunst, who is probably best known by the masses as the girl who kissed Spidy as he was upside down, shows real dramatic chops as the troubled bride, Justine. There is one scene where she unleashes her pent up fury on her vainglorious boss, Jack, played by Stellan Skarsgard (a veteran of four von Trier films and best known for his role as the guilt-ridden policeman in the original Insomnia).

The film opens in the moments just after the wedding and leading up to the wedding party. We already know trouble is afoot in the marriage, when she decides that the first person she wants to greet after the ceremony is not her family and guests, but her horse, Abraham. She decides to go for a ride.

The metaphor for her love of her horse is continued in a later scene, when she drags her newly appointed intern, Tim (Brady Corbet-Thirteen-2003, Mysterious Skin-2004), out to the eighteenth hole of the family’s private golf course, and proceeds to mount him sexually as he if were here prized steed.

Donald Southerland is absolutely commanding as the older brother. He has finally achieved the age and experience to fill the large acting shoes of his esteemed father.

What a delight to see John Hurt (The Elephant Man-1980, Lord of the Rings Trilogy) in the role of Justine’s impish father, Dexter. Charlotte Rampling spits venomous bars laced with penetrating truth as his estranged wife, Gaby. “Why don’t you just run from here? Just get away!” she advises Justine as her daughter agonizes over her recent marriage.

4:44 Last Day on Earth by American Director Abel Ferrara is a rather claustrophobic look at the end of the world through the eyes of a New York couple, Cisco (Willem Dafoe, Platoon-1986, Shadow of the Vampire-2000) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh, Napoli, Napoli, Napoli-2009, Public Enemies-also 2009).

In contrast to the sweeping emotional and visual panorama of Melancholia, ‘Last Day’ is a claustrophobic closet drama that pales by comparison, but makes its point nonetheless. It is a microscopic examination of a sliver of life as two little people face the awesome challenges of the universe.

The film takes us into the Lower East Side apartment of Skye and Cisco as they frantically try to cope with the reality of their final hour on Earth. Cisco is an aging New York City actor who lives with his much younger, twenty-something girlfriend. It at times descends into a sophomoric discussion over ethics and the questions of how we choose to die and choose to live. The emotional climax comes when Cisco lets his old life creep into their New Age relationship. Should they spend their waning moments in mindless sex or should they heal the psychic wounds they inflict upon one another. Ironically, the most electric moment in the film comes when Skye becomes incensed over Cisco’s emotional allegiance to his past relationship and his selfish desire to give in to his former lust for drugs, rather than spend the time embracing her. At times, Dafoe seems to walk through his characterization, but Leigh catches fire with a torrent of rage that lights of the scream as surely as any solar collision. I asked Leigh about her on-screen outburst in the aftermath of a news conference following the NYFF screening.

“If you just listen to what he was just saying (Dafoe/Cisco), that he still loved his ex-wife, that gave me a lot of emotional fuel; just living in that moment. It was really difficult for my character, listening to him talking to his ex- wife. That was probably the hardest scene for me to shoot in the entire movie,” she said, her face visibly showing that she was reliving the anguish of the experience. “It really took a lot of emotion. Here she is, preparing to die, and she’s also feeling that she’s lost the emotional connection to her boyfriend. I mean, throughout the entire film, she’d been studying how to die, then she’s hit in the face with this, that she’s about to lose her boyfriend.

Melancholia is a Special Presentation in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival.