Monday, May 27, 2013

Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

The maximalism of Baz Luhrmann can easily put you off. He doesn't so much adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as he hits you over the head with the book. Thank goodness that it is not that big a novel, otherwise he'd knock us right out completely. In his hands this morality play of the Jazz Age leaves us breathless at times, as if he didn't trust that the source material can yield a worthy adaptation without including everything including the proverbial kitchen sink. The result is a very long, overblown film where the very personal story of three little rich people and one confused narrator oftentimes gets lost in the excessive glitz of a world that outdoes any of the scenes of debaucheries of Scott and Zelda, or the novel itself.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby with a smattering of a fading English accent that betrays his past. His accent sounds as mysterious as the man that he portrays. In his Long Island mansion, a Xanadu castle fit for three kings, he throws lavish weekend parties where the cream of society is entertained by anachronistic musical acts that may be grounded in the Charleston, but that ultimately turn into a modern hip-hop rave. Nobody is invited to these affairs, people just attend. All except his next door neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who receives a personal invitation, and who in the middle of the frenzy gets to meet the secretive host. They immediately strike a friendship that becomes the crux of this classic story. Of course, right across the bay from the Gatsby estate we have Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), who was Nick's classmate at Yale. These are the other members of this amorous rectangle, doomed to end in tragedy.

The director comes up with an entertaining film, but certainly not the definitive adaptation of this novel, a literary work that because of its internal narrative, and subtle plot might not be adaptable to the film medium, and if it is, certainly not by such a Cecil B. DeMille-style talent like Mr. Luhrmann. There is a silent film adaptation that is now lost, made just a few short years after the novel was published. Perhaps that film, released at the height of the Jazz Age, got it right.

What Mr. Luhrmann does get right is the visual look of the film. It is a stunningly beautiful creation. Photographed by Simon Duggan, the film has a great Technicolor warm look that easily puts you into the period. Likewise, the scenic design by Catherine Martin makes her Art Deco sets come to life. Come award time, I am sure that the visual production aspect of this film will be remembered. So far this year, it is the most visually impressive film I have seen.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Richard Wagner at 200

Today, May 22, we celebrate the birth of Richard Wagner.  The composer was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1813, 200 years ago today.  But how do we celebrate the birth of such an important person in history? And why does today not feel any different? It seems to me that audiences have not stopped celebrating him, his incredible life, and his amazing artistic legacy. It has been a celebration that has lasted for 200 years, and fortunately promises to continue for 200 more.

I read somewhere that Richard Wagner is the most discussed historical person after Jesus Christ. This might be so. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of books have been written about his life, his controversial views, and his love affairs. Of course, there are also his thirteen operas. More books have been written about them. From among all the music that he wrote, in a lifetime of composing, these are the works that placed him in the pantheon of the immortals; and out of these, normally only ten are performed. Not a very good record when we compare his output to that of the other composer with whom he shares the same year of birth -- Giuseppe Verdi. The Italian master was prodigious in his writing, often finishing a work in a matter of weeks during his early and middle periods. Wagner often took years to finish a project. The Ring of the Nibelung took more than twenty. It's hard to be a fast worker when you are modernizing and revolutionizing 19th century theater. Of Verdi's thirty completed operas, more than half are in the repertory of most opera houses. For their 2013-2014 season, the Metropolitan Opera will perform two works by Verdi (surprisingly few) and not a one by Wagner -- not surprising and understandable. It seems that no opera house can survive a season without mounting at least one work by Verdi, but Wagner is a little more problematic. His music dramas are a little more expensive to put on, and a little harder to cast. Perhaps this is why a performance of a Wagner work is such a special event. It takes a little extra effort to set it up and get through it. But, in return, what amazing things it gives you back.

I suppose that the best way to celebrate his work, his life, and his legacy is to continue celebrating him the way we have all these years. My wishes on this bicentennial are the following: May Bayreuth always continue to mount his works, and may all the other opera houses in the world follow suit. May the powers-that-be nurture the kind of voices needed to fill the great roles that he created. And may producers, and anyone responsible for Wagner productions around the world, always remember that his music and words are sacrosanct, and that they should be treated with respect.

Happy Birthday, Maestro! Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag!

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall

In the twilight of his years Maurizio Pollini continues to amaze with the aristocratic virtuosity and technical dexterity that has garnered him world-wide acclaim since he won the Chopin International Competition at the age of 18.  This afternoon at Carnegie Hall he performed some of the great treasures of piano literature with an all-Beethoven sonata program that included the "Pathétique" for starters and the "Appassionata" as a concluding piece. Rounding out the program, Mr. Pollini also played number 22 as well as number 23, the "Waldstein."

Mr. Pollini might show his age in his walking stride to his piano, but once he sits in front of his instrument he is a young man once again, in many ways an unassuming presence at the keyboard who tends to disappear inside the music he is playing. Perhaps this is why he is one of the greats.  A Maurizio Pollini recital is not about him, it's all about the music. He delved into the C minor "Pathétique" Op. 13, the earliest piece in the group, with clean attacks, superb musicianship and youthful exuberance. The well-known second movement Adagio cantabile floated on air at a tempo slightly faster than usual, and it concluded with a vigorous reading of the Rondo that whet the audience's appetite for the rest of the program to follow.

The "Waldstein" Op. 53, a piece composed between 1803 and 1804, ended the first part of the program.  The opening movement Allegro was exciting and crisp, the Adagio majestic and pensive, and the concluding Rondo movement with its Prestissimo finale caused some of the audience members to rise to their feet, while shouts of "bravo," the first of many more to come, began to be heard throughout the house.

The second part of the program began with a change. Mr. Pollini chose to play sonata number 22 Op. 54 instead of number 24 as listed on the program. This work, composed in 1804, is one of the seven bipartite works of the 32 sonatas that Beethoven wrote.  The first movement is a romantic minuet steeped in the classical tradition, and the second a superb allegro vivace. By making this change, the entire afternoon program was played chronologically in the order the pieces were composed thus giving us a rare glimpse at the musical development of the composer.

Mr. Pollini concluded the concert with a remarkable reading of the Opus 57 "Appassionata," one of the most difficult pieces in the entire piano repertory. Starting with its quiet, ominous theme, through its second movement Andante variations and concluding with a Presto coda that returns the piece to F minor, Mr. Pollini was on fire. Needless to say, the audience rose to its feet at the end in thunderous applause. He was brought back by the tremendous ovation, and played two encores, one of which was Beethoven's "Bagatelle" in B flat minor.

Mr. Pollini has been quoted as saying that "in music, the complexity makes the intensity," and in his special unassuming way he treated today's New York audience to an intense afternoon of wondrous music.