Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Music Review: Lang Lang - The Chopin Album

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If, like me, your earliest image of Frédéric Chopin comes from Hollywood's A Song to Remember. If the first thing the composer's name suggests is a handsome young man seated at a grand piano on a series of concert stages growing paler and sicker as he plays, wiping the sweat from his brow, and eventually coughing up that one ominous spot of blood on the piano keys, the gorgeous music he was playing has likely embedded itself in the depths of your psyche just as it has in mine. Of course Cornel Wilde playing Chopin was not the virtuoso playing the piano. That was Jose Iturbi certainly one of the most popular of the classical pianists of the period, a man that was to put his recording of Chopin's "Polonaise  in A-Flat" on the charts for a reported four years. And when probably the most popular classical pianist of the current day, Lang Lang, releases his first album devoted entirely to the solo piano works of Chopin, it promises perhaps another classical chart topper.

Lang Lang is nothing if not a charismatic performer, and if there are those that find his playing a bit too flamboyant for their taste, their voices are generally lost in the pianist's overwhelming success with the public. Audiences love him. Besides Chopin's music as much as the music of any of the great composers lends itself to flamboyance, Lang Lang and Chopin would seem a match made in heaven. The Chopin Album is the proof of the pudding.

The album begins with the second set of Chopin's Études (op.25), a dozen studies that the pianist suggests not only provide "training for . . . many elements of technique," but help "develop how your mind works, and how you control the different layers of your emotional response." They are not simply finger exercises, exercises in technique; as the liner notes point out, they are musically sophisticated studies sitting at the "center of Chopin's repertoire." Lang Lang plays them with patented skill and panache.

The album includes three nocturnes, the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise (op. 22), the famous Grande Valse Brillante in E-Flat Major (op.18), and one of the best known show pieces in the Chopin canon, the two minute, one "Minute Waltz." The nocturnes demonstrate that the pianist is capable of restraint when he wants it. The waltzes get the more showy treatment.  As a bonus, for crossover fans there is an encore of Tristesse in duet with Danish singer/songwriter Oh Land. If one needs something to complain about, perhaps another solo piano piece would have been preferable.
In general like Lang's previously released  two disc set,Live In Vienna, The Chopin Album is likely to please those of us who were at first naïve enough to believe that it was Cornel Wilde playing that piano and thrilled to  the playing of Jose Iturbi when we knew better, if not always the critics with finer palates.

A note to those of you too young to have been around in 1945 to see Wilde, Merle Oberon and Paul Muni in that faux Chopin biopic A Song to Remember (indeed for those of you who want to look back on the days of your youth), you can see it complete on YouTube, albeit with Spanish  subtitles. It's worth watching if only for the music.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Moby Dick on the Web

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Those of us who have always felt guilty about never being able to read  Herman Melville's Moby Dick, perhaps the most classic of classic American novels,  from cover to cover and excused that failure by lamenting its excessive length and those endless digressions on whales and whaling, now have a wonderful opportunity to remedy that situation. Check out the Moby Dick Big Read website, and we can now have the book read to us a chapter a day, each day a different reader some well known household names, some of lesser note.

Moby Dick Big Read is the brainchild of artist Angela Cockayne and writer Philip Hoare who were curators of a whale symposium and exhibition at Peninsula Arts a contemporary art space housed at Plymouth University. As the website explains, "inspired by their mutual obsession with Moby Dick and with the overarching subject of the whale, they invited artists, writers, musicians, scientists and academics to respond to the theme." A three day symposium, it turns out was not enough to satisfy the enthusiasm generated, so fast forward to September 16, 2012, and the beginning of the Big Read project.
Hoare and Cockayne have assembled 135 celebrities from a variety of fields each to read one chapter of the novel a day for 135 days. Each episode is available on the website and can be downloaded from there or subscribed to at iTunes. Chapter one is read by Tilda Swinton, and other readers up to now include Simon Callow, Stephen Fry, Chad Harbaugh, Mama Tokus, and Fran King. Length of episode of course depends on the length of the particular chapter, but each of the readings released to date (22 chapters as of this writing) is extremely well done and leaves the reader eager for the next release.

Each chapter is accompanied by a visual contribution by an artist.  These are not necessarily illustrations of anything in the chapter, but rather interpretive works based on the artist's imaginative connection with material of the novel. Thus for example take a look at Matthew Benedict's triptych for "Merry Christmas," chapter 22, "Moby Dick at Breakfast," Oliver Clegg's  silk screen eye chart, "The Question is Not What U Look at But What You See" illustrating chapter 7, "The Chapel, or Boyd Webb's1984 suckling man "Nourishment" which is attached o the fifth chapter "Breakfast."

For those who have never read the book and for those who have read it once or even more than onceMoby Dick Big Read is an opportunity not to be missed. Who knows, with a positive response and a little luck, what other blockbuster classics--Ulysses (after all it does get read on Bloomsday), Remembrance of Things Past (my own bête noire), War and Peace might await their own big reads.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Comedy Review: Demetri Martin - Standup Comedian

This article was first published at Blogcritics

With Standup Comedian, Demetri Martin, a comedian accustomed to coming on stage with a lot of "baggage," hopefully aims to demonstrate that one man up on a stage with good material can be still be funny. He doesn't need the costumes and the screens and the drawings and all of the other stuff. If the one liners are good enough, that will do the job.

And for most of the set he delivers on his new CD proves his point. He does get out his guitar and harmonica at the very end, but as he told The Guardian in an interview about the Comedy Central TV special on which the CD is based, "This time I didn't do any of that. It was just me, and I did some drawings. No piano, no keyboard, no screen with slides. I thought it would be cool to simplify it." This is Demetri Martin unadorned. This is standup pure and simple.

Whether he is calling attention to linguistic quirks and anomalies or unnecessary modern conveniences, he has that finely tuned dry delivery that gets audiences laughing, and he's on to the next joke before they really have time to think more carefully about what he has said. The less time to think about it, the better it sits.  After all, if what you're doing is tossing out one liners, you don't want your audience thinking, you want them laughing. Context is everything. He has a knack for turning the ordinary into the absurd by changing the context. A simple word like "yep," a phrase like "okey dokey"—they can become ridiculous in the wrong context. His bit on training bras is hilarious, that on silent letters somewhat labored.  Overall Standup Comedian is an album with one liners coming fast and furious. If you're not laughing at one, just wait, there'll be another one coming at you soon enough.

While the Comedy Central show was filmed at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, the CD was recorded separately in April of 2012 at the Acme Comedy Co, in Minneapolis and includes additional material. The CD includes a little poster of the album cover. Comedy Central is also releasing an extended and uncensored version of the TV special on DVD.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

TV Review: Cuban Missile Crisis—Three Men Go to War

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Marking the 50th anniversary of what many consider the most dangerous 13 day period in the history of mankind, PBS will be broadcasting Cuban Missile Crisis—Three Men Go to War on Tuesday, October 23. Using information from numerous declassified documents released by Soviet, American and Cuban official sources over recent years, the documentary offers an extensive account of the events of those 13 days from the point of view of many of the political and military figures most directly involved in the crisis, as well as commentary from historians and academics. It is as complete and objective a film study of the crisis as has yet been available. Moreover it is a dramatically compelling portrayal of nations and their leaders on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Contemporary footage of nuclear explosions, school children diving under their desks in standard bomb drills, and people emptying store shelves to stockpile supplies makes clear the terrors facing this nation.  Oddly there seems to be no similar shots of what was happening in Russia at the time, and the film from Cuba, other than some footage of anti- American protesters and soldiers ready to defend the homeland, indicates an eerie calm on the island. Newsreel photos of the various leaders give a good indication of what was at stake.

As the title indicates, the film focuses on the three central figures in the crisis—President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.  It explains Khrushchev's reasoning for the secret erection of missile launching sites on the island nation so close to the US. It details Kennedy's reaction to the discovery of those sites and his quandary over how to counter the Soviet threat. It points out Castro's determination to risk Cuban annihilation rather than give in to what he considered American Imperialistic bullying.

Among the talking heads on the American reaction are presidential speech writer and advisor to Kennedy, Ted Sorenson, intelligence officials like Dino Brugioni who took part in analyzing photo evidence about the missile sites, and Brigadier General Gerald McIlmoyle, a U2 pilot who flew missions over Cuba. There are also voice recordings of presidential advisors and cabinet members like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara and tough talking General Curtis LeMay.

The Russian perspective is developed through commentary from KGB officials and Soviet army officers, as well as Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Russian Premier and author of Khrushchev on Khrushchev—An Inside Account of the Man and His Era and Director of Russian Programs at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., Svetlana Savranskaya. The Cuban perspective, perhaps given the least emphasis, is mainly represented by academics.

In the end the documentary makes clear that faced with the possibility of all out nuclear war, rational human beings like Kennedy and as it turns out Khrushchev as well were unwilling to pull the trigger. In some sense, it would seem to support the theory of mutually assured destruction that fueled the stockpiling of nuclear weapons back in the day. When the real possibility of using those weapons was clear, both sides shrank from the brink. On the other hand, it turns out that fanatical true believers like Castro were quite willing to risk not only themselves but the rest of the world as well in the name of their beliefs. There is a lesson here for nuclear powers today.

In the end, a secret agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev in which Kennedy promised to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey if Khrushchev would first take down the Cuban sites and keep the deal secret was brokered, and the crisis was avoided. Although a recent report on PRI's The World: Latest Edition indicates that there were some missiles in Cuba that the U.S. never knew about and that they were left even after the agreement. Nonetheless, the crisis was over.

Secrets of the Dead "The Man Who Saved the World", a second program on the crisis is scheduled to run immediately following on October 23. It tells the story of a Russian submariner who refused to fire a nuclear missile (shades of Andre Braugher).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Music Review: Andrea Brachfeld - "Lady of the Island"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If you check an on-line list of the 100 greatest jazz flautists which seems to have been last updated in February of 2005, of course you'll find names like Eric Dolphy, Herbie Mann and Rahsaan Roland Kirk leading the pack. Andrea Brachfeld comes in at number 70. Listen to her latest album, Lady of the Island, due out the ninth of October, and I think you'll agree that the list could use some revision. Brachfeld plays passionate hard driving be bop with the best of them, and in softer moments her tone is magic.

The new album offers nine tunes, a nice mix of original compositions, some strays from the jazz song book, and at least one outlier. Coming seven years, she explains in the liner notes, after a disabling personal injury prevented her from playing, the album marks her return to the genre she considers her first love. It's good to have her back.

She is joined on the album by a gang of her friends. Bill O'Connell who coupled with her in producing the CD plays piano on seven tracks. Bassist Andy Eulau and drummer Kim Plainfield play on eight of the tracks. Bob Quaranta plays piano on two and Fender Rhodes on one. The line-up of guest artists includes Todd Bashore (alto sax), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Yasek Manzano (trumpet, flugelhorn), Wallace Rooney (trumpet), and Chembo Corniel (congas, percussion). They are talented musicians who contribute some exciting solo work.

Brachfeld's liner notes offer some fairly extensive commentary about her own compositions as well as the rationale for her other choices. She opens with her own "Be Bop Hanna," written she explains when she heard her niece's three year old daughter saying she wanted "be bop." "Be bop" it turns out was the child's word for candy. The resultant composition is a confection that starts the album with a smile, if not downright laughter especially listening to Wycliffe Gordon's trombone. The other Brachfeld originals are "Little Girl's Song" written for her daughter, "Four Corners," a tribute to the life changing possibilities of Feng Shui, and "In the Center," a collaborative composition with O'Connell.  Manzano's trumpet solo on "Four Corners" is sweet. "Dead Ahead" is an O'Connell original with a fine trumpet solo from Rooney.

The more familiar songs on the CD include Herbie Hancock's "Eye of the Hurricane" arranged by O'Connell and featuring Rooney and Gordon, and some driving solo work from Brachfeld. The Duke Ellington ballad "I Got It bad" gets a soulful treatment from O'Connell and Brachfeld. Freddy Hubbard's "Birdlike" has the kind of Latin vibe that dominated Brachfeld's earlier career. Bashore does some featured solo work on both songs. Graham Nash's "Lady of the Island," the album's title song is the surprise, certainly not the kind of tune you'd expect to find on a jazz album. The sensual beauty of Brachfeld's treatment—she adds a little vocal element—joined with Manzano on the flugelhorn, shows what can be done with a simple melody in the hands of sensitive artists.

Like I said if Lady of the Island is any indication of what Andrea Brachfeld can do, as well as what she may be doing in the future, somebody better take another look at that list of 100 greatest flautists and give some serious thought to its revision.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Chuck Palahniuk's 2011 black comic novel Damned is out this month in paperback from Anchor Books, and it's a good opportunity for those of you who haven't read it yet. There's a sequel on the way, and you will want to make sure you're ready for it. Forget the title, this is one funny book. Palahniuk is a biting satirist and there is nothing it seems so sacred that it escapes his teeth.

Set in the framework of Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, Damned tells the story of a mouthy 13 year old who thinks she has died as a result of a marijuana overdose and wakes to find herself in a cell in hell. Madison "Maddy" Spenser, the privileged overweight daughter of wealthy liberal parents more concerned with themselves than they are with her, is the narrator and for much of the book she takes the reader on a guided tour through the underworld. Joined by four refugees from  The Breakfast Club, (a nerd, a jock, a prom queen and a rebel) she visits cites like the "Ocean of Wasted Sperm," fights with demons intent on snacking on the damned, and works as a call center operator conducting meaningless surveys during dinner hour.

As visions of hell go—think Dante, Sartre—Palahniuk's is equal to the best of them. It is a cesspool of filth and misery, but in the somewhat jaundiced eyes of the precocious teen, the horrors of hell are no more terrible than the horrors of the life she had been living. "Hell isn't so dreadful, not compared to Ecology Camp, and especially not compared to junior high school." Shunted off to a private school in Switzerland while her parents, her mother a movie star, her father a mogul, jet around the world playing aging hippies, she is already in a psychological hell more hurtful than anything Satan can throw at her. Doomed, it seems, to be thirteen forever, she isn't beyond growing intellectually. Hell will be her school of hard knocks.

Combining literary references and mythology with pop culture allusions Palahniuk manages to skewer fundamentalists and liberals, fitness nuts and do-gooders, bullying prima donna nymphets and internet porn. This is satire of Swiftian proportions. It moves from the sublime to the ridiculous. She comes across someone like Darwin in hell and thinks about how her secular humanist parents would shudder to think that Kansas was right. On the other hand she thinks, the torments of hell are nothing compared to the torment of watching The English Patient.

Limited in its plot, dealing more often than not with stereotypical characters, it is Maddy's wise cracking narrative voice that is the joy of this novel. She belongs with the likes of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield in the pantheon of adolescent narrators. Read Damned, you won't be able to wait for the sequel.