Category: Performing Arts


A few years ago I did an extensive, year-long search for an orchestra conductor.  One candidate’s remark  still resonates long after the search was successfully completed.  This young conductor told me that, contrary to the traditional thinking of serious and staid classical performance, if orchestras weren’t playing with all the joy and abandon they could muster, there had better be something pretty spectacular going on on the stage, from start to finish, because otherwise, audiences would be leaving the music hall in droves.  Why?  Because audiences today are used to, and expect “wows” with every note.   We are way too over-stimulated to sit still and watch the paint dry.

philadelphia-orchestra-yannickLast night we had the pleasure of hearing and seeing the Philadelphia Orchestra, presented in high definition (HD) at the Palme d’Or Cinema at the Westfield Mall.  Seeing an orchestra concert filmed live in HD with surround sound can actually be pretty exciting, due to the opportunity for up close observation.  The 2nd oboist had a nervous tic.  The french horns were all women.  The bassoonist had to wear some sort of shoulder harness.  Seeing how the conductor actually communicates with the musicians can add a curious and satisfying dimension to what we hear in a performance.  Every conductor is unique and capable of creating a discernible difference in orchestra performance.  When John Williams was conductor of the Boston Pops, it was common knowledge that the orchestra did not like him.  It was front and center when they played for him. 

Under the dazzling baton of Montreal native Yannick Nézet-Séguin, this Philadelphia Orchestra concert was up close and personal, delivering one WOW after the other.  It was obvious that this orchestra really likes their leader.  The programme represented Nezet-Seguin’s fresh approach to programming which was explained during the post concert conversation – yet another innovative approach that orchestras now use to engage us.  Yannick’s philosophy is to pair seemingly unrelated selections but which do indeed have common threads as he explained in the post concert interview.  The idea works and we, the audience, benefit by learning more about what we are hearing.      

I’m telling you about this beautiful concert in the hopes that it will be presented more than once, as many of Palme d’Ors offerings are. Do check the listings. 

In this particular concert,  Nézet-Séguin paired the Mahler Symphony #1 with the Korngold Violin Concerto.   Who, you ask?  If you don’t recognize Erich Korngold’s name you will likely recognize his music – he is considered the father of film music, having written such memorable film scores as Captain Blood, The Green Pastures, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Between Two Worlds, and Of Human Bondage, to name a few.  Those who do recognize his film scores probably don’t know that he was also a prolific and serious romantic composer. 

On the flip side, I wasn’t aware that Gustav Mahler was considered the inspiration for most early film music.  Who knew?  What an exciting pairing. Besides which, if you are like many who immediately think Mahler: heavy, modern, dissonant, ugg – wrong.  There is nothing more delightful, harmonic, and sensible than the Mahler First.  It’s gorgeous and satisfying from beginning to end.

Guest artist Hiliary Hahn, an extraordinary violinist, gloriously executed the extremely difficult Korngold Concerto on her 1865 Vuillaume Violin. What a big fat tone she gets out of her instrument.  Of course, she should have been, and would have been, the highlight of the concert, had the charming and effervescent Yannick not stolen the evening with his riveting interpretation of the Mahler.  I have NEVER, EVER heard a symphony concert audience erupt in cheers the way this one did at the end of the performance.  One would have thought the Phillies had just scored a triple.  WOW, WOW, and triple WOW.   (Thank you Palme d’Or for giving us such a thrill.)

This new crop of fabulous young conductors on the American Symphonic Scene is putting excitement  into orchestra performance like never before.  Whether it’s Gustavo Dudamel with the LA Phil, Alan Gilbert from the NY Philharmonic or young Yannick Nézet-Séguin from the Philadelphia Orchestra, we need not fear that classical music is a thing of the past.  These young Turks are kicking ass and taking no prisoners. So if you can’t see an orchestra live, you can still enjoy dozens of fabulous offerings at The River Cinemas in Rancho Mirage, the Camelot Theater in Palm Springs, or the Palme d’Or at Westfield Mall in Palm Desert. 

In addition, the Palme provides three plus months of scheduling on their website, so you can actually plan accordingly.  How nice!  In particular The Palme  goes above and beyond to provide a wide variety of programming that more and more has included classical choices in ballet, opera,  theater and concerts as well as their usual array of the best in cinema – not just the latest explosive, car-crash, box office bang-ups.  Also, I should not have been surprised to see listed in general release right now, two films that we previewed at the International Film Festival in January – Fill The Void and The Kon Tiki (actually quite scary.) 

A few recommendations I might make in the coming schedule are:

The Palme:  The National Theater Live presents Helen Mirren in “The Audience,” reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth II as she, from young mother to grandmother, meets with each of her prime ministers in an imagined set of conversations.  June 13 live @ 11 am; repeats June 20 4 pm  & June 25, 6:30. I can’t wait for this one.  Also watch for Otello Sept 26 and Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth October 17  & 24.Helen-Mirren

The Palme:  If you prefer ballet or opera you can choose the Paris Opera Ballet Series throughout June and July, including La Sylphide, Fallstaff, The Magic Flute or Carmen.

Fine Art anyone? 

How about great art on the big screen?   That’s different.  The Palme  – July 6th, 12:00 pm will offer a first: a behind-the-scenes look at putting together and seeing an art exhibition – in this case the work of Edvard Munch (The Scream) as celebrated in Norway on Munch’s 150 anniversary. 

The River will offer – October 10, 7:30 pm from The National Gallery, London a major exhibition on one of the most startling and fascinating artists of all-time, Johannes Vermeer, most popularly known as the painter of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Vermeer painted little more than 30 works that still exist, and the National Gallery has chosen to focus on his art in relation to music. Music was one of the most popular themes of Dutch painting and revealed an enormous amount about the sitter and the society.  Not to be missed. 

Summer at The River Cinemas also will be offering a full schedule of Live At The Met Opera Encores, including Carmen (stand-out MET performance) June 19; Ill Trovatore, June 26; Armida, July 10th; and La Traviata, July 17th.  The River is also showing  Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece Swan Lake live from  the Mariinsky Theatre, Thursday, June 6th at 6:30 pm.  If you’ve never seen a ballet, this is the one to see. 

The Palme will also show the Philadelphia Orchestra with Simon Rattle conducting Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, June 26th @ 6:30 pm. 

So as we head into the summer season there is no reason to lament the inevitable heat.  And don’t tell me there’s nothing to do!  I’ve barely scratched the surface and given you plenty of links to source even more options.  Theaters struggle to fill seats during the summer, but unfortunately they don’t market these cultural gems very well.  I believe more folks would attend these stellar performances if there was better exposure to their target market.  So there.  I’m doing my bit. 

Don’t forget Palm Springs Restaurant Week is May 31 June 16th.  Palm Desert Restaurant Week is May 31 – June 9th.  May I suggest you eat, drink and be merry.  With all the lovely culture Coachella Valley has to offer why wouldn’t you?

 

Reader warning: I don’t know what happened to me this morning –  I just can’t seem to retract my claws.

What does it say about a culture that routinely places form over substance?  We do it in journalism, we do it in politics, we do it in publishing, but nowhere do we do it like we do in the entertainment world.

It may be what popular televised talent competitions have become, but you have to wonder, whose fault is that?  The producers who bow to audience demographics?  Marketers who pander to immature, crass consumers who have no point of reference to distinguish between talent and glitzy packaging?  As viewers have we become too lazy to think?  We’re fed the lowest common denominator of programming – the vulgar appeal of cannibalistic voyeurism.  And yet we’re glued to the television, tweeting and whining “OMG this is awful” as we stuff our mouths with Cheetos,  Fritos and Pepsi-Xfactor.   Charming, aren’t we?

From the first American Idol, I was no fan of Simon Cowell.   As a musician and a writer, I know painfully well the power of so-called critics who trod on the tender seedlings of talent with their harsh words and hobnailed boots.  The damage is seldom repairable.  I think particularly of judges whose egos drive their cruel commentary – they’re competing with the poor desperate souls who stand  before them, praying for any crumb of encouragement.

Begrudgingly, I have come to adore and respect Simon.  In his current role on The X-Factor, Simon is the one person who tells it like it is.  When contestants dreams are bigger than their talent, he says so and I echo his sentiments as I shout at the television: “OMG, you need to go home.”   However, the cynic in me knows that these shows select some contestants for the promise of just how bad of a train wreck they will bring to the millions of viewers.  Someone has figured out that watching emotionally unstable contestants  spiral out of control with paralyzing stage fright accompanied by a gut-wrenching gush of tears, is great television.  Why?  Because the measure is how many teens and tweens with obscene purchasing power are watching, and they don’t know the difference between tragedy and comedy.  Talent is incidental to the spectacle.

Case in point: this week in the Teen Group, one very young female contestant, Diamond White, demonstrated remarkable confidence, talent and resilience.  But ultimately she was tossed out in favor of a slightly older male teen, Arin Ray, who has no vocals but he knows just how to bite his bottom lip and grind his groin for the throngs of screaming young girls.  That’s all it takes, as Elvis well knew – but his talent always came first.

Judge/mentor of the Teen Group, Brittany Spears, is an amazing surprise and an amazingly serious judge who amazingly takes her amazing job very seriously and does her amazing best, with an amazingly limited vocabulary.  But despite Brittany’s lack of eloquence  she made a shrewd and calculated decision when she selected Arin to go forward.  No doubt her decision was based on anticipated audience voting which begins next week.  Her little teen heart-throb will likely garner far more votes — because that screaming female audience votes – big time – for the boys, not for the talent – and Brittany wants to win.  That audience isn’t old enough or sophisticated enough to recognize little Diamond’s serious potential. The producers don’t care.  It’s not about talent, it’s about ratings, and votes, and controversy.  A vampiric formula that sucks out every ounce of human drama.

Does this behavior do anything to elevate society and cultivate the best in any of us? Nope, but we’re gonna watch anyway.  I appreciate talent – in all its forms, even the unsuspecting hoards of star wannabes who risk everything, including the ultimate humiliation, to have an audition with anyone – even someone who’s own interests trump the contestant’s.  Guess I’m rooting for the deserving underdog who might just beat them at their own game.

Disturbingly, today’s contestants have their cart before their horse.  They display an alarming arrogance that suggests winging it will do.  Why not?  If all the players on their first grade soccer team got a trophy for coming in dead last, shouldn’t they expect a similar result from a perfect storm of misaligned values and unrealistic expectations.

I could go on and on about what is patently wrong with The X-Factor.  Demi Lovato comments to every contestant about what she sees behind their eyes.  Canned critique de jour, anyone?  L.A. Reid, in an unbelievable display of BAD FORM, shamefully dissed his team on day one, telling them he didn’t want them.  Now on every episode he savagely ridicules any contestant mentored by Simon. There are the over-the-top musical arrangements meant to camouflage, not enhance a performance; three mega-screen-backdrops, sure to distract from any flawed performance.

Do I need to mention the current “hosts?”  One doesn’t hesitate to read his question twice, even though it was just answered.  Oh, sorry, is paying attention a host requirement?  The other host can barely read the teleprompter so don’t be  expecting her to articulate that string of words with anything resembling conversational phrasing.  I think it might be above her pay grade.  OMG, hosting is like,  soooooooooo totally hard.  Well, actually it is if you do it right, and you need to be good at it to not look pathetically ridiculous – but then, isn’t being pathetically ridiculous what she’s traded on for the entirety of her twenty-minute career as a celebrity?  Meoooow.

Ah, the producers definitely have our number, don’t they?  The American audience:  attention span on a very short leash,  reduced to a mindless Roman Colosseum mob, screaming for the lions to be thrown to the Christians. Er,  is it the other way round?  No matter, it’s not a pretty sight either way, and speaks volumes about the lack of substance in our culture, never mind our willingness to keep watching even when it’s bad bad bad.

However,  do allow me to offer an alternative to the train wreck above.  The Voice, is another show I had little hope for in it’s first two seasons. But surprise!  In this season, the talent is dazzling in its range.  Where have all these wonderful people been hiding?   No doubt, wishing the entertainment industry would go against the grain and create an a venue like The Voice that actually elevates and rewards substance.

Judges Adam Levine, CeeLo Greene, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton, actually get it right. They have honed their craft with years of struggle, and each one is a skilled vocalist – not just a pop star.  They have much to give and that’s the core of the show, that and how the contestants apply that sage advice to their performances.  Theirs is an esprit de corps that’s fun, bringing levity to the high drama of what’s at stake.  But always the contestants come first and that shines through.

Carson Daly, one of the Desert’s own, does a smooth, credible job as the host and gracefully keeps things moving, doing his best to avoid awkward moments.   Of course the  coaches want to win the competition, but they’re going about it by making their contestants the very best they can be.  That’s not hard when you have incredible raw talent with which to work. No need to shove contestants into ill advised costuming and strange hair arrangements, or plunge them into wild productions that obscure the performance.

So, I’ll go out on a limb here and tell you that there is so much potential on The Voice, any one of my favorites could win:  Terry McDermott, Amanda Brown, Dez Duron, Loren Allred, Casadee Pope – they all have extraordinary talent and something else in common…they’ve been working on their craft for a very long time.  It shows.

Bravo The Voice…but don’t worry –  the producers/networks/or whomever the powers-that-be are –  someone will undoubtedly find a way to screw it up.  They always do.  Enjoy it while you can.  Just remember my old saying: Talent isn’t rare…talent with discipline is rare.

Everyone should see a Ballet once in their lifetime…even if you end up not liking it.  To see Ballet in HD on the big screen gives you an appreciation of a dancers’ incredible athleticism whether you can follow the story line or not.   Often it doesn’t matter.  It originated during the Italian Renaissance around the 15th century but was further as a concert dance form in France and Russia to be primarily performed with classical music.  The world originates in the Latin Ballo, Ballare, meaning to dance.  Many have never had any exposure to this glorious art form, but now, thanks to some very smart and forward thinking promoters who have glommed on to the Metropolitan’ Opera’s Live in HD smash-up that is in its third season of live broadcasts, we – the great unwashed – are being treated to the best of the best – wonderful productions from the Royal Ballet in London, and now the Bolshoi Ballet showing of Ramonda August 26 at our local cinema, The River in Rancho Mirage.  So sad that Cinnemark can’t be bothered to promote what they are offering.  But word of mouth is a powerful thing, isn’t it?  So pass this one on to all your friends and I’ll keep you posted as more become available. 

As more and more world-wide venues upgrade to the requisite equipment to film these incredible productions, we the audience get to enjoy resources such as Emerging Cinemas  and others who are treating us not only to Ballet but also to Shakespeare at the Globe in London (last year we saw three outstanding offerings); The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada which brought us Christopher Plummer in The Tempest (reviewed in my June 16th post; Opera from Teatro Alla Scala, Bologna and of course the grandest of old ladies, The Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  Last year the LA Phil gave us two fantastic live concerts from Disney Hall with Gustavo Dudamel, that 30-year-old wunderkind who is by far the world’s greatest conductor.  To watch him conduct up close and personal through the lens of the camera, you know exactly why the LA Phil has become the world’s premiere orchestra. 

Television is doing its best to keep up with the competition of culture at the big cinema, and kudos should go out to reality shows that are delighted to sift through the worst of the worst  America has to offer in order to unearth the pure, unadulterated talent that is out there, lurking in obscurity while praying for Big Bucks Hollywood to come knocking.  Of course, “the worst” are what boost the ratings…like a passing a train wreck…we just can’t pull our eyes away from the wretchedly sad characters who are like junkies clawing their way towards that fifteen seconds of fame, no matter how personally embarrassing.  I’m always amazed at the audience’s ability to revere talent and in the same breath wallow in the most pathetically awful examples of what humanity can produce when run amuck.

Here’s a quick run down of some of my favorites.    The Voice  got its legs last season even though much of the format is cheesy-over-the-top.   Fortunately the talent does shine through if you can ignore the ridiculous posturing of the judges (the Sing Off was an exception to that criticism) whose egos just can’t resist competing with the naive contestants who so desperately crave stardom, all the while whining about how they’ve “worked soooooo hard” to get there. 

Hey!  “Hard work” is the only thing that will ever get you anything, anywhere!  Suck it up.  By some twist of fate you landed in the big leagues, put on your big girl panties and deal with it.  Stop the sniveling.  There is a huuuge difference between ‘a star wannabe’ and having the true, undeniable passion that drives you to do what you do.  You sing or dance, because you simply can not, not sing or dance.  That is what pushes through the most painful rejection and crushing disappointment that is the gauntlet of ‘making it’ in the entertainment business today.   Make no mistake:  it is The Most Ruthless of Businesses.

The X Factor  format plays this waaaaay over the top and can border on emotional cruelty when they take advantage of contestants who are  not emotionally stable enough to endure the  incredible demands of the competition.  You think life is tough?  You think training for a marathon would be tough?  Try going through thirteen weeks of non-stop, 24-hour, rehearsals; weekly performances of not one but two or three pieces that must be polished to perfection;  learning new material; no sleep; mentors pushing and pulling according to what they think makes a star, yada yada yada.  ‘They – the mentors, the suits, the fans, the judges –  pick at your clothes, crab about your hair, complain about your choices until you begin to wonder..is this about the contestant or is this about conflict = ratings?   Only the most centered, healthy individual can endure such pressures…not some fragile individual just out of drug rehab or into their third month of sobriety.   Anybody worried about what happens to those tender souls when they get tossed on the reject pile in front of twenty million viewers and some idiot MC grabs them and says “tell me how you’re feeling?”   However, the X Factor,  in spite of itself and nasty old Simon Cowel (who isn’t anything of the sort)  last season did produce the most amazing winner,  Melanie Amaro.  This little singing angel didn’t go in for the drama –  she just stood there and sang her heart out and it was NO CONTEST!   The cream does rise to the top!     

The Sing Off was an a-capella format featuring real singers with incredible musicality who simply let their true vocal chops do the work.  What a breath of fresh air.   Made up of mostly young college singing groups, the audience was treated to a refreshing “revisit” to those salad days when gorgeous four, five, and six-part harmonies were popular.  No dependence on mechanics and technical tricks which camouflages the lack of true vocal talent in the majority of  today’s “stars.”   But of course!  Sadly but predictably, NBC in it’s usual lack of class/talent/intelligence canceled the show because it was up against said X Factor.  Guess there wasn’t enough blood on the floor.  However, there is a social media campaign to reinstate it.  Let’s see if the power of Social Media can win one for quality vs quantity. 

One of the most wonderful reality competitions is  So You Think You Can Dance, in its ninth season.   This year’s group of contestants shows us the incredible athleticism necessary in these world-of-dance genres – from hip-hop to ballroom and ballet.  Their routines are as demanding as anything our olympic athletes showed us last month.  It’s lovely, too,  to see the choreographers getting a bit of fame-rub-off, as they are publicly applauded for their amazing choreography each week.  These judges do take their roles seriously and it shows.  The format is geared to bring out the best.   Their sharp but fair critiques don’t sugar coat their tough love message that the execution of the routine didn’t make the grade.  This past week, they had the option of saving one beautiful dancer, Cheon, who even though he is clearly the most talented and best trained dancer in the group, had not garnered the requisite votes to stay in the competition.  I suspect that he’s just not grinning and pandering to the audience, as he is a very serious dancer (trained at the Royal Ballet in London.)   Head judge and executive producer (not only this show but also American Idol,)  Nigel Lithgoe, put it very simply: For some, dancing is an option, but for dancers like Cheon, it is the only option.  How right you are Nigel. 

In all, talent is everywhere, quality programing is there, and culture is alive and well, albeit sandwiched between the annoyingly crass need to sell stuff and pander to the worst in all of us.  But thanks to technology, we just tape the show and then watch it later and wiz through those commercials.  So – I’m willing to sift through the train wrecks to applaud the hard work and raw talent that  finally has a chance to be seen and heard.  For so many years TV fed us such a bland, empty-calorie-diet of mindless pabulum,  all this reality fever is a welcome change.   Nothing like high drama awash with tears and trauma.

A housekeeping note.  I was inspecting the way this blog appears when it arrives in your e-mail box.   Horrors!   I am reminded once again that technology is NEVER what it’s cracked up to be.  Depending on your operating system, the size of your monitor, the search engine you use;  my carefully crafted blog can come crashing, banging, sliding into your computer system like a drunken sailor!  Not to mention the typos that sneak through even after ten rewrites. (Yes, writing does not come flying out of anyone’s brain, to land perfectly on the page, even if you are Hemingway – it takes many many rewrites.)  So please accept my apologies for anything less than a perfect post.  It’s what I strive for, but as I look back I see that I often fail.  So sorry.  My bad.  My heartfelt thanks for reading.  I’m like those dancers and singers…I can not, not write.  I appreciate the many readers who pop in to see what I’m thinking about, and I especially appreciate it when you pass it along to your friends.  I am humbled and honored.

Acrobats in Love

Adaptations from one medium to another seldom work.  Think back over the past fifty years of books to Broadway to the cinema and most of us can rattle off the ones that did work:  The Sound of Music, South Pacific, West Side Story, Grease, Dreamgirls, Mama Mia.  This week we experienced two that are worth noting. 

The Beatles Love is a Cirque du Soleil offering, permanently housed at The Mirage in Las Vegas.  Having seen seven of the Cirque shows, we are Cirque aficionados; completely in awe of their consistent high standards of incredible athleticism, their musical originality, and their otherworldly costuming.   I couldn’t imagine how a catalogue of totally unrelated songs could be successfully incorporated into a workable story line, but Mama Mia was so clever and joyful, I was at least hopeful.   Sadly, the totality of this show did not measure up, although the costuming was imaginative and the theater itself is a marvel of technology – talk about surround sound – the speakers are in the seats!   

Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx

Overall, the incredible imaginings of Cirque founder Guy Laiberte and his legions of technical and artistic geniuses are lost or wasted in this attempt to string together the Beatles catalogue in some magical way.  It just doesn’t work, Magical Mystery Tour be damned.  My only curiosity at the end was…1) who gets the royalties and 2) have Ringo and Paul seen the show?

Our second experience this week was a rip-roaring smash-up of electric eighties hits wound tightly together in Rock of Ages, The Movie.   OMG, this show takes toe-tapping rock and roll to the pinnacle of perfection.  It’s filled with amazing musical talent from every single cast member.  They deliver tight harmonies that invite you to explore your own inner backup singer;  accompanied by The Best R&R band you’ve heard in ages.  As we used to say: “they were all cook’in with gas!”   

Delicious duo, Brand & Baldwin

Typical story line:  small-town stary-eyed kids; jaded rocker with hangers-on; silly city officials suppressing their envy; and a happy ending. 

Tom Cruise, at forty-nine,  shows us he really really really does have acting chops (it’s hard to be sleazy and adorable at the same time) and – surprise – The Boy Can Sing!  He delivers exactly the right twinge of over-the-top debauchery in his sly portrayal of booze-addled rock star, Stacee Jaxx.   I’d give him the Oscar now.

Russell Brand is actually a likeable version of himself, sans the indigestion and Alex Baldwin is typical Alex Baldwin, deliciously smarmy as the club owner.  They deliver a cute plot twist that I won’t spoil for you.  Paul Giamatti is spot on as the dastardly agent.  I had to look twice to recognize Catherine Zeta Jones in Channel and pearls, playing the overzealous mayor’s wife, but of course, she’s always worth the second glance.  Bryan Cranston is pitch perfect as the clueless mayor.  Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, the talented innocents, deliver the best laugh lines:  She, confessing with remorse:  “I’m working in a strip club.”  He, with wincing embarrassment:  “I’m in a boy band.”  She with relief:   “You win.”

Everything about Rock of Ages is just over the top enough to dull the sharp edges that would otherwise make the seedy reality of  eighties excesses way too gross.  Can we  say that there were many tongues in use?  The film tales the typically saccharin and harmless plot of a  high school play and lovingly smothers it in magenta glitter and gold sequins which we willinglyallow to camouflage the more uncomfortable aspects of that time period.   It’s not meant to be a teachable moment.  It’s a feel good escape from today’s weary troubles – the 2012 answer to Busby Berkeley, albeit on steroids. 

We all left the theater  smiling, laughing, humming all the tunes (which were more our kids era than ours) and vowing to download the sound track for our i-pods and  planning a return to the big screen to see it all again.  I”m voting for Imax next time.  Do yourself a favor:  Go See It!  Then let us know what you think.

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