Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Critical Analysis

There have been interesting exchanges over the past several days between readers and writers of the blogs Richmond VA Theater, by Style Weekly freelance critic Dave Timberline, and The Barksdale Buzz, by Barksdale Theatre Artistic Director Bruce Miller. So interesting, in fact, I'm going to join in. How'd you guess?

"What are critics good for?" is a fair paraphrase of the central question. Although some commenters would answer simply, "Nothing," the real discussion involves the role of a (theater) critic in relation to theaters, audiences and potential audiences.

One could argue that a theater critic, reviewing a play on the first night of an at-least-3-week run, has a different role than a music critic reviewing a one-time performance. (Since the Richmond Symphony switched to only Saturday night and Sunday afternoon performances, reviews don't appear in the Times-Dispatch until after they could affect attendance for that particular concert set.)

But in the big picture, I think none of us are critics so much as we are intermediaries between the artists and the vast, vast number of people who haven't ever gone to a live performance but who we desperately wish would. These are the people I write for.

To get more specific, I'll play a number game:

  • 1,250,000
    Number of people in the Richmond-Petersburg MSA.
  • 1,000,000
    Number of those people who are a lost cause as far as attending arts performances goes.
  • 2,500
    Number of people who actually attended the last Richmond Symphony concert set. (Bump that down by about 60% for the Modlin Center or other venue.)
  • 7,500
    Number of regular or occasional classical music patrons who may decide to attend a concert in the next month or so. (These are the people--less than 1% of the general population--that arts organizations worry will be put off by a "bad" review--which is reasonable, as they're the people most likely to read reviews.)
  • 240,000
    Everybody else. (I know, of course, that they're not all reading my reviews, but just play along with the game, please.)

These are the people I'm so eager to reach, because I feel deep in my sweet little optimistic heart that if only they would release their preconceptions, let down their guard, truly listen and watch with their emotional, human core, they would be, yes, converted.

They are people who probably do not know the setting of "Carmina Burana" and have never heard of Philip Glass, let alone Mark-Anthony Turnage. They don't know (as I didn't, really) the plot of "Children of a Lesser God" and, because they're reading the newspaper, they are very unlikely to look up any of these things.

That's why I spend some of my precious word count on description, even if I'd rather not. I recognize the need to put my comments in context, because little is more off-putting for me than feeling like I'm on the outside of some exclusive coterie--I feel sure I speak for a few other readers.

That's why, when I sort out my thoughts after a performance before writing a newspaper review (as opposed to my ramblings on this obscure blog), I ask myself, "What will catch the attention of the non-patron? What will most usefully prepare a potential audience member's expectations for a future performance?"

In short, I don't write for musicians or their bosses. I don't care if my words are blurbable or not. I don't expect to be helpful in any kind of technical or promotional way, although I'm delighted on occasion when I feel I can be.

A few other thoughts:

1. I wouldn't be reviewing, as a critic, any concert or production that wasn't professional. I work under the assumption that professionals know what they're doing. However, as an editor, I know that even the best article benefits from a set or two of fresh eyes.

2. The quality of professional performances in Richmond is high. The question is never "Was the performance good or bad?" Instead, I address questions such as "Does this particular interpretation seem to be communicating with the audience, starting with me?" "Does this performance help me reach beyond the little box of my existence? If so, how? If not, why not?"

3. I have a vested interest in getting readers to go to concerts--after all, they keep me in work, in an indirect way.

4. Did you notice those quote marks around the word "bad" up there? Partly that's because I believe any free publicity is good publicity. (Of those 240,000 people, several thousand of them have never even heard of your organization/group/company.)

But partly it's because, Richmonders, if you ever think you've gotten a bad review, you need to stay the heck out of New York City. Tosca at the Met? Try this choice review with its opening line: "The Metropolitan Opera opened its new season last night with a shabby new production of Puccini’s 'Tosca' and a soprano who fit right in." And later: "Bondy’s new production is short on tassels and ormolu. That would be fine, but it’s also short on sets and costumes and imagination. How did this dopey show get on stage?"

Wonder how many tickets that sold?!

Richmond Symphony: Carmina Burana

My review of Saturday night's Masterworks performance ran in Monday's Times-Dispatch. Read it first, then here are a few more thoughts.

"Cignus ustus cantat," that roasting swan song, truly epitomized why live performance (by professionals) is alwasy better than a recording. What splendid avian agony from the oboe! What tortured misery from the tenor! Marcus Shelton was not on stage when the movement began... huh? He staggered on, smoldering (well, not literally) and hammed up the part, to the audience's delight. I'm just guessing, but it also seemed like Zeller, the baritone, felt more at home in his parts after Shelton's performance.

The problems with dynamic contrast that I mention were also evident in the first two pieces. I hope the review (as always, I only get about 400 words) makes it clear that I think this is primarily a matter of getting used to the new space, not a shortcoming of the conductor or the orchestra.

Likewise, I sometimes had trouble hearing the winds when the full orchestra was playing. I'm sure that was due to my seat in the sixth row. (Clarke Bustard didn't have that problem, but I don't know where he was sitting.)

Mr. Bustard also notes the reverberancy of sound in the hall. This is neither good nor bad, but it can present a challenge to work with, especially when there are so many elements, like in the "Carmina." A violinist I spoke to after the concert said that symphony staff were trying out all sorts of seating arrangements and placements during rehearsals and that the sound was incredibly "booming" without the 1700 bodies in the seats.

There were times, such as at the ends of some of the Carmina movements--when the sustained sound was perfectly dramatic. But at the end of the Brahms, the combination of a long sustain and Willis' perhaps nervous impatience meant he actually turned around to receive applause before the note ended.

Now for some wild tangents.

If I were a hard-core snob, I would complain that the program (Saint-Saens' Bacchanale, a "greatest-hits" sort of piece; Brahms' "Variations on a [Cute] Theme by Haydn"; and Orff's big-noise, Ozzy-adopted "Carmina Burana") was too familiar. But I'm the people's snob, so in addition to loving it, I'm also thinking about how all three pieces are, in the broadest sense, folk music.

In a strict sense, folk music is that which has no identifiable single origin, is associated with a particular culture or place, and can be played/sung without extensive techinical training. But for a while now, I've been thinking that only that last part should be retained. For one thing, modern obsessions with documentation and authorship/ownership have basically guaranteed that we know the origins of almost all music composed in the past century and a half. I think a better definition of folk music is simply music that folks can and want to recreate themselves, with more or less practice, from memory.

No, we didn't all go home and play the oboe solo from the beginning of the Bacchanale (oh, I wish). But all three works had easily identifiable melodies or melodic bits, stuff that folks could--and did--go home singing or humming. (The "theme by Haydn" is probably a folk melody from Austria. Did you click the Brahms link above?)

So humor me. It's kind of like folk music, right?

In any case, the program was a stoke of marketing genius--I'm saying this with admiration, not cynicism. Think about it: if you can hum the music, you'll remember it. If you remember the music, you'll remember the night you went to the Richmond Symphony. And if you remember that, you'll be more likely to go again. The symphony knew that the first Masterworks concert of the season in the new Carpenter Theatre would be very well attended. I do hope all of them return.

Monday, September 21, 2009

eighth blackbird: also appearing on toast

Here's the online review published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch… and here’s the detailed review, in program order, of the eighth blackbird concert, "Spam," at the Modlin Center on Wednesday, Sept. 16.

The concert began with “Twelve Hands” by Mayke Nas (2008), a work “for six players on one piano,” which I discuss in the published review. Musically, it’s rather forgettable. So many different things happen in such a short time that I had a hard time forging any emotional connections to it.

But it is a perfect piece to begin a concert, providing a kickstart to imagination. Who knew that running a credit card up and down the edges of the keys would sound like someone snoring… or whatever you thought it sounded like? Did you know a piano laughs when you tickle its upper strings? What next, and et cetera?

I was much more drawn in by the next piece, “Toward the Flame,” a work for violin, cello, flute and percussion composed in 2009 for 8bb by Newport News native Shawn Allison. The first movement, “Tun ‘Tawu” is characterized by spurts and runs, the second by slow glides and glissandos. The flute’s voice is prominent but not dominant. The instruments at times echo each other, although it’s not an exact echo—more like an impressionistic retelling of another’s phrase.

In a concert that seemed glutted with small musical gestures—short phrases, tight turns around small intervals—the third movement, “Atlas,” stood out with its larger, almost violent, gestures. I say “almost” because I can’t think of a word that fits right between “passionate” and “violent.” Music, like nature, defies language, as it should.

Program notes explain that “Toward the Flame” takes “inspiration from moths” and that Atlas moths have the largest wing area of any moth, “prehistoric in proportion.” Listening to this music, I had no trouble imagining the flashes of the Atlas moth’s wings as it soars through a Southeast Asian jungle, knowing nothing of passion, violence or beauty. I felt transported to a place just beyond rationality.

The last movement, “Chrysalis,” has a slow, pulsing feel and a drone-like cello. A caterpillar spinning a cocoon around itself has no knowledge of what will come, no idea that there’s any “after” to the darkness. The music closes quietly.

(I see from looking up Shawn Allison that he’s got two earlier compositions that use texts from Gerard Manley Hopkins—am fascinated already.)

I just couldn’t help myself: I actually thought the word “creepy” while I listened to Bent Sørensen’s “The Deserted Churchyards” (1990). Introducing the music, Tim Munro described it as a sort of “aural fog” achieved, at times, by the voices playing the same thing but not quite at the same time. There were moments this was a little disconcerting in a bad way—you know that tense feeling you get when you’re afraid a performer is slightly off?—but mostly it was disconcerting in a good, creepy way.

Similarly uncanny, the violin sometimes used a practice mute (I think) that produced a delicate buzzing sound. The work ended with Munro switching to a slide whistle that sounded just right with the tonal decay of the piano.

My mind boggles at the thought of the incredible focus it must take to perform this music. “Fog” is a good word to describe the mood of the piece, but the music itself was actually incredibly precise. At times, the musicians played so pianissimo my skin was crawling with the drama of it all.

“Spam,” by Marc Mellits (1995), finds a groove and chews it up. Syncopated rhythms (bearing a resemblance to rock the way Spam bears a resemblance to meat?) carry melodies through three stages. What begins laughingly morphs into a section of agitated minor tonalities. Then the music is mollified, gradually slowing and becoming pared away until it ends on a single tone. The ’birds played with affectionate irony, and be honest: isn’t that how you feel about Spam? This is music everyone should love.

(Warning: the link above will take you to a Monty Python video which has absolutely nothing to do with the eighth blackbird concert, although it was the inspiration for this blog post title.)

One minute into “Catch” by Thomas Ades (1991), I had an attack of the post-nasal drip—darn cheapo store-brand antihistamines—so I had to flee to the restroom to cough in peace. The lobby monitor’s sound wasn’t good enough to really hear the performance, but I did see some of the choreography.

“Catch” is written for piano, violin, cello and peripatetic clarinet. (You have to read that last bit out loud.) It’s music as school-game: the voices tease each other, pass notes, assert dominance. The clarinetist walks in and out, shoves his instrument into the personal space of the others.

I had watched this 8bb rehearsal video before the concert, and I really wanted to listen for how (if) the sound of the clarinet was changed by its movement around the stage—a Doppler micro-shift that would be, I guess—and how that sound affected the blend of sound as a whole.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Grazioso!” (2009) was generally inspired by the music of Led Zeppelin, according to the composer. I was listening for a Zeppelin-esque bass line, but there wasn’t really one—not that there should have been, but, you know, that was my other career choice, to play bass in an all-girl Zeppelin cover band.

In “Grazioso!” the bass clarinet was in such a low register I often had a hard time hearing it. I thought if Maccaferri sat away from the cello and the open piano (speaking of Doppler) that might help audiences distinguish the voices.

My first impression of the piece was of chaos, but then riffs emerged in solos or duets. This was probably my least favorite piece on first listen, but the first I’d give a second listen to, so as to hear Albert and Photinos nail some of the passages so fabulously again.

This was only my second eighth blackbird concert, so I can’t judge if its length of less than an hour of music, was typical, but I wished it had been longer. Not that $16 to $20 is outrageous for a ticket, but hey, why not love the fans and throw in an old favorite? The people who showed up by mistake already left at intermission. I heard the woman behind me “complaining” that the concert was over too soon. Next time, we’ll have to yell “Encore!” and see what happens.

Friday, September 18, 2009

eighth blackbird Times-Dispatch review

My review of Wednesday night's eighth blackbird concert is in today's Times-Dispatch, but I can't find it online yet. I wanted my audience to be people who had never gone to an 8bb concert, either because they never considered it or because they didn't know what it would be like. With only 400 words, I had to keep it very general.

I've got way more than 400 words to say about the concert, of course, so I'll post here again after I can find the T-D link. (You've got to contribute to the page hits, you know, so they'll keep covering music like this!)

UPDATE: Here it is!

Meanwhile, here's my take on the 'birds concert last fall.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Grand Opening performance at Richmond CenterStage

I arrived home Saturday night at 10:45 with a midnight deadline. As I sat down to type, I could hear whine of Richmond International Raceway, so I knew I had some time. (Yes, it was NASCAR for which the Times-Dispatch was holding the presses, not an arts performance.) An hour and a half later, I filed my story.

Naturally, the hardest part was deciding what to leave out. Go read the article, then come back here for a few more thoughts. I'll wait.

If you read the article, you know the Richmond Symphony was performing from the pit, even for their "solo" turns on Shostakovich's "Festive Overture," which opened the program (after the national anthem) and Bernstein's Overture to "Candide," which opened the second half.

Naturally, this dulled the dramatic effect of these two uber-dramatic pieces. In the section of the Shostakovich near the end where the brass return with a proclamatory theme, they were, incredibly, not loud enough. But otherwise, it was a good performance.

At intermission I went to the tech stand to ask about the camera work (you read the article, right?) and happened to find the head video guy, who told me that live video switchers were working with a symphony staff person in a room beneath or behind the orchestra pit. The symphony person had the score and told the video crew when to switch to which cameras, so the audience could see soloists and sections during their action. Why was I so surprised that Richmond could be this professional?

Here's why. Because 15 minutes later, Richmond was infuriatingly unprofessional--at least the audience was.

Richmond Symphony undoubtedly played the Bernstein just as smashingly as the Shostakovich, but it was hard to tell, since the audience talked fully half-way through the performance. Erin Freeman began the piece at some strictly pre-ordained time that should have been the end of intermission, but so many people were still in the lobby (gulping cocktails and buying souvenier T-shirts) that the ushers kept the doors open as they hustled people back to seats. The house lights stayed on, and even though the projected image of the symphony performing was clear, people wouldn't shut up. Emily, my 12-year-old daughter, had to share her Twix with me to calm my rage. Maybe it works for italics, too.

For the second performing group of the night, the curtain rose on eight members of the Richmond Jazz Society, with a beautifully understated setting of strings of little white lights hanging down in front of a blue-lit background. The performance was top-notch and typical -- Sinatra-style, with lyrics including, "CenterStage, the best is yet to come."

The best thing about African American Repertory Theatre portion--which included young people from City Dance Theatre-- was the total coherence of many different parts into a whole. Pastiche? No way.

Also, in case you've never considered how difficult it might be to do a Langston Hughes tribute without overdosing on all the sap that could potentially ooze from the word "dream," let me tell you: it's hard, but I saw evidence that it can be done, with physical action, tight segues and strong voices. So now let's take a poetry break. Here's Hughes' "The Dream Keeper," which AART performed emotionally, but not sentimentally.

Bring me all of your dreams,
you dreamer,
bring me all your
heart melodies
that I may wrap them
in a blue cloud-cloth
away from the too-rough fingers
of the world.

Opera: do people really just go for the costumes and the sets, or do they in fact like the music? There's no real answer to this question, of course, but it's certain that audiences expect the eye candy. Virginia Opera didn't disappoint, bringing in a huge set piece and full dress for their portion of the show. And hey, the music was good, too!

Under the direction of Peter Mark, singers and the symphony performed a duet, a solo and a quartet from Puccini's "La Boheme." The balance of voices and instruments was excellent, with the violins singing out their parts in equal measure. (Can you tell I'm more of an orchestra person than an opera person?)

The paired organization of Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV performed four flat-out different pieces, with live musical accompaniment by the RSO: "We're All in This Together" from "Disney's High School Musical"; a bolero called "Amores" that's part of the play "Boleros for the Disenchanted" by Jose Rivera; "Forget About the Boy" from the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie"; and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from "The Sound of Music." That's pretty much the history of 20th-century music theater in the western world in 15-minutes. Whew!

I am a snob, after all, so I don't like musicals. Or so I thought. The song and dance number from "Millie" pretty much changed my mind. Tap dancing, synchronized desk-twirling, girls in outrageous wigs... What's so wrong about a little fun?

And who doesn't want to cry at the sight of little pretend waifs singing "Castle on a Cloud"? Or jump to one's feet and throw back one's head to "Do You Hear the People Sing"?! Gosh, I have to go out and rent a "Les Miserables" video right now while I wait until next summer for whatever SPARC performs then.

Elegba Folklore Society was next--I also mentioned them in the article, but I didn't mention the stilt-dancer who came on near the end. Having seen an amazing stilt performance at a recent Folk Festival downtown, I thought this one wasn't quite ready to go. The dancer's gestures were subdued (and he had to keep hitching up a slipping mask) and the footwork not confident. But women's dance ensemble and the drummers were excellent. They performed an excerpt from "Marketplace Suite."

I'm going to skip over the Richmond Shakespeare part for now, except to say that I wanted to mention them in the published article in the same context as the "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" performance (buty ran out of room). All the actors wore costumes from markedly different times and places. The effect could have been one of a little provincial theater stocked with costumes left behind from travelling productions, but as the program notes put it, "the costumes reflect the many eras influenced by--or [which] were influences on--William Shakespeare." I became convinced that this was a powerful visual statement of unity--but maybe a little too subtle for people who didn't read that program and don't know that Richmond Shakespeare does really think about these things.

I've only been to two other Richmond Ballet performances--a "Nutcracker," which hardly counts, and a Studio series night a couple years ago. As you know from the T-D piece, their performance of the last section of "Windows" touched me deeply. "Spectacle" is a word I sometimes use derogatorily, but I'd like to rescind all negative connotations for the moment, please. Sure, it's easy to be impressive with lots of people, and beautiful attire, and live music (oh, if only that could be true at every performance!)--but it's also easy, with all those same elements, to be sloppy, or crass. Every element of this performance was attended to with care, knowing that it was a spectacle--something to be seen, something calculated to inspire wonder.

So yes--a whirlwind tour, a traveling circus, a rich-folks dress-up party, a top-down-no-grassroots congratulatory orgy. Whatever it was, I laughed, I cried. It was better than a hole in the ground.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why Johnny Can't Shoot

On February 28, 2007, NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr ended his commentary on the national Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) with this remark:

Leave no child behind is a slogan that President Bush borrowed from the Children's Defense Fund and applied to his No Child Left Behind education program. Perhaps it could be applied as well to children's health. Or perhaps children's health should be redefined as a defense program, meant to ensure a supply of healthy young people for future wars.
Fast-forward to this morning, and read the Richmond Times-Dispatch's front-page article, "70 percent of young people are unable to enlist," excerpted below. It begins:

Money spent on early-childhood education today can help protect America's national security tomorrow, former military leaders said yesterday at a news conference in Richmond.
But a Washington-based group of retired military leaders called Mission: Readiness -- Military Leaders for Kids said that providing more at-risk children with early education would increase high school graduation rates, reduce crime and improve physical fitness among young people.

"The younger they start with education, the better they will be in the future," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Clara L. Adams-Ender of Lake Ridge.

And, Mission: Readiness said, that would increase the number of people who could qualify to volunteer for the armed services.

Nearly 30 percent of Virginia high school students fail to graduate on time or drop out entirely, said the nonprofit group, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"We cannot allow today's dropout crisis to become a national security crisis," said retired Air Force Gen. Richard E. Hawley of Newport News. ...

The article by staff writer Peter Bacque goes on to report that Mission: Readiness backs full funding of the Virginia Preschool Initiative, at $30-$35 million a year. Delegate Mamye BaCote, who joined the M:R people on stage for the conference, took a bit of the shine off the brass's enthusiasm. "I don't know where the money's coming from right now, but we'll find it if we can," the article quotes her as saying.

Well, yeah. If this were West Virginia, maybe we could sell some leftover F-22 parts. At the national level, the military always seems to get a huge chunk of the budget. Is it time to redefine early education as a defense program?

Of course, here in Virginia, we've got tobacco, a useful fundraiser as long as people keep smoking...

If you've got the time, here's the editorial I wrote for the August 2007 issue of Richmond Parents Monthly:

It’s a good thing I was sitting down when I read the news about the vote to raise federal taxes on cigarettes, because I just about fainted dead away from the stupidity of the idea.

The Senate Finance Committee voted on July 19 to raise the per-pack federal tax from 39 cents to $1 in order to expand health care coverage for uninsured children though SCHIP (see sidebar [below]). The bill will be debated in the full Senate; if it passes, it will go to the House for debate.

At first, I chortled. Yeah, tax the heck out of those coffin nails! Plus, save the children! Then I read farther into the article and realized that the twisted logic behind this bill may actually be detrimental to the health of children.

The article quoted Daniel E. Smith, president of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, saying the move would “discourage youth and adults from smoking.” Presumably, Smith shares the same goal as Wyoming senator Michael Enzi, who, the article also reported, wants to eliminate national tobacco use in a generation. (He has introduced a different bill aimed at doing so.)

Now wait a minute. If the higher cost of cigarettes reduces the amount people smoke, will SCHIP funding goals be reached? If I’d like to see increased funding for children’s health care, should I start buying cigarettes? Could smokers someday feel good about lighting up, knowing that they’re supporting the nation’s uninsured children?

Even though a higher cigarette tax probably won’t appreciably affect the number of cigarettes sold in the short term, it’s clear that the two goals of this proposed tax bill are at odds with each other.

The biggest question is: Why seek to get funds from an activity you want to eliminate? If we truly believe that the health of our nation’s children is important enough to direct federal dollars to it, we need to stop treating it as an afterthought, trying to squeeze dollars from butts.

Using poorly thought-out reasoning to address a crucial issue only delays the real solution for uninsured children.

Money spent on children’s health care is an investment. If children receive regular checkups—at which their parents can receive health education, as well—and basic preventive care, savings will be realized in the form of decreased sick care costs later.

Politicians have a tough job. It’s hard to estimate how much, spent now, will result in savings later. And it’s hard take money away from something else to fund a program with results that aren’t immediately realized. But when our leaders start radically re-assessing the importance of children’s health, they will be able to see beyond the piecemeal tax tactic.

Back in February, I had another near-fainting moment related to the SCHIP debate when the most acutely cynical remark I’ve ever heard came zinging from my car radio. I had to switch it off and choke back tears.

Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst for National Public Radio, was assessing a National Governors Association meeting at which President Bush spoke mainly about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But many governors, Schorr said, wanted answers about the future of funding for SCHIP. The Bush administration had indicated it had no plans to increase the 5 billion federal dollars it spends annually on the program.

The amount, said Schorr, might be called “piddling” compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. defense budget. Maybe, he concluded, “children’s health should be redefined as a defense program, meant to assure a supply of healthy young people for future wars.”

Is that what it will take? If our country continues to rule by twisted logic, who knows?

What is SCHIP?

The State Children’s Health Insurance Program aims to provide health insurance for children in families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but still can’t afford private health insurance.

The program is funded by national and state governments. Within broad federal guidelines, states design their own programs.

In Virginia, the program is called FAMIS, for Family Access to Medical Insurance Security. For more information, call 1-866-87FAMIS or see