Thursday, May 31, 2007

Now What?

For the first time, one can walk into the Garden Theatre without fear of sticking to something or direct erotic excitement. That is what I did on a recent afternoon when I peeked into the door which used to be lit by ever-blinking yellow light bulbs. The carpet still stank yet the condition of the lobby was far from being dangerous. After 34 years of constant moaning from the screen, the theatre finally enjoyed a short period of silence.

As a relatively new Northsider, I didn’t witness the rise of pornography business behind the door. When I moved into a townhouse on North Ave, it puzzled me to know that just about 1.5 miles away from downtown, surrounded by Andy Warhol Museum, the Mattress Factory, Aviary and CHILDREN’S MUSEUM there was a movie theatre where you can watch X-rated movies, live shows and perhaps some real actions right beside you.

You can call him blunt or stupid. But former owner George Androtsakis has every right to defend his ownership. In particular, if one of his special movie theatres crumbles in the court, the rest of his theatres could be that much easier to seize. In fact, he may have saved the theatre in some way. After I have seen so many architecture gems in North Side were abandoned to such a degree that restoration is impossible, I kind of appreciate that for such a long period, at least someone had used and not done irreparable damage to the theatre.

On the other hand, Androtsakis’ defeat is inevitable in that virtually no one is on his side (except maybe some exceptional libertarians). In fact, the whole block of the start of West North Ave. could have been saved sooner if the Garden were not there (at least as far as the inept planning process was executed). On both sides of the Garden Theatre, buildings have been emptied for a long time. On the very morning when the fire of the houses next to it was put off, I walked by and wondered whether it was the Garden’s owner who did that: after all, you don’t expect to see porn video in an exciting booming business district. The more forlorn it looks, the more suitable for an adult theatre. Nevertheless, the scene of out-fashioned blinking bulbs in the day light with two soot-covered windowless buildings was disheartening.

Now What?

From the brief conversation with the people who were doing renovation jobs, I’ve heard that a play is scheduled for the theatre’s reopening in the middle of June. I doubt that everything would be in the right order by then, but it was a wonderful idea to let people IN before the flames of happiness of final acquisition cease. In fact, URA should take advantage of this special group of people, who are probably more interested in seeing the theatre than the show and may come even if it is “Deep Throat” on the screen, because they ARE the people who care about the neighborhood and the future of the theatre. A well-planed survey can be distributed to know what people think of the current renovation, what can be done for better and what, in the long term, can benefit the neighborhood and the city better.

Obviously, “Now What” is not a question with easy answers. It is exciting to know something can be developed and changed, but developed into what has yet to be determined. Everyone may have his own answer, however it is a theatre which ultimately functions as a theatre most effectively, therefore not many choices are left in the basket.

First, it is not wise to convert the Garden into a regular movie theatre. The city has already been surrounded by state-of-art complex-cinemas and the Garden does not have big parking space and huge screens. For small cinemas which focus on art and independent movies, Manor, Regent Square and Harris serve the purpose very well plus Harris is close enough to draw the same geographical audience as the potential Garden.

As for performing art, cultural district has the best revues. But that does not necessarily mean that the Garden cannot develop its own niche. After all, not many musicians, actors or dancers could afford to book Heinz Hall, Carnegie Music Hall, Benedum Center or O’Relly. Some chamber music or piano recital works better in a smaller hall which provides a sense of intimacy. Same is true for some play with small troupe which can benefit from the catalyst derived from audience close by.

The Garden may never attract world-class artists such as Emerson String Quartet or pianist Lang Lang. But looking hard within the city, you will never run out of performers. In particular, a lot of young amateur musicians cry for a space to gain invaluable live performance experience. Within the city, thousands of young kids are learning music instruments. Some may be privately tutored; some might be involved in a school band. They could form the base of the audience and performers at the same time. It is true that schools may have auditoriums, but to perform in a public theatre with your full-size pictured poster on the front-window and face a group of audience who are friends, colleagues, mentors or unknown music lovers is totally different experience. It is important to know that the sound may differ when you have a full house of audience seated in a hall bigger than the rehearsal room, to know that fingers may slip or intonation may go wild. Most of all, to play for SOMEONE, to interest, then involve and finally move the live, receptive listeners sitting expectantly is ultimately the joy of music making.

Maybe it will all come true one day. I imagine that after an intense concentration on a splendid performance by some promising young musicians, audience walk out of Garden theatre. And they read a plate which says:

Here lies a theatre, the same of which used to be an adult theatre for more than three decades and through which shows people’s power to transform vagueness and obscurity into enlightenment and edification.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The unspeakable

It sounds odd, but I can focus more in Billy Budd than Mozart’s Magic Flute. Partly, I guess, is that I got a better seat this time, libretto in English also helped. But in essence, it was the story that made the difference. Although some scholars may have spent years studying in the social context in Magic Flute, its naivety and idealism are too stale from my point of view. But Billy Budd is profound and thought-provoking even though the framework of the story could be just as simple as Magic Flute.

Benjamin Britten and Foster brought Melville’s story into a metaphor of tragedy of suppressed homosexuality. Through other’s description, Billy is lauded as a phenomenon, beauty or mystery. His physical charming is definitely obvious: Hermann Melville described his body like a Greek statue while in the opera Claggart labeled him as one out of a thousand. (However Billy, in fact, is not perfect as Captain Vere pointed out. His speech impediment works both as the leading factor to swerve the story direction and as the symbolic social meaning that beauty is fragile and undefendable under hostile circumstances. )

Foster’s libretto draws heavy attention to both Claggart and Captain Vere: their internal struggles and their consequences. The essence of the story lies in the questions why they should deliberate the death of an innocent person toward whom both have showed their affections. In the long solo aria, Claggart fluctuates between anger and envy, and finally outburst his desire of control and destroy. On the surface, the target is Billy; but if one examines his behavior throughout the story, the unspoken homosexuality is branded in detail: His envy roots not in Billy, but in Billy’s unanimous popularity in the crew or in other words Billy's attachment to the public which he does not has the luxury to share with; his anger stems from his appreciation of the youth and charming, which strongly endangers his self image as a ship policeman. He dare not let his weakness out, and his iron character does not allow it. Vere is another matter. He looks at Billy with a fatherly affection, yet he too wants to keep the balance between sternness and amicability in his management style. He feels obliged to resort to the marine court to state authority and fairness. But when the court rules against Billy, he knows his own trial comes afterwards: He finally favors the court decision instead of his consciousness because his egoism has conquered his sentimentality; he too has to suppress the germ of his admiration of male perfection.

Britten’s music does not give many imminently recognizable arias as in Mozart’s operas, (partly due to the only availability of male voices) but the orchestra accompanies the storyline with fluctuating waves: turning dark in treachery and mind struggling, but light up when the youth shines on the stage. Overall, the music is provocative and impelling, a reminiscent of Richard Wagner, and projecting a sense of uncontrollability of fate and sea and the inevitability of tragic ending. The chorus from all male singers is magnificent, as towering as some in Verdi’s.

Grimsley’s Claggart is not a simply evil person. His voice, metallic and penetrating in low register, matched the character’s cruelty and darkness. Although the opera does not give him much room to fully develop the changes in his attitude toward Billy, he managed to make it convincing from the aria filled with internal-searching, self-doubt, fired anger and a slight sense of resignation.

Leggate’a acting as Vere is solid too. He ventured further to reach the edge of the stage and opened his arms toward the audience in the last scene, with his voice instilled with regret, humane and nobility.

David Adam Moore replaced Nathan Gunn in the last minute to rescue the show. It was extremely lucky that the opera could find a baritone qualifying for the role: young, physically fit, gorgeous looking and great voice. (David has taken the same role in the same production before.) At the only beautiful aria (“Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray”), he sang with heart-melting warmth and softness.

Francesca Zambello’s production excelled in every perspective. Even though the limited space only allowed a corner of the deck shown on the stage, she created such ambiance that the audience could feel vividly the motion of the ship. The lighting, mostly blue, occasionally warm yellow for ordinary crew members and the final image of Billy, brought psychological effects into the characters. In the last, the veil shadowed everything of the ship except the dangling body of Billy in a romance light, it was so striking and moving that I felt exhausted and uplifted at the same times.

In Billy Budd, between Claggart and Vere, the taboo is mutiny; yet Britten and librettist Foster, as well as the novelist Herman Melville saw the real unspeakable is inhibited sexuality.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Garrick Ohlsson Return

During the pre-concert talk, Jim Cunningham, WQED FM89.3 host interviewed with the conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. Tortelier speaks near-perfect English, but in a French manner: soft, passionate and somewhat floating around as if he could forget the topic just after a few words. Occasionally, his pronunciation would betray his identity such as precision which sounded broken at every syllable and thus elongated. But when he talked about Ravel, his face shone like shimmering and his smiles were self-absorbed yet enticing at the same time. “Debussy and Ravel are the climax of French music”, he declared, “Although between mysterious Debussy and magic Ravel there is other great music”. Jim used Bolelo as an example to describe the sense of forwardness that characterizes Ravel’s music, and borrowed the beginning flute melody of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune to demonstrate the deep understanding of chromaticism and orchestration in French Music.

It was the first time that I could listen to Mother Goose Suite live. And I was so glad that such a unique experience was enhanced by Tortelier’s masterful conducting art. Under his baton, PSO’s sound was supple, responsive and sensitive. To address the fairy tales of each movement, Tortelier brought the nuanced phrasing for each sentence, as if every melody line is endowed a life with a beginning, an end and a beautiful harmonic “arch” in between. Except “Petit Purcet”, all other moments are less narrative, more or less describing a mood. As Jim indicated, the progressiveness seems to be inborn with the melody so that even when the tempo was unperturbed, the music flew at ease like a perpetual motion machine.

With visual aid, I was immediately captured by Ravel’s orchestration: In Empress of Pagodas a celesta brought mysterious oriental atmosphere; while a trio with violin, oboe and flute sang gracefully in Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty. In most of the time, the string section kept a very soft and warm sound, ranging from pianissimo to mezzo piano while the wind section lit up the ever-changing color. To some extent, I agree with Jim’s statement about French coloration. Yet Debussy’s orchestration is more profound to me because chromaticism, harmony and dynamics can hardly be separated from orchestration in Debussy’s music. A lot of Ravel’s piano music has been magically transcripted into orchestra works but such success seldom happens to Debussy.

Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra followed the affable Ravel. During the interview, Tortelier said although Lutoslawski was not as well-known as Bartok, but his Concerto for Orchestra was equally good as that from Bartok. (Interestingly, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is scheduled next week for comparison.) The beginning of the first movement was spectacular. The stirring motives moved quickly from lower register upward, swept the whole orchestra with strong statement. The second movement was played in a hushed texture, yet the melody lines were not at all nocturnal. Instead those murmuring projected a sense of anxiety and uncertainty, thus light in sonority but heavy in music thoughts. The third movement started with a Passacaglia which progressed in repetition from different orchestra sections. But the coda sounded extremely long and tiring, as if to show off the quality of each instrument, the climax had to be sustained for more than the actual length of the rest of the movement. Even at fast-tempo and fortissimo, PSO members made the sound clear with definite driving forces. But the overall effect failed to impress me and approached closer to violence and discordance in my ears. In comparison, I felt in love with Bartok’s work almost instantaneously. The raw, rigorous rhythm, the undefined or lost consciousness and prime yet explosive vitality epitomize (maybe except his string quartets) Bartok’s musicianship. But most of all, the solo instruments are highlighted within the symphonic integration. Here in Lutoslawski, efforts sounded too contrived and less persuasive.

Returning to Heinz Hall, Garrick Ohlsson kept his exploration in Rachmaninoff and brought the concert to its climax. A late student of Arrau, Ohlsson possessed formidable skills, even one of the most demanding repertoire piano concerto No.3 sounded effortless through his naturally gifted hands: thick, big yet flexible. Ohlsson started the beginning in an unobtruding manner: fluent with an almost unnoticeable hairpin, (I still like the beginning of Ashkenazy’s early performance better: a sense of sorrow was sung in lighter volume) but soon the melody progressed into a solo climax. Where Ohlsson played seemingly too clear soon paid off in those cascading technique-challenging parts, where Ohlsson's performance was coherent linearly with a deep understanding of overall structure. In recapitulation, Ohlsson painted the same tune in a half-dull gray color as if the memory slowly came out of the veil. Suddenly the underline Russian melody became sentimental and yearning. For that moment I was lost in the residual of the melody.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Museums talk

It seems nowadays that most of the second-tier museums have relied on special exhibition which are of great success in bring intense examination of interesting topics, but overall the museums will be remembered by their permanent collections.

Walking in Met’s permanent collection is like walking in a maze with endless findings and excitement: sometimes too many good things can be a bad thing. My legs are still heavy two days after a tour in Met, or more precisely a five-hour walk in American Wing at Met.

Just in American Decorative Art section alone, there are 25 period rooms and more than 600 pieces of furniture. When I saw those chairs, side tables were piled inside rows of rows of glass display, I kind of felt sorry for them. Only Met has the luxury to pack them together, although the beauty of the furniture should really be appreciated in a proper setting like those period rooms or like what Chicago Art Institute does: group them together based on function and style such that each set provides meaningful context.

I would definitely go back to revisit Met in future, although the same attachment may not apply to Carnegie Museum of Art even though it is only four or five blocks away from where I work.

Although it is true that most of art museums are suffering from the redirection of donation and charity, museums themselves should also be blamed as places of bureaucracy. From another perspective, second-tier museums should re-think what to present and what to purchase in future. There are only 35 paintings by Vermeer and a little bit more than 300 by Rembrandt, and most Impressionism art followers would go to Chicago for its huge collection. A walk through Carnegie Museum of Art brings you some interests yet also makes you lost and wondering what is the strength of the museum. Often, you will see art works crammed in juxtaposition with no direct linkage. Or within ten meters walk, you immediately crossed three century as for artistic style.

Just one hour away, Westmorland Museum of American Art hosts a full room for Scalp Level painters which immediately brings the visitors to the past of Western Pennsylvania rural scenes. Other paintings also make a strong statement of the museum’s dedication to the western PA. Aaron Gorson’s powering and gripping descriptions of steel mills along Monongahela River recall Pittsburgh at his climax, Christian Walter’s works shows his profound love of his hometown in Depression era. I have always enjoyed visiting there, even when I had to walk on crutch and sit on a wheel chair last year for “Born of Fire” exhibition.

Pittsburghers should puff out his chest with pride about the city, its past, its present and its future. If the native’s own view is often subconsciously largely negative and deprecate the city, how can visitors be persuaded to find the beauty without prejudice? Maybe the museums can start doing something first.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Classical Music Stores in Burgh

It is reported that Amazon classical section has been making profit, but local stores everywhere are having a tough time. Pittsburgh, blessed with no impact from the closure of Tower Records, is no treasure-land for collectors.

Borders are predictable, with "Hit", "Best" and Pavarotti dotted around Joshua Bell or Lang Lang. There are some differences between each store, partly due to the knowledge scope of the store staff. The one at Pittsburgh Mills is totally messed, and the one near Wholefood is tiny and incomplete. The only decent one is at Northway Mall in North Hills, however, the whole section has shrinked to two thirds of its size one year ago.

If the staff has some control or preference in classical selection, Joseph-Bett probably benefits from the young generation who can appreciate as much Beethoven as Bartok. It really surprised me last time when I found a huge collection of 20th composers including from Bartok, Shostakovich to Legeti and Boulez.

In a recent article by Alex Ross in New Yorker, L.A. Philharmonic orchestra's music director Salonen was described to bring the orchestra to the frontier of modernity in the US industry. The give and take relationship between the orchestra and audience can be misleading and frustrating to modern composers, who may be satisfied if one of the work can at least become live on stage ONCE.
It is true that it is the audience that buy the tickets and patron the orchestra, but their taste should not regarded as dominating or main-stream, because the group of the audience who has the loudest voice do not represent the true profile of classical consumers.

I agree that Bartok and Stravinsky may not bring young people into the stage, but that at least may change the sterile perception that classical music equals to some works written at least 200 years ago! Modern music, with its special complexity in structure and texture, needs more introduction and repetition than those by Bach or Mozart. The unpopularity of modern music, in my opinion, is partially caused by the close-minded decision makers, who do not think in long term for the prosperity of the industry, but rather secure the funding from gray-haired board members.

In his new book "The Curtain", Milan Kundera says everything that takes on the quality of a history, seems a more or less logical sequence of events. Once you are familiar with Pollock or Warhol, Munch's expressionism is within reach, not to mention affable Cézanne. Music, like any language, never shrinks. It only expands, evolves and assimilates, while the only way to adjust the shift is to get involved. But even with the keening ears for modern music, audience here is deprived of the right to listen to it from alive. The small market is more a problem that not many ears have been trained than that not many ears are willing to be trained!

With their extra texture, rich background and new instruments, modern music cries for live-performance. Without sitting there, watching and feeling the fire, I could not pick up Janacek's Intimate Letters, not to mention Schnittke or Kirchner.

Joseph-Bett may not have sold as many of Legeti as Chopin, but the CDs are stacked there, waiting to be explored. The sound from the sampling machine may not sound as good as that from Heinz Hall, but it is there: visually declamatory and audibly freshening.