Recently by Nancy Malitz

After reading Laura Collins-Hughes' article, listed below,  about the implications of non-profit theaters' commercial ties, I was reminded of the self-correcting forces at work at Stratford's Shakespeare Festival, which brought in Des McAnuff as artistic director partly because of his talent for turning La Jolla Playhouse ventures into solid Broadway successes "Big River," "The Who's Tommy," "Jersey Boys, etc.). 

Even as the cash-strapped Stratford seemed to get what it bargained for -- basking in 2012 exposure on Broadway for its "Jesus Christ Superstar" production, which was directed by McAnuff -- anxiety over the festival's mission creep became apparent. Audiences and actors openly questioned what works like "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" were doing at a Shakespeare festival and whether the shows relied too much on blockbuster effects at the expense of classical values. In July, McAnuff's successor Antoni Cimolino announced a retrenchment:"I will put the actor and the text firmly at the center of what we do." 

Meanwhile, the synergy among non-profit theatrical entities in New York City and the regions brings exposure if not bucks: Worth your attention is Ayad Akhtar's new play "Disgraced," which was nurtured at Chicago's tiny American Theater Company in special arrangement with the Araca Group. It's about to open at LCT3 with its Chicago director, Kimberly Senior, at the helm. The show is up for four 2012 Equity Jeff Awards tonight in Chicago.
October 15, 2012 9:53 AM | | Comments (0)
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Quick note to California and New York City colleagues:

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are on tour to San Francisco, Costa Mesa, Palm Desert and San Diego Feb. 14-19 and they will be in residence during opening week of the 2012-13 season at Carnegie Hall. Most of the draw is likely to be for Muti himself, and for the traditional works on his programs, which include "Carmina Burana," Schubert's ("Great") Symphony in C Major and the Franck Symphony in D minor.

But Muti is also aggressively promoting the orchestra's two young composers-in-residence -- Mason Bates, 35, also known as DJMasonic, and London-born Anna Clyne, 31. They have invigorated Muti while attracting their own followers. When was the last time you actually saw an auditorium thin out before the big romantic work on the program? It happened here in Chicago earlier this month. Here's a profile of the two composers.

February 14, 2012 7:39 PM | | Comments (1)
Millennium Park.gifIn small-town Iowa, where I grew up, a summer's Saturday meant packing up the blanket and a picnic basket for some free Sousa at the local bandshell, and an extra nickel for flavored ice. 

Since then I've witnessed amazing Shakespeare in New York's Central Park, holiday concerts at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and wonderful fringe festival fare the world over. But I was nevertheless amazed by what I heard, for free, at Chicago's Millennium Park this past weekend. 

The program -- Franz Schmidt's "The Book with Seven Seals" (Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln) -- was a connoisseur's dream, an evening-long 1937 rarity based on the biblical Book of Revelation for full chorus and orchestra, with virtuoso solo roles for an organist and five singers, one of them a Wagnerian heldentenor who must also be capable of nimble, Bach-like narrative. 

It was a titanic performance that seemed to fit the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with its Frank Gehry stage framed by billowing stainless steel sails and an airy trellis of loudspeakers extending out over the lawn. To sit in this outdoor space with the clouds rolling above is to feel you're embarking on a space and time voyage, which the concert surely was. 

Schmidt (1874-1939) played cello in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra under Gustav Mahler. He was well versed in the church music of Bach, the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the operas of Strauss and Wagner. His 1937 choral-orchestral masterpiece could easily be mistaken, in certain passages, for a work written a hundred years earlier.

For its conservative style alone, Schmidt's "The Book with Seven Seals" would have probably missed the cut when it came to the works that would live for future generations. But Schmidt's music was also championed by the Nazis after the Austrian Anschluss and thereby heavily stigmatized. Few conductors outside of Austria came forward to champion Schmidt's music after the war, and as the years passed the growing reputations of Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky eclipsed Schmidt's accomplishment. 

Except, that is, in Austria, where two-thirds of the population is Catholic, choral societies abound and the great oratorios of Bach, Händel, Haydn, Schütz and Mozart are still prominent features of the musical calendar. Schmidt's gargantuan piece has fixed itself firmly in the rotation there. Grant Park Festival's Uruguayan-born artistic director Carlos Kalmar, who studied in Vienna, says he flipped out when he discovered it. 

Schmidt's portrayals of the four apocalyptic horsemen are grand exclamation points of cataclysmic outburst and spine-chilling creepiness. The quintet of Austrian soloists offered searing emotional clarity. Yet the sounds that are in my head as I write this are the gentle devotional counterpoints of the opening prologue and the great choruses of horror, woe and thankfulness that play out over the two-hour saga.

These free concerts in Millennium Park can be easily overlooked by cultural travelers. I also tend to treat free events lightly when I visit a major city. Even though I take pains to l
ine up my tickets and exhibit admissions well in advance, I figure the rest will take care of itself. Because of that casual approach, I nearly missed a performance of Bach's B Minor Mass at Notre Dame in Paris.

Millennium Park itself is a daytime mecca for summer visitors, with Anish Kapoor's silver bean, called "Cloud Gate," reflecting the skyline, and Jaume Plensa's "Crown Fountain," with its water spouts erupting from the puckered lips of giant video faces.  

But just so you don't miss the rest -- here's the agenda of the Grant Park Music Festival, as well as links to other Millennium Park free concerts of international jazz, new music Mondays, world music and experimental electronica, folk, rock and avant-garde mixes.

Bring your food and drink with you, or buy it on site. If you really want an assigned seat in the first few rows, you can buy a special pass for that here. But most of the pavilion seating, like the lawn beyond it, is free.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion, at upper right in photo, is the home of the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago's Millennium Park. "Cloud Gate," popularly known as The Bean, sits nearby.
August 15, 2011 12:48 PM | | Comments (0)
If you want to immerse yourself in the ultimate opera experience -- Richard Wagner's 4-episode, 17-hour epic Ring Cycle -- you have to plan for a pilgrimage, and you have to plan well in advance. 

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The Ring is a hot international ticket, wherever and whenever the production is mounted. It takes nearly a week to see it all, so that key singers can rest between episodes, and it is thus a perfect festival event for the months of summer. 

The San Francisco Opera, a highly respected company in a popular city for cultural travelers, topped off the second of its three cycles on Sunday.

Not to worry if you aren't going to be there for the third cycle this week. The very nature of a Ring Cycle -- if it's as good as this one -- is that it will be around for decades and serve various singers, conductors and even opera houses before it is done. The point is that the San Francisco Opera's new Ring Cycle -- conceived by the American director Francesca Zambello -- is worth plotting your future travel bucks for.

I have seen my share of big, even very big, productions of the Ring, including Parts 1 and 2 of an overpowering new cycle underway at the Metropolitan Opera, with its morphing, motor-driven set. One can become conditioned to expect that each new production will find ever bolder ways to emphasize the cycle's great sweep.
June 27, 2011 9:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Before You Know It Crop.jpgOn Sunday, as Mark Rylance accepted a Tony Award for his amazing work in Jez Butterworth's riotous dark epic "Jerusalem," he launched into a prose poem from Minnesota-based Louis Jenkins, who has been frequently featured in Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" and "Prairie Home Companion."
 
Rylance also recited Jenkins when he won his first Tony in 2008, so I went in search of more about the poet. I found an excellent selective sampling here. Today many bloggers are linking to Jenkins' own website, where you can hear the poet reading these lines that Rylance made suddenly famous:

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, "Say, I want to try that." Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side."

Much as I once loved to wander the stacks of the great libraries of my school days, these late-night Internet searches are downright addictive. When one is in a certain mood, the straight-line Q followed by its A is not the thing. Free roaming is, the more meandering the better.

To wit, Sunday's NYT op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd on the "new" Newt Gingrich, wife-doter, begins thus: "Newt Gingrich used to get in trouble for cheating on wives and dumping them. Now he's notorious for being uxorious." 

She has used the word "uxorious" before, so I thought I'd look up its etymology (the root is Latin for wife). Did Shakespeare employ it? Concordance said no. But in at least one of the online dictionaries, "uxorious" was allied with "wittol"  -- a cuckold who puts up with it --  and "wittol" I did remember from Shakespeare. The suspicious Master Ford, in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," shouts out in a jealous rage: "Cuckold! Wittol! Cuckold" -- followed by something about the devil. 

I did a quick Google search for the rest of Ford's line, but I didn't do it correctly. "Uxorious" was still in the search field along with "wittol."

Shakespeare.pngHappy accident! Up popped a play, written in 1921 -- "Shakespeare, a play in five episodes," by Harold Frederick Rubinstein (English solicitor and playwright) and Clifford Bax (poet, lyricist, playwright, translator, and brother of the composer Arnold Bax) -- which sets forth a hypothetical picture of the Bard's life from his early infatuation with the Dark Lady to a bitter, burned-out, cynical end.  

One of the lines contains the exact phrase "uxorious wittol." It occurs near the end of the play -- inset at right, click to enlarge -- when Shakespeare is reciting a hilarious rant that constitutes his final will and testament to his bewildered landlady. It includes these lines: "...to every woman I would leave six lovers for the six days of the week, and for Sundays a rich and uxorious wittol; to every man, the ability to push, lie, pander and oppress, for by these he shall climb to honour."  

Almost worthy of the Bard himself.
June 13, 2011 9:01 AM | | Comments (0)
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I can't wait for the battle that will break out on Broadway when the Desirees of this world realize that there's another delicious role in the works. There is nothing wrong with the aging actress that a really great role can't fix, and Sarah Ruhl's "Stage Kiss" is just the cure for that long dry agony of waiting between Juliet and Lady Macbeth, as Ruhl's leading lady puts it.

We first meet her as she is struggling to keep it together, in a priceless audition setpiece that has the audience screaming with laughter and wide open to all that follows. (The production's enjoying its world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where the summer fireworks have obviously begun.) "Stage Kiss" is a sly and loving ode to the life of the stage, distilled to comic absurdity, but ever so deftly, retaining a seductively sober whiff of the real thing. 

The plot in brief: She gets the romantic lead in a bad '30s chestnut, only to discover that her old flame in the play is also her old flame in real life. The romp that follows is an exquisite send-up of the actor's dutiful struggle to make the imaginary seem really-really real, resulting in the classic absurdities that Ruhl explores with gusto. In effect, she is doubling down -- creating a play about a play for characters fighting demons who play characters fighting demons ... 

Anyway, it's a funhouse, but a funhouse with a warm heart. There's a delicious thread of farce in the backstage and rehearsal scenes, and yet the show is lyrical at its core. "Stage Kiss" has the kind of balance between a two-character romance and a superb ensemble of stock supporting characters that one finds in the best Astaire-Rogers movies. The stage director's a cheerful nebbish with closet acting pretensions; the male understudy's a preener, the daughter spits knives. One and all, you gotta love 'em. 

My guess is that the show will tighten somewhat on its inevitable path to Broadway, but the Goodman has done very well by Ruhl in "Stage Kiss," which has been nearly two years in development.

A pitch-perfect trio of veteran actors in the lead roles -- Jenny Bacon as She, Mark L. Montgomery as He, Ross Lehman as the Director -- has captured the humor, both broad and delicate. The show's creative team -- director Jessica Thebus, designer Todd Rosenthal and fight choreographer Nick Sandys -- have made a stylish, high-energy showcase for this delightful new work. If you have a chance to see it, by all means go.

Photo by Liz Lauren: He (Mark L. Montgomery) and She (Jenny Bacon) in Sarah Ruhl's "Stage Kiss" at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. 
May 10, 2011 8:21 AM | | Comments (0)

Those who love Bach are always looking to win him new followers.Glenn Gould's "Goldberg Variations"  has been my gift of choice when people ask. I now pair it with a recent DVD film by Michael Lawrence called "Bach & Friends," which captures the insights of a novel cross-section of Bach interpreters. 


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The participants in this project include an A-list of musicians who extend well beyond classical music's usual suspects. We have -- in addition to composer Philip Glass, pianist Simone Dinnerstein and violinist Joshua Bell -- top artists of the banjo, mandolin and glass harp (with its water-filled crystal goblets). That's ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, at right. We also hear from other brilliant people who specialize in computer infrastructure, video game design, brain chemistry and fractal theory. Bach lovers all.


The DVD project was a labor of love for film-maker Michael Lawrence, a classical guitarist and composer by training, with a healthy quotient of bluegrass and jazz in his mix. Lawrence's career veered early into the world of documentary film-making, where he composed film scores and mastered the other aspects of the trade. Now in his 60s, Lawrence has taken the path back around to the subject of music. Rightly determining that most Bach documentaries are dreadful, he decided to have a go at a Bach film himself.


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You can't beat this DVD set if you're seeking a way into Bach's music. Assembled in Lawrence's Baltimore production studio, a former bedroom, on a shoestring budget, it was envisioned from the beginning to be accessible to the general audience. All manner of musicians volunteered their time. I instantly took to the cherub-faced organist Felix Hell, a sizzling virtuoso with feet as fleet as Savion Glover's, as he tore through the Fugue in D major (BWV 532) on a tidy three-manual Holtkamp. Here's an excerpt that the film-maker posted on YouTube, including some great interview footage that didn't make the film's final cut:



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I was struck as well by the the boundary-crossing banjo player Béla Fleck who, after lingering over the Presto from Bach's Violin Sonata No. 1, confessed that this composer's music is "the way we all wish we improvised."  These players generally speak without the customary academic inflection, and the connections they make may come as a revelation to classical musicians, such as these remarks by Fleck on Bach and the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane:



Lawrence said he couldn't believe his luck at first. "I'd started making cold calls to the best people I could think of and one after another said yes," he told me by telephone. "Why were they doing this?" Continue ...

March 30, 2011 10:02 AM | | Comments (0)
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I wish you could have heard Riccardo Muti in his all-Berlioz concert Thursday, Sept. 23, to mark his first subscription concert as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Perhaps you can catch it; it continues through the weekend.) There will be many media reports in the hours to come about the Muti-Chicago Symphony match, which even at this early moment, in my mind, promises to be one of the great pairings in the orchestra's illustrious history. 

But on this morning after, I find my mind wandering back to the program itself, which was gutsy and grandly curious. A pairing of Berlioz' great and still wildly popular "Symphonie fantastique" with the semi-staged and narrated "Lélio" (intended as the sequel to the heartbreak and drug-induced hallucinations of the former), this program had all the necessary gala components: It involved legions of performers including the full Chicago Symphony Chorus. It showed off the assembled forces at their virtuosic best. It signaled the Muti era will be something different. And it was definitely something to talk about. 

With apologies to Berlioz scholars who know better, "Lélio" affects me like the patchwork of a writer dealing with an impossibly close deadline -- surely something any journalist can relate to. As I imagine it, Berlioz has this great kernel of a musical fantasy on Shakespeare's "Tempest," but it's only a sketch and he's out of time. So he thinks, What about expanding the Shakespeare reverie? And he borrows bits of Hamlet, although one of them, an allusion to the prince's hilarious remonstrances to a company of itinerant actors, is perilously close to the end of the piece and is always in danger of missing its intended aim for sweet comic relief.

To fill out the rest, our composer plucks a couple of gorgeous excerpts from previous cantatas, scoops up a song for tenor and solo piano that the orchestra sits out, throws in a ribald bandits' number that could play right now on Broadway, and calls it a night. 

I came away with two inclinations. To listen again in their entirety to Berlioz' "La mort d'Orphée" and "La mort de Cléopâtre," from which he borrowed breathtaking episodes, first chance I get. And to accept "Lélio" for the strange work it is.  

Last night, I fell asleep remembering a line uttered by the great French actor Gérard Depardieu, who was in Chicago to play Lélio's role. "Ô Shakespeare! Shakespeare!" Lélio wails, and my mind went straight -- forgive me -- to Pyramus' "O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall."

I returned to life today with Muti and the Chicago orchestra's "Symphonie fantastique" in my head. That memory is, in every way, wonderful.

Riccardo Muti, Gérard Depardieu and the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra take their bow on opening night of the 2010-11 season, Muti's first as music director. 
Photo credit: Chicago Symphony Orchestra
September 24, 2010 12:39 PM | | Comments (0)
I've been working on a spreadsheet to track wage patterns in U.S. orchestras, mainly to find a context for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's headline-grabbing news as its Sunday night contract deadline looms. The highest offer on the table, from the Detroit musicians themselves, puts their 2010-11 salary at $22,650 less than they made in 2009-10. That's a cut of 22 percent. The lowest offer, from management, drops salary by $34,450, a cut of 33 percent in this automobile manufacturing capital blasted by international economic trends.

The Detroit orchestra's downturn, combined with recent salary concessions at most orchestras in response to the Great Recession, might suggest the possibility of a historic decline for orchestras generally. 

But that's not all there is to see. While we wait to plug in numbers from Detroit, Houston, Fort Worth and other orchestras still negotiating, we might note other intriguing story lines:

1. There will be 10 orchestras in the $100,000-plus group this year, with the top six -- in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston -- well ahead of the pack. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic are also pouring money into television, web subscriptions and HD broadcasts to strengthen their appeal to global audiences. (Click charts to enlarge.)

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2. The first among peers in the $100,000-plus group enjoy not only higher pay, but also higher growth rates, than the others in this category. Thus salary gaps within this echelon will continue to widen. Here's more on that: 
August 27, 2010 11:00 AM | | Comments (4)

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Men play the roles of women often enough in Shakespeare's plays, a nod to the Elizabethan tradition. It's rare to see the tables turned, but here it is: Seana McKenna, Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced today, will be Richard III next summer. 

Now there's something this great actress can sink her teeth into. A veteran of 19 years on that festival's stage, she is currently playing Paulina in "The Winter's Tale" with her usual crystal clarity for Shakespeare's rhythm and intent. As Phèdre and Medea and Andromache in the past, McKenna has been commanding. But given the festival's recent tendency to program fewer of the great tragedies, not to mention American classics by Albee and Williams that provide such rich material for female actors past the ingenue stage, I was wondering what would become of her.

The best female in a male Shakespearean role I ever saw was a slip of tweenage girl at the Interlochen Festival of the Arts more than a decade ago. She was the sour steward Malvolio in "Twelfth Night." 

Her delivery of the letter scene, in which Malvolio convinces himself he's loved by the mistress of his household, had me helpless with laughter. I can't even tell you her name, but I'll bet she finds inspiration in today's news.

McKenna has long held Richard III to be a dream role, according to the director, Miles Potter, who is her husband. There have been a few other female Richards: Pamela Rabe played him in a 2009 Sydney Theatre Company production of "The War Of The Roses," an adaptation of eight Shakespeare's plays; the Globe Theatre's all-female version ran in 2003. But this production will be otherwise conventional, performed in rep with "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "Titus Andronicus" and "Twelfth Night." 
June 28, 2010 12:51 PM | | Comments (2)


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