Sunday, May 29, 2011

Like Dandelion Dust

Some good friends of ours are going through a painful situation right now.  After a protracted court battle, they are being required to return their 6-year-old adopted son, who has been a part of their family since infancy, to the custody of his biological father.  It's ugly and unjust and there's no telling what kind of impact this will have on his little mind and spirit.

The story of Like Dandelion Dust dramatizes a situation much like theirs.  Rip Porter beats his wife and is an all-around, no good loser.  He ends up in jail for 7 years.  When he gets out, a changed man, his wife confesses she gave up their baby for adoption.  He didn't even know she had been pregnant.  Her mother forged his signature on the adoption papers.  Rip doesn't even hesitate: he's going to get their baby back.

Meanwhile, Joey's a happy little boy living an idyllic existence as the only child of a couple who has a big house by the ocean, a big sailboat, lots of money, and apparently no job.  They are shocked to get the call saying that Joey is going back to his birth parents.  They fight it, of course, but since dad can prove that he didn't give up his parental rights, it's a clear case.  Joey has to go with him.
A tender moment with his birth mother.
I don't know about the legalities here, but anyone can relate to the emotions involved.  Both the birth parents and biological parents are willing to sacrifice everything to keep Joey, but one of them has to give.  This was painful to watch as an adoptive parent.  I am SO thankful for having such a flawless adoption and a relationship with Zippy's birth mom.  In fact, Kelly is taking him to see his birth mom next week.  I just wish our friends had a different adoption experience.

This is a great, emotional story, which brings up important issues, perhaps even an impetus to reexamine adoption law.  However, as much as I want to love this movie, it loses points for being, at times, a weakly acted movie, almost teetering into the Lifetime made-for-TV genre.  Thankfully, the story is strong enough to help me overlook the acting.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hydrogen Jukebox (Movie Glutton Opera Edition)

In addition to their 3 more traditional operas, the Fort Worth Opera Festival this year threw in a modern work which definitely doesn't fit the usual picture of what an opera is.  Hydrogen Jukebox brings together the music of Philip Glass, one of my favorites, with poems of Allen Ginsberg, the "beat poet" who seems to have written a lot of drivel.

By way of contrast to the majestic Bass Hall, Hydrogen Jukebox was performed in a small theater, with seating for no more than a few dozen people.  I counted only 65-70 people, with a handful of empty seats.  The musicians, an ensemble of only 5 or 6 players, sat at one end of the room.  A sparse set, basically 2 large ladders, occupied the other end.  The audience sat along either side, facing each other on bleacher style seats.  A train track ran down the middle of the theater, and large, long video screens were on each side of the theater, above the audience

Once again, we were blown away by the talent of the musicians and singers Fort Worth Opera is able to attract.  The six singers, 3 men and 3 women, amazed us with their vocal ability and energy.  True to a Glass production, the choreography was not song and dance, Broadway style, but consisted of slow, deliberate motions.  This style seems to have taken much more concentration and stamina than more traditional choreography.
The young and talented cast.

The ensemble played Glass to a T.  Like Glass himself, the director conducted from the keyboard.  He even looked a bit like Glass. . . .  The first half ended with a spoken piece, accompanied by the conductor playing a piece which I believe is from his album Solo Piano (which consists of some of his most beautiful and accessible compositions).  The music throughout was classic Glass, with his trademark use of the voices as instruments.  I loved it.

Unfortunately, the voices were more than instruments: they had an actual libretto to work with.  That's where Ginsberg comes in.  If you know Ginsberg, you know what I'm talking about.  If not, just picture the worst parts of the 1960s and 1970s: anti-war protests, free love, drug culture, draft dodgers.  He is considered a voice of that generation.  So we got to listen to a lot of that tripe.  It's not that he never puts together an interesting phrase--he does--but the whole of it is pretentious, rejecting linguistic conventions just because he can, and throwing out political generalizations that would make Michael Moore blush with their lack of substance.  This is the kind of show and these are the kinds of poems that think they're being profound when they show the White House as a pinata, have same-sex performers kissing, and tie the CIA to the drug trade.

So kudos to Fort Worth Opera for pushing the envelope and bringing non-traditional opera to their festival.  And kudos to the musicians and singers for their fantastic talents on display with this unusual piece.  Too bad all that great music and great talent had to be put to use on such a pointless libretto.

(On an interesting note for this performance: shortly after the lines "Lightning's blue glare fills Oklahoma plains, . . . approaching Texas I saw sheet lightning cover Heaven's corners . . . Apocalypse prophesied--the Fall of America signaled from Heaven" were sung, the lights came on and we had to go to the basement due to a tornado warning!  Later while images of rain were projected on the screens, hail pattering on the darkened skylights augmented the music with realistic sound effects.)

For a review from someone who knows what he's talking about, check the Star-Telegram.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Mikado (Movie Glutton Opera Edition)

After a late night at the opera on Saturday, we dragged ourselves out of bed for church Sunday morning.  At the end of the service, we slipped away with no socializing, grabbed the kids, and headed home.  No nice Italian dinner before this opera; we only had to for a quick bite from Sonic on the run.  Zippy stayed at church, and we left Chloe with her cousin Brandon at our house, while Kelly, Elliot, and I headed back to Bass Hall for opera number 2 of the weekend.

We were all sleepy, and Kelly had a headache, so lighter fare certainly fit the bill today.  The Mikado, like most operas by Gilbert and Sullivan, seem to be more appropriately called musicals.  To my untrained ears, The Mikado has more in common with a 20th century Broadway musical than a Verdi opera.  The Mikado debuted in 1885, and, although it was set in 19th century Japan, G and S used the Japanese setting to thinly disguise their lampooning of British culture and politics.  Some of that remains, but the Fort Worth opera did some updating of its own, with costuming and props from modern Japan (or at least a caricature thereof) and with some creative license on some lyrical content.
I'm not sure what Gilbert and Sullivan would think of this get-up for Nanki-Poo!
The opera opens with gentlemen of Japan gathered, in business suits and busily poking at smart phones.  Nanki-Poo, the wandering minstrel, enters and plays some tunes on his DJ set-up, complete with lap top.  The little maids from school enter, not wearing traditional Japanese dress but school-girl outfits, Hello Kitty backpacks, and brightly dyed hair.  One character skates on those shoes with wheels that the kids like.  When the Mikado finally makes his entrance, he comes on stage on a Segway!
Is this the first opera in history to choreograph Segways?
Lyrically, there is a tradition of productions of The Mikado adding lyrics to bring the pointed humor up to date.  When Ko-ko, the Lord High Executioner, recites his "little list of society offenders . . . who never would be missed" in Act I, several names are included who never would have made Gilbert's libretto: telemarketers, Oprah, Donald Trump.  At the performance we attended on May 22, they even included a jab at people who called on the May 21 rapture that didn't happen!  Similarly, in Act II, the Mikado describes his "object all sublime, . . . to let the punishment fit the crime" and includes several modern, local references, like graffiti on TRE trains.

All in all, this was a delightful performance.  The Fort Worth Opera did a fabulous job.  Gilbert and Sullivan can never be accused of letting the story get in the way of the humor and songs.  Several songs into the show, Elliot said, "What's going on?" and I was hard pressed to explain.  The one negative was that during the speaking parts, even though the performers used microphones, the dialogue was difficult to hear.  Kelly and I both said it was like being at a school play where the speakers spoke too fast and did not articulate.  But that did not deter Elliot.  After 2 operas in 2 days, he wants to know when the next opera festival is and wants me to be sure and get him tickets!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Il Trovatore (Movie Glutton Opera Edition)

Can it really be the fourth year in a row that Kelly and I going to the Fort Worth Opera Festival?  I guess it is!  I love Fort Worth: great trail run in the morning, just a few minutes from home (read about it here), a couple hours riding top-notch roller coasters with my son, then a world-class opera at night.  It made for a fun day.

After Elliot went to the symphony with me a couple times (read here and here), he decided that he wanted to go to the opera as well.  How can you say no to an 11 year old who wants to go to the opera with you?  So tonight Elliot, Kelly, and I went to hear Verdi's Il Trovatore.  I have to admit, I knew this was a long opera with a convoluted story line, so I wasn't sure Elliot would like it.  I was certain that afterwards he would say maybe he didn't want to go to the next one.  But he liked it a lot!
We started the evening, apropos to going to an Italian opera, with a little Italian dinner at Mamma Mia.  He got his favorite, fettucini alfredo with chicken.  He immediately liked the waitress because she brought him a big glass of water and not a kiddie cup with a lid.  We all ate too much.

We got to Bass Hall, with which Elliot is becoming quite familiar, and found our way to our seats.  We have the best seats in the cheapest section: front row center in the highest balcony.  As promised, the story of Il Trovatore is rather convoluted.  Gypsies burned at the stake, babies tossed in the fire, mistaken identities, spurned lovers, brother against brother in a civil war, what are we to do!  Of course the music is fabulous, and some of the arias were spectacular.  The Fort Worth Opera's presentation was flawless and the singers, terrific.  We saw Dongwon Shin, the troubadour of the title, in the 2008 FWO Festival production of Turandot.  
"Tell us again about that crazy gypsy who threw her baby in the fire!"
This is quite a famous opera, but the only music I recognized was the "Anvil Chorus," sung by the gypsies in Act 2.  You'll recognize it, too, I bet.  Here's one of many appearances of the tune in a toon:

For an actual review by someone who might know what he's talking about, see the Star-Telegram
My angels with the Bass Hall angel in the background.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

Did you know that the fashion icon Coco Chanel and composer Igor Stravinsky were lovers?  Neither did I.  Both of them left a huge legacy, her with her perfume and (I guess) her dresses, him with his music.  As pioneers in their fields, they cross paths and inspire one another at a crucial point in both of their careers.

The best part of this movie is the opening sequence, depicting the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring.  They didn't portray the entire, typically about 30-35 minute, performance, but I was surprised at how long it was in the movie.  I should have noted the time, but I bet it was 15 minutes or more.  As I noted in my review of the FWSO's performance, this premiere caused a near riot, and the movie's depiction seems to be very close to historical accounts.  The negative reaction does seem to be as much from the ballet, if not more, than the music itself.

This video isn't from the movie, but both this production and the production in the movie purport to reproduce the original 1913 choreography and costuming.
After that performance, Chanel learns of Stravinsky's living conditions.  As a refugee from Russia, he has little money, and lives in a cramped apartment with his ailing wife and four kids.  She invites the whole family to live with her at her villa.  Shortly, the two of them start an affair right under his wife's nose.  During this time period, Chanel develops her famous fragrance and presumably Stravinsky works on his compositions.

Although I enjoyed the depiction of the Rite of Spring premiere, the rest of the movie did little for me.  It's well made, great picture of 1920s Paris, well acted, etc.  But the eponymous characters came across as couple of artsy elites who think social mores are below them and that the consequences of their choices on their families don't matter. 

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The movie glutton goes back to the symphony

Elliot and I went to the symphony a few weeks ago with a voucher we got at the symphony open house during the Main Street Arts Festival.  Elliot loved it!  So I inquired with his music teacher whether she could get another voucher for us.  She came through with two, so Elliot invited his friend, a talented pianist.  I don't know how much that little boy knows about the piano, but we all got the opportunity to hear one of the greatest pianists around.

Barry Douglas has played for Fort Worth audiences before; he won the bronze in the 1985 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.  The next year, he won the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, the first non-Russian to do so since Van Cliburn himself.  With this performance, I was about ready to give him another medal.

A college friend of mine, an accomplished pianist, told me about a time when, as a little girl, she was riding in the car with her mom.  As they listened to the classical radio station together, she started crying.  When her mom asked what was wrong, she said she was crying because the music was so beautiful.  I have never had an experience quite like that, but I came closer than I ever have at this concert.  Although I have heard Tchaikovsky's familiar Piano Concerto No. 1 before, when Douglas and the orchestra started playing, a wave of emotion washed over me; I felt like I was going to start weeping.  I calmed down after a few measures, but my sensitivity to the music was heightened and I floated through the rest of the piece.  Beautiful, powerful, emotional, awesome.  Douglas's brilliant playing accompanied by the FWSO's usual great performance made for one of the most memorable pieces of live music I've ever heard.

By the way, this happens to be the same piece Van Cliburn played to win the Tchaikovsky competition in 1958.  Here is a 1962 performance:

Some concertgoers left at intermission, perhaps thinking that nothing could top the first half of the night's program.  Elliot, his friend and I stuck around and were not disappointed.  The second piece of the night was Titanic, by FWSO's composer in residence.  At first I thought, What is this, pops night with movie themes?  But Boyer's piece predates the over-hyped movie by 2 years.  Before the orchestra began, Boyer himself stood up and walked the audience through a description of the piece.  What a unique opportunity, to hear from the composer himself.  In a tribute to the musicians who continued to play while the lifeboats were being loaded, he worked in songs the ship's band played, weaving those melodies together with sounds evoking the crash on the iceberg and sinking of the ship.  It was quite effective and evocative.

The final selection of the night has been a favorite of mine for years.  If I remember correctly, the first CD I ever bought was Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.  As expected, the FWSO performance was extraordinary.  I love the power and challenge of this piece.  Coincidentally, a couple weeks ago I watched the movie Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, which opens with the premier of The Rite of Spring.  As you may recall, the audience reaction got out of hand, with shouting and arguments, so much so that the police were called in.  I played that portion of the movie for Elliot and insisted that he not behave like that at the concert!  The program notes at the concert included an account that premier; the movie seems to have gotten the details right.  No riots ensued on this night.

All in all, I have to agree with the Star-Telegram reviewer (here), who said that this "was, arguably, the best performance that this writer has ever heard them deliver."

Friday, May 6, 2011

La Habitacion de Fermate (Fermat's Room)

Fermat's Room has a great premise and some interesting development, but ultimately does not deliver.  Four great mathematicians are invited to a mysterious meeting at the home of a fifth.  None has ever met the others, but throughout the evening connections between them are revealed.  During dinner, the host is called away, and the four guests soon find that they're trapped in one room.  The walls of the room begin to press in on them, literally, and they have to solve a series of riddles to find a way to avoid being crushed.
Getting kind of tight in here!  Shut down all the trash compactors on the detention level! 
It seems like it would be a thriller with a higher level of intellectual engagement, and it does start off that way, but it ends up being a thriller in the vein of the brilliant psycho who devises impossibly elaborate means of scaring the pants of his victims before killing them.  I tire of that sort of story.  That said, if those movies are your cup of tea, Fermat's Room is better than most.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Please Give

Every now and then a good comedy comes along to remind us that a movie doesn't have to be stupid and juvenile to be funny.  I admit, sometimes I do enjoy stupid, juvenile movies, but if there were more movies like Please Give we wouldn't have to waste our time with bad comedies.  Please Give reminded me a bit of Woody Allen's movies, only funnier and with more of a story, or of Gigantic

Cathy and Alex have a used furniture store in New York.  They buy furniture from the children of people who have died.  Cathy feels bad about marking up heirlooms, profiting from the children's ignorance of the furniture's value.  They have also bought the apartment next door to theirs.  As soon as the 91-year-old tenant moves out, they'll tear down some walls and expand their living space.  Cathy feels bad about waiting on their neighbor to die.  Their moody teen aged daughter (is that redundant?) offers her wry observations and helps the couple keep some grips in reality.  Alex struggles with being bored in their marriage, while Cathy tries to figure out how to assuage her guilt by giving money to street people or volunteering at a nursing home.
Cathy insecurity and Abby's precociousness make for some entertaining mother/daughter talks.
This is one of those great family comedies (by which I don't mean appropriate for all members of the family, but comedy about a family) in which there are not earth-shattering issues, but in which we can laugh at them while laughing at ourselves.

Bottom line, 3 stars.