Sunday, November 20, 2016

Catching up with last year: Dolly ki Doli, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Tamasha, and Kapoor and Sons

Four films from last year that we're just managing to catch up with now:


Dolly ki Doli (Dolly's bridal palanquin, 2015; directed by Abhishek Dogra, written by Dogra and Uma Shankar Singh): Many Bollywood movies end with a lavish wedding. Dolly ki Doli begins with one, complete with an item number by the ageless Malaika Arora:



The music is by Sajid-Wajid, with lyrics by Irfan Kamal; the playback singers are Mamta Sharma and Wajid.

Cut to the wedding night at the home of the wealthy Sonu (Rajkummar Rao, who played another slimy fiancé in Queen). The demure bride Dolly (Sonam Kapoor) brings glasses of milk to her husband and in-laws (Rajesh Sharma and Gulfam Khan):


 Clearly none of these folks have ever seen Hitchcock's Suspicion:


When the Sehrawat family groggily emerges from their drug-induced sleep the next day, they discover that their house has been ransacked. It soon becomes clear that Sonu is only the latest victim in a series of "runaway bride" heists pulled by Dolly and the gang posing as her family. And indeed Dolly soon has another dupe (Varun Sharma) in her sights. But police inspector Robin Singh (Pulkit Samrat) is hot on her trail—and it turns out that Robin and Dolly have a certain history...

Sonam Kapoor has developed into a pretty good comedienne, and Dolly ki Doli has its moments. But disbelief becomes increasingly difficult to suspend in the second half: how would Dolly have been able to make it through multiple weddings without being photographed? Would she and her crew really be gullible enough to think that a poster in the marketplace would be the way a prince (a cameo by Nawab Saif Ali Khan) would go about finding a bride? And although the vanity, faithlessness and greed of the men she encounters would seem to provide a more-than-sufficient motive for her actions, why would she instead offer the explanation "this is just the way I am"? Here's hoping that writer/director Dogra puts his next script through a few more revisions before rolling the cameras.



Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015; directed by Dibakar Banerjee, written by Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar, based on stories by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay): This film was highly recommended by Beth Loves Bollywood, and I had long been meaning to see it. While the widely testified appeal of its star Sushant Singh Rajput to women isn't apparent to me, I'm willing to accept it as a given. So I approached the film with a certain amount of anticipation.

The positives, sort of: the film has a very distinctive look. Atmospherically photographed by Nikos Andritsakis and art-directed to a fault by Sachin Bhoir, the film features a loving—perhaps too loving—recreation of Calcutta in the 1940s. Calcutta in 1943 actually suffered from a severe famine; in Bengal as a whole (at the time, of course, including East Bengal/Bangladesh) millions died from starvation and disease.

But not a trace of these events appears in the film. Instead, it features vintage cars (were there that many late-model cars driving around impoverished, starving Calcutta in the wartime 1940s, when petrol must have been in short supply? Just asking), streetcars, buildings, signs, furniture, even paan boxes: Bhoir's props, sets and exteriors display a mind-boggling level of period detail:


The art direction and production design, though, occasionally call too much attention to themselves and distract from the story. As an example, when our hero goes to a closed chemical factory to search for clues, the place looks like it's been shut down for decades instead of just a few months:


But remarkable as the art direction is, that attention to period detail is entirely missing from Sneha Khanwalkar's soundtrack, which every so often incongruously erupts in rap-metal.

That's not the only jarring element in the film: in the character of Anguri Devi (Swastika Mukherjee), Banerjee plays with femme fatale and dragon lady stereotypes. But when he decides to undermine those stereotypes towards the end of the film, he does so in a way that is hardly believable. (Would a character this worldly and hard-bitten really have acted so stupidly?) Satyawati (Divya Menon), the virtuous good girl to Anguri's bad girl, has hardly any screen time and (as Beth notes) ultimately becomes a clichéd damsel in distress.

And the ending: Detective Bakshy calls all of the suspects together, and of course they all come, and then the villain reveals himself and confesses all. Perhaps this ending is true to Bandyopadhyay's stories; nonetheless, it seems like a creaky contrivance. As does the final sequence in the film, where the villain escapes in order to leave open the possibility of a sequel. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is stylishly filmed and well-performed by its cast; alas, with such a problematic script that's not quite enough.


Tamasha (Spectacle, 2015; written and directed by Imtiaz Ali):

—There's this Imtiaz Ali movie...
—Yes?
—It features this wild, Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
—Don't tell me: played by Deepika Padukone?
—Yes! She's spontaneous and fun, loves to drink, party, and have no-strings-attached sex with the hero.
—Right. In fact, she's not just willing to have sex without commitment, she actively rejects the very idea of commitment. And so does the hero. Because commitment's a drag, and lack of commitment is freedom!
—But then she discovers that she loves him after all.
—Got it. That's Love Aaj Kal.
—I was thinking of another one.
—Then you can only mean Cocktail!
—Ummm...sorry...another one?
—You can't be serious: is that the plot of Tamasha?
—Ummm...yes.
—No one would make the same film over and over again, would they? Particularly with women characters so patently the projection of some male fantasy?
—Well, the tagline is "Why always the same story?"
—That has to be deliberately ironic...doesn't it?
—With Imtiaz you can never be sure.
—I'm beginning to think that I'm permanently allergic to Imtiaz Ali movies.
—You were expecting maturity of vision? In this appalling movie Ranbir Kapoor needs to rediscover his inner child (almost literally) and create a theatrical spectacle about the soul-destroying world of modern work. Clearly this will be shattering news to all of us. Meanwhile Deepika, his catalyst, his muse, gets to cry, look on and applaud.
—Deepika Padukone can pretty much do anything, though. Even carry off these two-dimensional male-fantasy characters.
—Yes. But wouldn't it be nice if she didn't have to ever again?



Kapoor & Sons (2016; directed by Shakun Batra and written by Batra and Ayesha Devitre Dhillon): The DVD cover proclaims that this is "Karan Johar's Kapoor & Sons," and there's no mistaking the KJo house style. Set among the privileged, glossily filmed (though a hand-held camera is used by Batra for heightened "realism"), featuring bitter family conflicts and tearful reconciliations, Johar's films are highly calculated and emotionally manipulative. That doesn't mean, of course, that they're not often effective.

Chief among this movie's virtues is its cast of highly sympathetic actors. Rishi Kapoor is very convincing as a 90-year-old dadu whose birthday brings the scattered members of his family back together. His son Harsh (Rajat Kapoor, the molesting uncle in Monsoon Wedding) is emotionally estranged from his volatile wife Sunita (Ratna Pathak). Their sons Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) and Rahul (Fawad Khan), each living abroad, are also estranged: Arjun resents his brother's accomplishments and has never felt that he measured up to his parents' expectations, while Rahul, the successful "perfect son," is harboring a deep secret. The always-delightful Alia Bhatt is Tia Malik, a young woman who finds herself attracted to both brothers.

The movie is structured around the birthday party and attempts to take a family photo, both of which end in disaster when long-festering resentments surface and secrets are unwillingly revealed. And then, tragedy strikes...

The movie is full of, if not overstuffed with, emotional scenes. But undermining the emotion is the screenwriters' too-frequent tendency to go for the thudding cliché:






Perhaps these lines, and others like them that I didn't include, seem a little less banal in Hindi (though some of them are spoken in English). Still, the screenwriters' recourse to commonplaces at key moments strikes this viewer as a failure of imagination. Full props to them, though, for creating a gay character who is neither a campy caricature nor a tragic victim.

Fawad Khan is not just a pretty face and gym-toned body: he does an excellent job with the difficult role of Rahul. And for him to take on this character was an act of courage. It's impossible to watch him in this movie, though, without thinking of Johar's recent pledge not to use Pakistani actors in his future films. The ban was initially promulgated by the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association as a response to the September 18 attack against an Indian army base in Uri, Kashmir. The ban was also a tacit show of support for the pronouncements of the Hindu nationalist group Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which on September 23 ordered all Pakistani actors and film technicians to leave India within 48 hours or "we shall push them out."

At first Johar did not endorse the ban, saying that the solution to terrorism "cannot involve banning talent or art...We make movies, we spread love." However, after threats by the MNS to prevent screenings of his latest film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which also stars Fawad, Johar reluctantly joined the boycott, saying "For me, my country comes first…Going forward, I would like to say that of course I wouldn’t engage with talent from the neighbouring country given the circumstance."

Banning actors from "the neighbouring country" seems not only unjust (as Salman Khan has said, actors are "artistes not terrorists") but, for those who seek peace and mutual understanding, counterproductive. Clearly, though, great pressure, including threats, is being brought to bear on actors and filmmakers. I don't think it's my place to judge, but I can't help being deeply disappointed by what seems a short-sighted and unworthy response to this situation by many in the Indian film industry.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Seasons of blood: The Commissario Ricciardi novels of Maurizio De Giovanni


Maurizio de Giovanni. Photo: La Repubblica

Naples, 1931. It is Year Nine of Mussolini's Fascist rule. Men in black uniforms stride through the streets, embodying an ever-present threat of violence. Meanwhile, police inspector Commissario Luigi Ricciardi and his loyal partner Brigadier Raffaele Maione try to avoid politics and do their jobs. But solving crimes against the great and the downtrodden inevitably brings them into contact, and sometimes conflict, with the power of the national regime. A regime that is reaching deeper into ordinary citizens' daily lives:
"Lucia wasn't interested in politics, as far as she cared one party was as good as another, but now things were starting to change. Every day she heard reports of a beating, an injury, an arrest. People said that spies were everywhere, that if you said a harsh word about a public official, or a government institution, there were people who would hurry to inform on you and someone would quickly come calling for an explanation of what you had said. Lucia was convinced that it was best to keep your mouth shut and mind your own business." (Viper, p. 207)
The historical setting is one of the most unusual and compelling elements of Maurizio De Giovanni's Commissario Ricciardi novels. Each novel takes place during a particular time of year, and De Giovanni vividly renders the characteristic sights, sounds and smells of Naples (including its seasonal festivals, cuisine and other traditions).

Another unusual element of the books is the presence of the supernatural. From the time he was a boy, Ricciardi has seen visions of those who have recently died, and heard their final thoughts. It is a curse that has blighted his life, not only because he is continually beset by images of horror—gruesome descriptions of children hit by cars, drowned fishermen, love suicides and the victims of industrial accidents recur throughout the novels—but also because his inability to share this affliction has condemned him to a life of solitude.

At first I had mixed feelings about Ricciardi's special powers of perception; these visions of the dead would seem to give a detective a distinct advantage when trying to track down a murderer. It works that way only obliquely, however:
"The Deed, as Ricciardi called his curse to perceive the last sorrow and pain of the dead, almost never helped him to uncover the way that death took place. It was just an emotion, a simple manifestation of the dying person's suffering upon being removed from this life: the final separation. Like a scream, or a sigh, or a regret. Or all these things together." (By My Hand, p. 174) 
Ricciardi lives with Rosa, his elderly tata (that is, his former nanny and now housekeeper), in a modest apartment across the street from that of the Columbo family. The Columbo's eldest daughter, Enrica, is not a head-turning beauty, but she has a gentleness of nature and sweetness of disposition that Ricciardi finds deeply appealing. The domestic contentment that she and her family represent are a profound relief from the grim realities he encounters in his work. Each night from his bedroom window he watches her embroidering; she is aware of and welcomes his gaze, but both are too reticent to express their feelings.

Matters between Enrica and Ricciardi are complicated by the presence of the gorgeous Livia Vezzi, the widow of the murder victim in the first novel in the series, who falls for Ricciardi and pursues him aggressively but fruitlessly. Meanwhile, Enrica's mother tries to arrange a match for her with the callow son of a family acquaintance. One of the poignant pleasures of reading the novels is watching the tragicomedy of Enrica and Ricciardi's halting attempts to reach out to one another, and how they are undermined by misunderstandings on both sides.

Another pleasure of the series is watching De Giovanni stretch further beyond the stylistic conventions of the mystery novel with each successive book. The narratives become more layered, and increasingly there are chapters that feature cinematic intercutting between scenes, characters, and points of view, often unidentified. It is only late in the novels that we can determine from the internal evidence whose perspectives we have heard at each point. The recurring characters also become richer and more complex over the course of series.

One thing that may frustrate dedicated mystery fans is that while the setups are often fairly traditional—a corpse is discovered and there are no witnesses to the killing—the murders are not generally solved by Poirotvian ratiocination. (Indeed, reasoning about those who might have murderous motives generally just multiplies the number of plausible suspects.) Instead the crime is usually solved by a flash of insight on Ricciardi's part that suddenly enables the pieces of the puzzle to come together. These flashes of insight sometimes involve characters who are a minor presence in the book before the final pages. Whether you see this as a violation of the unstated rules of the mystery novel or as a realistic depiction of how we actually think about and solve problems will depend on your perspective (I am in the latter camp).

I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Fandango libri, 2007; English edition: Europa Editions, 2012, translated by Anne Milano Appel) is the first novel in the series, and is also the entry that is most indebted to traditional mystery-novel conventions. The body of a famous tenor is found in his locked dressing room backstage at the opera house during a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. The final utterance of his spirit is a line from an aria in Cavalleria Rusticana: "Io sangue voglio" (translated as "I will have vengeance," although its literal meaning is "I long for blood"). The ultimate solution of the mystery depends not so much on clues from the crime scene, but on an understanding of the operas that were being performed—an understanding helpfully provided by an opera-loving priest, Don Pierino, who will reappear in later novels in the series.
"'It wouldn't hurt, maybe, if you were to listen to some opera. It would do you good to see how beautiful a feeling, its expression, can be.'
Surprisingly, don Pierino saw a shadow of immense sorrow in Ricciardi's green eyes. Not a recollection, but rather a condition. As if, just for a moment, the policeman had opened a window on the mysterious territory of his soul.
'I know about feelings, Father. And one can also have too much of them.'" (p. 69)

Blood Curse: The Springtime of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Fandango libri, 2008; English edition: Europa Editions, 2013, this and subsequent novels in the series translated by Anthony Shugaar) features the return of the beautiful widow Livia Vezzi and the beginning of her determined romantic siege of Ricciardi. He spends his nights trying to dodge her while spending his days trying to solve the murder of an elderly fortune-teller, who, it turns out, did a brisk business on the side as a moneylender of last resort. Was she murdered by someone who couldn't pay back a loan, or by someone whose secrets she had extracted and used for blackmail? The investigation leads Ricciardi and Maione into the vicoli (alleyways) and bassi (ground-floor apartments) of the poor, as well as into the mansions of the rich.
"Even at that time of night, when the shops and cafés were closed, Via Toledo swarmed with both the living and the dead...The real name of that street was 'borderline.' A boundary dividing two populaces as different as night and day, pitted against each other in a tacit, unending war...Power and the abuse of power, honor and pride, comfort and envy: all of them the spawn of hunger and love." (p. 41)

Everyone in Their Place: The Summer of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Fandango libri, 2009; English edition: Europa Editions, 2013) involves the killing of the Duchess of Camparino, the beautiful second wife of the ailing and elderly Duke. Behind the facade of upper-class propriety, Ricciardi and Maione find a tangled history of love affairs, class resentment, and ties to the Fascist leadership. One of the suspects is finally brought to confess—but is she really the murderer? This novel also features Ricciardi's first close encounters with the secret police, including a highly implausible personal revelation by its mysterious leader. A bit of anachronism, though, can be easily forgiven when De Giovanni's fictional world is otherwise so rich.
"He felt like an emotional apprentice. At his age, when most men have already had wives, children, and countless clandestine or frankly commercial sexual encounters, all he knew about love was the snips of monologues spouted by the various cadavers that he'd met. As he was walking in the shaft of light from the setting sun, he thought to himself that love is an infected root that seeks out the best way to survive: a fatal illness with an incredibly long course that causes addiction, making the victim prefer suffering to well-being, grief to tranquility, uncertainty to stability." (pp. 263-264)

The Day of the Dead: The Autumn of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Fandango libri, 2010; English edition: Europa Editions, 2014): Ricciardi and Maione are summoned when a scugnizzo, a street kid, is found dead with his loyal dog sitting nearby; the boy had ingested poisoned rat bait. But Ricciardi looks in vain for the ghostly image of the dead child uttering his final thoughts. He realizes that the child must have died elsewhere and been moved to where he was found. Who would have moved the body, and why? The investigation leads to an orphanage run by the brutal and exploitative priest Don Antonio, who is protected by highly-placed connections in a church that is all too cozy with the Fascist government. Intense pressure also comes down from Ricciardi's bosses to wrap up the case before a visit to Naples by Edda Mussolini, Benito's daughter, who happens to be a close friend of Livia Vezzi. In keeping with the autumnal setting, this is the bleakest novel in the series, and its ending is suitably unsettled. There is no satisfying resolution or restoration of the moral order; in the case of violence against children, De Giovanni implies, no neat moral restitution may be possible.
"But the war that you fought, he mused, looking down at the body on the table, was one of neither glory nor grandeur. It was a war for survival, a war to live long enough to see the sun come up the next day or to wake up to the feeling of rain on your skin. A war for bread, a war against the cold, a war for a dry place to sleep...the war of life." (p. 52)

By My Hand: The Christmas of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Einaudi Editore, 2011; English edition: Europa Editions, 2014) contrasts the festive season with the investigation of a brutal killing. A corrupt Fascist official and his wife are savagely murdered in their apartment, and in trying to solve the case Ricciardi and Maione must navigate a political minefield. Christmas, though, is also a time of desperation for those living on the margins:
"December twenty-third is the last chance. The verdummari, the fruit and vegetable vendors, know it, sitting with their weary, worried gaze in the center of their elaborate installations...The chill is welcome, because it wards off the scourge of insects, but what hasn't been sold by the twenty-third runs a serious risk of lying there and rotting;  that's why sales are being called out to the passersby in such pleading tones, in sharp contrast to the triumphant calling of their wares on the past few mornings, when the vendors' voices resounded cheerful and bright, summoning the housewives to make their purchases.
Now they're begging, supplicating: Come buy, come buy. Take pity.
Because December twenty-third is the last chance." (pp. 277-278)

Viper: No Resurrection for Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Einaudi Editore, 2012; English edition: Europa Editions, 2015): A notorious prostitute is found suffocated in her bedroom in the city's most famous brothel, Il Paradiso. But the perfumed indolence of the brothel hides a veritable maelstrom of jealousies, rivalries, and resentments. Meanwhile, Dr. Bruno Modo, the ascerbic medical examiner, has a confrontation with a group of blackshirts and is kidnapped from his hospital. Ricciardi and Maione must work against the clock to rescue Modo before he is sent to a concentration camp on a desolate island from which he may never return.
"'Rosaria was beautiful, and she was becoming more beautiful with every day. No one who came through our farms, the merchants who came to buy broccoli, the butchers who brought us their hogs to fatten, could look at her without being tempted to touch. I was sixteen years old and she was fourteen, and I can't tell you how many times the others had to hold me back, to keep me from winding up in prison for stabbing someone. But now I understand that such a beautiful woman can't be born in a place like that. It's not right. Beauty, Commissa', it's something you have to be able to afford.'" (pp. 62-63)

The Bottom of Your Heart: Inferno for Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Einaudi Editore, 2014; English edition: Europa Editions, 2015): From Il Paradiso to inferno: Naples is suffering a searing mid-summer heatwave as the Festival of Our Lady of Mount Carmel approaches. But as well as the oppressive heat, it is the inferno of human passions from which Ricciardi and Maione can find no respite. A renowned obstetrician, Professor Iovine, has plummeted from his office window to his death on the pavement seventy feet below. Was the murderer the gangster whose wife died in childbirth? The jealous lover of the professor's mistress? Or the son of a professional rival whom Iovine had betrayed and ruined? Meanwhile, Brigadier Maione is tormented by doubts about the faithfulness of his wife, Lucia, who is spending her afternoons in an apartment building that houses a notorious playboy.
"The professor is falling.
He's falling, and as he falls, he spreads his arms wide, as if trying to embrace the scorching summer night that stretches out to catch him.
He's falling, and since the brief struggle knocked all the air out of his lungs, his body now pointlessly demands that he take a deep breath, even though the new lungful of oxygen won't do him a bit of good, won't even have the chance to make it into his bloodstream...
The professor is falling. And as he does, his thoughts shatter into a thousand tiny shards...One of those shards catches a flicker of love.
If he could only linger over the topic, the professor would muse on the strangeness of love. It makes you do such strange things, things you would never usually do; love sometimes makes you ridiculous, and other times fills your life with color. Love creates and love destroys, he would say, employing one of his proverbial figures of speech. Love can even throw you out a window." (pp. 10-12)

Update 26 November 2016: The eighth novel in the Commissario Ricciardi series, Glass Souls, will be published by Europa Editions in 2017.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

In memoriam: Kay Starr



Image of Kay Starr: Memphis Music Hall of Fame

Kay Starr died Thursday in Los Angeles at the age of 94. She was a singer who ignored genre boundaries, singing big band jazz, country (her 1952 hit "Wheel of Fortune" could have been sung by Patsy Cline), and even proto-rock 'n' roll.

In memoriam: From the Rita Hayworth film Down to Earth (1947) the song "Kiss of the Muse," in which the amazing Starr voices Terpsichore (portrayed by the sassy Adele Jergens). They don't, and couldn't, make them like this any more:




Saturday, October 22, 2016

For a later age: The Beethoven string quartets part 1

Beethoven in 1805

Portrait of Beethoven (detail), by Joseph Maehler, 1805
"Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age."

—Beethoven to the first musicians attempting to play his Op. 59 string quartets
Last weekend I attended the first two of a series of six concerts by the Takács Quartet in which they will be surveying all of Beethoven's music for string quartet. What follows, to be continued in the spring, are my reflections on the experience of the concerts and the surrounding activities sponsored by UC Berkeley's performing arts organization Cal Performances.

The Takács residency began at noon on Friday October 14 with what was billed as an open rehearsal. I wouldn't actually describe what took place as a rehearsal—it was more an open conversation about the problems posed for the performers by the specific quartets that would be played that weekend. Each musician took turns leading a discussion of a particular moment they found especially problematic or striking in one of the quartets, and (together with the other musicians) demonstrating different ways that the passage could be approached.

What quickly became clear was the quartet's good humor and ease with one another. The Takács (pronounced, roughly, "Tah-katch") has existed for 42 years, and the newest member, violist Geraldine Walther, has been with them for more than a decade. What was also immediately apparent was the sheer number of decisions that have to be made in translating notes on a page into a vibrant and coherent performance. Here are just a few:
  • bowing: whether a note is played on an upstroke or downstroke; close to the frog (where the player holds the bow), the middle, or the tip of the bow; closer to the bridge or to the fingerboard. Each choice creates a different quality of sound.
  • articulation: whether a note is played staccato (crisply), legato (flowingly), or sforzando (a sharp attack to create emphasis).
  • volume: should the note be played loudly, softly, somewhere in between? And should each instrument try to play at the same volume, or should one or another instrument try to make their line more prominent? Should the note be a part of a gradual or sudden crescendo (increase) or diminuendo (decrease) in sound level?
  • tempo: Beethoven's indications of tempo for the quartets played this first weekend include adagio cantabile (slow, with a singing quality), larghetto espressivo (rather slow and with feeling), allegretto ma non troppo (moderately fast, but not too much so), allegro vivace (quick and lively), and allegro assai (very fast). The members of the quartet must agree on exactly what each of these phrases means, and how the tempo should contrast with those that come immediately before and after it.
Together, these choices (and I'm sure I've left many out) make up the musical character that is expressed by the passage in question. And perhaps it's an obvious point, but the players in a small ensemble are more exposed than those in an orchestra or even than a soloist. What any individual member of an orchestra is playing tends to blend into the combined sound of the full group, while a soloist only has to agree with him- or herself about these issues. The members of a quartet each play single parts that unite to make a whole, and so they must try to match one another closely. Any divergence in approach or slip in intonation is immediately apparent.

Takacs Quartet

The Takács Quartet: András Fejér (cello), Edward Dusinberre (first violin), Geraldine Walther (viola), and Károly Schranz (second violin)

The way that each of these musical elements affects how a work can sound became even more apparent during master classes held at the Department of Music later that afternoon. I attended sessions led by Walther and by Károly Schranz, the second violinist. (The members of the Quartet call Schranz "Kársci," pronounced, roughly, "Garshy"; Walther is "Geri.") Walther was extremely gentle with her students, generally posing her suggestions as questions ("Do you think we might slur this a bit more?"), and playing along with them to demonstrate her points and provide support. Schranz was also reassuring ("It's good, it's good," he would say), but then would borrow a student's instrument to suggest a new approach. In both cases, the improvement after even a few minutes was audible even to a listener as naïve as myself.

The afternoon's events also introduced us to Nicholas Mathew, Associate Professor of Music History at Berkeley, who was invited to make some introductory comments at the open rehearsal, and who would give the pre-concert talks throughout the cycle. Mathew is a rock star. Charismatic, articulate, overflowing with ideas, but also genuinely interested in drawing others into the conversation, he made us all want to go back to school and become music majors.

In the evening Mathew interviewed first violinist Edward Dusinberre about his new book, Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets (University of Chicago Press, 2016). The book is a first-person history of the Takács Quartet (Dusinberre joined in 1993, replacing the founding first violinist Gabor Takács-Nagy), a description of the compositional origins of selected Beethoven quartets and a detailed account of the challenges of performing them.

Both on the page and in person Dusinberre has a delightfully dry and self-deprecating sense of humor. A key point he makes both in the book and the interview was that the answers to the problems posed by the quartets can never be final, but necessarily differ with every performance. Thus the theme of the weekend, "Making and Remaking the Beethoven Quartets"; the quartets are made and remade every time they are played.

That sense of contingency, risk, and excitement was palpable during the weekend's concerts. The Takács programmed the series brilliantly. Instead of playing the entire quartet cycle in chronological order, in each concert they performed an early, middle, and late quartet (and will continue this pattern in the spring). It allowed us to hear over the course of a single concert both the radical changes in Beethoven's style over time, and also the continuities.

On Saturday evening the Takács opened the first concert in the series with the String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 (1800). The first movement of this quartet sounds almost as though it could have been written by Mozart or Haydn; in its lightness and elegance it is an audible homage to Beethoven's predecessors and (in the case of Haydn) teacher. The contrast with the middle-period String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, Serioso (1810), was stark. Here was the dark, stormy music that I think of when I hear the name Beethoven; it's perhaps the quartet equivalent of the Fifth Symphony (first performed in 1808). This is the quartet of which the composer famously said that it was "written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public." It must indeed have sounded radical during its first performance in 1814, because it still does today.

The concert concluded with the late String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 (1825). The Quartet chose to play it with the second ending, which Beethoven composed after his publisher complained about the length and difficulty of the first one. (The original final movement was later published as a separate piece entirely, the Grosse Fuge, "Great Fugue," Op. 133.) With its six movements, this quartet breaks with the then-standard four-movement structure. The first "extra" movement, the fifth, is marked "Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo" (slowly, and with great feeling):



After this outpouring of lyricism (even more powerful when heard live), I was stunned. All I wanted was a few moments of silence to try to take in what I'd just heard. But—without a break—Beethoven has the performers move into the finale, a rollicking, boisterous "country dance," as Nic Mathew described it. It utterly tramples on the mood created by the Cavatina, as if Beethoven could not bear the feelings his own music evoked. The finale seems to me to be an act of self-vandalism; I wish that he had simply cut it off and let the quartet end with the Cavatina. Even better would be if he had placed 10 measures of rest at the end of the piece, so that the audience wouldn't prematurely break the spell by bursting into applause.

When I expressed this thought to the group I'm attending the concerts with, I got some funny looks. I felt like I was revealing a shameful lapse in taste, as though I were expressing a preference for art that is pretty and unchallenging. But the Cavatina is anything but unchallenging—it is profound and deeply moving. And, really: is Beethoven beyond criticism? Although I might indeed be displaying my own intellectual shortcomings, I can't help but feel that even Beethoven sometimes needed an editor.

But it's not only members of my concertgoing group who aren't disconcerted, as I am, by the second finale. In Beethoven for a Later Age Dusinberre, who has played Op. 130 with the Takács for almost 25 years, writes that in place of the Grosse Fugue he has come to prefer the alternative ending, which is
less taxing to muscles and psyche. When I first learned Opus 130 I had more zest for the fugue's violent energy, but now I am drawn to the music of...Opus 130's alternative finale, which dare[s] to brush off past conflicts and anguish. (p. 230)
We'll see if the Grosse Fugue's "violent energy" is preferable to what seems to me the incongruous cheerfulness of the second finale: the Takács will perform Op. 130 with its original ending to close the final concert of the series in April.

The Sunday afternoon concert began with the Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1800), which is notable for its second movement. Marked Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato (slowly, tenderly and passionately), it was said by a close friend of Beethoven's to represent the tomb scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Beethoven wrote on the sketches for the movement "il prend le tombeau" (he descends into the tomb), "désespoir" (despair), "il se tue" (he kills himself),  "les derniers soupirs" (the last breaths). At the time he was composing this quartet Beethoven had fallen hopelessly in love with one of his piano students, Josephine von Brunsvik. She, though, was engaged to another man and apparently did not return Beethoven's affection.

It's usually simplistic to try to read biographical details into musical composition. Apparently the last piece of music an ill and suffering Beethoven completed before his death in 1827 was that jaunty finale to Op. 130. But the anguished slow movement of Op. 18 No. 1 does indeed sound like the musical expression of Beethoven's crushed romantic hopes:



The next piece on the program was the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, Harp, so called (not by Beethoven) because it calls for extensive pizzicato (plucking) in the first movement. But again, it was the slow second movement that I found most engaging. As the members of the quartet made clear in the open rehearsal, slow movements as well as fast ones are technically difficult; they must be deliberate enough to fully express the character of the music, but not so slow that they become static. It's a fine balance that the Takács has found unerringly so far.

The final quartet was Op. 131, often lauded as the pinnacle of Beethoven's achievement in the string quartet. (This is the quartet that is central to Yaron Zilberman's 2012 film A Late Quartet.) It has seven movements that are played continuously, rather than with standard pauses in between. As a result it is a bit of a marathon for performers and listeners alike.

Over its first 25 minutes or so, the mood shifts from serene to sprightly to reflective. Then in the fifth movement a manically insistent melody is played by the first violin. Over the next five minutes it undergoes variations but keeps returning over and over. The Takács played this section at an almost inhuman speed. While their virtuosity was breathtaking, I'm not a fan of technical difficulty for difficulty's sake. In his middle and late quartets Beethoven seems to be pushing musicians to the limits of what is possible, but to my ears the technical challenges are not always justified by the musical ends:



In its frantic energy and relentless repetition this movement reminded me of nothing so much as one of Carl Stalling's Looney Tunes soundtracks. This is followed by a brief, mournful adagio that leads into the broken rhythms of the finale, a powerful, "Beethovenian" conclusion:



But as Nic Mathew pointed out in his pre-concert talk, Beethoven possesses a "multiplicity of voices." To seek coherence in his late quartets—with their jarring shifts of mood, tone and tempo—is to look for a unity that Beethoven seems to delight in negating. As Dusinberre mentioned during his interview with Mathew, Beethoven repeatedly "confounds your expectations in an uncomfortable way." Perhaps the only way to approach these works is simply to accept what critic Edward Said has called their "bristling, difficult and unyielding—perhaps even inhuman—challenge" to performers and listeners alike.

The talks, interviews, master classes and other events surrounding these concerts immeasurably enriched the experience of this music for me. I'm very much looking forward to the Takács Quartet's return in the spring to continue their Cal Performances residency and complete the cycle of the Beethoven quartets. More posts will follow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The madness of love: Layla and Majnun, The Winter's Tale, and Kindra Scharich

As he was walking in the shaft of light from the setting sun, he thought to himself that love is an infected root that seeks out the best way to survive: a fatal illness with an incredibly long course that causes addiction, making the victim prefer suffering to well-being, grief to tranquility, uncertainty to stability.

—Maurizio de Giovanni, Everyone in Their Place: The Summer of Commissario Ricciardi (translated by Antony Shugaar)
Thanks to a gift from a dear friend I'm currently reading the Commissario Ricciardi novels of Maurizio de Giovanni (the subject of a future post). In the third novel in the series, Everyone in Their Place, love causes ordinary people to feel the unfamiliar, stabbing emotions of anguish, jealousy and hatred, and to contemplate (and sometimes commit) extraordinary acts of violence towards others and themselves. Love, Commissario Ricciardi begins to feel, is a form of madness.

It's a time-honored theme: a week ago I had the opportunity to witness three performances featuring works spanning half a millennium, all on the madness that love inspires.

Layla and Majnun, Mark Morris Dance Company, with Alim Qasimov (Majnun), Fargana Qasimova (Layla), and the Silk Road Ensemble. Seen in its world premiere performance Friday, September 30 at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley; commissioned and produced by Cal Performances.


Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova

Layla and Majnun, like Juliet and Romeo, are lovers tragically separated by their families. Layla is forced into an arranged marriage by her parents; Majnun ("madman") then wanders the desert declaiming poems in which his pure love for Layla becomes an aspect of his love for the Divine. When Layla dies Majnun makes a pilgrimage to her grave, where he perishes of grief, uniting with his beloved in death.


Majnun's death on Layla's grave, ca. 1450

It is a tale with ancient roots and it has been reimagined many times, in many cultures, and in many forms, including plays, novels and films. Perhaps the most renowned version is that by 12th-century poet Nezami Ganjawi, born in Azerbaijan when it was part of the Persian Seljuk Empire. Nezami's epic inspired the 16th-century Azerbaijani poet Füzuli to create his own version. And nearly four hundred years later, Füzuli's version was used by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli as the basis of an opera combining Western and Azerbaijani musical forms; the opera is still frequently performed in its country of origin.

A century after the opera's premiere in 1908, it was adapted and condensed by Azerbaijani mugham vocalist Alim Qasimov and musicians of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble into an hour-long work for two singers accompanied by a chamber orchestra mixing Western, Azerbaijani and Asian instruments. Mark Morris was then invited to choreograph a danced version, and eventually agreed; once again, the story has crossed boundaries of culture and artistic form.


Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble in Layla and Majnun

The first thing to say about Morris's Layla and Majnun is that it is less a dance piece accompanied by music than a musical work accompanied by dance. The centrality of the music to the experience of the work was made clear by the staging, which placed the musicians center stage surrounded by a stepped platform; the dancers performed on the platform, at the front of the stage, and occasionally among the musicians.

And the music—particularly the melismatic microtonal mugham singing—is stunning. Here's an example: Alim Qasimov and Faragana Qasimova performing part of the second section of the music of Layla and Majnun with the Silk Road Ensemble:



Rather than designating two soloists as Layla and Majnun, Morris had a different pair of dancers take on the roles in each of the five parts; he seemed to be saying that we are all potential Laylas and Majnuns. The movement vocabulary drew extensively on spinning reminiscent of ecstatic Sufi dancing. I was also reminded by a friend that Morris was once a member of the company of the choreographer Laura Dean, for whom whirling dancers became a signature. That friend also reported that on the second night some of the movement and interactions among the dancers had changed. Morris had clearly given his company the freedom to improvise in response to the vocalists' inspirations.

In the end, the music, the movement, and the striking backdrop by gestural painter Howard Hodgkin (which seemed to shift and change under James Ingalls' atmospheric lighting), combined into a stunning totality in which every element enhanced and enriched the meanings of the others. Another masterpiece from Mark Morris and his collaborators.

The Winter's Tale. Free Shakespeare in the Park. Seen Saturday, October 1 in McLaren Park, San Francisco; produced by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.


Happy Bohemians in SF Shakespeare Festival's "The Winter's Tale"

"The Winter's Tale" is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," dramas in which elements of both tragedy and comedy uneasily coexist. It was a bold choice for Free Shakespeare in the Park, because it's not an obvious crowd-pleaser: the mixed character of the play means that our responses must necessarily be mixed as well.

Leontes (Stephen Muterspaugh), ruler of Sicilia, is wildly jealous of his pregnant wife Hermione (Maryssa Wanlass). He suspects her of having an affair with his old friend Polixenes (David Everett Moore), king of Bohemia, who has been on an lengthy visit to Sicilia's court. In his madness Leontes twists everything into evidence of Hermione's unfaithfulness: when, at Leontes' bidding, Hermione urges Polixenes to extend his stay, Leontes sees both her willingness to make the request and Polixenes' acquiescence as confirmations of his suspicions.


Leontes (Muterspaugh), Hermione (Wanlass) and Polixenes (Moore) in "The Winter's Tale"

Leontes commands his advisor Camillo (Damon Seperi) to poison Polixenes; instead, Camillo warns Polixenes and flees with him to Bohemia—for Leontes, another confirmation that he is surrounded by disloyalty. When Hermione gives birth to a daughter, Leontes orders that the infant be abandoned in the wilderness and puts Hermione, accused of adultery, on trial for her life. Although the words of the Oracle proclaim her innocent, Leontes rejects them, and Hermione collapses and is announced to have died.

Sixteen years later the abandoned daughter, Perdita (Rosie Hallett), becomes engaged to Polixenes' son Prince Florizel (Davern Wright). Their engagement occasions Perdita's reunion with a now-repentant Leontes, a reconciliation between the estranged Leontes and Polixenes, and the discovery that Hermione did not die, but has been in hiding. It's hard to see this as a happy ending, though—by this point Leontes' brutal actions have forever forfeited our sympathies.

The actors were a talented and versatile ensemble, and director Rebecca J. Ennals and her creative design team cleverly pointed up the contrast between the sober, formal Sicilia and the colorful, joyful Bohemia. But another contrast—that between the sunny park setting and dark emotional world of the play—was perhaps too great for this outdoor "Winter's Tale" to fully succeed.

The Great German Songbook. Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano, with George Fee, piano. Seen Sunday, October 2, at the Noe Valley Ministry, San Francisco; produced by Lieder Alive!


To be without him is for me like the grave,
And the whole world is bitter.
My poor mind has gone mad,
My poor reason is dismantled,
My peace is gone, my heart is heavy,
I find it never and nevermore.

—Goethe, "Gretchen am Spinnrade" (Gretchen at the spinning wheel), from the musical setting by Franz Schubert
Love is, of course, the great subject of the German lied. And Kindra Scharich seems to be at her considerable best when performing songs of longing and sorrow. She is an exceptionally subtle and communicative singer who can command an audience's rapt attention with hushed inwardness as well as dramatic intensity.


Kindra Scharich

This program was designed to be a kind of greatest hits of the lied, featuring works by a half-dozen composers spanning the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was an ideal introduction to lieder for someone like me, who is just beginning to appreciate the form. Hearing Scharich sing again some of the pieces she had sung during her SF Music Day preview of this program a week earlier helped me to discover new details in the words and musical settings. The way, for example, in which Schubert repeats the opening line of Goethe's poem to end the song "Gretchen am Spinnrade," leaving us with a feeling of uncertainty or suspension that echoes that of the lovelorn speaker (and creating a circular structure that brings to mind the turning of her wheel). Or the way that Liszt has the bell-like piano fall silent in the middle of "Ihr Glocken von Marling" (You bells of  Marling):



If there was any minor issue with this superb program, it was that in the bright acoustic of the Noe Valley Ministry the volume of Fee's piano accompaniment never seemed to drop below mezzo-forte, even at those moments when Scharich was singing pianissimo. But this was a minor issue indeed.

Perhaps the peak moments of the concert were Scharich's performances of three Richard Strauss songs, the ardent "Zueignung" (Gratitude) and the quietly gorgeous "Morgen" (Morning) and "Allerseelen" (All Souls' Day), all of which simply glowed. Strauss's songs seem to be written for Scharich's rich vocal timbre and wide range; I very much hope that performing more of this composer is in her near-future plans.

This was the inaugural concert of Lieder Alive!'s 2016/17 Liederabend Series, which continues with Katherine Growdon, accompanied by Corey Jameson, performing Rilke songs by Schumann, Brahms, and Peter Lieberson on Sunday, October 30 at 5 pm in the Noe Valley Ministry. For more details about upcoming Liederabend concerts, please see the website of Lieder Alive!