Thursday, November 24, 2011

Montserrat Figueras, 1942-2011

Once heard, Montserrat Figueras' voice could never be forgotten. It was rich and dark-hued, and at the same time could suggest fragility and suppressed tears.

Yesterday came the sad news that she had died after a year-long battle against an unnamed illness. Our thoughts are with her and with her husband of more than 40 years, Jordi Savall.

"Dolcissimo sospiro" from Giulio Caccini's Nuove Musiche (1601); Montserrat Figueras, soprano, with Jordi Savall, viola da gamba:

Update 2 Dec 2011: A number of Montserrat Figueras tributes have been posted on the web. Among the best of them are Mark MacNamara's "In Memoriam: Montserrat Figueras (1942-2011)" for the San Francisco Classical Voice, and Alex Ross's "For Montserrat Figueras" on The Rest Is Noise.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Philippe Jaroussky and Apollo's Fire

Astounding is the first word that comes to mind when encountering Philippe Jaroussky in live performance or on record. Here's a taste: "Alto Giove" from Nicola Porpora's opera Polifemo (1735):

His amazingly pure and agile voice is usually described as a countertenor (that is, as a falsetto), but it sounds to me like a natural soprano. Whatever its true classification, it is astonishing.

Jaroussky, though, doesn't just rely on his lovely sound for effect: he is an extremely musical singer who has the rare ability to improvise embellishments that enhance the music he's performing. You can read about our first electrifying encounter with him in an earlier post on this year's Boston Early Music Festival's centerpiece opera, Steffani's Niobe.

This fall Jaroussky toured North America with Apollo's Fire, the Cleveland-based period instrument ensemble led by Jeannette Sorrell, in a program of pieces both bravura and affetuoso by Handel and Vivaldi. They appeared in Berkeley as part of the Cal Performances Early Music concert series on October 30, 2011, and we were fortunate enough to have fifth-row seats in the intimate Hertz Hall.

For the program "Handel and Vivaldi Fireworks," Jaroussky chose some Handel rarities from the later period of his operatic career; and as far as Vivaldi goes, practically all of his vocal music qualifies as rarities. You can see a summary of the program at the Cal Performances website; the unfamiliarity of much of the music only added to our sense of discovery. And while there were plenty of opportunities for Jaroussky to exhibit flights of almost-inhuman virtuosity, there were also many tender and lyrical moments (as in the Porpora aria excerpted above).

Jaroussky evidently favors collaborations with conductors and ensembles that exhibit a performance flair that matches his own: he has worked with Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Emmanuelle Haïm, Gabriel Garrido, and Fabio Biondi, all conductors who favor what might be called an interventionist, rather than evidence-based, period performance practice. Sorrell definitely favors a highly theatrical musical approach. For example, she would frequently insert unwritten rests: stopping the ensemble abruptly on the next-to-last note of a piece, pausing for several beats, and then sounding the final chord. This is probably an anachronistic practice deriving from the later 18th or even 19th century. But if Apollo's Fire lacked something in historical accuracy or elegance, it more than made up for it in the spirited way that it attacked the demands of Handel's and Vivaldi's very difficult instrumental writing.

In spite of his self-effacing willingness to share the spotlight, Jaroussky was clearly the star of the show. The audience response to his performances was so rapturous I feared for the structural integrity of the concert hall. Jaroussky responded by performing three encores written for famous castrati, all of which brought the audience to their feet. The first was "Alto Giove," written by Porpora for Farinelli. The second was the showpiece "Venti, turbini" from Handel's Rinaldo (1711), written for Nicolini (Jaroussky charmingly announced it from the stage by saying that the aria "has many notes"). And the third encore was a profoundly moving "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's Serse (1738), written for Caffarelli (Jaroussky's comment: "This aria doesn't have many notes—just the right ones"). It sent us home floating on air:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why I Love Bollywood: The Playlist (Part 2)

A continuation of Why I Love Bollywood: The Playlist (Part 1):

  1. Song: "Choli Ke Peeche" (What's beneath your blouse?)
    Film: Khal Nayak (The Anti-Hero, 1993); dir. Subhash Ghai
    Stars: Ila Arun, Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt
    Composers: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
    Singers: Ila Arun, Alka Yagnik

    I can't resist the playfully suggestive lyrics, propulsive music and Madhuri's outrageously flirtatious performance. What's beneath her choli? Her heart, of course:

  2. Song: "Dil Laga Liya" (I gave you my heart)
    Film: Dil Hai Tumhaara (My Heart Is Yours, 2002); dir. Kundan Shah
    Stars: Preity Zinta, Jimmy Shergill, Mahima Chaudhary, Rekha
    Composers: Nadeem-Shravan
    Singers: Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan

    Samir (Jimmy Shergill) loves Shalu (Preity Zinta), and Shalu loves Dev (Arjun Rampal), while Dev is betrothed to Shalu's sister Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhary). At Nimmi's engagement party Shalu performs a song that expresses her own hopeless love for Dev...

  3. Song: "Dil Cheez Kya Hai" (What is my heart?)
    Film: Umrao Jaan (1983); dir. Muzaffar Ali
    Star: Rekha
    Composers: Khayyam (music), Shahryar (lyrics).
    Singer: Asha Bhosle

    Another story of hopeless love; the tragic courtesan Umrao Jaan is Rekha's greatest role.

  4. Song: "Pyar Kiya" (When one has loved, why be afraid?)
    Film: Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960); dir. K. Asif
    Star: Madhubala
    Composers: Naushad (music), Shakeel Badayuni (lyrics)
    Singer: Lata Mangeshkar

    The dancer Anarkali (Madhubala) defiantly declares her love for Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) before the Emperor Akhbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) and his court. Sensing a theme?

  5. Song: "Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna" (Adorn yourself with henna)
    Film: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Take The Bride, 1995); dir. Aditya Chopra
    Stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol
    Composers: Jatin-Lalit (music), Anand Bakshi (lyrics)
    Singers: Udit Narayan, Lata Mangeshkar

    I love the interplay of secret glances and coded messages as Raj (Shah Rukh) performs this song for his lover Simran (Kajol) at the celebration of her engagement to another man.

  6. Song: "Kajra Re" (Dark eyes)
    Film: Bunty aur Babli (Bunty and Babli, 2005); dir. Shaad Ali
    Stars: Aishwarya Rai, Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan
    Composers: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (music), Gulzar (lyrics)
    Singers: Alisha Chinai, Shankar Mahadevan, Javed Ali

    An instant classic.

  7. Song: "Saakhiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin Aayegi"
    Film: Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Mistress and Servant, 2005); dir. Abrar Alvi
    Star: Minoo Mumtaz
    Composers: Hemant Kumar (music); Shakeel Badayuni (lyrics)
    Singer: Asha Bhosle

    The gorgeous black and white cinematography of this number (V. K. Murthy is the credited cinematographer, and this song was probably directed by Guru Dutt), with silhouetted backup dancers surrounding the brightly lit courtesan, shows what films lost when technicolor became the standard.

  8. Song: "Dhoom Taana"
    Film: Om Shanti Om (2007); dir. Farah Khan
    Stars: Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan
    Composers: Vishal Dadlani, Shekhar Ravjiani (music), Javed Akhtar (lyrics)
    Singers: Shreya Ghoshal, Abhijeet

    An homage to Bollywood heroes of the 1960s and 1970s, including Sunil Dutt, Rajesh Khanna, and Jeetendra, among others.

Why I Love Bollywood: The Playlist (Part 1)

In my second-ever post on this blog, "Why I Love Bollywood," I tried to explain why I find Indian cinema so powerfully appealing. But my halting attempts at explanation weren't nearly as eloquent as the movies themselves. After all, we had begun our journey of discovery not by reading about Bollywood, but by watching dance clips on local TV programs like Namaste America, Showbiz India, and India Waves.

So I began putting together "Why I Love Bollywood" compilations of some of my favorite Bollywood dance numbers for uncomprehending family and friends. The clips are not in chronological order; instead, I looked for connections of mood, imagery, or featured stars.* I focused on recent films because I thought that they would be more appealing to folks who had never encountered a Bollywood movie before, and also because I'm still woefully ignorant about Indian cinema's Golden Age. But (as you'll notice) I've slipped in an occasional classic or two. I clearly need some Helen, though.

This list is not in any way meant to be comprehensive or the "best" of anything. It is meant only to be entertaining.

  1. Song: "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" (We'll meet again as time goes by)
    Film: Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made In Heaven, 2009), dir: Aditya Chopra
    Stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Bipasa Basu, Lara Dutta, Preity Zinta, Rani Mukherji
    Composers: Salim-Sulaiman
    Singer: Sonu Nigam

    Shah Rukh Khan's homage to great stars of the 1950s through the 1970s: Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, and Rishi Kapoor (not to mention their leading ladies Nargis, Nutan, Helen, Sharmila Tagore and Neetu Singh). The visual and lyrical allusions to classic films in this number are incredibly dense—see the Wikipedia article on the song for details—but you don't have to be familiar with the originals to enjoy it.

  2. Song: "Mohe Panghat Pe" (Krishna teased me at the well)
    Film: Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960); dir. K. Asif
    Star: Madhubala
    Composers: Naushad (music), Shakeel Badayuni (lyrics)
    Singer: Lata Mangeshkar

    The shot of the court dancer Anarkali (Madhubala) lifting her veil at the opening of this song is justly one of the most famous in Indian cinema. Neither she nor we yet realize that the forbidden love of Krishna and Radha will have parallels to her love for Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar).

  3. Song: "Kahe Chhed Mohe" (Krishna teased me at the well)
    Film: Devdas (2002); dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
    Stars: Madhuri Dixit, Jackie Shroff, Shah Rukh Khan
    Composers: Ismail Darbar, Nusrat Badr
    Singers: Pandit Birju Maharaj, Madhuri Dixit, Kavita Krishnamurthy

    Director Bhansali's gorgeous homage to the great courtesan films such as Mughal-e-Azam, Pakeezah (The pure one, 1972), and Umrao Jaan (1981). It's another telling of the Krishna-Radha story, again with parallels to the lives of the protagonists: Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) has just forcibly seduced and abandoned his childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai); the courtesan Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) unwittingly reminds him of his guilt, while (like Anarkali) transgressing fiercely policed social boundaries by falling in love with him herself.

  4. Song: "Chaiyya Chaiyya" (Walk in the shadow of love)
    Film: Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998); dir. Mani Ratnam
    Stars: Malaika Arora, Shah Rukh Khan
    Composers: A. R. Rahman (music), Gulzar (lyrics)
    Singers: Sapna Awasti, Sukhwinder Singh

    The mind boggles as SRK and Malaika Arora dance on top of a moving train.

  5. Song: "Aisa Des Hai Mera" (Such is my country)
    Film: Veer-Zaara (2004); dir. Yash Chopra
    Stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta
    Composers: Madan Mohan, Sanjeev Kohli
    Singers: Gurdas Mann, Udit Narayan, Pritha Mazumder, Lata Mangeshkar

    SRK again, this time on top of a moving bus. The epitome of a Yash Chopra "scenic India" song.

  6. Song: "Lodi"
    Film: Veer-Zaara (2004); dir. Yash Chopra
    Stars: Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta
    Composers: Madan Mohan, Sanjeev Kohli
    Singers: Gurdas Mann, Udit Narayan, Lata Mangeshkar

    A delightful reunion between frequent 1970s co-stars Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini (Sholay (Fire, 1975), Trishul (1978), and many others), with Shah Rukh and Preity Zinta in attendance.

  7. Song: "Dola Re Dola" (Swinging and swaying)
    Film: Devdas (2002); dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
    Stars: Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai
    Composers: Ismail Darbar, Nusrat Badr
    Singers: Kavita Krishnamurthy, Shreya Ghoshal, Kay Kay

    Each time I watch this song featuring two of the greatest dancers in modern Bollywood, I'm amazed again by the swirling camerawork and lengthy continuous takes. A brilliant combination of form and content by director Bhansali.

More to follow in Parts 2, 3, and 4; I have also created a Why I Love Bollywood YouTube playlist.


* A note to Yash Raj Films, Eros Entertainment, Shemaroo, Tips, and other Indian producers: I would be more enthusiastic about using your YouTube videos in my posts and playlists if they were complete, were posted at the proper aspect ratio (not stretched or squashed), and had an English closed caption option. Since those criteria are only rarely met, I also rely on the many YouTubing Bollywood fans out there who share their favorite songs as a labor of love. They are apparently more concerned about attracting new audiences to your films than you are.