Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lincoln Center Festival: The Brits and the Dutch, and then the Americans

In the beginning, there was Mostly Mozart. The year was 1966, and the innovation was that Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall (known to we later generations as Avery Fisher Hall) was air conditioned, giving rise to this first indoor music festival in the United States.

Some thirty years later, Lincoln Center decided they needed a broader-based festival, and so created the international-focused Lincoln Center Festival, with John Rockwell serving as the first director, 1994 to 1998. (Wonder what he is up to these days?) It showcases a dazzling array of theater, music, dance, and multimedia. I first attended in 2000, to see the Olivier Messiaen tribute, comprised of Turangalîla-symphonie (1946-48), Des Canyons aux Étoiles . . . (1971-74), and Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà . . . (1987-91). The two evenings were transcendent, spending time in the sound poems of that genius. Messiaen is not in the usual repertoire rotation, and it was thrilling to hear the theramin, ondes Martenot, and other pieces in that exotic orchestration.

This year is the first I’ve attended since. I went, partly, because I have not been drinking of the well of “deep, serious think” for a while, something a friend commented on. My thoughts of late have been engaged in the realm of popular culture, and so I took this sojourn back to the grownup table of intellectual pursuits.

A Disappearing Number, a.k.a. Vanishing Passion

To make a longish story short, A Disappearing Number, which is being presented for a short run by the Lincoln Center Festival 2010 and the David H. Koch Theater, is a thrilling, thrilling, thrilling play -- perhaps a surprising statement for a work about mathematics, a subject that can instantly make eyes around the globe glaze over. David Finkle, Theatermania

The reviews for this theater piece were consistently good. Simon McBurney and his cohorts Complicite juxtapose two tales: a contemporary one of math professor Ruth Minnen (an engaging Saskia Reeves) and a businessman Al Cooper (a sincere Firdous Bamji) falling in love, marrying, trying to have a child; against a tale from 1914 of Cambridge math professor G. H. Hardy and the Indian phenom Srinivasa Ramanujan (Shane Shambhu), who writes to Hardy with his theories and whom he joins for a time at Cambridge. The tie between the two stories is that Ruth teaches Hardy’s classic work A Mathematician’s Apology, and Al’s parents are Indian.

The production is visually stimulating, with the staging combining conventional screen video as well as Matrix-like effects for the dancing numbers. The play tackles life, death, love, infinity, time, cultural identity: all “big think” ideas. But for all its depth, for me it lacked passion, real spark. I generally find mental gymnastics sexy, but this prattling left me cold, even the Grecian ending, with the “libation bearers” pouring out the “potassium phosphorous and calcium” that the body distills to. The only small moment that pinged my ear was “ a blast of statistics about the disappearance of honey bees in America that doesn’t seem to connect with anything else.” I thought it was a knowing goof amidst the proofs, the great X-Files meme about the disappearing bees.

Stranger in a Stranger Land, a.k.a. Governor’s Island

The festival put two performances on Governor’s Island, that odd white elephant with beautiful views of the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, et al between NY and NJ. The one I didn’t attend was the 12-hour Peter Stein adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel The Demon.

The other was the Dutch interpretation of Pieo Pasolini’s original 1968 film Teorema. Ivo van Hove and his Toneelgroep Amterdam troupe brought a stark story starkly to life in black and white: the venue was a warehouse, allowing for an enormous stage of an Ikea-like house. Into the lives of Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, and Housekeeper comes a Stranger, although in the program he is called “the Guest,” an important refinement.

The family is alienated from each other, and collectively soulless. The production tried to update the 1968 script with current pop culture references, including Meekrat Manor playing continuously on the TV, and Nirvana and Who songs.

So the Guest comes into this family and has sex with absolutely everyone. And that shocks them out of their false ways, until the father is literally naked amid a primal scream, and the housekeeper is floating, Christ-like arms outstretched, amid some dry ice.

A few people left midplay. The NY Times reviewer Jason Zinoman didn’t like it: “Instead of rising miraculously, her feet stay lodged to the ground. So does the entire production.”

It also left me cold. Except for the warm memory of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle—-similar idea, although the “Stranger” there is clearly the Devil--and my editing of a piece of Potter’s writing when he contributed an essay to the catalogue of his work that I put together for the day job. The acting was very good, but it was striving too hard to be deep.

I’m done with my conscious “big think” sojourn. I find satisfying richness and depth in Terry Teachout’s list of 15 favorite songs written for Hollywood movies, everyone one of which I know every note and word of. And I love Teachout's observation, “that seven of these songs were written for Fred Astaire to sing on screen, a statistic that speaks for itself.”

• "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (Blane-Martin, from Meet Me in St. Louis)
• "How About You?" (Lane-Freed, from Babes on Broadway)
• "I'm Old Fashioned" (Kern-Mercer, from You Were Never Lovelier)
• "Let's Face the Music and Dance" (Berlin, from Follow the Fleet)
• "The Man That Got Away" (Arlen-Gershwin, from A Star Is Born)
• "Moon River" (Mancini-Mercer, from Breakfast at Tiffany's)
• "One for My Baby" (Arlen-Mercer, from The Sky's the Limit)
• "The Shadow of Your Smile" (Mandel-Webster, from The Sandpiper)
• "Something's Gotta Give" (Mercer, from Daddy Long Legs)
• "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year" (Loesser, from Christmas Holiday)
• "Swinging on a Star" (Van Heusen-Burke, from Going My Way)
• "That's Entertainment" (Schwartz-Dietz, from The Band Wagon)
• "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (Gershwin-Gershwin, from Shall We Dance)
• "The Way You Look Tonight" (Kern-Fields, from Swing Time)
• "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" (Porter, from Something to Shout About)

There's so much "deep think" in them thar songs . . . .


ejaz14357 said...

M.A.Peel,it is good blog spot,so i like it.

M.A.Peel said...

Thanks ejaz.