Sunday, November 26, 2006

too much of a good thing

Last Wednesday, my friends and I went to see "For Your Consideration," the latest from Christopher Guest and his cohort. Though I didn’t know too much about the premise going in, I consider myself reasonably well-versed in all other things Guest, and so was expecting something to measure up to that lofty standard. What I did know of the film seemed promising – I mean, how could you go wrong with this troupe handling a movie within a movie called “Home for Purim"?

Well, somehow they managed to. They didn’t actually go wrong, per se; they just didn’t go right. The movie never really got off the ground. Instead of gaining momentum over the rougly 90 minutes, the plot merely sat, inert. Though there were a few good laughs (albeit far fewer and none so hearty as those in other films) and one or two hilarious characters, the film, as a whole felt underdeveloped.

Catherine O’Hara, as the actress Marilyn Hack was, in a word, TERRIFYING. I mean, truly. The central plot point in the movie is that someone, somewhere on the internet has mentioned her name and “oscar-worthy" in the same sentence (not a strong jumping off point in the first place, given the impression everyone watching must get that “Home for Purim” is a total piece of schlock). Months after filming has wrapped, Hack awaits the announcements of oscar noms. In the interim, she has undergone a facelift so unforunate it can only be described as grotesque. It was hard to look at. Extremely difficult.

Jane Lynch, as the host of a fictional Entertainment Tonight-inspired show, gives the movie its finest moments, and Parkey Posey, as usual, is in fine form. But in general, this half-hearted attempt at Hollywood satire fails to get off the ground. Maybe next time - if there is a next time - we'll see a return to form from Guest & co.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Wanna be a movie critic? Well TOO BAD.

Romenesko linked to a blog posting from the Orlando Sentinel's Roger Moore about professional movie reviewers. In so many words, he tells all those young would-be critics to give up now because they'll never be able to find a job, or, if they do, it won't last long.

It makes for interesting reading, especially in light of the fact that the Syracuse Post-Standard, where I'm currently an intern, just last week announced it could no longer sustain such a large newsroom staff and would be offering buyout options. Inevitably, this will have an adverse effect on arts coverage, in a town where there's already too little.

There are some other nuggets of wisdom in here as well - check it out here or copy and paste the link below:

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How to build a nook!

Last weekend I had a story in the Post-Standard's Home & Garden section on how to make yourself a cozy spot in your house/apartment, conceived and written in anticipation of the bleak Syracuse winter ahead. To the right, you can see my own attempt to craft a comfortable nook in my apartment where I can read and do productive things - a project which has actually met with some degree of success. I can only hope that the more time and effort I invest in enhancing this corner, the greater my productivity will be...

And below is my Post-Standard story. As ever, enjoy!

Find a cozy nook to while away winter's chill

Saturday, November 11, 2006
By Kathleen V. Poe
Contributing writer

The days are getting shorter, the evenings chillier, the wind more biting. It's almost enough to make you never want to leave your house again - and it hasn't even snowed yet.

Once winter arrives in Syracuse in full force, you might be inclined to hunker down at home with a good book or movie, or cozy up by the fireplace to shut out the frosty weather. After a few weeks, though, you could start to feel a little stir-crazy. Instead of letting the walls of your home close in on you this winter, why not fend off cabin fever by creating a comfort space?

"People always seem to go to the coziest nook in their house," said Carolyn Sollis, style director for House & Garden magazine, before speaking to a crowd of more than 150 at the Fayetteville Stickley showroom Oct. 26. "I think people like the idea of vast spaces, but in fact they really feel more comfortable in a little enclosed space. They feel protected."

Her decorating philosophy rests on the intangible sense of how a space makes you feel. The five things every space needs, according to Sollis: character, comfort, color, contrast and change. These principles apply on any scale, whether it's a college apartment or a new house.

"You have to figure out what you love and what you respond to, because if your house reflects that, then you really feel great," Sollis said. "You don't need to look down the road and see what your neighbors are doing, because that's not necessarily for you."

Here are some tips for creating a comfortable space where you can while away the hours:

- It's important to remember that even a small change can have a big impact. Sollis looks to accents and accessories to enhance the cozy feeling of a space without breaking the bank: new pillows or a throw for your favorite chair, or a small area rug for cushioning underneath.

Candles and accessories that have an interesting texture, like baskets or things made of twigs, make especially nice wintertime decorations.

"It sounds silly, but if you put one collection of something in a big bowl rather than a lot of different kinds of things, I think it has a great look, a great impact," Sollis said.

And, of course, lighting is of utmost importance.

"Good lighting makes a big difference," said Sollis, who changes her lampshades seasonally. "I have great red lampshades that I put on in my living room (for the winter), and just changing the lampshades makes a huge difference."

- For those nook-seekers who have limited space, "I think you have got to find a wonderful chair," she said. "That would be the key."

A single chair can be the linchpin to a comfort space where you can read a book, watch TV or otherwise relax and set aside the stress of the day. But as comfortable as your favorite chair might be, Sollis stressed that you might want to invest in the area around it as well if you plan on spending a lot of time there.

"When you sit down in your chair, you need a table right next to it, so you can put your drink down; you need a good light, so you can read; you need a rug to help it be quiet," she explained.

"Even in a small space, you can organize it really well, have a place for everything, and I think that makes you feel comfortable. In a small space, if it's messy, you feel crazy. When things are in their right place, you feel like you can breathe."

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A night at the symphony

Last night I went for the second time to hear the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra at the civic center. The centerpiece of the evening was Mozart's Requiem, performed after intermission by the Syracuse Oratorio Society (Dave, my AJ comrade, is a tenor in the choir).

The first half of the concert consisted of a piece for percussion ensemble, the primal, propulsive Ogoun Badagris (1976) by Christopher Rouse, and Bela Bartok's haunting (and somewhat soporific) Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, from 1937. Both pieces were competently rendered, but packed little punch to keep the audience engaged in the toasty auditorium.

The Bartok fared pretty well, minus a few ensemble issues - I find the SSO is best when they leave out the brass, which, in my experience, has always been the weakest section. This was the case at my first SSO concert - a program with Christopher Theophanidis' lovely Rainbow Body (2000), Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, and Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (where the deficiencies of the brass section were made painfully clear) - as well as at the Syracuse Opera, where the SSO accompanied.

My biggest issues on the first half were with Maestro Hege, who seems to make very little effort to connect with his musicians while beating away at the patterns - surely the root of the unification problem across the group. Stolid and stiff, his conducting is almost entirely without nuance.

I also noticed, nearly immediately, that Hege's tuxedo seemed to be made for someone a good 3-4 inches taller than he. Either Hege's lost a considerable amount of weight or shrunk a few inches, but his is one of the most ill-fitting tuxes I've seen on a musical director in a while - and there's really just no excuse for that. His tails reached below the backs of his knees, the coat was loose at the waist, and the extra fabric of his pants legs puddled around his ankles. After his conductorial exertions, he turned around to acknowledge the musicians, revealing a shirt that was nearly untucked (from waving his arms, understandable); but the shirt was so large and starchy that it formed a hollow shirt-belly that protruded over his cummerbund. Ever heard of a tailor, maestro? I know Syracuse's is a small symphony in a small city, but we're trying to improve our reputation here, so every chance to maintain an air of professionalism should be taken and taken seriously. If you're trying to win people over, this is not the way to do it.

But enough ranting about fashion (I won't even mention the mezzo soloist's matriarchal concert attire).

On the second half, the Requiem was pretty good. The Syracuse Oratorio Society, comprising more than a hundred students and community members, is an excellent choir to have around, in the absence of a resident SSO Chorus. They handled Mozart's swift melismas and fugal passages deftly, generally speaking, and could deliver a big sound when the time came. However, I found myself wanting a greater contrast in their pianissimo, and more dynamic variation across the board.

The solo quartet left much to be desired. Of the four, baritone Timothy Lefebvre gets my vote for best all-around - his "Tuba Mirum" demonstrated a smooth, lyrical voice well-suited to Mozart's music. Dave had mentioned to me before the performance that the soprano sounded young for her age and the mezzo, conversely, old for her age, which was a good assessment - though, in the end, mezzo Stacy Eckert came out on top for me. Ann Monoyios, a baroque specialist, lent an anemic and, frankly, boring soprano to her solo and quartet passages, which only highlighted the vast difference in the much heavier mezzo timbre Eckert brought. (The problem begins, of course, when you decide to pair a baroque specialist with an opera singer who most recently covered one of Wagner's leading roles for Lyric Opera of Chicago...hmmm.) Tenor William Hite was fine, but unremarkable - his best moment came in one of the final movements, when he was either singing in his glory range or just started to feel more comfortable.

Again though, my big problems with the performance came from the podium. Hege's bombastic motions in no way mirrored what he was getting back from the choir and orchestra - but I don't think it was their problem. Maybe Hege figured that the more people he was in charge of onstage, the larger his gestures must be to communicate...not so much. At any rate, it looked odd from the audience.

There were passages where I felt the rhythm was a bit lazy, such as in the double-dotted rhythms - I think this was in the "Rex Tremendae," but I'm still jumbling the Mozart and Verdi Reqiuems in my head, since I performed the latter most recently.

But Hege's most egregious offense came in the "Lacrimosa," indisputably the most achingly beautiful and heart-wrenching part of the Requiem. My heart jumped in anticipation at the first nanosecond of the first chord of the movement, but that sensation quickly turned to horror as Hege ran away with the tempo, conducting what appeared to be a lively, lilting Viennese waltz - not a lament. The translation in the program goes something like this: "Lamentable is that day on which the guilty man shall arise from the ashes to be judged." Hey, who wants to dance?

I had been looking forward to the "Lacrimosa" all evening, and this gross mishandling made me sort of angry, actually. However, I refrained from passing final judgment on Hege until I could check out the score and confirm my memory that the movement should really be much slower than he conducted it. Sure enough, plain as day: Larghetto. Italian diminutive of largo, or very slow in tempo, and therefore a tempo slightly faster than very slow, according to the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music. Maybe I'll buy Maestro Hege a copy for Christmas.

For me, the entire program suffered on account of the building. Aesthetics aside - and Lord knows there are troubles on that front - our seats were in the second-to-last row on the main floor, under the massive concrete balcony. It seemed as if the entire concert was being performed behind an invisible curtain that absorbed the core of the sound before it got to us. I'm certain there was more sound coming from the stage in all of the works than made it past the balcony - so that was unfortunate. (Note to self: never sit past row P on the main floor.)

But overall, it was an evening well-spent. The Syracuse Oratorio Society showed that they have a lot to offer, so I'm very much looking forward to their performance of Handel's Messiah on December 10. I'm hoping Hege will have reviewed Handel's score with a bit more care than he did Mozart's on this occasion.

And who knows, maybe he'll have bought himself a new tuxedo at the post-Thanksgiving sales.

Friday, November 17, 2006

New York Times, here I come!

The New York Times ran Bernard Holland's review of Tuesday night's stateside premiere of "Ecce Cor Meum" in yesterday's paper - and I must admit, I was pretty excited to read it. It seems Holland and I are on the same page with regard to Sir Paul's classical endeavors; he wrote exactly what I was thinking, only it was articulated a bit more elegantly. At any rate, it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling of validation inside - it seems I do know what I'm talking about after all!

See Holland's review below:

Behold: McCartney as Classical Composer

Paul McCartney is known, to grossly understate his reputation, for songs of graceful melodic equilibrium, a plaintive quietness and above all a civility uncommon to either the rough edges of rock ’n’ roll or the pervasive cruelties of postwar classical music.

From time to time he has tried to transfer these talents to bigger, heavier old-school formats, the latest example being “Ecce Cor Meum,” a kind of oratorio for mixed choirs, soprano and orchestra written in memory of his first wife, Linda, and played at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. From a center box, surrounded by fellow celebrities, the composer acknowledged the hoots and cries of a camera-crazy, banner-waving full house that seemed almost reluctant to turn its attention to the stage.

Someone who has done as much for music as Mr. McCartney deserves to write any piece of music he wants and have it respectfully listened to. In “Messiah” land, however, he finds himself occupying alien territory. The bigness of the McCartney sensibility lies in its smallness. Increasing the weight it carries does not make it deeper in quality. Rather it sinks both music and message into a kind of viscous sentimentality.

Using a vocabulary of singing strings, pounding timpani, brass flourishes and virtuoso outbursts from the organ, the Paul McCartney we value translates poorly. The native wistfulness becomes portentous, the irony oratorical and overly sweet, the brevity of song form stretched beyond its bounds into tedium.

Mr. McCartney has too much sense, and has had too much success, to aspire to classical forms as did — and I think to his detriment — the great Duke Ellington. The composer of “Ecce Cor Meum” (“Behold My Heart”) should be happy in the knowledge that his popular songs outweigh by virtue of their lightness all the groans and teeth-grindings, for example, of late-20th-century German opera. Meanwhile, if he chooses to take up hobbies like double-fugues or sonata form, I’ll be there to hear them.

“Ecce Cor Meum” is in four movements and one interlude. It featured an ardent, well-equipped soprano in Kate Royal, the competent singing of the Concert Chorale of New York and the American Boychoir, the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a handful of its principal string players who stepped out of the ranks as the Loma Mar Quartet.

The last provided gentle accompaniments for much of the evening’s first half, which included songs like “My Love” by Ms. Royal and “Calico Skies” sung together with the elegant light tenor of Andrew Staples. Even with Ms. Royal’s operatic delivery there was here a sense of scale that most of the oratorio exceeds.

“Ecce Cor Meum” does best when it approximates simple songfulness, whether in a vocal line or an oboe solo. In moments like these Mr. McCartney can’t quite fly free of all the piece’s gravity, but at least his wings are in motion. Gavin Greenaway conducted.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dude, I totally miss you

I went to see Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny tonight, bringing only the expectation that it would be hilarious - and it was so, so much more. Jack Black is not only a master of comedy, he's also a totally kickass rock singer! (note to self: purchase soundtrack asap)

The songs were all classic D material, the plot was logical (by Jack Black movie standards) and interesting, and it was chock full of inappropriate and over-the-top sexual humor - stuff that, if it were anybody else delivering those lines, you'd either be offended or totally grossed out. But somehow, as ever, JB manages to pull it off and keep the audience laughing with him.

As in most movies of this ilk, there are a couple of high-profile cameos - these were pretty stellar (and included Tim Robbins, Ben Stiller and Meatloaf). But the most impressive part of the entire movie comes at the beginning, when we see Jack Black's character, JB, at home as a child. I literally thought they had somehow shrunk Jack Black down to 10-year-old size and had him playing his own childhood movie self. Troy Gentile is a dead ringer for Jack Black. It's truly remarkable. (As it happens, young Troy has previously been Black's flashback self, in last summer's Nacho Libre.) THe young Kyle Gass is also exceptionally well-cast, though the audience sees considerably less of him.

I'm not sure I can form coherent thoughts beyond these because I'm still in shock from the movie's sheer awesomeness...So I'll just leave it at this: Go see this movie IMMEDIATELY.

Because, holy hell, it's amazing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ecce Cor Meum: Behold my Ego

Sir Paul McCartney exists in that stratospheric realm of celebrity where it hardly matters what he creates anymore – an adoring public will indulge his every whim, and commercial success is all but guaranteed. Such status emboldens artists to unleash their egos on the world, often resulting in ill-advised musical experimentation.

“Ecce Cor Meum,” released Sept. 26, is McCartney’s fourth full-length classical effort. The four-movement oratorio, commissioned in 1998 for the opening of a new concert hall at Oxford, was first performed in 2001 as a work in progress and finally recorded in March of this year at London’s Abbey Road Studios.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, directed by Gavin Greenway, creates a warm, expansive sound to support McCartney’s texts, sung by the capable London Voices choir. Soprano soloist Kate Royal makes the best of her airy lines, navigating wordy passages in an awkward tessitura with a fluttering, graceful voice.

The boys of Magdalen College Choir, Oxford, and King’s College Choir, Cambridge, contribute the signature boy-soprano sound – a pure, straight tone practically required in English choral works.

McCartney packs his orchestration so full of various textures and colors that the children seem superfluous. His dense score quickly approaches schizophrenia. Within the first five minutes of the hour-long work, McCartney has already incorporated stylistic nods to 13th century plainchant and 20th century choral works like Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

It’s an oft-repeated point of pride for McCartney that he’s never completed any formal music training, but these pilfered musical conventions and ill-suited melodies betray his inexperience in the classical-vocal realm.

McCartney’s kitchen-sink approach is the root of what makes “Ecce Cor Meum” problematic; it’s as if he didn’t know when to stop adding layers, and the result is a bloated, unfocused work. Though his orchestral writing is straightforward, relying on doubled parts and parallel-motion harmonies, none of McCartney’s ideas ever feels fully developed. Transitions from one musical thought to the next are jerky and sudden.

There’s no denying McCartney’s mastery of the pop-song idiom. Perhaps this helps explain why, in classical composition, he is unable to sustain any particular style or mood for much longer than four minutes. Delineated by a full-stop caesura, an outburst of choral "ah"s or a fit of pipe organ-fueled melodrama borrowed from Andrew Lloyd Webber, these intervals serve only to undermine the continuity of the work.

McCartney’s self-penned text is equally distracted. Inspired by the Latin phrase “Ecce cor meum” – “behold my heart” – McCartney has composed what the album’s liner notes call a “spiritual confession.” But his rambling, stale lyrics are laden with hackneyed rhymes –there’s even a winking reference to “a magic mystery.” Stretched to fill long movements, McCartney’s lines smack of self-help, while others merely seem the aimless musings of an aging hippie.

On a smaller scale, though, McCartney has always been a nimble wordsmith, championing charming, concise simplicity. That sensibility permeates McCartney’s best pop melodies and lyrics – catchy, memorable, and laced with whimsy – and could be the key to his future success in the classical idiom.

McCartney’s finest moments here are pop-sized snippets of lovely string writing, suggesting that Sir Paul may yet find a place in the classical world. Were McCartney to scale back his ambitions, put on the compositional training wheels and develop his style through a series of smaller works, perhaps he would discover a classical voice all his own.

“Ecce Cor Meum” makes its U.S. premiere tomorrow night in New York’s Carnegie Hall. According to Billboard, McCartney can do no wrong; whether that notion will stand with classical audiences remains to be seen.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Support local businesses...

because they sell things like this!

Yes, today's Picture of the Day features a cassette produced by the I (heart) NY tourism agency (much like Waffle House markets its in-house originals). Robin Schade, the "NEW YORK Troubadour," per the packaging, has recorded an album of "songs of New York state country people and work."

I mean, just look at the lineup here: "Knickerbocker Breakdown", "The Drink of Love (Here's to New York Wine)", "Farm and City - Together", "I love New York State Cheese", and who could forget that timeless ballad, "(Dairy of) Distinction." Holy buckets!

I was thisclose to purchasing this cassette (even though my car no longer has a tape deck - but my stereo does), until I saw that it cost an outrageous $10. But who knows, maybe the next time I'm out in Caz for another lunch date with Joan Vadeboncoeur, I just might give in to the power of the New York troubadour...

Friday, November 03, 2006

My first real review!

I went to Oswego Thursday night to see the dress rehearsal of the Oswego Opera's La Traviata and review it for the Oswego Palladium-Times. Here 'tis! Enjoy...


Those who subscribe to the notion that New York City monopolizes high culture in this state apparently haven't been to Oswego.

The Oswego Opera opens its 28th season this weekend with one of opera's most beloved masterpieces, Verdi's “La Traviata,” presented in SUNY Oswego's Waterman Theatre at Tyler Hall.

Set in 18th century Paris, the opera follows the tumultuous romance of courtesan Violetta Valery and Alfredo Germont, one of her admirers. Driven apart by Alfredo's father, Giorgio, the lovers are reunited as Violetta lies on her deathbed, moments before she dies in Alfredo's arms.

These three main characters carry the opera, and executive director Jonathan English's outstanding leads, all returning to the Oswego Opera stage, do not disappoint.

Each singer can hold the stage as a soloist, and duet passages find the musicians exceptionally well matched, both vocally and physically. Soprano Amy Cochrane and tenor Eric van Hoven make a lovely couple as Violetta and Alfredo. As Giorgio Germont, Bill Black cuts a stern and imposing father figure onstage.

Commanding deference with his mature, warmly resonant voice, Black infuses a heartfelt performance with conviction and patriarchal pride.

As Violetta, Cochrane's effortless, effervescent coloratura in the first act gives way to impassioned legato phrasing in the latter acts. Cochrane's amorous aria, “Ah, fors' e lui,” is simply captivating. Her brilliant soprano, equally stunning in all registers, shines throughout the entire opera, and she handles the notorious, vocally demanding role with seemingly little effort.

Van Hoven fares similarly well in his portrayal of Alfredo. His lively vocal characterization is spot on, making the famous drinking song, “Libiamo,” dance. The tenor's clear, vibrant tone compensates for an initially stiff stage presence, especially in the ardent confessional aria “Un di felice,” when he reveals his feelings to Violetta.

Remarkably, none of these artists has performed these parts before. Following such auspicious debuts, though, there should be no doubt as to their qualifications in these challenging roles.

Under the baton of artistic director and conductor Juan Francisco La Manna, the accompanying Oswego Opera Orchestra has its finest moments when playing at full force, creating a festive atmosphere in ensemble party scenes.

In addition to bringing in top-notch performers from around the country, director English filled his chorus and supporting roles with capable homegrown talent. Among these, mezzo-soprano and Syracuse University voice faculty member Carolyn Weber stood out as Violetta's friend Flora.

Along with scenic designer Joseph Rial, English conceived a simple production that, though it might not translate in a larger house, is well suited to the 525-seat Waterman Theatre. Paring down the opulence of 18th-century Paris into sleek, modern dress, this production does more for the ear than for the eye; minimalist sets and costumes of mostly black and white effectively bring Verdi's exquisite music to the fore.

Oswego Opera Theatre performs La Traviata today at 4 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. With familiar, memorable melodies brought to life by a stellar cast, the Oswego Opera's La Traviata proves that you don't have to be in New York City to find quality opera.