September Short Fuses – Materia Critica

Each month, our arts critics — music, book, theater, dance, and visual arts — fire off a few brief reviews.

Classical Music

At a time when so many top-tier ensembles risk little, it’s heartening to encounter this repertoire played with such skill by non-professionals who clearly love it.

American Discoveries is an intriguing and welcome survey (New Focus Recordings) of short orchestral pieces by three American composers you’ve probably never heard of: Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman, and Alexandra Pierce.

Written in 1928, Beach’s City Trees is the disc’s oldest fare. A short, genial curtain-raiser, the piece’s flowing outer thirds frame a more stentorian central section.

Coleman’s For a Beautiful Land dates from 1996. Composed for Iowa’s sesquicentennial that year, it evokes Copland a bit with its open intervals and fanfares. But it veers its own way, too, tending to dance (Coleman frequently draws on waltz rhythms). While Coleman’s musical argument occasionally ambles, her scoring is idiomatic, structure straightforward, and the melodic line is always front-and-center.

Pierce’s Behemoth makes for the disc’s most substantive fare. A meditation on the biblical creature, its five movements are focused. The opening one features searching, nervous melodic lines that are echoed by percussion. In the second, eerie sonorities alternate between upper and lower registers. The third offers exchanges of melodic ideas between oboe and horn, while the fourth provides a showcase for the percussion section. Despite its tempo marking, the finale is only vaguely jazzy but functions as a summation of all the ideas presented earlier.

As played by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra and conductor Reuben Blundell, it’s an affecting piece. A community orchestra based in Pennsylvania, this is an ensemble that plays with technical assurance as well as a good stylistic feel for the repertoire on hand.

Their account of the Pierce is admirable. So is the group’s well-balanced playing (particularly the confident woodwind attacks) in both the Coleman and Beach selections. At a time when so many top-tier ensembles risk little, it’s heartening to encounter this repertoire played with such skill by non-professionals who clearly love it.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel keeps things moving. That’s about it: otherwise, he seems oddly incurious about putting his own stamp on the piece.

There’s something profoundly simple – and challenging – about Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. On the one hand, it’s formidable technical difficulties are by no means insurmountable. On the other, this is a piece whose beating heart only reveals itself to those who seriously seek it.

That conundrum’s at the heart of Gustavo Dudamel’s new recording (Deutsche Grammophon) of the piece with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (LAPO), Los Angeles Master Chorale, Pacific Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, and soloists.

His performance is perfectly – even admirably – professional. Part 1’s setting of the Latin hymn “Veni creator spiritus” is well-paced and -balanced. There’s a welcome sense of space between the choirs as well as visceral orchestral playing during the instrumental episodes.

Much of Part 2’s adaptation of Goethe’s Faust is also smartly directed and tightly sung. The chant-like choral writing at the beginning is precise and many small instrumental details (like the divisi string writing mid-Part) pop out bracingly.

Aside from tenor Simon O’Neill’s shrill, aggressive “Höchste Herrscherin der Welt,” the singing – from soloists and choirs – is strong. The LAPO, if not always perfectly balanced with the voices, plays vibrantly.

What’s missing?

Well, there’s little sense of revelation. If you’re looking for a profound take on the Eighth, you’ll likely be disappointed. In their recordings, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Klaus Tennstedt, and Michael Gielen provide far more by way of dynamism, sweep, and personal engagement with the music. Stick with them.

Dudamel keeps things moving. That’s about it: otherwise, he seems oddly incurious about putting his own stamp on the piece. Sure, the Eighth’s climaxes are big. But they’re not transcendent. The transitions pass in a flash.

Where’s the music’s sense of mystery, wonder, or occasion? Maybe it got lost in the mix. That’s certainly possible. But, given the performance’s technical strengths, its interpretive facelessness disappoints.

Even if their example won’t resolve our age’s absurd self-centeredness, props to John-Henry Crawford and Victor Santiago Asuncion for reminding us that, while our predicaments aren’t new, there might be ways through the darkness.

The concept behind cellist John-Henry Crawford’s new album (Orchid Classics), Dialogo, is simple enough: especially in an era of shouting past one another, dialogue is imperative.

He’s anchored the disc around a bracing performance of György Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello. Just eight minutes long, it’s music of astonishing breadth: a sad – but sweetly-sung – opening movement (called, fittingly, “Dialogo”) is counterbalanced by a freewheeling, brilliant “Capriccio.”

Crawford’s performance is, in equal parts, intense and exuberant, the Sonata’s two movements conversing simply – but effectively – together.

In Johannes Brahms’s Second Sonata for Cello and Piano, this approach is broadened, both instrumentally and rhetorically.

Crawford and pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion make invigorating play of the first movement’s divergent rhythmic cells. They also deliver a rhythmically- and texturallyclean account of the soaring second movement; Crawford’s low-register playing there is conspicuously burnished. The third snaps while the finale is lovely and characterful.

Similarly focused is the pair’s take on Dmitri Shostakovich’s D-minor Sonata for Cello and Piano.

Their reading of the big first movement is rhythmically taut and emotionally intense. The second whorls furiously, while the soulful third’s climaxes are tightly focused: the pair’s playing is impeccably clean but never wanting for pathos or feeling. So it goes in the finale, with its disturbing mix of play and menace – like Mozart transplanted in 1934 Moscow.

Both in the Shostakovich and on the larger album, everything that needs to click does. Orchid’s sonics capture the event palpably. Even if their example won’t resolve our age’s absurd self-centeredness, props to Crawford and Asuncion for reminding us that, while our predicaments aren’t new, there might be ways through the darkness.

— Jonathan Blumhofer


With an unusual voice that can sound at times uncannily like Esther Phillips with a deep southern twang, Valerie June floats through these songs with open-hearted spiritual themes.

Sometimes, rarely, a record will simultaneously catch you off-guard, disturb tidy genre categorizations, and immediately captivate. Such is The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers (Fantasy) by singer and songwriter Valerie June. Too often a blend of R&B, folk, country, blues, gospel, acoustic rock, New Age, and bluegrass (just pick any three, let alone all the above) will sound contrived. It all pours out of June as naturally as exhaled breath.

With an unusual voice that can sound at times uncannily like Esther Phillips with a deep southern twang, June floats through these songs with open-hearted spiritual themes. The warm and multi-dimensional sound of the production is of a piece with the concept: everything is often doubled. Two drummers, two guitars, two keyboards, and overdubbed harmonized vocals. As June put it in an interview with Apple Music, the layering is “for realizing that our thoughts and our intentions, when we join them together with others, that’s what’s creating the world we see. And we can’t have anything without each other.”

There’s even one short track of mostly bird sounds, because “silence is music and no moment is ever completely silent. . . . We’re humans and we’re special, but we’re not the only thing on this Earth, making music.” (OK, so add John Cage to the list of musical influences in my first paragraph.)

At turns meditative, soulful, and jubilant, June delivers an album easily the equal of The Order of Time, which ended up on many best-of-the-year lists in 2017. She’s strikingly and elegantly original in her sound, compositional style, and even her appearance. It’s not ironic pastiche postmodernism; it’s the full sound of contemporary Memphis, June’s home town — all the parts of town, and all of them beautiful.

— Allen Michie


Caryl Churchill’s recent plays, at their best, are imaginative evocations of a world run amuck, the natural order of things and language disrupted.

Samuel Beckett called his late plays, poetic squibs and brusque effusions, “dramaticules.” And that would be an apt label for the Caryl Churchill scripts collected in Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. And Other Shorts (TCG, 161 pages, $16.95). At the age of 83, Churchill has earned the right to be as terse as she wishes. Though she adds heft when she gathers her microbursts together, as she did with the title play, which earned critical plaudits when the quartet of texts was performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 2019.

Churchill is a restless experimenter, like Beckett, but he emphasizes the earthiness of existence, giving us characters who are sucked into the mud or stuck into urns. She focuses on how human fragility is besieged by ever-morphing forces of destruction, often of our own making. As her vision of violence’s chaos has become increasingly apocalyptic (see 2000’s Far Away and 2016’s Escaped Alone) it has become more surreal. Her recent plays, at their best, are imaginative evocations of a world run amuck, the natural order of things and language disrupted

Glass is a parable populated by talking objects (a clock, a vase, a red plastic dog) and “A Girl Made of Glass” who is inevitably marred. Kill is a monologue delivered by the Greek gods, who have become terrified by the death and the ruin they and their myths have inspired: “we say no don’t do it that’s enough we don’t like it now don’t do it we say stop please stop.” Euripides would have been delighted with this ‘end the insanity’ message coming from the higher-ups. Bluebeard’s Friends gives us nameless people nattering on (absurdly) about what would be the appropriate things to say about a dead serial killer (“… he played the piano so beautifully”) and his victims. Best of all, the grimly amusing Imp revolves around a pair of aging, lower class cousins (their closets crowded with skeletons) whose delusional “will-to-power” takes the form of an ‘imp’ that they believe resides in a bottle. Poe would no doubt recognize yet another appearance of his imp of the perverse. It would be wonderful to see someone produce this evening in Boston. Given that Churchill is one of the finest living playwrights, you would think that it would be a shoo-in. But the show has yet to premiere in New York, so we will have to wait to see how it does there.

The other short plays are more overtly political, though Churchill tends to highlight the intractability of a problem rather than serve up a potted “empowering” solution. And she tackles issues that American theater rarely dares to touch. Seven Jewish Children is “A Play for Gaza” that underlines (with a magic marker) Israeli hypocrisy; highlighting the randomness of mayhem, Ding Dong the Wicked takes the dialogue from its first scene and scrambles it up in the second (there are two sets of characters); Pigs and Dogs points out that homophobia was imported by Europe (and American Christians) into Africa. Tickets Now on Sale is a one-joke jab at the unholy fusion of corporate thinking and the arts: “Why don’t we experience the best of opera and ballet? It’s still sunny.”/”Ok, let’s maximize assets and nurture talent.”/”Good.”/”Good.”/”And then you’ll position your logo.” Churchill is not far wrong: many of America’s philanthropic foundations are dedicated to turning artists into entrepreneurs.

My least favorites in the volume are War and Peace Gaza Piece, a meh compressed send-up of Tolstoy, and Beautiful Eyes, a slim farce about a left wing mother who is scandalized when her son surprises her by announcing he is going to marry a woman who voted for Trump. The best line is the last: “The one you really don’t want to meet is her brother.”

— Bill Marx

David Grossman, the highly celebrated Israeli author of fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books, is known for fearlessly taking on challenging topics — political and otherwise — paying special attention to how the problems that bedevil people in one generation deeply affect their offspring. His latest novel, More Than I Love My Life (Knopt, 288 pages, $27. Translated by Jessica Cohen), was inspired by the travails of Grossman’s dear, elderly friend, Eva Panic-Nahir, who, along with her daughter, Tiana Wages, implored him to write about what had been an extraordinary life, first in her native Yugoslavia and then in Israel. In 1989, Panic-Nahir’s experiences inspired the great Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis to create a Serbian television series about her and the horrors of Goli Otok, Tito’s fearsome gulag. Panic-Nahir, a Croatian, displayed near-superhuman courage while she had been imprisoned there during 3 years in the early ’50s; she was a living rebuke to those who continually denied the existence of Tito’s horrors. A best-selling 2016 biography of Panic-Nahir supplied more public revelations about “Tito’s Gulag.”

Grossman’s 2014 novel A Horse Walks into a Bar won the 2017 International Booker Prize, but he is perhaps best-known in this country for his novels See Under: Love, To the End of the Land, and The Book of Intimate Grammar, as well as his early non-fiction account of Arabs and Israelis in The Yellow Wind. The undeniable moral strength of his voice is informed by a sharp awareness of the complex treacheries of the last century; it also accepts its responsibility to battle against attempts to forget or minimize those traumas.

More Than I Love My Life opens some sixty years after Vera’s (Panic-Nahir’s) imprisonment. It is her 90th birthday party and it is attended by three generations. Her granddaughter, Gili, 39, is the novel’s narrator. She has worked as an assistant to her father, a filmmaker. Gili’s estranged mother, Nina, makes a dramatic appearance at the gathering and has a request: she asks Gili to make a documentary about her and her mother’s past. Nina has just been diagnosed with a disease which steals her memory, so the resulting road-trip to Yugoslavia and its torture chambers is not just a bonding experience, but a reconstruction of memory.

The central rupture of this often-excruciating novel comes when Vera is arrested following the arrest and suicide of Milos, her adored Serbian husband. She is given a choice as rough as William Styron’s fictional Sophie: denounce her beloved and walk free or go to prison, abandoning her six year old daughter. Vera chooses to suffer imprisonment and torture; Nina’s ensuing life is, unsurprisingly, an emotional mess. Love for this family, throughout the generations, takes the form of a tortured, over-the-top commitment. Rafael, the son of Vera’s second husband, is crazily devoted to Nina, to the point that, after Nina decamps for low-life adventures in New York and, most recently, the North Pole, takes it upon himself to raise her toddler, Gili. In turn, she is nursed through a suicide attempt — triggered by a romantic break-up — by her grandmother, who possesses the strength of all the story’s characters combined.

Czech theater director Dušan David Pařízek is going to adapt More Than I Love my Life for the stage, following the publication of its German translation. I have no doubt that the intensity of these women’s relationships will make for compelling theater.

— Susan Miron


Daniel Traub’s hour-long documentary, Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own, does just what it should. It effectively showcases the work of von Rydingsvard, shares her personal story, and shows how she goes about creating her monumental sculptures. The film lets us view a partial — but representative — compendium of her oversized creations. These initially large-scale cedar — now bronze — works are primarily placed outdoors, in art venues, college campuses, and urban commercial centers.

Watching Von Rydingsvard in visionary action is fascinating. We see her in the film’s opening and closing shots in torn work clothing, an outfit that includes a helmet with a plastic shield. A team of people, whom she credits with making her work possible, cut, carve, drag, glue, and hoist. We are at the intersection of “grunt work” and artistic vision. The footage looks at the multiple intricacies involved in making every component for a sculpture — the pieces carved, bent, melted, and graphite-washed. Somehow all the fragments, through some sort of alchemy, cohere into the whole.

There is biographical material about von Rydingsvard, including photos of her as a child, growing up in a post-World War II displaced person’s camp. She is interviewed and shares memories of her abusive father. Von Rydingsvard explains how the comfort provided by the raw wooden structures (which constituted her home in the camp) is what has propelled her lifelong obsession with cedar 4 x 4’s as her chosen medium. She is less clear (or forthcoming) about what else has shaped her art. Traub resists serving up a fairy-tale explanation for what drives von Rydingsvard’s complicated creative acts.

von Rydingsvard tells us that her sculptures are expressions of her soul — and that, for her, exercising her imagination is “life-saving.” She also ays that she needs to communicate with others: “I do want people to touch the sculpture.” The artist welcomes how the acid from people’s fingertips changes a work’s patina, like “a rubbed Buddha’s belly.” In fact, the most satisfying scenes in the film show viewers stepping up to the imposing pieces and laying their hands on them, acts of curiosity and of almost sacred appreciation.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own is available for rent or purchase through Vimeo.

— Susan B. Apel

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts