October Short Fuses – Materia Critica

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


The documentary Me To Play delivers moments of uplift and pathos driven by a moving homage to the elemental allure of performance — to paraphrase Samuel Beckett: The show must go on. It can’t go on. It will go on.

l to r: Dan Moran and Chris Jones in a scene from Endgame in the documentary Me To Play.

Me To Play is a poignant, if conventional, documentary (now streaming on Fandor) about two veteran New York stage actors, Dan Moran and Chris Jones, whose careers have come to a premature halt — both are suffering from Parkinson’s disease. They, along with their family and friends, must contend with the illnesses’ accelerating symptoms of mental and bodily decline. The performers depend on medication: mobility is limited and unpredictable, lines are an impossible to remember, and there’s nothing like depression to undercut confidence. Rather than leaving the stage quietly, however, these troupers decides to star — as master and servant Hamm and Clov — in a production of Endgame, Samuel Beckett’s vaudevillian hymn to the relentless tick tock of dissolution. The script was written a few years after the death of the dramatist’s mother, from Parkinson’s disease. Moran and Jones justly interpret the script to be, in a way, a play about their condition — a vision of resilient but rickety minds imprisoned in crumbling bodies.

Moran, the bulldog of the pair, plays the blind Hamm while the lankier performer, Jones, plays the peripatetic servant. Me To Play‘s director, Jim Bernfield, doesn’t step outside of well-worn lines. We follow the actors as they prepare, with wary tenacity, for the production (which will only run for one night), hear them talk about their fears as they continue to move forward despite signs of disaster, and learn about their challenges from their wives, one of whom is producing the show while the other offers a painfully realistic picture of what it is like to live, day to day, with a person suffering from the illness. We see Moran and Jones visit their doctors, are given quicksilver introductions to their professional lives, and hear from the show’s director, Joe Grifasi, who wants the production to be more than a pity party.

Is it? Hard to tell. The run through before the final performance is, to say the least, worrisome. Moran dries up on most of his lines. We get brief glimpses of a few of the comic bits in the opening (and closing) night of the show. These are effectively done. Why couldn’t we see more? The actors are ecstatic about their accomplishment — as well they should be — and an actor in the audience compliments the pair. Why not supply a scene with the script’s darker poetry? At one point during an interview, Moran serves up a memorable rendition of a chunk of one of my favorite speeches in all of Beckett. I must quote it:

One day, you’ll be blind, like me. You’ll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, for ever, like me. One day you’ll say to yourself, I’m tired, I’ll sit down, and you’ll go and sit down. Then you’ll say, I’m hungry, I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up. You’ll say, I shouldn’t have sat down, but since I have I’ll sit on a little longer, and then I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up and you won’t get anything to eat. You’ll look at the wall awhile, then you’ll say, I’ll close my eyes, perhaps a little sleep, after that I’ll feel better, and you’ll close them. And when you open them there’ll be no wall anymore. Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn’t fill it, and there you’ll be, like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe.

Jones and Moran display far more than a little bit of grit, but the documentary misses an opportunity to explore the attraction of Beckett’s writing for physically challenged performers. Have there been many other productions like this one? Still, Me To Play delivers moments of uplift and pathos driven by a moving homage to the elemental allure of performance — to paraphrase Beckett: The show must go on. It can’t go on. It will go on.

— Bill Marx

Kathryn Ferguson’s impressionistic but cogent documentary surveys the vexed career of Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor.

Sinéad O’Connor in a scene from the documentary Nothing Compares.

On October 3, 1992,  Saturday Night Live broadcast a segment that even by the standards of that program still seems shocking.

The Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, having reached the apogee of her fame with her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and her hit “Nothing Compares 2 U,”  was scheduled to sing an a capella version of Bill Marley’s “War.” As seen in a clip in  Kathryn Ferguson’s impressionistic but cogent documentary Nothing Compares, at the end of the song O’Connor stares into the camera and holds up the photo of Pope John Paul II that she had taken from the wall of her mother’s bedroom after her death. “Fight the real enemy,” she says and rips up the picture.

As Ferguson demonstrates in a brisk, brutal montage, the aftermath was devastating.

Disc jockeys banned her music or collected O’Connor cassettes and crushed them with a steamroller. “I would have gave [sic] her such a smack,” said actor Joe Pesci to applause while hosting SNL the following week. Madonna mockingly ripped up a photo of Joey Buttafuoco. Told during an interview that O’Connor had been a victim of child abuse, culture critic Camille Paglia said “in Sinéad O’Connor’s case child abuse was justified!”

Later that year when O’Connor appeared at a concert celebrating Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary, the cacophony of mixed boos and cheers failed to drown out her defiant rendition of “War.” The host Kris Kristofferson hugged her when she wept. It is a beautiful moment.

Also beautiful and overlooked in the wake of the backlash is O’Connor’s entire appearance on that SNL episode. Enhanced by her shaved head, her face radiates Botticellian beauty as she sings Marley’s song before ripping up the photo.

The audience response is silence. As indicated by Paglia’s comment above, few likely knew how O’Connor herself was tormented by a mother who had been poisoned by the Church’s misogyny.

And few in Ireland itself would admit knowing the Church’s abuse of children and women — the Magdalene homes, the sexual abuse by priests, the hypocrisy and exploitation. The cover-ups were thorough, for a while. But the truth was implicit in the Irish laws against abortion and contraception in a society where women and children had no rights.

The situation recalls the 1973 Ursula Le Guin story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in which a utopia is sustained by the torture of a single child. When the ignorant learn of this, most accept it, but others leave, never to be heard from again.

O’Connor is one who has insisted on being heard. Now 55 and resembling Renee Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she performs her 1994 song “Thank You For Hearing Me” at the film’s end.

“They tried to bury me,” she says. “They didn’t know I was a seed.” It has since sprouted.

Nothing Compares is available on Showtime.

–Peter Keough

Alternative Rock

Big Wild’s brand of alt-pop in general, and the Efferusphere project in particular, is hopeful and optimistic, though the high spirits are leavened with uncertainty, doubt, and loss.

Not so long ago,  a lack of musical purity could easily cost a band points when it came to critical assessment. Likewise, for the longest time, rock ’n’ roll fans tended to stay in their respective lanes — you had a nice collection of Ramones records OR a stack of Grateful Dead bootlegs, not both.

Times change, and now bands that are more mutt than purebred are thriving — both in terms of drawing audiences and earning critical praise.

Locally bred artist Big Wild illustrates this point perfectly. Both his new album The Efferusphere as well as the show he brought to the House of Blues in Boston on Sept. 22 tapped multiple musical veins. His roots as a beat-making DJ in Central Mass when he was still in high school can be heard in the insistent surge that propels his fully fleshed-out songs. His earlier forays into electronic dance music, production, and remixing  influence his soundnow, even though he now is part of a band.

That band — in which Big Wild creator Jackson Stell is apt to be found playing drums, or guitar, or keys, or just helming the mic to vocalize, sing, chant, or lead a mid-show breathing exercise — is not bound to any one tradition.

During his concert, Big Wild drew from several eras of pop and rock, seamlessly layering influences and sounds on top of each other. But he and band mates Haley Johnsen on bass and vocals, Tracey Lambertucci on guitar and vocals, and Madden Klass on drums did not want to unleash a stream of hyphenates. Their sound was more composed, a clever intertwining of influences.

Big Wild, who now makes his home in Oregon, has a refined sense of pop craft, drawing on equal authority on a range of genres from grungy rock to vintage soul. Beguiling tracks such as “Red Sun,” “Feel Good” or “Burst of Light” are not just compelling to listen to — they are explorations of a a rich sonic terrain.

And that is what makes Big Wild distinctive as a independent artist working the alternative side of popular genres. Others lead with the brash, explosive psychedelic stuff and then tether it to traditional song structures. Big Wild, however, puts the catchy stuff right up front in big neon lights; then, once he has you hooked, takes you into far more unpredictable realms.

Big Wild’s brand of alt-pop in general, and the Efferusphere project in particular, is hopeful and optimistic, though the high spirits are leavened with uncertainty, doubt, and loss. It is this complexity that gives these songs more heft than conventional pop. The Boston concert had the feel of a spiritual revival, with Stell and his band mates making grand gestures that brought a highly stylized visual element to the performance. Big Wild makes good on pop’s promise of escapism, but the excursion leads to  a place for self-reflection and growth. Or, you could ignore that and just happily bounce to the beat.

— Scott McLennan

Riding its prolific catalog of five acclaimed studio albums plus bonus tracks, Pavement is touching every chapter on this tour.

Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, and Mark Ibold jam at the Boch Wang Theatre. Photo: Paul Robicheau

The stately, opulent Boch Wang Theatre seemed an odd place to host a band as shambolically laissez-faire as indie-rock heroes Pavement last Wednesday. Yet on its first reunion since 2010 (itself a decade after the group’s ’90s tenure), Pavement showed how its slacker reputation is misplaced. Riding its prolific catalog of five acclaimed studio albums plus bonus tracks, Pavement is touching every chapter on this tour, drawing from a pool of around 50 songs to play at least half each night, while appearing more proficient and engaged on this round than last.

That notably held true for creative lightning rod Stephen Malkmus, who carved the spectral guitar that cued the grungy rise-and-fall lurch of kickoff “Grounded” before he swung the guitar up to his face and took a knee to pick its fading notes. “Stereo” was denser, clashing in the choruses until the dynamics pulled back for non-sequitur king Malkmus to ponder the high voice of Rush’s Geddy Lee, raising his hands in demonstrative gesticulations. To an enthusiastic response from the sold-out Wang crowd, the singer wryly noted, “Pandemonium out there.”

Ironically, like Rush, Pavement endears itself to a bit of a cult following with its off-kilter vocals and instrumentation, albeit more on the laconic side. To cap an early stretch where half of the first six songs came from 1997’s underappreciated Brighten the Corners, “Type Slowly” grew into a subtly gnarly, majestic march.

Pavement dug into deeper corners for mid-set obscurities. First came a pair of EP tracks, the thumping instrumental “Heckler Spray” and “Feed ’Em to the (Linden) Lions,” followed a few songs later by “Painted Soldiers” (sung by guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg) and “Half a Canyon.” That song, appearing live for the first time since 1996, found percussionist Bob Nastanovich roaming the stage, shouting. It was one of several tunes that shifted into second-half excursions that suggested a jam-band raised on art-punk, Krautrock, and the Velvet Underground, often complemented by trippy, abstract imagery on the rear screen,

A few technical issues crept in. Malkmus halted for feedback in his microphone before rarity “Give It a Day,” and the quintet (augmented nicely by ex-Wild Flag keyboardist/singer Rebecca Cole) just played through his false start in “Fin.”

Pavement eventually went from slow grooves to upbeat favorites with “Summer Babe” and set-closer “Cut Your Hair,” the band’s surprise 1994 commercial breakthrough that set up 1995’s weirder Wowee Zowee. That album was favored on this night with seven selections, including the bust-out “Half a Canyon” and encore opener “Grave Architecture.”

A two-song encore made for a subdued finale (despite the staccato climax of “Stop Breathin”), apparently cut short for time. But perhaps such impressionistic leanings made more sense in the Wang setting than scruffy indie-rock salvos. And, after a wide-ranging set that still left the audience slanted and enchanted for nearly two hours, Pavement had to stop somewhere.

–Paul Robicheau


Do we really need another self-produced, straight-ahead jazz CD from a young saxophonist fresh out of a university jazz education program?

What a silly question. Of course we do! The future of this music looks better all the time.

Ana Nelson is an alto sax and clarinet player out of the University of Indiana, where she graduated with a master’s from I.U.’s excellent jazz program where she currently teaches and is studying for a doctorate in clarinet performance. She’s active on the local scene, often with pianist Jamaal Baptiste. For her self-produced debut album, Bridges, she performs her original compositions designed to bridge jazz, classical, and Latin music to represent, as she writes in the notes, “my personal journey and influences that helped shape who I am as an artist and person.”

The compositions hold true to this promise. “LCB” begins with a bright classical motif that opens up into a complex swing with drummer Carter Pearson keeping on top of the shifting time signatures. Nelson plays in close dialog with Baptiste, recalling Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck at times (only with more drive and heat). It’s about 20% classical and 80% jazz.

“Let the Light In,” on the other hand, is about 80% classical and 20% jazz. This feature for clarinet and string quartet demonstrates Nelson’s fine clarinet intonation and expressive classical phrasing. I assume her solo is improvised, but it’s so carefully structured that it’s hard to say for sure.

Even on “NelBap Choro,” a bouncy Brazilian duet of clarinet and piano, some classical influence comes through in Baptiste’s arpeggiated patterns. Nelson never completely cuts loose — that’s not her modus operandi on this record — but she comes close on her solo here.

“Fruit of the Groove” is an up-tempo bop number, providing some variety to the grooves, featuring Nelson’s father, Bill Nelson, on tenor. “Wanderlust” has a knotty melody, 6/8 with lots of triplets, expertly driven by Pearson and bassist Brendan Keller-Tuberg. Nelson’s solos are sometimes tightly focused explorations of her melodies, and at other times she moves into Wayne Shorter-like fragmented abstractions.

Nelson has an appealing tone. She’s from the cool school, more Lee Konitz than Phil Woods, but she has her own mature voice and style. She’s got a good mouthpiece for that alto sax — it gives her a very rich, mellow, and centered sound that complements her clarinet tone (I’d like to hear her overdubbed on both.) Her excellent intonation means she isn’t afraid of long tones in her compositions, such as “Waltz” and “Blue Flower,” the latter a floating waltz ballad with the string quartet effectively supporting Baptiste’s Hancock-like solo.

It’s admittedly a subjective call, but I think the mix could use some improvements. The bass is too boomy (at least on my system and headphones), and Nelson’s reeds sometimes sound a bit distant. The string quartet is beautifully recorded, however.

I’ll be listening to see where those bridges take Nelson next.

— Allen Michie

Classical Music

Lisi Batiashvili is among the most compelling violinists before the public today. And her command of this music is compelling.

You can take or leave violinist Lisa Batiashvili’s contention that the four pieces on her new Deutsche Grammophon album are tied together by the theme of love. That may very well be the case. Or perhaps not. What cannot be denied is that Batiashvili is among the most compelling violinists before the public today. And her command of this music is compelling.

Her account of César Franck’s Violin Sonata doesn’t lack for purity of tone, flexibility, or lyricism. It is, in fact, beautifully impassioned in the first movement and smartly balanced: she and pianist Giorgi Gigashvili save the fortes for when they count. They make much, too, of the tempestuous second movement, eloquently shaping the whole thing – even the violin’s solo filigree – and the finale, with its lucid counterpoint and seamless exchange of lines.

Many of those same characteristics mark Batiashvili’s take on Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1, in which she’s joined by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Here, we’ve got some excellent playing from all parties. The opening movement shimmers – there’s a raucous spirit to some of the orchestral interjections here – and so pure and pristine is Batiashvili’s tone that there’s never a lack of drive or direction to the reading. Her second-movement double-stops are marvelously clean and the finale’s exchanges between soloist and orchestra are rich and fervent. Taken together with the recording’s excellent balances and a magnificent account of the last-movement cadenza, and this is one fine Szymanowski First Concerto.

Batiashvili’s account of Ernest Chausson’s Poéme is similarly free. The cadenzas sing with rhapsodic passion and the melodic line is potently etched. As in the Szymanowski, there’s plenty of vigor on display here, both from the violinist and the Philadelphians, yet the reading never loses sight of the scores’ dancing quality.

Add to this a soaring account of Claude Debussy’s Beau soir (with Nézet-Séguin doing double-duty as pianist) and we’ve got a winning – if somewhat thematically one-dimensional – album. But one can overlook that last bit: there’s some indisputably wonderful violin playing to be had here, as well as dynamic pianism and the Philadelphia Orchestra sounding good as ever. That will be plenty for most of us.

This album is a valuable addition to the recorded anthology of the United States’ strangely neglected 19th-century symphonic heritage.

It’s sometimes been vogueish to dismiss the efforts of 19th-century American composers as amounting to little more than warmed-over imitations of (better) European models. While some of that may have been warranted – John Knowles Paine shamelessly aped Beethoven and Horatio Parker owed more than a few debts to Brahms – it sells short the sheer invention and down-home American-ness of a good body of music by U.S.-based composers of the day.

That reality is brought home by an invigorating new Bridge recording from Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now that offers the premiere recording of George Frederick Bristow’s uncut “Arcadian” Symphony (No. 4) and William Henry Fry’s “Niagara” Symphony. Given that contemporaneous European models of the day (circa 1850) were struggling to get out from under Beethoven’s shadow, what we’ve got here is compelling, indeed.

True, Bristow’s Symphony is structurally diffuse and, thematically, long-winded. Its program, too, offers problems (what, for instance, are we to make today of its provocatively-titled “Indian War Dance” with its ridiculous, faux-Wagnerian Trio?).

But the first movement, which is organized around a recurring viola solo, is striking for its harmonic flexibility and rhythmic vigor. The Adagio’s sequential patterns are lovely (and there’s a wonderful trombone chorale to be had there, too), while the finale’s second subject charms the ear. That none of the music clearly relates to the program following a trek of settlers across the Midwestern prairie is, in the end, of little account (given modern sensibilities, maybe it’s even a good thing).

Fry’s “Niagara” Symphony, on the other hand, is entirely evocative of its subject matter. Its outer thirds depict the roaring falls, building to a din the first time and retreating from it the second. In between comes a lyrical chorale. The whole effort smacks a bit Berlioz, particularly the Symphonie fantastique and Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, for its sheer formal freshness, while the score’s harmonically-inconclusive ending suggests Charles Ives. A great piece the “Niagara” Symphony isn’t. But it’s a highly original one.

The performances Botstein draws from his forces impress for their clarity and precision, if not always sonic heft. Regardless, there’s some glowing woodwind playing in the Bristow and the Fry doesn’t want for intensity. Together, they make a valuable addition to the recorded anthology of the United States’ strangely neglected 19th-century symphonic heritage.

— Jonathan Blumhofer

Visual Arts

The mission of the Andres Institute of Art is to explore the interface of nature and culture, to find ways to make us comfortable with three-dimensional works of art in a natural setting.

Sculpture by Dankha Nomaya.  Photo: courtesy Andres Institute of Art.

After a two-year Covid hiatus, the Andres Institute of Art Symposium returned this year. The theme was “Catch ’22 to Brookline, New Hampshire.” The kickoff for this year’s gathering (on September 10) featured artist introductions, a poetry reading, and a keynote address on The Contemporary Nature of Public Art. Three visiting artists participated in this year’s program — Dankha Nomaya (Syria), Lee Wright (Wales), and Sam Finklestein (Maine). They were housed and fed by local volunteers. For three weeks visitors met with the artists and watched them at work as they moved from concept to the manipulation of raw material that would end with completed sculptural works.

The mission of the Andres Institute is to explore the interface of nature and culture, to find ways to make us comfortable with three-dimensional works of art in a natural setting. The park trails remained open during the Symposium; an added treat — an opportunity for the public to view the sculptors at work. Surrounded by an admiring crowd at the close of the Symposium, the three finished pieces were unveiled — to enthusiastic applause — on October 2nd.

This year’s three new sculptures were all placed near the top of the mountain. The moment a sculpture is set is an exhilerating emotional experience. The artists heave deep sighs of relief when the process is completed: after weeks of hard work, his or her sculpture is set solidly in place. Welsh artist Lee Wright’s artwork took the longest to put in its location. In Lee’s case, a little more off the granite base had to be ground away to attain a perfect fit.

Historically, the annual Symposia have been international, participating artists coming from many countries and diverse cultures from across five continents. The result is that, starting from 1999, visiting artists have created approximately 100 thought-provoking original works of art which are nestled along the walking trails in a 140-acre sculpture park. A spectacular and distinctive fall day trip from Boston, the park contains miles of wooded trails, beautiful vistas, and peaceful settings.

— Mark Favermann


Still pining for this city that “remaindered its soul.”

Oh, to have come of age in San Francisco and the Bay Area before the tech boom and the skyrocketing cost of living put a price tag on the intangible! In Lyon Street, Marc Zegans’ seventh book of poetry (Bamboo Dart Press), the veteran San Francisco bard offers up a vivid and delightful potpourri of poetic epiphanies.

“My tattoos communicate better than you,” proclaims a brash button pinned to the pink jacket of a blond at City Lights Books in a poem titled “Pressed Tin.”

And in “North Beach,” ode to a neighborhood that could, arguably, once upon a time lay claim to the title of poetic capital, Zegans still pines for:

“[…] the one I kissed

at the savoy Tivoli

now, only reverie

lost in the grant street bustle

a schlock shop hustle

across from the post card store

selling remembrances of evermore”


In the spirit of William Carlos Williams, Zegans abjures a wash of words, opting instead for the tight line and the telling detail.

“When I touch your back

all I feel is bone and sadness,”

he sincerely, albeit unsentimentally, faces an old man’s final exit in “Final Impression of a Dying Man.”

And in “San Francisco,” a fragmented panegyric to the pulse of the place, Zegans is

“speaking through

me to her

broken parts,”

bemoaning the passing:

“of this city

That remaindered

its soul.”


Having since migrated south to Monterey Bay, Zegans, who moonlights as a creative development advisor, “helping individuals, arts organizations and creatively driven enterprises successfully follow their muse,” as per his website, generously shares his poetic stimulant of choice: “the smell of eucalyptus blowing in from the Presidio, and with it the feeling of promise, tinged now with loss.”

— Peter Wortsman is writer in multiple modes, including fiction, nonfiction, plays, travel memoir, poetry, and translation from the German. He is the author, most recently, of Borrowed Words, a book of cutup poems.

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