Friday, September 01, 2006

Bad As I Want To Be

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

In Search of Mozart

I just saw a wonderful documentary by Phil Grabsky called In Search of Mozart. See it - you'll be very glad you did. It's a very thorough account of the life of the composer for whom even words like "genius", and "inspired" seem to miss the mark. There are excerpts from performances of a great range of his work for solo instruments, chamber groups, orchestra and, of course, from his operas. The interviewees include musicians, conductors, directors and singers. The musicians are charming, and passionately devoted to Mozart's music, but are probably not in the best position to articulate in words why this is so, or just what it is that makes Mozart's music so sublime. If you want to know how a musician feels about Mozart, I guess, ask him or her to play - not, er, talk. The musicologists, singers, historians and directors, including surgeon/writer/director/polymath Jonathan Miller, fare a little better with the explanations and elucidations; Miller, a gifted mimic with great comic timing, is a fascinating source all on his own. He's just an all-around interesting guy to listen to. English baritone Sir Thomas Allen and conductor Sir Charles Mackerras also have interesting things to say. (Sir Roger Norrington appears to be just as pompous and dull as I ever feared.) Also interviewed a few times is Canadian bass-baritone (and 2006 nominee for Gramophone Magazine's Artist of the Year award) Gerald Finley, otherwise known as the World's Best Baritone. (Okay, in Sandman-world.) I could have wished for more concert footage, but I can't complain about the use of The Marriage of Figaro - the 1994 production from the Glyndebourne Festival is excerpted very nicely, and Finley and the brilliant English soprano Alison Hagley are shown to great advantage. What great chemistry they have: Two wonderful singers who look their parts, sing like angels, and can act pretty damned well, too. I never saw the Glyndebourne production, but I saw Finley and Hagley in a production for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto around the same time. I still get shivers when I think of it. Of that now-famous Glyndebourne production, which was created for the re-opening of the Glyndebourne Festival Hall after two years of renovations in the early '90s, English critic Andrew Porter said that Finley was "the best Figaro we've seen in fifty years." (See? WBB.)

Mozart's early life must have been one long, crazy dash around Europe. From the age of about six or seven, he was touring something like 75 cities on a schedule that would have today's musicians checking themselves into rehab clinics for exhaustion. (Oh, wait - they do that anyway. Never mind.) The documentary goes a great distance to undo some misconceptions which probably began with Amadeus, and which have acquired the power of myth, if not the legitimacy of historical fact, in the public mind - such as that Mozart died penniless (he didn't); that he was buried in a pauper's grave (he wasn't - it was most usual in Vienna at that time for any member of the public to be buried in a group grave). Though the Milos Forman film is only mentioned once in Grabsky's, a few of the documentary's contributors, such as historian Cliff Eisen, make no bones about the fact that the play and the movie got lots of things wrong. (No use talking to a historian about dramatic license, I suppose.) Oh, and Mozart wasn't poisoned, and there is no indication in the record that he and Antonio Salieri despised one another. Although the Italian-born court composers of Vienna apparently did conspire together to make sure that 12-year-old Wolfie's first opera, La Finta Semplice, was never performed, and probably made it very difficult for subsequent operas, including Figaro and Così Fan Tutte, to succeed, at least in Vienna. (They probably weren't jealous, so much as having a giant collective coronary over their job security. Can you imagine the cussing in Italian? Who writes operas at twelve, for the love of heaven?)

The film left me with the conviction that Mozart's life - and the man himself - was full of contradictions; his music sparkles with pure joy, but it also carries hints of deep sorrow. He usually composed with great ease, but he also worked very hard and was often unsatisfied with his own work; his music is full of self-assertion and assurance, and he wanted to be treated as a genius, as what we think of as a star; at the same time, he could be very humble and self-effacing, and had a deep sense of how connected he was to other people. He was a Freemason, possibly attached to the ideals of freedom and brotherhood expressed in the Enlightenment, but he was also deeply religious. His education was not extensive, except in music, but his compositions suggest an intimate and profound knowledge of the human heart that few have matched. The film also left me humming.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Based On A True Story

The nicest thing about the Winter Olympics 2006 for me was that my series of house concerts, which I'm calling Perfect Third House Concerts ('cause I'm predictable like that) got to be in the anchor spot on Nathan Caswell's Winter Olympics 2006 Tour. I'm not sure that Nathan specifically designed a tour to compete with or highlight the Olympics, but on the other hand, his way there were far fewer problems with massive changes to infrastructure and crippling civic debt. Also, Nathan's closing ceremonies didn't deploy eleventy-four thousand Italian brides carrying calla lily nightlight-torches. I'm just saying.

Nathan's songs very often carry the footnote 'Based on a true story' - sometimes this is quite a feat: one of Nathan's songs is a loopy sort of ballad recounting the post-mortem road trip adventures of Einstein's brain in a Mason jar. But Nathan is a teller of truths. Whether it's of growing up in Northern Ontario and thus being able to identify, blindfolded and a hundred paces off, the sulfur-and-wet-dog smell of a pulp mill, or of the sights and sounds of a lonely midnight drive along a nearly deserted highway, Nathan sings of truths he knows deep down. You'll laugh till it hurts; or maybe laugh so it doesn't hurt quite so much. There are few songwriters funnier than Nathan, but while you're laughing, you realize there's something wistful threading along under his sharply turned wit: He can write a song at the point where modern life and technology meet old fears and longings, as in "Baboon Heart" or "Pierre Trudeau (I Have The Technology)"; he can write about the moment when you realize your hometown's never going to be the same without your oldest friend in it. He can write that

Einstein's brain says that love is like gravity
No one knows exactly how it works, or what's it for

with perfect, if not literal, truth.

The song called "Caleb" is a highly personal, unusual statement about how we Canadians think of ourselves and our neighbours, and is both thought-provoking and shiver-inducing.

He sang
No more talk of separation
No more Western tax revolt
I don’t want to hear no more
Arguments against or for
Gun control or the Young Offender’s Act
I want love and compassion, sunshine on my face

Go to Nathan's webpage, or better yet, see him in concert, the first chance you get.

All lyrics copyright Nathan Caswell.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Shoe Money Tonight!

According to my forum-mates at Television Without Pity, NBC has indeed picked up the new drama by Aaron Sorkin, tentatively titled Studio Sixty On Sunset Strip. Apparently the show is a behind-the-scenes look at a television comedy troupe, and if you saw a resemblance to a group of comedians who do a weekly live show on Saturday night, I think you could be forgiven.

While I'm not crazy-nuts about the alliterative title, I figure anything new from the guy who gave us Dan, Casey, Dana, Sam, Josh, Donna, CJ, Jebediah and Mrs. Landingham - not to mention the inspiration for the name of this blog, as well as for the title of this particular entry - is worth celebrating. I still haven't found the draft script online that I heard rumours about a couple of months ago, but this discussion thread has some interesting information (as well as a fair amount of kvelling. What? I have to brush up my Yinglish if Sorkin's gonna be back at the keyboard again.)

Also: Tommy! Schlamme! It is fun to say.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ten Random Things About Me

The "Ten Random Things" meme has, apparently, reached me. So:

1. My favourite colour is red.

2. I have no sense of direction. No, really - none.

3. I had two letters read on CBC's Morningside, and I once convinced Peter Gzowski to autograph a book to "Gran" - mine, not his.

4. I could read before I could walk.

5. I know almost all the words to all the songs in The Sound of Music.

6. I'm told I could eat nothing but eggs for the first few months of my life, and now the sight of a boiled or fried or scrambled egg makes me nauseated.

7. I'm just the sort of person who insists on the distinction between "nauseated" and "nauseous."

8. I have a terrible habit of "telling a movie" the way most people tell a story - as in, the whole thing: scene changes, dialogue, stage business. Ask my brothers. It drives them nuts.

9. I have never broken a limb - but I've had it done professionally (doctors, that is, not mobsters).

10. I gave moxywoman her copy of the Riddlemaster trilogy, the three volumes of which together form one of my favourite books, now available again in a one-volume paperback.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Inspirational, Celebrational, Muppetational

The picture on the right describes my mood with stunning and pathetic accuracy. The reason is not only that I've found what I hope will be a great Christmas gift for my niece and nephew

But also because I hear rumours that one Aaron Sorkin, creator of My Poor Beloved Sports Night and The West Wing, is creating a new series which NBC has picked up for Fall 2006. More on this soon.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Can He Be A Sensible Man, Sir?

"'He must be an oddity, I think,' said she, 'I cannot make him out. There is something very pompous in his style -- '" - Pride and Prejudice

My defect, I freely admit, is a propensity to hate movies admired by Mr. Roger Ebert. His defect, it seems, is wilfully to misunderstand them.

When a movie is based on another work, it may be too much to expect a movie reviewer to know something of the source material. (I didn't expect, to take an example which I hope will not be too ridiculous, that Mr. Ebert should be familiar with the comic-book source of X-Men in reviewing the movie version in 2000. Doubtless, however, his review would have displayed more sense if he had been. Indeed, his opinions seemed so peculiarly derived, and so inelegantly expressed, that they could hardly have conveyed less matter while still in written form.) Mr. Ebert's views on the recent remake of Pride and Prejudice show every defect of a mind determined to be thought clever while giving as little attention as possible to the substance of a question. Mr. Ebert begins his essay by quoting the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice; he surmises that everyone knows it. But such explicit inclusion of Miss Austen's work does not reflect well on either Mr. Ebert's style, which is disordered, or the movie he is discussing, which appears so far from the original as to make comparisons fruitless. Throughout, Mr. Ebert attempts the archness for which Elizabeth Bennet is justly famous, but it is unfortunately quite beyond his powers. The following sentences sound as if they ought to sparkle:
Romance seems so urgent and delightful in Austen because marriage is a business, and her characters cannot help treating it as a pleasure. Pride and Prejudice is the best of her novels because its romance involves two people who were born to be in love, and care not about business, pleasure, or each other.
But what do they mean? The first sentence may be discarded for its imperfect understanding of what a good marriage means to Miss Austen's characters. The second must be derided for its want of sense.

Mr. Ebert also remarks upon the visual style of the film, saying that it appears to be set sometime in the 1700s, which makes it unlike the "usual" Victorian romances. Mr. Ebert, I suppose, could not tell Elizabethan England from Victorian, let alone make such finer distinctions as telling, say, Restoration London from Regency Hertfordshire. Perhaps "Merrie Olde Englande" is all one to him. Mr. Ebert goes on to say:
The crucial information about Mr. Bingley, the new neighbor of the Bennet family, is that he 'has' an income of four or five thousand pounds a year. One never earns an income in these stories, one has it, and Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) has her sights on it. Her candidate for Mr. Bingley's hand is her eldest daughter, Jane; it is orderly to marry the girls off in sequence, avoiding the impression that an older one has been passed over.
It seems uncharitable to argue with Mr. Ebert's supposing that the difference between having an income and earning it is owed to some unwonted delicacy of address on the part of the movie-makers, but viewing the distinction in such a way betrays Mr. Ebert's ignorance of the society he is, however indirectly, writing about. It will not have occurred to him that to the landed gentry of this period, the idea of earning one's living at a trade was quite literally unthinkable. Next to this, it is a quibble that it is not Mrs. Bennet's ideas of order, but rather the rules of society, which require that the elder Miss Bennet must be married before her younger sisters are eligible to be so. But this remark, too, is meant to be cutting, while all it exposes is the dullness of the wit that made it. One may say that the movie and the novel have different purposes, and the one ought not to be scorned because it fails to be the other; or that the audience for which the movie is intended does not care for reading satirical novels of Regency England, but if Mr. Ebert will not take the trouble of exerting himself to understand a little of Miss Austen's art and the world that shaped it, how can we take seriously his remarks on whether this version, Pride & Prejudice, is worth the time it takes to see it? Suffice it to say that Mr. Ebert finds Miss Knightley delightful, and Mr. McFadyen worthy of her, but Pride & Prejudice is not a story that Miss Austen would recognize as her own. The shift in tone from the delicate acerbity and sharp-eyed observation of the novel to the high-stomached, almost Gothic romance of the movie version, indeed, might reduce Miss Austen to helpless giggles. It certainly appears beyond Mr. Ebert's ability to illuminate, or perhaps discern.