Into the Woods

Raavan (2009, dir. Mani Ratnam). Aishwarya Rai’s Ragini remains too little marred by abduction, rock-scaling, near-drowning, food refusal, traumatic witnessing, being dragged from cave to pit to cave and so on. The camera still fondles her face as it might any cover-girl—confirming this face to be as fascinating as that of some infant cyborg. Abhishek Bachchan’s Raavan is a convincing maniac, however, in whom a certain fathomlessness carries forward the fantastical Ramayanan subtext. His hands chopping about his face, acting out the knives in his head: a brilliant, dramatically efficient tic.

Raavan’s forest is vitally extrajurisdictional space. The forest villagers protect him, want to be left alone—and here the bleeding heart may think: alas, the Indian state has trammeled upon these people’s bare but honest subsistence lives. But how suspiciously convenient, for any state in fact inadequate as provider, when the people do not want to be civilized—or therefore subsidized. This is the story’s social pathos: as Ragini asks her police-chief husband Dev (played by Tamil screen stalwart Vikram), “Is he Raavan or is he Robin Hood?”

Thunderous zombie-like rain-dance to the song that assaults whatever haute Delhi may think of them: the best song-dance of the film, perhaps of any popular Hindi film of the last decade. Abhishek may not have the liquid flow of Hrithik Roshan’s dance moves—e.g., all cartilage in Krrish opposite J.-Crewish Priyanka Chopra—but ever since Refugee, and even throughout Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, he has grown peerless in transmitting compressed, punctuating intensity.

However gorgeously cinematographed, Ratnam’s obsession with waterfalls, rainfall, and rotational views, and concession to gratuitous violence during climactic scenes, only venn-diagrams this film with Bollywood’s triter image-sectors. The directorial triumph lies rather in an insistence that Raavan’s attraction to Ragini stay indefinite, as a sort of inter-species gravitation: she pure wife, he bog demon, though each susceptible to the pull of another life. (He is thus a different animal from the Beast or Frog who’s actually an incarcerated prince, say, and from the altogether irredeemable Alberich lusting after Rhinemaidens.) There is a wondrous delicateness to Raavan’s seeming monstrosity; he contemplates possessing her, yet never seems merely to want to ravish her—and yet there’s also nothing chaste about his heated state. That honor-bound Dev cannot imagine forms of close encounter other than the coital, cuckolding kind—and so exacts his crude, cruel revenge—may leave the viewer rather depressed for being human.

Many-Splendored

Mughal-e-Azam again and forever, but this time on the big screen at Walter Reade, in the original version, not 2004 full colorization. As heady a myriad of beauty and sensation as ever. The full ten scintillating seconds of pearls sent scattering, pattering onto a polished patterned floor. The billet-doux secreted into the lotus flower, the flower’s shuddering yet purposive drift down the canal. Anarkali’s candle, sliding slowly downscreen and leaving her face in eclipse, only to be held in Salim’s hand when it next appears—surely their first and most furtive act of touch; her hand then rising again to cup its flame for modesty, proximity, and gentler chiaroscuro. Those drowsy flurries of giant feather across her face—brushing her eyes closed, sweeping her lips ajar, soon transporting both to blossoming grove then bed of petals—as Tansen’s raga drugs all passage of time. The hulk and chafe of the hay-lined prison cell, the iron chains that famously bruised Madhubala during filming. The robust foil, no lightweight rival, that is Bahar—her solid ambitiousness, her steady challenging gaze. And of course the infinite reflections righteously shimmering across the mirror medallions of the Sheesh Mahal—taunting Akbar as Anarkali sings love’s truth to power: “Pyar kiya tho darna kya… aaj kahenge dil kaa fasaanaa.”

Madhubala’s face—barer and barer with each ordeal yet ever dewier and more arresting in its beatific resolve—and Dilip Kumar’s most lustrous hair. Who could fight the urge to sing to him and to his hair, “Ude jab jab zulfen teri, kavaariyon ka dil machle—jind meriye”?

The imperial-scale mustering of decade-long labor across the land that produced this dense cinematic lavishness, the gratuitous war between Akbar and Salim that inadvertently dramatizes these contributions. The hallucinogenic plot loops (not twists) in the third hour, the late dabs of dialogue thickening Akbar’s pathos, the final resolution by which point satisfaction no longer depends upon any. All of it mysterious, all of it immediate.

Auf Wiederhören

Thirty-odd concerts since September between Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Missed a handful of the best offerings: Thomas Adès’s brilliantly programmed Carnegie recital, Muti’s Met conducting debut with Attila (how I heart Ildar Abdrazakov—ever since seeing his 2004 Met debut as Masetto), Lulu at the Met with Marlies Peterson who rules that role. And no time through the wintry blur to justly register some of the best I did see: both nights of Jansons / Royal Concertgebouw, both nights of Chailly / Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Ravel magic of Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

My three penultimate concerts before ending the season with Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre:

May 14, Avery Fisher Hall
Kurt Masur / New York Philharmonic
Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Bruckner Symphony No. 7

It is actually not enough to say that this was the best Bruckner one might ever hear from the NY Philharmonic. This was the NY Phil setting a new personal best, period—exercising more power and precision than have recently seemed within its (Maazel’s, Gilbert’s) grasp. Though Masur’s Seventh couldn’t compete with benchmark renditions like Böhm’s or von Karajan’s—and wouldn’t suffice to restore this orchestra to a place among the true Big Five—it was without a doubt the most satisfying Bruckner New York has gotten all year. (Earlier disappointments here.) Incredibly radiant from the outset, this performance proceeded with care and utter concentration. The strings intently bore the considerable pressure put on them (slight fuzziness in the Finale apart); the brass consistently rose to the occasion with strong sonorities. So much of Bruckner is just about waiting, heart full yet without eagerness. Here, in the brooding, majestic Adagio especially, one did not ever wait for the wait to end.

May 20, Carnegie Hall
Yundi Li, all-Chopin program

The Chopin bicentennial at Carnegie Hall has brought inspired playing from Murray Perahla and Emanuel Ax and less inspired playing by Maurizio Pollini, already half a dozen Chopin-dominated concerts in all. But Chopin played by Yundi Li (or Yundi, his new mono-moniker) still sounded different. There was an inner muscularity here subtending even the most yielding of phrases. It was not just a matter of agilest fingerwork but of having swum deep and feelingly through the material until he flowed into it and it through him.

The crescendo in the Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 came as rich, weighted surge—almost imperceptible as actual volume adjustment. A controlled yet ferocious rendition of the Opus 22 Grand Polonaise lacked no grandeur, yet also took space to experiment with abstraction at the edges. The Second Sonata began with micro-ripples in a stormy sea; its Marche funèbre tolled as slow volley; and its final movement—all wing-craft. As the elegant execution of the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 evinced, Li is no triumphalist even at his most energetic.

So much Chopin gets played in nearly isolated huddles of reverie or bursts of virtuosity, between stretches of vague etude or quietude. Li delivered these pieces gathering through time—long, lyrical lines sinuously weaving through, weaving together, each whole.

Sending an appreciative murmur of recognition through the Chinese audience, the first encore, The Moon Chased by Colorful Clouds, could not have been suppler and more shimmering. (Although critics’ ubiquitous comparisons between the two young Chinese pianists have absurdly little to do with music: this piece made Lang Lang’s version last fall during Carnegie’s Ancient Voices, Modern Paths festival seem mere pretty crispness).

Who in their right mind for a second encore—after hours of pianistic exertion—would fling themselves into the Revolutionary Etude? Who’d have strength left to pull it off with such tempestuous yet decisive passion? Yet for Li this didn’t even seem daring. It felt inevitable.

May 21, Carnegie Hall
Franz Welser-Möst / Cleveland Orchestra
Beethoven Coriolan Overture & Eroica Symphony; Berg Lulu Suite

Lulu was played beautifully and with admirable commitment, yet its gauzy protractedness begged an uncomfortable question: should a piece like this retain a place in the concert-hall repertoire? Certain operatic and dance scores do not need to be staged to command attention: e.g., Stravinsky’s ballets, Wagner’s overtures, one-act tours de force like Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle. But Lulu even in its suite abbreviation suffers from unstaged presentation—can start sounding like atmospheric film music. About halfway through, this Friday night Carnegie crowd began trading sighing looks and thumbing smartphones. The final work on the program, Eroica, was taken at a clipped pace and refreshed after intermission. But one doubts the audience would have erupted in such eager ovation without a soupçon of self-congratulation for its stamina through the Berg. For all its channeling of warmth and adrenaline, the Cleveland Orchestra had something soft-focus at its sonic edges that gave it a classic, gramophone patina—compared to the almost piercing brightness of Philadelphia Orchestra, for instance, during its Le sacre at Carnegie last month. As ever, one is reminded of that obscure alchemy to which an orchestra owes its “sound.”

Dholdrums

Basement Bhangra 13th anniversary Friday at the Fillmore Irving Plaza: a re-inspection after many years away. The combination of busy yet puzzling performer line-up with low bhangra-to-hip-hop ratio, and probably roomier venue, and probably too-predictable playlists, resulted in a night of fits and starts and mostly waiting. Nina Sky: cute; random. Raghav (who he?): low-blow attempts at crowd-arousal, launching each song with the hook of some trusty evergreen (“Choli ke peeche,” “Ek ladki ko dekha”) before plummeting treacherously into his own bland work (one song built on a trope about “peanut-butter cups”). On the floor one saw moves tested out, practiced, repeated, repeated—the peril of the dance lessons? Missing were the large dance circles, except one that lasted all of six minutes. Energy fields generally curdled into clusters of those who’d come clustered to begin with. People were friendly, people were ready; there was just too little impetus supplied for collective enthusiasm. An imperfect night to re-rapprocher with this scene.

Ice, Oceans, Earth, Mahler

Belatedly catching up on the Winter Olympics, especially the figure-skating pair upon which China has been pinning its dreams. After near-misses at three prior Olympics, Shen Xue (31) and Zhao Hongbo (36) finally took the gold Monday—with a new world record. In the flawless clinching of each most critical moment one sensed the poignant history of their determination.

Is there anything in the world more beautifying of the dyad than pairs figure-skating? Dance can express a greater range of truths, but skating dreams all the friction out of dance, out of relation, even as it exquisitely refines a sense of danger and vulnerability. There’s no scampering, no chase; one merely glides, until one crashes, either for having attempted something more or for having been unable to stop. For the dyad on ice dramas of apartness remain but never inevitably: even when the very rhyme of their routines keeps them separate, the two figures stay always linked—the diagonal corners of a flexile, collapsible parallelogram. “Earth’s the right place for love”—yes—because it’s a place of frictive pleasures, because there’s something honest and effortful in the discrete biped tread. But one could imagine others who find the peculiar beauty and brinksmanship of love on ice more irresistible.

The Royal Concertgebouw’s Mahler Third tonight at Carnegie Hall: this was oceanic feeling. This was earth as drummed immensity, whose concussions only this music, and in our time maybe only this orchestra—its sound both muscular and of measureless depth—could fully body forth. In the opening movement one could feel the very tendrils of summer shivering into life, the season’s sunny resplendence still tenuous at the edges, before full fulmination. The second-movement minuet had a gorgeous, lilting airiness, and the third movement was all expansive breath. Mezzo Jill Grove’s voice melted gracefully into the orchestral scoring during the O Mensch! and Es sungen drei Engel songs. Infinite steadfast patience: what the final movement instilled and sublimely rewarded.

Lang Lang and Papa Lang

Seeing Lang Lang twice this season at Carnegie Hall brought to mind a remarkable clip from his Carnegie appearance back in November 2003 — a piano-erhu duo with his father that has since become an occasional set-piece. For all the childhood-obliterating pressure Lang Guoren put his son through—recounted by the latter, corroborated by the former—their musical chemistry emerges affectingly in this performance, along with something perhaps both reconciliatory and vying — this classic for the erhu called, after all, “Racing Horses” [赛马].

Metropolitan Opera in HD | Madame Butterfly

minghella butterfly

Madame Butterfly in HD [rebroadcast of the live March 7 Met performance]
March 17, 2009, Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center
Metropolitan Opera
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Production: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San), Marcello Giordani (Pinkerton), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki), Dwayne Croft (Sharpless)

The drama was taut, the gorgeousness detailed. The staging: imaginative, often exquisite, though always immodest enough for opera: bright scarlet blossom groves, glowing lanterns constellating unto galaxies aswirl, shimmering petals threaded onto filaments slowly descending like a seeping horizon, and of course measureless swathes of silk set unfurling. At times one almost feared it might verge on anime choreographed for wax-museum figures as directed by Zhang Yimou, but (Minghella’s English?) good taste reined things in.

Patricia Racette: powerhouse Puccinian—voice capacious, mellifluous throughout, the movement of her face and limbs in studious mimicry of girlishness. Nothing really could render her believable as an Asian child bride—the singing and emoting both were ripe too far beyond pubescence (and the ethnic makeover erred toward Morticia Addams, I thought)—but that’s the usual trouble so perhaps had to be forgiven. Marcello Giordani’s Pinkerton presented a solid amalgam of cad, brute, and dolt—nothing very complicated, though sung with soul. The whole supporting cast was surprisingly great, especially those in the roles of Suzuki, Sharpless, and Yamadori (played by an actual Asian singer—to odd yet doubly sympathetic effect somehow). Even Cio-Cio San’s mother, who barely gets any lines, lingers in this heartbreaking way on the hill upon leaving her just-married daughter—a supreme indication of the directorial care taken.

The silent puppet child, center and cipher of all this theatrical artifice, turned out to seem the most human and expressive of all—and even for this uncanny effect alone I’d recommend, and indeed repeat, the experience. Also for the thundering final act. Not one predisposed to Puccini, I left feeling dazzled and stricken. The performance will surely come out on DVD soon enough, so all is not lost to those who missed it this time.

Symphonic forms

dovzhenko zemlya still

[A still from Земля]

Chinese National Symphony Orchestra at Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry and Dovzhenko’s Земля [Earth] at the Harvard Film Archive.  Labor and land preoccupy both; and in each, a visual symphony of tractors. One is reminded of Russian cinema’s obsession with the sun-baked, dirt-caked, beard-bristling face — eyes always squinting at sun, faces yanked every which way in a primitive yawp, self-torn, encrusted with tears.

Twelve of one

Saw a TV commercial the other day for this ensemble which I found mildly disturbing. Maybe because the sight of such synchronized strummings and smiles is bound to fire up some Asian-fetishist’s duodecuplet fantasy; maybe because those who order the Eastern Energy CD/DVD (officially released today and already scoring a sales rank of 15 on Amazon.com) receive as bonus gift a fold-out “pocket photo album,” one “girl” per page; or, preposterous marketing tactics aside, maybe just because these conservatory-trained musicians from the PRC deserve more than to simulate Yanni on a pentatonic scale or rearrange Riverdance for Chinese instruments (in fact the basis for one of the group’s tracks). There’s good reason of course to applaud any well-received effort to popularize and internationalize traditional Chinese music, but this particular project seems tailored to visual consumption far more than aural exposure. If this seems gratuitously negative, let me be very, very positive about the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, e.g., this compilation.

More positivity concerning the PRC: hereby recommending the transcript of Wen Jiabao’s shrewd, bar-raising speech at Harvard Business School back in December 2003, which I attended, lucking out on a lottery, and should have posted on long ago.

From 01450 to 10031

“It was a great party — if you’ve never been to a party before.” Several though not all of the following recent excursions brought to mind those words by Truman Capote.

Lakeside barbecue in Groton, Mass., at a plush and cozily posh house at the edge of the woods, rented for the year by a trio of graduate students living the rustic writerly life. An impressive though not all covetable existence. Pleasant as intrastate tourism, even if socially we never left Cambridge. Neat-o New England trivia of the sort I’ve come to take for granted: a great-great-grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson owns the house. Party population: c. 16.

Keg party of baffling decency in Livingston, NJ, in the company of recent Brown graduates and twentysomething Goan-Americans. The suburban wilds of New Jersey were still all new to me, and the experience felt distinctly cinematic, faintly B-moviesque. In effect a college reunion for many, it hosted small pockets of rekindling drama at the pool table, by the beer-pong table, along the carpeted stairs. More ethnography. Party population: c. 60.

Harlem block party on Hamilton Place, where a couple of hip-hop DJs rocked the streets well into the evening hours and during which, not surprisingly, even (or especially) elementary-school kids danced better than anyone getting down at, say, Redline. In spite of steady gentrification and gorgeous brownstones — townhouse prices have nearly doubled in the last three years — Hamilton Heights seems to remain primarily low-income. No non-black, non-Latino residents showed up at this event, anyway, although I spotted one white guy looking on from an adjacent block while talking on his cell-phone — ever the reliable prop. Harlem Week occasioned concurrent festivities elsewhere uptown. Party population: c. 150.

In lieu of catching Talib Kweli and Kurtis Blow at Hot 97’s Harlem Week live broadcast, however — not to mention Nas for free at Summerstage — I spent yesterday afternoon watching India Day performances on Madison and 23rd. Model-turned-actor (and ex-beau of model-turned-actress Bipasha Basu) Dino Morea appeared alongside composer A.R. Rahman as guest of honor. Dressed head-to-toe in distressed denim (why o why), Morea bounced about the stage shouting “I love you all!” until asked to freestyle to a song from one of his movies — whereupon his usually choreographed-for feet fidgeted and ran out of ideas. Rahman, on the other hand, was stingy with stage time and barely addressed the crowd: furnished with a Yamaha keyboard, he launched into “Vande Mataram” at the top of his strained lungs, then reluctantly, half-heartedly, sang a signature snatch from “Dil Se Re” only after the audience begged for an encore. As usual, youth performances were more memorable; the finale featured the most graceful bhangra dancers I’ve ever seen. Flag-waving and rallying cries (“Bharat mata ki jai!” “Hindustan zindabad!”) filled the gaps between acts. Party population: c. 800.