Piano recital by Christopher Schmitt features Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Ravel

Pianist Christopher Schmitt gave a piano recital at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC on Sunday, October 15, 2017.

The concert started with the Piano Sonata #26 in E-flat Major, Op 81a, “Les Adieux”.  The three movements are Levewohl (Farewell), Abwesenheit (Absence), Das Wiwrdersehen (Reunion).

Psychologically, the sonata purports to depict the departure of a particularly valued friend from one’s life, the absence, and a perhaps unexpected return, to see what has happened.  This was an issue at earlier periods in my own life.  The sadness goes away, the friend is more magnificent than ever. But the trap of upward affiliation continues.

Schmitt emphasized dynamic and tempo contrasts.  The slow passages (like the introduction) were really largo.

Next Schmitt played two etudes (Op. 33 #5 in E-flat minor and Op. 39 %8 in D Minor) by Rachmaninoff (both sounding late and a bit mod, like the Symphonic Dances, perhaps), and the melodic Prelude #4 in D from Op. 23.

The finale and featured work as “Gaspard de la Nuit” by Maurice Ravel, about twenty minutes, three movements: Ondine, Le Gibet, Seabo,  Very impressionistic indeed, without much pretense of drama or emotional body.

(Posted: Monday, Oct. 16, 2017 at 10 PM EDT)

Organist Raul Prieto Ramirez gives concert in Washington DC: Basque composer Guridi’s massive “Triptico” is the main event

Sunday, June 18, 2017 I attended the free organ concert at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC given by Raul Prieto Ramirez. The concert was performed on the new Austin organ.

The organist, at about age 28, apparently grew up in Barcelona, Spain, and teaches master classes around the world, including Indiana and Texas in the U.S. and in Russia.

The program started with the Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532, by J. S. Bach.  The piece reminds me of my days if brief organ lessons about the time I was entering graduate school atKU in 1966 (I had the book of little preludes apparently by Krebs).

He then followed with what I think was the featured work of the concert, the “Triptico del Buen Pastor” (“Triptych of the Good Shepherd”), composed in 1953 by Spanish-Basque composer Jesus Guridi.

The work sounds like a three-movement organ symphony (running about 20 minutes) with a mixture of impressionistic (modal, especially the interval of the fourth) and post-romantic elements.  Were the work played on the piano, it might sound like a late Scriabin sonata (“Black Mass” comes to mind).  The palette, however dissonant and hyper-chromatic,  sounds “French” rather than Wagnerian, but it would be influenced by Basque folk dancing, especially in the area from Bilbao to San Sebastian. The work introduces a heroic big tune theme in the finale, which is a kind of majestic slow movement.  Despite passages that sound essentially atonal, the work is centered around the tonality of E-flat, and introduces a heroic theme near the end.  It ends crashing on one fortissimo final chord in E-flat. Rameriz’s performance adds other notes from the chromatic scale to the chord (is this the Scriabin mystic chord?) but some performances just play the tonic. .

Rameriz followed with the humble Bach Chorale “Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier”, BWV 731.

He followed with the first movement from Charles-Marie Widor’s organ Symphony #6 in G Minor.  I posted a video of the complete work. I love the G Major ending.

After the intermission. Ramirez played his own organ transcription of Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz #1, which plays its own games with tonality (with all the fifths) at the beginning.

He continued with two compositions by Baroque composer Joan Bautista Cabanilles:  the Pasacalles #2, and “Tiento in terzio al estilo Italiano”.

He concluded with his own transcription of the expansive sonata-like Prelude to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” by Richard Wagner.  I saw the complete opera (long!) at the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center back in 1977 when I was living in Manhattan. The music that concludes the prelude ends the entire opera triumphantly, in C Major.

As an encore, he played a pedal piece (unknown, published as Bach) and the first two sections of Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV 564.

I had an old Columbia with Biggs of this work given to me by a friend right after my lost semester at William and Mary in the late fall of 1961.  On the other side were the Schubler Chorales.

Wikipedia photo of San Sebastian, Spain, which I visited in 2001.

(Posted: Monday, June 19, 2017 at 8 PM EDT)

“New Horizons: Music Without Borders”: Congressional Chorus presents Tin’s “Calling All Dawns”

The Congressional Chorus of Washington DC presented an ambitious concert Saturday night, June 3, 2017, a week before Gay Pride, “New Horizons: Music Without Borders” at the First City Christian Church at Thomas Circle in Washington, DC.

I’ll cut to the chase. The featured work for the program occurred after the intermission, the choral symphony “Calling All Dawns: A Song Cycle About Life”, about 65 minutes (by my phone), composed by Chinese-American Christopher Tin, for mixed chorus, soloists and chamber orchestra.

The work is in 12 movements, each in a different language.  The first five movements make up “Day”, the next three “Night”, and last four are “Dawn”.

While some of the work has simplified and repetitive harmonies that we associate with some oriental music, by and large the work is inspired by the choral symphonies from the world of German and sometimes Russian post-Romanticism, by Mahler, Schoenberg (“Gurre-Lieder”) and even Shostakovich. The work comes across as a hybrid of oratorio and traditional symphony.

The underlying tonality seemed to be G Major.  Each of the three sections seems to have interrelated themes.  In the first section, the biggest climaxes occur in the last song, “Rassemblons-Nous” (“Let Us Gather”) in French, exploring resistance leading to revolution (as it happened in France).   The second section begins with quiet Latin settings from the Requiem, before moving to a Gaelic poem “To Cry”, followed by a Polish Catholic hymn “to the Holy Trinity”.  These two movements have the most interesting writing in the work, rather like a slow movement, with a lot of instrumental passages having some chromaticism and polytonality, perhaps resembling Shostakovich. The Catholic Hymn has a theme somewhat reminiscent of the “Applause Theme” in the finale of my own Sonata 3; in my setting, it starts in F# Major and tries to and does return to C Major; here the theme circulates in stanzas, broken apart into little counterpoints, hovering around C Major.  There is lavish beauty, and yet this sounds like a hymn you can’t sing in church in any straightforward matter.

The Finale, with the separate songs arranged to simulate a rondo-like structure, builds to its finale climax at the end of last song in Maori, with one huge G Major chord, and then four notes almost a cappella, in one solo voice, as an afterthought.

The twelve languages (which would please YouTube’s “Paul”), are Swahili, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, French, Latin, Irish Gaelic, Polish, Hebrew, Farsi, Sanskrit, and Maori.

The concert would conclude with the Combined Choruses in Greg Gilpin’s “Rise Above the Walls” (in defiance of Donald Trump?)

The first half comprised nine pieces: “The Whole World Is Singing” (Tom Anderson), “Inscription of Hope” (Randall Stroope), “La Musica” (Jay Althouse), “Song of Peace” adapted from Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia” by Gary Fry; “An Afro-Celtic Diddle” by Michael Coolen; “Give Love a Chance” by Grayson Warren Brown, “Sililiza” (“Hear Me”), by Jim Papoulis, “Jai Ho!” by A. R. Rahman from the 2008 film “Slumdog Millionaire” (best song Oscar), and “Al Shlosha D’varim”by Allan R. Naplan.

Performers included the Congressional Chorus Chamber Ensemble, the NorthEast Senior Singers, and the American Youth Chorus (ages 8 through high school).

This Sunday morning, the Call to Worship on Pentecost Sunday at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC was in several languages: Spanish, Portguguese, Tagalog, Yoruba, German, and American Sign Language.

Composer website for “Calling All Dawns”.

(Posted: Sunday, June 4, 2017 at 5:30 PM EDT)

“Strangers on the Earth”: a cellist walks the Camino de Santiago in Spain

Strangers on the Earth“, directed by Tristan Cook, presents the pilgrimage in northern Spain along the Camino de Santiago, a trail which runs from the Pyrenees to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (honoring the Apostle Saint James) World Heritage Site in Galicia, Spain.

The entire route runs almost 500 miles, and takes about six weeks to do.  Along the way there are many dormitory style hostels and private homes offering “radical hospitality” to pilgrims. Some people join only for the last 100 kilometers to get a certificate.

The film features cellist Dane Johansen, who, looking like an athlete, carries the cello on his back and plays many concerts along the way, mostly of J. S. Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. Johansen says he plays these to satisfy his own ego.  In fact, the film can be alternatively titled “A Walk to Fisterra, A Cellists Journey“.

Johansen is listed as a producer of the film, which also received Kickstarter contributions from many musicians, including some in the Metropolis Ensemble in New York City.  After the showing, I talked to Cook himself, who knew what the metaphor Blind Banister means (from April 21 concert review here).

One of the other travelers offers some cosmology, saying that all creation starts with darkness, then offers space-time, then matter and energy, then life, then cosmic consciousness leading to God, and back to nothing.

At the end of the film there is an epilogue at the Fisterra on the Atlantic coast, with fireworks and ascending lanterns.

The film finds some inspiration in the 2010 docudrama “The Way” by Emilio Estevez.

I have to say that the film title reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” (1951).  The musician reminds me of actor Dane DeHaan, somehow.

In face, the cellist Dane Johansen had considered doing a similar trip and film along the 2000+ miles Appalachian Trail.  But there is already a film “A Walk in the Woods” (2015, Broad Green Pictures, by Kewn Kwapis.

Many of the audience members indicated that they had done the walk.

Wikipedia links and typical images:

Camino de Santiago

Compostela Cathedral

J. S. Bach Cello Suites

Dane Johansen, cellist, site.

Name:  “Strangers on the Earth”
Director, writer:  Tristan Cook, Dane Johansen
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Fimfest DC, Landmark E St, small auditorium, sold out, 2017/4/27
Length:  96
Rating:  NA (“G”)
Companies:  Walk to Fisterra
Link:  Facebook

I have visited Bilbao and San Sebastian-Donesta, and the Pyrenees from the French side (Lourdes), back in May, 2001.

The pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA, and her husband, a pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in McClean VA, did the walk in the summer of 2016.  They did collect offerings to support the walk.  The pastor says she had to be “rescued” by a can almost as a hitchhiker once.  This actually happened to me on a bike ride in Delaware in 1992 when I got separated from a group.

(Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2017 at 10:15 AM)

NY Philharmonic presents Johnathan Biss and Timo Andres in Part 2 of the Beethoven Concerto cycle

The New York Philharmonic and pianist Johnathan Biss presented one of the segments of Biss’s project of commissioning contemporary composers to invent new piano concerti inspired by the five Beethoven piano concerti. The concert was conducted by Courtney Lewis.

The concert presented Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2 in B-flat, Op. 19, which was apparently the first composed and started at a young age. The starting point of inspiration was the more contrapuntal and even sometimes dissonant cadenza that Beethoven composed twenty years later.  Otherwise, the work is “not one of Beethoven’s best”.

The Beethoven opened the second half of the concert.  Biss, to my ear, seemed in accelerate his tempi during certain phrases in the first movement, an odd effect.

The inspired (I won’t say derivative) contemporary piece (performed first, before the intermission) is the 23-minute Piano Concerto #3 in B-flat by Timo Andres (B. 1985). The subtitle is “The Blind Banister”, a curious metaphor, of a stairway railing looking into an abyss, across a gulf, without light – danger for elderly people alone. The gulf was, though, what the decades-spanning special dissonances in the cadenza inspire.

I ought to do more guest posting myself (or invite it), but Biss explains his own understanding of the piece here, and this leads naturally do a discussion of how composers get works commissioned today, what audiences will pay to hear (and sponsor), and it’s all potentially sensitive.

The work comprises three movements: “Sliding Scale” (slow), “Ringing Weights”, leading to a cadenza, and then a “Coda: Teneramente”. The opening emphasizes descending scales in drop-rolls in the piano, somewhat lushly harmonized, even sounding familiar to me. The middle section becomes more Parisian to my ears, in fact reminding me of the day I spent in Lourdes, France on May Day 2001, as young males danced a healing ritual. The work slows down and will finally end loudly (unusual for Andres, who considers quiet endings a usually necessary courtesy for listeners).

The NY Philharmonic program notes for the new work are here.

I had the mistaken impression that the work had been called “The Blind Barrister”, which would be a curious idea indeed, given Brexit. (Oops?  England?)

The concert had opened with excerpts from Hector Berlioz’s Dramatic Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17, after Shakespeare’s Tragedy. The excerpts (14 min) seem to contain the love theme that starts the slow movement, and the Queen Mab Scherzo. The very ending was a loud chord and one soft grace note (like the Dvorak New World, which I have always found very curious).  I’m not a fan of excepting from works purporting to be sonata-like “symphonies” In fact, I had heard the Montreal Symphony play the complete work (with chorus) in Minneapolis around 2002 when I got a comp ticket while working for the Minnesota Orchestra.  I remember the happy ending, as the feuding families reconcile.  Not so in the two movies (especially Ziffereli’s) that I have seen , one while working as a substitute teacher. In fact, when the play is taught in high school, teachers have to explain that it was legal (even expected) for women to fall in love and marry much younger than it is today.

The concert concluded with the 20-minute tone poem “In the South (Alassio)”, Op. 50, by Sir Edward Elgar.  That refers to the Italian Riviera. There is some nice octave work in the brass with some dissonance in the development. I have a Chandos recording of this with Thomson.

James Oestereich reviews the concert for the New York Times here.

(Posted: Thursday, April 20, 2017 at 11:45 PM)

Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by a community theater

Saturday, I attended a performance of William Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the McClean Community Players (Virginia, Fairfax County).

The performance was held in the ballroom at the Vinson Hall Retirement Center.  I thought a facility in an retirement was an interesting community venue.

The performance by the McClean Players was directed by Rosemary Hoffman, produced by Bunny Bones and Jean Matich, and choreographed by Victoria Bloom.  It ran 150 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

The stage was wide, and set up with broken Greek pillars, over which trappings other settings, like outdoor forests, could be simulated.

The five acts are compressed into two, comprising eight scenes (with an intermission after five) .  But the 5-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays follow the Hauge screenplay structure reasonably well.

The plot centers around the wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens to the Amazon Queen, Hippolyta.  (I once got a musical composition mailed to me on a huge cardboard postcard from a high school friend, a heterosexual cis-male who would marry “normally” and have a family, who nevertheless signed the card as Hippolyta, and unfortunately I’ve lost it; it comprised some Irish folk songs, maybe like those in Stanford symphonies.)  Around this event there are various other love rectangles, all manipulated by wood fairies (or maybe the “wood spirits” of “Twin Peaks” from David Lynch), and a particular gremlin named Puck. The most important of these starts with the insistence by Egeus that his daughter Hermia accept an arranged marriage to Demetrius, when she loves Lysander.  The penalty for refusal would be either death of life in an convent as a nun, barren without children (Shakespeare’s language makes a lot of this).

Puck is the star of the show.  He has forfeited bipedalism, and gimps on all fours like most other primates. Unfortunately, he seems to have surrendered chest hair to tattoos.  He puts magic potions on people’s eyelids, which makes them fall in love with the next person they see.  This is a way to influence the outcomes of all these love triangles, arranged as in a 50s situation comedy.  It’s like the idea that you glance at someone whose trappings stimulate your fantasies, until someone else comes along.  (Remember the idea of the “catch of the month” of bab boy Shane Lyons in “Judas Kiss”?)

Critics have often noted that the play hints of feminism, gender ambiguity, and loss of individualism.  There are a few homoerotic moments involving Puck and one moment between rivals Demetrius and Lysander (who is much more “masculine” in a conventional sense). And a few times Lysander “gets it”. Lysander is forced to wear some awkward-looking leg garters; stage  actors go through a lot, every night.

The cast includes Catherine Gilbert as Hermia, Will MacLeod as Lysander, Mytheos Holt as Demetrius, Ilyan Rose-Davlia as Helena, Eleanor Tapscott as Oberon, and Gary Bernard DiNardo as Puck.

The background music included some of Grieg’s Peer Gynt as well as some typical Renaissance.  I didn’t hear the Mendelssohn.

The arranged marriage idea reminds me of the 1954 Sigmund Romberg musical and MGM film, “The Student Prince“. I also recall that the 1954 Fox spectacle “Demetrius and the Gladiators” was a sequel to “The Robe” and was maybe the second CinemaScope picture.  Finally, in noting movies based on earlier English literature, I wanted to note the curious and moving 1944 film “A Canterbury Tale” by Powell and Pressburger.

Wikipedia description of play.

(Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2017 at 4:30 PM EDT)

“The Salesman”: dramatic film from Iran layers with an American classic stage drama

The Salesman” is Asghar Farhadi’s candidate in the Oscars, and at this writing it’s unclear whether he will be able to attend, given Donald Trump’s political and now judicial crisis over immigration.

It comes as a surprise that Iran, with whom the US has no formal diplomatic relations and considerable official antagonism, looks as modern as it is in film and that the people live rather self-interested lives, with relatively little reference to Islam.  True, in the opening scene an apartment building starts to collapse because of construction next door, and the flat that the lead character, actor and teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and wife Rana (Taraneh Aldossti) move to looks cramped and cookie-cutter.  The improbable house “fall” does satisfy a tenet of screenwriting, that a film should open with the characters being put in a real crisis, in order to hook the viewers. I don’t think that’s always necessary.

The film provides an excellent example of layering:  the top level story, leading to a tragic death of a older theater principal and landlord, embeds scenes from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, and from the Persian story “The Cow” (Gholem-Hossein Sa’edi) which Emad teaches to his teen boy students in his day job (with a BW film excerpt).

The 1949 Miller play, especially the scenes shown in the film (in Farsi) certainly plays on the values of “sales culture”, where the husband proves he can manipulate customers to indulge a dependent family. In the play, that culture produces tragic results.

In the highest level of the story, Emad and Rana find that a female prostitute had lived there before, and the possibility of johns returning creates the tragic unraveling of the high-level plot.

Wikipedia link for scene in Tehran similar to film.

Name:  “The Salesman”
Director, writer:  Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic 2017/2/5, small audience, late afternoon (Super Bowl competes)
Length:  126
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Cohen Media Group, Amazon Studios
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, February 5, 2015 at 8:30 PM EST)

 

National Symphony plays Shostakovich Eighth and Weinberg Violin Concerto

A concert at the National Symphony Orchestra tonight, titled “A Tribute to Slava”, in honor of cellist amd former NSO director Misistlav Rostroprovich, offered two major works. The conductor was Christoph Eschenbach.

The opening was the Violin Concerto in G Minor, Op. 67, by Polish composer Mieczslaw Weinberg (1939-1996), who emigrated to Russia when the Nazis came and then had to escape Stalin’s purges in 1948.

The soloist was 70-year-old Gidon Kremer (Latvian born).  The work, about 28 minutes and 4 movements, is rather lively and stereotyped, a bit like Shostakovich. The scherzo starts out as if it were a slow movement, but then there is a real slow movement.  The finale is martial but slows down to a serene end in G Major.  I believe that I heard this work shortly after it was completed in 1960, about the time I was entering my senior year in high school, as the ending was familiar.

The soloist gave us a 10-minute encore, a sort of lullaby in honor of the Ukrainian people, I think by Lyudkevych.  The encore may have been intended as a political statement, given Trump’s coziness with Vladimir Putin, who took Crimea (and ExxonMobil’s sponsorship).

The main work of the concert was what I came for, was the post-Mahler Symphony #8 in C Minor, Op. 65, by Dmitri Shostakovich. The work is sometimes viewed as a “two’s complement” to the Leningrad (#7), forming a “Requiem”.

The work, running in 62 minutes, was completed in 1943, and performed late in the year of my birth in Moscow.  (A friend lists his year of origin as the time of conception, and that is his personal right;  no “pun” on the Right to Life movement and march in Washington today.)

The opening Adagio opens with a logical theme, almost Bruckner-like (it reminds me of the Bruckner 8th, but this work will go in a very different direction).  It gradually becomes agitated and works up to at least two savage climaxes that are among the most violent in all of symphonic music.  One of them is on a 12-tone chord (like Berg), and the second is announced by a militant drumroll (not Haydn’s).  There was a NatGeo documentary on Mount St. Helens in Washington State that used this music during the explosion of the volcano.  There follows two crunching humorless scherzi (the first a half-step up in D-flat), leading to a Largo centered on a Britten-like passacaglia (reminds me of Peter Grimes), finally to settle down to an Allegretto rondo, that has one big climax in the middle section but settles down to a quiet end.

The Millennium Stage offered several chamber works:

Two Romances for Oboe and Piano, O. 94, by Robert Schumann, played by Shannon Prescott and Bora Lee;

Oompah Suite for Horn and Tuba by Jan Bach (6 movements), played by Gaby Pho and Diego Stine

String Quintet #2 on G, Op. 77 by Dvorak (first and last movements), George Pekarsky, Caitlyn Clingenpeel, Asher Boosrstin, Joha Kim, Andrew Gantzer

Pablo Sarsate, Navarra, Op. 33, for 2 violins and piano;  Yukino Takehara and Amelia Bailey, and Brad Clark.

(Posted: Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 at 12:30 AM EST)

“Eat that Question: Frank Zappa in his own Words”: a composer who bridges classical and popular music and insists on his own message

Eat that Question: Frank Zappa in his own Words” (2016), directed by Thorsten Schutte, is a useful biography of composer Frank Zappa (1940-1993), comprising mostly of his own interviews.

As these talks were taped years ago (many around his 40th birthday, when he was already married for 14 years and had four kids, and still insisted on crusading for free speech or all) the film is shot in the narrow 1.37.1, giving it a bit of a home-movie look.

Zappa fused rock music with that of some prominent modern composers, especially, he says, Stravinsky, Webern, and particularly Varese.  That means, though, that his classical music is pretty radical.  Webern had been much more radical than Schoenberg and Berg, eschewing the remnants of opulent post-romanticism that had remained possible, even enhanced, with dodecaphonic atonality.

But a lot of his music is “practical”, or “gebrauchsmusik”, such as a piece with bicycles shown early.  Zappa often talks about how writing and composing is not “work” but self-expression. He notes the controversy over how composers have to get commissions to make a living.  The music “business”, he says, creates products, not music.  He admits that artists are viewed as “useless adjuncts”, until they do something commercial like write jingles for Coca Cola.

I would put all this together and say my own “amateur” large scale compositions are post-romantic (at least later in life, with the Third Sonata), and there really is no market in the “business” for post-romantic music today, even from “established” composers.

So Zappa would be critical of the mentality of hucksterism, where people demonstrate their power over others to do deals in business for the sake of money only (previous film).  Zappa would not get along with today’s; Donald Trump.

Toward the end, Zappa engages in “self-publishing” as he arranges for an orchestra in London too perform one of his works.  He did this for himself, and feels that it is OK that he paid for this himself, that it  did not have to be commissioned by others.

Zappa’s lyrics became controversial because of some occasional “bad words”.  Zappa testified before the Senate in 1985 about the Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC, founded by Tipper Gore, concerning a proposed rating system for records,

Zappa’s politics were somewhat we would call libertarian today.

At one point, Zappa speculates that his whole compositional output is like one continuous work, or “process piece” (a term used in 2015 by composer Timo Andres in a famous tweet about the time of that composer’s “Blind Barrister” piano concerto, which I have not yet heard in entirety).

Name: Eat that Question: Frank Zappa in his own Words
Director, writer:  Thorsten Schutte
Released:  2016
Format:  1.37:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD, 2017/1/21
Length:  95
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Sony Pictures Classics
Link:  official

Wikipedia picture of Zappa bust in Lithuania.

(Posted: Sunday, January 22, 2017 at 4:45 PM EST)

“Theater of War”: documentary about staging Brecht’s “Mother Courage” and a meditation on war and political systems

Theater of War” (2008, directed by John W. Walter), attracted my attention since it depicts Meryl Streep’s role in a 2006 production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children”  (1939). Streep got a lot of attention for her criticism of Donald Trump’s narcissistic behaviors at the Golden Globes Sunday night – although whether Trump really mocked a disabled person (which he denies) is a matter of factual dispute, given how you interpret his body language in a particular speech during the primaries.

That particular play (“Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder”) depicts a mother who tries to profit from businesses created by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) but loses all three children to the war.

The film gives us a biography of Brecht , including his escape from Nazi Germany shortly after Hitler took power (first through Denmark, eventually through Russia), arriving in Los Angeles in 1941.  But  (like Trumbo) he would wind up interrogated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee which really believed that Hollywood “propaganda” could be exploited by the Soviet Union to support communism.  But, ironically, with the whole “Russian-hacker-gate” and the 2016 election, we’re seeing a lot of theories of propaganda being born out.  The film adds a lot of history, such as FDR’s speech presenting the damage to war torn Germany after WWII as “punishment” for the German people for putting Hitler into power.

Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) appears as the playwright converting Bertold’s work to a new adaptation at the Delacorte Theater in New York City in 2006.  (Actor Kevin Kline also appears.)  Kushner relates his concern over the draft as a teenager during Vietnam, but he was young enough to escape it before Nixon ended it.  The film shows many Vietnam-era anti-war protests.  Kushner notes how easily the state can manipulate young men into sacrificing themselves, exploiting their sense of fungibility until they belong to a group or mass movement. Gradually, it gets into the philosophy of Marxism, and the idea that without a communal context for society, wickedness tends to prevail over virtue when people act at just the self-interest level.  I don’t necessarily agree with this, but the film really shows where this point of view comes from. There is the idea that you can live through being treated unfairly if you belong to “the group”, and a whole theory about how under capitalism, workers surrender power when they “sell” their labor.  There is mention a scene in the play where a soldier is flayed, even more brutal than the tortures in the film reviewed yesterday.  There is also presentation about how theater has power.

The music score includes Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question“.

Name: “Theater of War” (incorporates “Mother Courage”)
Director, writer:  John Walter (Bertolt Brecht)
Released:  2008
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD, 2017/1/12
Length:  95
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Kino Lorber
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, January 13, 2017 at 12:30 AM EST)