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)

“Fences”: August Wilson’s play on the screen, with Denzel Washington as an “imperfect” family man of his segregated times

Fences”, directed by Denzel Washington, is a major African-American morality play, actually based on the Broadway play by August Wilson, and translated rather directly to a 139 minute film that looks rather like a stage play, set mostly in a rowhouse and small backyard in working class Pittsburgh in 1957 (with a final act in 1962).  The film has three visual interludes that seem like act markers.

Denzel plays the “imperfect” family “patriarch” Troy Maxson, now 53, who has a particularly authoritarian relationship with his 17-year old son Cory  (Jovan Adepo), who fears Cory’s ambitions to play football (in college and maybe pros) are unrealistic given racial discrimination, and that Cory needs to learn his place making a proletarian living. It’s noteworthy that he is illiterate (can’t read).

In fact, Troy had been a baseball star in the Negro leagues, and had come along “too early” for baseball, before Jackie Robinson changed things (the film “46”).  But by 1957 baseball already had many black stars, including Minnie Minoso, Luke Easter and Larry Doby (the last two from the powerhouse 199954 Cleveland Indians).  Pro football as also changing quickly, so Troy wasn’t with it.  Cory thinks his dad is afraid of his son’s being “better” than he is, but isn’t that a point of having a traditional family?

Viola Davis plays his loyal wife Rose, but she engages in the fast talk of many scenes.  Troy has an older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who struggles as a musician, borrowing money and getting in trouble with the law.  In fact, we learn that Troy had done hard time himself for manslaughter after a fight in Alabama, where he had grown up.  There is also a disabled brother (Mykelti Williamson) and the sidekick foil friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).

As the play progresses, Troy will continue his transgressions and test the loyalty of those around him, until he dies, as there is another “illegitimate” child Raynell (Saniyya Sydney).

I’ve encountered, in the workplace, African American men who believe they have to raise their kids to expect discrimination but still not expect any handouts in a capitalist society.  One of them thought that, as an unmarried man, I must be living with my mother.  But a decade later, I had to.

The film has some interesting scenes of improvised street baseball, like the backyard baseball  (or softball or whiffleball)) we used to play in the 1950s.

Name: Fences
Director, writer:  Denzel Washington, August Wilson
Released:  2006/12/25
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed: 2016/12/26, daytime show, nearly sold out, at Angelica Mosaic in Fairfax (mixed audience)
Length:  139
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Paramount (as if independent or Vantage)
Link:  official

Wikipedia:  Mt. Washington area of Pittsburgh in 1905, link.

(Posted: Monday, December 26, 2016 at 9:30 PM EST)

Thomas Pandolfi gives piano recital “Russian Romance and the Movies”


Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, Thomas Pandolfi gave a recital at the Frist Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC on a Steinway.  The concert was “free” but a donation offering to support hurricane relief I Haiti was taken.


The theme of the concert was “Russian Romance and the Movies” and the recital bridged classical with popular repertoire.

The concert started with a piano solo transcription of Richard Addinsell’s one movement “Warsaw Concerto” (really a rhapsody) in F Minor, composed for the 1941 WWII film “Dangerous Moonlight”.  That piece used one side of one of my first 45 rpm records back in the early 1950s.  The composer had been tasked to compose in the style of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  ( I had a fantasy about this at age 16 in 1960; read about my own Sonata #2 manuscript here).  Let me digress with stream of consciousness:  I ponder the hackneyed Beethoven Sonata #14 in C# Minor, “Moonlight” (I like the last movement), and the song “In the Moonlight (Do Me)” from “Modern Family”, composed and sung by Reid Ewing (around 2011), a piece that makes perfect musical sense if you play the music by itself on a church organ (B-minor, D Major), by memory and ear, as I did one Sunday after service at First Baptist.

The program did include Rachmaninoff’s infamous “Prelude in C# Minor”, Op. 3 #2, which is not from one of the two sets preceding the concerti. My own preference would be to play the last from Op. 32, the bombastic D-flat Prelude.  I played this as a senior in high school (also the E Major and B Minor).

He performed two popular piano pieces by Anton Rubenstein: The Melody in F, Op. 3 #1, and the Romance in E-Flat, Op. 44 #1, which became the song “You are my dream” often sung by Frank Sinatra. Rubenstein, like Beethoven (and like Prokofiev and Saint-Saens) composed five piano concerti.  Some people thought he was an illegitimate son of Beethoven.

He played the Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 9 #2, for Left Hand Alone, by Alexander Scriabin, which achieves amazing sonorities with one hand.  The work is Chopin-like.  Pandolfi briefly discussed how Scriabin abandoned his lush romantic style after the fourth and fifth sonatas and went on to compose nearly atonal works like the “Black Mass” (and “White Mass”) sonatas.  The “Black Mass” is a guilty pleasure of mine.

Pandolfi played the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from “The Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky, imitating the sound of the celeste in the upper registers.

The also played the biting March from the “Love for Three Oranges” opera by Prokofiev.

He concluded the first half with his own transcription of melodies from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, including “Maria”, “I’m in love with a beautiful girl”, and “Somewhere” (the tonally ambiguous melody that ends the opera).  I do remember seeing the film in 1962.

After the Intermission, Pandolfi played his own Fantasy on Show Tunes of Thomas Hamlich (1944-2012), who had been the youngest student ever at Julliard. The music included “The Way We Were”, “A Chorus Line” (which I did see on stage as well as film) “Ice Castles”, “The Sting” (with Scott Joplin), and “A Mirror with Two Faces”.

Pandolfi played two encores.  One was the famous Chopin Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 #2 (I had a Columbia LP with Istomin playing them in high school;  a worn sapphire needle from 1950s technology ruined it).   The other was a big Fantasy (by him) on themes from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera”. I’ve seen the 2004 film.

I talked to Pandolfi about the composition process, and he said if was very difficult to use Avid Sibelius or similar products to do transcriptions of other composers’ or of “popular” material.

Pandolfi described how performing artists live on the road, use frequent flier miles, and sometimes drive intermediate distances.  He said he had a serious auto accident Saturday and the airbag prevented all but the most minor injuries, in a crash that might have been fatal.

My own experience driving long distances is that the biggest safety danger is people changing lanes too suddenly, cutting in and weaving in and out – aggressive driving, especially on I-95 toward Richmond and I-66 toward Manassas.  I’ve had plenty of close calls.

(Posted: Monday, October 17, 2016 at 10 AM EDT)









“Lured”: riveting play shows targeting of gays in Putin’s Russia after 2013 law


Name: Lured
Author: Frank J. Avella
Released: 2016
Format: stage play  (official site)
When and how viewed: 2016/9/18, Theater for the New City NYC

Lured”, by Frank J. Avella and directed by Rod Kaats, finished its run at the Theater for the New City in the East Village in New York City Sunday night.

The brief (one hour) riveting play portrays the violence on gay men inspired by Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda law” passed in 2013.

The play comprises three scenes.  The middle scene occurs earlier, before the law was passed.

In the first scene, an oafish man is tortured after being lured by a sex ad.  A woman joins the torture.

The second scene presents more physically attractive characters, as the tormentor actually seems attracted to the young man he is kneading and undressing. It would be nice if the young man were facing the audience.   But a female raves about who gay lifestyles undermine the culture and future of Mother Russia.  This is obviously a reference to Russia’s low birthrate, and Putin’s idea that gay men will encourage other men to have fewer kids.  The play also often refers to irrational beliefs that gay men prefer minors.

The last scene returns the characters from the opening movement.  The two women create a confrontation, as the oafish man bleeds to death in a bathtub. The law seems to encourage police to look the other way, but the characters wonder whether to seek help after all.

I can throw cold water on the premise of the play.  Did the victims behave recklessly in responding to ads?  Or did they actually pick people up in bars who had disguised themselves as gay.  That’s always been rare in the U.S., but maybe it happens in Russia.

The cast includes Cameron August, John Ball, Carlotta Brentan, Cali Gilman, Brian Patterson, Dave Stishan, and Ian Whitt.

After the play, the actors and a party at Pinks, a nearby bar.  Later, at the nearby Bean, I met a screenwriter who showed me a script “Shared Needles”.  The ultimate indie film.  I recall doing table readings in Minneapolis, and attending formal readings of proposed films at the Jungle Theater on Lyndale in Minneapolis, back in 2002-2003.


(Posted: Monday, September 19, 2016 at 10 AM EDT)

“The David Dance”: Don Scime’s play (and now a film) about “unchosen” family responsibility for a gay man


Name: “The David Dance”
Author: Don Scime  Don Scime
Released: stage play, 2003
Format: stage play legitimate

stage play

When and how viewed: At Trumpet Vine Theater in Arlington VA in May 2006, directed by Vincent Worthington, 125 minutes + 15 min intermission

The play “The David Dance” really goes into the philosophical innards of the cultural wars like few dramas do, and with quite a lot of didactic brilliance. At the same time, it is compelling, largely because the protagonist, David, comes off as such a strong thirty-something adult male lead. The play, even on stage, moves around. It is easy to imagine it as a film, with winter locations around Buffalo, NY and then the sugar cane country in Brazil.

There is a set up. David Patrone (Don Scime) is a gay radio talk show host, and he gets into a midnight “graveyard shift” debate with syndicated religious right host June Handley (Anne Paine West). She seems to be pummeling him down, not so much with the Biblical passages (he can answer those, with David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi) but with the cultural thing, that complementarity and “legacy”- based heterosexuality is the proper way to getting in to taking care of people (this is essentially the Vatican’s philosophy). But David’s older sister Kate (Liesyl Franz) has decided to adopt an orphan from a convent in Brazil as a single parent. Now many states actually encourage adoption by single parents because the need is so great and in practice there is a shortage of heterosexually married potential parents for minority babies. Kate is a financial professional and wants to fulfill her life before it is too late. When she goes down to Brazil she is killed in a plane crash. She has suggested that David share the parenting, at least as an uncle or perhaps an attending godparent. In the mean time, David has paid visits to a Catholic hospital and had some practice holding infants that poop. (I am reminded by all this — the nun is played by Ms. West — of the epic film The Nun’s Story).  I think we know that the flow of the play will demand that he take on the responsibility of becoming a parent. It is not really a totally voluntary choice, and that is a point that has profound political and ethical implications to think about. The young playwright obviously wants us to get this.  In the soap opera “Days of our Lives” the gay character Sonny deliver’s Gabby’s baby in the woods when they are running from a villain, and later Sonny becomes a second dad (although tragedy follows in that soap).

There is a lot of other material in the play, in which events are sometimes present out of time sequence or as flashbacks. His show is threatened with ratings cancellation – a common issue in talk radio. (This reminds me of a talk radio program by gay host Scott Peck in Washington in 1993, during the gays in the military debate – his dad was a Marine colonel who outed him before Congress—and Scott’s show lasted about ten months; his book, published by Scribner in 1995, was All American Boy). His boyfriend Chris (Jon Heffner) keeps him going, as does the sister, who in one touching scene finds him outdoors partially “opened up” and gaybashed.  Kate has sent her piano to Brazil, so that the girl learns to play, especially music by Schumann, as in the “Album for the Young.”

My own GLIL Quill editorial “Talk Radio” is available at this link.

The play has been made into a film directed by April Winney (from Brave Lad Films), and it was shown in the Northern Virginia International Film and Music Festival on April 25, 2016.  Unfortunately, I missed the performance.  I’ll watch it online, on a DVD or in a theater as soon as it is available.

Picture: the Arlington VA Food Assistance Center, near the site of the theater (2014)

(Published: Wednesday, May 4, 2016 at 6 PM EDT)