Friday, July 31, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: Ali shows deft plotting hand in 'Kitchen,' but overwrites like the Dickens



By Chauncey Mabe

One of the knocks on modern literary fiction is that it seldom shows people at work, where, after all, most of us spend the preponderance of our time.

And yet, as Monica Ali inadvertently demonstrates with In the Kitchen, it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction. Showing the tedium of a working life is one thing. Making it tedious for the reader is quite another.

That’s not to say Ali (at right) lacks novelistic gifts. She’s best known for her first novel, Brick Lane (2003), which garnered rapturous reviews, sold like crazy in Britain and America, and became a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The story of a Bangladeshi girl who immigrates to London for an arranged marriage to a much older man, it displayed a sure hand with a large cast of characters.

In the Kitchen presents a complicated storyline with a richly diverse cast of characters, too. To Ali’s credit there is scarcely a South Asian among them. Clearly, she is a writer unwilling to return to the scene of past triumphs. Her protagonist, in fact, is the thoroughly Anglo-Saxon Gabriel Lightfoot, a 42-year-old chef on the verge of opening his own restaurant. He has the backing of two rich and connected London businessmen, but for the moment he’s proving his mettle at the Imperial, a once-posh hotel. If he can turn this kitchen around, then he’s fit to run his own place.

Gabriel is hardworking and knowledgeable, and though he firmly manages his staff of Senegalese, Ukrainian, Jamaican and Scottish workers, he’s not the bully we might expect from those celebrity chef reality shows on TV. He seems to deserve the professional leap he’s about to make. He’s also close to asking his girlfriend, a beautiful and emotionally stable jazz singer named Charlie, to marry him.

So of course the pressures mount. At the start of the book a Ukrainian porter is found dead in the kitchen’s basement, drawing police and press attention to the hotel. Gabriel grows increasingly frustrated by the work ethic of his Jamaican sous-chef. The hotel manager is up to something shady, though Gabriel can’t quite figure out what. And his father, back home in Northern England, is dying.

Ali does so much so well with this elaborate scenario that it is hard to figure out why In the Kitchen is so unsatisfying. She fearlessly moves from character to character, sketching credible personalities of people from a multiplicity of cultures. She’s deft with dialect, whether Jamaican, Scottish, Russian, or working-class English. She maneuvers a complex array of storylines, all seen strictly from Gabriel’s point of view, in just the right way to maximize tension and suspense.

Still, reading this book can be a slog. Brick Lane has been called “Dickensian,” and the same can be said of In the Kitchen – only now that’s not entirely a compliment. Ali seems to have come under the misapprehension that Dickensian means not only richly peopled and plotted, but also verbose. Accordingly, she burdens the narrative with sludgy descriptive passages:

The morning was brittle-bright, and Gabriel stood in the frost-starched loading bay watching the cheese van pull in through the gates. A single white cloud stood in the hard blue sky. Beyond the courtyard, London hummed its early morning song, endlessly reverberating, one crescendo piling into the next. A black bird flew down from the wall and pecked the moss between the cobblestones…

London hummed? The sky was blue? Please.

Ali also has an irritating habit of stating the obvious. Catering a corporate gala at the hotel, Gabriel is chatting with his secret backers when a woman comes up to one of them, a member of Parliament, and says, “Excuse me – hope you don’t mind me asking, but – are you somebody?” That’s clear and funny. Or at least it’s funny until Ali expends the entire next paragraph explaining the irony of it to us.

In fairness, the gears start to mesh about halfway through. Gabriel’s greatest pressures are the ones he manufactures for himself, sabotaging his chances at success and happiness. He takes a woeful Russian prostitute under his protection, hiding her in his apartment and putting his relationship with Charlie at risk. Impulsively, he travels to visit his father and sister, absentmindedly missing an important meeting with his backers.

During this trip to Northern England, though, In the Kitchen begins to find its legs. Talking with his father, and even more so his fat, superficial sister, Gabriel is shocked to discover that almost everything he remembers about his childhood, especially his beloved dead mother, is false. What’s more, Ali brings a sharp yet affectionate focus to bear on the lives and attitudes of “real” English people, working-class whites and their deep if passive resentment of the immigrants in their midst.

Ultimately, In the Kitchen is not merely the story of one man’s unwilling journey to self-knowledge. It’s also a keen portrait of a changing nation, a former imperial power losing its identity — it’s no accident the hotel where Gabriel oversees a mongrel staff is called the “Imperial.”

But all this texture and thematic depth is smothered beneath a blanket of unfortunate writing.

Chauncey Mabe, the former book editor for the Sun-Sentinel, can be reached at cmabe55@yahoo.com. Visit him on Facebook.

IN THE KITCHEN, by Monica Ali, Scribner, 448 pp., $26.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Weekend picks: July 30-August 2

Gabrielle Chou, a musical triple threat.

Music: Earlier this year, the now-defunct Boynton Regional Symphony Orchestra featured a performance by a 13-year-old Hollywood violinist in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Gabrielle Chou proved to have a good command of the concerto, demonstrating thorough technique and some attractive elements of personal style. She's a triple threat, as it turns out: She's equally proficient on the piano and in composition, and Sunday evening she can be heard in a two-part program at the Boca Steinway Gallery -- on the violin half, it's pieces such as the Wieniawski Second Concerto and the Zapateado of Pablo de Sarasate, and then on the second half, she solos in the Chopin Second Piano Concerto (in F minor, Op. 21) with pianist Amy Lim playing the orchestral reduction. Chou is raising money for two competitions: England's Manchester International from Aug. 15-22, and the Kloster Schontal Violin Competition in Germany from Aug. 21-31. That's impressive, no doubt about it. The 5 p.m. concert Sunday is free admission, but donations for her trips are gratefully accepted. -- G. Stepanich

Alfredo Casella (1883-1947).


Chamber fest wraps: The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival closes this week with performances of music by Saint-Saens (the Fantaisie, Op. 124, for violin and harp), Felix Mendelssohn (the String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 87), Alfredo Casella (Serenata for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin and cello), and the Music for a Low-Budget Epic, written for piccolo and bassoon by the American composer Jan Bach. 8 p.m. Friday at the Helen K. Persson Recital Hall on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, 8 p.m. Saturday in the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach Community College in Palm Beach Gardens, 2 p.m. Sunday in the Crest Theatre, Delray Beach. Tickets: $21. For more information, call 1-800-330-6874 or visit www.pbcmf.org. -- G. Stepanich

The Boca Ballet Theatre can be seen this weekend.


Dance: The 19-year-old Boca Ballet Theatre mounts a show called Amore and More, featuring: Con Amore (Christiansen/Rossini), and excerpts from Flower Festival at Genzano (Bournonville/Strebinger), Napoli (Bournonville/Gade, et al.) and Romeo and Juliet (Lavrovksy/Prokofiev). Also, Boca Ballet co-artistic director Dan Guin offers a new piece set to the music of the French New Age band Deep Forest. At the University Theatre on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $35 adults, $25 children under 17 and seniors. Call 995-0709 or visit www.bocaballet.org. -- G. Stepanich

Tilda Swinton in a scene from Julia.


Film: Oscar winner Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) wears the title role in Erick Zonca’s drama of desperation, Julia. She plays a compulsive liar and compulsive alcoholic, who resorts to violence for her own survival. Told in Spanish and English, this morality tale is a fast-paced thriller, but one where you do not need to leave your brain at the theater entrance. Opening on Friday at Emerging Cinemas in Lake Worth. Call (561) 586-6410 for showtimes. -- H. Erstein

Marcus Bellamy and Holly Shunkey in Vices: A Love Story.


Theater: You’ll kick yourself later if you miss Vices: A Love Story, the world-premiere musical at the Caldwell Theatre that must close Sunday, ending a scorching-hot run that launches new artistic director Clive Cholerton’s administration. With a clever and musically varied score, the show revolves around a pair of lithe, athletic dancers -- Holly Shunkey and Marcus Bellamy -- who meet, go to bed, then have to learn about each other, which means learn about their partner’s vices. Choreographer AC Ciulla’s dances are a cross between Pilobolus and Twyla Tharp, and need to be seen to be believed. Call (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432. -- H. Erstein

Film review: Delightful '(500) Days' offers smart twist on old formula

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel
in (500) Days of Summer.



By Hap Erstein

The very appealing, refreshingly inventive (500) Days of Summer announces its intentions from the opening moments. A sober-voiced narrator intones that what we are about to see “is not a love story.”

Implied is the suggestion that we not get involved in the on-again-off-again relationship between greeting card writer Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his independent-minded co-worker Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel).

Yeah, just try.

There is such palpable chemistry between the two actors it is all but impossible not to root for them to come to their senses and see they were meant to be a couple. Even so, as the film bounces back and forth among the pages of their year-and-a-quarter’s long time together, the days enumerated in a dizzying anti-chronology, we see the extremes of their romantic progress register on Tom’s face -- from puppy perky to hang dog.

Director Marc Webb and Tom Hansen are both film-savvy and there are numerous film references throughout (500) Days of Summer, from Fellini to Bergman to a musical number that is almost lifted from Disney’s Enchanted. The most telling reference is surely to The Graduate, which helped cement the last-minute turnaround of romantic fortunes on the big screen.

And even though the detached narrator notes that Tom completely misreads the movie’s message, surely he and Summer will drive off into the Los Angeles sunset together, won’t they?

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (whose only other screenwriting credit is Pink Panther 2), in further rejection of the rom-com formula, do not even bother to have Tom and Summer meet cute. Their first encounter is a prosaic exchange in an elevator, but that is enough for Tom to become smitten. For her part, Summer makes it clear -- well, she tries to at least -- that she is not looking for love, does not believe in love, and if it exists, she cannot imagine it lasting forever.

None of this dampens Tom’s ardor, of course, who is certain he has found his soulmate in Summer. He looks back on his time with her, the good -- a giddy romp through IKEA, a mystifying visit to a contemporary art gallery, a steamy kiss by the office copiers -- and the bad. Tom has the requisite clueless pals, but even they rise above the studio formula. And the most sage advice he receives is from his much younger, soccer-playing sister.

Since his breakthrough on TV’s Third Rock From the Sun, Gordon-Levitt has been gradually building a solid career in indie films. But here he shows he also has what it takes to become a genuine romantic leading man, albeit one riddled by self-doubts. Deschanel too has long been an appealing presence, but (500) Days of Summer could be the film that separates her from the crowded field of young actresses.

For reasons of convenience, Los Angeles may be the most filmed city in the world. Still, Webb chooses locations outside of the usual images of the town that give the movie a look that is as original as its take on romantic comedy.

Only Fox Searchlight really knows why this film -- first seen locally in the Palm Beach International Film Festival earlier this year -- is being released now. But so be it. (500) Days of Summer may just give summer movies a good name.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER. Studio: Fox Searchlight; Director: Marc Webb; Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler. Rated: PG-13. Opens: Friday. Venues: Most commercial houses.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Music feature: Jazz DJ keeps the flame alive in WXEL show

Stu Grant, jazz deejay.


By Bill Meredith

For someone who isn't a professional musician, jazz deejay Stu Grant sure sounds like he's crafting a restaurant gig set list -- rather than a radio playlist -- for his Jazz Impressions show on WXEL 90.7 FM.

"I look at the first hour of the show as the dinner hour, and keep it lighter," he says of the weekly Saturday evening broadcast. "As the evening goes along, we get more adventurous."

For listeners, that can mean early Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and Elaine Elias leading to Chet Baker, Billie Holiday and Diana Krall, then John Coltrane, Chick Corea and Miles Davis.

Grant has tinkered with the piano, saxophone and drums. But it's his 38 years of jazz programming for several South Florida radio stations that make for his sound instincts. Jazz Impressions debuted as a 6-9 p.m. program on the National Public Radio station in late February, then expanded to 6-10 p.m. on July 4. It also streams at www.wxel.org.

"We've had a huge positive response to the show," says WXEL program director Joanna Marie. "I get e-mails every week from people who say they're glad they've found us, and they're happy to find Stu back on the air."

Grant's previous radio gig was for Love 94 (WLVE 93.9 FM), which let him go last December after 12 years as the station's jazz host.

"Love 94 decided to go to a disco and R&B format," Grant says. "They let me know I was out on Christmas Eve last year, which was a surprise. But Joanna and WXEL general manager Jerry Carr were very receptive to bringing me in, plus another Love 94 deejay, Gina Martell. She hosts a Sunday Brazilian music show."

Stuart Marc Grant, 61, was born in Brooklyn. His career path was impacted by father Alan Grant, a jazz deejay, promoter, producer and emcee. Now 89 and living in North Miami, the elder Grant presented live jazz on the radio during the 1960s, including shows by Davis, Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Art Blakey and Bill Evans at New York City clubs like such as the Half Note, Village Vanguard and Birdland.

"Those guys were so creative that, I guess, they didn't leave too much for the musicians today," Alan Grant says. "There are good musicians now, but not of that level. But jazz was a heck of a lot more popular then, too. I worked with so many of the greats.

"I remember one day I was doing a live radio broadcast at the Half Note club with Wes Montgomery," he continues, "and we had to be done at a certain time because I was supposed to go from there to Carnegie Hall to introduce Oscar Peterson. I realized that I was running late at the Half Note, which was downtown. Carnegie Hall is uptown, so I had to get a police escort to get there on time.

"And for some reason, I asked Oscar if he knew the tune The Nearness of You. He said yes, and asked if I wanted to sing it. I wasn't going to turn down that opportunity, so I can always say I actually appeared onstage at Carnegie Hall with Oscar Peterson."

"As a youngster, I made a point to go with my dad to all those clubs," Stu Grant says. "I remember so much of that, particularly at the Half Note, where he did a Friday night broadcast over WABC-FM. I'd sit there eating an eggplant parmesan sandwich at 11 p.m. while Wes, Cannonball Adderley or Horace Silver were on the bandstand. The world was good, and it's become a father-and-son tradition. I'm trying to keep jazz alive in South Florida, working with organizations like the Gold Coast Jazz Society and Jazz Arts Music Society of Palm Beach."

"I'm so proud of Stu," Alan Grant says. "He kept tabs on everything I was doing, so he's very knowledgeable. He does a wonderful job."

Like many New Yorkers, the younger Grant moved south for the tropical weather, and started hosting a midnight-6 a.m. jazz show six nights a week at WBUS on Miami Beach in 1971. Grant's mother (who, like his father, divorced and remarried) now lives in Delray Beach; his younger brother is in Fort Lauderdale, and his older sister in Boca Raton, where she hosts many family reunions.

"I live just west of Aventura, and north of Hallandale, in the California Club now," Grant says. "I've lived there since before Hurricane Andrew. I remember one of my co-workers and I manned Love 94, back when they were just in one building, on that dreadful night. We'd never realized how many leaks there were in the roof."

Some people in general, and musicians and critics in particular, may see smooth jazz as a deterrent to jazz tradition, but not Grant. His four-hour shows are likely to include almost every tributary, from the American Songbook, bebop and bossa nova to smooth, Afro-Cuban and traditional. Everything, basically, except fusion or avant-garde.

"No 10-minute bass solos or wild guitar riffs," Grant says. "I love melody. Smooth jazz has that, and is a step in the right direction. It can arouse curiosity to go into a record store and look for Ella or Dizzy."

If true, that could provide a shot in the arm for jazz radio, which has essentially declined in popularity despite occasional surges since dawning 85 years ago. The Public Broadcasting System Website estimates that 583 radio stations existed in 1924, two years after Radiola introduced the first retail radio.

That was before the advent of many modern musical forms, so jazz -- then considered America's "popular music" -- was a huge part of radio programming. Yet even with the expected expansion of the radio industry, the AllAboutJazz Website estimated that the number of radio stations ha decreased to 317 nationally by 2005, with considerably less programming for jazz than for the popular music forms (like rock, oldies, easy listening and hip-hop) that essentially replaced it.

"I'm working with Miami jazz saxophonist Jesse Jones Jr., who just retired as a bailiff with the Dade County Court," Grant says. "He has a great new CD out, which we just sent out to program directors at about 250 stations around the country."

Jazz can still be found on most NPR stations, but often in small doses, and presented by one deejay. Grant certainly qualifies as the lone jazz voice of WXEL, but his dosage is potent, even as satellite and streaming stations such as www.jazz24.org attempt to lure away listeners.

"I don't think those kinds of stations are having a very large impact on us yet, although they may eventually," Marie says. "We're primarily a classical format, along with news and information. But most of our shows last only an hour. My own weekday classical music show is three hours long, so four hours definitely makes Stu's show the longest we have."

Grant has started his own Website, www.stugrantjazz.com, to expand and expound upon his show's popularity. By day, he sells two-way radios, GPS devices and surveillance cameras, but his jazz mission statement once again makes him sound like a musician.

"The show is a labor of love," he says. "It's not about the money. I truly love jazz; the harmonics, the melodies and the interplay. I always just felt like it was where I was supposed to be."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer based in South Florida who has written extensively on jazz, including for Jazziz and Jazz Times magazines.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Poets gear up for next week's national slam in West Palm

Illustration by Pat Crowley.


By Paul Lomartire

Slammed by syntax. Pummeled by a poem.

The world heavyweight championship of words delivered with attitude is headed for West Palm Beach in the form of the 20th annual National Poetry Slam Aug. 4 to 8.

And yes, fans, this is a competition every bit as heated as baseball or boxing.

"This is blood, sweat and tears poetry delivered live inches from your face," says Henry Sampson, co-director of this championship edition. "Our poets take the very best elements of stand-up comedy, dramatic monologue and performance-based poetry and deliver it with the energy of hip-hop, punk rock and jazz."

Sixty-eight teams are set to compete in preliminary rounds held at various West Palm Beach Clematis Street nightclubs Aug. 4-6 followed by a single-elimination of the top 16 teams in semifinal bouts Aug. 7. A final four will hit the stage at the Palm Beach County Convention Center and compete for the $2,000 top prize Aug. 8.

The four and five-member poetry teams, usually ranging in age from 20s to 40s, get three minutes to perform each original poem with no costumes, props or music allowed. The five judges for each four-team slam are chosen at random from the audience with Olympic-style scoring: 10 points is tops.

"If you have an opinion and a pulse you can be a judge," says Eirik Ott, the marketing director for the Austin, Texas-based National Poetry Slam. Ott was a member of the 1999 Slam Championship team from San Francisco.

"Our final was in front of 3,000 people in Chicago," Ott recalls. "Imagine the roar of a rock show, but it was poetry. There are over 100 venues that host slams throughout the year in this country plus slams throughout Europe, so being the best, world champion is powerful mojo."

Karen Finneyfrock was a member of the Seattle slam team
at last year's slam in Madison, Wis.



Tony Jackson hopes to feel that mojo in West Palm Beach. His Austin Poetry Slam Team finished third at last year's Final in Madison, Wis.

"We as individual artists do this all year long, but we have three to four months on a team where you're actually bringing your skills together," says the 36-year-old software engineer. "We write together and come up with team pieces," he explains. "Typically, you've got four slots in each competition and you can perform with other team mates or by yourself."

Like any competition, there is strategy to consider. Top teams have a bag of A material so they can be nimble enough to read the room and the random judges that have been chosen. Audience members are encouraged to hoot and holler their opinions at each competition.

"You have to look at the audience and figure out what the best thing is for that audience," says Jackson, "whether it's a dramatic reciting of a poem to a comedy routine. What will people in West Palm Beach respond to the best?

"You're also looking at what has done the best so far at that competition. If someone does something serious and heart-wrenching you might go that direction if it plays well or you can do comedy if that plays well. We found in Madison that other teams couldn't bring the laughter that we could and comedy did well because it was younger crowds," Jackson said.

A West Palm Beach team competing in the national slam is called The Stage. That's the poetry slam home team at R.J.'s Restaurant on 45th Street. The team captain and slam master is Therese Hill, a 14-year veteran of the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office.

"We're going to have fun," says Hill, whose nickname is Chunky. "I have been to the nationals six times. I placed fifth in the nation in 2004. I went to the individual world poetry slam in Canada in 2006 and placed in the top 20."

Hill's current team comes from a variety of occupations. They each competed to be a member of The Stage.

"We have an actress/playwright Rachel Finley; a teacher in the prison system, Derinaa Parker; a paralegal, Desiree Karnis, who also coaches youth poetry teams; and Jashua Sa-Ra, a teacher of African drums, poetry and dance," says Hill. "We've been working together as The Stage for three or four months."

Hill first saw a poetry slam in Fort Lauderdale in 1998. "I was drawn to the fact that there is a mass audience who will listen to what you say. And maybe in that mass audience there's one person who needs to hear your message."

The final was awarded to West Palm Beach, says Ott, for a couple reasons. "The cultural makeup was a main point because it's black, white, Cuban, Dominican, Haitian -- a real melting pot -- and that's what poetry slams are all about.

"Another reason," Ott continues, "is that for the past five years some top slam teams have come from the Deep South and we've never had a final in the South. "And we've never had a final near a beach. How can you not want a final in a place called West Palm Beach?"

Paul Lomartire is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Bouts, and best bets

The preliminary and semifinal bouts will be at the following venues: Dr. Feelgood's (219 Clematis); O'Shea's (531 Clematis); Respectable Street Cafe (518 Clematis); The Lounge (517 Clematis); Monarchy (221 Clematis); 10@2/Roxy's (309 Clematis). One insider who wished to remain anonymous says these four preliminary slam bouts are the ones to watch:


Madison vs. Nuyorican (NYC) vs. Boston vs. Houston (7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, The Lounge)

New York City's Nuyorican Poets Cafe fields one of the strongest teams in the nation year after year, and this year they are going toe-to-toe with the exhilarating team from Boston's Cantab Bar. these are two titans of slam poetry throwing everything they have at each other, and it is sure to be a bout full of verbal artillery.

Charlotte vs. Berkeley vs. San Diego vs. Seattle (7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5, Monarchy)

Any slam bout with Charlotte is going to be a devastating show, but this one pits the two-time national champions with superb teams from Berkeley and Seattle. San Diego is a relatively new team, but the word is that they are smoking hot, too, so this bout could be the hottest bout of the entire prelims. Not to be missed.

Austin vs. Forth Worth vs. Dallas vs. Minneapolis (9 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5, Monarchy)

This bout features three heavyweight Texas teams with a long histories and strong rivalries plus a young group of smoking performers from Minneapolis. Each team knows this is the hardest bout in their prelims, so each team will be bringing their best poems and their most ferocious performances. Should be smoking!

Richmond vs. Boston Lizard Lounge vs. San Antonio vs. NYC Urbana (7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 6, Monarchy)

The NYC Urbana team always brings the fire and have won more than one national championship, and they are going against really strong teams from Richmond and Boston's Lizard Lounge. Tough bout, and way too hard to call.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Music review: Tableau Baroque elegantly demonstrates roots of Handel's art

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).


By Greg Stepanich

A young four-man Baroque ensemble that was formed on the sidelines of a Seraphic Fire concert showed Saturday night that it approaches this music with the same sort of demystified engagement and crisply achieved performance of the choir that godfathered it.

Tableau Baroque, formed when longtime Seraphic Fire continuo man Henry Lebedinsky met countertenor Ian Howell during work on the choir's concerts of the six Bach motets, has just released a live recording of some of the music it presented at All Saints Episcopal in downtown Fort Lauderdale: a survey of the musical styles and composers who influenced the work of George Frideric Handel.

The program, called Handel's Inheritance, took a look at the three periods of Handel's life leading up to his move to England, which became permanent by 1713. Most of the composers on the concert would be unfamiliar names to most concertgoers -- Nicolaus Strungk, Johann Schelle, Reinhard Keiser -- but it all turned out to be worthwhile, interesting music in which the origins of Handel's stylistic debts were clearly laid out.

One of the finest unfamiliar pieces was the song Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein (Ah, my little Jesus, dear to my heart), from a Christmas canata by Schelle, who was the music director at St. Thomas' in Leipzig nearly half a century before its most famous occupant, J.S. Bach. Howell was joined by group violinist Michael Albert, who also sings countertenor, and the two men's voice blended beautifully as they sang the devotional words about the Christ child making a shrine in their hearts.

Schelle's music changed rhythm and style with each line of the text, but was always unified by the warmth of its melodic writing and its dramatic straightforwardness; it whetted the appetite for hearing more music by this early master (1648-1701), perhaps on a program of Christmas music from the German Baroque.

The Schelle was preceded by a pleasant suite in G minor by Strungk, in which Albert, cellist Brian Howard and Lebedinsky demonstrated their fidelity to Baroque style along with an admirable sense of energy, and a solo allemande for harpsichord by Handel's first and only teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. This floridly ornamented piece was in line with the tradition of earlier keyboard writers such as J.J. Froberger, and Lebedinsky handled its extravagant texture deftly.

The voice we would come to know as Handel's starts to be more clearly heard in the music of Keiser, who was the conductor at the opera house in Hamburg where Handel played violin and composed his first stage works. Keiser's opera Claudius (1703), from which Tableau Baroque offered three selections, introduced a composer of real personality, a man who wrote with wit and tunefulness. The March from this opera, played with polish and verve by the three instrumentalists, had a clarity and catchiness that surely gave Handel good direction for his future music. The two-part Overture as well must have provided the template for the kind of distinct contrast that Handel pursued in such pieces thereafter.

Countertenor Ian Howell.

The Hamburg years also saw the first use of a melody Handel would later recycle for his 1711 opera Rinaldo, that of the justly celebrated Lascia ch'io pianga (Leave me to weep), which was sung here with radiant tenderness and persuasive dramaturgy by Howell. He has a lovely singing voice, of a light, supple cast, and his ornamentations on the second time through of the aria were modest, tasteful and effective.

The concert's third and final section, detailing Handel's years in Italy and Hanover, featured a cantata by Alessandro Stradella, probably the best-known of the other composers on the program. La Seneca, a solo vocal work about the suicide of Seneca mandated by the Emperor Nero, was a good example of the variety that a skillful composer can bring to recitative. It's an effective piece, though it's hard to appreciate nowadays, given that music like this is generally heard as warmup to arias. Still, Howell was impressive here, tackling a long, demanding text and making the most of it, adding touches such as wiping his forehead on the words With dry brow and without weeping.

Following the Stradella was a cello sonata by the Handel frenemy Giovanni Bononcini, played by cellist Howard. This is a tricky, difficult work, full of double stops and high-on-the-bridge passages, but it's also quite beautiful, and Howard played it well, and managed maximum expressivity within the confines of a pre-Romantic tradition.

Three other works by Handel filled out the section and closed the concert: Quel fior che all'alba ride, a work from around 1741 which the composer recycled for the choruses And he shall purify and His yoke is easy in Messiah, composed that same year. But the original cantata is a beautiful work on its own, demonstrating Handel's great melodic power and the innate theatricality of his music.

Howell sang it with elegance and grace to expert accompaniment by the rest of Tableau Baroque, and closed the concert with two more Handel selections, two arias from his rarely heard collection of German-language songs, dating from the 1720s. Flammende Rose (Flaming Rose), a confident, upbeat aria, showcased Howell's fine breath control as he navigated the long lines Handel wrote for the solo singer.

The encore, the aria Susse Stille, sanfte Quelle (Sweet silence, soft source [of tranquility]), a gorgeous song in which the comfort of the grave as a release from life's woundings is extolled, received the same kind of reading all the works on this program did: Masterfully played and sung, beautifully realized. Not incidentally, this song also showed the melodic profile and harmonic imagination that distinguish Handel's music as a substantial cut above every other composer on the program, no matter how worthy or adept.

To show not only a composer's inheritance, but how he transformed and exceeded it, was the ultimate message of this concert, and it was in every way a triumph for Tableau Baroque.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Theater review: Shakespeare fest's 'Midsummer' shows company comfortable in new home

The Rude Mechanicals, in Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival's
A Midsummer Night's Dream.


By Hap Erstein

As it turns 19, the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival eases into its new home, the Seabreeze Amphitheatre at Jupiter’s Carlin Park, and it also eases into a more relaxed style of performing the Bard’s work.

Earlier in its history, the Festival would reflexively select an exotic geographical setting or perhaps an unexpected time period in which to set its play. The approach would occasionally succeed, but just as often not and the pop culture ploy rarely added much to the play’s meaning.

Now the troupe is revisiting A Midsummer Night’s Dream after an attempt early in the company’s history that was shrouded in a Robin Hood theme, based on the then-current Hollywood take on the English folk hero. The new production, which plays through tonight, has no such directorial gimmicks, but instead puts its emphasis on Shakespeare’s words and the show is better off for it.

As usual, the Festival players are a ragtag group consisting of classically trained professionals, less experienced amateurs and student novices. Nevertheless, this Midsummer is reasonably well-spoken, clearly presented and it looks quite attractive on the Seabreeze stage, which allows more lighting options than the company had previously.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a crowd-pleasing hodgepodge of Shakespeare’s favorite comic devices. It has matched and mismatched lovers, fantasy characters with mystical powers and a touch of mistaken identity, but almost none of the dark underside that he often tossed in.

Structurally, it rotates among three groups. There are four young romantics who all get realigned with the application of a magic potion. There is a band of bumbling tradesmen, the so-called Rude Mechanicals, who are preparing to perform the “most lamentable” tale of star-crossed Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding of Athenian Duke Theseus and his captured bride-to-be, Amazonian Queen Hippolyta. And then there are assorted fairies, led by the royals, Oberon and Titania, and the mischievous Puck.

Shakespeare juggles all three story threads with agility, bouncing among them skillfully, and director Kevin Crawford keeps pace, moving the action along crisply and with uncluttered stage traffic management.

Any production of the play necessarily has to choose which of the three storylines to emphasize and Crawford seems to have wisely selected the quartet of lovers. Or maybe it comes off more vividly, thanks to fresh-faced, twinkle-eyed Mary Stucchi as Helena, who soon becomes the obsession of both Lysander and Demetrius. As Lysander, Andrew Rinehart grows in the role once a love potion turns him giddy.

Based on audience reaction, the Mechanicals’ broad comedy proved popular, though a bit too one-note hammy for my taste. As fledgling actors in the play-within-the-play, the group allowed Shakespeare to satirize some of the more extreme performance habits of his own troupe, as Crawford’s exaggerated histrionics as weaver Nick Bottom suggest. He brays with the best of them when transformed into a jackass -- literally -- to become the romantic target of Titania.

Pierre Tannous draws laughs in the role of the female Thisbe, though it is never clear whether his errant acting is intentional or not. And Seth Trucks is fitfully amusing as Snout the tinker, who is assigned the role of a wall between Tannous and Crawford.

Technical director Daniel Gordon contributes an ethereal multi-level, hill-and-cave set design, well complemented by his colorful lighting. As it moves out of its teens, the Palm Beach Shakespeare Company is growing in confidence, which can only be helped by its new outdoor facility.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, Seabreeze Amphitheatre, Carlin Park, A1A and Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Final performance tonight at 8 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission: Pay What You Will. Call: (561) 575-7336.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Music review: Cohesion hard to come by in chamber performances

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).


By Greg Stepanich

Two intimate works vied for contention with one of extrovert character Friday night as the third week of Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival concerts opened, but precious few of either kind of moment were satisfying for long stretches of time.

The best performance of the concert at Palm Beach Atlantic University's Persson Hall came right at the beginning, with Carlos Salzedo's evocative arrangement for flute, cello and harp of the Sonatine by Maurice Ravel, which in its original incarnation for piano is a staple of the literature, particularly for young students of the instrument.

Salzedo's transcription fills out a moody sound space only hinted at in the piano, especially in the finale, a busy toccata whose terse motifs can get lost in the glitter of the texture, but not here. Harpist Kay Kemper, flutist Karen Dixon and cellist Susan Moyer Bergeron worked well as a unit, carefully and expertly following along with one another.

But the first movement was pokey where it should have shimmered, with a sluggish beginning and a ritard in the first strain that was much too deliberate, draining all the forward motion out of the music. In the second, the similarity of tempo to the first was a drawback, leaving the music sounding too similar to the first, despite lovely individual moments, particularly from cellist Moyer Bergeron.

The finale was notable for the different character the arrangement lent to the music, though here again it needed a more evanescent, glimmering sound than the feet-on-the-ground treatment heard here. Nonetheless, each musician played at a high level throughout, and showed why Salzedo had a good idea when he decided to recast the Ravel.

This was followed by the Octet for winds and brass of Igor Stravinsky, a big work from his early neoclassical period (1922-23) that doesn't get too many airings these days. It's very much in the style of his score for L'histoire du Soldat, with hints and reminiscences of music for popular entertainments of the day such as the circus.

At its best, the performance had the kind of power and impudence Stravinsky was looking for, especially in the large scalar outbursts of one of the second-movement variations; at that point, the impact of this compositional style became clear: It sounded, fresh, new and disconcerting, just as it was supposed to. Yet while some of the textures were well-handled and there were some good solo moments (a memorable contribution from second trumpet Brian Stanley toward the end), there was a general lack of cohesion in the performance that confused its intent.

Stravinsky was an exceedingly meticulous man and composer, and everything in his music is precisely though out --- it's not for nothing that was he was compared to a watchmaker --- which is why absolute accuracy of ensemble is critical, or this seemingly brash but actually very fragile music doesn't work quite right. This reading of the octet was simply too sloppy to be effective, and the audience gave it a very cool reception. One hopes that things get better in the two remaining performances.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the Clarinet Quintet (in B minor, Op. 115) of Johannes Brahms, a piece clarinetist Michael Forte described as "an old friend" for him and his fellow clarinetists. Forte appeared to have trouble with a sticky key on his instrument, but in general he played with the full-toned warmth requisite for this music, though at times he was somewhat too retiring.

The strings -- violinists Dina Kostic, Mei-Mei Luo, violist Rene Reder and cellist Moyer Bergeron -- played with radiance and depth, but just as in the Octet, there was an odd lack of cohesion in this reading of the quintet. Things sounded quite pretty, but they didn't hang together. In the first movement, the second appearance of the beautiful main theme was notably better than the first, and the second movement opened tentatively but got more definitive.

The third movement came off best, with a truly different kind of approach that stressed its geniality; the contrasting Presto was quite effective at first, with sharp playing in the violins, but it lost some of that crispness as the music continued. Most of the fourth movement was effective, with some nice viola work by Reder and a suitably poetic ending by all five musicians.

This program, the third concert of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival's four concert-series, will be repeated tonight at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach Community College in Palm Beach Gardens, and again Sunday afternoon at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach's Old School Square. Tonight's concert begins at 8 p.m., and Sunday's starts at 2 p.m. Tickets: $21. Call 800-330-6874 or visit www.pbcmf.org.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Film review: 'Ugly Truth' is rom-com by the numbers

Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler in The Ugly Truth.


By Hap Erstein

The ugly truth about the new romantic comedy The Ugly Truth is that it wastes a talented cast on a formulaic story that audiences are either going to be way ahead of or shaking their heads in disbelief over.

Like The Proposal, the Sandra Bullock vehicle that has proven inexplicably popular, this is another tale of a savvy, professionally successful woman who suddenly turns stupid when it comes to matters of romance.

Katherine Heigl, so refreshingly funny in Knocked Up, plays the inconsistently written Abby Richter, a control-obsessed television news producer for a Sacramento station whose show is scoring feeble ratings numbers. So against her wishes, Abby’s boss hires Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), a cable access provocateur who delivers “the ugly truth,” that men only care about women’s looks and how quickly they can get them into bed.

Of course, this earth-shattering wisdom makes him the toast of Sacramento and, of course, it is not long before Abby is asking Mike for dating advice. While the latter is hard to swallow, it is no more far-fetched than the fact that the gorgeous Heigl’s character needs help getting dates in the first place.

Fortunately, screenwriters Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith (the last two are veterans of Legally Blonde) help her out by having a good-looking, eligible, heterosexual doctor move into an adjacent apartment in her complex. But wouldn’t you know it, after initial hatred, she finds herself falling in love instead with Neanderthal Mike, who, wouldn’t you know it, has untapped wells of sensitivity.

Director Robert Luketic (also of Legally Blonde notoriety) does not have the skill of a Judd Apatow, who got away with a lot of crude humor in Knocked Up, but couched it in a story where we actually care about the characters. The Ugly Truth’s contribution to cinema history is a scene in which Abby wears a remote-control vibrator to an important dinner with network bigwigs and -- wait for it -- a young kid at the next table gets a hold of the clicker. Even Apatow could not make that one funny.

Heigl remains appealing, even if her character has only two contrasting modes -- smart and humorless or gullible and inane. The surprise is Butler (Phantom of the Opera, 300), who shows an unexpected facility for light comedy. On the other hand, all but wasted are the deft John Michael Higgins and Cheryl Hines as married co-anchors at the station.

Granted it is hard to break out of the rom-com formula. To see it done and done well, catch next week’s (500) Days of Summer. For the moment, if you are willing to settle for by-the-numbers writing and direction, The Ugly Truth is ready to fill that bill.

THE UGLY TRUTH. Director: Robert Luketic; Studio: Sony Pictures; Starring: Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, John Michael Higgins, Cheryl Hines; Rated: R; Opening: Today; Venues: Most commercial houses

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Weekend arts picks: July 23-26

Brian Kovachik won best of show for this ceramic vase.
(Photo by Katie Deits)



Art: The Gallery at Palm Beach Community College’s Eissey Campus in Palm Beach Gardens currently is featuring Earthly Delights, a multimedia exhibition of art by members of The Palm Beach County Art Teachers Association. The exhibition is composed of recent paintings, sculpture, photography, and mixed media works by 20 artist educators who share their expertise with our county's K-12 students on a daily basis. Brian Kovachik, who teaches fine arts at Jupiter High School, as well as ceramics at Palm Beach Atlantic College, was awarded best of show for an ancient-looking ceramic vase. Kovachik fashions his functional artworks on a potter’s wheel from various stoneware clay bodies and then uses wood-firing processes, which he says "connects a community of potters with the past."

Shawn Henderson poses by her work, Drinking the Kool-Aid.
(Photo by Katie Deits)


Drinking the Kool-Aid, an acrylic paint-and-mixed media work by Bak Middle School of the Arts teacher Shawn Henderson, placed second. Third place went to Wizard of Dogs, a dog-centric painting by Laurie Carzola, who teaches at Westward Elementary in West Palm Beach. A native of West Palm Beach, Laurie comes from a family of Cuban artists and educators. She was a student at Palm Beach Community College and graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a bachelor of fine arts degree. “I would like my work to create a common ground among people of many different backgrounds, bringing them to love and tolerate each and all living things as having their own important role in the world,” she said.

Laurie Carzola and her painting, Wizard of Dogs.
(Photo by Katie Deits)


The exhibit runs through Sept. 4. Gallery hours are Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Gallery at Eissey Campus is located in the BB Building. Exhibitions are free and open to the public. For further information, call (561) 207-5015. -- K. Deits

Henry Lebedinsky of Tableau Baroque.

Music: As part of its new summer series of concerts, the Seraphic Fire concert choir hosts Tableau Baroque, a Philadelphia-based foursome that will present a program called Handel's Inheritance beginning tonight in Miami Shores. The musicians -- countertenor Ian Howell, keyboardist Henry Lebedinsky, violinist Michael Albert and cellist Brian Howard -- will take audiences on a survey of the early part of Handel's career, spotlighting not just his music but the works of the composers from whom he learned: Zachow, Schelle, Strungk and Keiser, among other names known primarily to scholars these days. It promises to be an illuminating evening of rarely heard but lovely music of the Baroque. Concert times and venues: 7:30 p.m. tonight at St. Martha in the Shores, Miami Shores; 7:30 p.m. Friday at the First United Methodist Church, Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale; and at 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church, Miami Beach. Tickets: $25. Call 305-285-9060 or visit www.seraphicfire.org. -- G. Stepanich

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

Chamber music, part 3: One of the most beloved works of Brahms, his late Clarinet Quintet (in B minor, Op. 115) is the featured work Friday in the third week of Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival concerts. But the concert also features the big Octet for winds and brass of Igor Stravinsky, as well as the Ravel Sonatine, arranged for flute, cello and harp by the great Spanish harpist Carlos Salzedo from Ravel's piano original. 8 pm Friday at the Helen K. Persson Recital Hall on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, 8 pm Saturday in the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach Community College in Palm Beach Gardens, 2 pm Sunday in the Crest Theatre, Delray Beach. Tickets: $21. For more information, call 1-800-330-6874 or visit www.pbcmf.org.

Film review: 'Girlfriend' an intense look at way we live now

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience.


By John Thomason

No film better describes the world we live in right now than Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience.

The film is almost designed to be a time-capsule artifact, a vivisection of America in late 2008, ready to be unearthed and dissected in some future economics, political science or cinema studies course (because The Girlfriend Experience is about all three). On the other hand, it’s so timely, so deliberately of-the-moment, that it’s possible the film is sacrificing timelessness for the documentary-like rush of immediacy.

Soderbergh is a quirky, unpredictable director of extremes who is as likely to make a four-and-a-half hour Che Guevara biopic as he is a fluffy Ocean’s Eleven sequel as he is a meandering, barely-feature-length art-film ramble. He makes big movies for big audiences that say nothing and small movies for small audiences that say a lot, and The Girlfriend Experience falls proudly into the latter distinction.

Taking the title from its lead character, a high-class escort (21-year-old adult film star Sasha Grey in her first major non-porn role) who provides the illusion of relationship intimacy along with sex, The Girlfriend Experience takes a few of its ideas about prostitution as a microcosm for a capitalist state in which we’re all whoring ourselves from Jean-Luc Godard movies like My Life to Live (which Soderbergh instructed Grey to watch prior to filming) and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.

But importantly, Soderbergh modifies Godard’s dated Maoist tracts into the framework of contemporary, recession-era Manhattan, where everyday citizens are struggling to get by in a time where everything, from call girls selling their bodies to personal trainers selling their expertise to street performers playing for tips, is a transaction.

Even the vices we used to consider recession-proof are in danger. Imbued with a killer body and a girl-next-door charm, Grey’s Chelsea would never have to worry about money five or 10 years ago. Today, she worries, as much as her gym-trainer boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), about job security and competition, spending a portion of the movie trying to build up her business brand.

Most of her johns, too, are businessmen watching their own wealth and staying power disintegrate alongside a plummeting stock market, and when the sex is over, Chelsea has to listen to all of them recount their economic woes. Sex isn’t an escapist fantasy anymore; part of the girlfriend experience is turning the hooker into a friend or therapist.

The same debates affect the peripheral characters, too. Soderbergh intercuts Chelsea’s client meetings with the political discussions of a handful of businessmen on a plane to Vegas. This being a film shot in the summer of 2008, everyone is, of course, talking about the impending election and economic bailout. The political coverage is so saturating that one client tells Chelsea he just wants to turn it off, and, in a moment of couch cuddling, Chris comments, “If I hear the word ‘maverick’ one more time, I’m going to throw up.”

As a character, Chelsea is an ironing-board-flat, insecure sponge with a false air of culture and sophistication. It’s safe to say that Grey contains the culture her character lacks. She’s no average porn star, her name being a combined reference of the frontman of the industrial band KMFDM and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. She originally wanted her stage name to be Anna Karina, in honor of Godard’s lover and muse. She’s a hip porn star, and her acting here is not bad, either.

It takes a little while to realize that Soderbergh’s film is non-linear. In particular, a story line about Chelsea leaving Chris for a mysterious client to whom she feels a connection is presented in a scattershot timeline that some will find as pretentious as the director’s muddled, uncompromising Cinemascope framing. But it’s a perfect way to convey Chelsea’s world, a revolving door of revisited clients who, if not exactly control time, at least dictate Chelsea’s day-by-day chronology.

Not everybody will like The Girlfriend Experience, and who knows if it will be remembered 50 years from now. But when young people struggling through the recession now want to show their future children what it was like to live in the American upper middle class in 2008-2009, this is the lesson.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. Cast: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos; Director: Steven Soderbergh; Distributor: Magnolia; Rated: R. Opens: Friday; Venue: Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Theater review: 'Knish Alley' good concept, but play needs work

A scene from Knish Alley.


By Hap Erstein

Part historical fiction and part shameless collection of vintage punch lines, South Floridian Tony Finstrom’s Knish Alley is a good idea for a play still waiting to be developed.

The script, being premiered at Coral Spring’s Broward Stage Door, has already had several readings at area theaters, yet it still seems at least one draft away from being ready for production.

Knish Alley -- an ideal title for luring Jewish theater parties -- refers to Second Avenue on New York’s Lower East Side, the heart of Yiddish theater in the early 1900s. It is the desired destination of a ragtag troupe of European actors, traveling to America in steerage class aboard the S.S. Atlantic, working menial jobs by day and performing their Yiddish-language plays to bewildered passengers at night.

In the inert, exposition-heavy first act, we meet the characters and learn about their hopes and dreams. For starters, there is put-upon Zelig (Kevin Reilley), who serves tea and sews costumes for the troupe, but yearns for them to perform his unproduced script, Yankee Doodle Boychik. The company’s overbearing major domo Yoseph (Steven A. Chambers) and his nagging wife Fanny (Miki Edelman) are desperate to meet the theater owner traveling in first class, to secure a playhouse from him for their American debut.

Yoseph’s daughter Sophie (Kally Khourshid) wants to graduate from male roles and, maybe, find a husband of her own. Very pregnant featured player Minna (Jaime Libbert), also husbandless, simply wants her baby to be born on American soil. And then there’s stagestruck cabin boy David (David Hemphill), the fish-out-of-water Gentile, whose goal is to break into show business.

If it sounds from that description that Knish Alley is overstuffed with characters and subplots, you’re right. Worse, many of those yearnings get resolved in a perfunctory conclusion that is emotionally unsatisfying. And the troupe’s final onboard performance, The Merchant of Venice with a Yiddish spin, is a great comic opportunity which largely goes squandered.

Broward Stage Door deserves credit for venturing into the risky terrain of new plays, but director Dan Kelley needed to nudge his playwright to edit down Knish Alley for its own good. The cast is as uneven as the writing. They are not the problem, but nor do they give the material much assistance.

If Finstrom could weed out some of his exposition, simplify his plot threads and punch up the humor, he might have a more satisfying evening of theater. Certainly the bygone days of the Yiddish theater amount to a rich lode worth mining, but so far, his effort is in vein.

KNISH ALLEY, Broward Stage Door, 8036 W. Sample Road, Coral Springs. Continuing through Aug. 30. Tickets: $32. Call: (954) 344-7765.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Music review: Cellist Jaffe elegant, polished in Boca recital

Cellist Claudio Jaffe.


By Greg Stepanich

Hearing a good chamber music recital in a small room out of season is comforting: While our local world is focusing on other things than the classical realm, it's heartening to know that fine musicians are still at it, working away and making admirable art.

This past Sunday at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Boca Raton, the Brazilian-born cellist Claudio Jaffe offered his version of a working musician encountered in a time of low spotlights, which for his full-house audience meant a chance to hear an excellent local player in nourishing repertory. Accompanied by Lynn Conservatory pianist and teacher Yang Shen, Jaffe, a longtime Palm Beach County resident, played one standard work on his program, another for an encore, and three works from the lesser-known pages of the canon.

The standard work was the Sonata in A minor, D. 821, of Franz Schubert, known as the Arpeggione because it was originally written for that instrument; Jaffe provided a useful description of the short-lived "guitar violoncello" in remarks before playing the piece. As he mentioned, the guitar range of the obsolete arpeggione means that a translation for cello has the player floating in the stratosphere range for a good portion of the piece.

And Jaffe struggled in the very top of the register to get the notes just right, but this was only a minor detraction from the overall effect of his reading, which was polished and urbane. Even in the more virtuosic works on the program that came later, there was the same sense of control and careful thinking about the effect of what he was playing.

In the beautiful slow movement of the Schubert, Jaffe let the long line of the composer's melody breathe unbroken, to noble effect, and dispatched the busy writing between the reappearances of the rondo theme with clarity and verve. It was in general a restrained performance of the sonata, but no less effective for that.

The same qualities served Jaffe well in the opening work on the recital, the three Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73, written in 1849 by Robert Schumann. In his playing, listeners could hear the freshness of Schumann's inspiration in the way Jaffe brought out the melodies with simplicity and strength. There was some compelling fire, too, in the main theme of the third piece, which the cellist attacked with real force.

After the Schubert came a rarely heard work of Dvorak, the Rondo in G minor, Op. 94, which like all of Dvorak's string writing is wonderfully idiomatic. Jaffe gave nice touches of slightly different color to each repetition of the catchy main theme, at one point stretching out the chromatic turn with which it opens, and at another giving a little extra push to the high G that is the peak of the theme's first strain.

Despite its structure as an occasional chamber work for cello and piano, the Rondo has plenty of difficult passages, and its affinity with the famous Cello Concerto was clear; Jaffe addressed these more acrobatic challenges nimbly, and made each of Dvorak's new tunes contrast sharply with the others.

The most exciting playing of the evening came in the final scheduled work, the Hungarian Rhapsody, Op. 68, of the Hungarian cellist-composer David Popper. This is a showoff work, and Jaffe did some of his best work here, building up a ferocious, though tightly controlled, head of steam in the long string of uninterrupted 16th notes that dominate much of the piece.

The audience was riveted by this expertly judged display, particularly when it came around a second time, and gave Jaffe a strong ovation. A piece like this can work only when the cellist is in complete command of the technique needed to bring it off. It should also be noted that the accompanist needs to be a good partner with the soloist, and Shen was completely in synch with Jaffe as he launched his scalar barrage; indeed, she proved a deft accompanist throughout the entire program.

For an encore, Jaffe performed the Prelude of the G major Cello Suite (No. 1, BWV 1007) of J.S. Bach. After the fireworks of the Popper, this lovely, classic composition sounded quite demure, and a more aggressive approach might have been just as good as the one Jaffe chose: taste, precision and elegance.

The next concert in the Piano Lovers series at the Steinway Gallery will feature Yang Shen in a solo recital Aug. 30. Scheduled so far are two works of Schumann -- the early Abegg Variations, Op. 1, and the epic Fantasy in C. Op. 17. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door, for the 5 p.m. concert. Call 929-6633 or visit www.pianolovers.org.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Theater review: 'Private Lives' a witty, pleasant summer tonic

Caroline Strong and Wynn Harmon in Private Lives.


By Hap Erstein

Perhaps as important as romance to a successful relationship is a well-matched pair of witty bickerers. And maybe that is as good a definition of love as you could hope to find.

At least that is the philosophy of Noel Coward in his 1930 classic comedy, Private Lives, now receiving a robust, satisfying production at Palm Beach Dramaworks, though one that's pitched a bit too sitcom-broadly.

Director J. Barry Lewis’s cast is strong where it needs to be, with the dapper Wynn Harmon and the regal Caroline Strong as Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, a privileged pair of former spouses -- married for three years, then divorced for five. They meet again on the adjoining balconies of an upscale hotel in Deauville, France, while on their honeymoons to new, substantially less worthy, spouses.

As they caress Coward’s brittle wit, it quickly becomes clear that Harmon and Strong’s Elyot and Amanda are made for each other, even if they cannot go 10 minutes without hurling well-phrased invective at one another. So we are approvingly amused when they decide to leave their new mates behind and head off to Paris together, intent on trying to coexist again.

There in Amanda’s well-appointed apartment, they lounge about in expertly tailored pajamas, cooing words of love, and then switching gears at regular intervals for verbal skirmishes that might make Edward Albee’s George and Martha envious.

Coward wrote the two leading roles of Private Lives for the great Gertrude Lawrence and himself, showcasing themselves in the play’s second act, a delicious succession of contrasting moods, separated by a few silent time-out interludes. Harmon and Strong resort too often to shouting matches where underplayed withering rejoinders seem called for, but otherwise they wear these tour de force roles well enough.

Coward wrote in a showy musical sequence at the piano for himself in this scene, which has been cut here, presumably to avoid lugging the instrument onstage. Nevertheless, designer Michael Amico manages two attractive and substantial sets for the evening, making me wish I had stayed seated at intermission and watched the transition between the acts.

Eventually, of course, new spouses Sybil (Katherine Michelle Tanner) and Victor (Cliff Burgess) show up at the Paris flat, hoping to straighten matters out, but only convincing Elyot, Amanda and us further what meager mates they would make. The roles are fairly thankless, just straw figures to be knocked down, though Burgess manages to turn Victor into a drolly wooden cartoon.

The reason Private Lives is perennially revived is Coward’s well-polished dialogue, which offers a glimpse at how the upper crust misbehaves behind closed doors. Add in a couple of accomplished performers like Harmon and Strong and you have a summertime tonic, further proof of Coward’s talent to amuse.

PRIVATES LIVES, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Continuing through Aug. 16. Tickets: $40-$42. Call: (561) 514-4042.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Theater feature: Dramaworks betting on classic Coward for summer

Noel Coward and Getrude Lawrence
in the original Private Lives (1930).



By Hap Erstein

Palm Beach Dramaworks is committed to producing modern classic theater, an ambiguous term that gets stretched even further in the summertime.

Though the West Palm Beach company has succeeded with revues of work by Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim, this summer is it gambling on a move away from musicals to a classic comedy series, beginning with Noel Coward’s 1930 take on marriage, Private Lives.

“I have always been a great fan of Noel Coward and his work,” says J. Barry Lewis, Dramaworks’ resident director. “And Private Lives seemed a good way to test the waters.”

Private Lives is the story of Amanda and Elyot, a formerly married couple who meet again on adjoining Deauville hotel balconies while on their honeymoons to new mates. There they pick up where their marriage left off, with all the romance, passion and bickering. It has been called a perfectly crafted comedy, a label to which Lewis agrees.

“The writing is extraordinary. It’s a perfect character-driven play,” he says. “It has all the elements -- the premise, the tension, the humor, the satisfying resolution. It’s a perfect play.”

But, he adds, do not expect to be slapping your knee or holding your sides with laughter. “You have to be careful when you think of it as a comedy, because today some think that means you have to laugh every third line,” says Lewis. “We are so accustomed to situational comedy on television that is truly written formulaically. This is something different. It’s language-driven, intent on being clever, content to draw smiles rather than belly laughs."

Considering how carefully crafted Private Lives seems, even almost 80 years after it was written, its genesis is intriguing.

“The story is Coward was exhausted from his work, so he went on a cruise to the Far East,” explains Lewis. “He ended up in Shanghai, by himself, and he came down with influenza. While he was bedridden, he had a fevered image of Gertie (Lawrence, his close friend and stage star, who originated the role of Amanda) standing on a balcony. And within the framework of that hallucination, within four days he completed a draft of the play.”

Private Lives is also deemed an insightful portrait of marriage, an institution to which the gay Coward had no personal experience. “He was a great observer of human behavior. He understood how to find those situations that were both emotional and, at the same time, humorous,” says Lewis. “Because he dealt with the human condition in a way that was unique for the stage in his time."

At the time, the morality of Amanda and Elyot was highly questionable.

As Lewis notes, “There’s a wonderful story of how Coward had to read the play in front of the censors in London, because they were not going to allow it to be performed. They thought it was highly immoral, while Coward insisted, ‘Oh, no, these are highly moral people.’ So he did a reading of it, playing all the roles, before the censorship board. And in so doing, he convinced them that it was fine, that there was nothing immoral about it.”

The experience led Coward to add a few lines to the play to the effect that Amanda and Elyot could not be living in sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church, because once married, the church says you are always married.

“And Amanda’s response to that is, ‘But we’re not Catholic.’ And Elyot goes something like, ‘Yes, that’s OK. At least we know they would back us up is we need it.’ ”

Private Lives has had many celebrated and scorned productions over the years, but Lewis feels that putting a novel directorial twist on the play would be a mistake. “You don’t do a treatment on this piece,” he says. “You don’t try to reconceive it. What you attempt to do is honor it, to be as faithful to it as it exists on the page and bring that to life.”

Not that that is simple to do. “You know the adage, ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard’? It’s true,” says Lewis. “This kind of comedy is very challenging. Because there is usually no physical action on which to base movement or the set-up of a line. It has what I call ‘Noel Coward-isms,’ a kind of repartee that rarely exists in the framework of theater.”

Frequently, Amanda and Elyot resort to verbal and physical skirmishes, which could turn the audience off to them. “And you have to like these people, first and foremost, so that you begin to pull for them when things go awry,” says Lewis. “They’re overgrown children at times and they deal in a world where they have no accountability to anyone else but themselves."

Chances are Dramaworks’ theater-savvy audiences has already seen a production of two of Private Lives. Not surprisingly, Lewis suggests they see it again. “Why would you return to see anything again? It’s a rediscovery and in that rediscovery is a reconnection to what you enjoyed previously.”

And if you have never seen Private Lives? “It’s an opportunity to see one of the greats from the master, Noel Coward, a bigger-than-life-persona,” concludes Lewis. “And author and actor, a cabaret singer, a true Renaissance man. His work still has great accessibility. Yes, I’d say it’s a perfect comedy.”

PRIVATE LIVES, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Continuing through Aug. 16. Tickets: $40-$42. Call: (561) 514-4042.

Music review: Schmitt suite, Septet violinist stand out at chamber fest

Composer Florent Schmitt (1870-1958).


By Greg Stepanich

A standout instrumental performance and two intriguing rediscoveries took pride of place Friday night as the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival opened its second series of concerts.

The finest of the two rediscoveries, the Suite en Rocaille, Op. 84, of French composer Florent Schmitt, reanimated a beautiful and unjustly forgotten work for an audience at the Persson Recital Hall at Palm Beach Atlantic University, while violinist Mei-Mei Luo infused the early Beethoven Septet with fire, wit and sparkle.

In addition to the Schmitt and the Beethoven, the members of the festival offered as their opening work the Octet (in E-flat, Op. 132) of Liechtenstein's own Joseph Rheinberger. Best known for his organ music (one of his organ concerti was played last season by Harold Pysher and the Palm Beach Symphony), Rheinberger was a fine Romantic composer whose work presents no difficulties for listeners.

This octet, for wind quartet, string trio and bass, is a well-made piece with attractive tunes, scored generally in instrumental blocks, with winds and strings moving together as units. The players made a good case for the octet, particularly in the somewhat Brahmsian slow movement, but there were minor ensemble problems here and there throughout, starting with the opening bars, and popping up during the rest of that first movement.

This was a small distraction from the overall impression, which was of a solid, elegant, enjoyable piece of chamber music, not especially memorable but full of pleasant ideas and skillfully deployed instrumental color.

Another work in E-flat major, the Septet, Op. 20, of Beethoven, closed the concert, and proved to be a star turn for Luo (at right), who handled the often-virtuosic violin part with confidence and elan, but without the overly aggressive style that has sometimes marred her work with other groups including the Delray String Quartet.

Here, for example, the celebrated third-movement minuet was a minuet only in name; Luo led it swiftly and smartly, like a busy march, and it worked admirably. The theme-and-variations fourth movement built in excitement as Luo and the other players reveled in Beethoven's prodigious invention, moving without a break into the scherzo, and capping off with a sometimes messy but exuberant finale.

This Septet is sometimes a chore to listen to because of its length and its general style, which leads some ensembles to play it with too much proto-Biedermeier complacency. But this was as fine a reading of the Septet as I have ever heard, and that's because Luo and the other musicians played it with brisk tempi and high spirits, which is exactly what early Beethoven -- the dazzling virtuoso, the rising man about town -- is all about.

But as good as the Septet was, and it was a wonderful way to end the concert, the most fulfilling musical moment came just before intermission with the Schmitt suite, written in 1934 for flute, violin, viola, cello and harp. This is a gem of French chamber music writing, beautifully composed and often achingly gorgeous, and one expects it will be on a future festival recording.

Flutist Karen Dixon demonstrated again, as she has every time I've heard her, the evenness of register and beauty of tone that make her flute playing so exceptional, while harpist Kay Kemper handled a widely varied part with apparent ease and impeccable taste. The three string players -- violinist Dina Kostic, violist Rene Reder and cellist Susan Moyer Bergeron -- rose to the occasion, and it was these five women who presented the finest ensemble playing of the concert.

Schmitt's work is of a piece with Ravel and Debussy, but he has a sharper melodic profile, a less ambiguous harmonic approach, and a Germanic affinity for main and contrasting themes. The result is music such as the third movement, where the flute plays a restless little motif-melody at the very bottom of its range and the strings answer with passages of tense, radiant melancholy; there's no question about where the music is going or the message it's trying to convey.

As with other music in the French tradition, shade and color are critical, and Schmitt shares the exacting ear of his contemporaries, making every chord and utterance mean something more than sonic wallpaper. The five musicians were fully alive to this kind of writing, and in moments such as the high-flying flute and string scales of the finale, which differed so strongly from the mood and layout of second, the great dramatic scope Schmitt found in this modest quintet combination was made wonderfully apparent.

This program, the second concert of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival's four concert-series, will be repeated tonight at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach Community College in Palm Beach Gardens, and again Sunday afternoon at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach's Old School Square. Tonight's concert begins at 8 p.m., and Sunday's starts at 2 p.m. Tickets: $21. Call 800-330-6874 or visit www.pbcmf.org.