New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: drama

A Harrowing, Mesmerizing Multimedia Meetoo Parable at the Drive East Festival

Sitarist Hidayat Khan‘s haunting raga last night at this year’s New York edition of the annual Drive East Festival could easily have upstaged the rest of the week’s performances. But it didn’t. This past evening, bharatanatyam dancers Rasika Kumar, Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek performed their seethingly relevant yet often sardonically hilarious Metoo parable, Unfiltered, to a series of standing ovations from a sold-out crowd. If this is typical, the rest of the week is going to be pretty amazing – and this blog is giving away tickets.

Singer Roopa Mahadevan‘s live score was every bit as compelling, to the point where it could easily be adapted as a stand-alone concert suite. And the three dancers’ forceful, stunningly imagistic performance works as well as theatre and mime as it does as a choreographed work. Each of the trio has a very distinct character and role. Perhaps ironically, Thekkek portrays the quietest of the three as she encounters a sexual predator. Kumar has to fend off a boss without boundaries; Sambamoorthi battles trouble on the home front.

We never get to see these womens’ male adversaries. There’s very little dialogue, and until the coda, everything spoken is in the form of a question. All the interaction is portrayed by facial expressions and gestures. Kumar’s many faces are absolutely priceless as she tries to maintain a sense of humor and inner calm while her situation deteriorates. Sambamoorthi imbues every aspect of her role – her arm movements, her determined attempts to get her point across, and her thousand-yard stare – with a simmering intensity. Thekkek endows her character with unexpected poise throughout an understatedly harrowing solo.

The narrative is hardly predictable. The grisliest details are only alluded to, and the constant cat-and-mouse game between the three women and their respective predators leaves much to the audience to figure out. Yet there’s also great humor – sometimes vaudevillian, sometimes grim – throughout the piece. The visual jokes, especially early on, are too good to give away – phones and social media are part the picture, at least to the extent that we can imagine it.

And the score is as dynamically rich, and haunting, as the dancing. Mahadevan’s famously powerful mezzo-soprano vocals remained mostly in a moody low register throughout the suite, backed by Arun Ramamurthy on violin – who supplied the biggest crescendos of the night – along with Rohan Prabhudesai on piano, Kavi Srinirasavagavan on mridangam and Malavika Walia on vocals and nattuvangam castanets. They opened with hypnotic, calm variations on a carnatic theme and then drifted toward slowy swaying horror-film tonalities. Constant rhythmic and stylistic shifts matched the dancers’ intricate footwork, whether lithe and slithery or stomping and emphatic. As the drama reached critical mass, Mahadevan and Walia countered the dancers’ defiance and reslience with an all-too familiar spoken-word refrain: “Get over it. This happens to everyone. What will people say? Do you really want the atttention?” Ad nauseum.Without giving away the ending, it’s fair to call this a capsule history of Metoo.

It’s also a good bet that the dancers may reference iconic bharatanatyam dance pieces from over the centuries: those more knowledgeable about classical Indian dance than anyone at this blog may get them. The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 7 at 6 PM with tabla players Rohan Krishnamurthy and Nitin Mitta’s North and South Indian Percussion Duo with the versatile Prabhudesai on harmonium at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St; cover is $20.

Transcendence and Inner Torment in Lesley Karsten’s Astor Piazzolla Biodrama That’s Not Tango

Over the past couple of years, Lesley Karsten has staged her mesmerizing Astor Piazzolla biodrama That’s Not Tango in larger and larger halls around New York. The project’s sold-out Jazz at Lincoln Center debut Tuesday night came across as a big victory, no matter how turbulently or quixotically she portrayed the life of the godfather of nuevo tango.

Early on we learn how his manager felt about him: “Onstage, he was a god. Offstage, he was a sonofabitch.” That quote is emblematic. Karsten sees the iconic composer and bandoneonist as a guy with a chip on his shoulder that he can’t – or won’t – get rid of, a defiant paradigm-shifter utterly consumed by dedication to his art at the expense of pretty much everything else.

She’s gone on record as surmising that he would have appproved of his role being played by a woman, and while we’ll never know the answer, it’s plausible, especially considering the quality of the musicianship behind her.

Karsten introduces him speaking posthumously – and in what could be a considerable stroke of irony, rather reflectively – from some sort of limbo. What’s he doing there? Setting the record straight, he wants us to know. The extraordinary group Karsten has assembled for this project – Brandt Fredriksen on piano, Nick Danielson on violin, Pablo Aslan on bass and the guy who may be this era’s greatest bandoneon player, JP Jofre – leap and swing and bluster through a mix of Piazzolla hits and a handful of more obscure numbers in between Karsten’s narration.

What might be most impressive about Karsten’s depiction of Piazzolla is how closely she focuses on the music. Piazzolla the character offers no shortage of drama as he rises from crippled toddler to smalltime thug, reluctantly taking up the bandoneon just to please his dad, then having a eureka moment when he hears his Hungarian neighbor playing Bach on the piano. The young Piazzolla’s dad – a hard man, and apparently a harder man to please – nonetheless was quick to act on his son’s passion. Karsten – whose background is documentary filmmaking – does not affect an accent, or a man’s voice. This tough-talking, foul-mouthed, often caustically cynical protagonist comes across as plenty macho regardless.

The band burn through the music with reckless abandon matched by expertise, no doubt due to the fact that both Jofre and Aslan are first-rate nuevo tango composers themselves. Fredriksen’s dynamism, from muted snippets of Bach, to an absolutely chilling, emotionally depleted, mostly-solo take of Soledad, to the leaps and bounds of Michaelangelo 70, ranges from flash to poignancy. Danielson, whose spare, suspenseful solo kicks off the night’s opening number, Lo Que Vendra, also gets plenty of time in the spotlight. At the end of the show, Karsten introduced Jofre as “Astor Piazzolla,” his whirlwind cadenzas and rich color palette giving voice to every shade the little bandoneon can conjure.

The noirish pulse and chromatics Piazzolla loved so much underscore just how deeply the klezmer music he heard as a kid, growing up next to a synagogue on the Lower East Side, affected him. Karsten also takes care to quote him on Bach, Cab Calloway, Ellington and especially Bartok. At the other end of the telescope, he’s even more quotable when it comes to much of tango – including a cruelly spot-on account of the kind of dancers who can be found at a milonga. There are also personal vignettes, ranging from Piazzolla’s estrangement from his children to his regrettable if tense relationship with the Videla dictatorship during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

One of the most telling moments in the show is an absolutely heartwrenching, revelatory tour through the backstory of Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s requiem for his father and ironically one of the most traditional pieces in the Piazzolla repertoire. He’d been between sets at a gig in the Caribbean when he got the news; afterward, he went back on and played the second show of the night. Unable to communicate his grief with his family, he locked himself in his room with his bandoneon and wrote what he considered to be his greatest piece. The rest of the material on the bill focuses on Piazzolla’s most lavish ambitions, from the coy baroque allusions of Fuga y Misterio to the gritty intricacies of Tres Minutos Con la Realidad. What Ellington did with the blues, Piazzolla did with tango: this show will inspire anyone who loves his music as well as the many, many influences that went into it.

A Radical, Relevant Revival of a Witheringly Insightful, Hilarious Broadway Artifact from the 1930s

If you think a Broadway musical from 1937 couldn’t possibly have much relevance to this century, you haven’t seen Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. In this era, most people haven’t. Created under the New Deal auspices of the Federal Theater Project, the Feds notoriously closed it down on the eve of its initial Broadway premiere for being too radical. One can only imagine what the Trumpies would make of something that FDR’s people found too subversive.

The Classic Stage Company‘s current revival – continuing through May 18 – couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Beyond John Doyle’s masterfully smart direction, getting the absolute max out of a minimalist set and a multi-talented cast, what’s most stunning is how well Blitzstein’s uproariously spot-on piece of agitprop has aged. Quaintness only arises in its many historical ironies – like the once-ubiquitous reality of steel made by American union labor, rather than by Chinese slaves.

This show is all about co-optation, and duplicity, Without spoiling the plot (for those who missed the 1999 Tim Robbins film of the same title), be aware that there’s considerable irony in the costumes. Blitzstein’s relentless satire spares no one, other than protagonist and union organizer Larry Foreman, played by a tireless, ebullient Tony Yazbeck, who, interestingly, appears in only about ten percent of the dialogue. He’s looking forward to what appears to be an across-the-board victory for the workers of Steeltown, USA. Only local steel magnate Mr. Mister (David Garrison, who gives him a glowering Lionel Barrymore menace), stands in the way. But he’s making it really hard for everybody. Before the curtain falls, there will be more than one shooting; at least one hapless employee gets caught in the machinery.

Most of the action takes place in song. That those numbers have held up so well over the years testifies to Blitzstein’s reliance on Kurt Weill-style noir, Cole Porter cleverness,, and tinges of gospel and klezmer rather than Depresssion-era vaudeville schlock. Period references abound: lockouts, sitdown strikes, strikebreaking violence. It’s no wonder the censors were so frightened. Everybody sings and plays multiple roles, including three of the cast showing off better-than-average chops at the piano. Rema Webb gets the big arioso vocal moment and hits it out of the park. Kara Mikula distinguishes herself with her voice, on the keys, and also in a fleeting, completely unexpected acrobatic bit. Lara Pulver has brassy poignancy as a hooker in jail, as well as a completely contrasting, savagely ironic alter ego of sorts.

Sally Ann Triplett plays Mrs. Mister with a hilariously relsolute, clueless determination. As her ditzy, heavy-lidded slacker kid, Larry Cooper is even funnier: fauxhemianism goes back a lot further than Bushwick. Benjamin Eakeley is priceless as a mercenary violin virtuoso who gladly lets Mr. Mister buy him off, as pretty much everybody else who might be instrumental in keeping the unions of his mill does. Some have qualms – a doctor, a professor, the publisher of the local newspaper – but eventually pretty much everybody falls in line. Ken Barnett and Ian Lowe impressively negotiate roles on both sides of the divide.

Yet as corrosively cynical as this show is, it’s also a feel-good story. As the protagonist explains, sure, he gets thrown in jail for passing out leaflets – “inciting a riot” was the 1930s equivalent of “terrorism” – but he’s perfectly content to be one of many, standing on the shoulders of giants. Victory really seems inevitable – and in an era that would create union representation for almost thirty percent of American workers, it’s easy to see how contagious that optimism would be. In the meantime, let’s wish the best to the Mexican maquiladora workers in their struggle for something approaching a living wage.

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

A Harrowing, Ferociously Relevant Mother-Daughter Conflict at the French Institute

While there’s nonstop drama and some actual physical violence in Nazmiye and Havva Oral’s No Longer Without You, a searing mother-daughter conflict currently in its US debut run at the French Institute/Alliance Française, its most serious fireworks are only alluded to. We don’t get more than a mention of the abortion, or passing references to the screaming matches and literal tug-of-war between religious Muslim mother and her willful daughter determined to escape the confines of what she feels is an antedeluvian, misogynist environment.

On a surface level, this is a feel-good story of female empowerment and triumph over adversity. A Turkish immigrant in Holland, Havva raises her Nazmiye with an iron fist in a strict religious household. Nazmiye’s father dies young and doesn’t figure much in this story: it’s clear who runs the show in this family. But Nazmiye doesn’t want an arranged marriage at age eighteen and a life of domesticity like her mom. So she leaves home, marries a foreigner, has a couple of daughters of her own, divorces and becomes a world-famous journalist and performer along the way. What’s not to be proud of?

Havva doesn’t exactly see it that way. In this performance piece, she’s less volubly critical than Nazmiye recalls, dredging up one childhood battle after another. And she’s withholding. What Nazmiye wants most is her mother’s love. In the piece’s most touching scene, Nazmiye recalls that despite the disputes and the terror of being dragged off by a teenage husband-to-be whom she doesn’t even like, the one place she feels secure is in her mother’s arms. And time after time, Havva keeps her at arms length.

Yet Havva is also anything but an ogre. Her traditional garb makes a stark contrast with her daughter’s scarlet dress. She’s calm, stolid, unassailably confident and someone who says a lot in a few aphoristic words. And she’s funny! As the piece progresses, it’s clear that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, two indomitable women, each with big dreams. Daughter speaks in English, mother answers in Turkish, usually translated by Seval Okyay, who also provides gorgeous, haunting musical interludes with electric saz lute and a soulful, often plaintive voice. If there’s anything this performance could use more of, it’s Okyay.

While the cultural idiom here is specifically Muslim, the story is an all-too-familiar one: escapees from militant Christian and Orthodox Jewish environments tell the same tale. Beyond the breaking of one taboo after another – where Havva seems genuinely worried for her daughter’s soul, not to mention her own – the most shocking moment of all might be where Nazmiye asks what right a mother has to live vicariously through her daughter. Havva asserts that it’s perfectly kosher for a child to be the vehicle for a parent’s aspirations – or dashed hopes, perhaps. It’s another familiar dynamic. Obsessive Colorado pageant moms, psycho Texas football dads and harried Park Slope helicopter parents would find themselves more at home in Nazmiye’s childhood environment than they might think.

More poignantly, there are several “do you love me” moments: the answer may surprise you, like the ending, which is anything other than pat. But the one question that Nazmiye never asks, after all she’s accomplished, is “Are you proud of me?” One suspects the response would be more predictable.

Adelheid Roosen’s direction is everything the relationship isn’t: comfortable and familial, the audience seated on comfy cushions around the floor, living room style. There is also a little interaction with the audience, which is similarly welcoming and comforting and a serendipitous respite from the intensity of the performance. The final show today is sold out, but the Institute’s long-running events and concert schedule, including their legendary film series continues through the fall. 

Celebrating Resistance and Triumph Over Tyranny at Lincoln Center

For three years now, Lincoln Center has been partnering with Manhattan’s  Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry in an annual celebration of freedom fighters from across the decades. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Thursday night’s annual performance featured “a stellar cast,” as Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez put it, playing some powerfully relevant music and reading insightful, inspiring, sometimes incendiary works by activists and authors from the sixteenth century to the present day.

Brianna Thomas raised the bar dauntingly high with the Civil Rights-era Sam Cooke hit A Change Is Gonna Come, guitarist Marvin Sewell playing bottleneck style on the intro for a ringing, rustic, deep blues feel. “I go downtown, and somebody’s always telling me, don’t hang around,” Thomas intoned somberly over Sewell’s terse icepick soul chords. In an era when Eric Garner was murdered because he got too close to a new luxury condo building, that resounded just as mightily as it did in Birmingham in 1964. She picked it up again with a ferociously gritty insistence, the audience adding a final, spontaneous “Yeah!” at the very end.

Later in the performance the duo played a hauntingly hazy, utterly Lynchian take of Strange Fruit. Thomas’ slow, surreal swoops and dives raised the macabre factor through the roof: If there’s any one song for Halloween month, 2017, this was it.

In between, a parade of speakers brought to life a series of fiery condemnations of tyrants and oppression, and widely diverse opinions on how to get rid of them. Staceyann Chin bookended all this with an understatedly sardonic excerpt from Bartolome de las Casas’ grisly account of early conquistadorial genocide, closing with a rousing Marge Piercy piece on how to build a grassroots movement.

Shantel French matter-of-factly voiced Henry George’s insight into how poverty is criminalized, but is actually a form of discrimination. Michael Ealy’s most memorable moment onstage was his emphatic delivery of the irony and ironclad logic in Jermain Wesley Loguen’s famous letter to the slaveowner he escaped during the Civil War: ‘You say you raised me as you raised your own children…did you raise them for the whipping post?”

Geoffrey Arend read Eugene Debs’ address for his 1918 sedition sentencing, optimism in the face of a prison sentence and a corrupt system doomed to collapse  Laura Gomez voiced the anguish and indignity of a longtime resident of Vieques, Puerto Rico who’d seen his neighbors harassed and killed by drunken marines and errant bombs dropped in practice runs (this was in 1979, before the island was rendered uninhabitable by the same depleted uranium dropped on Afghanistan and Iraq). Considering that the President of the United States has castigated the people of this disaster-stricken part of the world for being a drain on the Federal budget, this packed a real wallop. We can only hope this latest incident helps the wheels of impeachment move a little faster.

Brian Jones read from a witheringly cynical pre-Emancipation Frederick Douglass speech on what the Fourth of July means to a slave, and also Martin Luther King’s emphatically commonsensical analysis of the racism and injustice inherent in the Vietnam War draft. Aasif Mandvi brought out all the black humor in Brooklyn College professor Moustafa Bayoumi’s account of being besieged by off-campus rightwing nutjobs. And joined by incisive, puristically bluesy guitarist Giancarlo Castillo, songwriter Ani Cordero sang a venomous take of Dylan’s Masters of War and an understatedly passionate, articulate version of Lydia Mendoza’s 1934 border ballad Mal Hombre, sad testimony to the fact that Mexican immigrants have been demonized long before Trump.

The next free performance at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is on Oct 19 at 7:30 PM featuring artsy Mexican trip-hop band Ampsersan. Getting to the space a little early is a good way to make sure you get a seat, since these events tend to sell out.

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

Sylvia Milo’s Powerful Biodrama The Other Mozart Goes Global

“They didn’t save my letters,” Sylvia Milo’s Nannerl Mozart muses early on in The Other Mozart, Milo’s witheringly relevant one-woman show now on world tour after a wildly successful  three-year New York theatrical run. If you find the glass ceiling in music troubling, consider that it wasn’t until the Reagan era – irony of ironies – that an all-female rock band, the Go-Gos, achieved national prominence. For a woman instrumentalist in jazz, the challenges continue to be daunting. And you can still count the internationally known women orchestral conductors on the fingers of one hand. In that context, is it any wonder that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his dad tossed aside Nannerl’s responses to their breathless chronicle of touring their era’s great European concert halls?

Milo’s tragicomic biodrama about “Wolfie” Mozart’s lesser-known but reputedly just as talented older sister has already been performed in the Mozart family apartment in Salzburg; the Mostly Mozart Festival here in New York would be the logical venue for a triumphant homecoming. With a lithely luminous, charismatic presence and a balletesque grace in a physically taxing role, Milo transports the audience into a world of 18th century high society drama and intrigue that puts this era’s celebrity Twitter feeds to shame. The action is nonstop, so much that in the early going, her whirlwind delivery demands especially close attention. The dialogue, most of it drawn verbatim from the Mozart family’s archival correspondence, reveals that Amadeus was hardly the only drama queen in this story. That’s a family trait, and Milo dives into that for maximum entertainment value, juicy gossip and all, although it eventually takes its toll on pretty much everyone concerned.

The great tragedy is that Nannerl’s kid brother at least got the chance to pursue his art fulltime. Her mom – who, predictably, has been lost to history to an even greater extent – couldn’t wait to put Nannerl’s childhood dreams of stardom to rest and marry her off to some bigwig. Complicating those efforts is the Mozart siblings’ past as child stars. Clearly, Nannerl dreads the thought of having peaked at a young age after having been feted as a child prodigy alongside her brother while Father Mozart, desperate to escape his dreary dayjob, pulled out all the stops in trying to ride his kids’ talent all the way across the continent, and, ultimately, out of town.

Jealousy simmers while Nannerl busies herself with smalltown drudgery, cast aside by her father and brother in their headlong dash for fame, fortune and an increasingly elusive rich patron to facilitate all of that. Milo puts all of this in context, resulting in many of the performance’s most cruelly amusing moments. After all, in Enlightenment-era Europe, everyone knew that women’s fragile constitutions and similarly weak minds put all sorts of all-male activities, the concert tour among them, permanently off limits. Milo dredges up a couple of particularly ugly, piggish quotes from none other than Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to drive that home: compared to those two, Donald Trump may not be Simone de Beauvoir, but he’s definitely a cut above when it comes to misogynist prejudice.

Although Milo saves a particularly ironic twist for the very end, the conclusion of this tale isn’t as tragic as it could have been. History tells us that Nannerl Mozart was able to find some late-career redemption, such as that could have existed for her then. Widowed and supported by an inheritance, she earned respect as a teacher, salon operator and champion of her late brother’s works. Milo doesn’t address this, but one can only wonder if Nannerl could have achieved as much without living in her brother’s shadow.

The musical score, with spot-on musical direction by Nathan Davis deserves its own stand-alone release: it’s that good. Rippling, uneasily and vividly atmospheric original compositions for toy piano and music box by Phyllis Chen are juxtaposed with well-chosen, familiar excerpts from works by Mozart and also from Marianne Martines, a popular salonniere and composer in mid-1700s Vienna. What we don’t get is Nannerl Mozart’s own work: only a fragment of one of her compositions survives.

 

Norian Maro’s Deliriously Entertaining Korean Harvest Spectacle Keeps the Crowd on Their Feet

You might think that a drum-and-dance troupe performing an ancient Korean peasants’ nongak harvest festival celebration would draw a mostly Korean audience, right? Friday night at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, Korean ensemble Norian Maro (whose name translates roughly as “Premier Performance”) had an unmistakably multi-ethnic, sold-out New York crowd, ranging from in age from kids to their grandparents, on their feet, cheering and stomping along with the irresistibly kinetic performance onstage.

The show reached a peak and then stayed there for its final twenty minutes or so, the performers clad in bright costumes and wearing caps topped with streamers on a swivel. The group members charged with the task – pretty much everybody – first spun their heads in a semicircle to activate the swivel and get the streamers flying in big arcs behind them, all the while spinning around the stage, and also playing intricate polyrhythms on a diverse collection of drums at the same time. And nobody onstage could resist a grin as they worked an ecstatic call-and-response with the crowd – and made it all look easy. How they managed to do that without losing their balance, or the beat, or a lot more, was mind-boggling. As a display of sheer athletic grace combined with musical prowess, it’s hard to imagine witnessing anything more impressive in this city in the past several months.

Norian Maro premiered the piece, titled Leodo: Paradise Lost, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last fall. It’s a metaphorical tale of the cycle of renewal, personified by a lithe dancer who gets caught in an ocean undertow and then comes face to face with the sea gods, among them a strikingly decorated dragon figure requiring two group members to keep him on his feet. After some very vigorous resuscitation, she’s transported to a magical isle where she comes to life again. One of the women in the group sang the narrative in Korean, in low, mysterious, otherworldly microtones, a revealing glimpse of the ancient, mysterious roots of dramatic Korean pansori singing.

As meticulously choreographed and spectacularly athletic as the dancing was, the stars of the show were the drummers, on a series of janggu drums ranging from a big, boomy tom, to a metal gong, to smaller metal hand drums that provided both clanging and mutedly shimmering tones. The star among all the players was a petite woman with a double-headed drum slung over her shoulder that was almost as big as she was, which she played in two separate time signatures at once, at one point firing off long volleys with a single mallet on both drum heads. Of all the players onstage, including Jong Suk Ki, Jung Hyeon Yung, Min Kyoung Ha, Sungjin Choi and Yoo Jeong Oh, she seemed to be having the most fun. Although one of the guys in the group had an equally good time with a tassel that he swung about fifty feet into the crowd, then later spun and spun until he had it flying from the roof to the floor of the stage, practically cartwheeling to keep it in motion.

The Korean Cultural Service, who staged this show, have a series of enticing concerts and spectacles coming up here. The next one is by Korean classical pianist Eunbi Kim playing works by Debussy, Fred Hersch, Daniel Bernard Roumain and others at 7 PM on Feb 26. Admission is free, but you have to RSVP, the sooner the better: and make sure to get to Flushing Town Hall’s historic Gilded Age auditorium, about five blocks from the last stop on the 7 train, at least a half hour early in order to claim your seats.

The Minetta Lane Theatre Stages a Sinister, Politically Spot-On New Rock Musical

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.