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Into the Woods

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Auf Wiederhören

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ages

The BUZZCOCKS, May 8, 2010, Fillmore Irving Plaza

Dense, spirited crowding of bodies—just enough to make one heartsick for bygone days of all-ages shows in smoky clubs, of foolish jubilant jumping, of secretly being in awe of while gingerly dodging the scariest slam-dancers’ windmilling arms. Nostalgia simply to stand at the frontmost pit’s innermost edge, a few yards from the stage, elbow or palm at the ready to gently bounce any body crashing in one’s direction back into the frenzied middle. To witness again the mutually protective ethic, the essential professionalism—most knowing how to handle themselves, briskly helping up the fallen, not spilling beer.

Crowd-surfing slightly sad: over the course of the show only half a dozen bodies made it aloft, and even then buoyancy was brief and the return to ground precarious, upper body often dropping first. But this isn’t exactly mosh music, and the floor nonetheless throbbed with jumpers. One guy grabbed strangers’ shoulders left and right, sometimes as impromptu half-hug, sometimes to get more height when it came time to jump. Sweetly, none of his conscripted supports seemed to object. The mightiest jumper was practically gymnastic, if weirdly arrhythmic, buff in a teddy-bear way, who knew all the lyrics despite his (apparent) relative youth. The most memorable figure in the pit, however, was a tall, silver-maned, silver-bearded magus-like elder jacketed in black leather who swayed and tossed himself about heftily, as if with both abandon and gravitas, like some venerable punk immortal.

The Buzzcocks were their adorable selves: Steve Diggle all impish mischief and delight, Pete Shelley stout, ruddy, hearty, ironic—a pair of characters one could imagine as sagely buzzards in some animated series.

Sole pity was the opening band, the Dollyrots—dull bubblegummy girl band from LA Audrina Patridge would probably nod along with, glassy-eyed.

Bomb scare outside venue.


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

Ben & Wystan

Alan Bennett’s THE HABIT OF ART, April 22, 2010
National Theatre, London—via simulcast at NYU

Is squalid solitude prerequisite to habitual art? A case can be made, no doubt. Yet it was strange to see Auden portrayed so slobbering, forgetful, corpulent—a man in a barely buttonable cardigan, wobbling with fat and pissing into his kitchen sink. Still more dispiriting to feel, after two hours of stage talk, that whatever potential insight into the Britten-Auden relationship, or into Auden or Britten individually, or into habit or art, had been waylaid by throwaway bons mots, obligatory allusions, tweetable bits of philosophy, and well-wrung jokes about rent-boys. The mise-en-abyme was meant for art to permeate art, for the imagined scenario to stay open-ended—okay—but here the meta meddled and one was left with a sense of emptiness. (Past its artful phrasings, the play did not feel much more vivid and penetrating, say, than that other recent account of an Auden-generation pair, the far less sophisticated but earnestly sympathetic documentary Chris & Don (2007).) Giving literal voice to Auden’s wrinkled facescape: the sole brilliant fantasia.

Of course reviews have been (just about) uniformly glowing. Light bawdiness, quippy literariness: so theatre, so English.

Ice, Oceans, Earth, Mahler

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

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

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

CARNEGIE HALL | Pittsburgh Teleports Vienna

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 8 PM

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, cond. Manfred Honeck
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

BRAHMS | Violin Concerto (Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin)
MAHLER | Symphony No. 1
Encore: JOSEF STRAUSS | “Die Libelle”: Polka Mazur, Op. 204

Last night’s Mahler First with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony was the most seizing account of this work I have ever heard live. One who feels in Mahler a kindred spirit will have felt in Honeck a true compatriot.

A lustrous, concussive force—Pittsburgh is now an orchestra to be reckoned with. The first movement began less than pristinely but the players soon warmed up, cellos pulling with earthy traction—the traction of my dreams!—and the rest of the symphony soon erupting. Amid the sunlit daydreams and acrid ironies there were eddies of utterly Viennese creaminess, straight outta Steel City. (Honeck’s early apprenticeship to Abbado and his history with the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera would explain this in part but does little to soften the surprise of his impact after just two years at Pittsburgh.) The Frère Jacques theme was more flat than sad, more deflated than mournful—rightly so. The way those lyrical, romantic melodies later wove into the third movement, and barely managed to in the final movement, was always exquisitely perfect. The strings were amazing, the brass were amazing; only the winds needed more nuance and precision. Anne Midgette observed of Honeck’s performance with Pittsburgh last May in DC that this is a conductor who knows what he wants. This was absolutely clear last night. He has a physically involved conducting style that actively molds the orchestra’s sound and shakes it forth. I cannot wait to hear the recent recording they made of this work.

Like voters, music critics can gravitate fatally toward center. Surely only this impulse could explain Anthony Tommasini’s miserly NYT review. [Postscript: For his part, in a rundown of Carnegie Hall’s orchestral showdown this season, Alex Ross admits to having missed the Pittsburgh Symphony entirely. A sad exclusion, as he might otherwise have seen the Pittsburghers make as startling an impact as the Minnesotans he justly lauds—and bristling with precisely the kind of “collective risk-taking” he attests to having sought and too rarely found.]

Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Brahms concerto, opening the concert, achieved an astonishingly beautiful tone, hard-earned through artistic maturity and abiding intimacy with her instrument. No longer the merely fiery, merely flawless virtuoso, von Karajan’s irreproachable protégée. How did she manage to bow forth those finest rivulets of flowing mercury?—so pristine and so scorching at the same time? There is some secret in her bowing….

CARNEGIE HALL | Of Firebirds and Nests

Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

BOULEZ | Livre pour cordes
BARTÓK | Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich, pianos)
STRAVINSKY | The Firebird (complete)

A privilege to hear Boulez conduct, last night for the third time in just two weeks. His friend and protégé Pierre-Laurent Aimard was present, too—my first time seeing him after years of being transfixed by his Ligeti recordings. What a stunning showcasing of the Chicago Symphony’s stunning abilities these concerts have been.

The concluding work left the deepest impression. Firebird: from supple translucence to explosive expanse. By the end the whole hall felt bursting and ablaze. On the way out afterward I ran into a lady so dazed she seemed ready to stumble. “Was that not wonderful!” she breathed. “Yes, it was amazing.” “I was crying all the way through.” “Oh! I wasn’t crying but I was sweating,” I confessed, verbs barbaric, “It knocked me out.” “Yes,” she nodded, as glad as I to blurt it out, “it completely knocked me out!” After exchanging more marvel over ageless Boulez we parted with good-night wishes and a shared thrownness.

Boulez’s own Livre pour cordes (1948-88) began with sparse stirrings that delicately explored without out-stretching astray. Bobbins of exceptionally fine, distinct threads of sound patiently spun out into fuzzy, woolen, cloud-like forms—something cotton-candy-like. Out of pleasant arrhythmias emerged sudden, decisive clusters of energy, as directional gesture or frenzy of pizzicato—utterly convincing yet somehow untraceable. Particular beauty took the form of slippery efflorescences, blooming between exacter events. The CSO strings were superbly suited to the intricate textures of this music.

Full of creative vigor, Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (1940) is less concerto than a showcase for percussion and the piano’s own percussive machinations. (That the pianists were therefore less soloists than features of the orchestra meant one couldn’t quite hear Aimard in a starring role—but let there be other opportunities.) Like so much of ceaselessly surprising Bartók, its sound-world remains to this day strange and marvelous to behold. Beginning with tight, rumbling note-clusters in the pianos that gradually expand in amplitude, the lengthy first movement shifts almost imperceptibly (because through many captivating events) from the chthonic to the celestial. The second movement opens with a simple, expectant, almost Baroque dance rhythm, then quietens into an elemental space of stippling keys, breeze-like airs sweeping through, things turning in the light. In the third movement we sense a return to the spaces of human activity—rhythms of work, of dance, of pageantry—and concludes with those sounds passing into the distance, but to keep on as they are, not to die away. The two percussionists here—Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos–were the real stars.

In the row behind me a young couple cuddled in a nest they’d made with their coats and woolens and flowing hair and sat whispering in French for much of the concert, seemingly oblivious to the extraordinary proceedings on stage, save perhaps as dramatic scenery for their ardor. One smiles upon them and vaguely worries about them—these young pairs for whom little is more interesting out there in the world than the burning circuit of their own vitality.

CARNEGIE HALL | Boulez Bluebeard

Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

RAVEL | Le Tombeau de Couperin
DALBAVIE | Flute Concerto (Mathieu Dufour, flute)
BARTÓK | Bluebeard’s Castle (Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Falk Struckmann, bass-baritone)

To carry Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle to its bloodcurdling pitch without recourse to hysterics is to understand the work as tragedy rather than horror. Or to understand that its horror is the bare tragic truth of human needfulness. At its most quotidian, the Bartók-Balázs take on Perrault’s tale flings into a void two souls in a state of needful unknowing. A man craves unconditional love—“Kiss me, kiss me, ask me nothing”—yet mistrusts every expression of such love and so remains murderously unslaked. A woman loves, but her love is fraught by curiosity—jealousy’s arsenal—and so she self-annihilates precisely by asking and asking.

Why she has agreed to join him is his keynote question—a question that shifts in tone from tremulous insecurity to protective fear for her to blame of her for triggering the inevitable. That she loves him is her uniform justification. Her “I love you”s beam out like a weapon—the way too overt selflessness does—shielding herself by clutching him to her: give me the keys because I love you, she sings, let me into every door because I love you. But it’s folly, for so many reasons, to seek such a trade. When the six doors have been opened onto their bloodstained vistas and Door Seven reveals Bluebeard’s former loves, Judith is dazzled into an utterly paltry state of feeling: her antecedents, she sings, have all been fairer than she. Yet it is just as he finally utters the words she’d been aching to hear—“You are queen of all my women, / My best and fairest!”—that she quiescently enters the Seventh Door, finally knowing and accepting her fate to be the same as everyone else’s.

Bartók’s score for the emotionally stark, seething, precipitous world that happens between these two lone voices completely chills and engrosses. Falk Struckmann’s Bluebeard was just right in its melancholy and solemnity, though occasionally more subdued in volume than so large a hall, so great an accompanying orchestra, could really accommodate. Michelle DeYoung, her mettle now proven through Mahler and Wagner, effectively conveyed Judith’s eager, ample-hearted innocence and gave it the slightest tinge of obsessiveness. But more expressive than either singer was the Chicago Symphony itself—whether in the high violin tremolos behind the First Door and evocation of shivering rivulets of blood, the unrelenting trumpet behind the Second Door escalating to a clang of violence, the hypnotic shimmer and deceptive reverie behind the Third Door, or, at the Sixth, the thunderous drumming of tears.

[Postscript: Couldn’t make it to this series, unfortunately, for further Bluebeard meditations.]