Saturday, September 27, 2014

Flamenco, Flamenco, a film by Carlos Suara

In 1995 Carlos Suara made a film called, simply, Flamenco, featuring a variety of flamenco stars performing set pieces one after another in an abandoned exposition hall. Fifteen years later, in 2011, he did the same thing again, using some of the same performers while adding some fresh blood as well. 

Both films are worth watching, but Suara’s more recent effort, which only trickled into general release in the United States this summer, is the better of the two, and well worth seeking out on the big screen. 

Cinematographer Vitorio Storraro (The Last Emporer, Reds, Apocalypse Now, etc) shot the film, and the lighting is superb. Meanwhile, the painted theatrical backdrops, usually with a glaring sun or a haunting moon and a few stunted trees, evoke a world of Goya-esque mystery and emotion.

Most of the emotion, of course, is provided by the performers. Flamenco can be slow or frisky, grave or light-hearted, but it seldom fails to engage the listener on a deep level—the listener that’s attuned to it. The music follows different patterns of harmonic development from what many of us are used to, and the rhythms are almost invariably either irregular and jumpy or agonizingly slow. Even the most diehard aficionado probably wouldn’t want to listen to three seguiriyas in a row, but Suara mixes the material artfully, the same way as it’s done in live performance, with a lively tangos or alegrias thrown in from time to time.

One thing I noticed while watching Flamenco, Flamenco is that several of the singers whose work I’m familiar with have matured. Miguel Poveda, who sings three songs in the film,  if I’m not mistaken, has always had a strong but slightly nasal voice. It’s become deeper, a little rougher, and more powerful. By the same token, Nina Pastora has moved beyond the brassy, youth-oriented  singing of her early career to a new level of expression.

And then there is Estrella Morente. The daughter of singing icon Enrico Morente, the steps in her early career were made easier by the family association, and her light singing style was not highly regarded by all aficionados. But she, too, has matured, and though her lengthy number is slightly more pop-oriented than the others, it doesn’t seem entirely out of place.

Jose Merce, considered by some to be the “king” of the male singers these days, appears on an empty stage to sing a martinetes—one of the oldest flamenco forms. The singer is usually accompanied by nothing other than a hammer and anvil, and so it is with Jose. His voice is fully up to the task of negotiating the melodic turns back and forth from major to Phrygian mode, but the camera moves in too close, and the effect of the gut-wrenching music is slightly diluted by our unavoidable examination of the singer’s lips, gums, and teeth.

Among the featured guitarists Manolo Sanlucar and Paco de Lucia stand out. When Sanlucar showed up I was shocked. Could he still be alive!? Turns out (I looked it up) he’s in his early seventies, and his forceful style is as engaging as ever, while the three female back-up singers—a flamenco version of the Shirelles or the Chiffons—also contribute to the number’s lively flair.

Paco de Lucia is no longer with us, but his performance here reminds us why he was (and continues to be) held in such high regard. His touch is lighter, his harmonies more subtle than the other guitarists in the film. It’s very “flamenco” but has drifted into a richer and more ethereal domain.

The film’s third noteworthy guitarist (that is to say, a guitarist I recognized) is Tomatito, who played a few falsetas during Nina Pastora’s number. They were brief, and contained some distressingly “jazzy” bent notes, but it was fun simply watching him bob confidently to the rhythm and deliver effortlessly when called upon.

In the course of their inspired duet, pianists Dorantes and Diego Amador demonstrate that genuine flamenco can be produced on “classical” instruments, although the number is seriously compromised by the fact that the two pianists can’t seem to stop smiling at one another across the opposing soundboards.

As for the dancing, it’s here, perhaps, that flamenco has gained its greatest popularity … and also diverged most radically from the spirit of the genre. The film begins with star-dancer Sara Baras, who has had her own dance company, works as a model and TV personality, and has even (so I'm told) designed a popular line of lingerie. She appeared in a flowing red dress with no back to it, impressively thin and limber. But there was something a little self-conscious and theatrical about her piece.

Even worse was the long solo piece by Israel Galván. Wearing white suit and shoes, he darted in and out from behind back-lit panels with flamenco images painted on them. It was Marcel Marceau doing flamenco. The artistry and body control were exceptional, but the performance was so heavily spiced with abrupt starts and stops that it began to seem self-indulgent, wearisome, and almost random. Flamenco rhythms were nowhere in the vicinity.

The several highly choreographed numbers with eight or ten women dancing in ensemble were pleasant but hardly gripping. On the other hand, Farruquito’s number was outstanding. He appears as a young boy in Saura’s first flamenco film, dancing alongside his famous grandfather, El Farruco, with another one of his eminent relatives, El Chocolate, singing accompaniment. It’s a wonderful number. Here we see him again, at age 28 (just a guess) dancing up a storm in seeming improvisatory style, interacting with a full complement of stage musicians—guitarists, clappers, vocalists, and even a violinist.

(The boy who dances earlier in this film is Farruquito’s little brother, Paquera, clearly a chip off the old block.)

Farruquito’s number is one of the high points in the film, and the grand finale also belongs in the same category. Guitarist Moraito Chico sits front and center in the midst of what looks like an extended clan, as various family members sing or stand up to do a few solo turns on the dance floor. Moraito himself hands off his guitar and does a a few steps. True aficionados would probably recognize about half of the people in the ensemble. But it’s hard to keep up with all the flamenco clans without a key.

The good news is, the genre continues to develop, absorbing popular elements and creative innovations, without entirely sacrificing the gripping, primitive emotions that define that world. As director Suara said himself in an interview a few years ago:

“…flamenco is something which has surprised us all, to the extent that it is a way opening up towards the future. It has that possibility of being able to be very orthodox and also very heterodox... and even more heterodox.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

La Boheme in Salzburg

In the long history of the Salzburg Music Festival, operas by Puccini had been performed only twice. Why? Because the Salzburg festival is a stuffy affair with sky-high ticket prices, and in those parts Puccini is considered to be a sentimental composer who appeals to the masses. No matter that three of the six most widely-performed operas is history are by Puccini (La Boheme, Tosca, Madame Butterfly). If you want to hear them, you can hear them somewhere else.

In 2012, the festival broke the ice for a third time, mounting a production of La Boheme that was captured on film, and the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul ran it on Sunday at St. Anthony Main. It was a beautiful afternoon outside, but more beautiful inside the theater, where Anna Nektrebko, Piotr Beczala, and an otherwise strong cast belted out the love duets and other tuneful arias that are so familiar and yet so moving.

We had seen the new Met production of La Boheme in April (at a movie theater, of course), and I was wondering if I was ready for another dose. The fact that the Salzburg version is set in modern times, with “poets” making DVDs and “painters” using cans of spray paint, might come as a refreshing change; it was inducement enough to give La Boheme another shot.

The sound in the theater wasn’t great, but it was loud, and the magic of Puccini’s orchestration took hold almost immediately. The modern settings made it possible for the set designer to introduce a pallet of  truly garish colors, and the torn jeans, ragged t-shirts, white-rimmed sunglasses, and colorful leather jackets did nothing to undermine the powerful musical effects. It was only in the second act, where a Parisian street scene was rendered with model hotels sitting on an enormous Google map of the city, that the update became slightly risible.

As if in compensation, that act was enlivened by the appearance of Musetta, with Nino Machaidze offering us a very modern slant on that character.

Meanwhile, Anna Netrebko played the seamstress Mimi as poor and also less than glamorous, though once again, she made the character fit the music. No opera in the repertoire is more emotional than La Boheme, and Netrebko’s powerful rendering went a long way toward making it all convincing.

In fact, at a certain point it occurred to me that the howling pains of anguished love that pepper the opera had an almost animal quality. The cacophony at the end of act three, for example, when Rodolfo and Mimi are splitting up on one side of the stage while Muesetta and Marcello are having a heated jealous spat on the other, seemed like a primal whorl of chaos…but very pleasant to listen to.

It’s sometimes suggested that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, while Puccini’s music sounds better than it is. But this can’t be true, because music is no better or worse than it sounds. The sound is the music.

The Minneapolis / St. Paul Film Society will be bringing in four more operas this fall and winter, to be aired on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons. They all sound pretty good. See you there?
The Magic Flute: Oct 21 and 26
Don Carlo: November 18 and 23
Eugene Onegin: December 16 and 21
Romeo and Juliette: January 27 and February 1

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Washing Windows

Anyone who was outside on Saturday afternoon would agree, it was a perfect day for washing windows.

The biggest challenge we face lies with the twelve-pane wooden storm window in the living room, which has been deteriorating little by little for decades. It’s a heavy window and it sits directly above a thick spreading yew that’s difficult to get behind. The saving grace is that once we’ve lifted the window out of its casing and off the sill, we can lower it and set it down on the bush. After we’ve made our way back out from behind the bush into the yard, we can then lift the window again and carry it over to the driveway to be cleaned.

The lower left corner of this massive storm window looked so shaky when we tried to lift it, I was afraid some of the panes were going to fall out. After lugging it across the yard and leaning it against the car, Hilary went inside to get some Gorilla Glue. 

After a few more trips inside to get a nail, then a pair of pliers, we finally succeeded in reaching some glue that hadn’t solidified in the bottle. I applied it to the loose sections of the corner using a toothpick, then squeezed about a tablespoon down into the seemingly hollow core of the pane. Then we carefully rotated the window ninety degrees so its weight would bear down forcibly on the newly repaired corner while the glue set.

My job would be to stand by the window, which is roughly five feet tall and seven feet wide, to make sure the wind didn’t blow it over. The glue would take an hour or more to set, so I had my work cut out for me.

I looked over at the globe cedar that needs sheering, and the zinnias that were laying on the ground, having been beaten down by the recent rains. A blue jay flew overhead, and then I saw some goldfinches across the roof of the house in the oak tree in the back yard.

The leaves of the oak have always been slightly yellow, due to the nutrients lacking in the clay soil hereabouts. I pondered whether it might be a good thing to lose that oak tree altogether. But its dead branches offers so many perches for the birds as they approach the feeders.

The sky was blue and there were isolated waves of wispy ice clouds here and there, like white cake decorations applied with a comb.

Hilary had gone inside to wash some other windows, and when she came back out I said, “How long have I been standing here?”

“About ten minutes.”

“Is that all?”

“Maybe fifteen.”

These are the critical minutes when the glue is setting, and I knew my continued patience would be rewarded. I’m unusually adept at staring off into space for extended periods when there’s work to be done. All the same,  I was getting bored, and a few minutes later we decided to lift the window again and move it between the two cars. There wasn’t much of a breeze anyway, and in that position a rising gust would hit the window harmlessly, face on, rather than waffling down its length.

For the next hour we washed pane after pane, using pages torn from old copies of The New York Review of Books. In one issue I spotted a three-year-old review by Philip Lopate of a book by Edward Hoagland that I purchased not long ago as a remainder, but didn’t like. I set those pages aside.

The glue set remarkably well, as it turns out. After washing the twelve panes on both sides we hoisted the massive storm window back up onto the yew, then scrambled behind the bush and set it carefully into place again. Magnificent.

A few minutes later, as I was settling in to read the review, I heard a loud thud. A bird had flown into the window. A thrush now lay motionless on the seat of a metal patio chair, his pale dotted breast exposed. At first I thought it was a veery—an elusive cinnamon-colored bird with an ethereal downward-looping flute-like song. But I later got to thinking it was a gray-cheeked thrush, due to the drab back and rather prominent spots.

One of the drawbacks of perfectly clean windows is that birds can’t see them. Sometimes they hit them. Often they revive; this one didn’t. Eventually I carried it down into the yard and set it in the shadows amid the ferns.

(Both veerys and gray-cheeked thrushes spend their winters in Venezuela and north-central Brazil. I wonder if Rima, the bird-spirit in W. H. Hudson’s once-famous South American novel, Green Mansions, was a veery, though I suppose there are plenty of other candidates in the southern hemisphere that I’ve never heard of.)
On a lighter note, when Hilary was wrestling one of the aluminum combination storms back into its track, she noticed a spindly insect climbing the outer pane. It was a grasshopper of some sort, though it was bright green, and looked like it was born yesterday. Its surface looked tender, like a spring leaf, and it was less compact than the standard, yellow-brown grasshoppers that leap off the trail in front of you in droves in late summer.

We watched it climb uncertainly up the glass, taking alternate steps with its four spindly front legs, two by two, while using the two long trailing legs for stability as needed. It continued up to the corner of the window, then proceeded slowly out of sight, up the painted clapboard wall of the house. 

Looking it up later, I determined that the creature was a katydid. (I’d never heard of such a thing.)

"That wasn't a grasshopper, that was a katydid," I shouted to Hilary in the next room.

"It'n not katydid," she shouted back, "It's KAY-tee-did."

Postscript: Sunday morning we stopped at the local bird store and picked up a set of window decals. The theory is that they reflect ultraviolet light, which the birds can see a lot better than we can. They see the leaves and avoid the glass, while we see nothing.

The truth of the matter is, I can see the leaves just fine. They don't entirely ruin the view, but once the fall migration is over ...

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Louise Penny Comes to Town

The news that mystery writer Louise Penny was going to appear at the Prior Lake Library, under the auspices of Club Book, was big news in the Twin Cities. She draws large crowds wherever she goes, but makes relatively few public appearances, and fans flew in from Washington D.C., Chicago, North Dakota, and Denver last Saturday to hear her at the Scott County Library venue.

Most of the three-hundred-odd fans who began to line up outside the building hours before the event were local, of course. By which I mean they were from Saint Cloud,  Menomonie, Rochester, and everywhere in between. The branch manager at the Prior Lake Library had been busy for weeks, recruiting volunteers, fielding phone calls from enthusiastic readers with various special needs who planned to attend, and generally devising solutions to a host of contingencies—few of which materialized, as luck would have it. (I happen to know this because my wife, Hilary, is the branch manager at Prior Lake.)

The atmosphere at the library when I arrived was festive, to say the least. (The farmer’s market being held just down the street didn’t hurt.) Many of the early arrivals had brought camp chairs, but soon the line stretched down and around the outside of the building for about fifty yards.

Three quarters of an hour before the event, the doors to the auditorium were opened and people began to shuffle in. Each guest was given a numbered ticket, to make sure the hall wasn’t filled beyond capacity and also to facilitate the orderly signing of books after the event.

Louise herself arrived in a limo and spent a few minutes eating a croissant sandwich at the Edelweiss Bakery around the corner before making her appearance. And what an appearance it was. She strode down the street from the bakery carrying a big white box of pastries she’d bought to share with the numerous volunteers working the event! 

By the time she got up to the microphone, she’d made about forty new friends, the atmosphere was electric, and roughly a third of those in attendance were clutching copies of her latest book, The Long Way Home, most of then newly purchased at a table outside the hall staffed by Common Good Books, one of the program sponsors.

Although the Gamache series of mysteries has its share of murders, most readers would agree, I think, that much of its charm derives from the appeal of detective Gamache himself, who seems a bit like a New World Inspector Maigret, and the quirky  and endearing characters who inhabit the village of Three Pines, located in a remote region of Quebec south of Montreal, where many of the tales take place. 

It didn’t take long for Louise to impress those same qualities—quirky and endearing—on her admirers in the audience, as she described, with humor and self-depreciation, her difficult path to “getting published,” the embarrassingly meager turnouts at her early public appearances, and other aspects of her life and career. 

For example, Louise was deathly afraid of insects as a child (along with a lot of other things) but when she was eight years old, she began to read, and love, Charlotte’s Web. She was halfway through the book before it dawned on her that Charlotte was a…spider! (Huge laugh here.) Thus she began to emerge, little by little,  from her shell of childhood phobias.

Louise told us a touching story about her mother taking a part-time job during a rough patch in the family’s income, and then bringing Louise downtown to buy, not food, but a painting, with the first money she earned. With the panache of a stand-up comedienne, she also described the unlikely string of coincidences that brought her face to face with the woman who became her agent, and took us down some slightly bawdy side streets as she wrestled with her scarf, before opening the forum for questions from the audience.

No doubt, Louise's years as a radio host for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have made it easier for her to wow an audience. But I also got the impression that she’s been through things worse than a hardscrabble upbringing, critical rejection, or spiders, and has emerged with a sensitivity to both the complexity and the goodness in people that makes it easy for her to engage her many readers and fans, on the printed page and also face to face.

Louise loves to talk about herself, and she’s delighted by her literary success, but there isn’t much vanity in it. It’s obvious that she loves people (including herself) and reaches out to strangers to acknowledge them as individuals, too, with the childlike avidly of a medieval saint.

I felt a little of that myself, a few hours earlier, when, on a tip from one of the library volunteers, I wandered over to the bakery to say hi to Louise and perhaps get a photo. There she was, sitting alone by the window in an empty room, munching on a croissant sandwich.

I ordered a croissant myself at the counter and then said, “Are you Louise Penny? Do you mind if I take your picture? I don’t want to disturb your lunch…”

“No, please sit down,” she said. (The fact that I was wearing a Scott County volunteer badge may have helped.)

So I sat and took the picture. Then I felt obliged to come clean: “I’ve only read one of your books, the first one, but my wife says I ought to try Bury Your Dead. That’s the one about Samuel Champlain. Right?”

“Oh, so you’re interested in history?” All of this in a cheery, sing-song voice, accompanied by a slightly pained expression, which I hoped was the result of trying to eat while talking...

“Yes. European history. That was my field.”

“Prior Lake is such a pretty town,” she immediately volunteered. So I mumbled a few things about the older part of town, the lake itself, current development. And then, pushing my luck, I said.

“So, you live south of Quebec?”

“South of Montreal, actually. Quite close to the Vermont border.”

At this point I could not resist mentioning that the only time I’d been in the area, we’d flown in to Burlington, Vermont, and driven across the border to Quebec province, where we were struck by the antique agricultural patterns—those long, thin farms stretching down to the St. Lawrence River. Who knows? We might have driven right by her house.

“Well, you should go to Quebec City,” she said.

“Oh, we did go there,” I replied. Elaborate lines of travel conversation were beginning to take shape in the back of my mind: bicycling in Quebec City; Shadows on the Rock; the shrimp fishermen (on strike) we once came upon before dawn near Matane on the Gaspé Peninsula; the huge gannet colony on Bonaventure Island  ….

But what I said was, “I’m going to leave you in peace to enjoy your lunch.”

“Oh, but you haven’t taken your picture,” she replied.

So I took a second photo and scurried out…then slunk back in to snatch my croissant, which had been sitting in a bag on the counter the whole time.

A few minutes before the program was set to begin, I was standing near the back of the room, surveying the sea of book-lovers in front of me, when someone came up from behind and shook my arm. It was Louise! "Hi, there," she said, with a big smile before hurrying off.

The intent was clear enough. She wanted to reassure me that I hadn't ruined her lunch.

Louise stuck around for two hours after the program, signing books, adding personalized greetings, and having her picture taken with anyone who was interested. Then she was off in her limo to the airport and on to Seattle, where she had an evening engagement, leaving behind a welter of good feelings to remind us all, as her mother had reminded her, of what a powerful and beneficent force art (and personality) can be in this often crazy, mixed-up world.