Jurowski’s Leningrad

Philadelphia Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, cond., Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60 (Leningrad), Nov. 17-19, 2011, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Review of Nov. 20 on WRTI, 90. 1 FM.

Conducting the Shostakovich Seventh (Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60), the so-called “Leningrad,” is like steering an oil rig across enemy waters. It’s unwieldy. It will blow up, sometimes well before it should. Saturday night at Verizon Hall,  Vladimir Jurowski was a splendor of restraint as well as triumph in the 1941 behemoth dedicated to the seige of Leningrad. The Philadelphia Orchestra – enlarged with subs and retirees – stretched across the stage for the mammoth symphony that fills a program. Strings were divided European fashion as the Russian maestro summoned the most elegant music- making heard since the season opened and the playing has been at an extremely high level since the season began.

The quality of treble to the violins, rising higher, higher; the sonorities matching the woodwinds,  these Philadelphia sounds we recognize and their beauty has no rival.

Twelve times the recurring pastiche popularly called the invasion theme was arresting as it fell in and out, Bolero-style, the sticks upon the snare drum snapping. By the time the march had subsided, Daniel Matsukawa’s bassoon arrived to haunt us. It was only the long first movement!

Succeeding movements did not let up for beauty or excitement. Associate David Cramer taking principal flute proved magical, Dick Woodhams’s oboe as ever never let us down. By the final movement’s last stretch those 21 brass had their explosions, the kind of exit the planet should have when it goes out. As for the young, intense, much favored Jurowski: let him return again and often. His  refinement, balance,  his gravity ignites the Philadelphia Orchestra. His gifts and  designate Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s are powerful complements.

Beckett Gate

Endgame (& Watt) by Samuel Beckett, Gate Theatre Dublin, Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, UPenn, Nov. 8-13, 2011.

The last time Gate Theatre Dublin came to Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center, the distinguished troupe brought a searing production of Waiting for Godot. This time Beckett’s Endgame took shape behind the fourth wall. The results were as bleakly savage – and impressive. The brilliant Barry McGovern – whom we cheered as Vladimir –  was Clov, stooped servant to blind Hamm. Clov’s stiff -legged walk introduces the character who can’t sit but measures out his days and words.  His master, Hamm,  a polar opposite (in all but the death wish)  cannot stand. He measures nothing but the hours. Hamm the dreamer bellowing ideas, commands. He wants to end it all,  he’ll wait… Owen  Roe plays his own Inquisitor,  Hamm chained to a whistle. We are in the land of can’t go onEndgame clears the finish line.

Hamm keeps his parents in dust bins. The legless Nagg and Nell who appear, almost, content. He sucks a biscuit, she, her memories; their bikering foreshadowing Beckett’s Happy Days. 

“The funniest thing in the world is unhappiness,” says Nell. Rosaleen Linehan’s face is a kaleidescope of love, nostalgia, awe: Pitch poignant. Des Koegh as Nagg expresses everything with toothy grin, slant eyes,   fingers at the edge of the trash bin.

Five seasons ago, the Annenberg’s Zellerbach proved too deep and wide for the  Gate’s intimacies. This time, the smaller Prince was right – though its seating felt crammed. Ellen Diss’s set, Joan O’Clery’s costumes,  James McConnell’s lighting are ideal with Alan Stanford’s direction.  Nothing matches the incomparable McGovern, whose Yes or No is gripping. The actor knew the playwright late in life.  McGovern calls him gentle and a gentleman, Beckett who will not sugar coat to save a line.  Whose beauty rests in removal not accretion. Who will not spare us pain.

Yannick’s Italian Program

Philadelphia Orchestra, music director- designate Yannick Nezet-Seguin, cond., Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center,  Nov. 10-12,  2011. Review of Nov. 10 for WRTI, 90. 1 fm.

Francesca da Rimini (symphonic fantasia, after Dante, Op. 32) isn’t a top- drawer opera but the tone poem Tchaikovsky made of it came off magnificently Thursday night when the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music- director-designate steered its gale winds through Verizon Hall. Yannick Nezet –Seguin’s enthusiasm for Dante’s doomed lovers (in that 14th Circle of Hell) was apparent. The instrumentalists over rode the fantasia’s edges of bombast moving from beauty to beauty across storms. The orchestra’s response to its almost-music director was captivating.

Then a shift to thinner textures and shifting moods with Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony. (Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 “ Italian.”). Yannick and the ensemble were agile.

Some of Yannick’s choices for the program bore unavoidable comparison to his Italian predecessor.  “La Forza del Destino” opened the second half, the Verdi overture that Riccardo Muti often played – as encore. It was heartwarming: musical rather than forced. Not all musicians are musical but the ebb and flow of Yannick’s lines reflect his choral strengths – and operatic.

Respighi’s The Pines of Rome concluded. This too made multiple good impressions especially the delicacies from the woodwinds. The drop- down from cacophony to near silence was tremendous by the orchestra.  The glitter and blaze of textures in this programmatic suite is a winner every time. The finale, when the brass positioned from the rear balconies ring out – was thrilling. Perhaps not so fiery a moment as with Muti’s historic return to the Academy of Music but memory does not always serve.

Thursday night’s performance was of very high order. Yannick can  follow Muti,  yes, but he is also walking in the footsteps of Eugene Ormandy. This week’s program has Ormandy all over it and every piece a pleaser.

“He’s  an enthusiastic young fellow,” one woman said of Yannick. “I didn’t expect that.”” In agreement were dozens of Drexel students clearly enjoying themselves. Not music students: Health.

When Philosophy was Young

New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 by David Ives (*Philadelphia Premiere) Lantern Theater Company, Oct. 12– Nov. 6, 2011, (run extended) Review of Oct. 12 airs WRTI, 90.1 FM on Oct. 17.

We think of philosophers as old men…Baruch Spinoza was only 23 when he was put on trial in his synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656 for his radical beliefs. Expelled from the Jewish and Christian communities there, he was considered a social outcast. In David Ives’ New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theater, Sam Henderson gives one of the West’s greatest philosophers an engaging, ‘still working things out’ demeanor, gargantuan confidence and generosity of spirit that tallies with history.  During the Inquisition things were better in Amsterdam than the Portugal, from which the Spinoza family had fled. But tolerance isn’t always free for free- thinking men. Spinoza’s ideas took off from Descartes’s and moved too far and fast for the citizens of 1656.

In New Jerusalem, Ives sees Spinoza as scapegoat for the Jewish people that the Dutch were uncomfortable having around. Seth Reichgott plays Abraham, the Christian ringleader for Spinoza’s silencing. He’s a rousing prosecutor in a courtroom drama Bill Maher would appreciate.  Abraham enlists Spinoza’s beloved Rabbi (David Bardeen) to quash the young libertine.

The first act of New Jerusalem is a triumph of tension as the men attempt to trap the unwitting Spinoza. The second falters with some overwriting. The part of Spinoza’s sister is overwritten and overplayed. The arguments put forth and pro and con for God, soul,  afterlife by the dueling Rabbi and his star pupil in New Jerusalem are contemporary. No one knows what really happened inside Talmud Torah Congregation only the result. Ives’s play shows Spinoza- in- progress, before he has finished Ethics before he has done the work that helped birth the Enlightenment. History is personal, philosophy human.At the Lantern, superb principals and Charles MacMahon’s direction show this very well.

Civil War as Exodus: The Whipping Man

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez The Arden Theater Company, Nov 2. – Dec. 18, 2011, Review of Nov. 2 on WRTI, 90. 1 FM, Nov. 4.

The contradictions and complications of faith and race are played out in The Whipping Man upstairs at the Arden Theater now. Some details may be new to us but playwright Matthew Lopez has done his research. He knows all Southern homesteads during the Civil War were not plantations; nor were all Confederates’ Christians. He knows that the War Between the States ended one day before Passover observances began, and that fact led Lopez to create a drama about another exodus.

In The Whipping Man, Caleb, a Confederate soldier (possibly deserter) returns home at the war’s end to find only the family retainer, Simon at the destroyed homestead. The soldier has lost his faith -in almost everything-  and soon will lose his leg. As Cody Nickell plays Caleb – the pain is palpable. Simon the elder black man – played by the wonderful Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.  – no longer will take orders but he will serve. Simon’s devotion to the family and to his Jewish faith rests upon a God who permits questioning.

Simon’s a pillar of devotion. He tries to nurse Caleb back to health. He berates John, another former slave and Caleb’s childhood companion who also returns.  But John, played by the gifted James Ijames, celebrates his freedom by drinking hard, thinking little, and stealing everything in sight. Neither young man cares about the seder Simon prepares: the devotional meal is one of The Whipping Man’s most memorable scenes.

Though the household is barren, the elements are found (or stolen). Simon is eloquent, pouring the water, whispering then brawling “Go Down, Moses,” asking the questions that will pry into the hearts of Caleb and John, who suffer in such different ways. Then Simon will suffer but that’s for you to find out. Thom Weaver’s subtle lighting is a fourth character in the Arden’s fine production. It supports the flickering lanterns of the time. Matt Pfeiffer’s direction is keen.

Blanka’s Best: Poland’s Worst…”Our Class”

Our Class by Tadeusz Slobodzianek (Ryan Craig, English version) The Wilma, Oct 19 – Nov. 13, 2011, Review of Oct. 22 evening performance airs on WRTI, 90. 1 FM, Oct. 27

No one’s a hero in Tadeusz  Slobodozianek’s Our Class at The Wilma. This important work based on history disturbs everywhere it plays –as it should – especially in Poland. Catholics and Jews don’t like seeing themselves portrayed so brutally human.  The play, a U.S. premiere imagines 10 children of the 1,600 Jews  burnt in a village in Poland (Jedwabne) by their own neighbors. The Catholic Poles did it to save their own skin. They caved to their demons and the anti-Semitic oppression of the Russian armies.  To be under the strain of two horrific regimes –  Soviets and Nazis, who can survive this without cracking?

In “Our Class,” children from 1925 onward, are seen playing, learning, singing, but always and more often, the Jews must head to the back of the class. As Hitler takes power only one – Abram -escapes to America.  His entire family is wiped out, he thinks by the Nazis. Too late, he learns, they have been murdered  by his own people.  No accident the set features a glass house!

The first act of Our Class  we see the children’s  growing up into anxiety and treachery.  Zygmunt who turns coat to spy for the Soviets against his classmates; Sweet Dora, who will suffer rape and worse, shy Rachelkik  who does not love the Pole who will save her life. Often in the background of this ghostly set, we hear the classmates  humming childhood tunes. Some sad, some witty – tunes it would be nice to have the volume turned up.

The second act shows us what has become of the survivors for two Jews will survive – and the perpetrators. Here compression would be welcome.  The actors, all ten at the Wilma, are each in their way magnificent. The perennial optimist Abram, could tone down some of the hamminess underlining type. It would make his ending more beautiful.  Our Class is a courageous work. Blanka Zizka brilliantly directs.