Saturday, April 21, 2012

Concert Review: Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducts Bruckner’s 8th Symphony with the Minnesota Orchestra

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski receiving an award from the Bruckner Society, April 20, 2012, at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)
Last night I saw legendary conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conduct Anton Bruckner’s 8th symphony with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall. It was simply amazing. Skrowaczewski was the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, then named the Minneapolis Symphony, from 1960 to 1979. He has remained a conductor laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra and returns annually to conduct. His 52-year association with the Minnesota Orchestra is the longest time that “any one person has been associated with an orchestra in the world,” according to critic Michael Anthony. (The quote is from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 15th.) Since defecting from Poland in 1960, Skrowaczewski had made his home in the Twin Cities, and he still lives here. I knew of Skrowaczewski, but I had never seen him conduct before. When I was looking through the concert season and saw that he was returning for this concert, I knew I had to go. I was able to get tickets in the front row, because at Orchestra Hall those tickets are usually cheaper than seats a little farther back. Seeing classical music performed live is such an amazing experience, and seeing it from the first row is even better. I went to the concert with my wife, and our seats were front and center, right in front of the first violin and Skrowaczewski’s podium. It was a lot of fun to watch Skrowaczewski conduct, he was pretty animated, and you could tell how focused he was on the music. Even at the age of 88, his passion for Bruckner is clear.

Skrowaczewski has told of the immense impact that Bruckner’s music had on his own life. When he was 7 years old, and already playing and composing music, he was walking the streets of his hometown of Lwow, Poland, when he heard Bruckner’s music coming from a radio out of the window of a house. He was transfixed by this music, the likes of which he had never heard before, and he stood frozen like a statue until the radio broadcast was finished. Skrowaczewski has become one of the foremost conductors of Bruckner’s work. 

I don’t know enough about classical music or Bruckner’s work in general to really analyze the content of the 8th symphony, but it’s clearly a spectacular work. It’s about 75 minutes long, made up of four movements. It’s an exciting piece of music that builds to a memorable finish. According to the program, Bruckner’s 8th symphony is considered the pinnacle of his work. There’s never a dull moment during the symphony, it’s a very dramatic piece of music. I had a very good view of the cello players, and it was fun to watch the eye contact they made with each other at various times. Just thinking about how all of the players of an orchestra need to come together to perform a symphony is mind-boggling. It’s also pretty amazing to think that someone could write a 75 minute symphony. 

After the concert Skrowaczewski received an award from the Bruckner Society. He seemed very thrilled to receive it, and he really seemed amazed at all the applause he got from the audience. There is a new biography of Skrowaczewski that just came out last year, “Seeking the Infinite: The Musical Life of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski,” by Frederick Edward Harris, Jr. Harris was signing copies in the lobby after the show, and so we got our copy signed. It looks like a great book, and Harris was a very nice guy. 

Skrowaczewski said in 1994 of Bruckner’s 8th symphony, “When I conduct the 8th symphony it seems to me that it is already over in a moment. Time really stops with Bruckner. It is like a religious meditation or a dream; you lose the notion of time.” (“Seeking the Infinite,” p. 424.) I certainly lost the notion of time last night, thanks to some great music by Bruckner, great conducting by Skrowaczewski, and great playing by the Minnesota Orchestra.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Concert Review: Nick Lowe at First Avenue

Taken with my IPhone last night.

I saw Nick Lowe in concert last night at First Avenue. It was a terrific show. It’s the 4th time I’ve seen Nick live, and he always puts on a great show. I missed Nick when he opened for Wilco last December, so I was very happy that he came to town again so soon. Nick performed with his band of Geriant Watkins on keyboards, Robert Trehern on drums, Johnny Scott on guitar, and Matt Radford on bass. They’re a great backing band, and Geriant is always fun to watch play keyboards. Lowe’s voice is in tremendous shape, and he knows exactly how to use it to get the desired emotional effects. He knows exactly when to turn away from the mike, how close to stand to it, all those little things that add so much to the emotional impact of his songs. 

Nick just has such a fun time performing, and he seems so genuinely thrilled by the audience’s response. He looked very sharp, wearing gray dress pants with a colorful shirt-almost a Robyn Hitchcock-like shirt. With his black eyeglasses and his gray hair he looks like a rock and roll version of how Cary Grant looked in the 1960’s. Nick dedicated “Cruel to be Kind” to Dick Clark, who died yesterday, saying that the song wouldn’t have been a hit without Clark’s support. Nick also talked about how happy he was to be starting the tour in the Twin Cities, and how much he likes playing here.

Even though Nick sang more than 20 of his very best songs, he has so many great songs that I can name a bunch of my favorite songs that he didn’t sing. He didn’t sing “Tonight,” “Marie Provost,” “Cracking Up,” “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill?” “Soulful Wind,” “You Inspire Me,” “Lonesome Reverie,” “Homewrecker,” “Let’s Stay in and Make Love,” “Indian Queens,” “Long Limbed Girl,” “People Change,” or “Hope For Us All.” I’m certainly very satisfied with the concert, but my point is that Nick Lowe is such a brilliant songwriter that he has enough great songs to fill two concerts. 

Nick changed a lyric in “Raining Raining” slightly, as “hungry lovers out back intent on sharing a snack” turned into: “hungry lovers out back already getting on track.”

The first two times I saw Nick in concert he performed solo, and he’s one of the few performers I’ve seen who can totally hold a room in the palm of his hand with just his voice and guitar. I was thrilled that he sang “Heart” solo, one of my very favorite songs of his. Other highlights were “I Read a Lot,” which is such a gorgeous, aching song, and the other songs from Nick’s latest album “The Old Magic,” “House for Sale,” “Somebody Cares for Me,” and “Sensitive Man,” all great new songs.  “The Old Magic” is yet more proof that Nick Lowe is reaching another creative peak as he gets older. “Tower of Strength,” a cover of a Gene McDaniels song was very lovely. I’ve never heard the song before, and only discovered the title through the magic of the internet. The encores were excellent, I always love hearing “When I Write the Book,” and of course “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” was a highlight. The room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop as Nick sang it. One final highlight of the night was Nick coming back for a second encore to sing a solo version of Elvis Costello’s “Alison.” (Nick produced Elvis’s original version for his first album “My Aim is True.”) Through YouTube I had heard Nick sing “Alison” for a recent radio broadcast, and I was awestruck by his version. It’s fun to hear a very different version of such a great song. It was another great concert from Nick Lowe!

The songs that Nick sang:
Stoplight Roses-solo
What Lack of Love Has Done
Raging Eyes
Lately I’ve Let Things Slide
Has She Got a Friend?
I Trained Her to Love Me
I Live on a Battlefield
I Read a Lot
Cruel to be Kind
Raining Raining
Sensitive Man
Somebody Cares for Me
House for Sale
Tower of Strength-cover of a Gene McDaniels song
Without Love
I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll

When I Write the Book
(What’s so Funny 'bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?
Tokyo Bay
Go Away Hound Dog
Second encore:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Films of Warren Beatty: All Fall Down, starring Warren Beatty, Eva Marie Saint, Brandon De Wilde, Karl Malden, and Angela Lansbury, directed by John Frankenheimer (1962)

Warren Beatty in All Fall Down, 1962. Author Ellis Amburn used this photo for the cover of biography of Beatty, The Sexiest Man Alive.

Warren Beatty’s third film, All Fall Down, from 1962, is not that great. The movie boasts an impressive pedigree, as it was produced by John Houseman, directed by John Frankenheimer, and also stars Eva Marie Saint, Angela Lansbury, Karl Malden, and Brandon De Wilde. The script was by playwright William Inge, famous for plays like Picnic, and Bus Stop. Inge adapted All Fall Down from the novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy, who would go on to write the novel Midnight Cowboy. Inge was an important benefactor in the early career of Warren Beatty, as he had also written Beatty's first movie, Splendor in the Grass, and Beatty's first and only Broadway play, A Loss of Roses. All Fall Down is an offbeat story about a dysfunctional family. If the movie were made today, it would be a quirky indie movie, and it would probably be played for more laughs. 

Beatty plays a callous ladies’ man with the improbable name of Berry-Berry Willart. No, really. And by the end of the movie you will be very sick of hearing other characters say the name “Berry-Berry.” His name is mentioned about every third line. Lansbury plays another one of her overbearing mother roles, just as she would play Laurence Harvey’s overbearing mother in Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, released later in 1962. Like her character in The Manchurian Candidate, Lansbury’s mother in All Fall Down seems to have an unhealthy obsession with her son Berry-Berry. There’s even a moment in All Fall Down where it looks like she is about to kiss her son on the lips, but she just gets very close to Berry-Berry and then runs away. This prefigures a famous moment in The Manchurian Candidate when Lansbury’s character kisses her son on the lips. This one moment tells us all we need to know about their relationship. Another similarity between the two films is that Lansbury is playing characters much older than herself, as she was not old enough to be the mother of the men who were playing her onscreen sons. In real life, Lansbury was just three years older than Laurence Harvey, eleven years older than Beatty, and nine years older than Elvis Presley-whose mother she played in Blue Hawaii, from 1961. (There are no Freudian overtones in Blue Hawaii, however.) 

The story of All Fall Down is told from the point of view of Berry-Berry’s 16-year-old little brother, Clinton, played very well by Brandon De Wilde, whose most famous role was the little boy in Shane. De Wilde played a very similar part the following year in Hud, where he plays little brother to Paul Newman’s amoral Hud. Both Berry-Berry and Hud are completely selfish people, leaving a trail of emotional wreckage behind them. 

Beatty as Berry-Berry is very much in James Dean mode, as he was in his first movie, Splendor in the Grass, which is a much better film than All Fall Down. Beatty broods, and though Berry-Berry attracts women like flies, he quickly discards them in very hurtful ways, often using physical violence. It’s rather ridiculous how easily women are attracted to Beatty in the movie. All it takes is one look at Beatty for them to suddenly offer to bring him along on a vacation with them. Of course, Beatty was a stunning physical specimen in 1962, with his full head of dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and full lips. But it gets tiring to see women fall all over themselves for him. One woman even says to him, “If I were a young man as handsome as you are, I would go to Hollywood and try to get into movies.” Berry-Berry is very similar to the role that Beatty had just finished playing, the gigolo Paulo in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. There’s nothing redeeming about Berry-Berry’s character, even though his parents hold him up as the ideal son. 

Things start happening in All Fall Down when the daughter of a family friend, Echo, played by Eva Marie Saint, comes to town to stay with them. The first time she stays with them, Clinton falls deeply in love with her, even though she’s a much “older woman” of 31, who has never been married. When Berry-Berry meets Echo the second time she stays with the family, he literally doesn’t have to say a word to her, he just takes her hand in the backyard and they go off somewhere to make out. And Clinton is heartbroken at this turn of events. Karl Malden plays the ineffectual alcoholic father, and does the most he can with the part. But he is incapable of offering advice or wisdom to his two sons. (Malden and Marie Saint famously worked together before in On the Waterfront.) Berry-Berry and Echo start dating, his mother claims she is happy for them, Berry-Berry gets Echo pregnant, they have an argument, he leaves, and she drives off grief-stricken and dies in a car crash. We don’t really know if the car crash is an act of suicide or not, but my guess is that it probably was. Side note: given their ridiculous names, what on earth would Berry-Berry and Echo have named their baby? One shudders to think. Clinton then almost shoots Berry-Berry, but decides not to, leaving Berry-Berry to deal with the fact that he’s a jerk who ruins every significant relationship in his life. The end. Not an especially uplifting movie. 

So that’s the movie, an overheated pseudo-Freudian mishmash, with some teen angst thrown in for good measure. One of the oddest moments in the movie is the scene where Echo tells Lansbury’s character how her former boyfriend killed himself-carbon monoxide poisoning, which is the same way that screenwriter William Inge would kill himself eleven years later. Ugh. 

Behind the scenes, Warren Beatty rubbed everybody the wrong way from day one of rehearsal, and no one except for Karl Malden really liked him. Beatty’s penchant for Method-y brooding annoyed the other actors and won him no friends. To be fair to Beatty, at the time he was making All Fall Down in the summer of 1961 he was getting a lot of media attention as the “Next Big Thing,” but none of his movies had been released yet. Splendor in the Grass, Beatty’s very first movie, wasn’t released until October, 1961. Beatty may have been feeling a lot of pressure to live up to his publicity hype. And his fellow actors had not had a chance to see him act on screen, so they had no idea who this guy was. Beatty might also have been intimidated by the success of his fellow actors, who had all been in the business for a long time. At the time Beatty was making All Fall Down, he was a man who was famous, but not because of anything he had actually accomplished. He was famous because he was Shirley MacLaine’s kid brother, and because he was having very public romances with Joan Collins and Natalie Wood. (Beatty was accused of breaking up Wood’s first marriage to Robert Wagner.) Beatty was famous because of his personal life, not because of any talent he showed as an actor. This must have annoyed Beatty considerably, since he is ironically a very private man who doesn’t like discussing his personal life. This mistake early in his career of letting his private life become so public perhaps set the tone for the rest of his career. Also, Beatty had a tendency to date women at the absolute peak of their fame. Had he wanted less publicity about his private life, he should have started dating women who were not in show business. 

After an amazing start in movies in Splendor in the Grass, Beatty appeared in two duds in quick succession, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which was released in December, 1961, and All Fall Down, which was released in April, 1962. Beatty then took a long break from movies; turning down everything he was offered, including the part of a young John F. Kennedy in PT 109. (Cliff Robertson ending up playing Kennedy.) Given all that we now know about Kennedy’s sexual life, Beatty probably would have been an ideal choice. After All Fall Down, Beatty didn’t appear onscreen again until Lilith, released two and a half years later. Beatty didn’t make another hit movie until 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, which finally confirmed his talent as an actor and producer.

Concert Review: Glen Campbell at Mystic Lake Casino

On Friday night I saw Glen Campbell at Mystic Lake Casino on his Goodbye Tour. As most people probably know, Campbell has Alzheimer’s disease and is retiring from performing at the end of this tour. It was a little sad to see Glen having to read song lyrics from a teleprompter, but his voice is still excellent, and his guitar playing is still amazing. I was blown away by Glen’s guitar solos during hits like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Gentle On My Mind.” His playing looks so effortless, and yet every note of his solos fit the songs so perfectly.

I first came to know Glen Campbell’s music through John Hartford’s song “Gentle On My Mind.” When I was 15 I discovered Elvis Presley’s version of the song and I thought, “This is an amazing song.” Somehow that led me to explore my Mom’s record collection, where I found Glen’s “Gentle On My Mind” album. Once I heard Glen’s version I liked it much more than Elvis’s. I was obsessed with Glen’s version, playing it over and over until I knew all of the words. Oddly enough, I didn’t scour my Mom’s record collection well enough to find John Hartford’s original version of the song-I didn’t hear that until much later. Now I have two favorite versions of that song, Glen’s and John’s. I was entranced by the poetry of those complicated lyrics, and the complex relationship the narrator of the song had with the woman who would always be gentle on his mind. After hearing “Gentle On My Mind” so many times I wanted to hear other Glen Campbell songs, and his Greatest Hits CD was a staple of road trips taken with both my Mom and my Dad. The songs that Glen Campbell sings are a big part of America to me, I guess in part because they name-check so many different American cities. I’ve seen Glen live at least 5 times over the years. The shows have varied in quality-definitely the best one was seeing him at the Minnesota State Fair. I also saw him at Orchestra Hall in 2003 just a day or two before he was arrested for DUI.

If Glen Campbell had never sung a note he would still go down in music history as one of the most important session musicians of the 1960’s, a part of the legendary “Wrecking Crew” that performed on numerous albums during that decade. Campbell played on records by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and was a touring member of the Beach Boys. Campbell finally became a solo star in the late 1960’s thanks to his high, soaring tenor vocals. (His All-American good looks and charm on stage and screen also helped.)

Campbell was backed by a very good band, made up of mostly his children, who gave great support to their father. He seemed to miss the most lyrics on the new songs from his last album, “Ghost on the Canvas.” But Campbell’s voice remains wonderfully expressive-there were some moments during the concert where he hit some great high notes. His vocals on "Wichita Lineman" were amazing. Campbell remained in high spirits throughout the show, showcasing his usual good humor. And his guitar playing is still a joy to hear. All in all, the concert was a great way to say goodbye to one of my favorite performers.