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Monday, September 17, 2018

What Makes a Legend

MARLENE DIETRICH BECAME A LEGEND long before she died (at 90, in 1992), a legend invented by director Josef von Sternberg, with whom she made seven notable films, and preserved by Dietrich herself during her long career before the public. There was a sure knowledge of craft behind the art: when she filmed “Stage Fright” with Alfred Hitchcock in 1950, he let her light and compose her scenes, which was quite a tribute from the micromanaging director.

Justyna Kostek as Marlene Dietrich
The legend of Dietrich refuses to die, and it is in a post-mortem state that we meet her in the person of Justyna Kostek, who carries us in a matter of minutes from a wheelchair to a lively rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” with the formidable Nevada Lozano at the keyboard.

Kostek wrote the show in collaboration with director Oliver Conant, highlighting Dietrich’s career with a succession of signature songs and just enough narrative to plausibly move us from one to the next. An extended sequence recreates her “screen test” for “The Blue Angel,” the Sternberg film that put her on the map. We have the young Dietrich, nicely impersonated, shrilling her way through “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” as her accompanist veers from what she expects – so she berates him and tries it again. You can find the recently found footage on YouTube, but this version is more fun by virtue of seeming less staged.

And that leads us into her signature song, “Falling in Love Again,” and the years with Sternberg that followed after they both moved to Hollywood. This was when Dietrich became Dietrich, encapsulated in a well-written movie-making sequence that races the actress from one side of the playing space to another, barking orders through a small megaphone. But, as we know, she learned a tremendous amount from the autocratic director.

Friday, September 14, 2018

More Than a Matter of Taste

YOU’D THINK IT HAS MUCH TO DO WITH FLAVOR, this diet of ours. It turns out we’re making choices based on an amazing range of factors, including the color and size of the plate on which our food is served and the volume and tempo of the music that might be coming at us.

Rachel Herz’s book Why You Eat What You Eat examines not only the actions and reactions that go on within us but also how we’re influenced by a huge variety of signals from around us. People will eat more Hershey’s Kisses – 46 percent more, in one study – when they’re presented in clear jars, as opposed to opaque containers. “The moral: put your candy in ceramic jars and wrap your sandwiches in aluminum foil,” she writes.

And the color preferences we associate with food extend to how the food is presented or plated, which “is due to the associations that we have learned between color and temperature. Red, yellow, and orange are ‘warm’ colors. Blue and white are ‘cold’ colors.” Red makes food taste sweeter, yet it’s also understood as a color of warning. In a fascinating study, people were seen to eat half as many pretzels served on a red plate as when they were served on blue or white. And even color distribution plays a part: we’ll scarf up fewer M&Ms when they’re presented in a color-segregated array. 

Size matters, too. We eat fewer hors d’oeuvres when they’re smaller, and we feel more satisfied finishing a portion presented on a small plate than when the same portion appears on one that’s larger.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Pursuit of Happiness

WILLIAM BLAKE PUBLISHED HIS “Songs of Innocence and of Experience,” a collection of metaphysical poems with mystical illustrations, at the end of the 18th century. It has baffled and inspired ever since, and some of its fans have been inspired enough to interpret the work in a variety of media. Thus we have settings of some or all of the poems by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Tangerine Dream, Greg Brown, William Bolcom, and Allen Ginsberg, while Joyce Cary’s fictional painter Gulley Jimson was inspired to paint his own versions in “The Horse’s Mouth” (and which were created by John Bratby for the film version).

Molly Parker Myers and Brian Petti
Photo by John Sowle
Playwright Mickle Maher has followed his own inspiration even further, turning Blake’s poetry into a ninety-minute exaltation of sensuality. “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,” in a superb production at Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre, celebrates the language and ideas of Blake, personifying three aspects of the poet’s worldview in the form of three compelling characters.

The premise is outrageous and simple. Bernard Barrow and Ellen Parker teach at a small liberal arts college in the northeast. Bernard is a Blake specialist; Ellen also teaches the work of the poet, and each focuses on a different part of the “Songs.” Bernard has the Innocence, Ellen the Experience. And Bernard, whom we hear from first, is aburst with joy, despite the fact that he and Ellen were so carried away during a joint lesson they offered outdoors the day before that they fell into each other’s embrace. And pursued it to a carnal-enough demonstration to bring the wrath of the college’s president upon their heads.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Bernstein Conducts Bernstein

From the Record Vault Dept.: As noted in the lede, there had been plenty of versions of this set in the past and the years since have seen many more. So, although this out-of-print set is fetching upwards of a hundred bucks today, there’s a more recent (but drab-looking) seven-disc version and a more-recent-still 25-disc version, and that’s not even mentioning the stuff he later recorded for Deutsche Grammophon.

                                                                       
                     

RECENT HISTORY IS LITTERED with Bernstein Conducts Bernstein boxes and singles, but this new issue, a joint production of Carnegie Hall and Sony Classical, puts together all of the composer/conductor’s Columbia Records recordings, most of them with the New York Philharmonic.

Although it’s part of Sony’s Original Jacket Collection series, which packs the ten CDs in cardboard miniatures of LP albums, these discs have been filled out beyond LP length, so there’s some creative fiddling with that original artwork.

Speaking of fiddling: Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion after Plato’s “Symposium” has withstood its pretentious title and become a something of a repertory item, but here’s a chance to enjoy two Bernstein-helmed performances. First, and the first-ever recording, features Isaac Stern as soloist. He concert-premiered the piece in 1954; this mono recording was made two years later with the Symphony of the Air (the former NBC Symphony).

With the smash popularity of stereo a few years later, this work became one of many re-recorded in the new format. This time (1965), Zino Francescatti was soloist; along with the expanded aural spread and Columbia’s strange, thin audio quality during that era comes a more consistently focused violin performance.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

West Side Story Reimagined

LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S “WEST SIDE STORY” wasn’t by any means the first time Latin-influenced music came to Broadway. Irving Berlin’s “Watch Your Step” featured Vernon and Irene Castle dancing the scandalous tango; the “George White Scandals of 1922” included Gershwin’s “Argentina” (a bolero), and Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” was part of his 1935 “Jubilee.” But those – and many, many subsequent offerings – either had no Latin context or, as with Porter’s “The Gypsy in Me” and Harold Rome’s “Don José of Far Rockaway,” were what we’d now understand as condescending.

But “West Side Story” had the temerity to put full-fledged Latin characters in leading roles. Its portrait of race hatred remains as poignant (and true) now as it did in 1957, as the many productions staged this year, the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, have proven.

Two years after the show’s debut, André Previn’s trio put out a jazz recording, inspiring other jazz greats to tackle the score in the early 1960s, among them Cal Tjader, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, and Oscar Peterson. Songs and arrangements from the show have since been recorded by the likes of Earl Hines, Richie Cole, the Labeque sisters, and Joshua Bell; and there are the compilations, like “The Songs of West Side Story” (1996), which offered an array of terrific covers, including Aretha Franklin singing “Somewhere” and Little Richard’s “I Feel Pretty” (which will never be topped).