Oct 31, 2011

Piano Heart

I don't miss playing the piano. But I miss having a piano.

It was no easy thing to grow up in the shadow of a violinist and band leader, watched over by an opera aficionado, mocked by a large, grand piano parked like a monolith in the living room, its white and black keys jutting out like jagged, menacing teeth.

You don't know what you're doing! it always mocked, You're just reading what's in front of you! Anyone can do that!

Seeing 2 Pianos 4 Hands was an exercise in nostalgia. With its review of time signatures and keys, its lines about semitones and a syllabus, its portrayal of the dreaded Conservatory exams, the show, produced by Mirvish Productions and currently on at Toronto's cozy Panasonic Theatre, gently, humorously reminded me of all the things I hated about my piano-centric past. When I began lessons at the tender age of four, I only knew it was fun to sit at a keyboard and go plunk-plunk-plunk. Over time, I derived a certain smug satisfaction from deciphering little black marks on a page. My considerably more-musical best friend across the street would come by and rock my staid classical world with his off-the-cuff, fast, fun, boogie-woogie improvisations and fancy-dancy pop tunes new and old. It irritated me because not only did it mess up the organized world of Bach, Beethoven et all the RCM presented, but it reminded me of what I could not do: play something fun, straight out of my head, without any little black squiggles for guidance. Music has an important role in my life, but it's not an artform I can actively be a part of, because I am critically lacking in the one thing you need to make a go of it: real musical talent.

It was when I dropped formal music lessons that I realized visual and written arts come far more naturally to me than sonic ones. Writing, drawing, and photography are work -sometimes torturously so -but the kind of work I enjoy. I don't revel in failure so much as get nervous at the prospect of throwing all my dirty laundry out for public scrutiny. It was bolstering, then, to see two men who, for all their success in other artistic disciplines, willingly reveal their shared failure at being full-time professional musicians. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, 2P4H's co-creators, are good at a lot of things, mainly within the realm of performance -that includes acting, directing, writing, and yes, lots of very-able piano-playing. A pair of Horowitzes they are not, but then, that's just the point. Not everyone can -or should -be.

2 Pianos 4 Hands paints a portrait of artistry frustrated by the relentless slings and arrows of reality. The show was first performed at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre in 1995, and has since gone on to play over 175 different theaters worldwide, including a six-month run at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The production is simple, with two huge grand, Yamaha pianos facing each other, and the leads kitted out in formal suits (including tails) and alternating characters: piano teachers, parents, their disgruntled childhood and teenaged selves. What could easily slip into saccharine territory comes crashing back into the sour zone, thanks in part to the duo's finely-tuned sense of timing. Moments that could be difficult for non-classical music lovers to stomach (young Ted's swooning over a live recording of Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, for instance) are quickly given necessary shots of levity (an eyeroll here, a shrug there), elements that work in tandem with the innate chemistry between Dykstra and Greenblatt. The trust they have, in each other, the material, their abilities, the music, shows, and extends itself to both emotional scenes (like those involving a face-off between young "Teddy" and his strict father) and comedic ones (such as young Richard's meltdown during a music competition), offering some far more than the warm-hearted fuzzies a memory show might imply. Artistic passion and brutal truths are dished out with equal vigor, making the final scene -of the two playing J.S. Bach's Concerto in D minor, 1st Movement -all the more poignant. With the two pianos joined in one fussy piece of Baroque splendor, the line between music and theatre is rubbed away, with performer and performance becoming one expression of frustrated dreams, of altered plans, of new awakenings. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is one of those shows that makes you think, and feel, and remember, and hope, all at once. No small feat.

My child-like urge to plunk around on the keys bubbles up every now and again, minus the heavy weight of classical-music education squashing my innate creative curiosity. That's the spark of where all my artistic (and journalistic) pursuits come from, after all- from that prickly-skinned, many-tentacled, multi-eyed, fast-swimming creature called curiosity. Part of giving in to that creature means enduring the occasional mental shit-kicking to keep at it, to commit, to sit in the damn chair until it's done, and to go deeper and reach higher and be better. But what if you hit the glass ceiling? What if there is no "better"? Coming face-to-face with that reality is no easy task; acknowledging it in public, in front of a group of strangers, in the dark, on a stage, every night can be downright terrifying, a horror show of the highest order. But risk is good, and, in the realm of the arts, an absolute necessity. Risk keeps curiosity happy and alive. Kudos to Dykstra and Greenblatt -and to all the frustrated artists. Thank you for putting your risk on display. We hear, we paint, we write, we read, we see. Thank you for taking that risk. Thank you for the music.

Photo credits:
Top photo, Wikipedia.
Middle photo by Rick O'Brien.
2 Pianos 4 Hands photos courtesy Mirvish Productions.

Oct 25, 2011

Clutching the Spawn

After news of a violent dictator's violent demise, the disunity of the European Union, the leaving of one troubled country (and trust issues with another), Jobs, more jobs, a GOP horse race, moaning millionaires, occupiers everywhere, and some very awful flooding, my writer's block feels less important than ever - but it's burning more keenly. My creative panic is running rampant, worried it's losing its sacred pride of place in my life.

WRITE SOMETHING!, it shrieks, late at night.

"I'm tired," I yawn.

WRITE NOW!, it shrieks upon waking.

"I have to go to work," I say, making a sympathetic face.

WHAT ABOUT NOW?!, it shouts in the evenings.

"Walk the dog/do the laundry/email A through M about N through Z."

Oh, and watch the news.

It's a wonder the creative panic -I think it was once called a Muse -sticks around at all.

I often feel like my journalistic self is pushing my creative self out of the way, the big-shouldered bully pushing down the black-caped wimp in the schoolyard. But every once in a while, that caped figure gets back up again and waves a magic wand.

Lasntight, Seamus Heaney was on PBS NewsHour, a program I watch with fervent devotion and intense admiration. It was excellent, if jarring, to see Jeffrey Brown interviewing one of my favorite poets after the newscast's featuring reports on Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, and much more. NewsHour's website features Heaney reading his poem, 'Death Of A Naturalist', which is ridiculously beautiful and worth a watch.

Watch Seamus Heaney Reads 'Death of a Naturalist' on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.


All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.


What a treat to see this celebrated writer speak so candidly about his innate fear over suffering a stroke in 2006, and what a strange blessing to hear him share his initial feelings of doubt when embarking on a new piece work:
...when you're beginning, you're not sure. I mean, is this a poem? Or is it just a shot at a poem? Or is it kind of a dead thing? But when it comes alive in a way to feel that's your own utterance, then I think you're in business.
More often than not, it's been poetry that's brought me back to that uniquely personal "utterance" of late. Daily news does make a glorious, chaotic clang that is its own sexy siren song, but it doesn't hold a candle to the more quiet meditations of poetry. That shrieking creative panic who troubles me morning, noon, and night seems like little more than an ignored muse who toes I keep inadvertently stepping on.

Perhaps I'll let the chorus of Heaney's marshy choir envelope the newsy noise that's been covering up the gigantic, five-borough-shaped hole in my heart. Creation is messy business indeed, but one has to be clutched by the wordy spawn sooner or later, or, more accurately, take a ride on the back of the Leviathan that sloshes its tail through the swampy waters of my daily life. To quote another poet, the readiness is all. Hang on. Eyes wide open. Pen ready.

Paintings:
Top - "The Muses Melpomene, Erato and Polymnia" by Eustache Le Sueur
Bottom - "Urania and Erato" by Sebastiano Conca.

Oct 24, 2011

Art Meets Heart

I'm always surprised and delighted by the sheer number of fascinating, artsy events happening in Toronto at any given time. In addition to Art Battle, A Work Of Heart, which also features live painting, is coming up soon. A Work Of Heart is an initiative that brings together artists and philanthropy in a spirit of cooperation, self-determination, curiosity and sharing. To quote its current release, "artwork is donated by seven local artists... half of the proceeds will go towards building a boarding school in Kenya's Mathare Slum."

Owing to conversations with TMS Ruge and other experts in the field of aid and development, I've developed a kind of mental alarm system for anything resembling Western-style feel-good-isms toward African nations. Too often those efforts are exercises in narcissism and brand-building, offering simplistic answers and reflecting the organizers' romanticized (/stereotypical /racist) image of Africa and its citizens moreso than actively acknowledging the messy, complicated, multi-layered world of development and well, humanity overall. It's easy to reduce a nation -its citizens within it, its continent around it -to easy slogans and poetic images, ones colored by celebrity visits and ad campaigns and big-ass concerts.

Work Of Heart is less interested in big gestures than it is in committing to long-term good. It's a small, grassroots organization working at the grassroots level, lead by people who've been there, done that, and (vitally) plan to, for a long, long time. They put their money, time, energy and resources where their mouths are, their paintbrushes where their heart is. They aren't afraid to get dirty, and they aren't afraid to commit to the long-haul.

Laura Armstrong is the founder of Work Of Heart; she has a degree in Film and English, and has travelled extensively, working with Canadian organization Global Youth Network. It was through her work with GYN that she travelled to Kenya to work with HIV positive women and children, and subsequently got in touch with UCRC (Ugunja Community Resource Centre), an NGO that, to quote its website, "acts as an umbrella organization for more than sixty local community groups including women, children, youth, farmers and people with disabilities." Their motto is "Local Action Is Beautiful." Casey Mundy, a Toronto-based publicist with a degree in Psychology, also worked with the Global Youth Network, where she worked in the Dominican Republic as well as Morocco.

There's something inspiring about these two young Canadian women who, though completely aware of their position as privileged women living and working in the Western world, are moving past that definition and into that of a citizen of the world through their long-term commitments. They understand you can't just build a school, pat yourself on the back, and walk away; in fact, they keep walking towards goals whose benefits are not immediate, but are profound, real, and offer long-term benefit to communities.

A Work Of Heart's latest art event happens tomorrow night in Toronto. I recently exchanged ideas about the organization, and about the roads that intersect between art, aid, and advancement with Laura and Casey. Their answers make me want to continue following A Work Of Heart to see how their initiatives progress.

How did you become interested in aid and development issues?

Laura: During my undergrad at Wilfred Laurier University, I started to participate in volunteer trips abroad. I helped build a house in the Dominican Republic, volunteered in India with famine relief, Peru for Dangue fever prevention, and Kenya to work with women and children with HIV. Different cultures and world issues fascinate me. I want to continue working abroad and learn as much as possible.

Casey: I also became extremely interested in aid and development issues while a student at Wilfrid Laurier. I have spent time volunteering in Morocco and Dominican Republic. Working and living with the local people in another country is a very different experience than simply visiting that location and its renowned tourist destinations. You get to really know the place, the people, their way of life and their motivations when you immerse yourself in their lifestyle.

The main thing I hear and read is that Western-style gestures don't help in implementing long-term change - that it's feel-good-ism for the privileged. How much of this initiative is about the long-term?

Laura: We work with an organization called Living Positive Kenya (LPK) which is located in the Mathare Slum, the second largest slum in Aftrica. This NGO is a support group for women and children living with HIV. Mary Wanderi, who founded this NGO (and is currently Director of Living Positive Ngong), is a pervious social worker who had the heart-breaking job of going into the homes of women who have died and retrieving their children. After dealing with an overwhelming amount of HIV related deaths she decided she had to take action. She then created LPK.

Women can come to LPK to receive support and job training. These women are taught how to live positively while HIV positive. When implementing a development project abroad you need to involve the community as much as possible and think in advance about potential problems and not assume what they would be. Observation and long term planning is key in making a sustainable project. We agree that education is the most vital way to change the future of the LPK children and will give their mothers time to work while their children attend school. That is why this boarding school project is where we are investing our attention and resources.


Why did you create A Work Of Heart?

Laura: I want to be there for the long haul. I am not looking for the the international ‘feel-good-ism’ experience and to simply walk away. These women aren’t just a group we support- they are our friends. We work together to figure out what the deeper problems are in the slum and try to find solutions that work for them and their community. After my first trip to Kenya, I felt that the amount of money needed to upgrade the LPK daycare was something I could easily fundraise. Selling my art seemed like the best bet to raise that money in my spare time. I paint as a hobby so it was nice to have a reason to do it more often.

What role do you see for art in helping to create social change?

Laura: Artists in general have a lot of passion and are always looking for ways to push boundaries with their talent. A Work of Heart allows them to push a new boundary because their art can now physically change a life for the better. Art is impossible to define but can be best described as something that makes us feel less alone. We want to take this concept and broaden it beyond the painting. Through the selling of our art we can connect to people across the world who are in grave need. It’s not just about painting a great picture; it’s about ‘painting a better world.’

Casey: Art is a positive practice that crosses language barriers and can be experienced globally. Art is exciting because it can mean something different to different people and create an emotional response. There is no right or wrong way to paint or be involved with art. I think that this project exemplifies how one person really can make a difference and that visual art, along with all types of art, like music, dance, can have a global reach and connect the world.

How do you find artists?

Laura: Networking. I have friends who paint who know other artists. It has slowly been growing over the past year. People I have never met want to donate pieces to me because they love the concept. It’s a great feeling to see how other artists connect to it so quickly and so passionately.

How do you hope to expand Work Of Heart and its reach?

Laura: We have decided to push our goals and limits further each year. Last year we aimed to raise $1,000.00 and this year we want to raise $10,000.00. This is our first art show. We hope to have larger ones down the road and have more artists from the GTA involved. We have a deep connection to the women and children we work with in Kenya and want to help them build a sustainable community for their children and themselves.

Casey: I hope to continue to raise positive awareness for A Work of Heart through the media and help to build a solid base of supporters. I am passionate about this project and happy to pitch something I truly believe in.


A Work Of Heart Facebook page is here.

Oct 6, 2011

Faust It

Faust is one of my favorite legends. The story of a man who defied the limits of mortality and the chains of morality has a resonance far past its German origins. I devoured both the Marlowe and Goethe tales as a child, enchanted by the mix of the dark and the divine. Years later, I discovered the operatic, musical, cinematic, and rock and roll adaptations. Faust reverberates a lot through popular culture, even making an appearance at the Crossroads, with one Robert Johnson. It brings up questions around how much you're willing to trade in order to get what you want - not necessarily what you need, as the Rolling Stones astutely noted, but what your ego shrieks at you to go after, whether it's love, money, fame, or a gilt-edged, flourescent combination of all three. "Careful what you wish for; you just might get it" -truer words were never more ironically bleated.

It's a myth with personal resonance for many people, particularly those working in the arts; how much would we be willing to sacrifice in order to live comfortably? Compromise is a fact of life and a frequently a necessary rusty old catalyst for success; how much of our selves -our morals, beliefs and ideals -would be give up in order to be published/heard/seen? There's always a trade-off, as Faust reminds us. Nothing comes easy -and nothing ever comes for free.

Director F.W. Murnau, best known for the creepy vampire flick Nosferatu, filmed a much-lauded version of Faust that was released in 1926. It would be his last German work before going off to Hollywood. Though we can't surmise the sorts of sounds Murnau might've wanted for his classic work, we can at least use our imaginations, something that's less and less common in the movie house these days. Accomplished Canadian composer Robert Bruce runs a series of live scoring events for silent films. He'll be performing live musical accompaniment to Faust this coming Friday (tomorrow) night. We exchanged ideas about the film and the role of music in cinema.

Why Faust? What's the attraction?

In this particular case, it is the film more than the legend for me. I have looked at many silent films in search of finding ones that still hold up well today, and ones that do well with my musical scores. I have to believe in the film quite a bit to even get started. Faust was a special case -the film is truly wonderful! What I have done with it musically is easily my best and most effective effort out of all the silent films I have scored. This sort of thing doesn't happen too often in any multimedia project, where the planets just line up so well.

How did composing for Faust compare with other silent films you've scored?

More work went into composing special original music for Faust. The score is also longer than any other one (it's just under two hours), and it's one of the very rare silent film scores I've done that uses more of my deep, more (obviously) classical/ambient music, as opposed to the comedy programs which generally use lighter music. It is more involved -but also more rewarding, for me, and, seemingly, for the audience too.

Why do you think live scoring has become such a popular phenomenon in 21st century culture?

I've been lucky to have done extremely well with my silent film programs so far. Audiences have been very receptive and happy with my programs. Since I only work with select films, I've had the opportunity to really develop the scores and see that they blend and work well with the story/visuals. That's something that probably didn't happen too much back in the 1920s, as new films came in the theaters pretty much every week, and the house musicians had to keep up. It's almost an advantage today to go back and revisit like this.

Silent film/live music programs became a lost art at the start of the sound era. They are also a very different kind of experience. I think the gradual rediscovery of (live scoring) has been a pleasant surprise for many people in recent times. Also, as they are so retro and low-tech - I think that is refreshing in today's super-highly-produced film/media environment. Artists and filmmakers in (the early 20th century) had to rely on pure talent and ability and music, and far less on technical and editing tricks. That shows. Also, the live music element, when it works well, is a very different experience -it's more involved than a recorded score.

Oct 5, 2011

Heart And Intuition

Earlier tonight, I heard Steve Jobs talk about the first time he learned of his cancer diagnosis. It was at a commencement address at Stamford University six years ago. Watching it was, for me, not so sentimental as it was invigorating. Jobs' tone was a mix of poe-faced acceptance and angry defiance. It was good to came across this speech, when there's so many choices swirling inside and out.

"Within You Without You" could very well be my theme right now. The man who wrote it faced some scary choices, as the first part of George Harrison: Living In The Material World (aired on HBO tonight) showed. The episode explored the personal and professional sides of Harrison, with contributions from a variety of sources, both archival and recent. Sir Paul is featured, along with Ringo, Astrid, Pattie, Yoko, George himself (taken from older interviews), producer George, and Eric Clapton (and weirdly, little to no John). The Scorcese-directed work is like a massive jigsaw of odds and sods about the Beatles' guitarist, portraying him as complex and yet "black and white", isolated and yet social, spiritual and yet practical. The first part ended with the strains of Harrison's beautifully mellifluous voice singing about his guitar gently weeping.

Harrison was always thought of as "The Quiet Beatle"; I thought of him as a gorgeous, thought-heavy (/heavy thought) man who composed tuneful melodies and had that troublesome wife. He was many things at once, which is what makes him such an endearing (and enduring) figure to so many. Harrison didn't possess any of the traits the general public perceived about the bands' members; he didn't have John's mouthiness or Paul's bossiness. Indeed, Harrison didn't have any kind of identifiable public persona one could look at and plant a flag beside. But that was his charm. His very opaqueness, one that perhaps hid a perceived sensitivity and delicate curiosity, twinned with an iron will and steely resolve, make him a beloved figure who has floated past the creaking shackles of rock and roll nostalgia.

I thought back to my first night in New York, when I had my face-to-face with Yoko Ono; the mischievous smile she had hid an innate kindness. I thought back to seeing Paul McCartney at Yankee Stadium, and the deep shock that sat in the pit of my stomach as I heard his unmistakable voice jauntily belting out the words to "Magical Mystery Tour." I remember many years ago when Ringo Starr took his seat two rows behind me at The Met. New Yorkers barely noticed, but those who did offered an outstretched hand.

The Beatles were and remain as ubiquitous to culture as Apple computers. My best friend growing up was a Paul (named after Macca), and grew up consistently using Macs. (He is, to this day, an Apple devotee.) When the huge metal boxes with the tiny screens first appeared in elementary school, I joined the club devoted to exploring and learning more about them. I was the only girl in that club. Years later, I remember the butterflies that flew around my stomach as I got my first (but not last) Power Mac, and later, my first Apple laptop, and finally, an iPod (I still have my first generation model), iPod shuffle (which I won), and iPhone (the first version of which was stolen in New York City, in fact). Apple products have become so seamlessly integrated with my daily life so as to be inseparable from its functioning. When The Beatles finally had their work made available on iTunes, it felt like something -gravity? -had shifted completely. One great cultural touchstone was finally connecting to another. The meeting felt natural, good, and right.

Harrison and Jobs may've not had much in common on the surface, but they were stealth figures shaping and moulding a new language in modern culture. And their names are forever linked, however contentiously. Tonight I flipped on CNN to hear Jobs delivering these words in 2005:
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out what you really want to do. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition; they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is truly secondary.
Amidst tonight's protests, announcements and memorials, one thing rings clear tonight: life is so short. So very short. Remember. Cherish. "Within You Without You" -- there's a tune, and it keeps playing, on and on.

We were talking
About the love that's gone so cold.
And the people who gain the world
And lose their soul,
They don't know, they can't see -
Are you one of them?

When you've seen beyond yourself,
Then you may find
Peace of mind is waiting there.
And the time will come
When you see we're all one,
And life flows on within you and without you.
-George Harrison

Oct 4, 2011

Curry Conservatory

One of my strongest childhood memories involves being assigned to draw of a truism of life. The teacher was seeking a visual representation of folkoric wisdom that might illustrate our understanding of Something Really Important. I chose "Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth." It may have been a tip-off to my future passion for the culinary arts - or perhaps my impatience with throwing too many things in one small space.

I drew a long line of chefs standing across a gleaming counter, a large, bubbling soup pot placed in the very middle with orange flames tickling its bottom. Each chef, with tall white hats pointing like spears, had large, goggly eyes and anxious "O"-shaped mouths. The further the chefs from the soup pot, the longer their spoons. The chefs at each end had absurdly long, spindly spoons, with handles like spider's legs. In another panel, I drew a lady with fat round pearls and grey curls making a face, red tongue hanging over a green pallor, as she, spoon in hand, samples the chefs' offerings. Too Many Chefs indeed. I got an A.

I thought of this drawing, along with the first time I ever tried curry, when I attended a concert recently. The second experience happened at the home of Indian friends of my family's. Plied with naan and dahl, I initially kicked out at the strong tastes and colors, my eight year old palate not accustomed to the blend of spices or how to properly handle the spiky shock of chili on the tongue. Conversion to being a curry devotee was gradual, its progression running parallel to my curiosity and experience of Life Itself. Taken together, these two experiences, of drawings and preliminary taste tests, are the perfect metaphor for a concert I recently attended one rainy, warm night in Toronto. Titled "Andalusia To Toronto", the show was the season-opener at Toronto's Koerner Hall, a space built right into the creaky old Royal Conservatory building. No food, but lots of mixed stuff for the ear, some with too many chefs, some with spicing just right.

Koerner Hall is a beautiful, acoustically perfect venue that seamlessly blends old traditions with new visions. That old/new integration might well describe the show, curated by musician David Buchbinder, the Canadian musician behind the Odessa/Havana music project and, more recently, Diasporic Genius. Buchbinder is an active presence in the Toronto music scene, having founded an assortment of busy, popular jazz ensembles in the last two decades, including the celebrated Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band in 1988. He was joined by a myriad of musical talents, including Cuban-Canadian pianist Hilario Duran, Palestinian oud playing and vocalist Bassam Bishara, and Syrian-American violinist Fathi al Jarrah. The nine-man ensemble - violinists, percussionists, a reed/flute player, all told -produced a gloriously uplifting sound that drew upon Jewish, Arab, and Spanish musical traditions, performing music several centuries old and updating much of it with a modern, urban sensitivity.

It is unquestionably a matter of personal taste as to whether or not you jive with Buchbinder's mad drive to integrate sounds from diverse (and distinct) traditions into a kind of pan-cultural sonic hybrid. I've never been entirely convinced melding Ashkenaz shtetl sounds with Cuban jazz works - not all minor chords are created equal to my ears -but that's also because I have a penchant for enjoying and celebrating sounds as distinct entities. I don't like too many chefs around my broth -but I do enjoy a good curry. And sometimes the blends Buchbinder oversaw were very beautiful. His skill as an arranger and bandleader can't be discounted. The concert's first piece, "Billadhi Askara (The One Who Intoxicates)", a beautiful Muwashahat that offered a solemn start but soon shimmied into a luscious, lilting piece that recalled the best of Hossam Ramzy and His Egyptian Orchestra. 'La Mujer de Terah (The Wife Of Terah)", a Sephardic folk song, featured Israeli-Yemeni vocalist Michal Cohen, who, with her clear strong voice and perfectly-pitched high tones, cast a speel across the Hall as she sang of a woman "roaming on the fields and in the vineyards" and giving birth to "the servant of the blessed God" in a cave.

That's not to say all the pieces were from a religious tradition. In fact, most of what was presented at "Andalusia To Toronto" were creative adaptions and re-workings of traditional folk pieces. Hilario Duran re-arranged two of the pieces featured, including Sephardic folk songs "Landarico" and "Conja (The Shell)", and Buchbinder himself providing several adaptations and original compositions. It's obvious he wants to demonstrate connections between cultures of the past, and to show how those connections can instruct us in the present, and possibly future. But some portions were lengthy and felt far too didactic. "Cadiz", an original composition, was sonically frustrating. It sounded like a highly rhythmic effort at fitting square pegs into round holes, its "broth" a muddy mix that made appreciation of its influences damn near impossible. "Next One Rising" fared somewhat better, with its influences more fluidly integrated between instruments, but there remained a strange whiff of didacticism mixed with over-exuberant creativity. Too many chefs? Or too much spice? Either way, not my favorite dishes.

Buchbinder's curious curry-paella-tagine mix did, however, offer a good metaphor of the Hall's programming choices. Buchbinder's choice of showcasing the sounds of Andalusia was an ideal symbol of the sheer breadth of vision at work here. Yes, the Conservatory Orchestra have dates (November 25th, February 17th, and April 13th), and there are other classical performers featured as part of the season; the lineup includes classical artists Louis Lortie, Angela Hewitt, and Emanuel Ax.

But Koerner Hall doesn't stand solely on its classical music laurels. I was witness to the closing concert of Hugh Masekela's last tour there in November of last year. And in 2012, the Hall will feature yet more great international artists: gospel great Mavis Staples in January, Mexican chanteuse Lila Downs in February, Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjjo in March, and German cabaret performer Ute Lemper in April. This is the kind of delicious curry I can get behind. Too many chefs? Not at Koerner. Their programming is simple: eat what you can, draw while you wait, and take the rest home in a doggy bag. You can't ask for much more than that.

Oct 1, 2011

Flippant Coward


Sitting in the grand velvet cushiness of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto on a recent Sunday afternoon, I was struck by the theater unfolding around me. Ladies parading in all manner of frippery, many tottering on high heels their bridled, bejeweled hooves were desperate to break free of, wearing so many coatings of makeup and perfume as to be aromatically plastic, with cleavage hiked up to the neck and porn star pouts perfected.

The blonde woman behind me, in a black and white mini-dress several sizes too small for her frame and with towering hair that whispered of Moroccan oil and synthetic extensions, decided the time was right to voice loud opinions just as the lights went down.

"Why are they clapping?" she hissed as the over-eager audience broke out in applause when leads Paul Gross, and then Kim Cattrall appeared onstage.

"Shhhhh," urged her suited, slick-haired seatmate.

"What?!" she continued, "They're just onstage."

"Ssssshhhhhhhh," he continued, with some alarm.

"I mean, Gawwd, calm down, people," she continued, unabated, "They're just actors."

"C'mon, it's starting."

"What?! People clapping? Jesus. They're not in a marathon or something."

Aren't they? I wondered, smiling.

She finally shut up so the show could start, but it got me thinking.

Playing Coward is a kind of dance; doing him well is more of a marathon - albeit a well-dressed one involving martinis and silk pajamas and many, many well-placed, well-timed words. Cattrall and Gross are locked in a thrilling two-hour marathon of wills, hearts, words, and energies. This is possibly the most competitive production of Private Lives I've ever seen, and that's saying something; I've seen this particular play well over a dozen times, on a few continents, and each time I've taken something a bit different away - but all those variations doesn't erase the delicious rhythm of Coward's words, nor his brutal portrayal of the chattering, wining, dining, whining, whipping, slipping, shouting, punching upper classes, and their awful, awfully funny, awfully familiar way of living and loving.

Richard Eyre's lush production, currently running in Toronto through the end of October, was last seen in London's West End. This Canadian run is a warm-up for the Broadway run that begins in November. New York audiences would be wise to put aside their notions of Coward as a pish-posh playwright full of puffery, and pay close attention to the vital physicality Eyre brings to the 1930 work. Private Lives revolves around the quarreling, querying, cooing, cuddling, and wholly caustic exes Elyot and Amanda, who run into one another while each is on their respective second honeymoons. Words and fists fly back and forth with equal vigor, making for an engrossing production that milks the gender wars while highlighting the importance of flippancy through deft timing and clear body language.

"Is all this sophisticated, feckless, irresponsible flippancy the stuff that will endure?" asked Tatler after the play's 1930 premiere. Of course it has. Irresponsible flippancy will endure, has endured, and in so many ways, should endure. Private Lives is as known for its barbed witty flippancies, flung back and forth like jaunty shuttlecocks, as it is for its depiction of scary co-dependency in intimate relationships. Coward is a master of flippant verbiage, holding a brutal, dark mirror to the creme fraiche of everyday experience, exposing the rotting fish-smelling underbelly of polite society with a smile, a martini, and an invitation to dance amidst the detritus.

It's important to keep this delicious sense of expose in mind when watching Eyre's gorgeous, glimmering production. Set and costume designer Rob Howell's tidy, boxy balconies of the First Act's honeymoon scene are simply too polite, too neat, too orderly, for Coward's co-dependent heroes. Their wrought-iron-meets-greenery nicety can't contain such volatile lovers. The huge, circular Parisian apartment where they escape is equally telling in its beautiful design; it implies the maddeningly cyclical nature of their relationship, one marked by vigorous, fighting, freaking, and... well, you might fill in the blank. Amanda (Kim Cattrall) and Elyot (Paul Gross) are like the yin and yang of an angry, amorphous amoeba that, between sips of martinis and champagne, screeches I love you/I hate you even as the creature - this monstrous thing called a "relationship" -swallows itself whole, dividing, again and again, into something we all wish we didn't recognize.

So where's the relief? Ah, that's easy. The vitality of flippancy is what powers much of Coward's work, and it has its very-best, most shining, flouncy display and expression in Private Lives. Flippancy's souffle-like texture is sometimes a better balm than the soggy bandage of dew-eyed, saccharine sincerity. As Elyot notes, "All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. . . . Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths." Private Lives wants you to be laughing at the absurd. It demands it. Even when Elyot and Amanda leave their respective mates and vanish into the night... laugh! When they worry over their respective mates' well-being and wind up making love... laugh! When Elyot strikes Amanda and she strikes him back, without restraint... laugh! Laugh!, the work dares us, voila, shibboleths! Encore, rire!

That isn't to say domestic violence is ever hilarious or not a thing to be taken seriously, but it does ask the viewer to confront the sacred cows that amble across one's perceptions of propriety, comedy, relationship and romance, and whence they all doth meet in the dark alleys of life. Such presentation also calls to mind the possible literary inspirations behind the figures of Elyot and Amanda. The play is a puffy, meringue-like counterpart to the heavy steak of other dueling-couples works; their leads the sweet profiteroles to the sour pickles of George and Martha, their verbal wordplay is no less clever than Beatrice and Benedict. There is most certainly a palpable sense of competition between Cattrall and Gross, one that informs and powers much of the energy behind this particular Broadway-bound production.

Of all the memorable Elyots I've seen - Anton Lesser in London, Alan Rickman in New York - Paul Gross' interpretation is easily the most brusque. His Elyot seems entirely disinterested in the niceties of civil society, and engages in them only so long as they amuse him, or those around him. The dark violence of the character is underlined with Gross' deeply physical performance, as he throttles Amanda in the Paris apartment where the newlyweds escape to reunite with one another. It should be noted, Kim Cattrall's Amanda gives as good as she gets; hers is an equally brutish interpretation, and put beside Juliet Stevenson and Lindsay Duncan respectively, is easily the most masculine of Amandas. Oh sure, Cattrall charmingly swans about, first in a towel, then a gorgeous flesh-tone gown, then a swishy silk robe, and finally a prim, fitted skirt-suit - but these are all feathers on a wolf. As the play progresses, Cattrall spits out her lines with such a crescendo of venom you begin to wonder if she'd be better suited to the boxing ring. When Elyot berates her for promiscuity, pronouncing that it "doesn't suit women," she retorts, in full eff-you mode, hand on jutted-out hip, that it doesn't suit men for women to be promiscuous. There was more than a small hint of Samantha in that line, the character from Sex And The City Cattrall is known for, and the line itself received a hearty cheer at the opening. One senses Cattrall's Amanda is promiscuous less out of sheer lust than out of sheer rage at being born the wrong sex. Vengeance drives her much the same way it does her (ex-ish) husband, but she expresses it more through well-placed words and large physicality than in actions.

Indeed, flippancy is what makes the hurtful, hilarious, the painful, pleasurable, the unbearable, bearable. Richard Eyre's production of Private Lives reminds us of this wisdom in bouts of brilliant shallowness and bold declaration. Much more than a writer of witty sex comedies with well-dressed people sipping martinis, Coward's work is a witty sex comedy with well-dressed people sipping martinis -and saying really, really smart, wise things. Pay attention to the language, and how it's used: to soothe, seduce, insult, insinuate, degrade, debase. Rarely do we see polite society reflected with so much venom; even more rarely do we see it dressed so well, and so heartily applauded by those who are being mocked.

I emerged from the Royal Alexandra Theatre thinking that we all probably have a bit of Amanda and Elyot about us. The couple behind me had taken off early -presumably to fight, to love, to spar with words and fists and flying drinks. In short, to live another day. Hopefully with a sense of humor, and always, always well-dressed.

All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy Mirvish Productions.