Monday, May 13, 2019

Nicola Walker - Remarkable Acting, Remarkable Face

Mini review: I was just blown away last night by Nicola Walker’s portrait of breakdown in the BBC detective series, Unforgotten (S3 E5). (Some spoilers follow.) Actually, the portrait began in Episode 1 five weeks ago. What is particularly interesting is how she was able to convey the descent from uneasiness to full-blown collapse primarily through facial expressions and some vocal effects. Unlike a stage actor who uses their entire body to convey character development, a lead performer in a TV drama relies heavily on facial expressions captured in close-ups.

Walker plays Cassie Stuart, a middle-aged detective chief inspector (DCI) whose unit is responsible for investigating cold cases using new techniques such as DNA matching. She is assisted by her partner, Detective Inspector Sunny Khan (played by Sanjeev Bhaskar), who seemed catatonic in the first two dramas in the series, but has evolved into an emotionally engaging character in the third. Unlike other police dramas, the quality that stands out in these two characters and indeed their entire investigative team (thanks to writer Chris Lang) is compassion, a quality that while ennobling their quest for justice, takes its toll on their already fraught personal lives.

We’ve seen Walker before as the farmer in Last Tango in Halifax (another spoiler) who lets her abusive husband die only later to fall in love with and marry his brother. She has ice-blue eyes and a haunted, craggy beauty with lines that seem cruelly etched into her face. At the same time she can convey vulnerability and the steely toughness of a survivor. I don’t know whether this face-focused approach to acting would work on the stage, probably not; but with Walker’s film portrayal of someone at the top of their game falling apart professionally and personally, it is acting at its best.


Saturday, April 13, 2019

Mozart's Requiem, the Velveteen Rabbit, and Recollections of the Moldau

Although it has been stitched together from odd scraps and pieces, like the Velveteen Rabbit, the Mozart Requiem remains one of the most perfect creations of man or God.

We stand in awe before it, as before Bach’s B Minor Mass or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And yet, unlike those mighty works, there is something wounded and vulnerable in the Requiem. It may be because we know something about the deeply personal story behind it: Mozart feverishly trying to outpace the Grim Reaper as he struggled to meet the deadline for a much needed commission, and losing that race.

Then, his assistant Süssmayr rising to the occasion to provide a finished edition two years later. Or did he? The music is nothing like anything the acolyte produced before or since. How much of the work truly was composed by Mozart, how many of those mysterious scraps of paper with notes and instructions contributed to the completion, did Süssmayr really provide anything of substance? And what about discoveries of more scraps and hints in the 1990s, including a complete “Amen” fugue after the “Lacrimosa”?


Ultimately, who cares? Whether we hear the earliest Süssmayr version or the now more widely accepted edition by Robert D. Levin, this is music etched in the DNA of humanity. If you have heard it even once in the past, it has already taken root in who you are. It is as inescapable as eternity.


Sentimental imaginings of composers' deaths 
were popular art subjects in the 19th century

Probably the best performance I ever heard of the Requiem was in Dvorak Hall next to the Vltava River (“the Moldau”) in Prague. The year was 1998; it was the Prague Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, I don’t remember the conductor. The ensemble was small but sonorous, musically rich yet full of that spiritual brokenness that we all share with Mozart on some level. But the Requiem can be heard as a large-scale work as well, and that is what I heard April 12, 2019, as the Philadelphia Orchestra and more than 150 singers of the Westminster Symphonic Choir joined forces to produce a much larger sounding Requiem than I am used to, but one with a memorable tale to tell.

Bernard Labadie, a Baroque and Classical specialist, conducted the orchestra, while Joe Miller directed the choir, joined by four distinguished soloists. Michele Losier’s warmly enveloping mezzo voice blended beautifully with the grainy bass-baritone of Neal Davies and the bright tenor of Jeremy Ovenden. But I was singularly impressed by the pure, bell-like tones of soprano Amanda Forsythe. The pristine clarity, the sense of always holding just a little something back made her voice so appealing, so dramatically effective. There was a sensuousness about her voice that at times seemed to reach out for the words rather than simply articulate them. Her expression was sincere, a little pained, but hopeful, yes, unfailingly confident, perhaps redeemed. What a privilege to hear and see her perform so affectingly.

This may actually be the first time I heard the “Amen” that was added 20-some years ago, and it nicely stitched together the conclusion of the Sequentia and the opening of the Offertorium. The orchestra and choir provided a large, heart-stopping sound, sometimes a bit too grand for my taste, and oddly ended on a subdued note in the “Lux Aeterna.” The peroration spins higher and higher in a kind of dust devil of ecstasy, but instead of slamming home that last measure after the dramatic key shift, Labadie seems to hold back the timpani, and pull in the power at his fingertips. The audience’s failure to launch into applause seemed more tied to not being sure this was actually the end, rather than a moment of silent reverence at the completion of a masterpiece. But this is nit-picking; the performance was splendid and the composition itself, gorgeous beyond words.

The program opened with Mozart’s less than stunning Masonic Funeral Music and the popular “little g minor” Symphony No. 25, featured in the film, Amadeus. The concert was held in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pa., USA.

Last page of Mozart Requiem, original edition,
courtesy of Petrucci Library, IMSLP

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

L.L. Holt interviewed on Princeton TV about novel, "Invictus"

Here is a link to a half hour interview with L.L. Holt, author of Invictus, on Back Story with Joan Goldstein, Princeton TV. The interview is being telecast throughout April 2019. Please copy and paste the vimeo link into a browser if the link is not working.

https://vimeo.com/329114277

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Gripping tale of Beethoven's childhood unveiled on Princeton TV

I was thrilled on March 19, 2019, to be interviewed by sociologist and educator Joan Goldstein on her Princeton TV30 talk show, Back Story. The program will air in New Jersey, USA, at 8:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 27, and 5:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 31, and will be available via a URL starting next month.

Increasingly, I am thinking of this novel, a fictionalized account of Beethoven's life from birth through age 16, as a metaphor for the heartbreak of domestic violence, prejudice, bullying, failure, and abuse that haunts millions of lives in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In recent weeks, as I carefully proofread galley after galley in anticipation of the April 10 release date, I began to experience episodes of empathy with the main character, Luis (one of the names Beethoven used), that I did not have when I wrote the book six years ago.

Why was I feeling this way? What was it about the descriptions of family violence and the ray of hope that spreads into a rainbow on the final page?

Then it became clear. I had experienced this myself. Whether through actual incidents or through the observation of others, I knew every taunt, put-down, and slap, but more important, I knew every door that was opened because of a caring stranger, a great teacher, and my own inner resolve.

The child Beethoven's story is not just a tale from the past, a loose configuration of facts and imaginings. It is our story today, the story of how we have dared to progress from darkness into Light.

There was a reason the tears would fall every time I read the final pages of Invictus. I was that child, graduating from high school with no future, no promise, no one to care for me. And yet I did persevere and create the success that others would deny me.

I think now that Invictus has far greater meaning than a mere story about a young composer. It has meaning for everyone who has ever been held back because of their background or the way they looked, or through jealousy.

But it also has meaning for showing us that hope is always there, and when no one shows up to open the door, we can put our hand on the doorknob ourselves, and give it a turn.

https://harvardsquareeditions.org/portfolio-items/invictus/






Sunday, January 27, 2019

Fireworks in the Dead of Winter


by Linda Holt 

January 25, 2019--I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this weekend’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert, with its theme of Death. But the program’s two seldom-performed works belied the gloomy prospect with fiery performances and visceral passion.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra began the program with Leonard Bernstein’s colossal Symphony No. 3, the “Kaddish,” so named for the Jewish prayer for the dead. Bernstein’s centennial may be past, but the renewed awareness of his musical genius lingers on (two biopics about Bernstein, Hollywood’s signal that someone matters, are in early stages of production).

As a composer, Bernstein was not only a master technician and stylist, but he also captured the unrest, consternation, and malaise of the second half of the 20th century in America as no other. It was fitting that his Third Symphony, hard on the heels of the Second subtitled “The Age of Anxiety,” should question the very existence of God and shout out humanity’s frustration when confronted by the pain and cruelty of existence.

The Kaddish employed about 100 musicians, as many choir members, a boy choir, soprano soloist (Nadine Sierra) and speaker (Charlotte Blake Alston). From her first powerful words, “I want to say Kaddish,” Alston had the audience in thrall, declaiming Bernstein’s own challenging text throughout a performance of non-stop brilliance by all participants. A celebrated storyteller, Alston can make the hairs on your neck stand on end simply by aspirating the final syllables of “magnified” and “sanctified.”


Philadelphia Orchestra before The Kaddish
Conducting without a baton, Nézet-Séguin seemed to mold and sculpt the musical content of three stirring movements. Bernstein manipulates 12-tone technique to musically describe through discord our experience of heartbreak and anger. He kneads atonal chord progressions into a kind of halo surrounding a return to tonality at the end of the work. It’s an approach that could be too obvious in the hands of a lesser master, but is convincing and moving under Bernstein’s touch.

Wearing a backless red sheath gown, Sierra rose like a flame in her solo passages, which included a lullaby to God delivered with tenderness, lyricism, and deep feeling. Even nearly 60 years after its composition, Bernstein’s own text is unsettling in its taunting cynicism, almost making fun of the Deity by suggesting that humanity can nurse a dying Godhead back to health. While this may seem odd to us today, it reflects the growing Angst, introspection, and egocentrism of the era (early 1960s) in which it was written.

And yet, words won’t change anything. But music can “The dawn is chilly,” states the Speaker near the conclusion of the final movement, “but has come. If I die, You come with me,” she says quietly as the soundscape rises from minor to major and the entire orchestra and choirs together soar into a finale of almost unbearable exultation. Humanity’s questioning and cajoling have served their purpose. In spite of everything, we are left with a notion of splendor and hope.

Gioachino Rossini is best known for his popular light operas (The Barber of Seville, Cinderella, et al.). He took early retirement in his 30s, and while his opera-writing days were over, he did turn his hand to the occasional musical composition, such as the final work on this concert, the Stabat Mater. Sometimes referred to as a hymn, a Stabat Mater is actually a form of its own, a Roman Catholic text set to music and performed as a religious or concert selection. Dating to the 13th century, the Stabat Mater text honors the Virgin Mary as she stands at the foot of the Cross. Although not as popular as some other religious narratives, the Stabat Mater has been set by a number of notable composers, including Pergolesi, Vivaldi, and Dvořák.

Rossini’s version, in 10 movements, calls for orchestra, four singers, and choir. Not surprisingly, the work begins with low, melancholy passages in the orchestra and choir, painting in sound a portrait of Mary the mother of Christ, Mary Magdalene, and the disciple John at the site of the Crucifixion. In his original version of 1833, Rossini had composed only movements 1 and 5 through 9, adding additional movements a number of years later after one of those complicated legal squabbles that riddle the history of classical music.

It may be the break in time that accounts for the peculiar difference in tone between the first movement and much of what follows. Not only are the second and third movements much lighter, but they have a jaunty lilt that seems to foreshadow some of Verdi’s biggest hits. In a way, encountering these tunes, which could easily have been married to racy lyrics, was as unsettling as hearing Bernstein’s Speaker hurl insults at God. 

The hour-long work is a bit tedious for the first 45 minutes, although musicians and singers performed impeccably. Individually and together, the four soloists crafted a series of beautifully sung solos, duets, and a quartet from the meager material presented to them. But all that changed after the Inflammatus/Day of Judgment (Movement 8). Here, Nézet-Séguin shifted into a higher warp factor at the helm of his own version of the USS Enterprise. Suddenly, we were off, and it was an unforgettable flight. 

Rossini, too, had a few surprises up his sleeve. Who thought he could write such a magnificent fugue as in the final movement, with a cascade of “Amen”s tumbling from the awakened Philadelphia Symphonic Choir under the direction of Joe Miller? Who indeed thought it was possible that Death would have his comeuppance on that dreary winter day?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 (The Kaddish) and Gioachino Rossini's Stabat Mater. Artists: Charlotte Blake Alston, speaker; Nadine Sierra, soprano; Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo-soprano; John Osborn, tenor; Krzysztof Baczyk, bass; Philadelphia Symphonic Choir under Joe Miller; Philadelphia Boys Choir under Jeffrey R. Smith. Jan. 24 and 25, 2019; Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pa., USA. www.philorch.org , 215-893-1999 .

Linda Holt is the author of The Black Spaniard (2016) and Invictus (May 2019) and writes for the Broad Street Review.










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