Drama

The Music of Downton Abbey

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, January 5, 2012
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Downton Abbey, from WGBH’s Masterpiece Classic, won the 2012 Emmy Award for Original Dramatic Score for a Series. Classical New England talks with John Lunn, the composer of the winning score.


Highclere Castle, the setting of Downton Abbey
(image by Mike Searle, via Wikimedia;  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
)

When you think of Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey, the first thing that comes to mind might be Highclere Castle, which “plays” Downton Abbey itself. Or maybe the mind-boggling “proper-ness” of practically every single character depicted.

One especially powerful aspect of Downton you may not have noticed – at least consciously – was the music you heard.

In a way, that’s as it should be. The score was written by John Lunn and accomplishes precisely what any film score must: a ratcheting up of the emotional trajectory of the story while simultaneously going unnoticed.

You might imagine Lunn as a wizard-like composer in a meticulous process, weaving together strands of silvery sound to form a gorgeous tapestry. But as he told me, that’s not exactly how the process started:
 



To hear more about Downton Abbey from actress Elizabeth McGovern, visit The World.

Here's a look back at Season 2:

Watch Downton Abbey I Wonder Preview on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.

 

Three Pianos: Regular Guys and Schubert

By Brian McCreath   |   Tuesday, December 27, 2011
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Three Pianos, a theater work inspired by Franz Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, brings together three friends for song, contemplation, and wine.  Lots of wine.


Rick Burkhardt in Three Pianos

There are times when the solemnity and profundity of classical music can become overwhelming.  There are also times when just the right vehicle comes along to prick that balloon and remind us that, for the most part, classical music is really an art form that deals in the messy reality of human existence.  The play and movie Amadeus pulled this off for millions, and say what you will about historical accuracy, I think our relationship to Mozart's music has been the better for it ever since.

Now along comes Three Pianos, which, like Amadeus, brings a composer of incredibly human dimension back from the brink of plaster bust-dom.  Alec Duffy, Dave Malloy, and Rick Burkhardt tap into the spirit of Schubert through a piece of music that may have been the most difficult choice for the project, but also the one that may bring us closest to Schubert's soul. 

Winterreise takes us into the mind of a character who's engulfed in the depths of despair.  As a work of art, it's considered one of the pinnacles of the song cycle form.  As an emotional experience, it's one of those rare pieces that listeners hold incredibly closely, almost protectively.

Three Pianos tests that protective feeling for those who hold Winterreise most closely.  There's no doubt that Duffy, Malloy, and Burkhardt feel complete liberty to do what they want with Schubert's music.  There's a channeling of the spirit of Schubert's work through the voices of today's experiences and realities.  At times it's hilarious, and at times it's heartbreaking. 

But my overall experience was that, even in light of the copious wine that was served throughout the performance, the reverence for the songs among the performers is palpaple.  In fact, there are moments when it's clear that the trio felt that the most powerful experience was to simply get out of the way and let Schubert's work shine through.

That respect for Winterreise came through when I met with Alec Duffy after seeing a performance.  You can hear part of that conversation and see photos from the play below.

Three Pianos runs through January 8 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. 
 



 

Go Behind The Scenes With Downton Abbey

Thursday, December 22, 2011
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"Porgy and Bess" at A.R.T.: Transformed and Illuminating

By Kim McLarin   |   Tuesday, September 13, 2011
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It is a truth not universally acknowledged that writers are always writing for somebody. Any writer with ego enough to desire publication has an audience in the conscious or subconscious mind during the act of creation. It is also true that this hovering audience shapes the creation as surely as the potter’s intended use for a pot shapes the clay.  As Toni Morrison asked of the great novel “Invisible Man,”   “Invisible to who?”

I had this thought while watching the excellent and moving adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” at the ART in Cambridge recently. According to the Playbill this production is “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” reportedly the title required by the Gershwin estate, but I am not so sure. The opera has been famously, and controversially, adapted by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray and directed by Diane Paulus, and I, for one, am grateful. Were it strictly the Gershwins’ opera, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much.

I can’t say for sure, though, because I’ve never seen "Porgy and Bess" before. Never wanted to.

I always assumed George Gershwin and his team created this grand American folk opera primarily for a white, early-twentieth century audience and that it therefore was unlikely to speak to me. What little I knew about the piece--the cringe-inducing lyrics by George Gershwin’s brother Ira and librettist DuBose Heyward (“I Got Plenty Of Nuthin’ ” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”) layered atop the sublime music, the fact that Sidney Poitier had at first refused to star in the movie version, the character description of Bess as a loose drug addict and the depiction of Porgy as deformed--did little to change my mind. Even considering that it might have been bold for the original creative team to imagine the inner lives of black people in 1935 didn’t mean I wanted to see it. Just because a portrayal is sympathetic doesn’t mean it is not also a stereotype.

All of which is to say I arrived at the ART slightly skeptical.  The first few songs—the sweet and famous lullaby “Summertime” and “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing”--did little to ease my worry. The crap game scene early in the first act--bare-armed black men gambling and courting violence--had me shifting in my seat.

But then the funeral scene hooked me. Here is the moment the production comes into full possession of itself. Here were people I recognized. Here was grieving and movement, gesture and sorrow, and song that I knew. Here was a witness to African-American life that felt deeply-rooted and authentic and true.


How important is such authenticity? To theatergoers who prize Gershwin’s transcendent score over all else, the African dance gestures and dead-on black church movements in the funeral scene may not mean much. Likewise, the set-up which gives context (and standard English) to Porgy’s “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” rescuing it from being a happy, darkey song may not greatly improve the work and the “excavation” of Bess’ character which Lori-Parks has spoken of doing may seem unnecessary or even presumptuous to some.

 To me, though, these transformations allowed me to fully embrace a work I fear I may not have before. They also go a long way toward answering a question I had upon first reading about this production: Does the world really need an updated version of Porgy and Bess? Do black people?

The answer to both questions is yes. The world needs this production because Audra McDonald is a revelation. Even with Parks’ tweaking, the character of Bess still hovers at the edge of blurred, two-dimensionality but McDonald wrenches her into focus as a vulnerable and deeply flawed woman fighting hard to save herself in the only way she knows. As others have said, this is not only great singing but great acting too.

Black people need this production now because “Porgy and Bess” is a story of not only of black romantic love (which would be reason enough), but also of black community, and of the redemptive and transformative power of love. 

Watching Norm Lewis’ crippled Porgy extend his hand to the beautiful Bess (and, yes, I’m glad they took him off of that damn goat cart) I tried to remember the last time we saw a story of a black man’s love for a black woman raising him to manhood and changing his life. When was that on the ART’s or any other local stage? (Heck, try to find, on broadcast or cable television right now, a black man with a black female love interest at all.) When was the last pop culture depiction that not only offered a black woman so valued and desirable that three men were willing to fight over her but, almost casually, also tossed the stories of two other solid and loving black couples into the mix?

And, yes, among a people still scarred, not only by the legacy of legalized racial oppression, but also by the present reality of racial caste and social control, manifest, among other ways, in mass incarceration of black men, any time is the right time for a story of a strong and vibrant black community.

It is not just Porgy who loves Bess. But the other characters who love as well: Clara who loves Jake, Serena who loves her husband, and Mariah and the fisherman and the preacher and the undertaker who love everyone. It is not just Porgy who will save Bess, if Bess is to be saved; it is the flawed but ultimately embracing and forgiving citizens of Catfish Row, who know that in loving and uplifting the least of them they are also saving themselves.

(Photos by Michael J. Lutch)

The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” American Repertory Theater through October 2, 2011, with the potential of a Broadway run early next year. Full information available at the ART’s Web site (including video interviews with the cast), http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/gershwins-porgy-and-bess.

Candide at the Huntington: Tony-winner Mary Zimmerman takes on a flawed classic.

By Arthur Smith   |   Monday, July 25, 2011
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Since its Broadway opening in 1956, Leonard Bernstein's Candide has drawn theater and opera companies to its rocky shoals with results that range from leaks to total wreckage.  The composer's take on the classic Voltaire satire involved the work of many hands. Lillian Hellman took first honors for the book, but others poked, prodded, pruned, or puffed up, the libretto. The list of Bernstein's collaborators is a mini-who's who of American theater: Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, and Stephen Sondheim (and that's just the "A list").  Perhaps its first hearing--in a read-through at MIT, of all places--was the best of all possible versions. It may be that that this slender, mordant novel just doesn't want to be onstage!

That hasn't kept theater and opera companies from trying. The score is a sumptuous delight, but the piece as a whole has seldom jelled. In the '90's Boston Lyric Opera brought a handsome, but rather inert production from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to town; more recent productions by Opera Boston and the New England Conservatory reaffirm the magic of the musical score--Bernstein's songs weave gold from musical idioms as diverse as Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy duets, '60's folk songs, and Shostakovich--but these great numbers risk stopping the show's forward momentum. And even the score isn't stable: pieces have been reworked and re-orchestrated, lyrics toned down, or songs dropped. In one case, the inquisition scene was gutted for a New York production to spare the sensibilities of Walter Kerr, then head drama critic of the New York Times, and a Roman Catholic. Poet Richard Wilbur was pleased with his lyric, "What a day! What a day! for an Auto-da-fe," referring to a burning at the stake that was turned into a jaunty vaudville-style number for the show, in line with Voltaire's original savage satire of the Catholic church. But it all got nixed. I guess nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, especially on the musical theater stage! nbsp;

There's every reason to believe the Huntington Theatre might make a hit of it. They have brought Chicago-based   Mary Zimmerman's acclaimed Goodman Theatre Production to Boston. Zimmerman's career has been built on a transformative magic that transmutes great works of literature into arresting stage drama. (Imagine the pitch meeting for her notion that a staging of Ovid's "Metamporphoses" would draw audiences. That's Ovid, as in the Roman poet from the first century B.C.) The show went on not just to draw audiences but to win Tonys. Her career has embraced a raft of other great works--The Odyssey, The 1001 Nights, and most recently the ridiculously convoluted story lines of 19th century opera in several handsome productions for the Metropolitan Opera.

Zimmerman probably regards the work's gory literary history--including Hellman's refusal to let people use her book after the show was altered--not as a burden, but as an invitation to go back to Voltaire. Her method is reportedly to work closely with the original novel every single night and to come to the actors the next day and help them create the work anew. Sounds a lot like putting a show together from scratch with a living playwright and a gang of energized kids. Voltaire is still winking at us from 1759, and if anybody can catch his gaze, and help us look at ourselves through his wise eyes, it's Zimmerman. Candide opened September 10 at the Huntington and runs through October 16.  Full info at http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/

Five Questions for F. Murray Abraham

By Arthur Smith   |   Monday, July 25, 2011
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Abraham comes to Boston as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, opening Tuesday, March 29 at Arts Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre as part of ArtsEmerson’s season.The Oscar-winner talks with WGBH ArtSceNE curator Kara Millerabout staying in shape, listening to Stravinsky, and eating lobster in Boston.
Q:This is an interesting time to be in a play about making loans and charging interest. Do you see The Merchant of Venicehaving particular resonance now?
A: Yes, I really do–on a couple of levels. I think that it examines the idea of justice, and it particularly speaks to our time, as there doesn't appear to be any regard for the other–which doesn't ever seem to change.
I feel very strongly about what has been happening–and helpless too. The political system feels geared towards the wealthy. In the play, Shylock represents something bigger than Jews in the world. He represents anyone who has been oppressed: blacks, Irish, Chinese, Palestinians, many groups.
Q: What is the challenge in engaging with art that is more than 400 years old?
A: That's what makes our production [from New York’s Theatre for a New Audience] so exciting. It's perfectly clear. I'm hoping people will drop down and see it because I think they'll be blown away. It was a big success in New York City and [England’s] Stratford-upon-Avon. Sold out in both venues. I can't wait to get to rehearsal– we're really rediscovering the piece.
When people see the show, I would like them to drop us a note or a line. The play might be life-changing. I really mean it.
Q: Do directors approach Shakespeare differently than they did when you first started acting?
A: I think so. The conceptual director has become very prominent. In some ways, that's unfortunate. They have sacrificed communication through the actor for a concept. Our director [Darko Tresnjak] is different. But I do think that some directors now think of actors as something to be moved around–I don't work with them again.
Q: When you're not acting, what kind of art do you indulge in? And what do you look forward to doing in Boston?
A: I really love art. My closest friend is a painter, and we visit museums at least once a week. Stravinsky is my favorite composer–I can't imagine a world without music. I'm also very defensive about Salieri and his music, and Mozart, who I listen to a lot, is a constant surprise. [Abraham won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying Salieri in the 1984 movie Amadeus.]
In Boston, I intend to take a look at some of the best places to get lobster. Also, I have friends in Cambridge. I did King Lear there one time, and it was the first place I encountered three 24-hour bookstores. I was really impressed. I will probably also teach a master class or two.
Q: How tough is it to do eight performances a week in a theatre production?
A: It's what I've been doing all my life. My work is to stay in shape–I am my instrument. I'm 71, and I don't think I've been in better shape. I thought I'd be dead at 60. I once did a show where I performed 16 times a week, but I don't think anyone in history has ever loved acting as much as I do. Maybe as much, but not more.

About the Authors
Brian McCreath Brian McCreath

Kim McLarin Kim McLarin
Kim McLarin is the author of the critically-acclaimed novels Taming it Down, Meeting of the Waters and Jump at the Sun, all published by William Morrow. She is a former staff writer for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Greensboro News & Record and the Associated Press. McLarin has also written for TheRoot.com and Salon.com.
Arthur Smith Arthur Smith
Arthur Smith is the former editor of WGBHArts. Executive producer for digital education at WGBH, Arthur, an amateur pianist and singer, was previously a freelance classical music reviewer for the Washington Post for 9 years. He has also worked at an opera company, and ran the information service and publications programs for OPERA America, the national service organization for the art form.  Since 1991, he has been the program annotator for Vocal Arts DC, a classical song recital series based at Washington's Kennedy Center. 

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