A Christmas Carol

I will remember 2016 as a year in which I have seen more films than any other year. I haven’t blogged about them because they were bad. Many times I walked out. I have seen French, Spanish, Polish, Canadian, German and Belgian films and all of them were unmemorable with the exception of One Breath, a film made in Germany that had a rich story-line depicting the unknown limits a mother will endure for her child.

Last week I saw Manchester by the Sea that was loaded with emotional agony and a cathartic score. It features superb acting by Casey Affleck. I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes the Oscar for best actor.

The main character is a janitor by day and by night spends his free time fighting in bars and ignoring potential women. The passing of his brother breaks him from the cycle, bringing him home to the town of the title, where he’s burdened with unexpected guardianship of his teenage nephew. The flashbacks trickle in, suggesting he escaped a past which nearly destroyed him; and returning to the epicenter of his trauma has fatal potential.

Tonight I was invited to the screening of “Stronger” a film that follows a man who loses his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing and must adjust to his new life. When it’s cold outside, I am not in the mood for tragedy- I’m more in the mood for love.

There’s nothing like music for lifting the spirits. Yesterday I joined Pasadena Pro Musica for caroling at one of Pasadena’s most unique buildings, the Castle Green. In the past, I’ve blogged about what a marvelous building it is. At one point I considered living there. The ground floor is a setting for events and film crews use parts of the hotel for filming. Today the crowds, constant hustle and bustle would not bring me peace.

Built in 1898 as the Hotel Green, the seven story Moorish Colonial and Spanish style building. It opened in 1899 as the second of three buildings in the Hotel Green complex, and was a lavish resort for easterners and others escaping winter rigors. Its stylistic elements produced Pasadena’s most stunningly original building. With domes, arches, pillars, balconies, and verandahs the building of structural steel with brick walls and concrete floors, made it Pasadena’s first fireproof building.castle_green

It has been converted into private residences (condominiums) and over the years has been home to many artists, designers, musicians and collectors.

The holiday tour was four hours long and we sang in different parts of the hotel for the guests. Later I got to partake in my own self guided tour, since many residences were open with owners in attendance- sort of like an open house. Best of all was the Penthouse with views from every direction. Although authorized, I was not inclined nor felt I should photograph someone’s home and private space. But I did photograph Father Christmas. Later, I roamed the 118 year old halls, since the elevator was broken and strolled the grounds. What a delight. I should have worn a long velvet dress!img_3126

What has 2016 or your holiday season been like, thus far?

My wealth

Yesterday I began (albeit a day early) celebrating my birthday as I usually do; a month long of art, music, entertainment and culture.  My actual birthday isn’t for almost three weeks, but the best thing about the fall season is that everything returns which I find most appealing, which my heart craves.

I love that fall stretches the brain with things that are rich and abundant. I love that school starts and it’s time to put on our thinking caps. The Nobel prize for Literature gets announced and it’s time to roam bookstores and libraries. Although I do this year round, I’m convinced in the fall there is a different scent; of wood, leather and old money. Museums get new selections that portray the human experience. Art galleries hold openings with wine and cheese receptions. Films lose their superficial summer quality and ring in real drama. And perhaps best of all, Symphonies and Opera resume.

Last night at Disney Hall, Gustavo Dudamel lead the L.A. Philharmonic and opened with Beethoven’s Coriolan overture. Dudamel is very physical and electrifying in his approach.

It was followed by Creative Chair John Adams’ Absolute jest, a piece for string quartet and orchestra, in which the composer interwove fragments of Beethoven’s late quartets, bits of the 8th and 9th symphonies, the Hammerklavier Sonata and other archetypal Beethoven excerpts.

Adams’ on stage verbally narrated his personal transformations next to Beethoven’s music, and that’s when I zoned out. Not because I thought his comparisons pompous, but because I don’t want to hear an educational discussion at a symphony by a man who isn’t even garbed in a tux! That’s best as a pre-event discussion and I prefer no talking on stage.

I must admit, I mentally came back when I realized how sophisticated and distinctive his composition was and the juxtaposition of the instruments revived me once again.

However, the crown of the program was the mighty Yefim Bronfman teaming with Dudamel for one of the most profound and poetic of all piano concertos, the last one that Beethoven was able to premiere as soloist.

Music Matters

The film, Florence Foster Jenkins I believed would be a barrel of laughs since it’s about a woman singing badly.

Although it’s based on a true story, it missed the mark. It feels like a 1940’s studio comedy- soon to be forgotten after you leave the theater.

It’s subject is an American amateur opera singer whose voice brought joy to millions in the depths of wartime, largely because she could turn even the most graceful coloratura soprano line into what could described as a screeching aria.

Foster Jenkins wasn’t famous because her singing sounded like a cat fight but because she committed to it with the panache and depth of feeling of a peak-form Callas- she was a true performer. Her records became instant collectors’ items, and her concerts sold out immediately.

The film stars Meryl Streep as Florence and Hugh Grant as St. Clair Bayfield, a once modest actor now her doting second husband and promoter.

As a music lover after seeing Lily Pons star at Carnegie Hall, Florence gets it in her head that she can perform there too. Much of the plot revolves around that life-capping event orchestrated by St. Clair.

Streep plays Florence as a hybrid of arts-scene doyenne and excited chubby schoolgirl: when she performs, she draws her elbows in close to her chest and occasionally twists very slightly from side to side, like a choir-girl who finally gets her moment in the spotlight. She’s complicated and warm and a delight to watch.

Hugh Grant glides through every scene with a lightness and wit that’s so gentlemanly and regal.  You can’t help but love his character. He’s the film’s center of gravity. He treats her with a kind of grandfatherly affection, while shielding her from the bow and arrow of the music critics and just about anyone else who dares speak the truth or will deflate her ego.

The couple’s relationship is snugly but abstinent: when Florence says “I love you”, St. Clair’s reply which he somehow makes genuinely sweet is “Mmmm. With all the knobs on.” But she sleeps alone, and St. Clair keeps an apartment downtown with his pretty much younger mistress. The arrangement puzzles Florence’s accompanist Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg, but as St Clair points out, it works.

Florence’s rehearsal scenes have a gently escalating ludicrousness about them that’s winning, and all but ridden in tune as a short-inducing comic vignette.

But it never quite gets up to screwball speed. The film ushers you into Florence’s confidence and her snow-globe-like happy world that St Clair works so hard to keep from cracking.

File it as a film with two excellent actor portrayals and a tingling comedy about the creative instinct that fills your heart with short-lived joy.

Choose to be Happy

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The title of post was inspired by a number I heard in the musical Grey Gardens, which I saw Saturday night at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles.

The first act is engaging only as generic musical theater, as if book writer Doug Wright and director Michael Wilson were anxious to dispense with the preliminaries and get to the more meaty second act.

But I liked the first act since the younger Edie played by Sarah Hunt is living in grandeur.  She is pretty and vivacious with none of the idiosyncrasies intimating her later, fractured self. Her most affecting song, “Daddy’s Girl,” is a desperate plea to convince her fiance, Joe Kennedy of her fidelity.

As moving as it is, the first act actually belongs to Rachel York as the elder Edith, a mother from hell who demands the center spotlight. She is even more impressive after intermission when she switches from Big Edith to Little Edie, taking over the role from Hunt as the now 56-year-old former debutante, holed up with her mother, played by Betty Buckley.

Gone are the Kennedys, the bright colors, beautiful people and sparkling champagne — replaced now with filth and decay.

In act two,  we see the character’s charm and eccentricity as she models a bizarre ensemble with stockings over shorts and an apron that doubles as a cape — as if to say to hell to a “mean nasty Republican town.”

Thoughts like “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult,” sound like something Tennessee Williams might have written but were actually lifted from the documentary.

Grey Gardens is a portrait of being without men in a man’s world, at a time where wealthy women were powerless, victims of chauvinism and self-delusion.

Big Edith only wanted her independence, a virtual impossibility for a woman with nothing more to offer than a vibrant falsetto. And her daughter Edie is someone who, due to poor parenting and a hint of mental illness, found all avenues of escape cut off.

Like most of us one time or another, they are trapped by an uncaring world and by their own shortcomings. The point is brought home in Edie’s heartbreaking lament that ends the show, “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” sung by a woman who will always be on the outside looking in. It’s a condition familiar to anyone who has ever felt defeated and estranged — rich, poor, loved and unloved, and it’s what gives Grey Gardens its emotional resonance.

Los Angeles Music Center
Los Angeles Music Center

The sound of music

listening
I’ve added some music for your enjoyment, because nothing finishes an experience like the sound of music. It keeps the soul alive. Romantic, timeless and sprinkled with French, here is something that will take you away.

I’ll end this playlist with a quote from Anais Nin, “we travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.”

another era

Queen of Prussia
He was known as “The Waltz King,” and was largely responsible for the then popularity of the waltz in Vienna during the 19th century. To this day I can’t listen to the Blue Danube without conjuring images of waltzing in a full length organza gown, in the style of Josephine Bonaparte, with an empire silhouette that flows with my movements and has appliquéd pearls on the border of the décolletage. My gown is highlighted by a pearl choker, my hair worn in a chignon and my shoes are made of satin.

As I’ve mentioned before Vienna was where I saw my first opera, it was standing room only for students in 1980 along with the entrance fee of the equivalent of one US dollar that got you in.

Among composer Johann Strauss’ operettas, Die Fledermaus gets the most recognition but I share with you my personal favorite, Der Zigeuerbaron or The Gypsy Baron.

Music then as now transports me to another time and dimension. Only now I consciously listen more to the instruments. What does music do for you?