Sunday, April 23, 2006

A Tribute to Great Cities

After tea and wine and photos yesterday, we saw a great concert by the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM. The theme was world cities, and it featured the international cabaret singer Ute Lemper. I knew her from a recording that I own where she does Berlin cabaret songs from the Weimar Republic days translated into English. But she showed herself to be quite the versatile and unique performer last night, singing in several different languages, and introducing a lot of the songs with a depth and eloquence that only added to the music. Her songs came in two sets, before and after intermission and complemented by orchestral pieces, conducted by the talented Michael Christie, who wore a long coat and tie in lieu of the usual tuxedo. And while I enjoyed listening to Lemper's second set more than the first, both showed her capabilities. Highlights from that second set included the tango king Astor Piazzolla's "Buenos Aires," Kurt Weill's "Bilbao Song," Kander and Ebb's "All That Jazz," and a really powerful song by Lemper herself called "The Ghosts of Berlin," about the life of the Berlin Wall ("10,260 days") and her experience and memory of it. For her encore, she did a Gershwin medley of "I Got Rhythm" and "Naughty Baby."

While Lemper was off stage, the orchestra played a suite from Bernstein's On the Town, the third movement of which was the most memorable; a toe-tapping jazz-tinged selection called Manhattan Broadcasts by the contemporary Austrian composer H.K. Gruber; and a sound-effects piece called Sampler Suite from Surrogate Cities by the German avant-garde composer Heiner Goebbels. That last piece was a bit long for my liking, but interesting to hear in its own way. The orchestra was miked and balanced with a keyboard-powered sampler. It was one of those pieces that sounds very random, and has some startlingly good moments, but doesn't really rise or fall over time. And the choice of notes felt so abstract that when a valve on a French horn fell off and hit the stage during the performance, the sound it made seemed to fit into the composition; ditto for the unwrapping of a candy next to us in the auditorium. At times, it reminded me of minimalist Steve Reich's work matching recorded sound and live performers. In some of Reich's pieces, he has the instruments appear to imitate the rise and fall of repeated snippets of recorded speech. Still there's something about Reich's pieces that ends up being more satisfying to hear than this Goebbels suite.

A real treat of the evening was to see the black-and-white film The City, for which Brooklyn native Aaron Copland composed the score. The focus was on the images and the music, so we didn't hear architecture critic Lewis Mumford's narration. But the argument was clear enough: Mumford actually saw the cities of his day as dangerous, dehumanizing, machine-driven places where people become cogs in a wheel, whereas the communities of the countryside — or what we'd later come to know as the suburbs of the 20th century — allow for true and innocent human life to flourish. This argument was a bit of a shock to me at first, because I assumed that the film would show the majesty and diversity and verve of cities. I've read a little bit of Mumford, mostly his critique of new buildings in NYC, but this bias toward such Jeffersonian ideals never quite clicked until now. As happens these days when we watch B&W documentaries and newsreels that smack so much of propoganda, the audience laughed during several segments, especially the sped-up segment showing sandwiches and pancakes being created assembly-line style and consumed as quickly by emotionless people, as well as the one that depicted traffic gridlock and a taxicab's meter ticking away the nickels. (Yes, five-cent increments!) Still, I love hearing Copland's music, it feels so unabashedly American — but in a good way — like reading poetry by Walt Whitman (another denizen of Bklyn) or watching Frank Capra movies.

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