Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Cultural Items in Brief

Like Nate I really enjoyed the new Star Trek movie, which I thought was the most purely enjoyable non-Pixar movie I've seen in probably several years. I think they really hit it out of the park for casual Trek fans like us (i.e. watched and liked the old movies, at least the even-numbered ones, and the occasional TV episode): the perfect blend of homage and self-standing entertainment. Also, who didn't love the full-orchestra arrangement of the original TV theme song bursting out over the end credits?

Several Thursdays ago Sarah and I went to a benefit concert on campus starring Rufus Wainwright (the actual benefit aspect of it I admit I gathered in only in a terribly glib fashion, either as a "gay benefit" or an "AIDS benefit" or "possibly both") but the main point is that Rufus Wainwright, who everyone I know who has expressed an opinion on the matter thinks is really pretty good, is really pretty good. We also snuck in a bottle of wine, which was also really pretty good. (The wine is why I remember this was on a Thursday, because the subsequent godawful Friday at work also has stayed in my memory.) The concert was at Woolsey Hall, the main orchestra hall on campus, which seems like a strange decision of venue and one that engendered its typical acoustic bemuddlement.

Wainwright has a nimble, well-pitched voice with a wide, characterful range, and he writes songs that use it well. I'm not a particular connoisseur of songsmithing, but as usual I find the melodies more inspiring than the lyrics. His opening number, the minor-key anti-anthem of sorts "Going to a Town," turned out to be my favorite offering of the night; I like the way it slickly employs a couple of snappy melodic catches reminiscent of old patriotic songs, while maintaining an alienated, faux-minimalist pulse behind it. (Wainwright can basically only play quarter notes on either the piano or the guitar, it appears; this did start to wear a bit as the concert went on; he didn't have a backup band.) I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that this is an anti-prohibition-on-gay-marriage number, but I forget where. You can listen to it on YouTube, though I find the video itself unwatchably overwrought.

I read Death of a Salesman back in high school but hadn't seen it performed before a couple of weeks ago, when the formidable Yale Repertory Theatre brought in Charles S. Dutton to offer a booming, affecting Willy Loman. I don't know my theater actors, but he lived in the role exceptionally powerfully; I remember reading Willy Loman as an insipid, borderline unsympathetic character, but Dutton made him look convincingly like someone who was charismatic enough to have successfully faked an appearance of success through his life, and his mental-fugue scenes were chilling. The cast was all-African-American, which provided more seamless an adaptation than you might expect; the racial aspect really wasn't the point. There's a review in the NY Times that's somewhat cooler to the production than I am.

Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) is short and strong enough that I'll let you eventually read it yourself, but I did want to briefly recommend it. The story is set in colonial Peru and is sketched with a dry, deliberately antique narrative voice: effective and also fascinating, since Wilder had never been to Peru and (as described in the afterword in the HarperCollins paperback edition I read) synthesized the local color and sensibility from 18th-century graduate school readings in Spanish Inquisition history and classical French literature. Interesting and, really, reassuring to consider authenticity and "write what you know" as surmountable obstacles.

There's finally a recording out of Unsuk Chin's Violin Concerto, thanks to Viviane Hagner, Kent Nagano, and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. The piece won the '04 Grawemeyer Award and casts a spell: the CD sounds amazing (I've listened to it on the Naxos Music Library), probably better than in acoustic reality. Chin studied with Ligeti and her concerto takes something of his sensibility, while simultaneously bringing it closer to mainstream European modernism and brightening it with more consonance. Very, very good stuff.

On account of not watching the teevee I'm not going to watch much Conan O'Brien even in the Tonight Show slot. But I did look up the opening bit on The Internet yesterday and I admit I found it pretty amusing. I'd link to it here but I just realized that video of his 2000 Harvard graduation speech is online now, so just watch that instead.


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