And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass

Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, April 26.

When I bought tickets to this concert some nine months ago, I had no idea what the program would be, and I didn’t care. I would listen to Chanticleer sing anything—nursery rhymes, 1980s power ballads, “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas—anything at all. The choir’s flawless tone, impeccable precision, and ravishing musicality make virtually anything worth listening to, and the ensemble has the dramatically varied repertory—everything from Renaissance music to gospel music to challenging new music—to prove it.

As it turns out, Chanticleer debuted a new work: a mass with each of the five movements created by a different contemporary composer from a different cultural background. American composer Douglas Cuomo wrote the Kyrie; Turkish-American Kamran Ince wrote the Gloria using a Sufi text; Israeli-born Shulamit Ran wrote the Credo using a Hebrew text; Ivan Moody wrote the Sanctus in the Greek-Orthodox tradition; and the Irish Michael McGlynn wrote the Agnus Dei infused with folk elements.

Each movement was sung a capella, but beyond that they differed considerably, yet paradoxically they still hung together rather well as a unified mass. I’m sure it helped that the choir sung short sixteenth-century works by Gabrieli and Gesualdo between the mass’ main movements—lending it some continuity—but beyond that, all the movements possessed a sense of sincerity, of spiritual longing. Each provenance was different, but they seemed to be trying to reach the same place.

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

By Jane Smiley. Published in 1998.

When my brother showed me an old review that described Jane Smiley’s 1998 novel as “Little House on the Prairie for grown-ups,” I had to read it. It was just a silly line, of course, but I adored Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books when I was little (I read my copies over and over until the spines broke), so even though I knew that phrase probably only referred broadly to subject matter, I headed to the library to check out The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.

Frankly, the comparison is rather glib—the Ingalls family and the Newtons don’t share a motivation for moving West in nineteenth-century America, nor do they face the same hardships—but the books do have one key element in common: a compelling heroine with a strong, straightforward voice. Like Laura Ingalls, Lidie Newton is independent without being anachronistic, relatable and admirable to a modern audience while still convincingly inhabiting a long-past world. In Lidie, Smiley has created a memorable narrator: thoughtful, honest, and worth following through her many picaresque adventures.

Love’s Stories, Little Rhapsodies, and Dvorák’s Serenade

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, April 18.

When I went away to college, I took great pleasure in going to the movies on a whim. It would be 9 o’clock on a Tuesday night, and I wouldn’t feel like studying or socializing, so I’d hop in my car, speed to the nearest metroplex, pick something off the marquee, and settle happily into a chair in the back of the theater. I felt like a triumphant fugitive, free and unbound.

I still love doing that, actually, and one of my favorite things about New York is that my options for spur-of-the-moment escapism have expanded exponentially. On Wednesday, for example, I took the subway downtown instead of up- after work and bought a ticket to see the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company that night. I’d read about the performance earlier in the week, but I didn’t decide to go until that afternoon. After several excruciatingly bad news days (working in front of a computer from 9 to 5 has turned me into a full-blown news junkie), I felt I needed the diversion.

And I do love Lubovitch’s work, which turns up fairly frequently in American Ballet Theatre repertory programs. His choreography for pairs is particularly breathtaking. The couple seems to move as a single organism, always touching, moving seamlessly though intricate steps and lifts. The dancers never pause to shift the man’s hands to the woman’s waist or adjust their stance or plant their feet. Their movements are completely fluid and strikingly intimate, a joy to watch.

Spring Awakening

Now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway

As I watched Spring Awakening with growing impatience, I wondered: Would I have enjoyed this more, say, ten years ago when I was seventeen, angst-ridden, melodramatic, and overwhelmed by the enormity of the world around me? My inclination is to say no, I was just as unforgiving of flat, clichéd characters and self-important, overwrought plotting then as I am now, but perhaps I am wrong. Maybe I am so old as to start grumbling about kids these days. Damn.

But really, honest to god, there is a lot to grumble about in Spring Awakening. The music, particularly the orchestration, is beautiful, and the young performers are clearly quite talented, but the writing—wildly overripe and ludicrously underdeveloped—just made me cringe.

The TV Set

In theaters.

I don’t doubt that television is an extraordinarily difficult field in which to cultivate an artistic vision. It is unabashedly business-oriented, focused on ratings (and ratings of narrow demographic groups, at that) to the exclusion of virtually everything else. So the satire in The TV Set—the story of a sitcom pilot’s troubled development—feels almost naturalistic, the humor derived not from exaggeration but from a bleak laugh-so-you-don’t-cry sensibility.

And yet I still had the nagging feeling that the movie is stacking the deck, and that annoyed me. The comedy is funny but whiny, grating after a while. It hits its target, but when your primary target is a crass TV executive, that’s not a particularly difficult target to hit.

St. John Passion

Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday, April 8.

Attending a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion was the perfect way for me to celebrate Easter. It’s a gorgeous, moving work—heartstoppingly grand and yet, during the arias and chorales, heartbreakingly intimate. A masterpiece of one of my favorite composers, it’s the sort of devoutly felt music that makes me feel the presence of God.

But the Passion is also “problematic,” to use that wonderfully weaselly word. A setting of John’s account of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion inevitably includes that Gospel’s identification of the “the Jews” as the villains: Pilate insists the prisoner is blameless, but John’s Jews howl for blood.

In other words, the St. John Passion encapsulates what I treasure about religion and what troubles me deeply. It is a testament to the Good that divinely inspired people can accomplish, maybe even a glimpse of the profound Beauty of the divine itself, and yet it is also an example of the damage religion can do. Although the work is, arguably, not itself anti-Semitic, it reflects a tradition of hate and cruelty and ignorance that is as much a product of organized religion as the Goodness and Beauty to which I cling.


Mondays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Eighteen episodes into the first season.

Heroes lacks many of the markers of good TV. The writing is often stilted, the acting is often wooden, and the plot deals with superheroes, if you’re going to be snobby about that sort of thing.

Yet despite all that (and something because of it—awkward delivery of melodramatic dialogue can be oddly charming), Heroes is a compelling, endearing show, using cliffhangers to great effect and ably juggling more than a dozen main characters, even making some of them worth caring about.

Edward Scissorhands

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Saturday, March 30.

At its core, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is elemental: the simple tale of a gentle innocent martyred by a cruel, uncomprehending world. That simplicity, that mythic quality, is well-suited for interpretation through dance. Spared the elaborate expository pantomimes, freed from the fussiness of a complicated plot, the dancers can focus on the story’s grand emotion, which is what they’re best at portraying anyway, especially when accompanied by music as evocative as Danny Elfman’s.

So why, when it’s so unnecessary, does choreographer Matthew Bourne insist of mucking up his Edward Scissorhands ballet with cutesy silent-movie-style acting, overembellished storytelling, and flashy, distracting sets? I’m sure it’s supposed to be “accessible,” but it ends up being shallow, not just artistically but—worse—emotionally. The climax has no punch because the movements have no passion.