Lindberg’s “Al longo” and Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”

The New York Philharmonic on Wednesday, June 23.

I haven’t attended many Philharmonic concerts over the past year or so, and as I sat through this one, the finale for the 2009–2010 season, I settled upon one reason why: I hate Avery Fisher Hall. The venue has a reputation for bad acoustics that, frankly, seems deserved. From what I’ve read, much has been done over the years to improve the space and—who knows?—maybe those efforts have created a better experience for listeners down on the floor in the orchestra seats. I, however, routinely sit along the side of the hall in its third tier, and from that vantage point, phasing and balance issues are nearly always noticeable. I’m perfectly content sitting in the cheap seats at the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall, but in Avery Fisher, a cheap seat inevitably feels like a very cheap seat. Attending concerts there can be tantalizing. Too often, something feels off about otherwise marvelous music, and it’s frustrating, in part because I don’t know who to blame. The musicians? The conductor? The hall itself? If I’d forked over more money, would I be hearing a better performance? I don’t know.

The performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis Wednesday exemplified that kind of experience. The New York Choral Artists sounded wonderful, but the soloists did not. They dragged. Their voices strained against one another without balance or blend, often muddling into a mess of centerless vibrato. At the time, I blamed the soloists, but in retrospect, I’m not entirely sure that’s fair, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, the concert was less than I had hoped. Why should it matter why?

Toy Story 3

In theaters.

In the finale to the first season of Mad Men, in an already classic scene (seriously, Google “mad men carousel” and you get more than 70,000 pages), Don Draper describes the allure of nostalgia in a pitch for an ad campaign for Kodak’s new carousel slide projector:

Nostalgia—it’s delicate but potent. … In Greek, nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. … It takes us to a place where we ache to go again … around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.

It’s a gorgeous scene, in part because it reclaims the idea of nostalgia as something beautiful. In contemporary culture, the word has been sullied by its association with dumb reality programming about washed-up sitcom stars and uninspired remakes of 1980s kids’ shows. Too often, nostalgia is something cheap to sneer at, but in that scene on Mad Men, it’s precious again—an idealization, yes, but something comforting and good, something childlike in the best sense, something that can bring out the best in us. And yet it’s a painful beauty. As Don delivers the pitch, he uses the slide projector to show slides of his own family in happy times—times that are slipping away from him. The sense of impermanence and fragility gives the scene another layer of poignancy, as does the needling thought that part of the reason Don’s wife and children are slipping away is the fact that he wants to see them only as a frozen, crystalline ideal; he’s not equipped to meet them where they are, to relate to them as changing and imperfect people, as a changing and imperfect person himself.

In an odd way, that conception of nostalgia—as something but beautiful but sharp-edged—informs the dramatic arc of Toy Story 3, the culmination of a series that has a long history of dealing with heavy themes in a light, delicate way. In the first movie, Buzz Lightyear’s existential crisis is central to the story; the theme of the second is not just that it’s better to have loved and lost but also that loss is inevitable. The movies easily work as cute, clever children’s flicks, but the underlying emotional resonance is what makes them special.

Toy Story 3 follows in that tradition with typical humor and insight. It sprawls more than its predecessors—more characters, more action—but when it collects itself for the final punch, it’s as good as anything the incomparable Pixar has ever done. I was skeptical of the idea of a third Toy Story movie (and I’m still nervous about the upcoming sequels to Cars and Monsters Inc.), but the studio handles it beautifully. Toy Story 3 is a delightful movie in its own right and a tender farewell to its much-loved characters.

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater, on Sunday, June 13.

A little more than a decade ago, I saw the Royal National Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice starring Henry Goodman, directed by Trevor Nunn, and it stunned me. The first time I saw it (and I saw it multiple times, queuing outside in the cold damp London weather for the privilege of buying a ticket that guaranteed me only a spot to stand in the back of the theatre), even after the cast members took their final bows and the house lights came on, I sat riveted in my seat, too overwhelmed to move. I wrote pages upon pages about the experience in my journal (which was, in many ways, the forerunner to this blog), and I babbled to anyone who would listen about how Goodman delivered some of Shylock’s trickier lines and how Nunn handled several crucial scenes.

That powerful production changed how I think about The Merchant of Venice specifically and theatrical interpretation in general: how you can find the open spots in a text and stretch the work to find new truths. Ironically, because it looms so large in my memory and holds such a special place in my heart, that production also makes me skeptical of Merchant productions that don’t handle the play’s thornier problems in the same generous manner—which is, of course, a long-winded way of saying that I’m not sure how fair I can be to the new Shakespeare in the Park Merchant, a production that intrigues, puzzles, and frustrates me. The fact that it is still very early in its run—still in previews—doesn’t help, no doubt. It’s hard to know whether the rough spots will be ironed out eventually or whether they’ll remain there, uneven and distracting. That being said, though, I don’t think all the parts fit together here, and I have significant misgivings about Al Pacino’s portrayal of Shylock. Fair or not, of this I’m sure: This production would not have motivated nineteen-year-old me to see it three times.

After the Rain, Luce Nascosta, and Who Cares?

The New York City Ballet on Thursday, June 10.

Variety in programming is one thing, but the New York City Ballet’s program Thursday night wasn’t just varied; it was hopelessly mismatched, featuring three works that didn’t make a bit of sense alongside one another, to jarring effect. The musical contrasts were most extreme, moving from Arvo Pärt’s refined minimalism to Bruno Moretti’s melodramatic mashup of early Stravinsky and Mahler to a syrupy, over-orchestrated medley of Gershwin tunes. In retrospect, the music might have exaggerated the differences among the three, to the detriment of the program as a whole, or maybe the problem was simply that “After the Rain” is so delicate and lovely that the works following could only lumber about by comparison. Regardless, though, it was an odd program—fine dancing, of course, but a strange aesthetic experience.


In theaters.

Note: Technically, this post indulges in some spoilers, but as the movie in question is based on historical fact, I didn’t see the point in being coy. Plus, to write about what I wanted to write about, I had to get into a few major plot points. Be forewarned.

Despite being one of the highest grossing films in the history of Spain, Agora (which features an English-speaking cast) is showing on fewer than a handful of screens in the United States, and given its subject matter, it’s not difficult to figure out why. The movie is at the very least deeply skeptical of religion in general and Christianity in particular, and that’s not exactly a welcome perspective in this country.

Yet it’s not a malicious movie. It has more nuance than I expected, and with Rachel Weisz’s luminous, compassionate performance at its center, it could never be hateful. Agora won’t ever be a blockbuster here, but surely this compelling, provocative film could find more of an audience—more than just a few theaters’ worth—given a chance.

Party Down

Fridays at 10 p.m. on Starz, plus streaming on Netflix (which is how Sean and I watch it). Six episodes into the second season.

So that summer cold I had ended up turning into a brutal, unforgiving case of acute tracheal bronchitis (I love having an official diagnosis) that ran me into the ground this past week. Going out was out of the question, but Sean and I got caught up on the increasingly obnoxious Glee, which we haven’t quite abandoned yet, though we’re getting close. We also rewatched The Prestige, and I reaffirmed my conviction that it’s sorely underrated—a dark but beautifully polished gem. Best of all, though, I got Sean into Party Down, which was easy because, one, Netflix subscribers can stream every single episode of the sitcom on demand (it’s convenient!) and, two, it has a great cast, energetic pacing, and fabulously sharp writing (it’s hilarious!). If I had to be laid low by a nasty little virus, holding a private Party Down marathon made it all somewhat tolerable.