eighth blackbird; Argento Chamber Ensemble; red fish blue fish; Steven Schick; and others at the Tune-In Music Festival at Park Avenue Armory on Friday, February 18.
The program was outside my comfort zone, which was exactly why I wanted to go. It’s so easy to fall into picking only the familiar works you know you love—or maybe less familiar works by composers you know you love—that every now and then you have to shake yourself and dive into something unknown. The dizzying program at the inaugural Tune-In Music Festival, committed to “enhancing opportunities for contemporary musicians and composers,” certainly qualified: two works by twentieth-century/contemporary composers I’d never heard of, one by a twentieth-century/contemporary composer I’ve never warmed to, and a rather free arrangement of a work by Bach, the composer who brings out my most rigid, purist inclinations about interpretation—definitely not in my comfort zone.
But the conceit of the program intrigued me. Its title, “powerLESS,” alludes to a notorious line from Igor Stravinsky’s autobiography: “Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.” (Another program in the festival is titled “powerFUL,” essentially taking the contrary position.) Stravinsky is being provocative, of course, but if you can get past the absolutism, it’s an interesting idea, demanding that we justify music for its own sake. Each work on this program seems to demand that kind of attitude. The music offers no narrative entry points, no extramusical suggestions to hold onto, no language at all. It’s music—sound—left to its own devices, and in that, it’s a fascinating assortment.
Thursdays at 8 p.m. on the CW. Fourteen episodes into the second season.
The Vampire Diaries started out as a guilty pleasure for me because—sue me—I like vampire stories, and sparkly abstinent Mormon ones don’t count, and Sean and I don’t get HBO anymore. As time has gone by, though, I’ve begun feeling less and less guilty—and more and more sincere—about my appreciation of the supernatural drama. It’s smarter than it looks, for starters. The writers are clearly working to avoid the whole passive damsel-in-distress thing that tends to crop up when mortal heroines fall in love with blood-sucking creatures of the night, and they’ve been surprisingly successful in doing so. They’ve also avoided many of the pitfalls surrounding the good boy/bad boy dichotomy of teen dramas, muddying up the binary to entertaining effect and making both characters more interesting in the process.
But this is how snobs like me always try to prop up a guilty pleasure. We defensively point out how sharp and clever it can be, despite the trivial veneer, intellectualizing the thing into some stuffy paragon, and that’s not what I want to do with Vampire Diaries. The show is sharp and clever, but not shockingly so. It doesn’t transcend genre, and it makes no pretensions to—vampires are just vampires here, not symbols in an allegory. But you know what? That’s totally fine. There’s something to be said for a TV show that’s simply trying to use fun characters to tell a fun story: suspenseful and hot-blooded, emotional but never broody or (god forbid) maudlin, just plain fun.
The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, February 12.
The word operatic connotes grandeur and spectacle, usually to the point of extravagance, and under that narrow understanding of opera, eighteenth-century composer Christoph Gluck’s musical dramas scarcely qualify. They were, in fact, a reaction against Gluck’s perception of the genre as, well, operatic: a hollow celebration of virtuosic but meaningless fireworks with no connection to story or character.
Gluck’s own operas, by contrast, are defiantly stripped down to their core elements—no coloratura flamboyance, no shaggy humor, just simple, sincere storytelling and a constant flow of elegantly emotional music. The relative austerity of it can be strange. At Iphigénie en Tauride, Sean pointed out that Gluck’s operas might, in some ways, be better suited for the concert hall than the stage because there’s so little action of any kind to depict. I see his point—and I’m not too fond of this particular production—but I’m loath to give up the quiet but poignant drama of long-exiled Iphigénie finding her similarly exiled little brother. There might not be any histrionic vocal embellishments to mark the occasion, but when it reaches its high points, it’s stirring all the same.
Series I finale aired Sunday, January 30, on PBS. All episodes streaming at pbs.org through February 22.
I opened my first draft of this post by describing the British TV series Downton Abbey—which I enjoyed tremendously—as a soap opera for Anglophiles. The phrase was meant to be self-deprecating (and not entirely serious), but the more I thought about it, the less I liked that glib remark. The show has its share of melodrama, certainly, but the term soap opera didn’t sit right with me.
The distinction, I believe, is this: soap operas demand not only heightened, exaggerated plot turns but also heightened, exaggerated emotions and characters. And for the most part, that description doesn’t apply to the saga of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. One particularly jaw-dropping plot twist might be bizarre and lurid (and damn, is it ever), but the fallout from it feels very human, very true, and that’s typical of Downton Abbey. Creator Julian Fellowes isn’t above indulging in a few melodramatic flourishes, but the underlying storytelling always feels grounded in characters too substantial and sincere to allow the show to be dismissed as soap opera.
So this is embarrassing. I spent the past week buried in a freelance project, and Sunday night, when Sean suggested that we both take a break from occupational overachievement and go to the movies, did I suggest that we check out one of the many Oscar nominees I haven’t seen—The Fighter or The Illusionist or, god help me, Blue Valentine? No. No, I did not. Instead, I immediately proposed that we go watch Jason Statham shoot people while being unflappably cool in what I knew to be a thoroughly mediocre B-movie. I’m not proud of this, but I can’t say I regret it.