The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood on Sunday, July 24.
Jazz rhythms and inflections often sound out of place in “classical” music, like words of a foreign language thrown into conversation with great ostentation but imperfect understanding. Yet somehow, unlikely though it might seem, Maurice Ravel, a reserved, cerebral Frenchman, managed to draw beautifully on American jazz. His piano concertos, in particular, gracefully weave jazz idioms into an otherwise neoclassic sensibility. Entwining with breezy ease, the bluesy bent pitches and syncopated rhythms don’t feel gimmicky; they’re part of the texture, part of Ravel’s personal vocabulary, which is all the richer for it.
The incongruity of that has always delighted me, but in a way, perhaps it’s not surprising. Ravel had the ability to transcend gimmicks, taking a composition from a contrived starting point to a higher plane through impeccable craftsmanship and sheer beauty. Nothing he wrote sounds tossed off, so nothing sounds cheap, and—as performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet—everything is enormously compelling.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood on Saturday, July 23.
The alchemy by which an old piece of music becomes inextricably linked to a new movie has always fascinated me. I’ve never even seen Platoon, but I can’t hear Barber’s Adagio for Strings without thinking of it. Strauss might as well have composed Also spach Zarathustra for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Shawshank Redemption turned a simple, plot-advancing duet from Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro into the very embodiment of transcendent art.
So will the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, the Allegretto, be forever identified with The King’s Speech? At Tanglewood, when the piece began and afterward as people left, I must have overheard half a dozen questions and confirmations that, yes, that’s what plays at the movie’s climax, when the king delivers the titular speech—the association is definitely there. I suspect it will fade, mainly because I don’t expect any kind of immortality from the movie itself, but if I’m wrong on the latter count, who knows? That climactic scene is perfectly choreographed, using Beethoven’s grand dramatic arc to give tremendous dignity and resonance to what otherwise would have been a perfunctory (if beautifully shot) montage. The music makes the scene, and it’s impossible to think about that scene without recalling the music.
It also helps that Symphony No. 7 is a stunning musical work, period. (It’s a tribute to just how brilliant Beethoven was that even his relatively lesser-known symphonies—those that aren’t the instantly recognizable fifth, or the ninth with the “Ode to Joy,” or the Eroica or the Pastoral—are still masterworks.) The rhythmic motives give everything a driving momentum, from the stately Allegretto to the spritely Presto. The symphony fairly brims over with life, and that’s how the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed it, vivacious and energetic and thrilling.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood on Friday, July 22.
My college piano professor once told me that modern recordings give us a distorted picture of how music can and should be performed. Artists can record take after take, and technicians can splice together the best parts, and what we hear is both perfect and unreal. Aspiring to that kind of perfection means chasing a virtually impossible standard, but worse, the pursuit fosters a kind of safe, controlled presentation—note-perfect but so carefully collected as to be inert. That, my professor said, is a tragedy. In scratchy old recordings of live performances, the musicians—even the best musicians—hit their share of wrong notes. Some of their runs fly on the edge of control. There are noticeable flaws. And yet there’s a kind of beautiful, crazed passion to those performances that we often lack today. Paradoxically, to achieve genuine greatness, you have to be willing to sacrifice superficial perfection.
Listening to mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, I couldn’t help but think of my piano professor and grin: I suspect he would have adored her performance. Graham has a gorgeous voice, a wonderful sense of phrasing, and an obvious commitment to conveying the meaning of what she sings—all of which were on abundant display Friday night—but her performance of the Handel arias from Ariodante and Alcina wasn’t completely clean. Her elaborate ornamentation came across as more manic than disciplined, and amid all the pyrotechnics, her intonation sometimes sounded slightly fuzzy. And yet, as much as I have enjoyed Graham in the past, I’ve never felt quite so exhilarated by her before. The vibrant energy, the fiery emotion—something intangible gave the music a radiance I hadn’t expected. Graham’s vast technique was still undergirding the lines but it wasn’t binding them; the very wildness of it all was thrilling.
Somehow, without really meaning to, I ended up with an insanely busy schedule this summer.
I suppose I’ve come around to David Yates. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of Prisoner of Azkaban probably will always be remembered as the most artful Harry Potter movie (and I wouldn’t dispute that), but Yates’s work on the final four films of the series is far from second-rate. Yes, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and 2 are somewhat uneven, occasionally lurching forward when they should pause and dragging when they should race ahead; they also can set a mood, build a riveting action sequence, and create a perfect, evocative image. They are, in short, cinematic, not just perfunctory dramatizations of the books—which, frankly, is probably all they needed to be to make untold billions of dollars. Yet Yates clearly aspired to more than that, and it shows, even in the weaker moments. I don’t love the movies, but since Yates took over, they’ve consistently been much better than I expect.
Back in college, studying film analysis, I read an essay analyzing the differences between sci-fi and horror. The distinction that most stuck with me was this: In horror scientists are bad guys and military men are good guys, while in sci-fi scientists wear the white hats and military men the black. It’s a vast generalization, of course, but it’s true more often than you’d think. Consider horror’s reckless mad scientist creating a monster the military is then forced to battle, and contrast that with the familiar sci-fi tale of a peaceable alien confronted by a trigger-happy army with a scientist in the background pleading that they hold their fire. The monster and the alien might look exactly the same, but the genre dictates how they behave and how they will be treated.
Super 8 initially looks and feels like a horror movie, with funhouse shocks and wire-tense silences and a menacing creature snatching at extras from the edge of the frame, never clearly visible and all the more frightening for it. But the horror-esque aesthetic is misleading, as the morality of those telltale characters soon makes clear. Ultimately 8 is sci-fi, more interested in exploring and finding connections than in “othering” and obliterating the enemy. Marrying a horror-style aesthetic with a sci-fi sensibility leads to some awkwardness—and the blasé dismissal of a few inconvenient plot points—but both halves, however ill-matched, possess some strength, and the movie’s curious sci-fi heart is disarmingly sweet.