Category: Arts and Entertainment

Photo courtesy of The Varsity Show.

The Varsity Show is Columbia’s annual student-led, theatre performance that is the one of the biggest hits of the Spring semester. This year will mark the Show’s 123rd performance, and its purpose serves to be both “subversive and sentimental,” as per its mission statement.

During the “West End Preview,” I was able to catch a sneak peek of some portions of the Show; it absolutely lived up to the hype! It captured the #struggles of a Columbia student, from being stuck in an EC wall to our fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude that dominates campus culture.

Photo courtesy of The Varsity Show.

Photo courtesy of The Varsity Show.

Because the songs and acts were performed out of context, I was unable to decipher the plot of the show, though I did discover some nuances that will give an insight into the 123rd Varsity Show.

The Show featured the head of Public Safety not only as a pseudo narrator for the audience, but also as the main instigator of mischief and chief critic of Columbia’s administration. The most detailed act of the preview revolved around a newly admitted General Studies student. Besides being ~20 years older than the rest of Columbia’s undergraduate population, there was very little to separate him from a typical first-year. As he falls in love with Columbia’s perks–from Tom’s Diner to Surf ‘n Turf–he quickly realizes that all is not well with Columbia.

Unfortunately, that’s where the preview ended! I hope this information gives you a little taste of the hilariously exciting preview I had a chance to watch. The 123rd Varsity Show will perform from April 28th to 30th. Hope to see you there!

Emily Nussbaum is a television critic for The New Yorker. With her analytic and sharp pieces of television criticism across various genres, Nussbaum has made an impressive name for herself. Since becoming The New Yorker’s television critic in 2011, Nussbaum has won two national awards, the National Magazine Award in 2014 and the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016. She has written about a multitude of TV shows including “Mad Men,” “Scandal,” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The Pulitzer Prize website characterizes Emily Nussbaum’s work as “television reviews written with an affection that never blunts the shrewdness of her analysis or the easy authority of her writing.”

President Lee C. Bollinger and Emily Nussbaum

President Lee C. Bollinger and 2016 Criticism Prize Winner Emily Nussbaum

I had the honor of interviewing Ms. Nussbaum in October. Nervously I asked Emily Nussbaum the first question I had prepared.

“Did you always know you wanted to write?”

Nonchalantly she responded, “Well I wrote in college.” She was a creative writing major at Oberlin College. She later did her master’s in poetry at NYU. “I always knew I wanted to write, just wasn’t sure how exactly, but I knew I wanted to write,” Nussbaum told me.

My next question proceeded naturally. “Did you ever imagine yourself as a television critic?”

“Not really,” Nussbaum replied. Emily Nussbaum went on to tell me she became very interested in television in the late 90s, when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” aired. She told me that was a transformative time and a very transformative show. She filled her passion for television through various mediums. At Television Without Pity, she was involved (although distantly) in vehement debates and “wild” discussions that they held about television content. Nussbaum told me she would mostly write about academic issues while she pursed a graduate degree. She later got a job at Slate, but only wrote about TV when something truly interested her. She began to focus more on television at New York Magazine, where she was a writer and Culture Editor for seven years. From there, she went on to her current role, as the New Yorker’s television critic.

“Slowly television criticism has become a more respected arts medium,” Nussbaum told me as I asked how people reacted when they found out she was a television critic. Ms. Nussbaum said that at the turn of the century, with shows like “West Wing” and “The Wire,” television criticism became a more sought after enterprise.

I followed up the response with asking how she felt since winning the Pulitzer and what had changed. Nussbaum openly said, “I was more nervous than anything at first.” With increased visibility, Nussbaum told me, she felt her pieces were in more scrutiny. “After a couple more articles, however, I went back to my normal work,” Nussbaum added.

In recent years, television has been changing. Nussbaum reminded me, however, that television on Netflix or on cable was the same fundamentally.

“TV has changed, yes, but just the visual medium, TV remains TV.” Nussbaum qualified her response, saying that Netflix has provided different ways of viewing television, with the recent addition of the “binge watch” into our television culture, and these changes do come with required new forms of adjustment. These changes are not entirely unprecedented, she stated, as she brought to my attention the shift that DVR caused, as people could now suddenly record and pause shows, and thus alter the traditional viewing experience.

For those who might want to pursue a similar career as Nussbaum, I asked her if she had any advice to give to young people. Her response was quite simple, “Things are changing so much. I would recommend talking to an editor, and asking him/her how the current conditions are predicted to be for the specific field one wishes to pursue.” Nussbaum offered more of her knowledge, saying that one of the most important ways of moving up in journalism was developing strong relationship with editors. “Demonstrating your passion for the work you do is always important,” Nussbaum highlighted. She warned, though, to make sure one checks in to see what job opportunities may be available before becoming fixed to a specific career path.

As the interview was coming to a close, I threw out the last question.

“What is a piece that you are most proud of?”

Nussbaum responded confidently, “I wrote a piece about ‘Sex and the City’ that I really liked.” She went on to say that in this piece she explored how comedy could be held at the same level as drama. “It was more of a statement piece,” she mentioned. Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post summarized this piece as, “an essay arguing that ‘Sex and the City’ was just as important as ‘The Sopranos’ in expanding the idea of what was possible on television.” Nussbaum discussed how pieces that challenge her and “don’t come natural” are her favorite work overall. Expanding on the question, Nussbaum said that work that created conversations and developed a relationship with her audience often offered the most satisfaction.

Emily Nussbaum has been a trailblazer in her field, helping raise television criticism to prominence. Nussbaum is the second television critic in almost 28 years to have won the Pulitzer. Examples of her work can be found here.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

 

Valentine’s Day didn’t go so well? Did Ferris again disappoint? Don’t worry, Werther’s day was equally abysmal.

The Met opened this season’s production of Jules Massenet’s Werther on Thursday night. The Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo stars in the title role and the American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard invigorates Charlotte, Werther’s love.

This production, led by Sir Richard Eyre, is mostly identical to the Met’s Werther of 2014. There is even one prominent holdover in the cast: David Bizic again gave a convincing performance as Albert, Charlotte’s husband. However, I noted small changes. For example, Werther in his opening nature aria does not address the looming statue of Charlotte’s deceased mother to as great of an extent. 

The dominant theme of nature’s attractive force is established in Werther’s entrance in Act 1. Here, Werther sings about the beauty of the brook, the coolness of the shade, and the vibrancy of the bursting flowers. His imploring hand movements and facial expressions convey his utter devotion to nature, reflecting wise choreography decisions by Sara Erde. Looming in the back and foreground are long, drooping branches and shadows of linden trees,  which connote nature’s omnipresent power.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Massenet's Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

One of Massenet’s major plot defects is the establishment of Werther’s and Charlotte’s relationship. In the opera, Werther declares his love for Charlotte in Act 1’s clair de lune scene. Later, during Charlotte’s Act 3 letter episode, Werther implores her to remember their times spent together, “Here’s the harpsichord that sang of my joy and trembled with my pain as your voice joined in with mine.” The impression is that Werther and Charlotte completely fall for each other after only one meeting. While this is not uncommon in opera, it does not correspond with Goethe’s original text.

To reconcile the plot hiccup, the prelude could be repurposed. Instead of emphasizing the mother’s death, which feels out of place in context of the work’s focus, Werther and Charlotte could be shown making music at the harpsichord, laughing while playing silly games and crouching excitedly over books—mouthing words to each others’ eager ears. These scenes would occur behind a grey, translucent curtain—hinting at the memories of a blossoming love. In so doing, the Met would give more substance to the lovers’ devotion.

Yes, this addition would disrupt a sense of linear time. However, establishing their relationship is more important to the work than a preservation of a continuous narrative arc.

Eyre stages Acts 1 and 2 with receding, left-tilting rectangles. These outlines disorientate the viewer: Eyre wants his audience to feel Werther’s internal anguish. He achieves a similar effect with Werther’s chamber in Act 4, which looms over the preceding act’s library. Since it is a smaller, intimate space than the prior act’s, it conveys actual and psychological distance.

The choreography during the clair de lune scene effectively communicates Charlotte’s attempts to detach herself from Werther. Werther bends his whole body toward Charlotte, slowly bringing his hand to her shoulder. Charlotte keeps her back to him, afraid of his transformative, dark allure.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Scenes like these make us empathize with Charlotte. Charlotte is tortured by love, torn between her love for Werther and the promise she made to her mother to marry Albert. Werther is oblivious to the conflict he is inflicting upon her. For instance, when she says she must honor her mother’s dying wish, Werther responds by expressing his desire to “keep these [her] eyes all to myself, this charming face, this adorable mouth,” – in essence completely ignoring her problems.

Despite Massenet’s labeling of the opera as a drame lyrique, hints of opéra comique surface. Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, twirls around the stage with a little origami bird – a light blossom intruding on the work’s dark aura. Anna Christy’s performance as Sophie exuded the necessary optimism, but her vibrato and voice presence were too great for the light, jovial role. And, Maurizio Muraro as Le Bailli, Charlotte’s father, brought a Santa Claus-like boisterousness to the role.

In the second act, Massenet plays a musical joke with the drunken characters Johann and Schmidt, who blasphemously sing their praises of Bacchus while outside a church. Spelled out – Johann, Schmidt, Bacchus (J.S.B.) – their tune sounds positively Bachian. These characters were enlivened with besotted revelry by Philip Cokorinos and Tony Stevenson.

Leonard imbued her Act 3 letter aria – “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes!” (Go! Let flow my tears!) – with the appropriate pathos. Each of her notes was conceived with careful thought, dripping with the despair of Charlotte’s streaming tears. Leonard understood that a trembling, vulnerable quality was needed here, not a powerful, confident bravado.

That being said, she still knew how to excite a powerful, Met-Opera-Hall-enveloping sound when she needed to. An example was her crescendoing line, “The emptiness is too great. Nothing can fill it (the heart)…” Here, Charlotte is overwhelmed by her love for Werther, longing for him to comfort her overflowing heart.

I wish Leonard’s diction was a little clearer in parts of her solo, especially when she sang high in her range. The upper register’s vowel-sounds sometimes sounded over-modified, which distorted their meaning.

Werther_5401-s

Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

The saxophone obbligato during Charlotte’s aria did not express the meaning of the libretto. With its contrapuntal, legato line, the saxophone represents Charlotte’s undulating internal tears set against the outpouring of her external ones. To capture the solemn sentiment, faltering yet directionally-aware phrases veiled by a subtle vibrato are requisite. However, the saxophonist’s performance was too loud, without any vibrato, and strictly in time. I recognize that orchestral players are demanded to reach the back of the hall with good, quality sound, however, this sonic goal must always exude the correct character.

Despite the saxophonist’s decisions, the Met Orchestra, led by Edward Gardner, gave a stellar performance. During Charlotte and Werther’s dialogue in Act 2, I watched as Gardner carefully followed their accelerating movements, surging the orchestra to follow suit. Earlier in the same act, there appeared to be a slight synchronization problem with Albert’s solo, but it was quickly resolved.

The orchestral interlude between Acts 3 and 4 was dynamic: trombones, trumpets, and bassoons soared a foreboding, accented triplet figure, foreshadowing Werther’s impending demise. Here, the brass and woodwinds, even after well-over two hours of playing, remained pointed and energized.

Shortly after Charlotte’s tearful epistolary grief in Act 3, Werther storms on stage for his anticipated Christmas arrival. He beseeches Charlotte to remember their pleasant evenings together. Partly to assuage herself and partly to distract Werther, Charlotte gives him the Ossian poetry that he was translating. Grasping it in his hand, Werther begins his, “Pourquoi me réveiller,” aria.

“Pourquoi” was spectacular. Grigolo approached the phrasing – especially the repeated three-eighth-notes rhythmic unit – with an organic sense of time that vitalized his singing. Propelling from these eighth-note figures, Grigolo leaped to emotionally-gripping summits—pleading, shaking, desperately grabbing his audience’s hearts. His solo was rightfully met with an uninterrupted minute of enthusiastic applause and raucous bravos.

During his final bows, Grigolo ripped opened the top buttons of his blood-stained, satin shirt, gesturing with large, circular arm motions stemming from his heart and whirling toward us. Pink bouquets were tossed like footballs by an enraptured concert-goer in the front row.

Two tenor titans within three years for Massenet’s take on The Sorrows of Young Werther: The Met has a lot to be proud of.

Massenet’s Werther runs through March 9, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live March 4, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org

Well, friends, it’s been a hell of a week. Last Thursday, I accidentally scheduled two super important meetings for the same time and had to reschedule. On Friday, I lost my wallet and found myself stranded at a downtown grocery store with bags of chicken I could no longer pay for. Add all that to the typical CU/BC student stress-level and I’m sure you can imagine how I was feeling on Sunday, when I finally sat down to watch my beloved Jane the Virgin.

[If you’re a fan of Jane’s (as well you should be) and have not yet watched the past two episodes, stop reading now. I repeat: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.]

For those of you who did watch, though, you’ll know that last week, the evil writers of television’s smartest comedy killed off Michael, Jane’s beloved, wonderful, sweet, cute, all-around-amazing husband. They were married for all of a few months, after they finally got back together at the end of last season and he survived a gunshot to the chest. And then, this happened.

I waited for the next week’s episode to cast judgement. Despite my heartbreak (and I’m talking literal crying on the subway), I still had hope that Jane the Virgin’s smart, funny writers wouldn’t let me down. The show had always been a satire of a telenovela, so I figured they might use this plot twist in a satirical, funny way to revamp the show’s lighthearted nature. (Of course, this was after I read countless interviews with the producer which assured me Michael was actually dead, because for a long time I was really hoping this was all just some kind of sick joke).

So, last Sunday, I turned on my computer, hoping desperately for another lighthearted episode to put me in a better mood. But I was disappointed. Instead, it was three years later, and Jane suddenly had a new life with her son Mateo and her baby daddy Rafael. Michael was gone, Jane was fine, Mateo was fine, Rafael was fine– everyone was FREAKIN’ FINE. And here I was, staring at the screen helplessly, desperately crying for Michael to come on screen and remind everyone that it was NOT FINE. The show had lost its sweetest, most genuine character, and they thought they could just move on? Skip ahead three years as if their fans weren’t still reeling from the loss of their number one guy?

Now, maybe I’m a little bit more invested than your average TV watcher. From day one, I’d always been Team Michael (Rafael is hot and all, but he was no match for Michael’s love for Jane). He made me cry, he made me laugh, and he felt so genuine that I found myself falling in love with him too. I saw traits in him I see in the people I love in real life, and in the hilarious but non-believable satire that was Jane the Virgin, he often felt like the only real person on the show. He had faults, but they weren’t overly dramatic, like the embezzlement cases Rafael was swept up in, or the premise that Jane was accidentally artificially inseminated. Michael was a normal guy, desperately in love with a woman, living a normal life.

As I watched this week’s episode, my heart ached for the one vein of normalcy I had experienced in this show. I cried for Jane’s sorrow, but I also cried because I felt the show had lost something– and I fear it’s something they can never get back.

The Must-Binge List: This week, I encourage you to watch Amazon’s new original series, Z: The Beginning of Everything. It’s a show about F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their epic and completely insane love story. Christina Ricci is fantastic as Zelda– she’ll catch your ear with her electrifying Southern accent and hold your attention with her dazzling performance of the emotionally torn and conflicted woman who tried desperately to hold the attention of one of the greatest writers in our time. David Hoflin’s F. Scott has some trouble holding his own against Ricci, but when she’s on screen, who needs him anyway? Booze, dancing, and sexual exploits galore, this show is definitely worth your time. My grade: A-

 

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Nonken

Marilyn Nonken’s Fight for “New” Music

As two star-crossed lovers sang pleading lines of despair, I took a survey of the audience around me. Besides the gentleman fast-asleep on my right (he got started five minutes into Act I) and the three composition students I recognized from Music Theory III, there was a noticeable dearth in the Met Opera’s seats. Maybe it had something to do with it being a lethargic Wednesday night, or perhaps it was indicative of declining ticket sales. More likely, though, the timeliness of the opera was to blame: it – Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin – was written in 2000.

Contemporary music is thwarted by negative stereotypes. Concert-goers think of it as generally unpleasant and discordant – something to be avoided as much as possible. Concert programming confirms these negative beliefs. “Beethoven, Mozart, and ever more Beethoven!” ticket sales scream.

So, what is a contemporary performer to do? The pianist and musicologist Marilyn Nonken (GSAS 1999, Historical Musicology) believes acceptance problems can be solved through education.

Nonken’s recent book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age, challenges the “unmusical” claims about modern music.

“I think there are misconceptions about what contemporary music is, that newer music simply isn’t musical in the same way,” she explains with a tone that shows her passion for the music.

“I suppose why I talk so much historically about contemporary music relating to the past is to try to get away from that idea.”

Nonken presents challenging ideas in her work. She believes that musicians can look back at composers such as Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy and find “through-lines” to the present-day. Their music works through ideas similar to the ones electronic music composers are grappling with today; “New” Music is not as new as some may think.

Not many musicians see “New” Music the same way that Nonken does. Instead, most musicians prefer to play what she calls “great” music, i.e. the standard, traditional repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al. Nonken believes pedagogues are responsible for this trend.

“Within any music school there will be teachers who will tell their students don’t waste your time [playing contemporary music]. Don’t do that, it’s not worth it,” she tells me, sarcastically pantomiming the uneasiness of teachers telling their students not to touch “New” Music.  

“There’s this idea that if the player is really gifted and really talented that they should be playing ‘better,’ older music.”

What Nonken describes as the “business of piano” – to prepare for and win competitions – is the culprit for these teachers’ beliefs.

“You can’t play Feldman for the Van Cliburn,” Nonken jokingly gibes.

Pianists will not prepare programs including much music written post-1945, such as Feldman’s works, for the Van Cliburn competition because of the ideas on what “great” music is. They simply won’t win if they do.

As the Director of Piano Studies at NYU, Nonken fights against misconceptions about contemporary music. For instance, she requires graduate piano students to play a work written after 1945 for their auditions. One student, who did not have any music post-1945 in their repertoire, suggested “playing” an especially famous silent work.

“Someone wanted to bring in Cage’s 4’ 33” — I would take it!” Nonken enthusiastically yet with a hint of frustration exclaims.

“Bring that to your audition just to make that statement — if that’s the best you can do, play that! It’s the mindset, so I think that’s something always to fight.”

Nonken’s interest in championing new works began while she was at The Eastman School of Music. Unlike many of her peers, who were spending hours practicing “great” music, Nonken was giving life to the scores of her classmates — in practice rooms, dorm rooms, and cafes. She was excited by these collaborations.

“I actually found that this music was really interesting — this process of working with composers is interesting. You can actually make a difference, you could play a piece that’s never been played,” Nonken fondly recalls.

Without her, their music would have remained black dots and lines on a page. By realizing their works, Nonken gave her classmates the chance to develop their skills.

She even won competitions for her peers with her recordings. Nonken found value and meaning performing their works — an importance she says she would not have felt as “the nine-millionth person that year playing” famous, traditional repertoire.

Nonken has continued performing and premiering new works since her years at Eastman. When I walked into the lobby of her East Village studio, I was amazed by the number of CDs on display. Recordings of modern works by Morton Feldman, Tristan Murail, and Joshua Fineberg stared back at me – all physically representing Nonken’s support for modern music.

CDs on Shelf

Nonken’s recordings become the definitive versions of each new work. With that she sees a definite responsibility – a duty perhaps not as apparent in playing the standard repertoire.

“I don’t think that responsibility is there when you’re playing music of Chopin or Beethoven because there’s a million recordings out there,” she explains to me, recognizing that that may sound sacrilegious to many musicians.

“But if you go out there and play a piece that people might not have another chance to hear and don’t really do it well, in a way that’s representative – if you turn people off – you’ve blown that opportunity for that composer to make their case.”


Recent portents seem to indicate newfound acceptance. Despite Nonken’s quip, the 2017 Van Cliburn competition is commissioning Marc-André Hamelin to write a piece for the preliminary round. Miller Theatre is continuing their “Composer Portraits” series this season, which highlights the works of living composers. And the Met Opera, ever a bastion of “great” music, has staged works by contemporary composers, such as John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, and the aforementioned L’Amour de loin, in recent years.

Yet, these are exceptions. Musicians and audiences still maintain a preference for “great” music. They want it to be played as much as possible in concert halls, with “New” Music ousted as a distantly removed, unapproachable Other.

Nonken continues to crusade against the notion that “New” Music is not worthwhile to listen to – in her teachings, writings, recordings, and performances. Championing the music of today, Nonken is building the “great” repertoire of tomorrow.

She encourages you to hear her play music by Tristan Murail at Spectrum on February 11 at 7 PM. Come listen as she continues her fight against misconceptions about “New” Music.

“How Eye Hear It” runs alternate Sundays. To contact the writer or submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com