The Austrian weather was aggressively uncooperative this past May 30, when the Vienna Philharmonic Summer Night Concert 2013 was being filmed, but conductor Lorin Maazel and his musical forces nevertheless entertained the 15,000 hardy souls who endured gusts of wind and pelting rain during the gala event, which airs under the Great Performances umbrella (so to speak) tonight on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check your local listings).
Held in the breathtaking baroque gardens of the city’s Imperial Schonbrunn Palace, this year’s concert was the fifth annual such free event aimed at making classical music accessible to concertgoers outside the VPO’s core audience. Although the orchestra is more closely associated by PBS viewers with the glittering annual New Year’s Concert from the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein, which Maazel has conducted 11 times, this year’s summer concert was devoted to the works of two operatic titans: Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, each of whom would have turned 200 in 2013.
The program opens with a familiar concert warhorse, the Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida, followed later by the overture to the same composer’s opera La Forza del Destino. German-Canadian tenor Michael Schade takes the stage to sing “La mia letizia infonderer,” an aria from an early Verdi work called I Lombardi.
It’s Wagner, however – with whose music the Vienna Philharmonic has been closely associated down through the decades – who gets the lion’s share of the evening. In addition to Schade’s stirring performance of the Grail narrative from the composer’s Lohengrin, the program includes the sublime Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and – hey, you knew it was coming – Prelude to Act 3 of Die Walkure, aka “The Ride of the Valkyries.”
Although the rain appears to have fallen throughout the concert (you can see streams of moisture cascading down the sides of the transparent cover protecting the musicians), the poncho-wearing crowd, huddling and cuddling under umbrellas, seems to be thoroughly having a good time, breaking into spontaneous waltzes and … well, let’s call them “free-form polkas” to the two Johann Strauss numbers played as encores.
Kellye Saunders of Collage Dance Collective
Veteran filmmaker Ron Honsa visits a sanctuary for professionals who speak through their movement in Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow: Never Stand Still, which celebrates the courage, the passion and the tremendous discipline required of those who dedicate their life to dance. Airing under the Great Performances aegis, the hourlong special, which premieres tonight on most PBS affiliates (check local listings), intersperses dancers in live performances filmed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with interviews ranging from Suzanne Farrell, choreographer George Balanchine’s reigning ballerina for many years, to actor-comic-mime Bill Irwin and iconic dance figures Paul Taylor and Judith Jamison, as well as archival comments by visionary dance pioneer Ted Shawn.
It was Shawn who founded Jacob’s Pillow in the 1930s on his farm in the beautiful Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts – and when I say “founded,” I mean it in the sense that Shawn and his troupe, America’s first all-male dance company, built the original facility with their own hands. Since then, Jacob’s Pillow has served as a mecca for both artists and audiences who are hungry to explore dance in all its forms, ranging from ballet to jazz to contemporary, along the way becoming the only dance presenter to receive the prestigious National Medal of Arts.
Among the delightful and very candid interviewees, maverick choreographer Mark Morris – who made a reputation even from the start as an iconoclast who often gravitated toward dancers who didn’t fit the romanticized physical ideal of ballet performers – talks about the quirky sensibility that lies at the root of his artistic vision, while the radiant Farrell adamantly insists that one of the most important aspects of any dance is that it should be fun, adding that ballet is no more inherently straightlaced and rigid than the imagination and whimsy of choreographers allow it to be.
Honsa, who has picked up awards for this film at the San Francisco Dance Festival and the Dance Camera West Festival in Los Angeles, first visited the Jacob’s Pillow festival in the early 1980s, when he immediately was struck by the beauty and caliber of the work being created there. Those impressions eventually found their way into a 1985 film called The Men Who Danced, about Shawn and his groundbreaking company.
Of this new documentary, which is making its TV debut on Great Performances, Honsa says, “From the youngest dancers in this film to the legendary masters, it was obvious to me that a deep and creative vibration has always resonated at Jacob’s Pillow. Never Stand Still is a love letter to a rare place and the artists who dare to express the inexpressible through movement.”
Very highly recommended.
Erica Eissner Performance Co-Op
Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack in ‘Beloved Renegade’
If you’re lucky, your local PBS affiliate is among the stations carrying tonight’s premiere of Paul Taylor Dance Company in Paris, a beautiful new Great Performances special spotlighting two 25-minute masterworks by Taylor, a former Kennedy Center honoree and recipient of the National Medal of Arts.
Both works are worth checking out, but the more interesting, I think, is the second piece, “Beloved Renegade,” a 2008 ballet inspired by the life and work of 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass).
The episodic work, dominated by Michael Trusnovec’s dazzling performance as Whitman, is by turns joyous, athletic, tender and erotic as it depicts scenes from the poet’s life ranging from children at play to his final days, after which he is embraced by a benign female spirit with “the sure-entwining arms of cool-enfolding death.” Taylor choreographed the ballet to the radiant choral music of French composer Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” which only enhances the piece’s spiritual aura.
“My dances look American, even though they may be laid in a different country or place,” Taylor says in a very brief intermission commentary between the two ballets, “because they are the product of an American. It’s unavoidable.”
The program opens with “Brandenburgs,” an emotionally cool but high-energy piece that premiered in 1988, set to music from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos No. 3 and 6.
“I hope each person in the audience will find something to relate to,” the choreographer remarks during his commentary, and that seems like a safe bet. Appropriately enough, the PBS press release for the presentation references a Newsweek piece by Laura Shapiro, who summed up a theoretical “short course in modern dance” thusly: “In the beginning, there was Martha Graham, who changed the face of an art form and discovered a new world. Then there was Merce Cunningham, who stripped away the externals and showed us the heart of movement. And then there was Paul Taylor, who let the sun shine in.”
For all the sunshine, though, “Beloved Renegade” reminds us that Taylor, like all great artists, isn’t afraid to explore some of the darker aspects of the human experience as well.
Check your local TV listings to see when or if this worthy production is airing in your own market.
James Samson, Michael Trusnovec and Sean Mahoney (from left) in ‘Brandenburgs’
In his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, Tom Stoppard floated the whimsical premise that the Bard’s endearing comedy Twelfth Night had been inspired by a (completely fictional) love affair he had while penning Romeo and Juliet. That film is a delightful romantic comedy, but Shakespeare Uncovered, a wonderful new six-film series premiering tonight on most PBS affiliates, manages to be just as entertaining by sticking to the facts as it explores the stories behind some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
Two back-to-back hourlong episodes air on three successive Fridays, each hosted by a notable artist who has a passionate interest in the subject at hand, starting with Ethan Hawke, a former movie Hamlet who now is keen to get his kilted killer on in the title role of Macbeth. What follows is an engrossing look at one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most enigmatic plays, a work so haunted that superstitious actors refer to it only as “the Scottish play,” believing it bad luck to speak the actual title aloud.
As with the series as a whole, the episode draws on scholarly research from historians who provide background on the real-life Macbeth, who lived roughly 1,000 years ago, as well as commentary from actors who have grappled with the thorny roles of Macbeth and his formidable Lady (keep an eye peeled for a brief excerpt from an early TV production of the play with Sean Connery in the title role!).
The aforementioned Twelfth Night is a prominent part of tonight’s second hour, a fascinating appreciation of Shakespeare’s comedies hosted by Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck), joined by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, whose own career was launched via an early 1960s televised performance as Rosalind in As You Like It. Both actresses bring a palpable passion and joy to their exploration of how Shakespeare’s comedies contain some of the playwright’s most profound observations on the human condition, especially as it pertains to women. The hour also includes some insightful commentary by Helen Mirren, an acclaimed Rosalind in her own right.
Next Friday’s episodes feature Derek Jacobi exploring the political thriller Richard II, including scenes from an upcoming Great Performances film adaptation of the play starring Patrick Stewart and Ben Whishaw, and Jeremy Irons reflecting on the history plays Henry IV and Henry V, also due for a Great Performances adaptation starring Irons and Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers).
The series concludes on Feb. 8 with David Tennant (Doctor Who) plumbing the depths of Hamlet and director Trevor Nunn considering Shakespeare’s last completed work, The Tempest.
While Shakespeare Uncovered is packed with interesting details, the series strikes a canny balance between scholarship and entertainment, so it should appeal both to Shakespeare enthusiasts and relative newcomers to these plays. Viewers who come to these episodes with at least a rudimentary grasp of what the featured plays are about, however, probably will have a slight advantage.