Category Archives: arts

Gnaoua or never

Essaouira is a great place to end a trip through Morocco. The cool air and wind from the sea felt wonderful after the intense heat of the desert. Seagulls wheeled and cried, and waves crashed on the rocky shore and nearby islands. The smells of salt and fish blew through the air.


Walking through the narrow streets in the medina, I fell in love with the shades of blue. Against the high white walls of the old houses, shutters and doors are painted pale blue or turquoise. Sometimes they’re surrounded with a border of yellow. I wanted to paint everything in my house white and golden yellow and pale blue.


And Essaouira is mellow. Even full of Moroccan visitors and European tourists, it felt relaxed and peaceful. If I lived in Europe, I might make it a regular vacation spot.

We were there for the Gnaoua and World Music Festival. (It’s also spelled Gnawa, but I seem to gravitate toward spelling Moroccan names the French way rather than English). Pronounce all the letters: Guh-now-ah. The title of this post, by the way, is stolen from some posters and t-shirts we saw at the festival. Continue reading



Filed under arts, music, photo, travel

Films about girls by guys.

I went to the Connecticut Out Film Fest last Wednesday night for a double bill of chick-chick flicks:

scene from "eloise's lover"A Different Kind of Love
Dir. Martin Dolensky, 2010, Czech Republic, 61 min

Eloise’s Lover
Dir. Jesús Garay, 2009, Spain, 92 min

I liked them – particularly Eloise’s Lover (scene pictured here) – but found them frustrating. Then I noticed that both films were directed by men. It explains a lot, particularly in the Czech film.

Here are some tropes the two have in common:

  • The “established” lesbian, the one who is out and comfortable with her identity, has long hair in an unconventional style. (You know, not so unconventional as to be short.)
  • Beginning to come out will leave you alienated from your mother or your kids (depending on which is featured in the plot), and definitely from your peers.
  • People will think you’re a perv, or will have awkward conversations in which they assert that they’re fine with it but warn you that everyone else will think you’re a perv.
  • Hooking up after having a crush seems to result in assumptions that a relationship will develop.
  • There’s no happy ending.

I can think of a lot of things that annoy me about the Czech film. Eva’s talking-head scenes gave away plot points so that other scenes didn’t have to do the storytelling as clearly. Daniella, the younger teacher, seemed to function as an adult, and she was supposed to be the one experienced with same-sex relationships; but when it came to dating, she had absolutely no capacity to think ahead or make rational decisions. (Getting it on in her classroom after school? Renting an apartment without even talking to the woman she wants to share it with? Not realizing that a woman with two kids will always have those two kids? If she’s that much of a moron, make her consistently a moron.)

The storytelling in Eloise’s Lover, fortunately, made a great contrast. With the way it cuts back and forth between the hospital and earlier scenes, you only sort of know where it’s going, and without knowing at all how the characters got there and how it ends. The characters made sense, and some lovely acting (Asia’s mother!) added depth. But the way the camera lingers on Eloise and Asia, particularly when they’re swimming and floating, just screams, “A man made this movie!”


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Sometimes I review this local-ish orchestra for its local newspaper. The orchestra had a concert recently, so I sent my usual note to the paper’s arts editor confirming that I should review the concert. And I got a reply that I didn’t expect.

“Since the concert will not be over until late Saturday night (it starts at 8, and runs 120 minutes), we probably won’t be able to get it into Sunday’s paper, which is where our readers would expect to read about a concert the previous night. To run it on Monday would be too long after the concert.”

Which was news to me, because for over a year I’d been doing exactly that.

So I asked where that had come from. And the editor said: “It’s just that publishing a review two days later, is no longer news. I realize we have done it in the past, but have found it to be not the best use of our resources and a disservice to readers.”

A disservice to readers?

Now the orchestra will only get reviewed twice a year, when it gives afternoon concerts. I think *that* is a disservice, both to the orchestra and to the community. Publishing reviews online first, and a day later in print, is no tragedy in my book. Publishing a review signals that it’s a worthwhile part of the arts coverage.


I heard that a friend and critic was no longer going to review the orchestra he’d been reviewing for ages. The paper (a different one from the one above) would no longer pay him to write.

Professional writers can’t be expected to write without pay. Their time, their thoughts, their words: these all have value.


I ran into that paper’s arts editor a few days later, and we talked a bit. “Did you hear?” She asked. The paper is cutting – are you ready for this? – all of its arts critics.

All of them.

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Eating music

I was listening to the Miró Quartet play the Brahms Quartet in C minor last night, and I had the inarticulate but oh-so-sincere thought: God, I love Brahms. I don’t even believe in God. But I have a longstanding faith in the power of Brahms’s music over me.

The Miró gave a delightful performance of Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat major, “The Joke.” They had the audience chuckling out loud at the end, enjoying the sudden starts and silences, trying to figure out when the piece had finally stuttered its last. And they were joined by Julie Landsman for the East Coast premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Horn Quintet. Which I’ll come back to later, after this derail.

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve blogged. I just haven’t had my critical thinking cap on. I’ve been voraciously consuming culture: concerts, theater, opera, musical theater, more concerts. I’ve been writing program notes and press releases. And yeah, I’ve been working more hours than I care to think about, but that doesn’t usually stop me from blogging.

Here’s something I can handle: a bite-sized look at some of the things I’ve seen and heard and tasted.

Meg Hutchinson at Club Passim: I enjoyed her songs, her straightforward singing, and her endearing stage presence. But the mellow set by the opener had put me (and my friends) to sleep, and I never quite recovered.

Romeo and Juliet at Yale Rep: I liked the physicality of it, the bodies tumbling and spinning and swinging. The raunchy jokes seemed overdone, but then again, that Shakespeare guy wrote plenty of them into his plays. The production strengthened over the course of the play to culminate in a wrenching final act.

Robert Blocker, piano: Scarlatti is completely underrated. When I have a real piano, I need to read through a stack of Scarlatti sonatas. I feel like a bad pianist for disliking Chopin as strongly as I do. And I’m glad I finally had a chance to hear Ginastera’s first sonata performed live. It was the strongest performance on the program, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Trannequin at the Yale Cabaret: So glad I saw this new musical by students at the School of Drama. Love the concept (a star female mannequin discovers and comes to terms with her desire to wear men’s clothing, while another character reveals a past transition and we discover that there’s more than one way to be a trannequin). It’s full of catchy tunes and clever, often hilarious, writing. Some of the key changes struck me as cheesy, a couple of the jokes were too easy, and the ending felt overly pat. But overall the show is witty and smart and so much fun.

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What do you write about when you write about opera?

The other day, I came across this piece by Mark Prescott, in which he writes:

Most reviews of productions I’ve attended concern themselves nearly exclusively with a detailed analysis of the director’s conception of the drama. The fact that the writer is generally a music rather than theatre expert is even more bemusing.

Of course, my first (and self-centered) thought was: “Oh, crap. Do I do that?”

Sometimes. But.

One thing that Prescott neglects to point out is that, with a new production of an opera that’s part of the repertory, the critics will already know the music, while the production is new. So it’s hardly surprising that the critic will pay attention to what is specific to this production. Yes, the performance of the music is important, but the music itself is already familiar.

The audience can go listen to a recording of what the music (the composition, not that particular performance) sounds like, but there’s nowhere to get an equivalent overview of the staging. So the review will probably include a little reportage.

Also, everyone has their reasons for loving opera. What draws me in is when it’s about something big and complicated and resonant, like Nixon in China or Cardillac. The production will more overtly communicate what the opera is about than the singers’ and orchestra’s performance of the music will.

I wonder if he feels that reviews of new operas also focus too much on the production. A review of a new opera should probably split more evenly, because there’s no more previous knowledge of the music than there is of the production. The elements are usually more integrated,

Does he want something more like this review? A rundown of voices that reads like a sportscast? Really, there are more interesting things to me than a scorecard of how people performed. I mean, it’s a  positive review – “winning performance,” “admirable performance,” “top-notch ensemble,” “lovely sounds” – but there’s no poetry in it. Reading that review does little to communicate the experience of watching and hearing that Romeo et Juliette. It doesn’t do much to make me want to go see the opera.

What also comes to mind is Anne Midgette’s recent piece about multiple critical voices. Every critic will have his or her own slant, focus, interest, etc. The richest and most interesting conversations will be those with multiple voices and opinions.

So I find myself wanting to say, nicely: don’t tell me what to write about. Don’t tell other critics what to write about. We’ll each write about what stands out to us. We’ll write about whatever strikes us as important or relevant or just plain interesting. Because that’s what will make our responses our own.

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This is what it’s about.

I love when music addresses political topics, and this statement completely captures the dynamic between the music and the ideas it tries to embrace and represent.

Of course music cannot actually say anything about politics – music is just music. But political ideas refracted through music achieve a different dimension. The reality of politics on the ground may be too full of practical detail to make good opera, but opera, through being narrated by music, automatically lifts ideas on to an emotional and imaginative plane and we see political ideas in a different light.

David Pountney

Pountney is the librettist and director of an opera, with music by Peter Maxwell Davies, that tells three stories of student activism: from Germany, China, and the United States. And I hope I get to see it.

(Thanks to @NaxosUSA for posting a link to the article.)

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But I *will* make Cardillac puns.

Because what’s a better response to depravity in opera than to make flippant puns? (Cardillac is pronounced car-dee-yak. Like a cross between a car and a kayak, but different.)

I went up to Boston on Sunday to see the New England premiere of Hindemith’s opera, and damn, why isn’t it performed more often?

In other news, I couldn’t resist titling my reviewCardillac: arresting.” And then my friend and fellow music journalist Chris wrote:

Love your title! (and review). I would have not been able to resist making 4 or 5 more heart attack jokes in the course of a review (“don’t bypass this show!” “Sylvan gave a heart-stopping performance” etc.), which only shows how much more class you possess than me, Ms. Astmann.

It’s really not an issue of class. Sadly, I was so tired when I was writing that it didn’t even occur to me to pepper my review with puns! But my fatigue-induced neglect is your heart-pumping opportunity. Bring on your best cardiac puns in the comments section. And read my review if you feel like it.

And if you’re in Boston, please please please go see the last performance of Cardillac tonight.


Filed under arts, music, opera