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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Archives for April, 2010

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A non-musician hears the Life Science Orchestra, by Eve Silberman

Many people talented in the sciences also play musical instruments. Hence the creation, nine years ago, of the U-M Life Sciences Orchestra. Its eighty-some members include physicians, med and dental students, engineering alums, and even, somehow, a couple of stray U-M undergrads not connected with the hard sciences. That many of these people at one time during their life may have considered music as a career is suggested in the opening remarks by the remarkable Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, M.D, and million-dollar-a-year CEO of the University of Michigan Health System. Pescovitz had trained as a concert pianist but said that she was nowhere near as good as Life Sciences pianist Cathy Twu, a U-M senior and business major who plans "to pursue a healthcare investment banking job on Wall Street," according to the program. The fierce competition and lack of financial security of concert musicians may explain why Pescovitz and Twu made their career choices, though Twu also "dreams of starting her own children's hospital." May the Market prosper!
The group does two free concerts a year, and I caught the spring one. In some ways, the performance was perfect for classical music novices like myself. One of the group's three pieces was Beethoven's 5th ("Emperor," Mov. 1), and you'd have to be as deaf as the composer when he wrote it not to have previously heard or be moved by this cloudburst of orchestral greatness. The other pieces included "Voyage" by modern composer John Corgliano, and Symphony No. 5 by Tchaikovsky, which went all over the map emotionally. I'm not qualified to offer technical criticism: the orchestra sounded awfully good to me, and conductor Richard Boardman was clearly passionate.
One minor quibble: was it necessary for poet Keith Taylor to read, in both French and English, the Baudelaire poem "L'Invitation au Voyage," that inspired the Corgliano composition? Keith is a wonderful friend to our arts community, but even in an Ann Arbor audience, I'm betting that between ten and twenty percent understand French, and (despite my two years of conjugating French verbs at Ferndale High) I didn't make that cut. Also, I think Keith should have worn a tie in respect to the tuxedoed musicians. But this is petty. Thanks to the mighta-been musicians, this ex-English major who got a D in high school chemistry advanced another step in my classical music education. Thanks, LSO!

Posted by John Hilton at 11:26 a.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Two Point Oh at the Detroit Rep, by Eve Silberman

The weirdly named play Two Point Oh at the Detroit Repertory Theatre (until May 29) was a trip in more ways than one. It meant my leaving Ann Arbor's fabled "28 square miles" to drive into the "real world," sad, old Detroit. A small building in a wasteland near the Lodge/Davison intersection, the Rep has a long, proud history as a professional, socially conscious theater, the first in Michigan to do race-blind casting. It's been at its current location since 1963, having survived the '67 riots and the city's economic decline. There's a bar in the lobby, and, the day I went, a church fundraiser that attracted a crowd of smartly dressed older black women (one in a wide pink satiny hat), nibbling cake off paper plates.

The Rep does a lot of black-themed, realistic dramas (the preceding production was A Song for Coretta), so Two Point Oh seemed, at first, a wacky anomaly. The two leads, husband and wife, are black, but race plays no part in the plot: billionaire software mogul Elliot Leeds (Monrico Ward) dies in a plane crash, only to stun his grieving wife Melanie (Satori Shakoor) by reappearing on her computer monitor (a TV screen placed center stage). He cheerily explains that, by recording thousands of hours of information, he has essentially made a cyber copy of himself. Now, they can happily continue their marriage at the gentle pace impossible in his frantic, physical existence, where she never saw enough of him. Now he has time to banter with her and read books aloud. His body may be missing but he's there in spirit...or whatever.

Playwright Jeffrey Jackson has given a high-tech twist to a trope at least as old as Hamlet's ghost: an otherworldly being butting into the lives of mere morals. If it's disconcerting at first to view Two Point Oh's principal actor on screen, the story, with subsequent sub-plots, soon resumes ascendancy. Bemused at first by her "virtual" husband, Melanie starts to like the idea, but things get complicated when Leeds' business partner, Ben Robbins (Mark Barrera), lets Melanie know he's there to fulfill the needs that her husband no longer can.

Playwright Jackson takes gleeful digs at the media through two characters: over-the-top TV commentator Jerry Gold (Mark Halpin), and Leeds's successor at (chuckle alert) Paradigm Software, a corporate queen played by Maggie Patton who frantically works at damage control once word gets out about Leeds' life-in-death (or is it the other way around?)

All the players are talented, but Ward, as Leeds, is a standout; he projects a sinister charisma, grinning away at his wife and ex-partner as though he knows he's got them trapped. And does he? Entertaining as the play is, its real strength may come from the philosophical questions it leaves in its wake. What makes someone "real?" Is technology bringing us closer together or just feeding our fantasies of closeness? How far are we from the dystopian fictions of Brave New World and 1984? And so forth.

As an audience member, I was in a minority: about 80 percent of the audience was African American, and many, if not most, were over 60, which I think says something about the loyalty people who didn't flee Detroit feel about the theater that also stayed. I was a little startled, when some of the usual four-letter words were bantered, to hear some of the older people giggling nervously, as if something impolite was happening. Afterwards, an 83-year-old Detroit friend asked me if all the swear words were "necessary." Now, that's another interesting philosophical question.

p.s. the program explains that "Two Point Oh" is "loosely associated with the term Web 2.0 . . .and refers in broad terms to the exploration of the interactive capabilities of the internet." It's still a crummy title.

Posted by John Hilton at 11:42 a.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dinner with the Coroner of Oz, by Eve Silberman

About fifteen years ago I attended, in Chicago, a meeting of the International Wizard of Oz Club. Similar to Star Trek gatherings, these conferences attract devotees of both the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz and the series of books about the utopian fairyland written by L. Frank Baum.

In the increasingly distant pre-video era, The Wizard of Oz was aired once a year; its broadcast a publicized and much-anticipated event, almost akin to the presidential inauguration. No one I knew would have dreamed of watching anything else that evening; in school, my art teacher gave assignments to "Draw your favorite scene from The Wizard of Oz." Families debated whether their little kids could contend with the terrifying wicked witch and her manic minions, the winged monkeys. (My five-year-old brother ran and hid the first time he saw the witch cackle balefully into the hourglass.) When color television came in, I watched the film at the home of the only kid on our block with whose family had one of the new sets. For the first time, I saw the drama of mundane black-and- white Kansas transform into the variegated beauty of Oz.

At the Oz convention, I mingled with adults and kids dressed in Ozzy costumes--lots of pig-tailed, Judy Garland Dorothy's and wicked witches with tall hats. Then the stunner: at dinner, I found myself next to none other than movie Munchkin Meinhardt Raabe--the coroner who sings that the Wicked Witch is "not only merely dead / She's really most sincerely dead."

I'm sitting next to the coroner of Oz, I kept repeating to myself. Surreal wasn't the half of it.

Dressed in his shiny blue coroner costume, complete to brimmed hat, the 4 feet 7 Raabe was very easy to talk to. He told me Judy Garland had been friendly to "the little people." Years after the film was shot, he recalled, he worked as a substitute teacher in an elementary school. Kids who started to tease him because of his size became respectful when he told them he played the Coroner in The Wizard of Oz. The next day, excited parents called the school, asking if it was true that a Munchkin was teaching their kids.

I asked him how the movie changed his life. He said quietly that he'd felt "a little cheated" about being born different. The fame that followed him after the movie, he said, helped "make up" for the stigma and employment problems he'd experienced as a little person. After dinner, he stood up and sang the song that had won him immortality. "As coroner, I must aver / I thoroughly examined her . . ." The thrilled audience, kids and adults, broke into applause.

So I was sorry to learn last week that Raabe, 94, was himself "most sincerely dead." I cherish the poster he'd signed for me, depicting himself as coroner (though at first, I was a little spooked that he'd written my name in the Wicked Witch's "death certificate"). I'm grateful for the magic he and the others--Garland, Bolger, Lahr, all long gone--provided to kids in a bygone era. And I'm glad he felt a little of that magic himself.

Posted by John Hilton at 2:07 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

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