Sunday, December 29, 2013

What The Phantom of the Opera really means for singer Jackie Evancho

Singing phenomenon Jackie Evancho saw The Phantom of the Opera (the movie of it) when she was just seven years old. Before then, according to her parents, she was a perfectly normal child with no obvious special abilities, the second of four, growing up in suburban middle-class America, in the household of a security camera franchise owner and a former nurse.

What happened after that has been recounted in countless newspaper articles written after she became a national celebrity when she took second place on America's Got Talent in 2010.

But I haven't read anything that tried to explain her continuing intense relationship to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical melodrama. Personally I prefer Spamalot, a Monty Pythonesque parody of hyperventilating productions like Webbers', with numbers like "This is the song that goes on too long." Still, while playing a recent performance of Phantom as I edited underwater photos I'd taken on a recent trip to Indonesia, I realized why Jackie Evancho relates to Phantom thematically.

Because thematically, Phantom is about a talented young woman torn between conflicting life path choices: a normal life with an adoring, handsome young man, or sacrificing all that for the life of an artist.

For every performing artist there are probably dozens--even hundreds of people who are comparably talented, but who are unwilling to give up the quiet joys of normal life.

I know someone like that. A very talented classical pianist, easily good enough to be a recording artist. But instead of living a life of touring, performing, living out of a suitcase, he chose to marry, settle down, and have three children while pursuing an academic/business career that didn't require constant travel. He does perform locally and does a bit of musical travel, but he'll never be a world-famous concert pianist.

For a singer like Jackie Evancho to pursue her art she will have to travel around the world, performing in concerts. And even now, at age 13, she is touring and performing a lot--though nowhere near the schedule of an adult performer in her field. Even though her family works hard to balance her career with her "normal" life, there's no question that she has less "normal" life than any other kid she knew at school.

In interviews she has shown herself to be sanguine about the trade-offs required to pursue her dreams.

And in terms of her relationship with Phantom of the Opera, the fact that she's now 13 and not 23 is irrelevant. Even if she waited a decade, the choice is the same: like the Christine character of Phantom, Jackie can't achieve artistic fulfillment without giving up much of the normal life most people experience.

She could be a music teacher and have a normal life. But she seeks a place at the very top of her art, and that precludes the kind of life most Americans lead.

Phantom of the Opera couches this life choice in a hyperventilating sort of way, with the life of the artist embodied in a talented but murderous psychopath. The normal life is embodied more realistically, in the form of a nice (yawwwwn...) guy who wants her to be his beloved wifey. 

Critics of young performing artists lament the loss of a normal childhood for such people. Of course they never lament the lost of the powerful joys of performance, of high artistic achievement, for able kids whose parents keep them off the stage. And they don't seem to realize that the choice remains at every stage of life.

So while Jackie Evancho seems to have first started thinking about this choice at age 7--at least on some level--she just got a head start on the issue all elite artists must deal with.

And which, under the cheesy theatrics, Phantom of the Opera deals with.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What do we mean when we say an artist like Jackie Evancho is "expressive" ?

Actually, "Expressive" is the wrong word for what I'm trying to talk about, because it implies that the performer/artist is expressing something inside of them, and I'm not talking about the performer's inner life--only about their ability to make the viewer/listener/reader feel thoughts/emotions strongly.

Thus while a convicted criminal may weep while apologizing to his victims or their families during a trial's sentencing phase, you can't know whether they're tears of remorse or of self-pity.

And I think I've heard that some porn stars think about playing with their pet dog, or eating candy, while they're "acting."

Ultimately, until brain science gets more advanced, I can't tell what's going on inside your head and vice-versa, whether your face and microgestures are considered expressive or impassive.

Putting that aside, though, we can distinguish between performers who make us feel admiration for their skill as performers vs. performers who make us feel, period.

Like the probably apocryphal saying that when the ancient Roman orator Cicero spoke, people would say "How well he speaks," but when Greek orator Demosthenes spoke, people would say "Let us march on Sparta."

That, for me, is the difference between Pavarotti and Domingo. It could be that Pavarotti was feeling powerfully moved when he sang, while Domingo thought of eating candy. But many listeners have felt as I have about what we experience and feel when listening to these two operatic tenors.

And there's a whole school of thought that advocates how art should not make you feel deeply, since that can often be distressing, after all (think of the grim choral ending of Threepenny opera, which points out that the hero's near-magical rescue from the gallows doesn't happen in real life). Instead it argues for aesthetic distance--art through binoculars--in which you're amused, diverted, entertained, but not gut-wrenched or even overjoyed. Just pleased. That's exactly what the ancient Greek Epicurean school of philosophy taught, saying you should avoid life's peaks because you spend most of your life in the valleys and those peak experiences ruin the valley time.

"How well she sings" vs. "I wept."

Though that varies by viewer. Jackie has the latter effect on my, but the former effect on my brother, for example. Her singing makes him feel close to nothing, even though he recognizes her skill.

Poor guy.

Can you quantify this? I can imagine coming up with some kind of quantification of what looks like emotional expressiveness, based on microgestural indices from taking readings off the 300-odd facial muscles humans have.

Or you can go at it sociologically. Say, interview 100 opera lovers after having them view opera clips of Pavarotti and Domingo singing several of the same arias, and see whether you get statistically significant results, using standard statistical methodologies.

Verisimo and bel canto schools of opera focus on emotional engagement and beautiful singing for its own sake respectively. Same thing is true for pop music, with the fun stuff vs. the heartfelt stuff. Like Christina Aguilerea's Genie in a Bottle vs. You're Beautiful (I think that's its title).

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What should teenage singers wear?

A classical music blog included an entry by a music teacher critiquing Jackie Evancho's performance on the Queen Latifah daytime talk show on December 3, 2013. Here's my response to some things she said about Jackie's outfit on the show.

re: “The outfit was rather “grown-up” for a 13 year old girl. Charlotte Church has just spoken out about this kind of thing. Jackie take care, keep hold of your innocence.”

Seriously? True, she didn’t look Amish. And someone in the Taliban would be appalled. But if you think her outfit was what Charlotte Church was talking about, that’s preposterous. Church was talking about Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna–musical celebrities who have appeared in public nearly naked. And of course Church was talking about her own previous choices, which she now blames on others.

Here’s an easy way to see this. Google “Charlotte Church,” select “images,” and scan the first hundred or so photos. Then scan “Jackie Evancho” and do likewise. There’s no comparison, even if you exclude the images of Church after she was an adult.

Without a doubt the music industry looks for beautiful singers who are also beautiful in appearance, and then seeks to “sell” that beauty. It’s the profit motive at work. But Church seems to be glossing over the fact that, as she now says, she didn’t want to be singing what she was singing, didn’t want the innocent image she first had, and did want to do whatever she felt like–as her adolescent antics soon revealed. I think you’ll find that Evancho feels more self-actualized and less rebellious than Church felt at the same age, and thus is less inclined to act out.

You warn Jackie to “keep hold of your innocence.” Did you know that she wears a Purity ring? I think at this time she’s the only professional singer not in the Christian music genre who does so. No one wants to see her married and pregnant at 16, but at the same time no one should seek to keep her a child either. She is not a child now, and never will be again. She’s an adolescent. A teenager. And I think most would agree that she dresses toward the conservative end of all American 13 year olds.
It is as bad for teenagers to be forced back into childhood as it is for them to be forced forward into adulthood. Society still hasn’t outgrown the peculiar notions of girls as fragile porcelain dolls perpetrated by Anglo-American Victorian culture. Nobody matures instantly. They have to somehow bridge the difference between innocent childhood and knowledgeable adulthood.

We should all hope that Jackie Evancho gets the support she needs to make that transition, such that when she can sign contracts herself and is legally responsible for herself, that she then has the tools and maturity she needs to do so. Gaining those tools can’t start at 17.9 years of age.

re: high heels make it hard to breathe for singing

So opera stars always wear flats when they sing at concerts? That’s not my recollection. But perhaps that’s a compromise they make. Do you have any scientific evidence for this assertion? A link perhaps? I’m not saying you’re wrong but I’d like to see more than a simple assertion of this.
[I'll add a link if and when it's forthcoming]

Why there's a Chinese space station in "Gravity"

Yes, there's a Chinese space station in gravity, complete with an escape pod that figures in the story.

Every other structure that movie has in space, orbiting around Earth, is really up there. Maybe not exactly where the movie puts them, but up there nonetheless.

Except for that Chinese space station. No such, and none will be for quite a while. They have a little cargo vessel in orbit that they call a space station, but it doesn't even have a bathroom. It's a placemark, basically, with a pressurized interior equivalent to a cube 8 ft. x 8 ft. x 8 ft.

So what's the full-fledged Chinese nonexistent space station in Gravity doing there? The story doesn't require a Chinese space station per se.

Here's why: Gravity is going to sell  a ton of theater tickets in China, which has an urban population at least as big as America has. And you don't get to show films in China unless China's nominally Communist oligarchs greenlight them, with a max for big Hollywood films of 34 a year.

But now, courtesy of that marvel of nonexistent Chinese ingenuity and tech savvy, you can be assured that Gravity will be on the Chinese gravy train.

Especially since the Chinese act of orbital vandalism--blowing up one of their satellites, creating a cloud of dangerous space junk--is attributed instead to the Russians in Gravity. Wouldn't do to mention something bad the Chinese have done in space.

You can be assured that every Hollywood blockbuster you see going forward will incorporate some paen to those wonderful, wonderful Chinese people/government/culture/technology. No more Chinese bad guys--they can now be Russian, since the Russian moviegoing public is a fraction of China's (and Russia doesn't limit the number of American films that can be shown there).

"Product placement" used to mean the hero drives a Ford or uses an Apple laptop. Now the idea has expanded to include whole countries.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Gravity--no spoilers review

Gravity's setting is in space, around space shuttles and space stations and the Hubble telescope and the like.

Gravity's arc is a fallible human struggling to survive against overwhelming odds.

The fallible human is played by Sandra Bullock, who benefits from being one of the most-liked actors in America, and from being a veteran of movies if not of space--meaning she knows how to convey inner turmoil without chewing the scenery.
I wouldn't be surprised if she won an Oscar for this role.

On the other hand, the film is a funny experience for people like me who are kind of technical--it's as full of "naw that couldn't really happen"' elements as Star Wars, yet at any given moment it LOOKS so doggone realistic...Most of the bits from which the film is constructed are pretty believable; just not how they're strung together.

Scientists have been slamming all the errors in the film--and then saying how much they loved it. It's that kind of movie. Like a dog you have that keeps chewing your shoes up but is so adorable you forgive it. And it's certainly a white-knuckle thrill ride that keeps 'em coming through the whole film.

Anyone who admires Sandra Bullock and/or George Clooney should see it; anyone who's a space/NASA fan should see it--BUT you really, really, really have to treat it as romantic fable with great-looking hardware trimmings, and give your sense of disbelief the night off before you walk into the theater. It's also a must-see for those who're interested in what the state of the art is with CGI.

For all that I found it moving. Even though what happens could never happen in reality, it is emotionally honest. I usually don't like films that are full of technical wowsers, but I forgave Gravity its debits because of its merits. And the first three or four minutes of the film, with no music in the soundtrack, just showing us Bullock's character on a spacewalk trying to fix a thorny hardware/software problem, might have been my favorite scene in the movie. But then I'm a space buff.

I saw it with a hardboiled software engineer from India who loathed it (he likes art films), a Russian art therapist with a BS in mathematics who kinda liked it, and my accounting manager wife who loves sci fi gave it a B-, calling it The Perils of Pauline in modern garb.

I notice on it got super high ratings by both critics and viewers, though most critics know less about space than I do, so in this case I have to take their fulsome praise with a grain of salt.

I bet when Sandra Bullock read the script she said YES! instantly. What a showcase for her talents. She absolutely carries the movie. It's hers.

My wife was annoyed by one scene where we see her peel off her spacesuit, winding up in her skivvies--reminding me of Barbarella's eponymous character's zero-G strip decades ago (and I'm sure the director was thinking of that).

I was less annoyed....

Very few 49 year olds look as good as she does. I realize it's part of her profession to look good--personal trainer, personal dietician etc. no doubt--but it still takes dedication to look like that. But appreciate it while you can, since she's in a space suit through most of the film.

One side note--my favorite Star Trek episodes happened entirely in space (and not on that wretched cheaty Holodeck), and this film's spacious (so to speak) setting is also lovely. It's a joy just to watch what's on the screen. And, like so few other space films, things don't whoosh! as they zip by you. The only other space films that obey this simple fact are 2001, Apollo 13, and Serenity, as best I can recall.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Did Whitney Houston do right or do wrong when she redid the National Anthem back in 1991?

Whitney Houston seriously rearranged the Nation Anthem for a football game in '91. Many loved
what she did. Others said things like this:

"Maybe the composers would be miffed that the simple harmonic structure was changed to please a certain group of people."

The composer of the music was John Stafford Smith, words by Ralph Tomlinson, as a posh drinking song for an English gentlemen's club:

--as Sung at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand
--the Words by RALPH TOMLINSON ESQ R, late President of that SOCIETY

To ANACREON in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou'd be;
When this Answer arriv'd from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
"No longer be mute,
"I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
"And, besides, I'll instruct you like me, to intwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS's Vine.

More verses follow in similar vein.

You can hear it here:

So first we must ask what Mssrs. Smith and Tomlinson would have thought about some tax-dodging enemies of their nation transmogrifying their club's jolly drinking song into a revolutionary anthem.

After that jolt I can't imagine Whitney Houston's morphs adding much injury (from their POV) to what Francis Scott Keys did during the War of 1812.

My personal all-time favorite composer, J.S. Bach, reharmonized many a hymn in his day. Would Hans Leo Hassler have objected to Bach's redo of his beautiful Easter hymn "o haupt voll blut und wunden" from this:

to this?

Hassler's original is lovely. Bach's makes me weep (and I'm not even a Christian).

Note that he rerythm'd that along with changing the harmony, as Whitney did with our anthem.

There is no bright, clear line between "composer" and "interpreter." For me what matters isn't what's different but what moves me. Most National Anthem re-dos make me wince, to be honest. If you're going to mess with a nation's anthem you'd better know what you're doing. But in this case I think Whitney did.

As you can see from the innumerable comments by listeners who said and say how meaningful Whitney's version was--including families of our military who were serving in the Gulf at that time.

Whereas all the miserable perversions of both the anthem and Whitney's revision mostly get comments that put in words what would appear on my old German shepherd's face when I'd try to play the harmonica and he'd desperately paw at the instrument trying to get me to stop. 
And for those who'd like to hear our national anthem done in a way Francis Scott Keys would be more likely to recognize, we now have the Jackie Evancho acapella rendition from Thanksgiving Day, November 11, 2013:
(it had to be distorted some to avoid the NFL's lawyers, who had YouTube suppress the original, for unfathomable reasons)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Jackie Evancho's new role model--Miley Cyrus?

Jackie Evancho is a refined Classical Crossover soprano. Miley Cyrus is a badass rocker. With some things Jackie could learn from.

Not talking about Miley's propensity to deface her own body with big ugly tattoos (as Rihanna has also done), or her raunchy exhibitionism. But my wife's religion teaches us to look for what's worthy/admirable everywhere, not just within the circle of those we approve of in all regards.

And Miley, as of her American Music Awards performance, shows things Jackie would find it useful to pay attention to.
something for the refined soprano to learn from.

1. Miley has a strong voice. It's not beautiful like Jackie's but it is strong--a bit like Martha Raye's was--and Miley knows how to exploit the voice she's got.

2. Her performance was innovative/clever/memorable while staying within her genre. The giant back-projected lipsynching pussycat was very effective, and the way Miley organized the different elements of her performance, from her costumery to the back projected stuff to her gestural repertoire, all were mutually reinforcing and even pertained to the words she was singing.

3. She's kind of fearless. I realize fearlessness is not by itself a survival trait, but I think she uses her bravery to contribute to her genre. At the same time I don't hear about her partying wildly like Lindsay Lohan and her drug-using ilk. I don't heed the scandal rags, but I get the impression that Miley's antics are more performance art than the expressions of personal dissolution as with Lohan and poor Amy Winehouse.

4. Her performance was passionate and vulnerable; not just another "let's party!" anthem as many of her peers stick to.

5. Her outfit, while skimpy, wasn't so much lubricious as showing how incredibly fit she is--something not possible with a dissolute personal lifestyle BTW. And the pussycat pattern resonated with the giant puddy tat singing behind her.

Of course I am not recommending that Jackie dress like or sing like her. Only that there are things to learn from musical innovators in other genres, and Miley is one of those.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Lessons for Classical Crossover singer Jackie Evancho from the American Music Awards

Lessons for Jackie from the American Music Awards (last night)

The band Imagine Dragons added a taiko-ish set of drums to their setup and did some taiko drumming with some choreography during their song
Lesson: bringing in stuff from outside the normal context of the genre. It worked, too.

Miley Cyrus probably did the most innovative performance of the evening, near the end, with a giant puddy tat on a rear projection screen lipsynching her song with her, with a funny/sad tears effect midway and a very Japanese anime-style cat wink at the end.
Lesson: again, bringing in stuff from outside the normal genre boundaries, plus a sense of humor/whimsy. I also noticed that Cyrus isn't half bad as a singer and as a songwriter. Just because she's OTT doesn't mean she isn't creative.

Conversely, Katy Perry performed in Geisha drag (sans the white makeup) at the beginning but didn't use the "look" very creatively, I thought. Not integrated with the music. Pretty but superficial. On the other hand she brought a disabled girl and her family to the show as her guests. That was classy.

Lady Gaga channeled Marilyn Monroe's affair with JFK. Then she had big headlines rear-projected about stuff like "Lady Gaga is fat" "Lady Gaga is washed up."
Lesson: Be careful when you use a murdered major historical figure to obsess about yourself. She'd really thrown herself into the production and the music, but the stuff on the wall behind her made her look small.

Ariana Granda sang a neo-Doo-Wop number dressed in an elegant floor-length gown
Lesson: I think she's one of the classier pop celebs out there right now. I could imagine Ariana and Jackie doing something together at some point. I thought the song and the performance were quite good--and quite tasteful.
Lesson: Don't wear a gown that looks great if you're standing still but which makes you look ridiculous if you're going to be seen walking in it. Ariana won New Artist award and had to totter up onto the stage because she basically couldn't move her legs above the knee. Had to go up the steps one at a time. Reminded me of why they're called Hobble Skirts.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jackie Evancho concert experience

Went to see Jackie Evancho in concert Friday, November 8. I believe comments on this performance apply to most of her concerts until her new CD drops--probably next year--though of course as we approach Christmas no doubt she'll add some seasonal songs.

This review is aimed at people who are fans of young soprano Jackie Evancho. I'll write something else for people who aren't familiar with her work.

If this concert is the template, the new series comprises songs from her CDs Songs from the Silver Screen and Dream with Me—nothing else (with one exception), and no duets, either with another instrument or another singer. One new element has been added: Jackie selecting half a dozen or so kids from the audience to join her onstage, answer a question, and listen to her sing two songs. But wait, there's more: the other new element—and it's a doozy—is the singer.

Jackie is now a young lady. It's not a complete transformation. She talks younger than she sings. But when she's singing in her now-slimmer spaghetti-strap floor length gowns and high heels, and in her teenage voice that's a little weaker on top but even richer and more expressive down below, you can now see more clearly the woman she's rapidly becoming, both in her appearance and in her art.

If she's performing within a few hours' drive of you it's a no brainer: go. If it's farther, requiring an overnight stay and perhaps a flight...I'd go at least once during this new series that I'm guessing will run until her new CD drops. Especially if you've only seen Jackie the child perform.

I will add that seeing her live really is different, even if you've played her CDs and even her DVDs a thousand times. Moreover, seeing her live from good seats is even more different. The last time we saw her was from a balcony far, far away. This time we were in the second row center, for a lot more money. It was worth it.

I didn't do the meet & greet, so others must tell you about that. For my part what I'd like Team E to do is instead or in addition have a 15 minute Q&A from the stage before or after the concert, possibly answering written questions submitted at the start or emailed beforehand by attendees. This is done by many performers we've seen.

Jackie puts on a great show. It's a little rough around the edges, as a show featuring a 13 year old is bound to be (I wouldn't want it to seem all scripted/canned anyway). Some of the orchestral interludes are more successful than ot­hers. It costs more to see Jackie than any other live act we go to, and we've seen a lot of live acts, though mostly on the college circuit.

Nevertheless Jackie has a unique voice, even though she isn't yet doing unique songs. Just as you'll never be able to see Jackie the child again, once Jackie is finished growing and takes her adult form completely, you'll never be able to see Jackie the teen again either. And she is going to be an important, beloved performer for many years, as David Foster said and I concur. So I think you owe it to yourself to see her at least once at this moment in her life and career.

One other thing: the Groupon half price offer was what we needed to persuade two friends to join us at the concert. I've been playing them Jackie YouTube clips for three years to no avail. But they tell me now they get it—even though their seats were pretty far back on the main floor. You may have friends like this, so let me encourage you to encourage them to come see her live. Particularly if they still have young girls in the home—young boys too.


Some more detailed observations (still aimed mostly at current fans of Jackie Evancho):

My wife & I saw Jackie Evancho with a pair of close friends.

Between the four of us we represented the gamut of Jackie's paying customers. I'm a dedicated fan. My wife likes Jackie but not enough to participate in fan forums, and I'm not sure she'd go to a live Jackie concert if it were up to her. She is a Josh Groban fan, though not active on any Groban forums. In general she rather prefers male voices while I rather prefer female voices, though both of us certainly like lots of same-sex-as-ourselves singers.

Our friends wouldn't have come except for the Groupon deal. Though they came away saying they now understood why I like her so much—despite my having played them lots of YouTube clips over the past three years on our home theater with a 46” screen and surround sound. It took seeing her live to seal the deal, and they came to see her live because I twisted their arms.

None of the four of us had had any particular interest in child singers. My wife & I have always loved music. She can read music and has very good pitch sense (years of violin as a child helped). Classical Crossover is one of her favorite genres, along with soft rock and black Motown-era music, and Gospel music plus music of her church (Mormon). I lack her musical training and fine pitch sense but I'm well-traveled musically, with broader musical interests than anyone else I've ever met.

Our friends are less musical. One is Russian and culturally Jewish, and most loves passionate Russian folk/pop that she remembers from her youth. Her primary artistic modality is Russian literature. The other friend is Indian and culturally Hindu, who loves traditional popular and classical Indian music, though he likes a lot of other stuff. We took him to a Mormon Tabernacle Choir performance a few years ago and he loved it. Also a lot of world music, as I've seen from many world music concerts we've attended together.

He loved the beauty of Jackie's voice; the song selections generally appealed to him, though he didn't have a lot to say about particular songs. He loved the simplicity of the presentation. He dislikes Bollywood movies and instead prefers the old Indian tradition of a singer standing there and singing, without being surrounded by razzamatazz.

Our Russian friend most liked Jackie's more emotive/passionate selections, such as Impossible Dream, and she most liked Jackie's lower register. Jackie wore two floor-length dresses for the concert, a blue one and a black & silver one. Our Russian friend preferred the second one, saying it looked more mature and more suited to Jackie's current age and the maturity of her song presentation.

Both dresses had spaghetti straps, and she wore sparkly silver high heeled sandals under both—I'm guessing 3” heels. She wore her hair down and long—to the bottom of her shoulder blades I'd say—in a style that tended to slip towards sort of covering her right eye, such that she frequently reached up to move it back.

We had tickets in the second row just off-center, while they were in the back third of the first floor. The tickets said “Orchestra” but it was far enough that our Indian friend felt he'd made a mistake in not bringing binoculars.

We've attended many concerts with them, and in general we all like being maybe 10 rows back in the center. This was the first time I've really wanted to be close to the stage, and I'm glad we were. Our friends certainly wanted to be closer than they were.

Neither of them had any complaints about Jackie selecting over half a dozen children and having them come to the stage for two songs. They found it charming. We did two, though being in the second row we could easily see all the kids' expressions and body language, which helped a lot I thought. If I'd been off in the cheap seats I don't think I'd have found it as charming.

The kids she picked ranged in age from three to eleven, I reckon. Mostly girls. Once they were all up there she asked them to express a wish and then got the answer from each in turn. One was so terrified she couldn't get a word out, but when her grandma came up to take her back to her seat she refused and stayed for the whole two songs and patter.

Jackie was very big sister-y through this part. As she sang when they were on the stage seated around her she kept making eye contact with them. When she sent the kids back to their seats after the second song she momentarily forgot her place in the program, seeming to think she was due to sing another song. But then she looked down at the playlist taped to the stage and realized it was time for the intermission. She waved to the audience, smiling in slight embarrassment, then walked offstage quickly. She seemed at ease in her heels and in manuvering with a floor-length dress over those heels. Both dresses were much less flouncy than in past years. Both had spaghetti straps for a somewhat more mature affect, though still age-appropriate by all but the most puritanical standards.

My wife noticed that Jackie slightly missed a high note on one of the songs, and in general we both noticed that her top end didn't seem as effortless as the last time we saw her perform a year and a half ago, at Davies Hall in San Francisco. It's possible that at this point in time she's a mezzo, though of course that could change later. I wonder whether she should transpose some of her songs down a note or two (as long as that doesn't push the song's low notes out of scope of course)? I don't know the answer, but the thought did occur to me.

Let me reassure readers that these issues were all minor quibbles. All four of us were glad we'd come to the concert, and left feeling like we'd gotten our money's worth—and for us (especially my wife & me) it was a lot—more than we've ever paid for a live performance. The kind of concerts we normally attend are at the two major universities in our area (Stanford and UC Berkeley), and tickets there are generally a third the cost of Jackie's. And we aren't rolling in dough. So saying we'd gotten our money's worth doesn't come lightly. Mostly our discretionary budget goes for scuba diving trips to southeast Asia, partly because it's a lot cheaper there even with the airfare.

That said, I wouldn't pay to see her again until she has new material. She announced at the beginning that she'd be singing songs from Dream with Me and Songs from the Silver Screen, and that's all she did. I think she's also pared down the orchestra a bit. I think it was around two dozen musicians, while at Davies Hall my memory tells me it was closer to three dozen.

Also there were no duets, neither with singers nor with instruments. Nor did she do any of the songs she sings as duets on her CDs. Variety was provided by the orchestra doing numbers through the evening.

The least successful was a thunderous instrumental interpretation of Queen's rock epic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Maybe they didn't have time enough time to rehearse it, but it was off enough to make my wife & I look at each other & wince occasionally. My rhythmic sense is as sharp as my wife's pitch sense, and we both heard wowsers through the piece. Most important was the fact that the orchestra wasn't quite on top of the rhythms and rythmic dynamics required for this kind of music. I've seen this issue with classical musicians before—of just not being sharp rhythmically, and as a consequence kind of galumphing through a rock piece.

More later.


1. orchestral number -- Cavellerea Rusticana

2. Pure Imagination

3. When you wish upon a star

4. Ombra mai fu

5. orchestral interlude -- Pirates of the Caribbean

6. To where you are [not from Dream with Me or Songs from the Silver Screen--the one exception]

7. Reflection

8. The Lord's Prayer

9. [intermission]

10. Lovers (sans Asian instruments)

11. (brings kids on stage) My heart will go on

12. Imaginer (ushers kids offstage after this)

13. orchestral interlude (iffy rendition of Queen's magnum opus) Bohemian Rhapsody - yeah, it was a little rough. The performance I originally sent him was really cool.

14. Se (aka Cinema Paradiso)

15. Impossible Dream (dedicated to her mother)

16. Encore: Music of the night



re: Jackie's effect

Music evolved from something very like the way wolves vocalize together before going out on the hunt--as tribal reification (reinforcing the sense of shared lives, shared purpose, shared values). It has a second, unrelated evolutionary source: demonstration of fitness as a mate. Most pop music evokes the latter. Jackie evokes the former. As such she taps deeply into our innate tribalism--a "I'm part of something bigger than myself, something I honor...and need" strongly.

So her music is more than music. 


My Russian friend said this in response to my review, entered here verbatim except for her friend's name:

Mostly agree, but want to clarify some points: 
- I don't think it is accurate to describe me as preferring folk/pop, since the actual music you're referring to is neither, and very far from both. I would say i prefer ethnic music - starting from French chanson, Argentinian tango, Russian romances, Portuguese fado, Spanish flamenco, etc, all the ways to Japanese Taiko drums and/or American Broadway. And i do enjoy occasional opera or a classic piece, especially if it's an already familiar one. 
Although, being more of a visual creature, i do prefer ballet, or Fantasia's multi-modal approach:) 

- Both me and [my Indian friend] didn't see much value into kids-on-stage part of a show, besides the fact that Jackie really enjoyed it - then of course, why shouldn't she have some fun, too. But it didn't do much for me, may be because i was too far to see the faces.

- My main beef was about the songs selection - it is no wonder, giving my tastes, that i preferred songs filled with more passion and energy, and wished for even more of those. My favorite was Lovers, followed by Impossible Dream and an old favorite from Phantom of the Opera. 
I think i would also enjoy occasional change of pace, a fast tempo song, or an attempt of some humor, which this time, i think, the orchestra tried to provide. 
As I recall, [my Indian friend] said that it all sounded like a one long melancholy song to him (albeit a very beautiful one).

Saturday, August 10, 2013

re: Should all of Jackie Evancho's songs use all her singing range?

On a Jackie Evancho forum I was talking about the need for her to perform songs that exploited her range. I said:

Giving a songwriter Jackie to work with would be like giving a violinist a Stradivarius to play.

It is a double-edged bow, though. A song that fully exploits the "instrument" that is Jackie--from a songwriter's POV--would be a song few others could sing, whereas if they write a great one-octave song with catchy hooks and the like, a million singers could perform it.

But the songwriters Team E wants are the songwriters who want to write for the Stradivarius.

Then a fan said he didn't see why Jackie had to avoid the normal one-octave song (and most songs are pretty much one-octave songs) and only sing song that exploited her whole range every time. This was in response to me talking about the need for her to do wide-range songs. My reply:

I don't understand the logic of requiring that everything she does show off everything she can do, either. That's why I didn't say that.

Mariah Carey is a good comparison, since she has--or at least had--a very wide range, like Jackie. And I don't think all her songs always show off all she can do...just the ones we remember. Just the ones that set her apart.

I said that the Lion King song (that she sang for the PBS Capitol 4th celebration on the 4th of July 2013, and which isn't a wide-ranging song) was probably appropriate for the occasion, and that something like Nessun Dorma wouldn't have been.

At the same time, Jackie fans should understand that it didn't distinguish her as much as a more fully Jackie-exploiting song would have done. This fact isn't incompatible with accepting the limitations of the occasion.

"To make the best of life as it is--and as it can be made to be."

As for what's "the most important," it's true that I've heard plenty of wide-range songs that weren't good songs, and a lot of one-octave pop songs that were.

But if Jackie's next three albums comprised nothing but one-octave songs--no matter how well-written and Jackie-appropriate they were otherwise--it would be like seeing a concert on the loveliest grand piano on Earth, played by the best piano player, but where the whole concert only used, eight of its 88 keys.

I can't believe any of Jackie's fans have such a tin ear that they'd find that acceptable.

re: practicing one's art, using Jackie Evancho as an example

A Jackie Evancho fan said: "If they need a tremendous amount of practicing to play a difficult technical piece then they aren't a prodigy."

I replied:

Yessish...but we have to acknowledge that out of all the singing that's out there, Jackie performs within a very narrow range.

I've no doubt that she could quickly master, say, Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras" (Western classical), or "Summertime" from Gershwin's light opera "Porgy and Bess." Or anything from the American Songbook--anything.

But I'm equally sure that even if the Queen of Night's big aria from "Magic Flute" were pitched down to a mezzo range, Jackie couldn't do it with her current chops. I've no doubt that she could figure out how to do it at some point of course.

With a lot of study/training, though. (That is, even if she could pick it up by herself without instruction, she'd still need to put in many hours of work to get there.)

I could name dozens of songs that she also couldn't pick up without a whole lotta work. Tom Lehrer's "The Elements," in which the singer has to rattle off the names of all the element in the Periodic Table (as of 1960) to a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song tune--with a light, jovial tone. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' crazed, bluesy "I put a spell on you." Annie Ross's Mach 5-velocity part of the Lambert Hendricks & Ross jazz classic trio "Airigin." The ferocious "Marat/Sade" that Judy Collins nailed in one of her early albums. Janis Joplin's Dionysian war cry "Ball and Chain" as she did it live at the Monterey Pop Festival.

And that's all Western music that uses the familiar Western tempered scale. She's probably never even heard anything like "Kalimankou Denkou (The Evening Gathering)" ( ).

This is a slow song, like Jackie likes. And it doesn't require a big range. But if you listen closely, you'll see that the sound-shaping is extremely sophisticated and like nothing in the Western music Jackie's familiar with. Ditto many of the harmonies with the chorus. And it's not just exotic. I find the piece profoundly moving...poignant and evocative of the Balkan mountains it comes from.

Or the exquisite ghazal "Yuhn na thi" ("My love and I were not destined to be together in this life"), as sung by the queen of Indian Classical Crossover (as it exists there), Asha Bosle ( ).

It is, again, a slow song (like all ghazals), without a wide range. And again I guarantee you that as brilliant a musician as Jackie is, it would take her a looong time to learn how to sing this competently.

There are two Jackie Evanchos: the musical interpretive genius (MIG-Jackie) and the normal 13 year old girl (N13-Jackie). Her parents are obviously fully committed to nurturing both Jackies.

This interferes with the amount of practice MIG-Jackie needs to get to the next level. Meanwhile N13-Jackie reasonably argues that she's packing them in at this level of attainment and there's the trampoline and the pool and her friends.

My proposed solution is to expose Jackie to a wider variety of music. She needs to know what's really out there. And that might inspire her, help her see where she wants to take her musical life.

I have no idea where that is, apart from thinking that doing something to get more 18-35 year olds into her audiences--something that also satisfies her musically--could easily become a priority for her out of all her options.

She might also feel a little constrained about experimenting when doing what she's now doing is supporting her household. Here again I have no idea whether this enters into her calculations. It's just a possibility.

re: Classical music at church

re: classical music at church

I understand that many, many churches now use "Christian rock" / "Praise music" instead of hymns. Most of it is pallid feel-good stuff I can't stand. At least the equivalent that the black Gospel churches do is interesting to listen to.

The Mormon church still uses mostly 4-part hymns with a hymnal and an organ accompaniment, so people can listen to at least quasi-classical music and work on their part singing. At least half the hymns are stodgy old-timey songs but the other half is pretty good--there's even one harmonization by Bach, and some gorgeous Thanksgiving hymns dating back to the 17th century.

On the other hand, I attended a Catholic funeral a few months ago and the music comprised us all listening to a soloist accompanying himself on a guitar. Our job was just to sit there passively. And the music was "modern" Praise stuff. It wasn't bad, I have to admit, but I missed the "audience participation" element.

In the 19th century all the churches had good stuff--lots of songs about Death and our Eternal Reward or Punishment. They got serious. But now that death has gotten so less frequent and so more explicable, church music--even in mainstream Protestant churches--has gotten to be more what I'd call Happy Face music.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Is Jackie Evancho a prodigy?

A prodigy is someone who exhibits some kind of skill(s) considerably earlier than most other people do.

A genius is someone who exhibits some kind of skill(s) that most other people can't do regardless of their age/training/experience.

You can be a prodigy but not a genius, a genius but not a prodigy, or both.
And if you are a genius, it might be in just a narrow area--or in several--or in many--leaving you pretty normal otherwise.

I believe Jackie is both in the area of vocal interpretation of Classical Crossover music. She seems quite intelligent in other areas, but hasn't demonstrated actual genius elsewhere. She strikes me as a genius in this specific area because I think she does what she does better than any adult I've heard--not in every single aspect of CC singing, but overall.

Seems like a lot of singers who are also quite intelligent develop several areas, as did, for example, Linda Ronstadt (pop/rock, light opera, Mexican traditional) and Renee Fleming (opera, jazzy pop).

So here's a question--if Jackie goes that way and develops a second area besides CC, what do you suppose it will be?

Are gifted kids' parents always gifted? Are Jackie Evancho's?

On a Jackie Evancho fan forum I once said "when her mother speaks for her I listen, but reserve judgment."

Jackie Evancho's mother Lisa is revered by nearly all of Jackie's fans, so I felt constrained to explain that reservation:

Because parents don't always know everything about their kids. None of us are omniscient. When I was teaching gifted students I belonged to the California Association for the Gifted (a support group), and one study I saw compared the assessment of teachers, parents, and test on evaluating whether their kids were gifted.

Teachers came in at about 50%--mostly because, I think, they couldn't tell the difference between docility and intelligence, or between unruliness and stupidity. Bright kids forced to plod along at the pace of the rest get bored, and many then start making trouble for the teachers.

And parents? Off the top of my head I recall them coming in at around 2/3 to 3/4. Meaning a substantial number of them didn't realize their kid was gifted. Mike E said honestly that he and Lisa didn't realize Jackie was gifted until the grandparents and the stunned audiences at local performances told them otherwise.

When you're a parent it's tough to be objective. You want so much for your kid...or you get involved in power struggles with your kid...or you try to get a do-over for your own thwarted dreams with your kid...or you see your kids at a reflection of and on you rather than seeing your kid for who he is.

Having kids is humbling. So much of who they are was set in stone at the moment of conception, and more was locked in long before they could even start talking.

Lisa said a number of things that gave me high hopes for the parents' parenting of Jackie. That Lisa believed kids shouldn't be totally insulated from the harsh realities of life. That she wanted to support Jackie's childhood AND her aspirations. That she tried to be really honest with Jackie about her singing. That they watch The Walking Dead together. That she took the kids to see Phantom of the Opera when Jackie was just 7.

This gives me a picture of a warm but not sugarcoated parenting style. Hard to ask for better.

But none of us can know if everything Lisa says about Jackie is true. Kids grow up and surprise us. I'm sure Jackie will surprise Lisa at some point if she hasn't already.

So when I say I reserve judgment on what Lisa says about Jackie, it's not a slight of Lisa in any way. Just an acknowledgement that even the best parent isn't a telepath, and human being are complex organisms--especially geniuses/prodigies, because there's so much horsepower packed into those little kid bodies.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Listening to musical experts tell me what's wrong with Jackie Evancho

re: "talking down to professionals"

My professional expertise is not music, but writing & editing and associated stuff. And I've seen my share of people who confused basic literacy with any kind of real expertise. But I've also seen many professionals in my field of expertise who had all the requisite credentials yet who were unable to write things others would wish to read.

I've no doubt this is true in music as well. For example, the church I attend has two recording-quality organists who are members of the congregation (benefit of living in the college town of a prestigious university). One isn't quite as technically accurate as the other but plays with more heart, and I prefer to listen to him play.

What's "heart?" I'm not an expert at this, so I may not have the language to describe it, but we all know the difference between the sheet music and the performance--even when the sheet music is exquisitely detailed as to the composer's intentions.,

I don't want to talk down to professionals but sometimes it's called for when the pros in question go outside their mandate, or use what my wife's religion calls "unrighteous dominion." Or when they become like the distinction I heard made between music lovers and audiophiles: music lovers listen to the music; audiophiles listen to the flaws.

I played some of Jackie Evancho's music for the two professional musicians I referred to above. One was awed. The other only heard the flaws. Both are themselves expert performers, though neither is a singer. But I think the difference is applicable.

One understood why grown people weep when they hear her sing. The other did not. I'm not saying he should have wept. Neither did, in fact. But as a proficient musician he should have understood why so many weep, and he did not grasp that.

That is the problem with professional expertise. It can help some with natural gifts hone them tremendously. But it can also help someone without those natural gifts gain enough technical expertise to get into a position of power over others--performers and even paying customers--but without the whatever-it-is some are born with, others not.

It's what the move Amadeus was about. I'm not saying it maps exactly to Mozart's life. But it does talk about this difference admirably. The Salieri of the movie had all the right credentials, and was a pretty good performer...but Mozart had the real thing.

And when an expert reveals himself or herself to be a Salieri (again, the Salieri of the movie), they make themselves vulnerable to criticism, despite their expertise.

When it comes to singing, as a very amateur singer (bass chorus for Carmina Burana at UCLA and Stanford's community chorus), who can't finish a verse of a familiar hymn without dropping down one full step usually if I try to sing acapella, I can hardly claim personal expertise--just enough to kind of understand what the pros mean when they talk about portamento, passagio, vibrato, phrasing, tone, pitch, breath control, and other aspects of the singer's art.

But like many music lovers I've been listening closely to a wide variety of music for many decades. Just as we listeners should attend to what music professionals opine about, the pros should listen to the music lovers closely as well. In part because we pay their bills ultimately. But more importantly because a lot of careful listening confers its own expertise.

With Jackie Evancho I'm certainly aware of her technical imperfections. For example, while singing the National Anthem on the Capitol Fourth a few weeks ago she snuck in an extra inhalation just before the high note at the end. She won't do that as an adult, I'm sure.

I also understand the limitations of the light classics--currently called Classical Crossover--that she now specializes in performing. As I've said elsewhere, I don't normally listen to CC or light classics. I don't dislkie the genre but I listen to music to be thrilled, not anesthetized.

However, I do find Jackie Evancho's performances thrilling. I also love the singing of many others in other genres, so it's not like I only listen to Ms. Evancho. Singing and instruments too. Recently I spent hours getting myself acquainted with obscure (to most Westerners) guitarlike instruments such as the theorbo and the guitarra Portuguesa, for example. And a while earlier, listening to dozens of renditions of the prelude to Bach's first cello suite (Jann Wenn-Sing was my pick BTW), on modern and baroque cellos (plus the violincello da spalla), and the string bass too.

So I listen to Ms. Evancho in a very broad context, and I hope that as she grows her musical horizons will expand.

That said, I'd be impressed if any of the voice experts opining about Ms. Evancho had any theories as to why grown men and women weep when Jackie Evancho sings, when few other singers--even very good ones--have that effect.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

How to use Hunger Games to teach your teen stuff

Does this picture break the 4th Wall for you?
I could name a hundred films I'd rather discuss with teenagers. But those aren't films most teenagers would freely choose to watch. This is. At least where female teens and tweens are concerned. And smart teen males will want to be knowledgeable about the films girls like to see if they're eager to make friends with girls. Dragging dates to Fast & Furious XXXV will not do the trick unless you're dating Danica Patrick...

Hunger Games is good discussion fodder because it's very, very popular; it's part of a trilogy of books and a coming tetralogy of films; and it has enough good points to build on (along with bad points to deal with).

How you approach it depends on the teen, of course. There are people who respond to any attempt at discussion with idiocies like "Why do you have to analyze everything? Why can't you just enjoy it?" People who say this may not be stupid (though that is a distinct possibility). They may be intellectually insecure or lazy, and trying to conceal this in an application of "offense is the best defense."

If the kid is young enough you can make a post-viewing discussion a precondition for letting them see "Hunger Games." If they're older...well, you may just have a dud on your hands. Sorry about that.

I do know people who consider any discussion of works of art a waste of time because they think the purpose of most art is frivolous--killing time, frothy entertainment. This can be worked with, though it's still hard. But let's get back to "Hunger Games" in particular.

Since I'm talking about talking about this film, now I'm going to include spoilers freely. Don't go on until you've seen it unless you don't care. Forewarned...

==========MANY SPOILERS FOLLOW ===========

There are two equally valid ways to talk about a movie like "Hunger Games:" as a film, and as philosophy--that is, as a reflection on life.

As a film, "Hunger Games" is an example of how you can tackle turning a book into a film--and in particular how you can make a film that coheres as a movie while at the same time leading to more films in the series (every TV series faces this challenge).

Practically speaking, a film can't be any longer than "Hunger Games" is. So what does your teen think of the choices the film makes in what to include from the book and what to leave out? If your teen thinks something left out should have been left in--such as, say, Rue's developing relationship with Catniss during the training period--what should be left out in order to make room for that?

Then, considering what is the same in book and movie, what about the fact that Catniss winds up not having to kill anyone we like, or anyone defenseless whether we like them or not? She does have to make a tough decision when it comes to, in effect, being ordered to kill Peeta. But that's it. This is an example of a plot designed to look tough that actually is not so tough. What if she'd had to choose between killing Rue or Peeta? It could have easily worked out that way.

Ask your teen what she would have done at each crucial decision point in Catniss's story. You can also see whether she caught the fact that Catniss doesn't love Peeta? She likes him, she's grateful to him for his acts of kindness earlier in their lives. But gratitude ain't love.

Also, it seems like Catniss hadn't been teaching Primrose how to hunt. Why not? Would your teen have made that choice? If your teen had been in Primrose's position, would she have asked Catniss to teach her? [I'm only talking about the movie here.]

Taking a step back, is this future society plausible? For example, if the Capitol City denizens are so decadent, who are the highly disciplined military/police forces? They aren't lounging around decadently. The Roman Empire wound up hiring "barbarians" for their military--who wound up taking over eventually. A college-bound teen might want to explore this to see what are the parallels between real empires like the Roman one and the world of Hunger Games.

And what about the scientists, engineers and technicians needed to maintain a very, very advanced technological infrastructure? That all takes discipline and hard work, not dilettantish decadence. Where are these people?

And, like, what are those killer dogs made of? CGI can't bite people. That's tech way beyond anything we can imagine.

A lot of teens, fed on a rich diet of CGI-stuffed scifi/action movies, may not realize what's science and what's fiction. Your teen should realize that those lethal out-of-thin-air dogs represented tech waaay beyond most other stuff in the film. That doesn't make it invalid to use; but you should realize the difference, and so should your teen.

Which brings us to using Hunger Games to help your teen learn about the art of movies. You can talk about casting, screenwriting, cinematography, lighting, sound, music, editing, CGI, direction, mise en scene--even to technical details like scene transitions (cuts, wipes, fade out/fade in). And you can talk about the Fourth Wall (that divides the audience from the "stage"). And about POV (Point of View).

Does Hunger Games ever break the Fourth Wall, intentionally or otherwise (it's intentional when the actor turns to the audience and addresses them directly; it's unintentional when the shadow of a boom mike drifts into view). What's Hunger Games' POV? Are we seeing everything through Catniss's eyes? (we aren't--but where and when are we not, and is that a good idea here?).

What about the last fight on top of the Cornocopia, when the Evil Boy makes a little existential speech about knowing he's dying, regretting the fact that his whole life has been about training to be a killer, but thinking he might as well kill once more? Why did the screenwriter include that little speech? Why? Did it complicate things for Catniss, who has trouble killing anyway? Does it tell us more about this society? Does it make the Evil Boy a little sympathetic, and is that a good thing?

Look at the credits at the end with your teen. See if she knows what the different jobs are. Look up the ones you don't recognize on Wikipedia or suchlike. Who's a Best Boy? A Key Grip? A Second Unit director? See what locations were used.

Some say casting is 80% of a movie. What would the film have been like if they'd used someone besides Jennifer Lawrence as Catniss? I heard Chloe Grace Moretz wanted the part. Would she have been too young? She's one of the most athletic young female stars in Hollywood, though of course Lawrence is no slouch. But she's also, like, half a foot shorter. Would that have made a difference?

It's not like Hunger Games is a towering masterpiece of a movie. But it isn't terrible either. And assuming it's one of your teen's favorite movies, you can use it as a gateway to thinking about society, real world morality, the future, and filmmaking.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Now that a new generation knows how great Joss Whedon is from The Avengers, it's time to introduce them to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

You do not want Buffy looking at you this way.

The challenge today is how to spread the word to those who still don't know how great this show is.

The trouble with showing them the two-episode Pilot first is that it's not as artful as the show gets later on, and it's shot in 16mm (grainy) on a shoestring budget. They do amazing things to work around the budget limitations (such as using placement of different colored lighting and key lights to create the sensation of depth to overcome the "flatness" of 16mm film stock), but production values soar later on. And people care about production values, even though few even know what the term means.

The trouble with showing them anything else is that the show is so serialized that showing people anything later necessarily involves spoilers--and having to explain a lot of things that would otherwise fly over their head. You'll have to make a judgment call about what would suit your friend best.

For the art film crowd, "The Body" is the obvious choice. That's also good for someone who isn't a big fantasy/scifi fan, since there's so little of the supernatural in the episode. For an Avengers fan, maybe "Hush," which is a tour de force of screenwriting after all. For a Twilight fan, maybe "Buffy vs. Dracula" would be both appropriate and something of an antidote. For a Glee fan, the Buffy musical episode "Once More with Feeling" is the obvious choice.

I like lots of current shows, especially Orphan Black and--though it may be losing a bit of its mojo--Dr. Who, and even my favorite guilty pleasure, Vampire Diaries. But Buffy had Whedon and Gellar. Whedon has never had a vessel as perfect for him as Sarah Michelle Gellar (though Avengers' Black Widow/Scarlett Johansson is a solid second, deserving of her own backstory film), and Gellar sure hasn't had another writer/director like Whedon--she's done nothin' but clunkers since. The two together in Buffy was and remains a uniquely fruitful collaboration.

show is. A new generation of fans may come in from the success of Whedon's The Avengers. But what episode to show them first?

Why don't I watch Glee any more?

It got preachy. Now it seems to spend most of its time trying to convince the kind of people who'd never watch it that everyone should be judged by the content of their character, not their color/gender orientation/medical condition/weight/home life etc. etc. etc.

The problem is that the kind of people who do watch Glee already agree. So they're preaching to the choir, with anti-stereotypes that have become as stereotypical as the stereotypes they're combatting. The Crippled Guy; The Sensitive Gay Guy; The Girl With Downs Syndrome; The Fat Girl; The Asian Couple; the Black Guy and so forth.

They don't come across as individuals, but rather as representatives of some category of humanity that the writers think have gotten a raw deal.

It's like the 13th Century Everyman plays, with each character named for a trait--Everyman, Lust, Anger, etc. Hiss the villain, cheer the hero. Bo-ring.

Not to mention how much the show's music represents the tastes of 40-something male homosexuals rather than contemporary high school students. Retro much?

Ellen DeGeneres first came out when she had a sitcom, which she proceeded to destroy by using every episode as a soapbox. But she learned her lesson, and her daytime show is hugely popular. She doesn't hide who she is in the slightest; she just doesn't make it the show's prime focus. The Glee team should go to Ellen for advice.

Glee should focus on the music actual high school students today actually like. Its casting should be based on interesting people rather than didactic propaganda objectives.

Maybe they could get Joss Whedon to give them a plot arc for the next season...he was able to take a hackneyed genre--the superhero action movie--and turn it into something actually interesting (i.e. The Avengers). Together, Ellen and Joss could really turn this show around.

Oh, and drop the NY suplot. Either spin it off or forget it. Personally I'm sooo over Lea Michelle's character. Glee isn't Smash. And now Smash simply isn't. Might be a hint.

Lastly, one thing that could really shake things up would be to do a ballad week and bring in (for just one or two episodes) 13 year old singer Jackie Evancho, who has a voice so beautiful--regardless of age--that many grown people weep when she sings.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Orphan Black--no-spoilers review

If ever a TV show needed a no-spoilers review it's this one. The trouble is, everything's a spoiler when "Orphan Black" is concerned, and the less you know going in, the more fun you'll have with this show's onrushing tidal wave of plot twists and turns.

So--what can I tell you that will let you know whether you want to see this or not without spilling all those beans? Well, I'll try.

1. Don't see this if you need glossy, upbeat Hollywoody science fiction. There isn't a single Dudly Do-Right in the entire cast of characters. Everyone has issues. Everyone has baggage. Problems can't always be solved by sweet reason, Star Trek style. And who's a Good Guy or a Bad Guy isn't always clear, even when you learn just who and what they are. And with some of the more damaged characters, they can't necessarily be fixed--ever. Some things you can't come back from. And problems don't have quick fixes. That is, there's no pandering to your inner 12 year old. This is a show for grown-ups.

There is hope, and character growth, and goodness--but not unmixed, and not come by easily. Think about Egon Schindler of Schindler's List--a womanizer, war profiteer, Nazi collaborator--who also saved over 900 Jews. He'd fit right in here.

2. Don't see this if you have to have a saintly, lovable central character who always does the right thing without hesitation. If you're the kind of person who likes to sit in judgement of others, and who thinks nothing in a person's upbringing/environment can excuse anything wrong they do, skip Orphan Black. There's no black and white morality to be had here.

3. Skip this if you need your science fiction to be 100% scientifically plausible. The basic premise for the show isn't possible in the timeframe of the show (it's set in present-day Toronto). I forgive the show for this--it would have made the show too expensive to produce if it had been set 40 years in the future. And the show is so character-driven that that this flaw is overshadowed by the rest of it anyway.

4. This has moments of sex, violence and bad language that aren't outside the envelope of today's television, but it sure ain't "Little House on the Prairie" or a Hallmark Special either. And the general intensity level is HIGH. A Russian friend of mine thought it was overacted, but she's the kind of person who expects characters to always respond to events optimally--which I see as a holdover of the "Soviet Realism" she was raised on--where every show is expected to function as straightforward moral instruction. This show has a moral center, but it doesn't wear it on its sleeve.

5. See this if you loved the best of Hitchcock's movies--scary, intelligent, suspenseful, sometimes white-knuckly, more fear, less gore. Don't see this if a little gore is too much for you, though. There's a scene of self-surgery that's rather stomach-churning, though it isn't gratuitous. And it's not the only Ewwww! moment in the show. Forewarned is forearmed.

6. See this if you admire great--not good, great--acting. The show's star, 28 year old Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, from Regina, Saskatchewan, won the Critics' Choice award for Best Actress in a TV Drama (the drama being Orphan Black), dumbfounding all the Hollywood Establishment types who perhaps hadn't even heard of this show.

I love great stars like Audrey Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, who cultivate an onscreen persona and mostly play that throughout their careers. Maslany is a different kind of actor--the kind who can play ANYONE. The kind who can disappear into a role so deeply you forget the actor and only see the character they're playing. She's an actor's actor, like Alec Guinness was. Maslany plays multiple roles in Orphan Black, and in each role she's that person--character, mannerisms, dialect, everything. You're never unclear as to which character you're looking at--including when she's playing one of her characters pretending to be another of her characters.

Acting schools will have their students watch Orphan Black to see how it should be done. James Lipton will be camping on Maslany's doorstep to get her on his Actor's Studio interview show.

The other characters are well-acted too--particularly the young man who plays the central character's brother. I've seen him in interviews and he's nothing like his character. And it's a role that could have been overplayed; instead it's given a nuanced performance by this actor.

7. See it if you like mysteries that gradually answer your questions, without copouts. This isn't like "Lost," where the final resolution of the plot left most viewers going "Seriously?" Not here. You'll have a lot of questions, and you'll get a gradual stream of answers--though many lead to more questions, but those get answered too, and so forth.

8. See this if you prefer serialized shows; don't see this if you insist on episodic shows. That is, the first season of Orphan Black is a 430 minute movie. Don't even think of seeing it any other way. You'll be lost, and not in a good way.

9. See this if you like to pay attention. Don't try to play this while you're doing a crossword puzzle. You'll miss something important.

10. Humor: not much. There are frequent light touches, but mostly it's a drama, and a drama on the white-knuckle side of things. Called it fast-paced is an understatement. My spouse and I returned from our honeymoon in Japan on the last airliner out of Tokyo before they closed the airport due to an incoming typhoon. On our takeoff roll the rain was blowing horizontally. One we were airborne that fully-loaded 747 bounced around as if it was a little Cesna 152. The passengers were audibly gasping in unison every time that huge airplane abruptly dropped a few dozen feet.

Orphan Black moves like that.

As I said, the show is set in the present day. The science fiction aspects are real but don't involve the visual props of most sci-fi--no space ships, no aliens, no time travel, no teleporting, really very little requiring CGI other than what's needed to put Maslany on the screen in several places at one time. I can think of one little thing, but you only see it briefly and I'd have to give you a spoiler to tell you more.

This means that people who don't go for the really futuristic stuff might like this one. On the other hand, those who love the futuristic stuff might question whether this is really sci-fi (it is, though).
I hope I've told you enough to get you to see the pilot--provided none of my cautions are a problem for you. I watch way too much TV for my own good, and I've found myself looking forward to the next episode--and season--more than almost any other show I've seen. Right up there with Game of Thrones, only on a miniscule fraction of the budget. And the fact that it delivers so much bang for the budget impresses me, though strictly speaking I suppose I shouldn't give it credit for that.
If you need to find out what the plot is, read any of the other reviews here. But I urge you not to. See the pilot. Then come back here and read them.

If you want to calibrate your tastes against mine, here are some sci-fi shows I've liked:
Babylon 5
Doctor Who (the reboot, not the old series)
Red Dwarf
Star Trek (and Next Gen but not so much Voyager or Deep Space Nine)

Moviewise I'm reminded a bit of Let Me In/Let the Right One In, even though they aren't science fiction but rather fantasy. But they also have that gritty, realistic quality that's so missing from so much sci-fi/fantasy.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Great singer most Americans have never heard of

Ever heard of Neli Andreeva ( Нели Андреева )? Probably not. She's Bulgarian, known in her homeland as a great singer of both folk music and the Bulgarian equivalent of classical crossover music.

You can buy the album with this beautiful song on it here.

On the Business of Art, using the case of Jackie Evancho's official website

Lately the official fansite of young Classical Crossover singer Jackie Evancho has fallen into
disrepair. The site has been refusing to add new members for nearly two weeks--without explanation. There's no sign that anyone's moderating discussions. Concerts are announced on the artist's FaceBook page, and then may or may not be also announced on the official website. 

Many members of the site have been complaining vociferously. Particularly since many paid for the premium membership in order to enjoy the perk of being able to get tickets for concerts several days before they go on sale to the general public. 

I get the impression that the artist's parents have decided that the official FaceBook page does just as good a job as the official fansite, and it's free, while they have to pay a hosting company for the official site--a fee based in part of the average number of users. Hence, possibly, the ban on registering new members. 

But a FaceBook page is, while necessary, not sufficient. A major artist needs an official website in order to build the "brand" of that artist.

I posted the following proposal on the official fan site, making the case to this artist--and, really, any other who's shooting for a major presence--to hire an internet presence manager.

Here's my entry:

I don't want Team E (mostly Jackie Evancho's parents)  to invest in the official fansite because they're obligated by the fans' loyalty and support. Or because we're just so darn likeable.

I want them to invest in this site for the sake of Jackie and her brand--her business, in which she's the co-founder, manufacturing manager, and will at some point be the CEO.

That is, putting time and money into Jackie's online presence would be a good BUSINESS decision. Obviously Mike and Lisa have other priorities, both inside and outside the business. That's fine, and their priorities are not our business. But as fans of Jackie who want her brand to thrive, our collective input is valuable, just as many forms of market feedback are valuable to any business that has customers.

Many performers put out as many albums as Jackie has, only to fade away. Many people still respond to us bringing her up by saying "Who?" or, not much better, "Oh yeah...that was the girl who was on AGT a few years ago, wasn't she?" The performers who scale the mountain are both immensely talented AND work hard AND play the game. They can play the game with complete integrity or without, but play it in some way they must.

Here, it should be obvious that part time/volunteer help running the site is not enough to make it functional from a business viewpoint.

And one point I haven't brought up in this thread is that this site is organized around promoting a child performer--the doll, the trinkets paying members get, and even the somewhat heavy-handed parental vibe of the site's management, back when it was being actively managed. All this may be fine for a child performer whose audience is mostly other children, but it was never appropriate for a performer like Jackie who has never actually competed in the "child performer" market, whose audience contains a very small percentage of children, none of whose albums are really child-oriented. Even when she does ostensibly kid-oriented songs (like the themes from the movies for children that she's done) she performs them in a way that's much more likely to garner a wide adult audience than the bubbly upbeat treatments most kids prefer.

All which contributes to why Team E needs someone who works for them full-time to function as their two-way fan interface. Another name for this person could be OPM or Online Presence Manager.

Team E is no longer putting out CDs itself. The team contracted with Sony for that--meaning they hired Sony; they gave up a large percentage of their take from each album sold in order to sell more albums, hoping that the increase in total volume they could only get with a major label would make them more money and build the Jackie Brand more than being a bigger frog in the little puddle of PTAD-type projects.

This is no different. You give up a measure of direct control and a portion of the profit from each product (albums and concerts mostly) in order to build the brand.

Another point I haven't raised before is that when Team E is mostly Jackie's parents, how do you go on vacation? I've known people who went on vacation only to wind up in their hotel room with their laptop and wifi access, doing business while the rest of the family vacated--so to speak--without the missing member.

They need someone who doesn't have to choose between being the parents of the four Evancho children and running the family business day in, day out. The parents can do plenty to pull their oars. Their roles don't have to require them either going at it without letup or neglecting the brand when they go off to be a family.

This is not an argument for buying luxuries on borrowed money--"luxuries" including the small army of sycophants some performers gather around them. Or hiring gofers to do stuff most people can do for themselves easily. Like, you don't need a chauffeur unless you can't drive a car (too young or too many tickets usually).

But the online world is not only complex--it's evolving rapidly. And when your customers ring the planet, it's a world without clear time boundaries. The ideal person to work in this environment is someone without much in the way of outside responsibilities; someone who is extremely extroverted in a high tech sort of way; and someone who really, really, wants to be part of the performing arts world without being a performing artist themselves. This doesn't describe Jackie's parents, nor does it describe anyone who could do this job for years, reliably, for free.

Business is about taking calculated risks, striking the right balance between being overly cautious and being foolhardy.

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224
(of course Brutus himself lost big time...)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Can a performer tell a publication which photos to use in an article?

Operatic mezzo Cecelia Bartoli did so with a German publication that was reviewing a concert she'd given. I read about it here. I posted this comment:
It's not Bartoli's management. They just work for her. It's Bartoli herself. And it's evident that she suffers from situational narcissism, a psychological problem that afflicts people in positions of power--in the performing arts, in business, in the military, in politics--who surround themselves with Yes Men, such that no one around them dares to contradict him/her, who hence come to feel that his/her whims should be others' marching orders.

Of course in a free country Bartoli is free to demand whatever she pleases. And others are equally free to accede to those demands or refuse them.

But look at it from the other side. A publication can only continue to exist if it has a reader base who use and trust it. When a publication becomes a shill for its advertisers and/or the people its articles are about, readers cease to trust it, and will then turn to a competing publication that keeps its bargain with its readers to put their interests first. Why should I read a publication that doesn't serve me?

Bartoli demanded that this publication choose between her and its readers, though I doubt she realizes this.

The only way Bartoli could make such demands stick would be if she started her own publication, as Oprah Winfrey did, and applied her ideas of journalism to it. Then we'd see how it does in the free market.

If Bartoli were really smart about cultivating her fan base, she'd do what soprano Jackie Evancho's parents do, putting out Keeks (the visual equivalent of Twitters) of her kicking back before concerts, signing autographs, looking a starfish--candid-looking stuff that humanizes the artist and cultivates a feeling of connection with her.

Evancho isn't sacrificing a bit of privacy, since her people only put out the Keeks they choose to. Yet they make fans feel loved. Instead of fans looking at this news item in question and thinking "So Bartoli's another diva. Talented, but a diva." And then they feel less connection with her. If you want to act like that you'd better be the best in the world at what you do--and have that be acknowledged by everyone else.

No-spoilers review of Star Trek--Into Darkness
It may seem paradoxical to review a summer popcorn blockbuster movie for fans of serious cinema, but even we need our big budget action movie fix now & then. I'm not writing this for diehard Trekkies because they've already seen it and will buy the DVD--just look at all the glowing five-star reviews here.

And for them I'm sure it is a 5-star movie. But I bet most of them haven't seen Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (The Criterion Collection), the mother of all action movies, or Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, or possibly the scariest of all action movies, Das Boot, or the sublime Spirited Away, or...thousands of other great movies.

That said, my spouse and I have seen all the Star Trek TV series and movies--along with Galaxy Quest, the very funny sendup of both Star Trek and its cast and its most avid fans. We've also seen all the Star Wars movies. And TV series like FarScape, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, Lexx (the most un-Star Trekish of all TV scifi series), Game of Thrones, Vikings, everything Joss Whedon has ever we are big fans of scifi/fantasy stuff.

My spouse & I saw Star Trek/Into Darkness last night at the local cineplex in 2D from ideal seats. And both as Star Trek fans (though not superfans) and as movie buffs, we were underwhelmed. Wasn't bad, wasn't great, wasn't memorable.

A fair comparison would be with Joss Whedon's Marvel's The Avengers. Avengers delivered all the popcorn thrills & chills that STID does, but with much more memorable characters, screenwriting, mise en scene, AND without stealing most of its ideas from other movies.

In a way you'd be best off seeing STID if you hadn't seen any Star Trek movies or TV episodes, because this is big budget fan fiction, full of references, characters, and even plotlines from other movies--mostly Star Trek, but at least one action sequence from Star Wars. I'm not griping about Kirk/Spock/Uhuru/Scotty/Doc being there. I'm griping about the movie rehashing old Star Trek shows instead of giving us something new and worthy of a series reboot.

On the plus side, we get Benedict Cumberbatch, the imposing Brit who stars in BBC's modern day retelling of Sherlock Holmes. When he's onscreen the other characters become kind of transparent (metaphorically speaking). And STID's casting is OK. Chris Pine's Cap'n Kirk certainly inhabits the uniform with the same bravado (and less hamminess) than his predecessor. Good Spock. Zoe Saldana's Lt. Uhuru is an improvement on the original. Less successful were Doc and Scotty.

But the real problem is that experienced Trek viewers have seen this movie before, one way or another. In a country with 310 million people, surely one can cook up an original Star Trek screenplay. Whedon took just as heavy a load of backstory and made an original movie out of it. Abrams has not.

I don't understand why this doesn't bother the Trekkies writing reviews here more than it did. The last straw was weaving the original Star Trek TV show thems music into the thunderous but unmemorable orchestral score for this one, during the closing credits. It was jarringly mismatched to the contemporization of this movie.

Unlike others here, I preferred the first Star Trek series reboot movie with the same main characters. It seemed less derivative and more fresh start-y.

But regardless of whether my spouse and I liked it, should YOU get the DVD and see it?

As I said, if you're a Trekkie completest that's a no-brainer.

If you're a Trekkie-light kinda person like my spouse and me (saw all the previous Trek stuff but don't go to conventions and don't live & breathe it), prrrrobably yes. Just don't get your expectations up too high.

And surprisingly, I think it'll work better on a TV screen than in the theater. I realize this is counterintuitive when it comes to big budget action movies. But JJ Abrams shot it for the TV screen: seems like half the film is count-the-pores extreme close-ups of people's faces. This is fine on a TV screen, which supports close and medium-distance shots best. In the theater--even from our ideal seats--it was sort of invasive. If you're planning on seeing it in a theater, I'd recommend sitting towards the back, contrary to where I'd sit for a movie really designed for the theater.

My favorite scene in Avengers was where Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow is talking to Loki when they have him imprisoned. He doesn't realize she's actually interrogating him to find out what he knows that they need to know. The scene is subtle and rests on Johansson's low-keyed but considerable acting talent. I mention this because there's nothing like this in STID. STID puts everything in bright primary colors. Apparently they didn't have a big enough budget for subtlety.

Another recent big-budget sci-fi blockbuster, Avatar, was not a film my spouse and I carry around in our hearts like we do truly great movies, but overall it was considerably better than Star Trek Into Darkness. More original screenplay, more interesting visuals, more engaging storyline. Except for Benedict Cumberbatch and his character. He was more memorable than his counterpart in Avatar, I admit. He was also more memorable than his counterpart in Avengers. He really has a compelling presence.

Note that I'm not comparing Star Trek Into Darkness with, say, Let Me In, the wonderful American remake of the similarly named Swedish vampire movie, starring an amazing 12 year old Chloe Grace Moretz. Or with the True Grit remake. You could say both those films have different audiences.

But this film's audience--outside diehard Trekkies--is the same as for Avengers and Avatar and other blockbusters that aren't scifi even. Against them, and outside any commitment you might have to the Star Trek franchise, this is just an OK movie. I don't think the cast is to blame for this. It's the director, who just isn't as good a movie director as Cameron or Whedon.

I have more specific complaints but I promised a no-spoilers review, so those must wait. One hint though: Benedict Cumberbatch's character's name doesn't fit him at all. Seems like a minor point, but get enough of them and they start to add up to breaking the fourth wall. At least all the characters play it straight--no nudge nudge wink wink moments in the film. That would have been the kiss of death.

Lastly, though, the movie ends on a SEQUEL COMING SEQUEL COMING note, so if you're planning on seeing the next in the series you'll need to see this so you know what's going on. Just see it on DVD instead of in the theater, with a computer or smart phone handy to tide you over the slow parts...

(you can also see this in's STID reader review section)