Friday, January 7, 2011

Senseless to the Sublime

The last two nights make me think of Franz Kafka's The Hunger Artist, in which a famous fasting artist is on display in a circus menagerie, the crowds pushing past him to get to watch the lions stalk and feed. "He immediately got an earful from the shouting of the two steadily increasing groups, the ones who wanted to take their time looking at the hunger artist, not with any understanding but on a whim or from mere defiance—for him these ones were soon the more painful—and a second group of people whose only demand was to go straight to the animal stalls." It is a highly symbolic story of how artists sacrifice themselves for their art and the general public's ignorance of what great artistry demands and preference for sensational pursuits.

One of the reasons we live in this area of Florida is for the cultural diversity it has to offer. True, it does not have the advantages of a London or a New York in its breadth or consistently high quality, but knowing where to go can uncover some wonderful cultural events. Case in point, our favorite small theatre where we never miss a production, Palm Beach Dramaworks. But the largest theatre in the area is West Palm Beach's Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and we've seen some fine musical revivals there over the last several years, South Pacific standing out in my mind, and some special programs such as when Sondheim visited for an evening discussion of his works.

Admittedly, it was with some trepidation that we got tickets for the Kravis’ production of Beauty and the Beast but Ann had tried to see the Broadway version, liked some of the music, and never could get tickets so we were hoping that this touring production would at least be on par. Tuesday night we saw the opening and it was so dreadful that we left at intermission. This review gives some of the details although it is actually very restrained in its criticism.

It is a Disney dumb-down production presumably for the kiddies, with one dimensional slapstick characters, but, amazingly, most of the adult audience seemed to be laughing at the childish humor which at best rose to the level of a sitcom. The fact that a Beauty and the Beast could flourish for so long on the Great White Way says much about the public's taste in musicals. We should have known better!

The following evening we sought redemption, having long ago booked tickets for a series we have followed for years, Keyboard Conversations ® with Jeffrey Siegel at The Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach. These are "unique concert-plus-commentary format in which he speaks to the audience about the music before performing each work" in their entirety. Wednesday night was one of the most demanding programs we've ever heard this highly-acclaimed American pianist perform, tackling three of the most difficult pieces written for the piano by Johann Sebastian Bach (Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903), Samuel Barber (Fugue from Piano Sonata, Op. 26), and Ludwig Van Beethoven (Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 --- the "Appassionata). Mr. Siegel playfully calls the program "Three Great B's Bach, Beethoven and Barber" (the latter B normally reserved for Brahms, but this is the 100th birthday celebration of Barber, one of America's leading composers, a contemporary of Bernstein and Copeland). In addition he played two of Barber's "Excursions" which I had never heard and reminded me so much of some of Gershwin and Copeland.

The physicality of the performance was astounding. As I play the piano myself, I have a special appreciation for what Siegel accomplished last night, performing the entire program without sheet music, keeping up with the tremendous technical demands of these pieces. Indeed at the end of the night, when he conducted his traditional audience question and answer portion of the program, he seemed, justifiably, physically spent, perhaps like the artist in Kafka's story. But this audience was brought to a standing ovation in appreciation.

Antidote du jour.......