The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
It’s been a couple years since the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre made us laugh.
That was the Spring of 2010 with the batty tale of Die Fledermaus. Since then, we have been in the worlds of Romeo et Juliette and other typically tragic opera fare. So, it’s good to lighten up and finally be in the company of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, a comic opera about a character very much beholden to his large appetites and large ego, which often get the better of him.
Like several other Verdi operas, Falstaff is based on a work of William Shakespeare, this time a character that appears in the history play Henry IV and the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff draws largely from Windsor, telling the tale of the rotund, jovial, though somewhat pathetic thief’s attempts to woo the lovely Alice from her husband Ford.
Taking on a comedy again under the direction of Richard Kagey gives the UK opera singers a chance to show off a different set of theatrical skills from what we are used to, and chief among the beneficiaries is Jonathan R. Green in the title role. (This opera is double cast. The performers reviewed here will appear again Saturday night, and a different cast will present the Saturday and Sunday matinees.)
Green’s gravely baritone suits the well-worn thief, and he seems to relish the opportunity to imbue his somewhat delusional character with swagger and naked ego. The best demonstration of this comes right before intermission when Falstaff emerges prepared to woo Alice in a red outfit that looks like a Valentine card factory exploded on him. But in Green’s performance, if he feels at all ridiculous – or self aware – we never see it. Though Falstaff is a drunk and a thief and a glutton and a lecher and a liar and a philanderer, Green gives a performance that makes us root for him.
Of course, if we are rooting for Falstaff, there has to be someone to root against, and that would be Ford. Yes, Falstaff is trying to steal his wife, and Ford is a much more honest man than Falstaff. But in Michael S. Preacely’s performance, we see an obnoxious sense of self righteousness in Ford. We also hear some wonderful singing, particularly toward intermission as Ford vows vegeance against Falstaff. But we’re sitting there thinking someone need to take Ford down a notch or two, and of course they will because this is such a prankster comedy.
This being the first comedy in a while, we get to see new sides of other performers as well, including Catherine Clarke Nardolillo, who gives us some of the vocal flourishes we heard in the fall 2010 production of La Boheme, but it is really delightful to hear her witch voice. Holly Dodson is a real comic find as Mistress Quickly, and Elizabeth Maurey makes a sterling UK Opera debut as Nannetta, letting us hear a voice that is full and flowing, and one we’d like to hear more of. She and Luther Lewis III as Fenton have the most beautiful pure singing of the evening.
Under the direction of John Nardolillo, Catherine’s husband, the UK Symphony also adjusted its tone, playing with a light touch.
As much fun as the cast had acting they also seemed to delight in some of Verdi’s flourishes with the score such as the fuge that closes the opera.
In What’s Opera Doc?, Bugs Bunny asked, “What did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”
Falstaff reminds us that sometimes, that’s exactly what we can expect.
Seth Meyers reads the faux news every week on the biggest stage for American comedy, NBC’s Saturday Night Live, and he’s performed for President Barack Obama and other prestigious audiences. But really, as we learned at the Singletary Center for the Arts on Monday night, he’s just a slob like all of us, prone to making an idiot of himself when he meets the president.
“I said to myself, ‘Be cool,’ and you know you’re about to not be cool when you’re telling yourself to be cool,” Meyers told the audience that packed the 1,500-seat concert hall at the University of Kentucky. “George Clooney doesn’t go around telling himself to be cool all the time.”
Meyers went on to describe the ways he embarrassed himself when he met Obama. The first time, when the then-presidential candidate appeared in an SNL skit, Meyers, who is the show’s head writer, instructed the president on how to take off a Halloween mask, “something most children do every year,” Meyers noted. The second time, he managed to slap his girlfriend’s hand away when the president was about to greet her before Meyers’ appearance at the 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
Meyers’ appearance at UK, one of several stand-up shows he’s doing on his week off from SNL, was a mix of topical humor, similar to his Weekend Update segments, and self-deprecating slices of his life, like the time he got into a bar fight after unleashing his sarcasm on the wrong fellow drunk (it did not end well for Meyers).
The 75-minute set didn’t break any new ground in comedy, but it did keep the audience in stitches for much of the show and proved Meyers to be adept at a number of comic forms: jokes, stories, spontaneous humor. The strength of his act is riffing on shared experiences with the audience, such as a hilarious bit about the minuscule amount of French he retained from middle school and college.
Meyers had some jokes specific to the UK student crowd, like informing the freshman in the audience that not everyone gets to leave after a year for a job making millions of dollars.
“The NBA is the only place where they like it if you went to Kentucky for just one year,” Meyers said, noting a student could not go to a bank after a year of college and have them say, “Welcome to the management team.”
Though the 38-year-old is well-removed from his college years, Meyers was still in touch with his youth with stories like his and his friends efforts to catch a glimpse of nudity on late-night Cinemax movies when they were 13. “We celebrated like technicians at Mission Control, if Mission Control was worried about waking up their parents,” he said, and then mimed high fives and touchdown signals.
Monday night, Meyers proved that as entertaining as he can be live from New York, he was even funnier live in Lexington.
Program notes at orchestra concerts almost always tell you where a work was premiered, usually well over a century ago, and we can only imagine what it was like to be there and here a work by, say, Ludwig Van Beethoven or Franz Schubert for the first time.
For the classical music fan, the experience of hearing a fresh new work can seem like something for generations past as we now just take in museum pieces.
That is changing though in Lexington, and Friday night’s Lexington Philharmonic concert was the biggest evidence yet that this is becoming a community interested in hearing new classical works by composers who are still with us, sometimes even in the same room. Commissions and world premieres have been rolled out by other organizations in Lexington, notably by the University of Kentucky’s ensembles and the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington.
But it is a powerful statement when the area’s flagship arts organization says it is going to prioritize new music and perform it on its major concert series.
Friday night we were treated to the world premiere of Daniel Kellogg‘s How Radiant the Dawn, and the operative word there is treat. The piece, the first in the Philharmonic’s Saykaly Garbulinska Composer-in-Residence program, is Kellogg’s musical interpretation of the sunrise. He said in Thursday night’s Kicked Back Classics event, a prelude to Friday’s concert, that it wasn’t a programatic piece, but it was easy to see it that way.
Dawn opened with fluttering flutes that recessed into a steady tone before resuming flight. Soon, other colors were streaking across a developing meoldy, somewhat discordant but working toward a blazing unity. Among the many pieces of Kellogg’s sunrise were moments like a glissando in the lower strings, like birds crossing the horizon, and a short violin solo by Daniel Mason that was reminiscent of the orange shaft of sunlight that fired across pink clouds Wednesday morning.
Soon the sun was up, and we were in Gershwin’s bustling city or Copland’s west, Kellogg’s marriage of lush strings and proud brass giving this a distinctly American feel.
Like many Herald-Leader readers, I have read my fellow Life + Faith columnist Paul Prather’s recent columns about the movie Fireproof with great interest, but probably from a different perspective.
As an arts and entertainment journalist and critic who covers faith-based pop culture, I know that criticizing art made in the name of Christianity or other faiths can be quite a minefield. If you say something negative, no matter how constructively, some people invariably take it as an insult not only to their taste but to their faith.
That can make it a little bit hard to do what Paul was doing, essentially writing an aspirational column asking: Shouldn’t we as people of faith strive to create art that doesn’t just advocate our point of view but stands on its own as great art?
Many, many times, Christianity and great art have come together. Just think of the music of J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and other composers who wrote religious works, or some of the great visual art in works by Michelangelo that represent biblical images. That has not stopped happening.
In modern music, artists including Phil Keaggy and Switchfoot make faith-based rock ’n’ roll that can stand with anything on the mainstream charts. Whitney Houston’s death has reminded us of the great influence that gospel music holds in numerous forms of modern music.
Christian pop is a genre that has long labored under the criticism that it is not as good as mainstream music. I know that has made some people angry and resentful — and it hasn’t always been the most constructive or best-informed criticism — but I think it has helped to strengthen a genre that wanted to prove not only that Christians can make modern music about faith but that they can do it really well.
With one-third of the world’s population identifying as Christians, it stands to reason that there will be great artists among them.
But the fast lane to mediocrity is when we assume that good intentions automatically equal good results.
A movie soundtrack, no matter how great, is usually to an extent subservient to the film it is supporting.
Last year, the French duo Air got the unique opportunity to create a new score to a 110-year-old masterpiece, Georges Méliès Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), widely believed to be the first science fiction film ever made. The newly restored film, a version with each frame hand painted by Méliès, premiered last May at the Cannes Film Festival with the score by Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, aka Air, who have scored other films such as Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.
The Moon (lune?) soundtrack doesn’t sound like anything that could have come out in 1902 but does seem to capture that spirit of a world fascinated by space, but with little concept of how to get there. Last week, Air released an expanded version of what it conceived for the the 16-minute film, and the result is akin to a programatic symphony like Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, where we don’t know what is happening but we can sort of follow the story. And there are a lot of fun touches such as Lava, which borrows the spirit of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and vocals such as a countdown sequence and a woman assuring us we will return safely back to earth – hardly a given after watching the rocket ship crash into the moon’s eyeball in the film’s iconic scene.
Air also gives us tremendous otherworldly sounds both digital and acoustic. They may have been hired to write this music, but you can tell it became a labor of love. If only Méliès were around to hear it.
The Fray came on NBC’s Super Bowl pregame show Sunday afternoon performing the leadoff track from the band’s new album, Scars & Stories.
Listening to Heartbeat, I caught myself thinking, “That’s OK, but it’s no How to Save a Life.”
That thought has sort of recurred nearly a dozen times listening to the band’s new album, which was released Tuesday.
The Fray is sort of like the kid that gets straight A’s in fourth grade. The bar has been set pretty high and even an honor roll report card doesn’t quite seem to cut it. The Fray aced its first hit single, a song about attempting to pull a troubled teen back from suicide that became a cultural marker in 2006 and ’07. The band followed with a self-titled album in 2009 that included another great song, You Found Me, once again succeeding on a penchant for vivid descriptions of cloaked, aching emotion.
Songs like these succeed by not seeming to try. How to Save starts out as a passive intervention that grows desperate. You Found Me presents a God who says, “Ask anything” and gets an earful.
Much of Scars & Stories unfortunately comes across as being as obvious as the title and trying really hard to emulate its predecessors like on the second track, The Fighter, an overwrought boxing story.
I Can Barely Say comes as close as anything to recapturing the magic of The Fray’s previous hits, and the finale, Be Still, is the most satisfying track. That tune should be embraced by the band’s legion of Christian followers as a representation of a God to embrace many of the troubled souls in other Fray tunes.
Every band has its style and profile. But The Fray feels a bit too much like it is trying to put itself into a box defined by its first taste of success, and it’s becoming a trap that does not allow for growth.
It is fashionable to pick on Lana Del Rey. I am not a very fashionable guy.
When I downloaded her new album, Born to Die, I knew a bit about her background and of course had caught her now infamous Saturday Night Live appearance – the one NBC News anchor and music blogger Brian Williams called, “one of the worst outings in SNL history.” Kanye West and Ashlee Simpson set a pretty high hurdle for that accusation, but her performance didn’t hold my attention that night. Maybe it was the bourbon.
But the other day, when I hit play on that download in my car, I was transfixed.
It seems appropriate that Del Rey sits next to Lady Gaga on my player’s artist list, because while she doesn’t sound anything like LaGaga, she is trying to create a mood, a persona. It’s a contrast between big, dramatic classic sounds and lyrics that are very 21st Century, sometimes teenage. It’s like she’s trying to have mid-century Hollywood glamour in the context of 2012.
Occasionally she pushes the mood a bit too hard, like on Summertime Sadness. But when it works, it is a rapturous sonic escape like Video Game in which Del Ray sings about an old school-style romance but the keeps dropping in a somewhat jarring line about the guy wanting to play a video game. She peppers other dichotomies like that through the album, but never breaks the lush production and never, unlike that SNL turn, loses our interest.
The lingering question after a few listens to Born to Die is where will Lana Del Rey take her music from here? And when you release your first major label album, that’s a good thing to have people wondering.
Frankly, I have no idea what people are complaining about. Maybe Del Rey is better if you don’t Google her before you listen to the album.
Honestly, I have tried really, really hard to find something exceptional in One Sonic Society’s full-length debut, Forever Reign.
With modern worship acts such as Delirious and the David Crowder Band closing up in the past few years, I have wanted to hear new worship with creativity and urgency. And One Sonic Society was reason for excitement with a Delirious pedigree: guitarist Stu Garrard, who was in the group until its dissolution in 2009. This worship supergroup is rounded out by Austrailian Paul Mabury, whose resume includes Hillsong, and West Virginian Jason Ingram, who has enjoyed a solo career and time fronting The Longing.
Mabury and Ingram are maybe best known as producers, and on repeated listens, it sunk in that this could be both a strength and weakness for One Sonic. The sound is gorgeous. The production is spacious and nuanced, a sort of sound that lifts the listener. It is that sound that stays with you, but do any of the songs?
For me, not really.
The album, culled from three prior EPs, includes several songs that have had notable releases from other artists including the title track recorded by Hillsong and Almighty God recorded by Rebecca St. James. The band sounds solid. Jason Ingram’s singing is strong, Stu G’s guitar playing is, as usual, rousing and the production really highlights Mabury’s powerful drumming.
If you want to add a contemporary worship album of mostly vertical songs in the sort of Hillsong/Passion style to your collection, Forever Reign is a fine choice.
But therein lies one of the chief problems with this album. Given all of the talents that have gone into the project, Forever Reign sounds like something we have heard before.
It feels like Kellie Pickler walked into a roadside joint, slapped 100 Proof on the bar and said, “How y’all like me now?” with as much of a drawl as she could muster.
And she could muster more than we thought.
Following Carrie Underwood’s season on American Idol, Pickler looked like a possible successor to one of the show’s most successful winners, but went out in sixth place. Singles from her first two albums only got her into the Top 10 on the country charts once and she was also known for things like a dismal appearance on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? that had my kids singing, “Are you smarter that Kellie Pickler?”
On her third album since Idol, it feels like Pickler knows what people thought of her and set out to change their minds.
The junior album opens with two tracks – Where’s Tammy Wynette and Unlock That Honky Tonk - that almost try too hard to assert Pickler’s country bona fides. But it works.
“I stayed torn between killing him and loving him,” she sings opening the album with Tammy Wynette, sending the message this will not be the pop-country affair of her first two albums.
It’s an album that lives up to its title as a rousing country party with other gritty tunes like Tough, a swoon in Turn on the Radio and Dance and a couple of beauties with Mother’s Day and an honest-to-God, tear-jerking heartbreaker in The Letter (To Daddy).
To be totally honest, when 100 Proof was announced, particularly up against Tim McGraw’s new one last week, I had zero interest in it. Is Kellie Pickler still trying to record albums? But thanks to a slow stream on new releases and some surprisingly favorable reviews, I gave Pickler’s latest a shot.
You should too.
The David Crowder Band isn’t going out with a bang or a whimper, but with a tsunami of music.
For the band’s sixth and final studio album, it has released a 34-song epic that goes just about everywhere the Crowder Band has been, including a heapin’ helpin’ of bluegrass toward the finale, and forges some new territory such as a rock opera-esque grandeur toward the middle of the project.
Like almost everything Crowder has done, there is a plan, a design underlying it, this one being fairly clearly stated in the extensive title, Give Us Rest or (a requiem mass in c [the happiest of all keys]). The nearly two-hour album is built on the mass stucture including a mighty, modern Kyrie and extensive contemplative section bookended by some flat out fantastic songs, pop-oriented at the beginning and footstomping bluegrass toward the end. (Dude, if you guys want to retire to Kentucky, we’d love to have you.) As I am not Catholic, I will not pretend to be terribly knowledgeable about what Crowder has done to make this a true mass, but the album is as captivating as the experience of a mass, well beyond what we usually expect from a pop release.
Overall, Give Us Rest communicates a pervasive love of music in many, many forms – this is the band that has credibly brought banjo and the I Am T-Pain app onto the Christian concert stage, often in the same show. And it communicates a consuming love of God and desire to make music for God.
The final stroke of genius though is after all the great songs like Sometimes and Come Find Me, the complexity of the music and the structure of this project, this is how Crowder and his band exit: a humble, as unplugged-as-you-can-be-in-the-studio rendition of the hymn, Because He Lives.
Most Christian music fans hate to see Crowder and his band go. There is too much formulaic, passionless music in the Christian genre to see an act of this talent and integrity disband. But over the past decade, the group has earned the right to chart its own course and say when the journey is over. And if this it, the David Crowder Band has left us with a masterpiece.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich