Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Music, Television

Brain Bits for a Frigid February

While we’re awaiting yet another storm on [insert day of the week here], some brain bits are definitely in order. Even in the face of arctic temperatures, I can still muster good cheer. So I’ll refrain from trashing the season finale of “Last Tango in Halifax” (much remedial work is needed for sure) and the Met’s new production of “Iolanta” (“meh” is the word, though the second half of the double bill, Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” is absolutely riveting).

So let’s get on with the good stuff, shall we?

Joyce Brentano
© The New York Times

I recently had the pleasure of a spectacular evening of musicianship at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, courtesy of Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet. The quartet had the first half of the program, which included Charpentier’s “Concert pour quatre parties de violes,” a dance suite, and the iconic Debussy String Quartet. This was the first time I’d heard the latter in live performance, and what an experience. It’s like seeing the whole of 20th century music stretching out before you like an audio super-highway.

The Brentanos can sing, which is a talent I admire without end. My days as a school-age musician taught me the most difficult thing to learn as a string player is phrasing. If you sing or play a wind instrument, it comes naturally. However, it’s a more difficult proposition when you’re learning violin or cello, since they’re not breath- actvated. But to listen to the Brentanos you’d never know there was a difference.

Ms. DiDonato and the Quartet opened the second half with the Aaron Copland-esque “MotherSongs,” an arrangement of works from The Lullaby Project. But the highlight of the evening was Jake Heggie’s “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire,” the New York premiere of a song cycle originally composed with Ms. DiDonato in mind. I was curious how they’d set up on stage since I knew Joyce would have to be able to have eye contact with the first violinist, at a minimum. As you can see from the photograph, the solution was an easy one. Instead of a solo singer accompanied by string quartet, we saw a single entity—a quintet, in which every member interacted with each other.

Quite honestly I enjoyed the expertise of the collaboration almost as much as the music. Joyce DiDonato is not only a great singer—she’s a superlative musician as well, and honored both text and score in the performance of Heggie’s sketches of the life and works of sculptor Camille Claudel. Particularly ear-catching were “Shakuntala,” with its Middle Eastern exoticism, “La petite chatelaine,” an ode to Camille’s aborted child, and the Epilogue, in which she’s visited at the asylum by her friend Jessie Lipscomb, so many years after her confinement. Her reminiscing about their student days and the momentary glimpse of the life she might have had draw the cycle to an exceptionally poignant close.

What artistry. After that, I didn’t mind my frozen walk to the subway (almost).

At long last...the showdown we were waiting for
At long last…the showdown we were waiting for

An actor any less talented than Gillian Anderson wouldn’t be able to hold our attention the way she does in the second season of “The Fall.” During the glacial pace of the first episode all I could think was “Lord, this is slow.” But then Stella Gibson (Ms. Anderson) took center stage and all snapped into place.

Stella maintains her laser-like focus in pursuit of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), but cracks in the facade begin to appear. Her dreams turn threatening, haunted by his shadowy presence. Her guilt is overwhelming when Rose Stagg is kidnapped, and her tears as she views this woman on video Paul posts on the internet are shocking–you just don’t expect that from her. Yet old habits remain; her libido survives intact. While she admits that her pass at Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) was “inappropriate,” she picks out and beds yet another young studly cop (Colin Morgan). One thing you can say for Stella–she’s definitely got good taste.

I was intrigued by a number of things during this season of “The Fall,” not the least of which was the detail of the police work shown. Granted, it didn’t always pan out, as witness the cop falling through the ceiling of Paul’s bedroom (I have to admit I had a good laugh over that, since I did the same thing at my house last year while checking on the heating unit in the attic). But the sheer doggedness of the detective work pays off, and along the way there are chilling moments: Paul’s grief counseling session with Annie Brawley, whose brother he had murdered before assaulting her, and that eerie sense of dislocation when one of Stella’s detectives demonstrates how Paul parroted his boss’s remarks while the latter fired him.

At the last episode we were once again left with both cliffhangers and a burning desire that the BBC commission another series of “The Fall.” Paul may or may not survive, the erstwhile babysitter, Katie Benedetto, is a virtual Charles Manson girl in her worship of Paul, and Stella’s depths are just waiting to be explored (We already know she has daddy issues. Who knows what else lurks in that psyche?).

Let’s hope for much more of TV’s best thriller.

● ● ●

lifeafterlife

Do you ever wonder about the turning points of your life? What things would have been like had you made a different decision, taken a different train, stayed home on a given night instead of going out, or vice versa?

Kate Atkinson’s engrossing “Life After Life” is a masterful exploration of this premise as we follow Ursula Todd, born in 1910 (or is she?) through the multiple versions of her life. While there are certain constants in every scenario—her odious older brother, her adored sister and younger brother—the outcomes vary tremendously.

We’re far from smooth sailing here. Ursula’s life seems to snag at particularly sticky points, generating more and more do-overs until things turn right: There’s her difficult birth. That rogue wave at the seashore. Her encounter with that awful friend of her brother. The wall that crumbles (or doesn’t) during the Blitz.

What’s particularly fun is that Atkinson primes you to look for those turning points. For example, you wonder if that man who, at the height of the Blitz, watches Ursula work her crosswords and hands her his card as a recruiter of puzzle-solving whizzes isn’t Alan Turing. You relish the fact that as a teen-ager Ursula comes to realize that her occasional feelings of dread are premonitions that what has happened in a previous version of her life may happen yet again. Atkinson’s story leaves you wanting more, especially to know what happens after certain of Ursula’s “deaths”.

Needless to say I loved “Life After Life.” I haven’t read such a sweet pay-off of an ending in a very long time. Fortunately the story isn’t over, since there’s a companion volume in the works. Publication day can’t come soon enough.

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Posted in Television

Detecting

The-Fall

Query: Why is it U.K. television does police procedurals so much better than we do in the U.S.?

I just saw Season 1 of “The Fall” and “Broadchurch,” respectively, and I’m still marveling at how well these shows told their stories. I can only think of two series set on our side of the Atlantic that match their grit and intensity: the classic 1990’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and more recently “The Wire,” though the latter is really a portrait of Baltimore with each season of the show focusing on a different facet of the city (in order: the police, the waterfront, the black community, the schools and finally the politicians).

“The Fall,” set in Belfast and starring Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, is the old story of the hunter and the hunted, but with a twist—you’re not always clear as to which is which. Gibson’s on the trail of a serial killer who stalks women, breaks into their homes and later returns to murder them, ultimately washing, grooming and posing their bodies for discovery. I won’t lie—this show is incredibly intense and the assault and murder scenes are very difficult to watch. Nevertheless the story is absorbing because the murderer is such a far cry from whom you’d expect: Paul Spector (the incredibly handsome Jamie Dornan), a grief counselor who’s married with two children. His wife is a neo-natal nurse, and because they work opposite shifts she hasn’t a clue as to how her husband spends his time while she’s at the hospital.

DS Gibson is one ambitious cop. She never hesitates and she never quits. Originally she’s imported from the Metropolitan Police Force to help solve the murder of the former daughter-in-law of a powerful politician. Through just a modicum of finagling Gibson gets herself appointed SIO (senior investigating officer) on another case involving the murder of a young female attorney. To the distress of her superior officer, she sees the connection to the earlier murder and drops the serial killer card on the table for all to see.

Gibson is something of an enigma. Warm she’s not, yet she handles peers and subordinates well—the scene in which she talks a fellow detective down from hysteria after he witnesses a suicide is extraordinary, as is the manner in which she assuages the guilt of an officer who along with her partner might have prevented the attorney’s murder. For the most part, though, she’s extremely guarded; the only character with whom she appears to be at ease is the medical examiner, Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi). Although we see her pick up a cop in record time (her technique resembles how you and I would choose a steak from the meat case of our local supermarket), it doesn’t appear that she enjoys the sex beyond the merely physical. A very cool customer indeed.

It’s evident that Gibson is leading her quarry on. But she and Paul Spector seem to be distorted mirror images of each other, since he’s obviously doing the same with her. I’m looking forward to the second season of this show, which has already aired in the U.K., for a resolution of this very high-wire tension. The suspense, as they say, is killing me.

Broadchurch

 

“Broadchurch,” though focused on a murder investigation, centrally poses the following question: “How well do you really know your neighbors?” For the residents of a seaside town in Dorset, the answer is not a welcome one.

DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) returns to work after a three-week vacation only to learn that the job she wanted has been filled by the imported DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant), a cop with a huge blot on his record due to a botched murder investigation. To say Ellie’s not happy is an understatement, but she and her new boss are immediately confronted with the murder of an 11 year-old boy who happens to be her son’s best friend. And Broadchurch, being the small town that it is, is a hotbed of everyone being in each other’s business. Stoking the flames of distrust even higher are the ladies and gentlemen of the press, one of whom is Ellie’s nephew. No one is above suspicion, whether obvious or not: the local vicar, a telephone repairman who receives psychic messages from the dead, the murdered boy’s father, Ellie’s son. DS Miller is forced to learn more about her neighbors than she ever wanted, and in the middle of it all, we see a bereaved family attempt to come to terms with their grief.

The pace of Season 1 of “Broadchurch” keeps the story at just the right simmer over its eight-episode length. I was totally absorbed by the relationships of the town’s residents and especially by the interaction of Hardy and Miller. What would a detective be unless he had a Past (capital “P”), and Hardy certainly does, as we come to learn. He’s rude, he’s brusque, but he’s so much fun to watch. He’s got a laser-like focus when he questions witnesses and suspects, something we only see develop in Miller (as Hardy insists on calling her) over time. This in turn makes you realize that their superior was right all along in filling the lead slot with a detective who was up to the job from the start.

If there’s a fault in “Broadchurch” it’s only in an exceptionally heavy anvil dropped in the seventh episode, though even this serves the purpose of coalescing your thoughts as to whodunit. The ultimate resolution is crushing, if not entirely unexpected, but there’s resilience: “Broadchurch” will be back for a second season, though BBC America won’t be airing it until March (in the meantime I’ll be checking YouTube religiously for uploads). The show’s American version, “Gracepoint,” also starring David Tennant, didn’t fare as well, having been cancelled after ten episodes. I saw the first (long before I watched “Broadchurch”) and didn’t care for it. The California coastal town seemed unreal and the pace threatened to be excruciating. Having stuck with the interminable “The Killing” for its first season, I wasn’t eager to go through that experience again.

Why anyone felt the need to transplant “Broadchurch” is beyond me. If ever there’s a poster child for “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” it’s this show. I hope it continues for quite some time.