Piggy Back Post: The Times’ Review of “The Gate”

gate_med.jpgThere’s curiously no byline in this New York Times review of Brooklyn Philharmonic’s performance on Wednesday of “The Gate,” an orchestral/theater work by Chinese composer and Academy Award-Winner, Tan Dun. The tone is that restrained condescension, you know, where the smugness kind of just oozes through the cracks, even when the writer is trying to be complementary; so that could be any one of them (except for maybe Steve Smith).

C.C. was in da BAM opera house on Wednesday, and we decided not to do an actual review. Partly, we just felt like sleeping in. But also because the performance was kind of disastrous at times, and we didn’t want to do a total take-down of an underdog cultural organization that’s trying to take risks and forge its own path (Go BP!). The anonymous Times writer took a pretty harsh jab at the event, but he…she…It gets some things flat out wrong.

First of all, the three ladies of the night, Yu Ji (Song Yang), Juliet (Nancy Allen Lundy) and Koharu (Hua Hua Zhang), are not “on the verge of a fiery afterlife,” nor do they “exit into the afterlife side by side at the end.” In fact, the premise of this piece, which C.C. picked up without even cracking open the program, is that these three tragic female characters, all of whom took their own lives for loss of love, are petitioning to get back to life in order to have another chance at living. They all seem to regret their decisions to off themselves, and so now, sing their stories to the “Gate Keeper” and promise to get back to the business of enjoying life and not succumbing to suicidal urges. It’s kind of a cool idea, if you’re smart enough to get it. In the end, the “Gate Keeper” pardons them, and they walk toward their reincarnation: NOT toward Heaven.

The main problem was that said “Gate Keeper” was played embarrassingly by nouveau conductor, Michael Christie, who’s showing early signs of being a total ham. He always talks to the audience before the concerts, except for Wednesday, when the only reason he didn’t talk to the audience is because someone had written him lines to speak during the show. But It didn’t seem to mind Christie’s rigid and goofy performance.

To make matters worse, the live video component was poorly done and didn’t add much to the work. Christie had one attached to his music stand, filming him from underneath via an incompetently unflattering angle. And the projections themselves, all shown on a giant screen up stage, were grainy, washed-out, less vibrant versions of what was happening on stage. Sometimes they had the effect of looking like low-fi 80s Dr. Who episodes. (Oddly, this clip shown on BAM’s website, from a previous production, seems sharper and way more interesting to look at.)

It was awesome to be able to hear Song Yang, in her fiery dress and armed with flashy swords, sing in the Chinese style. And Hua Hua Zhan did a rather boring sprechtstimme shtick with a stick puppet.

But Nancy Allen Lundy performed magnificently in Western operatic style. Her voice is enormous (she was the only singer not miked) but without feeling heavy. And her chest voice is CRAZY huge, rich and unerring. (I want to hear it again!) And her theatrical skill brought a powerful emphasis to a work that was beginning to meander perilously toward incoherence, much helped by the fact that she sang in English. The decision not to include supertitles for the Chinese and Japanese sections was wrong.

Also curious about It‘s article is this line regarding Lundy’s performance: “…she moves simply and discreetly so that nothing distracts from the voice.” Umm, I guess if lying yourself down backwards on the floor while floating high Cs and Ds is your idea of simple, and if crouching up sensuously in front of one of the floor cameras is discreet…Ugh! It’s reviews like this that make you wonder if they even went to the concert.

There were some problems with the score. First of all, a lot of borrowing, like the submerging of tam tams in water (which It sites as a lifted from George Crumb), also the typewriter could have been taken from Steve Reich’s similarly titled noun opera, The Cave.

But the water material was not only beautiful to watch, but added a refreshing naturalness to all the sterile electronic elements. It was most effectively captured on video (spot lit from above, the bowls glowed like watery oracles), and the water droplets, warping echo effects of submerging wood bowls and plastic tubes, and particularly the moment when a colander (not a “sieve”) was used to create a sparkling waterfall, were tactile, sensual and awesome (in both the casual and formal senses of that word).

I hope this straightens some things out for our readers. It can be so hard to navigate culture when a loosely put together production of a problematic work gets an inattentive review from a supposed to be professional writer.


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