John Cage - Journeys in Sound

John Cage - Journeys in Sound documentary film. Directed by Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny to mark the composer's centenary. The film has interviews with Wiliam Anastasi, Irvine Arditti, Dove Bradshaw, Brian Brandt, Merce Cunningham, Julia Henning, Toshio Hosokawa, John Lennon, Mayumi Miyata, Yoko Ono, Wolfgang Rihm, Steffen Schleiermacher, Calvin Tomkins, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, the Ensemble Modern, Schlagquartett Köln, and others. Written by Anne-Kathrin Peitz; edited by Steffen Hermann; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B

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Karajan, Maestro for the Screen

Karajan, Maestro for the Screen documentary by Georg Wübbolt. This 52-minute film, produced by Bernhard Fleischer, explores Herbert von Karajan's long interest in making motion picture films of classical music performances to be shown in movie theaters and over TV. There is also a 32-minute bonus performance (directed by François Reichenbach and never released before) of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Suite (Overture) No. 2 in B minor (BWV 1067) by the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Karajan. Original language German; subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese. Released 2015, disc has stereo sound (much of which started as mono). Grade: NA

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Mahler: Origins and Legacy

Mahler: Origins and Legacy documentary and concert package, part of the "Keeping Score" series. Michael Tilson Thomas directs the San Francisco Symphony. Produced by Michael Bronson; directed for TV by Gary Halvorson. This is a two-disc set. Released in 2011, music was recorded at 48 kHz/24-bit, and discs have 5.1 surround or 7.1 Dolby TrueHD surround sound. Grade: A for the documentary Origins and Legacy and D for Symphony No. 1

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Ballet 422

Ballet 422 documentary film directed 2012-13 by Jody Lee Lipes. Follow young choreographer Justin Peck, who has 2 months to create a new work for the New York City Ballet. The title comes from the fact that the project will lead to the 442nd new ballet piece created for that company.

Director Lipes, working in a manner somewhat similar to the style of Frederick Wiseman, just records what happens with a minimum of explanation or other metadata. It appears that the music used for the dance is not revealed until the credits run and that the title does not include a recording of the finished work as it appeared to the audience when performed. (I assume that you do see substantial parts of the new work in early and dress rehearsals.) This will likely be absorbing for folks who love ballet but have never experienced the dancing life themselves.

We were excited to see that this documentary is in wide-screen and has surround sound. Were only stereo sound provided, we would probably have excluded this title from our Journal. Otherwise we know little about this---not even if it's in color or black and white. Grade: NA

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Herbert von Karajan 1965-1966 Movie Documentary

Herbert von Karajan 1965-1966 Movie Documentary. This title begins with a 1965 motion picture of Karajan conducting the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Wiener Symphoniker and Yehudi Menuhin. Then comes the 1966 motion picture of Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmoniker in the Dvořák Symphony No. 9 ("New World"). Finally, there are two bonus items in which Karajan discusses the art of conducting with Menuhin and Prof. Joachim Kaiser as well as a few minutes of Karajan in rehearsal. The filming was the work of motion-picture director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Released 2010, the entire title is in 4:3 black and white. It has PCM stereo sound for the music and mono sound for the extras. Grade: X-B-

Karajan was always interested in all aspects of recording technology. In the 1960s, he tried to increase his audience via motion pictures. He made a number of symphony movies with 35 mm film, mostly in black and white. He was about 50 years ahead of the market. The films cost a lot of money to produce and could only be shown in movie houses. The audience was too thinly scattered around the world for this to pay off. Eventually Karajan abandoned movie films to focus on LPs.

The original film prints shown in this title probably looked great in theaters. But that was long years ago, and the celluloid originals were soon put in storage to rot. The PQ of this title is only fair when compared to, for example, the HDVD version of the Casablanca film with Humphrey Bogart. The sound is straight-jacketed. All this disqualifies this title from our website as performance of a concerto or symphony. Nevertheless, the title is included here as a documentary about the history of fine-arts video.

The motion pictures of Karajan and his symphonic forces were ground-breaking. A number of operas were also produced as motion pictures. But I know of no other classical concert motion pictures. Some classical music titles were produced later in laserdisc and DVD, but these did not have high-definition video. Today we are getting HDVD classical music titles with PQ and SQ vastly superior to the Karajan movies. Still, the best of the Karajan movies were more striking than any other symphony video that was done since right up to the advent of HDVDs in 2007 (and maybe right up to today).  That's because the Karajan movies were shot by Henri-Georges Clouzot, a fully-qualified and experienced motion picture director whose fame in his own field equaled the fame of Karajan as a conductor.

You have to see a couple of these Karajan/Clouzot films to understand what I'm talking about. The musicians in these films were made up, dressed, and positioned (usually very close together and in unusual formations) by Karajan/Clouzot on special stages with decorations and low-level lighting aimed at getting a film noir look. Our first screenshot is the  most dramatic image I have found to illustrate this. (Please note this image is from a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 3 and is not from subject review title):

The image above is very poor, but you can easily see how shockingly different this is from a normal symphony concert. Is this genius or madness? This reminds me of those photos of the models created by Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler of the central city plan for Berlin as capital of the Third Reich. (Did you know that Karajan was a member of the Nazi Party?)

In the Karajan/Clouzot films, you don't see a microphone anywhere. Karajan looked more like a movie star than a symphony conductor. If you happened to see a few moments of this out of context, you might think it was a propaganda film or a crime thriller in which the conductor will be murdered on the podium.

Clouzot was obviously responsible for the film noir look. But who dreamed up the radical seating plans and the way the musicians were presented as soldiers of music or even robots? I have no idea, but all of this tied in well to Karajan's concept of the conductor as center of the observible universe.

The musicians were conducted by Karajan and directed by Clouzot simultaneously. No wonder they (all men---not a woman in the entire HDVD) all look so very intense and serious. The two films are quiet different, and the design of each is logically related to the character of the music. It's a little like the master chef who spends as much time working on how his dishes look as to how they taste.

With two such super-egos as Karajan and Clouzot at work, astonishing things were bound to happen. But with two such super-egos at work, things will not last long. After making 5 movies, the partnership broke up. Let's turn to some screenshots.

Mozart Violin Concerto

The music starts at the first frame of the film with this image:

Followed by this amalgam of Liberaceism and High Culture with many scores of actual burning candles (one for each musician plus general lighting). In addition to the kitsch, there was also a unique solar-system seating pattern with Karajan as the sun, the musicians in an asteroid belt, and Menuhin presented as a giant gas planet. I never figured out the empty seats:

The first obligation of the video director of any symphony performance is to show the audience adequate whole-orchestra shots so that viewers can, as when they attend a live performance, see where all the different instruments are located. (See our Special Article on this and other requirements for a good symphony concert video.) The solar-system setup made whole-orchestra shots impossible. Even with a camera on a crane, a chandeliers blocks the view:

Never mind, this performance is not about the orchestra. This show is about the sun and its planet:

Of course, the planet gets plenty of screen time in this concerto. So if you're interested in Menuhin, there's a lot for you to like in this performance and in a bonus extra:


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The Pyongyang Concert

In memoriam: Lorin Maazel recently died (July 13, 2014) at age 84. He conducted and led many of the world's most famous symphony orchestras, published more than 300 classical recordings, and earned 10 Grand Prix du Disque awards.

Perhaps Maazel's most singular and unusual achievement was his appearance in 2008 conducting the  New York Philharmonic at a concert in North Korea at the request of the Communist Government of that country. We happen to have an interesting HDVD title about that appearance called The Pyongyang Concert. This title has been, I fear, neglected in recent years. So in honor of Maazel, I thought I should re-review The Pyongyang Concert and provide some screenshots.

The concert in Pyongyang was played and recorded on February 26, 2008. The program was:

1. National Anthem of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or Wongyun's Aegukka

2. The Star-Spangled Banner

3. Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III

4. Dvořák Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)

5. Gershwin An American in Paris

6. Bizet Farandole from L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2

7. Bernstein Candide: Overture (encore)

8. Arirang, a Korean folksong popular in both North and South Korea (encore)

The concert video was directed for TV by Michael Beyer. The music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sampling (probably state-of-the-art considering the traveling required) and provided in PCM 5.1 sound.  Still, I doubt the concert would have been released as a recording based on the musical performance alone. The program is rather odd, is afflicted with a brutal case of DVDitis, and is of greater historical than musical interest.

The heart of this title is a unique and impressive documentary called Americans in Pyongyang, directed Ayelet Heller. The documentary was filmed in HDTV and has Dolby Digital stereo sound.  It shows the work done by Maazel, Zarin Mehta (President of the New York Philharmonic), the musicians, and back-stage staff of the orchestra to make this outreach to the people of North Korea. It also covers all the activities of the musicians while in Korea, the concert itself, and further gives us rare glimpes of life in hermit North Korea. To me the documentary is the real story here and the concert is a bonus extra.

This title was produced by Paul Smaczny. He combines the vision of an artist, the wisdom of a philosopher, and the killer instincts of a reporter to help give us what still may have the potential to be the most significant entertainment video ever made. We don't know exactly why the North Koreans asked for this concert. But the reason the New Yorkers went is clearly explained: It might do some good!

The disc was released in 2008. Grade: A for the documentary. I decided not to review or grade the the concert recording itself. It does no harm. You might want to buy the disc for it's Dvořák Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) or some of the shorter numbers. 

Now for some screenshots. We start by crossing the Demilitarized Zone at the 38th parallel. Don't go for a walk in the woods!

A long convoy of trucks carried all the gear needed to record and televise the concert and make the documentary. The orchestra arrived later at the Pyongyang Airport in a 747:

Everywhere you would see portraits of two men. North Korea is history's only Communist nation where leadership of the county is inherited across generations. "Kim" is a common family name in Korea.  On the left below is Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), the first Communist dictator of North Korea, whom I call "Kim 1." On the right is Kim Jong-il (1941-2011), the son of Kim 1, or "Kim 2." Kim 2 was the dictator from about 1994 to 2011.

The Pyongyang Concert took place in 2008 while Kim 2 was in power. The thought was then afoot that the concert might provide a breakthrough in improving relations between the US and North Korea. This was not to happen, at least not yet. My guess is that Kim 2 started having health problems, which led to an all-consuming power struggle within the inner circle. After the death of Kim 2 in 2011, his son Kim Jong-um ("Kim 3") became the dictator. At this writing in 2014, it appears relations between North Korea and the US have become worse, not better.

This building with the large portrait of Kim 1 is, I surmise, the headquarters of the North Korean Communist Party. If you know for sure what the building is,  please let me know:

The documentary has voice overs in English, for which there are no subtitles. So I made my screenshots with German subtitles. Here is a view from the hotel where the New York Philharmonic stayed. After unpacking, many members of the band decided to go for a walk. No one stopped them from leaving the hotel. "It seemed that nobody thought that we might do this." But after the musicians walked a few blocks, police appeared to shoo them back to the hotel. After that, each member of the orchestra was accompanied by an English-speaking escort:

In Marxist lore, the worst possible apostasy would be a class struggle that turns into a military dictatorship. North Korea has a "Military First" policy. Still, I don't remember seeing a single military uniform at the concert or any of the activities shown in the documentary. But the cameras did see signs of military activity in the city such as this practice parade in review:


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McGregor Going Somewhere

This title includes two films relating to Wayne McGregor:

  • Going Somewhere is an 80-minute documentary about McGregor as choreographer and is reviewed here.
  • A Moment in Time is a 30-minute performance film, offered as a bonus extra, with three short pieces by McGregor. It has nice music from folks like Joby Talbot, Olafur Arnalds, and Kaija Saariaho recorded at 48kHz/24 bit specs. But it will not be reviewed because it only has stereo sound (and the video also suffers from VHS or DVD-level quality).

Going Somewhere considers the choreographic techniques of Wayne McGregor illustrated by recordings of his work with his own dance group, Random Dance. There are also recordings of his work with stars of the Royal Ballet, experimental work with high school students, and several "science" segments. Directed by Catherine Maximoff; photography by Samuel Dravet; sound by François Waledisch and Henri Maïkoff; editing by Emmanuelle Baude. Released 2014, disc has PCM stereo sound. Grade: D+

Here's a better view of the 8 members of Random Dance as seen on the back of the keepcase. The dancers, unfortunately not identified individually on the disc,  are: Neil Fleming Brown, Catarina Carvalho, Agnès López Rio, Paolo Mangiola, Anna Nowak, Maxime Thomas, Antoine Vereecken, and Jessica Wright:

My favorite image from Going Somewhere. This makes for a nice PC wallpaper:

McGregor is now one of the hottest choreographers in the world. He appears briefly in the HDVD title La Dance (at 20:25). He also speaks in the introductions to his Croma, Infra, and Limen dance pieces released in the Three Ballets by Wayne McGregor HDVD. In just moments, McGregor leaves an indelible impression, and he is one of the most unforgettable characters I have never met. How to describe him? Well, mate an octopus with a featherless chicken. Endow the new creature with a genius for movement, and give it a hot-foot. That would be McGregor.

Everyone has a unique face, voice, finger-prints, etc. And, per McGregor,  everyone has a unique movement "signature." The essence of McGregor's movement signature is smooth flexibility. Here he leads the Random Dance in an undulation of the rib-cage that will be the foundation for a piece. Even his own dancers seem to have trouble mimicing this. While working, McGregor is seen constantly in motion showing the dancers what he wants, and sometime he breaks loose into wild improvisations, just for fun:


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Lang Lang Dragon Songs

Lang Lang Dragon Songs piano concert and documentary. This title has 3 segments:

1. A documentary and compilation of interviews made in 2005 and 2006 when Lang Lang (then age 23) returned, after making his way for years in the West as a child and young adult, to visit old haunts in China.

2. The "Dragon Songs." This is a recital of about 40 minutes with 6 solo pieces by Lang Lang and 3 pieces in which Lang Lang serves as accompanist backing musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments.

3. A performance by Lang Lang of the Yellow River Piano Concerto made in 2005 at a special patriotic performance.

The documentary and song recital were recorded in HDCAM 1080i and 5.1 digital sound. The Yellow River Piano Concerto was probably recorded for distribution on VHS tape. Released in 2013, the disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C-

 It's now 2013 and the events depicted on this disc took place about 8 years ago---ancient history. This title was released as a DVD in 2007 and apparently made at best only a modest impact in the marketplace. Now 6 years later, DG is trying again with a Blu-ray version. I probably should have excluded this from our website as legacy material and moved on to something fresh. But because Lang Lang is now so famous, I thought I should review this briefly to alert our readers to approach this with caution.

The documentary (also called Lang Lang Dragon Songs) is par for the course as to PQ, video quality, and content. But who cares now about Lang Lang's trip so long ago?  If you care, you probably already have the DVD. The Blu-ray version doubtless looks better than the DVD. But the DVD is probably good enough for the material---why would you spend money upgrading unless you have an inexhaustible trust fund to pay for things?

Let's jump now to the Yellow River Concerto. This performance was at a Chinese Communist Party cultural propaganda extravaganza. It has the absolute worst PQ and SQ of any fine-arts video I've seen. I think it was made for internal consumption by a Chinese population still using VHS tapes as state of the art. It also appears the tape used as the master for this disc was several generations removed from the original. But the content is even worse than the recording. This is the concert in a sports stadium where Lang Lang, dressed in an all-white tux with tails (and red bow tie) was backed up by 4 symphony orchestras, thousands of chorus singers, and 100 Chinese maidens in long white gowns playing 100 grand pianos---truly a galactic-scale kosmos of kitsch. I know I shouldn't do this; but I can't resist posting some screenshots of the Yellow River Concerto, just to show how far we have come in recent years.

Here's a shot of Lang Lang beginning his performance of the Yellow River:

Lang Lang is located between the conductor and the Red Star logo on the floor. Behind the massed orchestras are perhaps 2000 chorus members. It takes several different angles to do it, but I was able to count all 100 girls in white at their grands:

The screenshots here look better than the video itself which is afflicted by massive motion optical artifacts and unbelievably great sound distortion. Here's a mid-range shot showing 22 double basses:


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Universe of Sound

Universe of Sound documentary about a special performance of the Holst The Planets and Joby Talbot's Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra. This is the first HDVD from the Signum label (or is it Signum Vision). Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B as a documentary only.  (As a concert disc, the grade would be "F".)

What in the universe is going on here? Here are slightly edited portions of a press release I got from about this title shortly before it was released: "This title arose out of a major "virtual orchestra" digital installation project that the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen undertook in the summer of 2012 at London's Science Museum. The installation allows visitors to walk through a symphony orchestra while it performs Holst's The Planets, and involves large screen projections of principal musicians and each section of the orchestra, together with interactive content such as a conductor simulator, live percussion demonstrations, and being able to listen to commentaries from the musicians and Salonen as they perform the music. The content for the installation was shot using 37 cameras."

Whew! Why would you do this in a science museum? Answer: Because kids love science museums and hate symphony orchestras. And what does this mean to us? Well, we now can buy a strange documentary about a virtual orchestra digital installation project with an even stranger performance of The Planets thrown in plus about 8 minutes of new music from Joby Talbot.

Let me explain by first listing the items in the rather complicated and tricky menu on this disc:

1. Play Feature   Has a performance of The Planets in 7 movements + the Talbot music. I'll call this The Planets +

2. The Planets  This menu item lets you pick out a specific movement from the above. For example, you can call up the "Saturn" track without playing the whole suite

3. Audio Set Up

   a. You can select LPCM stereo, dts-DH Master Audio, or Dolby Digital sound

   b. In addition, while you play the performance, you can call up a running commentary on The Planets + by  Esa-Pekka Salonen and Richard Slanty

   c. As a separate additional option, you can hear running comments from five musician while you play the performance

4. Picture Set Up

   a. Of course you can watch a normal simple picture

   b. An option is to see a small PIP view of the conductor leading the orchestra

   c. Another option is to see the screen split into 5 sections with video and running comments from five principal musicians

5. Special Features

   a. A speaker discusses in a series of "Listening Guides" some of the musical characteristics of each movement of The Planets +

   b. "Universe of Sound---The Planets." This shows you what the virtual orchestra digital installation project looked like at the science museum and how the project got made

Strangely, the further down the menu you go, the more interesting the segment is. So lets start at the bottom and work our way up.

Special Feature: "Universe of Sound---The Planets." To make the installation, the orchestra was "exploded" in a huge recording studio into separate sections divided by wide pathways and, sometimes, black curtains. Although there were 37 HD cameras deployed, no camera could see the whole orchestra. The reason for exploding the band was to allow each section to be recorded alone while playing. The section members could not hear the other musicians in the normal way, but everyone got some view of the conductor. (Well, the organ and the female chorus were recorded in completely different locations and spliced in later.)

Because of all the cameras and lights, it was hot in the studio. Everybody dressed formal.  Because the orchestra was playing in such an unnatural configuration, it took as many as 20 takes of some of the music to get everybody properly coordinated. All the while an army of cameramen were crawling around shooting. One violin player had a camera mounted on his head. A small camera was mounted on the end of a trombone slide! Don't pick your nose! The shoot lasted 2 days and must have been an exhausting experience for everyone.

There were 45 mikes for sound recording. The cameramen continued to record the post-performance process of editing the raw video footage and 45 sound streams into a performance and combining it with the numerous interactive parts of the exhibition.

Finally, camera crews tracked several weeks of sophisticated set up of all the gear in the science building. The installation occupied a number of  rooms in the Science Museum. Visitors would see different sections of the orchestra in isolation in different rooms. For example, the 7 horn players would be seen playing in a row by themselves  on one wall and maybe the trombones would be seen on another wall in the same room. I think different areas in the installation may have been themed for each of the planets. Finally, there was a nice cocktail party for the suits and skirts behind all of this. I know there's a lot involved after the curtain call in making any kind of audio-visual presentation for the consumer. This part of subject title is the best bonus I've seen to show a bit of post-production process.

Special Feature: "Listening Guides" There is a guide for each movement in The Planets. They are presented by the same speaker and are reasonably interesting. But there are two problems. First, there are no subtitles in English or other languages. I had trouble understanding the speaker with his British accent. Second, each of the guides is a separate title with its own introduction and conclusion with credits to sponsors and the like. Perhaps there was a different area at the installation for each planet with a discrete guide for music related to that planet. But it is not pleasant or efficient to view the separate guides one after the other. It would have been better to edit the material into a single presentation for home theater viewing.

Picture Set Up---PIP of Conductor. With this turned on, you can watch the whole performance with an extra view of Salonen in a small corner picture. This is an excellent feature executed well, but who would want to see this other than a student conductor?

Picture Set Up---Multiview with Principal Players. With this turned on, you see a principal horn, bassoon, trumpet, violin, and tympani player performing all the way through The Planets in 5 different sections of the screen. You then hear voice-over chatting from each player revealing their thoughts while playing and their assessments of the recording after the fact. This feature has subtitles in English that are color-coded to show you who is talking.  I think this segment is handed about as well as possible and is quite interesting.

Audio Set Up---Running Commentary by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Richard Slanty. With this running, you see the concert and hear Salonen and Slanty discuss it. The problem here is that neither of these gents is a professional announcer and both have accents speaking English. There are no subtitles. So I found the strain of trying to understand them made this option too wearisome for me.

Audio Set Up---Running Commentary by Principal Musicians. This is the voice part of the multiview feature I praised above. Without the pictures of the musicians and the subtitles to help out, I found the voice part alone hard to follow.

Play Feature. Now finally we will discuss the actual performance of The Planets +. What you see as the main event on this disc is the video of the performance of the exploded orchestra. This  performance was maybe a brilliant success for the special purpose intended for the film. But offering this to be shown in a home theater is problematical. 

The sound quality, while adequate for use in a noisy museum with kids running around, is not impressive to me.  There are many instances where instruments being photographed can hardly be heard. For example there are two prominent cuts in the "Mars" movement with a percussionist playing hard on a snare drum, but you don't hear the drum at all. The harps are especially poorly recorded, and there are several shots of the double bass section with little sound of the instruments. When the brass sections are invoked, you can hear them for sure, but other instruments may be covered over. Likewise, the picture quality, while fine for the museum screens, is soft by our standards. 

But the real problem is the picture content. I don't question the wisdom of making a film of an exploded orchestra so as to introduce the various sections to children. But this way of photographing the orchestra is not acceptable under our standards for making a video for enjoyment in a home theater of a symphony orchestra.

The basic problem is that we want to use the power of HD TV to make it possible to see the whole orchestra much of the time when playing at the symphony level. For this the TV director might need 3 to 7 cameras. But the Universe of Sound approach is the complete opposite. 37 cameras are used to atomize the orchestra in a configuration where there is no possibility of making even a single frame of the whole orchestra.

If you are having trouble following all this, maybe a few screenshots will help. First I'll show 4 shots to give you some idea of what the museum installation looked before the museum visitors started swarming through the exhibits:


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Rite of Spring

Stravinsky Rite of Spring and music from The Firebird by Stravinsky. Michael Tilson Thomas directs the San Francisco Symphony in a recent performance of  Stravinsky classics as part of the "Keeping Score" outreach program of the San Francisco Symphony. In addition, Thomas narrates an educational program about Stravinsky and Rite of Spring. The concert is in HD; the documentary is in SD. The concert was directed by Gary Halvorson. Otherwise, title was directed and produced by David Kennard, Joan Saffa, and Michael Bronson. Released 2013, disc has 5.1 Dolby TrueHD sound. You should not be especially impressed with the claim that has "up-sampled 96kHz24 bit sound." See our discussion of this gimmick at our review of San Francisco Symphony at 100. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Steve Reich Phase to Face

Steve Reich Phase to Face film by Eric Darmon and Frank Mallet. This is a documentary film detailing the career and music of Steve Reich. Includes bonus featurettes Talks in Tokyo with Steve Reich and A Brief History of Music by Steve Reich Grade: B

For the novice just getting into classical music, it may seem, on first glance, that classical music is dead. Not dead in the sense that it isn't being played, performed, and loved by millions of people, but dead in that seemingly no new classical music is being written. One need only visit this site to see that the interest for watching classical music exists. But an inspection of the titles shows that the music being played is distinctly older. While there are plenty of new ballets being produced and new operas being performed, it seems that new classical music is highly underrepresented.

But as the novice digs further,  he will find that modern classical music does exist. It just doesn't sound much like the works of Beethoven or Mozart. A fine example of this is the work of Steve Reich. A modern, minimalist composer, he has been writing and performing from the mid-1960s and is still composing today. His work is marked by the use of phasing - a technique where two of the same instrument play the same piece of music, at steady but not identical tempos. The result is a sound unlike most in the classical tradition. This technique, and Reich's works, have been highly influential in  the direction of modern classical and popular music.  When the history of late 20th century music is written, Reich's name will appear as one its key figures. Here are a few screenshots of Reich in his trademark olive baseball cap:

The film itself is only about 50 minutes - a bit on the short side. But both the topic and the man himself are so engaging that the running time is an afterthought. The film follows Reich as he travels the world from concert to concert and into recording studios where he continues to perform new music. Interspersed between the concert footage are sections with Reich discussing his life and influences. He discusses several of his most well regarded works, namely Music for 18 Musicians and Different Trains, as well as other pieces. While not exhaustive in detail, there is definitely enough to get a feel for the type of music Reich composes. Here are a few shots of the types of musical interludes in the film - both live performances and video montages made for the film:

The disc also contains two extras - a brief "Q & A" after a performance in Japan, and a short discussion of "The History of Music" as seen by Reich. These are just as illuminating as the main feature. Honest and thoughtful, Reich is an excellent subject for a documentary. His passion for music is readily discerned from his discussions, but he never ventures into avant guarde pretension.

My only disappointment with this disc is that there is no extra of a complete performance of one of Reich's works. If this documentary does well in the market, perhaps HDVD producers will be encouraged to release complete concert discs. But I'm aware that this disc is advertised as a documentary only. As such it teaches the novice much about Reich and the future of classical music, and it deserves the grade of "B."


Pina dance film by Wim Wenders. (We know, the title of this is "pina," but we will still use the capital letter "P.") This is a heavy-weight documentary about the choreography of Pina Bausch. The film includes recently commissioned segments of stage performances, original shooting of dancing on locations around Wuppertal, interviews with dancers who knew and worked with Bausch, and archival footage. The package has a 2D movie, a 3D movie + a "making of" extra. There has been massive confusion over the marketing of this title. (It is being sold like a movie; not like a ballet title.) It is available in German, French, Spanish, and Italian releases, all limited to Region B. There is also a Canadian version, a 3-disc box set (2D, 3D, and DVD),  limited to Region A. This appears to be the best option for those living in the United States with Region A players. We have also learned that the Criterion Collection is planning to release this in the American market in early 2013. Released 2012, discs have 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

One of the very best fine-art HDVDs we have is the Pina Bausch Orpheus und Eurydike dance-opera from the Paris Opera Ballet. The Bausch Orpheus und Eurydike is a classical work presented in Pina's surreal style. Pina's more typical works, created and presented over decades at her Tanztheater Wuppertal in Germany, are more radical and iconoclastic. These radical works are what Wenders mainly treats in his film, which was made after Pina's death. The film has lengthy excerpts from Le Sacre du Printemps, Café Müller, and Kontakthof. 

I first saw this in its 2D version, and I was content with it. Later I  saw the 3D version. This film is much stronger in 3D than 2D. The 3D version is by far the best 3D title yet of any fine-arts subject, and it is the only such title we have now that I will in the future enthusiastically show to my family and friends.

This film was made from scratch by Wim Wenders, a famous movie director. Pina is now considered something of a national treasure and patron saint of artists in Germany. Wenders got significant cooperation and backing from his countrymen in making this. Everything (except a few archival clips) was shot in 3D. In addition to challenging dancing scenes in Pina's theater or in studios, Wenders used striking locations around Wuppertal. A fair amount of money was invested in the project. Using prototype and awkward 3D gear, Wenders got a final product showing terrific film-making craftsmanship throughout. There are no technical problems with this film that I can see.

Of course Winders includes some of the morose interviews every in memoriam film has to have. But mostly we see dancing---Pina style. This style (1) stresses the individuality of each dancer (2) occupies territory by spreading dancers out over large areas (as air abhors the vacuum), and (3) keeps your attention by allowing anything to happen any time. Our ability to cope with these style elements are enhanced significantly by 3D filming.

Individuality. There are few movie-like closeups in this film. Most of the time you see the whole body of several or many dancers. I was surprised to see that even when individual dancers are relatively far away, the 3D camera makes them look more vivid and real than is possible with 2D. As to the men, 3D lets me see more clearly their facial features and expressions, their postures and movements, and each muscle, bone, and ligament in their incredibly lean bodies. The same holds for the women, of course, plus I can see far more clearly than before the softness and curves that makes them different from the men.

Occupying Territory. Our depth perception (visual and aural) lets us observe locations. In the old days, we needed to keep track of every enemy warrior or hungry lion around.  In our time these skills are deprecated. But when Pina Bausch puts her dancers out all over the place, our minds re-engage old talents so we can observe everything that takes place within sight or hearing. Well, seeing the scene in 3D makes it much easier for me to do this and gives me a feeling of comfort that I have everything under control.

Stay Awake! With Pina, you are going to be surprised. It takes energy to keep track of all the people on stage doing different things. I need all the help I can get, and 3D vision does a lot to help me stay on guard. For example, in 2D I didn't see in the Vollmond segment that two men in the background swim across the stage in water that somehow is present there. But in 3D, the swimmers are obvious. 

I wouldn't dream of trying to discuss the meaning or content of Bausch's choreography. Perhaps there is no content beyond what I've hinted at above. But there is one "political" aspect of her work I'll mention: most dance companies retire their members at age 40 or so. But once you were part of Pina's company, you could apparently keep dancing as long as you could wiggle your toes. I know of no other choreographer who has shown such a keen interest in the abilities of older dancers.

Here are some screenshots from Pina.

Above: wild stage preparation is a Pina hallmark. Here 6 huge boxes of special dirt are spread on the stage for The Rite of Spring. Pina's most famous stunt of this type was probably her Nelken (Carnations) stage covered with thousands of, well, carnations.

All the girls get down and dirty in this one. The red cloth is a dress you don't want to wear.

The lucky girl. But we don't get to see what happens to her. Let's hope this Rite of Spring will one day be available complete in HDVD.

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Gerhard Richter Painting

Gerhard Richter Painting documentary film. Written and directed by Corinna Belz; edited by Stephan Krumbiegel. The main film lasts 97 minutes. It was shot while Richter was preparing for an exhibition (shown late in 2009 and early 2010) at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.  Title also includes as extras (1) a 23 minute interview with art historian Benjamin HD Buchloh, (2) 10 minutes of "fragments of a conversation" with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and (3) a 9 minute clip showing Richter getting ready for an exhibiton in Munich. Released 2012, there is a soundtrack presented in 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D+

HDVD allows plastic artists and art museums to publicise their goods more effectively than was ever possible before. But in the first 5 years of the existence of Blu-ray discs, only 3 titles about paintings have been released. When I learned there would be an HDVD about Gerhard Richter, I was intrigued; alas, what we have in Gerhard Richter Painting is a sad disappointment.

At this writing Richer is widely considered to be the most successful living painter. He was born in Germany and was 13 at the end of WW II. He started his career in Communist East Germany. Although Richter was never actively political, he was always interested in experimental ways of creating new images and has treated political subjects. This wasn't a good long-range fit with Communism, so he defected to the West in 1961 (at age 29) just before the Berlin Wall was built.

Richter quietly thrived in the West. Unlike a lot of artists, he appears to be an excellent craftsman and businessman. You sense this from his astonishing official website which has an exhaustive catalogue of every artwork he has ever made and did not destroy. Warning: there are something like 7300 thumbnail pictures on the website of Richer works (and his "Atlas" of subjects used for the basis of some of the works). If you start looking at all this, you may find it hard to stop.

Richer's works tend to fall into two categories: altered photographs and pieces created partly or largely through the application of mathematical or physical chance. Examples of "chance" works would be his huge stain glass window in the Cologne Cathedral made of squares of color samples or his large abstract canvases made mostly by smearing paint on the canvas with giant squeegees (they resemble windshield wipers) and then scraping away to see comes through. (His works include many other different but somewhat similar techniques for making images.)

Richter's output is therefore substantially derivative and often features variations on a theme in a manner that reminds me of Andy Warhol. But Richter is on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from the celebrity hound Warhol. Mild-mannered and self-effacing, Richter is an counter-celebrity, anti-hero type who shuns ostentatiousness. 

But his work ethic is fierce. He is a one-man Volkswagen factory for turning out artworks for sale (with the help of a few assistants). Richer scheduled a show for 2009-2010 in New York at the Marian Goodman Gallery. You might think when show time comes he would rummage around in his attic and come up with some things to send on to N.Y. Well, it's not that way at all. He had in his workshops a scale model of all the huge rooms in the Gallery he had to fill. Each work he was to consign was created, photographed, reduced to 2% of real size, and carefully placed on the model in the exact spot where it would be installed in the flesh. In this manner Richter put himself in charge of every detail of the show with the hundreds of works small and large that would be released for sale. (Marian was in charge of sending out invitations and pouring the wine.) So when subject documentary was shot, Richter was under huge pressure to come up with product to put on the walls in New York.

According to Wikipedia, Richter has been in recent times capable of selling $100,000,000 of artworks in a year to museums and high-roller art speculators. So if Richter felt there should be a film about his works for the general public, he easily would have the practical and financial resources to make any such film a spectacular success. But Richter apparently never felt that a film aimed at the public would be advantageous.

Richter did, however, grant Corinna Belz the rights to make a low-cost documentary about his techniques for making paintings and other art works. The idea, I think, was for Belz to hang around the workshops and shoot at random what she saw and to also film how Richter creates one of his typical large oil-on-canvas abstract expressionist paintings. (This is similar to the "direct cinema" style of making documentaries. Direct cinema was used, for example, by Frederick Wiseman in making La Danse - Le Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris, which is reviewed on this website.)

Belz went to work. But the project stalled when Richter hit a mental snag (like writer's block) in the middle of cranking out two big abstracts. He complained that the filming by the camera crew was interfering with his work process. This was serious because the paintings Richter was working on had to be finished (I think) for the N.Y. show with Marian Goodman. After this confrontation, the documentary all but completely falls apart. You can't tell if the paintings Richter started on are in fact the among the paintings that get hung at the Goodman Gallery. I get the impression that Richter wanted to abandon the documentary but was unable or unwilling to buy Belz completely out.

In addition to the uncertainty about what the heck you are seeing, the documentary suffers from the typical woes of all direct cinema: poor picture and sound quality from light-weight recording gear used on the fly, poor visual resolution, and weak framing of shots that have to be set up in a hurry. Betz also several times commits the terrible error of panning across long rows of artwork hung on walls, which results in obvious blur and motion artefacts. (Many of the images on the walls have blur built into them by Richter already as part of his style, so the viewer gets blurred images of blurred images). The voices you hear on the film tend to be poorly recorded. But some nice music added later helps the film considerably.

Well, at this point you might think this title is headed for a "F" grade---a complete disaster. But as bad as it is, Gerhard Richter Painting does have its charms and you can learn something from it about Richter and his work. So let's see what we can salvage.


One of Richter's main techniques is to take photos he makes himself or gets from others and turn them into hand-painted oils, usually with alterations ranging from subtle to savage. I've now seen hundreds of these paintings from subject film and the official website. I would say there is exactly one of these images I find memorable, but it is a real zinger---a picture, Caravaggio style, of the Richter's own daughter, Betty, when she was about 10 years old:


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Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh plastic arts title and documentary about the work and life of Vincent van Gogh.  Eline Timmer directs the main film showing about 100 paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam as well as images of famous paintings located in other museums around the world. The film is has interviews in which art history experts discuss in detail each stage in van Gogh's life and of his development as artist. A bonus feature explains what happened to the paintings van Gogh left at his death and why some 200 of the best paintings are still in two museums in Holland. Released in 2011, title was shot with digital cameras in "Full HD 1080P" at 30 fps; disc has  5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Grade: A-

When I first stumbled onto this title on I thought, "This must be another one of those van Gogh dramas about paid love and missing body parts." But something told me to buy it anyway. It turned out to be what we have been waiting for for 5 years (since the first fine-art HDVD was published): a serious treatment in high-definition TV of a large number of paintings and drawings expertly discussed by art historians. This is a milestone for fine-art HDVD fans, and I found it by accident! Well, it's a milestone for folks who have a good command of either Dutch or English (more later about the language problem with this disc.)

There are 3 segments on this title. The main program lasts 135 minutes and is called Vincent van Gogh Een leven voor de kunst or Vincent van Gogh, A Life for Art. There is an extra that lasts 15 minutes called Van Goghs roem zijn tweede leven or Van Gogh's Fame---His Second Life. Finally, there is a Picture Gallery that displays 14 paintings.

The main program divides van Gogh's life in 5 periods. The full resources of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam are exploited for each period. You see wonderful shots of numerous painting and drawings, historical pictures, excepts from letters, and the like as well as great high-def videos showing today many locations and buildings that van Gogh knew. What you see is explained in voice-over narration and via numerous short interviews with the experts from the Van Gogh Museum. The material is quite detailed and absorbing---the 2 hours and 14 minutes goes by fast. The main program ends with Vincent's death.

Most or all of Van Gogh's most popular paintings are shown in this title, but I will not bore you with screen shots of many of them. The real benefit from this title is it's depiction of the breadth of the 800+ paintings Van Gogh left. Quite a few early works are shown, which tend to be dark and crude-looking views of the lives of farmers and workers. When Vincent moved to Paris, he started using more color as in this floral still life:

The film gives you many opportunities to compare Vincent's oil paintings to photographs of what Vincent was actually seeing from his easel.  For example, here is a old photo of the "Yellow House" in Arles where Vincent tried to set up an artists' commune:

And here is the painting Vincent made of the exterior:


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Music Is the Language of the Heart and Soul: A Portrait of Mariss Jansons and Mahler Symphony No. 2

Music Is the Language of the Heart and Soul: A Portrait of Mariss Jansons and Mahler Symphony No. 2.

1. Portrait of Mariss Jansons. Documentary by film maker Robert Neumüller on the life and career of Mariss Jansons. Produced by Felix Breisach; camera by Robert Neumüller.

2. Mahler Symphony No. 2 with Jansons conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Choir in 2009 in Amsterdam. Ricarda Merbeth sings soprano and Bernarda Fink is the mezzo-soprano. Directed for video by Joost Honselaar; camera by Marlies Puijk; lighting by Pascal Naber; sound by Everett Porter; edited by Ronald be Beer; produced by Ronald Kok.

Released 2012, the documentary has stereo and the concert has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C-

The concert portion of this disc is the same recording as found in the RCO 10-disc Mahler Box Set. While we liked the audio quality and the performance itself, we gave Symphony No. 2 a D+ for having soft picture quality and an extreme case of DVDitits, as well as lacking subtitles for the sung portions of the symphony. For this release, C Major has included German and English subtitles, which bumps the grade to C-.

The documentary is ultimately inconsequential. Jansons himself is charming enough as he reminisces about his youth, his parents, and his interactions with other musicians and orchestras, the audience really learns nothing that can't be read from Jansons' wikipedia page. The interviews with fellow musicians are nothing but laudatory praise - which is great for Jansons but doesn't make for compelling film making. It is nice to see different concert halls and European cities, including many scenes in Riga, Latvia. But unless one has a keen interest in architecture or is a Jansons completionist, this documentary is not terribly interesting.