Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tchaikovsky in Jazz

Sergey Zhilin opts for jazz groups rather than symphony orchestras when it comes to Tchaikovsky, giving the great composer's work more bounce and playfulness, such as this fun interpretation.  Zhilin also likes to go solo like this intimate and warm rendering entitled March.  Of course, Tchaikovsky has long been a favorite of jazz musicians from Shorty Rogers' The Swinging Nutcracker to Kenny Barron's Classical Jazz Quartet Play Tchaikovsky.  But, few do it beer than Zhilin, who will be in Vilnius this weekend, drawing from his latest album, Tchaikovsky in Jazz: The Seasons.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Lonely Mayanist

Yuri Knorozov was more than just a noted ethnographer with a passion for the Mayan language.  He was also a cat lover.  While a soldier in the Soviet Army in WWII, he had stumbled upon a rare collection of Mayan codices in the Berlin library, which he brought back with him to Moscow.  This apparently life-changing event inspired to devote his energies to "Mayanology" in virtual isolation from all the other work being done by Eric Thompson and others.  Michael Coe in his book, Breaking the Mayan Code, said this gave Knorozov fresh eyes, as up to this point the elaborate Mayan hieroglyphs had been primarily seen as a graphic language, not a written one.  It seemed the Knorozov had largely been forgotten at the time of the writing of this book in 1992.

Knorozov, who had previously focused on Egyptology, wrote a paper, Ancient Writing of Central America, in 1952 in which he made the case for the hieroglyphs being phonetic, not logographic as widely believed.  He used the "alphabet" produced by a 16th century Spanish priest, Diego de Landa, to help unlock the code.  De Landa's "alphabet" had similarly been dismissed by Mayanists.  It took some time before there was acceptance of Knorozov's insights, which in turn inspired a young David Stuart who eventually unlocked much of the language, as shown in the Nova television special, based on Coe's book.

Yuri became a hero not only in the Soviet Union, but was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the Mexican government for his breakthrough studies.  He was the subject of a 2000 documentary, released shortly after his death in 1999.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Ivan Kramskoy apparently never said who the woman in this painting was.  The portrait created quite a stir in its day, as critics were appalled by her coquettish look.  Later, many came to take this painting as Kramskoy's impression of Anna Karenina.  After all, he had been commissioned by Pavel Tretyakov in 1873 to paint a portrait of Tolstoy for his gallery.  Pavel had no luck himself getting the count to pose for a portrait, but Kramskoy managed to win Tolstoy over.  It just so happened that Tolstoy was working on Anna Karenina at the time.  However, Kramskoy painted the "unknown woman" several years later.  Maybe he was inspired by Anna, maybe not.

Others have erroneously attributed the unknown woman to a poem by Alexandr Blok.  If anyone was inspired here it was Blok, as the painting predates the poem by several years.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil

As the story goes, Marianne Faithfull gave Mick a copy of The Master and Margarita, inspiring him to pen the lyrics to the classic song, which first appeared on the album, Beggars Banquet.  Pretty amazing when you consider the book only first appeared in print in 1967.  It was translated into English by Michael Glenny the same year (still the best translation). The album came out the following year.  Godard recorded a film of the Stones trying out the song in the studio, which was released in 1970.

The novel has a long history.  Bulgakov wrote it between 1928 and 1940 when he was assistant director at the Moscow Art Theater (MAT).  The story derives its most compelling scenes from the stage, which is probably why it has been so hard to make into film.  There have been several attempts over the years, each more infuriating than the one before.

Bortko's TV mini-series was the last attempt, which met with luke-warm response.  He literally recreated the novel chapter for chapter on the small screen. The only problem was that it had no life.  He was faithful to a fault, more worried about offending the public than he was in recreating the spirit of the novel, as he so wonderfully did in The Heart of the Dog from several years before.

Andrzej Wajda did a version that focused exclusively on the Biblical scenes from the novel in Pilate and Others (1972) which won him an honorary Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006.

Several other directors had been interested in the novel over the years.  Probably the most tantalizing prospect was that of Roman Polanski shooting a film version.  It is often mentioned in articles, but I haven't been able to find any details outside of a quote from Mia Taylor's article on the filming of the novel, in which Polanski claims Warner Brothers was interested at one point.  Polanski apparently had prepared a script, according to Andras Hamori.  But, it still needed work to read Hamori's remarks.  I assume this was in the late 80s.

Elem Klimov was given the green light to make a large budget film after the stunning success of Come and See, but apparently it was too much for him to consider at the time and he took a pass.  Tarkovsky had previously shown interest, but it was Yuri Kara who finally got a shot at it in 1994, completing a film that suffered brutal cuts before getting a very limited release in 1994 and was subsequently shelved.  In 2011, a director's cut surfaced that filled in many of the gaping plot holes, but it didn't fair well at the box office.  It had too much of an old school look.  It seemed that a younger audience was looking for something more along the lines of modern supernatural films like Bekmambetov's Day Watch.

I saw a theatrical production in Vilnius some years ago, which I thought was very good.  Oskar KorÅ¡unovas went to the heart of the novel and presented a spectacle that I thought was very much in the spirit of Bulgakov.  There have been many other theatrical productions, including this recent one by Simon McBurney, but can't say whether it is worth watching or not.

So, here we are nearly 50 years after the samizdat copy was released in 1967, and very quickly made the rounds all over the world, as if Woland himself had sent the book on its wild journey.  Yet, there is still no definitive film version of the novel.  Maybe there never will be, but it is hard for me to imagine someone else won't be interested in it in the years to come.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Stern October Has Deceived Me

We have been watching a 2005 mini-series on Sergei Yesenin.  It seemed to me a rather sloppy production with Sergei Bezrukov emoting all over the place.  He was most maddening in his brief interlude with Isadora Duncan, poorly played by Sean Young.  You feel sorry for the young "translator" caught between them in these tumultuous scenes that took him from Moscow to the beaches of Italy and eventually to New York, where he very quickly grew weary of this relationship and returned to Mother Russia.

As the poem title implies, Yesenin was a reluctant Bolshevik at best, and eventually turned his back on Trotsky, played very well by Konstantin Khabenski, replete with his famous pince-nez.  This pretty much sealed Yesenin's fate in the brave new Soviet Union, which emerged from a bitter four-year civil war.

Yesenin served briefly in WWI, but was able to avoid the worst of the civil war, focusing on his poetry.  He did a number of collaborations which brought him fame.  He was one of many young poets at the time vying for attention.  He co-founded the movement Imaginism, which included Anatoli Marienhof among others.  Most of his poems celebrated his homeland, such as Land I Love.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find a copy of The Stern October Has Deceived Me, which expressed his ultimate disillusionment with the Soviet experiment.

There was no doubt about his impulsive nature.  He married four times between 1917 and his untimely death in 1925, lastly Tolstoy's granddaughter, Sophia Andreyevna.  Igor Zaitsev frames the series in a detective story, with Aleksandr Michailov playing the gumshoe who re-examines the events that led to Yesenin's death some 60 years later during the Perestroika years of the Soviet Union, only to find there are still Soviet officials that don't want the truth to be told.  The belief that Yesenin had committed suicide had long been questioned, and the series makes it clear the NKVD saw him as a threat to the state.