May 4, 2010
Thomas Adès: A Review


Over the years, Adès has earned recognition as a world-class conductor, pianist, and composer. A musical prodigy, Adès studied music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and Cambridge University. He gave his first public recital at the age of 22, wrote the internationally acclaimed chamber opera Powder Her Face at 24, and was a composer-in-residence by thirty.

I first heard about Adès at an Emanuel Ax piano recital at the Barbican last March. The night’s performance was a moving celebration of the Romantic piano tradition with Ax providing both commanding force and technical precision. In the middle of the program, bookended by Chopin and Schumann, was the UK premier of Adès’ Three Mazurkas. The short pieces proved a perfect contrast to Chopin’s own mazurkas, reworking the traditional Polish folk dance genre into a delirious, off-kilter frenzy. Enigmatic, intense, and consciously unsatisfying, they lured us into a haunted soundscape only to violently cast us out.  When Adès took the stage for a bow, I was stunned. His bird-like features, fresh face, and boyish gate make him appear absurdly young for an artist of his standing.

On April 27th, Adès took the Barbican stage again, this time as a solo pianist. Adès put together a unique selection of pieces by Janáček, Prokofiev, Shubert, Beethoven, and Liszt, as well as his own Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face. I particularly enjoyed Adès’ interpretation of the rarely-performed Along an Overgrown Path–Book 2, a posthumous assortment of pieces written by Janáček between 1900 and 1915. With their Moravian folk-song overtones, the pieces seemed to share a sense of nostalgia, a yearning for the naiveté and simplicity of the past.

Although Adès rose to fame at an early age, he has continued to develop both as a conductor and a performer. One of my favorite Adès pieces is his more recent Violin Concerto ”Concentric Paths” Op.24, which premiered in 2005. I have included the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s recording of “Concentric Paths” below, as well as the Philharmonia Orchestra performing the overture to Adès’ Powder Her Face at the Royal Albert Hall. 

May 3, 2010
Behud (Beyond Belief): A Review

In November 2004, British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a relatively unknown dramatist with a play in its final stages of production. A month later she had become an international provocateur, attracting both praise and death treats.

The catalyst for Bhatti’s overnight celebrity was her controversial second play Behzti, translated from Punjabi as Dishonor. Crucially, Behzti contains a transgressive scene in which rape, physical abuse, and murder occur in a Gurdwara, or Sikh temple. Although Behzti was set to open at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on December 18th, mass protests eventually turned violent, and the theatre called off all scheduled performances.

From the beginning, the Behzti controversy was rooted in an age-old argument about the freedom of speech. On the one side, members of the local Sikh community asserted that the artist had no right to bring such an offensive and misrepresentative play to the public stage. On the other side, the theatre, playwright, and hundreds of arts figures defended the artist’s right to express and explore through fiction. While the debates aroused by the controversy proved interesting, many were disappointed by the final cancellation. Bhatti, for one, was devastated.

Six years later, Bhatti has returned to the events surrounding Behzti in her new satire Behud (Beyond Belief) at the Soho Theatre. Playful, surreal, and unsettling, Behud sucks us into the imagination of an artist desperate to bring her vision to life. Putting herself on stage as the protagonist playwright Tarlochan, Bhatti shows how the Behzti controversy was as comical as it was traumatic. In the end, however, the amusing absurdity of the situation can do little to alleviate the pain of Bhatti’s silencing. Abandoned by both white liberals and members of her own Sikh community, Tarlochan finds herself betrayed, alone, and unable to come to terms with reality. 

While the blurring of reality and art is, in my opinion, overplayed, Bhatti’s new satire contains many valuable points of entry into constructive debate. There is the journalist, Satinder Shergill (Priyanga Burford), who claims she is willing to be used by whites to make them feel multicultural– so long as there is something in it for her. There is the levelheaded Sikh elder Mr. Sidhu (Ravin J Ganatra) who cogently argues that the sanctity of the Gurdwara­ be respected. Thankfully, Bhatti does not gesture towards any easy answers. Instead, she compels us to make our own conclusions, to think through the events, characters, and disparate lines of reasoning in more individual terms.

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