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29.4.04

High Time to Give the Harpsichord a Plug

After the first summer's thunderstorm (a rather mild precursor to what is going to come later in the season), the air, not so humid to begin with, was reasonably fresh. For actual crispness, however, one had to go to the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium, where a sparse crowd was awaiting Olivier Baumont on April 23. The slim, one-manual Bordeaux-red and gold harpsichord, looking more beautiful and elegant than a grand piano ever could, awaited him as well.

A wonderfully pleasant and friendly-looking man, Oliver Baumont bowed to preemptive applause and started with Jacques Champion, Sieur de Chambonnières (1601?–1672), Six Pieces in F major. Light and pearly music in the Allemande was followed by music with more speed and ornamentation in Courante 1 and more expression in the slower Courante 2. Playing, as harpsichordists and organists often do, with a certain professorial manner and dignity, matter-of-factly but with visible joy, Mr. Baumont lacked any of the showmanship traits, habits, and quirks of many of his star-pianist colleagues. That was itself as refreshing as the sound of the harpsichord was. The right cembalo in the right hands provides a cleansing of the musical palate, enjoyable to the point of tears. Nothing against Bach and Co. on the grand piano (Bach is bigger than the instruments on which he is performed), but one must come back to the honesty of the harpsichord every so often. I cannot recall when I last had such a deeply emotional, completely involved musical experience. There was a sort of (musically) spiritual calm that took me wholly—and wholly by surprise.

Sarabande "O beau jardin", Rondeau, and Chaconne flew by me, so enthralled was I with the music. Following Jacques Champion, Sieur de Chambonnières, the alleged founder of the French school of classical harpsichord playing and composing, came the better-known François Couperin with his eight preludes from L'Art de toucher le clavecin (1716). Couperin on the piano was recently so well served by Angela Hewitt (see the Ionarts review from December 18, 2003), albeit not yet with the Preludes, and is becoming a more and more popular French composer together with Rameau and Charpentier, all of whom emerge from behind the more famous, if less talented, Lully. These Couperin preludes (in C, d, g, F, A, b, B-flat, e) were most wonderful. The agile Mr. Baumont played them impeccably and with visible enthusiasm. The atmosphere was, for me, never less than engrossing.


cover
Johann Christian Bach, Harold Hoeren
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Handel, Suites for Keyboard, Keith Jarrett
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Couperin, Keyboard Music, Vol. 1, Angela Hewitt
The sound of the harpsichord itself was splendid. Crisp and clear but neither harsh nor dry—gentle—with plenty of definition and a lovely balance, the 1990 Thos. & Barbara Wolf copy of an early 18th-century Nicholas Dumont instrument was as charming as anything I've heard from a harpsichord, and I have, courtesy of my uncle who, apart from being a harpsichordist also built concert harpsichords, heard a few. Added to this was the considerable skill of Mr. Baumont. Gustav Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Davitt Moroney, and Igor Kipnis have nothing on him. That the harpsichord spoke so vividly to me because of this connection I have to it is well possible. But this bias would only have amplified splendor, not made splendor!

Louis-Claude Daquin's Deuxième Suite in D from 1735, the next piece in this (almost) chronological progression of music, continued to move me, though it may not have been the strongest piece of the night. The successive chords in L'Hirondelle, the last piece of this suite, are a first sign of the harpsichord vernacular's horizon widening, but they appear only twice, quickly, never to appear again. Early keyboard pyrotechnics, perhaps.

Favorite pieces of Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Baumont told the audience, made up the second half of the program. Handel, J. C. Bach, and Reinagle harpsichord pieces, we were told, had a prominent place in Jefferson's library. The Handel Suite IV in d minor, HWV 437 (in the 1733 edition), was close to sublime. A richer palette of sounds than the preceding pieces (even the younger Daquin piece) added a richness where so far had been but fleetness. (Mr. Baumont's discography on Erato is, for the most part, sadly out of print. For the Handel, fortunately, there is always the sublime Keith Jarrett in his marvelous ECM account of seven Handel suites for keyboard.)

Johann Christian Bach (the "London Bach") takes us from early and high baroque to the dawn of the classical style. His influence on the young Mozart is well known and audible even in Bach's own works. More virtuoso-oriented than in the earlier pieces, Mr. Baumont continued to play admirably, even if he had his first few slips of the evening in this Sonata in D major, op. 5, no. 2. The Bach is indeed a most delightful piece of music with moments of pure glory (they remind me of a particular work, but I can't quite put my finger on which one), and I'll be damned if I won't go out looking for a recording thereof as soon as possible—perhaps Harald Hoeren's recording of the six sonatas for pianoforte or harpsichord for CPO.

The Reinagle, after J. C. Bach, was a quaint and plain letdown. The Scot's music sounds a bit like American revolutionary pipe music transcribed for harpsichord. It is repetitive and even in its more boisterous variations it is lacking substance, originality, and even craftsmanship. The little whimsical end, however, redeems the piece, in that it seems to state what it is: not much. Endearing. The following pieces, James Hewitt's Battle Pieces ("The Battle of Trenton" in D major), dedicated to General Washington and with spoken interludes, had rightly been dug out of obscurity in the course of the resurgent interest in American music. Outside that context, however, I am afraid they are lacking too much musically. No better place (other than across the river at Mt. Vernon) than Washington, D.C., to perform these pieces so strongly bound to locale, personage, and circumstance. The programmatic comments were spoken right into the musical vignettes, some no longer than a few seconds. Since it was "Attack, Attack, Attack" and “Cannons, Cannons, Cannons," Mr. Baumont did his utmost, bent over the keyboard to pull break-neck tempi off, while the commentary and the music got more and more amusing. A worthy undertaking indeed, one where the word quaint applies without the connotations of damning with faint praise.

Rosslyn Castle (?) and Grieve of the American [sic] for the Loss of Their Comrades Killed in Engagement are somber hymns to the battle-wounded. Yankee Doodle on the harpsichord, too, is interesting, though probably not a must-hear. The last section (General Rejoicing) was a good introduction to the audience's reaction to the concert. Much too seldom heard, the harpsichord in action was responsible for one of the most delightful concerts in my six years in Washington. Indeed, one that I shall be thinking of for many years to come. Stupendous!

But not only that: Mr. Baumont had encores ready. Michelle Corette (1709–1795) with L'Etoile (?) was much appreciated after the battle stuff. Back to the French harpsichord style that had so delighted in the first half, this piece was endowed with everything one expects from it. Coaxed into playing another encore ("the last one!" he announced jokingly), Mr. Baumont purled a piece by Jacques Duphly (1715–1789) off the black keys in front of him, quite a difference from the usual Brahms lullabies or assorted flights of bumblebees. The afternoon cup of tea of concerts, rather than the steak dinner (usually overcooked, anyway).

WiFi on the National Mall

Cory Doctorow at Boingboing made me aware today of this community wireless group's project to bring free WiFi Internet access to the National Mall here in Washington. (Reuters also ran this story, which appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.) I'm going to go down there to try it out next month, and I'll let you know how it goes. As someone who has a WiFi router in my house, I can tell you that if you don't use it yourself, you should. Major cities in the United States should set up citywide WiFi networks for the use of all residents, paid for with tax dollars and free to everyone. (There have been experiments in that direction in some places, such as Paris, where there is this Wixos Wifi Network.) You can follow the WiFi Networking News or learn how to read the Warchalking signs that identify the presence of WiFi signals. Thanks to Ionarts friend Tom Hoffman at Tuttle SVC in Providence for those links.

Robert Clive's Stolen Treasures

In an article (Beauty and the Power of Myth, April 28) in the International Herald Tribune, Souren Melikian covers the auction (Islamic Art and Manuscripts Including Property from the Theodor Sehmer and Heidi Vollmoeller Collections And The Clive of India Treasure, at Christie's in London on April 27: the extensive picture gallery has images of many of the lots) of, among other things, artwork belonging to the descendants of the English imperial adventurer Robert Clive:Christie's Sale 6895, Lot 156: A Mughal ruby and emerald inset gold and silver lined jade covered flask from North India, 1st half of the 17th century, estimated at £800,000 to 1,200,000

The most spectacular work of art from the Persianized world of Islamic India ever to appear at auction, a 17th-century jade wine flask studded with rubies and emeralds set in gold, was sold Tuesday at Christie's for a staggering £2.91 million, or about $5.2 million. The buyer was not identified. The price paid for the object, which can be shown to have been made under Emperor Jahangir (1605–1627)—even though the cataloguer dates it more broadly within the first half of the 17th century—reflects the splendor of the material and even more so the power of myth.

The wine flask was consigned by the descendants of Robert Clive, the soldier of fortune who defeated the ruler of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, paving the way for the English colonial conquest of the Indian subcontinent.
Where and how Clive acquired this treasure is not at all clear. As Melikian recounts, an object that seems similar to the flask is listed in the inventory of property drawn up in 1775, after Robert Clive, the so-called Conqueror of India and opium addict, committed suicide. It has belonged since to his heirs and the family property, Powis Castle in Wales. (This castle was in Welsh hands until it was inherited by Sir Edward Herbert in the 16th century. The last Herbert descendant died bankrupt, but his sister had married Robert Clive's son and the Clive fortune rescued the castle from destruction.)
One may surmise that the flask and, conceivably, other objects consigned by the Clive descendants (in particular, an agate flywhisk with a garnet top and a dagger with a jade handle set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds) were all once part of the imperial treasury of the Mogul dynasty. No trace remains of this treasury, nor indeed of any of the imperial household possessions that all perished in the plunder, colonial or not, which invariably accompanies wars of conquest.

Today, the wine flask is unique. The two flasks now in the Hermitage Museum that the catalogue places in the same category significantly differ in shape and decorative pattern, and seem to be later. The attraction of the unique proved irresistible as it does in every other area of an art market increasingly starved for top quality objects.
The family has loaned this object to the Victoria and Albert Museum since 1963, and the museum had assumed that it would eventually receive it permanently. Under British law, national museums have special prerogatives over art objects, like this flask, that have had a place in British history. However, private collectors in the Mideast drove up the price and ultimately had the winning bid, which the Victoria and Albert Museum must now match if it wishes to hold on to this incredible piece. The stage is set for a political showdown over which region's history has precedent in this case: Pakistan, India, Persia, or Great Britain?

Naturally, David Nishimura at Cronaca is already way ahead of me on this story (Clive's Mughal Loot Sells High, April 27), but that's no surprise.

27.4.04

Giancarlo De Carlo

I didn't know anything about Italian architect Giancarlo De Carlo before I came across an article on and an interview with him in Le Monde on him, both published on April 27. Why all of the attention right now? The answer is an exhibit on the architect's work, Giancarlo De Carlo, des lieux, des hommes (Giancarlo De Carlo, places and people), at the Centre Pompidou until June 14. (The museum has just acquired a collection of De Carlo's models and sketches.) I haven't had much luck finding other information or images of his work. Here's a translation of parts of these articles:

Interview by Grégoire Allix, M. De Carlo: "L'architecture du star-system ne parle pas aux gens" (Mr. De Carlo: "Star-system architecture does not speak to people")

Are your struggles a few decades ago against functionalism and the International Style still vivid?

Yes. Star-system architecture does not speak to people. The world changes quickly, problems emerge, like the relationship to nature. Architecture must be refounded. I am old, but I still intend to fight.

How have you introduced user consultations in the planning of your projects?

I have worked a lot on the participation of residents. These have been remarkable experiences. But there is great misunderstanding of participation. Many architects think it is enough to go to the users, to ask them what they want. That's not it. Participation is a question of reciprocal disalienation. An architect must completely rethink his ideas after making contact with the residents and with reality. At Terni, in Mazzorbo, I have had these experiences that have been like shocks which I have gone through, I think, and become better, with more knowledge, more architectural sensibility.

This listening must also, according to you, be applied to the geographical and historical environment...

The context contains almost everything. The problem is knowing how to read it. Generally, one makes numerical calculations, one lines up the data, and one tries to arrive at the reality. That's not the problem. To know the context is gradually to "become" the context. Same thing for the project: you must not go directly to the solution, you should surround the possible solutions and look at them from all sides.

Does your youthful involvement with antifascist and anarchist movements play an important role in your conception of architecture?

Yes. I have an anarchist background. I believe in active freedom. At the time when I was in the Resistance and when I was fighting as a partisan, I could not agree with the communists: we do not have the same understanding of freedom. I am not an authoritarian. I think that we can accomplish things without taking advantage of our power. My architecture is impregnated with this political idea.

When one looks at your plans, one has the impression of seeing the engineer's mark, the care for technical detail, for the realization...

I began my career as an engineer. I've done a lot of drawing with my hands. I am quite bothered by all these young people who draw only on the computer. They do not enter into this contact with the idea, the thought, and the hand, which is very important for architects. There are architects who have never seen a construction site, who are happy only to talk about architecture. To be an architect you have to know what the workers do, to be capable of doing it like them.
Giancarlo De Carlo, Free University of Urbino, Department of Educational Sciences, 1968–1976
Giancarlo De Carlo, Free University of Urbino, Department of Educational Sciences, 1968–1976


Frédéric Edelmann, Giancarlo De Carlo, à échelle humaine (Giancarlo De Carlo, on a human scale)

The Pompidou Center this Italian 86-year-old mastermind, whose plans the museum has acquired and whose sketches and models it has received by donation. The chance to discover an unclassifiable builder, enemy of functionalism, whose sensibility to sites and residents was nourished by anarchism.

Born in Genoa in 1919, raised in Tunis, nourished by Milanese ingenuity, converted to architecture at the University of Venice, Giancarlo De Carlo has been left out of practically all of the encyclopedias of contemporary architecture, supposedly because before the age of 70 he had not built much, which is not exactly correct. He has in fact built more than some others who were more talkative. But he had one fault, shown by this revelatory exhibit at the National Museum of Modern Art, that of being effectively unclassifiable in Italy, where labels and strongly opposed schools are the rule. [...]

In his thought, De Carlo is close to William Morris, who dreamed of industrializing the arts to make them shared. He is with the part of Le Corbusier not devoured by his urbanist ego and that of Frank Lloyd Wright that knows how to handle practically all scales. He was close to Team X, a group founded in reaction to the functionalism and urbanism of the postwar years, as they were perpetuated by the rituals of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture. Team X included personalities like Aldo Van Eyck, Ernesto Rogers, Alison and Peter Smithson, Louis Kahn, and George Candilis, who kept their faith in architecture inspired by the Modern Movement but were conscious of the lack of attention to human and environmental factors that rationalism had created. This makes a school of thought, not a style or even a type of architecture.

So what is Giancarlo De Carlo's architecture? Paradoxically, the drawings, models, and plans acquired by the Pompidou Center do not seem to show at all this work made with sensitivity to the site and from dialogue with future residents. Instead they recall the engineer formed in Milan before his Venetian illumination.

That's Good Reading: Fully Credited Links

A nice appreciation of the naturalist paintings of French Huguenot painter Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (c. 1533–1588): Like spring flowers, his art resurfaced, April 23, by Christopher Andreae in the Christian Science Monitor. As more of his art becomes known, it gets sold off, as some of his paintings were, at Sotheby's in January (covered by Catherine Bindman's Art Market Watch for Artnet on February 4). The British Museum has a watercolor of his called Wallflowers, a Butterfly and a Snail, made when he was back in London, around 1585.


A short excerpt from an article, National Endowment for the Arts and Crafts Criticized for Funding Giant Macramé Penis, April 21, in The Onion:
The macramé penis is Kahle's first phallic work of art and craft to receive media attention. His other major works include a shoebox diorama titled "Abe Lincoln In The Bathtub," a 13-foot-tall newspaper and poster-paint papier-mâché penis titled "What's Black And White And Red All Over?," and "Pin(whee)ls," a collection of 200 pinwheels made of construction paper, pencils, and clippings from pornographic magazines.

"If people took the time to explore 'Father (By Mother),' there would be no controversy," Kahle said. "The piece is not prurient. The true meaning of the piece is located on its head, where glitter was applied with Elmer's Glue. Every speck of glitter is a tiny mirror reflecting the observer. At end, this piece is about love, sex, birth: what we came from."

"Sexuality has always been part of the art-and-craft world," Griffin wrote. "To strip a work of string art or a pine-cone mobile of its inherent libidinous content is to destroy it."
In the words of Homer Simpson, "it's funny because it's funny!"

UPDATE:
Thanks to Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes, for trying to pass this article off as serious, which plays into the story of articles from the Onion being believed as real news.

From Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof at artblog, a comparison of arts funding in Philadelphia and London (Why Philadelphia is not London in spite of double decker buses, April 26). They report that Philadelphia plans to cut over $2 million from the city's arts budget: I'm still hoping that some brave presidential candidate will read the Ionarts Proposal (March 28) and give me a reason to vote for him. Congratulations to Roberta and Libby on the first birthday of their blog!

I loved reading the now defunct blog of the Invisible Adjunct: as a Ph.D. in musicology who is still (theoretically) searching for a university position, I am naturally sympathetic to her point of view. Now, the Chronicle of Higher Education has done a profile on her (Scott Smallwood, Disappearing Act, in the April 30 issue) that maintains her anonymity and is really a commentary on what has happened to the academic system:
Read through a year's worth of Invisible Adjunct posts and you will get a good glimpse at what's happening in higher education, at least in terms of graduate school, the job market in the humanities, and the adjunct world. Her advice in a nutshell: Think long and hard before going to grad school in the humanities. Then think some more.

She believes that academe's cheerleaders should stop pretending that the Ph.D. is good preparation for other types of careers. It's not, she says. Being smart and stubborn enough to get through a Ph.D. program may mean you're smart and stubborn enough for lots of other things, but the actual Ph.D. is peculiar to an academic career. (She would, however, support redesigning master's programs to create practical graduate education for nonacademics.)
This is exactly what I try to tell anyone who asks me for advice about going to graduate school. Thanks to Butterflies and Wheels for the link.

25.4.04

Le Placard

The cruel but funny Le dîner de cons (1998) is given the title The Dinner Game in English, but it really means The Asshole Dinner. It was the most recent film I had seen by legendary French comic director and screenwriter Francis Veber (an even better site on Francis Veber, although only in French, is at Ecran Noir), and I thought it was merciless and delightful. (For an appreciation of Veber's work, see my review of his older movie Les Compères, back on November 4, 2003.) Now, through the weekly miracle that is Netflix, I have just seen Veber's more recent film Le Placard (The Closet, 2001), with Daniel Auteuil as the hapless protagonist who is named, as in so many of Veber's films, François Pignon.

Available from Amazon:
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The Closet (Le Placard, 2001), directed by Francis Veber
At least since Molière, French comedy has been effective at parodying the game of social roles. In this film, Pignon is the awkward businessman, common, depressed, and risible. He wears a red tie to work on the day of the big company photo, only to be shoved out of the frame by his pushier coworkers. Everyone in his office knows that he will lose his job that day, everyone except him, until he overhears a conversation in the men's room. Some other classic moments that are rendered with exquisite simplicity by Daniel Auteuil: as he sits by the window, listening to radio news reports of the sort of banal tragedies we hear every day, he barely notices the toaster popping his toast right out the window; this happens the morning after he is talked out of leaping from his balcony by a nosy neighbor, who has just retired and decides to help Pignon keep his job, by telling him to pretend he is gay. The neighbor, Belone (Michel Aumont), captures Pignon's predicament perfectly when he jokingly tells him, after hearing his whole sad story, "Vous êtes chiant, moche physiquement, sans avenir, et plutôt con: voilà, vous sentez mieux, non?" (You're annoying, physically ugly, you have no future, and you're quite an asshole: there, you feel better, right?).

After Belone mails Photoshopped gay pictures of Pignon to his boss, Pignon panics, knowing that he cannot possibly fool anyone by camping it up, trying to act like a homosexual. When Belone agrees, saying that even the best actors trying to camp it up come off as fake and vulgar, we cannot help thinking of Veber's own La Cage aux Folles and its American remake, The Birdcage. The point of this kind of comedy is to skewer the hypocrisy of society's attitudes, in this case, homophobia. Pignon's boss is outraged when someone suggests that the photos were sent because Pignon will sue, claiming anti-gay discrimination, if he is fired. First, the boss (Jean Rochefort) complains with great sympathy, "Je n'ai rien contre les homosexuels, moi" (I have nothing against homosexuals, myself). One short beat later, he throws down the picture and shouts, "Il fait chier, ce p.d.!" (This faggot is pissing me off!). I howled at that juxtaposition. A big rugby-playing homophobe named Santini (Gérard Depardieu), frightened by the lies of coworkers who say that his pronounced homophobia will get him fired next, tries to be nice to Pignon in a series of overtures that become increasingly ridiculous. Pignon ends up on the company's float in the Paris Gay Pride parade, wearing a pink condom hat (the company makes rubber products, especially condoms, which is fodder for a number of jokes). The other main theme of Veber's films, the relationship of fathers and sons following a divorce, is found here, as Pignon's estranged son sees him on the float and finally sees a reason to spend a Saturday afternoon with his dad.

I have already written about how many American remakes have been made of Veber's French originals, mostly terrible. My fear that it was just a matter of time for Le dîner de cons to be ruined was justified, as I have since read that Veber himself, now living in Los Angeles, has been working on adapting the screenplay in English for DreamWorks, possibly with Roberto Benigni in a starring role, probably as Pignon, I would guess. An article from July 2001, The Nerdcage, by Peter Keough for the Boston Phoenix, includes the following fascinating information, with the quotations coming directly from Veber:
Hollywood seems at a loss when it comes to Veber. Take his current attempt to remake his last big French hit, Le dîner des cons, which was released here to little notice as The Dinner Game (1997). A wealthy publisher invites strangers to his dinner parties; what the guest doesn't know is that he or she is an "idiot" brought in to entertain the rest. Trouble started with DreamWorks' proposed title, Dinner for Schmucks. "It's difficult to remake. I've discovered through the process how much the comedy has strong cultural roots. There are things here that are very different than in Europe. They asked Milos Forman what was the difference between the Czechoslovakian Forman and the American Forman, and he said, when I was in Czechoslovakia I could write, and now I need the help of an American writer because I arrived too late to pick up the sensibility of the country. I understand that. I arrived too late to become an American. Billy Wilder was helped by [Charles] Brackett; he had great writers with him that were American."

Of course, some aspects of comedy are universal. With his modest but brilliant comedies and his knack for casting big stars (in addition to Auteuil, The Closet features French topliners Gérard Depardieu and Thierry Lhermitte), Veber can be compared to Woody Allen. Who, it turns out, is one of Veber's biggest fans. "I was in Los Angeles and he was showing Sweet and Lowdown. I said how much I liked what he was doing and told him that I was the writer/director of The Dinner Game. He said, 'I was your biggest publicist in New York'. Then he paid me a magnificent compliment when I arrived back in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. I had a fax from my producer that said Woody Allen wants to be the idiot in The Dinner Game, in the remake, and what do you think of that?

"I was so enthusiastic that I called DreamWorks, who were producing the film at the time, and they said they were not interested. Because he doesn't have much box-office clout. And it's sad because he's such a genius. But box office is the key word here."
Is anyone else as disgusted as I am about this? Why can't studio executives get the hell out of the way of people who know how to make movies? If you are like me and want to see Veber's latest film, Tais-toi, according to one recent source (Leonard Klady in Movie City News on April 22), there is no still no American distribution deal for it. Roger Friedman at FOXNews (on April 2) wrote that SNL's Jimmy Fallon had been considered and ruled out for Veber's planned American remake of Le Placard. Be afraid, very afraid. Ionarts resident cinephile, Todd Babcock, will hopefully have the inside news on Veber's plans.

24.4.04

Thinking Blue

Mark Barry, The Swimmers, 2004, oil on canvas, 34 x 30 inIt's spring and I should be thinking mostly of flowers, green, and this year's crop of cicadas, but I can't seem to get blue out of my head. Blue skies and the ocean blue.

On my recent Belize trip (see my post on March 22), I watched two men, who turned out to be a father and son, bobbing in the ocean and talking, about one hundred yards off shore. It was a breezy late afternoon, and the sun was setting, making the water an ever deeper blue. All that was visible of the two were their heads. The sun shimmered across the water, illuminating their faces. I quickly made a watercolor of the scene, actually two, and later gave one to the father. This led to a discussion of our mutual appreciation of how precious these moments with our sons and daughters are. Without a doubt that's true, but for me it was the scene that stayed with me most. The two figures isolated, bobbing among all that shimmering blue, the mystery below the surface. It's a very powerful image that will appear in my work for some time in one form or another.

For now, the figures have appeared in several more drawings and watercolors (Swimmers and Swimmers 2) and two paintings (including The Swimmers, shown here). I've been meditating on an image for a woodcut and this may well be it.

Of the thousands of images that pass through our senses daily, I'm amazed at what resonates and morphs into so many possibilities.

Mark Barry (www.markbarryportfolio.com) is an artist working in Baltimore.

Cantatadetails

"To One in Paradise"
Cantata in seven movements for string orchestra and SATB soloists
Benjamin C.S. Boyle poetry of E.A.Poe

I. Sinfonia And all my days are trances (SATB)
II. Aria Thou wast all that to me love (T)
III. Duo Ah, dream too bright to last (SA)
IV. Fugue For alas! alas! (SATB)
V. Aria No more--No more (S)
VI. Duo A voice from out the future cries (AB)
VII. Chorale And all my dyas are trances (SATB)

Vladimir Lande, conductor
Shari Alise Wilson, soprano
Gus Mercante, counter-tenor
Jeff Dinsmore, tenor
Andrew Cummings, baritone
Bachanalia Festival Orchestra
Nina Beilina, artistic director

May 18, 2005 8pm
Merkin Hall
67th St. and Broadway
New York City

Program notes:

While in the midst of the extensive work with the writings and poems
of E.A.Poe in my song-cycle "Lenoriana" (2002), I became enamored of the
poem "To One in Paradise". However, I concluded that its grand design would
over-balance a 20 minute work for baritone and piano. Putting it temporarily
aside, I resolved to return to it with larger forces in mind.

Now, with a full string orchestra and vocal soloists at my disposal, I
have resolved to craft the poem into a seven movement Cantata, in formal
design akin to those of J.S.Bach. Thus, Bachanalia Festival Orchestra, with
its mission to showcase Bach's music and musical legacy, provided me the
perfect opportunity to create this new work.

The first movement will begin with an emphatic two chords, underscored
by ominous and surging repeated pitches in the viola, which announce the
call to "one in paradise". This will blossom into an imitative sinfonia:
"And all my days are trances....". The second movement, a tenor solo
movement, depicts the young lover recollecting his sweet days with the
departed. Following that, a duo-aria (soprano and counter-tenor) mourn "Ah,
dream too bright to last!". The centerpiece of the work will be a double
Fugue (much like the omnes generationem of Bach's Magnificat) on the texts
"Alas, Alas!" and "No More, No more." The fifth movement will be a
beautiful vision of the "one in paradise" (a soprano solo) comforting the
mourning lover. A dark duo recitative follows with the baritone and
counter-tenor exchanging voices "from out the Future and Past". The piece
then closes with a tutti chorale repeating the opening text, giving the work
musical closure, but also (I hope) leaving an imprint of divine peace and
resolution (much like the "In Paradisium" of Durufle's Requiem).

Louis Aragon

I recently happened upon an interesting set of literary portraits from Le Point, and six articles on French surrealist author Louis Aragon (from an issue of the magazine in 1997, in honor of the centenary of his birth) got me thinking about Aragon again. One of my favorite books so far in the Paris Reading Project (see the bottom of the sidebar at right) was Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris (1926), a loving portrait of Surrealist Paris in the 1920s. Toward the beginning of the book, Aragon sets the tone of the surrealist movement by banishing reason (p. 13, with my translation):

Raison, raison, ô fantôme abstrait de la veille, déjà je t'avais chassée de mes rêves, me voici au point où ils vont se confondre avec les réalités d'apparence: il n'y a plus de place ici que pour moi.Reason, reason, oh abstract phantom of last night, I had already chased you from my dreams, here I am at the point where they are going to be confused with the realities of appearance: there is no more room here for anything but me.
The rest of the book stays true to this opening, with very little that could be called plot or character development. The real protagonist is the city of Paris, the passages and urban landscape in the first part and, in the second half of the book, the park of Les Buttes-Chaumont. In the former, he describes the place where he lives, a hotel in one of the covered passages that mostly functions as a brothel, all of which was torn down in the demolition to make way for the new Boulevard Haussmann (p. 21, with my translation):
La lumière moderne de l'insolite . . . règne bizarrement dans ces sortes de galeries couvertes qui sont nombreuses à Paris aux alentours des grands boulevards et que l'on nomme d'une façon troublante des passages, comme si dans ces couloirs dérobés au jour, il n'était permis à personne de s'arrêter plus d'un instant. . . . Le grand instinct américain, importé dans la capitale par un préfet du second Empire, qui tend à recouper au cordeau le plan de Paris, va bientôt rendre impossible le maintien de ces aquariums humains déjà morts à leur vie primitive, et qui méritent pourtant d'être regardés comme les receleurs de plusieurs mythes modernes, car c'est aujourd'hui seulement que la pioche les ménace, qu'ils sont effectivement devenus les sanctuaires d'un culte de l'éphémère, qu'ils sont devenus le paysage fantômatique des plaisirs et des professions maudites, incomprehensibles hier et que demain ne connaîtra jamais.The modern light of the unexpected . . . reigns strangely in these sorts of covered galleries, which are numerous in Paris around the broad boulevards and which one calls in a troubling way "passages," as if in these corridors hidden away from the day, no one was permitted to stop for more than an instant. . . . The powerful American instinct, imported into the capital by a prefect of the Second Empire [Baron Haussmann], which seeks to cut up the map of Paris again with lines, will soon make impossible the preservation of these human aquariums already dead to their former life and which deserve to be seen as the repositories of several modern myths, for only today, as they are threatened by the pickaxe, have they become effectively the sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, have they become the ghostly landscape of pleasures and of condemned professions, once incomprehensible and which tomorrow will never know.
The book includes an affectionate and rather detailed description of the Café Certa, the hangout of the surrealist circle, from which it could be reliably reconstructed. (It may already have been, as there is a place in Paris bearing this name—at 5, rue de l'Isly, in the 8th—anyone been there?)
Articles from Le Point (April 26, 1997):


· François Nourissier (a personal friend of Aragon's), Le siècle Aragon (The Aragon century)

· Jacques-Pierre Amette, Le miracle du roman sauvé (The miracle of the saved novel) and Sous les feux croisés de la critique (Beneath the crossed lights of criticism)

· Michel Schneider, Le fils caché (The hidden son)

· Pierre Daix (author of a biography of Aragon), Aragon et le communisme (Aragon and communism)

· Gilles Pudlowski, Le fou de poésie (The crazyman of poetry)
Available from Amazon:
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Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant (Le paysan de Paris), translated by Simon W. Taylor
Other Internet Resources:


Biography of Louis Aragon

Louis Aragon Online (in German and French, from Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Babilas)

Louis Aragon (from the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères)

Louis Aragon, La Rose et le Réséda

Selected Poetry of Louis Aragon

23.4.04

Songs Without Words Leave Audience Speechless

Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Bella Davidovich appeared in concert at the National Gallery of Art on April 18, 2004.

On the first full-fledged summer day of the year, gloriously sunny and warm, an appropriately glorious name lured flocks of listeners to the National Gallery's 2493rd free Sunday concert: Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Bella Davidovich, playing Beethoven, Grieg, Mozart, and Ravel violin sonatas. A sizable Russian contingent (sprinkled with some Georgians and perhaps Azerbaijanis) warmly welcomed their compatriot and Baku native Bella Davidovich who plunged immediately into Beethoven's first work in the repertoire of the violin sonata, the Sonata no. 1 in D major, op. 12, no. 1 (1797).

Mr. Sitkovetsky, with an astoundingly impeccable haircut (no small feat for classical musicians, if I may add) and extraordinary neatly trimmed beard, stood erectly and with most economic movement as he played the piece, charged with energy and brio. No cheap frills and thrills, no unnecessary gesticulation or mimicking that so many artists feel is necessary to convey emotion. In a sense not unlike Horowitz who—in stark contrast to his sound—sat in front of the piano with less motion than it takes other people to solve a crossword puzzle.

Stephen Ackert's program notes told the audience all they really needed to know about this somewhat limited but perfectly solid and wonderful work. The sonata, for one, goes to show why we speak of works of the "early Beethoven" rather than of "immature Beethoven works." The second movement of variations, in particular, is quite delectable.

The Grieg Violin Sonata no. 3 in C minor (90 years younger than Beethoven's) is, as Mr. Ackert, head of the music department at the NGA, points out, a good example of the Norwegian folk traditions with which Edvard Grieg imbued most his works composed after 1864. If there was any determination and furor in the Beethoven, it was now reactivated by the bold opening of the Norwegian's work. "Broadly dramatic" is quite right, and the fluctuations between the lyrical and the fierce, brash, and brusque are pronounced. The first movement then, is appropriately named Allegro molto ad appassionato.

The chiseled, stoic face of Mr. Sitkovetsky, his demeanor (despite the appassionato and dramatic Romanticism) fit perfectly. Nordic vigor as one would expect to come right out of a Henrik Ibsen play. Bella Davidovich, meanwhile, gave wonderful support, mastering the few technical difficulties with ease and struggling—if with anything at all—with the acoustics.

The second movement of the Grieg, harkening back to some of his lyrical pieces for piano, is really a song without words; Espressivo alla romanza is beautiful to hear, if not self-evidently coherent. At the high, single, and endlessly held violin note at the end, a cacophonous cough concerto broke out in the back that gave reason to worry. Allegro animato (speedy animals), the third movement that returned to a somewhat more brooding, meddling sound—despite the dancing and swirly notes on the exterior—subdued them quickly. An excitably foaming finale closed a wonderful first half of a most noteworthy concert to enthusiastic applause.

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Edvard Grieg, violin sonatas, Sitkovetsky and Davidovich
Available at Amazon:
Ravel, complete works for piano and violin, Sitkovetsky and Davidovich
Mozart's Salzburg-composed Violin Sonata, K. 377 (1781), was a musical jump back again by a good 100 years. Mr. Sitkovetsky tackled this work, somewhere between ditty and genius, with just enough engagement to produce the unlingering, dry, and technically impeccable tone so characteristic of his playing that evening. His playing has a checked energy; the kind that creates a tension that makes all the difference in perception while the tone, unrelated, could be warmer, without taking away from that quality.

The first movement (Allegro) ends entirely abruptly, as thought Herr Mozart had just had enough of it. Thrown down like a glove. But the glove gets picked back up by the second movement, which is similar in its description and structure to Beethoven's Thema con variazioni (Andante). Compared to the preceding movement, this one was more felt and less original. Mr. Sitkovektsky's tone glided through the notes like a ship plows through calm water, undeterred and with a goal in mind. The resonance unfortunately relegated Mme. Davidovich to a less prominent role than she deserved. With too many notes swimming into each other, it simply wasn't possible to make much of the amiable accompaniment. Her elegant fingers, part of a wholly elegant appearance made it, at any rate, a pure joy to watch this veritable full-blood musician at work.

Forgettable as the Mozart may have been, the Ravel was not. The piano part in this piece is an equal partner and not mere accompaniment, and Mr. Sitkovetsky's tone was perfectly suited to the difficult acoustics and Mme. Davidovich's pedal-sparse playing left most parts audible. After three pieces of varyingly challenging ear candy, Ravel was refreshing in how he makes no concessions to the conventions of the listener.

The first movement (Allegretto) is ended on a similar note as the Grieg second movement. Rough pizzicatos await the Blues: Moderato second movement with its pleasant syncopated rhythms. If this movement smacks of his marvelous (and unfortunately only) string quartet, the third is a fiendishly difficult little thing on perpetual motion that made Mr. Sitkovetsky shine with natural brilliance. Unfazed, he fiddled them off his violin as if it were a walk on the beach. The finale of high-powered "violin scrubbing" came quick and impressively. Immediate standing ovations are genuine and not just show.

The almost predictable encore was something from the musical palate of the performers and many audience members: Tchaikovsky's Song Without Words, as arranged by Fritz Kreisler. To an enjoyably quiet crowd, that dose of Russian-composed music (if itself not all too Russian) hit the spot. But a little more, still, was to follow after more applause. This time a bit of an American flavor. Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So": this "Big Muddy" of a song was suddenly endowed with a quicksilver spirit, and Mr. Sitkovetsky showed his unfailing taste in playing and repertoire choice, as well as his unfailing taste in pleasing an audience, without artistically stooping even the least bit.

22.4.04

Treatment for Messiaen Overdose

Olivier Messiaen is one of the great Catholic mystics of our time, and his music isn't bad either. Apparently, if you were to do something nutty like play all of the music that Messiaen composed for the organ—he played from the grandes orgues at the Église de La Trinité in Paris for most of his life—it would take nine hours to do it. If you are in New York on Saturday, you could hear young organist Paul Jacobs do just that, the so-called Messiaen Marathon, for free at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Manhattan. (See the write-up on Mr. Jacobs, The Organ as Extreme Sport, by Craig Whitney, April 18, in the New York Times.)

21.4.04

Painting with the Keyboard

This is a review of a concert of the Marlboro Music Festival at the Freer Gallery of Art last month, on March 4.

In conjunction with the exhibition Mr. Whistler's Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London at the Freer (ended April 4), pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute presented works by Franz Schubert, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, and Frédéric Chopin to a relatively sparse crowd in Meyer Auditorium. Since the Freer Gallery had difficulties arranging this concert with Mme. Jokubaviciute, they had not been able to get an announcement out early, surely a major reason for the less-than-capacity crowd. Before the concert performance itself, Ken Meyers, the Freer Gallery's curator, gave some very interesting introductory remarks, including slides of pictures and their relationship to the music on the program. For example, the opening notes of Schubert's Moments Musicaux, op. 94, D.780 (1823–1827) are scratched into the frame of Whistler's painting Composition in White.

After these comments, Mme. Ieva Jokubaviciute herself came on stage, a rather charming looking, young, blond lady in a copper-colored silk dress with black lace on the outside, thus perfectly matching the stage's back curtain. No ado before she started with Schubert. Bent over the piano like an aged old lady, she came up with a finely played account that didn't quite sound as felt as her facial expressiveness might have indicated. The Moments were indeed masterfully played from memory but did not communicate as much as I imagine they could. Mme. Jokubaviciute's playing the Steinway like a 100-year-old witch on her broomstick, too, was mildly distracting. So was an occasionally occurring muffled, dragging (schleifender) sound of unknown origin. Since the piano's mechanism was still working at the last concert, I am tempted to attribute it to some sort of humming or singing along on the part of the performer. In doing so (if it is the case), she would have picked up a seeming habit of her current teacher, the wonderful and astounding Mr. Richard Goode, whom I suspect of breathing along with some of the Beethoven sonatas in his outstanding recording of the complete cycle.

Available at Amazon:
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Franz Schubert, Sonata D. 568 and Moments Musicaux, Mitsuko Uchida
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Claude Debussy, Preludes, Book I, and L'Isle Joyeuse, Maurizio Pollini
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Claude Debussy, Preludes, Books I and II, Walter Gieseking
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Chopin, Nocturnes, Maria João Pires
Storming and passionate as the end of these pieces are, it was unfortunate that it literally ended on the wrong note, especially given the excellence that procured that moment in the first place. The applause was surprisingly mild, and the audience curiously noisy with programs, watch alarms, and falling coins. Watch alarms, I wish to point out, are the continued curse of concerts. While most people have accepted that turning one's cell phone off during a performance is a good thing, no one seems to bother or even be aware of their digital watches beeping annoyingly at every full hour—which in most concerts is twice—and slightly spread out among watches being either slow or fast. Perhaps many of the culprits would not even know how to turn this function off: alas, there is a way, and I wish they would find it and forever put an end to these obnoxious interruptions.

Fauré's wonderful Barcarolle no. 6 in E-flat major, op. 70 (1896), is neither heroic—as the most famous preceding work in the same key (Beethoven's Eroica)—nor a sprawling self-glorification in E-flat major like its contemporary piece, the (delicious) Ein Heldenleben (Hero's life) by Richard Strauss. Unfortunately it was over so quick that I could not get my finger on its character in time before it was then immediately taken over by the Nocturne.

The habit of not interrupting consecutive performances of short pieces (of one composer) with applause is an economic one, considering time efficiency, and makes sense in that regard. I could not imagine how annoying it would be if every single one of Chopin's 24 preludes were to be applauded in concert. A nightmare, indeed. It is also true that few things are more mortifying than clapping solely or too early in a classical concert. True, when ignorance of the piece seems to be the cause, it can be quite annoying, and I myself am guilty of huffing with disdain. But really, it isn't all that terrible even then. Moreover, if a piece, a movement, a prelude was absolutely outstanding, why not applaud? It was commonplace in the previous eras to reward (or punish) a successful movement or even moment immediately with audience reaction and furthermore ask for a da capo of entire movements when they had been especially thrilling. Of course, that was in a time when we were not able to go home and listen to any given piece as many times as it would please us, and many audiences reacted to a composition rather than a performance. Still, it is somewhat troubling that applause has now morphed into a curiously stifling social or musical skill, the performance of which is governed by semisecret rules put in place by a self-declared erudite elitist strand of audience. From repertoire to behavior, music halls are more and more turning into museums, a trend that I am not too sure of being a good one for classical music.

But other than going off on a tangent, there was also the exhibit of Mr. Whistler's paintings to see, very conveniently left open late so that the audience was able to stroll through this lovingly and beautifully arranged recreation of Whistler's exhibitions during the intermission. Whistler's watercolor "nocturnes," evocative miniatures that were the link between the Fauré and the Chopin that was to follow, are brilliant tiny masterpieces that send a clear message that size does not matter, at least not when it comes to art. They are very abstract, damp, moody pictures in the convenient format of 12 x 12 inches. Many of the paintings, sketches, etchings, etc., spend most of their time in the vaults, because they are rather delicate. That the exhibition showed them for over a month was unprecedented.

Debussy called the audience back to duty, however, with the bubbly and droplike Brouillards (Fog) prelude from Book II (1913). Ably played, they brought my best response to Debussy's music out in me. Wonderfully turned inward, suddenly revealing themselves from behind a façade that can, at times, be difficult to look beyond. The rather famous Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sounds and smells whirl in the evening air) prelude from Book I (1904–10) sounded like a Keith Jarrett recital. (Is this particular one perhaps more famous because, after putting the standard Debussy CD in, it is the first and only piece that is listened to with the necessary amount of concentration and attention?)

In Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the snow), the birds of Debussy's musical language started to come out. Mme. Jokubaviciute seemed most comfortable in these preludes and outdid herself. L'Isle Joyeuse (The joyous island) and La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) were the two other Debussy selections she played. After this enormously enjoyable and arousing part of the concert, she could hardly have done any wrong. Especially not with Chopin nocturnes, which are some of the most obviously fitting pieces for the exhibition. The 1841 C minor nocturne, rather than sedating creatures of the night, would wake up every neighbor up and down the street, but music and performance of such quality could well have had none of them mind being woken up. It was this second half of the concert where Ieva Jokubaviciute really seemed to wake up and enjoy herself. Ballade no. 3 in A-flat major, op. 47, composed in the same year, was delivered with a good deal of "oomph" and then went on to sprinkle notes all over the piano, as the young pianist tickled a few out of the keyboard, hunched as she was above the key, and came back to the pulsing theme that reared its head regularly as it went. It was a great end to a concert that improved dramatically in communication after the first half and shall very much hold a special place among the many great concerts that have taken place at the Freer Gallery so far.

19.4.04

Nabucco from the Met

This is a commentary on the live radio broadcast of Verdi's Nabucco on April 10 from the Metropolitan Opera.

Nabucco is usually described as Giuseppe Verdi's first big operatic success, and while it has some strong and memorable moments, it is also pretty flimsy at points. Although it has been quite popular in Europe, this opera has not really been a part of the standard repertory in the United States. (Tellingly, although Nabucco received its American premiere in 1848, only six years after it was first performed in Milan, at the old Astor Place Opera House in New York, it was not performed at the Met until 1960.) The Met's matinee performance was excellent, especially the Met chorus, which is featured so prominently in this opera. The overture that begins it all is fun listening, for something that is almost ludicrously basic, by comparison with later pieces for orchestra in opera, which is not really fair. For the most part, the overture gives us a foretaste of music from the big choral scenes, which are the real highlights of this opera. The scene opens on one of those scenes, with the chorus in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, as the Babylonians attack (recounted in one form in the Old Testament, in 4 Kings 25; the other Biblical book related to the history of the Jews in Babylon is Daniel, written by a prophet during the Babylonian Captivity: see The Historical Nabucco, from the Met). The Met chorus has developed a reputation for accurate and beautiful sound, which was certainly on display here.

The logistics of mounting an opera with so many choral numbers were embarrassingly revealed, however, at the end of the second scene in Part 3, when the sound of the Met chorus shuffling offstage came across on the radio in disturbing clarity. It's a pity that Verdi could not have had a number for the Italian banda, which he was not able to banish from his operas until later in his career, play a rousing number at that point to cover the noise. Verdi did write some music in Nabucco for the banda, that often ragtag group of local band players who demanded to play on stage in operas in many Italian cities in the 19th century. (If you want to know what this group probably looked and sounded like, you can get a good idea from The Godfather [1972], where a banda plays at the wedding of Michael Corleone in Sicily, and in The Godfather, Part II [1974], in the funeral procession of Vito Andolini's father in one of the flashback sequences.) The much more talented Met form of the banda appeared as required in Nabucco in the third scene of Part 4, as Fenena and the other condemned Hebrews were brought in for punishment. At least Verdi tried to make it part of the action.

While the choral parts of Nabucco are certainly important, I should not give the impression that there are not demanding solo roles in this opera. In fact, Abigaille, a slave child who has been raised by Nebuchadnezzar as his own daughter, is one of the great roles for dramatic soprano in the Italian repertory. In the Met production, Andrea Gruber turns in a spectacular performance, at least from the sound that came over the radio. This was my first time hearing Ms. Gruber sing (she sang the same role at the Met last season), and if this performance is any indication, we may expect much excellent work from her. In her big scenes in Part 2 and Part 3, where Abigaille has a remarkable and lengthy duet with her adoptive father (especially in "Deh perdona"), Ms. Gruber's voice was gripping in its dramatic power. The role of Nabucco was handled with great pathos by the distinguished Leo Nucci, who has just turned 62. Incredibly, Nabucco in Part 3, the cruel oppressor rendered insane by God's curse, is one of the more sympathetic roles that Verdi created for baritone. The way that Mr. Nucci sang it, who could not have pity on this crazy old man, treated so cruelly by the slave girl he adopted? Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones also gave an excellent performance as Ismaele, the Israelite in love with Nabucco's birth daughter, Fenena. He and mezzo soprano Marina Domashenko, as Fenena, sang very well together in the ensemble "S'appressa gl'istanti," at the moment of awestruck horror at Nabucco's blasphemy at the end of Part 2.

Of course, the highlight of the opera is a famous choral piece in Part 3, scene 4, where the chorus of the Hebrews, working in slavery on the banks of the Euphrates in Babylon, sings "Va, pensiero" (Go, thought, on golden wings). As Verdi, in a probably dramatically exaggerated retelling (see the opening quote here), put it, when he first received the libretto, the book fell open to the the page with the words of this chorus on it, and he became obsessed with the story. As has been famously recounted many times, the citizens of Milan at the premiere at La Scala in 1842 (and at subsequent performances in other cities) heard in the lament of the enslaved Hebrews and their yearning for freedom the perfect historical echo of their own subjugation to the Austrians and the longing for a unified and free Italy. As a result, this chorus became a sort of fight song for the political movement toward Italian unification, the Risorgimento, and is even now in many ways the unofficial national anthem of Italy. I will never forget, during a visit to Rome, hearing my cab driver sing the entire chorus from memory when I asked him a question about it. Opera is still in the blood of the Italians. (For more information, see Verdi, Và pensiero, and the Risorgimento, from the Met.) A more recent and ignominious fate for this famous chorus was to be named Anthem of the International Freedom Movement by the Schiller Institute here in Washington, D.C. (founded by the wife of Lyndon LaRouche: yeah, that Lyndon LaRouche.)

Another famous and more poetic Babylonian passage from the Bible is one of the psalms (see the text below, compared with the text of the chorus). The first two verses of that psalm were set in an extraordinary motet by Giovanni da Palestrina, Super flumina Babylonis, which we usually sing at the National Shrine at some point during Lent. The story is particularly poignant for musicians, and I can certainly understand how the Israelites in captivity would hang up their instruments on the willows and refuse to sing for their oppressors. In a Talmudic commentary, I have also read that the Hebrews cut the fingers from their hands rather than play for the Babylonians. In Verdi's chorus, by contrast, the Hebrews seem to long to play and sing of Jerusalem, even asking their harps why they hang silently from the willows, and Verdi gives them a singable tune with a functional harmonic covering to do it. (Just as important to the psalm, but left out of both Palestrina's motet and Verdi's chorus, is the demand for vengeance, up to and including the horrible cry for infanticide in the ninth verse.) At least one member of the audience at this Saturday matinee appreciated the historical background of "Va, pensiero," yelling out in that moment between the final note and the first burst of long applause, in a strong New York accent (Brooklyn? the Bronx?), "Viva l'Italia!"

Nabucco, text by Temistocle Solera

Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate,
Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli
Ove olezzano tepide e molli
L'aure dolci del suolo natal!
Del Giordano le rive saluta,
Di Sïon le torri atterrate...
Oh mia patria sì bella e perduta!
Oh membranza sì cara e fatal!
Arpa d'ór dei fatidici vati
Perchè muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
Ci favella del tempo che fu!
O simìle di Solima ai fati
Traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
O t'ispiri il Signore un concento
Che ne infonda al patire virtù!
English translation

Go, thought, on golden wings,
Go, alight on the cliffs, on the hills,
Where are wafting, warm and gentle,
The sweet breezes of our native soil.
Greet the Jordan's bank,
The fallen towers of Zion....
Oh, my fatherland—so beautiful and so lost!
Oh, remembrance so dear and fatal.
Harp of gold of the prophet bards,
Why do you hang silent from the willow?
Rekindle the memories in our breast
That speak to us of the time that was!
O harp, like Solomon to the fates,
Draw a sound of harsh lamentation
May the Lord inspire in you an accord
Which might infuse our suffering with virtue.
Psalm 136: SUPER FLUMINA BABYLONIS

1 Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept: when we remembered Sion:
2 On the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments.
3 For there they that led us into captivity required of us the words of songs. And they that carried us away, said: Sing ye to us a hymn of the songs of Sion.
4 How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.
6 Let my tongue cleave to my jaws, if I do not remember thee: If I make not Jerusalem the beginning of my joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem: Who say: Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, miserable: blessed shall he be who shall repay thee thy payment which thou hast paid us.
9 Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock.

You have one more chance to tune in to the Met broadcast, the fourth part of Wagner's Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung, on April 23. After that, for lack of funding, it will probably cease to exist.

Gallo-Roman Mosaics Discovered in Besançon

I have been trying to cover little-reported European arts news from my reading of European (especially French) newspapers and watching the French television news. For some reason, archeological discoveries have been at the top of my list (see the posts on the excavation of the early Christian basilica in Arles from November 20 and on a 5th-century basilica excavated in Marseilles on January 21). There is a recent article that also caught my attention, on an excavation with extensive mosaics in the old city of Besançon. Here is my translation of a large section of the article:

Translated from Le mystère des mosaïques gallo-romaines de Besançon (The mystery of Besançon's Gallo-Roman mosaics, April 17) by Marie-Guy Baron in Le Figaro


The more the excavation proceeds the more it reveals. Besançon's rich Gallo-Roman building, currently being uncovered inside the majestic loop of the Doubs, which continues to produce archeological treasures at the foot of the town's citadel, emerges from the millennia without yielding anything about itself. But its exceptional mosaics are speaking, and their sumptuousness reveals a part of its secret.

The mystery is not in the dating. Undertaken by a team from the Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives (INRAP, National Institute for Preventive Archeological Research) under the direction of the regional leadership for cultural affairs in the Franche-Comté, initiated because of the work on an underground gymnasium at Lumière Middle School in the course of being renovated, the excavations make clear their time period. Of the site's 3,000 square meters (32292 square feet), nearly 2,500 square meters (26910 square feet) have been examined in their uppermost level and several occupations are evident: believed to belong to the Flavian period (end of the 1st or beginning of the 2nd century AD), the building was reconstructed in the course of the second half of the 2nd century. That's not too shabby, even if Claudine Munier, the team leader, fumes over not having found the inscription of any date.

It is the building's unusual floorplan that raises questions. The presence of gardens and especially of a peristyle make one think of a domus, or patrician residence. But the dimension of the vast rooms and their odd arrangement, with large open hallways at all places to reach them, seem strange. Unable to determine the building's function, we might call it a scola, a local organization tied to all sorts of activities, from amphitheater games to business meetings, which are logical theories for a site along a transport axis like the Doubs. And images of aquatic motifs support it.

So, there it is, the scola is the fashionable theory. The "icing on the cake," as Jean-Pierre Darmon, mosaic specialist from the CNRS, puts it, allows us to put in place what could not be identified. However, this is only a quasi-certainty: there is still the matter of reception halls belonging to a public, semipublic, or private building. This is indicated by the large area of the rooms, the constant presence of spaces for traffic, and the richness of the decoration, with its painted surfaces, its colonnades, and especially its mosaics. The structure includes three large rooms at the ground floor level decorated with these very homogeneous mosaics. The most striking, of almost 200 square meters (2152.8 square feet), was partially excavated in 1973 underneath a neighboring street in the vicinity of the Lumière school. It has a central medallion showing Neptune on his chariot surrounded by coffers with geometric and floral themes. Those that have just been brought to light, inside the school, represent a total of, the one, 65 square meters (699.66 square feet) and, the other, 85 square meters (914.94 square feet). The first is also a carpet of coffers with similar geometric patterns and its central medallion depicts the Aegis, Athena's shield ornamented with Medusa's head in its protective function. [...]

In the style of the "typically Gallo-Roman" motifs, Jean-Pierre Darmon sees the likely involvement of Italians mosaicists. The only question is whether they came directly to the center of this already active city, which had been occupied since the neolithic period, or if they came by way of the Narbonne region, whose footprint he thinks he recognizes. At least this may have been the work of an itinerant workshop.

The artistry represents "the summit of geometric decorative art, in particular in the mastery of the organization of space and in the delicacy of the tesserae," numbering from 140 to 300 per square decimeter (1.55 square inches) for Neptune, according to the specialist. But also in the imaginative quality of these elaborate borders, these plantlike scroll patterns, these braids with two or three strands, these check-patterns of upright and inverted T's in alternation, and these previously unknown motifs of double winged caducei, symbol of Hermes, god of business and thieves, among other things. On the other hand, the largest tesserae and the least elegant craftsmanship of the face of Medusa indicate a lesser figural skill. [...]

This excavation of 2,600 days, where 15 people are working, must be concluded by November 1. It promises other discoveries at lower levels that might shed light on the Gallic period or even earlier eras. While we wait, these splendid mosaics, moving in their present state even while disrupted by waves from the seeping in of the nearby Doubs, will soon be restored by Evelyne Chantriaux and her mosaic workshop in Saint-Romain-en-Gal. Then they will be studied and will be the focus, one hopes, of publication and public exhibition. Domus of a nouveau riche Gallo-Roman, meeting hall of ambitious merchants, or building with a powerful public role, archeological science will no doubt tell us one day.
I have not been able to find images or other information about this excavation. If any readers have any more information, please let me know. You can look at some images of similar mosaics until that happens. There is one tiny image in this article on the excavation from France 2 and another in this article from France 3.

UPDATE:
Cronaca has linked to this post, with information on another story on these mosaics, including a nice photograph.

18.4.04

Stars and Strings

For dedicated lovers of chamber music, Washington, D.C., is a veritable Mecca. Many cities have impressive events of chamber music that fly slightly below the mainstream cultural radar, but I dare say that few if any have as many—and as many free—such events as does Washington, D.C. At the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, various Smithsonian institutions (notably the Freer Gallery), the National Academy of Sciences, the Phillips Collection, and the Corcoran Gallery, the worlds who's who of string quartets polish door knobs. To name but a few of the worthy contributions to what is otherwise not the most culturally savvy town in the country, enthusiasts were able to enjoy the Zehetmayer, Juilliard, Talich, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Bartók, Kodály, Ysaÿe, Brodsky, Chilingirian, and Takács Quartets. On April 2, it was the Leipzig String Quartet that provided small-scale, high-strung excellence to the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress.

The program featured Mendelssohn (String Quartet in F minor, op. 80), Charles Ives (String Quartet no. 1, "From the Salvation Army") for the "never play last piece," and the perennial crowd-pleaser, one of the most beautiful pieces of chamber music in the repertoire, the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op. 115. The quartet took to the Mendelssohn and elicited a rather strange, raspy, buzzing sound—surprisingly hollow, eerie almost—especially from the cello. The four Germans were finely animated and ever so gently amusing to look at, with violist Ivo Bauer being the exception to the former and cause for the latter. Stiff as this petite man played on his instrument, he looked as though he had swallowed a broomstick. In Matthias Moosdorf's hands, the cello shrunk considerably in size, overshadowed by a huge frame as his is.

Accounting for the difference in acoustics from the different venue and my different position relative to the players, I still wanted to think that I could detect a difference of tone and character in all instruments from the fine versions the Bartók Quartet spoiled our ears with on March 21 at the National Gallery of Art (see the Ionarts review on March 24). The Mendelssohn itself was amiably played, animated, and technically flawless. The wonderfully driving second movement (Allegro assai) that is an absolute highlight of string quartet writing, too, was superb—with lower marks only for the oddly flat, perhaps shallow sound that I could well have imagined a bit richer and more buttery, without taking away from the necessary agility in this four-movement lament composed by Mendelssohn in response to the death of his beloved sister. (The complete Mendelssohn String Quartets with the admirable Ysaÿe String Quartet in the budget-priced Universal/Decca Trio series is my highly serviceable copy that brings me much joy, when the memories of this concert wear thin, though the Leipzig String Quartet has also recorded his entire work.) In the Adagio, the tone of the instruments, including the cello, seemed to matter less, if at all. Either the instruments warmed up, or more likely, my ears did, or perhaps the musicians themselves.

==>> Continue reading this review.

17.4.04

That's Good Reading: Fully Credited Links

From the Department of Francophilia, an article (<<Je n'ai jamais vu Nougaro sans un livre>> ["I never saw Nougaro without a book"], April 13) in Le Figaro is an hommage to recently deceased French singer Claude Nougaro by his friend, the writer Christian Laborde. I like two things about this article. First, the image of someone "with his nose always in a book" is not a negative one in France; in fact, it is a compliment to Nougaro.

I never saw Claude Nougaro without a book within arm's reach, a book resting on a table, next to the Botot water bottle, on the rear seat of his car, or carried in the little suitcase he took on tour.
I've seen French politicians photographed on television with their copy of Montaigne or Rabelais in hand while on vacation. Fake or not, the message is that bibliophilia is an admirable quality. Second, I love that he praises Nougaro for his love or words and a command of language:
To a journalist who asked him if song was a "minor art," Claude Nougaro responded, "Minor, but a deep miner! Allow me to fall back on the charcoal of language and suck the marrow out of words to make emeralds."
cover
Jim Harrison, Legends of the Fall (1979)

Available at Amazon
Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation had a post about Jim Harrison on April 13 and his recent contribution of fiction to The New Yorker (in the March 29 issue, Father Daughter). I grew up in Harrison's home, the great state of Michigan, and got to know some of his fiction and poetry in high school there and at Michigan State University, where Harrison was a student. For the fiction, I think his book of three novellas, Legends of the Fall, is superb, although the cover of the current printing is marred by an image of that execrable cinematic blunder adapted from one of the stories (in part by Harrison himself), of the same title and which gets no link. (Another of these novellas, "Revenge," was adapted as a less offensive but ultimately missable movie.) I have also read and enjoyed Farmer (1976). For poetry, I recommend the elegiac Theory and Practice of Rivers (1989) and Letters to Yesenin (1970). Considering the large number of books Harrison has now published, and which I have not really done very well at keeping up with, I think there are remarkably few failures, which is a sign of this writer's prodigious talents. I have to say that I do not read more than the first few paragraphs of the fiction piece in almost every issue of The New Yorker. If a short story does not pull me in within a half-page, I am likely to lose all interest in investing the time to finish it. This was not the case with Harrison's story, which I read without noticing that Harrison's name on the first page. I thought something seemed familiar about the style, a suspicion that was confirmed when I turned back to learn the author's name.

In this 1998 interview with Jonathan Miles for Salon, Harrison tried to explain his scintillating celebrity in France:
The French have quite a tradition of interest in American literature. You know, it was the French that busted Faulkner open. And they like somewhat rural American fiction. They don't need to read New York fiction—they already know that. It's the landscape and the setting that they've long been interested in. They don't have that there—that enormous space—and they have a much more homogeneous social life. They like the stew that America is. . . . They will accept [lush language] in a way that it's hard to get accepted in America. They're not so grotesquely plot-oriented. Even if you look in their literature—try reading Proust and looking for a plot line.

The French are very sophisticated in a literary sense, but they aren't lit majors. They're just people—butchers, actresses, actual bakers. They're not in the lit game or the lit industry. I think it's interesting what someone there said to me once—it's something that I hadn't thought before, and it startled me. He told me that (the French) read me because in my fiction you have the life of relative action but also the life of the mind. In so much fiction we have one or the other, but never both. We tend to try to separate them.
I can't possibly add anything to those words. Go read.

15.4.04

Special Concert at the National Shrine

The Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, including yours truly, will be joined by the Orchestra of the 17th Century this Sunday for a special concert on the Octave Day of Easter (April 18, at 7 pm) in the Basilica's Crypt Church. The program will include chants, organ improvisations, instrumental canzone by Gabrieli and Priuli, and the following choral repertory: William Byrd, Ave verum corpus; Felice Anerio, Christus factus est; Gregor Aichinger, Regina caeli; Giovanni da Palestrina, Sicut cervus and Salvator mundi; Luca Marenzio, Jubilate deo (à 8); and Claudio Monteverdi, Cantate domino and Adoramus te Christe. If you enjoy sacred music from the 16th and 17th centuries, you will have the chance to hear it in the superb acoustics of the Crypt Church.

Naughty Little Beaver

Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir

The Second Sex (1949)

Letters to Nelson Algren (from BBC Online)

Simone de Beauvoir Web site (Suzanne Roy)
Sometimes I think that private correspondence should remain just that—private. This is nowhere truer than with that most personal type of correspondence, the love letter. You used to be able to believe in certain truths in the world of literature, and one of them was that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were the ideal intellectual couple. They were both devastatingly and elegantly intelligent, and they were meant to be together forever in the Café de Flore, although they never married, which would have been a shameful concession to the bourgeoisie. Then we learned a few years ago that le Castor, or the Beaver, as de Beauvoir was nicknamed, had carried on a secret and obsessive love affair with an American writer from Chicago named Nelson Algren. In an article (Simone de Beauvoir: Ces lettres qui ébranlent un mythe [Simone de Beauvoir: those letters that shake up a myth], April 15) in Le Point, Jacques-Pierre Amette reviews a new edition of some of de Beauvoir's letters. Now it turns out that our naughty little Castor was also intimately involved with Jacques-Laurent Bost, who was Sartre's brilliant student, from 1937 to 1940. Here is my translation of an excerpt from the article:
Beauvoir repeats on every line, "I am going crazy thinking about you." Wow! I challenge any reader not to fall in love with this honest-seeming young woman, with the face bathed by some sort of interior dignity. Any man would have wanted to walk out of the Rhumerie on the arm of this pretty professor "all torn up with the desire to see you," as she wrote. For the whole story, we learn that it was September 21, 1939, that she bought a turban, which became her mythological symbol. We remain stunned at the way the feeling of love makes her storytelling talent pour out on nothing and frees her personality. . . . She had drunk the magic potion. She goes crazy over Picon-cassis, faces, meetings, uniquely, it seems, for the happiness of speaking to "little Bost" and helping him, reassuring him, supporting him, distracting him, saving him from his military nightmare. So, we ask ourselves a question: how could she have bound herself so strongly, officially speaking, to this Sartre who described sexuality only as a sickness. . . . What a poorly matched couple! How could she live with this "spectacle-ish" little man, with the lawyer's metallic voice, the rumpled blue suit, obsessed with crabs, homosexuals, with the roots, the mud of being, the Heideggerish jam, while she was so full of verve, fire, boldness, and freshness? What a mystery...
You can read a short excerpt of the letters: Beauvoir et Bost: L'amour secret du Castor (Le Nouvel Observateur, April 15, by Serge Lafaurie).

14.4.04

Museum for Hire

A large selection of art from the Museum of Modern Art's collection is on temporary display in Berlin (Das MoMA in Berlin, until September 19). (This was first reported on Ionarts on March 16, thanks to Heather Mathews at Hem|mungen.) A new article (Das MoMA in Berlin: Friede, Freude, Warteschlange [The MoMA in Berlin: Peace, Joy, Lines], April 14) by Christiane Wolters in Der Spiegel reports that record-breaking crowds are making the MoMA show the most popular public destination in Berlin right now (I'm trying to imagine this happening in Washington: for an Impressionist show, I could see it, but for a selection of works from the Centre Pompidou?). According to the article, the line at its peak winds around the building several times, and the wait just to get in is as much as four or five hours. For safety reasons, no more than 1,000 people may be in the exhibit space at the same time, which means that around 5,000 people per day are able to see the show. Musicians have begun to set up at various points along the line, to entertain those waiting, and there is even a physical therapist who has been leading the crowds in stretching exercises to keep limber.

There is also an older article (MoMAnia in Berlin: "Verlassen Sie sich darauf, es wird voll", February 18) by Michael Kröger, which has a selection of 12 artworks in the show. The cost of bringing the art from New York to Berlin—and only to Berlin—is significant, although the exact amount has been kept from public knowledge. The Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie (Society of friends of the national gallery) has underwritten the budget, with the demand that the show must make enough money to pay for itself, which it looks like it will.

Isabelle de Pommereau, in an article (Libraries that loan Picassos, not Grishams, April 9) in the Christian Science Monitor, reports on the existence of artotheken, libraries that lend art works to people's homes, in Germany. Well, if you had just been reading Ionarts regularly, you would have known that two months ago (see post on February 2 and followup post on February 13). Let's keep up, people!