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30.11.04

Trovatore Revisited

When you don't succeed at first...

Saturday, the 13th of November, the Washington National Opera had its last show of the problem-fraught Il Trovatore (see the first Ionarts review, from October 25). Utterly miscast with few exceptions, the "secondary" singers for the last two productions mercifully replaced Mikhail Davidoff's Manrico, Wolfgang Brendel's Count di Luna, and Denyce Graves's Azucena. There was nothing secondary about the respective replacements.

Picture by Karin CooperCarl Tanner (shown here) as Manrico had a slightly muffled quality to his singing, but what he lacked in clarity in comparison to his predecessor he made up in agility and roundness. Roberto Sevile's Count was a monumental improvement over Brendel's ill-pitched bear-voice. Nothing is as loud or booming as Brendel, but seeming to care about the role and singing in tune are worth something, too! Azucena, taken over by Elena Manistina, was a relief. While Denyce Graves has the dramatic part of the role down like few others, her singing was sadly inept. (And that's being kind.) Mme. Manistina, while not a great actress, sang the challenging role admirably with her well-sounding, stable mezzo and garnered much applause. Krassimira Stoyanova, who was still the same, had never been bad to begin with and only improved from performance to performance. Her acting, peppered with some well-applied wit, was as good as the production allowed for.

Of course you still had to deal with the staging of Stephen Lawless, and that's a matter of taste. After seeing it four times, I still retain it is a very elegant solution that works better than most attempts at staging Verdi's Troubadour. But the unbearably campy sword scene by the chorus (a woeful addition from four years ago: what were you thinking, Herr Lawless?) had still to be coped with. The idea itself is more befitting a Mel Brooks musical than an opera, but to make matters inexorably worse, the choreography was so badly executed that it became painfully comical where it was supposed to be impressive.

This may not have been the redemption of a miserable stint of Verdi's workhorse, but the improvement gave reason to hope that the casting will be done with more care in the future. Even though Washingtonians mainly go to see the opera to be there and be seen, big names that sing badly cannot over the long run sustain well-sold performances. Meanwhile we can look forward to Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans and Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. (The WNO also—finally—published its next season's calendar, on which Charles or I will surely comment in the near future.)

Art-Shopping-Art-Eat-Zzzzz

Performance at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, 2004Friday is our third full day in Mexico City. A short walk from our hotel is the Museo de Arte Moderno and the Museo Nacional de Antropología. The Modern had an exhibit of Diego Rivera's Cubist paintings on the lower level and several installations by contempory Mexican artists. The Anthropology Museum has a vast collection of Mexican cultural artifacts. This is a daunting task, but the displays are well done and I got a thorough overview of the varied cultures and history of the country and a thrilling traditional performance outside by flying natives.

Studio of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Mexico City
Studio of Diego Rivera, Mexico City
Saturday is shopping day here in Mexico City. Well, when traveling with three women who love to shop it is. I get bored by the often row upon row of the same kitsch. On our way to the Diego Rivera Museum we stopped by the outdoor bazaar at San Angel, which is held only on Saturdays. Many painters set up in the plaza and further on there are row after row of crafts and knick-knacks, some very good. It's worth seeing.

The home and studio that Diego and Frida shared is not far from the bazaar; however, with traffic it's a least an hour. Did I say traffic sucks here? Unfortunately the studio was closed for an installation, but I got some pictures of the exterior. Very cool digs.

Then we braved more traffic, another hour, to see the Museos Diego Rivera. It's a dark forbidding place constructed of what seems to be black volcanic stone. It's loaded with ceramic artifacts and historical relics. I kept looking for the dungeon and torture racks: this is not a welcoming place to linger, unless if you're a real goth. The second floor does have the remnants of Diego's studio and the sketches and large layouts for the lost mural at Rockefeller Center. After a nice lunch the traffic slimmed out and we returned to base camp to pack and prepare for our last day and a tour of the downtown area.

29.11.04

Dip Your Ears, No. 20

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F. Schubert, Late String Quartets & String Quintet, The Lindsays
Judging by output in any one given year, Schubert has to be the greatest composer ever to have put the pen to the paper, by some margin. The proof in the pudding is the String Quintet, an hour of inspired, painfully beautiful chamber music. The slightly earlier string quartets are no mean feat either. Death and the Maiden and the Quartettsatz will make you fall in love with the genre if you are not already. The economic Lindsays' set, as far as sets are concerned, is probably the finest available: emotional and vivacious, leading with a rendition of the quintet that has few, if any, rivals. Another famous quartet (on DG) has a similar set out, but the uninspired (if technically perfect) playing only shows why The Lindsays are the ones to go with.

P.S. There are single discs with cleaner music making that is equally spirited. If you are not looking for all the late quartets at once, the Quatuor Mosaïques' disc is worth your attention!

No DVD Left Behind...

I have been lucky for the past few Christmases in having a brother who is a self-declared Tolkien-phile. Whenever I was in doubt of what gift I could provide the sibling who has a hefty DVD collection, I could always rely the last couple of years on Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema to provide the shopper with various states of commercialism attached to his Lord of the Rings Trilogy. If he had already purchased the DVD movie of the previous installment (and he had), there was always the soundtrack, the picture book, and if one was in complete desperation a pair of bookends shaped the like the diminuative and shriveled character Gollum (luckily it never came to that). While the Oscar mural I created in evocation of the last year's award sweep begins to peel from my wall, I sit in longing for an over-the-plate movie purchase that I can be sure hasn't already nestled itself quietly somewhere between All the President's Men down to Xanadu (an eclectic assortment to be sure).

It's always a risky venture nabbing an old release that grabs your eye while carting through the aisles of Target or Wal-Mart as you elbow your way through the crowds the night before (yes, guilty). While the oddly priced $8.88 may seem like a steal you don't want to be on the receiving end of quizzical looks from a loved one finally being reunited with old fave Turner and Hooch. ("Oh, yeah, I DO remember liking this movie.") Besides the fact that it reeks of gift desperation (you probably left the tag on... guilty) they were probably drifting those same aisles not but a week before and saw the very same price tag (also note; Target, Toys-R-Us, and Wal-Mart are all pushing DVDs from $3.99 and up in hopes of luring you for bigger purchases. Careful.)

So falling in somewhere between the category of old classic and new release comes the re-release. No, I'm not talking about the Extra-Platinum-Double-Special-Uncut Director's Edition of New York Minute (if only it ran that long...), but rather some lost treasures that have fallen in that all too common crack of fading VHS and not being printed on DVD.

Available at Amazon:
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Tim Burton, Ed Wood
One of my favorites of the past few years that had become a sort of phenomenon in its protracted purgatory of non-release is Ed Wood. This gem of a movie got caught in so many retracted release dates that rumors began to circulate on why. Some even posited that it would never be released, and a small printing had slipped out and it would be a collector's item for years to come. (This very scenario DID occur some years back with Silence of the Lambs, when the Criterion edition of the film was pulled from shelves and discontinued due to licensing fees and agreements. So instead of documentaries, interviews, and audio commentaries with the entire cast, one can now get a "special" edition with a Hannibal Lector answering machine greeting. Craptacular!) Not the case; Ed Wood has recently been released with a Tim Burton/Martin Landau audio commentary (alas no Johnny), great deleted scenes, and a few "making of" featurettes. This release is a real catch that seems to have slipped in under the wire and unnoticed.

Available at Amazon:
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Robert Redford, Quiz Show
Another new to DVD special that has long been a favorite and missing in my collection is Quiz Show. If you've forgotten how good this movie was, then take a moment to gaze at this flawless classic again. Robert Redford's photogenic documentation of the quiz show scandals, starring Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro, holds up to repeat viewings (you'll even forgive Rob Morrow's accent, I swear) almost more that any film in my collection, making it a DVD must-have. While this edition is a simple meat-n-potatoes transfer with only the theatrical trailer attached it will constantly regenerate its value with each viewing. This baby holds up and tends to be forgotten because it didn't nab its Best Picture trophy the year it was released.

Available at Amazon:
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Jean-Jacques Annaud, The Name of the Rose
The third, and perhaps favorite, of the new-olds is The Name of the Rose by Jean-Jacques Annaud. In this new Da Vinci Code climate we are in, this should surely be the video vault discovery of the year. The story centers on a medieval monastery that has experienced a sudden death while visiting monk William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) goes about (à la Sherlock Holmes) solving what appears to be a murder (or series of) in face of the Abbey's desire to find the Devil at work. Capsized on bad VHS tape (hard to find) and grainy 2-disc laser editions, this resurrection of a cult classic comes fully loaded (they should have titled it "The Monastery Edition" or "The version God doesn't want you to see," or maybe not) with a "making of" documentary that isn't simply some HBO press kit but rather a far more hands on view of the making of the film. I confess (pardon the pun) to spending the day with this baby while I was working on a building project. Listening to audio commentaries is often like having the radio playing while doing busy work you can't do in front of the television, and yet I found the stories and subjects so compelling and Annaud's words so connected to the images on the screen I got nothing done.

So often in film commentary tracks one is submitted to a by-rote narration of what we are viewing ("There's Jenny . . . as you can see she is eating something. This was a good scene . . . and here comes Paul . . .") that you find you wish you were simply watching the film again without this annoying guy interrupting you all the time. Instead, Annaud delights in anecdotes ranging from period details (from a simple cross being of the wrong period) to Christian Slater falling in love with his co-star (so much so after her screen test he sent his mother to tell the director he couldn't work with another girl) to what a jerk F. Murray Abraham was (after winning his Academy Award for Amadeus he confessed his new self-appointed mission was to make directors miserable.) Even down to the "photo journey" of the film, Annaud manages to make every detail sound so personal and current that one can't help but want to spend more time with the man.

Available at Amazon:
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Frank Darabont, The Shawshank Redemption
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Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused
Following up these three catches are some more conventional fare in the form of new editions of previous releases. Two of note are Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption in its 10th Anniversary, with Charlie Rose segments, commentary, and featurettes, and a personal favorite, Dazed and Confused; Flashback Edition. I am sure the latter has been hung up due to the director, Richard Linklater, emerging into commercial viability with School of Rock of late. Previous versions of this DVD had only the film and no extras. Now refitted with deleted scenes, commentary tracks, and retro featurettes, this film has the release it's always deserved. If this one happened to slip by you in its day, then do yourself a favor and catch it now because it will give you a cache for years to come in movie quotability and "where are they now" celebrity spots. When cast members like Matthew McConaughy, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck (to name a few) drift by, it's like paging through a Hollywood High School yearbook.

Available at Amazon:
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Alfonso Cuarón, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
BUT, if you are insistent on getting the shiny, new-new release for your loved ones I'd recommend Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is just out. If you have not been a fan of the J. K. Rowling series I would recommend this one as your way in. One of the most daring pairings of director and material, the studios, in a rare case of artistic insight, attached the director of Y Tu mama Tambien to one of the biggest financial juggernauts of all time, and the gamble paid off. Somehow the director, Alfonso Cuarón, even manages to make previously implausible CGI effects seem plausible simply from the emotional resonance he mines from this series's previously flat relationships.

Available at Amazon:
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Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Ring: The Return of the King
But, in the end, for me it's back to the basics as Mr. Jackson and his cohorts in fantasy have seen to adding, yes, another hour to the third film in the trilogy, Return of the King (making it a trim 4+ hours). Returning again to do their part, the entire cast has reassembled for commentary tracks, endless interviews, and featurettes that will be devoured with zealous zeal by my brother. I'll miss this trilogy come Oscar time, and it has been a steady source of activity during the holidays as I am subjected to repeated viewings during the inevitable idleness that comes between the Midwestern tradition of filling time between meals. But mostly, I'll miss "ol' reliable" come Christmas morning when my brother would announce what his gift was in advance but never with a trace of disappointment. The Lord of the Rings in its yearly extensions had found its way to becoming a tradition in itself at Christmastime as it wound to its inevitable conclusion.

But let's face it, folks. Some things never die. There'll always be "The Platinum Series Nine Hour Version," or "Peter Jackson's Personal Journey with...," or even "A Day with a Hobbit's Foot" and on and on from there and back again... and bless them for it.

28.11.04

Music Scrooge

This article by Robert R. Reilly appears in the December edition of Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with kind permission of the author.

It's Christmas season and I am supposed to be thinking of others. What would they like for Christmas? Of course, this is very hard for a narcissist. I continue the childish habit of giving people close to me things that I want. That way I will eventually get the things—with the added advantage of seeming to appear generous. However, this ploy has worn thin to those around me and the “mistakes” in my gift-giving of past years are known for what they were, pure acts of self-aggrandizement. I can no longer pull off the astonished and hurt look when I am told that another recording of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder is not what my five-year-old son really wished for. So I will forsake the pretense and openly wallow in what I want.

I want more. More of everything, really. But especially in the musical realm, I would like more classical CDs. In intense spiritual moments, I realize that I won't live long enough to listen more than a few times, if even that, to what I have already accumulated. Ironically, that realization drives my acquisitiveness. How can this be? I answer with an anecdote from the life of English composer Havergal Brian. In an extraordinary twilight career, Brian produced some twenty symphonies after he turned eighty. In his nineties, he was approached for an interview with the Gramophone magazine. When his interlocutor gently raised an intimation of mortality, Brian snapped back: "I can't die; I just bought a new pair of trousers."

And there you have it. That's why we have all those malls. You cannot die if you are shopping, or have recently shopped. On top of this, CDs never wear out, adding an intimation of immortality far beyond what trousers can provide. Also, DVD versions of concerts, operas, and movies never wear out either, which opens a new front in the battle.

In defense of my spiritual defect, I protest that my acquisitions are for purposes of review. It's my job, after all. Okay, it's not my job; it's my paid avocation. It brings in that little extra. This too has worn thin, as the needs for added shelf space have led to the possibility of putting my children in bunk beds. I plead that new DVDs are thinner than VHS tapes. However, those obsessed with the shelf-space-issue worry that now there will be CDs, VHS tapes, and DVDs. Well then, I will offer no more tawdry, transparent excuses; this is a column of naked desire. Just give me these things because I want them. I need them.

The first thing I want is for you to love music. This is my only eleemosynary impulse. However, it, too, translates into self-interest because I will recommend that you buy my book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. (You should also read our Ionarts review.) Buy it for yourself and for your family members, even for those who can't hum. I have already given this book in past Christmases to everyone I know. Now they expect real Christmas presents. The book is slipping from its hold on the 280,000th ranking at Amazon.com, so act fast.

Here is what else I want. (Since I already have almost everything, this list may appear a bit eclectic, but remember this is about me.) I will have to be quick because the list is long, though I will restrict it to 20th-century and contemporary composers. I want Chandos to continue its series of the symphonies of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919–1996). It appears the Olympia label series of Soviet-era recordings of these works are increasingly hard to find, so this new traversal is more than welcome. Volume two on Chandos (10237) offers Symphony No. 4, again with the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Gabriel Chmura. It is not quite as exciting as the premiere under Kirill Kondrashin, who brought it in two minutes faster, but this is a very fine, beautifully recorded version. It is accompanied by the wonderful, haunting Sinfonietta No. 2 and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes. This is like Shostakovich without his satiric, acerbic side.

I want more recordings of Dominick Argento's music. Argento (b. 1927), squirreled away in Minnesota, is an American classic. His Casa Guidi is a glorious orchestral song setting of texts from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's letters to her sister from Florence, gorgeously sung by Frederica Von Stade on a Reference Recording (RR-100CD). It is about as drop-dead beautiful as vocal music gets, enveloped in luminous orchestration. If Richard Strauss had been an American, he might have written something like this, without at all sounding like himself. Two entrancing orchestral works accompany this, the playful Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra and In Praise of Music: Seven Songs for Orchestra. If you are not giving my book for Christmas, this CD would make a great gift for your favorite music lovers.

I want to understand more about the music of Ahmed Saygun (1907–1991), probably the premiere Turkish symphonist of the 20th century. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Ataturk tried to jump-start Turkey into the modern world, which meant to westernize it. Saygun seems to have done the same thing in his music, apparently with Ataturk's blessing. Saygun accompanied B&eactue;la Bartók on his musical expeditions in Turkey, so it will come as no surprise to learn that Saygun was influenced by him, but also by Paul Hindemith, another European visitor invited by Ataturk. In any event, from the first two issues of the CPO label's traversal of Saygun's five symphonies, including Nos. 1 and 2 (CPO 999 819-2) and 3 and 5 (CPO 999 968-2), it is clear that Turkey was ready to join the EU years ago. To the extent this music sounds Turkish at all, it is clearly from a Western perspective. It is also highly sophisticated, brilliantly orchestrated, and harmonically complex. Not always an easy listen, these works fascinate and are clearly from the hand of a master. I want the rest of CPO's cycle.

As an archenemy of the Second Viennese School of music, I want to confess that I thought it just as well that I had never heard Egon Wellesz's symphonies because he was contaminated by it as a student of Schoenberg. Imagine my surprise when, having come across CPO's third release of Wellesz's complete symphonies, containing Nos. 1 and 8 (CPO 999 998-2), that I was bowled over by the First, written when Wellesz was already 60 years old. The first movement contains some absolutely magnificent fugato writing; the third is as beautiful as anything written in Mahler's lineage, without what Franz Schmidt called Mahler's "cheap novel" effects. What a wonderful surprise. I found the atonal Eighth fractured and fragmentary but, needless to say, I want to catch up with the first two volumes in this revelatory series.

Even after that backhanded remark about Mahler, I desire the new recording of his complete symphonies on the Hanssler Classic label, featuring conductor Michael Gielen and the SWR Symphony Orchestra, because critics I respect (e.g., David Hurwitz) say it is one of the best. I know Leonard Bernstein's highly charged versions of these works that remind you why Mahler went to Sigmund Freud for help. I have never written about Mahler because I still don't understand him, but I am willing to try with Gielen's help.

I want to hear British composer John McCabe's other symphonies because I have been enchanted by his Fourth, Of Time and the River, written in 1994. I have just caught up with it, though it was issued on Hyperion (CDA 67089), with his delightful Flute Concerto, at the turn of the millennium, superbly played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Vernon Handley. This highly atmospheric, magical work starts with a repeated running start at something. It burbles along, returns to its starting place, and tries again—not out of frustration, but enthusiasm. McCabe (b. 1939) describes it as "a symphony where the tempo gradually decreases to a central point of stasis and then gradually increases in place to a close . . . with the actual changes in pulse imperceptible point-by-point to the listener." There is a wonderful sense of play and fancy in this work that finds its grounding not in Britten or Tippett, to whom McCabe is wrongly compared, but to the mysterious Celtic twilight world of Welsh composer William Mathias. Take the time to go down river with him.

Of course, I want much more than this. For instance, I want more space . . . Maybe next Christmas? Now I must go shop for those special presents for my children. I can almost hear them now.

27.11.04

In Search Of Frida and Diego

Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, Mexico CityOne of the nice things about having someone drive you around Mexico City is the chance to see all the sites as you travel from one destination to another. Billboards are everywhere, and transparent fabrics completely wrap some high-rise buildings emblazoned with super-large models selling all kinds of stuff. It's a vibrant city, to say the least.

Today we went to the south of the city to the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño (see the Ionarts post on the Frida Kahlo Bicentenary, from June 15). Dolores was a wealthy, very well-connected patron, some say lover, of Diego Rivera. Her rambling estate was turned into a museum after her death and has a large collection of Rivera's paintings, prints, drawings and a few very nice large charcoal drawings. I can see Rivera at his best in these large fluid drawings, but I'm very excited about seeing some of his murals. The museum also has several of Frida Kahlo's paintings and drawings. It's a little unsettling to see her work here because of the relationship Dolores had with Diego. But who wasn't he supposed to be associated with? It's an art soap opera.

We also had time this day to see the Frida Kahlo Museum in the Casa azul, her former family home, which is also in the south of the city. The brightly painted house exudes a creative spirit. I like her work, but the story of her life, the accident and crippling pain, and the wild relationship with Diego are what set her apart. She's a great story and this is a must-stop on any tour.

More tomorrow.

Galerie d'Apollon Renovated

Newspaper Articles

Anne Muratori-Philip, Les mésaventures d'un passage royal

Armelle Héliot, Apollon ou l'apothéose des arts (Le Figaro, November 26)

Anne-Marie Romero, Le sacre du Soleil (Le Figaro, November 26)

Vincent Noce, Le Louvre épate la galerie (Libération, November 24)

Antoine de Baecque, La «fabrique des images» de Louis XIV (Libération, November 24)

Emmanuel de Roux, La galerie d'Apollon, au Louvre, a été réaménagée (Le Monde, November 21)

Véronique Prat, L'extraordinaire décor de la galerie d'Apollon (Le Figaro Magazine, November 21)

Le Louvre réouvre la galerie d'Apollon (streaming video clip from TF1)
Well, after all the MoMA kerfuffle, I've been following the conclusion of the renovation of the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre, which opens again to the public today. This magnificent Rococo hall, a room for walking court dogs redesigned by Louis XIV but not completed until the 19th century, is one of the most famous chambers in the museum, perhaps second to the Salon Carré (as painted by Giuseppe Castiglione in 1865, and where Henry James's The American famously opens). After Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles, the Galerie d'Apollon was probably the model for the Galerie des Glaces there.

The decoration has all of the drama and extravagance of the French Baroque, combining 118 sculptures and 28 tapestries with forty-one large canvases, grouped around, of all things, Eugène Delacroix's Apollon vainqueur du serpent Python [Apollo slaying the python], completed in 1851 (see a detail of the restored painting here). Unlike Braque's Les Oiseaux (1953) on the ceiling of the antechamber in the old Louvre (now the Etruscan room: Braque recycled the sketches for the ceiling as lithographs), Delacroix's painting is a masterpiece of Rococo mimicry, harmonizing perfectly with its outlandishly ornate surroundings from two centuries earlier.

The renovation was paid for by the oil company Total, which is getting lots of free advertising as a result, as described by Armelle Héliot in her article (Un mécène indispensable et vigilant, November 26) for Le Figaro:
There is one more decorative element in the Galerie d'Apollon. It makes some clench their teeth, but you would have to be ideologically opposed to think that there is any crime against the spirit in it. The name of Total, very generous benefactor to the Louvre, is in effect inscribed in golden letters to the right of the entrance. For a restoration campaign of 5.2 million € [US$6.92 million], Total gave 4.5 million [US$5.99 million], as we are reminded by Yves Le Goff, public relations director of the company headed by Thierry Desmarets. A remarkable effort right in line with the company's generous politics, expressed not only in the patrimonial domain but also in that of workers' rights, in France as in all the countries where Total employs workers. Health and training benefits, as well as education, are the major areas of an activity we will surely discuss another time.
Well, Le Figaro is surely showing its oft-criticized right-leaning editorial slant here, but at least Total has done something good for the world for once.

Filmmaker Jérôme Prieur's documentary on the restoration, Le réveil d’Apollon, was shown on the Arte network (you lucky Europeans) last night. (You can see four excerpts from it on their Web site.) Thanks to the Louvre's excellent Web site, you can also browse through the paintings and objects in the Galerie d'Apollon, including the stunning jeweled crowns of the French monarchy.

26.11.04

Greetings from Down Under

TeotihuacanHaving a great time! Wish you were here. Well, that probably wouldn't work this time, but if you haven't been to Mexico City yet, there's a lot of art to see. My first work of art was dinner and a beautiful plate of stuffed chilis it was. That was a first-night splurge with friends, but most of the food we'll eat will be simple and as authentic as possible and that usually means inexpensive. Today the paso is 10.18 to the dollar, so this is a much better deal than Europe for sure. The major obstacle to seeing what Mexico City has to offer is TRAFFIC! There are options, but if you are traveling with children, hire a driver, if the budget allows. We did and have seen a lot in a short time.

Our first venture out was to the spectacular Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan (c. 150-450 A.D.), where the new pyramid to Wal-Mart (see Ionarts post from October 22) is close by. It's no small feat with the change in altitude from Baltimore, but we climbed to the top of both pyramids. What a view. You can feel the mystery that surrounds this site and the many secrets that disappeared with its inhabitants.

Milagros, GuadalupeAnother stop was to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's holiest shrine (official Web site). This is where the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared before an Indian named Juan Diego, mystically imprinting her image onto his clothing, creating a sacred shroud. Pilgrims come from all over Latin America to view this icon and to leave Milagros (charms) asking for their wishes to be granted. Three basilicas have now been errected over the years to handle the larger and larger crowds coming to worship, the last being a modern specimen that I don't care for. The original small chapel high on the hill over looking the main plaza is beautiful. I find this to be a common occurance: as the demands on a religious site grow, the true essence or simplicity tends to get lost. It is quite wonderful to see how much faith and the need to believe is so important to the human race.

I'll write more as time permits. I'm in search of Diego and Frida.

Theater in the Afghan Capital

If you, like me, need an occasional reminder of the vital importance of the arts to human life, read this article by Maseeh Rahman (Kabul Stage: Actresses play roles in several new plays, November 26) in the Christian Science Monitor:

Barely three years ago, at a time when women in Afghanistan were not permitted even to leave their homes, the idea of a woman performing on stage - and in mixed company! - seemed inconceivable. Any woman who did so risked life and limb. All the more astonishing, then, that a theater festival opening in Kabul will include a play written by a woman (a teenage schoolgirl, to be precise), with real actresses, about the brutal suppression of women under the country's now-ousted Taliban government.

"To those people who want to keep us away from the stage, I say: You have no right to interfere," says 16-year-old playwright/director Naseeba Ghulam Mohammed, whose "Toward Brightness" is among the plays women will perform during the eight-day national festival. "In Afghanistan today, men and women are equal."
Actually, as I remember reading some time ago (Kabul's theatre returns to life, January 8, 2002, BBC News), one of the first things that the new Afghan Minister of Culture did was to reinstate the National Theatre with new funding. Yes, you read that correctly: the Islamic Transitional State of Afghanistan has a Department of Culture, while we in the United States do not. Let's see, how could we fix that?

Treasure-hunting with the Cuarteto Carpentier

La Embajada de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela & La Sección de Intereses de Cuba

What do Cuba and Venezuela have in common? I don't want to get too political here on Ionarts, but long speeches have something to do with it. And so the introductions to a performance in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier by the Venezuelan Ambassador and the Director of the Cuban Interest Section were long, if shy of excessive.

Hosting a crowd of excited Spanish speakers (plus me, somewhere in between), the Salón Bolivariano was filled to capacity on November 17th. Following a somewhat stodgy audiovisual presentation of an interview with Carpentier (courtesy of the Universidad Central de Venezuela) the Cuarteto Carpentier played a program of Venezuelan, Cuban, Brazilian, and Argentinean music. Save for the latter two contributions (Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astor Piazzolla), all composers were new discoveries for me.

Juan Bautista Plaza, Ademaro Romero Zerpa, and the quartet's violinist Eddie Venegas (all Venezuelan), as well as Alejandro Garcia Caturla and Amadeo Roldan (both Cuban) had hitherto flown below my cultural radar—for the most part at my own peril. J. B. Plaza's Fuga Criolla (1935) turned out to be a well-crafted fugue that starts out like an American revolutionary song on fiddles, brushing up against Bach. It then gets more serious (and better) as it progresses. It surely doesn't reach the depth of Beethoven, but its gravitas invokes, in several moments, his late string quartets. A. G. Caturla's Preludio (from his Four Pieces for String Quartet) is a 1926 avant-garde work of a composer instrumental in the Afro-Cuban cultural movement (including Carpentier and Wilfredo Lam of The Jungle fame.) If the previous work ended on a note of late Beethoven, this piece begins on it. For something considered avant-garde it was perfectly harmless, though beautiful and by no means shallow.

A higher dose of South American rhythms can be detected in A. R. Zerpa's Fandango (1986), safely anchored in tonality and entertaining without stooping to the lowest common denominator. The Jobim bossa nova Cega de Saudade—arranged for string quartet and percussion by the aforementioned Eddie Venegas, the youngest member of the group with David Gotay (cello), and the two more veteran musicians Romulo Benavides (violin) and Samuel Marchan (viola)—was quaint, even without the rhythm section, though there were problems in keeping the music together.

Amadeo Roldan, of the same movement as Caturla, was featured with Poema Negro, also from 1926. A musical depiction of the ceremonies of former slaves, the first movement Invocacion sounds far more modern than any of the other, later pieces of the evening. While it may or may not owe anything to Bartók, it certainly has similarities with the Hungarian's string quartets, not the least in the use of and inspiration by traditional melodies and rhythms. It was the richest and most rewarding work of an evening full of startling discoveries.

Eddie Venegas's own Danzon Para-Ti—made up of two movements, Danza and Rumba—was (to my chagrin, given the composer's jealousy-evoking youth) not half bad, either. Gutsy and daring as it is to write at that stage for what may be the most challenging musical format, the piece worked extremely well for the first part and then stumbled terribly in the Rumba section, where old tricks on the instruments are rehashed without an underlying musical idea. It picks up speed but doesn't regain its fine and reasonably original character until the last few bars.

Astor Piazzolla—New York and Paris-exposed, Nadia Boulanger-trained—was the last treat on the program. Four for Tango, a Kronos Quartet commission from 1980, was all the Piazzolla we love save for the Bandaneon, of course. Argentina beat Venezuela (3-2) in a football match that night, but the Cuarteto retained its musical professionalism and didn't take their partisanship out on Astor. A little Columbian encore on a Cuban Cha-Cha-Cha was the parting gift from what had turned out to be a wholly enjoyable evening. The most exquisite reception (and the strong Mojitos that the Cubans had prepared) made even the sole Gringo feel comfortable. Save for the lack of English translations in the program, it was a most successful night in the world of cultural diplomacy.

25.11.04

Happy Thanksgiving!

Although Miguel Sánchez at Modern Kicks (a relatively new blog I have just added to my roll of Blogville) will crucify me for this (thanks to the Honorable Terry Teachout for the link), I'm at home today and blogging on Thanksgiving. In fact, although I probably won't be writing anything new the next couple days (because of tryptophan overdose), we do have an overflow of recent posts that I'll finally put out there.

Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914), Pilgrim Hall MuseumBest wishes to all you readers, on this quintessential American holiday, Thanksgiving. For non-Americans who may not be familiar with this tradition (I find it hard to believe that any of you fall into that category), the United States is basically shut down today, nominally to give thanks to God for all the gifts we have received as a country, but in practice to gorge ourselves on delicious food and watch football games (Go, Lions! you can make it to .500!) with our families. In fact, although Thanksgiving is as officially established as a holiday can get, the President of the United States, in a bow to tradition, has to announce the day of Thanksgiving every year with a solemn proclamation (what President Bush said this year is, as always, modeled on the proclamations of our previous presidents).

The image shown here is a famous oil painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914), which belongs to the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

Dip Your Ears, No. 19

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N. Kapustin, Piano Music,
Richard Osborne
Hyperion




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N. Kapustin, Piano Music,
Marc-Andre Hamelin
Hyperion

Wanted to go to the jazz section in your local record store but accidentally ended up in classical? Well, don't go back without one of these little jewels. If you listen at first, you may think Chick Corea- or Bill Evans-like piano improvisations. But it's neither American jazz nor is it improvised. It's Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin in music composed about 20 years ago and Hamelin and Osborne actually have to follow scores that are among the most difficult in the piano repertoire.

Both men have the chops for it, and the music itself does not betray its difficulty, nor does their playing. It comes together much better than the best improvisation would. For those who like jazz and classical music, it's a must-have. If so far you like just one of those, but are open-minded, you'll still find it a delight. Not everyday listening but likely to get more play time than many of my CDs. (When trying to chose between the two, start with Hamelin's disc for slightly more variety.)

24.11.04

Dip Your Ears, No. 18

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B. Bartók, Mikrokosmos, Huguette Dreyfus
"Curiosita" is the name of the new, mid-price series of Harmonia Mundi. Rather than churning out old mainstays of the back catalogue, it devotes itself to works off the beaten path and rewards those listeners who are, well, curious. Bartók’s Mikrokosmos is a wonderful example. And as if those dozens and dozens of keyboard miniatures weren't obscure enough, here they come in a surprise account played on the clavecin. That, as it turns out, is the "kicker." Mme. Dreyfus (C. Rousset's teacher) makes books 3 to 6 the most charming, gainful, rhythmical little things—like an army of small mechanical toys on a mission of fun and mischief. Questioning his preference for Mikrokosmos on piano vs. clavecin (a Bartók suggestion), i.e. "hammered" or "plucked," an ARG reviewer went so far as to say that in order to want to listen to the whole set you'd have to be hammered in the first place. This disc proves that wrong. Expect rather to become curiously drunk with excitement.

23.11.04

Dip Your Ears, No. 17 (Herreweghe's Bruckner 7th)

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony #7,
P.Herreweghe / O.d.Champs-Élysées
Harmonia Mundi

Oh, boy! "Historically Informed Bruckner"—just what we needed, right? Seriously: after Roger Norrington suggesting to play Mahler without vibrato (historically correct as that may be), this seemed to be just about the next dumbest idea. But unlike the recent and highly unnecessary Bruckner recordings of Messrs. Eschenbach and Nagano, this is actually rather a delight. Smaller forces and original instruments (gut strings and all) make for a very clean, crisp sound. Clocking in at exactly an hour, this 7th—sans cymbal crash in the Adagio—has a sheen that puts it above many conventional rivals that pander too much to the clichés of Bruckner performance. Among modern versions it stands up to Rattle and Harnoncourt, and while I reserve a special place in my heart for G. Wand's and E. Jochum's recordings, this live performance is good enough even to make a first choice.

See also: Dip Your Ears, No. 60 (Herreweghe's Bruckner 4th)

The Phoenix

Other Articles on La Fenice:

La réouverture de La Fenice, la bien nommée (Arte TV, November 18)

Marie-Aude Roux, La Fenice refaite à neuf lance sa saison avec une "Traviata" façon années 1970 (Le Monde, November 17)

Alan Riding, Third time lucky? La Fenice reopens (International Herald Tribune, November 16, originally in the New York Times)

Manuel Brug, Violetta aus dem Kühlfach (Die Welt, November 15)

La Fenice de Venise renoue avec la Traviata (France 2, November 15)

Don Milne, A soap opera in itself - La Fenice back from the dead (The New Zealand Herald, November 10)
I've been meaning to write something about the grand reopening of the Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice. (For some background on the arson that destroyed Venice's most famous opera theater and the struggle to rebuild it, see my post from December 19, Opening of La Fenice.) For the first opera of its new season, La Fenice chose a new production of Verdi's La Traviata, staged by Robert Carsen and conducted by Lorin Maazel (November 12 to 20). One of the performances was broadcast live on the absolutely wonderful European arts network, Arte, which I continue to urge my satellite provider to carry. You lucky Europeans! Here is what Nicolas Blanmont had to say about the choice of opera, in his article (L'opéra retrouve la Fenice, November 18) for La Libre Belgique:
On March 6, 1853, La Traviata was premiered at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Two years after the triumphal premiere of Rigoletto in the same theater, it was, according to Verdi himself, a fiasco. It was not until 1854, on another Venitian stage—the San Benedetto—and with a score slightly reworked by the composer, that the work knew the success that has not lessened since. A century and a half later, this is the famous Verdi work that La Fenice has chosen to reopen its doors to opera. After the fire of January 30, 1996, after the Italian-style judicial-real estate saga of the reconstruction, after the inauguration of December 2003 with a series of symphonic concerts—the stage machinery still had to be finished and acoustic tests were still being carried out—Verdi has come back in triumph in one of the most legendary halls of the operatic world. The house is sold out in spite of crushing prices (200 to 4,000 € [US$261.15 to $5,229.99] per ticket for the premiere, and from 50 to 1,200 € [US$65.29 to $1,566.90] for the other performances), as if La Fenice had intended with just one opera to finance a season that will become much more audacious afterward: Massenet's Le Roi de Lahore, Rossini's Maometto secondo, Mozart's La Finta semplice, Donizetti's Pia de'Tolomei, and Strauss's Daphne, with the only chestnut—sort of—being Parsifal. [NB: the first Venitian performance of Offenbach's Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein is also on the program—CTD]
Carsen has set the action in the 1970s, with Violetta as a drug-addicted luxury prostitute (the guests at the party of the first scene throw dollars at her), supposedly in reaction to Verdi's desire that the opera be shown in costumes contemporary with the viewers. Marie-Aude Roux, writing in Le Monde calls it a "No Future for Violetta the jet-set whore, who lives and dies in sequins and black lingerie, for a few fistfuls of dollars." While most of the reviews I have read find the production somewhat trite, for all of its shock value, the casting has received high praise.

While I am happy to see La Fenice producing operas again, especially some of the less familiar fare set for the rest of the season, I regret that this most famous of opera theaters missed the chance to present a premiere of a new opera. In my class on Friday, on Opera in the 20th Century, I used this event as an example of how the attitudes of opera houses (audiences are probably also to blame) work against modern opera. I doubt that, for a similar reopening in Venice in the 18th or 19th century, a house would have chosen to produce a popular opera from 150 years ago rather than a new work. (Reprisals of favorite older operas were not uncommon in previous centuries, but usually only to take the place of failed new operas.) I appreciate the historical significance of La Traviata (an opera that I love, after all), especially in its original (albeit inferior) version, but I cannot help but feel that this decision is not only a cowardly bow to tradition but also symptomatic of the trends that have made opera retrogressive and perhaps doomed to obsolescence.

22.11.04

Happy Feast Day, Musicians!

Saint CeciliaAlthough most Americans, even many Catholics, are not all that familiar with the Sanctorale, the yearly cycle of saints' feast days, it is a part of daily life in other parts of the world. (In France, most TV meteorologists mention what saints are honored on the following day, along with the weather report, so that you know who to wish a happy feast day to tomorrow.) November 22 is the feast of Saint Cecilia, a martyr who is almost certainly legendary but whose feast was important in Rome beginning in the late 5th century. According to her vita, she heard heavenly music in her heart at the moment she was married. Because she was usually depicted in art either playing an organ or with organ-pipes (or another instrument) in her hand, she is now regarded as the patroness of musicians. (The image shown here comes from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, at the University of Notre Dame.)

Dip Your Ears, No. 16

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G. F. Handel, Arias, Renée Fleming
This highly anticipated disc starts with a wavering study in tone and dynamics that—if anything—sounds self-conscious and, after repeated hearing, probably annoying. The quality of the voice, though, is to be marveled at. Grating as "Oh Sleep, why dost though leave me?" is, "Endless pleasure" is far better, if not yet true to the name. Surprised, given the hype about this disc (for example, Anthony Tommasini, Enough to Make Handel Reach for His Walkman, September 7, in the New York Times) and the unquestionable artistry of Fleming, I waited for supreme joy to come. It never did. The music is glorious, of course, but the singing sounds stretched, tried, shrill even, and effortful. In short: the worst example of the usually sublime Renée Fleming, by which even her fans may not be entirely convinced. In Handel she lacks the fleet tone of Bartoli or Hunt-Lieberson's natural expressiveness. Try and compare . . .

21.11.04

Perceptions of MoMA in Europe

If you just can't get enough of the noise about the new MoMA, I think that Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes has the most thorough assortment of links to the chatter. One thing Tyler has omitted: my little translation of the review of the new Modern in Le Figaro (Le nouveau MoMA, November 16). The European newspaper coverage has been quite interesting, so here's a selection of articles:

The general impression I get from reading these articles is that the MoMA story is reinforcing some of the stereotypes of the United States as a money-obsessed capitalist empire. ($800 million to build a museum! $20 to get in!) Also, European critics have been noting the absence or slighting of some European modern artists, which is hardly surprising (that the Modern would present a specialized collection or that Europeans would notice lacunae). There is a sense of competition, of course, which drew a lot of comparisons with the Beaubourg and the Tate Modern, especially. Interesting reading for we 'mericans.

20.11.04

The Tortoise and The Cat

I'm often asked where the idea for a painting comes from, and I always respond with "none of your...."; not really, well, maybe once, but I was tired.

Mark Barry, Turtle Play, 2004In reality, with what I think are my best outcomes, I haven't a clue. There may have been an initial plan, but once the process begins it's all about painting. How the image sits on the canvas, how my eye flows from one point to another, color and form, all the technical things time has taught: the good stuff. When the energy is right and I know enough to stay out of the way, some great things can happen. At best I learn something, about the world or myself.

We have several turtles happily living in a bowl. They lounge on a stone island during the day, toasting in the sun. Along will come the cat, poking around with great interest. She likes to jump up on the table, perch over the bowl of sunning turtles, looking to pounce. She never does. I always listen for a crunching sound, but what we always get is a slurping sound instead. The turtle bowl is Emily the cat's watering hole. The turtles don't mind, and it's probably got some protein in there.

It's actually a beautiful example. To have complete dominance of the situation but to choose to live in harmony. Now that's a good subject for a painting.

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

19.11.04

Panamarenko in Anvers, Belgium

I draw your attention to a Belgian conceptual artist mentioned in this article (Nouvelle expo de Panamarenko à Anvers, November 18) from La Libre Belgique:

Hinky Pinky Prova, a steam and turbine car, and Brazil, a rocket backpack, are among the recent works of the Anvers-based artist Panamarenko [b. 1940] that will be on exhibit, from November 20 to January 29, in the Antwerpse Luchtschipbouw [part of the Museum de Beyerd Breda in Anvers]. This building is the new port of call for Panamarenko, the extraordinary creator who, for more than 40 years, has been trying to show that science, art, and technology can harmonize to perfection. Numerous studies, sketches, and models of his flying machines and other visionary contraptions, witness to Panamarenko's poetic sensibility and unbridled imagination, will be shown to the public for the first time.

The exhibit also allows you to discover the artist's new official Web site (www.panamarenko.be), conceived by an Internet design company and intended as a virtual window into the "Panamarenkian" world. The work of this "proudly Anversois" artist is on exhibit today in the largest cities around the world, like Paris, New York, London, Tokyo, Madrid, and Sydney.
There was an exhibit of Panamarenko's works, Orbit, at Dia Chelsea in 2000 to 2001 (see also the essay by Lynne Cooke on this exhibit), and you can see a few sketches and works here, here, and here.

18.11.04

More Opera and Music on DVD

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Dmitri Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth von Mzensk, directed by Petr Weigl (1992)
I am still happily working my way through the Netflix collection of opera and other music DVDs. The last DVD I mentioned here (in a post on September 15, Opera on DVD) was Petr Weigl's shockingly graphic film version, from 1992, of Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. What Weigl did was take pre-existing sound recordings and create filmed stories to accompany them, in the case of Lady Macbeth, an abridged version of what is probably the best recording of this opera, with Galina Vishnevskaya as Katerina Ismailova, Nicolai Gedda as Sergei, and Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the London Philharmonic (you can buy it from Amazon). His actors, mostly Czechs, lip-synch the action, an effect which can be disturbingly unrealistic, but once that operatic "suspension of disbelief" kicks in (I seem to have an unlimited reserve of it), it's a process that has limitless possibilities, far beyond what is possible on the traditional operatic stage, especially in terms of realistic sex scenes.

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Franz Schubert, Die Winterreise, sung by Brigitte Fassbaender, directed by Petr Weigl (1995)
In this strange film, Weigl has German soprano Brigitte Fassbaender sing Schubert's song cycle, Die Winterreise, which is usually performed by a male voice. That performance is the soundtrack to a somewhat mysterious, even discombobulated story of Weigl's invention. (You can buy a CD version of Fassbaender's performance of the song cycle—very cheaply at $6.98—from Amazon.) The film's story is centered around the narrator, played by Fassbaender herself, who sings as a nun in a church, as if she is at her solitary prayers, with a singing book in front of her. As she recalls a story from her youth, some of the characters appear behind her in the church as ghostly apparitions, sometimes real actors and at other times mannequins.
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Sergei Prokofiev, The Love for Three Oranges, Opéra National de Lyon, Kent Nagano (1989)
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Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Vienna State Opera, Claudio Abbado (1987)
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Pete Townshend (The Who), Tommy, starring Roger Daltrey, directed by Ken Russell (1975)
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Alban Berg, Lulu, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Andrew Davies (1997)
The story she recalls in images is hard to decipher with only the soundtrack of Schubert's mostly unrelated song cycle as accompaniment. The elderly nun, at a younger age, appears to be one of the characters, torn between the love of two men. The "winter journey" of the song cycle's title is shown here as a coach trip into Prague, the only thing that brings the handful of characters in the film together, during which a young girl, who appears to be a ballet dancer, dies tragically. The only character who is really related to the songs is an organ grinder (played by an actor who also appeared as a minor character in Weigl's Lady Macbeth, the drunkard who discovers the body in the marriage scene). If you are a Winterreise purist, you are likely to despise this movie for its liberties, but once again Weigl has shown how vast the possibilities are for this sort of inventive approach, if you can stand it.

Some other opera DVDs that have recently come through my Netflix queue are this Lyon production of Prokofiev's truly silly opera The Love for Three Oranges, in a zany production. Singers include Hélène Peraguin, Jean-Luc Viala, Vincent Le Texier, and Gabriel Bacquier. The two Berg operas are absolutely crucial operatic listening from the 20th century. The vertiginous world of mental derangement in Berg's Wozzeck is staged by Adolf Dresen in this production and conducted by Claudio Abbado at the Vienna State Opera, with Franz Grundheber (Wozzeck) and Hildegard Behrens (Marie). The Lulu DVD shown here is not currently available from Netflix, but I borrowed it from the Catholic University Music Library, and it is magnificent (it won the Gramophone Award for Best Video in 1997). The cast is excellent, with Christine Schäfer (Lulu), Norman Bailey (Schigolch), Kathryn Harries (Geschwitz), David Kuebler (Alwa), and Wolfgang Schöne (Dr Schon, Jack the Ripper). Finally, there is the first rock opera in history, The Who's Tommy, which I briefly considered teaching in my course on Opera in the 20th Century. I opted against it because a friend convinced me that it was a "concept album" rather than a real, staged work. Ken Russell made a truly odd film version of Tommy, with the lead singer of The Who, Roger Daltrey, in the title role, and Ann-Margret as his mother. Among the incredible list of shocking minor appearances are Jack Nicholson (A. Quackson, a mental health specialist), Tina Turner (The Acid Queen), Elton John (Pinball Wizard), Eric Clapton (Preacher), and Keith Moon (the depraved Uncle Ernie).

17.11.04

Flying Dutchman in San Francisco

Other Reviews/Resources:

Tiffany Maleshefski, Waiting for 'Dutchman' (San Francisco Examiner, November 12)

Thomas May, Viewpoint (San Francisco Opera, where you can also watch a video clip of the production and read a synopsis)

Ralph Hexter, Goethe, Byron and Wagner (program notes from San Francisco Opera)
The latest production from my preview of the opera season, 2004–2005, to open is Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Der fliegende Holländer (1843), from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and now at the San Francisco Opera (until December 1). Some of the reviews are in, like Joshua Kosman's article (With a ghoulishly murky 'Dutchman,' Opera puts on a truly grim production, November 12) for the San Francisco Chronicle. He's not happy with either the production ("a black-on-black nightmare of ghoulish abstractions") or the performances ("alarmingly short of the company's usual standards"):
Lehnhoff's production, a loaner from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, seems to be set among the flesh-eating zombie sailors of Venus. Nearly the whole thing takes place behind a scrim (sometimes two), and Duane Schuler's crepuscular lighting ensures that none of the action registers clearly. Not that there's much action to be seen. Lehnhoff, whose previous work here has included the classic 1985 "Ring" cycle and the controversial but fascinating sci-fi "Parsifal" of 2000, has taken a page from director Robert Wilson's book, moving the performers through a series of static, geometrically organized poses (Senta spends much of the evening sitting motionless at center stage).
Stephanie von Buchau's review ('Dutchman' soars musically, but lands with a thud, November 12) for the Alameda Times-Star is also negative:
On a scale of one to 10, the San Francisco Opera's new production of Richard Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," which opened Wednesday at the War Memorial Opera House, is musically an eight. The production, however, is barely a four. Given the blather SFO dispenses about "modern" and "contemporary" solutions to the stodginess of opera, how disappointing is it when an apotheosis, written into the music, is funked by the production team?
Mike Guersch's review (Soprano buoys 'Dutchman', November 13) for the Mercury News praises the performances but asks some questions about the direction:
It's a good thing the music was so memorable, because the production was unusual. Stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff has focused on the twisted psychological worlds of the Dutchman and Senta, with everything revolving on the lonely inner worlds of two people who can relieve their anguish -- his physical, hers mental -- only through death. This isn't a bad interpretive idea, necessarily, but it comes at a price: The one set has no sails, no rigging. The women's spinning wheel scene has no spinning wheels. In the third scene, the white-faced sailors dance with top hats and canes (think of the scene from "Young Frankenstein").

In the finale, when everybody is supposed to be on stage trying to prevent Senta from belly-flopping off a cliff, nobody's around. She simply walks off the stage, quietly and slowly. So we're not sure what to make of the ending, and this production wisely leaves out the "redemption" motif that Wagner added to the score several years after finishing it. The use of the original ending is debatable, but in this context it made the most sense.
Georgia Rowe's review (Wagner's 'Dutchman' redux a high-flying triumph in S.F., November 13, 2004) for the Contra Costa Times is the most positive overall:
This was a "Dutchman" with a difference. Boldly staged and brilliantly performed, . . . it was also an extremely rewarding evening for Wagnerians. The composer's operas have figured prominently in Donald Runnicles' 12-year tenure as San Francisco Opera music director, and his music always benefits from this conductor's attention to dramatic pacing, orchestral color and nuance. Yet even Runnicles' longtime admirers had to be impressed by the focused intensity of Wednesday's performance (which repeats through Dec. 1). The heightened Romanticism of Wagner's score (performed in its original one-act version, without intermission) elicited a magnificent response from the conductor, his supremely united orchestra and an energized cast. The result was a production that not only overcame the challenges of staging the work, but emerged as one of the company's most cohesive efforts of the season. [...]

Lehnhoff emphasizes the mysterious, dreamlike qualities of the story; Raimund Bauer's stark set designs, glowingly lit by Duane Schuler, are simple and extremely effective. The long, two-level side view of the ship revealed in Act 1 morphs into the austere confines of Daland's house in Act 2; the action is continuous, but scrims depicting the turbulent sea serve to smooth the transitions. Costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer manage to evoke the feudal and the futuristic, often in the same scene. Lehnhoff creates a series of striking stage pictures: the Dutchman's eerie first entrance, for example, through a huge, propeller-shaped opening in an upstage wall; or Senta, in her first scene, surrounded by a buzzing hive of spinning women in metallic hoop skirts. But the evening's high point, aptly enough, comes in the Act 2 love duet between the Dutchman and Senta, staged in a luminous tableau marked by a striking sense of stillness.
For now, San Francisco Opera has extended the tenure of Donald Runnicles as its Music Director, although he had hinted that he might want to reconsider staying in the United States if President Bush were re-elected, as discussed in Joshua Kosman's article (Runnicles re-signs with Opera, November 15) for the San Francisco Chronicle.

16.11.04

Le nouveau MoMA

Well, all the cool kids in Blogistan are talking about the new MoMA, so I guess I'll bring you a European perspective on the expensive remodeling and, consequently, entrance fee. Here is a translation (with links added) of an article by Valérie Duponchelle (Le MoMA, musée du futur [MoMA, museum of the future], November 15) for Le Figaro (with three pictures, if you follow that link):

The new MoMA is here. And with this New York giant that claims simply "to have the most important collection of modern and contemporary art in the world," it's time to see how post-9/11 America comes through on that claim. Faithful to its legendary dynamism, as Hollywood is sure of its Matrix effect, here is America setting out to reinvent the museum, to shake up the conventional thinking about the established chronology of collections and radically rejuvenate art history. The new MoMA begins the 21st century with the most contemporary art, the same art that drove the feverish New York auctions skyhigh. It is proudly showing its new purchases—the latest pieces date from 2003 with the South African William Kentridge and the Ethiopian-American Julie Mehretu—and goes back through the progress of its masterpieces to culminate on the 5th floor with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, painted by Picasso in 1907 and purchased in 1939 by the very young MoMA, barely 10 years old. A revolution for the eye and the spirit.

From the Atrium, on the ground floor, the space is presented, opening up like the heart of a pyramd on the whole of the building. You can see, through a high narrow window, the zig-zag of the stairs and the intense blue of Matisse's La Danse. It serves as an anchoring point as you pass through toward the vast rooms dedicated first to contemporary art and then, on the upper level, modern art. There are very few works in this Atrium, but what works they are! They are the backbone of this new museum project: on a long, bare wall Monet's Water Lilies blossom, so modern and vigorous, in which we rediscover movement; across from that, a large De Kooning, brimming with vitality; in the middle, an ode to America by Jasper Johns in 1992 to 1995 and another by Brice Marden with Vine, a superb oil from 1992 to 1993; in the center, a sculpture, as simple as a zip, by Barnett Newman from 1963 to 1967, placed there like the obelisk of the age. The first room, as high-ceilinged as a cathedral, is the most anticipated, as well as the least expected. Those who come to the MoMA to admire Van Gogh's Starry Night, the Boy Leading a Horse (the fabulous Picasso that eclipsed the Boy with a Pipe at more than $100 million at Sotheby's in May), or even Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy will discover the strange worlds of American Matthew Barney (the video artist, photographer, and sculptor born in 1967) through his Cabinet of Baby Fay la Foe, a work from 2000 purchased in the same year. [...]

The public will be, for once, excused from paying, on Saturday, November 20, for the official reopening, the $20 entrance fee, a brutal price hike that made the New York press scream. Eager to discover the new face of this bastion of American art, sober in architecture like an office building, swept by city lights by the interplay of asymmetrical windows and immense skylights, the public can at least gauge for itself the watchword of this colossal project: the "readability" of a museum that wants to look toward the future, that leaves the breviaries to the libraries, the meditation on the 14 stations of the cross to the churches, and the old attitudes to Europe.
The rest of the article covers a number of other pieces and their new context, while noting at one point the absence of works by French artists. (Annette Messager and Aurélie Nemours are two of the big French names recently featured here.) There is some French perspective on the new museum in Judith Benhamou-Huet's pre-opening interview with MoMA director Glenn Lowry (Un musée pour le XXIe siècle: Le MoMa de New York, November 5) in Le Point. It is that interview that is quoted in the Le Figaro article (Lowry made the claim: "MoMA has a simple mandate: to have the most important collection in the world. I believe that in qualitative terms, that's the case today.") When asked by the interviewer, what he thought of the French National Museum of Modern Art (in the Centre Pompidou), he replied that, while the two museums are in similar positions, MoMa has had the world's most important collection, "since the last 50-some years." He continues, "I don't know what the Beaubourg's acquisitions budget is, but I am certain that we spend much more in order to buy what we have to buy."

15.11.04

Lunch with Brahms

The historic Monroe House at I and 21st Streets NW hosts a Friday Noon Concert Series that is free and open to the public, held by the Arts Club of Washington. Not unlike the Tuesday Concert Series at the Church of the Epiphany, it offers respite and a welcome oasis of calm for the elated, alternative lunch.

While the setting at the Monroe House is more intimate than the stop-by-if-you-wish atmosphere at the bigger, more anonymous church location, the concert takes into consideration the time constraints at lunch time. Their concerts are a most convenient half-hour long (or, rather, short). That's just the right musical quick fix, and on November 12th it came courtesy of Brahms's third violin sonata in D minor, played by the Oklahoma native Heather LeDoux-Green and Brussels-born pianist Danielle DeSwert.

The D-minor Brahms needs little in the way of explaining; the performance was pleasing on a dreary, rainy Friday. Mme. LeDoux-Green's tone was rich and vibrant, tempi were well chosen, and the audiably challenging piano part mastered as befit the performance as a whole. The musical dessert was a rare and cute delicacy: from a violin sonata to which Brahms, Schumann, and Albert Dietrich (a student of Brahms) each contributed one movement the two artists culled the Brahms-made Scherzo. The work had been a birthday present for Joseph Joachim (the famous violinist and Brahms's advisor on all things violinish), and the informal nature (Hausmusik among friends who could) showed. It's made to have fun... and fun it is, playing and hearing it alike.

Upcoming concerts in this worthwile series are Jyunghwa Jang (lyric soprano) with David Ballena (piano) on November 19, the Guarneri-directed Laurel Quartet on December 3, and "Flutar"—made up of flutist Joseph Cunliffe and (go figure) guitarist Giorgia Cavallaro on December 10. Then the Friday Noon Concert Series will hibernate until Friday, February 11, 2005. For more information, visit their Web site.

A Visionary Fall

I have great respect for the daily bloggers. It takes a lot of discipline to post on a regular basis. This time of year is crunch time for my family. In addition to painting, for the past sixteen years, my wife and I have produced a line of pottery and an assortment of gift items and more, of her wonderful work. So the fall is the busy, thankfully, time preparing for the holidays.

The beauty of the blog world is that I don't have to miss a beat. If there is anything of interest going on, someone is writing about it. During the run up to the election Daily Kos, Newsgrist, Newsblog, or Juan Cole among others did a fabulous job keeping me vote-smart. My usual assortment of art bloggers wrote of the new shows and the anticipated opening of MOMA this week. A humble bow to you all.

Trapeze artistWhen time gets limited and the choice is writing or painting, painting wins. I've recently posted new work on my site, with more to come this week. If I could have written anything, it would definitely been something about the VERY way cool Venus, Mars, and Moon alignment or the beautiful explosion of color this fall, or about amazing sunrises as we slipped into October and November. The clouds, the stark contrasts as we move towards winter have been amazing. I don't often paint landscapes, but I shamelessly steal from nature all the time and have yet to be challenged with a law suit. There's probably something in the forthcoming new and improved Patriot Act that will challenge that.

The main reason for this post was to report on the gala opening of the new addition to the American Visionary Arts Museum here in Baltimore, The James Rouse Center For Visionary Thought. I really did have a nice post in mind, and it was a wonderful event, and the new building couldn't be more beautiful. But, you see, there was a trapeze artist, this fine twelve-piece band, and this really cold beer and, oh yeah, these dancing feet. Oh well, go here and here for writing by more disciplined folks. Or,come to Baltimore and see for yourself.

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