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Pierre Loti's Toy Stage

This has to be one of the strangest art stories of the year (and thus it appears on Ionarts), in just under the wire. It concerns Pierre Loti (1850–1923), usually known for his novels, and his "first work," figurines he made for a toy theater when he was between the ages of 7 and 12. Jean-Michel Othoniel has used them in an actual theatrical production after finding them in the attic of the Maison Pierre Loti. I read about it in an article by Esther Moschkowitz (Le tout petit théâtre de Pierre Loti, December 28) for Le Figaro (my translation):

Pierre de Loti, Le Petit Théâtre de Peau d'âneAt the age of 7, Pierre Loti met his first love, Jeanne, who was two years younger. One day, she told him admiringly the fairy tale of Peau d'âne, which she had seen performed in Paris. Amazed, they decided to perform it themselves in the boy's little marionnette theater. So they made all kinds of characters inspired by Perrault's story: with cherry pits for heads, matches for arms, box pieces for legs. Then, imagination ended up going beyond just the simple universe of Peau d'âne, and a whole miniature world of fairies, elves, gnomes, princesses, and exotic monsters took shape. When Jeanne got tired of it, the young inventor continued to invent fairytale sets, fantastic palaces, and especially lots of characters to inhabit these enchanted places. But, at 15, Pierre Loti put all of his work in a box that he never opened again. Nevertheless, he hoped that "one day, unknown successors, delving into the depths of the most mysterious closets, would make the stunning discovery of legions of little characters" (from Pierre Loti, Le Roman d'un enfant). [That link is to the electronic text from Gallica, but you can also buy the book in the old codex technology.]
Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Pierre Loti, Le Roman d'un enfant (1890)

A creator has unearthed these figurines from the attic of his house and has created for them a set appropriate to their size and imagination: it's Jean-Michel Othoniel [b. 1964], designer of the entrance to the Métro at the Palais-Royal. That's how Le Petit Théâtre was reborn and is in on exhibit in Rochefort-sur-Mer, Pierre Loti's birthplace, at the Théâtre de la Coupe d'or and in the entryway of the Théâtre du Châtelet.
There is also this article (Le plasticien Jean-Michel Othoniel ressuscite le petit théâtre de Pierre Loti, December 29) from Agence France-Presse. The production will be at the Théâtre de la Coupe d'or, in Rochefort-sur-Mer, until January 15, 2005. It will then move to the Théâtre du Châtelet, in Paris, from February 7 to 13. Othoniel's most recent show, I think, was Crystal Palace, at the Fondation Cartier from October 31, 2003, to January 11, 2004.

The fairytale, about a princess who escapes from an unwanted marriage by wearing a donkey's skin and becoming a peasant, also inspired filmmaker Jacques Demy, who made a beautiful film on Peau d'âne (1970), starring Catherine Deneuve.


Susan Sontag, the Iron Lady of New York

Susan SontagNot that the American intellectual left can take another hit right now, but you have surely heard the terrible news that Susan Sontag has died. She had leukemia. She was 71. Here are some excerpts of what they are writing about her in France, where she usually lived half of each year and where she was much admired. In fact, the first article quoted below, from Libération, reports a rumor that she may will be buried in Paris [see updates below].

Natalie Levisalles, Susan Sontag en son temps (Libération, December 29):
In July and August 1993, in besieged Sarajevo, Susan Sontag produced Beckett's Waiting for Godot. She then narrated this experience for Libération, in a magnificent series of articles published over five days in November 1993. She wrote then, "I was not under the illusion that going to direct a play in Sarajevo would make me as useful as if I had been a doctor or an engineer for the water company. [...] But it was the only of the three things I can do—writing, making films, directing plays—that could produce something which would be made and consumed here and would exist only in Sarajevo."
Luc Briand, Gérard Lefort, and Clémentine Mercier, «La mémoire est faite de plans fixes» (Libération, December 29). This is a reprint of an interview Sontag gave last year (first published on October 11, 2003). The first question is about a photograph of a victim of a bombing in Haifa, Israel, that the newspaper refused to publish.
Should we have published this image?

I think there are at least two reasons not to publish it. First, one can distinguish perfectly the face of this decapitated young woman. We may therefore presume that those close to her, her parents, her friends, would recognize her, and we can imagine the extra pain that it might unleash. The other reason is that you are French and that this image refers to a very French mythology, that of the Revolution. In this sense, in a subliminal way, a decapitated head evokes unmistakably the way that France administered the death penalty from the Revolution to the time of its abolition in 1981: the guillotine. There you have it, these are questions more than answers.

After the September 11 attacks, American television and newspapers refused to show pictures of cadavers. Why?

I asked this question of editors-in-chief of American newspapers. They responded that it would have been in very bad taste. I don't trust that kind of reason. To invoke bad taste when contemporary society, for commercial ends, is saturated with bad taste, I think that's suspicious. Behind that reason, there is another, much more troubling, which concerns the control the United States has over what the American public, and by extension the worldwide public, should see or not. By what right? What could have been so dangerous about Americans seeing American cadavers?

Are some photos best left unseen?

That is not the right question. The raw photo does not exist. Everything depends on the context, on everything that frames an image and that can radically change its meaning. A photo published in a newspaper like yours is not the same if it is shown in an exhibit, which is not the same if it is printed on high-quality paper in a beautiful book. What I'm saying is banal, but it's a banality that is forgotten.
Susan Rubin Suleiman [Professor of French Literature at Harvard University], Susan Sontag, les passions de l'esprit (Le Monde, December 30):
Sartre said somewhere that an intellectual is "a man who thinks and who, at any time, says what he thinks." It is also necessary for an audience to take interest in what the intellectual thinks, and rare are the intellectual women who command such a public. Our image of the penseur [thinker] (are there any penseuses?) is by definition male: "Woman, always the principle of the anti-spirit in this mythology of the intellectual," wrote Susan Sontag [...] in an essay dedicated to a great intellectual whom she admired, Elias Canetti. Susan Sontag was that rare creature, an intellectual woman whose writing, opinions, and thoughts always interested a large audience, in the United State as in Europe and throughout the world.
Jean-Claude Lamy, Susan Sontag, la dame de fer de New York (Le Figaro, December 29), whose title translated is the title of this post:
The illness ended up being the stronger one. Susan Sontag, who was hoping to have escaped from cancer and drew from that experience of pain and struggle a short essay, Illness as Metaphor, has just succombed with the courage of one who is watching death approach and does not want to lower her guard.
Michel Guerrin, Guevara neutralisé (Le Monde, December 30):
Susan Sontag is surely the first writer to have truly analyzed the images of our time. In On Photography (1973), she urges the reader not to accept news reports as proofs, but as the result of "a conflict between two imperatives: to embellish, imperative inherited from the fine arts, and to tell the truth." This belief, which would be developed by many historians starting in the 1980s, was illustrated by the "narratives" of famous photos: such as, this year, her commentary on shots of the Abu Ghraib prison; such as the analysis of this report showing the display of the cadaver of Che Guevara, in October 1967, in Bolivia.
Sontag's death at any time would be a terrible loss for the United States, but at this particular moment we need her more than ever. Yes, we need someone who will not flinch from saying the truth, no matter how unpopular, as she did about the September 11 attacks, about the Patriot Act, and about Abu Ghraib. She said and wrote these things in spite of the grave personal danger it brought to her own person, which is what I think we can call, without any irony, heroism. She prized erudition and she abhorred ignorance. Of course, she should be buried in Paris.

The city of Sarajevo has announced that it will name a street after Susan Sontag, and one of the theaters there will install a plaque honoring her.

It's official, according to another article («Déjà, la voix de Susan manque», December 31) by Mathilde La Bardonnie in Libération: "The homages are multiplying to honor the passing of American intellectual Susan Sontag, who will be buried next week in Paris, in accordance with her wishes." But which cemetery will it be?


Pool of Siloe Discovered

This story was carried by Reuters (Matthew Tostevin, New Finds Unearthed at Reputed Jesus Miracle Site, December 23). As a result, you may already have seen it. (Of course, Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica had it covered back in June.) I learned about this archeological discovery in an article (Evangiles: un site mis à jour ?, December 26) from France 2:

Israeli archeologists in Jerusalem claim to have discovered the original site of the pool of Siloe (Siloam). According to the Gospels, Christ miraculously restored the sight of a blind man in this place. "We have discovered and unearthed the original site of the pool, which is located a few dozen meters from another pool, dating from the Byzantine period, until now wrongly thought to be the pool of Siloe," declared the excavation's director. The new site was discovered by chance in August while workers who were installing a sewer pipe came upon Roman-era flagstones.

"It's a basin about 50 meters [165 feet] long and more than 50 meters wide, fed by a water source from the tunnel said to be of Ezechias, at the foot of second Temple" of the Biblical period, specified the excavation director, Roni Reich, of the University of Haifa. "First we unearthed the steps that led to the completely tiled pool. We have been able to date it with extreme precision thanks to some coins found in the mortar used to construct the pool," he added. Researchers have also found pottery fragments dating from 50 BC to 70 AD, the date of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.
Specifically, the pool is mentioned in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, where Jesus heals a blind man by putting mud on his eyes. He tells him to wash the mud from his eyes in the pool of Siloe. As another article (Site of Temple Water Libation Festivities Uncovered, December 23) from Arutz Sheva makes clear, the pool is important not only because of the Gospels:
A large paved assembly area and water channel, used for the festive Simhat Beit HaShoeva in the times of the Holy Temple, has been uncovered in recent days at an excavation in the City of David, next to Jerusalem's Old City. The water channel and assembly area were integral parts of what Jewish tradition calls "the most joyous celebrations of the year." Water accumulated by the newly discovered channel was conducted to the Shiloah Pool, from which water libations brought to the Holy Temple's altar in the Holy Temple on the final day of the Sukkot Festival. The waters of the Shiloach Spring, where the High Priest would immerse himself in Temple times, were collected in the Shiloach Pool and used in purification ceremonies.
This article (Canal where 'Jesus gave sight' found, December 23) by Etgar Lefkovits for the Jerusalem Post has a great picture of the dig.

Figurines from Susa

From the Department of Exhibits We Want to See, an article (Les petites déesses de Suse, December 21) by Anne-Marie Romero for Le Figaro reviews an exhibit at the Musée Fenaille, in Rodez, France. The museum itself was a discovery for me. It was named for oil baron Maurice Fenaille, who donated the Hôtel de Jouéry in 1937 to house the museum. He was also an avid art collector and supporter of Rodin and of several museums in Paris. Here is a translated excerpt of this article:

These women are minuscule, held in the hand: from the most primitive, simple silhouettes of earth pinched to mark the head and arms, to the most sophisticated, nudes adorned with jewels and extravagant headdresses. "Women" because men represent only a tiny portion of these human figurines, which themselves total barely 1% of all the terra cotta statues recovered from ancient Susa, capital of an expanding territory between Iran and Mesopotamia called Elam. Annie Philippon, director of the Musée Fenaille in Rodez, famous for its menhir statues, its Gallic statues, and its overwhelming Renaissance crucifix, has chosen to continue illustrating what appears to be the museum's vocation, the human image. She asked Annie Caubet, curator of the Department of Oriental Antiquities in the Louvre, to mount this exhibit, with pieces lent exclusively by the great Parisian museum. Others will follow: Cyprus, perhaps the Levant.

Figures d'Elam, terres cuites de Suse (Iran), in cooperation with the Louvre, will be at the Musée Fenaille, Rodez, until March 27, 2005.

The Myth of Ruskin's Bonfire

It's one of those art history stories that was constantly retold: John Ruskin, executor of the estate of the painter Turner, in a fit of Victorian prudishness, burned paintings and sketches that he deemed indecent. According to Ruskin himself, it actually happened in 1858. Well, Maev Kennedy reports in an article (Bonfire of Turner's erotic vanities never took place, December 29) for The Guardian that it never happened:

Ian Warrell, Turner expert at the Tate, has been poring over thousands of Turner drawings and paintings, matching the survivors with the Victorian inventories and records. He is now convinced there was no bonfire, despite Ruskin's claim that he burned a mass of works of art, sparing only a bundle wrapped in brown paper and neatly labelled "kept as evidence of a failure of mind only". It looks as if the notoriously prudish Ruskin, who worshipped Turner to the point of idolatry, could not bring himself to destroy his work. Instead he buried them in paper, interring them in a tortuous numbering system he devised himself, or in the case of some detailed anatomical details of women's genitals, folding over the page to conceal them, undoubtedly with a shudder of revulsion. Mr Warrell has now peered at 30,000 sheets of paper. He is sure that the bonfire never happened. Almost all the allegedly missing drawings appear to be safely in the Tate collection.
You can also take a look at a not unrelated exhibit, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites (2000), at the Tate; Ruskin on Turner, an essay from Art-Bin with links to Ruskin's writings; and John Ruskin: An Overview, a great resource from The Victorian Web.


How You Can Help

If it seems frivolous to continue writing about the arts when as many as 60,000 80,000 125,000 140,000 people have apparently been instantaneously killed and 5 million made homeless by a devastating tsunami, I apologize. As so many others, I have no words except to direct you to this list of organizations to which you can send money. You know that Christmas gift you meant to buy for that friend or family member but forgot? Send the money instead to where it can actually help someone.

A Mayan Christmas

This morning at about 4:30 we awoke to the deep grunting and growling of howler monkeys. As the sun rose hummingbirds buzzed around us, as we ate a breakfast of fresh fruit and citrus, breads and coffee, overlooking Lake Peten Itza. I suggested to my daughter that she eat all her breakfast as her mother and I had decided to sacrifice her at the Mayan site of Tikal. It didn't go over well, and she went back to reading Paris Hilton's Confessions of an Heiress. Not to be deterred, we went to Tikal.

Mark Barry, Lake Peten Itza, 2004Tikal, Belize, 2004

Tikal is a massive Mayan site in a protected 16-square mile national preserve. I was told by our guide that 120,000 to 150,000 people inhabited the site at its peak. They were an impressive group. A modern functioning city with reservoirs for water, septic composting, and highways. The building techniques are simply amazing.

Tomorrow is hopefully a painting day. I found it difficult to work with the crowds and so much to see. More to come.

New Museum at the Quai Branly

As I mentioned in this post on October 13, the new Musée du Quai Branly, scheduled to open in Paris early in 2006, will house a collection of art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Véronique Prat's article (Quai Branly, naissance d'un musée, December 18) for Le Figaro Magazine brings us up to date on the work so far (my translation):

Right in the heart of Paris, the immense construction site on the Quai Branly is being transformed little by little into the Musée des Arts Premiers [Museum of the First Arts], whose opening is planned for 2006. With no waiting, as of today in our pages, a visit to the site and gossip on the future museum.

Musée des Arts Premiers, Quai Branly, ParisRight in the middle of the construction site of the future museum, still open to the sky, a work of art has already been installed. It is a Senegalese megalith in the shape of a lyre, carved from a beautiful red volcanic stone. Heavy at almost 6 tonnes [13,227.6 pounds] and 2.4 meters [7.87 feet]high by 1.6 meters [5.25 feet] wide, it will welcome visitors at the entrance of the Department of African Arts. For the moment, in the shelter of its wooden crate, it has the honor of being the first work from the vast collection to find its place. And with good reason: its weight and size would make it impossible to move through the completed building's doors and windows! So there it is installed in the middle of the site while around it construction of the roof and walls continues.

A small story for such a large effort. A new museum is always an event, at once grandiose and moving. Presidents of France willingly punctuate their terms of office with these grand cultural achievements: Georges Pompidou wanted the center that carries his name. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing gave his support to the Musée d'Orsay. François Mitterrand desired the Grand Louvre. And Jacques Chirac? His taste for the so-called "first" arts is well known. In museographic terms, the major act of his second term will be in effect this Musée du Quai Branly.
The competition among architects for this project was fierce, as you can imagine, drawing a field of fourteen big names, including Fanuele-Eisenman and Renzo Piano. Jean Nouvel, whose plans won, is quoted:
I wanted a building that was not immediately visible, that was not an object showing itself. On the Quai Branly side, it is protected by a wall of glass on which the shadows of the trees play. The building in 200 meters [656.2 feet] long and seems to emerge from a fairytale garden. Perched on pilings, it is nevertheless practically invisible to pedestrians, sheltered as it is in some parts in vegetation.
There will be a rooftop patio with a view, to the west, of the Eiffel Tower and Trocadéro, and across from it, the Palais de Tokyo. The collection will be drawn together from two museums, the now-closed Musée national des arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, at the Porte Dorée, and the Ethnology Laboratory at the Musée de l'Homme. Although photography at the site is limited, the article had images (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5), and the museum has a live webcam focused on the construction site. This page and this page have some excellent images showing what the museum will look like when it is finished.


Paris, Ville Grise

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Henry Miller, Quiet Days in Clichy (1940/56)
Best. Book. Opening. Ever. Well, at least in the top ten:
As I write, night is falling and people are going to dinner. It's been a gray day, such as one often sees in Paris. Walking around the block to air my thoughts, I couldn't help but think of the tremendous contrast between the two cities (New York and Paris). It is the same hour, the same sort of day, and yet even the word gray, which brought about the association, has little in common with that gris which, to the ears of a Frenchman, is capable of evoking a world of thought and feeling. Long ago, walking the streets of Paris, studying the watercolors on exhibit in the shop windows, I was aware of the singular absence of what is known as Payne's gray. I mention it because Paris, as everyone knows, is pre-eminently a gray city. I mention it because, in the realm of watercolor, American painters use this made-to-order gray excessively and obsessively. In France the range of grays is seemingly infinite; here the very effect of gray is lost.
From Henry Miller, Quiet Days in Clichy (New York City, June 1940; rewritten in Big Sur, May 1956). Is there anything better than catching up with a good book from the Paris Reading Project in the last week of the year?

On The Road At Christmas

Ferry on the Belize River, 2004Christmas Eve in the mountains/hill country of Belize, and we were on the lookout for art, any art or crafts. We got a tip that the local Mennonites had quilts for sale, so we went to take a look. To get there we crossed the Belize River on an old hand-cranked ferry from the 1940s. It was a beauty. When we got to our destination we found a reformed group, and they ran what apeared to be a "Mennonite Wal-Mart," groceries, hardware, everything. We left quickly.

The Mennonite group near our hotel lives a sparer lifestyle. No machines or electric, all horse and buggy. In this hilly landscape it's a hard life, but I'm a little envious of the simplicity of their lifestyle. We spent four nights here in the mountain rain forest. There's lots to see, wildlife (me), horseback riding, Mayan sites, and local markets with citrus and bananas. We've had fresh citrus and bananas for breakfast daily. Did I mention the little bugs that love to bite my legs?

Tomorrow we travel by van to Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala and Tikal, at one time the capital of the Mayan empire.


Mahaluf Installation

A "quirky" report from Ananova (Artist wraps three floors with elastic ribbon, December 14) describes an art installation called Nodo, in which Chilean artist Sebastian Mahaluf has wrapped three floors of the Centro Cultural España museum, in Santiago, with 8,500 meters (5.28 miles) of white elastic ribbon.

The ribbons cross the middle of each floor several times, entering every window, creating the illusion of the sunlight coming in. Professional climbers were used to wrap the ribbons outside the building. Mr Mahaluf told Las Ultimas Noticias: "This work is very much dependent on people's individual observation because it cannot be seen as a whole, one can only observe bits of it at different times."
Is there anyone reading in Chile who can take a picture of this thing?


Merry Christmas

Giotto, Nativity, Arena Chapel, 1305/06

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter (1872)

Happiest Christmas wishes to all of you! If you hear the bells on Christmas Day, as in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, reflect on how each of us can make their "old familiar carol" a reality: "peace on earth, good will to men."

The painting shown here is the Nativity scene from Giotto's fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. As I learned from this history of Halley's Comet, Giotto had likely seen the famous comet in 1301 and included its likeness here as the Star of David sighted over Bethlehem. (The comet also appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, in the fifth image from the top here, because it was interpreted as a bad omen when Harold was crowned King of England.)


Christmas Lights by Dan Flavin

Ah, Christmas Eve in Washington, D.C., when most of those pesky temporary residents (yes, him included) are gone and few tourists darken our doorstep. I have always thought of it as a perfect morning/afternoon to visit a museum, before I get all involved in singing liturgical services for most of the evening and following day. So I bundled my almost 3-year-old son into the car and went to the National Gallery of Art, to the show I promised myself I would see before the end of the year, Dan Flavin: A Retrospective. I remember being driven around in my parents' car on Christmas Eve night, to look at Christmas lights on neighborhood houses, and I suppose that this is my own artsy variation on that theme, which I now forced on my own child.

Dan Flavin, untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), 1973The last couple times I have been near the gallery, or in the West Building for a concert, I have looked up at the otherworldly green light emanating from the East Building—from the atrium installation of untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), from 1973—and thought that I must go to see this exhibit. This has only been compounded by the positive reviews of competent arts bloggers.

I was correct in my assumption that a toddler would enjoy looking at rooms full of colored neon lights. His favorite was untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg) (1972–1973), an 8' x 8' wall of fluorescent bulbs, yellow on one side and green on the other. We went to see it several times, because he liked to see his hands tinted green by the rich, powerful light. However, I do advise other parents that it was indeed essential to keep my son strapped in his stroller, which kept him from touching the pretty lights or climbing on them. They are mostly displayed right at child level. The gallery does have one of its well-made brochures for kids on the Flavin exhibit (.PDF file), but my son wanted to spend most of his time looking at the sculptures and telling me and anyone else who would listen what the colors were.

I most enjoyed the works that Flavin connected with the artists who were most obviously his heroes:

These works are all dedicated to artists who, in spite of working with more traditional sculptural materials or even the "retrogressive" medium of paint, favored simplified lines and pure colors. Tyler is absolutely right in his criticism of the installation:
Flavin's work looks best when it is installed in galleries with reflective floors. The show's curators, Michael Govan and Tiffany Bell of the Dia Art Foundation and Jeffrey Weiss of the NGA, know this. In their beautiful catalog, every photograph of a Flavin shows it installed on wooden or concrete floors. But as a result of building logistics, the NGA has installed Flavin on speckled gray carpet. That carpet, and the overly dense installation of several galleries, hold back the show.
Those catalog images are what appear on the Web site, too, which looks so much better than the galleries themselves, which have the feel of motel corridors. That's a shame, but it did not detract too much from our enjoyment of the sculptures, particularly untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3 (1977), dedicated to a Chicago curator.

If you are in or near Washington, see Dan Flavin: A Retrospective before it closes on January 9, 2005. It will then travel to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas (February 25 to June 5, 2005) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (July 1 to October 30, 2005).

Chopin's Last Concert in Paris

Following on my post about the Présences Festival, there is another interesting musical event in Paris, which already took place on December 21. It was a re-enactment of Frédéric Chopin's final concert in Paris, which occurred on February 16, 1848, in the Salons Pleyel (20, rue Rochechouard, in the 9th arrondissement). That hall no longer exists, but the program was recreated in another hall where Chopin did indeed perform, the la Salle de l'Ancien Conservatoire (2 bis, rue du conservatoire, also in the 9th), which now belongs to the Conservatoire National Supérieur d'Art Dramatique. This event was was presented as part of a season of Polish music in France, Nova Polska, sponsored by the Société Chopin de Paris with the support of the Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina (Fryderyk Chopin National Institute) in Warsaw and the Conservatoire National Supérieur d'Art Dramatique in Paris. Simon Corley was there, and his review appears on He is the only one to print the entire program:

  • Mozart's Piano Trio no. 5, K. 542, a piece that Chopin revered
  • Chopin's Nocturne, op. 48, no. 1; Barcarolle, op. 60; Etudes, op. 10, no. 12, and op. 25, no. 1; Berceuse, op. 57; Sonate pour violoncelle et piano, op. 65 (excerpts); Préludes, op. 28, no. 3 et 18; Mazurkas, op. 17, no. 4, and op. 24, no. 2; and Waltzes, op. 64, no. 1 and 2
  • Vincenzo Bellini, Ariette da camera (three excerpts)
  • Gaetano Donizetti, Le Crépuscule and Ah! Rammenta, o bella Irene
  • Giacomo Meyerbeer, De ma première amie, La Fille de l'air, and Ballade de Raimbaut, from Robert le Diable
The performers included Maciej Pukulski (piano), Henri Demarquette (cello), Olivier Charlier (violin), soprano Olga Pasichnik, and tenor Tomasz Kuk (here are their pictures). It will be broadcast on France Musiques on January 19, 2005, at 8 pm, in France.

Marc-André Dalbavie

Pierre Boulez will celebrate his 80th birthday in the coming year, as it turns out, with the Berlin Philharmonic and Staatskapelle, at the invitation of Daniel Barenboim. Radio France had hoped Boulez would celebrate in France for its 15th annual Présences Festival. Instead, as I learned from an article (L'ombre de Boulez, December 20) by Jacques Doucelin for Le Figaro, the honoree will be Boulez's student Marc-André Dalbavie.

This is no small matter, since the program consists of 23 free concerts, during which 92 new and recent compositions will be performed, and it has been announced that 19 of those pieces will be Dalbavie's. Judging by a quick search, his music is mostly unknown and unavailable on this side of the Atlantic, since on Amazon there is one piece on one CD (two other CDs are out of print). To perform the program, including works by 56 composers (39 world premieres and 18 French premieres), several ensembles have been invited to assist the Orchestre of Radio France: the Orchestre de Montpellier, the Orchestre des lauréats du Conservatoire, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Ensembles Itinéraire, Court-circuit, and the Forma 6 percussion ensemble.

There is an interview with Dalbavie, available in English and French on the same page.


Anne Frank House to Shelter Refugee Writers

No one in the Northeastern U.S. Lit Blog Cabal has picked up on this, so I guess I should mention it. French blogger Heileen at La Muse Livre noted last Friday the plans for a former residence of Anne Frank's in Amsterdam (not the famous secret annex, now the Anne Frank Museum, in a warehouse on the Prinsengracht, where she wrote most of her diary). It will be renovated as a place to welcome persecuted writers who have to leave their home countries:

Anne Frank lived from 1933 until July 1942 in this apartment located on the Merwedeplein Square, in one of the southern neighborhoods of the Dutch capital. In homage to the the teenager who so loved to write and in coordination with the Anne Frank Foundation, the Merwedeplein apartment's new owner has decided to stored it in the 1930s style. The foundation Amsterdam City of Exile, which is part of the network that supported the writer Salman Rushdie, is associated with the project.
An article (Anne Frank Apartment to Become Home for Writers, December 17) by Paul Gallagher for Reuters was not widely carried in the United States. (The Agence France-Press report is what Heileen was quoting.) Gallagher says that Anne celebrated her 13th birthday in the Merwedeplein house,
receiving the diary which was to make her a household name. The 3-bedroom apartment, overlooking a park in a quiet suburb of the city, will be restored to its former 1930s glory. The first visiting writer will be welcomed in September 2005 and will be invited to stay a year. "It will be used by the foundation to house writers from countries where it is difficult to write freely," said Pieter de Jong from the Ymere Public Housing Cooperative, which is buying the apartment.
I'm sure that Anne would approve.

Modern Art in the Louvre

Other Articles:

Le Louvre invite des artistes contemporains (France 2, December 13, with a video you can watch)

Harry Bellet and Sarah Leduc, Le Louvre et Orsay, résolument contemporains (Le Monde, December 4)

Harry Bellet, Un jeu de piste amusant, qui peut devenir dérangeant (Le Monde, December 4)
I did a pseudo-series of posts this summer on the practice of embedding new art within historical art, in several exhibits in Europe (go to my posts on August 13, August 30, and September 9). Well, as Marie-Guy Baron writes in a recent article (Louvre : l'entretien infini, December 10) for Le Figaro, they are doing it again, this time at the Louvre, where eleven new art works have been installed among the permanent collection in an exhibit called Contrepoint (my translation):
Everyone has his own Louvre and his own favorite works. Today's artists also have their favorites, and among them that one work that speaks the most to them today. At the Louvre's invitation, eleven contemporary artists reveal that personal exchange in the exhibit "Contrepoint." Beyond the classic dialogue between past and present, they revive the vein of the ancient masters. The new walk through their creations reactivates the way we look at the permanent collection and recalls the force of art.

Masterfully so by Gary Hill in the Department of Oriental Antiquities. In a confrontation between humanity's first written language, on Mesopotamian cylinder seals, and that of computers, he illustrates the fragility of civilizations and the importance of their relics. On video screens, American tanks in Iraq destroy cuneiform writing: an imaginary translation is given a tape loop in French, based on words excerpted from a speech by Bin Laden.

To this violence of Thanatos, Eros responds sensually in its own way, in the work of Jean-Michel Othoniel. In the neighboring Khorsabad room, he has place the ancient small idol of the goddess Ishtar in its alabaster roundness. Her ruby eyes are fixed on a gigantic necklace of pearls decorated with nipples: its double row runs like the Tigris and the Euphrates, the two rivers of seed and milk nourishing and making fertile the Mesopotamian lands. Nearby, three jewels in balls of giant colored glass make the woman seem like the faces of monumental Assyrian dignitaries.

Feminity again among the Egyptian antiquities, with the homage of Marie-Ange Guilleminot to Absalon, of which she presents models of living cells across from Egyptian room models in terra cotta. With her pleated wedding gown that seems to have been created in that period along the Nile [presumably for the Louvre's female statue, probably Nefertiti] and with her Oursin, an enormous but light sculpture/installation in golden tissue that swells up like a warm balloon in the cold Cour Marly. Still the feminine in the Department of Islamic Art where Susan Hefuna examines the moucharabieh [the Egyptian screenguard] in a work of sculpture and photography, while José-Maria Sicilia, interested in Arabo-Spanish culture, interprets the 1001 Nights through an oriental rug with plantlike decoration floating on a floor of painted plaster diamonds.

Inspired by the Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities, Ange Leccia projects, in the mosaic room, the trembling and slow-motion image of a statue of a child by putting together on flat screens the interior shots of a sarcophagus, the technique of the pixellated image recalling here that of the combination of tesserae. A slide toward personal archeology dear to Christian Boltanski. His Reconstitutions d'objets ayant appartenu à C. B. is found in the middle of those everyday things found during recent excavations of the museum and exhibited by the curators in the Boltanskian manner, in glass cases in the underground medieval space. Nearby, around the donjon room of the château of Philippe Auguste Charles V, Frédéric Sanchez has created a sound spectacle, La Salamandre, based on the legend of King Midas with the ass's ears and the death of Etienne Dolet, burned alive for having doubted the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

From these resonant ruins, the visitor proceeds to the mystery of Watteau's Gilles. He allows Jean-Michel Alberola to delve into the enigma of this canvas through a series of drawings that retrace the themes of his own painting, from Celui qui fait les gilles to Beau parleur and the donkey in L'Éclairagiste. Elsewhere, in the Department of Art Objects, Xavier Veilhan offers another vision of an animal. He seized on the space of the room of famous 17th-century men in Sèvres china, to install them on a modern dais in the company of his own 20th-century celebrity: Laika, the dog sent into space by the Russians. As for the anthropologist of art, Cameron Jamie, he has focused on the contemporary rituals of America, costumes and exorcism of violence, and brings them into comparison with rituals practiced among primitive civilizations. To develop his version of Western primitivism he had the old glass cases of the Musée colonial de la Porte-Dorée [which will now be incorporated into the new museum on the Quai Branly; see my post on October 13] brought to the Louvre's Pavillon des Sessions. A fascinating juxtaposition of Halloween, Tyrol masks, and Korwar reliquaries from Africa.
I am reminded of Gertrude Stein's remarks, in the opening paragraphs of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, about her housekeeper Hélène, who was so impressed by the recognition that later came to the contemporary artists she had helped entertain in her employer's salon:
She said isn't it extraordinary, all those people whom I knew when they were nobody are now always mentioned in the newspapers, and the other night over the radio they mentioned the name of Monsieur Picasso. Why they even speak in the newspapers of Monsieur Braque, who used to hold up the big pictures to hang because he was the strongest, while the janitor drove the nails, and they are putting into the Louvre, just imagine it, into the Louvre, a picture by that little poor Monsieur Rousseau, who was so timid he did not even have courage enough to knock at the door.
Yes, that's Henri Rousseau. Gertrude Stein could truly say she knew them when. As the article from France 2 notes, "This dialogue is not new, because in 1948, Picasso was invited to hang his own paintings in the Grande Galerie, and Georges Braque even decorated a ceiling in the Louvre." The Louvre has just opened its renovated Galerie d'Apollon, too (see my post from November 27), with a Delacroix hiding among Baroque paintings and sculptures.

You can download the exhibition catalogue (.PDF file) and a press packet (.PDF file), both of which have pictures of the works and explanatory text in French. Contrepoint: L'art contemporain au Louvre will be at the Louvre, in Paris, until February 10, 2005. A similar exhibit, Correspondances, will be at the Musée d'Orsay, until January 23, 2005.

More on Viola's Tristan

I have been following the premiere and critical reception of the new Tristan und Isolde, in concert performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic now and planned for a fully staged production in Paris, and the video sequence created for it by artist Bill Viola (see my posts on December 1, December 10, and December 18). Well, Tyler Green has weighed in on this interesting artistic collaboration in his frank and perceptive way, which is why we all read his blog every day (December 22 post at Modern Art Notes). Tyler considers the "Tristan" video along with another recent Viola work at the Whitney:

The most problematic of the two productions is "Tristan." Viola's visuals are so trite, so predictable, that "The Tristan Project" could be an infomercial selling a CD of lite rock hits from the '80's. Beyond the clichés is plenty of other borrowed imagery. For "Tristan," Viola borrowed from himself (the opening sequence of Act II is strikingly similar to Viola's own forest scene in 2001's "Going Forth By Day"), and from feature films. (The grainy hand-held-camera-scanning-through-the-dark-forest scenes are right out of the film "The Blair Witch Project.")
As in the other reviews I have read, Tyler makes clear that "every other element of the production succeeded" but that Viola's work took the focus away from the music:
While the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, this was essentially a Bill Viola gallery opening at a Frank Gehry-designed museum. (The singers and the orchestra players all knew that this production was all about Viola – they frequently looked up and watched Viola's video as they waited their turn to perform.)
As usual, great observations. While you are at Modern Art Notes you should also read Tyler's personal tribute to artist Agnes Martin, who died last week.


Musical Comedy by Shostakovich?

Since the end of the Cold War, we have been learning more and more about "the real" Dmitri Shostakovich, much of it thanks to the work of musicologist Laurel Fay (see the class materials put together for Opera in the 20th Century). The latest thing I have learned about him came from this article (Une comédie musicale à la soviétique signée Chostakovitch, December 21) by Marie-Aude Roux for Le Monde. It is a review of a new production, by Macha Makeïeff and Jérôme Deschamps at the Opéra National de Lyon, of a musical comedy by Shostakovich, which I translate here (with added links):

Intentionally leaving behind things like the La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein [see my post from October 8], Véronique, and another joyous Widow, the Opéra de Lyon's ballsy holiday programming feat paid off with the French premiere of a musical comedy by Dmitri Shostakovich. From the same period as Bernstein's West Side Story, Moscow, Cheryomushki (Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers) was composed by the Russian composer in 1957–1958, under the friendly influence of the Moscow Operetta Theater conductor Grigori Stoliarov, who had directed Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Moscow, before the opera, violently criticized in Pravda in January 1936, was finally withdrawn from the stage.

Usually thought of as a "serious" composer (15 symphonies and as many string quartets), Shostakovich never looked down on film music—he composed 37 film scores—jazz, or musical comedy. Between 1928 and 1933, the dates of Tahiti-Trot based on the famous Tea for Two by [Vincent] Youmans and the unfinished operetta The Big Lightning, he attempted to set a Mayakovsky comedy, The Bedbug (1929), and wrote music for the stage revue Hypothetically Murdered for the Leningrad Music Hall (1931).

"Boring, talentless, stupid" was how the composer first described Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers, in a letter, dated December 19, 1958, to his friend Isaac Glikman, before reconciling himself to the score that he revised in 1963 for a film adaptation by director Gerbert Rappaport. A popular success, the work takes place during the Kruschov years, in the heart of an urban revolution intended to solve the housing crisis. Old downtown neighborhoods, unhealthy suburbs, student and worker lodgings shelter the good and the bad of the proletarian masses who have come to take part in the industrial building of Stalinesque towns. Constructed according to the dogma of soberness, functionality, and rationality, the green spaces, public works, and apartment buildings of the Cherry Tree Towers neighborhood, in the southern suburb of Moscow, incarnate modernity and, in the era of space conquest, the communist utopia—at once the ideal life, the communitarian paradise, and a radiant future.

The three couples in love imagined by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky's libretto, in trouble with the corrupt apparatchiks (Chief Administrator Drebedniov and his follower, Concierge Barabachkine), sweep away the stereotypes of youth. From a boring young married couple, Sacha and Macha, to the Soviet couple, Sergei and Lioussia (she is an emancipated constructed worker, in keeping with the Soviet ideal), to Boris and Lidotchka, two backward-looking "intellectuals," at the whim of spiritualist and metaphysical moods.

Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers, Opéra National de Lyon, 2004, photo by Gérard AmsellemPerformed in the Russian original, except for French dialogue (translated and adapted with the help of the dramaturge Macha Zonina), Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers is interpreted with great freshness and verve by a cast of young singing actors, many of whom come from the famous Academy of the Mariinsky Theater, with the full Chorus and Orchestra of Lyon under the hedonistic direction of Alexander Lazarev. A poetic lightness and appropriate theatrical tone are found in the inventive, funny, and tender staging by Jérôme Deschamps and Macha Makeïeff. The latter takes credit for the very beautiful sets and costumes (the colored and "graffitiesque" decoration of the HLM [French public housing block] apartments, the Soviet costumes in utopian shades). But tragedy is mute under the concrete. With a laugh, a cry, a mimicry offered by the two excellent "Deschamps actors" (Lorella Cravotta and Robert Horn), all the silent horror of the totalitarian system suddenly rises up menacingly.
Performances remaining at the Opéra National de Lyon include December 23, 26, 28, 30, 31, and January 5. You can download the entire program for this performance (a rather large .PDF file) and look at this great gallery of images. This is a coproduction with the Opéra royal de Wallonie.

Although I didn't really take notice at the time, Francesca Zambello directed the American premiere of Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers this summer, at the 15th annual Bard Music Festival, this year dedicated to the theme Shostakovich and His World (August 12 to 15). Alex Ross was there for The New Yorker, and he mentioned the performance briefly in an article (Unauthorized, September 6).

See also Bertrand Dermoncourt, Le temps des Cerises (L'Express, December 13); Jacques Doucelin, Le sourire forcé et critique de Chostakovitch (Le Figaro, December 21); and David Stevens, Shostakovich's revenge on Stalin (International Herald Tribune, December 25).


Ionarts Top Ten Art Lists 2004

In response to Tyler Green's call for this year's Top Ten Lists at Modern Art Notes (see Tyler's Top Ten and his catalogue of links to other Top Ten lists, which kindly included mine), here are the exhibits I enjoyed the most this year. Bear in mind that I do not spend nearly as much time as Tyler in galleries and museums.

  1. Annette Messager, Sous vent (translated by the artist as "wind back") at the Couvent des Cordeliers in Paris
  2. In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite, at the National Museum of Natural History
  3. Verrocchio's David here in Washington at the National Gallery
  4. Milton Avery at the Phillips Collection (reviewed by Mark Barry and yours truly)
  5. Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum at the National Gallery
  6. New French photography museum opens in the Musée du Jeu de Paume with Éblouissement and a Guy Bourdin retrospective
  7. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya at the National Gallery
  8. American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection at the National Gallery
  9. Moi! Autoportraits du XXe siècle (Me! Self-portraits from the 20th century), at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris
  10. Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera at the National Gallery
There is also this list of the top ten shows I read and wrote about but did not actually see:
  1. Caravaggio, l'Ultimo Tempo 1606–1610, at the Museo di Capodimonte, in Naples
  2. Aurélie Nemours retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris
  3. Nan Goldin, Sœurs, Saintes et Sibylles (Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls), in the Chapelle Saint-Louis of the Salpêtrière, Paris
  4. Luc Tuymans at the Tate Modern, in London
  5. Sén'Art en Forêt, a modern art installation in a French forest
  6. Giuseppe Penone's tree carvings at Versailles
  7. Bartholdi: Les bâtisseurs de la Liberté (Bartholdi: the builders of liberty), photographs of the creation of the Statue of Liberty, at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris
  8. New Works by Panamarenko (b. 1940), in the Antwerpse Luchtschipbouw, in Anvers, Belgium
  9. Fernando Botero: Œuvres Récentes, at the Musée Maillol in Paris
  10. Roy Lichtenstein—All about Art, a major retrospective at the Museum for Moderne Kunst in Louisiana, Denmark, which never came to the United States is at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until February 22, 2005 (thanks, Tyler!)
Finally, you may be interested in looking again at my Top Ten favorite art stories from the year gone by:
  1. New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture in American Art
  2. The Artothek, a sort of lending library of paintings and other artwork: we need them here in the United States (follow-ups here and here)
  3. The Salvador Dalí Year as celebrated in Perpignan, France, which the surrealist painter proclaimed the "center of the universe" after an ecstatic vision in the train station there
  4. Plans by artists to transform the the Volkspalast, the seat of the Communist government in (formerly East) Berlin into a "second Centre Pompidou"
  5. Psychologist tries to save outsider art by sanitarium patients in Scotland
  6. Large Statue of Philip the Arab discovered in the ocean off Corsica
  7. Chinese sculptor sets a new world record for largest statue in the world, a vast reclining Buddha figure in Guifeng
  8. In realization of Tyler Green's dream, stolen PandaMania panda sleeps with the fishes
  9. Imre Makovecz's new building, The Stephenaeum, an auditorium and the cultural heart of the Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem [Péter Pázmány Catholic University] of the Sacred Heart's faculty of humanities at Piliscsaba, some 20 km north of Budapest. It looks like "two circular buildings, one adopted from the form of a traditional Magyar jurta (yurt), the other a Renaissance tempietto, crashing into one other."
  10. Norman Foster's Viaduc de Millau finished in central France
Honorable mentions include:You should also take a look at Jens's list of the Top Ten Best Recordings in 2004. Happy New Year!


Pandacidal Mania

Is this story true, or did I somehow wander into Tyler Green's criminal fantasy? Headline: Panda sleeps with the fishes. Reward of $1,000 for recovering it could have been used to fund interesting art.

Smoke Detector Reminder

William Turner, Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1835A little after 4 am this morning, my family and I were awakened by a multiple-alarm fire around the corner from us (William Branigin, D.C. Rowhouse Fire Kills Four, December 20, Washington Post). The strong winds of the major cold front that hit the District of Columbia last night fanned the flames, which started in a tenant's room in the basement and spread to deadly proportions because there were no functioning smoke detectors. When we first woke up, the smoke was swirling so badly, we couldn't tell if the fire was in our row of houses or even in our house. It was total chaos.

Because of the four fatalities discovered so far, including two children, the fire department has been distributing free smoke detectors to all the houses on the block today and offering to check homes for signs of fire hazards. (It's worth taking some time to think about fire safety in your own home.) The lesson to be learned from this terrible tragedy, dear readers: get smoke detectors and, if you have them already, go and replace the batteries tonight before you go to bed. That's what I'm going to do.

Renata Tebaldi Soars above Her Last Finale

As you opera fans probably know, Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi passed away this weekend, at the age of 82. (If you are looking for a way to keep up on news in the opera world, you should check out, a site that has kindly linked to Ionarts: thanks for that! Their Today's Opera News page keeps track of the big stories, and there is an RSS feed.) Although there is not much for me to add to the chorus of lamentation, I will translate a portion of Christian Merlin's article (Disparition : Renata Tebaldi, la dernière diva, December 20) in Le Figaro:

Born in 1922 in Pesaro, Rossini's homeland, she came from a family of postal employees in the town of Traversetolo: her aunt made her learn Morse code so that she could take up the torch of telecommunication, but she was drawn to music. Her mother's cousin, a pianist, gave her her first lessons and brought her to the Conservatory in Parma for an audition. Maestro Brancucci fell under the spell of a first-rate vocal instrument and admitted her to his class. However, it was the singer Carmen Melis, her teacher beginning in 1940, who truly taught her the technical foundation of what would become her trademark sound: the control of the diaphragm, allowing her to sing on the breath throughout her range, and vocal support in all the muscles of the abdomen and chest, allowing her to sing relaxed, without strain.
Although she did not appear much in Paris, Merlin notes, she was the chosen voice at many remarkable events, notably the solemn concert to reopen La Scala after World War II and the revival of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West at the Met. He also takes the best stance on the over-commented rivalry between Tebaldi and Callas, saying that "their voices and their personalities were so different that it makes any comparison pointless: it would be better to speak in terms of how they complemented one another."
Tebaldi's voice was characterized by the pure beauty of her timber, the perfect equality of her registers, the sweetness of her line and phrasing, with her milky fine shading and her enchanting runs. The acting, sincere but limited, could sometimes suffer from this care afforded to the singing line and sonorous seduction, even more so because her stage movement was somewhat reduced, possibly as a result of poliomyelitis contracted during her childhood.
The author singles out several opera recordings that show her at her best, of which I direct you to the Cleva La Wally, the Serafin Butterfly, and the Karajan Otello Aida (see Amazon links below). He also mentions les pirates, including a "completely hallucinatory" Forza del Destino, directed by Mitropoulos in Florence in 1953 (possibly this recording?): "at the end of her aria, just before the delirious ovation of the audience, one listener beats everyone to the punch by yelling out, "Un angelo!" (An angel). Now that comment is literally true.

Available at Amazon
Alfredo Catalani, La Wally, R. Tebaldi, F. Cleva
Available at Amazon
Giacomo Puccini, Madama Butterfly, R. Tebaldi, T. Serafin
Available at Amazon
Giuseppe Verdi, Aida, R. Tebaldi, H. von Karajan

Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream

Other Newspaper Article

N.B., Nuit d'été aux portes de l'hiver (La Libre Belgique, November 30)

I noted a few interesting productions of the operas of Benjamin Britten around the world, in my Preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005. After the Washington National Opera's excellent production of Billy Budd (see the Ionarts reviews), now I have been following the news about A Midsummer Night's Dream (the site is in French or Flemish) at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, until December 31. The conductor is Ivor Bolton (with Peter Tomek replacing on December 29 and 31), the staging is by Scottish director David McVicar, with sets and costumes by Rae Smith and lighting by Paule Constable. The pictures look terrific.

Martine D. Mergeay's review (Retour de la féerie à la Monnaie, December 10) for La Libre Belgique calls McVicar's staging "unbridled" and Smith's design "sumptuously visual" (my translation):
The stage curtain already sets the tone: a rich stylized lace, in black and white, which we soon realize has been woven by spiders. Charm and seduction, in one sense, somehow malevolent signs in another. It's with one foot in each of the two worlds that the spectator travels through Benjamin Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, inspired by William Shakespeare's inexhaustible comedy and premiered in Aldeburgh in 1960.

Unlike the works of Purcell and Mendelssohn, which favor the gracious and unreal face of the fairy world, Britten's opera is closer to the original comedy and takes on its contrasting aspects, at once realistic, raw, and poetic, which reveal that passion drives us to the greatest follies, that no oath can be taken seriously, but that love's intuition remains the primary guide of fairies, humans, animals, the forest, the stars, in short, of all nature (of which it is, once and for all, the only "order"). It is with this mixture of cynicism and indulgence that David McVicar confronts Britten's opera. The visual components, designed by Rae Smith, are of an exceptional quality, in the purest tradition of 17th-century fairy tales: tulles, puffy skirts, leaves and flowers, gilding, glory descending from the rafters.
While she praises the staging as "totally convincing," the casting is less glorious, particularly countertenor Michael Chance who "mixes musicality, intonation problems, and lack of power" as Oberon (one of the great modern countertenor roles, along with Prince Go-Go in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre). (What is it with countertenors these days? They're not only on stage in New York, Paris, San Francisco, and now Brussels, they're even in the Metro stations here in Washington.)

Michèle Friche's review (Le grenier des désirs, December 10) for calls the production a combination of a "typically English tale" and "the shadow of that fabulous storyteller Tim Burton, writer and director of Sleepy Hollow." Here are a few excerpts of Nicolas Blanmont's interview with David McVicar («Songe» et réalités de McVicar, December 7) for La Libre Belgique:
Is it more difficult to direct an opera with a Shakespeare libretto?

No, why would it be? He's the greatest author of all time. Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream is not like Verdi's Shakespeares, where you must deal with this Italian 19th-century rewriting: with Britten, you have Shakespeare's exact words. I can help the singers reflect on the exact meaning of the text. It's good to stay close to the text, especially for stupid singers! I hate having to spoon-feed them. That's why I was so happy to work here with children: it gave me someone intelligent to speak to.

You have said many times that the director's job is to tell stories...

What use are we if not to tell stories? To tell you the truth, I don't understand what the fuck Robert Wilson is still doing in the theater! Sorry but with him, no one is acting, no story is being told: I might as well be in a museum looking at an exhibit with the Aida soundtrack in the background! He has done nothing interesting since The Civil Wars in the 80s. No, listen, I am a story-teller. And telling a story does not mean there is no room for social criticism.
McVicar is also quoted by Michel Debrocq in an article (Entre féerie et terreur, December 7) for
Why do we invent stories of fairies and spirits, when we know they don't exist? It's a way to explore the dark side of our nature, which we relegate to fairy tales, ghost stories...that way we don't have to live it. For me, a fairy is a Scottish spirit, closer to a troll. They are disturbing creatures, sometimes violent, not at all good-natured. I think it's like that in Shakespeare, and Britten is always sensitive to the dark beast lurking beneath the surface. To accompany Oberon, he uses the celesta, the same instrument he connects to Quint in The Turn of the Screw. This has nothing to do with Tchaikovsky's Sugarplum Fairy! Britten uses it in his two operas in a truly terrifying way. The role of the trickster Puck in the opera is spoken and acrobatic. Puck is the eternal child, completely amoral. He lives outside of society's conventions, with no sense of responsibility: he is the wild child. We have a circus artist, David Greeves, to play the role at La Monnaie.
I would really like to see this opera performed live.


Konstantin Lifschitz's Wish-Liszt

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Goldberg Variations,

Stepping in for Roberto Cominati, Konstantin Lifschitz presented his own transcription of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé at the Terrace Theater, on December 11th. The 28-year-old Ukrainian, known among connoisseurs for his recording of the Goldberg Variations (Denon), made when he was 17, certainly succeeded in drawing on those parts of the orchestral suites that suited the ability of the piano best. The result is a pianist's transcription that lends itself to showing off the multitude of colors of the instrument, and Mr. Lifschitz played them with the expected dedication. His playing, physically at least, is theatrical, an impression only enhanced by the Japanese (?) silk cape he donned. The shy veneer cannot hide that Mr. Lifschitz is very, very aware of his special ability. A somewhat haughty air and a certain geekiness—coupled with a playful streak that belies his mature age (for a performer)—make a marked contrast to the Horowitz-like composure of an Arcadi Volodos but cannot distract too much from his skill.

Two waltzes by Chopin (op. 69, nos. 1 and 2) followed the Ravel, which by that point had lasted about long enough. The well-known first waltz in A-flat from 1835 was no challenge for Lifschitz's finger virtuosity and was delivered in a lightweight rendition with a limping rubato, while the 1829 waltz no. 2 (B minor) sounded more like an introductory work for a piano student. If I had to blame anyone other than myself for that perception, it would more likely be Chopin than his interpreter.

The Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat, op. 61, written in the dusk of Chopin's life, was fortunately not plagued by the Chopin-the-wilting-flower attitude that so often distorts his works into fragile piano whispers. Instead, Mr. Lifschitz dug into the New York Steinway, much to the benefit of Chopin and the audience. I could still have taken more bite in the softer passages and skipped the self-consciously slow opening, but in a concert performance the result was very satisfying.

A comment from Washington Performing Arts Society President Neale Perl announced the opening of the new Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda (the politically correct name for Rockville) that will bring such luminary performers as Itzhak Perlman, the Emerson String Quartet, and Orpheus to suburbanites, all courtesy of the WPAS.

Then followed some stunning Liszt in the form of the Hungarian's Ballade No. 2 in B Minor and the Six Grand Etudes after Paganini. The ballade, perhaps an 1848 homage to Liszt's soon-to-be-dead friend Chopin (as Eric Bromberger's program notes suggest), was played every bit as tempestuously as one could wish for. The 1832 études, performed after some waiting and the consequent request that the coughing audience members please excuse themselves (none did, but there was great murmuring and everyone tried to get a last, juicy cough out), are some of Liszt's more difficult (indeed sometimes gratuitously difficult) works, even in their 1851 modification.

It is the showmanship of Paganini transcribed for piano, literally so, in that the études are based on five of Paganini's 24 Caprices for Solo Violin and the last movement of the second violin concerto (Etude No. 3). With fleet fingers, a wide palette of tonal colors, an impressive expressive scale, and redoubtable technical ability, he made the most of these works when it would have been impressive alone that someone can play all the notes right. Those performances alone were worth the price of admission, and they brought the remarkable cough-restrained house down.

Romanian Christmas carols by Béla Bartók were a most welcome and conveniently seasonally appropriate encore. For someone who can't take even one more Christmas-themed piece with jingles or bells in it, it was a godsend. For those who don't like Bartók much, it was a chance to reconsider and recant. The carols are a gorgeous introduction to Bartók's work and style without the scary dissonance. Even after the most impressive Liszt, this was the highlight of my afternoon. The second encore was the seldom heard Beethoven Polonaise, typical Beethoven over a flavor of Haydn and darn pretty. It seemed a soothing dessert after much rambunctious virtuosity.

My Big MoMA-ent

It was so damn cold in Manhattan on Thursday that I would have paid $20 to get out of the weather: oops, I did.

Crowds in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004I don’t know if more can be said about the new admissions fees at the MoMA, but one thought is, if you want more great art to be made, artists have to have access to the library on a regular basis.

I was starstruck on my first visit to the new Moma, because all the big boys and girls were back. I really did miss them. The treat for me are all the drawings, watercolors, and prints on view in spacious, well-lit, new digs. I need to see the spontaneous process, the drips and erasers. I probably spent most of my stay in these galleries.

The new MoMA is still familiar, just a lot bigger. Even with the crowds, the traffic flows well. I enjoyed the openness of the central atrium: it's visible from any floor, great for people-watching. A little mint between gallery courses. Welcome back and thank you, trustees, for spending all that money on art.

Back into the cold and down to Chelsea. Gilbert and George seem to be everywhere, at Lehmann Maupin and Sonnabend galleries anyway. They're big and brighter than than ever. They should consider putting themselves in their art more, kinda like Oprah.

Some exhibits of note: Lori Taschler at JG Contemporary, I love this small store front space. Martha Rosler at Gorney Bravin + Lee, real cutting photomontages; some things never change. Armando Morales at Robert Miller. A Robert Ryman room full of white, at Pace Wildenstein and a discussion going on at artblog.

Season's greetings to all! Love, health, good will towards everyone and peace on earth: it is possible.


Icon Maker

Other Newspaper Articles:

Cecile Brisson, Statue of Liberty's birth on display (Associated Press, in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, December 7) (I note with pleasure that a friend of mine in Paris, Kate Brumback, contributed to this story!)

Jon Henly, Exhibition retells tortuous French tale of the Statue of Liberty (The Guardian, December 7)

La Liberté éclairant le monde
A little article (Les poses de la géante [The giantess's poses], December 9) by Marie Audran in Le Point made me aware that this year is the 100th anniversary of the death of sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904). Who? He was the creative mind behind a large statue he named La Liberté éclairant le monde, built in the late 19th century, a cast skin designed to be attached to a huge metal frame made by Gustave Eiffel. It's standing right now in the middle of New York Harbor. A new exhibit commemorates the event (my translation):
The Musée des Arts et Métiers [in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris] had the excellent idea to exhibit some fifty photographs from its little-known collection (from a total of 14,000 images). These shots, taken from 1876 to 1886, reveal the broad stages of the construction of the torch-bearing giantess. In his Parisian workshop, the elegant Bartholdi and truly minuscule workers pose next to a gigantic foot or an ear, of which the actual-size mold is shown with the photos. A model tells us about the patient work on the proportions by progressive advances in dimension until, in the photos, the massive silhouette hangs little by little over Eiffel's metal framework. When it was completed in Paris, the statue was disassembled for the trip by frigate from Rouen to New York.

These images were so fascinating that their sale helped, at the time, to finance the construction. Bartholdi, who dedicated fifteen years of his life to this work, was, we see, one of the first great self-promoters...
Thank you, France, for this most magnanimous gift and for remembering its builder. I think a museum here in the United States should approach the museum to discuss bringing the exhibit here next year. What do you say, National Museum of American History? Or why not the Statue of Liberty National Monument itself?

Bartholdi: Les bâtisseurs de la Liberté (Bartholdi: the builders of liberty) will be at the Musée des Arts et Métiers until March 6. The Web site (available in English) is beautifully designed, but I wish we could see more of the actual photographs.


Hallelujah, It's Over!

Handel's Messiah around this time of the year is a tradition—and fairly unavoidable. Many Washingtonians tried, though, and the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall was more than half empty. I wish I could say that they missed out on something special: alas, they did not. The NSO and the Washington Master Chorale, under the baton of the youthful Paul Goodwin, delivered a pleasant performance, but nothing extraordinary or somehow remarkable.

The Orchestra played, understandably perhaps, on autopilot with fairly pedestrian results. The male batch of singers, countertenor Brian Asawa, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, and baritone George Mosley were adequate, too, but not much more. The 71 throat-strong choir performed in a way that deserved neither lavish praise nor negative criticism. (That is, of course, if you don't consider withholding praise a negative criticism in the first place.)

Soprano Jenniver Casey Cabot (“The Arnold and Marie Schwartz endowed Soloist”—that cumbersome title would have been funnier if the object of such support had been the countertenor) had a starling voice and hit all the notes right. Paul Goodwin's obvious enthusiasm for the music (he may have been the only one) did not jump over to anyone else. His precise and detailed conducting—one of the few highlights—steered everyone safely through the performance though.

Handel's Messiah being a good deal less exciting than some of his other oratorios (notably Saul and Theodora) and given how often we have heard that work, “good” and “safe” are not quite enough. And while my internal wager of who would fall asleep first, I or one of the performers, was gratuitously facetious, it might go some way in characterizing the night's impact on me. The program will be offered again today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8:00 pm, as well as Sunday at 1:00 pm.

Update: Tim Page's review can be read here. Kinder, more detailed, but ultimately not very different. I, too, don't mind a big Messiah - though I would not have minded a tight, taut, tart little thing, either. Just anything but a run-of-the-mill version.