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La Passion du Christ: Violence and Art History

With all the talk about and reaction to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (last mentioned here on December 26), I thought it might be a good idea to translate some interesting commentary on the film from the French newspaper Le Figaro. In her review (<<La Passion du Christ>> face au public [The Passion of the Christ Faces the Audience], February 27), Guillemette Faure writes, in part:

America is talking of nothing else but Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ, which opened in theaters the day before yesterday, Ash Wednesday. Even before that, it was criticized for its antisemitic message, notably by the Anti-Defamation League, and at the same time eagerly awaited by certain Christian groups. So, at dawn on Wednesday, in several states thousands of people attended special screenings. . . . In New York, many people cried and lines were mostly full even though it was a work day. In Los Angeles, others were seen with a bag of popcorn in one hand and the Bible in the other. . . . Whatever your opinion, the director, a traditionalist Catholic, has succeeded in creating significant interest, which allowed this film, shot in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin and without any stars, to open on 4,000 American screens instead of the 2,500 initially planned. The controversy should reach its peak on April 7, when the film will open in Italy on 150 screens. However, it still has to receive its visa approval. The distribution in France is still in negotiation.

The screenplay seemed to indicate that Mel Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic and son of a father who denies the Holocaust, had made an antisemitic film. The Jewish high priests, we know, asked the Romans for Jesus to be crucified. Faced with the controversy, the Australian director finally removed from his film the line "May his blood be upon us and upon our children" (Matthew 27: 25), which for a long time fueled Christian antisemitism. As for the accusations of deicide leveled against Jews, when asked by the American journalist Diane Sawyer a week before the film's release, "Who killed Jesus?", Mel Gibson replied, "The big answer is that we have all killed him. You know, in this search for who is guilty, I am at the head of the list." Is it this collective responsibility that he wanted to underscore by depicting each lash of the whip in the twelve final hours of Jesus?
That point about the removal of the line from Matthew is important. If Mel Gibson really wanted to make an antisemitic movie that stirred up hatred, that line would have been prominently featured. (Apparently, the crowd scene was filmed with that line shouted in Aramaic, but the translation has been left out of the subtitles.)

Matthias Grünewald, detail of Crucifixion, center panel from Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1515The newspaper also ran an interview with Mel Gibson by Marianne Ruuth in the same issue, in which some interesting things were said. For example, Gibson explains why he cast Jim Caviezel as Jesus:
No, I did not choose him to play Jesus because his initials are J. C. or because he was 33 years old when I first called him. I had seen him on the screen in The Thin Red Line, and I thought, "Wow! Who is this guy? He is uncomplicated. There is a childlike innocence about him. There is simplicity. There is purity. There is strength. Who is he?" And that was that.

What was your source of inspiration for this film's look?

I really like Caravaggio and his sense of movement. His very cinematographic light seems to have burst forth from projectors. And his subjects are always religious and always violent. There are lots of very different artists whom I admire and who have influenced me, but Caravaggio stands apart. What we know about this man comes to us from prison records. He was a rough man, but out of his venality and his bestial nature erupted this divine expression on the canvas.

What is Mel Gibson's future, actor or director?

I really have no idea. I think that when all this is over, I'll go somewhere no one can find me. You know where that is, right? Where no one can find you? I'm going to set up house near the weapons of mass destruction!

Which proves that, whatever happens in the world and in film, Mel Gibson's sense of humor remains intact.
There is also an interview with actor Jim Caviezel, by Marianne Ruuth. Guillemette Faure's review of the film continues in a second piece (Une oeuvre <<tarantinesque>> [A Tarantinoesque Work], February 27):
With their attempt to use realism to depict the ineffable, the bloody Christs of Mexican churches sometimes evoke religious symbolism more than spiritual depth. Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ produces a similar result. This ultraviolence, as Mel Gibson explains, is what Christ endured.

In this Tarantinoesque "Kill Christ," the punching-bag Christ, one eye swollen shut from the beatings, his body lacerated, dies in a large pool of blood. Perhaps, we wonder, is the Christian being invited to answer the sadomasochistic challenge not to turn away as Christ offers the other cheek or raises himself up? Far from the sweet poetry of Zeffirelli, Mel Gibson offers us a neosulpician Christ under the influence of the worst Hollywood gore.
Other articles in the same issue include Pas encore de diffuseur en France [No French distributor yet], by Marie-Noëlle Tranchant, and several others, links to which are found there.

This was the first time I had read anything about Mel Gibson's admiration for Caravaggio, something that really puts the violence of the film into context. If you think about some of Caravaggio's paintings—like Christ in the Garden (1603, destroyed in World War II), The Taking of Christ (1602), Christ at the Column (1606), The Flagellation of Christ (1607), The Crowning with Thorns (1602–1603, or a disputed second version), Ecce Homo (1606), The Entombment (1602–1603)—it is a good reminder that the violence Jesus experienced at the end of his life has been for a very long time the focus of both Christian meditation and artistic interpretation. Gibson's film may shock more because the images in it move, but what it shows is only the latest example in a long tradition of this sort of art. Mme. Faure's other art example, Hispanic folk art, is in that same line, such as depictions of Jesus bleeding on the cross or Christ with a rope around his neck, although other Christian cultures have produced very similar kinds of art (like this Finnish altarpiece). For me, the most brutal image of Christ's suffering is the central panel (Crucifixion, detail shown here from ArtServe, at the Australian National University) of Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1515). That work was made for a hospital run by an order of monks whose mission was to serve people who were in terrible pain, especially those who had lost limbs. The fact that Jesus chose to die in one of the most painful ways possible, it was thought, is a consolation to a person in pain. In that sense, there is no particular reason, either religious or artistic, to sugarcoat the details of what Jesus suffered.

See the follow-up to this post on March 5.


The Villa Borghese

Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese, 1805-1808, Galleria Borghese, RomeIf you like to dream about the history of cities, you should read this article (At Rome's Heart, Villa Borghese, February 28) by Roderick Conway Morris in the International Herald Tribune, about the extraordinary park in Rome known as the Villa Borghese. The motivation is a special exhibit, Villa Borghese: Princes, Arts and the City in the 18th and 19th Centuries, which is being shown at a building called the Villa Poniatowski, a recently restored exhibition space on the grounds. The exhibit (open until March 21) commemorates the handing over of the massive park and set of buildings, once the private home of the Borghese family, to the city of Rome and the opening of the gardens to the public, 100 years ago.

The villa's original owner, Scipione Borghese, was named Cardinal by his uncle, Camillo Borghese, who was elected as Pope Paul V in 1605. He became extraordinarily wealthy because of his uncle's favor, money that he spent on building the villa and on a renowned collection of art. You can see a selection of some of the more famous works of art still at the Villa Borghese. In 1803, one of the Borghese descendants made an eventually unhappy marriage to Pauline Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon, who was famously sculpted by Antonio Canova as Venus victrix, or Venus reclining in victory (completed from 1805 to 1808; image at left from Francesco Pini at DolceVita). Canova's lesser-known bust of Pauline is one of the works on display in this special exhibition. Napoleon's interest in classical art led him to remove to Paris a large collection of classical pieces from his brother-in-law's collection in the Villa Borghese, which became the foundation of the Louvre's antiquities collection. Another work in the exhibit is an oil painting from 1838 by Diofebi, showing the Porta del Populo entrance to the park. You may also want to see some more photographs of the grounds, or you can read Henry James's account of his visit to the place in 1873, as well as much more information and other images on the Villa Borghese from Roberto Piperno's Rome Art Lover. One of the best assortments of images of the Villa Borghese can be viewed at this CNN feature from 1998, by Elsa Klensch (Museum marvels: Rome's Villa Borghese is restored and renewed).


The Britten Are Coming! The Brodsky Quartet Does Washington — by Jens Laurson

This is a follow-up piece on the concert reviewed on February 23. This is the first double review in ionarts history, although this was not the first concert that both ionarts music critics have happened to attend.

The Brodsky Quartet is from Manchester, England. Their namesake, Adolf Brodsky, had been an important violinist and teacher in their native city, where they founded this group 32 years ago. Their unusual longevity has kept Ian Belton (second violin), Paul Cassidy (viola) and his cellist wife, Jacqueline Thomas together since their inception. Only recently did 20-something Andrew Haveron replace Jacqueline Thomas’ brother, Michael, as first violinist. The impression they make on stage is not necessarily one that I would expect from a string quartet. Andrew Haveron looks younger than his 27 or 28 years. With the goatee and well-rounded face, he looks like a college frat boy. Ian Belton, a small, sturdy man, resemble a Red-Meat cartoon character. His five-o’clock shadow looks like it was painted on. Paul Cassidy reminds of the teacher in South Park but more likely a classical musician. His wife, finally, looks perfectly charming and normal. She, too, is the member who is dressed least conspicuously. Paul Cassidy (who champions a zebra-like striped sports jacket on the Brodsky Quartet's Web site) wears a vest, as do his colleagues who man the violins. Over their unironed or unironable shirts we have matte/shiny patterns in black and aubergine and Cassidy's tank-gray vest with infusions of canary yellow and ultramarine. It resembles a flak jacket or live vest more than a part of someone’s closet.

The program started with Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet no. 1 in D Major, op. 25. His first of three, it is perhaps least like his output of that time (World War II) and somewhat belies works with which I am more familiar, like Peter Grimes, which had its inception at around the same time. The work opens with shimmering and light notes, accompanied by hardy plucking on the cello before that rough treatment turns into a more conventional pizzicato. The violins hover over the audience in slowly progressing patterns. Three against one. This set-up does not change until the first movement's Allegro vivo sets in. Much more conventional a string quartet format now, it has half the pulse of Bartók but twice the melody of Tippett.

Further down the movement, the shimmering, hovering strings plus accompanying cello-plucks (with big pauses) return in their high registers. The viola takes over some of the predominant parts, and the rhythm of the movement finally establishes itself halfway through. It finally gets a bit of the drive that I find so seductive in the 20th-century string quartet repertoire. The shimmering theme comes back once more and firmly establishes itself as the quartets calling card. (Feeble, frail, and flimsy: should that be "fistelty"?) Whistly and whimpering to cello sounds, it fades away. A few attacca notes and some whimsy make an end of it.

Allegretto con slancio gets the pulse started right away. Britten achieves this very simply but effectively with one or more instruments playing a driving rhythm in the spiccato style. (Spiccato, saltando, sautillé, or even arpeggio: if a reader knows which exactly the Britten score calls for, I'd be interested in finding out.) The piece charms me reasonably well but leaves me less impressed than I had hoped it would. The Andante calmo starts beautifully with a gray, weeping melody: not so much fresh-cut tears but rather bitter resignation. It culminates in impotent rage before subsiding and letting the first violin whine along to the continuous, monotonous bows of its three companions. It remains enjoyable for these ears, but for several moments I find it distinctly lacking purpose. Towards what seems the end the andante climaxes nicely before pausing only to add a subtle and soft afterthought that gets picked up for another run—handing off to the once again prominent viola and expanding the natural lifespan of this movement by half. The puckish cello guides a similar but shorter rise to the andante's third life before a sustained light note on first violin actually ends it.

Molto vivace, the final movement, trades whimsy among the instruments but turns quickly into a hearty bout. Jacqueline Thomas and her cello raced while her three male colleagues on the smaller instruments performed similar musical patterns. "Carefree" is the word that I conjured immediately. Speed-demon-like pizzicati interspersed with intense and chromatically bent exultations by force of "instrument-scrubbing" ended the piece abruptly and well, leading to generous applause.

Franz Schubert's "Rosamunde" String Quartet in A Minor (D.804) was next. The opening Allegro ma non troppo was amiably, though not perfectly, played; although very satisfactory, it lasts forever. The Andante finally arrived and left the impression of a children's mobile. Menuetto: Allegretto and Allegro moderato rounded out this half of the program with admirable playing but ultimately remained uninspiring. The word was "nice" or "quaint" in its more negative connotation.

After the break it was Tchaikovsky's String Quartet no.1 in D major, op.11, that awaited the audience. A very smooth and gliding beginning was gentle enough but not boring and ready to pick up speed or energy or both along the way. A rather full sound was summoned from the players. In several moments the first violins' uncleanliness bugged me. With little new material or ideas introduced, the piece babbled along just fine until it got a little excited toward the end of the first movement. For the most part it seemed best just to sit back and casually enjoy a (surprisingly?) nice and long string quartet that is amiable but soon exposes itself as one of the lesser works by maestro "Petr Il'ich Chaikovskii" as his name might be spelled more accurately. The Andante cantabile, like its predecessor, starts out most amiably. Mr. Haveron's three-year-old violin (by Polish master violin-builder Zygmuntowicz, who also made the Emerson String Quartet's instruments) sounds lush and thick even through the entirely muted sections of this movement. The five-note theme (made up of three distinct notes) that makes the core of this work is shared among the instruments to intone a lament.

The Scherzo: Allegro non tanto e con fuoco enjoyably worked its way toward the end of the evening. A fine evening for sure, but almost certain not to entail an encore. In brevity lies the soul of wit—the scherzo stayed true to its name. Allegro giusto is the finale's marking. Unlike the sometimes excruciatingly slow Schubert earlier, the Brodsky Quartet went to work on these parts as though they just remembered that their cars were parked in the no-parking zone. They seemed to get more into the piece, and with them went I. The finale is perhaps not quite ravishing, but a consoling finish. A faux ending: soft recapitulation of previously stated material and a very soft line led to a finishing frenzy in highest tempi and reasonably rousing applause.

After the concert, which was fine but ultimately disappointing for lack of energy and excitement, everyone in my company disagreed with each other. Britten was the only good thing; no, it was horrific. The Tchaikovsky was astounding; no, it was pleasant at best. The Schubert was stupendous; no, it put me to sleep. What is true is that the Britten, as nice a piece as I find it to be, is probably not of the same quality as some other modern string quartets. More importantly, it was not played with the passion and excitement that would communicate to a Britten neophyte why and how to like it. The performance of the Brodsky Quartet was good enough to please those who know the work, but miles away from making converts. But not every concert can be conscious-altering and life-changing. Sometimes "good" has got to be "good enough."



I have already mentioned Destino, the lost film project that Salvador Dalí worked on for Walt Disney in 1945 (see post on February 18, The Center of the Universe, According to Dalí). This short film, finally realized by a team of animators led by producer Roy Disney from the remaining work done by the surrealist artist, can be viewed in most places as a freebie before the French animated movie The Triplets of Belleville. This is exactly how I saw both movies this past weekend, at my new favorite moviehouse, the E Street Cinema (see post on February 7, The Return of the Art Movie).

As the story goes (reported by Jason Silverman in this article in Wired, November 12, 2003; and by David D'Arcy on NPR, where you can see two clips from the film), Dalí had worked on films with Luis Buñuel. When in the United States during the Second World War, he worked on Alfred Hitchcock's movie Spellbound and, at that time, met Walt Disney at a dinner party at Jack Warner's house (oh, to have been a fly on the wall!). As improbable as the partnership may seem at first, Disney agreed to make a short animated film based on Dalí's ideas, as an illustration for Armando Dominguez's song "Destino." What is most tantalizing about the film as it has been completed is the glimpse at what might have been: Dalí, who was becoming more and more fascinated with images that move, producing mainstream animated film with the backing of Walt Disney. Keep in mind that this collaboration dates from a time prior to Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). My mind swims when I think of how these films, greats of American animation, would have looked with someone like Dalí in the studio. Alas, in spite of an affinity for the surreal (the matching of Disney and Dalí is perfectly natural, when you have a moment to recover from the shock of learning that it actually happened), Uncle Walt bowed to financial pressures and canceled the project.

The movie is beautiful visually and a fascinating mixture of the two masters, with some qualities clearly Dalí and others clearly Disney. The heroine, for example, a ballerina, is not much different from any of the lead female characters in the classic Disney films I listed above: her body type, facial characteristics, hair, and movements are remarkably similar to those of Cinderella, Alice, and Aurora (see this image, for example). However, quite atypically for a Disney animated film, this ballerina wears a provocatively transparent and clinging slip of clothing. It is then stripped away from her by, I think, quite phallic one-eyed alien creatures, imprisoned in a sort of pit, before she slips into a vulva-shaped shell that falls to the ground below (see the sketch at the bottom of this article about the project, or you can watch a clip of this section of the movie from NPR's feature on the movie).

Almostly entirely on the Dalí side of this equation are the settings and backgrounds. The film opens on the desert-like beach that the painter depicted in so many of his works, like the Enchanted Beach with Three Fluid Graces (1938), The Madonna of Portlligat (1950), and, most famously, The Persistence of Memory (1931). My understanding is that these beach backgrounds are rather accurately rendered scenes of Portlligat Bay, in Spain, which featured importantly in the landscape of the painter's dreams, because it was near where he grew up in the town of Cadaqués. (He ended up having his permanent house there, when he returned from the United States, and it is now a museum.)

Also prominent in the movie are the optical illusions that were one of Dalí's favorite games, as in Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938). (This was the subject of an exhibit of the painter's works that came here to the Hirshhorn in 2000.) The ballerina's silhouette appears in the rocky background, as the bell in a monastery tower, between two merging faces carried by turtles (definitely the self-portrait of Dalí on the right and perhaps the portrait of Disney on the left—see this image and this image). The main subject here is sexual longing, and the male character begins first as a sort of relief sculpture, until he melts into reality and eventually becomes a baseball player. The two characters are not able to unite, as the sand flows away to reveal a sort of castle ruin that continues to separate the couple, whose fluctuating natures also prevent them from coming together.

However, there are those unmistakable Disney qualities, too, like the warbling choir that is heard on the soundtrack toward the end of this short film (for lack of a better term, what I call the "Disney 'ah' chorus"). Dalí's trademark paranoic-critical ants swarm from a crack in a stone hand, but Disneyesque birds and moths are also prominently featured. Although the film is mostly the work of modern-day animators, based on Dalí's work, it is easy to see from the result why the self-proclaimed "Pope of Surrealism," André Breton, excommunicated Dalí from the circle of the surrealist elect (prior to the work with Disney, but still relevant). Breton rearranged the letters in Dalí's name to make the anagram Avida Dollars (hungry for dollars), which pithily expresses Breton's hatred of commercialism. In spite of all that, Destino is something you should see on the big screen, if you can. If not, Disney will release a collector's edition DVD later this year.


Golliwog's Cakewalk

Golliwog on the cover of Debussy's Children's Corner, 1908 editionOne of my piano students has recently begun to work on Claude Debussy's rag-inspired piece "Golliwog's Cakewalk," the last movement in his petite suite pour piano called Children's Corner (1906–1908). (The original cover of Debussy's suite, shown at left, comes from D. Barton Johnson's online essay Nabokov's Golliwoggs: Lodi Reads English 1899-1909 in the Nabokov journal Criticism from the International Vladimir Nabokov Society at Penn State.) I had not practiced this piece myself since I was in high school, and I now have the chance to remember how much fun it was for me to learn as my student works on it.

When this student expressed an interest in the piece, I felt that I had to explain what it was about: in other words, I had to show him what golliwog and cakewalk meant. An excellent online essay on the history of this disgusting racist image (The Golliwog Caricature, by Ferris State University sociology professor David Pilgrim, who is the curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia there) gives a detailed history of the golliwog and shows numerous images. Artists have been fascinated with the golliwog image, such as Damali Ayo (see his show last year at the Mark Woolley Gallery in Portland, Oregon) and Kara Walker. The Golliwog character was made into a very popular children's doll, owned by the young Nabokov and by Debussy's daughter, which was the inspiration for the composer's drawing on the original cover and for the piece itself.

The cakewalk was a sort of dance or stepping competition for a prize of cake, sponsored by a plantation owner and featuring his own slaves who were allowed to mock the airs of their masters. This entertainment was often reproduced in minstrel shows, those horrible sentimentalizing idealizations of plantation life, featuring white actors in blackface, which were one very important influence on the creation of American musical theater. (See the covers of some of these minstrel show cakewalk publications, such as Dusky Dudes Cakewalk and Colored Aristocracy Cake Walk, both from 1899, just a few years before Debussy's suite.)

It's hard for me to know what to do when I get to the point in a survey class that deals with 19th-century America. Some people think that we should just allow this part of music history to disappear into oblivion: don't let students play "Golliwog's Cakewalk" any more and don't teach them anything about the minstrel show. I admit that it does bother me to teach these subjects and have the students be exposed to these worst expressions of American institutional racism and find them funny. Maybe it really would be better just never to introduce today's students to these parts of the past. Ultimately, however, I value truth too much to edit these things out of our understanding of history.

When I looked through the catalogue of Debussy's works, I discovered that Debussy, perhaps to capitalize on the popularity of "Golliwog's Cakewalk," also composed another cakewalk pour piano in 1909 called Le petit nègre (The little negro), which I have never heard or played.


Ysaÿe Something You Don't See!

Continuing their exciting Sunday concert series, the National Gallery of Art presented its 2485th installment (see the program and notes by Elmer Booze, in .pdf format) in what turns out to be an astounding 62nd season of the William Nelson Cromwell and F. Lammot Belin Concert Series. On February 15, it was the Ysaÿe String Quartet that was going to delight the audience in the packed West Garden Court of the National Gallery’s West Building. Among the attendees was His Excellency, Jean-David Levitte, Ambassador of France, visibly excited about this young French quartet’s performance.

The Ysaÿe String Quartet, named after the turn-of-the-century French composer and violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, was founded in 1984 and had been catapulted onto the international scene with their 1989 debut at the Salzburg Festival. It is rare to get the visceral energy of young players coupled with over 15 years of international experience in music making of the highest order. In these four musicians—Guillaume Sutre, Luc-Marie Aguera, Miguel da Silva, and François Salque—the listener does get it. Their complete Mendelssohn String Quartets and the Mozart "Haydn" Quartets have been much-enjoyed examples of their art in my CD collection. Both, now available in the Universal Classics Trios series, are bargains not to be missed. As is usually the case with string quartets, seeing them live adds another dimension to the experience.

The last string quartet I heard at the National Gallery was the Zehetmair Quartet (on January 26, 2003) performing Schumann, Bartók, and Cage ("stupendous does not even come close to conveying that night") leaving me with high expectations. This much already: there was no reason for disappointment! Having come a bit later than usual to the National Gallery I was lucky to find a seat inside the West Garden Court, luckier even to find one with at least some sight of the musicians. Peering from behind one of the large pillars, I was able to make out the two violins. Mr. Sutre on first was in plain sight, and Mr. Aguera had a twig from one of the trees in front of the stage add contrast to his image. Messrs. Salque and Da Silva (on viola and cello, respectively) were well hidden behind the trunk and petioles of this oversized shrub.

That wasn't a distraction from Haydn's String Quartet op. 54 no. 2 in D Major, Of course, the acoustics were not stellar behind the pillar, but the sonorous tone from the quartet reached me there, too, with delight. The opening Vivace is an all-around pleasant and (not surprising, really) lively thing. It sets the enjoyable and elated mood into which the Adagio enters with its haunting melody. A masterpiece of an adagio, it has a somber, moving and melancholic quality. (This is one of Haydn’s specialties: one need think only of the adagio-only composition Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze [The seven last words of our savior on the cross].) It takes no effort to let yourself be swept away by it. The cello provides for much of the serene basic melody, while the violins support it first unisono, only to soar above it later, never destroying the earthy and bittersweet quality of it.

==>> Continue reading this review.


Brodsky Quartet at the Library of Congress

The Brodsky QuartetOn Friday night, the latest group to perform in the series of free concerts at the Library of Congress was Great Britain's Brodsky Quartet (see photograph at right). (For some information about this concert series and the historic Coolidge Auditorium, see my post on August 31.) As their biographical information in the program puts it, "Unlike the majority of string quartets, the members of the Brodsky Quartet play standing up, intensifying communication among them and giving a real edge to their performance." More precisely, the violinists and violist stood on the stage (with violist Paul Cassidy, in particular, weaving maniacally and somewhat distractingly behind his music stand). Cellist Jacqueline Thomas—who, incidentally, is Mr. Cassidy's wife—was seated on a black podium that elevated her to the eye level of the other players. Two of the three pieces that they played are featured in their recording Tchaikovsky and Britten String Quartets, from 2002.

Breaking form with most of the Library of Congress concerts, which put a work of new music or a commission of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in the second position before intermission, the Brodsky Quartet began their concert with the String Quartet no. 1 in D Major, op. 25 by Benjamin Britten. Mrs. Coolidge commissioned this quartet when Britten was in the United States during the dangerous years of World War II, after she met Britten and his companion Peter Pears at the home of mutual friends in California. Britten spent the summer of that year composing it, and it was premiered in Los Angeles in 1941, with a second performance here at the Library of Congress later that fall. As the always excellent program notes of Tomás C. Hernández (of the Music Division of the Library of Congress) relate, Mrs. Coolidge awarded Britten the Coolidge Medal "for eminent services to chamber music" at that concert, in honor of her birthday:

The presentation of the Coolidge Medal was "quite an alarming ceremony," Britten wrote his sister, "but Mrs. Coolidge, who is really a sweet old thing, made things easier by publicly referring to me as 'Benjy', which made everyone smile sweetly."
Some listeners find this quartet to be atypical among Britten's compositions, because it has more dissonant and challenging sounds than you might expect in his music (for example, François-Xavier Avajon, writing on his Web site, calls this quartet "le moins attachant des trois, le moins proprement brittenien" [the least attractive of the three, the least truly Brittenish]). I really enjoyed listening to this piece. The first movement oscillates between two basic sonic territories, the tragic sounds of the opening Andante sostenuto (the three higher instruments on long, sustained, very high, dissonant harmonies, with the cello on slow, somber pizzicati) and the bubbling movement of the Allegro vivo. The second movement (Allegretto con slancio) is in a basic triple meter that is destablized with Stravinskyesque rhythmic shifts, which was played by the Brodsky Quartet, it seemed to me, somewhat fast for allegretto. The astounding third movement (Andante calmo) luxuriates in a gorgeous homophonic stasis, moving in and out of dissonant harmonies and several times blossoming into a massive major chord. The fourth movement (Molto vivace) was played at an appropriately very fast tempo, which underscored the Haydnesque pauses that Britten uses here. There are some remarkable effects and some real moments of furied frenzy, which was very exciting.

==>> Continue reading this review.


I Found Milton Avery — by Mark Barry

Milton AveryAlthough he was never lost to me, I have learned a lot of biographical information about Milton Avery (image at right) that I didn't know before from the exhibit Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (through May 16). For one, how much he struggled as an artist with both his art and his finances, and how important the support of his wife Sally and daughter March were to him. For all the attention his work gets these days, it wasn't so throughout his career. This exhibit focuses on his two primary collectors: first came friend and patron Louis Kaufman and then Duncan Phillips, who gave Avery his first museum exhibit. (For more information, see the piece on Kaufman and Avery broadcast by NPR on Thursday.)

What I enjoyed most was the chance to see a progression of work, starting with Winter Riders (c. 1925, the first Avery painting purchased by Duncan Phillips), which has an impressionist feel to it, possibly Degas, to the three still lifes of 1928, of which Still Life With Pop Bottle has a Picassoesque, early cubist sensibility, while Still Life with Iron, Plant, and Bananas is all Matisse. My favorite of this period is the beautiful portrait Sally Avery with Still Life. It reminded me of Honoré Daumier’s linear quality, but the more I looked there was the strength of a John Singer Sargent portrait, a grand picture of a simple woman.

From the late 20s through the mid 30s Avery was finding his personal voice. By his 1938 self-portrait Milton Avery in a Grey Shirt with "The Chariot Race" he had arrived. Here is a confident man: the image of the chariot in the background makes him look a bit devilish, and the paint is his own unmistakable style. Contrast this portrait with The Convalescent (self-portrait in a red sweater from 1949), painted after his first heart attack. It's a chillingly honest picture of a man confronting his mortality, with turquoise eyes peering out of a ghostly white mask. However, I can tell this is not a man ready to quit: his brilliant red shirt and wiry golden hair say, I'm still here.

This bold new style is evident in the simplified shapes of Girl Writing and broad planes of color in Chinese Checkers (c. 1941). The same boldness serves Avery well in his landscapes. Nature is dominant in Shells and Fishermen: an undulating blue sea and sky approach as one, while a somewhat ominous ledge threatens to gobble up the two unsuspecting fishermen; even the shells in the foreground are their equal. In Bird and Breaking Wave, a small bird is perched on a rock, surounded by a dark purple sea. Billowing waves are about to come crashing down, but the bird somehow feels safe on its fleshy perch; there is redemption. Man and nature are one in California Landscape, as the warm golden shore embraces a pale green sea and sky, very Japanese.

One room is dedicated to notebook entries, dry-point etchings such as Reclining Nude or Rothko with Pipe, monoprints, and woodblock prints. Avery was quite prolific, constantly drawing portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, always searching: it sure inspired me to get to work.

The last gallery is saved for large canvases that were painted in the late 50s and early 60s. Grey Rocks, Black Sea (1957) and Rolling Surf (1958) are as abstract as he gets, the essence of his quest for the pure shape and weight of color, and again in Pink Meadow (1963) with that wonderful blue blob, a precurser to Richard Diebenkorn and David Hockney. These large canvases are a tightrope walk: to pare the image down to the essential is a huge challenge. For example, the black brushstrokes in Rock and Wave (1959) don't hold: they're too haphazard, and every stroke has to count. There is success in this room, but I can't help but think of his protégé Mark Rothko. When it comes to the size, shape, and weight of color in a minimalist format, he is more successful. It's also a bit unfair, since the period around 1950 is Rothko's prime and toward the end of Avery's career. But, then again, without the influence of Milton Avery where would Rothko have been?

Mark Barry ( is an artist working in Baltimore.


In the Cut (DVD) — by Todd Babcock

Sometimes films come along that have the noblest intentions, where you can actually see what they were trying for, even as they miss their mark. Films like these are the most difficult to evaluate, or more to the point, to come to some agreement on because there are those who will apologize for them and some who won't. Some years back, a writer friend and I got into a vicious discussion concerning the film Higher Learning (1995): I thought it a bit pretentious and heavy-handed, and he was thrilled with it. After many hours of debate and many tangents, we came to a ceasefire based on the understanding that he could see what director John Singleton was attempting, while I stated that I didn't pay ten dollars for someone's film school project.

Well, much time has passed since then, and I have come to realize that we are all paying for director's film school projects. It's just a matter of who gets the better grade. Or, maybe more to the point, any filmmaker worth his weight in celluloid is going to try and do something they don't know how to do or step beyond what they know, and we should be forgiving of their failures and missed marks. Having actors dance around product placements in connect-the-dots filmmaking may be good for marketing and budgets, but it certainly doesn't open the door for any type of inspiration. (Please refer to the section The Ashton Kutcher File for reference.)

So, now, yes, I have softened to where if I see a step of growth and risk in a film that flops around in search for something great, I will gladly relinquish my tight-fisted ten spot in hopes that this is a step in the right direction. Mind you, many films that don't find their mark never even see the blessed green light of distribution, so there is a filtering process that probably eliminates more movies that we would actually want to see over much of the predigested dreck we are submitted to year round. (Once again, please refer to the aforementioned file.) Don't even get me started on the world of television, where I read pilot after pilot that I think are ingenious and groundbreaking only to see pick-ups for those that fill x, y, and z of placement on the network ingredients (I'm sure Coupling made perfect sense on paper in light of the coming Friends departure). But I digress.

In the Cut (2003)

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With this caveat, I highly recommend seeing In The Cut (DVD new release) by Jane Campion (The Piano, Holy Smoke) for all the things it does achieve in light of its obvious shortcomings. Based on the book of the same name (by Susanna Moore), In The Cut is the story of Franny Thorstin (Meg Ryan) a lonely, yet independent teacher/writer who becomes entwined with a police detective (Mark Ruffalo) when a body part of a victim she had recently seen in a bar gets discovered in her garden. The plot seems pretty basic: there is a serial killer about and Franny gets involved with the detective who she suspects could be the very murderer himself. Yet, with such a simple premise, we somehow lose sight of the plot altogether.

Many times I have left the theater dismissing a film because of its overladen special effects. Apologies are made in excess because, well, that's why people went in the first place. This argument had been employed to the aid of recent Matrix sequels, Daredevil, and any number of F/X spectaculars. I would make the argument here that the acting and environment of In The Cut are its special effects. While the murder plotline and its conclusion fade to the background, Campion and her cast keep you so completely immersed in their tangible world that you find yourself not minding. It's only when the film begins to reach its conclusion that you realize that you are watching a thriller at all. That is a testament to the work of Ryan and Ruffalo, both of whom take daring steps forward in their acting careers.

Much has been made of Meg Ryan taking her clothes off in this film and the graphic nature of the sex it depicts. I would argue that the bolder step was the stripping down of Meg Ryan herself: Meg Ryan the corporation, the quirky romantic, America’s Meg. Here she is plain, sometimes harsh, and yet more beautiful than I've ever seen her. Campion has inspired devotion from these two fine actors, to the point that the trust bleeds through every moment. If this is where Meg Ryan has decided she can go, or must, I will gladly pay for her evolution. It's a bold move any way you cut it and not an altogether easy one when one considers what she has to lose.

==>> Continue reading this review.


Mr. Picassohead

I don't know how I missed this, but I finally got around to reading an article (Mr. Picassohead Brings out the Child/Artist Within, February 4) by Jim Regan in the Christian Science Monitor about Mr. Picassohead, an interactive Web site that

follows the conventions of Mr. Potato Head in constructing home-made portraits, but uses Cubist elements in the choices of construction material. And while it's possible that a few surfers might gain some useful academic insight about the Cubist movement during their visits, the purpose of the site is simply recreation. Play. Which is to say, art in its purest form.
At the site, you can not only create your own Picassoesque portrait but also page through 137,011 submitted examples (and counting) (here is one that's good for Ionarts). It's actually remarkable how diverse the various works are, considering that they all are composed of the same basic elements. I was also surprised to see how very few of them actually look like the work of Picasso, even through they are patchworks of shapes taken from his paintings. There is something to be learned there. When I teach Cubism this spring, I will probably use the site to get the students thinking about how to approach Picasso's work. Perhaps I will ask them to use it to make a portrait of me: the universal desire of teenagers to ridicule their teacher may drive them to complete the assignment.


Love On North Latch's Lane — by Mark Barry

For other opinions on the Barnes Foundation, see the post on August 8 about the first Ionarts visit there, More Renoirs Than You Can Shake a Stick At. Also, don't miss Peter Schjeldahl's article (Untouchable: The Barnes Foundation and Its Fate, February 16/23 issue) in The New Yorker.

I got a very romantic Valentine's gift this year, tickets to the Barnes Foundation for this past Sunday. The tickets were purchased online: we got a confirmation number along with our ten-dollar parking fee. Not easy to get, since the Barnes is regularly sold out months in advance.

In the car with my Valentine of 23 plus years (who could pass for 23, mind you), halfway there, I realized that I had forgotten my confirmation number at home: "aahhhh, they’ll never let me in," I thought, as the fear of the notorious Barnes idiosyncrasies sets in. We pressed on.

Our check-in time was 12 PM. As we pulled up at 11:30, the guard came out of her guard hut, clipboard in hand and said, "name please." After what seemed 2 minutes, we were allowed to proceed to the parking area. The lot was almost full so we were given a spot along the driveway. Did I mention it was bitter cold? We wasted no time getting to the door. I did brave the cold long enough to notice the ornate designs around the doorway: if I'm not mistaken, they included some of Henry Mercer's tile work. He, like Albert Barnes, was another independent Pennsylvania spirit. A visit to his home/creation and Moravian Pottery and Tile Works is a must. The guard standing at the gallery entrance took our tickets. When I mentioned our 12 o'clock time, he said, "Check your bags and coats downstairs: you can go in anytime." This is too easy, I thought: what about the notorious Barnes quirkiness?

Henri Matisse, Study for La Danse, 1930–1931If you've never visited the Barnes before, the initial feeling of entering the main gallery is one of amazement. All my friends were there: Cezanne, Seurat, Picasso, a beautiful William Glackens (Chester Bathing Hour, with brilliant purple/violet water), and the main man, Matisse. The glorious, rhythmic mural, La Danse (panel 1, panel 2, and panel 3; the study shown here, from 1930 to 1931, comes from Chris Craig; the photograph below shows Matisse sketching out the mural) floats above in the archways (the mural is even more fantastic seen from the 2nd floor balcony). I could be satisfied spending the day in this room alone.Matisse at work on La Danse

We continued on through room after room full of surprises: Van Gogh's Nude Woman Reclining (my first Van Gogh nude) and House and Figure, Rubens's The Incarnation as Fulfillment (small, yet very complex, and in need of a good cleaning), and several Henri Rousseau paintings. In the simplified style of Rousseau the collection has several very nice paintings by Horace Pippin and Modigliani portraits, a favorite of my wife's, including his beautiful Nu couché de dos. There is so much visual stimulation that it is difficult to take it all in: this is what heaven must look like. A treat for me was finding El Greco scattered around the galleries. I think of his work as priceless, unattainable by a private collector, and that thought returns often while viewing this collection: Dr. Barnes must have been a formidable art buyer and astute businessman.

Which brings me around to the current situation the Foundation is in financially and its proposed move to Philadelphia. Barnes must also have been a very savvy businessman with great passion and love for art, especially his own collection. During my visit, many possibilities to generate money to sustain the vision and spirit of Dr. Barnes came to my mind: it's time to think "outside the will" in order to survive! He would have.

I've heard mention of a need for a $50 million endowment, so sell something, like one of the too many Renoirs (sorry, it's true). The collection has many works that could bring in well beyond what the endowment needs, without sacrificing the continuity of the whole. What about traveling exhibits and packaging or branding of the collection? For example, there is no book in the gift shop showing the entire collection, which I would have bought, only Great French Paintings of the Barnes Collection. As bad a rap as gift shops have, the majority of visitors love to shop and sales bring in a lot of money (a few licensing deals = endowment). This store has great potential as does its online counterpart: expand, and it's a gold mine. Go all out, with T-shirts, ties, shower curtains. There are many loyal supporters of the foundation (yours truly was ready to buy) who would proudly wear Barnes memorabilia, which would mean free advertising.

I don't know the enough about the details of the inner working of the foundations board to comment (Tyler Green at Modern Arts Notes has more insight on that: see his latest report). However, the findings from the initial court hearings don't paint a competent picture. To go forward, a solid financial base and clear vision are needed: a new board? maybe a full investigation and accounting? Definitely. Competent overseers don't misplace artwork and pianos, and good board members are trustworthy and ensure that the endowment fully supports the mission.

I love this place. Dr. Barnes was amazing, and I would like to see his collection remain on North Latch's Lane. Big courageous steps must first be taken for the Doctor.

Mark Barry ( is an artist working in Baltimore.


The Center of the Universe, According to Dalí

Salvador Dalí, Mystique de la gare de Perpignan, 1965, Museum Ludwig, CologneFamous surrealist painter Salvador Dalí was born on May 11, 2004 1904 (thanks to the alert reader who caught this!). To celebrate his 100th birthday, the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí is sponsoring the Year of Dalí 2004, with a schedule of celebrations and events. (This is in competition with the Year of George Sand: see post on February 6.) The only real Dalí-related news I have been reading in the English-language media, however, has been the exciting rediscovery of the short animated film that he began for Disney in 1945 but did not finish, Destino (the film, completed under producer Roy Disney, has been nominated for an Academy Award this year, for what that's worth). You can see it in many places as a preview to the animated movie The Triplets of Belleville. I expect more on Dalí to follow later in the year.

One story I read about in France but never got around to mentioning here was reported in Le Nouvel Observateur (February 2, Perpignan célèbre les cent ans de Dali [Perpignan celebrates Dalí's 100th birthday]). According to the article, Perpignan is "the only town in France that is commemorating the centenary of the artist's birth, by dedicating six exhibitions to him and by installing an illuminated column, on a base 4 meters [13 feet] high and projecting a laser beam into the sky, in front of the train station." Why Perpignan and why the train station?

Dalí caused the Perpignan train station to be entered into the history of art by naming it the "center of the universe" after having experienced there on September 19, 1963, in his own words, "a sort of cosmic ecstasy [stronger than all those I had had before. I experienced a precise vision of the construction of the universe.—full quotation added by CTD]" In 1965, he made it the subject of a canvas named Mystique de la gare de Perpignan (Mystery of the Perpignan train station).
This painting (shown above) is now in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. The praying figures to the left and right are taken from Millet's painting The Angelus (1857–1859, now in the Musée d'Orsay), a theme that was also painted by Dalí in his Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus (1933–1935), now in the collection of the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Millet's Architectonia Angelus from 1933. (You can read analyses of this and other Dalí paintings here.)


Tarantino at Cannes

Quentin TarantinoA short article (Quentin Tarantino président du jury en 2004, February 15) in Le Nouvel Observateur reported Friday's announcement that American director Quentin Tarantino (image at right from Romain Desbiens's site, Quentin Tarantino, Cinéphile et Cinéaste) will preside over the jury of the 57th Festival International du Film at Cannes, from May 12 to 23. (He succeeds Patrice Chéraud, the French director probably most famous for his 1994 remake of La Reine Margot.) Tarantino is not unknown at Cannes, of course, since his film Reservoir Dogs competed there in 1992 and Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or in 1994. QT was reported as responding to the honor of the presidency as follows (what I think he said originally in English is on the festival's Web site):

For a filmmaker and film lover there's no greater honor than to be on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival. To be President is both a magnificent honor and a magnificent responsibility. And also the crowning achievement of a lifetime spent in cinematic obsession: a magnificent obsession.
The presence of Americans on the Cannes jury is certainly not unusual in recent years (Meg Ryan and Steven Soderbergh in 2003, Sharon Stone in 2002, Jonathan Demme in 2000, and Holly Hunter and Jeff Goldblum in 1999, for example), and Americans have already served as jury presidents, as David Lynch did in 2002 and Martin Scorsese in 1998. That being said, I'm still very happy for QT, and I think that his selection shows the growing esteem for his movies in France. I'm sure that he will represent the United States well, if perhaps somewhat quirkily, on the Croisette this year.


Rebuilding History

Palais des Tuileries, 1871, Charles Deering McCormick Library, Northwestern UniversityThe lost palace of Paris, the Palais des Tuileries, was built in the 16th century for Catherine de Médicis. It was located on the site of former tile kilns, hence its name, at the west end of the Louvre. The whole complex of buildings was the main residence of the French royal family until, in the 17th century, Louis XIV relocated the court to the new Château de Versailles. During the upheaval of the French revolution, Louis XVI was forced to move back into the Tuileries Palace, supposedly to make him understand the miserable poverty of most Parisians. In 1792, when things got much uglier for the monarchy, the king and queen were imprisoned and ultimately executed, and the revolutionary government took possession of the Tuileries. They renamed it the Palais National, and it became the meeting place for the National Convention; important documents like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were issued there. The building later became the imperial residence of Napoleon I and Napoleon III in the 19th century. (Go to the bottom of this list, from The Siege and Commune of Paris, 1870–1871, at Northwestern University, to see several photographs of the inside and outside of the Tuileries in the 19th century [including the image shown at left]; several more images are here.) What became of this famous palace? Why is the western end of the Louvre grounds only an open garden (Jardins des Tuileries) with a clear view to the Arc de Triomphe?

The Franco-Prussian War ended with the signing of a humiliating surrender by the French government of Adolphe Thiers. A radical, revolutionary rebellion eventually known as the Commune controlled Paris by seizing arms and cannons left in the streets by the National Guard. Paris, having barely survived the siege and bombing by the Prussians, was now under attack from its own government. On May 16, 1871, the Communards led a crowd (including the painter Gustave Courbet) in the destruction of the Vendôme Column (another picture here). In the following week, more such destruction ensued as fires were set throughout Paris by the pétroleuses, revolutionary women arsonists who threw kerosene bombs into buildings, especially those that were seen as symbols of the ancien régime, including the Tuileries Palace and the Palais-Royal. The old Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), the seat of the Communard government, was bombed by French guns and destroyed. The Communards were eventually all captured and shot against a wall in what is now Père-Lachaise Cemetery (the Mur des Fédérés). After the fire, the shell of the Tuileries stood in ruins until they were finally demolished. Parts of the ruins were purchased by a Corsican family and used to build the Château of La Punta on the gulf of Ajaccio. (For more information, see Henri Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, published in 1876.)

The Vendôme Column was restored almost immediately, in 1873 to 1874. The Hôtel de Ville was also rebuilt according to the exact same plan in 1882, paid for by a special national tax. Now, as I learned in an article (Tuilerie: la reconstruction en marche, February 14) by Anne Muratori-Philip in Le Figaro, people may be getting serious about rebuilding the Palais des Tuileries:

Should the Tuileries Palace be reconstructed? This question was asked on December 18, 2002, during a special meeting of the Academy of the Second Empire in the great auditorium of the Louvre, and the idea has made some progress. Fourteen months later, a new meeting in the rooms of the Institut de France, led by the Princess Napoleon, has launched a projet which is not all a dream. "Today, the Tuileries Palace has been forgotten," lamented Alain Boumier, President of the Academy of the Second Empire while convening the meeting.
As for finances, the provisional budget is allegedly on the order of 300 million euros [$384.5 million], or one-fourth of the cost of the work on the Grand Louvre or the equivalent of the annual budget of La Villette. The financial burden will fall on sponsorship, in accordance with the law of August 1, 2003, and on national and international donations.
The plan would be to use the reconstructed Tuileries Palace as a space into which the Louvre could expand. A Web site is supposedly being set up for the rebuilding project, but at the time of this writing, it was not functioning.


Anonymous 4, La Bele Marie

As I announced here a few days ago (see post on February 9), Anonymous 4 is in residency at Catholic University this semester to take part in a team-taught seminar ("Sacred and Secular Music in Medieval Culture"). I gave my lecture in the course this past Wednesday, on the Divine Office in the Middle Ages, and lectures by other scholars and master classes with Anonymous 4 will continue for the rest of the semester. Some of Anonymous 4's presentations in April will be open to the public, and I will publish some more information about that when I know what is going to happen.

La bele marie: Chant and Polyphony in Honor of Mary

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Last night, on Valentine's Day, Anonymous 4 gave a concert of music from their recent CD, La bele marie: Chant and Polyphony in Honor of Mary (you can read more about the CD and listen to a few tracks here), in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The program featured 16 of the 17 selections from the recording (the group did not perform the prosa "Ave maria gracia plena," and some of the verses in the program were not sung), and the warm, resonant acoustic of the Crypt Church provided a perfect sonic space for the four voices. (The members of the Choir of the National Shrine, myself included, far prefer singing in the Crypt Church to the cavernous space of the Upper Church.) The preference of Anonymous 4 is always to sing a shorter program, without intermission or applause between pieces, and so, when the four woman walked down the center aisle to stand in front of the altar, we were treated to about 90 minutes of exquisite music.

Most of the pieces on this program are conductus (this Latin word is a noun of the fourth declension, so the plural form in the nominative case is the same as the singular). That does not mean that the concert was repetitive, since the conductus genre in the Middle Ages was remarkably varied: they were composed in from one to four parts and in a number of styles. Conductus texts are in Latin and represent some of the best examples of new poetry of the time. The first conductus ("O maria o felix") was monophonic, featuring all four singers on the same part, in a simple style. What is most interesting about this piece is its text, in which the Virgin Mary is extolled as "spiritus sancti cratera" (chalice of the Holy Spirit), "stella non occidua" (star never setting), and "ficus sed non fatua" (fig tree not barren). Some of the interesting Biblical images applied to Mary, which I had never encountered before, include "Ioseph spica" (Joseph's ears of corn), referring to the dream about the ears of corn that Joseph interpreted for Pharaoh in Egypt (Genesis 41), for which Joseph is elevated from the status of servant to governor of Egypt. Another is "humus de qua vipera per quam sicca ione perit hedera" (earth whence came the worm by which the dry gourd of Jonah perished), which is the vine or ivy that God caused to grow over Jonah's head and then also killed with a worm. She is also the "funda davitica" (David's sling) that slew Goliath (1 Kings 17), as well as the "david sitim satians puteus" (well for slaking David's thirst) from which David longs to drink (2 Kings 23).

The second conductus ("Pia mater gratie") on the program was polyphonic and again featured all four singers. Where the first piece was strophic and simple, the second had a short text and featured long and complicated melismatic passages, which sounded more like a medieval motet than a typical conductus. The third piece ("De la mere au sauveor") was the first of four monophonic French chansons, each of which was performed as a solo by one of the women. This one was sung by Jacqueline Horner, the only member of Anonymous 4 who was not original to the group (she replaced Ruth Cunningham in 1998). A more typical example of the conductus genre ("O maria virginei") was next, featuring three singers. Among the many images in this piece's text for Mary is that of "vellis gedeonis" (Gideon's fleece), an allusion to Judges 6 that also appears in other pieces on the program. After that, a two-part conductus ("Verbum bonum et suave"), which was also strophic, featured the beautiful medieval cadence of a major 2nd resolving to a unison.

Susan Hellauer sang the second French chanson on the program ("Mainte chançon ai fait") which begins with the wonderful words of a composer of secular chansons trying to turn over a new leaf:
Mainte chançon ai fait de grant ordure
Més, se Dieu plaist, jamés n'en avrai cure.
En moi a petit eu
Bien et sens et mesure
Or me tieng a deceu
Quant si lonc tens me dure.
Bien ai mon cuer esmeu
Car por chanter l'ai meu
De la roine pure
Par qui somes esleu
En grant joie et receu
Et fors de grant ardure.
I have composed many songs of great filth
but if it please God, I shall never again care about them.
In me there has been
neither rhyme nor reason.
Now I think I was deceived
that it lasted so long.
My heart is certainly stirred,
for I have begun to sing
about the pure queen
by whom we are chosen
and received in great joy
and kept from burning.
Ms. Hellauer is the musicological leader of the group, and her dark and low voice is perfectly suited to the performance of this exceptionally beautiful song, which retells the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1) in a way that a 13th-century court lady may have experienced it. Mary's response to the angel's announcement that she will bear God's son includes the phrase "Mout sembleroit grant ennuis/Se sanz home engendroie" (It would really seem like a drag/If I could get pregnant without a man).

Anonymous 4: Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, Johanna Maria RoseAll four singers joined in the singing of the next conductus ("Beata viscera"), attributed to the Notre-Dame composer Perotinus, according to the recording's program notes. This monophonic piece shows that music does not require anything more than one part to be extremely appealing and emotionally moving. This is a strophic song with a marvelous refrain that begins on a high note (after the ending of each verse on the low final): the wonderment of the refrain's text ("O mira novitas et novum gaudium/matris integritas post puerperium" [O new wonder and new joy, the mother's chastity after giving birth]) is reflected by the brief, strange opening melisma on O, which could be represented with the solfège syllables sol-fa-mi-re-ti. It may not seem like much out of context, but the effect within this song is truly wondrous. Sadly, at the end of this piece, in spite of the warning to turn off pagers and other electronic devices (which the seminar's organizer, Grayson Wagstaff, said was an offense that merited being ejected), a cell phone went off in the audience. From her place on the left part of the altar, Ms. Hellauer glared in the direction of the offender and shook her head.

When the sound stopped, three of the singers proceeded to sing the next conductus ("Mundum renovavit"), which is a good example of the strange harmonic structures that can be found in medieval music, especially in the second half of each stanza. The third French chanson ("Je te pri de cuer") was sung by Johanna Maria Rose, and it revealed symptoms of what is hopefully only a cold or other temporary illness and not more long-lasting vocal problems, which might be one of the reasons why the group is ending its touring activities. The intonation problems and weakness in sustaining high notes that were heard in Ms. Rose's performance of this song were less evident when she sang with the other women, but still there. Ms. Hellauer and Marsha Genensky combined for the two-part conductus "Salve sancta parens" that came next. Some conductus may have had a role in the medieval liturgy, and the text of this piece is in the same character as any number of Marian chants from the same period. The three-part conductus that followed it ("Serena virginum") and the final conductus on the program ("Ave nobilis venerabilis"), in four parts, both conclude with the versicle "Benedicamus domino/Deo gracias," that was sung at the end of the medieval service of Matins. Pieces like this may have been composed as a sort of trope on that versicle to be sung in the Divine Office. In both cases, the response "Deo gracias" was sung in simple monophony.

The final French chanson ("De la trés douce Marie") was sung by Marsha Genensky. This song is an example of the ballade, one of the formes fixes, song patterns favored by the troubadours and trouvères and carried on by polyphonic song composers in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. This form can be represented by the letters aabC: each of the first two lines is sung to the same section of music (a), and the third and fourth lines to a different section of music (b), followed by the three lines of the refrain ("Cil doit bien," C). All three of the remaining conductus featured all four members of Anonymous 4. During "Ave virgo virginum" someone's watch alarm behind me went off with a steady beep for 10 seconds and with a double-time beep for another 10 seconds. This happened twice, and I think the owner of the watch couldn't hear it or in any case did not stop it. In spite of that distraction, I admired some more unusual Biblical images for the Virgin Mary in this piece, such as "moysi fiscella" (basket of Moses) and "mosaice rubus visionis" (bush of Moses' vision). Here, the imagery of Gideon's fleece is explained further: "celi rorans pluvia vellus gedeonis" (distilling heaven's rains, fleece of Gideon). The different rhythmic styles available to composers of the period were displayed in the penultimate conductus ("Mater patris et filia"), in which those first four words are sung in an unmetered, melismatic style, while the rest of the piece is in a stricter modal rhythm that is fast-moving and hocket-like.

This was a remarkable concert, and Anonymous 4, in spite of one singer's struggles, were in top form. The intonation and purity of tone were impeccable, as was the selection of pieces. The audience did not want the evening to end and insisted on an encore with their applause. Anonymous 4 obliged us with a short polyphonic setting of the words that end the Latin Mass ("Ite missa est: Deo gratias" [Go, the Mass is ended: thanks be to God]). Submissive to the commands of four who had so enchanted us, we applauded them as they processed out and then did as we were told.


Díaz Trio at the Library of Congress

The string trio combination of violin, viola, and cello is not all that common, and the Díaz Trio is unusual among performing chamber music ensembles in that they have chosen to focus on the rather narrow range of music composed for it. After a hiatus since the end of December, the series of free concerts from the Library of Congress resumed Friday night with a program presented by the Díaz Trio. The concert began with a piece that did not inspire me and appeared not to have inspired the players either, Ludwig van Beethoven's String Trio in G Major, op. 9, no. 1. Composed in 1797 to 1798, this is the work of a young Beethoven who, after moving on to the string quartet genre after the three trios of op. 9, never wrote another string trio. There are moments of great beauty, and the performers gave an impressive performance, but something about their rendition left me cold. Perhaps it was the overzealous con brio on the part of cellist Andrés Díaz: maybe there are a lot of sforzandi in the score, but from where I sat I heard more percussive bowstrikes than pure tone more often than I would have liked.

My slight disappointment with the Beethoven was quickly overcome by the next piece on the program, the world premiere of a new piece by Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra. Kandinsky is a suite of eleven movements for various combinations of violin, viola, cello, and piano, commissioned by the McKim Fund. For this work, the Díaz Trio was joined by a guest artist, Chilean pianist Luz Manríquez, who like the group's violinist, Andrés Cárdenes, teaches music at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. This piece was inspired by three paintings by abstract painter Vasily Kandinsky. On the left below, Lyrisches [Lyrical] painted in 1911, and on the right, Launisches [Capricious], from 1930, are both now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam, The Netherlands). In the center, Schwarze Striche I [Black Strokes I] dates from 1913 and is now owned by the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Kandinsky, Lyrisches, 1911, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen</a>, RotterdamVasily Kandinsky, Schwarze Striche I, 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New YorkKandinsky, Launisches, 1930, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen</a>, Rotterdam

Sierra has drawn inspiration from painting before, in a piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano called Turner. In his program notes on Kandinsky, the composer writes, "The bold strokes, colors, and capricious nature of the paintings are translated in the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of my work." I have read good things about Sierra's music, which has been rather popular with audiences. What I loved about this piece is that it embraced many idioms, such as a dissonant and Webernesque pointillism in the first movement ("Lyrisches," for violin and piano, inspired by the first painting above); strange instrumental effects familiar from the music of Bartók in the second movement ("Improvisation 19," for violin, piano, and cello; see Kandinsky's Improvisation 19 from 1911); ultrafast runs, harmonics, and other harsher sounds in the daring viola solo of the third movement ("Bild mit schwarzem Bogen" [Picture with a black arch]; see Kandinsky's painting Mit dem schwarzen Bogen), played excellently by violist Roberto Díaz, who seemed to me the surest and best of this excellent group's members. Happily, Sierra believes that even modern music can be fun and even pleasant listening, as he showed in the sixth movement ("Schwarze Striche I," for violin and piano, inspired by the painting in the center above), which had both a cool sound, inspired by jazz and Latin music, and a delicate, pretty grace that could have come from Debussy. I think the most successful composers of the early part of this century, like Sierra, will be willing to use the many styles available to us now, not ignoring more "modern" or harsh sounds but not limited to them either.

The most successful movements in the piece were the two featuring all four performers, the fifth movement ("Kleine Freuden" [Small pleasures]; see Kandinsky's delightfully vivid Kleine Freuden from 1913) and the final movement ("Buntes Ensemble" [Colorful ensemble]; see Kandinsky's Buntes Ensemble from 1938). The former is marked "ritmico" and the latter "Con sabor latino." It is that Latin rhythmic element, which pervades these movements, that made them so pleasant to listen to, music that sounded like it was part Heitor Villa-Lobos and part Sergei Prokofiev. This was especially true of the final movement, which was in 7/8, not the frantic Precipioso of the last movement of Prokofiev's seventh piano sonata, but the late-night experiment of a cool-headed dance band. The constant piano ostinato, a beboppy chromatic line in the bass (sol-sol-si-la-la-li-ti-ti-te-la-la-le-sol, in the pattern of dotted quarter-quarter-quarter), is gradually undermined and knocked off its stride by the addition of extra beats. The effect is not unsettling but freeing. It was truly a fun listening experience.

The Kandinsky paintings that correspond to the other movements are Improvisation 26 (Oars) (1912) (fourth movement), Weisser Strich (White Stroke, 1920) (seventh movement), Kleine Welten III (Small worlds III, 1922) (eighth movement), and Composition VIII (1923) (ninth movement).

After intermission, the concert concluded with a piece that is naturally the bread and butter of this group, Mozart's Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat Major, K. 563, the only piece for this combination of instruments that can be reliably attributed to that composer. It is a challenging and rewarding work that belies its title, since it is not typical of the light, diverting music written under the name of divertimento: it is a sort of extended four-movement sonata, just with two menuetti and two slow movements to make a total of six movements. Composed in 1788, this work shows Mozart at the height of his powers, just after completing his last symphony. It was dedicated to Mozart's friend from the Masons, Michael von Puchberg, in gratitude for the large amounts of money he had loaned to the composer, whose financial situation was deteriorating rapidly. In this piece that Mozart himself premiered and performed more than once, playing the viola part, the composer displays all of his skills in creating a joyous German dance (4th movement), writing joking but graceful melodies (for himself on the viola in the fifth movement), in breaking apart and developing melodic motifs (sixth movement), and in conceiving contrapuntal complexity (first and fourth movements).

Finally, I was reminded of why we need more concert series like this in the United States. At the end of the concert, a young woman, who I think was a music student, gave the three performers bouquets of flowers and was obviously moved by what she had heard. Even more touching, a young man perhaps in the eighth or ninth grade went up to the stage at the intermission and collected a stray piece of bowhair that had been left on the floor there by one of the players. Perhaps a dream was born or encouraged in a young person last night, and that is an important thing. If you don't live in Washington and you would like to be able to hear these concerts, you should join me in writing to the Library of Congress or to a radio network like NPR to ask that someone make all of these concerts, which are recorded, available in recorded form either over the radio or by Internet.


Elitism and the Arts

After all the complaining I have been doing lately about the subject of money and creating a cultural life, this article (Lottery cash 'subsidises arts for rich', February 13) by David Hencke in The Guardian gave me some new fat on which to chew. I don't know much about the background of the story, but it concerns how profits from the British lottery system are spent:

The upper and middle classes are enjoying a night out at the opera, theatre and ballet in new modern facilities, courtesy of the national lottery, at the expense of the working class, a report by MPs finds today. It attacks Arts Council England for wasting lottery and taxpayers' money to bail out venues such as the Royal Opera House and Sadler's Wells in London, and for not putting enough cash into working-class areas or attracting more diverse groups to theatres.

The report from the Commons public accounts committee criticises the Arts Council for being slow to provide figures which proved that the 15 biggest projects were mainly benefiting the better-off. It found that in only one city in England—Stoke-on-Trent—do audiences accurately reflect those who buy lottery tickets. In London, 70% of lottery cash distributed to the arts went to high-profile arts projects.
Of course, it is difficult not to agree that a lottery is a stealth tax on the poor, but I had never really considered trying to make sure that profits from a lottery somehow matched the interests of the people who buy most of the tickets. I would like those profits to go to symphonies, museums, Artotheks, and so on: should they really be supporting NASCAR races and the next reality TV show instead?