Links of interest from the past week:
To Orchestrate a Renaissance
Shut Up, Please
How Many Greek Legends Were Really True?
Don't Send your Kid to the Ivy League
From our pages:
From Super to Nuts
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by James Panero
Jacob's Pillow, the legendary summer dance festival in Becket, Massachusetts founded in 1933, has had a stirring start to 2014, with dance that stands on its own two feet. On the second stage of the Doris Duke Theatre, Dorrance Dance tapped out a sold-out two-week run. Meanwhile on the main stage at the Ted Shawn Theatre, New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht directed several teammates from his NYCB squad in the enigmatically titled "Ballet 2014."
The purpose of Ballet 2014 was to showcase ballet of the present, with choreography from the past ten years. Introducing the evening, the Pillow's executive director Ella Baff promised "a range of works of many different choreographers, many of whom are most talked about in the ballet world."
NYCB has made big strides bringing the classical Balanchine aesthetic up to date, elevating contemporary dance with performers who are down to earth. A polished series of online video shorts, sponsored by AOL, recently put the dancers in the framework of reality TV and gave them a family-focused, all-American spin. Far from the ethereal, detached, and sometimes crazed reputation of ballet overseas, NYCB has all the knee-slapping, group-huddle wholesomeness of "Hey Let's Put on a Show."
The Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob's Pillow.
Which is what Ulbricht did at the Pillow, and it was a hit. The first half presented five ballets that explored the romance (and longing) of pas de deux. Here was NYCB at its best, with dancers who were engaged with one another (if not actually married), the hometown kings and queens center stage at the summer-camp social. For me the first piece, "Furiant" (2012), danced by Teresa Reichlen and Robert Fairchild with choroeography by Justin Peck, was the least engaging. The flowing woodsy outfits were right for the setting, but Reichlen lacked the charged spirit, the twitters of expression, to connect fully with Fairchild. On this, I should say, I was in disagreement with my date, my four-year-old balletomane daughter, who most preferred the bright quality of this piece set to Dvo?ák's "Piano Quintet No. 2."
Up next (in reverse order from the program) was "Pas de Deux from Two Hearts" (2012), danced by Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle with choreography by Benjamin Millepied and original score by Nico Muhly. Now here was a marquee lineup of contemporary dance if there ever was one. Muhly's music had the saccharine emotion of a high-school mixtape, but in the sticky woods it seemed right. Millepied's dance is aqueous, slow-moving, a nighttime dip that ends with two steadies embracing on the lake shore. Peck and Angle wore swimsuits, and with her fluid, mellifluous movement, Peck was a dripping dream diving into Angle's arms.
"Liturgy" (2003), danced by Rebecca Krohn and Craig Hall with choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, was the most self-consciously modern dance of the evening. Krohn was a specter floating through Hall's oaken branches, the treble and bass strings in fugue. The following world premiere of "Opus 19. Andante," danced by Emily Kikta and Russell Janzen with choreography by Emery LeCrone, was pleasant but ultimately the most forgettable dance of the night, although it had a goose-bump ending.
And finally came the "Sunshine" (2013), danced by the leader Daniel Ulbricht with chorgeography by Larry Keigwin. The work was set to the familiar tune of "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers. It was regrettable that the music wasn't live, as shown on the pillow's online preview of the evening. And it should be said that recorded dance performances in general have a terrible problem with over-amplification, and my ears were not spared during the night's run. Nevertheless, Ulbricht danced a remarkable pas de deux as a solo. Absent a partner, he radiated his athletic energy and puffed up chest to the audience in a way that called to mind the original hardest working man in show business, James Brown.
Daniel Ulbricht, Tyler Angle, and Robert Fairchild in "Fancy Free." Photo: Christopher Duggan.
After intermission came the dessert: "Fancy Free" (1944), choreography by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein. The work is now even better known for its adaptation into the musical and movie "On the Town." Everything about this ballet of three sailors in the City on shore leave is quintessentially American and ideal for NYCB. Angle, Ulbricht, and Fairchild exude a natural camaraderie, and Georgina Pazcoguin and Tiler Peck are just right as the savvy purse-swinging ladies they meet outside the bar. As opposed to a pas de deux, "Fancy Free" is a three to two, with three sailors vying for two dames, and all the beer-drinking braggadocio that goes along with that. It is remarkable that "Fancy Free," according to the archives, had not been performed at the Pillow since 1949. Perhaps there just wasn't quite the right team of dancers to pull it off until now.
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by James Bowman
Marvel Comics' new Thor
The other day Ann Hornaday, film critic for the Washington Post, had an interesting piece in the paper inspired by the new movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In it, she asked why, much as she admired the film, it fell into a now-familiar pattern of “darkening” in movie adaptations stories and characters that began life in comic books or the equivalent. “Dawn’s funereal tone,” she wrote, “seems to be the norm these days, especially for reboots of legacy franchises that, in their efforts not to succumb to sentimental nostalgia or trivialized camp, succumb to amped-up carnage and inflated self-seriousness instead.” Ms Hornaday suggests several reasons why this might be so, among them the fact that “they flatter the sensibilities of studios and the executives who greenlight these projects, reassuring them that their core competency—raiding their and others’ archives for valuable ‘pre-sold’ source material—can be one of gravitas and meaning, rather than simple repurposing of pop signifiers.”
A less charitable—and less jargony—way to put this would be to say that the studio heads who fondly imagine they are in the business of producing something called “art” are naturally embarrassed about devoting their time and talents to such flimsy, childish rubbish as superheroes and talking animals and so seek out ways to dignify it in their own minds. “Dark” suggests to them that they are making something like the real movies that Hollywood used to make before the cartoon takeover in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the other reasons Ms Hornaday cites—that, for example, “darker” cartoon projects attract big name actors and directors as well as audiences of people who expect to take their cartoons seriously— seem to me to boil down to the same reason. Grown up people need something suggesting seriousness, however implausibly, to cover their embarrassment about spending time and money on amusements they know are really only suitable for children, if for them.
Nor is this urge limited to those adapting the comics to film. The attempt to give a factitious seriousness to something that is fundamentally unserious goes back to the earliest days of the comics themselves, as Michael Cavna’s celebration of Batman’s 75th birthday in yesterday’s Post makes clear. Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, took his drawings to an artist friend named Bill Finger, says Mr Cavna, “who sharpened and darkened the look of ‘the Batman.’” More darkening became necessary after Adam West’s camp TV Batman of the 1960s. This, according to Glen Weldon, quoted by Mr Cavna, was undertaken by Dennis O’Neil whose “decision to introduce a note of obsession saved Batman, and indirectly the comics industry, by offering a masculine ideal with whom [capital-N] Nerds could identify, and cherish.”
The masculine ideal, it should be noted, was made safe for the Nerds by being relegated to the realm of fantasy — where, since anything could happen, it didn’t even need to be masculine anymore. That must be why Marvel comics — no doubt soon to be followed by the movie-makers — have now performed a sex-change operation on Thor, the former Norse god, formerly transformed into the super-macho superhero of the same name by Stan Lee. Hey, if you’re going to fantasize Thor and his kind into existence anyway, why stop with giving him super-powers? Why not just fantasize away any other limits reality imposes on you that you don’t like? Hasn’t Bradley Manning established that it is a human right for us all to be whichever sex (or “gender”) we choose?
Though comic book connoisseurs such as Noah Berlatsky may try to peddle their own fantasy that girls are as avid for superheroes as boys are, I see no evidence that juveniles of the fairer sex are clamoring to be given a Thor-like “role model” of their own, complete with a hammer and destructive superpowers. Thor-ess seems to me much more likely to be the product of someone catering for the kind of person who thinks, as Angela Watercutter put it in Wired, that “the importance of a new female superhero can’t be understated.” I thought for a moment that maybe she really did mean understated rather than overstated, but it turns out not. “So, yes,” she concludes, “Thor becoming a female character—the comics hit in October and will be written by Jason Aaron with art from Russell Dauterman—is very cool, and is a very big deal. But you know what’s even cooler? The fact that everyone knows it.” I think that’s probably what the two guys, Jason and Russell, were thinking, too, when they came up with the idea. I mean as well as the fact that their flattery of the feminist fantasy would mark them out as hommes sérieux.
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Don Quixote; Photo via Lincoln Center
Last night at the Koch Theater, we had Don Quixote from the Bolshoi Ballet. This was an offering in the Lincoln Center Festival. It turned out to be a fine offering. Sparkling, even.
There are many Don Quixotes about. There’s the tone poem by Strauss (with solo parts for cello and viola). There’s the song cycle by Ravel. There’s the opera by Massenet.
And, oh, yes, there’s the novel by Cervantes.
I thought of John Coleman last night. John was a big and cherished figure at The New Criterion, a scholar of Spanish, a scholar of music, a scholar of many things. He called his friends “maestro.” He was a huge pleasure to be around.
I asked him once—for he was an expert—“John, is it okay to go through life without reading Don Quixote?” He said it was, but one would not want to deprive oneself of it. Don Quixote was well worth the time. It has been on my list ever since, along with 10,000 other items.
In the Bolshoi’s production of the ballet, there is a portrait behind the errant knight in the Prologue. Cervantes? Possibly, but I don’t know.
The ballet originated with the Bolshoi, and, according to the evening’s program notes, the company has performed it “more than 1,000 times over the past 145 years.” So, the company is tired, right? Phoning it in, punching a clock? Another day, another dollar, another Don? Not on Tuesday night, no. The ballet was fresh as a daisy, and the dancers and the orchestra acted like it was a huge privilege to perform it.
The score is by Minkus, Ludwig Minkus, an Austrian who had his career in the Russian ballet. He lived from 1826 until three years into World War I—1917. He saw immense changes in that lifetime. (Minkus died in December 1917—a month after the Bolshevik Revolution.) Don Quixote is his best-known score, probably, followed by La Bayadère, I would guess. Don Quixote is filled with Spanish music, as befits the subject.
Is Minkus as good as Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier, and the other great Spanish composers? No, but he is proficient—proficient at the very worst. His Don Quixote is fit for purpose.
Fit for purpose, yes, but would you want to hear this music alone, without the dancing? As you probably would Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, The Firebird, and other ballet scores we could name? Maybe not, but Minkus is doing a job, and getting it done.
By the way, Stephen Hough, the British pianist, played a bit of Don Quixote in his Lincoln Center recital at the end of last season. He offered an arrangement of his as an encore. Thus does Minkus transcend the ballet.
I will confess to having become a bit weary of castanets last night. There was clicking and clacking all through. I sometimes couldn’t tell whether the castanets were being played—is that the word, “played”? —onstage or in the pit. Some of each, I think.
Years ago, I heard a soprano play the castanets as she sang “Les filles de Cadix” (by Délibes, another of those great Spanish composers). She made a total hash of it, clicking and clacking at all the wrong times. Maybe singing or dancing is challenge enough.
In the last couple of weeks, I have heard grumbling that the Bolshoi has brought old, tired, familiar productions to Lincoln Center. But one should remember: They are always new to someone. There’s always someone seeing a production for the first time—or the last time. That was a maxim of Robert Shaw, the late conductor.
When conducting a very familiar work, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he would tell his forces, “Remember: In the audience tonight will be people hearing this music for the first time. And people hearing it for the last time. Make it good.”
It would be hard to grumble at the Bolshoi’s Don Quixote, I would think. It is filled with elegant high jinks. It is fun from beginning to end (accounting for occasional stretches of tedium). Naturally, I have complaints, quibbles, barbs. For example: It’s one thing for Gamache to be foppish, but last night he was so foppish it was hard to see how he could be interested in Kitri, or any other woman.
To repeat, the dancers had a ball. If there were two people in New York who enjoyed themselves more than the lead dancers, Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov, I would be surprised. Nearly everything onstage was crisp and vital.
And so it was in the pit. The orchestra gave no hint of slumming—none. This is to the credit of the conductor, Pavel Klinichev. Furthermore, the orchestra was very clean, well-nigh immaculate. (I realize I have already mentioned “crisp,” but I am reinforcing.) This, too, is to the credit of the conductor. He conducted like he had an important professional engagement—which he did.
In my notes on Swan Lake last week, I said that the Bolshoi Orchestra was “confident, unafraid, present.” The orchestra was not hiding itself under a bushel, accompanying, but playing without apology. They were the same in Don Quixote. An audience member could have thought of this evening as a concert with dancing.
But it was a ballet—a fusion of dance and music (and theater). It was not the most serious evening, but a person needs a break away from tragedy now and then. And the dancing and playing were very serious indeed—polished and knowing. If you don’t like Don Quixote, I understand. I really do. But, in my estimation, this was Don Quixote done right.
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by James Panero
South Facade of the main house at Olana. Photo: Stan Ries
The spiritual home of the Hudson River School is Olana, the homestead of Frederic Church, located on a 250-acre hilltop outside Hudson, New York. Thanks to the long-term efforts of the Olana Partnership, Church's theatrical house, designed by Church and Calvert Vaux in a colorful blend of Middle-Eastern styles, joins the grounds in a remarkable state of preservation. With sweeping views of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains, Olana is best appreciated in summer, when it feels like you are walking inside a lush nineteen-century landscape.
Bell Tower, south view of river from inside Bell Tower. Photo: Andy Wainwright
In the 1960s, after a two-year campaign to save it from developers, Olana passed from the Church family to the shared public-private stewardship of New York State and what is now The Olana Partnership. Church's art and artifacts remained in situ, making it one of the country's most well-preserved artist residences, and certainly the most singular. Since then the Olana Partnership has worked tirelessly to bring the ornate polychromed building back to its original splendor. It has also sought to restore the overgrown grounds and preserve the viewshed of this historical perspective on the Hudson.
Court Hall, Main House Olana. Photo: Andy Wainright
The next steps for Olana will be to turn the house back into a home and working farm—a home for the ideals of Church, a living destination emerging from a relic, with all the living sights and smells. The Olana Partnership have done a remarkable job restoring and preserving the soul, the permanent collection, the house and grounds. Now the task is to reveal it as a living beacon of art, culture, and preservation.
View of the Main House from Across the Lake. Photo: Melanie Hasbrook
Some thoughts on the house and grounds: Today the building is approached from a parking lot at the top of the hill behind it. This gives the sense that you are visiting an artifact and not a home. The access road also has cars cutting across the property and through the viewshed. By depositing people at the top, in back, they are less likely to explore the grounds below. This current parking lot could be converted into a site for a much-needed respite and watering hole while car parking could be relocated down the hill, encouraging people to explore the grounds, walk up, and approach the main house from the front. Olana could also offer a trolly to the top, adding to the charm of the landscape. The house museum should also be arranged, if possible, to accommodate visitors who choose to experience it outside of the small, wonderful, but often sold-out docent-led tours (which now need to be booked in advance).
View from Crown Hill, Olana. Photo: Melanie Hasbrook
Finally, I would love to see more involvement with contemporary artists. What a thrill it must be for artists to engage with these 250 acres. There could be residencies. I would be fascinated to see how artists working in a range of practices interpret the context of Olana: from the abstract artists of Bushwick to realist-revival painters to classical and modern dancers. They could mix on the hillsides with farmers, walkers, preservationists, children making crafts—a living tableau.
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Edward Gardner, leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 7.18.14; photo by Hilary Scott, viaBSO
I was wary going into the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Friday night concert at Tanglewood, which featured Edward Gardner as the conductor and the baritone Thomas Hampson as the guest artist. Hampson has lately not been sounding as secure as he once did, and Gardner led some uninspired and even shaky performances in New York this past year.
Their collaboration, the first of Aaron Copland's two sets of Old American Songs confirmed those fears. In Hampson there were hints in places of a once-great baritone, but technical problems held him back. His diction was foggy, and he wasn't nimble enough to weave through the folksy filigree. His middle voice, though a little on the dry side, was solid and compact, but as he ranged higher he shied away from the sound. Gardner struggled to keep the ensemble united during several of the songs—“Simple gifts” was nowhere near together, and Hampson seemed inexplicably intent on shouting his way through it.
In his encore Hampson did his best singing of the night, snatching a beautiful performance of “At the river” from Copland's second set. Here was the voice that late we knew—full, even, smooth, with mellow tone, sensitive phrasing, and crisp diction
Beethoven's Seventh has always seemed to me a brilliantly peculiar piece. In its introduction there is no hint of the glorious heroicism nor of the raucous play that is to follow. The opening is a vision of entropy: constantly expanding energies, beginning with spacious chords scored for full orchestra and followed by cascades of ascending scales, rushing to fill infinite space.
And then out of nowhere comes the movement's main theme, first a coy strain from an oboe, but then a full-forced, heroic gallop. All of this needed more energy, more momentum than Gardner gave it. Taken a little faster, the introduction actually tends to breathe more, growing out of itself more naturally. Still, this was a commendable effort that captured the piece's boisterous glee.
The second movement, the most familiar from this symphony, is another peculiarity. It's the most sober of the four and serves de facto as the piece's “slow movement” —but it's marked “Allegretto” (not that that marking is often obeyed). Gardner's tempo was middle-of-the-road, but his interpretation was not dull for that. He achieved somber simplicity, enveloping the listener in sound and pacing the music so that it grew slowly but inexorably. The finale, too, was finely wrought, with a constant sense of forward drive. Personally, I like the coda to feel as though it might fly off the rails at any moment, but Gardner kept his hand on the rein—his ending thrilled nonetheless.
The young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons will become the BSO's Music Director with the start of the 2014-15 season, ending the long and trying interregnum created by James Levine's illness and subsequent departure. Nelsons pulled a Stokowski on Saturday night—he put the marquee piece, Brahms's Symphony No. 3, on the first half. There was no clear reason for doing so, and if the odd ordering didn't make the program top-heavy, it was only because Nelsons's Brahms left something to be desired.
The snags that dragged the piece down were all most present in the opening Allegro con brio. The piece opens with cascading chords, suggesting massive waves breaking over rocks. The orchestra had plenty of volume, but a sense of awe was missing. The playing was sleepy, and thinly textured, to boot—what we heard was barely allegro, and distinctly lacking in the prescribed brio.
Fortunately, all parties sprung to life for the second half. The Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson's Trumpet Concerto No. 1, “Bridge,” got a first-rate performance from Håkan Hardenberger, who premiered the piece in 1999.
This is a fascinating and riveting concerto. It has a strong voice, and its influences are hard to pinpoint—at one moment you think it sounds Russian, and at the next you'll swear you heard a snatch of Ravel. The writing is stunningly vivid, venturing in places towards gooey Romanticism in the strings, while virtuosic, jazzy licks pepper the solo trumpet part.
I'm going to have to borrow a phrase from a friend to describe Sunday afternoon's concerto, Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole: “violin-music.” That is, showy or trifling pieces for the violin that are perfectly enjoyable but lack artistic depth, surviving mainly on the star appeal of the performer. Put into this category the works of Pablo de Sarasate, Henryk Wieniawski, and Henri Vieuxtemps. It's the sort of technically demanding, flashy repertoire on which many young violinists cut their teeth before moving on to material that has a respected place outside of the world of the violin.
Joshua Bell is the sort of violin rock-star who can sell out a hall performing pieces like this. In fact, I have often found in the past that his particular style of flamboyant playing, replete with rubato and portamento, is more suited to violin-music than it is to the works of the masters. He should be—and usually is—a perfect fit for this five-movement show-concerto.
Well, on Sunday Bell just didn't seem himself. He started off in his regular fiery vein, gnashing his way through the opening statement and running away from the orchestra early in the first movement. He was a cool customer thereafter, the one time I've ever found myself wishing that he would take another liberty or three. The third movement, a seductive little number that used to be cut in most performances (“Because it is vulgar,” as the late, great violin teacher Ivan Galamian once put it), seemed downright stiff.
Beethoven's fifth seemed an odd choice for a sunny Sunday afternoon, but no matter—Any chance to hear this piece is a gift. It's a work so masterful that it can withstand any over-interpretation a conductor might throw at it; or, as was the case with Nelsons (again on the podium), under-interpretation. That's not to say that this was not a considered and formidable performance—it was both. But I couldn't help wanting “more.”
The first movement needed to be more explosive to achieve its arresting, terrifying effect. The same went for the third movement, that wonderfully odd scherzo, and for the finale, which could have gone a few clicks faster.
The jewel of this performance was the Andante. Beethoven didn't always come up with the most inspired melodies (his genius was in what he could do with form), but the tune that serves as the first of this movement's themes might just be his loveliest. Nelsons showed masterful control here, keeping a meticulous balance that allowed supporting voices to make their presence clearly felt. Perhaps most importantly, the orchestra sounds absolutely gorgeous under his baton—a welcome sign for a group that has been in sore need of strong leadership.
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Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.
This week: A fresh look at Dickens’s London, a website decodes Dante, and a visit to Frederic Edwin Church’s home.
Fiction: Life Drawing by Robin Black (Random House): Owen and Augusta have recently moved to a farmhouse far from the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia. When Allison moves in next door, Augusta quickly befriends her. Tensions arise, however, when Allison’s twenty-year-old daughter returns home and instantly takes an interest in Owen. Augusta’s past infidelities and the reappearance of Allison’s abusive ex-husband escalate the situation as the families search for the peace and tranquility they hoped to find by moving to the countryside. —BPK
Nonfiction: The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London by Judith Flanders (Thomas Dunne Books): The life and work of Charles Dickens are cast in a new light in this overview of Victorian London. Diving into the history and composition of a variety of neighborhoods, Flanders examines everything from water systems to cemetaries to eplore Dickens’s life in London and the city’s influence on his writing. —BPK
Poetry: The Princeton Dante Project: Here is one of the best poetry resources on the web: The Princeton Dante Project. Created by the Dante scholar Robert Hollander, it offers the complete works of Dante in Italian and English, audio of the entire Comedia read in Italian, and an extensive critical apparatus, including commentary dating back to Boccaccio. And it’s free! —DY
Art: Olana: At the spiritual heart of the Hudson River School is Olana, the homestead of Frederic Church, located on a 250-acre hilltop outside Hudson, New York. Thanks to the long-term efforts of the Olana Partnership, Chuch's theatrical house, designed in a colorful blend of Middle-Eastern styles, joins the grounds in a remarkable state of preservation. With sweeping views of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains, Olana is best appreciated in summer, when it feels like you are walking inside a lush nineteen-century landscape. —JP
Music: Mostly Mozart’s free preview concert (Saturday): The Mostly Mozart Festival returns to Lincoln Center and will begin in earnest next week. This Saturday, though, you can catch their annual "free preview concert" at Avery Fisher Hall. Louis Langrée leads the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and the final scene from Gluck's Don Juan. The program opens with the unforgettable overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni. Ticket's will be distributed at the Avery Fisher Hall box office on a first-come, first served basis beginning at 10:00 AM on Saturday. —ECS
Other: Jacob’s Pillow: Jacob's Pillow, the legendary summer dance festival founded in Becket, Massachusetts by Ted Shawn in 1933, has had a steller start to 2014. In "Ballet 2014," directed by principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht, several stars of the New York City Ballet explored the romance of pas de deux in contemporary works, followed by the "three to two" of Jerome Robbins's "Fancy Free." This week Dorrance Dance continues its sold-out run of tap as the Mark Morris Dance Group arrives on the main stage at the Ted Shawn Theatre. —JP
From the archive: The anatomy of murder by Theodore Dalrymple, February 2003: Considering murder in literature and life.
From our latest issue: Down the Rabbit hole by Carl Rollyson: A review of Adam Begley’s new John Updike bio.
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Links of interest from the past week:
Books are alive
Carter Cleveland says art in the future will be for everyone
School for a scoundrel
Wagner’s Anti-Semitism Still Matters
Virginia Woolf's idea of privacy
From our pages:
To encroach upon a mockingbird
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Ruslan Skvorstsov and Maria Alexandrova of the Bolshoi Ballet; Source: Ian Gavan/Getty Images Europe
This month, the Bolshoi is a guest of the Lincoln Center Festival. When I say “the Bolshoi,” I mean the opera and ballet companies, complete with orchestra and chorus. Last night, the appropriate forces performed Swan Lake at the Koch Theater.
Of course, New Yorkers get Swan Lake a lot, courtesy of the American Ballet Theatre. And those Swan Lakes are mainly very good. It’s sometimes easy to overlook your home company, and thrill to the foreign visitor. This applies to other spheres as well.
Think of a university—where an assistant professor may have little chance of promotion, because he’s just “good ol’ Tom.” He may be very attractive to another campus, however. And think of the girl next door, lissome—who may be overlooked in favor of the temptress from an exotic locale.
A Swan Lake from the Bolshoi ought to be good, yes? This is the storied Moscow company, performing the core of the core repertory—by Tchaikovsky, the core ballet composer, and a Russian, of course. Much of art can be an expectations game.
I touched on this subject in my “Salzburg Chronicle” last October. I said that a Verdi Requiem, conducted by Muti, with a top orchestra, a top chorus, and top soloists, ought to be good. And this performance was in the Verdi bicentennial year, to boot. The audience was primed for a great, or even historic, experience. Did they get one? No, they got a flop. But I could understand if they weren’t quite willing to accept this.
In my chronicle, I wrote,
Bear with me a second: In the next few days, I came upon a display of gingerbread men at an open-air market. Austria is known for its gingerbread. The cookies looked fantastic. I picked the best-looking one and bit into it. It was stale. No good. But, for a split second, I could see how I might will it good. It was supposed to be good. The expectations game is very important, too important, in music and other spheres of life.
Well, I will not keep you in suspense: Last night’s Swan Lake from the Bolshoi was, in fact, very good.
Ballet is primarily a dance experience, not a musical experience. But I should leave the dancing in more expert hands and comment on the music—which is not unimportant, after all. It is very important.
The quality of the orchestra makes a big difference in a ballet, I think. Would you rather have good dancers and a poor orchestra than poor dancers and a good orchestra? I’m sure. But some nights, I'm not so sure. Bad playing can easily mar a night of ballet.
Here in New York, our ballet orchestras are often snickered at. This snickering is not entirely fair: The orchestras can do themselves proud (and the conductor is a factor). But on many a night, the snickerers have a point.
The Bolshoi Orchestra is what you might call a real orchestra—not a ballet orchestra, but an orchestra orchestra. Last night, they were conducted by Pavel Sorokin, who was accomplished. And the first thing you noticed about the orchestra, or I noticed, was that they were loud. Confident, unafraid, present. The ballet orchestras I’m familiar with tend to be reticent, muted. They accompany rather than play.
Swan Lake is one of the great Romantic scores, and it is not mere accompaniment. An orchestra should feast on it, along with the dancers. There are many excellent solo opportunities in the orchestra, especially for woodwinds (which is typical of Tchaikovsky). A Swan Lake needs a good Odette/Odile, but what about the oboist?
The Bolshoi Orchestra was not immaculate, far from it. Many entrances were poor—beyond poor, wretched. As the dancers are expected to be precise and unified, so should the players. There was some unfortunate splatting in the brass. Etc.
Some of the graceful, flitting, pliant sections should have been more graceful, flitting, and pliant. There was a bias toward the blunt. The Pas de quatre—those four cygnets—was a little heavy. By the way, do you know Earl Wild’s piano transcription of this piece? It is one of his best—to hear him play it, go here.
Continuing with last night: Grand, noble sections could have been grander and nobler. These sections tended to be too fast, unsavored. But I remind myself: A ballet conductor does not necessarily have a free hand. There are balletic restrictions. On a concert podium, the conductor (if he can) rules.
The orchestra was never better than in the “foreign dances”: the Hungarian dance, the Spanish dance, and so on. These were really distinctive—set apart from the score at large. And there was genuine menace in the black swan’s music.
From first act to last, this Swan Lake had its underlying musicality and vitality. The orchestra surely has an effect on the dancers, for good or ill. Music, dancing, scenario, choreography—they blend into one experience.
I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the better Swan Lake gets—the more brilliant Tchaikovsky gets. Age cannot wither this work, not custom stale her. Did you notice, above, that I called Swan Lake “one of the great Romantic scores”? That was a stupid hedge. A weaselly qualification. Swan Lake is one of the great scores, period.
Two years ago, I wrote a little piece called “Up with Tutus: Ballet music—one man’s evolution.” It concluded,
Some ballet music, I still contend, is beyond hope. During its recent season here, the American Ballet Theatre put on Le Corsaire, whose score is cobbled together from five composers . . . Act I is like a parody of ballet music, invented by ballet-haters. But Swan Lake? Honestly, I could see and hear it once a week. Probably twice.
Well, how about The Nutcracker, that silly seasonal standard? Let me quote another piece—about Rodion Shchedrin, the Russian composer:
Once, he was asked what he was prepared to listen to, right that second. He replied that he was always prepared to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker—“because each and every section of the score is a masterpiece.” That is a very rare declaration for a modern composer to make. Even those who believe it—who know it’s true—would shrink from saying it.
As long as I am quoting, I’m going to quote Thomas P. Griesa—not an arts-world figure but a judge. A federal judge here in New York, and a longtime friend of The New Criterion. For many years, he has been going to the opera and the ballet. His wife, Chris, is an ex-ballerina (though still graceful). I have heard him say, “A mediocre night at the opera is better than a mediocre night at the ballet. But a great night at the ballet—that beats everything.”
In my view, we had such a night last night.
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Harper Lee; Photo Credit: Katy Winn/Corbis, via History.com
The release of The Mockingbird Next Door, a long-awaited biography of celebrated novelist Harper Lee, was clouded on July 14th when Lee issued the following statement: “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” Lee’s words came despite author Marja Mills’s assertion that the biography was written with the full support of Lee and her sister, Alice.
Though Lee is notoriously media-shy and never published again after her 1960 masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, Penguin Press has repeatedly defended the authenticity of the biography. “After decades of silence the sisters were ready to share their stories with a trusted listener,” the dust jacket reads. “Mills was given an astounding gift when Alice and Nelle invited her into their lives.”
The emphasis is on consent. With a comforting narrative voice, Mills paints herself as the opposite of an investigative journalist. She is self-effacing, venerating the Lees for their erudition, and recalls the year she spent living next door to the sisters with humility and respect. Yet in a public rebuff, Lee said that when she discovered Mills’s intention to write a biography, she “[left] town whenever [Mills] headed this way.”
Public opinion will surely jump to Lee’s defense: the eighty-eight-year-old author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that is often cited as the pinnacle of the American literary canon, Lee has gained admiration for her reluctance to step into the media fray. This most recent statement is also not the first time she has denied involvement with the biography. Back in 2011, when Penguin first announced they had acquired the rights to publish Mills’s book, Lee denied any involvement. In response, Mills produced a letter signed by Lee’s sister Alice assuring the book had been written with their compliance. It is difficult to find any sort of transparency in the case—whether Lee gave consent and then decided to retract it, whether Lee’s sister Alice gave consent in her place, whether Alice at 100 years old was not in a position to give this consent, or whether Marja Mills is truly crafting an elaborate lie.
Usually it isn’t particularly eyebrow-raising for a biography to be written without the subject’s explicit consent. Society has become accustomed to knowing the minutiae of celebrities’ lives both through traditional biographies and now, thanks to the Internet, short-form pieces and viral rumours that can be easily accessed online. Yet the way Penguin and Marja Mills have marketed this book, which is to claim it is an intimate portrait of a woman who willingly invited the author into her life, is problematic. Now, without Lee’s consent, accounts of morning coffee chats at McDonalds and trips to feed the ducks read a bit as though Mills preying on the vulnerability of two aged women. Given that the premise of the book is based on domesticity, the possibility that the friend next door was in fact an underhanded member of the press is unsettling.
Perhaps we should ignore the controversy, and focus instead on what critics have praised as a well-crafted, sensitive, and non-invasive biography of the author. The biography’s homely presentation has certainly been tainted by Lee’s statement, resulting in what the Boston Globe called “a sad denouement to an otherwise charmed relationship.” But it will surely sell and, with or without the consent of Lee, whet the appetites of readers who have waited decades to hear about the woman behind the masterpiece.
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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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