Sign in  |  Register

The New Criterion

It operates as a refuge for a civilizing element in short supply in contemporary America: honest criticism
- The Wall Street Journal



In case you missed it

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: May 22, 2015 04:39 PM

Sir Simon Rattle, the incumbent music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker

Recent links of note:

The GOP Candidates Most Likely to Be Left Out of the Debates
Harry Enten, FiveThirtyEight
The field for the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination is as crowded as it's ever been. So crowded, in fact, that getting all of the candidates on one stage for a debate is nearly impossible. Fox and CNN have said they will limit their debates to 10 participants, and Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight looks at who's most likely to miss the cut.

The Berlin Philharmonic Searches for a Messiah
Alex Ross, The New Yorker
Several weeks ago, the members of the Berlin Philharmonic sequestered themselves, conclave-like, to select a new music director. Their failure to reach a decision was the buzz of the music world. Alex Ross of The New Yorker weighs in on the cult of the conductor.

Clinton emails released
The Wall Street Journal
Tired of catching up on emails all week? Catch up on Hillary's instead. The Wall Street Journal has you covered.

The Brooklyn Museum's Creative Choice
Mostafa Heddaya, ARTINFO
The Brooklyn Museum raised a few eyebrows when it named Anne Pasternak its new director. Mostafa Heddaya weighs in, and shares a few thoughts from our own James Panero.

From our pages:

The moral of Caesar
Roger Kimball
On Barry Strauss's new biography of Julius Caesar.

E-mail to friend

The Critic's Notebook for May 18, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: May 19, 2015 12:16 PM


James Little, Darwin's Dilemma, 2014

Sign up to receive “The Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “The Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.


This week: Boethius, barriers, and baseless dreaming.

FictionThe Book of Aron: A Novel, by Jim Shepard (Knopf): During World War II, Aron and his family are forced from the Polish countryside into the Warsaw Ghetto.  As Aron slowly adapts to life inside the ghetto by learning to trade and smuggle, his parents are taken away from him. He is saved by Janusz Korczak, a former doctor who now runs the Warsaw orphanage. If Aron can escape before being sent with the rest to Treblinka, he will be able to expose the horrors of the ghetto to those on the outside. Jim Shepard (whose Like You’d Understand, Anyway was a National Book Award finalist) tells this harrowing and tragic story of a young Jewish boy’s effort to survive. —RH

Nonfiction: The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy, by Stephen Blackwood (Oxford University Press): Everybody—well, everybody with whom you or I consort—knows or at least knows of Boethius’s book The Consolation of Philosophy, a dark but glittering gem in the library of early Christian apologetics. It was written around 423 AD while its author was in prison awaiting execution, the method of which was uncertain but almost certainly grisly. Stephen Blackwood, the President of a fledgling classically-oriented institution called Ralston College in Savannah, Georgia, has just published an ambitious, learned, and meticulously observed study of Boethius’s great book called The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy. It is not, truth be told, light summer reading, but for anyone with a taste for close and humanistically informed analysis, it is utterly absorbing.  —RK

Poetry: Scattered at Sea, by Amy Gerstler (Penguin): Scaldlingly funny yet deeply serious, this eleventh collection of poetry draws from an array of sources ranging from the Babylonian Talmud to 1950s recipes in order to surface delightful surprises and often unnerving proof. Winner of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Gerstler’s work remains sly, subversive, and wildly imaginative. —CE

Art: James Little: Color/Barriers, New Paintings at June Kelly Gallery (May 14-June 23): Born in Memphis, Tennessee, James Little studied painting at New York’s Syracuse University through its Afro-American Studies Fellowship. During his time there in the 1970s, he crossed paths with two of the school’s most famous art-world graduates, Clement Greenberg and Hilton Kramer. Little took their formal influences and applied them to the history of pattern-making, from African sources to Renaissance tile work to neon street signs. A trailblazer of African-American abstraction, Little is now the recipient of a Metropolitan Transit Authority grant to fabricate his art for Queens's Jamaica Station, which is currently in production in Germany, and will go on view in early 2017. His silky encaustics, now on view at June Kelly, are always a must-see. —JP

Music: Susanna Mälkki Conducts the New York Philharmonic (May 21-23): This weekend will give us a possible glimpse of the future at the New York Philharmonic. Since the announcement of Alan Gilbert's upcoming departure, Susanna Mälkki's name has been tossed around in the conversation about potential successors. Beginning Thursday, she'll lead the Philharmonic in a program constructed around Brahms's masterful Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by Kirill Gerstein. Also on the program will be Brahms's impossibly lovely "St. Anthony" Variations and Tranquil Abiding by Jonathan Harvey. —ECS

Other: The New York Philharmonic's Annual Memorial Day Concert at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (Monday, May 25): There's the future, and then there's tradition. During this first performance in their annual series of summer concerts, the Phil will present Beethoven's Egmont Overture and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. Tickets are free and provided on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of the performance. —CE

From the archive: “Baseless dreaming”: the novels of Graham Greene, by Bruce Bawer: The author viewed the world only from the schoolyard.  

From our latest issue: The story of the grail, by Stefan Beck: Reviews of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro; John the Pupil by David Flusfeder; Know Your Beholder by Adam Rapp and Notes from a Dead House by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

E-mail to friend

When titans converge

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: May 18, 2015 12:37 PM

James Levine

Some concerts look great on paper—and prove not to be in the hall. Some concerts look weak on paper—and prove great in the hall.

Carnegie Hall’s concert on Sunday afternoon looked great—practically historic—on paper. In the hall, it was impressive indeed, possibly great. There was certainly great music-making in the course of it.

On hand were the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; its music director, James Levine; and the pianist Yefim Bronfman. The program consisted of the Brahms Concerto No. 1 in D minor and the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique.

Before I start reviewing, let me say that I have high standards—maybe unfairly high standards—for Levine and Bronfman. The former is a great and historic conductor (and no mean pianist); the latter is a great and historic pianist. Moreover, the Brahms concerto is up their alley, to put it mildly.

And if I have high standards—stratospheric standards—for these two musicians, they are to blame (or credit). They have established those standards over the years.

From Levine and the orchestra, the concerto did not start with perfect crispness. But the playing was soon warm and big-boned—Brahmsian. When Bronfman came in, he was muddy, which is uncharacteristic. He also had a clinker or two. He seemed off his game, not quite ready to play.

When he got to the octaves, however, he was superb—himself. He demonstrated that bear-like playing at which he’s so good.

Throughout the first movement, and indeed throughout the concerto, there was some disunity, some lack of coordination, between conductor and soloist. (At intermission, a patron would ask me, “Do you think they rehearsed?”) Also, much of the music was loud and undifferentiated. Climaxes did not have their full effect.

No one is better in the slow movement, Adagio, than Bronfman—at least that is my experience. He captures the composer’s religioso feeling. He emits the holy glow.

He did this pretty well on Sunday afternoon. Levine got a hushed holiness from the orchestra. The movement was beautifully paced and breathed.

Both musicians, I believe, were at their best when the music was fat and loud. At the piano, no one is better at fat and loud than Bronfman. On the podium, no one is better at fat and loud than Levine (think Meistersinger overture).

As he began the Rondo, Bronfman was not in perfect tempo. But this is part of the excitement of live performance, I think. Live performance is a different cat from studio exactitude and studiedness.

Some of Bronfman’s passagework was marvelously smooth. His trilling was exemplary. Some of his playing was overly heavy and loud (and rushed too). In the final section (Più animato), Bronfman wanted to go far faster than Levine, I believe. The conductor held him back. This was a pity. And the very last pages were sloppy in their rhythm.

I have picked on this performance, and could pick some more. Was I glad to have heard it? Oh, heavens yes. It was a privilege.

The Symphonie fantastique, recall, is in five movements, beginning with “Reveries, Passions.” In this movement, Levine was his classic self. The music was precise, alive, and fresh-scrubbed. It was tight as a drum. Szell, under whom Levine apprenticed in Cleveland, would have smiled (which was not his specialty).

Two months ago, Levine conducted The Tales of Hoffmann, the Offenbach opera, at the Met. He brought a marvelous discipline to it. I have often commented on Levine’s “Beethoven-like Wagner.” He can conduct Beethoven-like Offenbach, too. And Berlioz.

I’m not sure “Reveries, Passions” was very French, or very dreamy, but it was filling and satisfying.

The next movement, “A Ball,” did not quite work, in my opinion. It was too unbending. It needed more suppleness and grace and pliancy.

About the ensuing movements, however, even I can’t cavil. The orchestra was virtuosic—not sounding like an opera band at all. (No offense to opera bands.) The “March to the Scaffold” and the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” were tight, bristling, and exciting. They could have used more voodoo—more freaky electricity—being a little on the commonsensical side. But there I go again, caviling.

I recalled another Berlioz performance, conducted by Levine, in this same Carnegie Hall, some years ago. It was of La damnation de Faust. That was one hair-raising horse ride into hell.

At one juncture on Sunday afternoon, Levine’s baton flew out of his hand, and was retrieved by a violinist. Plenty of conductors have gone without a baton—Stokowski, Masur, and Gergiev, to name three. Levine did not have to do so for long.

After the concert, some of us talked animatedly about what had occurred. Was it a great concert? It undoubtedly had greatness in it. I am stirred up by it even now. 

E-mail to friend

More proof from Kissin

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: May 18, 2015 12:34 PM

Evgeny Kissin

Evgeny Kissin, the Russian-born pianist, began his recital at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night with Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata. An electric current ran through the opening measures. Right through to the end of the first movement, the current never left. Kissin played with graceful intensity.

There’s a phrase I have never used before: “graceful intensity.”

I was braced for some bluntness and percussiveness from Kissin, for those have been hallmarks of his playing over the years. But they never really came. And his storms—Beethoven’s storms—were perfectly stormy.

After the first movement, people applauded Kissin, which I couldn’t blame them for. The composer, I think, would have applauded, too.

In the slow movement, I was braced for harsh accents. Kissin can really sock or jab notes. There was a catch-phrase on the old Laugh-In show: “Sock it to me.” Also, I was braced for some thumping. Kissin has been a thumper through much of his career.

He socked some notes, yes, in Beethoven’s slow movement. But he socked them in relation to one another, if you know what I mean. The sockings were in balance, proportional. As for thumping, it was kept to a minimum.

The closing Rondo, Kissin played with tingling evenness. There’s another phrase I don’t think I have ever written before. It describes the music—this rondo—as well as Kissin’s playing of it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have never heard a better performance of the “Waldstein,” live. I’m not sure I have heard better on a recording.

Kissin continued his recital with a Prokofiev sonata, No. 4 in C minor, Op. 29. This is an example of quirky, intense, youthful Prokofiev. He was a tiger at the piano (both in his composing and in his playing). Kissin was a tiger, too, on Saturday night. He played the sonata with understanding. Is that because he was born in the Soviet Union? No, it’s because he’s a good musician.

The final movement begins with a joyous outburst, and the music keeps on bursting, joyously. Kissin could have been more joyous in this music. He was slightly mechanical and plodding. Kissin is a head-nodder. As a rule, head-nodders play bluntly and “vertically.” And ploddingly. Kissin has a bit of this affliction, but there is abundant compensation.

For example, the sheer accuracy with which he played the last movement was phenomenal.

After intermission, he played two sets of Chopin: three nocturnes and six mazurkas. Chopinesque lyricism is not what Kissin is best at. But he was sufficiently lyrical in the nocturnes. The last of the set, the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, was outstanding. Kissin played it with its nobility, majesty, and drive (an unhurried drive, an inevitability).

The mazurkas are not easy to shape. But Kissin did this well. And each mazurka had its basic character.

He ended the printed program with some Liszt, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 in A minor, which plays with the Rakoczy March. Kissin’s own playing was wizardly, superhuman—and at the same time very musical.

The audience was thrilled, and Kissin gave them three encores, ending with the march from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges. The audience would have had him play long into the night, as he has done before. But he stopped at the three. This was smart, I suppose: Leave ’em wanting more.

I remember when I turned a corner on Kissin, or rather, thought he had turned a corner. It was in March 2011, when he played an all-Liszt recital at Carnegie Hall. (This was in the Liszt bicentennial year, when there were lots of all-Liszt recitals.) Kissin had always been a brilliant pianist, if a flawed one. Now he appeared as a great pianist.

And so he is.

E-mail to friend

The irresistible shtick of Stephanie Blythe

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: May 18, 2015 12:32 PM

Stephanie Blythe

At a late point in her career, Marilyn Horne started singing pops recitals. I flatter myself to think that I coined the term. One had always heard of “pops concerts.” (Where have they gone, by the way?) Anyway, Horne did these recitals extremely well, as she did everything extremely well.

On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, another American mezzo-soprano, Stephanie Blythe, sang a pops recital. Actually, it was more like a cabaret recital. Blythe has always been good at popular music. For years, one of her favorite encores has been “What’ll Do,” by Irving Berlin. She sings it simply, unfussily, and heartbreakingly.

She walked out onto the stage last week, blonde, to a rapturous ovation. Then she started to recite texts. She and her accompanist, Warren Jones, do this. Blythe does not permit the publication of song texts in the program. She and Jones recite the texts, before each set (or most sets).

I think this is wrong—an imposition on the audience—but I wrote about it once before (here) and don’t need to belabor my opposition. Besides, Blythe is the boss of her own recitals, and rightly so.

The first half of the recital was French, consisting of Poulenc, Ferré, and Brel. That middle composer is Léo Ferré, who lived from 1916 to 1993. From his pen, Blythe sang “La vie antérieure” and “L’invitation au voyage.” We may well recognize these Baudelaire poems from songs by Henri Duparc. Ferré’s version of “La vie antérieure” is placid and enchanting. In the accompaniment, Warren Jones was smoove, as we used to say in Detroit.

Generally speaking, Blythe sang her French songs straightforwardly and non-cutesily. This was to her credit (and an advantage to the music). Blythe has a very big voice, as everyone knows. But it is also a beautiful voice, and, more than that, an interesting one. There is some brass in her—some Merman—but also creaminess and subtlety. Moreover, she enjoys words, and handles them effectively.

So personable is Stephanie Blythe—so overwhelming is she in her personal style and shtick—that you can forget she is singing well. And on this occasion, she sang very well indeed. Her intonation was secure. She did not sing many notes above the “break”—not many notes up in her head—but those she did sing were really, really good.

The second half of her recital was British. It began with the Cabaret Songs of Britten and ended with a smattering of numbers by Noël Coward. The Coward songs are brilliant and hilarious (and sometimes touching). Blythe sang them brilliantly and hilariously (and sometimes touchingly). Personally, I would much rather hear Blythe sing them than Coward himself.

What she did with “Mrs. Worthington” was especially winning. Mrs. Worthington’s daughter is a big girl with a loud voice, and of course Blythe had fun with this, but not too much fun—she is a tasteful fun-haver. Her musical and theatrical sense will not let her self-parody.

It is possible to be cynical about Blythe’s shtick, and I realize that it’s not to everyone’s taste—but I find it impossible to resist, for long. This is because Blythe is sincere and generous, as well as super-talented. Also, she’s unique. There is really no one else like her, and this can be said of not very many.

She did not sing “What’ll I Do,” but she closed her evening with another Berlin song, “Always.” The man beside me started to sing, softly. Eventually, Blythe invited the entire audience to sing along with her. This was very moving. Blythe had a lot to do with it—her obvious liberality of heart—and so did Berlin.

There is a story about “Always,” a story that breaks down in one respect. I’ll tell it anyway. A student once asked, “Mr. Berlin, of all the songs you have written, which is your favorite?” He answered, “‘Always.’”

Here’s where the story breaks down, because it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have the gumption to say what the student allegedly said. Anyway, on with the story:

The student said, “But Mr. Berlin, ‘Always’ is such a simple song. Anyone could have written it.” The composer replied, “That’s true, but I did.”

E-mail to friend

In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: May 15, 2015 02:41 PM

Pablo Picasso, The Women of Algiers (Version ‘O’), 1955.

Sold for $179.4 million at Christie’s this week, an all-time record.


Recent links of note:

Columbia students claim Greek mythology needs a trigger warning
Michael E. Miller, Washington Post
Just wait until they get to actual history. 

What's the point of a professor?
Mark Bauerlein, The New York Times
"When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples."

Art has ceased to be beautiful or interesting—but we are more obsequious than ever to artists. 
Stephen Bayley, The Spectator
Luckily for you, discerning reader, here at TNC we call it as we see it. 

Robert Macfarlane, Orion Magazine
"Chatroom" overrides "cygnet" and "broadband" kills "bluebell." The language of nature is falling out of use. 

WHO issues best practices for naming new human infectious diseases.
World Health Organization
Are you of Iberian descent and offended by the Spanish Flu? WHO stands with you. 


From our pages:

Donatello & friends at the Duomo
Marco Grassi
On “Sculpture in the Age of Donatello" at The Museum of Biblical Art.

E-mail to friend

Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone.

by Kyle Smith

Posted: May 13, 2015 03:25 PM

Brian d'Arcy James and the cast of Something Rotten!

Consider how embarrassing it is to sit for two hours with an infantile look of vapid bliss smeared all over one’s features and you’ll have some idea of how worrisome is Broadway’s new musical Something Rotten! (the St. James Theatre). To the phlegmatic, the curmudgeonly, or the impassive, the show is a positive menace. Any time a critic has to suppress the urge to dash up to the stage and heave flowers at the performers’ feet, something feels amiss.

This adorable new musical, which radiates the sublime silliness of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Spamalot, takes place in an Elizabethan age refracted through the lens of Entertainment Tonight. Nick Bottom (Brian D’Arcy James) is a talentless playwright trying to crawl out from beneath the shadow cast by Shakespeare (a priceless Christian Borle), who is portrayed as a sexier and more popular version of Mick Jagger.

This Bard (“Why is he ‘The Bard’?” complains Nick. “He’s a bard. Just like I’m a bard, you’re a bard. He’s just one of the bards!”) swaggers onto the stage in leather trousers as maidens sigh and gentlemen cheer. “Name one thing of his that’s funny,” says Nick, jealous. Comes the response (from Romeo and Juliet): “On my word, we’ll not carry coals for then we should be colliers!” A crowd of theater-lovers dissolves into helpless laughter at the mot.

Bottom wants to write a play that will make him the next Shakespeare, but he’s a hack—unlike his younger brother Nigel (John Cariani), who has a serene poetic sensibility that’s the opposite of Nick’s lust for fame. The brilliant and farcical twist is that Shakespeare, at this particular moment, is paralyzed by writer’s block and puts on a disguise to sneak into rehearsals of Nick Bottom’s play so he can steal ideas.

Bottom learns from a soothsayer named Nostradamus (“The Nostradamus?” “No. I’m his nephew.”) about an idea for a play that will become the biggest success ever to hit the stage: it involves ham-something, involves Danish. “So there’s some sort of breakfast theme?” asks Bottom. Yes, that’s it exactly: the play shall be called Omelette. Shakespeare, in disguise, hears all this and starts thinking about ways the material could possibly be tweaked.

Nostradamus (played by Brad Oscar with a kind of Nathan Lane irrepressibility) and Shakespeare have so many brilliant lines that James as Nick Bottom need only play the befuddled straight man, a role he pulls off competently if not expertly. As in The Producers, there is a hilariously misguided play within a play (Omelette turns out to be a splashy musical with dancing girls completely concealed by egg costumes) and much of the humor is lovingly directed at Broadway itself. In one dizzyingly rapid-fire number, Nostradamus conjures up the idea of a play interrupted with songs, and the actors and songwriters riff deliriously on dozens of the most famous exemplars of the prophecy. For theater geeks, this provides something like the exhilaration of a 20-car chase in a Fast and Furious movie.  

What makes Something Rotten! both something familiar and something peculiar (as well as something for everyone) is its engaging, almost quaint respect for the art of making jokes, with a clean setup-payoff structure enabled by precise timing. “I have a question about motivation,” an actor says to Bottom. “Yes?” replies Bottom. “Why,” says the actor, “haven’t you given up yet?” Sometimes this style of humor is derided as “borscht belt” or “Catskills-style.” A better word for it would be “funny.” The book is by a pair of gifted comic talents: John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick, whose credits include the animated film Chicken Run.

The songs (music and lyrics by Kirkpatrick and his brother Wayne) aren’t melodically inventive, but they provide a seamless match with the book’s high silliness, piling one joke atop another in a dizzying heap. When Thomas Nostradamus conjures up the idea for the musical, he sings, “We’ve got snappy repartee/ And the women are risque/ And the chorus boys are kinda gay.”

Something Rotten! looks like a certain hit, but will it take its place alongside A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum among the purest comic delights ever to play on Broadway? I don’t think so. Unlike Forum, Something Rotten somewhat fades in the second act. The songs aren’t as brilliant, the plot becomes fixated on the lackluster secondary character Nigel Bottom, and the habit of raiding the cupboard for musical theater references becomes both a bit predictable and a little too easy: Hardly anything comes more naturally to Broadway than good-naturedly zinging itself. At times Something Rotten! threatens to become overwhelmed by the in-jokes and turn into a mere revue akin to the long-running show Forbidden Broadway.

I quibble. A musical that can fairly be compared to The Producers or Spamalot deserves its huzzahs. Now that Something Rotten!’s director Casey Nicholaw (who also choreographed Spamalot) has proven he can satirize the Bard with fond gusto, one can hardly fail to be excited to see what he will do with truly immortal material when he takes on his next project: Animal House: The Musical.

E-mail to friend

The Critic's Notebook for May 12, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: May 12, 2015 09:39 PM


Dan Rees, Artex Painting, 2014. On view at Frieze New York


Sign up to receive “The Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “The Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.


This week: Poets, Millionaires, and Liaisons Dangereuses.

FictionThe Green Road: A Novel, by Anne Enright (Norton): Enright, winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, has crafted a vibrant and moving portrait of a family at the brink of facture, set in a small town on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. The novel spans thirty years and tells the story of Rosaleen, the matriarch of the Madigan family, whose four children have left west Ireland for lives varied and difficult in New York, Dublin, and West Africa. When Rosaleen announces her plans to sell their childhood home, Ardeevin, her adult children return home for a last Christmas together, desperately attempting to recover lost relationships and forge missing ones anew.  —CE

Nonfiction: The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio, by Andrea Mays (Simon & Schuster): Seven years after Shakespeare died in 1616, his friends and business partners John Heminges and Henry Condell collected thirty-six of his plays into one volume as a tribute to their lost companion. Fast-forward to the turn of the twentieth century, and Henry Clay Folger, a New York industrialist, becomes obsessed with collecting copies of the First Folio, among other Shakespeare-related items. In The Millionaire and the Bard, Andrea Mays recounts how Folger collected eighty-two First Folios and eventually established the Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. —RH

Poetry: The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry, by Helen Vendler (Harvard):  In a collection named after her 2004 Jefferson Lecture, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ highest honor for achievement in the humanities, the formidable poetry critic Helen Vendler gathers together over two decades of essays, book reviews, and prose examining a broad range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English, Irish, and American poets. Taken together, her writings serve as an eloquent argument for the necessity of poetry both in humanistic study and in modern life.  —CE

Art: Frieze New York (May 14-17): For the fourth year in a row, Frieze returns to New York's Randall’s Island with its tent revival art fair. Who needs La Serenissima when you have the East River? Frieze was a frozen treat at its launch in 2012, but in subsequent years the formula never quite stuck together. Will this year see another thaw? The boat ride there and the venue itself, with a tent that feels like the inside of an iPad, can be worth the visit, even if the art is a drip. —JP

Music: Stephanie Blythe and Warren Jones at Carnegie Hall (Friday, May 15): I have long harbored a particular fondness for the songs of Noël Coward; among his musical offerings, the best remembered today are those of blistering wit ("Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans," "The Stately Homes of England"), but he penned a handful of songs that stand out for their entrancing melodies, as well ("A Room with a View," among others). One of my favorites, "Mad About the Boy," is certainly of the latter category, possessed of a smoky, sultry, and soulful melody (and, in its full version, riotous humor), and it will feature on the marvelous Stephanie Blythe's recital at Carnegie Hall this Friday. Blythe, justly renowned for her Verdian and Wagnerian roles, also has a natural grasp of the cabaret style, and I have no doubt she'll do justice to this classic, as well as to her other selections by Poulenc, Britten, and Brel. The celebrated Warren Jones will accompany her on the piano. —ECS

From the archive: Seductive monsters: Laclos’s “Liasons dangereuses”, by Renee Winegarten: A salacious work with a tacked-on “moral,” or a book with a deeper intention?

From our latest issue: The heresy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, by Andrew C. McCarthy: Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book argues that the time for a Muslim reformation is now.



E-mail to friend

Levine's Progress

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: May 12, 2015 02:17 PM

James Levine; photo by Jonathan Tichler

The Metropolitan Opera season has now ended, and it ended with James Levine conducting a doubleheader: The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky) and Un ballo in maschera (Verdi) on Saturday. It is remarkable, and remarkably good, to have Levine back, after a host of medical problems sidelined him. Every performance seems like a bonus.

I heard Levine conduct The Rake’s Progress on Monday, May 4. This opera, as you know, is an example of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical style. It is based on the engravings of Hogarth, and the libretto is by Auden (with Chester Kallman). The Met’s production is that of 1997 by Jonathan Miller (now Sir Jonathan).

Levine was not at his crispest and sharpest the night I heard him. He did not have his A game, as Tiger Woods might say. (Woods has had a worse decade than Levine.) His conducting could have been both crisper and lither. More graceful. It was sometimes a bit heavy, borderline clumsy.

But my standards for Levine are very high, as his own standards are. That he conducted commendably almost goes without saying.

The Met orchestra played well for Levine, and this is especially true of the winds. The Rake’s Progress is a workout for winds. Usually the strings have pride of place. Stravinsky puts other players, other sections, in the sun.

Singing the role of Tom Rakewell was Paul Appleby, the American tenor. He is sweet-voiced and pure. A bigger voice might have been desirable, but Appleby could be heard, and he did not force. One of the things I admired about him is that he kept everything simple. He did not permit complications. He just “let it happen.” “’Tis the gift to be simple.”

As the opera unfolded, I thought, “Appleby does not have much of a presence onstage. There is not much magnetism coming from him.” But, you know? Appleby’s Rakewell was a kind of Everyman, which is not a bad thing.

Singing his true love, or discarded true love—namely, Anne Trulove—was Layla Claire, the Canadian soprano. She is lissome and endearing. She made a splendid Anne Trulove—except when it perhaps counted most, I’m sorry to say. That was in the aria that begins “No word from Tom.”

I sometimes think of this multi-sectioned aria as Stravinsky’s “Come scoglio” (referring to a soprano aria in Mozart’s Così fan tutte).

Claire was simply not ready to sing the aria, especially its final, fast section. She did not have the flexibility. Her pitch was uncertain. Her rhythm was sloppy. She took an awkward breath before the ending high C, and that C was wretched. She held it very briefly, which was wise. Ideally, the note spins and spins.

This aria ought to be thrilling—maybe the high point of the opera, for me—and it was a letdown.

I have written harshly about Layla Claire, but let me emphasize that she handled most of her role beautifully. And that she is a lovable, talented, and valuable singer.

Gerald Finley, the Canadian bass-baritone, was Nick Shadow, i.e., the devil, and he was suavely sinister. Finley is so polished and intelligent, I sometimes think he is too much so (which is strange). Stephanie Blythe, the American mezzo, stole scenes as Baba the Turk, as she always does.

There was another mezzo onstage, Margaret Lattimore, as the brothelkeeper. (This character is the whorehouse equivalent of a playing manager in baseball.) It is always good to hear Lattimore’s sizable and glowing voice. A British bass, Brindley Sherratt, sang Father Trulove, and he did so in a gravely paternal manner, which was just right.

Back to Levine. His season is not quite over, for he leads the Met orchestra in Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon. The program is the Brahms D-minor piano concerto, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist, and the Symphonie fantastique (Berlioz). On paper, this is a great concert. What will it be like in the hall? Stay tuned . . .


E-mail to friend

Westminster Election Diary

by David Pryce-Jones

Posted: May 08, 2015 01:36 PM


May 8th. 16.00 hours. High Noon.

One of Winston Churchill’s most famous bon mots is that democracy is the worst of systems except for all the others. What a tribute!  If Britain were a third world country this election would have ended in violence. Instead, the country’s political scene has been cleansed with an efficiency only slightly less brutal than that of the firing-squad. Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, leaders of three parties unable to perform, had all resigned by lunchtime and will not be heard from any more. The electorate had the chance to expel unwanted figures into the limbo reserved for politicians who failed the tests they are expected to pass.
Out with George Galloway, voluntary trumpeter of Arab dictators. Out with Ed Balls, whose ideological games had wrecked the economy. Out with Vince Cable, who embodied disloyalty to colleagues. Nothing is to be learnt from them and numerous others of the same stamp.  The fate of Ed Miliband, though, has a moral. He intrigued against his brother David, in order to appropriate his place as leader of the Labour Party, only to fail in that position without any possibility of reprieve. The ancient Greeks attributed such self-seeking to hubris, with the necessary payoff of nemesis. This election offers an unforgettable illustration of this age-old understanding of cause and effect in human affairs.

May 8. 0600 hours. First light.

 “But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.” Writing that immortal line, G.K. Chesterton was trusting the governed to get the measure of their governors. Getting that measure is the contribution of the people of England to the common good. And gracious heavens, against all forecasts the people of England have done it again. The pundits repeated in unanimous chorus that the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck. Through the night, though, the Conservatives were winning seats by ever-larger margins, and Labour was losing them. By now, David Cameron is evidently able to form a Conservative government unshackled by a coalition. The astonishment and disbelief of those chorusing pundits, especially on the BBC, is a comedy that lightens the spirits.  

The cause of the Labour downfall is simple enough. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, proves to be a hard-line Leftist, believing that the state should control the individual and the individual should have no control over the state. Resenting capitalism, he wants to control markets and punish through taxation everyone who has benefitted from markets. He reminds me of Mikhael Gorbachev, whose policy of perestroika was supposed to have the edge over reality. One look at him has been enough for the people of England.  

The Scottish National Party has captured an almost clean sweep of the Scottish seats, thus smashing beyond repair the previous Labour monopoly. A twenty-year-old student, in one startling instance, has trounced an experienced former cabinet minister. Culturally distinct from the English, the people of Scotland are wandering away into another imaginary landscape of socialism and nationalism. Now where have we had examples of this combination, and has any good ever come of it?


May 7, Midnight. The Witching Hour.

There are still a few generous Londoners who invite their friends to come to their houses during the fraught hours when the votes in a general election are being counted. One such host is Tom Stacey, who has behind him a long and glittering career in publishing and journalism. The crowds in his house have a touch of the fever that is current once the polls have closed and the votes are being counted. Exit polls are only temperature tests, but one of 20,000 voters gives the Conservatives 319, just short of the magic 326 and so in need of a coalition. That same poll puts Labour at 239, plainly second by a long way.

In the previous parliament the minority Conservatives were able to govern because a coalition with the Liberal Democrats produced a majority of 72. Pro-Europe, climate change enthusiasts, pacifists, and always politically correct, Liberal Democrat voters are so disgusted that their party leaders out of pure opportunism formed a coalition with the Conservatives that they have deserted the party. The exit poll gives them just 10 seats, which would leave a renewed coalition with a majority of one.

In the event that the Conservatives cannot find coalition partners, Labour could try to cobble together all the parties of the Left. Ed Balls, a Labour former Chancellor of the Exchequer, came on to the BBC to explain how this trick might be performed, his face gleaming with dishonesty. Scotland was a Labour fiefdom, but the exit poll gives the Scottish National Party 58 of the 59 Scottish seats: in short, it will have eradicated and humiliated Labour. Balls speaks as if a coalition of these two leftist enemies was natural, viable, likely; an admirable way of throwing Conservatives out of the window.

Two conclusions emerge on the horizon. With many fewer votes than the Conservatives, Labour seems willing to try to govern by hook or crook. The absence of legitimacy would certainly destabilize the country. Meanwhile, the frenzy of Scottish nationalism looks set to break apart the United Kingdom.

The night is young, and mischief is afoot.


May 7, 1500 hours. Election day in England. 

In the Conservative corner, David Cameron, the present Prime Minister. In the Socialist corner Ed (false bonhomie for Edward) Miliband. It came to me lately that my judgement is coloured by having known the fathers of both these politicians. I was at school with Ian Cameron. Born without heels, he had to undergo many operations. Wearing specially made boots that could not really compensate for the handicap, he played football. Everyone admired the courage. Then when I was literary editor of Time and Tide, a weekly magazine, Ralph Miliband used to come round to the office trying to wheedle into print his childish Marxistic apologias. Yesterday, in a lengthy and detailed profile on Sky Television, a man who knew him well said that Ed was different from Ralph only in the one respect: that he planned to put his utopia in place without violence.

Never mind his startling record of incompetence and ignorance, the implicit class warfare ought to be enough to sink Miliband, his colleagues and his party—but it isn’t so. The Westminster parliament consists of 650 seats, and normally in our two-party system whoever obtains the majority of 326 and upwards forms the government. Recent polls, as well as Cameron and Miliband on the hustings, all estimate that Conservatives and Labour will both finish somewhere in the range of 280 to 300 seats. One prospect, therefore, is the minority government of one or other of the parties, by its nature short-term and unstable.

But special interest groups have mortally wounded the two-party system. Large numbers of Conservatives have split to form the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), for the purpose of leaving the European Union. Instead of wooing them, Cameron has been inexplicably off-hand, not to say offensive. With parlous symmetry, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is predicted to take all 59 constituencies in Scotland, almost all of which had previously been Labour.

Miliband therefore could obtain fewer seats than Cameron but nonetheless entice the SNP into a coalition, in which case Scots as nationalists would be governing the English. Gnomic pronouncements from Labour politicians suggest that Miliband is indeed planning to set up a government cobbled out of the SNP and other minority parties. The lack of legitimacy would be an unwelcome novelty, nothing less than the democratic version of a coup.

My polling station happened to be in the ominously named Macbeth Street. "Double, double, toil and trouble," I told myself. “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.”


E-mail to friend

The New Criterion

About ArmaVirumque


( 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.


Follow us on Twitter:




To contact The New Criterion by email, write to:



Subscribe to our newsletter!

* indicates required