by Walker Mimms
I first encountered the work of the English philosopher Bernard Williams in an early undergraduate course on ethics. The essay was one of Williams’s classics—“A Critique of Utilitarianism.” When I think back on the course, this little piece of criticism is, often before the giants that overshadowed it, among the first to come to mind, for a number of reasons. The confidence of Williams’s grasp on hairy distinctions, with their “barbarous,” jargony names; the vividness of his thought experiments; the broadness of his view, which lifted such minute study to a real sense of purpose: “No one can hold,” he begins, “that everything, of whatever category that has value, has it in virtue of its consequences.” Here was a real writer.
Well before his death a decade ago, Williams had established himself as one of our most important academic moral philosophers, and I suspect that he will be best remembered in the university. But an excellent new collection of his book reviews and short essays (Essays and Reviews, 1959–2002) ought to usher in a different perspective of Williams. The volume’s seventy-one pieces are bite-sized—most are three or four pages in length—and were written for public consumption. Williams takes the capsule format of the Sunday-morning periodical as a challenge, and the result is a distinctly human approach to the books that were assigned him.
Williams’s sensitivity as a reader is one of the greatest assets of these reviews. He treats works of philosophy not just as analyses of ideas, but as books—to be read, understood, and enjoyed by human beings. He accuses Basil Willey of injecting his own staleness into a summary of Locke, who “is a confused thinker, indeed, but not boringly so, because his confusions are those of a highly intelligent and honest man trying to stand upright on intellectual ground that is shifting under his feet.” And he writes of a somewhat scattered assemblage of lectures by Charles Taylor that “the air of informality and disorder has some rewards—even its own authority. As a stiffly presented treatise, the book would have had not merely less appeal, but less force.” Williams is at his wittiest here, too. He uses his first sentence on Kenneth Gergen’s The Saturated Self, to him a particularly muddled piece of postmodern confusion, as a warning: “This is not a book about alcoholism.”
The essays can be savored piecemeal but are more powerful in number. To flip through them is to flip through the past forty years of our intellectual history by way of its seminal texts. The pieces touch on all branches of philosophy, but one of the most instructive threads to follow has to do with Williams’s specialty: the way we look at questions of morality.
Take logical positivism, for example, a school of strict empiricism that threatened once and for all to put an end to circuitous, pedantic ethical debates. The positivists, most famously Alfred Ayer, insisted that since normative words like “good” or “just” are not verifiable by observation, they must be simply meaningless. All of traditional ethics out the window. By the forties this scientific approach had become the fashion.
Williams’s essays enter the death rattle of this approach in media res. In Ayer’s 1963 Concept of a Person, he detects the author’s own waning adherence to it. By 1968 Williams all but dismisses it. And by the seventies, we see positivism recede into the past, notable for its large ripples of influence—on a 1974 book of John Wisdom essays, for example—but no longer a vigorous part of the conversation.
It was not that the positivists’ conundrum had been solved. It still is, in a sense, irrefutable. What Williams salutes in his reviews is not the attempt to solve the conundrum but, instead, the circumvention of it. One result of this sidestepping was that old schools of ethics were dusted off. By 1976, the resurgence is palpable: “The harsh theoretical disjunction between fact and value has been modified; the reluctance of philosophers to come out with normative statements is much less apparent.” Williams had the foresight to document the best of this movement as it unfolded. It is a treat to be able to follow it so vividly.
Williams recognized how influential John Rawls’s 1971 Theory of Justice would be, correctly predicting that it would “change the basis of discussion over a large area for a long time to come.” Ten years later, in After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre proposes a return to Aristotle’s virtue ethics as the only way to set things aright: “It is itself one of MacIntyre’s most illuminating exaggerations to claim that this is the only choice that we have.” In between and after these, a host of other revivers of moral and political philosophy swarms by—among them, Robert Nozick, Iris Murdoch, and Martha Nussbaum.
Williams’s attentiveness to our remote and immediate intellectual heritage is strong in his reviews, and is made stronger by the journalistic nature of the book. He mentions twice an unnamed American philosopher, emboldened, no doubt, by the positivists’ scientific approach, who hung a sign on his office door: Just say NO to the history of philosophy. The historical journeys afforded by this new collection are themselves an answer to this. Like Locke, we are always standing on shifting intellectual ground. It is all the more necessary for us to understand why the ground is shifting, and that this is neither the first nor the last tremor. It is fitting that the final piece, one of Williams’s last, is a longish essay on “Why Philosophy Needs History.” It amplifies the preceding pages: “Philosophical analysis without history encourages us to think that these concepts, so central to our thought, must always have existed, and that to the extent that members of oral cultures did not recognize the distinctions, they were in a muddle. They were not.”
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Valery Gergiev; photo: The Mariinsky Foundation of America
I had the pleasure this past Friday of hearing an exceptional concert at Carnegie Hall. It was the Munich Philharmonic—Maybe not an orchestra on everyone's top-10 list, but a very good orchestra nonetheless. They happened to have with them a conductor who is, in fact, on a lot of top-10 lists in Valery Gergiev.
Lorin Maazel was supposed to conduct the weekend’s concerts but had to withdraw due to illness. The Saturday crowd ended up with Fabio Luisi, and we got Gergiev, fresh off a plane from Europe and due to fly to London at 5:00 AM.
Before Friday, I had mostly heard Gergiev lead Russian rep—Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Borodin: The greats who earned and affirmed Russia's place at the table of Western concert music. On those occasions, he was brilliant, and on Friday he was brilliant as well, this time giving us Strauss.
Also sprach Zarathustra has by this point almost lost its own unique force, so strongly has it become associated with Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is, of course, much more than that oft-heard excerpt, covering a range of atmospheres and characterizations. Like much of Strauss's music, it is viscous stuff, powerful in the right hands, but opaque and even soporific if mishandled.
Gergiev's reading thrilled. Despite a brass hiccup during the opening bars, the “Sunrise” segment was stunning in its raw power before the strings began to take over with velvet sound and acute sensitivity. Like many baton-less conductors, Gergiev has a firm grasp of the music’s flesh, and a clear understanding of its grand sweep, even if details occasionally get lost.
Emmanuel Ax, taking on Strauss’s raucous Burleske, reminded us all of just why his is a household name. He still has the chops to tackle treacherous passagework with an ease that allows his runs to flow rather than pop. There was some blurring here and there, but brightness and puckishness stood out in his playing. The only thing that really detracted from his performance was the piano itself—The instrument he had chosen was beyond muted, lacking the bursting, energetic quality that this piece needs, and occasionally getting swallowed up by the orchestra entirely.
As an encore, Ax gave us an absolutely breathtaking account of Brahms’s Intermezzo in B-flat minor. He melted one phrase into the next, tugging every heartstring, and displaying some of the most gorgeous and free-floating lyricism you’ll ever hear out of a piano.
Closing with Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (“Merry Pranks”), Gergiev showed the same attention to texture and composition that he had in Also sprach Zarathustra, but the difference was an audible and remarkable sense of humor, immediately apparent in the lilting clip of the horn solo. It is a dense and active score, and Gergiev managed to wring ebullient joy out of it, achieving both grace and capriciousness at once. He is due to take over as the Music Director in Munich in 2015; his other major project, the Mariinsky Orchestra, has risen to the very highest tier of international prominence under his leadership. A decade from now, Munich may be a top-10 orchestra, after all.
Much has been made recently of Gergiev’s political entanglements, particularly his close association with Vladimir Putin. Earlier in the season, he was heckled for not taking a firm enough stance against Russia’s repugnant new laws prohibiting “gay propaganda.” A few weeks ago, just when it seemed the furor over that controversy had passed, Gergiev’s signature appeared on a letter circulated by the Ministry of Culture in support of the Great Crimean Adventure. (For what it’s worth, The New York Times reported that three of the names on the letter appeared without the artists’ permission, and one other belonged to a deceased person.) Predictably, and understandably, a small group of protesters gathered in front of Carnegie Hall on Friday night, draped in blue and yellow.
Karl Böhm comparisons have been thrown around freely, probably too freely. After Gergiev’s repeated shows of support for Putin, many have demanded that the conductor denounce specific policies and actions that have caused consternation internationally, and many more have opined on the role of the artist in politics, specifically in a country whose appreciation of free speech is not so keen as our own. These are conversations worth having, but they have largely missed another very important historical point.
Even when Soviet-American tensions were at their height, Soviet artists appeared in American concert halls: David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Richter, Leonid Kogan, and others, among the greatest artists of the day, toured extensively in the United States, and our country’s artistic fabric was the richer for it. There were protests then, too, but they have largely been forgotten, as the cultural exchange those artists fostered did far more good than harm. It is worth considering whether Valery Gergiev’s appearances in America do more good than harm to our cultural landscape. Based on the artistic intensity of his work and the roaring enthusiasm it generates among audiences, I suspect they do.
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This week: Joseph Epstein on the state of criticism, the art of children's books, and abstraction in Chelsea.
Fiction: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Pantheon): Jake Whyte lives alone, raising sheep on a small island off the coast of Britain. At night, her flock is being picked off one-by-one. As Jake looks for the person—or creature—responsible for the killings, she revisits distant memories and a troubled past that led her from her native Australia to a life of isolation on the other side of the world. Named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, Wyld’s second novel is a strong follow-up to her debut, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice. Look for a review in the forthcoming issue of The New Criterion.
Nonfiction: Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): During the Spanish Civil War, people hoping to make gains in the fields of art, writing, and politics flocked to Madrid, many staying at Hotel Florida. Vaiil’s book focuses on three couples—Ernest Hemingway, whose career had stalled, and Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious young journalist; Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, bright-eyed photographers; Arturo Barea, the chief of Madrid’s foreign press office, and Ilsa Kulcsar, his Austrian deputy. These stories converge in a larger narrative about truth in reporting, and provide a snapshot of Europe on the brink of World War II. Look for a review in the forthcoming issue of The New Criterion.
Poetry: David Jones in the Great War by Thomas Dilworth (Enitharmon): This biography illuminates the life and work of David Jones. Jones was looking forward to a promising career as an artist and poet when World War I broke out. He joined the British army and survived the Somme, Ypres, and Passchendaele, serving in the same regiment as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. — DY
Art: “Mitt Paintings” at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York and “vis-à-vis” at The Painting Center, New York (both through April 19): This is the final week to see two abstract painting exhibitions on the same block in Chelsea that revel in the textures of oil and acrylic. Jules Olitski’s "Mitt Paintings" at Paul Kasmin are the finger paintings of the gods. On a more intimate scale, there's Emily Berger and Claire Seidl in “vis-à-vis” at The Painting Center. — JP
Music: I Puritani at the Metropolitan Opera (Thursday): In one of the season's most anticipated debuts, Olga Peretyatko will sing the role of Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani opposite Lawrence Brownlee as Arturo and Mariusz Kwiecen as her spurned fiancé Riccardo. Michele Mariotti, Ms. Peretyatko's husband, will conduct. — ES
Family: “The Little Prince: A New York Story” at The Morgan Library & Museum (through April 27): Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince endures as a ubiquitous children’s book. This exhibition takes a look at the American origins of the book, which was written and first published in New York. Combining twenty-five of Saint-Exupéry’s manuscript pages and all forty-three of the earliest versions of the book’s illustrations, this show is an intimate look at an iconic book.
Other: Lydia Davis and Jean Echenoz at 92Y (Thursday): Lydia Davis and Jean Echenoz talk about writing and their new books. David won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 and her new collection of short stories is Can’t and Won’t. Jean Echenoz won the Prix Goncourt for I’m Gone; his new novel is 1914.
From the archive: Reviewing and being reviewed by Joseph Epstein, December 1982: On the role of the critic and the state of literary criticism.
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Khatia Buniatashvili; photo by Julia Wesely
Last Monday night, Khatia Buniatishvili played a program in Weill Recital Hall (the upstairs venue at Carnegie Hall). She is a young pianist—age twenty-six—and as that “vili” in her name tells you, she’s from Georgia: the ex-Soviet kind, not the Jimmy Carter kind. There are now two “vilis” in our musical life, and their names are very similar. The other is the violinist Lisa Batiashvili.
I had reviewed an album of Khatia’s—all-Liszt—and reviewed it favorably. But I had never heard her in the flesh. If you really want to know about a musician, there is no substitute for live (and repeated hearings).
The young Georgian’s program choices at Weill did not beat around the bush. They were in-your-face, screaming “Romantic Piano Virtuoso!” She began with the Liszt Sonata—a work that often ends a program but seldom begins one. (In fact, Stephen Hough ended his recital at Alice Tully Hall yesterday with the sonata.) She then played La valse, the Ravel favorite. After intermission, she played Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor—the one with the funeral march—and closed the printed program with Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Pétrouchka.
To reiterate, all of these pieces require great technique and flair.
Speaking of flair, Buniatishvili emerged from the wings in a shiny silver dress, which said “Vegas.” The woman behind me remarked to the man she was with, “You don’t need to hear the music”—in other words, looking was enough.
In the early going of the Liszt, Buniatishvili was nervous, or so it seemed to me. She was tight, coiled, clenched. She loosened up a bit and found her groove. She reflected the fantasy element in this sonata. And she makes a big, big sound. If I may say this—readers are welcome to sue—she “plays like a man.” Or, to put it differently, she is a lioness of the piano, an Argerichian player.
There was much to dislike about this account of the sonata: It was somewhat stumbling and eccentric; also, it could have used a better singing line. But there was much to like about the account, too. You know who I think would have liked it, warts and all? Liszt.
During the performance of his sonata, we had a major distraction in the audience. Let me recall what I wrote on this blog two weeks ago: “A plastic bag is an amazingly ruinous object in a concert hall or opera house. The crinkles are absolutely deafening.” Well, during the Liszt, a woman in the back was playing with a plastic bag, I’m pretty sure. At first I thought she was unwrapping a candy—but the unwrapping was taking five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes . . . It must have been a plastic-bag issue.
Buniatishvili went on to the Ravel—and the woman at the back went on with the plastic bag, though less obtrusively, I think. Buniatishvili’s playing was impressive, in its way. The thing is, her Valse was not very French—not very suave, elegant, coy, or alluring. It was more Lisztian than French: big and rhapsodic (and bangy).
If I were some kind of musical M.D., I might prescribe for Buniatishvili a month in Paris—although I should not presume that she doesn’t know the city, or the culture (or Viennese culture, with its waltzes).
At the beginning of intermission, audience members accosted an usher in the lobby. One man in particular—the leader—was very rude to this poor woman. He was loud, belligerent, and insulting. He was talking about the woman with the plastic bag, of course. He berated the usher, saying, “What are you doing out here when she’s in there?” In a classic New York accent, he said, “There’s a major awtist onstage!”
His rudeness was inexcusable—I could report more of his tirade—but he did have a point: Paying customers were deprived of the kind of atmosphere they should have had, and that the pianist should have had. I did not hear the plastic bag in the second half.
I certainly heard Buniatishvili, loud and brash—but commendably musical too, much of the time. Her Chopin sonata was extreme: extreme in its dynamics, tempos, and feelings. Fasts were very fast; slows were virtual standstills. Cooks will sometimes tell their eaters, “Salt to taste.” In music, rubato (i.e., license with time) works much the same way. And Buniatishvili salted to her own taste, rather than to mine.
How about Chopin’s taste? Well, there we could have an argument.
As for the Pétrouchka movements, they were tight and bangy. Buniatishvili got a big, dry, white sound, which is desirable. But, again, she was extreme. She slapped at the keyboard vulgarly. At one point, she stood up, the better to pound the keyboard. Her playing hurt my ears, though I sort of liked it. And she seemed to play heedless of the public, heedless of pianistic norms, heedless of anything. I thought, “She’s in her own private Idaho.”
Afterward, audience members went to the front of the hall, to take her picture. She beamed. She will obviously be a “star,” and is probably one already: the dress, the lionessness, the loudness. I imagine she’ll be known as “Khatia,” with the “Buniatishvili” on the sidelines.
There is a standard progression in Carnegie Hall, or so I think I have observed: A player or singer starts in Weill Hall; then he graduates to Zankel Hall; then he makes the ultimate graduation, to “Stern Auditorium,” which the rest of us know as “Carnegie Hall.” Perhaps Khatia will skip the Zankel step.
She played two encores, the first of them being a Handel minuet in G minor, arranged by Kempff (Wilhelm Kempff, the pianist who lived through almost the whole of the twentieth century—1895 to 1991). Her playing was very mature. Indeed, it was some of her best playing of the night.
And she bade farewell with just about the fastest, loudest thing there is—the Precipitato from Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7. It was fast and loud, all right. But it was less impressive than it would have been if so much of the recital hadn’t been the same way.
A final word, please, about Romanticism: You can’t kill it. And many have tried, or wanted to, over the years. In every generation, people discover Romanticism, and thrill to it, as Khatia Buniatishvili obviously has. This makes me smile, appreciatively.
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by James Bowman
“If you insist upon fighting to protect me, or ‘our’ country,” wrote Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas, a book which Theodore Dalrymple thought ought rather to have been called How to Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved, “let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share. . . For as a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
Writing in The Guardian, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett quotes these words and heartily approves of Mrs Woolf’s view of war and patriotism, noting that “the feminists of the past did not want equal rights in a man's world, they wanted a new world entirely.” Fair enough. Yet this fantasy of “a new world entirely” is cited as a qualification or mitigation of her also approving of proposals to admit women to military combat units. Though “women on the frontline is a victory for equality,” she thinks that “those of us who still hope for peace and justice should not lose sight of that vision.”
What’s wrong with that statement? “That vision,” otherwise the utopian pacifism of Virginia Woolf, ought to be pretty obviously as incompatible as anything can be with service in a front-line military unit. It amounts to Fifth Columnism to seek a place in a military combat unit while harboring not only pacifist beliefs but a higher loyalty to women or “the whole world” than to one’s fellow soldiers or “our” country, the country they have been sent to defend. I wonder how many of today’s advocates of women in combat roles share this mistaken belief that they can hold on to their utopian beliefs along with their rifles?
If they were frank about it, this would be a prima facie disqualification not only for combat roles but for military service of any kind. Every recruit has to take an oath of loyalty to the United States, which he or she obviously could not do at the same time he or she felt a higher loyalty to some other earthly ideal, such as the feminist utopia. That’s just one of the ways in which military service demands a sacrifice of those who undertake it. Holding utopian or pacifist views may be foolish and harmful to yourself and others, but it lies among your civil rights in America — so long as you remain a civilian. But maybe we should look again at this freedom as, exercised in this way, it obviously poses a threat to the common defense our government is constitutionally mandated to provide for.
After all, it’s not as if the left itself in this country retains much of an attachment to old-fashioned, tolerant liberalism. The utopians and progressives have themselves lately been showing signs of reintroducing us to the old totalitarian notion of “thought crime.” as Charles Krauthammer writes in today’s Washington Post, “the left is entering a new phase of ideological agitation — no longer trying to win the debate but stopping debate altogether, banishing from public discourse any and all opposition. As he points out, the ouster of Brendan Eich at Mozilla for donating to the opponents of gay marriage is one straw in the wind. So is the attempt to declare the debate about Obamacare or global warming “over.”Nor are these bullying tactics likely to remain confined to the rhetorical. Already, Adam Weinstein at Gawker is writing that
Rebecca Solnit of The Guardian at the very least implies a similar view when she writes that “climate change is violence.” Well then, we know what to do about those who promote such violence, don’t we? Meanwhile, Stephen Bezruchka of the Boston Review writes that:
Though he doesn’t say so, he doesn’t see any reason why the political opponents of the President’s proposed measures for reducing inequality, being therefore advocates of “violence” against the poor, should not be prosecuted for their false beliefs. Science (and Harvard science at that!) proves that they are wilfully clinging to wicked falsehoods, just as it does in the case of global warming. Can we still avoid the conclusion that the new progressivism is at least toying with the idea of outlawing conservatism itself?
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This week: Recovering "degenerate" art from the Nazis, a new Updike biography, and music from Strauss and Charles Ives.
Fiction: Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Jonathan Franzen has called Lydia Davis “the shorter Proust among us” and Rick Moody deemed her “the best prose stylist in America.” Her tight sentences and love of brevity are on full view in this fifth collection, which includes stories ranging from just twenty-two words to lengthier, more traditional offerings. With stories about lost socks and canned vegetables, Davis continues her quest to make the small beautiful.
Nonfiction: Updike by Adam Begley (Harper): This latest in a recent slew of Updike-related publications—Bob Batchelor and Jack De Bellis each published biographies of the author in 2013, Library of America offered his collected stories last fall, and Random House reprinted his memoirs in 2012—literary critic Adam Begley’s new biography pays close attention to the influence of Updike’s mother, his time at Harvard and in Ipswich, and the highly autobiographical nature of his writing. Look for a review in a forthcoming issue of The New Criterion.
Poetry: Eighth Annual Young Poets’ Evening at the National Arts Club (Monday): In years past, the National Art Club’s young poets series has welcomed many names that will be familiar to New Criterion readers, including David Yezzi, Ben Downing, Adam Kirsch, and Joshua Mehigan. This year’s Young Poets’ Evening brings together four poets who engage visual arts in their writing: Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Dan Magers, Farrah Field, and Jared White. The event begins at 8pm and is free and open to the public; you can RSVP here.
Art: “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” at the Neue Galerie (through June 30): After the infamous Nazi roundup of art deemed “degenerate,” and the subsequent 1937 Munich exhibition of the confiscated pieces, many landmark works of modern art were sold off, lost, or simply destroyed. This new show at the Neue Galerie brings together a number of pieces from the original Munich show—including work by Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, and more. Other museum shows, such as “Chaos to Classicism” at the Guggenheim, have dealt with this subject more subtly, and, at times, the didacticism of “Degenerate Art” trumps the work on display. Nevertheless, the exhibition provides a chilling lesson on the consequences of attacking artists and their freedom of expression.
Music: Munich Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall (Friday & Saturday): The Munich Philharmonic comes to Carnegie Hall for an all-Strauss weekend under the baton of Lorin Maazel. On Friday, they will play the famous Also spracht Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, and the capricious Burleske with Emmanuel Ax. The soprano Karita Matilla will join them on Saturday for the poignant Four Last Songs. Saturday's program will also include Ein Heldenleben and the emotionally charged, tonally rich Der Rosenkavalier Suite.
Family: Brooklyn Ballet children’s show (Sunday): This Sunday at 4pm, the Brooklyn Ballet offers its second matinee and children’s reception for the spring series of "Vectors, Marys, and Snow: An eclectic mix of dance, live music, and collaboration." The performance includes new work by Julia K. Gleich, the ballet's resident choreographer this season and a regular on the Bushwick scene, as well as a sample of the troupe's "Brooklyn Nutcracker," now in development. Don't expect a traditional "family concert" out of the matinee, which is little changed from other performances, but the afternoon does offers $10 child-priced tickets (for floor seating) and a welcome atmosphere for families, with a cookie reception on stage at the end.
Other: Second Annual Downtown Literary Festival (Sunday): Housing Works and McNally Jackson team up for the second year of this literary festival. Children’s events at McNally start at 10:30am; adult events start at 11am and are hosted throughout the day at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe and the Bowery Poetry Club. Teju Cole, Rachel Zucker, Joshua Ferris, and Adam Fitzgerald are just a few of the big names that will be attending. More information and a full schedule of events are available here.
From the archive: Albert Speer: the good Nazi? by David Pryce-Jones, October 2002: Occasioned by Speer: The Final Verdict by Joachim Fest, the author revisits his time with Hitler's favorite artist and wonders how Speer got away with murder.
From our latest issue: Cross & Cross: transforming New York by Peter Pennoyer: How two brothers reshaped the architectural landscape of New York.
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Matthew Polenzani; photo by Sim Cannety-Clarke
Indiana University is known for two things, at least—basketball and music. IU has one of the best music schools in the country, and therefore in the world. Two weekends ago, I attended a concert on that campus. Matthew Polenzani, the American tenor, sang Die schöne Müllerin with Kevin Murphy.
Kevin is a pianist and conductor, who teaches at IU. So does his wife, Heidi Grant Murphy, the soprano. I call him “Kevin” because he is a friend of mine. I’ve mentioned this friendship on this blog before.
The night after Die schöne Müllerin, Polenzani gave a master class at the school.
He is known for having one of the most beautiful voices in all creation. He is especially prized in Mozart and bel canto, I would say. Just as an aside, he’s probably the best singer of “Danny Boy” since McCormack—see (or hear) for yourself.
Although my favorite singer of “Danny Boy,” I must say, is Schwarzkopf. She sang it as an encore for her English-speaking audiences. In that German accent, and with that special artistry, she is absolutely heartbreaking.
Of course, there is Polenzani’s unbeatable beauty of sound ...
In addition to being one of the finest singers around, Polenzani is a helluva nice guy. This is apparent to everyone, even to those with no personal acquaintance of him. (I have interviewed him and seen him on other occasions.) He strikes me as particularly American: open, warm, unpretentious.
I had never really thought of him for lieder, frankly—for German art songs. I wasn’t sure how Die schöne Müllerin, Schubert’s song-cycle, would go. I knew the singing would be beautiful. But would it be profound, idiomatic, transporting, shattering?
Yes, it was. It was all those things. In fact, it was one of the peak lieder experiences of my life. You know how people use the word “great” in everyday speech? As in “This tuna sandwich is great,” or “That was a great editorial in the paper on Tuesday”? This Schöne Müllerin was great in the sense of: in accord with the highest artistic standards and ideals.
And the piano-playing matched the singing. I can’t say this, as Kevin Murphy’s friend, but it’s still true.
One of the effects this performance had on me was to make me think better of the work. Not that I didn’t revere Die schöne Müllerin before. Not that I wasn’t in awe of it before. But it’s even better than I knew. I guess I always thought it was slightly inferior to another Schubert song-cycle, Winterreise. I don’t think so anymore. I imagine Die schöne Müllerin is an unsurpassed marriage of music and words.
And please note that “unsurpassed” does not mean “unequaled.” I sometimes say “unsurpassed,” only to have people charge that I declared something the best.
I do hope that a recording was made of this Indiana Schöne Müllerin. I’ll have to look into that. I have never heard a better performance of the work (of many performances). There were people in the audience—veteran musicians and music hands—who are far from sentimental, and had tears in their eyes. This performance was almost indescribably moving.
After it was over, I reflected on the relation between beauty and “movingness”—emotional impact. Polenzani’s voice is beautiful in the extreme, as we know. Did that affect the “movingness” of the performance? I think it did.
It is possible to make too much of beauty of sound. It’s possible to make too little of it too. Beauty of sound is not unimportant. People said of Kiri Te Kanawa, “Oh, it’s just a beautiful voice.” First, it wasn’t true—Kiri had more than that. Second, even if it had been true, so what? A greatly beautiful voice is a start—more than a start. And most people, of course, can’t even get started.
People always say that Callas had an ugly voice—or at least not a beautiful voice—but made up for it in other ways. Frankly, I’ve always liked the sound of Callas’s voice, a lot.
Beauty is an important component of a singer’s toolkit. For Matthew Polenzani, it’s a killer arrow.
Last week, I had a post about audience noises: talking, coughing, teeth-sucking, plastic bags, wayward hearing aids, shushing, etc. Well, in Indiana, just before “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” a lady whispered to her husband, “This is the last song.” The whisper resounded through the hall.
Honestly—and if the performers disagree with me, I don’t blame them—I found that sort of touching. As my dad once said, “The thing about being in public is, the public is there.” Public is different from private. If you want no evidence of the public, you’ll have to sit alone in your room, listening to recordings.
Which some people do. And which I do, sometimes. I understand the point of view. But I sort of like—most of the time, or much of the time—the wild cards of the public.
Some readers may recall how I ended last week’s post:
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Most television viewers are familiar with the sort of program where an over-enthused seller saunters into a store aiming to reap a cash windfall on some relic of yore, only to have the would-be buyer coo that forgeries abound in these matters, and always have. Cut, then, to our aggrieved item owner in the parking lot, disputing how something centuries old could be a testament to charlatanism. Cut, further, to “Intent to Deceive” currently at the D’Amour Museum, an exhibit of more than sixty works alternately chiding, extolling, questioning, and reassessing the careers and intentions—and madcap backstories—of five master forgers.
The backstory element plays heavily here. Han van Meegeren, who specialized in Dutch masters—every good forger needs a workable niche—insisted on a lifestyle he couldn’t fund with his own frustrated career, which led to depression, which led to fulminating attacks on the art world, which led to a desire for revenge.
Like a comeuppance-driven character in a Émile Zola novel, Van Meegeren began to pioneer techniques to dupe the experts. The most successful of his developments was the use of an early form of plastic in his canvases, which was baked into them in an oven and then rolled to create tiny, oh-so-convincing striations. The experts are themselves also on display at a show like this, their shortcomings acting as a kind of silent partner—an aspect of forgery which “Intent to Deceive” does a nice job of teasing out. Van Meegern’s manufactured craquelure is abundantly present in the Vermeer-styled Head of Christ (1940–41), in which the savior’s visage strains forward from an all-devouring obsidian background.
If the lives of painters tend to make for better biographies than those of other artists, forgers may well be the best of the bunch. After selling one of his efforts to the Nazis and being charged with treason, Van Meegeren had to replicate his original forgery to clear his name of a larger charge, so he could be jailed on the smaller one of fraud. He was viewed as a Robin Hood of the brush, until he was later uncloaked as a Hitler supporter. Still, to look at his Baburen-based The Procuress (1940), an enchanting work of circular motion with the title figure flanked by two men as though all were in a dance, it’s hard not to walk away with one flat conclusion: The man could paint.
Elmyr de Hory could paint better, and his Odalisque (1974), with its female form at once slouching in a chair and maintaining a visual horizon above it, is exactly what a Matisse fan would love to learn was a long-lost legit canvas. He nails the Matisse palette: the reds of the walls and the attire look like they are about to explode, so charged are they with deep-hued energy. Conversely, but just as convincingly, Dansueses Nues, a purported Picasso lithograph, is all supple under-hang, an apt visual definition of friendship for a work modeled on Picasso’s 1923 etching The Three Friends.
Van Meegeren died in prison, and de Hory, terrified he was going to do so as well, opted for suicide. John Myatt, meanwhile, is still with is, as is Mark Landis. The former enjoys a nice career as what we might think of as an accredited forger, a purveyor of “genuine fakes.” An untitled 1955 work in the vein of Paul Signac is a robust watercolor, with boat, sky, and river flecked with U and W-shaped brush patterns that heighten the shimmering vernality at play. Landis, an altogether weirder duck—during his heyday, he dressed like a priest, and went around to museums donating works as he claimed this pleased his mother—also imitates Matisse with an untitled pen and ink sketch of a reclining female nude from 1955. A death-like figure, akin to something out of James Whale’s Frankenstein, hovers overhead in the background—a manifestation that belies a mind not at peace in spite of the light touch of Landis’s pen.
There is a depth, a resonance, to so many of the works here, works that have the neat, paradoxical trick of making us reconsider elements of the art they’re trying to exploit, in a sense. The exploitation angle is financial; or one of comeuppance against the perceived baddies of the art world. But the benefactors, really, are the original artists. It’s like when someone tries to write their own version of a Bach fugue. The differing, small personal choices they make inevitably send you back to examining the choices Bach made, and why he might have done so.
Eric Hebborn may have met with the worst end of anyone here, murdered in 1996 after publishing a how-to guide to forgery, and his black and red chalk Standing Young Man Leaning on a Plinth (styled after Jean-Antoine Watteau) gives one pause that this, even as a forgery, came from the 1970s. The artists of “Intent to Deceive” became what they were, in part, because they were born out of their ideal time and decided to make due as best befitted their talents. The young man’s coat billows across the parchment like paper has been made to go spectral, a note from a world that exists back somewhere else, able to interact with ours only when the necessary channels synch up. When they do, as often happens at this exhibit, artists like Matisse get to dance with would-be Matisse, with both profiting in the bargain, which is not how the world of forgery tends to work.
“Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World” opened at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA, on January 21 and remains on view through April 27, 2014.
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Igor Stravinsky with the choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky; image: Wikimedia commons
This past Tuesday at Morse Recital Hall in New Haven, a number of artists affiliated with Yale University, including alumni and students of the Schools of Drama and Music, put on a production of The Soldier’s Tale in New Haven that sought to stay true to Stravinsky’s “fairground theatre” conception. In so doing, they have given the piece its full due, interweaving the balletic, the musical, and the theatrical without unduly emphasizing or downplaying any one of these elements. Now, the production comes to New York, where it can be seen at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on Sunday evening.
The inspiration for The Soldier’s Tale came to Igor Stravinsky at a curious moment in his career. Completed in 1918, the fantasia of musical theater and ballet was composed long after his radical Rite of Spring, but antedates his so-called “neoclassical” later period. Lesser known than Petrushka or The Rite, Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale begins with a soldier named Joe (Tom Pecinka), who strides onstage in uniform, announced by a brass flourish. The narrator (Michael Cerveris) tells us of poor Joe’s circumstances—a soldier on leave with an old fiddle and little else—while the as-yet unhampered protagonist marches on.
Moments later Joe is no longer in uniform; he is wearing underclothes, suspenders, and a worn-out pair of trousers; the hard edges and military green of his outfit have disappeared to reveal a body of touching softness and frailty.
Between these two episodes he has met the Devil (James Cusati-Moyer) and become ensnared by temptations of luxury and plenty. Giving in, he joins Satan, who strips him of his military regalia and saps him of his vitality.
For the rest of the ballet, Joe struggles to escape from the Devil’s clutches. Satan appears in various guises, all played with panache by Cusati-Moyer, who is splendidly spindly and sly, creeping about like a spider even after he takes on the shape of a woman. A balance is struck between the comic image of Satan—a cross-dressing, over-the-top deceiver—and a far more sinister one.
The role of Joe demands a similar balancing act, albeit one less extreme. For him, the struggle is not between laughable grotesqueness and pure evil—it is between vulnerability and the desperate desire to redeem himself. Pecinka’s Joe shifts between hapless innocence and seduced torpor, without over-committing to either one. The choreographer Emily Coates’s dance steps, which comfortably range through multiple modes, including jazz, classical, and Nijinskian, give the show’s performers the breadth they need to let the drama of the play ripen.
This synthesis of multiple genres—one of the work’s great advantages—surfaces in the story as well. Based on a Russian fairytale, The Soldier’s Tale also recalls Western myths, a resonance strengthened by Cerveris’s animated storybook-style narration. Joe is an amalgam of familiar characters, all of whom we know and love—the Faust figure, played more unwitting than ambitious; the hot-blooded Romantic, chasing after his beloved with rushed footsteps, knees knocking together; and finally the automaton, sucked lifeless by the hardships of industrial life (though the production deftly avoids the pitfall of drab and overdetermined industrial set design). The libretto, translated from the French by stage director Liz Diamond, redoubles the feeling of familiarity with its loose-limbed American idiom and its rhymes, which pass metrical muster without feeling forced.
Stravinsky may very well have intended these resemblances. His characters stand at the crossroads of several histories and forms, much as he himself did when he composed this musical theater–ballet fusion while living in Switzerland in 1918.
That The Soldier’s Tale is coming to Carnegie Hall this Sunday is no surprise. The music Stravinsky composed is as remarkably fresh and startling as it was in 1918, and the choreography, lighting, and costumes are all done with such attention to their mutual influence that the ballet seems to have tumbled out whole. If any one part of the production were to be removed, the loss would be self-evident, and the work would suffer. The show pulls so much together so seamlessly that it offers a respite to the viewer—and a remonstrance to opera and ballet directors who fail to do the same.
L'Histoire du Soldat will be performed at 7:30 PM on Sunday in Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. For information and tickets, visit carnegiehall.org
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Glenn Gould used to be my favorite interpreter of Bach. Since Simone Dinnerstein’s recordings of Bach began appearing, beginning with her Goldberg Variations in 2007, Gould has assumed the somewhat less exalted status as “one of my favorite interpreters” of Bach. My absolute favorite these past 6 or 7 years is Dinnerstein. Indeed, she is [...]
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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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