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Stravinsky vs. hearing aid

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Oct 21, 2014 01:26 PM


Esa-Pekka Salonen

On Thursday night, the New York Philharmonic had a guest conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen, the veteran Finn. They began with Beethoven: the King Stephen Overture. The brass did not quite begin together. Plus, they made an ugly sound. They did better their second time around—both in togetherness and in sound.

Reviewing a concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Salonen last summer at the Salzburg Festival, I wrote,


You may know the rap against Esa-Pekka Salonen: cold, hard, and fast. I have rapped this rap many times myself. Salonen has often conducted with his fist clenched (not literally). In recent years, however, I have sensed that he is unclenching his fist.

You know what this King Stephen Overture was like? Cold and hard, if not unpardonably fast. It was like “old Salonen.” But it was good, as he was, always—even in his coldest, hardest, fastest days.

In the Beethoven that followed, he was absolutely superb. This was the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major. In the opening of the first movement, Salonen was graceful, crisp, and judicious. The music was sculpted just right. Later in this movement, he was heroic, like Beethoven. He had energy, but he was not frenetic. This was a model of Beethoven-conducting (Abbado-like, I would say).

The soloist was Jeremy Denk, a fine pianist. He is always worth hearing. I doubt he would ever be without a case to make. With that out of the way, let me pick on him.

In this first movement, he rushed. He was also flippant. He clipped his notes. Some of his passagework was muddy. His sound was often brittle. Tempos, when he could set them, were unwisely fast. It occurred to me he may have been nervous.

Did he do anything right, in my censorious view? Yes: Some downward C-minor scales were excellent.

Regular readers have probably heard me say, “No fair lookin’”—no fair making too big a deal out of how a musician looks when he plays, conducts, or sings. What counts is the musical results. In the music biz, there are many types. Some people are economical and restrained (in their physical movements and expressions, I mean). A prime example of this type would be Heifetz. At the other end of the scale, you have, say, Maestro Salonen’s fellow Finn Olli Mustonen, the pianist.

Denk is on the Mustonen end. But, as I say, no fair lookin’.

In a public interview with me last summer, Christoph Eschenbach gave a stirring defense of Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist (who really shouldn’t need a defense, frankly). He said that people marked him down because of how he looks at the bench. That is true. And they should not.

The middle movement of the Beethoven, the Largo, Denk and Salonen swept through nicely. They could have savored the music more. Denk did some lovely playing. There ought to have been more warmth in the orchestra.

And how about the Rondo, that playful, delightsome thing? It was neither playful nor delightsome: From Denk, it was super-fast, hard, and aggressive. The music was robbed of its essential nature, in my opinion. Besides, Denk committed some strange accents—banging on pickups, for example. There was strange rubato (though interesting rubato). Denk’s playing of this movement made me nervous. And not in a good way.

As you can tell, I was not crazy about this performance. But the audience was. And I understood their point of view. Denk is an interesting, skillful, creditable musician—a musician with something to say. I look forward to my next chance to hear him.

After intermission, the Philharmonic played Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, complete. Salonen was first-rate in it, and so was the orchestra. Salonen conducted with intelligence and care. This conducting was disciplined but not confined—it was free within discipline. It was both strict and imaginative. It was like the score (whaddaya know?).

And, man, was this performance exciting—exciting as hell. Salonen was wired, brilliant, electric. Not long ago, I heard a Firebird that was perfectly correct but flat—dull. It lacked a je ne sais quoi. The quoi was in this Salonen performance.

At the end of my earlier-quoted review last summer, I wrote,


This was a great concert—and I don’t say “great” casually. Furthermore, Esa-Pekka Salonen has become one of the conductors I most esteem. There are few I would rather see on a podium. It was not always thus. Who changed, him or me? I vote him, but I can’t be 100 percent sure.

Yes. And let me add a footnote. Throughout The Firebird, a hearing aid sang and pierced. Nothing is more disruptive in a concert. Last April, I wrote about concert-hall sounds: plastic bags, teeth-sucking, the unwrapping of candies, and a hundred other things, including


. . . hearing aids! I think they may be the worst—faulty hearing aids. The wearer can’t tell that the aid has gone haywire. The devices sing and pierce. I feel sorry for the wearer—he has done nothing wrong, but his device has.

On Thursday night, a Philharmonic usher roamed the aisles, looking for the culprit. I don’t think he ever found it, or him, or her. A pity. But not even this hearing aid could spoil Salonen’s Firebird—or Stravinsky’s.

(Incidental intelligence, as my friend Martin Bernheimer would say: Salonen bought Stravinsky’s house in L.A.) 

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Critic's Notebook for October 20, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 20, 2014 05:37 PM


 

RGB, Jenny Core (2014)

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: Modern Jamaica, historic Berlin, and artsy Bushwick.

Fiction: A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James (Riverhead): Through more than a dozen voices, an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976 is portrayed as the inevitable climax of a country shaken by gangs, poverty, and corruption. The book examines Jamaica’s violent past through three decades in the form of a fictional oral history that draws together individuals, families, political parties, and even ghosts. CE

Nonfiction: Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries, by Rory MacLean (St. Martin’s Press): Berlin has long been an explosive, capricious, and, occasionally, an exemplary center of culture. MacLean explains the history of Berlin over the past 500 years through the lives of twenty figures—both well known and ordinary—who shaped the artistic, literary, architectural, and political legacies of the city. Among those featured are: the dictators who dreamed of controlling Europe, Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a Scottish mercenary who fought in the Thirty Years’ War, a member of the Communist Party who helped to build the Wall, and an American spy in the Cold War.—RH

Poetry: Dick Allen, featured poet: Poetry Daily celebrates Dick Allen, who has published seven poetry collections, received National Endowment for the Arts and Ingram Merrill Poetry Writing Fellowships, and has been appointed the Connecticut State Poet Laureate, among other things.  Allen’s book This Shadowy Place won The New Criterion Poetry Prize in 2013.  DY

 Art: “Exchange Rates: The Bushwick International Expo” (October 23—October 26) and Beat Nite 11 (October 24): This week, art is in the outer boroughs. Exchange Rates is an exposition of artworks and art galleries in which curators and artists local to Bushwick, Brooklyn, will share exhibition spaces and collaborate with creative peers from other US cities and abroad. On Friday, Exchange Rates will pair up with Beat Nite. Now in its eleventh iteration, Norte Maar's Beat Nite is an evening gallery crawl featuring a special selection of the neighborhood's alternative art spaces. Meet some TNC editors and Young Friends while you’re there.  JP

Music: Brahms the Master (Tuesday, October 21): Brahms's symphonies and concerti need no introduction. But the composer also stands out as perhaps the greatest master of chamber music among the Romantics. He contributed enduring works for a variety of common instrumentations, and even invented a combination of his own (in the immortal Horn Trio) along the way. On Tuesday, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents a snapshot of Brahms's chamber works at Alice Tully Hall, including the A-minor clarinet trio and the taut, passionate D-minor Sonata for Violin and Piano. ECS

Other: Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas, by Adam Kirsch (W. W. Norton & Co., 2014): Adam Kirsch is one of our most percipient (and also most prolific) literary critics. His latest collection Rocket and Lightship, drawn from The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, City Journal, and other publications, shows Kirsch at the top of his form. He ranges widely and authoritatively over vast swaths of literary and intellectual endeavor.  The book includes scintillating essays on Darwinian theory, Francis Fukuyama, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, and the unreadable darling of academic Marxists, Slavoj Žižek. His essay on Žižek, aptly titled “The Deadly Jester,” is itself deadly and is easily worth the price of the book, as is his canny, sympathetic, but ultimately damning essay on Hannah Arendt, “Beware of Pity.”  “Too much of life,” he concludes, “and too many kinds of people, are excluded from Arendt’s sympathy,” which is what makes her brilliant, philosophically cosmopolitan philosophy so superficial. —RK

From the archive: Retreats into fantasy, by David Pryce-Jones: On historical misunderstandings between Islam and the West.

From our latest issue: God’s artist paints a single picture, by Sarah Ruden: Considering the beauty of Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions.

 

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Why Sam Harris is wrong about Islam

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Oct 19, 2014 07:56 PM


No doubt many of my readers know about the encounter about Islam between Ben Affleck, the Hollywood actor, and Sam Harris, the “New Atheist” writer and neuroscientist on the Bill Maher show.  I do not know Benn Affleck’s work as an actor, so I don’t know whether he is commonly cast in comic roles. He […]

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 17, 2014 01:49 PM


Edouard Manet’s Le Printemps (1881). Up for grabs (of a sort) on November 5th

This week's links:

Secretive, arrogant and reckless: the young T.E. Lawrence began life as he meant to go on
“Obsessed with notions of chivalry, he spent his summer holidays cycling around England, making brass rubbings of crusaders’ tombs; his boyhood bedroom was ‘hung with treasures found on these outings… life-size figures of knights in armour and priests in elaborate vestments.’“

Deus Ex Musica
Veneration of Beethoven is crowding his successors out.

The Rise and Fall of the Abstract Art Boom
From formal exhibitions to the dust jackets on novels, “Figurative art is back. Abstract art, in all its weird and wonderful forms, is on the way out.”

Father of History
Herodotus was as much a storyteller as a recorder, but his histories are all the better for it. 

Richard Flanagan Wins Man Booker Prize
For The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a “magnificent novel of love and war.”  Says the author: “In Australia the Man Booker prize is sometimes seen as something of a chicken raffle. I just didn’t expect to end up with the chicken.”

From our pages:

The Ambiguous witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The complicated legacy of the anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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Mozart: Amusing and profound

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Oct 16, 2014 01:13 PM


Ana Durlovski as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

At the Metropolitan Opera last week, a fellow critic asked me, “Have you seen The Magic Flute here yet this season?” I said I had not, but soon would. “It’s great,” he said, “just great.” My experience turned out to be the same as his: great, just great.

I saw this show on Saturday night. In the pit was Adam Fischer, the Hungarian conductor (not to be confused with another conductor, Ivan Fischer, his younger brother). He set the tone of the evening with the overture: which was intelligent and musical. Blessedly, it was not too fast. Magic Flute overtures have gotten faster and faster—they are raced through, heedlessly.

Fischer conducted the rest of the opera with the same intelligence and musicality. I will single something out: the beginning of Act II, which was a simple F-major hymn, unforced and pure.

Have I mentioned that this opera is by Mozart? I should. It is.

Tamino was portrayed by Toby Spence (what a Shakespearean name, I’ve always said). He was a surprise to me. I had long thought of him as a sweet-voiced English tenor. He may be that, but he sang strongly, too. In every respect, he was a superb Tamino. His Pamina was Pretty Yende, the South African soprano. She was not immaculate in technique, but her expression made up for everything: sincere, virtuous, and winning.

(Two nights later, this singer gave a recital, which I reviewed here.)

Papageno was Markus Werba, the Austrian baritone. Years ago, I heard him sing this role at the Salzburg Festival, more than once, I think. A friend of mine said, “Why doesn’t he sing at the Met?” I wondered whether the voice was big enough for our cavernous house. It is, I believe.

Werba was charming, as usual, and wonderfully idiomatic. He is both a native German-speaker and, in a sense, a native Mozartean. He has the knack. At one point, he introduced himself as “Geno—Papageno,” just like Sean Connery or one of the others saying, “Bond—James Bond.”

Incidentally, Werba is the great-nephew of the famed accompanist—or “collaborative pianist,” we would say now—Erik Werba.

The Queen of the Night was a discovery for me—the Macedonian soprano Ana Durlovski. Of many Queens of the Night—including famous ones—I have never heard better. Durlovski was pointed and formidable. She has a smallish voice, but it has a lot of “scald” in it. The higher she got—way above the staff—the more beautiful the voice became. And she was uncannily accurate.

Oh, what a boffo Queen of the Night.

Sarastro was the Sarastro of our time, René Pape. I have described his singing for so long, let me describe his talking: There is a lot of talking in this opera, a singspiel, and Pape talks about as richly and authoritatively as he sings.

The production is Julie Taymor’s from 2004. When it premiered, I hailed it as imaginative and delightsome, something that Mozart and his librettist, Schikaneder, would get a kick out of. I have seen it many times since. And maybe I took it for granted, or grew a little grumpy about it. On Saturday night, I was reminded how wonderful it is. The production is whimsical, enchanting, and flat-out funny. It has its serious side, of course, but it does not take itself too seriously—and neither does The Magic Flute. That is, the opera is both amusing and profound. (Frankly, that’s not a bad description of Mozart in general.)

For years, many of us complained about what we regarded as an error in this production: Sarastro—often Pape—sang the holy aria “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” in front of the curtain, and, as he did, scenery was moved behind the curtain. This made a fair amount of noise, spoiling the aria.

Unless I’m mistaken, the Met has modified this part of the production. The disruption is not as great. Still, there is some, and it’s too bad.

But look: Nothing could spoil the fun on Saturday night. It seemed the cast was having a ball, as much fun as anyone in the audience. There was esprit de corps, and joie de vivre. The opera ends with that inimitable scampering music in E flat. Fischer handled it marvelously. I found myself thinking, “I wish Mozart and Schikaneder could have been here tonight. They’d have been pleased.”

I want to give you three footnotes, if I may:

1) When the goddess Isis was first mentioned, I heard a few murmurs, I think—Isis/ISIS.

2) Wikipedia says the following, about Adam and Ivan Fischer: “The two belonged to the children’s choir of Budapest National Opera house, and sang as two of the three boys in” The Magic Flute.

3) About two weeks ago, I had a review of a Marriage of Figaro at the Met. At the end, I said,

 

There is no “best opera,” obviously. Julius Caesar? Fidelio? Parsifal? La traviata? Elektra? But if someone held a gun to your head and threatened to splatter your brains on the sidewalk unless you named the best opera, you could do worse—a lot worse—than to blurt out, “The Marriage of Figaro.” The more you know it, the more you are in awe.

Same with The Magic Flute. I once had the temerity to ask the venerable music critic and scholar Andrew Porter, “Do you have a favorite opera?” Almost before the words were out of my mouth, he said, “The Magic Flute.” So there.

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Pretty is as Pretty does

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Oct 15, 2014 10:56 AM


Two nights ago, Pretty Yende gave a recital in Weill Recital Hall. And what better place for a recital than a recital hall? Weill is the fetching upstairs annex in the Carnegie building.

Yende is a South African soprano, not yet thirty. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut during the 2012-13 season in Rossini’s Comte Ory. Right now, she is singing Pamina in the Met’s Magic Flute (a Mozart opera, as you know).

This singer is true to her name—her first name, Pretty. When she appeared for the second half of her recital, in a different gown from the first half’s, a man called out, “Gorgeous.” She smiled. And she has a million-dollar smile, and an utterly winning stage presence.

Her recital was a nicely mixed one, showing off the singer’s versatility, and also her spirit of adventure. There were several styles and languages. The program included bel canto songs and arias. A group of Debussy songs. Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets. Zarzuela numbers. And more.

There were a hundred things wrong with Yende’s singing, a hundred impurities. Poor intonation. Frayed top notes. Etc., etc. But oddly, none of this mattered much. And that is because of what is apparently Yende’s nature.

She has the priceless ingredients of sincerity, poignancy, radiance, joy, and lovability. The whole is greater—much greater—than the sum of the parts. What are some bad notes when you, sitting in the audience, have all this other? Yende has a basic musicality.

And she is obviously a gracious woman—as when she applauded, repeatedly, her accompanist, Kamal Khan (who was ebullient throughout the recital).

Among Yende’s “ingredients” is a sense of fun and whimsy. Before singing her zarzuela numbers, she struck a Carmen pose. One of those numbers was a Vickie D. song, “La tarántula.” (A “Vickie D. song” is one associated with the late Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles.) In this song, Yende said “oy” instead of “ay.” Perhaps this was a Sephardic song? (Vickie D. sang those too.)

For the adoring crowd, Yende sang three encores, beginning with “O mio babbino caro.” Then she sang, unaccompanied, a South African song—lovely, pure, unfussy, natural. She closed with an operetta favorite, “Art Is Calling for Me,” a.k.a. “The Prima Donna Song,” by Victor Herbert. Sills scored with this number, and so did Kiri. So did Pretty Yende.

By the way, isn’t a song from West Side Story the obvious encore? “I Feel Pretty”?

More seriously: I heard Yende in The Magic Flute last week, and as we were leaving the house, I said to a friend, “You know, I bet Pretty Yende is religious.” He said, “Why’s that?” I said, “There is an inner radiancy, a light. I just have a feeling.” He agreed.

Anyway, Pretty Yende could be a better singer—and she probably will be—but she could hardly be more appealing or touching.

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Critic's Notebook for October 13, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 13, 2014 06:52 PM


 

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 love letter to Ireland, an evening of lieder, and art from a different perspective.

Fiction: Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín (Scribner): Set in Ireland, Tóibín’s latest is about a fiercely compelling young widow and mother of four navigating grief and fear, and struggling for hope. Played out against the backdrop of 1960s political turmoil, the author produces both a powerful character study and a love letter to his home country. CE

Nonfiction: The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered, by Laura Auricchio (Knopf): A hero in the United States for his role in the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette’s legacy in France is not quite as warm. Starting from when he was a young, orphaned boy in the provinces, through his roles in the two important revolutions of the 18th century, this biography discusses why Lafayette is remembered so differently in each of the two countries in which he divided his life. —RH

Poetry: Openwork: Poetry and Prose, by André du Bouchet; trans. Paul Auster and Hoyt Rogers (Yale University Press) André du Bouchet, a great innovator of twentieth-century letters, has yet to be fully recognized by a wide circle of international readers. Openwork showcases pieces from the author’s entire trajectory, beginning with little-known pieces from the 1950s, followed by major poems from the 1960s, and concluding with works written or rewritten in the poet’s later decades. CE

Art: "Goya: Order and Disorder" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (October 12 –January 19), and “Doppler Shift” at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (September 28—January 18): The largest Goya retrospective to take place in America within 25 years, Order and Disorder offers the opportunity to examine the artist’s powers of observation and invention across the full range of his work. Meanwhile, Doppler Shift examines the relationship of the viewer to the work of art by investigating how shifting perspectives alter the visual experience. As various factors change—the viewing distance, angle of vision, lighting conditions, duration of looking—forms and objects seem to shift between two and three dimensions, creating spatial ambiguities and visual disorientation. JP

Music:  Carnegie Hall Presents: Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger (Thursday, October 16):   Accompanied by Wolfram Reiger, the celebrated bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni presents an evening of lieder at one of Carnegie Hall's recital venues, Zankel Hall. Included is Schubert's "Der Erlkönig,"the composer's first published work, widely considered to be among the most important songs ever written. Also on the program are works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. ECS

Other: Have you ever heard of Ysenda Maxtone Graham?  I hadn’t.  But providence smiled, and I chanced upon a splendidly printed edition of her charming book Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (2011) in Slightly Foxed, the equally charming London bookshop on the Gloucester Road. The book is part of a series of small, elegant paperbacks published by Slightly Foxed. It tells the story of St. Philips, a small Catholic boys' school in South Kensington.  Started by Richard Tibbits, an obese, inadvertently comical figure and Catholic convert, in 1934 with 4 students, the school has had an on-again, off-again association with the Brompton Oratory, a church founded by and in some respects for converts. Graham, the mother of boys who attended the school, is CE (“Church Hesitant”) herself, but she captured the curious metabolism and mores of the school, which catered mostly not to “lace curtains Irish” but middle- and upper-middle class families. Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, is but one celebrated alumnus. A.N. Wilson, who provides a lovely Preface, is right that Graham’s is “an entirely original, imaginative intelligence.” “I am perpetually amazed,” he writes, “that she is not as famous as Stevie Smith, Jane Austen or Dorothy Parker, for she is one of the great humorists, with an entirely distinctive ‘take’ on the world.”  High praise, but justified. —RK

From the archive: Saëns and sensibilité, by R. J. Stove: On The Correspondence of Camille Saint-Saëns & Gabriel Fauré, edited by Jean-Michel Nectoux.

From our latest issue: Not a leg to stand on, by Anthony Daniels: On the one-legged poets W. E. Henley and W. H. Davies.

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Mozart, Mahler, and others

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Oct 13, 2014 12:28 PM


James Levine leads Maurizio Pollini and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played Mozart on Friday night (The Marriage of Figaro). They played Mozart on Saturday night (The Magic Flute). And they played Mozart again on Sunday afternoon. Playing Mozart—that’s not a bad way to live.

On Sunday afternoon, the orchestra was in concert in Carnegie Hall. Conducting them was their music director, James Levine. The concert began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major—a typically perfect Mozart creation.

From the downbeat, the orchestra produced Levine-like Mozart. You could also say “Mozart-like Mozart.” I have described Levine in Mozart a thousand times, and will spare the reader on this occasion. I will make a few points, however.

Levine has the ability to give Mozart heft without heaviness. He also has the ability to find, or sense, the right tempo—an inarguable tempo. Such a tempo was the one he took in the Andante. The music moved. It did not hurry, however. It breathed beautifully, unsappily, perfectly. The opening of the final movement was just a little sloppy—a smidgeon disunited—but that was noticeable only because everything else had been textbook.

A piano concerto has a pianist, of course—and he was the great Maurizio Pollini. I’m afraid he was not great on Sunday afternoon. In the piano’s opening measures, nothing was clear or smooth. Sound was dreadful. It soon became obvious that beauty of sound or phrasing was impossible. Passagework was clumsy. Accents were often misjudged.

Okay, but what was the payoff? What was the compensation? The famous Pollini exactitude or straightforwardness? I’m afraid there was no payoff or compensation. Music-making from the pianist rarely rose above the workaday. I found myself waiting for the tuttis (the all-orchestral sections).

Pollini played cadenzas that caught the ear—unfamiliar ones (unfamiliar to me, I should say). The first cadenza sent me searching through my program: Ah, Salvatore Sciarrino (Pollini’s fellow Italian, a composer born in 1947). His cadenzas are skillful and refreshing.

To Mozart’s final movement—Allegro vivace assai—Pollini applied forcefulness, but little mirth. No mirth, actually. There was a bit of root canal in his playing. Pollini was aggressive, which is fine, but also rather effortful and grim.

By the way, I had never heard him sing so much—not with his hands, but with his mouth or throat. Gould could get away with it, of course. Him aside, I sometimes think that a pianist fears he has something to cover up.

The audience applauded Pollini rapturously, calling him back time after time. There is a Cult of Pollini. Similarly, there was a Cult of Brendel (Alfred Brendel, the Austrian pianist, now retired). I think it has to do with Pollini’s aristocratic bearing and his air of intellectuality. It also has to do with the past—what we remember of him, over the years.

“The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.” I thought of that lyric, when thinking about careers and reputations. I could say more, but you probably know what I mean, and I have already been insulting enough. It can be a lousy business, criticism.

After intermission, there was one work: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The composer completed one movement of a Tenth, but the Ninth is really his last will and testament. It is a death-soaked masterpiece.

Speaking of Ninths, I had a funny worry before Levine gave the downbeat: Would the opening measures be too clear? Too literal? Too clinical? Toscanini was criticized for beginning Beethoven’s Ninth this way. In his Mahler, Levine was not Toscanini-like. He was more Szell-like. And he is indeed a son of Szell (the great conductor in Cleveland, to whom Levine was apprenticed).

What was Szell’s Mahler like? Besides perfect, it was strict, but it had air—it had space and bloom and deep musicality. There are not many Szell recordings of Mahler, but the few we have are sovereign.

In the first movement of the Ninth, Levine was muscular and unsoupy. He conducted the music much as he would Beethoven. For at least twenty-five years, I have described Levine’s Wagner as “Beethoven-like.” This serves Wagner well, almost always. It can also serve Mahler well. The second movement of the Ninth was stirring and rousing.

Let me pause to praise the orchestra’s horn section: All through the symphony, they were wonderful. In recent days, the Berlin Philharmonic has been occupying Carnegie Hall. It’s hard to beat, or match, the BPO’s horn section, but the Met’s did themselves proud.

I’m now going to say some negative things about Levine’s Mahler performance—so cover your ears, if you like. It was sometimes too blunt. There was sometimes not enough sweetness or savoring or warmth. You even need some schmaltz (just a touch). There was sometimes not enough “give.”

And go back to the first movement for a moment: The orchestra did not seem quite comfortable to me. They were considerably less comfortable than in the Mozart concerto. They played the music a bit like foreigners.

Critics like to present their opinions as objective fact (and sometimes mine are, thank you very much). But I promise that the following is subjective. To me, the closing movement on Sunday afternoon was overly matter-of-fact. It was this-worldly, with its feet on the ground. A head-in-the-clouds feeling is not bad here. Was the music shattering, devastating? To me, no. To others, I’m sure it was. In fact, I know it was. I found it somewhat dry-eyed.

But listen: This was an excellent performance, and I’m grateful to have been there. I’m also grateful to see Levine in such fine shape. And that he has given me, and everyone else, a bit of Szell—a lot of Szell—in the last forty or so years. The late conductor was not liberal with praise. But I can’t believe he would not stand up and applaud the great James Levine.

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 10, 2014 01:44 PM


Money in the abstract: the back of the new Norwegian 100 kroner bill, designed by Snøhetta (all images via norges-bank.no)

 

Links of interest from the past week:

Confessions of an Aesthete: “To be an aesthete in an idea-driven age is to run the risk of being dismissed as irrelevant by those who prefer ideas to beauty.”

Building Imaginary Cities: Fictional cities and fantastical architecture somehow seep into the real-life places we inhabit. 

Hymn Book of Less-Than-Common Prayer: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is a masterpiece, as we all (should) know. But what makes it so?

Creative writing courses are killing western literature, claims Nobel judge: The professionalization of the job of writing cuts authors off from society; their work no longer represents real life.

That said, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano: “For the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

From our pages:

The ambiguous witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The complicated legacy of the anti-Nazi theologian.

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Science by hand

by Bria Sandford

Posted: Oct 09, 2014 11:16 AM


Johann Friederich Wilhelm Herbst (German, 1743-1807). Illustration of Cancer reticulatus from Versuch einer Naturgeschichte der Krabben und Krebse… (Attempt at a natural history of crabs and crayfish…)

Sometimes the human eye, a good aesthetic sense, and a steady hand are the best scientific tools. During the late 1700s, the German churchman-turned-naturalist Johann Herbst demonstrated this when he produced a three-volume encyclopedia of crabs and crayfish. A skilled artist, he engraved and hand-tinted meticulous drawings of each species he identified, most notably of Cancer reticulatus and Cancer cedonulli. Later scientists, dismissing as overzealous Herbst's careful differentiation of the crabs' coloring, concluded that the two species were really one. They were wrong. DNA testing eventually vindicated Herbst's powers of observation; his classification had been correct all along. 

Reproductions of Herbst’s engravings are currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History as part of an exhibit entitled “Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library.” The exhibit’s name isn’t exactly riveting, and its unassuming location in a rear hallway hasn’t helped it compete with dinosaur fossils for museum-goers’ attention over the past year. But the sheer beauty, technical mastery, and backstories of the fifty illustrations testify to a very human side of natural history, making the exhibit well worth seeing before it closes on October 12.

The value of the editorial eye is seen in a display of Giacommi Saverio Poli’s work. The father of malacology, the study of mollusks, Poli was the first person to classify mollusks by their interiors instead of their shells. Dissecting the mollusks, he drew intricate illustrations of delicate shells with the shell’s resident outside, sometimes coiled around its home. The drawings are graceful and ethereal, a far cry from the scene Poli probably encountered while extracting the mollusks. In this sense, his drawings are inaccurate. Yet they are also true; Poli knew enough of the mollusks’ interiors to see past the messiness of a damaging extraction and articulate the beauty of the hidden creatures.

 

Guiseppe Saverio Poli (Italian, 1746-1825). Illustration of female paper nautilus (Argonauta argo) from Testacea utriusque Siciliae… 

Although it often resulted in beauty, the process of scientific illustration between 1500 and 1900 had some inherent flaws. The creation of a scientific illustration was complex; usually a naturalist would suggest the subject, an artist would sketch it, an engraver and a printer would produce prints, and a colorist would hand tint each copy. By the time an illustration made it into a book, it would be four or five steps removed from its subject. The colors of fish might vary, or the shape of a leaf might be altered because of misinterpretation during the production process. These errors were understandable but could also result in miscategorization.

There were also less excusable inaccuracies; occasionally illustrators used dead specimens as models or drew without any models at all, producing drawings bearing little resemblance to reality. Some mistakes, such as those found in Albert Seba’s otherwise accurate Thesaurus, are laughable; Seba had never seen a live sloth, so he drew an anatomically correct depiction of a sloth in an impossible upright position. Durer’s famous depiction of a rhinoceros in a suit of armor was based on a secondhand description. And Louis Renard’s colorful tropical fish sported shockingly human expressions, perhaps because Renard felt pressure to make his drawings sensational.

 

Louis Renard (French, 1678-1746). Illustration from Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires…

Despite their errors, illustrators were essential to the work of scientists classifying the natural world. Seba’s work, flawed as it was, illustrated the classifications of Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, and his illustrations today clarify ambiguities in Linnaeus’s work. Other artists were less helpful to the classification process; Lorenz Oken, whose exquisite drawing of bird eggs is one of the finest pieces in the exhibit, classified his subjects by how many of the five human senses they possessed. Despite his flawed taxonomy, his drawings still recorded valuable detail.

The stories behind the other pieces in the exhibit range from the charming to the bizarre. Freidrich Heinrich Wilhelm Martini quixotically attempted to document all 100,000 mollusk species but died before completing his project. John James Audobon’s sons married the daughters of his co-illustrator. Robert Hooke’s drawings of magnified crystals of frozen urine grace the wall next to delightful line drawings of jellyfish drawn by Ernst Haeckel, whose fraudulent depictions of embryonic recapitulation of evolution were conveniently omitted from the exhibit.      

 

Lorenz Oken (German, 1779-1851). Illustration from Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände (A general natural history for everyone). 

Unfortunately, the exhibit has two notable flaws, the first relatively minor. While the enlarged reproductions of the drawings highlight their fine detail, it’s disappointing not to see the original artwork, or at least original editions of the books from which the illustrations were taken. Displaying even one or two of the old tomes would have lent a sense of scale and antiquity to the exhibit.

More concerning is the museum’s decision to include illustrations of indigenous peoples in the display. Drawings of Native Americans are mixed in with drawings of insects and Australian marsupials, leaving the viewer with the distinct sense that the artists thought their subjects were a little behind in their evolution. This is perhaps unsurprising, since social Darwinism was prevalent during several of the illustrators’ lifetimes, but a curatorial note explaining the origins of this hint of racism would have been helpful.

However, even this last flaw points to the beauty of “Natural Histories”—along with pleasing the eye and stimulating the brain, the exhibit reminds viewers that even today science is conducted by people who have points of view, use hands and eyes, and make choices about what is important. This human element sometimes results in error, but it also results in a beauty and accuracy obtainable no other way. 

 

"Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library" opened at the American Museum of Natural History on October 19, 2013, and remains on view through October 12, 2014.

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