I was chatting the other day with a Catholic friend about the new(ish) Pope, the Jesuit, Pope Francis. Having been trained by the Jesuits myself,I confessed myself a tad skeptical about Francis. In the back of my mind somewhere was the recollection of “Persistent Perversity Provokes the Patient Pedagogue to Produce Particularly Painful Punishment,” which [...]
The word of the week seems to be “Schadenfreude.” We have Obamacare, or, rather, what appears to be the unravelling of Obamacare to thank for that. “Schadenfreude”: “hurt,” “damage,” “detriment” plus “joy.” Is there any more perfect German word? Taking malicious glee in the misfortunes of others. It is not an attractive emotion, though it [...]
This week: The 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, Dutch masters at the Frick, and Geoffrey Hill's Oxford lectures.
Fiction: Laziness in the Fertile Valley by Albert Cossery, translated by William Goyen: Twain called work “a necessary evil to be avoided” and Wilde said it was “a refuge of people who have nothing better to do.” These words might resonate with the couch-potatoes of the world, but what about workaholics or those who view work as a noble endeavor? What makes work meaningful to some and insufferable to others? Albert Cossery’s newly translated novel explores the idea of work by telling the story of a family who is utterly lazy: One boy is so wedded to his lethargy that he remains in an almost perpetual sleep, waking only to eat and use the bathroom. But Serag, the youngest child in the family, is interested in getting a job. Throughout the novel he battles the siren call of his family’s sloth while trying to become a productive member of society. In the end, the book condemns both extremes of unchecked laziness and getting caught in the rat race, challenging the reader to find an appropriate balance between the two.
Nonfiction: Remembering JFK: This Friday marks the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. In addition to Kennedy-related events—including The New Criterion’s conference, “The Kennedy Phenomenon”—there have been many recent books looking back at the man, his assassination, his presidency, his legacy, and his family’s political dynasty. Especially notable is Camelot and the Cultural Revolution by James Pierson, which looks at the ways the Kennedy assassination canonized the president as a liberal icon and led to the downfall of American liberalism. Other noteworthy titles include Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis (a look the city in which the president was murdered, and an exploration of the larger social and political climates of the day), End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson (an hour-by-hour retelling of the assassination), and Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by Robert Dallek (a penetrating study of JFK’s closest advisors with an analysis of the successes and failures of the administration).
Poetry: Geoffrey Hill’s Oxford Lectures on poetry: Geoffrey Hill was elected Oxford’s Professor of Poetry in 2010. As part of his duties, he will deliver one public lecture during each term of his five-year tenure which are not to be missed. Free downloads of his previous lectures are available through Oxford’s English Department. His next lecture, entitled “Poetry and ‘the Democracy of the Dead’” will be delivered on Tuesday, December 3.
Art: “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis” at the Frick, New York (through January 19, 2014): This is the final show in a global tour of paintings from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. The fifteen pieces in the show—from portraits to landscapes to still lifes—are a singular selection of the best works from the Dutch Golden Age, including Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Carel Fabritius’s Goldfinch.
Music: Der Rosenkavalier at the Met (Friday): Richard Strauss's masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier opens at the Met, with a superb cast featuring Martina Serafin as the Marschallin and Alice Coote in the great trouser-role of Octavian. Edward Gardner, the young Music Director of the English National Opera, will conduct.
Other: Elie Wiesel in conversation with Ted Koppel (Thursday): Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning author and activist, will sit down with the broadcast journalist Ted Koppel to discuss God, exile, responsibility, and more.
From the archive: “Out of it ere night”: the WASP gentleman as cultural ideal by Jeffrey Hart, January 1989: On the decline and fall of the WASP gentleman, the prep school, the Ivy League, and the Episcopal Church.
From our latest issue: A man of letters by David Pryce-Jones: A new collection of George Orwell’s letters sheds new light on his life, passion for adventure, and artistic process.
E-mail to friend
In recent weeks, New York has had the chance to hear two Shostakovich symphonies that are seldom performed: his Symphony No. 9 and his Symphony No. 11. The first of these was played by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s; the second of them was played by the New York Philharmonic. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 is sometimes known as his “Mozart symphony”—his Classical symphony. In scale and form, it is a throwback to that era. It is also generally lighthearted. It is not a “traditional” Ninth.
Now, what do I mean by “‘traditional’ Ninth”? I mean a big, massive symphony—an Important Statement—à la Beethoven. The authorities in Moscow were looking forward to “the Soviet Ninth.” And that’s what Shostakovich planned, originally. World War II had just ended. Shostakovich had an opportunity and a duty – to glorify the nation in his Ninth. In the end, though, he served up a Mozart symphony.
The Symphony No. 11, written twelve years later, in 1957, has a nickname: “The Year 1905.” It commemorates and depicts the revolutionary events in Russia of that year.
Both the Symphony No. 11 and the Symphony No. 9 are masterpieces, seldom performed as they are (and different from each other as they are). Hearing them, I thought of the question, What are the most frequently performed Shostakovich symphonies, at least on American shores? The most performed, by far, is the Fifth. But what is the order after that? I’m not sure. I will hazard a list nonetheless:
The Tenth. The First (Shostakovich’s graduation piece, written when he was nineteen). The Seventh (“Leningrad”). The Thirteenth (“Babi Yar,” after poems of Yevtushenko). The Fourth. Maybe the Fourteenth? (Shostakovich wrote fifteen symphonies in all.)
I’m sure there are people who keep stats on this sort of thing...
In Zankel Hall, there was an English evening, featuring Purcell on the first half and Britten on the second. There were three singers: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), and Joshua Hopkins (baritone). Their pianist was Julius Drake. All of these men are British, except for Hopkins, who’s Canadian, so therefore maybe a bit honorary. I write a little about this concert in my upcoming “chronicle” in The New Criterion.
But I wanted to add something here: All three singers, it appeared to me, were not quite ready to sing. They did some warming up onstage, in the first half. Again, it appeared that way to me. (Only they know for sure, probably.)
I thought of something that Marilyn Horne said, long ago: She said she was tired of hearing singers warm up onstage. They ought to be ready from the git. They should do any warming up beforehand. The public needs to hear you ready as soon as you open your mouth.
Also in my chronicle, I write a bit about a Penderecki work, Concerto grosso, written in 2000. It was performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Charles Dutoit—and the piece calls for three cello soloists. They were Daniel Müller-Schott, Alisa Weilerstein, and Carter Brey (the Philharmonic’s principal). All three of these cellists are distinguished. And I mean no slight to the other two when I say that Weilerstein’s sound stood out. Not only was it different in character, it was different in volume: She sounded like she was amplified. I don’t believe she was trying to play loud. It simply emerged from her bow, or instrument, that way.
Before the Penderecki, Dutoit conducted Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole—a piece he has lived with for a very long time. He was at his best in it (the night I attended). Dutoit can put himself on autopilot, and not very good autopilot at that: He can wave his arms indifferently, phoning it in. But sometimes he reminds you, “Ah—that’s how he became famous in the first place.”
In the Ravel, he was elegant, colorful, debonair. The second section, Malagueña, really swung, Spanish-style. The third, Habanera, was maybe too slow to succeed, fully. But in the closing Feria, Dutoit was smoky and fantastic. The concert concluded with a performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in the Ravel arrangement. It was good. But the Rapsodie espagnole was an orchestral performance of a high order.
At the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, on West 37th Street, there was an evening of music by Michael Hersch (the American composer born in 1971). I write about one of his pieces in my chronicle.
I’d like to write about another one here. It is a piece for alto saxophone—alone. Unaccompanied. Called of ages manifest, it is inspired by poems of Jean Follain, a Frenchman who lived from 1903 to 1971. I said “inspired by”; one might also have said “based on.” In any case, this is music without words, but it is prompted by words, and those words were printed in our program. (Follain was translated by Christopher Middleton, the English poet.)
This is a piece, like so many of Hersch’s pieces, concerning death. As the soloist said in a program note, of ages manifest “seems to stare directly into the abyss.” He continued, “I actually have trouble describing the work because it has such a powerful effect on me.”
The soloist was Gary Louie, a professor at the Peabody Institute, where Hersch also teaches. Louie studied with Donald Sinta in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sinta was legendary, as a saxophonist and teacher, even when he was young.
Hersch’s piece tests the saxophone, and the saxophonist, to what I take to be the limit. Louie looked like he might not survive the experience, mentally, emotionally, or physically. But he did—and when he was finished, he ran off the stage. Literally. If I’m remembering correctly, he did not return, to acknowledge the continuing and robust applause.
Michael Hersch has written an original and powerful work for an instrument that is underexploited. Underexploited in classical music, I mean—it has pride of place in jazz. But the saxophone is good for more than Debussy, Ravel, and other Frenchmen.
Let me tell you about another new piece—or one written in 2002, which is new enough. It is a bassoon concerto by Christopher Theofanidis, an American born in 1967. The concerto was performed during a concert by the American Composers Orchestra in Zankel Hall. (In my chronicle, I write about a brand-new piece performed that night: a piece by Peter Fahey, an Irishman born in 1982.)
Theofanidis wrote the concerto for a friend of his, Martin Kuuskmann—and he was the soloist with the ACO. Looking at Kuuskmann, I thought, “You know, I never see a bassoonist stand up.” A bassoon concerto, or any other work for that instrument, is relatively rare. Furthermore, Kuuskmann looks like his instrument: tall and thin.
The most striking of Theofanidis’s three movements, I think, is the middle one. It’s marked simply “beautiful.” It is like a shepherd’s song, with an “ethnic” flavor—a Central or Eastern European one. Kuuskmann never seemed to take a breath, which was astonishing. Throughout the concerto, he was virtuosic, as the soloist needs to be, given what Theofanidis demands of him. Hersch stretches the saxophone to the limit; Theofanidis does something like that here, I think.
Earlier, I mentioned Krzysztof Penderecki and his Concerto grosso, which calls for three cello soloists. In a nice touch, he makes significant use of the cello section—the cello section in the orchestra. Similarly, Theofanidis, in his bassoon concerto, makes significant use of the bassoon section.
Conducting this little orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, was a man with a big job: Robert Spano, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He is also music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School. Not long ago, he was the music director of an orchestra in New York, the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
He conducted the pieces on the ACO program with great care. He could not have lavished more care if he had been conducting the Mahler Seventh. This is one mark of a true conductor. Spano was extraordinarily clear in his beat – and in his conducting generally. At one point, I thought, “Boy, can he count.”
Toward the end of my chronicle, I discuss a recent Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera. That production is the work of Luc Bondy, the Swiss stage director. I thought that readers might like to know about his father: François Bondy, a journalist and novelist. He was an anti-Communist when it was hard and important to be one. People I admire and esteem speak of him with great admiration and esteem.
E-mail to friend
James Levine on the night of his return to the Metropolitan Opera; photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera
The James Levine welcome-back tour continues apace. His return to the pit has been the major story of the Metropolitan Opera's season thus far, and on Monday afternoon we were given another look as the company had a chance to celebrate its tenacious maestro in style.
Mr. Levine has had his share of pre-downbeat ovations recently, beginning with his Carnegie Hall “comeback” in May, and Monday's luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria was no exception. The Metropolitan Opera Guild luncheon is held annually to benefit the Met, and this year’s installment, entitled “Welcome Home, Jimmy!”, featured a host of artists to offer the Maestro thanks, good wishes, and congratulations upon his return.
Following a few introductory remarks, attendees were treated to a video tribute, recounting Levine’s early passion for music, his ascension at the Met, and his miraculous return. A live performance segment began with the bass-baritone Eric Owens’s passionate rendition of “O tu Palermo” from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani. The baritone Thomas Hampson combined hot-blooded intensity with his usual vocal ease in Hérode’s aria “Vision fugitive” from Massenet’s Hérodiade.
The vocal star of the afternoon, though, was the soprano Christine Goerke, fresh off her triumphant performance as the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Filling in at the last minute for an ailing Dolora Zajick, she sang a searing “O don fatale,” Princess Eboli’s famous aria from Verdi’s Don Carlo. She received critical acclaim when she performed the role at Houston Grand Opera, and it was easy to tell why: This is more often a mezzo role, but Ms. Goerke was able to reach down and draw intense fire from the bottom of her range.
The most affecting part of the program was the series of tributes, stories, and thanks from singers who have worked with Mr. Levine over his many years of conducting. Kate Lindsey reflected on the enormous impact that the Maestro had on her development as a member of the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, while Renata Scotto and Sherrill Milnes seemed a perfect “odd couple,” teasing each other and sharing memories of their joint appearances with Levine.
Even the great Rosalind Elias, who had been singing at the Met for twenty years before Levine arrived, insisted that after working with such legendary conductors as Karl Böhm, Fritz Reiner, and Georg Solti, she learned more from working with “Jimmy” than from all of the rest combined. James Morris summed it up best: “There's been a hole at the Met—and thank God it's been filled again.”
With every downbeat, the sight of James Levine on the podium seems a step closer to being “commonplace” again, but questions about his longevity linger. As if to answer the doubters, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb smiled as he reported that “Jim is currently planning his repertoire for 2018.” We should be so lucky—with critical battles raging over Gelb’s “new-look” Met, a little consistency in the pit will go a long way toward keeping the company on an even keel.
E-mail to friend
Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) shouldered his way onto the Paris art scene with a pair of blockbusters: The Stonebreakers and A Burial at Ornans (both 1849–1850). Of the latter, he would famously say that it represented the “burial of romanticism,” a repudiation of art for art’s sake. Naturally, realism shares much with romanticism, but Courbet had always been uneasy with labels. “Courbet: Mapping Realism—Paintings From the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and American Collections,” at Boston College’s McMullen Museum through December 8, quotes his 1855 Manifeste du réalisme in which the artist clarifies his position: “I simply sought to mine [puiser] from a thorough knowledge of traditions a rational and independent feeling of my own individuality.”
It is worth noting that translators Claude Cernuschi and Jeffrey Howe interpret “puiser” as “to mine,” a word with a distinctly geological connotation rather than its alternate meanings to take or to derive. This decision is a subtle reinforcement of the exhibition’s stated aim: “to map realism in terms of geography as well as [Courbet’s] visual and artistic perceptions.”
“Mapping Realism” confines itself to Courbet’s circle of influence in Belgium and America. The catalogue essayist Dominique Marechal observes that Courbet’s love of Belgium and the Netherlands was due not only to the positive critical reception he enjoyed there, but also to his affinity with the north’s artistic tradition. In fact, it was integral to his modernity, which was “grounded in numerous aspects of Dutch painting from the golden age, including the use of monumental formats for mundane and contemporary scenes, and a neutral view of everyday life that avoided anecdote, moral stance, sentiment, and consolation while remaining objective and distant.”
Courbet’s most well-known works are not represented here. There are neither self-portraits nor hunting scenes, although the catalogue does include exemplary essays on each of these motifs by Cernuschi and Katherine Nahum, respectively. Given the impact of his The Quarry (La Curée) (1856–1857) on American art and the fact that it is owned by the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, it is too bad that this painting appears only as a small black and white reproduction. However, such quibbles detract very little from this ambitious and thought-provoking show.
Landscapes represent two-thirds of Courbet’s overall production. Those included here, among them Landscape at Ornans (ca. 1855) and The Source of the Loue (1864), establish his part material, part spiritual approach to the natural world. Courbet was proud of his origins in the Franche-Comté region and painted the buff-colored rocks of the Jura plateau and the forest glens near Ornans many times. He also painted the origin of the Loue River, a popular tourist site, several times, entranced by the primordial mystery of this dark maw surrounded by mossy rocks.
Courbet also painted many notable nudes—his Woman with a Parrot and the explicit Origin of the World (both 1866) have given legions of feminists fits over his objectifying “gaze.” But this exhibit reminds us that even as a young student in Paris, Courbet was already causing trouble. Reclining Nude (ca. 1840–1841) was probably painted from a studio model complete with obligatory draperies and classical reclining pose. The elements may be strictly academic, but this figure is schematic and monumental, tinged with an air of detached appraisal. It’s even possible to recognize in this work the faint stirrings of ideas that would later lead to the matter-of-fact nudity of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and de Chirico’s metaphysical nudes in the marketplace.
Of the Belgian realists most closely associated with Courbet, only Louis Dubois seems to have achieved a confident style free of the pathos that often tripped up his colleagues. Dubois’s landscapes are elegant and serene and the social commentary in Roulette (1860) is subtle and devastating. His Woman With Bouquet (1854–1855) recalls the seventeenth-century Dutch still life with its vanitas elements amid a jumble of luxury goods. Dubois adds a touch of japonisme and a complex diagonal composition, all executed with admirable aplomb. He also painted the hunt but to very different effect. In contrast to Courbet’s frenzied dramas of persecuted artist as cornered stag, Dubois’s The Dead Deer—Solitude (1863) offers the deer as memento mori. High on a remote cliff, the deer’s dead body—the awkward angle of the head, the distended ribs, and the slack hind legs—is a melancholy reminder of human vulnerability.
Followers such as Gustave Léonard de Jonghe and Charles de Groux are represented by works that show undoubted sincerity, but come dangerously close to sentimentality. Joseph Stevens, on the other hand, synthesizes many convention motifs in Brussels, Morning (1848) to create a profound expression of urban malaise. With a nod to Northern Renaissance realism, Stevens depicts a group of dogs fighting over scraps while a pair of anonymous women go about their business in the background. In another time, these dogs might have been pampered pets or valuable hunters, but here they are lawless brawlers fighting for existence in a dark, dirty alley. Tradition in art tells us that the dawn brings a day of new possibility, but here the light only serves to illuminate the demeaning depths of starvation.
The downstairs gallery focuses on how Courbet’s work affected American art in the decades following the Civil War. As Jeffrey Howe notes, postwar collectors were eager to spend money, but they could not stomach Courbet’s social themes or his scandalous nudes. They preferred his landscapes, a genre that had already been popularized by the Hudson River School and the Luminists. In 1866, The Quarry arrived in Boston to great fanfare. Other Courbets would follow. “What care I for the Salon,” exulted Courbet, “what care I for honors, when art students of a new and great country know and appreciate my works?” Through the many styles represented here by American artists such as William Morris Hunt, Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, John La Farge, and Martin Johnson Heade, among others, we see not only the pervasiveness of Courbet’s influence but also how porous labels can be.
Although he was instrumental in bringing The Quarry to Boston, William Morris Hunt first studied with Millet as is obvious in his Woman Knitting and Cow (Fontainebleau) (1860). But it is without a doubt Courbet who is behind the chiaroscuro portrait of The Tragedian (1878). Symbolism runs through several paintings by John La Farge, but his Rocks—Newport Landscape (Brenton’s Cove) (ca. 1866) could easily be Courbet’s beloved Jura plateau. Elihu Vedder’s Peasant Girl Spinning (ca. 1867) and Eastman Johnson’s Winnowing Grain (ca. 1873–1879) interpret simple rural pursuits in a golden light. (The latter brings to mind Courbet’s The Grain Sifters in which the artist’s sisters and his illegitimate son appear in an odd domestic scene with Brueghel-like overtones.)
Coast of Newport (1874) by Martin Johnson Heade is a painting I have seen many times at William Vareika Fine Arts in Newport. Unfortunately, its installation at the McMullen prevents its full appreciation. Heade’s highly-polished surfaces and meticulous detail are worlds away from Courbet until we consider the latter’s nearby The Sailboat (Seascape) (1873). It is turbulent where Heade is contemplative, but both clearly shared ideas about scale and the ephemeral and sublime in nature. Revelations such as this occur throughout “Mapping Realism” as it traces the roads that converged in Courbet’s art and those that radiated out into what the curator Jeffrey Howe calls “his expanded spheres of influence.”
“Courbet: Mapping Realism—Paintings From the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and American Collections” opened at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College on September 1 and remains on view through December 8, 2013.
E-mail to friend
This week: Flannery O'Connor's God, Shakespeare's collaborative plays, and Robert Motherwell's collages.
Fiction: A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter: An author who attempts to rewrite classic literature enters dangerous territory, but this 900-page tome, Mizumura’s attempt to recreate Wuthering Heights in post-war Japan, can easily stand on its own merits. Mirroring Heathcliff’s ascent from humble beginnings, Mizumura’s Taro begins life as an impoverished orphan and eventually immigrates to America to earn his fortune. Complicating his successes are a long-held infatuation with a girl from an affluent family, difficulties with class and race, and his struggle to preserve traditional Japanese culture in a quickly changing post-war world. This multilayered novel, which won Japan’s Yomiuri Literature Prize, traces Taro’s narrative through flashbacks, lengthy asides, and numerous stories-within-stories.
Nonfiction: A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor: Spirituality played a huge role in Flannery O’Connor’s writing (Bruce Bawer goes into detail in this essay). This journal, discovered among her papers in Georgia, furthers our understanding of O’Connor’s religiosity. Reading her journal reveals the author’s belief in God, her reliance on religion to dispel self-doubt, and the way she viewed art and spirituality as being intrinsically intertwined. Look for a review in a forthcoming issue of The New Criterion.
Poetry: William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen: This is the first edition in over 100 years of the body of work know as “The Shakespeare Apocrypha”—those works that are sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, but whose attribution is shaky. Including plays such as Sir Thomas More, Edward III, Arden of Faversham, and more, this fascinating volume contains copious explanatory notes, introductions and backgrounds for each play, and interviews with companies who have staged the plays.
Art: “Robert Motherwell: Early Collages” at Guggenheim, New York (through January 5, 2014): Featuring almost sixty works drawn from Motherwell’s work in the 1940s and 1950s, these papiers collés and related work tell the story of the artist’s discovery of collage and Peggy Guggenheim’s indispensible patronage of Motherwell.
Music: Hagen Quartet at 92Y (Sunday): The celebrated Hagen Quartet finishes its Beethoven cycle at the 92nd Street Y on Sunday, presenting the last of the Op. 59 “Razumovsky” quartets, and the stunning and challenging Op. 130. Their performance of Op. 130 will include the “Grosse Fuge,” which was originally intended as the quartet's finale, but was replaced at the insistence of Beethoven’s publisher.
Other: The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735–1917 (Tuesday): Myron Magnet, editor-at large of City Journal and recipient of the National Humanities Medal, will give a lecture at the New York Historical Society on Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, John Jay, the Lees of Stratford Hall, and others. Looking at the lives of these men, he explains the singular qualities of the American Revolution that led to its success. A review of Magnet’s latest book, which covers the same topic as his lecture, will appear in a forthcoming issue of The New Criterion.
From the archive: “All sail, no anchor”: architecture after modernism by Michael J. Lewis, December 2003: On American modernism in architecture. The fourth essay in TNC’s series “Lengthened shadows: America and Its Institutions in the Twenty-first Century.”
From our latest issue: Walking in Lenin’s footsteps by Anthony Daniels: What would Solzhenitsyn's Lenin have thought about modern Zurich?
E-mail to friend
Neeme Järvi; photo by Simon van Boxtel
The Estonians are a musical people, and in particular a singing people. In fact, they refer to their political stirrings from 1989 to 1991 as “the Singing Revolution.” (For a piece I did on this subject two years ago, go here.)
Estonians came to Avery Fisher Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center on Sunday afternoon: the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. They were conducted by the veteran Estonian maestro Neeme Järvi.
He is not only a conductor but a patriarch: the father of two conductors, Paavo and Kristjan, and a flutist, Maarika. He led his national orchestra through most of the Sixties and Seventies. Then he came to the West, working in Gothenburg, Detroit, and elsewhere.
Sunday’s concert was part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. The concert had a title: “Word Made Flesh.”
It began wordlessly, though, with an overture—the Overture No. 2 by Veljo Tormis, written in 1959. Tormis is an Estonian composer, born in 1930. He is not generally a wordless composer, in that he is best known for his choral works. In any event, the Overture No. 2 was a pleasure to hear. It is tense, bracing, exciting. The listener can read, or hear, all sorts of meanings into it. Apparently, the music has to do with Estonia under the Soviets’ boot.
Under Järvi, the Estonian orchestra was amazingly precise. I thought—pardon my bluntness—“If these nobodies from an obscure corner of the world can do it, why can’t the major orchestras?”
The concert proceeded with music by Estonia’s master, Arvo Pärt, who was born in 1935. A few years ago, a reader wrote me, “Name me one great composer in the world today, and don’t say Arvo Pärt!” This was one of the funnier demands I’ve received in recent years.
The Estonian orchestra and choir performed In principio, a five-movement work from 2003. It sets John 1:1–14, to wit, “In the beginning was the Word,” etc. The work is declamatory, robust, and somewhat primitive-sounding. It is spare but not bare. It is economical but not anemic. Rests play an important role in this work, as in other compositions by Pärt. For him, silence is often golden.
Throughout In principio, there is a righteous anger. There are bristling, insistent statements. The text and the music are an odd match—but not a mismatch. The performance we heard was, as they say, “a religious experience.”
Following this was another, shorter work by Pärt, Da pacem Domine, from 2004. It is neo-Baroque, or neo-earlier—neo-Gregorian. It is a beautiful and powerful piece, and when I say “powerful,” I mean inwardly powerful.
Immediately after, Järvi conducted Mozart’s Ave verum corpus—and it was as though somebody had turned on a light. What I mean is, the Pärt piece is in D minor and darkling. The Mozart piece is in D major, and luminous.
When Järvi and his forces were done, the applause was loud and long, and they performed the work again. (It is as short as it is sublime, lasting just a few minutes.) Järvi did not conduct the piece in “period” fashion; he conducted it in musical fashion. I wager that most critics and scholars would not have liked it. I would wager even more that Mozart would have.
The crowd certainly did: They went absolutely, rock-concert nuts.
For years, I have maintained that Neeme Järvi is an underrated conductor, though he is a well-known one, and a prolific recorder. He embodies Old World style and Old World values. He brought New York something off the beaten path, in this Sunday-afternoon concert. The Mozart may be on the beaten path—but the Estonian composers, not so much.
I would have liked to hear Ave verum corpus a third time. And the other pieces again.
E-mail to friend
“Access to power,” Plato said in The Republic, “must be confined to men who are not in love with it.” I think that’s pretty good advice, and I wish our masters in Washington were a bit better at following than they are. It is a curious irony that the burning desire for high office [...]
CNBC's Steve Liesman
Much of the world tires of hearing conservative complaints about double standards in the media, academia, and elsewhere. “If George W. Bush had said that . . .,” we say. “If Fox News had done that . . .,” we say. Well, say on, I say.
On CNBC, they showed a picture of Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas conservative. And a host, Steve Liesman, said, “There he is! Can we get some music to go along with that, some Mexican music maybe?”
What in the world? Cruz’s father is an immigrant from Cuba. Is that what Liesman was thinking of, when he asked for some Mexican music?
In a statement, he said he wanted to apologize “if my remarks were insensitive.” He explained that he had simply wanted some music representing Texas, to accompany the Cruz photo. It could just as well have been “Country/Western or Texas Roadhouse Blues.”
I believe that. I also believe—in fact, know—that if Fox News had shown a picture of, say, Thomas Perez, the labor secretary, and a host had said, “There he is! Can we get some music to go along with that, some Mexican music maybe?” the world would have gone nuts.
You may recall that, last year, a left-wing activist went to the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. FRC is a conservative Christian outfit. The activist was carrying a gun and a box of Chick-fil-A sandwiches, and his intention was to kill everyone he could, and then smear the sandwiches into the faces of his victims. The people who run Chick-fil-A had said they opposed gay marriage.
The activist found out about FRC by going to the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center lists FRC as a “hate group.” The activist found FRC’s location on the center’s “hate map.” Armed with this knowledge, and his gun, he went.
He managed to shoot a security guard, before the guard subdued him. The guard, Leo Johnson, in his pain and rage, wanted to kill the activist. He desisted, though. As he explained later, “The Lord spoke to me.”
Now, my contention is that, if a right-wing activist had gone to a left-wing outfit, for the purpose of committing a massacre, and had hit a security guard, the media et al. would be treating this as the crime of the century. There would be college courses devoted to it. There would be pop songs, films, marches.
The point about hypocrisy and double standards is an old one, granted, and a lot of people don’t like to hear it. But it’s still true—like the point about the world’s being round.
E-mail to friend
( 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:Contact
December 19, 2013
FRIENDS, YOUNG FRIENDS, AND AUTHORS EVENT: Holiday Party 2013
More events >