As Scott Johnson over at Powerline has noted, the Sixties seems to be making a comeback on the world stage. Consider Barack Obama’s pathetic response to the violence and racial posturing in Ferguson. “It was,” Johnson writes, “a statement full of the reigning leftist clichés, even retrieving the “anger” of “looting” and “carrying guns” from […]
Piotr Beczala; photo via Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli / Lelli
Piotr Beczala has for years been an opera star, and on Sunday night he had his turn upon the recital stage here at the Salzburg Festival. Beczala is a Polish tenor whose name is pronounced “Beck-SHAH-wah.” He owns a beautiful voice, and has a key ingredient for a singer, or a musician, or a person, for that matter: likability.
He gave his recital in the House for Mozart, with the pianist Kristin Okerlund. They offered an appetizing program, with two distinct halves. On the first half was Dichterliebe, Schumann’s song-cycle, which gave the singer a chance to prove his chops in German art song. This is almost necessary at the Salzburg Festival. On the second half was music closer to home, which is to say, Beczala’s native land. It was all Slavic: songs by Karlowicz (a Pole), Dvorak (a Czech), and Rachmaninoff (a Russian).
I once did a public interview of Beczala in this town. He said he had studied with Sena Jurinac, the famed “Yugoslavian” soprano, as we used to say. I asked, “What language did you communicate in?” He said, “We call it ‘Slavic mix’”—some Russian, some Polish, some Czech, some Serbo-Croatian . . .
Dichterliebe did not begin well. Okerlund, the pianist, warped the opening with an excess of rubato. And when the tenor came in, he was strained and tentative—not sounding like himself at all. He seemed to be in some vocal distress. Possibly, he was nervous. The first song was very, very shaky.
But Beczala soon came into his voice. He had nothing low, however, and Schumann requires some low notes in this cycle. The pianist, I believe, played much more bluntly than she intended. I’m not sure she could properly hear her accentuation, for example. I have no doubt she intended more refinement, more lyricism.
The performers never quite settled into Dichterliebe. The cycle never quite cast its spell. Beczala sang some excellent individual phrases, as he can’t help doing—he’s a world-class tenor. But Dichterliebe did not have its marvelous overall effect.
What it had, along with Beczala’s voice, was the singer’s likability. You root for him, in all circumstances. He is winning, no matter the weather.
Leaving for intermission, I thought, “If they could do it over, it would be much better. They need a mulligan.” I don’t often have this thought. But I believe that Beczala and Okerlund were capable of much more in this cycle. I’m sorry the performance was recorded for posterity (more on that in a moment).
Mieczyslaw Karlowicz was a Pole who lived a very brief life: 1876 to 1909. He was thirty-two when he died in a skiing accident. I have said he lived “a very brief life,” but, let’s face it, he lived a year longer than Schubert.
Beczala sang seven songs of Karlowicz, published between 1897 and 1899. In them, you heard the voice of sheer authenticity (Beczala’s). I will mention a detail, a technical detail: In the first song, Beczala did not have a true piano. He was hoarse and hooded. (Pavarotti would do this, on his worst days.) But at the end of the last song, he floated a beautiful little high A. He held it forever, never wavering from his pitch, even as the pianist shifted harmonies underneath him.
Speaking of the pianist, she played agreeably in these songs, as in subsequent ones.
The program told us that she and Beczala would next perform Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs, Op. 55. They would close with their Rachmaninoff group. Instead, they launched into the Rachmaninoff group—with no indication to the audience, written or spoken, so far as I’m aware.
Beczala should have eaten these songs alive. They are in his wheelhouse. And he sang them well enough. Yet some of the dreamy songs were not smooth enough, from either performer, to be truly dreamy. There were seams in the seamlessness. Also, Beczala did some straining on high and soft notes. And then there was this:
I’ve never much liked it when people say, “So-and-so sang the song like an opera aria. It was far too operatic.” The truth is, there is some opera-singing in song-singing, and some song-singing in opera-singing. And yet—a couple of the Rachmaninoff songs sounded too much like opera arias.
Beczala sang them with heart, however. And he sang Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs with heart—and voice, and style, and gladness.
The audience was very pleased, and he gave them four encores. The first two were classic Italian songs—as distinct from classical Italian songs. They were “Cor ’ngrato” and “Mattinata.” Beczala sang them, naturally, with voice and heart. They were not particularly Italianate—but this mattered little.
Then he sang two Strauss songs, ending with “Zueignung,” the most common encore in song recitals, at least in my experience: It is a song of thanks. Beczala sang it very warmly, expansively, and likably.
Let me append a few footnotes—beginning with a remark on “gender,” as we say these days. Not often is the singer a man and the accompanist a woman. Beczala made sure to let her go first, as they retreated from the stage into the wings (or wing). A gentleman.
I thought of Ivari Ilja, known for accompanying Dmitri Hvorostovsky (the Russian baritone). Once, he had a female page-turner. And always insisted she go first.
Okay, the second footnote, also about “gender,” as it happens. Here in Salzburg, only the female performers receive flowers from ushers at the end of performances. In America—at least in New York—male and female alike receive flowers. We have developed a unisexual, or metrosexual, culture. I once saw Bryn Terfel (the Welsh bass-baritone) receive his flowers onstage at Carnegie Hall. He was charmingly mocking about it.
And the final footnote: The Beczala recital was recorded for television, apparently. Anna Netrebko, the starry Russian soprano, was in the audience. She has been singing Leonora in Verdi’s Trovatore next door in the Great Festival Hall. During the Beczala recital, in the House for Mozart, a camera was now and then trained on her.
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Gianandrea Noseda; photo by Ramella&Giannese
One of the particular problems that comes with performing Beethoven's Ninth, at least with modern programming conventions, is how to complement it. At an hour to an hour and ten, it's too long to pair with a full-length concerto (unless you want a twenty-five-minute first half, a twenty-minute intermission, and a seventy-minute second half) but too short to program all by itself (as is often done with, say, any number of Mahler symphonies). The trick is to find an overture of about ten minutes that won't look completely flimsy next to perhaps the greatest warhorse in the symphonic repertoire.
Gianandrea Noseda, conducting the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra last Wednesday, chose another late work, the Consecration of the House overture. It’s not the most thrilling or commanding of Beethoven’s concert overtures, but it has history in its favor, as it and the Ninth were originally premiered together. The opening chords came in wide, flashing bursts as the strings played with stately breadth, showing off a rich, burnished tone. Noseda’s direction was both sensible and liberal, allowing the measured opening to flow naturally and organically into the spirited bounding that follows.
The MMF Orchestra is a reduced band, of the size we'd expect from the early classical period—twenty violins, as opposed to the thirty or so common for a modern symphony orchestra. All hands are usually called for when this piece is performed, so to hear it stripped down as it was on Wednesday gives the symphony an entirely different complexion. In a few spots the result was less than illuminating; at the opening, for instance, the reduced strings were able to play spectacularly softly, but the horns above them, which are marked pianissimo, seemed absolutely blaring. (Moreover, the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall, modified annually for this festival, seemed especially unforgiving from where I sat, though others further back in the hall reported a different experience.)
In general, though, the scale of the orchestra allowed for a pared-away reading of the work, a sound that didn't envelop the audience as we're used to, but that still got at the meat of the music. Fewer in number, the strings were able to dig in and bow freely without fear of upsetting the balance.
There was solid playing and intelligent conducting throughout the symphony, but the highlight was a hair-raising rendition of the second movement. In this Scherzo (and in the Fifth's, for that matter) Beethoven displays a darker-than-pitch sense of humor, and the relentless thrashing of this movement's clockwork theme gets delightfully nasty. Noseda, though, managed to keep the music’s impishness from getting away from him, finding the very real wit underneath all of that bile, pairing the scherzo with a cool, singing trio.
Noseda led a sweet and ruminative account of the Adagio, though he found less variety here than in the rest of the symphony. The music sat mostly at one level of energy, which is not entirely out of place, but gave the sense of being “stuck.” The finale, too, initially seemed to be on a tight leash, sounding less than chaotic in its explosive presto introduction. What followed, though, was masterfully crafted, as Noseda’s conducting tantalized in the build-up to the main theme, teasing the audience with the echoed snatches from the earlier movements and keeping a lid on the orchestra right up through the celli’s first sotto voce purr of the “An die Freude” melody. The interpretation was intelligent, clear, and varied, leading us through beaming choral outbursts (courtesy of the Concert Chorale of New York, magnificently booming and richly toned), a delightfully coy march, and an intricately layered fugato section.
For star power, the vocal quartet featured the Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, who was a commanding presence with his gigantic, smoky voice. This was not his most precise singing (he had an uncharacteristically rough time finding the pitches at the bottom of his range), but he brought richly colored, rough-hewn sound to his part. His three compatriots were all admirable in turn: The tenor Russell Thomas declaimed his soli with confidence and the two ladies—the mezzo-soprano Anna Maria Chiuri and the soprano Erika Grimaldi, in her U.S. debut—displayed precise, clear technique, weaving together beautifully when singing ensemble.
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Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.
This week: Toulouse-Lautrec's prints and posters, a new take on the travails of Edgar Allan Poe, and a performance of Mozart's Requiem Mass.
Fiction: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (Simon & Schuster): This debut novel spans six decades, following the life of Eileen Tumulty. The only child of working-class, alcoholic parents, Eileen’s rough upbringing in Queens leaves her searching for a way to raise both her social and economic standing. She sees her opportunity in Ed Leary, a neuroscientist who she falls in love with and marries. Ed, however, is less interested in lucrative jobs and flashy academic positions than in pursuing scientific research. When the couple finally moves to Westchester—a long-time dream of Eileen’s—Ed is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers, and the challenges of keeping the family together while pursuing upward economic mobility become even more difficult. —BPK
Nonfiction: Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins (New Harvest): Collins, a professor at Portland State University, paints a portrait of Poe as a talented writer who was ruined by his own lofty artistic ambitions. Collins parallels the Poe’s misfortunes —he was abandoned by his father, his mother and wife both died prematurely, he died a pauper—with stories of the writer’s creative endeavors, from iconic works like “The Tell-Tale Heart” to major flops like Eureka. —BPK
Art: “The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters” at MOMA (through March 22, 2015): The first MOMA show devoted exclusively to Lautrec in thirty years, this exhibition features over 100 of the artist’s works, displayed thematically, that give a sweeping overview of Lautrec’s Paris and depict everything from dining and nightlife to prostitutes and horseracing. —BPK
Music: Mostly Mozart Festival Closing Night: Mozart’s Requiem (Friday & Saturday): The Mostly Mozart Festival closes its season with recitals of its namesake composer’s beloved but embattled Requiem Mass. The orchestra will perform the original completion by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, edited by the Festival's own conductor, Louis Langrée. Leading the vocal quartet will be the soprano Susanna Phillips, one of the brightest young stars on the Metropolitan Opera’s stage. —ECS
Other: New York International Fringe Festival (through August 24): This year marks the eighteenth iteration of the largest multi-arts festival in North America, with 200 companies performing a variety of shows ranging from experimental musicals to classical revivals. With such a wide array of offerings not everything will be worth seeing, but NYCFringe is a can’t-miss opportunity to discover emerging talent from around the world. —BPK
From the archive: Dogma & Diaghilev by Laura Jacobs, May 2010: On Balanchine's work with the impresario and the lack of craftsmanship on the stage today.
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Where is Lord Elgin when you need him? In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was serving as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Exercising fiduciary responsibility for the cultural patrimony of the West was not high on the list of the Muslim’s list of priorities. In Athens, the art […]
via Salzburger Festspiele; photo by Michael Pöhn
In my years at Salzburg, I have seen three Don Giovannis—three different productions, I mean. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the great soprano, walked out of the first one. She has since been one of my favorite critics (as well as singers).
The latest production is by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, director of theater here at the festival. I will say a few words about it.
The opera begins in total darkness—no light in the orchestra pit or anything. The curtain opens to a creepy tableau. I thought of the Addams family. The action takes place in a hotel lobby (I’m pretty sure). The entire opera—all of Don Giovanni—will take place in this lobby. We seem to be in a police state, with heel-clicking and so forth.
A naked lady emerges. She’s wearing a devil’s mask, I think. This allows me to trot out an old aphorism of mine: “Salzburg is a place where the people in the audience are overdressed and the people onstage are underdressed.”
In due course, Giovanni appears, and he smears black on his face. He’s off to pursue and accost Donna Anna.
Anna, of course, is no victim. She has the total hots for Giovanni. This used to be daring in productions; now it is de rigueur. From daring to de rigueur: That is sort of the story of opera productions.
Giovanni doesn’t kill Anna’s father, the Commendatore. Not really. He guides the knife, or sword, and Anna kills him.
To go with the famous catalogue—Giovanni’s little black book (or big black book)—there are photos. Photos of the women Giovanni has conquered. Among them, I could almost swear, is a picture of . . . Schwarzkopf! As Leporello sings the Catalogue Aria, Elvira, repulsed, goes to barf in a bucket.
Zerlina is always running off with Giovanni. Not just once or twice, not just initially, but repeatedly. If this is the case, what is her beef against Giovanni? Can the story make sense?
As she sings “Vedrai, carino,” maybe the tenderest aria in all of opera, Zerlina straddles Masetto, sexually. Then the two disrobe. I’m not sure “Vedrai, carino” is the place.
At the end of the opera, Giovanni is not dragged down to hell. If he is, he doesn’t stay there long. He’s back in the hotel lobby, chasing after maids and such. Thus is the opera deprived of its moral message. There is a new message: “Don’t worry, fellas. You can get your freak on eternally!”
Sometimes, when a musician has taken absurd liberties with a composer’s score, we say he has “recomposed” the piece. Salzburg has rewritten the story of Don Giovanni.
Bechtolf’s Giovanni is no doubt an amazing piece of theater. Seldom has an opera been so theatrical, in my experience. Every character onstage is doing something every second. I’m skeptical whether this is called for. At various points, I thought, “The director should just let them sing a little bit. Give them a few seconds off.”
In my judgment, this production is wrongheaded. It is also brilliant. You can hardly take your eyes off it. Brilliant and wrongheaded, is that possible? Evidently, yes.
The cast was almost uniformly young and physically attractive. (I attended on Tuesday night, I should say.) When Zerlina appeared in her wedding gown, she did not look like an opera singer: She looked like a model in Brides magazine. I was ready to rip management for hiring these singers on the basis of youth and physical beauty. Yet most of them sang very well—so management is off the hook.
Giovanni was the Italian bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, who sang glowingly, nimbly, and magnetically. Leporello was the Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, who scarcely put a foot wrong. I have often written that about him.
It mattered that these two men were Italian. Giovanni and Leporello do a lot of talking with each other. Bechtolf, I believe, added more talking. These two just spat that Italian at each other, natively and engagingly.
Elvira was the German soprano Anett Fritsch, who, to me, is a discovery. She could not only slink around in her lingerie, she could sing superbly. The same is true of our Anna, Lenneke Ruiten, a Dutch soprano. And how about our Brides model, the Zerlina? She was Valentina Nafornita, a young soprano from Moldova. She, too, proved a fine and winning singer.
Ottavio was the English tenor Andrew Staples—who I bet has had better nights. He owns a lovely instrument in any case. (Why is it that Don Ottavios often come off so poorly? Even with their two arias to sing? The role can be thankless.) Masetto was a young Italian baritone, Alessio Arduini. Solid in his singing, he also boasted a mane of black hair.
The Commendatore was a crewcut Polish bass-baritone, Tomasz Konieczny. He was sturdy but underpowered. For years now, I have been fighting against amplification in the opera house and concert hall (such as I can). Nonetheless, I think that amplification of the Commendatore is justified when the gent is dead. This adds to the spookiness of the thing. There was no amplification in Salzburg’s House for Mozart (that I could discern).
Playing in the pit was the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Christoph Eschenbach. I have long remarked on a certain quality of this conductor: coiledness. He is coiled, tense, wired. He had a great night in the House for Mozart, maintaining tension all through the opera, and allowing for the necessary grace as well. This was a smart, musical, exciting Giovanni. I have never heard Eschenbach more effective.
The audience called the performers back for bow after bow. Once the applause died down and the curtain closed for good, we heard a burst of cheering from behind that curtain. The performers were celebrating onstage.
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King Lear at the Delacorte Theater; photo by Joan Marcus
“This is most strange,” the King of France says at the beginning of King Lear. “This is above all strangeness,” says Edgar near the end of it. The word “strange” and its variants are repeated no fewer than eleven times over the course of the play, a refrain to which the tragic action always returns.
The staging of Shakespeare in the Park’s King Lear matches the strangeness of the play itself. The director, Daniel Sullivan, eschews the old convention of full regalia and flouts the newer convention of “bold,” distracting staging, choosing instead a minimalist middle ground. John Lee Beatty’s set is simple and unobtrusive, consisting of a bare wooden platform with several sets of stairs on every side; a rough dark background that turns a velvety gray in the dimmed light; and a layer of gravel that looks like “moulten lead” (to borrow Lear’s expression). The set almost focuses attention on its own barrenness, a strange and ingenious effect of self-negation. Austere garments and dissonant music round out the high seriousness of the play.
Unfortunately, this seriousness does not always receive its due. Jay O. Sanders (Kent) does not embody the good counsel and dignity of the king’s chief advisor. Instead, he becomes entrapped in a strange, hard to place accent for the bulk of the play. Sanders’s over-the-top alter ego amuses, but the amusement comes at a price: Since we never take Kent all that seriously, it’s hard to feel the pain of his exile, or the loss Lear has brought on himself by banishing him.
John Lithgow, luckily, carries much of the play, and with the help of Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji) and Gloucester (Clarke Peters), his Lear awakens the compassion and sorrow of the audience in full measure. The stage-acting veteran has given life to a character of immense complexity, and shape to his fragmentary language.
The same cannot be said of many of the supporting actors. Goneril and Regan, played by Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht, seem almost dead in their delivery; their speech is flat; the words fall out like stones. Somehow it has been assumed that evil is emptiness, rather than the teeming source of multiplied perversities which Shakespeare conceives it to be. Bening’s Goneril is stiff and staid; she lacks the rich and varied malice of the murderess, whose lust for power is almost sensual.
Bening speaks clearly enough, as many of the cast do, but the intonation is off much of the time. Regan alternates between a honeyed drawl and a harsh, word-by-word enunciation used to deliver edicts and death warrants. This cross between petty tyrant and charming temptress hardly suits her unfeeling nature, or the severe, personal abuse she inflicts on her father. Even Jessica Collins, who plays Cordelia, cannot go beyond a one-dimensional goodness—she is a simplified Christ-figure who wants something human. The secondary characters dwindle. Of course, most characters do pale in light of Lear’s arm-swinging madness and impotent rage. Nonetheless there is no excuse for them to be played as mere echo chambers; they are richly drawn and demand a nuance of their own.
A strange mixture emerges from these elements. Nature and artifice mingle and make for an eerie, disorienting atmosphere. Stiffness and flatness in some of the cast serve as backdrops for the forceful expression and dynamism of the rest. The production succeeds admirably where it most counts, where the play reaches its highest pitch of tragedy: Lear howling on the heath; Edgar gashing himself as Poor Tom; Gloucester attempting suicide and being pathetically disappointed. The skin tingles to hear the famous passages declaimed with such energy in the cool of night, and you feel in these moments that Lear is not just the story of a king in decline but of the end of the world, the unaccountable and impenetrable darkness that covers all, from the proudest king down to Poor Tom the madman. The rest of the play sounds rather too much like a recitation, and, were it a playwright less talented than Shakespeare, perhaps such plodding rhythms might be forgiven. As it is, Shakespeare’s phrasing demands not only technical precision but depth of feeling. Without this, the tragedy of Lear seems too much like a destination without a journey, a peak of heartbreaking sadness with no path leading up to it, which the mind suddenly beholds without the guidance of a thickened plot and evolving dynamics. Perhaps further performances will remedy these defects; for now, we have a Lear of fine moments—solemnity in grief, majesty in madness, sympathy in vain—but not the full-fledged art and arc of Shakespeare’s deepest play.
For a different take on Shakespeare in the Park’s King Lear, be sure to check back for Kevin D. Williamson’s coverage in the September issue of The New Criterion.
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Esa-Pekka Salonen; via Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli
On Saturday morning, in the Great Festival Hall here at the Salzburg Festival, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra. He is now the “principal conductor” of this London band. He first conducted them long ago—in 1983, when he was twenty-five. Salonen has one of the best “creation stories” in all of music. I love to tell it. I asked him to tell it in a public interview a few years ago. Later, I wrote it up like this:
In 1983, Michael Tilson Thomas was scheduled to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra. He injured himself playing tennis. Orchestra management had to scramble to find a substitute. They reached the bottom of the barrel: Salonen, a young, unknown conductor in Finland. Salonen’s manager gave him a call, at 7:30 in the morning. Salonen was none too pleased; he had been up late with his mates.
The manager spent half his time working in music and half his time selling golf equipment. He had his office at a golf course in western Finland. That’s where the faxes came in, regarding his musical clients, including Salonen.
He said to Salonen, “The Philharmonia wants you to conduct Mahler’s Third Symphony three days from now.” Salonen said, in essence, “You’re joking.” Salonen didn’t know this symphony. He hadn’t heard it, hadn’t seen it. He said, “Well, let me go to the library and have a look.” He learned the score. And he conducted the Philharmonia.
Recognize, please, that the Mahler Third is not an ordinary piece of music—it is not “Twinkle, Twinkle.” It is one of the strangest, most profound, most important symphonies in the entire literature. It is also “the longest,” says Salonen.
After the Philharmonia concert, a man approached him and said, “I’m Ernest Fleischmann, the executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I think you should be our next music director.” Salonen thought this man was a crackpot, practically a street person. He later learned that there was indeed a man named Ernest Fleischmann, and that he was indeed the executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic.
Following this London triumph of Salonen’s, the faxes started to pour into that golf course in Finland: Salonen was known and in demand.
Today, Salonen looks pretty much as he always has. He seems to weigh not an ounce more or to have a hair fewer. He began the Philharmonia concert on Saturday morning with Don Quixote of Richard Strauss. (By the way, I have always considered 11 o’clock a most civilized hour for music.) The Salzburg Festival is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Strauss’s birth. He is, in fact, a founding father of the festival.
Don Quixote is one of his tone poems, and I believe it is the very definition of a tone poem: a piece of music that tells a story. The cello soloist plays the part of Don Quixote; the viola soloist plays the part of his sidekick, Sancho Panza. It seems that Strauss, even when he is composing orchestral music, is always composing an opera. There are prefigurations of Rosenkavalier in Don Quixote.
Is it just me, or is it raining Don Quixote? At the Lincoln Center Festival last month, Bolshoi forces performed the ballet. I wrote about it here. In writing that original novel, Cervantes fired imaginations for centuries to come.
The cello soloist with Salonen and the Philharmonia was a young German named Maximilian Hornung. I had never heard of him. For me, he is a discovery. Hornung played with great poise, a beautiful sound, and a sense of drama. Don Quixote, from his bow, was touchingly noble (as distinct from pathetic or comical). The violist was a Briton named Lawrence Power. He, too, acquitted himself well (in a much smaller role).
In addition to these starring, or semi-starring, roles, there are opportunities in Don Quixote for principals throughout the orchestra. The Philharmonia’s were notably good. Let me mention two, though not by name (for I don’t know them): the oboe and the French horn. Let me further mention that the principal horn was a pretty young woman.
I realize I shouldn’t talk this way. But maybe you’ll excuse me on these grounds: When I was growing up, you didn’t see a woman in a horn section. Young or old, homely or otherwise. Paunchy men were the rule.
Don Quixote is a busy piece, telling a busy story, and there is a great variety of sounds. In the midst of it all, a cellphone went off—having the ring that goes “boing-boing-boing,” like something jumping. It almost fit in with the tone poem.
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.
His Don Quixote was plenty disciplined. There was no dawdling. Salonen was utterly logical and utterly clear: You could have written the score down from his conducting. But he also showed Romantic flair. The score was panoramic and kaleidoscopic. This was Don Quixote in full, I think.
I’d like to make a confession: I’ve never much liked Don Quixote (Straussoholic though I am). Salonen made me like and appreciate it much more. He took no bows at the end, deferring to the two soloists, some principals in the orchestra, and the orchestra at large. But it was he (along with Strauss) who made Don Quixote so vivid and satisfying.
After intermission, he conducted Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6. They were logical and disciplined, yes, but they were also poetic. Very much so. The Prelude was dreamily beautiful. Is Berg supposed to be so beautiful? Yes, actually. The concluding March started whimsically martial; then it was martial-martial. It was a shame the final note was not together—otherwise, the three pieces were immaculate, as well as smart and moving.
The program ended with a Ravel hit, La valse. When it began, the piece was appropriately woozy. Salonen proved patient, letting the piece build. It has an arc, and a conductor must follow it. In this performance, the music was half Viennese, half French—just what it should be. When all was said and done, it was delicious, strange, and exciting.
Is it possible to hear this piece again, after a hundred hearings? Conducted and played like this, absolutely.
You knew there would be an encore because, as the audience applauded, a woman sneaked out from the wings to a waiting celesta. (I think it was a celesta. It was a keyboard instrument, in any case.) What the Philharmonia played was a selection from Ravel’s Mother Goose: “The Fairy Garden.” Rather like La valse, it built patiently, beautifully, and excitingly. You could have floated out of the Great Festival Hall and above the Alps.
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.
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The Candy Store, New York City; Oil on canvas; Richard Estes 1969
Richard Estes’ photorealistic painting style is all about overcoming inertia. For years, Estes has patrolled the streets of New York with a camera, shooting randomly at various times of the day or night. Over time, he has amassed thousands of contact sheets showing the same streets and the same buildings. He may return to a scene repeatedly, taking more photos over the space of months or even years. When he’s finally ready to think about a painting, he returns to the darkroom, making one set of prints of a scene’s highlights, another for its shadows. This kind of perseverance gives him a decidedly unromantic appreciation for the tedium of making art: “Usually it’s a pretty calculated, sustained, and slow process by which you develop something […] I think the real test is to plan something and be able to carry it out to the very end. Not that you’re always enthusiastic: it’s just that you have to get this thing out. It’s not done with one’s emotions; it’s done with the head.”
Richard Estes’ Realism, at the Portland Museum of Art, is the most comprehensive exhibit of his work to date. The exhibition includes The Candy Store (1969), his first piece acquired by a museum. The calculation and intensity of his work was not lost on the Whitney curators who bought the piece, seeing in it not only an extraordinary view of an ordinary shop but also nods to arch Pop Art practitioners Lichtenstein and Warhol.
Pop Art also hovers around the edges of Bus With Reflection of the Flatiron Building (1966–1967) and Car Reflections (1970). In the former, which Estes considers his first mature example of the photorealism for which he is now famous, the artist arrives at an illusionistic yet painterly rendering of metallic surfaces and ironically reduces one of New York’s most famous landmarks to a reflection in a car window. The latter painting is an almost abstract view of two cars at the intersection of West 20th Street and Fifth Avenue: Are they colliding or just parked very close together? In both works, traces of motion—transportation, transience, and time—emerge in spite of the snapshot conceit.
Estes secured his reputation as a master of contemporary realism with works such as Bridal Accessories (1975), Double Self-Portrait (1976), and Jone’s Diner (1979). Working on quiet Sundays when blue laws kept New Yorkers from clogging the shops and sidewalks, Estes captured the city as few people had seen it. Many critics have noted the documentary aspect of Estes’s work, and no doubt nostalgia plays a large part in his appeal. But if Estes were merely setting himself the task of replicating the world as it is, his would be a sociological motivation rather than an expressive one.
Jone’s Diner; Oil on canvas; Richard Estes, 1979
Estes’s views of New York have become a part of the visual discourse of modern art and also of the city as American symbol. His cool realism confronts photographic veracity without dissembling, but he is unafraid to imprint individualistic considerations on his emblematic scenes. In spite of his photographic preparation, Estes sometimes makes corrections, changing the color of curtains or keeping all-over focus on a wide-angled view. Where there are limitations to our perceptions, Estes opens up new possibilities. The introduction of artistic agency converts photorealism from a slavish and superficial homage to a version of the familiar that in the end defamiliarizes.
Dazzling as his paintings may be from afar, it is instructive to examine Estes’s technique up close. Even if one is reluctant to peek behind the curtain, it is interesting to see the painter’s hand at work. Looking closely at Central Savings (1975), for example, we see that the chrome on the counter stools is rendered in a series of gray vertical strokes. Given Estes’s methodical approach, it is possible to imagine daubs of gray and white, perhaps even premixed oil shades, ready to be deployed in various widths to replicate the light glancing off the line of stools.
It is rare to see Estes falter in his technical control, although it happens occasionally, as in Ansonia (1977). This split perspective work depicts the famous Ansonia apartments on New York’s Upper West Side and their reflection in a florist’s window. In the foreground is a marvelous rubber plant, but its pot clumsily sits on top of an identical vessel turned upside down. “That pot isn’t entirely successful, is it?” a fellow museumgoer noted ruefully. One has to agree.
Ansonia; Oil on canvas; Richard Estes, 1977; via Whitney Museum of American Art
In the 1980s and 1990s, Estes painted a series of famous bridges, among them, the Pont Neuf in Paris, London’s Tower Bridge, the Ponte dell’Accademia in Venice, the Roman bridge in Cordova, and the Brooklyn Bridge. These views canvass a range of influences from seventeenth-century Dutch painters to Canaletto, the post-Impressionists, and the American precisionists.
Also around this time, Estes began painting portraits. Water Taxi, Mount Desert (1999) shows two friends of the painter, mother and daughter, caught in Maine’s crystalline late afternoon light as they speed away from the island. The time of day, the subjects’ evasive posture, and the artist’s vantage point facing backward give this painting a wistful, Degas-like sense of intimacy. Caught up in their own thoughts, neither notices, as Estes has, the glorious, foamy trough being left in the wake of the boat.
Water Taxi, Mount Desert; Oil on canvas; Richard Estes, 1999
Estes’s masterful handling of water, fluid and frozen, is undeniable. In Antarctica (2007), he brings his considerable technique to bear on a panorama of a snowy mountain under a cloudy sky. The roiling surface of the gelid water is handled with aplomb and the mountain at the center of the composition draws our attention—not because of its obvious majesty, but because of the way that Estes depicts sun and shadow playing across its surface.
Back in the city, Estes’s more recent paintings of Times Square or Columbus Circle reinforce, if we had any doubts, his premier position as America’s top photorealist. But for sheer technical bravura, The B Train (2005) and The L Train (2009) are unbeatable. Smaller than many of his cityscapes, these two paintings focus on subway windows and doors. Any bored commuter has seen (or overlooked) these views hundreds of times, but Estes’s penchant for making the everyday new even revives hoary artistic devices such as framing (The B Train) and infinity mirrors (The L Train).
The L Train; Oil on board; Richard Estes, 2009
To assert that Estes’s realism is a triumph over inertia refers not only to the artist’s deliberate conception and patient execution of each painting, but also to the complacency of the viewer. Why go to a museum to see paintings of a well-known city or yet another picturesque landscape? Why does Estes create paintings that seem to demand almost more patience than even he is willing to expend? Because although the eye might glide blithely over his surfaces and marvel at his technical prowess, Estes grabs our attention by being present in his work. Despite his dispassionate stance, his efforts to engage us are real. In the guise of a cool realist, he insinuates possibility and potential.
It is a truism that the greatest potential exists in our imagination, but Estes has little use for romantic exaltation. We react rather to his material connection to his world, his interest and appreciation of the natural as well as the manmade, and—perhaps most surprisingly—we recognize his warmth and his sense of humor. Estes helps us to overcome a mind at rest.
"Richard Estes’ Realism" opened at the Portland Museum of Art, in Portland, Maine on May 22, 2014 and remains on view through September 7, 2014. It then moves to the Smithsonian American Art Museum from October 10, 2014 through February 8, 2015.
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This week: See King Lear for free, a Mozart festival plays Beethoven, and Haruki Murakami returns with a new novel.
Fiction: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf): Tsukuru Tazaki, a simple train station engineer, is pressured by his girlfriend to reach out to a group of high school friends after many years of silence. His separation from the group started when he was in college, when the rest of the fivesome suddenly ostracized him with little explanation. Forced to confront his self-doubt and isolation once again, Tsukuru travels through Japan and Europe to try and reconnect with his former friends and find out what truly caused the rift between them. —BPK
Nonfiction: Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale): Arguing that Augustus should feature prominently on historians’ list of great leaders—Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, etc.—Goldsworthy chronicles the development of Rome through events in Augustus’ life. He pays close attention the role played in Rome’s progress by Agrippa, Augustus’ lieutenant, son-in-law, and friend. Looking at both political structures—e.g. the importance of family in politics, the shrinking of the senate—and specific policies—building infrastructure, founding public services—Goldsworthy explains how Rome both expanded and flourished peacefully during Augustus’ reign. —BPK
Poetry: Announcing Mimi’s Trapeze (University of Pittsburgh), the latest book from TNC Poetry Prize–winner J. Allyn Rosser: Here’s what they are saying at Poetry News in Review: “Rosser’s poems have always given a squinty sideways glance at cultural foibles and assumptions. Her distinctive brand of cheery skepticism implies that the genuine pursuit of truth is a virtue that renders tolerable the intolerable. These poems achieve a lyricism that gives free reign to the lush energies of language while remaining transparent enough to communicate something precise, fresh, and unsettling. A driving force behind the poems in Mimi’s Trapeze is Rosser’s profound curiosity about all forms and conditions of life. Without distorting fact or motive, her speakers seek to navigate the mazes of our messy quotidian infelicities, ranging from imperfect love to squashing turtles on the road—from the history of artistic misrepresentations of women to global warming—attempting to calibrate the beautifully complex balance between desire and responsibility.” —DY
Art: Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I by Jed Perl (Arcade Publishing): Former TNC art critic Jed Perl has this to say about his first collection of essays: “[It] was conceived as a love letter. . . . I worked out of passion. I aimed to exalt.” Reissued as a special 25th-anniversary edition with a new introduction by Perl, these essays cover Matisse, Léger, Picasso, Braque, Giacometti, Balthus, and more in a collection that Roberta Smith called “a quiet, cogent tour de force.” —BPK
Music: Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra plays Beethoven (Tuesday & Wednesday): The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra presents two works from Beethoven's late period: The overture to The Consecration of the House and the astonishing, revolutionary Ninth Symphony. The symphony's vocal quartet includes the star bass Ildar Abdrazakov, under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, the charismatic music director of Turin's Teatro Regio. —ECS
Other: King Lear at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park: This is the final week to catch The Public Theater’s free performance of Lear at Shakespeare in the Park. John Lithgow leads in this performance directed by Tony-winner Daniel Sullivan. —BPK
From the archive: Rebecca West & the FBI by Carl Rollyson, February 1998: On October 19, 1992, Carl Rollyson filed a FOIA request for Rebecca West’s FBI file. What he discovered shed new light both on West and the FBI.
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