by Michael Pepi
“First Board of Trustees of Detroit Museum of Art” (1907), Percy Ives. Via Detroit Institute of Arts.
The city of Detroit is beset by several unforgiving narratives. We need not recount them here because few, if any, are present in the Todd Levin’s exhibition “Another Look at Detroit,” on view at Marianne Boesky and Marlborough Chelsea this summer. Instead Levin approached his hometown with the lens of the longue durée: rejecting the events that have only recently clouded the city’s stature as a proud beacon of cultural production.
At Marlborough Gallery, Robert Duncanson’s Landscape (1870), Percy Ives' group portrait the First Board of Trustees of Detroit Museum of Art (1907), and the urban realism of Zoltan Sepeshy’s Industrial Detroit (plant II) (1929) set the tone for the cultural milieu of Detroit far in advance of the boom and bust cycle. The exhibition parades a range of American themes, such as the roots of Manifest Destiny, the later waves of cosmopolitan luminaries, and some of our most enigmatic postmodernists, especially Detroit natives James Lee Byars and Mike Kelley.
Even though Levin takes a revisionist tack, it is still impossible to ignore the industrial theme. Detroit’s history and that of the automobile are closely intertwined, as is much of the iconography reproduced in the city’s art. Diego Rivera painted a portrait of Edsel B. Ford in 1932, a muted depiction of the man who had commissioned Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Art, completed shortly thereafter. It is hung adjacent to Ray Johnson’s abstract rendition of Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, who soon succeeded his father at the helm of Ford Motor Company.
“Edsel B. Ford” (1932), Diego Rivera. Oil on canvas, mounted on Masonite. Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
There is a celebration of Detroit’s vernacular, whether it is in the Ford upholstery samples, posters for classes at Cranbrook Academy of Art in nearby Bloomfield Hills, a Shinola bicycle, or several examples of decorative arts and design from masters like Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen. Even the modern and contemporary works make steady use of industrial forms and materials including the machinist cacophony of Julie Mehretu’s abstract Untitled (Brigade) (2005), the steel reinforcing rods in Michael C. Luch’s Untitled (Rabbit) (1977), and John Enger’s Doug’s Smoke (1975), which typifies the unrefined style of the Cass Corridor artists. Detroit’s status a pioneering city in the history of techno music also is on display with several vinyls from Jaun Atkin’s Metroplex records—the creator of the now mainstream genre.
Mike Kelley and James Lee Byars in particular seem like suitably lucid symbols for the complexity of Detroit’s place in the history of art. Kelley’s painting and sculpture were rooted in his midwestern Catholic upbringing, yet constantly synthesized elements of physchological depth with bold formal experimentation. Kelley was as boundless as James Lee Byars was metaphysical—his preferred medium being “thought”. Both were native sons of the Motor City who went on to broadly impact the trajectory of contemporary art.
“Center and Peripheries #2” (1990), Mike Kelley. Acrylic on panels and wood armatures; Private collection
The exhibition reads as a broad roster of important artist’s whose lives were impacted by the city, specifically drawing upon several art schools throughout Michigan—Wayne State, College for Creative Studies, Cranbrook Academy— that boast impressive alumni. As Levin explains in the exhibition’s statement, there is a sense of hope in the work. Even if it wasn’t always part of the artist’s intent, Levin’s curation collapses some the media’s negative narrative of the city while stressing the possibility of rebirth.
“Another Look at Detroit,” a group exhibition curated by Todd Levin, opened June 26th and runs through August 8, 2014 at the Marlborough Chelsea and Marianne Boesky galleries in New York City.
E-mail to friend
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: Harper Lee breaks her silence, Garry Winogrand's intimate photos, and a rarely seen opera takes center-stage at the Lincoln Center Festival.
Fiction: Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey (FSG Originals): Elyria books a one-way ticket to New Zealand, abruptly leaving behind her family and stable, yet unfulfilling, job in Manhattan. Arriving without any real plan, she hitchhikes across the country, works odd jobs, and stays with strangers she meets along the way. Her actions start to catch up with her as the impetuousness of her trip and traumas from her past send her deeper and deeper into a mental breakdown. Sam Sacks of The Wall Street Journal calls Lacey’s debut “the most promising first novel that I’ve encountered this year.” —BPK
Nonfiction: The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills (Penguins Press): In 2004, Marja Mills of the Chicago Tribune moved in next door to Harper Lee. Living with her sister in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee had withdrawn from the public eye after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird and remained as enigmatic as Pynchon or Salinger. Over the course of the next eighteen month, Mills and the Lees grew close together, sharing everything from literary conversations to catfish dinners. Now Mills tells the story of their friendship, painting a detailed picture of the sisters and their southern home. —BPK
Poetry: Rocket and Lightship by Adam Kirsch (W. W. Norton): New Criterion readers will be pleased to learn that a new collection of essays, Rocket and Lightship, by the poet and critic Adam Kirsch will be released this fall. You can read a preview of it here. Poems by Mr. Kirsch that appeared in The New Criterion can be read here. His New Criterion Poetry Prize–winning collection is available here. —DY
Edward Hirsch on his Poet’s Glossary: The poet Edward Hirsch sat down with the Poetry Foundation to discuss the 750-page Poet’s Glossary that he spent fifteen years compiling: “I think contemporary poetry seems to have inherited a 1950s and ’60s divide between the poets of traditional form and the poets of organic form. I think these divides rehearse tired narratives about poetry, as if we still had to choose between, say, Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Olson, or between Robert Hayden and Robert Creeley. By seeing these divides so categorically, I think we’ve impoverished the resources of American poets. My idea is that poetry is so much larger than these timeworn quarrels, which put too many poets into boxes. I’m hoping that my book can contribute to a fuller conversation and way of thinking about poetry. There is so much more to poetry than the sociological alignment of different groups.” —BPK
Art: “The Meaning of Life” and “Robert Otto Epstein”: Summertime is the best time to explore art beyond the five boroughs. The Geoffrey Young Gallery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts is a small space with a deservedly big reputation. “The Meaning of Life, a cartoon-based exhibition curated by Sue and Phil Knoll," on view through August 2, is this summer's group show with work by seventeen artists, including Katherine Bradford, James Sienna, and Ken Johnson. Meanwhile in Beacon, New York, opening this Saturday and running through August 3, Matteawan Gallery will exhibit the dazzling 8-bit op-art of "Robert Otto Epstein: ROW BY ROE," with drawings that are part Bauhaus and part Nintendo. —JP
“Garry Winogrand” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through September 21, 2014): Garry Winogrand’s intimate photos capture the full range of human emotions with a menagerie of characters ranging from hippies to businessmen, strangers on the street to movie stars. The first retrospective of Winogrand’s work in twenty-five years, the show brings together more than 175 of the artists images, including a series of photos taken at the Met in 1969 while the museum was celebrating its centennial. —BPK
Music: The Tsar’s Bride at Lincoln Center (Saturday–Sunday): Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Tsar’s Bride gets a rare U.S. showing this weekend as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The renowned Bolshoi Opera will present a concert performance of the work for two nights, with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducting. —ECS
Other: Life Itself at The Film Society of Lincoln Center: This documentary from Steve James memorializes the extraordinary life and work of Roger Ebert, tracing his rise from a run-of-the-mill newsman to the world’s most influential film critic. —BPK
From the archive: In the Empty Quarter by Ben Downing, November 2006: The outlandish life of Wilfred Thesiger.
From our latest issue: A bookman of the people by Henrik Bering: A review of The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life by John Carey.
E-mail to friend
by James Panero
Will the Metropolitan Opera be cut short next season by backstage strife? In City Journal I take a look at this management-labor dispute and come out against everyone:
E-mail to friend
Links of interest from the past week:
Opera is not just our most expensive noise
The fraught friendship of T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx
Stage fright: classical music's dark secret
The lost beauty of book endpapers
From our pages:
A bookman of the people
E-mail to friend
“So you want to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? […] so does everyone else visiting. If I had known it was going to be this crowded, I would have put cowbells on the family so we could find each other.”
So says a senior reviewer on popular travel site Trip Advisor. He should line up those cowbells now: after a new climate control system is installed this autumn, the Vatican Museums hope to see the number of visitors to the Sistine Chapel nearly triple.
As reported by The Art Newspaper, a more powerful and energy-efficient heating, air conditioning, and ventilation system will increase the Chapel’s maximum capacity from 700 to 2,000 people at a time. Though museums director Antonio Paolucci stresses that the main motivation for the changes was the continuing preservation of Michelangelo’s famous frescos, there will certainly be ramifications for the museum experience. In an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, two anonymous employees expressed concern:
“Look at how many people there are! Look at how narrow the hallways and the staircases are. This is not MoMA in New York, but a palace that was not built to be a museum. It isn’t great to see how the Sistine Chapel, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the world, and where we are very proud to work, has become an uncomfortable place crowded with hundreds of tourists.”
The employees call to mind a recurrent tension around the telos of the museum. Should its purpose be to educate visitors or to preserve key works? Is it more important that the greatest number of visitors “see” the art (however superficially), or that dedicated guests (however few in number) are given the chance to engage with a piece in a real and perhaps transformative way?
I would posit that both measures of worth are justifiable. A tourist’s momentary glance at a venerable work might well awaken a dormant understanding of beauty, or kindle an interest in learning more. And even the most dedicated critic can fall more deeply in love.
E-mail to friend
Bruce Davidson, London, 1960; via Beetles & Huxley
The Yale Center for British Art, home to the largest collection of British art outside of England, certainly has its fair share of classical masterpieces. Portraits by Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, and Reynolds line the walls of an architectural space designed by Louis Kahn that is the envy of many world-renowned galleries, let alone universities. But its summer exhibition, featuring the prints of two living American artists, is a rare and exciting contemporary foray. “Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland,” a collaboration between the YCBA and The Huntington Library, opened last week.
Davidson and Caponigro, born in 1933 and 1932 respectively, had met only a handful of times before this exhibition. This is surprising given the similarity of their trajectories: both studied at the Rochester Institute of Art, have a lifelong dedication to traditional photography, and made repeated trips to the British Isles in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet while they are both masters of the darkroom, their artistic focus could not be more different. Davidson, a true street photographer inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s appeal to capturing “the decisive moment,” seeks to record the fleeting idiosyncrasies of people; Caponigro, inspired by ancient mythology, pursues the timelessness of landscape.
To sustain the contrast, the exhibition’s curators chose to separate rather than mix Davidson and Caponigro’s photographs. The exhibition space, a large room with a wall down the center, features Davidson’s portraits on the left side. The darkness of his prints, in line with the raw, evocative moments he captures, is contrasted on the right of the exhibition by Caponigro’s bright and expansive landscapes. Viewed together, they offer a comprehensive—and distinctive—portrait of Britain.
Bruce Davidson, London, 1960; via Beetles & Huxley
What comes through in the work of both artists is a sense of liberty. Neither Davidson nor Caponigro had any real agenda when they arrived in Britain, and their journeys throughout the Isles were as much about personal discovery as they were about photography. Davidson, speaking to a group of visitors earlier this week, described his time in Britain as a welcome release from the contracted work he had been completing for LIFE magazine. Before his arrival in London in 1960, he had spent an “exhausting” year documenting a Brooklyn street gang. When the now-defunct Queen Magazine offered him two months in Britain to freely document an American’s perspective of the country, he was understandably quick to take up the offer. His self-described stealth, coupled with his relatively young age—Davidson was twenty-seven when he arrived in Britain—allowed him to blend in with the scenes around him. He found himself just where he wanted to be: “on the inside of a life.”
Davidson’s portraits express both this intimacy and his ability to capture transitory, profoundly human moments: a woman biting her nails as she sits on the back bench of a pub; a man cradling his head on the underground; two women hauling prams behind them, their children peering out from under the hoods. His subjects mostly remain unaware of the camera, making for unrehearsed—and often comedic—glimpses into the daily workings of British life. London taxis feature, as do the changing of the guard, Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square, and other proverbial British landmarks. In one photograph, an ex-serviceman, adorned with medals and clutching at a donation box, grins at the camera against the backdrop of a waiting London bus. The joy and frivolity of the city are evident, as is Davidson’s love for his work.
While Davidson’s freedom on his first jaunt around England is tangible from these early photos, there are also elements of the less forgiving street work for which he made his name. One of his more arresting London shots, showing a teenage girl clutching a kitten against the backdrop of a darkened city, conveys the anonymity existing below the Union Jack-decked surface. Another shows a blond girl lost within the isolated expanse of Hyde Park, dwarfed by the trees and entirely alone in a landscape usually heavily populated. But it is Davidson’s portraits of a Welsh mining community, which he shot independently, through which he communicates a grueling reality. In the first shot of this 1965 collection, a miner’s heavy form, offset to the right, commands the entire frame: arms crossed, frown in place, he stares down the viewer as two men grapple in the background with a minecart. These are not the jolly Londoners Davidson captured a few years earlier: these are the coal-smeared laborers of the British Isles, and true men of the earth. It is an undeniably grittier vision.
Paul Caponigro, Kilclooney Dolmen, Ardara, County Donegal, Ireland, 1967; via The University of Arizona
Caponigro, on the other hand, first came to Britain to photograph the Celtic art and architecture of Ireland. With a fascination for ancient mythology, he made a successful application for a Guggenheim Grant in 1965, and was enraptured by the “ancient atmosphere of the British Isles.” After this first trip Caponigro returned annually for the next fifteen years, producing an collection focusing mainly on the prehistoric stones of England and Ireland. The graphic contrast in Caponigro’s work between ancient stone arrangements and the wild natural landscape is perfect for the black and white medium. Some stones stand arrestingly upright, like natural protrusions of the earth, while in Kilclooney Dolmen, County Donegal, one monumental stone rests almost impossibly on several far smaller ones. The mysticism of these arrangements allows Caponigro to speak beyond technical perfection, instead tapping into the spirituality of Celtic mythology. Whenever possible, the desolate Irish landscape serves as haunting backdrop.
One of the most remarkable photographs in the show does not, however, feature prehistoric monuments. Dead Calf in the Sand, County Kerry presents the half-concealed lower body of a dead calf, its limbs resting in wet sand. The warm contrast makes the calf’s body silvery, at one with the landscape, and the total concealment of the right hoof implies the animal is being absorbed back into the earth.
Caponigro’s desire to capture timelessness is most clear in his portfolio of images of Stonehenge, the globally recognized megalith in Wiltshire, England. In these photographs, the last of Caponigro’s to be on display at the exhibition, Caponigro experiments with angle and lighting to highlight the starkness of the structure, in addition to the transcendental quality he perceives in it. In Sunrise within the Circle, the sun’s rays pierce the stones, forming long lines that extend beyond the boundaries of the photograph.
“The stones remind one there is something to apprehend,” Caponigro said. “We’re so burdened with so much, and I spent a long time learning to strip that away and remove the inessential from the photos.”
Paul Caponigro, Sunrise within the Circle, Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England, 1970; via MoMA
Not only is the contemporary nature of this exhibition unusual for the YCBA, so is the choice of such dissimilar photographers. Yet somehow the different voices work. Davidson presents to us the people of Britain in all their forms: young, old, rural, urban, upper and lower classes. His work speaks to the here and now, to a Britain that existed at that specific moment. Caponigro’s work, however, makes us aware that this life was being conducted against a backdrop as ancient and steeped in superstition as the pyramids themselves. The quality of the prints is remarkable, and the passion both Davidson and Caponigro still retain for their time spent in Britain is voiced clearly through their photographs.
“Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland” is open June 26 through September 14, when it will be transferred to The Huntington Library in California. Read more about the exhibition here.
E-mail to friend
by Michael Pepi
Paul Cézanne, The Kitchen Table (La table de cuisine), 1888–90, oil on canvas, 33 3⁄8 × 39 1⁄2 in. (84.8 × 100.3 cm), Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF 2819
It was the genre that Europe disregarded, but Paul Cézanne made it revolutionary. “I want to astonish Paris with an apple” he proclaimed. Tempting critics and flouting convention, Cézanne’s still lifes are among his most experimental works; and as an impactful exhibition at the Barnes Foundation argues, they were key to understanding his impact on the history of modern painting.
“The World is An Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne” features loans from some of the world’s most distinguished museums—including the Guggenheim, Musée d’Orsay, the Detroit Institute of Arts—as well as a number of private collections. This exhibition turns Philadelphia into something of a Cézanne Mecca: in addition to the internationally sourced group in the Barnes’ temporary exhibition space, the Philadelphia Museum of Art boasts impressive Cézanne holdings. Philadelphia native Albert C. Barnes was one of the earliest Americans to collect Cézanne and as such his Foundation’s permanent collection has extensive holdings of the French master.
The first room of the temporary exhibition holds two early, small paintings of bottles and fruit. Here Cézanne established his visual identity with a bold interpretation of the still life genre. The show situates these early works as instructive symbols that defined his radical rejection of bourgeois life. The thick application of paint defines works like Sugar Bowl, Pears, and Blue Cup (1865-70), marking the beginnings of what he would develop into a full-blown self-mythologizing narrative played out in his demonstrative execution of mundane scenes.
Paul Cézanne, Sugar Bowl, Pears, and Blue Cup (Sucrier, poires et tasse bleue), c. 1866, oil on canvas, 11 13⁄16 × 16 in. (30 × 40.6 cm), Paris, Musée d’Orsay, on deposit at the Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence
Everywhere Cézanne’s depictions are obsessed with the limits of representation. In Still Life with Seven Apples and a Tube of Paint (1878-1879), he offers a memento of his medium—a tube of paint peers in from the right—to remind us of the artificiality, and thus the fundamental insufficiency, of his craft. The simple materiality of the objects is often the sole focus of the early works. This exhibition has several prime examples illustrating how Cézanne went beyond the programmatic performance of the still life as it was determined by societal context and historical tradition, opting instead to depict the objects in their own right.
Within the exhibition, the works before 1885 are experimental in their modeling and approach to the subject matter—heavily worked application of paint, adventurous use of light and brushstroke—and it is after 1885 when his mature phase is defined by the bold organization of space. We see flashes of this in Still Life: Apples and Pears (1888-1890) whose sloping baseline and contrasting color palette hint at the disorienting elements that Cézanne will later synthesize to grand effect. Such elements are collected together in the show’s centerpiece, The Kitchen Table (1888-1890), which signals the arrival of Cézanne’s mature period. Here the canvases are larger and the compositions more complex. As Benedict Leca argues in his rigorous and thoughtful catalogue essay, works such as Kitchen Table typify the extent to which Cézanne’s use of distortions and “studied disposition of its objects” were a culmination of the artist’s long campaign of self-fashioning. It should be mentioned that an added bonus to this exhibition is that audiences can continue to indulge in the triumphant narrative that “The World is An Apple” constructs for Cézanne’s still lifes as nearby rooms of the Foundation’s permanent collection offer several additional works from the “mature” period. Most notably these include Still Life (1892-94) where you can spot shades of Mont Sainte-Victoire in the table cloth.
It is often said that Cézanne’s objects “vibrate.” But we have to consider how that word’s meaning fundamentally differed for Cézanne and his audience; in his time objects vibrated far less often than they do today. Instead, the vibrations and other sensorial effects brought out in the objects of Cézanne’s still lifes were the product of carefully measured inversions of both the academic practices of the salon as well as his impressionist forebearers. Cézanne’s signature hatched brushstrokes, dexterity, and color contrasts are notable, of course, but what lies beneath these forms is the invigorating manner in which Cézanne intensely considered the delicate interplay of composition and modeling. Leca’s essay cites one description that spoke of Cézanne as preoccupied by “drawn-out deliberation rather than the quicksilver touches of the pleinairist.”
Leca points to Apples and Cakes (1873-77), submitted to the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, in which Cézanne chose not to distinguish among foreground, table, or wall while applying a coarse, almost topographic layer to all parts of the composition. It was in part these two distinctions that gave his objects their vibrant qualities. His depictions drew a line between the poles that tugged at French vision: satisfying neither established conventions nor the fleeting impressions of the then avant-garde. Cézanne’s depictions of simple objects are novel in their focus on materiality, giving the intensely modelled subjects a subtle power: they were nothing short of Cézanne’s manifesto on painting itself.
Paul Cézanne, Apples and Cakes (Pommes et gateaux), 1873–77, oil on canvas, 18 1⁄8 × 21 3⁄4 in. (46 × 55.2 cm), Private Collection, Copyright: © Christie’s Images Limited (2005)
Walking through the exhibition one is reminded of the fact that it is nearly impossible to free your mind of the discourse that surround Cézanne’s apples. How could one see them with naiveté? Even to a viewer who has never so much as cracked an art history textbook, their vision has already arrived at the scene informed by the whole history of modern forms that dominate everyday life, to which Cézanne is a Moses-like figure. It is a fragile, contingent vision crowded by the words of Émile Zola, Meyer Schapiro, Roger Fry, even Charles Wright. Approaching the works anew would require the intricate dismembering of the history of modern forms. Despite all this, if you get past the narrative of the tortured artist and the associated hagiography, you might still peer through the views of Cézanne’s studio and get a glimpse of the raw pleasure and unadulterated novelty visible to a 19th-century Parisian. It is this possibility—that this originality so couched in pure form is still readable today—that could be the greatest achievement of Cézanne: that humble scenes of his studio can reset the better part of modernism in one careless, disinterested glance.
“The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne” opened at the Barnes Foundation on June 22, and will be on view until September 22, 2014. Its accompanying volume, published by D Giles Limited, is available online and in bookstores.
E-mail to friend
Our fiscal year is drawing to a close, but it’s not too late to give to The New Criterion! We need just twenty more online supporters in order to reach our fundraising goal.
Throughout our thirty-second season, our online supporters have been crucial to sustaining The New Criterion as an incisive and intelligent voice in today’s intellectual debate. As we move forward into our next season, your sponsorship will allow us to continue on in our mission to chronicle and critique the best in arts and culture today.
If you have already donated, we thank you for your gift. If you have not, there is still time to pledge your support today! All gifts received by 10:00 PM today, June 30th will be acknowledged in our Friends Report.
E-mail to friend
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: Another look at Detroit, the American Ballet Theatre does Shakespeare, and Tanglewood kicks off in Massachusetts.
Fiction: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil (Grove): Weil’s novella collection The New Valley made a splash when it was published in 2009, winning the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction among other accolades. He returns with this debut novel, the story of brothers Yarik and Dima. The two live in a dystopian Russia of the near-future where mirrors provide round-the-clock sunlight and work never ends. Tensions arise between the once-close siblings as Dima grows disenchanted with the society’s emphasis on hyperproductivity while Yarik cozys up to a powerful oligarch and rises through the workers’ ranks. —BPK
Nonfiction: Romanticism: A German Affair by Rüdiger Safranski, translated by Robert E. Goodwin (Northwestern University Press): Safranski outlines the history of German Romanticism, starting with Sturm und Drang in the eighteenth century and tracing the movement through numerous artists and thinkers including Heine, Wagner, Nietzsche, and Mann. He concludes with a look at Romanticism’s potential role in both the rise of Nazism and the German student movement of the late 1960s. —BPK
Poetry: Eliot’s prose online: Perhaps you read the news in a recent edition of the TLS that the first two volumes of The Online Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot will be made available on July 1 by The Johns Hopkins University Press through Project Muse. Check it out here. —DY
Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux): This second collection from NEA fellow and Levinson Prize winner Mehigan is filled with poems that “are built to last” according to David Ferry. Readers are invited to Wednesday’s release party at BookCourt in Brooklyn, which includes a reading, Q&A, and signing. —BPK
Art: “Another Look at Detroit, Parts 1 and 2” and “Rockaway!”: Art can play its own role in helping us recover from disaster. Two exhibitions this summer contend with catastrophe and promote renewal. Spread over two Chelsea galleries, “Another Look at Detroit, Parts 1 and 2,” is the most fascinating and heartbreaking exhibition of the summer, thanks to the brilliance of its curator, Todd Levin. Organized by the Rockaway Artists Alliance and PS1, “Rockaway!” celebrates this beach community's resilience after Hurricane Sandy washed over the peninsula, with site-specific work spread across historic Fort Tilden park. —JP
Music: 2014 Tanglewood season kickoff (Sunday): The Tanglewood festival kicks off this weekend in Lenox, Massachusetts, and Sunday's program promises to be an early highlight, as Garrick Ohlsson joins the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. The program will also feature Liszt’s beloved symphonic poem Les Préludes, and selections from Wagner's Die Meistersinger, with Asher Fisch conducting. —ECS
Family: “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans” at the New-York Historical Society (July 4–October 19, 2014): This exhibition honoring Madeline’s seventy-fifth anniversary features more than ninety original pieces by Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the beloved children’s character. In addition to work from all six Madeline books, the show also includes Bemelmans’s drawings of the Ritz Hotel in New York, murals from a Paris bistro, panels from the Onassis yacht, and more. —JP
Other: American Ballet Theatre’s Shakespeare Celebration and Coppélia: The ABT wraps up its spring season with two programs. A double bill celebrating Shakespeare’s 450th birthday features Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Alexei Ratmansky’s The Tempest and runs Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Thursday and Saturday see performances of Coppélia, the comic ballet based on the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann and scored by Léo Delibes; choreography by Frederic Franklin. —BPK
From the archive: Jane Austen for the Nineties by Brooke Allen, September 1995: A trip back in time, to look at how Austen’s penetrating humanistic insight could be applied to the 1990s.
From our latest issue: Poodle by Ange Mlinko: A new poem from Ange Mlinko, whose most recent collection is Marvelous Things Overheard.
E-mail to friend
Glenn Dicterow; photo by Chris Lee via Delmarva Public Radio
Saturday night’s concert of the New York Philharmonic began with a rapturous ovation. What prompted it? Glenn Dicterow walked out onstage to participate in the Triple Concerto of Beethoven. He is the Philharmonic’s longtime concertmaster, and this was his last concert.
The Philharmonic was completing a little Beethoven festival, which showcased the five piano concertos, plus this triple concerto. The pianist, in every concert, was Yefim Bronfman. There were three programs, and I reviewed the first two here and here. The third program had the Triple Concerto on the first half, and the “Emperor” on the second (the “Emperor” being Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73).
The Triple Concerto is in C major, a special key for Beethoven: a key of majesty, affirmation, spiritual strength, and other good things. Think of the “Waldstein” Sonata or the Fifth Symphony (last movement), for example. You sometimes hear that the Triple Concerto is a poor piece, or subpar Beethoven. I disagree with this: I think it’s a great piece—a masterpiece—and underappreciated. The rondo is a particular winner: It’s not just a rondo, but a rondo alla polacca! And it features that nearly unique Beethoven combination of nobility and playfulness.
Now, Mozart’s concerto for flute and harp—there’s a bad piece. Or at least subpar Mozart. I brought up this issue with Trevor Pinnock one summer in Salzburg. He was conducting the piece at the festival, and we were doing a public interview beforehand. He conceded that the concerto was not Mozart at his most inspired. “But it would be hard not to love that slow movement, wouldn’t it?”
Oh, yes. Mozart was incapable of laying a total egg.
Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s music director, was on the podium Saturday night. Serving as soloists in the Triple Concerto were Dicterow, Carter Brey, who is the Philharmonic’s principal cello, and Bronfman. They were interestingly configured: Dicterow standing, Brey seated on a little platform, and Bronfman sitting on his piano bench. They all used music, i.e., scores—why this is necessary or desirable, I’m not sure.
It would be pleasant to report that Dicterow had a banner night, musically. He has had better nights in his career. But he acquitted himself with honor, especially in the second and third movements. Carter Brey had a good night. Some years ago, I was intrigued by the idea that singers sing like they look (and look like they sing). Brey plays rather like he looks: in an aristocratic, debonair way. He understood Beethoven’s rhythm, including its jauntiness. In the Rondo, he demonstrated expert trilling.
Now, portamento and vibrato are often matters of taste. Brey allowed himself maybe too much of these, in my opinion. But he did not stray beyond taste.
In this concerto, the violin, the cello, and the piano have more or less equal roles (the orchestra too, for that matter). But it occurs to me that the cello may be prima inter pares. This makes up a little for Beethoven’s denial of a concerto to cellists. Of course, Brahms denied them one too—but made up for it somewhat with the Double Concerto.
Mozart, the SOB, gave the cellists nothing. He even wrote a bassoon concerto! (No offense to bassoonists. Wonderful-looking instrument.)
Bronfman played with crystalline beauty and pure taste. Like Brey’s, his trilling in the Rondo was exemplary. I have a complaint, however: He was maybe a little too “collegial,” meaning, too retiring: not self-assertive enough. He hid the piano part under a bushel, a bit. Gilbert conducted with great common sense, and Beethoven sense. He did not let a period-like “bounce” detract from gravitas. As I have remarked before, he is a distinguished collaborator in concertos. Ormandy had this quality (among others).
At the end of the Triple, Dicterow received as many bouquets as any soprano or prima ballerina ever has. Also, there were hugs ’round the orchestra.
Let me tell a quick story—again from a Salzburg interview. One day, I was talking with Werner Hink, who was a concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. I asked him a standard question: What’s the purpose of a concertmaster? What is his role, or roles? I expected him to say something about leading the violin section, or the orchestra at large. Or about being the liaison between the orchestra and the conductor.
Instead, he said, “Well, the most important thing is to play the solos.” I got a huge kick out of that.
After intermission, as I mentioned, Bronfman, Gilbert, and the Philharmonic performed the “Emperor.” I will say just a little about it: because I have commented more on Bronfman over the last 20 years than I have the weather.
In the first movement, I had almost no sense of listening to a soloist. I was listening to Beethoven. This was Beethoven practically unfiltered. It was meat-and-potatoes Beethoven—not to say that it was ordinary or boring. It was simply right and true. Also, to mention one detail, Bronfman has the valuable ability to play loudly without pounding.
The second movement began beautifully, ethereally. The orchestra was playing a B-major chorale, or a piece of sacred music in any case. As the movement continued, however, the playing became rather plodding, pedestrian—from all forces. In the transition from the second movement to the third, the orchestra loused up its pizzicatos. While playing the Rondo, Bronfman demonstrated a rippling virility. That’s what Beethoven wrote. But, more generally, the music lacked charm, suffering from a surfeit of sobriety.
Be aware, though, that I hold Bronfman to a very high standard (his own, I imagine). Thinking about him, I am reminded of something that Bill Buckley said about Paul Johnson. So routinely excellent is he, a person can underrate him or take him for granted. That should not happen.
Last but not least—well, maybe least—I will say a word about the Philharmonic’s cellphone announcement: I told you that audience members were booing and hissing the one recorded by Alec Baldwin. I said I thought the Philharmonic would have to ditch it. Then came Whoopi Goldberg: an announcement by her. No booing or hissing, of course.
Well, last night, Baldwin was back: without incident. Has the audience forgiven or merely forgotten (whatever it is they had booed and hissed)?
No, let’s not end on that—we have a higher matter to discuss. In my first post from this Beethoven festival, I wrote, “. . . how would you rank the five Beethoven piano concertos? Which do you judge best, and how would you fill out the remainder of the card? I may weigh in on this before the end of the month . . .”
Okay, it’s June 30th. I’ll weigh in, reluctant as I am. After I wrote that post, a friend of mine—a pianist and conductor—sent me two lists: his ranking “by importance” and his ranking “by personal preference.” They were two different lists. Pretty nifty, and judicious. I’m going to do just one list, and it’ll be personal preference. Actually, I’m going to jot two lists—because I’m going to cheat on the first one before I man up and decide.
Tied for first: the First and the Fourth. Tied for second: the Second, the Third, and the Fifth.
Again, that’s cheating. Okay, let me take a deep breath. Don’t hold me to this, but . . . 4, 1, 2, with 3 and 5 tied for fourth.
Sorry, I can’t do any better at the moment. And I feel so dirty.
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