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Critic's Notebook for October 6, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 06, 2014 04:54 PM


Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: A return to Gilead, Matisse’s cut-outs, and the Berlin Philharmonic in New York.

Fiction: Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Revisiting the characters and setting of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead and Home, a National Book Award finalist, Robinson returns to the town of Gilead with the story of Lila, the young bride of the elderly Reverend Ames. Having been neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by a rough but kind drifter named Doll, and brought up in a hardscrabble childhood. After she arrives in Gilead Lila struggles to reconcile the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband, which paradoxically judges those she loves. CE

Nonfiction: Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, by James Essinger (Melville House): Behind every great man, there’s a great woman; no other adage more aptly describes the relationship between Charles Babbage, the man credited with thinking up the concept of the programmable computer, and mathematician Ada Lovelace, whose contributions proved indispensable to Babbage’s invention.  Lovelace, the only legitimate child of English poet Lord Byron, wrote extensive notes about the Analytical Engine, including an algorithm to compute a long sequence of Bernoulli numbers which some observers now consider to be the world’s first computer program. Readers are treated to an intimate portrait of Lovelace’s short but significant life along with an abbreviated history of 19th-century high-society London. —RH

Poetry: Alexander Nazaryan on John Berryman:  Previously published in The New Criterion (read some of his work here), Nazaryan reflects on the American poet’s life and death, as well as the works soon to be reissued on the centenary of Berryman’s birth, October 25.  DY

Art: Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs" at the Museum of Modern Art (opening Sunday, October 12)  and Egon Schiele: Portraits" at the Neue Galerie (opening Thursday, October 9): In the late 1940s, Henri Matisse turned almost exclusively to cut paper as his primary medium, and scissors as his chief implement. MOMA is presenting the most extensive presentation of his cut-outs ever mounted, sparked by an initiative to conserve The Swimming Pool, a particularly monumental cut-out acquired in 1975.  Meanwhile, the Neue Galerie opens a special exhibition devoted to portraits by the expressive, controversial, and masterful Austrian artist Egon Schiele, whose work is central to the Galerie’s mission. JP

Music:  The Berlin Philharmonic in New York (October 5-8) and Lisa Batiashvili with the New York Philharmonic (October 9-14): The Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle are wrapping up their week-long New York residency by finishing a complete cycle of the Schumann symphonies at Carnegie Hall (Monday), and then with two performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory, semi-staged by the controversial director Peter Sellars, to open the White Light Festival. This orchestra, one of the very best in the world, is not to be missed, and comes to New York but once a year, at most. On Thursday and continuing through the weekend, Lisa Batiashvili, the most exciting of a rich field of young violinists, will play the Brahms Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. She is the Philharmonic's artist-in-residence this year, so there will be opportunities to hear her later in the season, but not in such towering repertoire as this.ECS

Other: Alexei Ratmansky in conversation with Paul Holdengraber, Live at NYPL (October 8):  Alexei Ratmansky has performed with and choreographed for some of the world’s greatest ballet companies, including the American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet. He now takes to a very different stage to reflect on his life’s work, which earned him a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013. —RH

From the archive: Against modernity: The American Academy in the ‘20s, by Cynthia Ozick: On the American Academy of Arts & Letters under the direction of Charles Underwood Johnson.

From our latest issue: A Schoolboy’s Guide to War, by Andrew Stuttaford: On the contributions of England’s public school boys during the First World War. 





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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 03, 2014 02:58 PM

From Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, by W. O. Dement for Harold Fisk (1944)


Choral music not heard since era of Henry VIII has been played for first time in 500 years
A book of songs given to Henry VIII was unearthed in the vaults of the British Library; it has now been brought to life with a choir and period instruments. ("One died, one survived..." is not one of the tunes).

Woven and Severed
“[In his book, Why Homer Matters] Nicolson is concerned to answer two questions: “where does Homer come from? And why does Homer matter?” His answer to the first question […] gives us heroes. His answer to the second question […] gives us poetry. What Nicolson makes of the relation between them is a powerful exploration of the value of literature.” 

T. S. Eliot “lacked flamboyance,” but did pick up the British U. And why not? He was a friend of the Mitfords, after all. 

Clive James on his late flowering
“I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t.” 

How to Stop Time
The battle against procrastination may not be worth winning. (Also of note: "passive-agressive personality disorder.")

From our pages:

Standing Up to Allah At Yale
Yale president Peter Salovey takes a stand for free speech.

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Opening Night at Carnegie: Who could forget Dohr?!

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Oct 02, 2014 01:48 PM

Sir Simon Rattle; photo by Jim Rakete

Outside Carnegie Hall last night, there was a red carpet. Not just for celebs, but for everybody. It was Opening Night. Inside the hall, there were red flowers. Critics with horticultural skills could tell you what they were. Let me say they were poinsettia-like, sort of.

The orchestra last night was the Berlin Philharmonic. The conductor was the BPO’s longtime music director, Sir Simon Rattle. And the soloist was Anne-Sophie Mutter, the starry German violinist.

The program consisted of favorites, not to say chestnuts: the Symphonic Dances of Rachmaninoff; Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor; and Stravinsky’s Firebird (excerpts from). This was “hum-along time,” as the formidable critic Martin Bernheimer says.

As a rule, I like hum-along time. I’ve been defending the performance of familiar music, even overly familiar music, my whole life. I am the squarest of the square. But even for me, this program was a little square. Opening Night might have included something more offbeat.

That said, the Symphonic Dances are not often played these days, or so it seems to me. They were an orchestral staple, back when. So was the Rachmaninoff tone poem Isle of the Dead.

One thing that distinguishes Carnegie Hall’s opening night from the two other big opening nights—that of the New York Philharmonic and that of the Metropolitan Opera—is this: no national anthem. I kind of miss it. True, it would be strange for a German orchestra (for example) to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And at least there’s a flag on Carnegie Hall’s stage.

The Symphonic Dances are rather a concerto for orchestra: Lots of first-desk players have solos. There is even a chance for the sax to shine. Everyone in the BPO shone; this is not an orchestra for weak links. The dances are also a chance for an orchestra in general to show off its color. The BPO was colorful indeed.

In the first movement, there is unison string playing, giving a dreamy “out on the steppes” feeling. The BPO handled this beautifully.

Overall, the dances were smooth, polished, and accurate. On the podium, Sir Simon did nothing stupid—he never does. But were the dances exciting, as they can be, and ought to be? Not really. Sir Simon is ever modulated, ever a moderate. That can be advantageous. Sometimes, less so.

Out walked La Mutter, for the Bruch concerto. I have a friend—a violinist, as it happens—who says, “I don’t go for the playing anymore. I just go for the dress.” Mutter looked smashing indeed: glamorous, hourglassy, as always. Also, blondish, I would say. That was new (to me).

Her playing was respectable, even good, in the first two movements. Most important, she took the concerto seriously. She was not slumming. She was tasteful, poised, and mature.

In the Prelude, she breathed like a singer. Her playing was notably singerly. And Sir Simon, I must say, conducted as though his life depended on it. He was not slumming, far from it. He can bring great care and vitality to these Romantic concertos. I remember a Rachmaninoff D-minor he did with Yefim Bronfman. I had never noticed the orchestral part so much.

Mutter, in the Adagio of her concerto, played with delicacy and beauty. But in the Finale—the pièce de résistance—she lost it. What happened?

I don’t know. But her intonation failed her, and so did her memory: She had a slip. The final movement was never comfortable, never in the groove, never itself. I wish she could have had a do-over.

But “life is not a studio recording,” as I like to say. Anything can happen in a concert hall, which is something that makes concert life thrilling.

Tonight, still in Carnegie Hall, the BPO will play the complete Firebird. Last night, the orchestra played beloved excerpts: the Infernal Dance, the Lullaby, and the Finale, that great, swelling, uplifting thing. Sir Simon and the orchestra were fine. But was the music electric, emotional, moving? I’m afraid not. It suffered from the quality of okayness.

But toward the end, a miracle occurred. The French horn came in. I had forgotten that Stefan Dohr was in this orchestra! His little solo was a piece of startling perfection. Dohr is not only one of the great horn players, he is one of the great instrumentalists. His moment—and Stravinsky’s, we should add—practically made the evening.

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Mozartean and Da Pontesque

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Sep 30, 2014 10:43 AM

Isabel Leonard and Marlis Petersen in Le Nozze di Figaro; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

When James Levine appeared in the pit on Saturday night, the crowd at the Metropolitan Opera went nuts. They were happy to see him, because the conductor has had a host of health problems, and is back in action. Of course, they were happy to see him even before these problems set in. On Saturday night, he waved at the audience for a good long time, expressing his appreciation. Then he got down to work.

His work was The Marriage of Figaro, the Mozart–Da Ponte opera. The overture was not Levine’s crispest or most stylish. But it was plenty good. So was his conducting of the rest of the opera. I have often spoken of Levine’s “just rightness,” especially in Mozart: a sure sense of tempo, phrasing, weight, and overall spirit. I have also spoken of a “natural law” of Mozart—a law to which all good Mozarteans conform. At his best, Levine conveys a sense of inevitability and inarguability: “This is not interpretation. This is the way it goes, period, according to the law.”

A funny instance occurred in the first act on Saturday night. The aria “Non so più” started too fast, or unnaturally fast, or unaccustomedly fast. Then Levine slowed it to its tempo giusto (by my lights, if not the “law’s”). Perhaps, and probably, the conductor had a dramatic purpose.

Playing the harpsichord on this evening, accompanying the recitatives, was Robert Morrison. He played with unusual robustness, even volume. This assertiveness was welcome.

The Met has a new production of Figaro by Sir Richard Eyre, the English director. The show begins with a beautiful nude girl, emerging from a bedroom (or somewhere). For a second, I didn’t know where I was: Was I in Salzburg or some other European city, or was I home in New York? In Salzburg, it is virtually de rigueur to begin a production with nudity. This is the director’s way of assuring everybody that he’s not a square.

But Sir Richard is a square, and I’ll tell you why: In a proper “subversive” production of Figaro, Susanna is freely conducting an affair with the Count, and the Countess is freely conducting an affair with Cherubino. Ideally, Susanna will join in with the Countess and Cherubino. The proper modern director rewrites the opera.

Not this director, not Richard Eyre. His Figaro is utterly Mozartean, and Da Pontesque. It is witty, fizzy, and delightful. It’s suggestive and sly, not blunt and coarse. Also, it is moving. I think of an old line: “If you want to know how to direct an opera, listen to the music.” This notion can be carried too far—but Sir Richard’s production does seem informed by the music.

Here is another line: “A building ought to be a grace to its environment, not a disgrace.” That’s Frank Lloyd Wright. His line applies to opera productions. And this new production is a grace to Figaro.

Singing the title role on Saturday night was Ildar Abdrazakov, the Russian bass. He has many virtues, one of which is versatility. He can sing Verdi, Mozart, Russian roles, other repertoire. His voice is big—or substantial, let’s say—yet it can flit. And, as I’ve often remarked, he has an uncanny ability to sing in tune.

Moreover, he knew his character, Figaro. For example, his “Se vuol ballare” had the right perturbation. Just for the record, that aria also had some unusual ornamentation. Was this Levine-approved, Mozart-approved? Both, I wager.

Susanna was Marlis Petersen, the veteran German soprano. Now and then, she was a little hard to hear—she was slightly faint, I mean—but she was a thorough pro, as usual. There is something else that should be said about her: Nice gams (as the production requires, or, at any rate, incorporates).

The Count was Peter Mattei, singing reliably. I’m not sure I’ve ever known this Swedish baritone to sing unsatisfactorily—even when you can’t endorse every note. Like Abdrazakov and other members of this cast, he knew his character: a caddish and befuddled aristo longing to hold on to his dignity. In certain poses, Mattei looked rather like the actor Dan Aykroyd.

Portraying the Countess was a soprano new to the Met, Amanda Majeski, an American. What she did not have was great beauty of sound. What she did have was breath control, sincerity, and self-possession.

Isabel Leonard was the “girl playing a boy playing a girl”—i.e., the mezzo-soprano in the role of Cherubino. She was rather convincing as a boy, amazingly enough. Frankly, she looked a bit like Alfalfa, from the Little Rascals. More amazingly, she was convincing as a boy playing a girl. In everything she did—vocal, musical, or theatrical—she was whip-smart.

I might mention here that there was no Italian in this cast, to my knowledge—I mean, no Italian member of it. But everyone’s Italian was passable at worst. And Leonard’s was natural.

To conclude, three footnotes, please:

1) I sometimes say, “One day, a bass is a star, bestriding the stage as Boris Godunov or Don Giovanni or King Philip. And the next thing you know, he’s asking for the rent.” What I mean is, a bass, in his later years, may be playing the character role of Benoît, the landlord in La bohème.

In Saturday night’s Figaro, Susanne Mentzer was Marcellina. She sang and acted the role superbly. She was perfect. And there’s no reason she shouldn’t be singing Marcellina at this point. It is utterly appropriate. Still, I think of her as a mezzo star, not as Ruth Buzzi, clocking people with her handbag. I felt a twinge.

2) To many, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, is a villain. The egotistical overlord who insulted the holy labor unions. I have no doubt that he can be tough or impossible to work for. I also have no doubt that the Met has benefited by his presence. Some people say he’s paid too much. Hell, I’d give him more.

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

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Ho-hum, It’s Turner Prize Time Again

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Sep 30, 2014 07:31 AM

I had almost forgotten about the Turner Prize, one of the art world’s longest running and most boring bad jokes.  You remember the Turner Prize: it’s Britain’s tired adolescent effort to show that the avant garde is not dead, it just has nothing to do with art. Begun in 1984, the TP is 30 this […]

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Critic's Notebook for September 29, 2014

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: Sep 29, 2014 03:27 PM

America Today, mural by Thomas Benton

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: The Great War, the Cold War, and the Versailles fallacy. 

Fiction: No Man’s Land: Fiction from a World at War: 1914–1918, edited by Pete Ayrton (Pegasus): The First World War, like many conflicts that came before it, brought with it a wealth of artistic output across a variety of media. Owen, Britten, Remarque, Sargent, and others all contributed major works in their respective fields. Edited by Pete Ayrton, this new anthology presents the war through the lens of fiction, drawing on works by authors from all of the main belligerents. Included are works by Siegfried Sassoon, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, and forty-three others. ECS

Nonfiction: The Russia–China Axis: The New Cold War and America’s Crisis of Leadership, by Douglas E. Schoen and Melik Kaylan (Encounter): The post-Soviet world is as dangerous as it has been since the end of the Cold War, but America continues to retire from her role as a stabilizing force. Russia and China, meanwhile, states that have supported rogue regimes, made brazen land grabs, and willfully destabilized their neighbors, seem to be establishing a new global alignment that is only increasing in its influence. Schoen and Kaylan argue that America must reassume her responsibility as a world leader or the consequences of the alliance will be dire. Look for Schoen’s “Letter from Kiev” in our October issue. ECS

Poetry: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works, translated by Edith Grossman (Norton): Previously acclaimed for her translations of Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Grossman has compiled translations of selected works of Sor Juana in a new volume, released today. Read a selection here.  DY

Art: City as Subject (Westbeth Gallery, NYC, September 20—October 5) and America Today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (September 30–April 19): New York has long been at the center of America’s contemporary art scene, but has not always been the focus of the artists living and working here. Curated by Xico Greenwald, a new exhibition at Westbeth, the nonprofit artist colony in the West Village, includes a wide range of works that examine the city itself, from its parks to its subways to its alleyways. Meanwhile, the Met celebrates the gift of Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today in an exhibition that features the original mural along with sketches, studies, and related works. Look for Mario Naves’s review of the Benton exhibit in the November issue.  JP

Sir Simon Rattle

Music: The Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall (Thursday, Sunday & Monday): Sir Simon Rattle brings the storied Berlin Philharmonic to New York for a week, beginning with a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall. Tursday’s concert will reprise the flashy program from Wednesday’s Carnegie Hall opener, pairing Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances with Stravinsky’s Firebird. A full cycle of Schumann’s four completed symphonies will be split between the Sunday and Monday concerts.  ECS

From the archive: The culture of classical music today, by Samuel Lipman, September 1991: On the ongoing crisis of art music.

From our latest issue: Guilt trip: Versailles, avant-garde & kitsch, by Roger Kimball: On the Treaty of Versailles and the revisionist history of John Maynard Keynes.

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The EU vs. Apple

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Sep 29, 2014 08:05 AM

 London. A story in The Financial Times today reveals that the EU, in its hyper-regulatory wisdom, has set its sights on Apple, which it accuses of profiting from “illegal” deals with Ireland.  I put quotation marks around “illegal” because the case is far from proved. But as far as Brussels is concerned, Apple’s real sin […]

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The fate of free speech

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Sep 28, 2014 09:15 AM

Yesterday, I came back to London from Winchester, where I was at a conference about “threats to free speech.”  We’ll be publishing edited versions of the papers this winter in The New Criterion. In the meantime, I wanted to underscore the oddity of our topic.  “Threats to free speech”?  Haven’t waged, and won, that battle?  […]

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Critic's Notebook for September 22, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Sep 22, 2014 04:46 PM

City As Muse, Rick Beerhorst

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: Art judged by the public, art explained by the experts, and the leisure to ponder it all. 

Fiction: You'll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor  (New York Review Books): This captivating collection of 29 stories by Taylor—the British author who wrote 11 novels (including At Mrs. Lippincote’s) and four story collections, not the famed actress—includes an introduction by Margaret Drabble, who edited the book. Most of the stories revolve around female protagonists in unremarkable English settings, whose experiences reflect a tension between expectation and reality that makes each simultaneously touching and heartbreaking.  CE

 Nonfiction: Rendez-vous with Art, by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (Thames & Hudson):  The longest-serving director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art converses with an acclaimed British art critic on the elusive questions of how and why we look at art. The two experts offer readers guided tours of the Louvre, the Prado, the Palazzo Pitti, and other institutions as they share insight into the transformative experiences that have made the art their own.  CE

Poetry: The Collected Poems of Mark Strand (Knopf): The Pulitzer Prize-winning former poet laureate has gathered a half-century of magnificent work, to be published on September 30th. Read an interview conducted by Mark here.   DY

Art: ArtPrize—Grand Rapids, MI (September 24-October 12): For 19 days, three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids become an open playing field where anyone can enter the conversation about what art is and why it matters. More than 1,500 pieces of art are displayed for free in public, vying for $560,000 in prizes decided upon by both public vote and a jury of experts.   JP

Music: Mahler's Symphony No. 1 (Tuesday, New York Philharmonic): The New York Philharmonic's opening night gala last week started things off on the wrong foot, but the orchestra will look to get back on track with its subscription opener. Mahler's soaring Symphony No. 1 will be paired with the U.S. premiere of a clarinet concerto by Unsuk Chin. The celebrated Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku joins the Philharmonic for the concerto, and Alan Gilbert conducts.  ECS

From the archive: Joseph Pieper: leisure and its discontents, January 1999: On the German philosopher and the meaning of leisure.

From our latest issue: Two Takes on the Common Core by Sol Stern, Peter Wood: Conservative arguments for and against the Common Core.

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What is a ‘Grand Strategy’?

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Sep 22, 2014 03:56 PM

The other day, I had the pleasure of joining an earnest group of serious thinkers in a freewheeling discussion with Henry Kissinger at a disclosed, but still secure, location at Yale.  The occasion for the discussion was Kissinger’s new book, World Order, a brilliant historical conspectus of the major political dispensations that have imposed, or […]

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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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Young friends event: Bushwick Beat Nite

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Friends and Young Friends Event: Election Night Party

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