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Review: “Calder and Abstraction” at Peabody Essex Museum

by Franklin Einspruch

Posted: Nov 05, 2014 12:13 PM


Alexander Calder, La Grande vitesse (1:5 intermediate maquette), 1969. Calder Foundation, New York.

There are a handful of modern artists whose signature works are so distinctive that to approach them stylistically is to get yanked into their orbit. Joseph Cornell’s dioramas come to mind as an example—not even Marcel Duchamp could collage thrift-store findings behind glass without evoking the work of his friend. The unfortunate side effect of this distinctiveness is that such artists produce no stylistic heirs, only lesser copyists.

One could assert, for instance, that David Smith was a better sculptor than Alexander Calder, supported by the observation that Anthony Caro, Peter Hide, and several others nearly as great were able to take influences from Smith and run with them, whereas Calder’s creative output was so particular to him that it closed off the possibility of further development by younger artists. When it comes to the mobile, there is Calder, the Calderesque, utter kitsch, and baby toys.

The Peabody Essex Museum’s catalogue for “Calder and Abstraction”, which is excellent on all counts, notes the late critic Clement Greenberg as someone who preferred Smith to Calder. But he enjoyed Calder nonentheless. “Both [Calder and Stuart Davis] have made modern art cheerful,” Greenberg wrote in 1945:

“... The felicity and taste of these two artists is, as a matter of fact, prodigious. Of the fifty paintings in Davis’s exhibition, no more than three or four actually fail on their own terms; and I was struck by a similar evenness in Calder’s one-man show at the Modern Museum two years ago.”

If it seems a slight to call Calder’s work “exquisite minor art,” as Greenberg did in that essay, he also suggested what to do about Calder and other artists whose tastefulness is so great as to count partially against them: “society [should] give them fixed, exactly defined tasks that require them to fit their cheerfulness and discretion into the general decor of modern life in a systematic way. Let Davis and Calder create an atmosphere in which to move, not solo works of art. These are the examples of Boucher and Fragonard, whose spirit their own resembles.”

“Calder and Abstraction” at the Peabody Essex Museum carries out that advice to the letter. The art on display looks fantastic in both senses of the word. 

 

Installation view of Calder and Abstraction: From Avante-Garde to Iconic at Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Renowned contemporary architect Frank Gehry (who might be the closest thing to a major scion of Calder as can be found) designed the LACMA installation from which the PEM installation is derived, and it is a brilliant success. The gallery is all sleek lines, raised white stages, and walls painted in perfectly chosen downy grays. Sculptures are given enough room that one can appreciate their forms, and sufficiently proximal walls that the viewer can admire the elegant shadows they cast. Snow Flurry (1948) is vignetted in a modernist chapel of sorts, with a translucent back wall through which you can see the work’s shadow as you enter the show; it is a fine bit of drama. Curatorial discernment gathers the abstractions into a cohesive whole, while Calder’s playful genius shines forth, and demands prolonged consideration of every object in the gallery. This exhibition proves Greenberg right seventy years after the fact.

It is interesting to contemplate Calder in terms of liberation and constraint. On one hand, the works are unhampered by the requirements of realism: they are carefree in feeling, and they are free to sway in the spaces in which they hang. On the other hand, Calder is known to have taken formal cues from a visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian, and his pieces reflect a similarly restricted vocabulary of shape and color. They are rigorously attuned to physics, and have clearly been made to stand, balance, and turn just after numerous instances of failed experimentation. Inglorious topplings of metal, cardboard, wood, and twine must have been a usual event in Calder’s studio. But the process ultimately resulted in pieces like Southern Cross (1963), in which the rounded trapezoids on either side of the balance seem to have both a relation and yet a different flavor of arrangement, turning serenely on a point provided by a red, insectoid tripod. The play is orderly, and the order is playful.

 

Alexander Calder, Southern Cross (maquette), 1963. Calder Foundation, New York.

The delight of Calder’s work is its foremost feature. Anyone who doesn’t feel a rise of happiness while looking at Red Panel (c. 1938), in which two friendly shapes hover suspended in front of a sheet of red metal, should check himself for a pulse. That noted, the last room of the exhibition, which goes into his monumental public work from the ‘60s, makes the case that Calder can be regarded in a Smith-like way and hold up to the scrutiny. “Calder and Abstraction” includes a maquette for La Grande Vitesse (1969), and not a tabletop maquette but a monster of bolted steel painted the color of a fire truck. It ought to put to rest any reservations about whether kinesis in Calder’s sculpture is a gimmick. He could do without it when circumstances demanded, and still summon all the grace and charming biomorphism that we associate with him.

 

Alexander Calder, Red Pamel, c. 1963. Calder Foundation, New York.

Sometimes we art writers are pressed to make predictions about the next important phase of art. My prediction is the phenomenon of worldbuilding. Narrative media like film, writing, and digital gaming seem to be advancing while visual art takes a cultural back seat. The driving force of those media is immersion, so art will be required to compete by building worlds that compel the viewer’s attention, pulling it into an invented universe made convincing through the vision of the artist—“an atmosphere in which to move,” as Greenberg put it. Calder will remain inimitable, but in his ebullient body of work he left us clues about how to create such atmospheres, and the opportunity remains to pick them up and run with them.

“Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA on September 6, 2014 and remains on view through January 4, 2015.

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Critic's Notebook for November 3, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Nov 03, 2014 05:58 PM


 

The Purification of the Temple” c. 1600.

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: Interpreting the cello repertoire, visualizing international threats, and tracking art in NYC.

Fiction: A Map of Betrayal, by Ha Jin (Pantheon): From the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner-winning author Jin comes a woman’s inquisition into the limits of her father’s loyalty to his nation and family. The narrative alternates between the present day and the years spanning 1949 to 1989. In the present, American-born Lillian Shang unravels her father Gary’s mysterious life as a U.S.-based Chinese spy feeding information to the Mao administration. Lillian undertakes her research primarily through Gary’s extensive diaries, bequeathed to Lillian by his longtime mistress. Gary’s story is too messy for journalistic prose alone, so Lillian travels to northeast China to connect with his other family.  CE

Nonfiction: The Control Factor: Our Struggle to See the True Threat, by Bill Siegel (Hamilton Books): Bill Siegel’s The Control Factor was published in 2012. It is not, therefore, a new book.  But it is a very important one. It dramatizes as effectively as any book out there not on the threat the West faces from Islam but also the various mechanisms—psychological, political, characterological—that we in the West habitually deploy to avoid taking the proper measure of that threat. We in the West are nice. We want to believe the best of others. We find it difficult to believe that we have mortal enemies. But the prominent Muslim cleric who explained that “we don't want anything from you. We want to destroy you” labored under no such delusion. Siegel’s book is a wake-up call of continuing pertinence. RK

Poetry: A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War, Fiona Waters, ed. (Atlantic Publishing): It is remarkable to see how eloquent and poignant lines of poetry can arise out of one of the most terrible and destructive periods in history. The ninety-seven harrowing poems in this collection are accompanied by 190 rare photos. Together they create an alternative perspective of life during WWI—one that sometimes gets lost in the narrative of battles and diplomacy.  –RH

 Art: “El Greco in New York” & “El Greco at the Frick Collection” (Nov. 4—Feb. 1): To commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of El Greco’s death, the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America are pooling their collections of his work, while the Frick Collection will display its three El Greco paintings contemporaneously. Together, the exhibitions will show all of El Greco’s work in New York Public collections, a panorama unrivaled outside of the Prado in Madrid. JP

Music: Alisa Weilerstein, Solo: Alisa Weilerstein has established herself as one of today's great interpreters of the cello repertoire, and has made it a personal mission to add new commissions to the ranks of the Baroque and Romantic warhorses. Her latest CD, "Solo," begins with Zoltán Kodály's stunningly passionate Opus 8 Sonata from 1915, and follows it with Osvaldo Golijov's Omaramor, composed in 1991. Also on the disc are Gaspar Cassadó's Suite for solo cello, a staple of the early-twentieth century cello repertoire, and Bright Sheng's 1995 composition, Seven Tunes Heard in ChinaECS

Other: “Location, Location, Location! Art and Real Estate in NYC,” at The National Arts Club, Tuesday, November 4th at 8PM:  Ann Fenterstock, collector, lecturer, and author of Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from SoHo To The Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond will discuss how and why the New York Art market moves to different neighborhoods.JP

From the archive: Chelsea: galleries & garages, by Grace Glueck: On Chelsea’s transformation into an art district.

From our latest issue: The Latin vote, by Roger Kimball: Why everyone should learn the ancient languages.

 

 

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 31, 2014 12:44 PM


Happy Hallowe’en!

Links of interest from the past week:

Ten Scary Classical Music Pieces for Halloween (listen)
“Great music pierces the soul…and can sometimes terrify it.”

Review: The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron
He was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Also a plagiarist, and a terrible friend.

Serendipity in the Stacks: A Case Against Bookless Libraries
“I’m not convinced that form doesn’t matter.” Indeed—neither are we. Speaking of books…

French Culture Minister's Prosaic Reading List Draws Criticism
She hasn’t read a book in two years. Says one Frenchman, aghast: “Barbarism is here.”

Renderings: Encounters and Translations (watch)
In the spirit of the transnational exhibition “Exchange Rates Bushwick,” the artist/translator/organizer Paul D'Agostino hosted a "series of readings and presentations of translations rendered, translations encountered, translations variably treasured." Watch the event, which features Dara Mandle, Matthew Rossi, Alice Lynn McMichael, Andrea Monti, and Todd Portnowitz, online.


From our pages:

The Wizard of "Is"
A review of “Metaphor” by Denis Donoghue.

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Party On

by James Bowman

Posted: Oct 30, 2014 11:42 AM


Remarkable. An organization rather vaingloriously calling itself “Intelligence Squared” tells me that it is holding, or has held, a debate on the motion: “Income Inequality Impairs the American Dream of Upward Mobility.”

Surely, you would think, even intelligence unsquared must be equal to the task of reasoning required to see that it is only income inequality that could make the American Dream of upward mobility possible in the first place — and thus that the motion is nonsense? Too bad I only received an invitation to take part in this nonsensical debate, now available as a DVD or podcast, on the same day it took place. I’ve got to think they really didn’t want my input after all but were only pretending to invite me because they thought I would be flattered by the pretense of my inclusion, even via spam, in such highly intelligent company. I’m not. I tend to agree with Stephen Hawking that “people who boast about their I.Q. are losers.” Sorry Mensa. I have a slight curiosity to see if any of the IQ2 initiate were bright enough to understand that the content of their “debate” was a null set, as they would no doubt put it. But not enough to take the trouble to find out.

Meanwhile, Daniel Finkelstein, a columnist for The Times of London but at heart still a British election strategist writes of the insurgent UKIP challenge to the Conservative party over Europe and immigration that “the electorate is changing and becoming more culturally and socially liberal while the UKIP vote is intense and angry, but represents a growing proportion of an inevitably shrinking group.” The “inevitably shrinking group” is old people, in case you hadn’t guessed. They’re inevitably shrinking because they’re dying off. “The problem for the Conservative party is severe,” he continues. “It relies heavily (more than Labour, making its problem worse) on an older, culturally conservative vote that is shrinking, and yet if it seeks support among the growing sections, and sentiment, of the population it risks exacerbating its problems with UKIP. In the long run the answer is obvious. The Conservative party cannot choose the shrinking, ageing, groups over the growing, young ones. This way death lies. Literally.” 

Obviously, there is a lesson here for the Republican party in America, which is the more culturally conservative of the major parties, though it is interesting to me that Lord Finkelstein — he actually is a lord, by the way — takes it for granted that the young are wedded to their social liberalism and unpersuadable by the inevitably shrinking (and dying) oldsters that there is something to be said for socially conservative views. He’s probably right, but it does go to show the extent to which rational persuasion, which used to be thought the essence of politics in a democracy, is no longer expected to have any place in our public life. That is also the assumption behind the phony “debate” promoted by IQ2. The pretense of rationality is exposed in that case by the logical flaw in the wording of the motion, but it is implicit in most political argument nowadays. Even when we are ostensibly engaged in persuasive efforts we are really only banging the drum for the superiority of our side and for the benefit of those who want to join the winners. 

There’s a similar problem with David Brooks’s piece in the New York Times on the evils of what he calls “Partyism.” The more interesting question to me is why has the natural human tendency to tribalism (as it should be called) become politicized in Western democracies? That is, we have come to base our tribes not on familial or regional or ancestral ties or on religion, as they do in most of the world and have done through most of human history, but on our views about abortion or taxes or income inequality or, God help us, “climate change.” It’s a very odd thing when you think about it. Ultimately, I guess, you’ve got to blame Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin, for persuading so much of the Western world and its media that all the big questions of human existence boil down to simple power relationships, or who is oppressing whom. That’s the intellectual hell from which there is no exit.

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Critic's Notebook for October 27, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 27, 2014 05:54 PM


Oblique, Tom Goldenberg (2010)

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: Families fall together and nations fall apart, Brahms cannot go gentle into that good night.

Fiction: Us, by David Nicholls (Harper): Connie Peterson wakes her husband Douglas in the middle of the night to tell him she may want to end their marriage. The family already has a European trip planned, the last before their son leaves their London suburb for college, and Douglas, ever the scientist, hatches a plan to change Connie's mind: he will ensure their trip becomes an exemplar of the happy family they can be. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Us is a compellingly human and deftly humorous novel of what holds marriages and families together, and what happens when they threaten to fall apart.  CE

Nonfiction: Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life, by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese): One hundred years after his first film was released, Charlie Chaplin is still one of the most recognizable actors from Hollywood. In this concise biography, Peter Ackroyd revisits one of the first international celebrities. The book follows Chaplin as he learns his craft in South London, insists on becoming his own director in America, gets tangled in politics, and eventually is exiled to Switzerland.—RH

Poetry: Monday marks 100 years since the birth of Dylan Thomas: The Welsh poet and broadcaster died at age 39, but his legacy has flourished both at home and abroad as readers rejoiced at his unwillingness to “go gentle into that good night.” This past Friday saw the staging of his “play for voices” Under Milk Wood at New York City’s 92nd Street Y –listen to a recording here. CE

 Art: “Tom Goldenberg: Landscapes” (through December 16): For a decade the artist Tom Goldenberg has led a peripatetic class called "Drawing on Collections." Visiting the drawing library of a different museum or private collection each week, magnifying glass in hand, he and his students get as close as possible to the artist's touch in New York's rich and largely untapped archive of works on paper. Back in the studio, Goldenberg has clearly worked through these many discoveries in his own landscapes. An intelligent and wide-ranging selection of his art is now on view in “Tom Goldenberg: Landscapes,” which remains on view at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York through December 16, 2014. JP

Music: The Jerusalem Quartet at 92Y (Wednesday, October 29) and Curlew River at St. John the Divine (October 29-November 1): This makes two weeks in a row that I've highlighted Brahms, but when his chamber music is showcased, it's hard to turn away. On Wednesday the Jerusalem String Quartet will finish their “Intimate Brahms” series, joined by the pianist Inon Barnatan for the F-minor quintet. For a change of pace, the White Light Festival on Thursday opens a three-night run of Curlew River at the Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The superb tenor Ian Bostridge stars as the Madwoman in Benjamin Britten's haunting church parable. ECS

Other: The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, by Mark Steyn (Regnery, 2014): The irrepressible Mark Steyn is back with a new collection of essays. The [Un]documented Mark Steyn (Don't Say You Weren't Warned) is a rich cornucopia of essays about the future of America from National Review, The Atlantic MonthlyThe Spectator (both the American and the English ones), London’s Daily Telegraph, and several other literary organs here and abroad.  No one else combines Steyn’s dazzling humor, astonishing erudition, and gripping apocalyptic prognostication.  All is not well in the fruited plains of this great republic, and no one provides chapter and verse of our unfolding dégringolade with the authority and rhetorical élan of Mark Steyn. It’s a neat trick, making societal collapse seem entertaining as well as horrifying, but Steyn manages the feat with consummate skill. —RK

From the archive: Apologia pro Newman, by Paul Dean: Review of The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman, edited by Frank M. Turner 

From our latest issue: Men of the baroque: the sculptor & the poet, by F. H. Buckley: On the works of Gianlorenzo Bernini and Richard Crashaw.

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Watching Shakespeare

by Kate Havard

Posted: Oct 27, 2014 12:32 PM


Kenneth Branagh as Henry V, 1989

This past Saturday was the 599th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, the historical occasion for the magnificent St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V. The speech reminds me of the worst Henry V that I ever saw—which is also my favorite.

A few years ago, the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C. staged Henry V with a very promising rising star in the lead. But in the performance I saw, the man playing the King was not the man whose face was on the posters.

This man was scrawny, unsure of himself, and certainly not dashing. He took the audience through until intermission with nothing objectionable, but his performance was flat. This other Henry didn’t fill up the space on stage. We were powerfully reminded that he was just a man in a dark room, saying words.

The second act was worse.  For some reason, the interloper was carrying a scroll in his hand, and I soon realized that he was reading from a script. The room was painfully still. 

He did not have the famous St. Crispin's day speech memorized, and after a few lines looked down to read from the pages he held. Too embarrassed to watch, I looked at the program and noticed a sheet of paper wedged into the back: Aha.

This Henry V was an understudy. A miserable one.

 

---

After the show, I went to find the stage manager. As it turned out, the lead actor had fallen seriously ill the night before, in the middle of the performance. But because it was still very early on in the run, the understudy hadn't yet learned all of Henry's lines (understudies typically don’t start full rehearsal until the show is underway). When the lead actor went down, the stage managers waved the understudy offstage (he had been playing one of the rowdy tavern dwellers), placed a crown on his head, and told him he would have to go on as King.

With this knowledge, the show went from an illustration of embarrassingly bad Shakespeare to a metaphor for Prince Hal's life: a barfly in the background who, due to forces outside his control, needed to become a King—and fast. No wonder that on a stage full of nobles and princes, the understudy seemed so wrong. He was never supposed to be there in the first place.

I learned from the cast that the lead was so sick that the understudy would be going on again in the next performance. He had two days to become Henry V.  So I went back to the second performance wondering: could he do it?

That night, the air of heroic inevitability that often surrounds King Henry was gone.

Usually, the king’s struggles with his wild youth and bad reputation are confined to the earlier Henry IV plays, parts 1 and 2. By the time Henry V rolls around, young Hal is a near-perfect king. The bad Prince Harry is merely a rumor, an unhappy memory.

But in this production, Henry hadn't quite shaken off his ignominy. Normally,when the French court sends King Henry a case of tennis balls instead of the tribute he demands, the gesture seems a rash and foolish error. Who would risk insulting the King played by Branagh or Olivier? 

But when there is a bad Henry, an uncertain Henry, the insult is threatening and humiliating. He is called out for being a fake, for being out of his league. His enemies don't fear him, and his allies are unsure of him (for even though they said all the right lines, the other actors were surely anxious). Henry the understudy had struggled manfully along so far, but he was clearly not Henry the king.

---

The second performance was like watching someone try to light a fire, but only succeed in summoning up embers and smoke. Soon we were approaching the St. Crispin's day speech. At least there was no more script in the understudy’s hand.

“What’s he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland?”

 

He started. He kept going. Halfway through, he was good. Not great, but good. As the other actors sensed that he was pulling it off, he got better.  

“Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,

But he'll remember with advantages

What feats he did that day…”

 

There it was: he had us.  He lit the fire. If only for one speech, he was Henry V.  He went in for the close:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

The other actors were in tears. Their cheers of triumph were real.

 

---

Later I went back to the Folger and saw the "real" production, and technically, it was much better. But the bad Henry remains my favorite.  His performance was an example of why it pays to watch Shakespeare rather than just read it: the medium of theater teaches even through its flaws.

A play with no lead actor is rather like a kingdom with a deposed king.  Prince Hal himself was a kind of inglorious understudy, given command of an enterprise that seemed doomed.  And although I don’t think it was how Henry V was meant to be played, the understudy’s travails highlighted for me the fragile, difficult nature of Prince Hal’s burden: to convince a doubtful audience that he is the rightful King. When Henry is a heroic figure, the task seems easy. In reality, it’s anything but. 

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 24, 2014 02:24 PM


We few, we happy few, we band of readers: This Saturday is St. Crispin’s Day.

 

This week's links:

Yes More Drama, by Dan Kois
“…A great published script makes you understand what the play is, at its heart. Not just what a certain production was like, though it also ought to do a good job of that. It makes you understand how the play feels as a living work of art—how it sounds and behaves inside your head…”

US Army Set to Drop $600K on WWI Art, by Paul McLeary
Well, I guess anyone can get into the art game now.

The Stradivarius Affair, by Buzz Bissinger
If you’re looking to steal a 299 year-old violin, I hear Wisconsin’s the place.

Green Day, by Eric Banks
A hue for health, hearth, and danger. The color green is on its way up, but from where?

Under Milk Wood at the 92nd Street Y (event)
A reading starring and directed by Michael Sheen, broadcast live by BBC Wales.


From our pages:

Crocodile tears on the back nine, by James Bowman
What are Obama’s plans for ISIS?

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A great man's passing

by James Bowman

Posted: Oct 22, 2014 01:37 PM


Sir Donald Sinden at 75; picture via LES

Sir Donald Sinden is dead, having outlived his style of acting by approximately half a century. Yet by turning from Shakespeare to farce and TV sitcoms, he became one of the grand old men of the British theatre before his death. I remember going to see his King Lear in London in 1976.  I don’t remember whether it was my own idea that he was a sort of fossil even then, or if I got it from the critics I read or the other young people I talked to. What was unforgettable was the resonant, declamatory style of speaking the verse that was the exact opposite of the “method” school of acting, which I was used to and which naturally preferred mumbling incomprehension and emoting like crazy. I must have gone along with the crowd in regarding this old-fashioned character as an irrelevancy in that day and age, though I do remember being secretly impressed by him—and thinking that his method must have been much more like what Shakespeare had in mind for the part when he wrote it than anything else I would ever see.

And so it proved. Sir Donald, as he then wasn’t, was only 52 at the time, surely at the young end of the spectrum for any Lear. The celebrated emoter Simon Russell Beale (not yet Sir Simon, but surely well on the way) came to the role earlier this year, having just turned 53. Perhaps the world just couldn’t wait to see his Lear until he was older — or was it the highly relevant National Theatre production by Sam Mendes in which Gloucester (Stephen Boxer) was water-boarded before having his eyes put out? Sir Donald may have been precipitated into the role not because he had the same kind of relevance or the same kind of reputation as Mr. Russell Beale, but because he didn’t. His old-fashioned style of delivery was more suited to the comedy than the pathos of a role, like that of Lear, which depends on the character’s being seen by the audience throughout the play as radically different from the way he sees himself.

That was also true, of course, of the comic roles he was better known for, such as Lord Foppington in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse or Sir Harcourt Courtly in Boucicault’s London Assurance. Of the latter, Alan Strachan wrote in The Independent that “His self-regarding roué had a core of endearing innocence beneath the delusion of youthful vigour, and was equally praised on Broadway.” The essence of farce is just that “endearing innocence” of the farceur about his own ridiculousness, a quality Sir Donald also brought to his other two most-praised Shakespearean roles: Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Benedick (to Dame Judi Dench’s Beatrice) in Much Ado About Nothing, whose announcement of his own condescension to love, “The world must be peopled,” could have been made for him.

In all these cases, the audience is flattered into laughter by knowing that it knows what the character does not. I suppose that, by playing such characters, Sir Donald must have struck a certain kind of temperament as someone who was similarly pompous and self-important in real life, which is why he was the butt of much satirical attention in the 1980s and 1990s from the likes of the TV puppet-satire “Spitting Image.” About the skewering he took from this show for his supposed vanity, Dominic Cavendish writes in The Daily Telegraph that “It’s funny without being true—if he was afflicted by status anxiety about not being ranked higher, or taken more seriously, that never came across. He was—old-fashioned term—a gentleman.”

I think that very gentlemanliness must have suggested vanity to the young satirists and comedians. It would have been pretentious in their view. And, indeed, being a gentleman is a kind of pretension, though of the best kind. You have to act that part. But nowadays any sort of acting off the stage seems a form of hypocrisy.

Michael Simkins’s reminiscence in the Telegraph begins: “So the great man has finally gone.” Such words are now almost unimaginable as anything but ironic: only a bit ironic, perhaps, as they are here, or maybe fully sarcastic, but ironic nevertheless because our culture no longer allows us to say or write them un-ironically about anyone of lesser stature than Churchill. Which is pretty much everyone. Even Churchill, today, could hardly escape the ironic barb in any attribution of greatness. But a career like Sir Donald’s, which is hardly possible anymore either, is a reminder that greatness, even when it is genuine, is also an act.

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Stravinsky vs. hearing aid

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Oct 21, 2014 01:26 PM


Esa-Pekka Salonen

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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Critic's Notebook for October 20, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 20, 2014 05:37 PM


 

RGB, Jenny Core (2014)

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

This week: Modern Jamaica, historic Berlin, and artsy Bushwick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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