by Eric Simpson
The Tokyo String Quartet; Photo: Henry J. Fair
This year marks the end of the Tokyo String Quartet's remarkable forty-four year run, following the announcement that its two longest-tenured members, Kikuei Ikeda and Kazuhide Isomura, will retire at the end of the season. Though they have a handful of concerts to go—concluding with a recital at the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut—on Saturday night they made their final New York appearance, with a sentimental program of final—or nearly final—compositions at the 92nd Street Y.
Cellist Lynn Harrell joined them for Schubert's Quintet in C major, which happens to be one of my personal favorites. Completed just weeks before the composer's death, it is among the greatest and most enduringly popular works in the chamber repertoire. I have written before about “Schubertland,” the territory between nostalgia and regret, and it is no coincidence that we should find an exemplar in a piece written during his final illness. In particular, the melting second theme of the first movement moves seamlessly from one to the other and back again in the span of just six measures. When the celli took up this theme for the first time, it was heart-rending. Thereafter, much of this performance was disappointing; the passionate minor sections of the first movement lacked punch, and though there was stillness and wisdom in their rendering of the second movement, its faster sections were muddy, and the violins sounded steely. Harsh tone was the primary culprit throughout the quintet: The scherzo was exuberant and joyful, even silly, but the celli scraped their way through much of it. The final Allegretto could have been cheekier at the opening, and though it eventually gave way to an impassioned ending, there were some intonation problems along the way.
The second half of the program began with Haydn's unfinished Quartet, op. 103. It was his last attempt at the form, begun and abandoned in 1803, and we are left with two very fine movements. The first is a sweet Andante grazioso, the second a Menuet and trio, alternately stern and cheerful. Their playing was light and refined, though they added some Romantic stylings—they don't claim to be a “historical performance” group, after all.
Following a touchstone Romantic work and a late Classical piece, it was a bold move to end the program with Bartók. As might be suspected there were a few concertgoers who chose to leave after the Haydn rather than have their ears taxed. They missed out—Tokyo's account of the sixth quartet was astonishing. They found every height and depth of the music, confidently navigating the murky waters of the more doleful sections, and in the jumpy, dance-like passages, summoning up an electric energy that constantly threatened to dissolve into chaos. The vivace section of the first movement was bitterly sarcastic, even menacing at times, and in the third movement they spat venom in a mercilessly stinging burletta. In stark contrast to Bartók's harsh satire stood the earnest pleading of the opening ritornello that frames the piece. The final movement is the only one that stays in unremitting gloom, and the sorrow with which they played it, first insistent, then resigned, left me speechless. It is a rare privilege to hear so compelling a performance of such challenging music.
E-mail to friend
by Peter Wood
Paul Du Chaillu was the young man who ventured inland from the coast of Gabon in 1856 on a quest to be the first European to encounter the njena, the supposedly ferocious beast we now call the gorilla. That same year, William Henry Edwards, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, decided as “to go down the butterfly path,” which would lead in time to his becoming (according to a later scholar) “the greatest butterfly student which this country has ever produced or probably ever will.”
Du Chaillu has come out of historical retirement to take a bow in Monte Reel’s enthralling new book, Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, The Evolution Debate, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm. Edwards plays a leading role in William Leach’s shimmering Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World. Du Chaillu and Edwards make a nice contrast. The gorilla-hunter was a “diminutive” man of obscure origins, self-educated, and forced to live by his wits. Edwards was (to judge by his photograph) robust, from an illustrious family, educated at Williams College, and a successful capitalist who invented the coal barge and lived off his extensive West Virginia mines. Du Chaillu was an adventurer who coveted recognition as an explorer and scientist. Edwards was an enthusiastic industrialist (“what an utter blank the world would be, if iron did not exist”) enthralled with butterflies and determined to spare “no expense” for the color plates in his three volume Butterflies of North America.
But there are commonalities between the two men as well. They were amateurs in an age where major contributions to human knowledge could still be made by individuals outside the scientific establishment. They were both meticulous in their observations. And they were both brave. Du Chaillu shot down charging 400-pound male gorillas at close range. Edwards’ light-winged quarry posed no threat, but a nine-month voyage up the Orinoco in 1846 wasn’t for the faint of heart. Both started out hunting birds in a search for previously unidentified species.
Gorillas and butterflies have one more thing in common. They are so rich in metaphoric possibilities that hardly anyone can resist the temptation to draft them into rhetorical service. Reel’s book revels in the record of gorilla-inspired vituperation, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s 1861 jibe at Lincoln as “the Original Gorilla.” Leach relates how the coal-mining industrialist Edwards named one of his diaphanous discoveries the Nokomis fritillary, “daughter of the moon,” after Hiawatha’s grandmother in Longfellow’s poem.
The amateur zeal of Du Chaillu and Edwards is nicely echoed by Reel and Leach, who have added to the growing genre of historical inquiry that mingles the resurrection of mostly forgotten figures with social, economic, and intellectual history. What is truly on the page in these books is the thirst for knowledge and discovery as a personal undertaking. Rivalries and even bitter animosities emerge; reputations are flayed; personal failings pinned. But behind all this is a genuine longing to see, to know, and to understand. Reel and Leach give us, in these different characters, compelling reminders that the postmodernism of the contemporary university is a starvation diet.
Of course, I can’t resist the metaphoric possibilities either. For the last six weeks I have been busy with the follow-up to the release of What Does Bowdoin Teach? the 360-page examination of a single college that I wrote along with my colleague Michael Toscano. Some of the responses remind me of what Du Chaillu discovered the first time he came face to face with a gorilla. The beast gave a tremendous roar and came running straight at him. Du Chaillu didn’t wait to find out what would happen next. He fired and dropped the gorilla a few feet away. Later he discovered that a gorilla’s charge is mere intimidation. The animal breaks away at the last second. This has been Bowdoin’s official response to What Does Bowdoin Teach?: a roar, a charge, and—never mind. The unofficial response, coming mostly from Bowdoin students, by contrast, has been more like a flight of butterflies. The swirling display is impressive, but it is hard to discern a point other than “look at me.” One alumnus in particular stands out as a sort of Nokomis fritillary who flits into every blog and newspaper story as a reminder that the lightness of being is sometimes literal.
Having paid that bill and added in the gratuity, let me give the last word to the entrancing tales of the real-life gorilla and butterfly hunters. Genuine scholarship comes not necessarily from credentialed scholars but also—and sometimes more impressively—from people independent of the establishment. Du Chaillu and Edwards exemplify that kind of achievement.
E-mail to friend
by James Panero
Last year, the London-based Frieze Art Fair came to New York, pitched a tent on Randalls Island, and it was cool. The sophomore effort, on view through Monday, keeps much of the formula from a year ago. The 250,000 square-foot custom tent by SO-IL is back with sweeping views of the East River. (All photographs by James Panero).
The special water taxi with regular departures from Manhattan's 35th Street Ferry Dock is still the way to go.
But this free service from a year ago now costs $12.50 round trip and requires advanced ticketing.
Added to the $42 daily ticket fee (which must also be booked in advance), Frieze is anything but free. This year, a red inflatable sculpture by Paul McCarthy is there to keep your mind off your wallet.
The work also signals that, in the future, all art will only be balloon dogs.
Inside I liked this gritty sculpture by Marianne Vitale, a Frieze Projects artist, but Sant Ambroeus kind of ruins the effect, no?
This sculpture by Valeska Soares at Galeria Fortes Vilaca includes real liquor.
Much like last year, sculpture continued to look good in the ambient light of Frieze. This bronze souffle is by Erwin Wurm of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.
Regrettably, Frieze has also regressed to the art-fair mean. Crotch-shot photographs by Thomas Ruff are in abundance, and there are plenty of shiny things on display. This "Rim Sculpture" by Cyprien Gaillard at Spruth Magers sums it up.
Labor issues have also caught up to Frieze.
The artist Andrea Bowers at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects has included this letter of protest with her work--the appearance and dissappearance of which has been a point of discussion.
Frieze continues to offer interesting aesthetic challenges, such as, Roberta's or Mission Chinese for lunch?
I was enjoying the mellow vibe of "Food 1971/2013," a special project space in homage to Gordon Matta-Clark and (Friday's chef) Carol Goodden, until I got bumped from my seat by Renee Rockefeller.
With curated food trucks and hip eateries, Frieze New York is either an art fair with food on the side or a food fair with art in the middle.
However you slice it, I enjoyed this ice cream sandwich.
E-mail to friend
Gertrude Stein once asked: “What do writers want?” Her heartfelt answer (this was one thing she really knew about): “Praise, praise, praise.” Truer words, etc., etc. I’ve had occasion to ponder the fathomless vanity of writers recently. I won’t go into the particulars, except to say that it is an untidy subject, mournful and [...]
Image from the Onassis Foundation
We are delighted to draw attention to “After Thermopylae: How Wars are Concluded and Commemorated,” a panel discussion on June 4th at The Morgan Library & Museum featuring TNC contributor Bruce Cole. The event, sponsored by the Onassis Cultural Center, marks the publication of Professor Paul Cartledge’s new Oxford University Press title, After Thermopylae: The Oath of Palatea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars, and will focus on “how wars end and how they are remembered, drawing examples from the Graeco-Persian War, the Great War, and the War on Terror.”
Get all the details and reserve a spot here.
E-mail to friend
In case you haven’t heard, the latest film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby will be released across the U.S. tomorrow. With an all-star cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton), acclaimed director (Baz Luhrmann, Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge), and $127 million budget, it’s sure to draw crowds. While some are bracing themselves for Jay-Z’s soundtrack with Gatsby-inspired cocktails, it can’t hurt to brush up on the actual book before buying a ticket. To get you started, here’s a collection of the best articles from our archives about the man behind the book:
Fitzgerald's lost life by Emily Esfahani Smith (March 2012)
F. Scott Fitzgerald & the magical glory by James Tuttleton (November 1994)
After a line by F. Scott Fitzgerald by William Logan (October 1992)
Fitzgerald tales by Sonya Rudikoff (February 1985)
Fact into fiction by James R. Mellow (March 1983)
E-mail to friend
Sunday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Danish philosopher, theologian, critic, and poet Søren Kierkegaard. What better way to commemorate it than with an essay from the archives of The New Criterion? In a long, considered piece from 2001, Roger Kimball explored the life and thought of the great Christian existentialist thinker, and described what he thought was Kierkegaard’s greatest contribution:
Read the essay in full here.
E-mail to friend
by Eric Simpson
Maurizio Pollini; Photo: Mathias Bothor/Deutsche Grammophon
On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, the reverend Maurizio Pollini sought to remind listeners of why he has had such a remarkable recital career. For the most part he succeeded admirably, performing a bold program of four Beethoven sonatas. As has to be expected at this point, there were some technical flaws, but the sage brilliance of his artistry shone through.
He opened with Sonata No. 8 in C minor, the “Pathétique.” The first movement is marked by its stark contrasts, and in Pollini's rendition these were understated. It was a contained and stately performance, with stray notes here and there. In the allegro con brio section the tempo was not perfectly steady, often creating the feeling that he was just a hair's breadth from losing control. The music should be furious here, but letting it approach “frenetic” is taking it too far. For this recital he chose a piano with a dark sound that particularly fit the grave sections. His playing was very sensitive to color and texture, and he frequently took his time to let some of Beethoven's more pungent harmonies ferment. The second movement was a bit on the heavy side, and the closing Rondo was again rather messy, as well as being very straightforward.
The “Waldstein” Sonata (No. 21 in C major) was in an entirely different world. As in the “Pathétique,” the opening movement is marked “Allegro con brio,” and I appreciated that Pollini did not interpret “con brio” in the usual sense of banging extra hard. His playing here was intelligent, but far from dispassionate. The second subject was hymn-like and expansive. The next movement was certainly “Adagio molto” as far as tempo is concerned, but it was marvelously taut. (“Adagio,” let us not forget, literally translates to “at ease,” but sometimes it's best not to be too rigid, semantically) The finale was joyful and blooming, made all the better by having to cut through the piano's dark, sumptuous tone.
The advertised opener for the second half was Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major, of which I am quite fond due to its glittering beauty, so I was a little bit disappointed by the program insert announcing it had been replaced. Instead we got a reserved No. 22 in F major. It was elegantly played, but on a program of otherwise very hefty selections, it felt out of place.
The “Appassionata” (Sonata No. 23 in F Minor: If nothing else, the last-minute switch meant both halves of the program were in parallel keys) was glorious to hear. The first movement opened with brooding repose, but he soon found the noble fire in it. The passagework, finally, was crisp and clean, and it was delivered with pulsing energy. The “Andante” was beautiful and composed, and the finale was wonderfully bold. It was impassioned without being violent or savage. I was barely able to catch my breath in the movement's brief periods of repose before being flung back into frightening motion. The Presto section was once again dizzying without becoming frantic, capturing the piece's powerful tragedy.
Of his encores, I was particularly taken with his playfully aggressive "Presto" Bagatelle, Op. 126, no. 4. An excellent, tasteful choice, and executed with panache.
E-mail to friend
. . . comes from the New York Times. “Professors at San Jose State Criticize Online Courses.” Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Someone told me the story that Larry Ellison, genius loci of Oracle Corporation was slumming recently. He was, the story goes, giving a talk at a big meeting of the American Association of [...]
by James Panero
James Little paints like no other artist. His unique wax medium and labor-intensive process have developed over decades in the studio. Recently, I visited him in his walk-up space in East Williamsburg to see his latest work before it heads out to June Kelly Gallery, where his next solo show will open on May 16. (All photographs by James Panero)
In her catalogue essay for the upcoming exhibition, Karen Wilkin writes of the "ravishing physicality of Little's paintings . . . orchestrations of geometry and chroma to delight our eyes and stir our emotions and intellect."
Reading the paintings from left to right, Little employs a rhythmic sense of composition. Shapes, colors, and values all work together to energize the paintings.
Drawings line the upper walls of the studio.
The drawings often become studies for larger paintings, although the colors change as Little adds wax and other media to the canvas.
Little's process requires constant adjustments and an attention to detail. Given the time he puts into each work, he may only create four large paintings a year.
Writing about the "hard-edge" quality of his previous exhibition at June Kelly, I noticed that "while Little constructs his compositions in sharp angles and straight lines, his silk-like treatment of surface is uniquely his own."
To ensure purity and consistency, Little prepares his paint components by hand.
Jars of the artist's own turpentine and oil line the studio.
Little takes commercial pigments and mixes them before adding his own medium.
When the paints are ready, Little adds heated beeswax.
He then appies this encaustic to canvas laid flat like a table.
Little draws from a long history of pattern-making, from non-Western sources to Renaissance tilework to neon streetsigns.
Postcards of exhibitions line the studio door. The 2005 exhibition "Thorton Willis/James Little: Raising the Bar" at Sideshow Gallery, Brooklyn, introduced me to Little's "sensuous surfaces of silk and quicksand, and colors as sharp as needles."
The latest work will be on view at June Kelly Gallery from May 16 through June 21, 2013.
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