April 2007 Archives

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast; it can also, I've learned, wake a baby.

On Earth Day -- Sunday, April 22 -- my wife gave birth to a nine-pound boy. As a lifelong lover of classical music -- and of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony in particular -- the story of how our baby came into this world is almost eerily fitting. Read about it, here.

April 30, 2007 10:26 AM | | Comments (7)

Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is the relevance of arts programming to its community at large. One local organization (in Madison, Wis.) that I think does a fantastic job of linking its programming to the outside world is the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, which runs a contemporary art gallery, a public lecture series, a quarterly magazine, scholarly conferences and more. Although the academic-sounding name makes many people think it's a division of the University of Wisconsin, it's actually an independent nonprofit that's been around since 1870 (!).


The current exhibition in the Academy's James Watrous Gallery is "Wisconsin's People on the Land," which is tied in with a much larger "Future of Farming" initiative. Despite our state's image (and ridiculously stereotypical state quarter with a cow, ear of corn and wheel of cheese--ugh!), the agricultural way of life is undergoing drastic changes, as it is everywhere. "Wisconsin's People on the Land" addresses these issues innovatively by involving artists, rural sociologists, folklorists and farmers. My review of this show ran in Isthmus, Madison's alt weekly.

April 24, 2007 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)

This past week I had a chance to chat with a trio of music critics who are currently in the process of putting together a book proposal. Their idea: profile the local music scene of one town in each of the lower 48 states. As luck would have it, they chose Missoula as their first stop. I wrote a story about their project for the Missoulian; you can read it here.

I can only hope they complete the book, as it seems like a great antidote to the L.A- and New York-centric attitudes of most rock writers and publications.

April 23, 2007 4:00 AM |

The NEA Institute has had me thinking a lot about the critic's role in his or her community, and how the theater we see relates to our communities. I live in Madison, Wis., a town of about 225,000 that is home to both the state capital and a Big Ten campus. There is no shortage of the arts here--but a really vibrant critical discussion of the arts is lacking. Sure, there are some good reviewers/critics (use whatever term you like), but the sense of a real conversation is what I'm missing. How much do critics, readers, artists and audience members engage in a real give-and-take of ideas?

Tied to this is a concern about how we value art (in the broadest terms, not just locally). A few things have struck me in recent weeks, one of which is a marketing e-mail I received from the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). The e-mail urged me to go see the major Francis Bacon exhibition before it closed this past weekend. It read in part, under a section headed "What It's Worth": "Your $14 ticket provides you with the opportunity to see paintings that are being sold for $30 million at auction. Learn more about the value of your ticket here." That last bit linked to a news item on the BBC Web site about how Bacon's "Study from Innocent X" is expected to sell for upwards of $30 million at auction in May.

There are a couple reasons for MAM's pointing out on the monetary value of Bacon's paintings: it signals to an audience largely unfamiliar with Bacon that this is an "important" artist; it makes people feel OK about spending $14 on their ticket; but the third, and most potentially troubling, reason is that most of us get a kick out of seeing something that we know is worth a lot of money. (To be fair, the e-mail also links to a podcast of curators discussing Bacon, so the effort to provide real context is also there.)

I'm not suggesting that anyone who gets a charge out of something they know is incredibly valuable is a philistine - it's a pretty natural reaction. But for critics, our job (at least as I see it) is to pull at the two threads of meaning and aesthetics, preferably in plain English, and tease out something worthwhile. (What is this play/film/painting/book trying to say, and is it doing it in an interesting way?) That's why, for many of us who care about the arts, the "money question" means little. Whether Bacon is fetching great prices at auction or consigned to obscurity 15 years after his death is irrelevant. His paintings are what they are--no more, no less--and must stand on their own (now how's that for a touch of two-bit philosophy?).

In other news, a disturbed man kicked and stomped on a Baroque painting at the Milwaukee Art Museum April 4. I'm sure many will be aghast at the monetary damage that was done, but the destruction of art is most dispiriting in terms of losing something that can never be replaced. (The most interesting analysis of this incident so far comes from a Milwaukee-area online art magazine called "Susceptible to Images," in a piece called "No One Would Kick a Renaissance Painting." The writer, Debra Brehmer, argues that the passionate--if severely disturbed--response to the painting is in keeping with Baroque painters' desire to provoke. It goes without saying that she is not defending what happened, but she's clearly thinking about the aesthetic aspect of it.)

A few other random bits have been feeding into my thoughts on art's value and how we make our judgments: this piece in the Washington Post, "Pearls Before Breakfast," talks about an experiment the Post did with acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell busking with his Stradivarius outside a Metro station in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, few people stopped to listen. What's great about this essay is its refusal to judge people for not stopping or not realizing the musical greatness in their midst. The writer, Gene Weingarten, knows that people have many reasons to keep on moving. But he conjures up a wide-ranging, astute and occasionally funny meditation on how much of artistic quality is something we recognize because we're applying our aesthetic/emotional/intellectual/you-name-it faculties, and how much we appreciate something because we think "hey, that's Joshua Bell" or "that Stradivarius he's playing is worth $3.5 million" or "wow, I'm looking at a Francis Bacon painting worth $30 million."

It's all food for thought: how much do we make our own judgments, and how much do we let the marketplace make our judgments for us? And can critics (without turning into preachy schoolmarms) help?

April 17, 2007 9:05 PM |

Most people who have ever seen a David Lynch film have, at some point, wondered: where the hell did THAT come from? Well, in at least a small sense, it came from Missoula, Mont. -- Lynch's hometown. Last week, the Missoula Independent ran a lengthy interview profile with Lynch. Few papers in America expend as much ink on their cover stories as the Independent (disclaimer: I write for a competing paper), which in this case is a good thing, as Lynch is obviously a pretty compelling conversationalist.

April 16, 2007 6:14 AM |

Art reviews are often compelling not because of the absolute "rightness" of their critique but because they draw out the elements of what makes a show tick.

NEA Fellow Sherry Deatrick and her colleague Rebecca Haithcoat published their summary of the recent Louisville Humana Fest, providing two different perspectives on a variety of shows. It's an approach that sparks interest in many of the offerings while illuminating why one person might hate a show that another loves.

April 12, 2007 10:15 AM |

A review at the Cleveland Plain Dealer had me inspired and almost wishing I had the time to make the five-hour drive to Cleveland to see the performance of St. John Passion as performed by Apollo's Fire.

What's interesting is that this compelling review appears to have been submitted by a reader. It leaves me of a mixed mind because I don't know whether the person writing the review is associated with the company and therefore writing a promotional piece or whether the person was truly an audience member who was so moved that he/she had to share the experience.

Then again, the person who posted it has a Plain Dealer e-mail address--which begs the question why the newspaper would not simply include a byline and make it clear that this was a staff critic or freelancer.

April 6, 2007 9:49 AM |

After spending an hour cruising the sites of various Midwestern newspaper sites, I was starting to think that the only thing happening anywhere was American Idol and Keith Richards snorting his father's ashes--or not snorting them. It's all that was plastered across the arts pages of newspapers large and small and all the articles said basically the same thing.

Now, I realize that Easter weekend is a slow one in the performing arts, but it isn't dead.

So it was with a great deal of relief that I came upon the entertainment page of a newspaper from a small beach town, Grand Haven, Michigan. Yes, they still led with the story of Michigan's American Idol entry and the Keith Richards wire story was included toward the bottom, but for the most part, the page was packed with arts events happening in and around Grand Haven. Sure, the articles are relatively pedestrian and some read like press releases, but at least the coverage is there. That puts them a step ahead of some of their larger siblings in major cities.

April 5, 2007 9:55 AM |

Hesitant to trust a professional critic? Maybe you'd prefer what the critic's mom and dad have to say. This week in the Burlington Free Press, staff writer Victoria Welch reviewed a performance of "Parenting 101: A Musical Guide to Raising Parents." She also enlisted her parents to review the performance. The result is a truly fun read, and a clever way of bringing new voices into the paper.

April 4, 2007 12:19 PM |

One of my goals in covering the Savannah Music Festival, an annual event that's fast gaining national attention, is to rank the classical music concerts that I saw. It sounds kinda silly, I know, but if the AP can rank college football teams and the New York Times can rank books, I figured why not rank classical music concerts in order of worst to best.

Why rank classical music concerts? Because it's fun, for one thing. For another, classical music is often spared this kind of treatment, because (a) editors and reporters are too skittish about criticizing it and (b) classical music for too long has been considered too high-minded for this kind of thing. The result is the impression that classical music isn't meaningful enough to argue about. Well, I think it is. As long as the fight is civil. And I think it's important enough to make an argument for what concerts were worthier than others. And, of course, here's plenty of room for discussion. There's no telling where things will go when people disagree with passion.

11. Mark Padmore
Despite an extraordinary voice, Mark Padmore's one-and-a-half-hour performance of the entire length of Schubert's "Winterreise" was disappointing. The English tenor should be praised for his strength, endurance, vocal expression and knowledge of the repertoire. But as a musical experience, the recital was mediocre due to a combination of flawed equipment and ambition outstripping ability. The performance called for a fortepiano, a much quieter keyboard instrument than the modern-day piano, but none could be procured. Accompanist Kristian Benzuidenhout used a Steinway, but he performed it with the lid up, which overpowered Padmore. Though an excellent concert tenor (he is respected for his interpretations of Bach and other baroque composers), Padmore could not embody the narrator's voice in each of the 24 songs. He himself said a vague sort of narrative provides the audience with helpful "benchmarks" as the music went along. Padmore's strength as a concert tenor, however, revealed his weakness as a singer acting the part of a character. His lack of stage presence made the performance long on German and short on sustained interest.

10. Bach's St. Matthew Passion
The three-hour performance of Bach's celestial St. Matthew Passion by two period-instrument ensembles, two choirs and a handful of soloists under the baton of the esteemed Martin Haselbock, maestro of Musica Angelica and the Wiener Akademie Baroque Orchestra, was an ambitious undertaking that never lived up to its hype. The period instruments were muted by the dry acoustics of the Lucas Theatre. Some of the vocalist appeared to be pushing while others sounded resonate and clear. Bottom line: The oratorio is a religious work that would have sounded glorious in a church, not a former movie theater. A lack of theatricality also made for a tedious experience. After some time passed, it felt like I was merely being sung at in German, not witnessing Christ's death and resurrection. An inconsistency of logic was also distracting. The musicians performed on the instruments of Bach's day, but the soloists were dressed (the men in white tie and tails) as if entertaining at a ball in 19th-century Vienna. Plus, Haselbock demanded the air conditioning be turned off. Not good.

9. Sensations I
Violinist Daniel Hope assembles an ad hoc ensemble of world-class musicians to perform a series of chamber music called "Sensations" that he creates every year. These musicians don't play together often, but when they do, they bring a clearly visible vacation vibe with them. It's apparent to the audience they are having fun and that they are experiencing the novelty of live performance as much as we are. That said, the result of not playing together often is what you'd expect when the normal pressures of performing aren't there: a lack of focus, evident in the quintet arrangement of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. The upside is a willingness to take risks. The downside is that sometimes those risks don't pay off. In fairness, this was the first of the "Sensations" concerts. The series usually improves as the festival continues. This year was no exception.

8. Ivan Moravec
Moravec long ago earned every laurel any one concert pianist could earn. It was a pleasure to see the Czech pianist and master of subtlety recall all the wisdom and skill he has amassed over his 50-plus year career. The recital, the first of the classical music concerts at this year's music festival, began softly and built up to a powerful dynamic, but it took the entire first half of the concert to get there. He finally revealed his strength in Debussy and Chopin, but by that time the end of the program was on the horizon. One felt compelled to show appreciation more than passion. It was one of the few recitals in which the audience did not stand to applaud.

7. Sensations IV
By the time of the fourth installment of "Sensations," Daniel Hope's crew was really cooking with gas. Their performance of Vaughan Williams' Piano Quintet in C minor can compete with any other chamber music concert in the country. It was that good. That's due to Hope's leadership and his colleague's willingness to stretch. Still, you get a sense that maybe that was luck. Sometimes it feels like they themselves don't know how a concert is going to turn out, because there is simply not enough time during the festival's short 18 days to work out all the kinks in ensemble playing. That, as I've said, can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing. That lack of certainly can lead to delightful highs. This concert had plenty of those, making it easy to overlook minor flaws.

6. Borodin Quartet
Simply put, the Russian music (Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich) was better than the German music (Beethoven). Perhaps that's because the Borodin Quartet is Eastern European, soulful and sophisticated. It originated in Soviet Russia. The lone remaining member, cellist Valentin Berlinsky, knew Shostakovich personally. So it's no surprise the quartet really knows how to evoke the contained inner turmoil of Russian music. Their performance style -- romantic, gypsy-esque, schmaltzy -- didn't work as well (to my ears) for the Beethoven quartet. What detracted from the concert experience was the quartet's reluctance to tell the audience what happened when (I think) a string broke on the viola during the Shostakovich. The audience was never told. All we heard was a scratching noise followed by the rapid exit of the violist. A warmer style of interaction would have been warmly received by the audience.

5. Philippe Entremont and Sebastian Knauer
The first half of this recital featured Entremont alone and it was ecstasy. He performed some of the best-known piano sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven and it felt like I had never heard them before. They were so fresh and enlivened and -- corny, I know -- free. Entremont is powerful when he needs to be, really nuanced when the moment calls for it. The variations of tone, texture and pacing were like storytelling. This first half was the peak for me. Perhaps this is why I didn't get much out of the second half in which Entremont was joined by Sebastian Knauer to play Brahms' Sonata for two pianos. It's a bombastic work and that might be the cause of my indifference. But I think (once again) a lack of air conditioning made the performance difficult to enjoy. The air was hot and muggy. Brahms' Sturm und Drang felt oppressive, not inspiring.

4. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featuring Daniel Hope
Daniel Hope must have been exhausted by the time he performed Brahms' monster Violin Concerto today. As associate artistic director of the music festival, he designed all the classical music programs. Since arriving in Savannah more than two weeks ago, he has rehearsed virtually nonstop with people he doesn't normally play with. Together, they have performed music that takes a tremendous amount of skill, artistry and focus. Some of that was missing for the Brahms concerto. Little things that would ordinarily sound right sounded a little off. The fierce double-stops of the first movement require a huge amount of strength and power, but Hope just didn't seem like he had enough gas in the tank. The concerto's sweet moments, however, redeemed whatever weaknesses he had. In fact, Hope sounded sweetest during the cadenza and other moments when he played alone. Which brings to me to orchestra. No matter where the soloist goes, the orchestra has to follow. Spano seemed to be conducting in the other room sometimes, forcing Hope to rethink his artistry when shouldn't have needed to. Something that no one could have controlled was the dry acoustics of the Lucas. It dampened poor Hope's sound even more. No matter how hard he bowed, the sound failed to pop. The dry acoustics, however, benefited the ASO's superlative performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic "Scheherazade." You could hear clearly the discipline of the string section and the clarity of the woodwinds' articulation. Bottom-line: The second half of the concert was highlight of the festival. Conclusion: Dry acoustics are evidently good for Russians, bad for Germans.

3. Morris Robinson
Billed as a night of art songs and negro spirituals, Robinson's recital turned out to be so much more. He sang old Appalachian folk songs like "Black is the color of my true love's hair," bringing new meaning and fresh insight to the old tune. Same with "The lass from the lowcountry," which originated in some far away place, but in Robinson's hands felt like a song with roots right here Georgia and South Carolina. What's more was a tone of artful defiance. Robinson sang Charles Brown's "The Barrier," touching on issues of race, power and shame. Next was Margaret Bonds' setting of Langston Hughes' trio of poems, "The Dream Keeper." The most powerful was "I, too," in which the narrator sings over angry and dissonant chords: "I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother ... Besides, they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed." Though the message was universal (triumph in the face of adversity), it is grounded in the specifics of the African-American experience. Robinson never pandered, but he was never pedantic either. He was proud. I loved it. So did the audience. It responded with (this is no exaggeration) with whoops and hollers. For a charming little voice recital, the audience was downright raucous.

2. Isabel Bayrakdarian
This woman is the total package: an incredible soprano, wonderful actress and a charming speaker to boot. The program showed the breadth of her knowledge, the depth of her artistry and an aim to be entertaining, even if that means a joke comes at her own expense. She is the rare diva who doesn't take herself too seriously. Bottom-line: Her recital, with pianist husband Serouj Kradjian, held my attention from beginning to end. I think the reason (I've been preoccupied with this) is that her dexterity, nuance and power combined with an actor-like stage presence, which was evident in her ability to shift from character to character in songs with more than one voice. It was like watching a mini-opera unfold. It was divine.

1. David Finckel and Wu Han
This husband-and-wife duo is what I hope the future of chamber music looks like. As co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Finckel (cellist) and Han (pianist) make chamber music feel alive by showing us the humanity behind the music. They did this in part by looking at each other -- a lot. With intensity. And with a sense of fun. They gave the impression that the stakes of what they were about to do were high. Their program covered the history of Western music. Han often spoke between pieces about history, style, technique and even how harmony changed as cultural sensibility changed, from baroque (Bach) classical (Beethoven) to romantic (Schumann) to the 20th century (Debussy, Britten). It never sounded pedantic or elitist or boring. The reason talking before playing often fails is because musicians, while great performers, are often terrible public speakers. Not so of Wu Han. As for Finckel, he played the silent straight man to Han's witty shtick. He said everything he needed to say with Jack Benny-like panache. All of this, however, is ancillary to the performance, which was exceptional. Finckel is a powerhouse of technique, range and expression. Han was like his Ginger Rogers, doing everything he did, just backwards, so to speak, and in bright red heels (with black velvet stockings, I might add). They played not as two but one.

April 4, 2007 1:01 AM |

This news item caught my attention in an Ann Arbor newspaper. It talked about the theater students of the University of Michigan was going to be taking a Nilo Cruz play to Prague this summer. However, the two paragraphs are no more than teaser--telling me to hang around for more details.

I have mixed feelings about this. I'm not a regular reader of the Ann Arbor News and am likely to miss the future developments--despite being very interested in learning more details. At the Institute we attended a play by Nilo Cruz, Life is a Dream. I'm now eager to see more of his work--especially some of his work that is not a translation like the Lorca in a Green Dress. Perhaps, though, the teaser is enough that I will keep watching, which is just what the publishers want me to do.

April 3, 2007 7:42 AM |

Jaci Webb of the Billings Gazette reviews a production of "La Mano del Diablo," an original one-act play by two Billings locals. Webb says the play "dregs up issues about Manifest Destiny, war and ethnic discrimination. It's almost too much to take in during one evening, and it's bound to leave you wondering about the seeds of discrimination and mankind's lust for land." Heady stuff.

April 2, 2007 9:51 AM |

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