THOMAS MAY on the arts

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Filed under: photography

Prom 40: Haitink and the LSO Trace a Mahlerian Journey through Childhood Innocence


Here’s my review for Bachtrack of Bernard Haitink’s Saturday concert with the London Symphony Orchestra (Prom 40):

Having celebrated his 85th birthday this past March, Bernard Haitink continues to demonstrate that he profits from the advantages of age whilst commanding the deftness of a conductor decades his junior. His programme at the Proms on Saturday evening with the London Symphony Orchestra offered musical perspectives on youthfulness and memory by way of Schubert and Mahler, culminating in the songs of innocence and experience of which the latter’s Symphony no. 4 in G major is woven.

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Filed under: conductors, Mahler, review, Schubert

World War One Installation at The Tower


Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Paul Cummins

The ongoing installation/memorial in honor of the 888,246 soldiers (from the UK and its colonies) who were slaughtered in the Great War is spreading across the Tower of London’s long-dry moat. The installation is the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper (associate designer with the Royal Shakespeare Company).

Why The Tower of London? According to the installation’s website:

During the First World War, the Tower’s moat was used to swear in over 1,600 men who had enlisted by the end of August 1914 at the recruitment station in the City to form the 10th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers — the so called “stock brokers battalion” who fought for the duration of the war.

The source of the installation’s title:

“The Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”
by Anonymous (Unknown Soldier)

The blood swept lands and seas of red,
Where angels dare to tread.
As I put my hand to reach,
As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
Again and again.

As the tears of mine fell to the ground
To sleep with the flowers of red
As any be dead

My children see and work through fields of my
Own with corn and wheat,
Blessed by love so far from pain of my resting
Fields so far from my love.

It be time to put my hand up and end this pain
Of living hell, to see the people around me
Fall someone angel as the mist falls around
And the rain so thick with black thunder I hear
Over the clouds, to sleep forever and kiss
The flower of my people gone before time
To sleep and cry no more

I put my hand up and see the land of red,
This is my time to go over,
I may not come back
So sleep, kiss the boys for me.

The famous poppy poem from WWI:

“In Flanders Fields”
by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Filed under: art exhibition, poetry

All Joy of the Worm

Cleopatra Bitten by the Asp, Guido Reni

Cleopatra Bitten by the Asp, Guido Reni

“I wish you all joy of the worm,” says the Clown bearing a fatal asp just before the final climax of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. What a strange scene – a clown, with all his Shakespearean-fool punnery, malapropisms, and word games.

And there’s no equivalent of the Bard’s source, Plutarch. What to make of the tone, the odd insistence on the image of the “worm”?

Richard F. Whalen deciphers evidence for the theory that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford: “‘worm’ in French is ‘ver’ — and, of course, the Earl of Oxford’s family name was de Vere.”

Others perceive Masonic symbolism.

In her biography of a few years ago, Stacy Shiff reminds us of Cleopatra’s own identification with an asp:

Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent. (Menander’s fourth-century adage — ‘A man who teaches a woman to write should recognize that he is providing poison to an asp’ — was still copied out by schoolchildren hundreds of years after her death.

But what of the Clown’s phallic punning?

From the ending of Ted Hughes’s poem Cleopatra to the Asp:

Drink me, now, whole, with coiled Egypt’s past
Then from my delta swim
Like a fish toward Rome.

Filed under: Shakespeare



Reviewing cultural historian Andreas Bernard’s Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator, David Trotter singles out the role of individualized control:

The clue to the elevator’s significance lies in the buttons that adorn its interior and exterior. Its automation, at the beginning of the 20th century, created a system of electronic signalling which brought the entire operation under the control of the individual user. In no other mode of transport could a vehicle be hailed, directed and dismissed entirely without assistance, and by a touch so slight it barely amounts to an expenditure of energy. The machine appears to work by information alone. Elevators, Bernard says, reprogrammed the high-rise building. It might be truer to say that they reprogrammed the people who made use of them, in buildings of any kind.

There were, as Trotter points out, many revolutionary consequences: making the skyscraper possible, the “recodification of verticality” (Bernard) — meaning the migration of the “top” class hotel rooms from the bottom literally to the top — the influence on urban planning, etc.

But for all these more or less obvious transformations, Trotter also refers to the elevator’s uncanny symbolic significance in modern life:

Safety first was not so much a motto as a premise. No wonder that the closest high-end TV drama has come to Sartrean nausea is the moment in “Mad Men” when a pair of elevator doors mysteriously parts in front of troubled genius Don Draper, who is left peering in astonishment down into a mechanical abyss. The cables coiling and uncoiling in the shaft stand in for the root of Roquentin’s chestnut tree.

Filed under: book recs, cultural criticism, urban planning



Filed under: photography



Filed under: photography

Koonsian Therapy

Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995–98; private collection © Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995–98; private collection © Jeff Koons

Reviewing the current Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney, Hal Foster observes that “his readymades have as much to do with display, advertising and publicity as with the commodity per se.”

Notwithstanding Koons’s declaration that “my work is meant to liberate people from judgment,” Foster points to the “kitschy curios of the ‘Banality’ series,” finding that “we are not released from judgment so much as invited to entertain a campy distance from lowbrow desires or even a snobbish contempt for them.”

Ultimately, though, the Pop-infused aesthetic credo that drives Koons

fits in well with the therapy culture long dominant in American society (the only good ego is a strong ego, one that can beat back any unhappy neurosis), but it also suits a neoliberal ideology that seeks to promote our “self-confidence” and “self-worth” as human capital –- that is, as skill-sets we are compelled to develop as we shift from one precarious job to another. When the perfectly presented boy in “The New Jeff Koons” looks into the future, perhaps what he sees is us.

Jerry Saltz reflects:

We live in an art world of excess, hubris, turbocharged markets, overexposed artists, and the eventocracy, where art fairs are the new biennials. Shows like this cost millions of dollars to mount; once they’re up, mass audiences will gawk at the “one of the world’s most expensive living artists.” It becomes a giant ad, and the spectacle of more of Koons’s work up at auction awaits.
As perfectly executed as “A Retrospective” is, it’s also a culmination, a last hurrah of this era —- even as the era keeps going. It is the perfect final show for the Whitney’s building.


Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition

Seattle’s Impending BeckettFest


So a major festival devoted to Samuel Beckett is about to launch: indeed, a several-month-long, city-wide focus on a playwright and writer who happens to be one of my favorites. Enlisted in the undertaking are no fewer than 15 arts organizations based in Seattle.

Why has this been so poorly publicized?! Already I can see so many opportunities for other collaborations here — with the Seattle Chamber Players, for example — or with relevant groups who likewise know nothing about this. I happened to run across a notice of the opening event by chance: Life = Play at West of Lenin, starting August 14.

Anyway, I wanted to quickly bring this to the attention of local folks and of anyone planning to visit Seattle over the coming months: “The festival, which runs from August through November, features not only the plays (such as Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, Act Without Words parts I & II, etc.), but also readings of Beckett’s poetry and prose, screenings of his films, master classes on Beckett, pop-up performance events, presentations of the radio plays, and more.”

Buckets of Beckett. When it rains, it pours. No, it does not rain; it does not pour.

Filed under: Samuel Beckett, theater

Seattle Chamber Music Festival Closes on an Elegiac Note

My review of the concluding concert of the 2014 Summer Festival is now on Bachtrack:

The days are starting to grow noticeably shorter in the Pacific Northwest, and the end of the month-long Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival brings yet another wistful reminder that we’re now facing the season’s inexorable downward slope. An immersive atmosphere of four weeks of three concerts each (plus free prelude recitals and additional events) gives the festival much of its flavour, making one all the more reluctant to bid adieu.

It’s been a month especially generous in discoveries, from the world première of an imaginatively crafted single-movement piano trio commissioned from Derek Bermel (with the Saramago-inspired title Death with Interruptions) to a welcome dose of vocal chamber music gems and other rarities mixed in with more standard fare.

On Saturday night the festival drew to a close with a typically diverse roster of musicians (totalling 15 over the course of the concert).

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Filed under: Beethoven, chamber music, review

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