MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Shakespeare at Work

Just how “tailor-made” were Shakespeare’s plays for the particular actors in his company? In the TLS, Charles Nicholl reviews Shakespeare in Company by Bart Van Es. This new book “seeks to show that Shakespeare’s achievement as a writer was in crucial ways communal; that the contributions of his playhouse colleagues, indeed his whole immersion in the business and practice of the theatre, are woven into the fabric of his plays; and that in a broadly chronological framework one can see his literary skills evolving in response to certain changes in his working conditions.”

Van Es offers a corrective to the later Romantic image of the lone “lofty genius” — with interesting comparisons to be made along the way, incidentally, with the give-and-take of composers like Handel who wrote for particular performers and within a demanding commercial framework. According to Nicholl, Ven Es gives us a down-to-earth portrait of “a poet at work in the daily professional context of a busy and successful theatre company.”

Of special fascination is the influence of writing for the tragedian Richard Burbage and the comedian Robert Armin. The arrival of the latter to replace the previous “star comic” Will Kemp led to “a stylistic watershed in Shakespearean comedy.” Nicholl explains:

Kemp was an old-style “jigs and bawdry” man, whose typical Shakespearean parts were lovable bozos like Bottom and Dogberry; he may also have been the world’s first Falstaff. By contrast, the parts written for Armin during the first few years of the new century are the more complex, mercurial “fools”, whose wit is satirical and edgy yet tinged also with melancholy. The first role specially tailored for Armin was Touchstone in “As You Like It”….

Further Armin roles, in probable order of composition, are Feste in “Twelfth Night,” Thersites in “Troilus and Cressida,” Lavatch in “All’s Well” and the Fool in “Lear.” The last of these is a radical relocation of the truth-telling jester to the terrain of tragedy. Armin’s last identifiable Shakespearean role is Autolycus in “The Winter’s Tale.”

Filed under: book recs, Shakespeare

The Met’s Falstaff in HD

Jennifer Johnson Cano, Ambrogio Maestri, and Stephanie Blythe in the Met's Falstaff; photo by Ken Howard

Jennifer Johnson Cano, Ambrogio Maestri, and Stephanie Blythe in the Met’s Falstaff; photo by Ken Howard

Looking ahead to the Met’s Live in HD broadcast of its new Falstaff production tomorrow, I gathered a sampling of the critical responses:

[T]his was a perfectly respectable Falstaff. It just wasn’t the superb Falstaff the occasion called for….This level of micro control is put to the test in Falstaff. For this sparkling comedy based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi wrote a quicksilver score that, when conducted precisely, feels improvisational. But when the conducting is off even by a hair, the music seems to lurch and halt like a car whose driver is riding the brakes. And that’s how Mr. Levine’s Falstaff felt: We reached our destination, but the ride was a little rough.

James Jorden/New York Observer

The opera turns on a dime between slapstick, romance, and poignancy, but the production, while good-natured, isn’t so agile….Falstaff is a James Levine signature piece and he brings a bounce and light to the music that was missing from the production (particularly in the last act). It’s quick, light, and transparent, but quiet when it needs to be. That being said, there were a few ensemble coordination issues in Act 1, particularly between the two sides of the stage (men on one side, women on the other). Things improved….

Ambrogio Maestri, however, was not a particularly interesting Falstaff. He’s got the big round voice for it, and the round shape, but while musically fine it was a one-dimensional characterization, little more than a teddy bear….As Alice Ford, Angela Meade put in a valiant effort, acting-wise, and this was by far the most animated performance I’ve seen from her….Nanetta’s music is a gift to any light soprano, and the Met has fortunately cast Lisette Oropesa, possibly the best singer they have in this Fach….On the low side, Stephanie Blythe as Mistress Quickly sounded like a very loud trombone. This role is her ideal Fach as well–she’s much better here than she is in higher Verdi stuff.

Micaela Baranello/Likely Impossibilities

At 6 foot 5 with his Falstaffian physique, Mr. Maestri certainly looks the part. A natural onstage, and surprisingly light on his feet, he makes Falstaff a charming rapscallion and sings with consummate Italianate style. …
Inspired by the librettist Arrigo Boito’s breezy adaptation of Shakespeare’s comic verse [only a fraction of Merry Wives is actually in verse (Ed.)], Verdi wrote music that responded minutely to the patterns and flow of the words. The music is like a gossamer fabric of sewn-together snippets. Mr. Levine revealed the continuity and structure of those snippets in this performance. The tempos he chose were sometimes restrained, allowing for enhanced richness and breathing room….But, there were shaky moments in the performance. “Falstaff” is an opera of ensembles, and some of these passages were a little scrappy….Over all, when it comes to theatrical flair, captivating costumes, stage antics and imagination, there are not many shows on Broadway to rival the Met’s new “Falstaff.”

Anthony Tommasini/New York Times

[W]hile conventional productions might assume Verdi and his librettist Boito created a silly, self-deluded shell of a knight descending to society’s dregs, Carsen shows Falstaff in upper-echelon men’s clubs and someone to be ridiculed only at your own risk….Carsen went far to solve the central problem that makes the opera more respected than loved. For all its distilled, compact music, Verdi’s final opera often seems to be an enshrinement of buffoonery while the soprano/tenor love interest have far-less-than-usual stage time and everybody else has a high old time practicing the un-exalted human pastimes of humiliation and revenge….

Now for the reservations: The clear narrative lines that are typical of Carsen broke down a bit in larger crowd scenes. The bigger problem is that, aside from the coup-de-theatre kitchen and and the nighttime scene in the final act, Paul Steinberg’s sets are surprisingly plain with a lot of bourgeois wood paneling.

David Patrick Stearns/WQXR/Operavore

The Met’s much-loved 1964 Franco Zeffirelli production, which dated back to the old 39th Street house, will be missed, but Robert Carsen’s new take on Verdi’s final opera is a true delight….Carsen sets his version in late-1950s London, well after the war but just before the Mod revolution. It was a time when existing social systems were crumbling, and Carsen has great fun contrasting the twilight of aristocracy with the rise of the middle class.

Eric Myers/New York Classical Review

Carsen is known for his trademark motif of theater-within-theater for most of his productions. He manages to ignore it for most of the work but manages to get it in during the final choral fugue….This “Falstaff” is one of the finest productions of general manager Peter Gelb’s tenure and the perfect way to end the 2013 bicentennial celebration of Verdi’s immortal genius.

David Salazar/Latinos Post

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, Verdi

Leaving Space in Film Music

There’s a trend of classic film scores being played live by orchestras around the U.S., and they’re proving to be a successful programming strategy for attracting audiences. Which film composers currently writing are producing future classics? Alan Zilberman argues that there’s been “a sea change in film scores from complexity toward simplicity.” Why?

[B]ecause composers trust canny audiences to feel an emotional response when abstracted melodies contain an aural space for significance (or what feels like significance).

I talked about the power of simplicity with composer Nicholas Britell, who composed all the musical arrangements performed by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in “12 Years a Slave” (The rest of the score of the film is by Hans Zimmer). After studying neuromusicology at Harvard, Britell became deeply aware of, “patterns that trigger cascades of feeling.” The ability to invoke such feeling is instrumental to a composer’s work (pun intended): the best ones do not manipulate, exactly, and instead want their work to reflect what happens on screen.

Still, a conversation about feelings and patterns [does] not explain what it is about the notes that provokes a strong reaction, so I asked Britell to give an illustrative example of powerful music. He thought for a moment and suggested François Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mysterieuses,” a baroque piece for the solo piano Terrence Malick used in “The Tree of Life.” According to Britell, the key to the piece’s power is the dissonance.

“Throughout the piece, there are certain times where the lines continue a little longer (i.e. “suspensions”). The harmony changes yet they’re still holding an old harmony and then they quickly resolve. This process is something I always find very beautiful. It’s the main technique of a lot of music, where something overstays its welcome by a millisecond then resolves.”
Zimmer’s [“Time” from the 2010 film “Inception”] is full of lengthy suspensions that have time to resolve. But right at the very end, there’s one final note has no opportunity to decay. It’s cut off short. Do you want more? That’ll be one ticket.

Filed under: aesthetics, film music

Changing of the Guard

Deborah F. Rutter; photo by Todd Rosenberg

Deborah F. Rutter; photo by Todd Rosenberg

This announcement really made my day: Deborah Rutter has been named the third (and first female) president in the history of the Kennedy Center. Her position will combine artistic and administrative leadership. Deborah takes over the reins from current president Michael M. Kaiser in September 2014.

I have a special attachment to the Kennedy Center. This was the home-away-from-home where I first experienced the live performing arts when I was growing up in the region. It’s amazing how vivid and imperturbable those early memories remain (even if the memories themselves are fluid and do shuffle and rearrange, as recent studies show). The thrill of going to symphony concerts and operas – still a rare adventure in those years – was enough to ignite a lifelong passion.

The KC board has really struck gold with its selection of Deborah Rutter. Her accomplishments with the Chicago Symphony – which she headed after serving for a decade as executive director of Seattle Symphony – are already legendary. This is someone who genuinely loves and knows music. Here’s a quick roundup of some of the first announcements and reactions, including speculation about what to expect under Deborah’s tenure, such as her digital media savvy:

Anne Midgette at the Washington Post

Charles Downey at Ionarts

Tim Smith at the Baltimore Sun

Robin Pogrebin at The New York Times

Brett Zongker at Huffpost Arts & Culture

Carol Ross Joynt at the Washingtonian

Filed under: music news

The “Glassy, Cool, Translucent Wave” of Milton

Portrait of Milton attributed to Sir Peter Lely

Portrait of Milton attributed to Sir Peter Lely

In honor of John Milton’s 405th birthday today, the New Republic pulled out this paean to the poet by Allen Tate, dating from October 1931. Tate uses the occasion of the first complete Milton edition – a project undertaken by Columbia University – to address “the place of poetic fiction in the modern mind.” Tate argues that Milton can serve as an important measure:

Milton does not ask us to believe his heavenly fictions in any sense that he did not believe them; Lucifer needs the same quality of belief as “old Damcetas.” He does ask us to exercise as much philosophical insight, passively, as he actively puts into his poetry. His philosophy is neither right nor wrong; it is comprehensive. It covers and puts in its philosophical place the modern shortsightedness that we shortsightedly call the revolution of the human mind, which is said to have made Milton’s poetry obsolete.

There has never been a revolution of the mind: There are only styles in fiction. Milton’s fiction is not in our style, and it seems inadequate to the solution of our problems. It is not diverting; it has no personality. We do not like it because it lacks these modern features; because it is creative in the purest sense. I think it was [Thomas] Warton who said that “Lycidas” was the absolute test of the sense of poetry; it still is. It is well to have one fixed criterion, for there is no abstract formula under the glassy cool translucent wave.


Meanwhile, in an essay for the London Review of Books last spring, a skeptical Colin Burrow pondered the “unanswered” question: “How is it possible to like Milton?”:

There is certainly a great deal to dislike. Most people would think of him as an overlearned poet who combines labyrinthine syntax with a wide range of moral and intellectual vices. His views on sex and women, for example, were mostly gruesome….Miltonophiles also have to overcome his regrettable tendency to present himself to the world as a prig.
The best place to begin to like Milton is with his volume of Poems both English and Latin (1645). This was described by its publisher Humphrey Moseley as ‘as true a Birth as the Muses have brought forth since our famous Spenser wrote’ when it appeared in what we now call January 1646….

Why is the retrospective volume of Poems the best place to start if you want to like Milton? The answer is that it shows not Milton turgidulus, or Milton the sage and serious defender of republican learning, or Milton the achieved polymath, or Milton the heretical crank. It shows Milton in the making. In this volume you can hear the swirl of literary influences running through his mind. At this point Milton is willing to ravish the senses rather than simply to suspect them.

Learning to hear how hard Milton is working in these early poems is a big part of learning not just how to like but (for me anyway) to love the cussed old so and so. I have talked metaphorically of his ‘editing’ together different poetic voices, but this is slightly more than a metaphor, since Milton was a compulsive tweaker and editor of his own writing. He needed to prod his own imagination on, and sometimes (rather like his keenest student, Wordsworth) he felt the need to tell it severely to back off.

Cambridge University site for Milton’s 400th anniversary

Filed under: Milton, poetry

A (Re)Look at van Gogh

van Gogh, The Road Menders (1889), The Phillips Collection

van Gogh, The Road Menders (1889), The Phillips Collection

Another gem of a discovery during my recent trip was the Van Gogh Repetitions exhibit at the Phillips Collection, one of my old haunts in D.C. My initial reaction, I admit, was to wonder what kind of hook yet another van Gogh show could have, but the premise to this one really is intriguing.

Surprisingly, Repetitions is the first-ever exhibit devoted to van Gogh alone in the history of the Phillips, whose permanent collection boasts some very fine examples of his work. Its focus is not the usual one of the artist’s evolution over a span, punctuated by those highly dramatic episodes of his last years that are central to the van Gogh mythology. Repetitions instead invites the viewer to ponder the artist’s recurrent interest in certain subjects, setting multiple versions of a composition side by side for close comparison and contrast.

The Postman (1889) from the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The Postman (1889) from the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Van Gogh, we are told, himself used the term “repetitions” to describe his habit of returning to subjects such as Joseph Roulin (the famous “postman” of Arles) and the rest of his family, or Madame Ginoux (aka “L’Arlésienne”).

I would have liked a few of the missing pieces for fuller comparison (only three of his six versions of the Postman are actually gathered here). Still, the exhibit in general is attractively sized, with a total of just 35 portraits and landscapes — paintings and works on paper — and thus all the more conducive to intimate close-up viewing and “repetitions” of the viewer’s gaze.

THe Postman (1889), The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Postman (1889), The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The differences trigger a cascade of questions about van Gogh’s process, technique, aesthetic criteria, and inspiration in general. It’s fascinating, for instance, to see his presentation of his friend Roulin morph between “Northern” naturalism and more abstract, post-Impressionist patterns – or even to compare the echoing decorations he devises for the background.

By juxtaposing examples of spontaneity – as in the version of Madame Ginoux the painter said he “knocked off” in just an hour — against a more painstakingly calculated return to the same subject, Repetitions encourages the viewer to set aside the cliches still clinging to van Gogh’s public image (above all of the mad, self-mutilating genius).

L'Arlésienne (1888), version in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York

L’Arlésienne (1888), version in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York

Since I’ve been listening obsessively of late to the Goldberg Variations (for an upcoming piece on Jeremy Denk’s recent recording), I was drawn to the analogies with what composers do in mutating themes or similar motivic material – how changes in tempo, harmonic emphasis and color, or rhythmic articulation can reveal an unsuspected dimension to what we’ve encountered in another form. It’s perhaps nitpicky, but that’s exactly what these (re)visions of the same subject offer – not literal repetitions.

Van Gogh himself likened his process to varying musical interpretations of a score. The curator’s notes also draw attention to the musical qualities he associated with his theory of “color harmonies” – as in the changes introduced to the flowers in the background of La Berceuse (Madame Roulin rocking an invisible cradle), of which he produced five versions.

La Berceuse (1889), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

La Berceuse (1889), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

What of the music van Gogh’s paintings have inspired? Somehow I have a feeling that the late Henri Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement (1978) gets us a bit closer to the complexity that is van Gogh than Don McLean’s sweet but sentimental “Starry, Starry Night.”

Filed under: art exhibition

A Tragedian Turned Comic Master

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff

The Met’s new production of Falstaff, opening tonight, replaces the long-standing Zeffirelli production with a staging directed by Robert Carsten – and it brings James Levine back to the pit for what he has declared to be his favorite Verdi opera.

I was fortunate to have another opportunity to write about this crowning glory of Verdi’s career. Here’s my essay for the Met’s program:

“The great dream has come true,” wrote Arrigo Boito, the librettist of Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, shortly before the former opera was unveiled in 1887. Otello‘s premiere was an internationally feted success, bringing to fruition a proposal that had started eight years earlier when it was tentatively broached over the course of a dinner conversation.

Boito refers to Verdi’s dream of creating a new opera based on his beloved Shakespeare, but he might just as well have marveled at the feat of luring the aging composer out of his self-proclaimed retirement from the opera stage. Otello didn’t just represent a late-career comeback: it marked the summit of Verdi’s achievement as the greatest of Italy’s operatic tragedians.

Verdi had become so identified with the tragic genre that Otello must have seemed the perfect culmination of his life’s work. Yet Boito was determined, as he put it in a letter to a friend, “to make that bronze colossus resound one more time.” Verdi, for his part, had long harbored a desire to prove that the scope of his art extended beyond the dramas of gloomy passion with which he had built his reputation.

continue reading (starts on p. 12)

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, program notes, Verdi

The Vanishing

Alexis Rockman: Adelies (2008); collection of Robin and Steven Arnold

Alexis Rockman: Adelies (2008); collection of Robin and Steven Arnold

A new exhibit at the Whatcom Musuem in Bellingham, Washington, examines the specter of disappearing glaciers in this era of climate change:

“Vanishing Ice” … in its array of various mediums, conveys the beauty of alpine and polar regions—the pristine landscapes that have inspired generations of artists—at a time when rising temperatures pose a threat to them.

As the exhibition’s narrative tells, ice has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries. The very first known artistic depiction of a glacier dates back to 1601. It is a watercolor depicting the topography of the Rofener Glacier in Austria by a man named Abraham Jäger. But, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common for artists, acting also as naturalists, to explore glaciated regions, fleeing the routine of everyday life for a jolting spiritual adventure. Their artistic renderings of these hard-to-reach locales served to educate the public, sometimes even gracing the walls of natural history museums and universities…The recent art tends to illustrate the disheartening findings of climate experts.
Patricia Leach, executive director of the museum, sees “Vanishing Ice” as a powerful tool. “Through the lens of art, the viewer can start thinking about the broader issue of climate change,” she says. “Believe it or not, there are still people out there who find this to be a controversial topic. We thought that this would open up the dialogue and take away the politics of it.”

Filed under: art exhibition, environment, science

Damage Control at the Hirshhorn

Landing: detail of photograph by Thomas Demand

Landing: detail of photograph by Thomas Demand

My first trip back to the Hirshhorn after an absurdly long hiatus was well rewarded: I could have easily spent many more hours exploring the exhibition Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950.

Harold Edgerton’s landmark films of the U.S. government’s nuclear tests in the 1950s launch the show. They set its underlying tone of dizzying terror mixed with a paradoxical beauty. The aftertaste this leaves – uniquely disturbing yet fascinating – is comparable to the old-fashioned aesthetic rubric of “the sublime,” as the critic Philip Kennicott aptly points out in his excellent Washington Post review:

Most visitors, conventionally secure in the magical belief that these weapons will never again be used, will find them beautiful in a limited, purely visual way. And that isn’t particularly strange: Since the 18th century, we have had an aesthetic category for this — the sublime — into which we place and contain things that are awesome, boundless, incomprehensible and beyond imagining. There is even a measure of old-fashioned pride in our love of the sublime: Look what man has wrought.

The end of the Second World War was seen to mark the “zero hour” – and the start of something ominously new after so much destruction and nihilism – yet no doubt in the coming year we’ll encounter many reminders of how consciousness was radically changed by the earlier cataclysm that erupted in 1914. And many of the exhibit’s works provoke comparisons with the recurrent theme of revolution and overthrow that has shaped modernity itself.

One of Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s notorious piano destructions appears in the vicinity of the films of nuclear detonation. The aftermath evidenced by these ruins of twisted wire and axed wood encourages the viewer to try to make sense of the rubble – perhaps even to imagine the sounds that could now be elicited from it. It’s ultimately a romantic gesture, an echo of the rock gods of the ’60s and the sacrificial offering of their instruments at the climax of a performance: as if to signify a point of extreme expression and release, after which …only noise or silence can rule.

One of the most profoundly unsettling uses of musical imagery occurs in Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag from 2000, a video piece viewed within a narrow gallery space. It shows the artist roping a Stratocaster guitar to the back of his pickup truck and dragging it mercilessly across a rural Texas landscape. The soundtrack consists of the instrument’s tormented screams, amplified from speakers strapped to the back of the truck. Marclay’s reference to the horrendous contemporary lynching of James Byrd is beyond chilling.

The natural life cycle of music – the birth and death of sounds – is distorted in ways that underline how utopian is the illusion of the artist’s control of material. I also found myself repeatedly thinking of the principle of entropy and the natural decay of order. Here and in many of the other installations, videos, photographs, and concept pieces, the glorification of violence from earlier in the twentieth century is turned on its head, forcing us to rethink the facile acceptance of destruction as part of the pattern of “progress.”

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978)

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978)

Kennicott reflects on the ambivalence of destruction as metaphor and the political claims of art:

There is no readily agreed upon contract for when it is okay to destroy things in the name of art, but there are degrees of transgression and limits to the acceptability of consequences. There is a big difference between Rauschenberg’s asking for and receiving permission to erase a drawing by de Kooning and the vandalism of the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who painted cartoon clown and animal faces onto an original set of Goya’s 1810-1820 “The Disasters of War” etchings. In no conceivable universe is the loss of these Goyas compensated for by the trivial graffiti the Chapmans have added, which not only defaces them but further victimizes the victims of war Goya originally depicted.

One can generate elaborate justifications for vandalism to put it into seemingly acceptable art terms. Ai Weiwei may have destroyed an ancient urn (given what we know about China’s art market, there’s no certainty it wasn’t a fake), but only in the name of calling attention to the Chinese government’s systematic destruction of ancient neighborhoods and historical sites (and as a further criticism of the crazy, commercial race to own and exchange antiques). And the Chapmans may have been satirizing some underlying sadism in Goya’s work and perhaps the aestheticization of war through art as well.

Those arguments mean something only within the insular and deeply provincial space of the art world, where people still have an inflated sense of art’s power and often believe it can effect direct and revolutionary change in the world. The worst of what is on display in this exhibition is driven by the false belief that art can somehow compete with political power if it finds images or ideas or gestures that are stark enough, violent enough, to cut through the noise. In fact, compared with people who have real power — over armies, economies and the means of entertainment — artists have virtually none at all and are too often driven to a kind of futile rage through a vague sense of their own impotence.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history

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