MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Latin: Quo Vadis, Quo Vasisti?

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


The history of Latin as a world language, in Jürgen Leonhardt’s excellent account, involves a surprisingly diverse range of topics — many of which have an ongoing relevance that extends far beyond the use of Latin for educational purposes: the effects of globalization (ancient and contemporary) on the development of a language, the “diglossia” of literary and spoken languages, the interplay of emerging European nationalism with the status of Latin (not as linear as you might expect), the unexpected twists and turns of canon formation — and dissolution (likewise not a simple linear development). And, ultimately, the issue of cultural extinction and the inaccessibility of a vast fund of accumulated knowledge.

Indeed, the book is replete with information that seems even counterintuitive. The entire corpus of extant ancient Latin literature from the Roman period, for example, comprises “less than 0.01% of all extant Latin texts.” This is because Latin continued…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

“May It Return to the Heart!”


This week brings the San Francisco Symphony’s performances with Michael Tilson Thomas of the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven — a work that certainly belongs to my top-ten list of all time.

Following a trial run in Los Angeles in January, it’s being given as a “multimedia staged event”, complete with scenic, lighting, and video design; James Darrah is the director.

Of the earlier run in January, Mark Swed had this to say about MTT’s relationship with the Beethoven score:

In the grandest sense, this “Missa Solemnis,” with all its attendant baggage, is a kind of mission statement for MTT. He sets out to unpack a complicated artistic and musical construct, to reveal its workings and to treat it as a large-scale act of discovery.

The Missa Solemnis held intense personal significance for its composer as well: “Von Herzen — Möge es wieder — Zu Herzen gehn!” (“From the heart –- may it return to the heart!” wrote Beethoven on the copy of the score he presented to its dedicatee, his pupil and friend Archduke Rudolf.

For its public “premiere” in Vienna, three of the Missa‘s movements were given as part of the grand concert of 7 May 1824 that also unveiled the Ninth Symphony. (The secular context brought objections to performing the entire Missa.)

Next week MTT and the SFS continue their Beethoven Festival with a recreation of an earlier “marathon concert”: the one on a cold December night in 1808, when Beethoven premiered his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and Fourth Piano Concerto in a program that also included a concert aria, three movements from his other Mass setting (the Mass in C major), a piano fantasy, and the Choral Fantasy, that fascinating precursor to the Ninth.

Filed under: Beethoven, choral music, directors, San Francisco Symphony

À la Recherche de l’Espace Perdu: Leo Saul Berk at the Frye

Wind Jangle, 2015 Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

Leo Saul Berk: Wind Jangle, 2015
Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

There’s a house west of architecture-rich Chicago, in Aurora, that was scorned by other residents when it was built back around the middle of the last century: the so-called Ford House, designed for Albert and Ruth Van Sickle Ford by the maverick architect, painter, and composer Bruce Goff. With its dramatic geometrical accents and manipulation of light and space, along with its use of recycled World War II materials like Quonset huts, Ford House is a testament to the idiosyncratic, visionary imagination of the Kansas-born Goff.

Ford House also happens to be the dwelling in which the Seattle-based artist Leo Saul Berk spent part of his childhood. Structure and Ornament, Berk’s first major solo museum show, distills his memories of the wondrously unconventional environment in which he grew up. The resulting works, now on view at the Frye Museum, take the form of sculpture, video, and photography, along with two site-specific installations.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Some of Berk’s pieces involve fanciful recreations of particular details from Ford House: “recreations” in the sense of attempts to recapture the visual poetry, say, of the setting sun as perceived through the semitransparent glass cullet windows positioned in Goff’s walls of coal masonry, which cause it to cast a green glow. (Berk’s backlit true-to-scale photograph is titled Clinkers.)

Other pieces are more tangentially related riffs on the impressions the house made on Berk growing up — impressions he’s been contemplating again over the last few years. This reengagement with Ford House led Berk to strike up a friendship with its current owner, the architectural historian Sidney K. Robinson. “Going back” to it both physically and in emotional terms has intensified Berk’s curiosity about the enduring impact his former home left on his artistic development.

My favorite among the loosely related fantasies is a video piece inspired by Berk’s visit to re-explore these roots. He was initially grossed out by a film of calcium deposits lining the bathtub, but when he filled it with water and then pulled the plug, a dancing cosmos of starlike detritus emerged, spotlit by the skylight directly overhead, before vanishing down the drain’s black hole.

Less effective is a sculpture in which Berk uses modern technology to try to “update” Goff’s vision, creating a miniature model of the central dome that had been the architect’s original plan. (The original specs proved too complex to execute.)

One piece, Berk’s homage to Goff’s organizing concept of a birdcage dome, gives the exhibit its title: the plywood-and-acrylic Structure and Ornament is both spikily abstract and mesmerizingly quirky — and in fact remarkably fragile, says Berk, for all its defiant severity.

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

And the concept of structure and ornament — construed by some modernists as at odds or even incompatible — feeds into larger concerns, according to Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Dansker.

Berk’s responses to Ford House, she writes, “propose a modernity that honors visionary, utopian dreams of the past in which light, color, structure, material, ornament, poetry, and music could ignite a spiritual force that would unify the arts in harmony with nature and transform individuals and the social and cultural life of a nation.”

Structure and Ornament continues at the Frye Museum until 6 September, along with a series of exhibits on Andy Warhol and ideas of portraiture. Admission is free.

(c) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: architecture, art exhibition, Frye Museum, preview

All the World’s a World


Filed under: photography

Portrait Portrayals

There’s a feast of exhibits that have just opened at Seattle’s Frye Museum for the summer. I’ve just posted on the Structure and Ornament show from local artist Leo Saul Berk. Meanwhile, a series of small-scale exhibits explores the concept of the portrait, of self-portrayal and presentation.

Two of these exhibits represent polar opposites from the image-obsessed Andy Warhol. In an alcove-like room you can see the contents of Warhol’s Little Red Book #178 — examples from the tens of thousands of Polaroids he snapped to document his work and life in the 1970s. #178 is one of the collections Warhol organized into red Holson Polaroid albums. It contains nineteen pictures featuring such friends and collaborators as Jane Forth and Michael Sklar. Each is displayed in a separate frame.

These ephemera sometimes capture a revealing moment, sometimes seem too posed, and at times are even outright failures. But Warhol wanted to document it all. They emanate a ghostly presence that’s fascinating to compare to the glib instant-click instant gratification of our smartphone selfies.

Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol and Unidentified Woman, 1970. Polacolor Type 108. 4 1/2 x 3 3/8 in. Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 2014.002.18. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard Nicol

Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol and Unidentified Woman, 1970. Polacolor Type 108. 4 1/2 x 3 3/8 in. Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 2014.002.18. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard Nicol

Snapshots of fleeting moments versus the studied gaze of the Screen Tests: the Frye is showing a collection of 12 of the latter, made between 1964 and 1966 at the Factory. The reference to Hollywood auditions to check out an actor/actress’s potential motion picture charisma is tongue in cheek.

Warhol’s rolls of 16mm black and white film (using an entire 100-foot roll for each subject) are intended as a goal in themselves, their slow motion prolonging the self-conscious projections of self chosen by each subject. Notes the Frye’s description:

During the 1960s, these films were rarely shown in public, but were often screened at The Factory. Some of the Screen Tests were used by Warhol in projects such as “Thirteen Most Beautiful Women” and “Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys.” Programs of individual Screen Tests were also projected as part of the light show for “Up-Tight” and the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” Warhol’s 1966–67 multi-media happenings. For these events, The Velvet Underground and Nico provided live accompaniment; the Screen Tests were filmed without a soundtrack.

Along with the young Bob Dylan, the screen tests gathered here are of personalities like Susan Sontag, Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed, and Edie Sedgwick (transferred to digital files). See them in succession and try to decide who’s more self-conscious at trying to seem unselfconscious…

Maybelle, Thomas Eakins (1898); oil on canvas

Maybelle, Thomas Eakins (1898); oil on canvas

Work your way through this Warholiana and then head to American Portraits: 1880-1915, an intriguing selection from the Frye’s original collection of art focused on that turning-point era.

The angle here is one of Frye Director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker’s specialties: the influence of developments by German artists in particular in the late 19th/early 20th centuries on their American peers. The selection here considers works by John White Alexander, William Merritt Chase, George Luks, and Frank Duveneck, all of whom studied and spent time in Germany. Also included are portraits by ex-patriate artists Charles Sprague Pearce and John Singer Sargent and the “Ashcan School” maverick Robert Henri.

Birnie Danzker has placed Eakins’ strikingly naturalistic portrait of Maybelle Schlichter (wife of the boxing referee he painted in his famous Taking the Count) in a position that immediately catches the eye as you cross over from the Warhol Screen Tests. She notes that the subject portrayed by Eakins uncannily anticipates the unguarded character found in some of Warhol’s work — the glamour of the real.

Filed under: Andy Warhol, art exhibition, Frye Museum

Shadow Shape


Filed under: photography

A New East-West Polyphony

Condcutor Fawzi Haimor

Conductor Fawzi Haimor; photo by Kelly Newport

The Summer 2015 edition of SYMPHONY (the quarterly magazine published by the League of American Orchestras) was timed to be available for the League’s annual conference (which just took place in Cleveland). The contents have now been published online as well.

This issue of SYMPHONY contains my feature on composers who are drawing on their Arabic, Turkish, and Iranian roots to enrich America’s orchestral life.

Along with the much-in-demand Mohammed Fairouz — who has even been featured on MSNB’s Morning Joe (click here: — I discuss the contributions of such composers and/or performers as Fawzi Haimor, Mariam Adam, Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, Kinan Azmeh, Kareem Roustom, Karim Al-Zand, Malek Jandali, and Reza Vali.

There are many more: this is only the start of a conversation about an exciting phenomenon. You can read my story here (in pdf format):

A New East-West Polyphony-Summer 2015

The entire Summer 2015 issue of SYMPHONY is available here.

Filed under: American music, essay, League of American Orchestras, Mohammed Fairouz, programming, symphonies

Glas Reflections: Akropolis Performance Lab

Joseph Lavy; photo (c)  Joe Patrick Kane

Joseph Lavy; photo (c) Joe Patrick Kane

It takes a little more effort than usual if you want to arrange to see the current offering from Akropolis Performance Lab: but then, APL is hardly your regular evening of theater. Founded by Joseph and Zhenya Lavy in 2000, APL draws inspiration from the experimental legacy of Jerzy Grotowski and the like. And that bit of extra effort, in my opinion, is certainly worth making.

Now playing at APL is a peculiarly fascinating piece titled The Glas Nocturne. Instead of relying on conventional marketing, APL has allowed news of the production to spread by word of mouth and social media — in fact they’ve generated buzz by keeping the performance location “undisclosed” to the public.

You have to visit their website and express interest in being one of ten (max) lucky audience members to be invited for a given performance, which APL describes as “a speakeasy-styled adventure.” (It’s up to the invitees to choose whether to make a donation as well.) As of today, my understanding is that the run has been extended until 7 June.

The Glas Nocturne is co-artistic director Joseph Lavy’s dramatic adaptation of the scandal-causing, much-abused novel Doktor Glas, which Swedish writer Hjalmar Söderberg published in 1905. Lavy and Annie Paladino are the show’s co-directors. The novel, written as a first-person narration/confession, revolves around the ethical dilemma the eponymous physician faces when a beautiful young patient — with whom Dr. Glas has fallen in love — confesses her disgust for her repulsive older husband, the Reverend Gregorius. And, as Margaret Atwood remarks in her introduction to an English translation of Söderberg’s novel, the tormented narrator knows all too well that he’s “the last person on earth who should have been a doctor.”

The scene is of course set for a murder, but that’s only one of the issues confronted in Lavy’s fine-spun, suspenseful condensation of the novel’s musing on moral codes, eros, the longing for transcendence (Dr. Glass’s first name is Tyko — as in Tycho Brahe), and the oppression of women.

The resulting 90-minute monologue mixes Freudian psychology with the painfully refined decadence of Huysmans — all garnished with a taste of Ingmar Bergman-tinged despair. It makes for a dangerously riveting cocktail. (And if you do go, and are served one of Lavy’s personally crafted “Norwegian Blonde” cocktails after the performance, don’t be surprised if you eye the tempting potion with a barely perceptible tiny shiver of anxiety.)

Physical acting is a crucial aspect of Grotowski’s theatrical technique, and Joseph Lavy builds a good deal of his character interpretation from non-verbal cues and gestures: the way he washes his face in a pitcher of freshly poured water, convulses in an agony of sexual despair, or — most chillingly of all — indicates his faked reading of a grave heart condition when Dr. Gregorius pays him a visit.

Joseph Lavy; photo (c)  Joe Patrick Kane

Joseph Lavy; photo (c) Joe Patrick Kane

As for the text, Lavy commands the art of transition in gating the audience through Dr. Glas’s abrupt mood swings, his high intelligence leavening the potential heaviness with the kind of black humor Dostoevsky exploits in Notes from the Underground. Like many a narcissist, Dr. Glas is also an artist manqué, and his odes to nature and childhood are strewn with just enough self-consciousness to inject a slight note of parody.

Punctuating Lavy’s ruminations and rituals is the musical commentary supplied by an ensemble of women. Their “choral” interpolations give voice to the soundtrack of Dr. Glas’s raving mind, for which Zhenya Lavy has devised a neat succession of traditional Scandinavian folk songs and a handful of piano nocturnes she herself plays.

Much of the fun comes from sharing this experience on such on intimate level, with a very small group of fellow guests. Is it just coincidence that another of my most resonant theatrical experiences of late in Seattle involved an audience of at most 20 viewers?

At any rate, I’m now hooked and can’t wait to see APL’s next major production, which is reported to be an original work based on the Faust myth as retold by Marlowe, Goethe, and Thomas Mann (Ecce Faustus). Stay tuned to see this in February 2016.

If you miss the run of The Glas Nocturne, APL plans to bring the piece back for periodic showings over the course of the next year (with showings planned in October and in December as well).

September promises a remount of their re-worked version of Pomegranate & Ash. And APL additionally offers a series of quarterly Sunday Salons — the next one is planned for July 26.

The Glass Nocturne, adapted by Joseph Lavy and co-directed by Lavy and Annie Paladino, plays until June 7. Information on how to apply for an invitation here.

(c) 2015 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, theater

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