Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Madeleine Moments — My mother, Museums, Massachusetts, Monet & Memory

After the performance of Romeo and Juliet with the NYCB tonight, my dear friend, flutist, Laura Conwesser invited me to her apartment for some wine and cheese. (The 2003 Canon-Fransac was a real pleasure.)

As she arranged the table, I thumbed through the impressive catalogue of a show we had seen this summer at The Clark. (The museum is a pleasurable 90-minute drive from Saratoga Springs where the New York City Ballet has its summer home.) The exhibition, called "The Unknown Monet," was a rare survey of the painter's works on paper, including sketch books, prints, and pastels. Leafing through the pages, I slipped through memory's secret passage to my experiences there this summer.

My parents made a cross-country trip to visit me in Saratoga. They wouldn't disagree if I said visual art was not one of their abiding interests. Museums were not a part of our lives growing up; my parents' prefered leisure pastimes are solidly of the out-of-doors variety: gardening, fishing, boating, motor cycling, water skiing, etc. (Wasn't it Annie Leibowitz who said that the outdoors was the space between your apartment and a taxi? If she didn’t, I might have . . .) Nevertheless, I thought an outing to The Clark would be enjoyable and on a day off we made the scenic drive through New York and Vermont countryside to Williamstown, Mass. ("MA," still doesn't sound right, apologies to the USPS.)

After lunch in the museum café, we took in the Monet show. Shortly into the exhibition, my mother tugged my arm. She had found a picture that particularly spoke to her and she wanted me to see it. It was an early pastel drawing of a farm scene. A barn was in the background and a pond took center stage. Reflections of trees and animals shimmered on the surface of the water. "What do you like about this picture?" I asked. My mother answered, "It has depth, but mostly I feel emotionally drawn to it. I feel like I know this place, it's like I've seen it before." This museum visit was becoming very interesting.

A little later on she asked what made pictures by Monet more famous and more valuable than other art? I suggested that in a single-artist show it could be hard to put the work into context, but that when we visited the permanent collection, we could look at other French pictures from the same period and see what we thought.

Sure enough, there came a moment when we were standing in front of two small French paintings from the 1880s, one by Sisley and another by a lesser-known artist. I asked my mother to compare these paintings to the Monets. In my recollection, this was the first day I heard my mother share an opinion about a work of art. "Well, these painters don't use color the way that Monet does. In fact these pictures are a little flat in comparison." My eyes widened, and my mother moved on to another painting. "But this one, this one has real depth. I love it, I feel like I could walk right into this picture." "Mother, you have very good taste," I said. "That picture is by Vincent van Gogh."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Damien Hirst—Terror and the Sublime—“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"

The closest I have come to understanding that poor, discombobulating shark is in its current showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An essay posted in the gallery, "Terror and the Sublime," promises to put Hirst's grotesquerie into some artistic context, but you will not find many visitors pouring over the educational materials. They simply cannot take their eyes off the fish.

There is still the faint physical rush of fear (frissons?) to be had looking directly into those dilapidated jaws. That physical sensation is real and therein lies the important question for those interested in art. Is that physical sensation, that vestigial terror, a component of an artistic sublime? Harold Bloom when discussing literary sublime, asks of a particular work, "Is there something greater written before? Has something greater been written since?" Easy questions to ask, but difficult to answer. Through the process of parsing comes an understanding of the sublime. Mozart's C Minor Piano Concerto, Beethoven's Third Symphony, Bach "St. Matthew Passion," these works can also offer a certain terror as we contemplate the complexities of the human creative force; a force powerful enough to create works of art beyond our ability to understand, yet though which we hope to better understand our own lives.

I do not believe Hirst's is an artistic sublime at all. The animal terror he evokes or invokes, depending on your point of view, is a thrill that has more in common with horror movies, circus acts, and roller coasters. Devised as "controlled" risks, we feel the thrill of danger without exposing ourselves to bodily threat. Peering into the mouth of a dead shark, we find the same feelings. Modern life neuters so much of the ancient animal in us; these experiences act to remind us of the dangerous thrill of living. But is this the role of art in society?

Hirst's work elicits fast reactions, but lacking true beauty or mystery, there is nothing to contemplate. More a point-of-view than a work of art, once its point is made, we don't need to see it again, ever. The artistic sublime requires from us more than we can give, more contemplation than one lifetime can accomplish, more creative engagement than we thought we had. The artistic sublime is larger than we are, and when we partake of it, we become larger, ourselves.

In a sense, I am glad that the shark is at the MET. Disengaging our gaze from
its facile, lurid seductiveness, we are reminded that true works of imaginative genius promise a lifetime of engagement, and indeed pleasurable effort. Great works of art will repay such efforts in abundance.

Madeleine Moments

Few events are as provocative as performing a piece of music in adulthood that one first played as a child. I began my career as a professional musician only a year after switching to the oboe from unsuccessful attempts with the violin and clarinet. I joined the Northwestern Michigan Symphony Orchestra as second oboe to my teacher, Nancy Brammer. At the age of 16, I was confronted with the great works of the orchestral canon almost entirely without cultural reference. I can remember distinctly my maiden voyages with Brahms symphonies and especially the second piano concerto, with Tchaikovsky symphonies, Mozart "Linz," Rachmaninoff piano concerti, and especially with Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. The NMSO accompanied Joffery II when their national tour brought them to northern Michigan.

Before the dancers arrived in town, our English hornist, Lynn Hansen (now principal of Traverse City's West Junior High School) had some of the younger orchestra members over to her house to watch a video of Joffery dancing to Prokofiev's score. We gathered around the television, excited about what we were about to discover and what we were about to perform. No work of art more perfectly expressed the emotional complexity of the teenage protagonists' love-confused story, their self-deception and the multi-layered ambivalence of the outside world's dealings with their tragic end. No work of art spoke more directly to my emotional world at the age of 16, dealing both with the seemingly insurmountable challenges of Prokofiev's score and the difficult emotional truths the music itself kept revealing.

So it is little wonder that two and a half decades later, when performing this work with the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, I should slip back in time. The notes themselves becoming Proust's cookie crumbs dissolving in warm tea. My fingers trace the very same motifs, and the logic of the body returns to me the emotional mysteries, long buried but somehow potent as ever.

From Proust:

"An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? . . . . What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day."

And so, as I sit in the orchestra, the mind wonders over and through waves of sound, of memory, emotion. Lost loves, potent now in different guises, step up and offer invitations to tangled dances. Tripping, spectral visions, at once past's dreams, and the present's wonders, seduce the mind from the printed score. The notes are the same today as they were when I was young. Middle "C" still requires three fingers from my left hand and four from my right. And so that "C" exists in two centuries and all the possibilities dreamt between. If Wallace Stevens in Esthétique du Mal finds both the physical and non-physical worlds sprawling in fields of green corn, overcome in the gleaming richness, so he suggests what it means for one musical phrase to split time and carry us careening between ourselves and ourselves. Gratitude and fearsomeness form the forms that rift and shift the shape of our lives.

Esthétique du Mal by Wallace Stevens


The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps,
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel. The adventurer
In humanity has not conceived of a race
Completely physical in a physical world.
The green corn gleams and the metaphysicals
Lie sprawling in majors of the August heat,
The rotund emotions, paradise unknown.

This is the thesis scrivened in delight,
The reverberating psalm, the right chorale.

One might have thought of sight, but who could think
Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees:
Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound,
But the dark italics it could not propound.
And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Zéphyros Winds perform at Merkin Concert Hall • Tuesday, 19 Feb, 2:00 p.m.

This program is part of Merkin's theme this season - RE:invention. Each piece reinvents source material into a new musical guise. For this program Zéphyros will be joined by guest artist Richard Faria, bass clarinet for Janáček's Mládí. Click here for tickets.

Reinventing . . . ancient music. Darius Milhaud La Cheminée du Roi René

Milhaud created a film score by taking music from the Troubadours and placing it in a mid-century Parisian sensibility.

Reinventing . . . mythology. Benjamin Britten Pan & Claude Debussy Syrinx

Both Debussy and Britten reinvent the idea of story-telling in their monodic settings of Ovid's myth of changing forms.

Reinventing . . . folk music. Endre Szervánszky Fúvósötös

In response to strict Communist party musical strictures, Szervánszky reinvents Hungarian folk music, usually associated with the violin, for winds, as part of the movement for musical nationalism.

Reinventing . . . ones own music. György Ligeti Six Bagatelles

Ligeti first conceived the music which became this miniature masterpiece for winds, as music for solo piano, and some of it even began earlier as music for piano four-hands.

Reinventing . . . ones self. Leoš Janáček Mládí

At the end of his life, the great Czech composer writes a work entitled, "Youth"!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Zéphyros Winds - Program 2007-2008

Jennifer Grim, flute
James Roe, oboe
Marianne Gythfeldt, clarinet
Douglas Quint, bassoon
Zohar Schondorf, horn (guest artist)

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
La Cheminée du Roi René (1942)
- Cortège
- Aubade
- Jongleurs
- La Maousinglade
- Joutes sur l’Arc
- Chasse à Valabre
- Madrigal-Nocturne


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Pan, from Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for Oboe Solo, Op. 49 (1952)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Syrinx for Solo Flute (1913)

Endre Szervánszky (1911-1977)
Fúvósötös (1953)
- Adagio-Allegro moderato
- Allegro scherzoso
- Andante
- Allegro vivace


György Ligeti (1923-2006)
Six Bagatelles (1953)
- Allegro con spirito
- Rubato. Lamentoso
- Allegro grazioso
- Presto ruvido
- Adagio. Mesto (Béla Bartók in memoriam)
- Molto vivace. Capriccioso „wie verrückt”

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914–17) (Setting by Mason Jones)
- Prélude
- Menuet
- Fugue
- Rigaudon