Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Zoe Strauss "We love having you here"

Photographer, Zoe Strauss' show at Bruce Silverstein in Chelsea opened last weekend and runs through 10 January 2009. Please stop by for a visit. Her images are beautiful and harrowing in equal measure.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Joys of Solitude

I like to think of art as serving two main functions, to transport and to report.

The responsibility of the artist to represent an honest picture of her time can result in unsettling art that confronts its audience with insights into the difficult truths of life. This art reports; and so often, it reports bad news.

Other art, however, offers solace in times of trial. In a day when reportage submerges the mere mortal in a flood—a deluge—of information, poll numbers, and market indices, art that transports offers a deeply reparative function in our lives. Of late, when I come home much too late from a long day, and pour a glass of red wine, I want music that transports, not reports. I've had enough reports for one day.

The internationally acclaimed Dutch violinist, Jaap Schröder, has released a CD of music that perfectly accompanies a quiet evening. "Jaap Schröder The Seventheenth-Century Violin" presents sixty-five minutes of music for unaccompanied violin music by well-known and obscure composers, perfect for contemplation, introspection, and solitude. Listening to Jaap's CD, I am reminded of the marvelous Duccio “Madonna and Child” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The front edge of its frame is charred in two places by candles, because this work of great artistic sophistication—virtuosity, even—was used for personal devotion; two candles illuminating its mysteries in the pre-electric night.

In the current November evenings, dark so very early, solitude is welcome. Jaap's music is a balm to the rampant reports and retorts we must fend off each day.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Operatic Bailout—Someone, anyone?

"The opera always loses money. That's as it should be.
Opera has no business making money."
---Rudolph Bing

The appointment of Gerard Mortier as general manager and artistic director of the New York City Opera was a visionary move on the part of the company's board of trustees. It distinguished the company from their deluxe neighbor across campus and spiced up the opera world in the process. With the New York Times report today that Mortier will leave—before his first season, before even the renovations to the hall are completed—this is the company's second major self-definition misfire.

First they strongly and convincingly made the case that the New York State Theater was inhospitable for singers, but then had to announce they were unable to move to a new home. Now they've defined themselves as the cutting edge opera company in America, but in the current economic climate, they cannot afford to realize these plans. Unfortunately, they also announced that their old model is "financially broken."

This is a pickle they're in. It's terribly distressing to see this institution with so much history and accumulated talent faltering so. Are there angels enough to get the New York City Opera back on its feet? Is there a leader intrepid enough to give the company direction and vision while working within a budget crisis? I hope so.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Brilliant Friends

Congratulations to Bart Feller, who last night played C. P. E. Bach's D-Minor Flute Concerto with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. He played with a shimmering tone, assured rhythmic poise, and infallible sense of line. The first movement is written in long paragraphs for the flute. Bart suavely led the audience through these, illuminating the music's intricate rhetoric with charm. In the lyrical second movement, he deftly scaled the emotional arch drawing us toward the touching cadenza. The finale is all fire and drama. Bart chewed up the scenery, ripping through the virtuoso passages with brilliant flourish and power.

Music from this period is fascinating and is enjoying something of a revival. Long written off as transitional, it only sounds that way if you listen with Mozart and Haydn in your ear. Knowing what comes next in music history can make music of the mid-18th century sound as if it is searching for something it can't quite find. In last night's performance, surrounded by the music of JS Bach and Handel, CPE sounded like the adventurer he was.

What a thrill to hear your friends do such fine work!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Look of the Election from West 106th Street

When I got on line to vote this morning, I recognized a handsome young man from my building right in front of me.

"Alex?" I poked his shoulder, "Is this your first time voting?" "Yep, just turned 18." He was a toddler when I moved in 15 years ago. I watched him grow up in the hallways and on the front stoop.

Walking home, I wondered what it might mean for him, the son of a black father and a white mother, living in a—still—very diverse neighborhood in New York City, to cast his first presidential vote with Barack Obama on the ballot.

I don't mean to deny hockey moms their moment, but Sarah Palin and her running mate have much to answer for once this campaign is over. Their rallies revealed a shameful side of American culture and legitimized it by handing it a bullhorn. We can only hope that the race-baiting, xenophobia, and culture-war hysterics Palin stirred up will sink back into the mucky bottom after tonight.

It's time to wipe the lipstick off the pit bulls!

It's time to celebrate the dignity of a young man from West 106th Street casting his first presidential vote. When he hopes for the future, I want to know what he sees.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

"Sounds My Father Taught Me"
Listening to the Songs of Charles Ives

Iconoclastic American musician, Charles Ives (1874-1954), was raised in Danbury, CT, son of renowned Civil War bandleader, George Ives. By the age of five, Charles was able to play popular tunes on the piano, but unlike most musical prodigies who used their fingertips to pluck out the melodies, he used his fists. "It's all right to do that, Charles,” his father told him, “if you know what you're doing." For the rest of his life, Ives never quite could keep his fists off the keyboard.

He did develop a standard keyboard technique, and by the age of 14 became the youngest salaried church organist in Connecticut. His father, however, always encouraged the innately idiosyncratic elements of his son's musical mind. Famously, Ives’ father once assembled two municipal marching bands and sent each marching around the town square in opposite directions, playing different marches! The clangorous effect of alternating rhythmic phasing, chance clashes, and surprising counterpoint, left all but the most maverick New England listeners (in other words, everyone but George and Charles Ives) a bit stunned. But, in fact, such commingled music accompanies each of us throughout our daily lives. Songs stuck in our heads mix with elevator music and the mindless, off-key singing of a (mindless?) co-worker lost in his iPod. We hardly are aware of the cacophony; Ives had the audacity and curiosity to try to recreate it.

Charles Ives studied musical composition at Yale with Horatio Parker, but found himself and the conservative music faculty at constant cross-purposes. Upon leaving Yale in 1898, Ives did not follow the usual career path of young aspiring American composers by continuing his studies in Germany. Instead, he took a $15-a-week job as a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company in New York City. He stayed in insurance for the rest of his life, producing his large body of music in the evenings and weekends. Working in almost complete isolation from the musical mainstream, Ives composed without either the experience or even the prospect of hearing his works performed. It brings to mind the self-cloistered Emily Dickenson, who produced over 1700 extraordinary poems while tucked away in her Amherst, Massachusetts redoubt, or, especially, poet Wallace Stevens, who became vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company while producing the most important body of American poetry since Walt Whitman.

Eventually, influential American musicians—including Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland—championed Ives’ music, even so, many of his works had to wait decades for a performance. Toward the end of his life, Ives reputation burgeoned. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1945, and the Symphony no. 3 won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. In 1951, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premier of his Second Symphony, some 40 years after its completion. (Ives and his wife listened to the broadcast of that concert on a neighbor’s radio. When the Carnegie Hall audience exploded in a thunderous ovation, Charles’ wife turned to her husband and remarked, "Why, they actually like it!”) His Symphony No. 1 was given its first performance in 1953, half a century after it was finished. He died a year later. Posthumously, Ives is recognized as America’s greatest musical innovator.

Music historian, Jan Swafford, movingly points out that Ives’ father “taught his son to respect the power of vernacular music. As a Civil War bandleader, he understood how sentimental tunes such as Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground, Aura Lee, Stephen Foster songs, and marches and bugle calls were woven into the experience of war and the memories of soldiers. Much as did Gustav Mahler a continent away, Charles Ives came to associate everyday music with profound emotions and spiritual aspirations. One of his father's most resonant pieces of wisdom came when he said of a stonemason's off-key hymn singing: ‘Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds—for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.’” For both father and son, high and low art were distinctions that hobbled, rather than refined, musical experience. I want to “kick out the softy ears,” Charles would shout, “Stand up and use your ears like a man!” At its most successful, Ives' music achieves a kind of musical imitation of actual thought. In this way his work is similar to his contemporary, James Joyce. By following multi-layered ideas and references in and out of memories, both distant and familiar, Ives gives us a glimpse of the mind’s inner workings.

The seven songs we’ll hear tonight display Ives in a mischievously touching mood. Hymns, popular melodies, Civil War Songs, spirituals, and parlor ditties, all weave in and out of the proceedings. A passing piccolo whistles “Dixie” in He is There! Even the pianist has a few words to say along the way. The results are familiar and quirky, sentimental and outright funny, commonplace and breathtakingly original. They paint an intimate portrait of a true American visionary, as he paints his own portrait of the nation at the dawn of the “American Century.”

Helicon Symposium 87
2 November 2008

Seven songs by Charles Ives
Performed by Nicholas Phan, tenor
Pedja Muzijevic, piano
Alex Sopp, fife

Memories: A - Very Pleasant, B - Rather Sad (1897)
My Native Land (1897)
Mists (1910)
Luck and Work (1920)
He is There! (1917)
At the River (1916)
The Circus Band (1894)