Recently by Wendy Lesser

On Monday night at Avery Fisher Hall I saw a wonderful Wozzeck. Alban Berg's brilliant opera was conducted concert-style by Esa-Pekka Salonen; it featured Simon Keenlyside as Wozzeck and Angela Denoke as Marie, and had the whole Philharmonia Orchestra and Westminster Choir onstage behind the nine soloists. I have a great deal to say about this semi-acted-out performance--especially about the way the music and even the setting allowed Keenlyside to triumph in his wrenching role in a way that the Met's Tempest, a much more fully staged production, did not--but what I have to say can't fit into this space.  So I will save all those ideas for a Threepenny Review article.  There are some things, apparently, that print can still do better than blogs.

But there are definite virtues to this form too--virtues of immediacy, of concision, of instant correctability, of necessity mothering invention--that I have discovered to the full over this past month of daily posts. It's not clear what I will do from now on with all the thoughts that bubble up each morning untransmitted; nothing, I suppose.  I am grateful, at any rate, for having had this outlet for a time, and I hope it's been interesting to you out there too.  

I guess that's all, folks.  Have a good Thanksgiving!
November 21, 2012 5:22 AM | | Comments (0)
The Man in the White Suit is playing this week at Film Forum, and what a joy it is. First and foremost, we get the young Alec Guinness--graceful and spritelike, handsome enough but not too handsome, with a deadpan manner that could rival the Peter Sellers of Being There and an occasional tentative smile that could melt ice. From the minute he appears onscreen, he stands out from all the other gray postwar British (most of them industrialists and factory employees), even though he is not yet wearing his glow-in-the-dark white suit.

Then there is Joan Greenwood as the love-interest, the daughter of the textile industrialist at whose lab Guinness, an eccentric, impractical genius, secretly develops the undamageable white material. Greenwood is one of those British actresses who have no equivalent on the American scene. Her sulky pale beauty is only a part of her charm; most of it comes from her inimitable voice, with its deep-throated huskiness and its tiny speech impediment--more a purr than a lisp, I would say, but something that in any case makes every line her own.

The supporting cast is terrific, too, and the plot and script are hilarious, pitting labor against capital and both against the scientific genius who threatens to upend the entire textile industry. I even loved the sound effects: the musical notes that emerge from Guinness's bubbling beakers, the explosions that wrack his unsuccessful experiments, and the silences that accompany his successful ones are all part of an engaging soundtrack that glowingly fits this glorious black-and-white print.  The movie was made by Ealing Studios in 1951, proving once again (as if proof were needed) that there is no such thing as progress in the arts.
November 20, 2012 5:23 AM | | Comments (0)
This past Sunday's expedition was to Roosevelt Island, which can be reached from Manhattan's East Side by an airborne tram, which flies over the East River from a station at Second Avenue and 60th Street to a central location on the small island. (The tram trip is an excitement in itself:  I don't think there can be another urban view, anywhere in the world, as novel as the low-flying return to Manhattan, which descends in over city streets.)  Our initial aim was to walk along the west coast of the island and get a great view of Manhattan, but when some friends told us about the recently opened Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, designed by Louis Kahn but left unbuilt for many years, we made that our destination.

The park occupies the southernmost tip of Roosevelt Island, and it immediately adjoins an old ruin of a nineteenth-century smallpox hospital, suitably preserved in all its historic spookiness. Just past this noble wreck, you can slip through the gates into the Louis Kahn park itself, which rises in front of you as the land narrows to a point.  Imagine something like the Vietnam Memorial, only in white, with a low wall that starts just above human height and gradually approaches ground level as you walk along it.  Imagine an Aztec pyramid flattened and narrowed, with triangular steps rising briefly at the front end, and with a long ramp at the far end that eventually meets the water.  Imagine a thick-walled fort, with very thin chinks between each massive stone, through which you can peer at a thread-sized section of either Manhattan or Brooklyn.  All of these are elements in the Kahn design--as are two double-rows of stately trees leading up the central avenue, a plaque quoting FDR on the "four freedoms" (which included not only the usual American "freedom of speech," but the much more socialist "freedom from want"), and marvelous views in every direction. 

It was lovely to see the site for the first time in the light of a late fall afternoon, but now I am anxious to go back in the early summer, when the trees will have leafed out and the monument will have given way, in part, to the park. Considering the size of Louis Kahn's reputation among architects, there are not all that many examples of his built work in America (the Yale Center for British Art, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the Salk Institute in southern California are among them), so it is particularly pleasing to have one of them right here in New York. If you want to find out more about this great artist's work, I highly recommend the movie My Architect, a very personal documentary made by his son, Nathaniel Kahn. This movie is so good that I went to it twice in 2003, the year it came out; and now that I have seen the FDR park, I think it's probably time to watch it again.
November 19, 2012 5:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Okay, fellow NAJPers. We are nearly down to the wire here. I've been doing this daily blogging for about four weeks now, and I have only three days left in my promised month.  Who would like to step up next?

You wouldn't have to commit to a whole month, and you wouldn't have to blog every day (though there is something to be learned, in a kind of pseudo-Zen-practice way, by the daily obligation to pour out one's opinions or experiences online). Even if you only committed to a week of this--a mere work-week, with weekends off, say--you would be doing our community a tremendous favor.  There are thirty-one of us listed over there on the right-hand side, and if you subtract Laura Collins-Hughes (who does yeoman's work for ARTicles already), Doug McLennan (who handles the technical side of the blog), and me (of whose voice we are all heartily sick by now), that still leaves twenty-eight potential volunteers. If each of you did just one week, that would take us through more than half a year.  Easy, no?

The designated blogger wouldn't by any means have to be the only voice involved.  I would have liked it if someone else had been writing intermittently during my month on duty. I would have liked it if someone else had been writing during the three or four months preceding my month on duty, but the absence of any such voices, including my own, is what compelled me to take on this task in the first place. Surely we all have occasional interesting things to comment on (and I myself hope to report in again once in a while over the next few months, after I've got my wind back).  But ARTicles, in order to survive, seems to need at least one committed writer who is willing to be responsible for keeping it going in the short run. That could be any or all of you.

Why does it matter if this blog lives or dies?  Well, I don't think I have to tell any of you about the parlous state of the arts in America these days.  The bad economy and the ever-more-consuming digital world have combined to make things very difficult for the live arts--that is, the arts in person, the arts that allow for a direct encounter between the viewer and the artwork itself, whether it be a concert or an opera or a painting or a book. We arts critics or reporters, by paying serious and in some cases knowledgeable attention to those desperate and necessary art forms, are helping to keep them alive.  I hope there are also readers out there whose curiosity we feed and whose interest we stimulate, and that too helps the arts.

I didn't mean to turn this into a commercial. I just hoped to get my fellow bloggers thinking about who might come next in this rota, doing this little job that earns no pay but is actually rather fun, if you enjoy fun that has an element of self-imposed work in it. My one-month term ends on Wednesday, November 21. We can all take Thanksgiving off--hell, we can take the whole holiday weekend off. But isn't there someone out there in NAJP-land who is willing to take up the torch by Monday, December 3?  If so, I would certainly love to read what you have to say.
November 18, 2012 6:19 AM | | Comments (0)
There are a few tremendous pieces of music that I could happily hear live several times a year, every year of my life. Beethoven's Ninth is certainly one of them, and as it happens, I have already heard it twice in the last six months:  once last night at Carnegie Hall, and once in June in San Francisco. Both performances were thrilling in almost equal measure, I would say, but they were very different in approach.  At Carnegie, John Eliot Gardiner conducted his period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and his Monteverdi Choir (I say "his" because he founded both groups) in a performance that was at once quicker, lighter, and quirkier than the more traditional San Francisco Symphony version. But the Ninth was all there nonetheless, and its peak moments--in particular, that final joyous movement in which the voices enter in, at first singly and then in full force--remained the kind of experience that one wants to go on having over and over again. I was deeply glad to be there, and so was the rest of the roaring, standing, vociferously applauding audience.
November 17, 2012 6:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Since I actually played a small role in last night's Symphony Space performance, this will not be an objective critical review (as if any of my accounts, in this space or elsewhere, are objective!), but rather an inside report on an arts event.

The event was a modified recreation of John Cage's piece How to Get Started, a 1989 performance in which Cage randomly turned over 10 index cards (pre-inscribed with ideas for topics he had given himself) and spoke for up to three minutes, extemporaneously, on each topic. As he responded to each successive card, loops of his earlier responses played in the background, so that by the end of the piece, the repeatedly looped recording was thick with all the interactions between the ten Cage monologues. 

At Symphony Space on Thursday night, Allen Shawn and Wallace Shawn--with the significant collaboration of a borrowed sound engineer, Peter Price, who had mastered this technique through his work with the John Cage Trust and the Slought Foundation--each went through a version of this process in front of a friendly, fascinated audience of about 200 people. I had lured the two Shawn brothers into this event, and I was responsible for interviewing them onstage afterward about the results, but to be honest, I had no idea beforehand what those results would be, since I knew about the Cage piece only through hearsay. I never expected the evening would turn out so beautifully, with two separate but clearly related artworks materializing before our very eyes. 

Allen is a composer and pianist, and his looped performance (complete with snippets of music by Schoenberg, Carter, and other favorites that he played on the piano when he wasn't speaking) was essentially a musical artwork, with thoughtful lyricism as its dominant mode.  Wallace is a playwright and actor, and his performance had the verbal density and emotional intensity of a play. What astonished me--and rather amazed the two participants as well--was that it was possible to achieve something through this method that at once reflected their individual characters as artists and also presented something of the family life in which these two characters had developed. We cheated a bit on the prescribed Cage method by allowing some of the card-cues to come from the outside:  two each were suggested by the brothers to each other, and one for each came from me. This made the exercise even more random and spontaneous, but it also brought it closer to home.  When Allen responded to the cues "a woman's laugh" (put forth by Wally) or "automobile" (my idea), we learned something about his relationship to his parents, as a child and as an adult.  And when Wally did a wonderful final riff on "puppets" (proposed by Allen), we in the audience found out about the puppet theater on which the two boys had first practiced their separate arts jointly.

Afterwards, I asked each of the Brothers Shawn what had most surprised him about his brother's performance piece. "That it was so serious," Allen said. "That it was so intimate," said Wally.
November 16, 2012 7:30 AM | | Comments (0)
It is an odd feeling to be completely out of step with the rest of an audience. Last night, at the performance of Thomas Adès's The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera, I sometimes felt I was the only person in the entire auditorium who wasn't wildly enthusiastic.

It's not that I hated the opera, or even disliked it. The music was always stirring, sometimes strikingly lovely, occasionally touching. The performances couldn't be beat:  Audrey Luna, as Ariel, did astonishing things with her voice and body; Alan Oke, as Caliban, managed to be both creepy and pitiable; Simon Keenlyside was a powerful, melancholy, beautifully rich-voiced Prospero; and Toby Spence was wonderfully evil as Antonio, portraying him as a kind of sleazy corporate backstabber. Even the last-minute guest-singer, Bruce Sledge, who replaced William Burden as the King of Naples, had a notably terrific tenor voice. 

Except for the opening scene, which was a delightfully inventive version of a storm-tossed sea (with great music to match it), I could have done without Robert Lepage's overly busy staging. The theater gimmick he employed for the sets--rows of red-plush opera seats, huge backstage machinery, stage-lights and other obvious props--made no sense in the context of the opera's island setting, and if it was meant to evoke Shakespeare's departure from the stage in Prospero's final renunciation speech, well, Shakespeare knew how to do such things a lot more delicately; Lepage's decision to crush the theatrical metaphor into our faces essentially ruined it as a metaphor. Even more incomprehensible were the hordes of extra people onstage. The second act opened with something like a ballroom scene, complete with numerous women in long gowns, as if the ship Ferdinand and his father took from Naples to Prospero's island in the sixteenth century (when women were unheard of on ships, not to mention onstage) was essentially the downed Titanic. Who were these women, in the Tempest plot?  And who were all those sprites dancing around the stage, when we know from Shakespeare that Ariel, the only spirit on the island, had to produce all the special effects for Prospero by herself?

But that was the real problem: what we knew from Shakespeare had no relevance here. I would have been happier if Adès had chosen to call his opera The Storm, say, and let me pick up the stolen elements of the Shakespeare story on my own--but who chooses to take over Shakespeare just for the plot?  Verdi and Rossini and a million others, you will say; but they didn't have the choice of doing it in English, and besides, Verdi's Macbeth has a far greater relationship to its source story than this does to the scripted Tempest. A big part of the reason is Meredith Oakes's stark redoing of the language (no doubt approved and perhaps even ordered by Adès himself).  She has reduced all the beautiful lines of poetry to a kind of doggerel in rhyming couplets: in a libretto where Caliban says to Prospero, "You beat and strike me / You do not like me," we seem a lot closer to the realm of Doctor Seuss than to the world of Shakespeare.

When I complained about such things at the intermission, the response of all my friends (and there were surprisingly many of them at last night's performance) was essentially oh, Wendy, get over it. "Don't compare," one advised.  So I sat through the last act trying not to compare, attempting to imagine that I was enjoying a completely original spectacle, and to a certain extent this worked. But my effort pretty much broke down when we got to Prospero's renunciation speech--one of my favorite theatrical speeches of all time--and the single abbreviated line "Now our revels are ended" was the only thing that made it through the wreckage. I understand that you can't write music to iambic pentameter, but wouldn't it have been possible to preserve more of Shakespeare's language in an English-language opera?

Still, I have to say--as I said in relation to the Poisson Rouge appetizer I attended a couple of weeks ago--that the Adès score holds its own against more well-established operas.  And by this standard even the specific production was not terrible: I would rather go back to The Tempest three times than be forced to sit through another minute of the recent Met versions of Salomé or Tales of Hoffmann or Damnation of Faust. This is worth something, perhaps even a great deal--the ability of a modern composer to stand up against Strauss and Offenbach and Berlioz--and Thomas Adès deserves to take a bow for it.


November 15, 2012 6:19 AM | | Comments (0)
There is a wonderful show up at the Guggenheim Museum right now, called Picasso in Black and White. It takes up the whole of the spiral ramp, from top to bottom, which is how I always prefer to see their shows, even if it involves going in reverse chronological order, as it does this time.  It's easier by far to take the elevator to the top floor and glide down from Picasso's maturity to his youth, rather than trudging uphill to watch him develop--and since he didn't actually "develop," but just changed his skin every few years, he is one of those rare artists who can easily be viewed from either direction.

The amazing thing is that, even if you confine yourself to these primarily grayscale works (the curators cheat a little, allowing a tint of blue or yellow or lavender to intrude here and there), you can pretty much represent the whole of Picasso's career.  At the top level, in the 1960s, are some fascinating works that somewhat resemble the designs he was doing on plates in those years, though in this case they are black-and-white paintings, often of schematically portrayed men and women. At the bottom is the lovely, intensely moving Woman Ironing, which the Guggenheim itself owns, and which the artist completed in 1904, when he was still doing largely figurative work. And in between lie early cubist figures leading toward Demoiselles d'Avignon; monochrome versions of the Blue and Rose periods; the flat, angular, disembodied females he was doing in the late Twenties and early Thirties; horse heads and other sketches for Guernica; a black-white-and-gray group portrait from the same period as MOMA's Four Musicians with Dog, this one set in a milliner's shop; paintings, sculptures, and drawings of Marie-Therese, Jacqueline, and the other important women in his life; and numerous other delights that I've never seen before. What is most remarkable is that this master of color, whom I associate so strongly with the vivid hues of, say, Woman with a Book (at the Norton Simon) or Woman in the Mirror (at MOMA), should turn out to be so completely a master of form that he triumphs just as powerfully when color is removed.

This enormous and exhausting exhibit would take many hours on many days to absorb thoroughly, and so far I've only been once. But it is up until January 23, so I can go again, and so can you, even if you are coming from out of town. This is a show not to be missed.
November 14, 2012 8:15 AM | | Comments (0)

They're new to me, at any rate, and probably to you, though they were first published a long time ago. Both are part of the NYRB neglected classics series, which consistently unearths treasures that our inconsiderate publishing industry has allowed to go out of print.

 The first of these two books, Natsume Soseki's The Gate, was originally published in Japanese in 1910. I have only read one other novel by Soseki, Kokoro, and it too was terrific. The Gate is one of those gripping works in which nothing much happens. It chronicles the daily life of a mid-level civil servant in turn-of-the-century Tokyo: his marriage, his money troubles, his relations with his relatives and his landlord.  There are crises and, in some cases, resolutions, but it is all very quietly done. The language (in William Sibley's translation, newly commissioned by NYRB) is as delicate as a haiku; at the same time, the psychological depth of the novel is as powerful as anything I've read in Japanese literature.

 The other book is Dorothy Baker's Young Man with a Horn. If you're a fan of the NYRB series, you've probably already read Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, her masterpiece (though it's a masterpiece I had never heard of before NYRB rediscovered her). That novel conveys, in a very complicated and penetrating way, the interrelated lives of two sisters who live in the California foothills. This earlier novel of hers, first published in 1938, is completely different, though also great in its own way. Loosely based on the life, or at least the music, of Bix Beiderbecke, Young Man with a Horn has the best descriptions of music I have ever read in any work of literature. It also describes with unerring tact the relationship of a white jazz musician to his mostly black companions during a period when racial segregation was extreme. As with The Gate, the language is tremendously important, but in a completely different way:  it is the American vernacular deployed as music.

November 13, 2012 10:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Yesterday, on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, my husband and I decided to interrupt our usual Lower Manhattan walk with a visit to the New Museum. Located at on the Bowery at a point that becomes visible as we approach from Prince Street, the museum is an attractive if not always useful addition to the neighborhood--by which I mean that of the five or six shows I've seen there since it opened a few years ago, only one or two have seemed worth the admission price to me. But, ever undaunted, I decided to try again.

The current big show is of the German artist Rosemarie Trockel, and it takes up floors 2 through 4. A lot of this stuff looks like warmed-over Quay material:  freakish and meant to shock, but not so much as to make anyone feel really uncomfortable.  (The Quay Brothers, it seems to me, have stronger obsessions--perhaps more powerfully believed in by the artists themselves--and that makes their freakishness considerably more effective.) The best things in the show, by far, are Trockel's woven artifacts on Floor 3:  I hesitate to call these pieces sculptures, since they are mainly two-dimensional rectangles, but since they are made of yarn, they have a more noticeable texture than paintings, and some of them are very beautiful indeed. 

Enough of this, though.  The real reason to go to the New Museum, this time and every time, is the seventh-floor terrace.  The room it abuts is sometimes used for parties, but otherwise you come out of the elevator onto a large, empty space glassed in on two sides.  Beyond the glass is a terrace that wraps continuously around two whole sides of the building and provides stunning views of New York.  In one direction lie the Chrysler Building and its environs; in the other, you can see the Williamsburg Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and even a bit of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In yesterday's golden afternoon light, the downtown looked beautiful and serene; from the seventh floor, we were far enough above the Soho crowds that their noise didn't reach us, so the experience of the city was largely visual, not aural.  One could hardly imagine that a mere ten days earlier, if one could have visited this spot, the whole southern prospect would have been dark and empty.
November 12, 2012 6:54 AM | | Comments (0)


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