New York Arts in Paris

A Grand Tour, Part 3: Some Cool Buildings

Urban planning is a sound and necessary activity, but you can’t eat a menu, right? Buildings, trees, curbstones; it is particularity which makes a city and in the end it takes physical objects to settle arguments about what is good, bad and weird in architecture. In that spirit, here are some buildings good enough to eat.

A Grand Tour, Part 1: The Digital Flâneur

Like cats chasing tails, all that is urgent in contemporary discussions of the city circles around the topic of density. While this makes it easy to define the shape of the boxing ring, it doesn’t set the rules of the fight, and boy oh boy is density ever a fight. Here in Sydney urban planning discourse feels like a nightmare dreamed in a fever, a chase scene in which it is impossible not to run in circles, slowly. As someone who cares deeply about Sydney’s future, it was a sweet relief to leave Smug City for a few weeks to see how they make cities in Europe.

Roland Petit with the Paris Opera Ballet

In the decade after the second world war, Paris and London, in addition to the big national companies, supported a myriad of small and prolific ballet companies. One of these was Boris Kochno’s Ballets des Champs-Elysées. Kochno had been Serge Diaghelev’s secretary in the Ballets Russes days, so in a way it was he who inherited the Ballets Russes tradition in Europe while Colonel de Basil and Serge Denham’s two respective Ballets Russes spin-offs were still touring the US and Australia. Kochno, as artistic director, founded the company with writer Jean Cocteau, and dancer and choreographer Roland Petit, who had trained in the Paris Opera Ballet School and danced in the corps de ballet until the Liberation. In 1948 Petit started his own small company, the Ballets de Paris, which only lasted a few years, but managed to cause great excitement in Paris and travelled well to London. Indeed, he worked with Margot Fontaine several times. We don’t often get to see his ballets nowadays (though there are also a great many other modern ballets from those years, even some of Michel Fokine’s, that don’t get much air either), but the Paris Opera Ballet is currently showing three of Petit’s short pieces, Le Rendez-vous (1945), Le Loup (1953) and Le Jeune Homme et La Mort (1946) which have been in the national company’s repertoire since 1992, 1975 and 1990 respectively.

Das Rheingold initiates the Opéra national de Paris’ Ring Cycle at the Bastille

Although Wagner, never able to give up his bitterness over the failure of Tannhaüser, may have taken nothing but bitter memories of Paris to his grave, his later music, including the Ring, enjoyed a devoted and extensive following in France. At last year’s Bard Festival André Dombrowsky explored the popularization of his music through simplified piano arrangements for domestic use, and Larry Bensky discussed Wagner’s role in Proust’s life and imagination. The French can look back to distinguished tradition in Wagner production, and today Wagner is as alive in Toulouse and Lyon as it is in Paris. Nonetheless, productions of the Ring have been rather sparse at the Paris Opera: the first, sung in French translation and conducted by André Messager, did not occur until 1911 (Rheingold 1909). The second, this time in German and conducted by one of the most authoritative German Wagner conductors, Hans Knappertsbusch, came forty-four years later, in 1955! There was Peter Stein production of Das Rheingold in 1976 under Solti, which never developed into a full Ring Cycle. The Ring production initiated by this Rheingold is a historical first, as the first production of the work for the Opéra Bastille, which opened in 1989, and the first complete Ring by the Paris Opera since 1957. With a German production team and a Swiss conductor, Philippe Jordan, 35, who is now concluding his first season as Music Director, the Paris Opera continues its post-war tradition of gathering its Wagnerian talent east of the Rhine. (It is worth noting at this point that Pierre Boulez, one of the great living Wagner conductors, has never conducted the Ring in his native France.)

Orchestre de Paris: Blomstedt and Mustonen in Stravinsky and Bruckner

I am always delighted to attend any concert under Herbert Blomstedt, who fortunately conducts the Boston Symphony quite often, both in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood, where he is especially valued, not only as a conductor, but as a teacher at the Tanglewood Music Center. At 82, after an impressive career as music director of several great orchestras, including the Dresdener Staatskapelle, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and the San Francisco Symphony (all of which have been received a good deal of attention on the Review of late…look soon for a review of the partially great Dresden Ring). After Steven Kruger most perceptively reviewed his Bruckner Sixth with the San Francisco Symphony, I was lucky enough to catch up with Maestro Blomstedt in Paris, where he conducted Bruckner’s pivotal Fifth Symphony. I was also fortunate to have a brief, informal chat with him after the performance, as well as with the brilliant soloist, Olli Mustonen, who is less well known than he should be, because, like Sibelius, he spends a good deal of his time in rural Finland, enjoying family life and composing. After this concert, he was looking forward to going home to his wife and his week-old son.

Collection Robert Lebel: Old Master and 19th-century Drawings , Sotheby’s Paris, Auction, March 25, 2009

Whenever a work of art changes hands there is always a story behind it. When a collection appears on the market an entire lifetime emerges, or, in the case of figures like Robert Lebel (1901-1986), a chapter in history. In the catalogue to the sale of his old master drawings, Sotheby’s manages to condense Lebel’s extraordinary range of interests and experience into a single paragraph. To say that he “defied classification” is not an exaggeration. An art historian and collector, he wrote essays, novels, as well as the first biography of Marcel Duchamp. He was a friend of André Breton, Max Ernst, and Jacques Lacan. During the Second World War the circle went into exile in New York, where Matta, Tanguy, and Claude Lévi-Strauss joined them. At this time Lebel acquired as special interest in American Indian art, especially Eskimo art. His pioneering collection of Eskimo masks was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 2006. Now Sotheby’s has dispersed his important collection of old master and 19th-century drawings.

The Best French Movie in Decades – The 2008 Tour de France

It was a childhood case of chicken pox which first introduced me to the Tour de France. The year was 1989, fortunately a very choice vintage indeed, in which Minnesota’s Greg Lemond clawed back 58 seconds between Versailles and Paris to defeat the hapless Parisian ex-dental student Laurent Fignon. I remember my confusion, a common response among those new to the Tour, as to which of the two was actually the Frenchman.

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