I'm often struck, when I attend concerts, with how much it matters what we see happening onstage. Ears aren't everything. And sometimes they are not enough. This is doubly true if an audience is presented with the sort of modern music which trades in humor, sly remarks, and attitude, like the Lutosławski Cello Concerto, which received its San Francisco premiere this week nearly fifty years after it was composed. I'm happy to report the concerto was a triumph worth the wait, but its success with our audience was to a large degree determined by the mini-skit taking place onstage. Fortunately, Christian Reif and Johannes Moser are natural comedians, sufficiently so to dispel any notions that Germans are too uptight to be funny! And our close sight lines in Davies Hall, where it is easy to witness a performer's face, surely played a part in what almost amounted to a Saturday Night Live routine.
Reading a book is a solitary, intimate experience in which the reader sets the pace and imagines the characters as he or she sees them. Listening to a book is another way to appreciate a work, sometimes influenced by the narrator’s voice. Gatz, as created by Elevator Repair Service, uses an unprecedented approach, staging the book as it is read in its entirely. The performance begins when an anonymous office worker sits at a desk in a grungy office and, while waiting for his computer to boot, idly picks up The Great Gatsby and starts reading it aloud. The worker slowly takes on the character of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Jazz Age novel, who reads every word of the book including the “he/she saids” for a marathon six hours. Bit by bit, the other office workers assume the rest of the characters although the bulk of the effort falls to the staggeringly good Scott Shepherd.
“I wrote everything for Alice,” said Calvin Trillin about his wife, a remarkable woman who was, in addition to her many impressive credentials, his muse. Trillin recounted a great deal about his life with Alice in memoirs, articles and books but the transformation of his sentiments from written work to this two-character play has both up and downsides.
I have been on something of a musical diet this season, and the concerts I have attended have been few, including piano recitals, which have proven nonetheless wide in range, with newcomers to the city as well as the quintessential New Yorker, Richard Goode, and the continuation of Angela Hewitt’s transcendent Bach Odyssey, which has been the lodestar of my musical life for some years now. All have had something memorable to offer, especially Ms. Hewitt, and I have very little to grumble about, unless it is the smartphone-addicted audience at Daniel Ciobanu’s recital, who seemed to have no idea of what a classical concert entails in terms of how to enjoy the music and how to allow others to enjoy it as well.
Not so long ago I read a note by a European string player who was a young student in the 1890s. He observed that gut strings were universal before the First World War. When they began to appear in the first decade of the twentieth century, they were considered functional but inferior, and mainly used by students. Wartime shortages then made them a regrettable necessity for working professionals and orchestras. I haven't had a chance to investigate this properly, but the source is unquestionable. Wind instruments constantly evolved and were "improved" over the course of the nineteenth century, with its genius for mechanical inventions. This gives us an idea of when and how this crucial divide separated modern musicians and audiences from the techniques and sounds of earlier composers—meaning Mahler, not Mozart. There is still some general idea in the mind of the public that historical instruments and performance practices concern primarily music of the Baroque and Classical periods, but musicians have been applying the fruits of performance history to Romantic music for over twenty years—with gratifying results.
Rodrigo Nogueira, who is already well-established in his native Brazil as a major playwright, also active in cinema and television, introduced himself to New York audiences last spring with his play, The Ideal Obituary, which I reviewed enthusiastically. Now, just at the beginning of the new year, he is back, with another offbeat and absorbing creation, Real. In The Ideal Obituary Mr. Nogueira explored the stranger workings of the human mind. He showed us how the well-intentioned efforts of a loving husband to cure his wife’s severe depression ironically led the couple to a more functional and seemingly happier situation which eventually passed through the most basic laws of morality up to a life or death decision. The human mind and soul follow their own irrational logic.
The distinguished old master dealer, Robert Simon, held his first exhibition of a contemporary artist this past November and December. Entitled The Third Rome : Allegorical Landscapes of the Modern City, it was devoted to the current work of Pamela Talese, a Brooklyn-based painter known for her haunting views of gritty industrial sites around the Navy Yard and Red Hook. Brought to Rome for the first time in twenty-two years by a fellowship at the American Academy and following up a suggestion by an architectural historian she met there, she began to explore more recent neighborhoods outside the historical center. By “more recent,” I mean areas developed in the 1920s and 1930s, that is, the Fascist Era. Exploring the neighborhoods on her bicycle with her painting box and folding easel strapped on, Ms. Talese felt attracted to certain buildings that stood out for their clean, simple lines and elegant design. These were prime examples of Fascist architecture—modest, functional residential edifices, utilitarian civic structures, and a few public buildings. Virtually none of these appear in the surveys of Fascist architecture—with one notable exception, the Foro Italico (formerly called the Foro Mussolini).