The subject of this interview, Nathan Benn, was very much a creature of the new generation. He was 22 when The National Geographic hired him in 1972 and 31 in 1981, when his editors sent him back to his native Florida to illustrate a feature article about its current condition in a troubled time, when the legal system was strained by drug trafficking and local citizens were challenged by a influx of refugees from the Caribbean. When he set to work, Mr. Benn began to push the Geographic’s envelope, both artistically and journalistically. His occasionally satirical social observations and gritty record of crime and law enforcement activity thrilled one of his editors but appalled another one, who was especially set in the magazine's anodyne values of the Midwest and the 1950’s.
Articles by Michael Miller
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).
I’d be very much inclined to discuss this fascinating, moving, strange—and important—two hours of immersive theater, spread across some twenty spaces from the first to the third floor (as well as a mezzanine) of a townhouse not far from Gramercy Park, but it is supposed to close on November 18, and I feel I owe it to its creators and our readers to get the word out. This magical spectacle has been over three years in development, and I’m sure the organizers, Group.BR, led by Artistic Director Andressa Furletti would like as many people as possible to see the fruit of their hard work and curious imaginations.
Plays, which happen in real time amidst a live audience who have assembled at a specific time to experience the performance, are inextricably interwoven with events and ideas of the moment. Austin Pendleton, for example, devised his brilliant conflation of Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III (to return to the stage at the Theater for a New City, December 3, 4, 5) in the shadow of the botched U.S. election of 2016 and installation of criminal elements in the highest tiers of government. This kind of inspiration is anything but uncommon.
As I wrote and revised this review. The news of the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh unfolded, reminding us that there is nothing funny about anti-Semitism. Following the hijacking of the US government in the 2016 election, so many topics any of us might use in black or tasteless humor have lost their potential for even sardonic laughter. These are grim times. (My Parsifal Conductor was clearly not made for them.) But we mustn't forget the power of satire in emergencies like the present one. As artists, it is our duty to keep people awake, and laughter, especially painful laughter, is one way to accomplish that.