Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Concert Of The Season

On Thursday night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Riccardo Chailly lead the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

We last heard the Gewandhaus under Chailly in the late summer of 2007, when we attended a Gewandhaus concert in London at The Royal Albert Hall.

The Gewandhaus had offered splendid playing and splendid musicianship in its 2007 Proms appearance, yet the orchestra, if anything, was even more impressive Thursday night.

The acoustics of Symphony Hall are much finer than the troublesome acoustics of The Royal Albert Hall, and the excellent Boston acoustics allowed listeners fully to appreciate the special sound of the Gewandhaus, a miracle of Old World blend and urbanity.

The Gewandhaus strings have both presence and transparency. The timbres of the winds are dark, rustic and very Central European. The horns offer beautifully rounded, mellow, warm sound. The brass instrumentalists play with a clean, bright but tempered sound, very polished but also very understated. No one section overpowers another; orchestral balances are as meticulous as they are in Cleveland.

Leipzig has another characteristic it shares with Cleveland: the musicians play as one. At a Gewandhaus concert, the listener has the impression that the musicians share a common schooling, a common ethos, and a deep, age-old, shared culture. The musicians breathe together, phrase together, think together. There is uniformity without rigidity, homogeneity without blandness.

The Gewandhaus is a magnificent orchestra.

Thursday night’s concert was devoted to Beethoven: the Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) and the Symphony No. 7.

The pianist, Louis Lortie, was a replacement soloist, Nelson Freire having withdrawn from the Gewandhaus American tour due to indisposition. Lortie is not a Beethoven pianist, and his performance was unsatisfactory: too low-key, too tidy, too diffident, too lacking in personality to bring Beethoven’s most demanding concerto to life. Probity, weight, grandeur—and fire—were absent in Lortie’s small-scale performance. Passages that should have provided high relief turned into mere filigree: the opening cadenza had no thrill; the great climaxes of the Allegro were underpowered; the eruption of the great theme at the beginning of the Rondo was of no moment. Lortie was at his best in the Adagio, where his playing was suitably reflective and very Classically poised, if a bit chilly.

The many bravura demands of the “Emperor” imposed a severe strain upon Lortie’s basic technique: there was a lot of suspect passagework, and Lortie was never able, in passages demanding volume and power, to draw a rich and pleasing sound from his instrument. In terms of pure pianism, Lortie was impressive not at all.

In the concerto, Chailly was caught between a rock and a hard place. Whenever he tried to bring the accompaniment to life, his intensity overpowered the soloist, rendering Lortie’s playing more impersonal and unsatisfactory than ever. Whenever Chailly cut back, the music lost shape and direction. It was, no doubt, a very frustrating experience for all involved. The chief pleasure during the concerto performance was hearing the beautiful work of the Gewandhaus woodwinds.

The Symphony No. 7 was an altogether different matter. I thought Chailly offered about as fine a Beethoven performance as one is likely to encounter today, full of forward momentum, drama and, where necessary, power. Chailly nonetheless demonstrated that he was acutely aware of the Classical basis of the score—his was nowise a Romantic interpretation of Beethoven.

Chailly’s tempi were quick, the textures lean, yet the music never lost its necessary weight. The transition from the Introduction to the Vivace was the work of a master—surely no man alive can handle this difficult transition with more understanding and authority. The Vivace was thrilling, the finest account I have ever heard in the concert hall or on disc. Imposing, full of gravitas, gripped with drama, it nonetheless MOVED—and at a perfectly-chosen tempo. The Allegretto, I thought, erred on the side of briskness—but better that, surely, than trying to turn it into an Andante movement. The Presto verged on breathless, needing a touch more air and a touch more spring to the rhythms, yet the Presto undeniably melded with Chailly’s approach to the Allegretto. The concluding Allegro had incredible energy, drive and sweep. It was at the same exalted level as the Vivace, and provided a suitable and satisfying culmination for all that had come before. Such cannot often be said of performances of Beethoven’s Seventh.

Chailly possesses one of the secrets of Herbert Von Karajan: he knows where the climax lies in each movement of each piece he conducts, and he always delivers the climax perfectly (much easier said than done). Chailly shares this special gift with no other active conductor.

I cannot remember the last time I heard as fine a Beethoven symphony performance as that we heard Thursday night. In fact, it may have been the finest Beethoven symphony performance I have ever experienced.

When we heard the Gewandhaus in 2007, the orchestra was very impressive, yet the brass was reticent and the orchestral balance not as fine as Thursday night. After an additional two years under Chailly’s direction, the orchestra sounds better than I have ever heard it. The Gewandhaus may now be Europe’s finest orchestra.

We heard the Gewandhaus close on the heels of the Concertgebouw. The Gewandhaus has the superior sound, more beautiful and more refined, with a markedly superior balance (and purer intonation as well). The level of ensemble, too, is now higher in Leipzig than in Amsterdam. Leipzig is very, very fortunate to have Chailly—and Amsterdam surely laments its loss.

Chailly and the Gewandhaus may have provided the concert of the season.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Neues Rathaus, Munich

Munich’s Neues Rathaus, which we visited on July 31 of last year, seen from the tower of nearby Peterskirche.

The New Town Hall, a flamboyant example of Gothic Revival architecture, was constructed in two stages between 1867 and 1908. The portion of the building seen on the right was constructed first. Upon its completion, construction began on the rest of the building.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

On Tattoos And Piercings

An email message from a friend in Minneapolis:

The more I think about all the body mutilation we see today, the more I am in favor of it.

Ordinarily I have to waste time being around people to figure out if they're assholes or not. Frankly, it is pretty thoughtful of them to display their level of idiocy directly, so people can tell just by looking at them that they’re assholes.

This saves the rest of us the displeasure of interacting with them, and allows us the personal satisfaction of laughing at them for being such losers.


What could possibly motivate anyone to get a tattoo or piercing? It is simply incomprehensible to me. Like my friend in Minneapolis who sent the email message, I instinctively classify persons with tattoos and piercings as pond scum.

My sister-in-law, the psychiatrist, insists that tattoos and piercings are manifestations of low self-esteem.

My older brother on the subject: “There goes someone destined to go through life in a $9.00-an-jour job.”

My middle brother on the subject: “There goes someone who doesn’t have any friends to tell him how stupid he looks.”

My mother on the subject: “His mother must be heartbroken.”

My father on the subject: “Why, precisely, would someone even want to look like an ex-con?”

Josh on the subject: “There but for the grace of God . . .”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Altes Rathaus, Munich

Munich’s Altes Rathaus, which we visited on July 31 of last year, seen from the tower of nearby Peterskirche.

Munich’s Old Town Hall was built in the late 15th Century in German Gothic style. Destroyed during World War II, Altes Rathaus was reconstructed after the war in greatly simplified form.

The old postcard below shows Altes Rathaus in 1890.

There Will Always Be An England

There will always be an England.

Or will there?

It is I think fair to say that for a while, before Margaret Thatcher, there wasn't that much left of England, in the glorious old sense. Mrs. Thatcher is utterly candid in acknowledging that before her eventful term as prime minister, England was a disheveled mess. A second-rate power, slipping into Third World status. This was so on the international front as well as domestically. The one significant foreign venture (the liquidation of the British Empire was a passive act, bowing under the winds of change) after the victory in the World War was the Suez invasion of 1956 under Anthony Eden, and that had turned into farce. Prime Minister Eden was booted out after President Eisenhower read the riot act to a country that had no alternative but to abide by American judgment over what was permissible in foreign policy in parts of the world where America was also involved.

William F. Buckley, Jr., writing in 1993 about Margaret Thatcher's "The Downing Street Years"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Splendid Weekend

Joshua and I traveled to Washington for a long Presidents’ Day Weekend.

We chose Washington as our destination because, in one trip, we could catch the Mariinsky Ballet at the end of its Washington run of performances and the Bolshoi Ballet at the beginning of its Washington run of performances. The opportunity to see the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi back-to-back was irresistible to us—and it was irresistible to my parents, too, who joined us for the weekend—and there was the added incentive of a Washington appearance by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra.

We flew into Dulles on Friday night, choosing Dulles over Ronald Reagan because my parents could not get the flights they wanted into Ronald Reagan.

Our flight from Boston arrived twenty-five minutes before my parents’ flight from Minneapolis, and Josh and I were waiting for my parents in the arrivals area.

Because we had had to use Dulles, we had reserved a car for the weekend. This worked out beautifully for us, because Washington was still suffering from the after-effects of a once-in-a-decade snowstorm. A car made it much easier for us to get around town.

We spent Friday night at a resort and conference center in Chantilly, near Dulles, not wanting to make our way into downtown Washington until Saturday morning. This, too, worked out well for us, as we were able to check into our hotel not long after arriving at Dulles, enjoy an excellent dinner at a nearby restaurant (Copper Canyon Grill, where we had an exceptional dinner; Copper Canyon Grill is a recent East Coast offshoot of one of Oklahoma City’s finest restaurants), and settle in for the night.

On Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast at our Chantilly hotel, we made our way into Washington and checked into our Washington hotel.

Washington was in dreadful shape—there was snow everywhere, and many streets and sidewalks had not yet been properly cleared—and we were immediately gratified that we had a car at our disposal.

After an hour settling into our hotel, we spent much of Saturday afternoon at the Corcoran Gallery.

The traveling exhibition on view was “Turner To Cezanne: Masterpieces From The Davies Collection, National Museum Wales”, a gathering of fifty-some paintings and drawings from a collection assembled in the early 20th Century by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, granddaughters of a Welsh industrialist.

Josh’s parents had attended the exhibition in September, while “Turner To Cezanne” had been on display at the Oklahoma City Museum Of Art, and they had enjoyed the exhibition very much.

We, too, liked the exhibition. Most of the artworks were from the Barbizon Period as well as the periods of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and most had never been shown in the United States. There was only one outright first-tier masterpiece in the exhibition, Renoir’s “La Parisienne”, but the exhibition was well worth a look.

After “Turner To Cezanne”, we viewed part of the Corcoran’s European collection. The Corcoran’s European collection is spotty, in need of much work, but we enjoyed our stroll through the galleries.

The Corcoran Gallery Of Art needs to decide what kind of institution it wants to be. The Corcoran holds an admirable and fairly comprehensive collection of American painting, much of which is seldom on display. The Corcoran owns numerous fine European artworks, but the European collection is not comprehensive and major works are often off-view. The Corcoran also has an extensive collection of contemporary art of extremely variable quality.

It would seem apparent that the Corcoran should emphasize its strengths—its American and European collections—and minimize its attempts to become a “cutting edge” institution, which have never been successful. As it stands now, the Corcoran is neither fish nor fowl, unable to compete with The National Gallery Of Art’s collection of Old Master Paintings, unable to compete with The Phillips Collection’s strengths in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, unable to compete with The Smithsonian Museum Of American Art’s vast collection of American art, and unable to compete with the Hirshorn Museum in the realm of pure modernism. The Corcoran, at present, is floundering, an institution in search of a clear mission. While it flays, it has become a purveyor of small temporary exhibitions such as “Turner To Cezanne”, the type of exhibition The National Gallery would never touch.

I readily acknowledge, however, that any American art institution—in Washington or elsewhere—must find it impossible to compete against The National Gallery and its near-limitless resources.

After our visit to the Corcoran, we returned to our hotel to get ourselves ready for the evening.

First on our evening agenda was an early dinner. We went to Ruth’s Chris, which my father especially likes. We ordered filet, potatoes Lyonnaise and asparagus with Hollandaise sauce. Our dessert was apple crumb tart.

After dinner, we went to the Kennedy Center Opera House to see the Mariinsky Ballet’s presentation of “The Sleeping Beauty”.

The current Mariinsky production of “The Sleeping Beauty” is based upon Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1952 staging, which since its unveiling has proven very, very popular in Russia—but never particularly respected in the West.

Sergeyev dispensed with mime in his staging, preferring to move the action forward with dance and dance alone. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a choice, but Sergeyev was not a natural storyteller, at least based upon his production of “The Sleeping Beauty”. The story does not progress naturally and logically in Sergeyev’s hands.

For instance, The Lilac Fairy’s emendation of Carabosse’s curse in the extended Prologue does not register in the Sergeyev staging. This serious shortcoming renders the conclusion of the Prologue confusing, even senseless.

In Act I, the appearance of the spindle and Aurora’s pricking of her finger are entirely misstaged—and one of the princes is gratuitously slain at the conclusion of Act I, a jarring bit of stage business with no support either in the music or in the original scenario.

The heavily-cut and rearranged Act II is a mess from start to finish—among many peculiarities, Carabosse makes an unnecessary appearance and is killed—and a viewer unfamiliar with the story would have absolutely no idea what was going on between Prince Desire and The Lilac Fairy during the events leading up to the Panorama. I would write off Sergeyev’s Act II entirely, except it is my understanding that the Mariinsky uses a more complete version of Act II in Saint Petersburg, with a different, more elaborate series of stage settings.

Much else besides awkward storytelling is wrong with the Sergeyev “Sleeping Beauty”: the stage design is abundantly unattractive; the costume design is worse than unattractive; the lighting design is dismal.

Things were made worse by the undistinguished playing of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the conductor’s clumsy handling of the score—Alexei Repnikov chose impossibly slow tempi (no doubt to accommodate dancer preference) and offered an undramatic and unmoving reading of Tchaikovsky’s incomparable masterpiece.

And yet the evening was magnificent.

The standard of dancing was very, very high—the Mariinsky corps remains one of the glories of the age—and the principals were all able to fulfill the technical and dramatic requirements of their roles. It was a great night in the theater.

“The Sleeping Beauty” must be impossible to stage. I have never seen a production worthy of the ballet, and I never expect to.

Most versions of “The Sleeping Beauty” are pared down. The Sergeyev production uses neither the complete score nor the complete scenario, yet the Sergeyev staging is less pared-down than some other stagings I have seen: the evening, with intermissions, came in at over two hours and forty-five minutes.

Nonetheless, we were not bored for a minute, despite the many shortcomings of the production. The Mariinsky dancers bring a unique conviction, style and purity to 19th-Century repertory that no other company can match.

On Sunday morning, we ate a late breakfast at our hotel.

After breakfast, we went to The Phillips Collection, which we had not visited in almost four years.

We walked through a temporary exhibition devoted to Georgia O’Keefe, an artist I have never admired. None of us found the exhibition to be particularly interesting.

Afterward we visited the permanent collection, spending serious time, as always, before Renoir’s “Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, a painting that never fails to impress.

From The Phillips Collection we drove to The National Cathedral and walked around for an hour.

From The National Cathedral we drove to Arlington and enjoyed an early dinner at a barbecue place Josh and I used to haunt. The restaurant, truly, is not much more than a hole-in-the-wall, but Josh and I always liked its North Carolina pulled-pork sandwiches—and North Carolina pulled-pork sandwiches were what we ordered, served with cole slaw and baked beans.

After dinner, we remained in Arlington in order to attend a performance of Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

“I Am My Own Wife” is a play about a real person, Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), an East German cross-dresser who unaccountably survived two notorious regimes, the Nazis and the Communists. During the course of the play, the audience learns, to its discomfort, that the reason Mahlsdorf managed to survive the repression of the East German state was because she had served as an informant for the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police.

“I Am My Own Wife” is an intriguing play, raising many uncomfortable issues (which the play does not attempt to resolve). One actor is called upon to portray all the characters, more than forty in all. For a production to be successful, a tour de force performance is required. The actor in the Signature Theatre performance made a game attempt, but a finer performance was needed to bring the material fully to life. Signature Theatre’s presentation was at the level of a college drama department production.

On Monday, after breakfast at our hotel, we visited The Holocaust Museum. Josh and I had visited The Holocaust Museum in December 2007, but my parents had never visited the museum until Monday morning.

My parents were gravely disappointed in The Holocaust Museum, which I might have predicted. The building is poorly designed and the displays are poorly designed and poorly chosen. Never have I experienced a history museum or history displays more inept. The Holocaust exhibition on permanent display at The Imperial War Museum in London puts the Washington museum to shame.

From The Holocaust Museum, we walked to the Freer Gallery Of Art. We spent three very happy hours at the Freer, leisurely going through the entire building, with my mother always available to point out interesting details the rest of us might have overlooked. As a general rule, I am not particularly interested in Asian art, but I found our time at the Freer to be captivating—and a return visit to The Peacock Room is always rewarding.

Once we had seen everything at the Freer, we returned to our hotel to relax for a couple of hours before getting ready for the evening.

We ate dinner at a Trattoria. We ordered four different antipasti, which we shared: fried eggplant; sautéed mushrooms and potatoes with herbs; pasta stuffed with ricotta, Parmigiano and spinach, in a tomato sauce; and pasta stuffed with ground meat, in a tomato-cream sauce. We ordered four entrees, which we also shared: veal in a white wine sauce; veal with spinach and mozzarella in a cream sauce; veal with fresh tomato basil; and veal with peppers in a tomato sauce. We were very happy with our food.

After dinner, we proceeded to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for a concert by the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Monday night’s concert was the first stop on the orchestra’s 2010 tour of North America.

The orchestra had an off night, not uncommon for musical ensembles embarking upon lengthy foreign tours. First stops often prove hazardous.

There were only two works on the program—Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2—yet nothing jelled in either work.

Mariss Jansons is a fine Sibelius conductor, but nothing happened in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. I suspect the fault lies with soloist Janine Jansen, who brought no special insight to the work and who gave what must be termed a “superficial” reading. Her tempi were very free, constantly changing, and such free tempi no doubt prevented Jansons from tying the first movement together. The second and third movements were not as perilous, yet I thought Jansons looked frustrated throughout the entire concerto performance, as if he were wondering why the orchestra had not engaged a more apt soloist. The musicians in the orchestra played beautifully, but without commitment or passion. I cannot imagine a more indifferent performance of the Sibelius.

I do not like the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony—it has always struck me as a series of big gestures that do not cohere into a pleasing whole—and I did not like the Concertgebouw performance. Jansons was unable to maintain tension in the never-ending first and fourth movements, which made the somewhat more attractive second and third movements seem like pleasant but irrelevant interludes in an otherwise interminable work. Jansons has the measure of this symphony, because he has recorded it, beautifully, with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic for EMI, but his leadership Monday night was not particularly focused or enthused.

The ensemble of the Concertgebouw is no longer as tight as it was under Riccardo Chailly. There has been significant deterioration in the orchestra over the last five years, most notable in the violin section, which has developed a distinct wiry tone, and the winds, which were not very suave or very giving on Monday night. The Concertgebouw musicians always played like crackerjacks for Chailly. Under Jansons, the orchestra is clearly going for a more molded approach to music-making—and this approach appears not to be bearing fruit.

“Every time I hear this orchestra, it is less impressive than the previous time” was my father’s comment both at intermission and at the conclusion of the concert. Of course, according to my mother, my father has been offering that same opinion about the Concertgebouw for more than thirty years. (My father often heard the orchestra at its peak in the 1970’s under Bernard Haitink, before deterioration set in in the early 1980’s coincident with Haitink’s marital troubles.)

On Tuesday morning, after breakfast at our hotel, we traveled to The National Gallery Of Art, where we spent the day.

First thing, we viewed the Chester Dale exhibition, recently opened, devoted to artworks donated to The National Gallery by one of its most important benefactors. The National Gallery’s holdings in the periods of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Early Modernism would be far less important without the Dale gifts. Until we walked through the exhibition rooms, I had not realized how many important paintings were gifts of Dale: the list was endless.

All of The National Gallery’s important early Picasso realist paintings may be traced to Dale, including the great “Family Of Saltimbanques” and “The Tragedy”. Two of its very finest and most popular Renoir paintings, “A Girl With A Watering Can” and “Girl With A Hoop”, were Dale paintings. Key paintings by Manet, Degas, Monet, Cassatt, Morisot, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani, Braque: all may be traced to Dale. The exhibition was exhausting.

After we completed the Dale exhibition, we spent a couple of hours in the sculpture galleries, which we enjoyed immensely.

Our final trek was through the Italian Renaissance and Italian Baroque rooms, which we examined very closely (we deliberately skipped the fifteen or so Early Italian Renaissance rooms, in which the visitor can easily get bogged down).

After our visit to The National Gallery, we spent ninety minutes in The Air And Space Museum.

In late afternoon, we returned to our hotel to get ready for the evening.

We had dinner at McCormick And Schmick’s. We ordered Maryland crab soup; an arugula salad with pears, roasted yellow beets, blue cheese and pecans; and Day Boat Cod, which our waiter recommended, informing us that the cod had been caught off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts that very morning. The Day Boat Cod was served with potatoes crusted with spinach in a mustard cream sauce. We enjoyed our dinner, even if the current menu at McCormick And Schmick’s is striving very hard to be “trendy”.

After our dinner, we returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House for the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Spartacus”.

I had never seen “Spartacus”. Before the performance, I had no clue what to expect.

Yuri Grigorovich’s choreography is garbage, and the ballet itself could never survive a cool, critical assessment—and yet the silly thing somehow works, and works beautifully, at least in the kind of performance we witnessed Tuesday night.

Tuesday night’s performance was spectacular. The company obviously believed in the material—I am not sure whether that speaks well for the dancers or not—and gave a committed, even dazzling performance, full of pyrotechnics and bravura. I had ever seen anything like it.

The young dancer that portrayed Spartacus is soon to be a huge international star. His name is Ivan Vasiliev (no relation to the great Vladimir Vasiliev) and he had stage presence to burn, the magnetism of a Rudolf Nureyev, the speed and burst of a world-class athlete, and leaps that had to be seen to be believed.

My parents saw Mikhail Baryshnikov in his prime and, according to my parents, Baryshnikov’s famous leaps were nothing compared to what the young Vasiliev can do. Vasiliev’s leaps were astonishing: they were higher, faster, more controlled, and more awe-inspiring than any leaps I have ever seen.

Vasiliev may have been born to dance Spartacus. Muscular, compact, authoritative, with the coiled energy of an animal, he is considered to be the finest exponent of the role since the work’s unveiling four decades ago, quite an accomplishment as Vasiliev is so short: he is only 5’6”. Already the star of the Bolshoi, he is only 21 years old.

The success of “Spartacus” as a stage vehicle is due to its display of athleticism and virtuoso dancing. The ballet is packed with incident and even some degree of drama, and easily holds the viewer’s attention for almost three hours. Some of the stage pictures are quite striking, and there are at least four roles for dancers that provide opportunity for character development.

Aram Khachaturian’s score is not as poor as its reputation. All of the music is apt for the action, and some of the numbers are quite beautiful, especially the music for Phrygia. The score should probably be better known.

We enjoyed “Spartacus” very much, even though “Spartacus” is not the kind of thing one would want to see often.

The Bolshoi is in stunning shape—the level of dancing was spectacular, both from the women and from the men—and the company’s Washington engagement demonstrated that the dancers’ command of what passed for “modernism” in the Soviet Era is complete. I wish the company had brought a Classical program to the U.S., too, to demonstrate the company’s level of proficiency in Classical repertory.

On Wednesday morning, we ate an early breakfast at our hotel and checked out. We had two hours at our disposal before we had to head for Dulles, and we spent those hours at The Library Of Congress, which opens at 8:30 a.m.

We viewed the current exhibits in the Jefferson Building. One was devoted to George and Ira Gershwin. Another was a recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s library, which formed the core collection of the original Library Of Congress. Most impressive was The Library Of Congress bibles exhibit. On display were the Bible Of Mainz and one of the original copies of The Gutenberg Bible, accompanied by other materials addressing The Library Of Congress’s extensive historic bible collection. It was a pleasing way to kill two hours.

We arrived at Dulles with plenty of time to spare: after checking in and passing through security, we had two hours and thirty minutes on our hands before our flights were due to depart. We had a sandwich, and drank coffee, and talked until it was time for us to go our separate ways.

It was a splendid weekend. My parents, especially, had a wonderful time. They loved seeing the two Russian ballet companies, they appreciated the Concertgebouw concert, they enjoyed the museums—and they didn’t even mind our Sunday evening in Arlington, with the “I Am My Own Wife” performance preceded by a barbecue dinner at a greasy spoon.

“Do you think Greece can be any better than this?” was a question my father posed at the airport while we were sitting and drinking coffee. He was referring to our upcoming trip to Greece during Josh’s Spring Break.

I don’t know the answer to my father’s question—but it will be hard to spend four happier days than the days we spent this past weekend.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"When Passion Can Sweep The Facts Before It"

All parties in a democracy are jeopardized when passion can sweep the facts before it.

Allan Bloom, in discussing France’s inexplicable and chilling national furor in the mid-1930’s to expand cradle-to-grave social welfare benefits while the nation’s security was in peril and its economy in ruins. Bloom goes on to describe France’s fatal decade-long vacation from reality, embodied in

newsreel pictures of Frenchmen splashing happily in the waters at the seashore, enjoying the paid vacations legislated by Léon Blum's Popular Front government. It was 1936, the same year Hitler was permitted to occupy the Rhineland.

By 1940, France was no more.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Laughingstocks In Los Angeles

One of the most important artists of the German Renaissance was Christoph Amberger (circa 1505-1561/62), a Hans Holbein disciple who practiced his craft primarily in Nuremberg and Augsburg. After his study with Holbein, Amberger traveled for two years in Italy, where he acquired a mastery of Italian painting techniques. Upon his return to Germany, Amberger became one of the most celebrated painters in Central Europe.

Amberger was, above all, renowned as a portrait painter, especially favored by the merchant families of Augsburg, including the Fugger family, the wealthiest and most influential family of merchant bankers in Europe during the 16th Century. Amberger paintings are highly coveted, on permanent display in the very finest art museums of Europe.

While we were in Munich in August, we viewed the Amberger paintings owned by the Alte Pinakothek, which has the world’s most distinguished collection of German Renaissance paintings.

One particularly notable Alte Pinakothek painting by Amberger is a portrait of Christoph Fugger of the Fugger family. The painting is one of the most famous of all Amberger works.

Christoph Amberger (circa 1505-1561/62)
Christoph Fugger
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Oil On Panel
38 3/4 Inches By 32 Inches

Amberger paintings are prized by connoisseurs everywhere.

The Alte Pinakothek, for instance, generally keeps three Amberger paintings on display at all times. The Kunsthistorisches in Vienna owns nine Amberger works, with eight of the nine paintings on display in active rotation. The Uffizi Gallery owns only one Amberger painting, but it is always on view.

American museums own very, very few artworks of the German Renaissance. Amberger paintings are almost unknown here. The neglect of art of the German Renaissance is one of the critical weaknesses of American art institutions, including even The Metropolitan Museum Of Art and The National Gallery Of Art, neither of which owns an admirable—or even important—collection of German paintings from the period (and neither of which owns an Amberger).

I was, consequently, astonished to read that the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art sold its only Amberger painting last week at a Sotheby’s auction of Old Master Paintings. The sale was purportedly engineered “to benefit future acquisitions” for LACMA.

What could the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art acquire that could possibly be more important—or more rare—than an Amberger painting? And an Amberger Fugger painting, no less?

The Los Angeles Amberger painting bears many similarities to Munich’s famed Amberger painting: both paintings derive from 1541; both canvases are of the same size; both feature prominent figures from the Fugger family, exquisitely attired and posed before green drapery; and both paintings have a long and distinguished ownership history. Indeed, the sitter for the Los Angeles Amberger painting, Hans Jakob Fugger, was the brother of Christoph Fugger, the sitter for the Munich Amberger painting.

Christoph Amberger (circa 1505-1561/62)
Hans Jakob Fugger
Formerly Owned By The Los Angeles County Museum Of Art, Los Angeles

Oil On Panel
37 3/4 Inches By 31 1/4 Inches

Long studied by scholars, the Los Angeles Amberger painting has an extensive and distinguished monographic record. In fact, it has twice been featured in LACMA-published monographs discussing the crown jewels of the LACMA collection.

Since 1968, when LACMA acquired the painting through gift, the Los Angeles Amberger has been in demand for loan worldwide, traveling to Europe several times for inclusion in various European exhibitions.

Why has LACMA abandoned one of its most important artworks? And who at LACMA made the boneheaded decision to sell such a rare work of art, practically unique in the United States?

The blame may be placed on Patrice Marandel, LACMA’s Chief Curator Of Painting, who stated, publicly, that the Amberger painting “had sat in storage in recent years because [it] no longer conform[ed] with LACMA’s goals for its exhibition program”. Marandel’s statement may constitute the single most stupid public utterance ever made by an American museum official.

The Los Angeles Amberger, the only Amberger painting in an American public collection so far as I can ascertain, should have enjoyed a prominent—and permanent—place in LACMA’s galleries. It was one of LACMA’s most important paintings, a standout in an otherwise undistinguished if not mediocre collection.

Anyone not convinced of the importance of the Los Angeles Amberger painting need only read the Sotheby’s Catalog:

In 1968, Alfred Strange described this portrait as "one of the most beautiful works of the full-blown Renaissance in Germany". It was painted in 1541 by Christoph Amberger, the leading painter in Augsburg at the time, and it almost certainly represents Hans Jakob Fugger, eldest son of Raimond Fugger and a member of the richest family in the Holy Roman Empire.

The portrait's success lies in its fusion of German Renaissance and Italian Mannerist ideals, rising out of the tradition of Holbein and Dürer's great portraits of the early decades of the 16th century while looking, too, at the stylized aristocratic portraiture being developed by Pontormo and Bronzino who, at about the same time, were court painters in Florence to the Fuggers' great rivals, the Medici.

Here, Fugger is depicted as the epitome of Renaissance man, impeccably dressed in a dark jacket in the Spanish style that was the height of fashion circa 1540, his hand resting above the hilt of his beautifully molded sword, and looking confidently, perhaps even arrogantly, into the distance.

In the same year Amberger painted the portrait of Hans Jakob's younger brother, Christoph (1520-1579), in similar guise, at the age of twenty, on a panel of near-identical dimensions (Munich, Alte Pinakothek). In this latter, Christoph does indeed appear a few years younger than Hans Jakob in the present portrait and he shares with him a great physiognomic likeness. Christoph's portrait can be traced with certainty back to the Fugger family collection at Babenhausen and it seems very likely that these two portraits thus constituted a joint commission from Amberger to paint the two brothers in 1541.

Any American museum that would sell an Amberger painting—let alone an important Amberger painting—is, by definition, a laughingstock. That The Los Angeles Times has not been providing extensive and critical coverage of this shameful sale signifies that that city’s primary newspaper and its art reporters are laughingstocks as well.

The Board Of Trustees Of The Los Angeles County Museum Of Art needs to conduct an inquiry, immediately, investigating the circumstances of the deaccession of its Amberger masterpiece. All persons involved in approving the sale of this rarest of paintings, including the Museum Director, Michael Govan, should be removed, immediately, from their positions.

Of course, such will never happen, as the Board Of Trustees of LACMA has itself been a laughingstock for years. The museum has been embroiled in controversy since the day it opened its doors; the list of prominent art patrons that have retracted promised gifts to LACMA is the longest of any American art institution.

LACMA being a lost cause, the question remains: who bought the Los Angeles Amberger last week?

The identity of the buyer has not been made public, but rumor is that two American museums were bidders for the painting. Since both the Kimbell Museum and The National Gallery have been trying to improve their German collections in recent years, I suspect that one of those two institutions may have acquired the painting.

Sotheby’s anticipated that the Amberger would command a price between $200,000 and $300,000, an absurdly-low figure for a rare German Renaissance painting. Happily, the painting sold for several times its pre-sale estimate: $1,202,500 was the final hammer price.

Nonetheless, the painting is worth twenty times that sum.

Of the many Old Master Paintings offered at last week’s auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, only the Amberger painting sold for several times its pre-sale estimate.

This proves that someone has been paying attention, even if morons at LACMA and The Los Angeles Times remain clueless.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

"An Old Man's Winter Night"

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him -- at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off; -- and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.

Robert Frost (1916)