Smaller Spaces

You know what I mean: those places where you go to hear music and feel you are getting a privileged treat, because the hall is more intimate than a grand opera house or a concert auditorium. Not that big is always bad. It’s just that small can sometimes feel very special, as if you alone are in on the secret.

Zankel Hall is hardly a secret anymore, for avid New York music-lovers. But compared to Stern Hall, its vast sister space at Carnegie, it can still feel appealingly private. So it was with a distinct pleasure that I learned, upon arriving at Carnegie’s press desk on May 6, that the evening’s performance by Philharmonia Baroque was taking place not in Stern, as I had expected, but in Zankel. That wood-paneled, two-level space was just right for the wonderful yet obscure Scarlatti opera—a startling rediscovery by Maestro McGegan—that unfolded over the course of the evening. La Gloria di Primavera apparently premiered in Naples in 1716 as a way of celebrating the arrival of the infant heir to the Hapsburg empire, who happened to be visiting the Neapolitan outpost with his parents. Some months later, however, the much-longed-for baby died, and hence this celebratory opera was deep-sixed from then to now. The terrific revival by Philharmonia Baroque, featuring brilliant soloists like the tenor Nicholas Phan and the baritone Douglas Williams, was so fun, lively, and beautiful that I couldn’t imagine how the intervening three centuries had managed to live without it.

Fewer New Yorkers know about the Baryshnikov Art Center‘s Howard Gilman Performance Space, but it too is a wonderful place to hear music, and even more intimate than Zankel. Structured like a large rehearsal studio (which it indeed sometimes is), this fourth-floor space at BAC has been home to great chamber concerts ever since Pedja Muzijevic, the BAC’s artistic administrator, began hosting the Movado Hour about a decade ago. Now the sponsorship has moved inward to the BAC itself, but the BAC Salons (still hosted by Pedja) are no less delightful and the music no less inspiring. On May 5 I was able to hear an exciting young quartet group I’d never heard before, the Aeolus Quartet, performing two stellar pieces: a relatively new work, Washed by Fire, by the composer Keeril Makan, and Dvorak’s moving String Quartet op. 105, composed in 1895. They were very different pieces, but they went perfectly together in this setting, where the musicians were simultaneously relaxed and highly adept. Meanwhile, we in the audience sat at cafe tables only a few yards away from the charming, skillful players, sipping our complimentary glasses of wine and enjoying the sense that we were surrounded by yet shielded from the bustling city around us.

Great as these New York spaces are, though, they cannot compete in my affections with London’s Wigmore Hall.  But then, nothing can. I have been attending concerts there since my early twenties (though often with long gaps in between), and increasingly as I get older I find that the atmosphere at Wigmore is perfect—not only for the familiar pieces of chamber music that I have always loved, but for new things that I am hearing for the first time. On my most recent trip to London, I was lucky enough to attend two Wigmore concerts: one (on May 12) featuring the pianist and composer Ryan Wigglesworth, the tenor Mark Padmore, and the soprano Victoria Simmonds; the other (on May 17) offering an all-star line-up of Jonathan Biss on the piano, Lisa Batiashvili on the violin, Antoine Tamestit on the viola, and Jean-Guihen Queyras on the cello.

The May 12 concert included a London premiere (Wigglesworth’s own song cycle, Echo and Narcissus, with words taken from a Ted Hughes poem), which was sandwiched between some Schumann lieder and a great, heretofore unknown to me piece by Janacek called The Diary of One Who Disappeared. I mean it as the highest kind of compliment when I say that the Wigglesworth piece lived up to its surroundings. All three works were filled with feeling of the most intense sort—the kind that Padmore, for one, is expert at expressing and eliciting—and because I had never heard the Janacek before, it was as if I were hearing two premieres rather than just one. The audience couldn’t have been better: the profound silences, during the breaks between songs, were so deep you could have heard a pin drop (or a dog-chain rattle, as I did when the blind listener in the row in front of me courteously removed his guide-dog’s collar to prevent any further intrusive sound, however mild it might be). The Wigmore audience looks a bit old and stuffy—and sounds, when it speaks during the intervals, awfully posh—but for chamber-concert behavior, it just can’t be beat.

I had thought the deeply attentive silences might be a response to the vocal emotionality of the May 12 concert, but then I heard the same silences between the movements of May 17’s three works, all of which were purely instrumental: Schumann’s 3 Romances, Martinu’s Duo for violin and cello, and Schumann’s Märchenbilder. The Martinu was a beautiful oddity that allowed Batiashvili and Queyras to strut their virtuosic stuff (though never in a way that betrayed the music). The Schumann pieces, on the other hand, were pure romantic loveliness.  I am not used to thinking of myself as a Schumann fan, but in the presence of these superlative chamber musicians, and seated amidst these hugely appreciative listeners, I almost felt he could become a favorite. I imagine it’s theoretically possible that Wigmore Hall could, at times, host a less-than-satisfying concert, but I have never heard one there, and I hope I never will.


Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Filling Carnegie Hall

In the middle of April I heard three chamber-music concerts on the main stage of Carnegie Hall, and they were all, quite frankly, great.

The first was the complete Brahms piano quartets, played by a dream ensemble that included Leif Ove Andsnes on the piano, James Ehnes on the violin, Tabea Zimmerman on the viola, and Clemens Hagen on the cello. (The violinist was supposed to be the marvelous Christian Tetzlaff, who had to cancel at the last minute to await the birth of his child. Most of the audience was understandably nervous at losing this outstanding player, but they didn’t know what I did: that Ehnes is pretty terrific too. When he played, they found out.) I had never heard all three of these quartets played together before—they are very long, ranging from 36 to 52 minute each—and it turned out to be one of those profound experiences comparable to hearing a Shostakovich or a Bartok cycle.  The time scale of composition was incredibly compressed (I think Brahms wrote them all within a single decade, and then wrote no others), but the distance from Piano Quartet #1 to Piano Quartet #3 is like that between early Beethoven quartets and late ones. It was solid, intense music in every case, but it was something more by the end—reaching toward the impossible, musically, and almost getting there. And these musicians did Brahms full honors.

The second concert was the wildly applauded and fully sold out performance of Yo Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax in the complete Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello.  I have only to say the names and you know how good it was. And yet, as I listened to even the most delicate cello notes waft their way successfuly to me in my Carnegie Hall seat, it occurred to me that I would have enjoyed it more in a smaller space.  It was not a question of audibility, but of intimacy: a chamber collaboration, especially one involving strings, is like a familial event, whispering its music in your ears, and it needs a familial-sized auditorium to go with it.  Carnegie Hall’s Stern auditorium is many great things, but it is not intimate—and realizing this about the Ma/Ax concert made me understand that, had I not been so gripped by the revelation of the Brahms sequence, I would have felt the same way then. Music like this just does not belong in a huge hall.

So it was with some trepidation that I attended Jeremy Denk’s afternoon concert a few days later.  He was going to be all alone onstage, playing an English suite of Bach’s, a late Schubert sonata, and a weird series of ragtime-related pieces. Would the piano hold up to the challenge?  Strangely, it did.  Something about the sound of a piano on its own, even when it is at its quietest, projects in a way that chamber music with strings and piano does not. Of course it would have been nicer to hear him from close up—it is almost always nicer to hear solo musicians from close up—but in this case Denk made the concert feel as if it were taking place in his living room. He did this in part by speaking to us about the weird ragtime sequence, explaining his reasoning for each choice (from seventeenth-century Byrd through twentieth-century Joplin to modernist pieces by Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Nancarrow). And he also did it by ordering these pieces, not chronologically, but in a way that made us hear the interplays between them. It was a thrilling concert, and to my surprise it was not the elegant Bach nor the highly moving Schubert that accounted for my delight. Rather, it was the sense Denk gave me of sitting over his shoulder as he chose those ragtime pieces and thought, through both his fingers and his brain, about what connected them.

And then, on April 20, I finally got to hear a concert that didn’t just survive the size of Carnegie Hall, but used it to the full.  This was the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Mariss Jansons, playing Shostakovich’s seventy-minute Leningrad Symphony. I ignored all the stuff in the program about whether the symphony was about Stalin’s depredations or Hitler’s: such theories are all crap, if you ask me, and the music speaks directly enough for itself. Some people consider it simpleminded, and it does rely heavily on repetition; it also plays on the emotions in an almost movie-soundtrack way. (Shostakovich was, of course, a brilliant creator of movie soundtracks, as his Lear and his Hamlet both demonstrate.) But neither of these facts detracts one bit from the power of the performance, when it is as good as this one was.  I felt the floor and the seat shaking beneath me as the snare drums and the cymbals and even the double-bass pizzicatos lent the piece their huge percussive sound. And I wondered if this music—written for starving Russians besieged during the Second World War, and now played for a comfortable American audience by a German orchestra on what was coincidentally the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday—would ever cease to move people. I hope not.



Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

March Madness

For the past few weeks I have practically been running from one performance to another. As follows:

On Friday, March 11, and Sunday, March 13, I once again saw L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (this time at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall). Since I have seen Mark Morris’s masterpiece at least 20 or 25 times—no exaggeration, since I always go at least twice if it’s in my vicinity—there is probably little new I can say about it except: Hooray! Bravo! Do it again!  The company was in excellent shape for these performances, and it was especially moving to see a couple of the recently retired dancers, the superb Maile Okamura and amazing Amber Star Merkins, back onstage in their usual parts.

Soon after the L’Allegro run was over, I dashed off to New York in time to watch some previewed scenes of The Leopard, an opera that the composer Michael Dellaira is in the process of writing (with libretto by J. D. McClatchy, based on the book by Giuseppe di Lampedusa). On March 17, the Manhattan School of Music and its singers-in-training ably presented four scenes from this still-embryonic work, and though it is hard for an amateur like me to imagine the piano accompaniment transformed into a full orchestra, it is already clear that this will be Dellaira’s best opera yet: a worthy tribute to Lampedusa’s marvelous Sicilian novel.

The very next day, March 18, I was treated to a performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov in his limited-run one-man show, Brodsky/Baryshnikov, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. (There are a lot of Baryshnikovs in that sentence, but they are unavoidable.) More theater than dance, the piece borrows strategies from Tadeusz Kantor’s 1960s Polish “poor theater” as well as even older strategies from American vaudeville. It consists mainly of Baryshnikov sitting still and reading or reciting poems by Brodsky; occasionally he moves in strange and evocative ways as Brodsky’s taped voice recites the poems. Baryshnikov is a great speaker of poetry, and of course he moves beautifully; I just wish I knew Russian, because it was clear even from the sound that what I was getting in the English that flashed across the supertitle screen was in no way equivalent to the poetry itself.

On March 19 I went to a late-night performance of the Ethan Iverson Quartet at a tiny jazz club in the Village called Smalls. In fact, there is no “Ethan Iverson Quartet” — these were simply three other friendly jazz musicians (Ben Street on bass, Eric McPherson on drums, and the amazing Dayna Stephens on saxophone) gathered together by Iverson, a great jazz pianist usually associated with The Bad Plus, to improvise on some jazz standards.  The fact that they were not accustomed to playing together did not hamper their affinity in any way; it might even have added to it, since the two sets (which started at 10:30 and ended at about 1:00 a.m.) constituted about the most exciting jazz I’ve heard recently. I was particularly thrilled to be sitting just behind Iverson’s right shoulder — close enough to turn pages, if he had used pages, but of course none of them did.

On Sunday, March 20, in the late afternoon, I went to something I had been looking forward to at Carnegie Hall — actually at Weill, the smallest of Carnegie’s three halls. It was James Levine conducting a group of chamber musicians drawn from the Met Orchestra in two different serenades, one by Schoenberg and the other by Mozart. The music was excellent, or would have been, if Levine had not been so severely hampered by his Parkinson’s disease, which has reached a level that makes conducting essentially impossible. It was a painful event: the musicians obviously know and love him, and were doing their best for him, but the performance kept pausing while he regained control of his arms and hands. More even than Brodsky/Baryshnikov, which was explicitly about death in a firm, purposeful, and aesthetically coherent way, this event struck me as a reminder of mortality’s ever-lurking presence, in ways its presenters had perhaps not fully anticipated.

After all these small-scale occasions in which the emotional level ran high, it was a bit of a relief to swan off to the Metropolitan Opera‘s huge auditorium on March 22 and simply bask in the rather staid but perfectly adequate performance of The Marriage of Figaro. Isabel Leonard was terrific as Cherubino; everyone else was just fine; the music was great, as expected. It did not move me at all.  But then, not everything can.

And then, on March 23, a week into the strenuous New York schedule, I attended David Cromer’s production of The Effect—a new play by the English writer Lucy Prebble—at the Barrow Street Theatre. Once again I was in the front row, and once again I had the thrill of an intimate performance, this time set up by my favorite director, whose work I have been following since I first saw his Adding Machine and then his revelatory Our Town in the Village years ago. I think The Effect is the best new play Cromer has done (as opposed to those startling revivals, at which he excels), and I was gripped by every minute of the performance. The reviews I’ve read tend to underestimate its complexity: the play is not “about” pharmaceutical trials and cures, it is not “about” relationships, it is not “about” parallels between couples. Rather, it embodies and uses all of these to create an intense narrative experience that is at once theatrical and realistic. The performances by the two younger actors (Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson) were perfection—there was no seam between actor and character, and their chemistry (to use a loaded term in this context) was remarkable. The older woman doctor was beautifully conveyed by Susannah Flood, who brought real pathos to a difficult and sometimes unsympathetic role. My only problem, actor-wise, was with Steve Key, whose grasp of his mainly self-serving character seemed a bit weak. But that was a minor problem with the production, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys good theater — a rarity in itself these days.




Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Four Quartets

Not T. S. Eliot’s, but real string-playing musicians. 

Over the course of less than a month, I recently had the opportunity to hear four first-class quartet groups who were visiting the Bay Area. The string quartet is a strange beast: some have described it as an octopus with eight arms, a single unit melded together through practice. I have a more complicated sense about what makes for an excellent string quartet—it involves cohesion but also individuality, long hours of practice but also inherent sensibility, and even the best quartet group does not play all items of the repertoire equally well. But I was lucky enough, in February and early March, to hear four of my favorite quartets, one after another.

If I have to choose a favorite among favorites, it will always be the Pacifica Quartet—not only because I have been following them with so much affection for so many years, but also because they continually surprise me. On February 12 I went to their concert at San Francisco Performances thinking I would essentially get a rerun of a concert I had heard eighteen months earlier at Alice Tully Hall. That would have been fine; I loved the earlier concert. But to my delight, what I got was something altogether new—not only because a Mozart quartet had been substituted for the initial Haydn, and the closing Mendelssohn quartet switched out for a different Mendelssohn quartet, but because the sole repeated piece, Shulamit Ran’s recent Quartet No. 3 (titled “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory”), seemed like something other than what it had originally seemed. There were the recognizable moments—all four players stamping their feet vehemently at once, second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson quietly whistling, the jagged clacks of non-musical sounds occasionally emitted by the four instruments—but what finally emerged from these skillful, mutually attuned, always inventive players was a sense that the music was being created on the spot. The Pacificas can do this, incidentally, as easily with Beethoven as they can with a contemporary composer; I have heard them do it many times. But it is still a novel pleasure to see that all live music remains truly live in their hands, however young or old it may be.

Next up in my tour of great string quartets was the venerable Takacs Quartet, performing on February 21 under the auspices of Cal Performances. Two of these players—the second violin and the cellist—are still the original Hungarians who formed the group; the first violin is a highly accomplished Englishman; and the violist is a much-loved former Bay Area player, Geraldine Walther. I don’t feel the personal connection with these guys that I do with the Pacificas, but I certainly take every opportunity to hear them, especially when they are performing Central European pieces. This time, though, the program went from Haydn to Timo Andres to Brahms (not unlike the Pacificas’ sandwich, with the contemporary piece as filling), and though every individual item was good, none was overwhelmingly great. It wasn’t until they played the encore—a snippet of one of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets, as a foretaste of what we will get when they do the full Beethoven cycle next year—that the concert really came alive for me. It’s hard to define what makes the difference in such cases: the coherence and vitality with which they play? my own affection for the material? theirs? Whatever it was, it was there in the Beethoven, in full force, reminding me of why it’s always worth coming out for this group.

The third quartet in my series was also courtesy of Cal Performances: the Danish String Quartet, a group of four young men who began playing on these shores only a few years back. (I first heard them at Music@Menlo, which is where I believe their American career started.) If the Takacs performance had felt ever-so-slightly routine, this February 28 concert was just the opposite: an incredibly exciting afternoon of music to which the audience responded as if they had been injected with caffeine. From the 1952 Danish piece (previously unknown to virtually all of us) with which they opened the program, to the Janacek “Kreutzer” quartet, and finally to Beethoven’s magnificent Op. 131, the whole program moved forward with an intensity I have rarely felt in a concert hall.  Part of this was due to the friendly manner of the players themselves, each of whom spoke to us in turn about the pieces we were going to hear. But a great deal of it had to do with the power with which they played: the unmitigated verve alternating with the necessary restraint, the sense of deep feeling generated and deep feeling contained, above all (especially in the Beethoven) the huge range of sensations and emotions that they managed to touch upon in the course of a single long sweep. It was one of those occasions when composer melded with performers to produce perfection—and when, after the Beethoven, they played a small Danish chorale as the encore, that too was perfect, because it let us down gently and released us to go home.

My fourth quartet concert, late at night on March 4, consisted of the JACK Quartet playing Georg Friedrich Haas’s Quartet No. 3, which is always done in complete darkness.  Again, this was a program put on by San Francisco Performances, but instead of taking place in the staid (if lovely) environs of Herbst Theater, it was put on in the new space at the Strand Theater on Market Street. I have heard the JACK play this piece before and even written about it with great admiration, but I have to say that on this occasion what struck me more than the music itself was the experience of getting to and being at the concert. That stretch of Market Street at night is like something out of Ahmedabad or Mumbai: a scary, continually-under-construction region populated by the hungry homeless, strewn across the sidewalks in unbelievable numbers, while meanwhile, half a block away, nouveau millionaires dine in exotic splendor in the huge variety of restaurants that have popped up to serve them. The Strand itself is a hip new location, and the audience to the sold-out event seemed excessively aware of its privilege in being there: not ideal circumstances for sinking contemplatively into dark music. I also felt that the acoustics were noticeably worse than the first time I heard this strange, sometimes evocative piece (which was at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York), and I deeply missed the sense of discovery that the previous occasion had afforded me.  Perhaps certain pieces of new music just don’t remain fresh enough to provide new excitements. Or perhaps the Market Street experience had dampened my senses, forcing me to shut down the receptive tentacles necessary for taking in something novel. I can’t say. But I won’t hold it against the JACK, whom I will eagerly revisit at the very next opportunity, since I know they are likely to have something new and good in store for me.

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Stupendous Saturday

Living in a place like Berkeley, one can sometimes feel deprived of great music, as if it is all happening somewhere else, in the great capital cities of the world. But I have never, in New York or London or Berlin, had the kind of musical day I had here on Saturday.

In the afternoon, I went over to the Berkeley campus, where Cal Performances was treating the public to a free “master class” rehearsal of the UC student orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. There had been a similar master class for student conductors in the morning, which I regretfully missed—a regret that increased exponentially when I heard how interesting it had been. But the rehearsal I saw was more than satisfying; it was a thrilling gift.

Dudamel—who, since he took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has aged slightly in appearance but has not lost one whit of his youthful vigor and charm—began by simply allowing the very good student orchestra to play the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s challenging Fourth Symphony. Okay, I thought, watching him, he’s pleasant enough to watch, but so what? Then he began to “work” the orchestra through certain passages in that movement, and the fireworks began. He made the strings repeatedly play a section of triplet measures that they insisted on separating, whereas he wanted the whole thing to flow: “You are cutting it,” he told them. “When you go to a party do you bring a cake already cut in slices? No, you bring the whole cake and cut it there.” Later he told the violas that they needed to come up strong, because if “you were wallflowers before, now you are at the center of the party.” He corrected the woodwinds for anticipating the speed of their crescendo: “It’s like you have a surprise for someone, and you tell them the surprise,” he admonished. But all his admonishments came with kindness and affection: “That is too short, my dears,” he told the brass about their blasts of sound, which he wanted less like percussion and more like an extended musical note. Often he sang what he wanted, to show pacing or feeling. And the apt metaphors just kept tumbling out of him, with unbelievable speed and variety. But metaphor was far from his only recourse. When he wanted the strings to enter on a louder note, even though their score was marked “piano,” he explained in detail that context was everything, and that the very loud sounds that preceded their entrance meant that even their piano had to be louder to stand up. “It’s like—it’s like—it’s not like anything. Just play it louder,” he ended up, as if mocking his own tendency toward profuse metaphor.

And the great thing was, you could hear the difference, even with this student orchestra. And the people around me—the amateur musicians and Cal students and high school students and arts patrons who had taken this free opportunity to hear Dudamel teach—could also hear the difference, as I could tell by the way they nodded and smiled. It was a grand lesson in music and how it works, and I wholeheartedly wished every child and adult in America could have it.

Once he had finished rehearsing the first movement, Dudamel’s allotted time was almost up, but he didn’t want to scrimp on the musical experience. So he had the oboe play the solo part from the beginning of the second movement—”Just because I want to hear it,” the conductor said, folding his arms and preparing to do nothing. “You start,” he nodded to the oboist, “and then you follow him,” he indicated to the rest of the orchestra. After listening carefully and with evident pleasure to this favorite passage, he moved the students immediately into the rousing fourth and final movement, with its brassy exuberance and frenetically bowed strings and clashing cymbals and pounding drums, during which he went wild himself with conducting. Naturally, at the end, the audience exploded in grateful applause—a sound markedly different in volume and tone from the merely acceptable level of clapping that had greeted the end of the first movement’s initial performance. They knew what they had been given.

For any normal day, or week, or even month, that would have been enough. But I was scheduled that night to hear the recently formed Tetzlaff Trio—Christian Tetzlaff, my favorite solo violinist; his sister Tanja Tetzlaff, a terrific cellist; and the accomplished pianist Lars Vogt—play under the auspices of San Francisco Performances. Appearing in the beautifully refurbished Herbst Theater (where earlier in the month I had been treated to a great concert by my beloved Pacifica Quartet, also thanks to San Francisco Performances), the Tetzlaff Trio was doing Schumann’s Piano Trio in F Major, Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, and Brahms’s Piano Trio in B Major—three of the great pieces written for this particular combination of instruments. The Schumann was lovely, and demonstrated how musically attuned these three players were to each other as well as to the music, but it did not fully prepare me for how astonishing this rendering of the Dumky would be. I own the Beaux Arts Trio recording and I love it, but what the Tetzlaff Trio played was essentially a new piece. Especially in the quiet passages, where Christian Tetzlaff seemed almost to breath over the strings to produce his delicate runs of notes, I heard things I had never heard before—and meanwhile the fast, exciting passages were as resounding and as danceable as ever. “How can the Brahms top this? How could anything top this?” I said to my seatmate.

But comparisons faded to nothing when they began the Brahms after the intermission, because this too became something novel and exciting. And then, when they played as an encore the second movement of Dvorak’s F minor trio, it turned out that this was something new, at least to many of us in the audience—a wonderful piece of music that we were hearing for the first time in the best possible hands. Afterward, I asked Tanja Tetzlaff how it was that they managed to make something so unexpected out of pieces we had heard so many times before.  “We are just following the score,” she said, “the dynamics and the tempi exactly the way they are marked. Most others don’t play it that way.” Well, maybe. I think it’s more that this marvelous trio—like the Tetzlaff Quartet, to which Christian and Tanja also belong, and like Christian Tetzlaff himself, in all his unforgettable solo performances—understands something about the music that the rest of the world has somehow failed to grasp. In a way, it was like seeing that afternoon’s Dudamel lessons transmuted into knowledge at the highest possible level: This is what the composer is demanding of you, the score is saying to these fine musicians, and this is what you must give your audiences at the lovely surprise party you are creating for them.  And so they did.


Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


It’s true that I’m writing a biography of the architect Louis Kahn, so I’ve been looking closely at a lot of good architecture (mainly his) over the past few years. But recently I had a series of architectural adventures that had nothing to do with my Kahn project—proving, if proof were needed, that architecture is in fact a part of daily life and not something set apart.

Two weeks ago my husband and I went down to Los Angeles for a few days to visit some friends, and it turned out to be an extended architectural tour. On one day we visited the new Broad Museum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro to house Eli Broad’s massively self-congratulatory, extremely expensive, and frequently atrocious collection of contemporary art. The building is better than the art, but it too has its self-aggrandizing aspects. The weirdly cavelike and at times intestinal corridors which funnel you around and upward are supposed to feel organic but instead struck me as imprisoning. The galleries themselves are mainly standard white boxes, unimaginatively designed. And the hole-punctured surrounding “skin,” which is supposed to let in natural light, does so in a frustrating and barely view-producing way. It was a relief to leave this imposing new structure and wander across the street, passing the chaste little MOCA building and its pleasant exterior courtyard, and head deeper into downtown LA, where we encountered the thrilling vertical tram called Angel’s Flight (now, alas, not in use), the lively Grand Central Market, and finally the Bradbury Building.

If you have watched TV or movies over the last forty years, you’ve probably seen the Bradbury Building’s interior—it appears in Blade Runner and elsewhere—but nothing can replace the experience of actually being inside it. An early twentieth century structure composed of nondescript brick on the outside, it features a glorious atrium where delicately carved terra cotta, elegant brickwork, ascending galleries bounded by wrought-iron railings, and a marvelous skylight at the roof level combine to produce a sensation that is like nothing else in Los Angeles. There are lovely old cage elevators, but only tenants of the building are allowed to use these, and only tenants can go above the second-floor landing of the staircase. Nonetheless, the building remains an attraction for casual visitors, locals and tourists alike, all gazing in quiet wonder at this preserved bit of LA history.

The next day we drove out to Pasadena to look at the Greene & Greene houses. These wonderful, mainly residential structures, built by the Greene brothers early in the twentieth century, are made of wood in a style that draws on Japanese and early Modernist elements, but with a craftsmanship that is all their own. Most of them can only be seen from the outside, but one of the best—The Gamble House, built for the man who was half of the founding pair of Procter & Gamble—offers hourly tours to groups of about a dozen at a time. Our group was led by a sprightly, fascinating man who knew a great deal and knew how to convey it, and his ability to point out which details we should be looking at, and what they signified to both the builders and their clients, made all the difference to our visit. When we got to the cunningly designed kitchen (where the extra leaves for the dining room table were cleverly stored in a vertical rack, and where the table cloth was kept on a roller so it never had to be folded), he said, “If you’ve seen Downton Abbey—well, of course you’ve seen Downton Abbey…” and proceeded to explain the differences between that period piece and this one. The house was a bit dark by modern standards, because it had been constructed to cool its inhabitants during the long Southern California summers without the aid of air-conditioning, but this relative darkness was countered by the presence of charming outdoor sleeping porches adjoining each large bedroom. I can’t possibly list every architectural virtue of the place—the beautiful joins in every carpentered element, the incised designs on the wooden walls, the unexpected interior windows, the indescribable curve of the ornamental fishpond, the delicate pattern of the stained glass in the front doorway, and on and on—so you will just have to go there sometime and see it yourself. If I had to tell visitors about one thing to see in the Los Angeles area, it would be the Gamble House.

Returning to Berkeley, I went the following week to the newly opened BAM/PFA, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives building recently completed by the same Diller Scofidio + Renfro who had done the Broad.  This too is a building that outshines its collection (though that is not hard to do at the University Art Museum) — in some ways delightfully, in some ways more irritatingly. There is a willfulness to the design, with its blood-red (or actually tomato-red) stairwells, its strangely angled and sometimes vertiginous views, its galleries that lead confusingly one into another and then end up in the central ground-floor space, that can be either fun-house amusing or annoyingly coy, depending on your mood. The building also repeats a standard Diller Scofidio motif — the amphitheater seating looking down at nothing in particular, which they used both in the Juilliard/Alice Tully remodel and on the High Line — and here it makes much less sense. I also deplore what they’ve done with the museum café, Babette’s: it used to be one of Berkeley’s best casual meeting places, with its outdoor seating area facing onto a pleasant, enclosed lawn; now it occupies a single long corridor on the second floor, with no outdoor space whatsoever. But the actual PFA theater, renamed to honor the donor Barbro Osher, is a pleasure in every respect, with wonderful sightlines, comfortable seats, and a sense of expansiveness that enhances any film you might happen to see there. (My choice, in that first week of the theater’s opening, was Douglas Sirk’s Tarnished Angels—but that’s another story entirely.)

As the last item in our impromptu architectural tour, my husband and I sought out the Hearst Memorial Mining Building on the UC Berkeley campus. Our Los Angeles friends had brought it up in connection to the Bradbury Building and were surprised we knew nothing about it. To my shame, I have been living within a mile of this marvelous structure for nearly forty years now, but last Saturday was the first time I had ever seen it, and I was frankly amazed. Its entrance atrium makes the Bradbury’s look like a toy:  it is stately and wide and thrillingly illuminated, and it rises to the full height of the four-story building.  Like the Bradbury’s, this atrium has wrought-iron-railed galleries and connecting staircases, but here you can actually climb them up to the roof level, where a canopy of Guastavino tiles set within their characteristic ceiling arches curves above your head, touchably close in places. Light pours into the whole space from tall side windows, and the adjoining lab space (which we peeked at through an interior window) is lit by an old-fashioned skylight held up with iron girders. A 1907 monument to the silver-mine-derived fortune of the Hearsts — the Broads of old, as it were—this building was originally constructed to teach Berkeley students the art and science of mining. (An architect friend tells me that it used to connect with a sample training mine, tunneled into the hillside.) Now devoted to more modern forms of science and engineering, the structure has been restored with great delicacy and skill; it even rests on an earthquake-proof base, having been lifted up wholesale and put back in its place. Walking through it, I wondered if Louis Kahn, who visited the Berkeley campus for three days in 1958, had ever been inside it. It certainly felt like one of his buildings — the Yale Center for British Art, say, or the Exeter Library, both of which have wonderful central atriums. And yet it also felt like the buildings of antiquity that had directly influenced him, so the parallel could have been just that: a result of parallel developments from a similar source. In any case, it was wonderful to think that something so grand, beautiful, and inspiring had arisen on the campus of a California public university, and even more wonderful to find that it had been so lovingly preserved.





Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Biss Bliss

There are certain performers whose concerts I will try to attend no matter what they are playing, and Jonathan Biss is definitely on the list. Last June I heard him in a Beethoven marathon with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall; this past Sunday, at the same venue, he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Granted, my allegiance has caused me no pain thus far: anyone would want to hear Beethoven and Mozart well played. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that I decided to attend last night’s concert—cutting short a lovely and informative trip to Los Angeles—for the sole purpose of hearing this talented young pianist set off his magic once again. And the decision paid off handsomely.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is so great about Biss. Yes, he seems to know the music through and through (I have only seen him play by heart). Yes, he modulates each phrase intelligently and sensitively, so his emphases and dynamics seem singularly his and yet utterly suitable to the score. Yes, he can do the challengingly fast runs and trills and flourishes without making any of it seem like a challenge: he is never a show-off, though his fingers seem able to do anything. None of this, though, accounts for why audiences (myself included) find themselves filled with such wild zeal at the end of one of his performances. It is a feeling of connection, I think—a sense that the player and the composer and the people listening to their collaborative work have all merged, temporarily, into a single sensibility. It is a great gift, and I am always glad to receive it.


Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Making a Murderer

Not since I watched Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, eons ago in a theater, have I been as powerfully affected by a documentary about the miscarriage of U.S. justice. And this time it came right into my house, courtesy of Netflix streaming.  Over the course of ten scrupulously filmed and even more scrupulously edited hours, Making a Murderer, by the incredibly talented duo Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, tracks the encounters of two members of the Avery clan—Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey—with the criminal justice apparatus of Manitowoc County and the wider Wisconsin courts. I can’t say much without giving away the plot, and believe me, you don’t want me to do that: the ins and outs of who did what to whom, and whether to believe this person or that, and what order the events occurred in, and whether they actually occurred, form an essential part of one’s motive for watching this show. So do the character portrayals, which are extensive and complicated and deeply revealing. Suffice to say that some people (particularly Steven Avery’s lawyers) come off as true heroes, while others (particularly some of the D.A.s and investigators and cops) come off as despicable, self-justifying monsters. It is a frightening portrayal of one kind of horribly American small-town “justice,” and when you reach the end of it, you will only be able to turn off the TV, not the constantly playing episodes in your mind. May this haunt all of us for a long time.

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Bountiful Beethoven

Last week the Berlin Philharmoniker came to Carnegie Hall and played all nine Beethoven symphonies in the course of five nights. Two of the Times’s critics—Anthony Tommasini at the beginning of the cycle, and David Allen in his review at the end—announced their feeling that this was, essentially, a boring and uninstructive program to inflict on New York audiences, that we had no need to hear yet another Beethoven cycle, and that they expected more interesting programming from Simon Rattle, the Philharmoniker’s charismatic conductor.

My conclusion is that professional music critics should hereafter be excused from covering Beethoven cycles. For them, it is merely an onerous occupational chore, yet one more tedious hill to climb. But for the rest of us, it is—and especially was, in this particular case—an opportunity for startling, repeated experiences of life-transforming transcendence.

Music is not a piece of knowledge you acquire once and possess forever. It is an experience that you need to and, luckily, can undergo over and over, with new layers adding themselves in every time. And the better the music, the more complicated and varied will be the spectrum of one’s experiences. Beethoven, like Shakespeare, potentially offers us something new each time—not only new to each generation that hears him, but also new to each individual listener, and even to each separate encounter an individual may have with these works over a lifetime. To me, saying that we have collectively heard enough Beethoven cycles seems akin to saying we have already seen enough Shakespeare plays—a self-evidently silly remark.

But then, I have never attended a full Beethoven cycle before.  That too tells me something: they cannot be all that thick on the ground, for I am a fan of full cycles and attend them frequently. I have been to one or two full Ring Cycles and had the opportunity to attend many more. I have been to at least five full cycles of Shostakovich’s string quartets (in which, admittedly, I take a professional interest) and at least three full cycles of Beethoven’s.  I have twice heard the same great violinist, Christian Tetzlaff, play all of Bach’s partitas and sonatas for solo violin in a single long concert, and have also heard Yo Yo Ma perform all of Bach’s unaccompanied suites for cello in the course of a single day. I have been to the Philharmoniker’s own cycles of Brahms symphonies (immensely satisfying) and Schumann symphonies (somewhat less so). But I have never before had a chance to hear a world-class orchestra, and particularly this world-class orchestra, play all nine Beethoven symphonies at once.

One facet of great orchestras—I might broaden this and say great musicians—is that they are only as good as the music they play. Because they are honest performers and not tricky prestidigitators, they cannot transcend what is given to them. As a result, some of the Philharmoniker’s Beethoven symphony performances were naturally better than others. Both the Fifth and the Seventh were absolutely outstanding; if I ever get to hear a better performance of either, I will be amazed. The Ninth was great, too, but it was also delightfully strange:  as a friend said to me when it was over, “I never realized what a demented piece this is!” The Sixth was weird too, in ways I had forgotten, and it fully earned its “Pastoral” title in the slowness and quietness of its unfolding. (If I was mildly bored at times, I suppose that can be attributed to my feelings about the pastoral in general—the countryside is really not for me.) Everything else had its moments and also its longeurs. The last movement of the First Symphony stood out as especially fine; the repeated excitements of the Fourth foreshadowed some of the even greater excitements in the Seventh, with which it had been paired; and the Eighth formed an appealing, frothy introduction to the more pensive moments of the Sixth. If the Third struck me this time as excessively bombastic, that seemed more attributable to the music than to the players. And in any case, the next time I hear it, I will probably feel differently about it. That is the nature of Beethoven, if he is well enough played.

Part of what a conductor does is to select a program, and even here, with all nine symphonies available, choices had to be made about the order in which they were played and whether anything else should be played with them. But a large part of what he or she does, with an orchestra this good, is to steer extremely competent, massively experienced players—musicians who have played the symphonies hundreds of times before—toward a performance that is something other than routine. The danger may lie in pushing this interpretive capacity beyond the bounds of the reasonable, but Simon Rattle didn’t do that. We did not feel (or at least I did not) that the sudden shifts in dynamics were excessive, the silences too prolonged or dramatic, the drumrolls and bass notes too emphatic. In every case, Rattle’s aesthetic decisions, transmitted through the magic of rehearsal to his dozens of performers, helped us make sense of Beethoven.

But never complete sense. David Allen praised Barenboim’s relatively recent Beethoven cycle for its “didactic” quality, but this is the last thing I want in my conductors, especially when they are dealing with material as rich and strange as Beethoven’s symphonies. Despite their evident power, these are delicate works, easily ruined by excessive force. Rattle and his players gave them their heads and let them run, with only the most gentle guidance exerted on the reins, and the result was one of the deepest, most sustained musical pleasures I’ve had in years.


Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Leila Josefowicz at Zankel

I first learned about Leila Josefowicz eight years ago, shortly before she won her MacArthur award, and because I was working on Shostakovich at the time, I acquired her recording of his notoriously difficult Violin Concerto No. 1.  It was a knockout, and I resolved from then on to keep my eye (and ear) on her. More recently, I saw her do the complicated first-violin role in Schoenberg’s First String Quartet, with Fred Sherry on the cello and two other great players on the viola and second violin. This too was an eye-opener. But not until I heard her in a whole program of her own devising, last Tuesday night at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, did I fully realize what a tremendously accomplished musician she is.

The program, which paired Josefowicz with the pianist John Novacek, began with Manuel de Falla’s showy Suite populaire espagnole, which let her strut her fast-fingering stuff in a folksy, romantic mode. Well done, but hardly the kind of composition that would have drawn the avid music audience who had come to hear her that night. She satisfied the more modernist contingent with the next piece, Olivier Messaien’s Theme and Variations, which allowed her to convey a more stringent, harsh, rigorous world of sound. But it was only when she and Novacek entered onto the third work of the evening, Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1, that their partnership became profound. This is to Schumann’s credit, of course, as well as to theirs: he knew how to make the voices of the two instruments meld fully together. But he was extraordinarily well-served by this particular violinist and pianist in tandem, because they both understood how his work defined that strange nineteenth-century moment when music was at once fixed in a tradition and potentially open to change.

The period after the intermission was entirely late-twentieth-century, featuring two composers that are still very much alive. Josefowicz ended with John Adams’s Road Movies, a thrilling piece that premiered in 1995 and that I could listen to a thousand times. But in part because I have listened to it a thousand times (one San Francisco friend has playing it on his household soundtrack practically every time I come over), I was more moved and impressed by the other work on the program, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Conversio. This too dates from the 1990s, but no one in the audience, to my knowledge, had ever heard it before (last Tuesday was its Carnegie Hall premiere), and we went wild with enthusiasm for it. The music draws from a range of modernist strategies—harsh shrieking, low thrumming, antic pizzicato, intensely propulsive chords, and above all suspenseful pauses—but it sounds like nothing else I have ever encountered, and it made me want to hear more of this Estonian composer’s work. It also displayed to the fullest Josefowicz’s intelligent musicality: she understood exactly the ways in which it was connected to both the Messiaen and the Adams (and even the Schumann, in terms of emotional register), but she also understood that this twelve-minute composition was triumphantly a thing-in-itself, a fitting pinnacle to the program she had so beautifully designed and presented.

Posted in The Lesser Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment