Category Archives: Art

My Taste is Super Sophistocated and Edgy . . . Isn’t it?

After a beer and a snack at a Capital Hill dive bar that was, of course, decorated with vintage political campaign paraphernalia, my friend Michael and I headed into the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium for a concert of 20th and 21st century chamber music conducted by Oliver Knussen and performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, because I see myself as an adventurous, open minded lover of an ever-evolving artform and I dig New Music. 

I look down my nose at the kind of snobby classical music curmudgeons who are prejudiced against modern or 20th century or contemporary or “weird” or avant garde or experimental music and just put it all into a box labeled “atonal,” and shove it into the basement, never to gaze upon it again. 

I crave new opera, like Nico Muhly’s Two Boys  or Paul’s Case by Gregory Spears; and new takes on the standard rep, like my beloved Willie Decker production of La Traviata. 

That’s of course, not to say that I love everything I see and hear.  I generally find most of what’s come out of the minimalist movement to be just plain boring. You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through an entire performance of Nixon in China or Einstein on the Beach.  And I’m pretty sure John Cage is just trolling everyone.  But I certainly wouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand without hearing it first. Of course I wouldn’t, and I appreciate these works, even if I don’t particularly want to listen to them. 

No really, please don’t make me listen to them.

There are just some tropes in modern music that I can’t get past.  I’ve always believed that “classical saxophone” is an oxymoron.  And what is with all the crazy-ass insturmention in contemporary chamber music?  You’re going to write a quintet for harp, oboe, violin, viola, and snare drum? Really?  And requiring pianists to get up, reach inside the piano and pluck the strings with their fingers?  (Don’t even get me started on “prepared piano.”)

I was discussing some of this with Michael, a composer of New Music himself, as we left the concert and walked back to the Metro on Tuesday night.  What was with the instrumentation on that Schoenberg Serenade?  I was giving major side-eye when a clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, mandolin and guitar took the stage.  Mandolin and guitar?  You could barely even hear them over the ruckus created by the other instruments. 

“Yes, but, get it?  It’s a serenade?”  He pointed out.

“Well, yeah, I get that, but. . .”

“And it did in certain moments sound sort of Italian . . .”

“In a distinctly Schoenbergian way,” I snarked.

As we walked, I mentioned that my favorite piece on the program was Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance, performed beautifully by Huw Watkins.  “But I guess that was the easiest to listen to piece on the program.”

“It really was,” he said.

And I complained that I was enjoying Tropi by Niccolo Castiglioni but it lost me when the pianist got up and started plucking the the strings.  “It’s just silly to me.”

 “I really like way it sounds.” my companion said.

“Well, maybe I’m just old-fashioned.  I guess I’m a snob.”

To that, he bluntly said, “Yes.”

Unexpected, Unplanned, Art-Induced Ecstacy

It was the sort of perfect early autumn day where the sun is warm, but there’s a sort of cool breeze, and the sky is blue and cloudless, and I was walking back to the metro under the influence of several mimosas that I had enjoyed at brunch with several close friends, when I happened upon one of my all time favorite divas, Leontyne Price.

Leontyne

It’s not something I do very often, but upon seeing this ad, I thought, well, it’s not like I’m in a hurry, and admission to the Smithsonian doesn’t cost a penny, so I decided to go in to the gallery and take a look.  When I asked about the ad I saw, the woman at the information desk directed me to the third floor where I found an exhibition of portraits of great American entertainers, which included the above portrait of Leontyne Price, and two other opera singers, Marian Anderson and Maria Callas, alongside portraits of the likes of Duke Ellington, Ethel Merman, and Leonard Bernstein.

Marian

I had only intended to see the exhibit advertised with the portrait of Leontyne, but it’s so easy to succumb to an art binge once you’re in the gallery, isn’t it?  So, of course, as I was making my way back out of the gallery, a flashing light caught my eye, and I went to take a look at the large exhibition room of modern art where that light was coming from.  I became immediately drawn to a sculpture of a horse built from driftwood, whose skeletal form was striking and beautiful from every angle.  Ok, just this hall and then I’ll head home, I thought, and wandered around to look at the other works on display.

gallery

I never could have guessed what was about to happen to me as I made my way into a darkened alcove where there was a colorful installation painted on the wall and floor, with colored lights shining on it.  It seemed to glow.  Neat, I thought the artist used a black light on florescent paint.  But then, as I started to leave the dark room, I noticed that something had changed.  It had turned red.  Oh, the lights change color.  As I made my way back into the center of the room, the painting changed again.  I gasped as the lights now made the paint appear black and white.  It was like it was an entirely new painting.  I sat down on the bench as the light began to alter again.  Now light was focused on just one small area of the painting, leaving the rest black, now the light changed to a blue-green tint causing one shape to appear to emerge in three dimensions; as the light and colors continued to change the painting seemed to come alive. Maybe it was the mimosas, but I felt a knot in my stomach as my pulse quickened.  I suddenly felt quite emotional.  It was beautiful and strange and haunting and cheerful and sad.

I’m not sure how long I sat, bewildered and in awe of this magnificent art installation, but eventually I made myself get up.  Outside the darkened chamber was information about the artist and the work:  

David Hockney
Snails Space with Vari-Lites: “Painting as Performance”

When I read in the blurb that Hockney had a long career designing sets for opera, the emotional response I had experienced seemed to come into context.  This art installation is like a silent opera, with all the drama and catharsis a good opera ought to have.  It moved me, just as an opera should.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been so affected by a piece of visual art.

All of this is to say that, the next time you’re out wandering the city, and you see an ad promoting an art exhibition, go take a look!  You might find something unexpected and wonderful.  And if you’re in DC, go see this piece!