Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective

This is intended as no more than a preliminary reflection on the retrospective installations which just opened at Mass MoCA and the Williams College Museum of Art—a first impression gathered when the galleries were full of people, some of whom I see all the time and others not in years. Amidst all the champagne, the personalities, and the excitement, the wall drawings still made their presence felt, rather powerfully, I thought. His measured forms and resonating colors were able to make their Platonic statement above all that mundane human static.

Wagner Cult and Conductor Cult

Huntley Dent’s recent review of Bernstein’s Mahler and now his lucid evaluation of several recordings of Tristan und Isolde put me in mind not so much of operatic traditions as those of the concert hall, since Wagner’s music drama is so deeply rooted in the orchestra and the conductor who leads it. The modern symphony orchestra and the concert halls in which they play evolved as a substantially bourgeois institution over the course of the nineteenth century.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine: Berg Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

The Berg Violin Concerto (1935) and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1910) are indeed a magical pair. Not only did Berg have a great affection for Mahler, both works are suffused with an elegiac, deathwards-inclined but lifewards-looking mood and a kindred morbid lyricism. The formal affinities between the two works are also intriguing. The concerto consists of two movements in two sections, while the four movements of the symphony also fall into a binary pattern, one of two slow movements framing a pair of fast movements. Their differences are also enlightening. Mahler’s thematic vocabulary remained full of the popular motifs which he first absorbed in his early work with Des Knaben Wunderhorn and street music, and Berg, while weaving in a wistfull memory of a Viennese waltz, constructed the last of his two movements on a chorale of Bach (“Es itst genug!” from the Cantata, Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort whose rich setting was sympathetic to Berg’s own harmonic vocabulary. As rich and contemporary as Berg’s treatment was, it evokes the purism of the “back to Bach” trend of the twenties and thirties. For more biographical background and analysis, click here for the rich program annotations by Michael Steinberg, which also include a fascinating defense of Mahler’s music by Aaron Copland, actually a letter to the New York Times from April 2, 1925, which was reprinted in the BSO program to the Mahler Ninth’s American premiere in 1931 under Serge Koussevitzky.

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