As sundry acts of God and man are manifested, unexpected changes, substitutions, and permanent transitions abound.
I can’t resist beginning on a happy note: The Berkshire Review for the Arts has exceeded 1,000,000 hits in a month. The numbers game is not our priority here at The Review, but a million is a significant and symbolic number in the esoteric world of Internet traffic statistics.
But to move immediately to the grim side of things: in New York Tepper Galleries has suddenly and unceremoniously closed its doors, ending a ritual of discovery and hope for denizens of the New York art and antiques world. Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, where I write these words, the design and antiques quarter on and around Melrose looks like a ghost town, there are so many boarded-up windows and for rent signs. Whatever economy fed their business still hasn’t come back. Also, the television series, Law and Order, is to be terminated, eliminating a major source of income for the actors who populate the summer festivals in the Berkshires. Law and Order, soap operas, and restaurants keep our Serebryakovs, our Aguecheeks, and our Miss Prisms alive from September to June, and we can only hope it doesn’t plague our creative economy too severely.
[photonav id=’drag’ url=’/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/susan_Grain-Elevator.jpg’ photo_width=2119 height=360 mode=’drag’]
Susan Bowen, Prairie City Grain Elevator, Digital C-Print, 36 x 12.5 in. (Scroll laterally to view.)
On a brighter note, two valuable local enterprises have risen from their ashes. For a few years, the Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography presented exhibitions of the work of important living photographers in two state-of-the-art galleries on opposite sides of Avenue A in Turner’s Falls. The highly regarded Hallmark Institute of Photography, which sponsored the museum, changed hands, and the new owners had to be convinced that it was worthwhile reviving it. Gallery manager Paul Teeling, an outstanding photographer in his own right, proved a passionate advocate, and it has been revived as The Gallery at Hallmark in one of the original spaces. The walls are now a warm beige, which works surprisingly well with both black and white and with color prints, as the impressive current exhibition demonstrated. I’ve never been especially interested in toy cameras, but I have been converted by Holga Inspire, an exhibition of the work of ten very different photographers who use the Holga plastic camera to create their work, which in the exhibition proved for the most part truly compelling. The film advance on the Holga has no stop, giving the photographer total flexibility in making multiple exposures, as in the haunting brothel scene by Pauline St. Denis, the architectural friezes by Susan Bowen, and the black and white documentary photographs by Tammy Cromer Campbell among other outstanding work. Ms. Campbell’s photographs are illustrations to the book, Fruit of the Orchard, which illustrates the human toll of industrial pollution in a small town in East Texas. This exhibition closed on June 6, but I urge everyone to look for future exhibitions and to support The Gallery at Hallmark.
The second of the Hallmark galleries has been taken over by Holy Smokes BBQ, once a full-service restaurant in a deconsecrated Lutheran church near Northampton. Much to the distress of local barbecue lovers, the restaurant never reopened after the church was destroyed by a fire. The proprietors, Leslie and Lou Ekus, took pains to get top-quality, naturally raised meat from small farms, and their balance of smoke and spice produced subtle, complex flavors with no single quality masking any of the others. For a while they catered at fairs and other events. Now they have opened the Holy Smokes Deli. Their cheerful angelic-porcine mascot was rescued from the fire and occupies pride of place, flying over the kitchen. Sadly, I’m on a diet and had to confine myself to a smoked turkey sandwich, which did a lot to raise this usually dreary item in my estimation. Their jalapeño aioli did no harm either. Paul Teeling told me how much he looks forward to his weekly pulled pork sandwich. Pork and beef ribs, roast beef, bacon, and chicken are also available, but not everything all the time, so it’s a good idea to call ahead, if you are lusting after a particular delicacy (tel. 413.863.5426).
Consider the passing of Leslie Buck (Laszlo Büch) the designer of the “Anthora” coffee cup. It inspired the New York Times to shed some light (although not for the first time) on the origins of this once familiar object—comforting to look at and to hold for thoughtful New Yorkers, who could feel reassured that they were at home, as they drank mediocre deli coffee from it. As New Yorkers became spoiled by Starbucks, Illy, and the like, the cup faded from view. It was the brain-child not of a Euphronios or a Psiax, but of an Eastern European Jew with no formal training as a designer or an artist. Not only should we reserve a moment of grateful reflection for Mr. Buck, but the Cooper-Hewitt, MoMA, and the New Museum should see that the “Anthora” (as Mr. Buck named it) is sold in their stores. It is still available from the manufacturer on special order. The photograph shows a monument created by one, perhaps three artistically-inclined New Yorkers, in Queens. While it was most likely a tribute to friendship, we can regard it as a funeral stele for Mr. Buck. And if the Parthenon Sculptures are not destined to return to Athens, Greeks can remember that this “iconic” (as the New York Times called it) token of Greek pride was the invention of not of an autochtonous Greek, but of a βάρβαρος from the north. There is comfort in humility.
But the leading thought of this essay, change, occurred to me, not so much as I pondered Mr. Buck’s death, nor as I prepared for my flight from Fiumicino a few weeks ago, uncertain as to whether it would take place, because of the southward progress of the ash from Eyjafjallajökull, as in seeing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in its latest restored version. I’m not sure if the new material makes as much of a difference as has been claimed, but it did make it clearer than ever to me how Metropolis is a tale of substitutions—people taking the place of others, with the result of a potentially tragic mistaken identity. Exchange of identity grew into a cliché in silent film and has a pedigree going back to the classics—Plautus and Shakespeare, not to mention more recently Don Giovanni and Leporello, and Siegfried and Gunther. Fritz Lang treated the device with more than the usual dignity in his pop classic and avoided the comic silent film routines, in which quick changes and ill-considered errors roll by at lightning speed. However, in the orchestral world, conductors have been changing hats with a rapidity and frequency that almost suggests the Keystone Kops.
Concert schedules of late have been full of substitutions. Cost-cutting at the Met led to the substitution of La Traviata for a revival of Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles; Leonard Slatkin, who was hired to conduct Ghosts, was kept on for La Traviata (which is a staple in student, regional, and semi-professional opera), with an astonishing lack of success. He found it necessary to bow out after the first night and was replaced by four other conductors.
James Levine’s latest back surgery caused him to cancel the remainder of his seasons at the Boston Symphony as well as the Met. My travels prevented me from hearing any of BSO concerts he cancelled (I especially missed hearing Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conduct Mendelssohn’s Elijah, music in which he excels.), but I did hear Lulu at the Met (reviewed here by Larry Wallach), in which Fabio Luisi, former Music Director of the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Semperoper, conducted the complex score with insight and sensitivity, as well as a knack for making the music accessible without simplifying it. In fact Mr. Luisi has become a more permanent substitute for Mr. Levine as Principal Guest Conductor, continuing to provide a conductorial focus to the Met Orchestra’s work in the pit and perhaps in concert. The 85-year-old Pierre Boulez, who has been extremely busy in New York, Cleveland, and Chicago this season, took over the final Met Orchestra concert. Recovery from surgery has also forced Seiji Ozawa to cancel his Tanglewood engagements.
Fabio Luisi himself has been busy creating his own vacuum. His contract in Dresden was to last until 2012, when Christian Thielemann was to take over. His relations with the Staatskapelle and the Dresden public were going from bad to worse, mainly over dissatisfaction with his commitment to the orchestra and the city. The orchestra complained that he had too limited a repertory and that he held too few rehearsals—usually the sort of complaint that comes from conductors. Last year he cancelled several engagements with the Staatskapelle, claiming sickness. Finally, when the Generalintendant, Gerd Uecker, engaged Christian Thielemann to conduct the televised New Year’s Concert without consulting Luisi, the conductor withdrew from all future engagements with the Staatskapelle, leaving an empty podium for his two remaining years. The management does not believe that his contract gives him the right to do this, and have taken the matter to court. Meanwhile the Ring Cycle Luisi was to have conducted at the Semperoper was taken over by three conductors, two of whom were very much worth hearing, Asher Fisch, who will conduct Tristan in Seattle this summer, and above all the brilliant Jonas Alber, who was invited by the musicians of the Staatskapelle to take over Götterdämmerung for the one remaining unassigned evening after their first performance of Das Rheingold under his baton. While he conducted Rheingold on two weeks notice, he conducted Götterdämmerung without a rehearsal. He not only put his personal stamp on the performance, he produced outstanding playing from the Staatskapelle and won their full commitment in following his sensitive and intelligent insights into the score. One can only hope that this will be the beginning of an international career for Alber.
Thielemann has had his own share of miseries with the Munich Philharmonic, beginning with absenteeism and vacation policies, not his own, but the orchestra’s. This and other disagreements led the orchestra’s Intendant, Paul Müller, to insert into Thielemann’s contract, which was due for renewal, a proviso giving himself the final decision in choosing guest conductors and organizing their programs. This Thielemann refused to accept, and the Intendant decided to break off negotiations. Shortly thereafter, at a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. The public booed the orchestra and showered Thielemann with applause.
Meanwhile, Thielemann has been conducting many members of the Staatskapelle at Bayreuth, where they play as members of the Festspiel Orchestra. In this way, the musicians bonded with Thielemann, while their relations with Luisi deteriorated. Hence the Staatskapelle is as happy to have Thielemann as the Met is to have Luisi. While we can hope for a happy ending in all quarters, there seems to be a dark, Ring-like karma in Luisi’s tenure in Dresden. The former music director, Bernard Haitink, resigned summarily when Gerd Uecker hired Luisi as his successor without consulting him. Haitink did not approve, since the thought that Luisi, although he had proven himself to be a fine opera conductor, lacked sufficient experience as an orchestral conductor. Did Maestro Haitink, Alberich-like, curse the podium at the Semperoper? This year Thielemann was given the honor of conducting the annual performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Semperoper—a commemoration of the allied bombing of Dresden on February 14, 1945, which has been held every year on the anniversary since 1951. If anything could expunge a curse, that surely would do it. In any case, it seems that if Mr. Thielemann were to run for Bundeskanzler, he might well win by a landslide.
And, while we are on the subject of Generalintendanten, it is a pleasure to report the Placido Domingo, General Director of the LA Opera, appeared as Siegmund in one of the few bright moments in their otherwise dismal Ring production, injecting life into a flagging performance of Die Walküre. Domingo can still bring the role off with taste, moving expression, and a fine voice, overcoming the tedium of Achim Freyer’s Eurotrash extravaganza. Is he the only Generalintendant who can lead by example? Meanwhile, back at the Met, General Director Peter Gelb has announced the installation of steel girders beneath the Met stage, to help it support Robert Lepage’s 45-ton set for his Ring, to be inaugurated with Das Rheingold in September. Gelb remarked that this radical and expensive construction work will have added benefits: “We can add elephants to Zeffirelli productions.” Of course the Met will have to hire keepers to take care of the elephants—magnificent and wise animals known for their occasional bad temper, not to mention the voluminous quantity of excrement they produce. But I ask, have the acoustical properties of these girders been considered? Some years ago, construction work was done under the stage in Carnegie Hall, leaving an unwanted concrete pad—with disastrous acoustical results, fortunately corrected afterwards.