The winner of the inaugural AJ Writing Prize in association with architecture practice Berman Guedes Stretton has been announced, and New York Arts / Berkshire Review editor Alan Miller has won the prize over six finalists who were chosen from 91 entries to the contest which was launched in June to find the best up-and-coming architecture critic aged under 35.
The piano music of Franz Liszt makes performing the central issue, a fundamental structural presence. Twentieth-century Werktreue just isn’t enough for these pieces. Many of Liszt’s pieces are keyboard performances of other composers’ music heard with Liszt’s ears. We call them arrangements or transcriptions, but what they are is a way of hearing. What always surprises me about a number of these transcriptions is their reticence. Liszt’s arrangement of the Schubert “Ave Maria” is almost demure, as befits the subject. His famous Isolde’s Verklärung is surprisingly faithful, and to my ears only sounds pianistic in the rattling chords underneath the climax of the piece. Pianists always say that these transcriptions are like actual piano pieces, not copies of anything. They make us hear what piano playing is to Liszt.
Can anything new be said about Degas and the dance? Those beautiful pastels and oils of rehearsal studios, those figures framed by stage flats, the three-dimensional sculptures have all passed into the canon of art history, and they are as inseparably linked to Edgar Degas as are the subtexts of voyeurism and misogyny. But the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, aims for something new as its subtitle suggests. Of course, there is plenty to delight the eye with a spread of some eighty-five works by one of the most idiosyncratic of Impressionist artists, and the range of major loans—especially from private collections—is staggering as is the quality of the selection. This bounty is not surprising, given that Richard Kendall, probably the doyen of Degas specialists, is the chief curator;” yet what makes this exhibition stand out among the generality of shows on Degas is that it contrives to mount two exhibitions at once: one on the artist’s obsession with the ballet and ballerinas, the other about the nineteenth-century’s obsession with deciphering locomotion.
Stephen Hough says that he chose this program to be one of strange sonatas, which is altogether fitting for Liszt’s 200th birthday. The program, consisting entirely of sonatas — no préludes, études or the like (not counting the three encore pieces) — might theoretically have been stranger with, say, one of Pierre Boulez’s sonatas, but Hough seems to have been after a more subtle variety of strangeness. A sense of mystery and a very personal quality, very expressive of the internal world marry these pieces under Hough’s playing. The honesty and faithfulness to the Truth in his playing brought the music close to poetry. Though making music and poems are not the same or even parallel activities, the word ‘sonata’ shares an etymology with ‘sonnet’, the stem son- having to do with sound, and, as Stephen Hough points out in the program note, a sonata is sounded rather than sung, the piano having to make do on its own without words. Hough also pointed out in his short speech in-between the Beethoven and his own piece (usually I’d be against spiels in amongst the music, but Hough is a very good public speaker, thoughtful an interesting, with the voice of a 1930’s radio presenter), that Liszt, whose birthday fell on the very day of this recital, invented the concept and the word ‘recital’ as a sort of pure recitation of music of a single musician. Thus, though sounded and not sung there is the similar expectation in the audience, the similar solitude of the performer as in a poetry recitation, far from a mere reading, but an honest expression of the sonata as if it were naturally being created then and there, as Hough says ‘as if the notes were still wet on the page.’ Mozart wrote something similar once, that the height of piano playing is to play as if you had composed the music yourself.
On the day following her amazing recital with Katherine Chi at Jordan Hall, Paula Robison and I met at the house she shares with her husband, Scott Nickrenz, with its bird’s eye view of Frederick Law Olmsted’s house and garden. In the hour or so we talked we covered a lot of ground: the concert, her preparations for it, and some of the music she played…we talked about Sidney Lanier, the poet, linguist, and self-taught flute virtuoso, who died at 39 of tuberculosis contracted as a Confederate prisoner of war, and Charles T. Griffes, who died at 35 of the same disease, leaving behind a remarkable body of exploratory compositions, Paul Taffanel, the founder of modern flute playing and the teacher of Ms. Robison’s teacher, the great Marcel Moyse.
Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing centers on Hero and Claudio, two young lovers who are thrown into disarray by a villain who leads Claudio to believe that Hero has betrayed him. There is a lot of marvelous business with the local constable, Dogberry, and his friends, who disrupt the villain and save the day. And then there is a parallel lovers’ story involving Beatrice and Benedict, two highly clever people who like to spar with each other, seeming to hate each other, and yet are eventually brought to realize that they like each other tremendously and wish to be together. The brilliant dialogue of this pair and the course of their development crucially influenced Jane Austen in her depiction of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and her depiction of other prickly remarkable couples who are really meant for each other, and such depictions in later fiction and drama, including classic Hollywood films such as The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, and The Awful Truth (Cary Grant in every case, plus Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Irene Dunne, respectively).
Three times in the past month, The Sydney Morning Herald, the city’s broadsheet of record by default, has published a particularly irritating kind of article on urban density. To paraphrase Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), this is not just a matter of chance. These articles, by the paper’s two resident economists and sole architecture critic, represent a disturbing and powerful tendency to treat cities as economic entities, blobs on a map rather than physical spaces. They don’t realize that you can’t extrude spreadsheets into skyscrapers. Help! The Borg economists are eating Sydney.
Witold Lutosławski when he conducted himself preferred programs consisting solely of his own music to avoid entrapping the audience members who just wanted to hear again a classic (invariably put at the very end) and to encourage listeners who wanted to hear his music. However cynical you want to be about making the audience sit through avant-garde music to get to the ultra-popular Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, this was actually an adventurous program in being such a mixture. Risking the melomanic equivalent of the bends, somehow just avoided by virtue of the performance, specifically the Sydney Symphony’s style and close cooperation with visiting Britons Mark Wigglesworth and the very intelligent and feeling pianist Stephen Hough, the musicians made it all seem to hang together naturally, if loosely.