Since fully reopening five years ago after a magnificent renovation and expansion project, the Detroit Institute of Arts has emerged as the premiere institution when it comes to displaying and labelling artworks for the twenty-first-century public. Pieces in the permanent collection are labeled with clear, concise descriptions that encourage visitors to look closely but to think for themselves. They provide essential information without insulting the viewer’s intelligence. It is not uncommon to see complete strangers, often with disparate backgrounds in art, standing in front of a picture and discussing it at length. You cannot help but come away from the DIA feeling you have engaged art rather than having absorbed a lot of information about art.
When lamenting the fall of Opera Boston, one thing I never doubted was that the company’s Artistic Director, Gil Rose, would find an equivalent, if not better gig soon enough, but I didn’t expect it to come so soon. The Board of Directors of Monadnock Music has named Gil Rose as their new Artistic Director. In that capacity, he will be responsible for season programming, engaging artists, conducting on occasion, and helping to design and oversee education and outreach programs, among other duties. While this is a happy outcome for Monadnock Music, which has had its share of administrative upheavals since the retirement of its founder James Bolle in 2008, the fate of Opera Boston remains a tragic event in the city’s musical history. Boston wants and needs opera, and Opera Boston was ideally suited to her sophisticated tastes. On the other hand Mr. Bolle is highly-regarded as an opera composer, and opera has been a component of Monadnock’s summer schedule in the past. Gil Rose’s appointment may be a propitious sign for its return.
A successful public space, they say, is one where the citizens block the steps. So suggested urbanologist Lewis Mumford nearly a hundred years ago. I’m not certain he would have had San Francisco’s busy Union Square in mind, but he may have, even then. What Mumford never envisaged, surely, was the odd and telling assemblage of human beings who make the Square the center of their lives and a Rorschach test for the character of one of America’s great cities. I am one of them. For those of us living downtown, it is the front yard.
Since his renowned 1980-83 recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Dresdener Staatskapelle, Marek Janowski has acquired a cult following, especially in Wagner, not unlike Jascha Horenstein or Reginald Goodall. His steady, active tempi and decisive phrasing evoke an older performance style which goes back, it is thought, to the days of Richter, Seidl, and Mottl. Janowski, when asked if he studied historical performances of Wagner expressed his devotion to Wilhelm Furtwängler and an admiration for the Bayreuth performances of Hans Knappertsbusch, which, he points out, are not at all as slow as is generally thought. Janowski’s own mentor in conducting was Wolfgang Sawallisch, who left an easily noticeable mark on Janowski’s mature style as a conductor, with his restraint and and constant vigilance over orchestral balances, as well as the balance of dramatic flow and structure. In fact, there is a good deal in common that one can hear in the performance under consideration and Sawallisch’s 1961 Bayreuth performance. “Ein guter Meister…”
The Belvoir St Theatre is undergoing renovations — there is a hole in the outside wall over the sidewalk (walking past which an hour so before a performance you can hear rehearsals floating out, or are they angry builders?) with a scaffold around it covered in green mesh and playbills. A sign claims that their fascia needs repair, but it works all a bit to well with this their current production. I suspect they punched a hole in the wall for added realism — perhaps a sort of Method for set design? Either way, the play’s set inside is a very realistic construction site: a climbable scaffold covers the back walls of the theatre, opening seamlessly onto the real scaffold outside which is used for as a backstage. The “wing” leading to the back stage is merely the hole in the wall opening out over the street. Loudspeakers play traffic noises inside the theater as the audience comes in to find their seats, continuing over the beginning of the play proper. Dust and detritus spread across the stage with beer and liquor bottles and milk crates, and there is a little tin site office behind the audience with a light on and a security guard inside. Besides that we are outdoors but there are no trees or vegetation to speak of. The only bit of nature is the real sunset pouring in from outside (the “curtain” rises at 8pm but it is summer — Sydney Festival time), coinciding with nightfall in the play; was that currowong singing bedtime outside for real or did it come from the speakers? The only other half way natural thing on the stage is a water tap, which becomes useful later on, like the fountain in a rustic village, the characters go to it to dunk their heads to sober up, fill water pipes for hashish, or just to fill bottles or kettles.
David Zinman led this weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, where the big event was the world premiere of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 6, commissioned by the BSO and capping its survey of the Harbison symphonies last season and this. Zinman is a fine conductor, and all went well. He is not a great cultivator of sound or of refined playing, but he has a remarkable sense of musical structure; makes clear, sharp phrases; and sustains a strong rhythm, complex when need be. He opened with Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, which sounded fresh and interesting in Zinman’s hands. It is basically a traditional sonata-form piece, but with unusual moves in development of material, and so made a good prelude to an evening of such music. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C followed, with soloist Leif Ove Andsnes giving what might be called a “nice” performance—nice tone and phrasing, all a bit polite and restrained, not fully letting go with Beethoven’s prankishness and oddity.
Something is happening with increasing frequency in Baroque performance practice these days. A kind of third way has emerged. It would be wrong to call it a half-way house; it’s something more like a suite of rooms each with its own individual slant. The poles are a die-hard kind of historical accuracy, rigid in its orthodoxy, and now pretty much a retro activity, or large opulent orchestras playing Baroque music, if they play it at all, with a 19th-century approach. What seems to be nascent these days is a kind of third way: modern orchestras, even large ones, performing with a much greater sense of tonal and rhetorical knowledge of 18th century style. Nikolaus Harnoncourt started this when he recorded the Beethoven symphonies with a modern orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, but used brass instruments which were tricked out in the 18th century way. It has continued, nay flourished, in the 21st century, especially in the symphonies of Beethoven again, where its main defenders have been Osmo Vänskä with the Minnesota Orchestra and Paavo Järvi with the Chamber Orchestra of Bremen. These are players using the modern style but with a believable, not-manufactured Baroque sound. Most recently Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra have released a full set of Beethoven symphonies where something of this third way may be heard. These forces have also recorded the Bach Passions and the Brandenburg concertos with modern instruments, but sounding stylistically informed.
Parody as a technique of satire ought to suit theatrical dance well. Irish poets, known as some of the greatest masters of this form, in imitating and reversing the meter of their victim’s poems in order to devastate them are said to have used the same technique as Russian witches: “they walk quietly behind their victim, exactly mimicking his gate; then when in perfect sympathy with him suddenly stumble and fall, taking care to fall soft while he falls hard.”  Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s piece Babel (words) takes on the modern world, in a deliberate mixture of satire, serious avant-garde dance, science fiction, declamatory monologues and something bordering on a three-ring circus.