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Monday, October 01, 2007

Some words about Marin Alsop and about Joseph Mallord William Turner

Marin Alsop

Marin Alsop is the new musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I haven't attended any of her performances, but I listened on a CD music by John Adams (Short Ride in a Fast Machine, The Wound-Dresser, Berceuse Elegiaque, Shaker Loops) - Marin Alsop was conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

She conducted recently the Baltimore Orchestra at the Strathmore Music Center. The concert hall has a wonderful hot acoustic. I was several times there, it's one of my favorite places, only I always arrive at the Music Center after some hiking, on weekends, so I am not too formally dressed, to put it mildly. So instead of attending some performance, I prefer to take a cup of coffee on the terrace and to enjoy the sightseeing. It's a marvelous place.

Anthony Tommasini made a chronicle in today's NY Times for an Adams/Mahler concert conducted by Marin Alsop at Baltimore. Here it is, enjoy:

Music Review Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
A Baton Leads Baltimore Into a New Era

BALTIMORE, Sept. 29 — Conducting her first subscription-series program at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra here on Friday night, Marin Alsop received two prolonged standing ovations.

The one that mattered most came at the end of this season-opening concert, an ambitious program that intriguingly paired two volatile works: John Adams’s “Fearful Symmetries,” followed by Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Ms. Alsop, who turns 51 in October, looked as dapper and dynamic as ever in her customary black slacks and stylish jacket. She drew incisive, vibrant and richly colored accounts of both works from the Baltimore players.

But the ovation that must have been especially gratifying came at the start of the evening, when she arrived onstage, and so became the first woman to hold a music director’s post at a major American orchestra. She placed a hand to her heart and seemed a little overcome, understandable given the obstacles she faced when her appointment was announced in July 2005.

At the time the orchestra was mired in debt, demoralized and bleeding subscribers. When the board said that Ms. Alsop would replace the brilliant, tradition-bound Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov as music director, many players publicly voiced doubts about her artistry and complained that they had been shut out of the search process.

What a difference two years has made. As director-designate Ms. Alsop reinvigorated the orchestra, institutionally and artistically. A born communicator and effective proselytizer for music, she has led a major community-outreach effort and taken the orchestra back into the recording business for the first time in a decade. A new Sony Classical release with Ms. Alsop conducting the violinist Joshua Bell and the Baltimore Symphony in John Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Concerto took the top spot on the Billboard classical chart in September. The Naxos label plans to release a three-disc set of Dvorak symphonies taken from live performances by Ms. Alsop and the orchestra.

Thanks to a $1 million grant, the Baltimore Symphony this season is offering all tickets to subscribers at $25 a concert. (I am continually amazed at the impact that a sum like $1 million, just pocket change in popular culture, can have in classical music.) In a new venture, XM Satellite Radio is broadcasting eight Baltimore Symphony programs this season. Attendance, which had dipped to about 60 percent of capacity before Ms. Alsop’s appointment, is confidently expected to reach the high 70 percent range. Paul Meecham, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, has said Ms. Alsop was the impetus for the turnaround, proving that dynamic artistic leadership is the obvious answer to the troubles facing American orchestras.

None of this could have happened, though, had Ms. Alsop not won over the musicians. To judge by Friday’s concert, the second performance of this program (the first was on Thursday at the orchestra’s subsidiary home at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda), the players are enthused and confident.

With her kinetic conducting style and affinity for jazzy contemporary music, Ms. Alsop brings rhythmic verve to everything she performs. Not surprisingly, the tumultuous Mahler Fifth was robust and emphatic. Yet I was impressed and somewhat surprised by the breadth and structural clarity of this account.

The episodic first movement emerged as a heaving, inexorable apotheosis of a funeral march. The stormy second movement was arresting, but alive with nuance and detail. Ms. Alsop and her players conveyed the wayward turns and sardonic humor that lurk below the bucolic surface of the sprawling scherzo. Her direct, restrained approach to the beloved Adagietto would not have pleased those who experience this music as the ultimate in poignant expressivity. I found her intensely lyrical and unsentimental interpretation refreshing. Some of the bustling fugato passages in the finale were a little scrambled, but the performance had infectious exuberance and, over all, the musicians played brilliantly.

Mr. Adams’s “Fearful Symmetries” (1988) is a heady mix of ominous urgency and cheeky irreverence. It is inventively scored for plush orchestra, heavy on brass, with synthesizers to add some high-tech samplings of percussion sounds. This unrelenting, harmonically gritty 30-minute piece pays homage to breezy big-band jazz while pulsating with fear-inducing, hypnotic power. Ms. Alsop’s conducting was almost a choreographic interpretation of the music. She was alert to every metric shift and rhythmic riff throughout this exhilarating performance.

Baltimore audiences are going to hear quite a bit more music by living composers than they have recently. Starting her tenure with Mr. Adams’s work was a statement of purpose for Ms. Alsop and an invitation to adventure. Before the performance, an older woman sitting in front of me sounded dubious about “Fearful Symmetries.” After the performance, she was on her feet, shouting and waving her program in the air at Mr. Adams and Ms. Alsop.

So far, so good.


Joseph Mallord William Turner - The ShipwreckJoseph Mallord William Turner - The Shipwreck

Today started at the Washington DC National Gallery of Art a new exhibition devoted to the British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. I hope I will be able to visit it some time next weekend.

Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805
Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805

Every one likes some other trait in Turner's work. For me he foreruns the Abstractionists in some of his paintings (for instance in Approach to Venice): by his balance between the plot and the background. Only Turner is much, much more than that.

Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Field of Waterloo, 1817
Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Field of Waterloo, 1817

I will come back to him, after I visit the exhibition (as I intend to come back also to Hopper, whose exhibition is in view at the Washington Gallery, too).

Joseph Mallord William Turner - Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate themselvesJoseph Mallord William Turner - Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate themselves

Now I offer you a chronicle from today's W Post. Here it is:

Joseph Mallord William Turner - Snow Storm -- Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in the Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in This Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwich
Joseph Mallord William Turner - Snow Storm -- Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in the Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in This Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwich

Turner, in Full Light
Painter's Gifts Are Expansively Exhibited In National Gallery's Ambitious Show

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007; C01

Joseph Mallord William Turner is Britain's greatest artist because his radical watercolors are so much about pure tone and color that they foreshadow much later abstraction.

Or, Turner is great because of his oil paintings' extreme fidelity to nature, registering every detail of how a landscape or a building looks.

Turner is great because his scenes of ancient life express the timeless ideals of classical culture. Or, he's great because of his close reporting of the realities of England's Industrial Revolution.

Turner is great because of his unbridled brush and brilliant palette. Or, his greatness lies in his more than 800 superbly detailed prints in black and white. After all, they're what won Turner a mass audience, as well as much of the huge fortune he left behind when he died in 1851.

Or maybe all of the above are true. In which case Turner's greatness lies in his resisting, more than almost any artist you could name, any single notion of what great art might be.

The 146 works in the landmark Turner survey opening today at the National Gallery of Art's West Building could almost be by half a dozen different artists -- each busy breaking an entirely different set of rules. This country's largest Turner survey, ever, gives us the artist almost complete, however much that completeness baffles us.

That has a weird effect on the exhibition. If most great artists' surveys give something for everyone to like, the strong feeling in the Turner show is that there's something there for everyone, even his greatest admirers, to dis like. Turner isn't about an artistic business-as-usual, punctuated by various high points. There are radically incompatible ways of doing things scattered throughout the show, and throughout Turner's career. If you're committed to his glowing, almost abstract lightscapes -- the pictures that were Turner, for much of the 20th century -- what do you do with his warts-and-all picture of the bodies lying dead at Waterloo at night? If it's his tempestuous scenes of unbridled nature that get you going, can you stomach his mild-mannered images of the Olde Englyshe countryside?

Yet whatever your taste, it will be hard for you to argue that certain pictures are Turner's clear path to genius and others unfortunate byways. In fact, Turner makes mere taste seem shallow and inadequate to what he is about.

The National Gallery survey is arranged chronologically, which means that it begins with Turner as the precocious 14-year-old son of a Covent Garden barber, taking figure-drawing classes at the nearby Royal Academy of Arts but making a specialty of landscapes and architectural views. By 1802, when he was just 26, Turner was elected a full member of the academy -- its youngest ever -- and was its professor of perspective by 1807.

So far, so good: That explains the wonderful early interiors on view, and the credible spaces and structures Turner could conjure up at will for the next 50 years. The problem is that that Turner seems to have so little in common with so many of his other avatars. For every image that is full of order and architecture, there's another that dissolves into vague forms and unreadable space. Or one that, like the Waterloo battle scene, concentrates on figures rather than structures. Why not, you say? Remember those life drawing classes? Which only invites another question: Did Turner sleep through them? Almost every Turner body is a mess of barely connecting limbs.

The standard answer to the anatomy problem (this artist is nothing if not problematic) would be that Turner is about overall effects and strong emotions, not pedantic detail. Some of his bodies recall the tortured forms in Rembrandt's late, great Crucifixion prints. At least in his first years, Turner was supposed to be a card-carrying Romantic, which meant that he cared more than anything about evoking the terrifying forces of sublime nature. The wonderful second gallery in the exhibition is full of perfectly conceived tableaux of a ship wrecked in a tempest, of a roaring cataract on the Rhine and of a biblical plague of fire and hail striking ancient Egypt. These are some of Turner's most straightforwardly satisfying paintings -- which makes them less than typical of all his other art.

So Turner is about sublime effects, even at the expense of fussy accuracy. Except when he isn't. There are, for instance, a slew of carefully rendered watercolors -- not washy or abstract, these -- painted as the basis for painstaking prints of some of England's best-known sights. (The show's big flaw: Not one of Turner's prints is in it, though they played a major role in his art and life. Would their presence have simply added one too many complications to our view of him? Only three are to be seen at all in the museum, in a tiny rare-book display at the other end of the building.)

What about oil paintings titled "Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate themselves" or the impressively titled "Snow Storm -- Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in the Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in This Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwich"? Clearly those two must be all about the importance of the information they provide. The first seems to have been painted to appeal to a patron with interests in whaling; the second represents itself as the painter's own eyewitness account of a notable event.

And then you look at those two pictures and find, first, that they don't look all that different. And second, that they're so broadly suggestive in their treatment you'd never guess their subjects without the captions Turner provided. It's almost as though Turner is playing off the contrast between subject and treatment. A picture such as Turner's "Snow Storm" could be praised to the skies for its sublime accuracy by the great British critic John Ruskin, one of the artist's fiercest defenders. But it could be also dismissed as "soapsuds and whitewash," as yet another of Turner's "pictures of nothing, and very like," as one wag put it. Turner doesn't just make pictures that some people like and others hate. He makes pictures that different viewers seem to see completely differently.

In life, Turner was a famously ornery, odd character. A little man with a huge head, in cold weather he wore a handkerchief under his hat, with its corners hanging out. When he taught, he mumbled in such a heavy London accent that his classes were hardly worth taking. He was famous for his thrift and nose for business, building a private gallery where his paintings could be shown and sold to best advantage. Yet wealthy patrons were sometimes told to take a hike. This kind of eccentricity was a classic move for a working-class boy trying to make it in a culture ruled by toffs. By refusing the standard social codes, he could escape the lowly position they consigned him to. Could that same attitude be the force behind Turner's art?

Looking at Turner's pictures may have rather the same effect that visiting him had: You never know quite where you stand, what oddness he'll throw at you next or whether to be impressed, appalled or flattered when he lets you watch him breaking rules.

J.M.W. Turner continues through Jan. 6 in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, on the north side of the Mall at Fourth Street NW. Admission is free. Call 202-737-4215 or visit http://www.nga.gov

Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Fireworks Show
Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Fireworks Show

(Washington DC National Gallery of Art)


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