Fresh Air’s classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz recently published a poem about friendship and loss
Fresh Air’s classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz recently published a poem about friendship and loss
A note from Fresh Air contributor Lloyd Schwartz:
After my Fresh Air piece on Vermeer and the exhibit of paintings from The Hague visiting New York’s Frick Collection (December 5), several people asked me about my choice of the title Officer and Smiling Girl for the Vermeer painting usually called Officer and Laughing Girl—the title it has at home at the Frick. Vermeer’s titles were mainly not his own and over the centuries have never been written in stone. The Frick’s title derived from a 1696 sale in Amsterdam where it was simply listed, without a title, as “a soldier with a laughing girl, very beautiful.” In a series of poems I wrote about Vermeer, I myself used the more traditional title. In some older Vermeer books, the painting is called A Soldier with a Laughing Girl. But neither of these titles seem truly accurate. In his landmark Study of Vermeer, art historian (and Rilke translator) Edward Snow refers to the painting as Soldier and Young Girl Smiling, which is a far more descriptive of what the painting looks like. The expression on the young girl’s face is so poignant precisely because it’s so ambiguous—her smile, tender and loving, is also a little forced, even fearful. That soldier looming opposite her, silhouetted with his back to the viewer, is clearly about to go out into the world—there’s an open window next to him and a map on the wall behind the girl. She seems (at least to me) to not to want him to leave, maybe even desperate for him to stay. Definitely not laughing.
Practically every scholar writing about Vermeer gives one of the Frick’s other Vermeers—the one the Frick calls Mistress and Maid—a different title. One of the great Vermeers in the National Gallery in Washington used to be called Woman Weighing Pearls, then Woman Weighing Gold, and is now, probably most correctly, just Woman with a Balance. And for years, before the book and movie inspired by the iconic Vermeer from The Hague that’s the centerpiece of the current loan exhibit, that painting was not called Girl with the Pearl Earring but, blandly, Head of a Young Girl. Vermeer himself, evidently, didn’t seem to care what his paintings were called.
image: Officer and a Laughing Girl by Johannes Vermeer
Lloyd Schwartz writes about love and loss associated with the Dutch painter Vermeer:
Some years ago, I wrote a poem called “Why I Love Vermeer,” which ends “I’ve never lived in a city without a Vermeer.” I could say that until 1990, when Vermeer’s exquisite painting The Concert was one of the masterpieces stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It’s still missing. The French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who loved that Vermeer, put together a show called Last Seen, a series of photographs of the empty frames of the stolen paintings, combined with comments on the paintings by people who worked at the museum. It’s a haunting and elegant show, though seeing this exhibit, which is now on view at the Gardner, then walking through the rooms with the empty frames still in place, made me feel more melancholy and hopeless than ever about this enormous loss.
image from “Last Seen” from the Boston Globe
Fresh Air contributor Lloyd Schwartz shares a poem he wrote about the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer:
Why I Love Vermeer
When I moved to my new house, I thought I’d lost all my Vermeer books. I was frantic for days. How could I have lost track of them “even for the least division of an hour”? Even the most inadequate reproduction (and they’re all inadequate) has the power to move me. Lately, though, merely looking at them hasn’t seemed enough. But what more can one do? What more do they want? What are they going to ask of me now?
2. Personal reasons.
The women in the paintings—opening a window, reading a letter, pouring milk, holding a glass of wine—remind me, in their eyes, their smiles (giving, inward), their “centeredness,” remind me of certain people I love; especially (this gets more complicated), especially my mother.
Their network of contradictions (clarity and mystery; reticence and bravura; heroism and humility—not necessarily a contradiction) suggests an intelligence, an inner life, beyond the other “little” Dutch masters—and equal, it seems to me, in its way, to the nakedness and tragedy of Rembrandt. “Rembrandt ist Beethoven,” I heard an old woman say to herself in the Rijksmuseum, “Vermeer ist Mozart.” Why must one choose either over the other?
So few survive (thirty-six, fewer than the number of Shakespeare plays; and one attribution has recently been called into question). Each one—taken in, loved for itself—calls into mind each of the others.
The summer of the great retrospective in Europe (including all the Vermeers still in private collections), I had to go. Obsessed, I kept traveling to see as many more as I could. In Germany, I lied to get into a closed museum. At what wouldn’t I stop?
I grew up in New York, which has more Vermeers (eight) than any other city in the world. Any other country (there are only seven in Holland). I’ve never lived in a city without a Vermeer.
From Goodnight, Gracie (University of Chicago Press)
Fresh Air’s classical music reviewer Lloyd Schwartz writes about conductor James Levine's “triumphant comeback,” when he took the stage at Carnegie Hall with the MET Opera Orchestra:
An extended ovation greeted conductor James Levine last May when he returned to performing after a two-year absence. In 2011, he resigned as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and cancelled his performances at the Metropolitan Opera. He’d been plagued by health problems, injuries and operations, and it was painful for him to move. Many of his admirers, even he himself, feared he might never conduct again.
But last year, the Met announced that he’d be returning this year to lead three opera productions and several concerts with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. A special wheelchair had been rigged for him, and although he wasn’t walking, he was evidently pain free and his upper body was strong and flexible. We can hear his exciting return on Live at Carnegie Hall, a new two-CD set of that first Carnegie Hall concert, leading orchestral staples by Wagner, Beethoven and Schubert.
image via New Criterion, by Steve Sherman
It’s a good young cast, except for Amy Carson in the role of Pamina. Carson makes a very pretty, almost pre-Raphaelite heroine. But this is one of the most radiantly beautiful soprano roles ever written, and Carson’s singing voice is pinched and so often off pitch, it’s painful. On the other hand, the best-known singer in the film, the celebrated bass René Pape, a famous Sarastro, sings this role magnificently, with the profoundest dignity and warmth.
[S]ome of the images are unsettling: In the first and scarier part of the exhibit, the objects are from Oldenburg’s 1960 shows called The Street — images inspired by his living on New York’s Lower East Side. These are figures and objects, many of them suspended from the ceiling, made out of cardboard and burlap, nightmarish but also childlike, brown with black edges as if they were charred.
Claes Oldenburg, The Store, 1961
Lloyd Schwartz on Claes Oldenburg:
In an exhibition-catalog entry in 1961, Oldenburg made a famous manifesto: “I am for the art that a kid licks, after peeling away the wrapper. I am for an art that is smoked, like a cigarette, smells, like a pair of shoes. I am for an art that flaps like a flag, or helps blow noses, like a handkerchief. I am for an art that is put on and taken off, like pants, which develops holes, like socks, which is eaten, like a piece of pie … “
From our reviews producer Phyllis Myers:
On my desk sits a copy of Music In — and On — the Air, a new collection of Fresh Air pieces by our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz.
It was great to hear that it’s now up as a Kindle e-book on Amazon because it was a very limited print run; my copy is #37 and they sold out. Over the years, I’ve learned a little something from every piece I worked on with Lloyd, from Pierre Boulez or Elliot Carter (their portraits by Ralph Hamilton are on the cover) to Maria Callas and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Lloyd is always surprising me; reviewing the old movie It Happened in Brooklyn so we could hear Frank Sinatra sing opera and Jimmy Durante, be — well — just Jimmy Durante. But the idea that surprised me the most was the DVD review of Car 54, Where Are You? Who knew that Molly Picon would appear and sing so tenderly in Yiddish? Lloyd.
Portraits of Pierre Boulez and Elliot Carter by Ralph Hamilton from the cover of the book
On Monday’s show, Lloyd Schwartz had a piece about Cinerama films from the 1950s, two of which are newly released on DVD and Blu-Ray. Above is an image (reproduced from Flicker Alley’s Cinerama catalog) of just how they made that magic happen. The image Cinerama reproduces mimics a person’s peripheral vision. Because no single lens recreate that without distortion, the Cinerama camera had three lenses, each taking a third of the picture’s total width.
Image courtesy of Flickr Alley
Please welcome to the Fresh Air Tumblr,our critic Lloyd Schwartz with a guest post to provide context on the opening music that was used for his segment on Cinerama that aired yesterday:
The opening music for my Fresh Air segment on Cinerama is Cole Porter’s “Stereophonic Sound,” a satirical song about the wide-screen/3-D/stereo techniques of the 1950s that were designed to entice TV-watchers back to movie theaters. The song is from Porter’s last Broadway show, Silk Stockings, a 1955 musical version of Ernst Lubitsch’s great spoof about Soviet Russia, Ninotchka, with Greta Garbo as the humorless commissar who changes her attitude when she’s on a mission to Paris (“Garbo laughs!” the publicity announced). In the musical, “Stereophonic Sound” was a comic number for a movie star swimmer, obviously modeled on Esther Williams. Gretchen Wyler, who sings it on the original cast album, created a sensation. In the 1957 movie version, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, Wyler’s part was played by the ebullient Janis Paige. But Hollywood caved to the enormous pressure from the production code to avoid the slightest sexual innuendo. Even as tame a line as “If Ava Gardner played Godiva, riding on a mare,/The people wouldn’t pay a cent to see her in the bare” (“Unless she had glorious Technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope, and stereophonic sound”) was changed to the limp “The people wouldn’t pay a cent, and wouldn’t even care.” For Broadway, Porter wrote “The customers don’t like to see the groom embrace the bride, unless her lips are scarlet and her bosom’s five-feet wide.” But movie audiences heard: “Unless her lips are scarlet and her mouth is five feet wide.” I’d like to know how they convinced Cole Porter to allow his smart lyrics to be dumbed down and bowdlerized.
Above, Fred Astaire and Janice Page perform “Stereophonic Sound” from Silk Stockings.
In 1952, the first Cinerama experiment, This Is Cinerama, was a sensation, and even though the ticket prices were higher, people flocked to specially designed movie theaters to ride a roller coaster, fly over Niagara Falls, or sway in a gondola through the canals of Venice. Two later Cinerama films — How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm — had actual stories, but mainly Cinerama stuck to travelogues. Probably wisely. This Is Cinerama and the 1958 Windjammer, which was filmed in a similar but slightly superior technique called Cinemiracle, have just been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. Even watching them on a TV screen, in a format called SmileBox, which simulates the curved Cinerama screen, that roller coaster ride at New York’s Rockaway Beach is still pretty breathtaking. And fun.
Image from This Is Cinerama courtesy of Flickr Alley LLC
Sunday Bloody Sunday is one of those films that lets you into the lives of believable, complicated characters. A handsome, self-centered young artist played by the actor/rock singer Murray Head is having simultaneous affairs with both an older woman (played with infinitely nuanced self-irony by Glenda Jackson) and an older man, a Jewish doctor (the touching Peter Finch), two intelligent adults who have mutual friends and even know each other slightly. Each of them is aware of his or her rival and accepts the necessity of sharing the young man, who seems to love them both, though neither is as important to him as they would like. The characters are equally unsentimental and realistic about their possibilities for happiness.
I never heard of the Baroque composer Agostino Steffani until last year, when the Boston Early Music Festival presented the North American premiere of Steffani’s Niobe, an opera about the mythical queen who bragged so much about her many children, the gods killed them all in revenge. One of the leading roles, Niobe’s husband King Amphion, was played by the early-music superstar countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who sang the opera’s most sublime aria — a hymn to the harmony of the spheres. I couldn’t wait to hear Jaroussky again, and was eager to hear more Steffani. Now, I have my wish. The celebrated coloratura mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has been studying Steffani, and he’s the focus of her latest CD, Mission.
When Elliott Carter died at home on Monday, he was 103 and had been writing music for more than 80 years. He won Pulitzer Prizes for two of his five string quartets, was a recipient of the National Medal of Honor, and in September was awarded the title of Commander of the French Legion of Honor. Many regarded him not only as our greatest living composer, but also as perhaps the greatest American composer of classical music. He lived one of the most fulfilled lives any artist could wish for. What’s sad about his death isn’t only that a whole era in music has come to an end, but that Carter was still composing, and on the highest level.
In the photo:Elliott Carter at Tanglewood in 2008 on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is sitting right behind Carter.
Photo courtesy of Michael J Lutch