Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hide/Seek at the National Portrait Gallery

Today I went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the controversial exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. It has received quite a few rave reviews, e. g.,
Gopnik, B., National Portrait Gallery's 'Hide/Seek' finds a frame for sexual identity, Washington Post, November 5, 2010.

With the possible exceptions of George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, and Andy Warhol, I didn't find paintings particularly interesting. The photography section though was exceptionally strong; among the artists presented were Thomas Eakins, Berenice Abbot, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Carl Van Vechten, Robert Mapplethorpe, and many others; perhaps, not as famous but no less impressive.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916)
Walt Whitman, 1891
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989)
Self-Portrait, 1988

Berenice Abbott (1998–1991)
Janet Flanner, 1923
Peter Hujar (1934–1987)
Susan Sontag, 1975

Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964)
Hugh Laing and Antony Tudor, 1940
George Platt Lynes (1907–1955)
Marsden Hartley, 1942

Apparently, the show generated a lot of interest: it was rather crowded when I was there, and NPG docents lead tour after guided tour.

'Hide/Seek' visitor comments
Trescott, J., 'Hide/Seek' visitors register their opinions, Arts Post, February, 10, 2011.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Berg and Beethoven with NSO/Eschenbach

What a difference a program makes! After the flop with an all-American program, it was so wonderful to hear the all-Viennese one today! The Berg pieces, infused with the sense of foreboding, sounded so fresh as if they were written today. Beethoven's Triplekonzert was something of a disappointment though: in my mind's ear I was hearing the famous Oistrakh/Rostropovich/Richter/Karajan recording with the Berlin Philarmoniker, and even though Lambert Orkis and Christoph Eschenbach were excellent, David Hardy is by no stretch is a Rostropovich; and Nurit Bar-Josef, as nice as her violin sound is, is no Oistrakh. 

Eschenbach's take on the Beethoven's 5th was very fresh: the dynamic ranges (ppp/fff, crescendo/diminuendo) was wide, the tempi were unusually fast, and even though he is often criticized for an episodic approach and lack of architectural vision, the symphony's progression from one movement to another seemed logical, and it felt like a unified work.

What he needs to work on, it seems to me, is achieving timbre distinction, juxtaposition, and contrast of various orchestral groups, so that the stringed, the woodwinds, and brass would all have their own distinct sound quality, like what one can hear with Amsterdam Concertgebouw under Haitink and Jasons, Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky, or Philadelphia Orchestra that Eschenbach himself used to lead. In fairness though, acoustics of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall are so bad that some of the sound quality may have been simply dampened or distorted. Yet, what Eschenbach has achieved in his short tenure at the NSO is quite impressive.

Midgette, A., Concert review: Christoph Eschenbach showcases National Symphony Orchestra 'family', Washington Post, January 28, 2010.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bernstein and Gershwin with NSO/Eschenbach and Barto

I was sorely disappointed with the NSO/Eschenbach performance on January 24th, 2011. The Lieberson piece Remembering JFK (An American Elegy) combined pompous declamation with cinema-lite score that tried to illustrate talking points. Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story lacked verve, color, and character. And the main attraction, Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, simply fell and felt flat; there was no spark, mastery, or inspiration in this performance by Florida pianist Tzimon Barto. I have to agree with Baltimore Sun's Tim Smith:
Tzimon Barto (once upon a time, just plain Johnny Barto Smith, Jr., from a town near Orlando) is a body-building, multi-lingual, novel-writing keyboard artist who has a long association with Eschenbach in concert halls and recording studios. The conductor hears in the pianist more qualities than some of us do.
I found myself mostly frustrated [...], first by the incredibly slow tempos that kept overriding Gershwin's own energetic pulse; and then by Barto's playing. There were flashes of bravura and of intriguing poetic nuances, but there wasn't quite enough technical dazzle or richness in tone to keep things fully interesting.
The pianist apparently thinks of the concerto as Gershwin's attempt to out-do Rachmaninoff, an approach Eschenbach embraced with a conviction you had to admire. I'm far more open to extremes than many of my colleagues, and I really wanted to buy into this exercise in elongation, this search for profound depths amidst the Charleston rhythms, but I just kept missing the guy I recognize as Gershwin.
Smith, T., National Symphony marks JFK anniversary with new Lieberson work, Baltimore Sun, January 23, 2011.