October, 2007

Nick at Night

My frequent concert companion is an actor from London named Nicolas Levene. Seventy years ago he would’ve opened in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” but today he’s starring in International City Theater’s premiere of Ray and Michael Cooney’s “Tom, Dick and Harry,” which runs through November 18 in Long Beach.

“Levene is not only a treat for the eyes, but also a gifted comic actor we’ll surely be hearing much more from,” wrote L.A. Stage Scene.

Long Beach is a long way from London but not so far from L.A., which is, of course, why Nick is here. Show-biz producers and swooning ladies may contact him here.

Nick is cultured and intelligent, qualities that will surely get him nowhere in Hollywood. Moreover, the narcissism, insecurity and desperate need for attention common to those in the acting profession, though certainly not absent in Levene, are at least partly ameliorated by his English charm, complete with plummy RP accent. Nick can read a parking ticket and make it sound like Tennyson.

He also attended Oxford, something Americans feel compelled to point out, as I just did.

I met him at an apropos event: a Victorian ball in Pasadena sponsored by the Social Daunce Irregulars. Nick is so bloody English, he actually brought a tailcoat with him to California.

As you’d expect from two culture snobs eager to cross wits, we took more interest in each other than in our dates, though not as much as we take in ourselves.

After the ball a group of us (the ladies all in hoopskirts) revelled around the piano in the lounge of the Ritz-Carleton. I played accompaniment to “Edelweiss,” oddly enough the only tune in the piano bench with lyrics. Then Nick sight-read Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Quite impressive considering the piece is in C# minor, a key which I, who play standards, had never even heard of.

An ardent music fan, Nick has attended concerts around the world and has thoroughly enjoyed the music he’s heard in L.A. — well, the tonal stuff at least. Nick likes pretty melodies almost as much as pretty girls, and I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to have a companion who shares my bourgeois tastes.

One last word: If you’re at a concert and see a couple of swells discussing the evening’s program, don’t be shy. Here’s how to tell us apart: The Englishman will be dressed like a Californian, and the Californian like an Englishman.

A bit tricky, that.

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Disappointing Finnish

Novel or short story? Pencil or brush? Of the artist’s many challenges, perhaps most vital is identifying the medium that best brings out his talents.

Jean Sibelius saw himself as a “tone painter and poet” whose best-known works are short orchestral pieces typically based on literary sources or his Finnish homeland.

The composer did write seven symphonies, however, and as the L.A. Philharmonic revealed Saturday at Disney Hall, the symphony was not Sibelius’ ideal medium.

The concert, part of the season’s “Sibelius Unbound” series, opened with the tone poem “Pohjola’s Daughter,” a staple on any Sibelius greatest-hits CD.

Like seeing a longtime friend and feeling a sudden and surprising attraction, this familiar and pleasant-enough piece, heard live by an energized orchestra with Disney Hall’s wonderful accoustics, was transfixing. Its folk melodies and cool Scandinavian textures revealed the composer’s neglect over the past 50 years as a gross injustice. A beautiful piece beautifully played, its motifs swirled in the mind long after the concert ended.

What a disappointment then when the Phil next began the instantly forgettable “Symphony No. 3,” which presented the lonstanding counter-argument against the composer, which no doubt reached its apex in 1955 when Rene Leibowitz penned a pamphlet entitled “Sibelius: The Worst Composer in the World.”

For reasons that can only be explained by a large contingent of Finnish-Americans in the audience, the symphony received a partial standing ovation.

Following intermission, the argument against Sibelius was further fortified by “Symphony No. 1,” a piece of breathtaking mediocrity. Critics have accused Sibelius of being incompetent, a word that came to mind during each of the symphony’s four tedious movements. Clumsy and disjointed, with endless call-and-response passages of Advil-sales-spike-inducing pomposity, it’s easy to understand why the composer banned the symphony’s performance during his lifetime.

Even the inspiration of conductor and fellow Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen, who studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, could not redeem this marginal piece of music.

The concert was recorded for download at iTunes. Hearing “Pohjola’s Daughter” live was priceless, but “Symphony No. 1″ isn’t worth 99 cents.

The L.A. Philharmonic’s “Sibelius Unbound” series continues Thursday and Friday with Symphonies No. 5 and 6.

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Time Out

If you haven’t attended Jacaranda, L.A.’s most progressive chamber music series, you should: Where else can you hear music played in time signatures so fiendishly difficult the conductor has to stop and start a piece three times?

Jacaranda begins its new season October 20 at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica. On the program are works by William Bolcom, Joan Tower, Elliott Carter and Steve Reich. The Denali Quartet (pictured) performs.

The season is entitled “The O.M. Century” and will pay hommage in a variety of ways to Olivier Messiaen and composers influenced by the modern French master.

“The audience for Jacaranda has been growing because it feels like a festival, an unexpected mix organized to express ideas and passions,” Jacaranda cofounder Patrick Scott told FineArtsLA. ” The performers’ commitment to the music is like an aphrodisiac. For many listeners Jacaranda is an addiction.”

For Saturday’s concert, Jacranda issued the following:

Jacaranda’s tradition of an all-American season opener begins with Bolcom recollecting his teacher Messiaen in these New Etudes. About pianist Scott Dunn’s performance in last season’s special return concert, the Los Angeles Times described him as, “suave, masterly, insouciant, nostalgic and exuberant.” He then joins cellist Timothy Loo as Tower pays hommage to Messiaen’s most famous music. Carter, an exact contemporary, is represented by an ingenious and engaging diversion for the unusual group of four virtuoso winds.

Reich’s “Different Trains” meditates on his childhood trans-American trips, while in Europe civilians and POWs, such as Messiaen, were sent to camps. The fearless Denali Quartet (”knock-your-socks-off”– Los Angeles Times) will bring, “a keen stage presence” (The Strad Magazine) to this riveting journey. Reich transforms the live electric guitar into an instrument of tingling meditation. Each work represents a high point in Reich’s combining of live and pre-recorded music.

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Little Girl Lost

There’s a little girl lost in the Getty. You may not have noticed her, tucked as she is among water lilies, bowls of fruit, and portraits of more important grown-ups. Her name is Jeanne Kéfer, and she quietly beckons your attention.

Jeanne does not live in your world. Hers is the confused and vulnerable state of childhood, that universal homeland where, as Victor Herbert writes in “Toyland,” once you cross its borders, you can never return again.

Jeanne was captured in 1885 by Fernand Khnopff, the Belgian Symbolist best known for his atmospheric tableaux and erotic fascination with his sister, who sat for many of his paintings and embodied the artist’s feminine ideal. “Beautiful red hair of a barbarian,” said poet Emile Verhaeren in describing Khnopff; “upright posture, neatly dressed, a simple person who had a horror of appearing dishevelled; a clergyman in the process of becoming a dandy.”

FineArtsLA.com spoke with Getty assistant curator Scott Allan, whose first duty at the museum, coincidentally, was to provide the audio guide for the painting. Allan shares his thoughts about the painting’s mysterious allure and the relatively unknown artist who created it.

FALA: When was “Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer” acquired?

SA: In 1997. Throughout the late ’80s and much of the ’90s, a lot of the 19th-century collecting at the Getty was looking beyond just canononical, modern French masters. We were acquiring a lot of things from Germany, Scandinavia, Belgium and England, trying to break the box of received notions of 19th-century art history. Compared to some French artists, Khnopff is certainly less known: There are far fewer of his paintings in North American collections. But as far as Belgian and Symbolist art, he’s one of the giants and had an international reputation in his lifetime in avant-garde circles.

FALA: Where was it acquired and how much was paid?

SA: Well I won’t tell you how much was paid. It was acquired at Christie’s from a private collection.

I did a check on Artnet covering the past 10-15 years, and the most significant works by Khnopff that came up were given estimates by the auction houses in the $1 million to $1.5 million range; in one case, though, the picture only went for something in the $800,000s. Most of the relatively important pictures fell anywhere in the $100,000 to $700,000 range, while a number of more minor things were listed with five figures.

The market is so volatile and inflated right now, that if a picture like this came up today it would probably get a radically different price than it did in 1997.

FALA: Is this the Getty’s only work by the artist?khnopff-studio.jpg

SA: We may have a drawing, but it’s certainly the only painting.

FALA: Tell us what you make of the work.

SA: Part of what I really like about it is that it has this really uncanny photographic naturalism. It’s an incredibly precise realistic image. There’s this whole academic side to him, and yet he manages to convey this incredibly compelling, mysterious, suggestive, weirdly daydream-like picture. It’s got this strange, slightly disturbing atmosphere, and despite the photographic realism, the level of artifice and pictorial calculation is quite astounding.

It’s a fairly flat image, a balanced arrangement of rectangular and geometric forms, and the little girl’s scale is carefully calibrated against the underlying geometric grid. The top of the bottom-most molding on the door lines up perfectly with the bottom edge of her coat; her shoulders line up perfectly with another molding higher above; and the molding at the bottom of the window on the door lines up where you imagine the crown of her head to be.

Then the picture does really werid things with space, proximity and distance. The top of the frame bisects these doors. So for an adult that suggests an incredible closeness to the little girl, but then there’s the expanse of these floorboards coming out at the bottom that pushes you back a distance.

Then when you look at the perspective construction, with the angled procession of the floorboards, you imagine the vanishing point to be behind her eyes. So within the universe of the picture, everything is focused on her, and for an adult viewer you get a strange subjective sense of what a child’s experience of an adult’s world is.

Then the palette is very subtle with these color harmonies and very cool silvery tones. And the characterization of the little girl: She’s very charming and whatnot, yet there’s also something strangely rigid and hieratic.

FALA: You can almost imagine her turning demonic in one of the “Omen” films.

SA: Absolutely. She is standing sentinel at the door. But at the same time you can imagine a kid dressed up and standing stiff for an artist in a portrait studio, not sure what to do. So there’s this winsome quality to her, but also this slightly disturbing aspect to her with this penetrating stare.

When we acquired the painting it was x-rayed, and originally she was holding a little bunch of flowers in her left hand. So that’s the one major change Khnopff made, and I think that [getting rid of the flowers] makes the focus just on her eyes, and makes the intensity of her gaze that much more compelling without that distracting detail which might have some sort of obvious symbolic quality.

FALA: In regards to the subtle color palette, it reminds me of those lines of Verlaine, “Car nous voulons la nuance encore/Pas la couleur/Rien que la nuance!” which was a sort of rallying cry for the Symbolists.

SA: Certainly for many Symbolist painters that’s true. The palette doesn’t really connote daylight and outside — it’s something more dreamy, with a strange, milky, glaucous quality.

It’s worth mentioning that the Getty had Khnopff expert Michel Draguet write a whole study about this painting, so there’s a lot of historical context there.

“Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer” courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust. Order the poster here. Michel Draguet’s study of the painting can be ordered here.


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Grin And Bare It

This week the Getty Museum debuts “In Focus: The Nude,” a survey of the history of the photographic nude. The exhibit includes works by Man Ray, Thomas Eakins, Edgar Degas and Diane Arbus and runs through February.

“The unclothed human figure became a subject of photography shortly after the announcement of the invention of the medium in 1839,” the Getty said in a release. ” As the nude in Western art was almost always idealized, some found photographic realism undesirable and stylistic attempts were made to transform it through a series of conventions that suggested the ‘purity’ of ancient Greece.

“During the first decades of the 20th century,” the release continues, “the gradual relaxation of Victorian-age social constraints led to increased experimentation in the genre. Photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston abandoned 19th century idealism and sought to explore the human body as pure form. Other photographers, such as Man Ray and Brassaï, used the body as a site for surrealist expression by experimenting with figural representation and distortion.”

“In Focus: The Nude” is the first exhibit in a new Center for Photographs program that will highlight the breadth and depth of the photographs collection at the Getty. The “In Focus” series will provide the opportunity for the museum to augment its rotatin exhibition schedule to ensure that photographs from the permanent collection, many which have not been seen before, will be on display at all times.

“Le Violon d’Ingres” (1924) by Man Ray courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

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Welcome Bach

The Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra returns for its 2007-08 season on October 20 with a program that includes Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos numbers three and five.

The ensemble has issued the following release:

Internationally acclaimed conductor/organist Martin Haselböck launches MUSICA ANGELICA BAROQUE ORCHESTRA’s 2007-08 season on Saturday, October 20, 8 pm, Pasadena Presbyterian Church, and Sunday, October 21, 2007, 4 pm, Schoenberg Hall, UCLA., leading a CONCERTO! program of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and No. 5, and Telemann’s Concerto for Flute d’Amour, Oboe d’Amore & Viola d’Amore; Concerto for Flute, Violin and Cello in A from Tafelmusik; and Concerto for Oboe.

Spotlighted as soloists for the evening are Musica Angelica Concertmaster/Resident Artistic Director Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin and viola d’amore; Principal Oboist Gonzalo Ruiz, oboe and oboe d’amore; and Principal Flutist Stephen Schultz, flute and flute d’amour. All three have performed with Musica Angelica for many years and are key artists in the orchestra’s success. Haselböck is beginning his third season as music director of Musica Angelica, considered Southern California’s premier Baroque ensemble. A pre-concert lecture takes place 40 minutes prior to each concert.

Tickets, which are available online at www.MusicaAngelica.org or by calling (310) 458-4504, are $25 to $49 for general audiences; $31 to $43 for seniors; and $12 for students. Also available are subscription packages for the 2007-08 season, including Season Series Subscriptions (all 8 concerts) for $249 to $289); Orchestral Series Subscriptions (5 concerts) for $159 to $199.00; Chamber Series Subscriptions (3 concerts) for $94.00; and “Create Your Own Personal Favorites Subscription Package” (any 4 concerts) for $129.00. Tickets for the UCLA concert can also be purchased from the UCLA Central Ticket office at (310) 825-2101 or online at www.uclalive.com.

For more information, or a brochure with the full season schedule, call (310) 458-4504 or visit www.MusicaAngelica.org.

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