Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Der Fledermausmann! A new year's eve travesty

Der Fledermausmann

An impression of certain confusing events on a recent Saturday afternoon in an area with poor radio reception.

(…static establishes that we are listening to a broadcast; then a familiar voice intones:)

“…As the curtain rises, we find ourselves in 19th-century Vienna, in the elegantly appointed bedroom of an aristocrat, Count Rudolf Wehn, whom we find just waking up in bed with his young ward, Octavian. From their amorous chit-chat, we learn that they are secretly Vienna’s caped crusader against crime, der Fledermausmann, and Fritz, des Knaben Wunderhorn, or horny boy wonder. A sudden commotion in the corridor announces the arrival of the Count’s country cousin, Rosalinda von Eisenstein, brushing aside the protests of Count Rudolf’s devoted but incompetent butler and cabbie, Schatzendorff. Rosalinda is broke and has come to town seeking Rudolf’s help to get herself a rich husband, ideally innocent young Alfried, only son of the nouveau riche former burlesque queen Baroness Fanny Waldner. Octavian quickly disguises himself as a maid and hops back into bed with the Count, hoping Rosalinda will detect nothing untoward. But Rosalinda is instantly smitten with the pretty girl (or so she thinks), and attempts to make a date with her, at a heurige, an inn in the Vienna Woods equipped (as we will find in Act III) with a chambre separée ….”

(…more static and occasional bursts of late-Romantic music, including, during the Act II Ball chez Prince Metternich, an interpolation from the same composer's operetta Die Diskoprinzessin of the only waltz song in 4/4 time: “Lvov, City of Lvove,” sung by a masked Galician tenor over the sound of a game of skat in the next alcove, and then, during the preposterous shenanigans in the Viennese country inn at the end of Act III, Jenny, a streetwalker, sings that bitter indictment of the bourgeoisie, “Das Garmisch-Partenkirchen-Lied,” the number that is said to have caused the censors of the Duke of Wölfenbüttel to ban the premier performance. At last, to our great relief, at the end of the third intermission, the familiar voice returns, to dissolve the Gordian knots of the plot:)

“Act IV opens in the major metropolitan jail of Vienna, where we meet Schlivovitcz, the comic jailer, a non-acting role. Enter, in great excitement, Alfried’s governess, Adele, who, you may remember, has disguised herself as a man to penetrate (as it were) the Viennese underworld. Since Adele is played by a baritone in drag, Schlivovitcz assumes she is the thug she is dressed as, and Adele has some (humorous) difficulty fending off his lewd advances. At last, however, she obtains an audience with Prince Metternich (played, you doubtless recall, by a mezzo-soprano en travesti), and reveals to him that the gang terrorizing metropolitan Vienna is led by a contralto with her arm in a sling. This can be no one but Rosalinda, who was wounded by Octavian in the Act II melee. Rosalinda is dragged off to a term in the dungeons of the Spielberg. Prince Metternich (twirling his mustachios) resolves to take an “interest” in Adele’s future career as an actress and offers her a ceremonial glass of champagne from his high leather boot. If she quaffs the whole thing in one gulp (and of course she does), she has accepted the arrangement. Meanwhile Octavian and Alfried have realized that they are meant for each other, and Count Rudolf, brushing aside a tear, departs in his flederfiaker, or bat-cab with Schatzendorff, as the curtain falls.

“The applause you’re hearing greets Maestro Spiegeltraum as he makes his way through the pit and asks the orchestra to rise. The House lights are going down, and we are ready for the concluding act of Der Fledermausmann….”

As ready as we’ll ever be, anyway.

(c) 2009, John Yohalem

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Kandinsky at the Guggenheim

Don't ask me why I bothered, but after a tedious soggy Saturday visiting the Mum in bleak Westchester (she claims she's been evicted, or possibly kidnapped by space aliens, but was looking forward to our theater date ... what theater date?), I got off the train at 125th Street and caught a bus down Fifth Avenue, reaching the Guggenheim Museum about 5:15. On Saturday nights from 5:45 to 7:45, entrance is pay-what-you-wish to this overpriced museum, and the Kandinsky retrospective runs only through January 13th. The line in the pouring rain was around the block and as far as Madison Avenue, and when I finally got in the door at six, the line behind me was still out of sight. As usual when I go to the Guggenheim, I took an elevator to the top and worked my way backwards, but this show foolishly (in my opinion) starts with his earliest work at the bottom of the spiral and his last works at the very top.

Would seeing it in proper sequence have made a difference? To my ankles perhaps.

I just don't get Kandinsky. He doesn't send me. I don't know what he's saying. His pictures are far more pleasing when viewed from very far away (across the museum, say, from the opposite gallery spiral), and I find him much inferior in coherence to his friend Joan Miro and hopelessly unappealing beside his pal and neighbor Paul Klee, and less decorative than, say, Jackson Pollock. Very few of the later oils delighted, and the earlier ones were simply messy. Compare them to, say, Odilon Redon - one artist is a visionary, the other seems to be a kid mucking about with fingerpaint. And Kandinsky is not the visionary.

However, one of the side galleries was full of works on paper, and these had all the coherence, the focus, the charm that the works on canvas conspicuously lacked. I would happily spend an hour wandering in that suite of rooms (two or three), and would love to have a small booklet of reproductions of these items in pencil or water color or gouache, but only five or six of the oils that filled the spiraling Guggenheim did I want to take home.

Perhaps I should have taken the headset (free!) for some pointers, but I detest these things; I'd rather be alone with the art and my own thoughts. As at the Barnes, to which I shall return January 3rd with Chris and Felicia.

You can't like them all. But you have to see them all to know who speaks to you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Gramercy Park and Flahooley

Last night, for the first time, I finally made it to the annual caroling in Gramercy Park. It’s the one day of the year when anyone may enter the park, otherwise locked and reserved to the neighbors. It's a New York place and I've always wanted to go there, but I could never quite manage to be there for the Christmas Eve caroling. This is the more absurd as the event is managed out of Calvary Church (on Madison Avenue nearby) and I used to know the guys who ran the music there pretty well (the late Calvin Hampton; Harry Huff, now of Harvard). But the weather was sometimes against it or I had tickets or I forgot about it. This year the weather was fine, snow mostly cleared from the streets, thirty degrees F, so biking was easy. I biked by at four and passed the folks setting up; they told me to return at six. But at five-thirty the Anvil fell - as I call it - and I could do nothing but nap. At six, I was awake, and a-bike, and up to 22nd Street.


The carols were sung into microphones, which I detest, accompanied by tinny electric pianos, and they were out of hot cider, and I just looked at the statue of Edwin Booth (as Hamlet, I think), and we both rolled our eyes, and I left. (Poor Edwin was stuck there.) The great tragedy is that the little kids loving the occasion (“It’s the perfect Christmas Eve!” I heard parents exult) will grow up with no idea that Christmas caroling ever did not include microphones and tinny electric pianos – the same way a hundred years ago (or whenever) people sighed that youngsters would never be able to imagine Christmas without electric lights on the tree. What a cheap business. Glad I won't have to do it ever again.

I can only stand Christmas music when it is sung by amateur voices without amplification or accompaniment at my window in the snow. As I live on the sixth floor, I'm pretty safe even from that. I avoid stores or diners at this time of year, and at Dan's party last week, I made him take the carols off the CD player (sung by Clay Aiken, who does have a pretty voice), and I was less than thrilled to hear the Bob Dylan Christmas album somewhere or other recently. (At first I thought it was someone imitating Dylan, and thought it pretty funny.)

... but the whole Gramercy occasion in turn made me think of my mother singing Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill’s “The Saga of Jenny”:

Jenny made her mind up when she was three
She herself was going to trim the Christmas tree.
Christmas Eve she lit the candles - threw the taper away –
Little Jenny was an orphan on Christmas Day.

Poor Jenny!
Bright as a penny.
Her equal would be hard to find.
She lost her dad and mother,
A sister and a brother,
But she would make up her mind!

- which I am thinking of now (in Mum's voice) as I may indeed be an orphan later today, and before New Year almost certainly, though she does keep rallying, I don't know why. This morning she was mildly demented, wishing me happy birthday (it's in August). She's an hour out of town. It would be nice to drop in for five minutes and pay her bills, but that's four hours out of the day. I am trying not to be frantic.

After the carols, detours for a lousy cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee and a haircut (barber named Jacob, "Where are you from?" "Where do you think?" "Uzbekistan?" I suggested. "How did you know?" "Tashkent?" "No, Samarkand." So I have a haircut from Samarkand! No sky-blue tiles: I got it buzzed very short, so I can maybe shave it all off. A suitable mourning gesture, eh?

From the haircut, I went to Theater for the New City on First Avenue at 10th Street, where Harlem Repertory Theater is performing (through January 3rd) the preposterous 1951 musical, Flahooley, renowned as Barbara Cook’s first show (and only teaming with Yma Sumac), and generally considered unrevivable. It's a Christmas fable ("Not believe in Saint Nicholas? Ridicholas" - welcome to Yip Harburg-land): A monstrous toymaker (B.G. Bigelow) is hoping to corner Christmas, but his rivals, A.E.I.O.U. and Sometimes Y and W Schwartz, have undersold him. Happily, someone rubs a lamp, brought by a Middle Eastern potentate in crisis ("The Soviets are moving mountains without Mohammed") and a genial Genii named Abou appears. (“Imagine! A genii with claustrophobia!”) And the local puppetmaker ("You Too Can Be a Puppet") hopes to win a promotion and the girl of his dreams (Barbara's role) by inventing Flahooley, a doll that screams "Dirty Red!" whenever anyone says something subversive. All very silly, some charming songs, some amazing performers.

With a great deal of help from multimedia (puppets, marionettes, projections, cartoons, films, puppets playing people, people playing marionettes) but no microphones at all, ten performers - nine of them splendid - put this show on with a straight face, at such a breakneck pace (90 minutes) that you had no time to notice the plot didn't make much sense. Lots of jokes about fascist Americanism creeping into our free society that haven't aged at all. Business is bad and fantasy is good, and that was all Yip Harburg needed. The tunes by Sammy Fain are Grade B for 1951, which means they'd be A++ on Broadway now. The lyrics keep tickling and re-tickling, and reprises are good because it's a second chance to get the rapid-fire puns and plays on words. Perhaps best of all, they didn't cut all of Yma Sumac's unsingable material - they just kept Yma Sumac! A girl in veils wiggles her hips and pretends to yodel, and Yma is on the soundtrack. Otherwise, accompaniment was a nifty little combo (no electronics!). A little social message, yes, but otherwise just a pack-up-your-troubles zany evening of the sort Broadway hasn't known in fifty years, Off-Broadway in thirty.

Among the performers I was particularly delighted by Alexandra Bernard, an amazing singer and actress, as a vicious secretary and, later, a vamp Flahooley; and by Primy Rivera's delicious camp turn as Abou the Genii (who gets to sing

"The Springtime Cometh,
hummingbird hummeth,
sugarplum plummeth,
it humpty-dummeth,
and to summeth up
the springtime cometh for the love of thee! ...
Lad and lass
in tall green grass
gaily skippeth,
nylon rippeth,
zipper zippeth..."),

- anyone who has seen Finian's Rainbow lately knows what to expect - and everyone in New York should run to see it -

also, John Wiethorn and Natalia Peguero, charming as the lovers, and Daniel Fergus Tamulonis as B.G. Bigelow, the practical joker as dictator - it was evidently Tamulonis who designed the many sorts of wacky puppet presences in the story, though these included some manipulation (in a trial sequence sending up the HUAC hearings) in the manner of Avenue Q. There was just a little dancing, impressive considering the cramped space. The only weak spot was Yip Harburg's grandson Ben, who played a puppet and sang so badly it was hard to say if he or the part was more wooden.

And all this was only $18!

After that I went to Ty’s (my local), which was mostly empty (it got fuller later), and met a couple of guys who were into opera and musicals, and we talked about those for a couple of hours. A perfect ending for the night, eh?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Broadside at the Barnes' Door - 2.,The Visit

A Visit to the Barnes Foundation

The Barnes is a stately mansion a little smaller than the Villa Borghese – or so it seems because the ceilings are a whole lot lower. It was built not to inhabit but for display, c. 1925, and has panels mimicking Cubist sculpture inserted in the façade here and there, where classical statuary would have been placed in such a building just a few years earlier – the joke, I’m sure, was Barnes’s idea, and the effect of crazy synthesis intentional.

Barnes’s personal taste – and he seems to have consulted no one else – was eclectic, belligerently modern when that was still an issue, but with a great love of the past and the primitive, especially when he felt the primitive had a link to impulses that also guided modernism. I have read no scholarly tomes or articles about him, so my reactions below will be my personal guesses as to what motivated his choices, his arrangements, and so on. There have been studies of this, and people with real art chops have discussed it, but let us be, as I was, a moderately well-read but untutored stranger entering a house full of wonderful objects.

Barnes purchased medieval Flemish and German paintings, illuminated manuscripts (removing and framing the pages), Titian, Tintoretto and Giorgione – at least, he thought it was a Giorgione at the time –Dürer (ditto), El Greco, Rubens, and so on, though he arrived at the auction a bit late for the masterpieces of known painters. These are interspersed with the moderns for which he is famous.

He did rather better with Degas, Manet, Renoir – acres and acres of awful Renoir – Cézanne, Van Gogh, Sisley, Gauguin, Rousseau, Seurat, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, and such up-and-comers as Bonnard, Modigliani, Miró, de Chirico, Paul Klee, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine (of whom he was an early discoverer and regular patron) and Jacques Lipchitz sculptures. The dozen or more small Lipchitz sculptures are almost worth the price of admission, if you ask me. Too, he kept an eye out for neglected Americans like Mary Cassatt, James Glackens, Maurice Prendergast and Charles Demuth. There are individual paintings by Marie Laurencin (a splendid sketch of a woman in a cloche hat), Puvis de Chavannes (Prometheus comforted by the daughters of Oceanus), Courbet, Corot, Odilon Redon and lots of works on paper.

He was also fond of bronze and ironwork of medieval provenance, hinges, kitchen implements, tools, locks, the more original and hand-made the better, and of African sculpture (big with the Cubists), Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and other pottery and artifacts, some Chinese and Japanese painting, Navaho rugs, pre-Columbian pots.

Is that eclectic enough for you?

“Why don’t they put all the African things together, and all the Etruscan things together, so you know what you’re looking at?” a woman near me grumbled. But that is precisely what every other museum in the world would do – does – and precisely what Barnes was determined not to do. His very point is the juxtaposition and the scattering of assumptions and preconceptions.

Did I get the message Barnes intended me to get? Maybe not. No way to be sure. I got the point that a Milton Avery will startle me more if it shows up between a Renoir and a Puvis de Chavannes than it would in a gallery of moderns. I got the point about triangles (when I heard a docent explaining them to a group of visitors), and the paintings are mostly set up so that the two on the outer edge on the same level pair off in some way, and triangulate with the one on top, and the one in the center triangulates with the little ones on top at the edges. And I sort of liked not having the name of the artist glaring at me (you have to go up to the frame and squint) so that I took in the art without being obstructed by preconceived notions of the artist, or even of the era in which it was painted – so that different artists of different cultures and eras could seem to be interacting, having a conversation on the shape of a skull or the texture of water. I liked the unexpected – landscapes by Renoir or Modigliani, whom one associates with portraits, caricatures by Demuth when you’re prepared for something that will balance that Cézanne, Cézannes that seem to defy his usual preference for greens and pinks with a welcome turn toward brown and gold and blue, the Monet of his wife at her embroidery frame, the very early (1906) Picasso of two women exulting with two bulls, the shocking Soutines everywhere, the French medieval heads set down among Lipchitzes and looking exactly as modern as they did, and his fondness for the unsophisticated art of devout Mexican peasants, juxtaposed with medieval masters on the same themes.

This is not a museum to pass through in indiscriminate haste; it forces you to guess something new about the art, to take in the grouping and then look at individuals without knowing who they are and where they would fit in the traditional continuum.

And I very much liked the primitive metalwork hung over the paintings or beside the paintings, scattered all over the house, so that no one has any idea why he hung any of it where he hung it, but he was very precise that it was part of the grouping and was never to be moved.

This is a museum that thinks about art, about the impulse, about the commonality of sophisticated and unsophisticated, educated and uneducated, skill and eye. It is one of a kind. Why transform it into just another of the hundreds of ordinary museums that people walk through without noticing very much? Why fill it with crowds of not very interested people, as the Met and the Louvre are so tediously crowded? Why not let those who love art have something for themselves?

Two hours was enough to “look at” everything, if not enough to “see” it all. I would have liked to sit over coffee for half an hour, recuperating, and then return and go through it again, or focus on things I hadn’t had time to give total attention to, but the Barnes is purposely not set up for such things. Two hours is all my feet will stand of any museum any more, at any one stretch. (So I’m glad I did the Louvre young, and can take the Met in small doses whenever I have the energy.)


My friend Chris Berg (the noted composer) says my description so excited him he has reserved a place to visit the Barnes on its last unedited day, New Year's Eve. That was so charming a notion of a way to ring out the old year that I decided to join him.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Broadside at the Barnes' Door - 1, The Voyage Out

“I’ll go to Hell fer ya –
Or Philadelphia –
Any Old Place With You.”
– Lorenz Hart. (music: Richard Rodgers)

The Voyage Out

I’ve put off going to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, for years, distracted by tales of how difficult it was to reach. These tales were exaggerations. On a chilly morning, last Thursday, I woke at dawn, raced to Allen Street, caught the Chinatown bus to Philly ($10), was there in two hours, got the 44 bus to Ardmore on Market Street (two blocks from my arrival point), and was at the gate of the Barnes Foundation in forty minutes. The trip can also be made (for those without cars) by New Jersey Transit to Trenton, then SEPTA (the Philadelphia subway, which goes as far as Trenton) to Merion, a little more than half an hour from the Barnes. You have no excuses.

Well, you have: There may be no more Barnes at the Barnes, a fact that upsets the neighbors (signs protesting the move line the street); the whole caboodle may be transferred into the city. I had no comment on this before I saw the place; now that I have, I think moving it or changing it would be a great shame. It is unique. It was designed to be unique by Albert C. Barnes, millionaire, art collector and didact, and it is. Out here in the (relative) boonies, he has us in his power: only certain numbers may enter, at certain times, and it isn’t made too convenient to stay: no café near the premises. The artifacts are arranged as he directed they be arranged, following no rules clear to anyone else, bewildering even the docents, and they make the effects that he wished them to make. When much of the collection was displayed in the Philadelphia Museum some years ago, it didn’t have half the impact it has in situ – there were crowds, there were too many hideous Renoirs all lumped together, there was Jerry Garcia in the next aisle (I was impressed) – it was just another museum show. I wouldn’t go again. I’d go to the Barnes again – if I could. (Four of the eighteen galleries are closing on the first of the year; the rest remain open and very worth seeing.)

I knew it would be a good day because I won my point. I took a cab to Allen Street and Canal (though I could have walked to West Fourth and taken the B or D to a nearby subway) and the driver’s name was Jose Chavez. My game is to look at the name (and the photo) of the cabbie and guess what country the driver is from. If I get it right on the first guess, I get a point. More than one guess: no points. Jose Chavez could be from any one of forty countries (including the U.S.), but I considered the current makeup of New York: most Latinos here are Puerto Rican, Mexican, Colombian or Dominican. I guessed Dominican Republic – yessss! (Not quite so impressed with myself as the time the guy was from Mali, and I got that on the first guess!)

My reservation at the Barnes was for 1p.m. They will not admit you without a reservation. The hard part is scheduling one’s arrival precisely when you don’t know how much time buses, trains, subways will take. And it was quite cold, below freezing and windy. Nothing was predictable.

There are rival Chinatown buses available. I had chosen Apex, but their office at 11 Allen Street was closed. Happily, I remembered 28 Allen, across the street and just up the block, was the address of Eastern Bus Lines. $10 one way, $20 round trip. The 9a.m. bus was comfortable and half empty. En route home, I had a choice between 5p.m. and 6p.m., and suspected there would be fewer commuters on the former. There weren’t half a dozen people on the vehicle, and they dropped me in TriBeCa, eight blocks from my door. But that is to anticipate….

The Reading Market under the old and glorious terminal of the Reading Railway (pay owner four times throw of dice; if unowned you may buy it from the Bank) reminded me of the Granville Island Market in Vancouver, and happily I couldn’t eat many goodies due to wheat allergy … but the corned beef (mustard but no bread for me) was ace, and there was (alas) a used book store run by a gentle black man who sold me a glossy picture book of Central Asian architecture and told me just where to find the bus to Merion. Good esoteric-religious-magical collection, too.

The bus to Merion cost two dollars, and they took bills, as most bus lines outside New York do. (Please note, MTA.) Forty minutes (SEPTA would have been twelve). Guy behind me on a cell phone, in a passion: “They stopped me, and for what? A busted tail light? Who can see if the tail light is on when you’re driving? And I had the registration right there in the car, but not my insurance card because I was in a hurry this morning, and it’s cold and I got damn-all done in town today … so they impounded the car … that will be towing fees … and I have to see a judge to get it back, so there will be court fees … I mean, I had my license … they just don’t like to see a black man driving a Lexus, that’s all it is … probably be two days before I can get it back … and they’ll charge me for storing the car! It’s because the city is broke. The town is flat broke. They are nickel-and-diming us….” He sounded ready to fire a gun to begin with, but twenty minutes of rant cooled him down. I had hoped to nap, but it’s as well he kept me awake, as the driver did not call out my stop, and missed it by four blocks. An attractive house across the way, encircled by wrought iron porch in the form of vines and bunches of grapes, named Rose Hill, I think.

Down the road, noticing the little “The Barnes belongs in Merion” signs, and a billboard on one fence, giving out flyers with names you can write or email to protest the removal of the collection. “Why build another Barnes? We’ve got the real one right here!” I took copies of the handouts, and will write. You can find out about all this at

See Post 2, The Visit, for my account of the Barnes itself.