Saturday, August 25, 2012

Closing Night at Mostly Mozart

Louis Langrée, conductor
Martin Fröst, clarinet
Layla Claire, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Paul Appleby, tenor
Matthew Rose, bass
Concert Chorale of New York
James Bagwell, director

MOZART: Clarinet Concerto (1791)
BEETHOVEN: Mass in C major (1807)

Mostly Mozart ended its season with a program featuring Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and Beethoven's Mass in C major.

The concerto has been one of my favorites ever since I first heard it in the film Out of Africa. The Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst gave a splendid account, clearly articulating the bass, alto, and soprano voices of his instrument in a way that suggested murmured conversation or even lovers' vows. The second movement was lovely - it bloomed like a rose and Fröst's wistful recapitulation of the opening theme was almost heartbreaking.

For an encore Fröst played Giora Feidman's spirited Let's Be Happy as arranged by his younger brother, Goran Fröst. The jazz rhythms provided a nice contrast to Mozart and Fröst seemed to relish playing the piece. The applause from the audience was deafening.

From the 1790s to 1800s, Prince Nicholas Esterhazy II commissioned a new mass to be performed on the Sunday following the name day of his wife, Princess Maria Elisabeth. Haydn, who was Beethoven's teacher, handled these assignments until Beethoven received the commission in 1807.

Beethoven's first liturgical attempt was structured within the framework of the ordinary mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo. Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei). Esterhazy, however, was flippantly dismissive of the high seriousness and reverential orchestration of the work, and the offended composer refused to dedicate this piece to him.

The Mass is rarely performed nowadays since it has been overshadowed by Missa Solemnis and the composer's late masterpieces. I felt blessed to have heard this Mass in a live performance. The choral writing is glorious and the Concert Chorale sang magnificently. The parts for soprano, mezzo, tenor, and bass seemed more integrated with the chorus (compared to Mozart's Requiem and Mass in C minor anyway) but Layla Claire, Sasha Cooke, Paul Appleby, and Matthew Rose nevertheless sang with clarity and passion.

In both pieces Louis Langrée conducted the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with true elegance and refinement. He will be the new music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra next year. They are indeed lucky to have him.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:00 pm in Avery Fisher Hall.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Njideka Akunyili at the Studio Museum in Harlem

Last weekend, I discovered the work of Njideka Akunyili at the Primary Sources Artists-in-Residence exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Akunyili was born in Nigeria in 1983 and attended Swarthmore College, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Yale University. This New York-based artist explores the tension between African tradition and modern Western culture in large scale works that combine painting, collage, xerox transfers, and other mixed media.

These stunning assemblages are big enough to completely dominate your field of vision and I spent quite a bit of time looking at layers upon layers of imagery. A prevailing theme seems to be Akunyili's cultural ambivalence towards her current life in New York City as well as her tender, and seemingly conflicted, relationship with a Caucasian man.

Even though Akunyili's paintings reminded me of Romare Bearden and Gustav Klimt, her visual vocubulary is very much her own. It's an intriguing glimpse into one artist's encounter with a foreign world as well as her attempts to reconcile two different value systems.

Her work will be on view until October 21, 2012. Visit her website for more images.

Nwantinti (2012)
Acrylic, charcoal, pencil color, collage, and xerox transfers on paper
8 ft. × 5.57 ft.

Wedding Portrait (2012)
Acrylic, pastel, color pencils, marble dust, xerox transfers, and fabric on paper
4.5 ft. × 5.25 ft.

Witch Doctor Revisited (2011)
Acrylic, charcoal, pastel, colored pencil, collage, and xerox transfers on paper
4.25 ft. × 6.3 ft.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ai Weiwei at IFC

A few weeks ago I came across a photograph at the Museum of Modern Art showing an outstretched hand giving the finger to the skyline of Hong Kong. The young lady next to me started giggling. She said, Did you get it?

I wasn't sure. It looked like dissident art of some sort, saying something against Chinese politics. But it seemed so crude and simplistic that I couldn't figure out how it ended up at the MoMA. I looked at the wall caption which mentioned an artist whose name did not ring a bell, Ai Weiei.

I must have been living under a rock for the past decade. After some research I found out that Ai Weiwei was one of the most esteemed, and controversial, artists of this generation. ArtReview placed him at the top of its Power 100 list, and the artist has exhibited at the Tate Modern and other high profile venues.

So last Friday I went to see Alison Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry at the IFC Center. This absorbing film featured extensive interviews with Ai and traced his development as a conceptual artist including his years in New York in the 80s.

Apart from the MoMA photograph I haven't seen any of Ai's work in the flesh, but the film provided an overview of his most famous pieces. Regardless of scale, his works have a strong, legible graphic element with overt references to Pop Art. His messages are instantly comprehensible. There isn't much nuance, subtlety or ambiguity here, which totally suits Ai's temperament and objectives.

The documentary's main theme, however, was art as political expression: in this case Ai's dissatisfaction with the state of Chinese bureaucracy and artistic freedom.

The film raised some interesting questions: Is it enough to make "pretty" pictures or decorative pieces? Should art be used towards political ends? Does silence equal complicity? Where do you draw the line between art and propaganda?

The United States has its own legacy of political art as seen in  Hide/Seek last year at the Brooklyn Museum and  Sharon Hayes currently on view at the Whitney. But Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry takes it to a whole new level.

I would recommend this documentary to all artists regardless of his or her preferred medium or genre. It will make you reassess the power of online media in disseminating your work and communicating ideas that could change lives, as well as history.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Last week I took some time off from work and signed up for a monotype workshop at the Art Students League.

I've never tried prints before and decided I might as well learn. I thought that monotypes, where you paint on a non-porous surface like glass then transfer the image by pressing paper onto the plate, would be a good transition since I could use my oil paints instead of buying new media.

The tricky thing is that monotypes can be very unpredictable. Only a small percentage of the paint gets transferred due to drying, the varying thickness of the paint, and uneven pressure. But theoretically, it's good way to let go of your inner control freak and cultivate a zen approach to art - put in the effort, and surrender the results.

In truth, the random blotchiness of the print drove me crazy. I was trying to make fairly realistic portraits but then figured, what the heck. All those blank spaces, all those blobs - seriously - how did Degas produce his perfectly even monoprints?

Then I noticed that the other students didn't seem to care and were even experimenting with bubble wrap and other implements to achieve even more random effects. I figured I might as well exploit the opportunities for abstraction: I piled on the paint, used unrelated colors, scraped and smudged, and hoped for the best.

To my eye the prints still look unfinished but I decided to document my efforts on Flickr. I've had a few interesting comments, and a few of these prints were even marked as favorites by other Flickr members.

Maybe I'll keep these monotypes after all. At the very least, they would be good references for my ongoing exploration of figurative expressionism.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Josef Albers at the Morgan Library

The Morgan Library is presenting Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper featuring about 60 of the artist's small scale optical studies.

Albers emigrated to the United States in 1933 and taught at Black Mountain College and Yale University. During this time he developed his Adobe series, inspired by Mexican architecture, as well as numerous sketches for Homage to the Square.

I've always thought of Albers as a somewhat rigid artist with his unwavering reliance on the square as a compositional device. This show, however, revealed his hidden range and restless, experimental nature. The artist liked to juxtapose pure, unmixed oil pigment from different manufacturers and observe their effects on each other.

These private works, which Albers never exhibited in his lifetime, are full of scribbled marginalia and lush paint application - a nice departure from the clean, formal aesthetic of his seminal pieces.

This dazzling show will leave you with a fresh awareness of color, not just in art but in everyday life. It's definitely worth a trip to the Morgan. The exhibit will be on view until October 14, 2012.

Color Study for White Line Square, not dated 
Oil on blotting paper (with gouache, pencil, and varnish) 29.53 x 29.66 cm

Study for a Kinetic, ca. 1945 
Oil and graphite on blotting paper 48.5 x 61.1 cm

Color Study for Homage to the Square, not dated 
Oil and graphite on blotting paper with varnish 30.5 x 30.5 cm

Variant / Adobe, ca. 1947 
Oil on blotting paper 48.2 x 61.4 cm

Color Study for Mitered Square [Homage to the Square], not dated
Oil on blotting paper 28.1 x 28.4 cm

Two Color Studies for Homage to the Square, not dated
Oil on blotting paper 24.7 x 14.6 cm

Variant / Adobe, Study for Four Central Warm Colors, Surrounded by 2 Blues, ca. 1948
Oil on blotting paper 48.2 x 60.6 cm

Color Study of Grays, not dated 
Oil on cardstock with varnish 17.9 x 25.7 cm

Study for Homage to the Square with Color Study, not dated
Oil on blotting paper 44.3 x 30.2 cm

Three Color Studies for Homage to the Square, not dated
Oil on blotting paper 20.9 x 47.6 cm

Color Study for Homage to the Square, ca. 1950
Oil on blotting paper 61 x 48.3 cm

(Images courtesy of GalleristNY)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hymn to Helios

Once in a while, when I'm bored at home, I attempt a pure abstraction.

Here's my latest effort in gouache and watercolor on cardboard, inspired by the Homeric Hymn to Helios. Related thread here.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Garrick Ohlsson plays the Emperor Concerto at Mostly Mozart

(photo courtesy of Garrick Ohlsson)

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

SCHUBERT/BERIO: Rendering (1990)
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) (1809)

Last season I had the pleasure and great privilege of hearing Garrick Ohlsson play Liszt and Mozart , and so I was excited to hear him again last night with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in my favorite works, Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.

This masterpiece of piano literature opens with a grand flourish and develops its famous themes into virtuosic passages for the soloist in the exposition. Ohlsson played Beethoven with his customary brilliance and forthright, lapidary style and it was thrilling to listen to him in the cadenzas.

It was particularly interesting to hear him play the Adagio, where he avoided extreme pianissimos and slow tempi in favor of a more candid, ardent phrasing. The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra seemed to lack the heft that I have come to associate with Beethoven, but perhaps this wasn't such a bad thing. Maikki conducted the score with a Mozartean lilt, emphasizing the concerto's classical, rather than romantic, aspects.

The program began with Luciano Berio's Rendering, which he composed in 1989 using fragments of Schubert's unfinished Tenth Symphony as his framework. It certainly sounded like Schubert, at least in the opening themes, but then surreal, diaphanous passages of atonality and dissonance filled the gaps, resulting in an impressionistic soundscape much like a sweet dream morphing into something more disturbing. The orchestra played its many facets with wit and polish.

This was my first Mostly Mozart concert in a very long time. Their season runs through August 24. I should definitely look into their remaining concerts on the calendar. Here's a complete recording of Rendering with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Orchestre de Paris.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


(photo courtesy of Ontheinside)

Among the upscale, grande dame restaurants in New York City, Picholine ranks among the queenliest in my estimation. Quietly regal, gracious and refined, and much loved by food critics, Picholine is an institution so secure in its station that it hasn't deviated from Terrance Brennan's style of French-Mediterranean cuisine and formal service since its opening in 1993.

Picholine has been the venue for many birthday lunches in my family and therefore holds a special place in our hearts. Unfortunately, the restaurant discontinued its lunch service several months ago. While I've been to the bar for a quick bite before Lincoln Center, I only experienced my first dinner service there just recently.

I tried the five course menu, which came with lots of extras:

Amuse bouche - perfect little bites that included a baby radish with yogurt, cauliflower panna cotta with lemon gelee and fried capers, a hazelnut bonbon. and a soft poached quail egg en croute topped with caviar.

Vegetable salad - an ambrosial mix of asparagus. fava beans, carrots, ramps, snap peas, greens, and parmesan cream in an herbal dressing.

Grilled octopus, soft farm egg, polenta, chorizo crumble - this was like a comforting, savory porridge, best eaten with a spoon.

Halibut en croute, English pea puree, pea tendrils, onion, rhubarb mint jus - the "croute" consisted of a light crisp bread coating on one side of the halibut, which provided a nice contrast to the creamy pruree.

Painted Hills Farm rib eye, potato croquette, Bearnaise cloud, scallion puree - the description says it all. This is easily my favorite beef dish in the city.

Cheese course (supplement) - Picholine's cheese cart is justifiably famous. I especially enjoyed the Époisses de Bourgogne, reputedly Napoleon's favorite cheese, and the Cosne De Port Aubry, a mild cheese shaped like a cone with an aroma of mushrooms and a hazelnut finish.

Pre-dessert - a strawberry cloud set upon a few drops of aged balsamic and topped with chocolate rice crisps in a tidy little pile on a spoon.

Chocolate textures - the chocolate variations included flan, mousse, powder, ice cream, and marshmallows.

Mignardises - pate de fruit, strawberry and pineapple jalapeno macarons, canelé, chocolate truffles.

The elegant lavender and gray dining room is being renovated and the restaurant will reopen on September 6 in time for the opera season. Jonathan Mailo, previously of Daniel, will remain as Chef de Cuisine. Changes will include expanded bar and pre-theater menus. I'm looking forward to Picholine's new incarnation and, hopefully, many dinners there in the future.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


For the July session at the National Academy of Design, we had two veteran models, Bruce and Donna. Their rich complexions and wonderful bone structures inspired me to push the extremes of realism and abstraction, and also get down to the basics of black and white.

I like to work in grisaille from time to time just to hone in on drawing, composition, and value without the added stress, I mean complication, of color. Grisaille, as I discovered, can also be useful for abstraction. I took my cues from the atmospheric monochromes of Eugène Carrière and Frank Auerbach.

The National Academy will be on summer break until September but I do have an upcoming monotype workshop with Mary Beth McKenzie at the Art Students League from August 13-17. I'm thinking taking a mixed media class as well. Should be fun.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tao Dance Theater at Lincoln Center

(photo courtesy of Tao Dance Theater)

Last Friday, on a whim, I bought a ticket to the Tao Dance Theater at Alice Tully Hall. This modern dance company from China was founded in 2008 by Tao Ye, who not only performs but also choreographs its cutting edge, and decidedly polarizing, dance pieces.

The program began with 4, a half-hour piece that featured a quartet of female dancers in black masks moving around the stage in an unvarying square formation. The soundtrack, composed by Xiao He, consisted of monosyllables set to a percussive score, resembling an electronic Buddhist chant with alternating fast and slow movements.

The dance motifs included undulating spines, rotating shoulders, lots of twists, and a general sense of struggle and imbalance wherein one motion led to another in an organic way.

My companion was visibly restless. It's the same movements over and over again, she said during the intermission. Ten minutes would have been enough.

It was hard to disagree with her, and yet I was mesmerized by the whole thing. I thought it was the dance equivalent of serialism, for lack of a better term, that is, repetition as a form of art, just like Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, or Agnes Martin in painting.

The second piece was 2, danced by Tao Ye and his wife Duan Ni. In contrast with 4, there were only a few moments of synchronicity. 2 began with both dancers lying face down on the floor for several minutes while static noise emanated from the speakers.

My companion buried her face in the hands. God, thirty minutes of this?

But soon there were isolated movements: a flick of the hand, a twitch of the leg, which slowly gained momentum into some sort of deconstructed writhing on the floor. At times the dancers stood but they quickly fell down again.

It's hard to say what the dance was about. To me, their gestures recalled fragmented moments of predation, worship, and even sex, all mixed up and rearranged into something not quite decipherable. The soundtrack, also by Xiao He, alternated atonal music with screeching sounds and silence, wherein only the dancers' heavy breathing was audible.

As we were leaving my companion said, That was a waste of time.

Perhaps that might be true for those who seek some kind of meaning or resonance in dance performances. But for me, all this strangeness was exhilirating in a purely formal way. In spite of some similarities with Pilobolus, Tao offered something radically new and challenging and stretched my own preconceptions of modern dance.

The company is touring dance festivals around the world. Click here for Time Out's interview with Tao Ye.