Arts Desk

If you missed any of our short Arts Desk features on the air, you can always find them right here, along with additional related content. Check out stories by WRTI arts reporters Meridee Duddleston, Susan Lewis, David Patrick Stearns, Debra Lew Harder, Kile Smith, and Maureen Malloy. Arts Desk and Arts News Submission Guidelines

Richard Wagner's Philadelphia Connection

Feb 12, 2013

Later this year we’ll mark the Richard Wagner bicentennial, but it was this week in 1883 that the great German composer died.  As WRTI’s Jim Cotter reports, in his later years, Wagner would write a piece of orchestral music commissioned by a Philadelphian and premiered in the city.

Wagner was 69 years of age when he passed.  He had spent his last years raising money to establish a permanent home to showcase his works in the Northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth. To this end when the American Centennial celebrations of 1876 wanted a march to celebrate the role of German Americans in the history of the country, a Philadelphia socialite Elizabeth Gillespie sought the counsel of the German-born conductor Theodore Thomas. He suggested the $5000 commission be offered to Wagner. Wagner gratefully accepted, and delivered the work.  Temple Art History professor Therese Dolan, who has written a book about the intersection of music and the visual arts in 19th century Paris says Wagner’s Grand March is not one of his grandest works.

You can tell that his heart wasn’t in it.  He was building Bayreuth, so he charged five thousand dollars for this twelve minute piece of music and it was played when Roosevelt came to the Worlds’ Fair.

And though it’s been rarely played since, whatever the piece lacked in musical quality it made up for with typical Wagnerian bombast.

A hundred and fifty piece orchestra and then he also wanted a canon to be set off at the end of it.  Critics felt there was no American feeling in it.  Well what did they expect?  They commissioned a German to do it.

Therese Dolan’s book Artworks of the Future: Manet, Wagner and Liszt will be published later this year.


Opera Philadelphia's Silent Night

Feb 12, 2013
Kelly and Massa

This week Opera Philadelphia presents the East Coast premiere of Silent Night, the Pulitzer Prize winning opera by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell. As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns reports, it promises anything but stand-and-sing performances at the Academy of Music.

Silent Night’s depiction of a World War I Christmas Eve truce is inevitably preceded by battles on a raked, revolving stage. The model was the movie Saving Private Ryan, though director Eric Simonson admits singers can’t be dismembered onstage.

 But you can stab them for a really, really long time with a bayonet. You can strangle them with a shovel. And that’s what we did… We want them to feel what the warriors are feeling.

The piece begins innocently enough with a quasi-Mozartean duet, interrupted by the declaration of war. The story traffics in similar territory to the PBS series Downton Abbey, though Silent Night was well underway first – with a fundamentally different focus says composer Kevin Puts.

The war is the main character. It’s ever present and the reason all this conflict exists.

One daring, personal touch is how much of the opera is, in fact, quiet, especially at the end. Librettist Campbell wants audiences to contemplate what they’ve just seen.

The way Kevin ends it with those beautiful notes and it’s snowing.  It really succeeds at what we’re trying to say…you have to know when to use two or three notes per square inch and when you need 3000 notes per square inch

Puts and Campbell are now adapting The Manchurian Candidate, and later, will write something for Opera Philadelphia’s Perelman Theater series that’s even darker and….hasn’t been announced yet.

Well, you read it here first.

A Roman Mosaic From Israel At The Penn Museum

Feb 12, 2013

A large work of art, which for decades was hidden beneath Middle Eastern soil, is now on view in Philadelphia.  As WRTI’s Jim Cotter reports, the ancient Roman floor mosaic is destined for a new Museum in Israel.

The 50-foot long, 27-foot wide, multi-colored geometric mosaic was in excellent condition when it was discovered three feet underground by workmen widening a road in Lod, near Tel Aviv in 1996.  

The floor, believed to be part of a Roman home from about 300 AD, was then reburied to preserve it until 2009, when it could be properly excavated and conserved. 

Brian Rose, curator of the Mediterranean section of the Penn Museum says the mosaic, which features animals and fish but no people, gives no clues as to the religious or cultural background of its original owner. 

And though the background of the owner of the piece  is unclear what is obvious is that he was rich and that he made his money in a trade peculiar to this period in Roman history.

Rose states, "It looks as if the owner may have been involved in the wild animal export industry wherein one would have agents going into Africa and the Near East to find the most exotic animals possible and those animals would be shipped off to Israel.  So whoever this man was, he obviously got rich selling animals to the gladiatorial games industry."

The Penn Museum is the last stop on the mosaic’s US tour, during which it has been taken apart and reassembled for each venue. 

Unearthing a Masterpiece:  A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel, is at the Penn Museum through May 12th.

   

This year's "One Book, One Philadelphia" choice gives voice to an American history story that's not widely known. The author of this year’s Free Library of Philadelphia selection spoke with WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston about her novel - The Buddha in the Attic.

Through mid-March the Free Library brings readers together to create new connections and understanding through literature. Author Julie Otsuka says she's not prescriptive about what readers take away from her short novel. Read it and decide for yourself.  

DUDDLESTON:  Author Julie Otsuka tells the story of first generation Japanese-American women who crossed the Pacific in the early 1900s as new wives of men known to them only through pictures and letters.   She depicts their steely bravery and how they come to grips with a reality that's a world away from what they expect.

OTSUKA:  I’m just, I’m kind of interested in fate.  You’re just assigned a mate pretty much at random and you have to make it work with that man.  There was no going back for these young girls because they were too poor to afford the ship passage back home.

DUDDLESTON:  The narrative is set against the backdrop of anti-Japanese prejudice  that led to the government-run internment camps during WWII.   The style, Otsuka says, is rhythmic - like the music of composer Steve Reich -  compulsive, propulsive with a hypnotic beat.

MUSIC:  Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint

OTSUKA:  I kind of feel like that's something that I'm aspiring to do with language. I mean I feel like there’s this secret underground rhythmic grid that holds the story together that has nothing to plot or with character, but it just has to do with the sound of the language and where the accents fall literally on the words.   Just the sound of words and language.

 

The Philadelphia-based chamber group Dolce Suono is known for exploring historical connections while pushing its art form into the future. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, Dolce Suono Founder Mimi Stillman believes that music is an integral part of life.

Lewis: In 2005, Stillman founded Dolce Suono, which she likens it to a repertory company.

Stillman: We form into different ensemble configurations, combinations, depending upon the repertoire we’re playing. One of our main ensembles is our trio of flute, cello, and piano with Yumi Kendall and Charlie Abramovic. We do music with flute, strings, and harp...we’ve been very active commissioning work for peirrot ensemble, which is a mixed grouping of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and percussion.

Lewis: To Stillman, who is also a music historian, music is more than notes and dynamic notations, however beautifully, or provocatively, arranged. It reflects a history – and history informs her performance.  

Stillman:  I think it's part of an approach to the world - not seeing every piece of music or every composer, every musical style in a vacuum.  It's part of a rich tapestry of music, visual art, culture, the world of ideas.

Lewis: This year, Stillman and her ensemble are exploring the music of Debussy.

Stillman: It always enhances our performance to be approaching music from the most micro – what am I going to do with that note, that phrase? – to the most grand, sweeping –what is the context of Debussy and what do we want to say about that?

Lewis: Stilllman herself is in the midst of her year-long commitment to play Debussy’s short piece Syrinx, each day in different circumstances and venues, which she documents in videos online.

Coming up...Dolce Suono in concert at the Trinity Center for Urban life in Center City, Philadelphia, joined by Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera, on Sunday, February 17 at 3 pm.

LFC:   For more on how history can inform innovative music making, listen to Susan’s interview with Mimi Stillman at WRTI.org.

The early 19th-century Italian composer Giochino Rossini composed nearly 40 operas before he turned 40.  Later in life, he turned to other forms. And near the end of his life, he wrote  a solemn mass for the dedication of a private chapel.  As two local ensembles prepare performances, WRTI’s Susan Lewis explores Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle.

Lewis:  In some ways, the work summarizes Rossini’s entire art, says Matthew Glandorf, artistic director of Choral Arts Philadelphia.

Glandorf : You get these beautiful, lovely, soaring, natural melodies that you would know from his operas, but you also see somebody who has an absolute mastery of interesting harmonies.

Lewis:  Glandorf says you can see that Rossini  was studying the music of his contemporaries.

Glandorf: Or shall we even say possibly the next generation.  You really find that he's saying, hey look, I can also compose a fugue like the best of them....

Lewis:  Choral Arts will perform the work on Saturday, February 9th and is engaging soloists who specialize in period vocal performance, among them Julianne Baird. 

Lewis:  Another interpretation will be offered  later this month by the Philadelphia Singers, which Glandorf welcomes.

Glandorf: I’m hoping that that might open up a dialogue to say there are infinite number of possibilities to approach the interpretation of music, and actually that its radical to approach music differently. 

Choral Arts Philadelphia performs Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle on Saturday, February 9 at 7 pm, at  St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Center City, Philadelphia. 

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presents the Philadelphia Singers performing the work on Monday, February 18th at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.

The term "Endangered Artifacts" is most associated with objects from ancient civilizations.  Yet, in Pennsylvania, as WRTI’s Jim Cotter reports, there’s now an effort to track down some of the state’s own most vulnerable historical treasures.

Discreetly tucked away on the second floor of an office building in Center City, Philadelphia is a  conservation studio and digital archiving facility for some of the nation most valuable works on paper.  On the day we visit among the rare books and delicate watercolors by world-famous artists, the original, hand-written constitution of PA, and the notebooks in which Bruce Springsteen jotted down his most famous songs were being pored over by teams of skilled conservation professionals. 

It is from here  - The Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts -  that a call has gone out to libraries, museums, historic sites ,and archives to help locate Pennsylvania’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts. Ingrid E. Bogel, executive director of the Center says the project aims to save important drawings, paintings, manuscripts, rare books, maps, photographs and other objects.

We’re certainly talking about those kinds of materials, but I’m even thinking about things that perhaps just have a wonderful story.  And that might be just as exciting as something that has a George Washington signature on it.

The initial nominations will come from organizations, historical societies, museums and the like who have these items in their collections.

We are really thinking very broadly.  We would like to have representation from the smallest all-volunteer institution if they have something great that they want to share.  We’re also looking for geographic reach; we would love to have people nominate artifacts from all over the state.

The deadline for nominations is April 13th after which members of the public can vote for their favorite most endangered Pennsylvania Artifacts at a dedicated website.

Today, many orchestras around America are experiencing extreme financial problems. Yet, as WRTI’s Jim Cotter reports, one ensemble is bucking the trend.

Strikes, lockouts and deficits.  Throughout the past year in particular, tales of rancor between musicians and  management, financial shortfalls, and dwindling audience numbers have been the dominant headlines about classical music.

Though agreements have been reached  in Philadelphia, Detroit, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, locked out musicians at The Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have yet to begin their seasons.

There are some bright spots: The New York Philharmonic, now the world’s most industrious orchestra, is reporting a bumper year for fundraising while the National Symphony in DC quietly negotiated and signed a new four-year agreement with its musicians.

The most notable good news, though, comes from the Cleveland Orchestra.  In the final months of 2012, it saw a remarkable 47% increase in attendance at Severance Hall, much of it made up of younger concert goers.  In addition, the orchestra is reporting a year-on-year increase in revenue of 24%.

The Cleveland  Orchestra’s chief marketing officer is Ross Binney. He says this upswing is not just about good marketing.

We’re certainly having some fun on the marketing side, but I think we’re seeing a slight pickup in the economy, perhaps, and our diversified programming is certainly at the forefront of that regeneration.

In addition the orchestra has made a concerted attempt to attract music students from local schools, colleges and conservatories

We’ve employed some student ambassadors who are promoting us heavily.

Meantime closer to home, classical audiences  in the first state were relieved to be able to return to the  concert hall as the Delaware Symphony Orchestra recently began its season after a three month delay.

German composer, performer, and conductor Felix Mendelssohn would have turned 204 on February 3rd.   While he was acclaimed during his short life of 38 years, only a fraction of his works continued to be performed after his death. WRTI’s Susan Lewis looks at Mendelssohn and his musical impact.

Lewis: His violin concerto is one of the works that survived the centuries.  Yet his contributions to music, says Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd, were much more significant than many people realize: 

Todd: He was, of course, one of  the great pianists of his age, arguably the leading organist of the entire century.  He was also – it’s not well known - a violinist and violist. He could pick up a part in his own octet and play that, and of course he was one of the seminal conductors of the 19th century. He was one of the first conductors to conduct using a baton. 

Lewis:  Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion at its 100th anniversary in 1827 helped spark the 20th-century Bach revival, says Philadelphia Singers Music Director David Hayes.

Hayes:  Most people thought Bach was a composer you studied – he was an intellectual composer. The idea of performing Bach, was, sort of, you know, crazy.  Why would you perform Bach?  But Mendelssohn was the first to really turn around and say, hey, these great works of Bach  - the St. Matthew Passion –we should perform these works.

Lewis:  Mendelssohn’s own compositions included symphonies, concert overtures, concertos, chamber music, choral works, piano and organ music, and songs.  But Todd says that after Mendelssohn died, much of this music was not performed due to anti-Semitism and changing musical tastes.  

R. Larry Todd is  author of Mendelssohn: A Life in Music.

Andre Watts: A Favorite Son Of Philadelphia

Feb 4, 2013

   

Andre Watts is among the most popular soloists with Philadelphia Orchestra audiences. As WRTI’s Jim Cotter reports, the pianist was just back in his home city in a role he’s been filling for decades.


Pages