An east coast swing earlier this month provided the opportunity for two stellar artistic experiences.
On Thursday night March 19, I was in the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. to hear the first of three performances of Mahler's "9th Symphony" by the National Symphony under the baton of its music director Christoph Eschenbach.
Rarely do structures or memorials pay adequate homage to the spirit and energy left us from beloved public figures. The Kennedy Center is a welcome exception. The complex is beautiful to view from afar and the vistas of our nation's capital from it are truly breathtaking. Its spacious confines feature glorious expansive corridors where music, theater and dance are often celebrated with free performances.
Its two large concert halls are designed for symphonic performance and opera. The smaller Eisenhower Theatre anchors the dramatic offerings and there are numerous smaller venues. According to Wikipedia it is "the busiest performing arts facility in the United States and annually hosts approximately 2,000 performances for audiences totaling nearly two million." During his too brief adminstration, President Kennedy honored arts and culture like no White House occupant had before or since.
Here at 2700 F Street it seems that which is best about our civilization will be celebrated in perpetuity. It is a living memorial of the most potent variety. The symphony's performance on this evening distinguished this with clarity, power and passion. Rare to experience with an American orchestra, this fine ensemble completely gave themselves up to Mahler, Eschenbach and the audience.
The first thing that struck me about the performance was all visual. Eschenbach's preferred orchestral configuration was a new one on me. First and second violins sat opposite each other up front. The Basses were behind the first violins on the far left. Cellos were just to the right of the violins and violas to the left of the second violins. Horns were back right and winds, brass and percussion were more typically configured.
When this 90-minute mystical journey started, the approach chosen by the conductor was very evident. Whether a broad sweeping melody, tight rhythmic phrase or minute pointillist detail, every moment was distinguished by absolute expression. The ultimate sense from the first movement - a reflection of life after death- was one of truth. The music was brilliantly dissected and then carefully reanimated.
Mention must be made of the exquisite and always accurate solos produced by principal horn Abel Pereira. The second movement "Landler" was all Mahler - Erratic, pompous, broad and wonderfully drunken. The following "Burlesque" was an appropriate torrent of emotion and energy remarkable for its capacity to present a sense of being out of control while being accurate to the score.
The stage was set for the Adagio - what can be one of the most mesmerizing moments in all of artistic creation. Here Eschenbach would allow nothing less. The symphony's strings were tremendous- for their flawless playing and ability to share the profound terrain they were now inhabiting. As the music made its inevitable journey to its final rest it became hard to breath.
A portal to another dimension had been opened and it took the audience and musicians almost an entire minute of complete silence to return to the physical world after the work's conclusion. When it was time for the audience ovation, the orchestra seemed uncomfortable receiving accolades for what had been such a personal and humbling journey for them. Amtrak made the journey to, what also is in another dimension, New York City- easy and pleasant.
A busy time seeing family and friends left one full afternoon open. Like a huge star the Metropolitan Museum of Art pulled me toward her. Is this the finest museum in the world? Some think it so. Suffice it to say that a careful survey of all that is contained here would take months. Imagine 2 million objects of art in 2 million square feet of display space. Well, that's almost impossible to imagine and that's the problem here: Where to start and where to finish? I knew I'd have to commune with the Vermeers in the central gallery at some point but I had no other star to guide me. So I turned left. I was in ancient Greece.
While it is known that the Greeks lauded artistic expression it's a whole other experience to see how much they appreciated beauty and genius. No book or web image can capture the sense of what was going on 2500 years ago; this collection did just that.
The Romans largely continued the artistic traditions of their eastern neighbors. There was a hint of the beauty and emotion of the Renaissance - just a millennium and half earlier. The gallery flow suddenly brought me to "Oceana" - art from the South Pacific that was produced in the 19th and 20th centuries. After some choice early art from the Western Hemisphere, I was in Africa. Hmmm. Classical Greek and Roman art followed by the haunting elongated images from the cradle of man equals... modern art- exactly where my gallery fantasy led me.
I had never been through the modern collection of the Met- traditionally leaving my fix to the NYC's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and/or the Guggenheim. I've made a big mistake. This day's trip through the 20th century began with "Reimagining Modernism 1900–1950" described as a "temporary exhibit that reinterprets and presents afresh the Metropolitan's holdings of modernist paintings, sculpture, design, photography, and works on paper." Whatever. But Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani, Miro, O'Keefe, Dubuffet, Kandinsky and a new discovery for me- the American Marsden Hartley- made for stunning viewing.
It was the "Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection" that lorded above all in the modern galleries. Adding masterpieces by Giacometti, Klee, Leger, Gris, Bonnard and Braque to the previously noted artists, here was a personal collection donated to the Met that arouses the senses and sensibilities.
Lying in wait was Mahler- captured by a bronze Auguste Rodin bust- from the time he was composing the "9th Symphony." Tingling and enlightened by a new connection between the ancients and the moderns, I somehow found my way to the main lobby. From there I actually knew the way to the European paintings from the last millennium.
With my time running down (I had already spent four hours) I had to be more determined to finish my day at the Met than I would have liked. Fast tracking through the Italian Renaissance I needed help seeking out the unequaled masterpieces of Dutchman Johannes Vermeer. And there they were in Gallery 632.
The interesting subjects and flawless technique of these paintings never fails to astound me. On this day though, it was the other Dutch masters - Hals, Steen and Rembrandt - that put the crown on my experience. Yes, it was clear that this mid-17th century school had its antecedents. But staring into the eyes of Rembrandt's portrait subjects, it became obvious that as amazing as future artistic expression would be, here were ultimate expressions that occur as an end unto themselves.