I love the Art Institute of Chicago. In fact, I still am a member and try to make a visit there on every visit to the city. I've periodically posted here photos of some of their great collection -- like Grant Wood's American Gothic and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Or Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette, and...okay, you get the idea. Well, as it turns out, today is the 125th anniversary of the place. (And by "today," I mean yesterday when I meant to post this...) And this is a very nice, short minute-and-a-half video they made for the occasion -- The Art Institute of Chicago: The First 125 Years.
I figured that I really should have a bit of Leonard Bernstein's own music on the 100th anniversary of his birth yesterday. So, here's a successful, but lesser-known piece of his work, Fancy Free. This was a ballet that ended up being the basis for a longer work, the musical On the Town, about three sailors on shore leave in New York City. (Later made into a movie.)
This is the full ballet, written in 1944 and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. performed here by the New York City Ballet in 1986,
I went to downtown Chicago today for a concert, but first wandered through the Loop a bit. It was a Day of Art since the city has a wonderful tradition of outdoor artwork from renowned artists. It began in 1967 when Pablo Picasso designed a terrific, fascinating, albeit odd sculpture when Richard J. Daley was mayor, and it resides in what is now Daley Plaza.
When I walked by today, it was in a setting unlike any I had every seen. Because it was the early part of lunch hour, the plaza (and, in turn, the sculpture) was ringed by food trucks. I had two reactions: the first was what a shame to have such a magnificent piece of hour off-set by this mass of half-a-dozen big vehicles. The second though was to note how accepted this great work is as a daily part of the city (no pun intended), and there was something almost charming to have it blend in to it all
Continuing my walk, I passed by what is probably my favorite of the outdoor "world-class" artwork. Much as I really like The Picasso (as it's known in town), I love the piece designed by Marc Chagall for the city in 1977. I believe it's called "The Four Seasons," and is a gorgeous, joyful mosaic that presents each season on a side of a large rectangular block. It's pretty in photographs, but they don't come close to doing it justice, because only up close can you see that it's not a painting, focus on the tens of thousands of little colored stones that make up the work, and walk around all four sides.
The work sits on the east side of what was originally the First National Bank of Chicago Plaza, but is now called Exelon Plaza.
There's a good deal of other outdoor art by world-famous artists throughout the downtown, including another one I particular like that's of a 53-foot tall flamingo by Alexander Calder. However, I didn't pass by it on this trip.
But it was one other piece of art that was really the destination of my walk, and why I took the El in early. For as much as I love the Chagall and Picasso (and Calder), this one sculpture stands out tall above them all. It's the second of the three fiberglass horses that my cousin Diana Leviton Gondek designed for the city. I wrote about one yesterday, down the block from Wrigley Field, and this one sits outside the Office of the Mayor in City Hall.
That's two horses down, one to go. After taking a picture of the horse, I set about writing about it for a posting on Facebook. I'm not the fastest typist on a mobile phone, so it took a while. During all this, a few people came out of Mayor Emmanuel's office (I made sure to get the sign in my photo) and noticed me there, taking pictures and doing something on my phone that was taking forever. They politely, but warily asked what I was doing. "I am the cousin of the artiste!" I explained. (Okay, I didn't say "artiste," but that was the subtext.) They took that well, since they all like the horse. As well they should
The end of my Day of Art took me took Symphony Hall for a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had lunch first with one of the executives of the CSO on the top floor of Symphony Hall, which was a treat -- it's a very old building with great architecture. And the concert was great. Their music director Riccardo Muti was in town, so he conducted. A couple of pieces by Debussy and two by Tchaikowsky. And it sounded as rich and vibrant and meticulous as I've heard them.
But the horse. That was the treat...
This is for opera lovers. The great classical radio station WFMT will be streaming the current Lyric Opera of Chicago live production of Turandot tonight (Tuesday) at 7:15 PM Chicago time. That's 5:15 PM in Los Angeles. You people overseas have to spin the dial and figure it out on your own.
I'm not a huge opera fan, though I'm okay listening to it. But I haven't attended all that many. However, Puccini'sTurandot is one that I've seen several times. (It's "big hit" is the famous aria "Nessun Dorma. But lots of fine music in it.
Just click here for the live stream.
Over the weekend, I saw three movies and an opera. Here are some brief reactions.
Lady Bird – Written and directed by actress Greta Gerwig, who's has other screenplays to her credit. I liked it all the way through, and loved much of it. But I didn’t “loooove” it as much as many reviewers because (for my taste) it was more episodic than I prefer, and for a character study, the characters don't change much. But one doesn’t have to “looove” something to still like it a lot and admire it. And I enjoyed it very much. And though Saorise Ronan is getting the deserved star attention, Laurie Metcalf in particular is great.
Geostorm – Utterly popcorn silliness, but well-produced, great effects, and to its credit only about 90 minutes, not a long, drawn-out epic like so many of these try to do to give themselves more "heft." This accepts that it's just light-hearted folderol and so it zips through without being overbearing and pretentious. And as a result I thought it was fun to watch and then move on.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. – Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who also made the well-crafted and eerie, Nightcrawler. Very good, though it is a little slow for a while to get going, taking about an hour for the first substantive plot turn, being largely character-driven up to that point. But (and this is critical) it’s never boring during this first hour because Denzel Washington is so utterly terrific. I was absolutely fascinated by the character that's being developed, so going along for the ride until things turn was a pleasure.
And then I went to the L.A. Opera on Sunday to see Verdi’s Nabucco because Placido Domingo was in it. I’m not a big opera fan (though oddly I’m okay listening to it), but this was enjoyable, and this Domingo guy has a future in him. Mark my words. I think it was also the first opera I've seen with super-titles, which I know have been around for a while. But that's how few operas I go to. Though a little distracting, they certainly make a big difference for following things. Combined with reading the plot beforehand, it sure helps. Anyway, I'll be curious to see what this Domingo fellow does next.
By the way, back to Roman J. Israel, Esq., there's a terrific trailer that gets across much of why Denzel Washington is to tremendous in the role -- but it also gives away some of the big plot twists, so I'm not going to post it here. This short clip doesn't do his full work justice, but it does give a sense of it. The scene comes near the beginning, where he has been working as the hard-working grunt in a three-person law office for a great many years, doing the research and court filings for the firm's owner, whose daughter has just told Roman he had a massive heart attack.
"Pomp and Circumstance" by Edward Elgar is a wildly popular piece of music, both in his native England (where it's beloved and best known by the name "Land of Hope and Glory") and in the United States, where it's best known as "That graduation march thing." So well known that the song is just on the good side of being hackneyed at this point. Pretty standard pop-concert fare.
But this is probably the best, most fun and exuberant version of the music I've ever heard.
It comes at the end of the 2014 BBC Proms series, the BBC Symphony lead by the Proms' Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo. I get the sense that this is a traditional ending to the Proms every year. I say that because when you see the video, the normally low-key conservative British have come to the concert...well, let's just say prepared. And there's something so enthusiastically endearing about their love of the piece and massive flag-waving that it's SO over-the top that it doesn't come across as jingoistic. The audience decked out, the orchestra decked out, the stage decked out. What helps too is that there are flags from all over the world. And pretty much everyone there really gets into the thing, at times like human metronomes, but especially joyous ones.
Video of the concert was also broadcast to several outdoor venues around the United Kingdom (including the Titanic Slipway in Belfast, Ireland, where the ship was built and first launched), so it's fun too as the camera cuts to the massive crowds joining in with their outpouring of love for this.
When the crowd joins in singing, if you feel the spirit to sing along, as well, here are the words below. Follow the bouncing Brit --
Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.
Just to briefly update you on my article that I wrote about here last week..
The article adds a few comments from the museum about how they've had Two Sisters (On the Terrance) hanging for 84 years, as well as information on the painting's official provenance (they're the third owner, the first of whom bought the masterpiece directly from Renoir in 1881), but mainly it's just fun to see them jump in.
I was reading through the Raw Story website this afternoon when I notice a piece there that there that linked to an article in Vanity Fair that dealt with a report about how Trump has claimed to own an original Renoir painting. In the story, which you can read here, author Tim O'Brien was with Trump years back when the writer noticed artwork on the wall which he recognized, Renoir's Two Sisters on the Terrace, and asked the builder if it was an original, to which Trump replied that it was.
Now, mind you, I hadn't gotten that far in the full Vanity Fair piece. Thus far, I had only seen the initial Raw Story background about Trump claiming to have an original painting.that was, in reality, a fake. And it had this picture above -- which was all I needed. "Hey! That can't be the original," I immediately said to myself. "I've seen the original. It's a Renoir in the Impressionist collection of the Chicago Art Institute!" And boy howdy, if I know that, someone who has a grasp on Fine Art Masterpieces about as tentative as holding a mound of cooked spaghetti, then what on earth is Trump doing lying about this being the original??!! And yes, not to worry, I figured out the answer to that about half-a-second later. And yes, it had something to do with insecurity, con men and congenitally lying.
And so it was hilarious when I read the full article from Vanity Fair and got to this passage.. To put it in context, the piece notes that after O'Brien spotted the painting he was curious how Trump would respond to a question which, it turns out, he himself knew the answer.
Curious, O’Brien asked Trump about the painting: was it an original Renoir? Trump replied in the affirmative. It was, he said. “No, it’s not Donald,” O’Brien responded. But, once again, Trump protested that it was.
Actually, the story gets funnier, in a head-shaking way. The next day, the two men were together again. flying back on the Trump airplane, and came upon the same painting. (Yes, the painting had been on the wall inside the aircraft. Because that's, of course, where everyone displays their art masterworks., And Trump brought up this "original painting" on the wall as if they hadn't even had the discussion the day before. O'Brien says he chose not to engage in debate and let it drop.
That's bad enough, but then years passed. And Trump was elected president. And 60 Minutes did a story on Trump, in which the president-elect proudly stage-managed his home to be as hopefully-impressive as possible. And there, O'Brien says he noticed yet again, on the wall was that same fake Renoir!
By the way, readers of these pages will recall that when I go back home to Chicago I often tend to re-post photos I've taken of paintings I particularly like there. And I especially like their world-renown collection of French Impressionist artwork. And in one corner of a room that has several Monets, works by Rodin and a famous Caillbotte and more, there are several Renoirs.
Including Two Sisters on the Terrace.
"A Day at the Museum"
From the private photographic collection of Robert J. Elisberg
on loan from the Elisberg Family Foundation
You may recall two weeks ago when I had my "Taking the Class Out of Classical" rant here about the generally very-good KUSC classical music station, and how they are dumbing down aspects of their broadcasting.
I also went off onto a side-tangent, bringing up their similarly-annoying "Off to School" Requests in the morning -- and how after six weeks it became clear that these had virtually nothing to do with kids making classical request. Or kids. Or even classical (but rather movie themes). Yet they've continued this way, as "Off to School" Requests for the past year. And I noted how twisted the station's effort have become to justify calling these "Off to School" Requests, rather than just simply Morning Requests.
I explained what their convoluted introduction now was when time for their "Off to School" requests -- but I did it from memory, and knew that I didn't do it justice, only mentioning a small portion of how bizarre the introduction had become. Besides which, I suspected most people probably thought I was joking that it not only was this stupid, but actually even worse. So, to be fair, I carefully listened to the introduction and took notes and marked it all down. I've corrected and updated the original post, and this is now how it reads --
By the way, how silly has it gotten? This week, they changed the name to -- buckle your seatbelts -- "And now, it's the KUSC Summer Vacation Request for Out of School Students or Studentless Teachers or even Parents and Grandparents or to Celebrate a Birthday or Mark a Milestone or Highlight an Achievement or Just Share a Favorite to Kick Off a Summer Day." Really! I'm not exaggerating. I wrote it all down verbatim. That's how far they've jerry-rigged the concept to try and justify calling it "Off to School" when it has next to nothing about schools...!
I don't write about radio stations often, but on occasion the spirit moves me. And the classical music station KUSC in Los Angeles has been sitting on shifting sands for a while and has finally moved me.
While I enjoy KUSC -- often a great deal, and I especially appreciate that it even exists since classical music stations have been dropping off the radio landscape over the past decade -- I've noticed that beginning a few months ago, the station has been playing significantly more movie soundtracks than in the past. Those times in the past were always more than I personally cared for, but at least it was rare. And I understand why KUSC played SO many soundtracks a few months back during Oscar time -- this is Hollywood after all, so let's celebrate our heritage (or something like that), so I accepted it with a sigh. But unfortunately, the veering to movie scores didn't stop after the Oscars and has continued full-stem ahead. Instead of one movie soundtrack every couple of weeks, it now almost seems at times to be one every other hour. And no, I'm not wildly exaggerating, if exaggerating at all.
It is their station to program as they see fit, of course. But as a listener, it's my choice how I spend my time. And I don't find movie soundtracks even remotely to be classical music. I fully-understand that one of their longtime (and superb, if often pretentious) announcers Jim Svedja loves them and loves inviting movie composers into the studio to talk to. And I know that the music can be melodic and often lovely and uses an orchestra -- but then so did Percy Faith, Andre Kostalanez, and Montovani, as well as Spike Jones. Movie scores are a very-talented craft which I much-admire, intended to be background music that augments the on-screen action, music that may not even stand-out and be noticed, so as not to distract. Using an orchestra no more makes background music "classical" anymore than -- as Lincoln noted -- a kitten born in an oven makes it a biscuit.
Speaking only personally, I usually turn the station off when a movie score plays on KUSC. Some of that is admitted petulance and a personal protest. But much of is because with classical music running through my home most of the day, which is where I work, the abrupt change to a movie score is clear and often comes across as Music Lite, and a bit annoying. Far better than elevator music, but when you've had Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Mahler and Brahms wafting through the air and are adjusted to it, the comparison feels apt. Sometimes with KUSC turned off, I switch to another station, sometimes I put a CD on. I also will sometimes put KUSC back on when I later remember, but that can often be half a day.
Again, it's their station, and much of KUSC is very good, they have several very good announcers and often good programming, and I really do greatly appreciate that it exists at all. And I even accept why tossing in a very rare movie score can fit here in "Hollywood." They're trying to appeal to crowd not honed on classical music. But I think this new effort of theirs, trying to build a classical audience by weaning them on a movie soundtrack once an hour is pursuing the Maltese Falcon, "the stuff that dreams are made of." It's a lovely goal and idea, but underneath when you scratch off the paint what's there is just dross. The problem isn't playing a movie soundtrack once in a rare while -- that's annoying, but I fully get it. The problem is that KUSC playing SO many movie soundtracks now as standard programming fare in the regular daily lineup creates a foundation that is dumbing down a classical music station, just a step above playing only single movements of full symphonic pieces and some other changes I've noticed over the past six months or so.
It's all part of a larger whole. If a station (whatever the format) is faiiling then I understand trying to fix what's not working. But the fixes should be towards enriching things to full strength, not tearing down the walls, that are holding up the ceiling. And I don't get the sense that KUSC is failing with the audience. They seem to just be "trying new things" for the heck of it. For example, they now have a sister-station in San Francisco, and I'm sure that at times they're sharing the feed, so you're not always getting a local host. It's fine for cost-cutting (if that's the intent), but the immediacy of locale has always been one of the strengths of radio -- local weather, local traffic, local events, local references even in classical music world that make a station personal, and not just Muzak.
None of it is "terrible" (though borderline), but it's all part of dumbing down -- which is the antithesis of classical music. This isn't being elitist. This is a classical music station. That's its very point. That's its reason for existence. No one has to like Beethoven. People can adore movie soundtracks. But this is a classical music station. You wouldn't play oldies once an hour on an alternative rock station. Hey, it's all rock-n-roll, they all use electric guitars and drums and an electric base, what's the problem? I am sure there are people who like hearing movie soundtracks on KUSC. They're good melodies. But the problem is, if you make it part of the regular fare then the core audience who's there at the classical music station listening to classical music will eventually be gone, and what you're left with is movie themes. And there's a reason that All Movie Themes radio stations aren't taking over the airwaves.
And on an admittedly even-more personal note, though related, the station started maybe a year-and-a-half ago a cutesy feature complete with a cutesy promotional introduction from a cheery announcer telling us over honky tonk music that it's time now for "Off-to-School" requests from the kiddies, an idea which has long-since outlived its charm. It worked for about...oh, six weeks at most but then stopped having next-to-anything to do with kids requesting a classical piece (which more often than not -- seriously -- has been the "Theme to Star Wars") before they head to school. At this point, ever since the attempt fell apart at that six-weeks mark, it's mostly just adults sending in their requests. To be clear, kids' classical requests is a great idea...if it worked, which sadly became clear it doesn't. They just don't get many requests from kids. And morning drive-time requests is a perfectly good idea, too -- but just say that, say "It's time now for our Morning Request!" since that's what you've actually been doing for the past 18 months. But hey, you could even make Mondays your Off-to-School request day, to start the school week right. Just don't keep telling your listeners every single day that this is our "Off-to-School Request" when it's not that, when it has near-zero to do with the kiddies going to school. And it hasn't been for a year-and-a-half. The point is -- treat your listeners with respect, get it right and stop dumbing down yet one more thing day after day after day after day after day.
(By the way, how silly has it gotten? This week, they changed the name to -- buckle your seatbelts -- "And now, it's the KUSC Summer Vacation Request for Out of School Students or Studentless Teachers or even Parents and Grandparents or to Celebrate a Birthday or Mark a Milestone or Highlight an Achievement or Just Share a Favorite to Kick Off a Summer Day." Really! I'm not exaggerating. I wrote it all down verbatim. That's how far they've jerry-rigged the concept to try and justify calling it "Off to School" when it has next to nothing about schools...!)
As I've said, I like KUSC. And I'm extremely glad it's on the air. But classical music exists for people who want to hear classical music -- just as any format exists for listeners of that kind of material. A few adaptations here and there can work fine, when done with structure, wit and intelligence -- WFMT in Chicago, perhaps the gold standard of classical stations and as serious as could be, occasionally tosses in comedy, Broadway, poetry and offbeat material, but they program those things mixed with classical pieces in brief segments that are all tied together with a theme connecting them -- and it works brilliantly. There's a structure to it, a reason. KUSC can do what they will. But the core of classical music is its richness that has sustained over 400 years, and dumbing that down seems to work against its best interest.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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