Horse Whispers

horsesThey’ve been a source of inspiration for artists since the beginning of time, and for Czech-born photographer Jitka Hanzlová, a deeply felt affinity for horses led to a series of images that focus on the enigmatic side of this most spirited of animals. A wisp of an ear, shown right, an omniscient eye surrounded by shadows, left, are parts of a moving whole both detached and quietly affecting. The artist, whose works often feature elements of distant isolation, says of her equine subjects, “Their stillness seems to be endless, far in their own time.” An exhibit featuring the pieces, entitled One to One, is on view at New York City’s Yancey Richardson Gallery through early next month.

Simply Sinatra

sinatra

“Reinvention” as it applies to an artist’s career is a term that’s been thrown around a lot (Madonna and Lady Gaga are obvious examples), but I also couldn’t help but have it foremost in my mind as I watched HBO’s new two-part documentary on Frank Sinatra, who would have turned 100 this year.

Nicknamed “The Voice” many decades before the current talent show of the same name, Sinatra was a proverbial phoenix who rose from the ashes at a critical professional (and personal) juncture in the early 1950s, when, as the broadcast reminds, it looked like the Elvis Presley of his generation would be relegated to the dustbin of pop sensations whose time had come and gone. But with an unlikely Oscar in tow (supporting actor for From Here to Eternity in 1954), he sprung open the doors on a remarkable renaissance and never looked back, all the way to his death in 1998.

The musicologists and historians can take care of the details of an unparalleled career, but I like to remember what Sinatra meant to a teenager a bit out of touch with her contemporaries, via a fondness for a vocalist whose ascendance in the public consciousness came in an epoch long before I was born. I recall that my fellow adolescents found it a little odd when I made a cassette with a song set of Sinatra’s on one side, and a selection from David Bowie – more in keeping with my generation – on the other. Far from antiquated, Sinatra’s music was like a silk tonic to me; his interpretations of the timeless standards by the impeccable songwriter Cole Porter were particular favorites, with an elegance and genius of musical phrasing that were indelible. (No, my young friends didn’t get it. Maybe they do now.)

A handful of years earlier, at the just out of tweens age of 13, I had found myself in a London restaurant with the film femme fatale (and Sinatra’s great passion), the actress Ava Gardner, on my first trip to Europe. It’s an experience I wrote about in another post, but suffice to say Ol’ Blue Eyes has been on my radar from quite an early age.

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All is not a perfect documentary (its four-hour running time could have been trimmed considerably) and perhaps more could have been made of Sinatra’s interest in expanding the pop genre (the “concept” albums of the ’50s, for example) or the many composers who influenced him deeply. (His collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim is an album I cherish, as fresh today as the breezy Brazilian wave it rode in on in the ‘60s.) Still, the biography serves well as a primer for new generations to assimilate a talent whose likes, alas, will probably not be seen – or heard – again.

To paraphrase the title of the book by the journalist Pete Hamill… Sinatra will always matter.

Starry Nights

devils towerIn one of those artsy coincidences that harbors a touch of the unexpected, I ran across the picture shown above, which was taken last month with a multicamera rig and a 360-degree time-lapse technique to create a phantasmagoric scene of celestial splendor above the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.
van gogh starry nightOf course, Vincent van Gogh didn’t have to go to so much trouble when he painted the highly reminiscent The Starry Night from 1889, above. I wonder whether the photographer (who also shares a first name with the Dutch post-Impressionist) had the masterpiece in mind when he fashioned his strikingly similar digital image.

Or maybe just a case of lucky stars?

Photo: Vincent Brady / Caters News

Glass Act

PhilipGlass3Among love ‘em or leave ‘em lists of contemporary classical composers, Philip Glass is one of those who usually ranks equally high in both categories. I would describe his work as an acquired taste, and one that I will admit I happily acquired as a teenager, thanks to his crystalline Glassworks, which mesmerized me with its hypnotic repetitions and abstract contours that created a blank slate for the imagination.

Start a discussion amongst classical music aficionados about Glass (whose memoir, Words Without Music, is published next month) and you can be sure it will be nothing if lively. For every one that considers him among the greatest composers of the 20th Century, you can find many others with opinions similar to that of a critic at London’s Telegraph, who once wrote, “Listening to Philip Glass is about as rewarding as chewing gum that’s lost its flavour.”

As is the case with most classical composers, mass consumption usually comes via popular media, and to the general public, Glass is primarily known for his contributions to numerous films, perhaps most notably his score for The Hours, nominated for an Academy Award in 2002, and more recently, the Russian production Leviathan, from last year.

Glass is one of those artists whose work I’ve continued to dip into on and off through the years, long since the classic Glassworks was etched into my creative consciousness. Case in point is a new recording of Glass compositions for solo piano, Mad Rush (nicely performed by Lisa Moore, who’s been called “New York’s Queen of Avant-Garde Piano”). As usual with any great creator who’s marked by the longevity and prolificacy of Glass, you’ll invariably manage to find some gems.

Here, it’s Metamorphosis, a piece in five movements that’s a self-contained primer on all that’s idiosyncratic about Glass’s work. It’s loosely inspired by the Franz Kafka novel of the same name (the literary masterpiece, one will recall, is about a man’s transformation into a cockroach).

Metamorphosis is all about evolvement; yet this interpretation is ultimately more about a journey out of one existence only to metaphorically retreat back to where it began. The playful arpeggios that are sprinkled against a background of the signature Glass repetitions seem to signify wonder at the mutation, but the last movement, almost identical to the first one, implies more stasis than transition. Not surprisingly, as with anything by Glass, it will leave you pondering as to its true meaning.

Speaking of pondering, it’s inexplicable to me that Glass has yet to be recognized with a Presidential Medal of Arts, or at the very least a Kennedy Center Honors award. I’ll assume those will come (though Glass is already 78, so let’s step it up). Surely he ranks up there with past recipients like American composers Elliott Carter and William Bolcom as far as his influence on modern music.

Meanwhile, time to give the evergreen Glassworks yet another listen — for old time’s sake.

‘Become Ocean’ by John Luther Adams

adams become oceanWinner in the Best Contemporary Classical category at last month’s Grammy Awards, Become Ocean by composer John Luther Adams is a highly acclaimed work from an artist who has long been inspired by the transcendence of nature, so evocatively realized in this soaring soundscape, which also won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Pop Culture Musing for a Friday 2/20/15

best actor oscars 2015Let’s Hear it for the Boys: It says something about the depth of the male performances this Oscar season that a number of amazing portrayals could not be recognized by the Academy thanks to the five-nominee cap in the acting categories. There was justifiable uproar when David Oyelowo’s powerful reenactment of Martin Luther King in Selma was not included in the final cut for Best Actor, but he was in pretty good company, most significantly Ralph Fiennes, in his wry and wonderful turn as the concierge in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as Timothy Spall’s iconoclastic depiction of the British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in the beautifully shot period piece, Mr. Turner.

Personally, I found Bradley Cooper in American Sniper the weakest (though by no means undistinguished) link in a field that’s notable for a couple of performances — by Steve Carell and Michael Keaton — that go against the grain for the actors in question. An unrecognizable Carell, so familiar for his comedic talents in other venues, left me more than surprised by his haunting transformation into John du Pont in Foxcatcher, playing the troubled heir to an American fortune whose privileged life culminated in grisly tragedy. Michael Keaton was also an unexpected revelation as the washed-up, middle-aged actor seeking artistic validation in Birdman. It’s difficult to find humor in schizophrenia and desperation, but Keaton managed to balance the pathos with a deft sense of absurdity that verges on the transcendent.

The two Englishmen, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, who round out the list of Best Actor nominees, are also wonders to behold. In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne crafts a performance that is so inordinately difficult at its core: having to convey both wrenching physical disability as well as soul-stirring emotion through indelible facial expressions that serve as windows into the complex personality of the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. And Cumberbatch, as the ingenuous computer scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, brings a breathtaking intelligence to a role that, in lesser hands, may have proven distantly academic, but instead lingers by way of its human dimension.

jk simmonsAdd to this overcrowded list of brilliant male performances that of J.K. Simmons, left, nominated for Best Supporting Actor as the pathological music instructor in the stunning film, Whiplash. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Simmons was moved to the supporting category in order to ensure a win (though I’ll also issue a shout-out to Ethan Hawke in Boyhood, who probably would have won had it been any other year). There’s nothing “supporting” about Simmons’s performance, which is front and center and indescribably overpowering as a jazz professor whose idea of pushing (or shall we say, punishing) his students towards greatness leaves a lot to be desired. (And gosh, some remarkable — and not nominated — work as well by Miles Teller, as the main object of Simmons’s sadistic derision.)

So who will win on Sunday?  Doesn’t matter. There’s not a loser in this bunch.

Creative & Otherwise