Havana Hopes

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Street scene in eastern Cuba, early ’90s.

A man who believed himself bigger than life was buried in a tiny casket today.

At first, I found it unseemly, the street celebrations by the Cuban enclave in Miami, upon the news of the death, at long last, of Fidel Castro. As a Cuban-American — and resident of Miami since infancy, as my parents were exiled concurrent with the Cuban Revolution in 1959 – I felt a curious detachment from the revelry, perhaps having already experienced it in my mind on the several occasions when rumors of the bearded one’s demise erroneously spread like wildfire in the community. It all seemed like a predestined ritual, a pent-up paroxysm of emotion amongst those genuinely aggrieved (and some just along for the ride), a moment awaited for what seemed like centuries.

Since I’ve had use of reason, Castro loomed large over existence; rare was the family dinner where his name didn’t somehow manage to infiltrate the conversation. And the stories. And the memories. And always, the sadness. So I don’t begrudge the celebrants their moment. It was a long time coming.

He was buried, ironically, near the resting place of the great Cuban poet and patriot José Martí. Would that Castro had heeded Martí’s timeless words, “The general happiness of a people rests on the individual independence of its inhabitants.”  One can continue to hope.

Photo: Marc PoKempner

The Twilight Time


This night has been so strange that it seemed
As if the hair stood up on my head.

— William Butler Yeats, “Presences” (1919)

Sounds of the City

lang langWhen describing his jazz-fused masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue, created in 1924, composer George Gershwin once said, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Almost 100 years later, the wildly popular pianist Lang Lang, whose latest offering, New York Rhapsody, was released on Sony Classical last month, recently told the Wall Street Journal that “When I hear Rhapsody in Blue, I see the Empire State Building somehow.”

And so one rhapsody begets another. Rhapsody in Blue is the centerpiece of a crossover album that offers homage to the city that never sleeps, with appearances by an array of artists from the fields of pop, jazz, and classical. Whatever one can say of the choice of selections, from an eclectic group of composers ranging from Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland to Danny Elfman, Lou Reed, and Jay-Z, they are not the expectedly clichéd (no “New York, New York” here, thankfully).

Lang had lofty goals as he went about preparing the album. “One of the greatest stories in the history of human creativity was written in this city – and I wanted to tell it,” he says in the liner notes. That story, an eventful sonic progression from jazz and Broadway all the way to punk and hip-hop, is an ambitious one, though the results here are a bit hit or miss.

On the hit side is a creative mashup of “Somewhere” (from Bernstein’s West Side Story) alongside Reed’s “Dirty Blvd,” featuring Lisa Fischer and Jeffrey Wright. Fischer’s vocal is probably the finest of the album, which also serves up a rare miss from Andra Day, who’s no competition for Alicia Keys on what’s become another signature Big Apple anthem, “Empire State of Mind.” Sean Jones struts a terrific trumpet on “Tonight” (also from West Side Story), but Madeleine Peyroux’s rendition of “Moon River” leaves some wistfulness to be desired.

The use of two little-known pieces by Copland – “Story of Our Town” and “In Evening Air”new york rhapsody – to open and close the album was the idea of Larry Klein, the Grammy-winning producer and brainchild behind the New York Rhapsody project. Both are less soaring than contemplative and capture the “pockets of peace and quiet beauty” that exist within the “vortex of New York City,” in Klein’s words.

Rhapsody in Blue is, of course, where Lang gets to show off his chops, along with the 76-year-old Herbie Hancock – still in fine mettle – and a spirited London Symphony Orchestra. A reprise of an abbreviated performance by the two at the 2008 Grammys, it features both a playfulness and grandeur that highlights two consummate pianists doing what they do best.

In a serendipitous bit of timing, the Chinese-born Lang, now 34, was recently chosen to be New York City’s first-ever “Cultural Tourism Ambassador,” the latest in a long list of plaudits since he burst on the classical music scene in 1999 as a prodigious teenager lionized for his brash and bold technique. Settling into superstardom can always become predictably complacent, so it’s nice to see him trying to expand the audience. It’s New York, Lang says, “that turned classical into this wonderful mess of new sounds and styles.” With New York Rhapsody, the experiment continues.

[Lang Lang’s New York Rhapsody will be featured on the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center on November 25.]

First published as Music Review: Lang Lang – ‘New York Rhapsody’ at Blogcritics.org

Age is Abstract

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Linear perfection: a canvas from the “Blanco y Verde” series (1959-1971)

She sold her first painting at the tender age of 89. She turned 101 years old in May. And now, Carmen Herrera, born in Havana, Cuba in 1915, finds herself with a career retrospective at the fabled Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Who says perseverance doesn’t pay off?

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“I work, and I work, and I work”: Carmen Herrera, shown here on her 94th birthday

Herrera’s works, now recognized as seminal pieces in the development of abstract minimalism, were long kept largely private by the artist, who was a bit overshadowed by her great Cuban-born contemporary Wifredo Lam. Celebrated for her perspicacious use of lines, shapes, and colors, Herrera is often  mentioned with another master of the abstract, Barnett Newman (who, coincidentally, was a neighbor in 1950s New York — they often shared breakfasts together), as well as that other magical juggler of lines and color, Ellsworth Kelly.

The recently opened exhibition at the Whitney, entitled Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, makes clear the artist’s lifelong obsession with precepts of architecture (which she studied at the University of Havana); her artworks are drawn with the geometric precision of a draftsman in search of linear perfection. In fact, Herrera once said that, “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going.”

herrera green and orange
Precise geometry: “Green and Orange” (1958)

She continues to create, albeit when she’s up to it, as even she is not immune from the mundane maladies of aging. More involved now in conception rather than execution, Herrera sketches out ideas for new paintings that are then transferred to grid paper and which her assistant subsequently finishes.

“I work, and I work, and I work,” Herrera recently told the Wall Street Journal  (which praised her “intense visual power”). And there’s no fear of the future. Also known for her acerbic sense of humor, she wryly quips: “When death happens it will happen – it can’t be that bad if everyone is doing it.”

Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 2, 2017.

Pop Culture Musing for a Wednesday 8/31/16

stranger things ryder
Winona Ryder in the Netflix series, “Stranger Things”

Inside the Upside Down: Called “the show of the summer” by the New York Times, Stranger Things, airing on Netfilix, is not ordinarily my type of fare, but with a window open on the binge front, and with all the plaudits it has received – and the fact that Winona Ryder is back in the spotlight in her role as a mother whose young son disappears under mysterious circumstances – well, that sealed the deal.

Pitch-perfect in its depiction of a small midwestern town in early-Eighties America, the series, created by the thirty-something Duffer Brothers (themselves born in 1984), also borrows liberally from such defining films of the era as E.T., Poltergeist, and Stand By Me, as well as assorted offerings by Stephen King. (The font for the title looks straight from a King novel.)

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Millie Bobby Brown as “Eleven”

Horror and fantasy not particularly being my cup of tea, I was most surprised by the emotional connection that Stranger Things was able to wield via the terrific child actors at the heart of the story. They wrap themselves around your psyche in all sorts of peculiar ways, none more so than the astonishing Millie Bobby Brown, the young British actress who plays the telekinetically enabled and unusually named “Eleven.” Suffice to say this little girl has quite the remarkable powers; she hooks up with the three boys searching for Winona’s missing son, and is on the lam from a laboratory where government agents used her as a guinea pig and potential weapon in the fight against the Russians (remember the Cold War?)

Anyway, her performance is really something to watch; she has limited dialogue, so expressions must convey all she feels, and every one of them cuts to the quick. Stranger Things is worth seeing just for the joy of encountering such a great new talent.

Oh, and back to Winona. How perfectly appropriate that she would be cast in a project that takes place in the decade which saw her emergence as one of the iconic actresses (Heathers, Beetlejuice) of her generation. Here, her acting has just the right amount of jitteriness required for a character who’s borderline nutso (due to the circumstances, of course). And just the necessary number of “Winona-isms” without which the occasion would not be complete.

So welcome back to Winona, goodbye to the summer…and here’s to a season two (just announced!)

Scent of the Strawberry

garden earthly delights
Detail from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hiëronymus Bosch

Whither the power of the strawberry? A closer look at one of the most analyzed paintings in history may provide a clue or two. The artwork, of course, is the center panel of the famous triptych by Hiëronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights; it’s also part of the most comprehensive exhibition of the Dutch master’s work (timed with his fifth centenary), on view at Madrid’s Prado Museum through September.

The symbolism of that incongruously chaotic middle panel (it should be noted that Bosch is now widely considered the art world’s first Surrealist), has been forever debated. Does it depict the insanity of hell, or the pleasures of an eternally sybaritic life? And, alongside the discussion, the liberal use of fruit — in particular, berries — that sprouted from the artist’s imagination.

In 1605, the historian and poet José de Sigüenza wrote about the “short-lived taste earthly delights strawberryof the strawberry, and its scent that one barely appreciates before it has passed,” in his description of the ubiquitous fruits at the heart of the masterpiece. Many believe that the message of Earthly Delights was that humanity must push back against the temporal temptations of the flesh, amongst which the strawberry – with its metaphorical connections to sex and lust – could serve as a substitute for the apple of Adam and Eve.

It’s not coincidence that the unruly abandon that pervades the piece is mirrored in the fact that the strawberry is noteworthy for its tendency to grow uncontrollably. An oversized specimen (shown above) is seen hoisted in almost pagan adoration; if you look closely at the image shown at the top of this page, you’ll see one of the figures hugging a strawberry rather possessively, as if in fear of losing something highly cherished – reluctant to let go of the ephemeral joys of life and love.

Another detail, my favorite, is the one shown at bottom, of the owl perched with omniscient eyes as it observes the frolicsome proceedings. Another portentous symbol in an artwork already ripe with them (excuse the pun), the owl has long been viewed as representing learning and wisdom. I can’t help but think that his place in the tableau, along with the all-knowing gaze, foreshadows Shakespeare’s immortal lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

bosch strawberry
Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition runs through September 11 at Madrid’s Prado Museum.

Light Touch

light painting hibbertIn the finding-wonderful-art-in-unexpected-places department, I ran across the work of a French photographer, Christopher Hibbert, as a backdrop image from Google Open Gallery on my streaming device one evening. It sparked my curiosity enough to search for more of his pieces, two of which are shown here. A spectral blend of soft whimsy and technical prowess, the “light paintings” as they’re called, harbor a lingering quality, bringing a dash of the preternatural to settings that would ordinarily be typical, if lovely, landscapes. A process in which exposures are created, usually at night, by manipulating light sources or by the movement of the camera, the end result transcends technique; or, as the artist says, “Light is life.”
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Photos: ©2016 Christopher Hibbert