Archive for March, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Is It Safe Yet To Buy Art?

BigLegsDon'tCry0108This year’s edition of the Armory Show, held earlier this month in New York, was what one attending art adviser called “American Idol for the visual arts.”  Visitors to the main show on Piers 92 and 94 also had 11 satellite fairs, including The Art Show at the original Armory, Volta, Pulse and The Independent, to explore. The Art Newspaper estimated that it would take more than 64 hours to spend 5 minutes at every presenter sampling the art.

An end-of-fair assessment pictured a successful show with record attendance, strong sales and, as importantly, a spirit of renewed optimism. A Danish dealer sold an Edvard Munch with an asking price of $6 million while, at The Art Show, a Joan Mitchell sold for $3.5 million minutes after the opening. The Art Newspaper reported that the Armory-Modern show on Pier 92, in its second year, had drawn a large number of museum curators from MoMA, Washington’s National Gallery, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie and the Philadelphia Museum to view much high quality art for sale.

For me, what I found most enlightening was less the art than a high-powered panel on Saturday, March 6th, organized by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) and chaired by its president, the gallerist Lucy Mitchell-Innes. Its title was “A Committed Vision: Collecting in the New Economy”.

The panel consisted of Edward Dolman, CEO of Christie’s International,  Melva Bucksbaum, a long-time collector of contemporary art along with her husband, Robert Mnuchin, dealer at L + M Arts, Candace Worth of Worth Art Advisory and William Goetzmann, who studies the art market at Yale’s International Center for Finance.  They all agreed that the market was in a new phase, struggling to emerge from the bitter ashes of 2008’s economic meltdown and a euphoric period marked by record sales, sky-high auction prices and a mood of irrational exuberance.

Overall, the panel’s remarks reflected a more cautious current mood: more realistic expectations amid signs of recovery from a period of binge buying and a painful morning-after hangover.

Two closely-related questions seemed to be on the minds of the audience in the packed room: Has the market finally hit bottom and is it a good time to buy?

Goetzmann opened by saying that the notion of the art market as immune and separate from the art market had taken a hit. Major collectors, many of whom had come from the hedge-fund industry, sharply curtailed their buying with some even selling works to cover Wall Street losses.  The art market now appeared, he said, to be in a pause period prior to recovery.

(In support of the panel’s remarks, a report released this month by Dr. Clare McAndrew of the research firm, Arts Economics, showed that the United States’ share of the art market declined from 46% in 2006 to 30% in 2009 and that the United Kingdom’s 29% share had contracted almost 30% by 2009 as well. The player that gained share was the Chinese art trade which moved from a 9% market share in 2007 to 14% two years later.  The banking crisis had an immediate impact at the auction houses with buy-in rates (art that didn’t sell) by auction houses at 45% at the end of 2008, double the figure from 2007.)

Dolman noted that the current recession is very different from that of 1990-91.  Twenty years ago, he said, there was a “total lack of interest in contemporary art”. Now, there is real interest in that market, due in part to an influx of new Chinese and Russian buyers.

The realization that art can be a “real asset” was voiced by Mnuchin.  It plays a greater role in such newer markets as Middle and Far Eastern nations.  These players see art as a way to “shape a new culture and aesthetic”  wholly apart from the frenzied competition for a very limited inventory of Old Master works still in private hands.

Worth contributed that “urgency and volume is gone”.  She called last year’s period between April to June “the death knell time”.  Several panelists said they saw both younger and seasoned collectors returning to the fold.  The younger demographic is returning more slowly and is much more price-point conscious.  The long-time collectors are returning but showing a preference for Tier A art by Old and Modern Masters.

The market is in an “artist-driven” moment where brand names and those just below the top tier are holding value and selling while the market for mid-level artists remains soft.  Dolman mentioned that Ronald Lauder’s $135 million purchase of a Klimt painting and the recent, record-setting $104 million price for a Giacometti sculpture has “recalibrated the value of top-tier art”.

So, is now a good time to buy?  For some artists, the answer is “Yes”. Goetzmann sees now as lumpy times in the market. Yet, he cautioned against sitting on the sidelines. One “can miss an incredible opportunity” because great art only comes to market at certain, unpredictable times, usually via death, debt and divorce.  In order to strike when that rare opportunity comes along, he said, “You have to be invested full-time so you can enjoy those periods”

PostHeaderIcon Lit Lite

Twitterature-The-Worlds-Grea

Editor’s Note: In a most unlikely match, Twitter has hooked up with Literature to produce one of the year’s more imaginative and enjoyable parodies. Twitter’s  calling card is brevity (140 characters or less) while literature’s defining trait is prolixity. Two University of Chicago undergraduates decided to blend the two in their recently-published, “Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in 20 Tweets or Less”. Is no part of American life safe from the all-consuming reach of social networking?  What follows is my article on the new book—currently ranked 42nd on Amazon’s list of Best-Sellers in the parody category—that appeared in the January issue of Chicago magazine.

In Fall 2008, Alex Aciman and Emmett Rensin met as freshman roommates at the University of Chicago. It was kismet at first quip. Both were published writers: Aciman had written about film noir for The New York Times and Rensin had blogged about religion and youth culture for the Huffington Post.

Bring two bright students together, mix with winter cabin fever in Chicago, and intellectual sparks soon flew.  Twitter had gone viral several months before; the two roommates decided to write a book proposal. Aciman recalls, “As soon as the pun on “twitter” and “literature” appeared, we got into it.”

Their first book tweeted was Albert Camus’ The Stranger (“Atmosphere heavy, taking a walk. Taking revolver too, Arabs abroad.  Still hot and still drunk. Good combination.”). In three weeks, they completed tweets for 19 more classics and sent them to an agent. Penguin bought the book, gave it its title and the students fleshed out the remaining 60 or so works in June at Rensin’s home in Los Angeles.

The book appeared in England in November; an expanded American edition appeared in December (Updated note: a French edition has just been published). It ranges from the epic Gilgamesh (“It’s pretty great being king: part human, part God, ALL ladies’ man”) to The Da Vinci Code (“Driving to a bank. Good time to exposit the history of all these crazy Catholic secret societies to this French girl—maybe get her hot?”).

Both 19-year-old sophomores gravitate toward the unconventional.  A New York native, the short, red-haired Aciman, says he is a devotee of Napoleon Bonaparte. “I am a failed Napoleon, but I try my best to fail with a passion.”  Rensin, who is from Los Angeles, is an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church with three goals: to master card magic, to create the perfect shaggy-dog joke, and to pen the Great American Novel.

In a moment of seriousness, though, each student admits to harboring future writing dreams. “We’re like velveteen writers right now,” says Aciman. “We want to be real writers.”

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PostHeaderIcon Sing,Sing, Sing

Chicago is blessed with a rich assortment of choral groups. Aside from singers in the Chicago Symphony Chorus, there are celebrated church choirs, community choirs and university-based ensembles. This coming weekend offers a special opportunity to hear two of the city’s finest  choirs: Chicago Chorale and Bella Voce. They are performing two of the repertoire’s outstanding works. The Chorale will sing Maurice Durufle’s Requiem while Bella Voce will offer Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, on that work’s 400th Anniversary.

I had the pleasure of sitting down recently with the music directors of both groups and learning more about their background, each ensemble’s history and performance style.

ChicagoChoraleChicago Chorale— This is a 60-member collection of amateur voices founded in 2001 and led by Bruce Tammen. The chorale, at first, consisted of 22 singers (predominantly Hyde Parkers) familiar with Tammen through his association at the University of Chicago from 1984-96 conducting the Rockefeller Chapel Choir, University Chorus and the Motet Choir.

Singers pass a rigorous audition for admission and must treat their association like a vocation.  They are expected, without fail, to attend weekly rehearsals. And, unlike most chorale groups, including Bella Voce, they are not paid but, instead,  pay yearly dues to support the group’s leader and season schedule expenses.

I first heard this superbly-trained group last November at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Bridgeport and was astounded by the bell-like clarity of their singing.  Tammen says his technique is to break words into sounds and aim for precise vowel-shaping of notes with perfect pitch as the crucial, ultimate goal.

Tammen agrees that his early training at Luther College in Minnesota and the Lutheran choir model informs his approach to sound and music training.  “What I take from my Luther College background is the belief that you can take farmers and non-music majors and, with the right training, get remarkable results.”

The Chorale does not focus on a particular musical era such as Renaissance or Baroque but performs primarily sacred music from the 16th century to the present as well as what it terms “undiscovered masterpieces”.  This weekend’s performance of Durufle’s “Requiem” (1947) is the first and most famous of the composer’s fourteen compositions.  According to the concert’s program notes, it is a work “unique in its application of medieval melody (Gregorian chant) and modern orchestration.”

Durufle’s Requiem takes the rich tradition of the requiem “Mass for the Dead” begun in the Renaissance with later contributions by Mozart, Berlioz, Brahms and Verdi and matches it with the equally rich French organ tradition.

The Chorale is performing the orchestration for organ alone (one of three orchestrations the composer wrote).  They will be joined by organist Thomas Weisflog, cellist Sophie Webber and mezzo-soprano Susan Payne O’Brien.

Tammen’s says his goal for the group, which marks its 10th season next year, is to “chip away at the personal and professional perception that the word ‘amateur’ means anything less (than top-quality).”  I’d say they’ve achieved such a distinction.

The sole performance is Saturday, March 27th at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 5472 S. Kimbark Avenue in Hyde Park at 7:30 p.m.  For tickets, contact www.ChicagoChorale.org or buy tickets at Seminary Co-op Bookstore and 57th St. Books. Chicago Chorale can be heard “Live from WFMT”, April 26th at 8 p.m.

BellaVoce1Bella Voce—The ensemble, considered Chicago’s leading professional chamber choir, consisting of 28 singers, was formed in 1982 by Rick Childress and was originally known as “His Majestie’s Clerkes”. It was led for many years by Anne Heider (Bruce Tammen once sang with Clerkes). Its current director is Andrew Lewis who also holds four other musical appointments in town, including the Elgin Choral Union and teaching at University of Illinois.

Lewis characterizes his group’s sound as sharing the clear, round sound of Lutheran college choirs but mixed with the “clarity and laser-like perfect pitch” of English Cathedral choirs.  Expression, he says, is paramount with intonation as part of expression. Lewis, who sang with Heider, says his goal is to build on the earlier sound achieved by Heider but “making it more robust”.

The conductor is single-minded when it comes to who he admits into the choir.  He insists that every member must be familiar with Renaissance and Baroque performance style.  This makes his job of program preparation much easier.

Bella Voce nearly disbanded in 2005 when Heider stepped down. Lewis says the singers were devastated by the board’s decision to stop performing. Lewis and a small group of singers, he says, “staged a friendly coup of the Board” and offered to take responsibility for keeping the group going.   The ensemble is once again gaining high critical praise and thriving through current tough times.

Lewis and Tammen both studied with famed choral conductors Helmut Rilling and Robert Shaw. Lewis is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he studied choral and orchestral conducting.

Vespers of 1610—Monteverdi’s work is regarded as revolutionary in marking the transition from the Renaissance style to that of the Baroque period. The enduring popularity of its beautiful melodies and harmonies through the ages is attributable, according to one writer, to its “blend of the splendid and the intimate, the sensual and the sublime.”

For Lewis, however, in preparing for this weekend’s performances, Monteverdi’s 146-page score is a musical puzzle requiring countless solutions by the conductor.  Monteverdi gave no indication of orchestration for the voices in his score.  In this regard, every performance of the Vespers in unique to each conductor’s choices as to intonation, when to stress a single voice for a passage or when to double the vocal parts.

To see how Lewis and Bella Voce solve Monteverdi’s puzzle, I urge you to head to Rockefeller Chapel on Sunday, March 28th or Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 East Randolph, on Monday, March 29th at 7:30. For tickets, go to either www.rockefeller.uchicago.edu or www.HarrisTheaterChicago.org.

PostHeaderIcon The Carnegie Hall of Jazz

Village vanguardWhile visiting New York City, my hometown, two weeks ago, I got the idea to pay my respects to the club where I received my initiation in jazz, the iconic Village Vanguard. A week before I arrived, the Vanguard had celebrated its 75th anniversary, a millennia in nightclub years. The other clubs around during my youth—Five Spot, the original Birdland, Half Note, Village Gate, Eddie Condon’s,  Jimmy Ryan’s, the Metropole Bar—are all gone now.

My reason for heading to 178 Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village was to commemorate a personal milestone: the 50th anniversary since I, a lad of 16, first entered that special, triangular-shaped  room to hear four classy musicians in tuxedos, the Modern Jazz Quartet, play. It was the first of many Sunday 4 p.m. all-age matinees to come.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, I had the privilege to hear other jazz royalty there like Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Jim Hall, Gerry Mulligan, Keith Jarrett and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band that played a Monday night gig for over 20 years. So, on March 5th, I descended the familiar 15 steps and entered jazz’s cathedral.  Al Foster’s Quartet was the evening’s headliner. As soon as I passed the doorman collecting the entry charge, it felt like going home.

Not much had changed since my last visit almost 10 years ago. The small room seats 120 “legally”, the manager told me. Both forest-green walls were lined, like an art gallery, with photos of jazz musicians who had played the club. A tuba hung on one wall and an ancient horn on the facing wall. Everyone of a certain caliber wants to play the Vanguard. A gig there signifies a coveted rite of musical passage.   Pianist Jason Moran has called it “the Carnegie Hall of jazz…it’s the place where Moses, Mohammed and Jesus walked.” The club has had only one set of owners in its long history, the much-loved Max Gordon and his widow, Lorraine, who oversees the club nowadays

The Vanguard exudes a pure spirit where the music is king. No opening acts, no glitz (just a modest intro for the band), no food service and no annoying chatter during sets. Just drinks and straight-ahead playing. The only change from the old days: no rising curlicues of cigarette smoke. I sat back enjoying Foster and his sidemen’s solos, reminisced and thought of the musicians whose spirits remain in the room. When the set ended, I climbed the stairs out into the night air, happy to know that the Vanguard was still there and still setting the standard.

To sample the Vanguard’s history, view a You Tube video of yesteryear artists, visit its website, www.villagevanguard.com.

PostHeaderIcon “VENI, VIDI, VICI” SEQUEL

Muti

Julius Caesar’s celebrated three word verdict on his resounding victory in Syria in 47 B.C. could easily stand for the New York appearances earlier this month by conductor Riccardo Muti . He came and conquered not one but two of the city’s musical jewels: the orchestras of the NY Philharmonic and The Metropolitan Opera.

Muti’s debut at The Met was news all by itself (a ridiculous oversight for the artistic leader of La Scala for 19 seasons). He came to conduct “Attila”, a Verdi opera close to his heart. Lusty applause broke out at his entrance in the pit. Then, at the end, I witnessed a first in near 50 years of concert-going: a standing ovation for the conductor, not the able singers.

In “Attila”, Muti caressed the score so that its lovely, heretofore neglected, melodies shone forth. For his Met engagement, he chose to use a critical edition prepared by renowned Verdi scholar, the University of Chicago’s Philip Gossett. Muit made a convincing case that this opera deserved a place in the Verdi repertoire of major opera companies.

His role was equal to that of the opera’s six singers, particularly the trio of impressive headliners:  powerful bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Attila, the King of the Huns, soprano Violetta Urmana as Odabella, daughter of the Lord of Aquileia, whom Attila killed in battle and whose proud defiance wins Attila’s heart and tenor Ramon Vargas, a knight and ally of Odabella in her plot to murder the Hun. Veteran bass Samuel Ramey, who once sang the lead role, had a small role as Pope Leo, though his delivery on his single aria was noticeably wobbly.

Muti was not well-served by the production team, all making their Met debuts.  Advance ads ballyhoed the celebrity ensemble, raising even higher expectations . Yet, the star-studded team out to be more star-crossed.  Noted architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, joined by fashion designer Miuccia Prada (sharing set and costume design credit), failed to rise to the occasion with their lackluster sets and costumes.

The Act I set was a pile of fallen beams and rubble, meant to suggest a battlefield but more reminiscent of some violent earthquake. Ms. Prada’s costumes, accenting fur, leather and gold lame, appeared drab, lacking in originality and sparkle. While director Pierre Audi chose to mount a stylized production over one favoring epic spectacle, his decision forced the singers to interact with neither the set nor one another.

Instead, for close to the entirety of Acts II and III, the singers stood within oval cutouts in a grotesque green wall of trees and leaves and delivered their arias with skill and evident conviction. The absence of dramatic action in favor of a “park and bark” approach kept any emotional exchanges close to zero. Luckily, Muti’s conducting, Verdi’s impassioned scoring and the cast’s ardent singing saved the day.

Remaining performances run through March 27, though conductor Marco Armiliato replaces Muti for the final three performances.

Two nights prior to attending “Attila”, Muti was across Lincoln Center Plaza leading the New York Philharmonic in Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 and Paul Hindemith’s Symphony in E Flat. Again, he came on stage to a hero’s welcome.  To my mind, this outpouring of admiration mixed with adulation seemed designed more to show Muti what he rejected in choosing to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra rather than the hometown band.

The program looked promising, though Muti’s choice of a neglected symphonic work last conducted by Leonard Bernstein in 1967 was puzzling.  However, the conductor’s keen  musical intelligence proved correct once again. He coaxed a rousing performance from the Philharmonic musicians, who played full-out for an obviously favorite maestro.

The evening’s only false note was supplied by the piano soloist, Andras Schiff.    Mr. Schiff enjoys a stellar reputation with the work of certain early composers but he clearly wasn’t up to playing Brahms. To my ears, throughout the concerto, he simply played the notes at the expense of any sustained, singing line. His touch was too light until the very end when he crudely banged out the final pages. He  seemed totally at sea, demonstrating a lack of any overarching vision about Brahms’ intentions.  However, he was called back several times and even applauded warmly by the musicians. I felt they should have shown better judgment and sat silent.

Footnote: The Met’s next HD production, “Hamlet” will be shown in movie theaters nationwide on Saturday, March 27.  For information and tickets, go to www.metopero.org. To catch the conquering Muti, he’ll be in Chicago starting in September.

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