Archive for June, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Haitink Exits on High Note

Bernard HaitinkThe Chicago Symphony Orchestra said goodbye last weekend to its Principal Conductor of the past four seasons, Bernard Haitink, in the best way possible: they played their hearts out for a beloved leader. Haitink bade farewell to Chicago after leading a successful and musically satisfying three-week Beethoven Festival. As a parting gesture, the musicians awarded him the Theodore Thomas Medal for Distinguished Service as a token of their esteem.

I caught three of the maestro’s performances: Beethoven’s Second and Third (Eroica) Symphony, a dress rehearsal of the Fourth and Sixth (Pastoral) and the final performance last Sunday of the magisterial Ninth.

It was the best live performance of that score that I’ve ever witnessed. I also had the best possible view: sitting in the Terrace on stage at Orchestra Hall, less than 10 feet from the Chicago Symphony Chorus and facing Haitink head-on. Such a unique vantage point enabled me to see not only his facial expressions, from somber to joyous, but also the movements of both hands.

I am not musically expert enough to pinpoint what makes Haitink a great conductor. The key to that riddle cannot be captured with words. It’s a matter of musical chemistry between players and conductor. And the 80-year-old Haitink found his perfect match in Chicago.

However, I suspect  part of the answer can be found in his left hand. Had I been sitting in a regular house seat, facing his back, my focus would have been more on  Hatitink’s baton. But facing him, I saw that his left hand was just as active as his right. He kept sending nonverbal telegrams to orchestra or choral members about how he wanted them to play and sing.

I counted at least a dozen different hand signals and then stopped counting. He raised his hand to draw out a louder sound, moved his hand agitatedly to express tension, make a raised clenched fist to demand full-out singing or pointed his index finger to cue the tympanist or cellos.  And the players reacted instantly, giving him whatever he desired.

When I wrote a story last year about the search for Haitink’s successor, Riccardo Muti, I asked orchestra oboist, Michael Henoch, how musicians knew Muti was “The One”.  He told me, “They (top conductors) don’t need a lot of verbiage. They don’t even have to speak English. The best convey it with their gestures.”

Over the past four seasons, whenever Haitink led the orchestra, you knew that a special evening was in store.  He never disappointed.  His readings were revelatory.  Loud applause and bravos resounded through the hall.  While his manner was serious and almost phlegmatic, once he ascended the podium, the results were consistently electric.  His seven recordings with the orchestra will insure his legacy.

I have lived in Chicago 30 years and seen the orchestra led, at various times, by five of the greatest conductors of the past 50 years—Sir Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez and now Haitink.  Chicago will soon welcome the sixth in September with Muti.  Our orchestra and city has made  musical history that is close to unmatched in our time. Only Berlin can come close.

Thank you, maestro, and farewell.  I’ll await your return next May and your performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.  I can’t wait!

PostHeaderIcon Abstract Art Made Clear

20011211_151953_VARNEDOE .JPGLast month, Mary Ann Miller, Sterling Professor of Art History at Yale, finished delivering the 59th annual Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art (her talks will be available online this Fall). This renowned lecture series invites a noted art scholar to speak on their area of expertise and bears the name of Andrew W. Mellon, the museum’s initial benefactor.

When I lived in Washington some 35 years ago, I remember walking into the National Gallery for the first time and knowing, moments after entering, that I had found a kindred place.  The spacious grand lobby and rotunda gave off a feeling of old-fashioned grandeur mingled with serenity that one rarely finds now in museums.

The West Building is a museum of its time (1941), a place for quiet encounter with and reflection on art.  We owe Mellon our gratitude for his enlightened gift of art and architecture (John Russell Pope designed it) to the nation. Today, we thank him for this annual series of enlightening lectures.

This year’s Mellon talks brought to mind the 52nd Mellon Lectures, given in 2003 by the late Kirk Varnedoe, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.  It sent me back to his talks, captured in book form in 2006, titled Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art After Pollock” (Yale University Press).

Varnedoe was a gifted curator, engaging writer and speaker, a fearless tackler of complex issues of art theory and practice. His provocative and endlessly original insights never fail to convey his appreciation and zest to artistic peers and plain fans like myself. Lane Faison, his mentor at Williams College, once told me that Varnedoe was the best student he had ever taught. His death at an early age robbed us of a great scholar and communicator; perhaps America’s closest counterpart to England’s Sir Kenneth Clark.

Varnedoe worked on the lectures while he was dying. He knew they would be his last testament. Three months after delivering these six talks, he passed away. His aim for the lectures was daunting: to make us see by the sheer power of his words (delivered extemporaneously solely from notes!!) that abstraction or imageless works of art were not about “nothing” but something, even about representation, if only in opposition. He intended to also offer a logic for abstract art of as much “a valid and valuable aspect of liberal society” as the eminent art historian E.H. Gombrich did for representational art’s ideal of “illusionism”. (Delivered as the 1956 Mellon Lectures and published as Art and Illusion”. You need to read the book to see what Varnedoe is talking about.)

My intent, at first, was to summarize his main points, starting with the revolutionary nature of Abstract Expressionism and the outsize influence of Jackson Pollock and action painting. But I soon realized the impossibility of doing justice to such a goal in a blog post. It also would deprive you of meeting this charming tour guide and enjoying the richness of his intellect.

The pleasure of this book is that you will learn a great deal about contemporary art painlessly. Varnedoe’s playful personality is captured on the page. His tone throughout is not stuffy or academic but conversational.

Varnedoe filled these talks with a lifetime’s worth of insights based on intent study of the works. He teases out influences between artists, makes distinctions within movements (particularly with minimalism), adds references to philosophy, literature and art history. He asks probing questions like, “What is abstract art good for?” and offers an observation like, “Abstract art, while seeming insistently to reject and destroy representation, in fact steadily expands its possibilities.”

The book ends with a two-page profession of faith in Art and artists, a testament much like an NPR This I Believe” essay. His words are stirring. “Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games: you have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. But what kind of faith? Not faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith in possibility, a faith not that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our ignorance, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, a faith fertile with possible meaning and growth.”

PostHeaderIcon Casanova Takes a Bath


(Like All of Us)

Chalk it up to my inflated expectations, which mirrored those of so many  homeowners and bankers who thought the market could only go up. I headed to Theater Oobleck’s production of “Casanova Takes a Bath sure that the great 18th Century lover could shed light on our national love affair that went bust.

After seeing David Isaacson’s clever and witty docudrama, I left feeling slightly duped by an inspired marketing campaign. And perhaps that’s the financial crisis’ best obit: A Meltdown by Marketing & Math.

My expectations were dashed when the play began and no bathtub was in sight. It never appeared and the audience came to realize that the “bath” was a metaphor for investors’ fecklessness and staggering losses. Then, Isaacson appeared throughout the play in modern garb for his other role, contemporary narrator and financial explicator.

Shuttling back and forth between historical periods (and conflating various episodes from the six volumes of  Casanova’s “History of My Life”, Isaacson names Pietro Colonda, who blackmailed Casanova and Count Rinaldi as the treacherous villains, matched today by Lloyd Blankfein, head of the investment bank, Goldman Sachs and University of Chicago finance expert, Eugene Fama.

Nobel-Prize winner Fama joins the Hall of Blame for his theory of “Efficient Markets”  which holds markets as rational and self-governing.  The theory is at the heart of the faulty mathematical models underlying such toxic financial tools infamously known as derivatives, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and mortgage-backed securities.

In the play, Isaacson points at a board full of equations and says, “After all, you can’t quarrel with the math”. Math (the handiwork of the young MBA “quants” in the banks’ boiler rooms) so complicated that even savvy bank CEOs worldwide could neither understand nor explain

At the end, Casanova is duped by Count Rinaldi who tricks the great lover into playing a card game “on trust”. Similarly, investors were tripped up by piles of worthless paper (New York Times here) that Isaacson tosses in the air with glee.

Isaacson started out with a brilliant conceit and deserves credit for casting some historical and comic light on our current distress.  I think less contextual jockeying back and forth and a production played more baldly as farce (with Casanova definitely in the tub) would have fared better. This mixed bag production is a perfect way to summarize my reaction.

A founding member of Theater Oobleck which specializes in productions which blend history, a pinch of philosophy and current events, Isaacson has written 14 plays for the troupe, including “Rumsfeld’s Attic” and “The Making of Freud”.  He’s portrayed Saul Bellow in Oobleck’s “Strauss at Midnight”.

The show closes after this weekend’s performances at Prop Thtr, 3502 North Elston. Performances are Friday and Saturday evening at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 7. For reservations, call 773/347-1041 or online at

PostHeaderIcon Architecture Beyond the Architects

Chicago Model City

Mention architecture and our minds instinctively think of modern master builders: Sullivan, Wright, Kahn, Gehry, van der Rohe, Piano.  But architecture encompasses several allied fields– engineering, design, landscape gardening– and millions of architecture fans, like myself.

Just over 40 years ago, there was no Chicago Architecture Foundation. It was founded in 1966 to save the Glessner House on Prairie Avenue from demolition. It won that battle and stayed around to fight other battles. It is now a thriving organization, boasting a budget last year of $11 million and nearly half-a-million participants in its programs, from walking tours (led by 450 trained docents), the Chicago Model City exhibit at the ArchiCenter, 224 S. Michigan Avenue, noonday lectures and a highly popular riverboat tour. Its programs help tell the story of Chicago through its buildings.

Like Burnham, Lynn Osmond makes no little plans. President and CEO at CAF since 1996, she has added a new title, chair of the Association of Architectural Organizations, a new international group, which aims to foster collaboration amongst its members and raise public awareness in other cities to the often overlooked architectural riches in their midst. Every building has a tale connected to that city’s history.

AAO consists of 30 members representing 3,100 architecture centers, heritage properties, architectural educators, university programs and individuals. It grew out of the Architecture + Design Network (A+DEN) meeting last November.

Greater public interest in issues such as sustainability, climate change  and architectural heritage have fueled a boom in architecture centers here and abroad. AAO intends to offer consulting services to assist emerging architecture centers elsewhere, using CAF’s model and other best practices. It will sponsor conferences and workshops on design issues and offer online resources.

All AAO members are facing pressure, as Michael Wood, AAO’s newly-named executive director, to stretch their dollars.  Members are exploring optimal convergence strategies: sharing ideas as well as exhibitions, lobbying municipal leaders for increased funding and building a strong constituency for architectural preservation.

“Over time, our top priority is developing more strategic partnerships,” says Osmond.  “Architecture centers are only as strong as their Rolodex of partnering organizations,” adds Wood.  Wood also cites the key role of educating youth to design principles.  “We believe talented design educators are essential to AAO and our aims are deeply allied.”

Osmond states the board is now exploring ways to implement these ambitious plans and will present their recommendations to the AAO membership at its convention in Chicago November 15 and 16.

Wood is reachable online at For more on the exhibit visit Chicago Model City.