In my seven decades — half of them spent as an art critic — I have been to too many art galleries and museums to be able to count the shows I have seen. Nor can I count the concerts, recitals, theater productions I’ve seen or books I’ve read. Most of them I’ve enjoyed, but few were so memorable that I still have in my nostrils the aroma they gave off.
This is not to disparage most of the others. I’ve eaten too many restaurant meals to count. Most of them I enjoyed. They did what was asked of them. But can I recount a ribeye I once had in Bakersfield? No. That would be silly.
But there are meals and concerts that stick, art exhibits that did more than give an hour’s pleasure, concerts that changed my way of thinking about the world.
And let’s be honest, one is willing to pay the ticket price for a lot of minor pleasure in the expectant hope that this next one will be a world-changer. The odds are against it, but we persist. Every once in a while, we are gobsmacked, and know why it has been worthwhile to sit through a hundred Beethoven Fifths to get to this one that goes beyond mere pleasure to transcendence.
We live for those moments; they make life worth living.
In a recent blog, I recounted my earliest such encounters, with Eugene O’Neill at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., when I was in high school. With J.M.W. Turner at the Museum of Modern Art in New York a few years later. With Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the same year. These all set my life on a course to spend it with art and music. These all proved to my adolescent heart and mind that there was something more real, more important, than the suburban life I was being brought up in.
But the immersion didn’t end there. In subsequent years, there were many exhibits and concerts that stand out. That became such an engrained part of my life and world view, that it is as if I was still standing in front of those paintings, or sitting in the concert hall, hearing those notes.
Let’s just take three piano recitals as examples. In 1991, I heard Maurizio Pollini at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. In the first half of the recital, he played all of Chopin’s Preludes. In the second half, he played the Berg sonata and Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces, Op. 19. All that was great. But he finished with the Stravinsky Three Scenes from Petrushka, one of the most difficult bravura piano pieces ever written. Pollini tore through it like a demon, but made every note musical. It blew me away. (The recital was notable for its intermission, too. The doors to the hall were locked and for nearly an hour, we could hear the piano being re-tuned behind those doors. Apparently Maestro Pollini was not satisfied with the instrument. We were kept waiting in the lobby until he gave his approval to the tuning).
In 2008, I heard Jeremy Denk at Zankel Hall in New York, the recital hall that is part of Carnegie Hall, play the single most daunting program I could imagine, with Charles Ives knucklebusting Concord Sonata in the first half, and Beethoven’s mind-busting Hammerklavier Sonata in the second. I could only think of John Lennon’s immortal line “I got blisters on me fingers.” For an encore, he reprised the Hawthorne movement of the Concord. Very like running a 200-meter directly after running a marathon.
I’ve heard Denk several times since then, and each time, his playing was, if not so Olympian, certainly significantly memorable. He proved to me, for instance, that the etudes of Gyorgy Ligeti are great music. And that Beethoven’s Eroica Variations are actually comic.
Then, in 2011, I heard Andre Watts play the Liszt B-minor sonata in Scottsdale, Ariz., on an all-Liszt program. I had the perfect seat to see his fingers spin over the keys, and learned a great deal about the disposition of Liszt’s voicings by being able to see Watt’s fingers. His playing was ethereal. Liszt was a Watts specialty.
But it wasn’t only music. After my initial infatuation with O’Neill in high school, I had seen too many mediocre live theater productions, and had come greatly to prefer movies. Theater seemed too artificial, too, well, “theatrical” for my tastes. But then, in 1993, I saw the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America — both parts on successive days — and saw what live theater can do that nothing else can. It was one of the seminal experiences of my life.
(It was also ruined for me most other theater, because so seldom is it ever this overwhelmingly powerful. But I have seen other great theater since then. Angels is not sui generis. I have seen Angels three more times, once in its road production —not all that good — once in a production by Actors Theatre in Phoenix, which was nearly as good as the New York production, and finally, in its Mike Nichols filmed version, which is very different from the stage version. It is a movie, not theater. Very good, but still, not the live experience on stage. The same difference between seeing the movie Amadeus and the stage version. Movie is good; live is great.)
I got to travel for my newspaper, and was able to review many major art shows around the country. They have been some of the most eye-opening and mind-expanding things I’ve done.
In 1994, I saw John James Audubon: The Birds of America at the Art Institute in Chicago. It featured 90 of the original paintings used for the engravings published in his books. The originals persuaded me that Audubon might be considered America’s greatest artist. (You can read a version of my newspaper review here.)
In 1996, I visited Philadelphia for the big Cezanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One hundred oil paintings, 35 watercolors and 35 drawings from public and private collections. It was an overwhelming experience. I never knew there were this many distinct greens, blues, blue-greens, and greenish blues. And when you swipe a bit of vermilion against them, the whole thing glows like neon. Seeing Cezannes live is a very different thing from seeing them reproduced in books.
In 1999, I got to see the great Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which gave me the rare chance to see his Blue Poles, which is normally hidden away in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
That same year, there was a great Van Gogh show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Like having the chance to see Pollock’s Blue Poles, I got to see Vincent’s iconic Wheatfield with Crows. The show as a whole was the best introduction to the artist’s growth from a clumsy, almost talentless neophyte to one of the world’s greatest painters. He wasn’t always Van Gogh, but when he became himself — the very definition of transcendence.
I’ve been to Chartres Cathedral four times, and each time was overwhelming. I’ve now been to most of the great churches of northern France. The single most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen is the north rose window at Chartres. I have sat transfixed in the south part of the crossing, staring back to the north, in total, for hours. It is a meditation or very like a prayer, if such can be said for a complete atheist.
Overall, it is music that has most provided me with this feeling: Of taking me out of myself and letting my mind expand to a size larger than mere me-ness. Of course, most of the hundreds of concerts I have attended have only provided pleasure and entertainment. But there are those that do more. I thirst for those.
In 1994, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play the Strauss Don Juan and I felt music not just through my ears, but through my whole body and being.
I’ve heard Gustavo Dudamel twice live. Once playing the Mahler First with the LA Phil, shortly after his appointment as music director. But before that, in New York with the Israel Philharmonic, playing the Tchaikovsky Fourth. That was in 2008; the Israel Phil was then an orchestra made up of older, formerly Eastern European men — bald-headed old pros who could give a polished performance under any conductor. But they played with the enthusiasm of little boys, even smiling at this bit or that as they produced the sound. After the performance, Dudamel, instead of turning and bowing to absorb the adulation of the audience, immediately danced up into the orchestra and jumped up and down with the musicians, shaking hands and pointing out soloists. I’ve never seen such a powerful effect a conductor has had on a group of musicians. They seemed to love him back.
There have been other concerts: In 2008, there was Ozvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw; in the same year, there was Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 2009, there was Nixon in China with Robert Orth in the title role. In 2010, Steven Moeckel played the Beethoven violin concerto with the Phoenix Symphony at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. I have never heard a better, more moving and detailed performance of the concerto. At least not live.
Sometimes, it is only a single work on a program. I’ve heard Itzhak Perlman I don’t know how many times. He’s a miracle; but he isn’t always completely engaged. He can give a creditable performance even half asleep — and he has been known to. But then he will redeem himself. In 2008, he gave a performance in Scottsdale. He ended the recital with his usual encore pieces and tired jokes. The same jokes over and over each concert. Perlman can be quite tiresome. And he opened with a Bach sonata, well played but nothing special. Then, as I wrote in my review:
“But then, with the Richard Strauss violin sonata, the sun shone through and the angels sang. It’s not for nothing that Perlman is a superstar. He gave us a version of the music no one else could give. Rich as butter, emotionally complex and powerful, he persuaded us that the Strauss sonata is a major piece of music, rather than B-list work by an A-list composer, which is how it’s usually ranked.
“From the opening notes the music dripped with personality, as Perlman pushed or dragged the notes just enough to create the kind of perfect phrasing that makes the music speak directly to your innards.”
It is for moments like that for which we will put up with so much less for so long.
There are two other moments I would like to mention.
The first is a concert with pianist Lang Lang. He has a bad reputation with some critics for histrionics on stage — rocking and eye-rolling — and he has on occasions played loud and fast, but without much impact, for which he has gotten the nickname “Bang Bang.” But he can also play the way he did in the slow movement of the Chopin concerto, on Oct. 24, 2008 (2008 was a very good year for me). As I wrote in the review:
“At the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, his aging hero looks out on the world with a note of satisfaction. ‘I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.’
“That is exactly how pianist Lang Lang played the slow movement of the Chopin E-minor piano concerto Sunday with the Phoenix Symphony. He lingered over it, stretching its already vague rhythmic drive down to a near halt, and stopping the audience’s breath with it.
“Each phrase seemed to pour forth spontaneously from the pianist’s fingers, followed by another seemingly thought of on the spot. No two phrases were played at the same tempo, and each tempo seemed perfectly expressive.
“It is a rare performer who can risk such an arrhythmia, and who can use it to make the music express poetry and longing, dreaming and anticipation. It was one of the best performances ever given by a soloist at Symphony Hall.”
My best moments in the concert hall has been when time completely stops and I get a glimpse of eternity — not eternity as an infinite number of moments end-to-end, but a eternity as utter timelessness. Time ceases to exist.
That has happened each time I’ve heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach cello suites. I’ve heard him several times, including doing all six in a single concert.
“Ma concluded with the sixth suite, as intense as an Aeschylan tragedy, with climaxes at the slow allemande and the even slower, deeper, more intense sarabande. Blood almost ceased moving in my veins and only started pulsing once more with the gavotte that followed, as the relief from tragedy, and a reawakening to the life of the body.
“This kind of music is why we listen to classical music: It isn’t enjoyment we are after but solace, reflection, a reconnection with the more important parts of ourselves. It brings us to the place where the deepest thought and the most profound emotion cannot be told apart; they are the same thing. It is proof that art is not merely entertainment, but food for our deepest hunger.”
There are many more such moments over the years, but I can’t mention them all. This is already too long. But, my life has been nurtured by such moments and experiences. They have made me who I am.