In Situ, Ex Situ

September 20, 2008

One of the positive developments I’ve been in a position to observe during recent decades has been the increased attention to context in music-making. This has been true in both performance and scholarship. We are having more and more thoughtful programming outside the strait-jacket that a concert hall can become, and the seminars I attended on music in 18th-century urban Europe with musicologist Barry Brook and sociologist Rolf Meyerson in the ’70s were only the vanguard of a musico-sociological wave to come.

I also spent a couple of happy years in a small Mediterranean town that rejoiced in the possession of two of the most highly-regarded paintings of El Greco. They were hanging in a room that jutted out over the sea — the windows commonly open to the salt air and droplets from the pounding surf below, no doubt. None of your scientific conservation going on here. I always remember one of the paintings hanging over the stairs in random light, according to the time of day. But somehow I saw both works in a more engaged way than I would have in one of our great museums to which they have been sometimes lent for blockbuster shows.

Last night, I was at a party in a New York institution (what had been a famous men’s club when such things, and the dodo bird, existed). This still-active club has had a large number of eminent artists among its members, many of whom not unnaturally have works hanging on the tall walls of the wonderful 19th-century rooms, designed by one of its most celebrated members. Of course the management is not unmindful of a responsibility toward such treasures and employs an unobtrusive conservatorship, and true connoisseurship of a non-preening sort. Having been impressed with the collection and its display on other visits, I took time last night to walk around the walls a little more attentively than I had before.

Having universally-recognized names like John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer mixed in with the now-less-familiar likes of Thomas Worthington Whittredge has its resemblance to conventional concert programming. But I couldn’t help thinking also of the “thematic” programming that symphony orchestras (and art galleries too, come to think of it) now use to invigorate their publics when I saw that Whittredge’s paintings were watched over by an above-the-fireplace portrait of the man himself by John White Alexander and a bust of him by Samuel Longstreth Parrish. It’s a happy thing to be able to spend a few moments in the company of those men’s works — once so lionized –, who probably sat around that very fireplace together in life. A portrait of Henry James will always hold interest for many. But a portrait of him by John Lafarge of the many heroic murals in landmark buildings, who was in fact an indispensable influence on both James brothers? That was worth absorbing indeed.

So, while one of the best pianists I know of played Gershwin and Berlin on an exquisite Steinway or a famous tenor melted hearts with romantic lyrics, men in frock coats looked down from the walls with endless paintings of the very Hudson river scenes that had seen the victimized Indian depart, the ambitious Dutchman arrive, and the weekender’s gentrification carry all before it, I couldn’t help thinking about the meanings of context — of El Greco above medieval stairs in Sitges, of New York music in a New York room, before the limned faces of New York cultural worthies, while women in velvet and men in black tie talked about an African American Presidential candidate and a puzzling woman who suddenly burst out of nowhere — that is to say, Alaska — and what either of them might mean to a beleaguered Wall Street. And of the new opera and concert season that opens next week in our most gilded venues: what contexts will it produce? And what of the burgeoning alternatives like Le Poisson Rouge or the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the proliferating summer fringe events, the guerrilla opera companies, the altered fortunes of the Miller Theatre, and those so fearless as not to care about segregating styles or creating a conventional “concert atmosphere”?

And what of the music that goes on everywhere without much regard to any of that?

It really isn’t in all respects a bad time to be alive, while watching and listening.

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