Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Peek at "Album Amicorum"

I was at the Business of Art Center yesterday to meet the new director, Patty Arnold (who seems very competent, btw - more about her later) and took a quick peek at "Album Amicorum: Gems of Friendship in a Frightened World," the international paper marbling show that opens Friday.

Briefly, it's stunning: Colorful, hypnotic, and enchanting.

The text hadn't been installed yet, but its absence only highlighted what an international medium marbling is. It was rare that you could tell whether the artist was American, German, Japanese, or Turkish.

Marbling is also a gentle reminder that abstraction is nothing new or necessarily modern in art. Artists have been fascinated by the swirling, repetitive patterns of marbling for over 500 years.

There will be a preview in Friday's "Go!" But to appreciate this work, you have to see it live and up close.

The opening is 5-8 p.m. on Friday at the Business of Art Center, 513 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs.

Image by Brazilian artist Renato Crepaldi

The MAT breaks out

I couldn't talk my kids into joining me for the Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration's Aesop's Fables.

Because I'm a judge on the Pikes Peak Arts Council theater category, I'm trying to see every local show produced. Man, there are a lot of shows.

I tried not to feel like a perv here, being the only adult at the show without kids.

But the show was well worth it, even for adults. Jim Jackson and Birgitta De Pree, the brilliant clowns behind the Manitou Art Theater, merged the stories from Aesop with their great circus schtick.

Naturally, there was juggling, balancing and Jim's favorite illusion: in which he straddles a mirror to give the appearance that both legs are off the ground and he's flying. It looks even better when Birgitta joins in.

I thought the best gag was during the story about how sticks are stronger in a bundle than they are separately. But, as we learn by the sound effects off stage, even the bundle can't hold up to a chain saw.

Jim and Birgitta have created a fun, if not-quite seamless, kids' show that with a little minor tweaking, could be a popular road vehicle.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Margaret Miller and Arnold Bax

Margaret is giving a viola recital at the Louisa Performing Arts Center today (Thursday), in which she'll be joined by Jeri Jorgensen on violin, Paul Nagem on flute, Sara McDaniel on piano, and, um, me. (I feel like the obvious answer to the question, "which one doesn't belong?")

I'm joining Margaret for the first movement of Arnold Bax's Sonata for Viola and Piano. It's an interesting piece, and I'm grateful to have had an opportunity to learn it.

Grossly oversimplified, most music that doesn't make it into the canon of accepted masterpieces is insufficiently worked out. The Gottschalks and Moszkowskis of the world sometimes have ideas on a par with Beethoven and Brahms; they just don't get as much out of them.

The Bax Sonata doesn't fit this pattern. If anything, Bax crams too much into it. He's continually altering and developing his themes, sometimes in extremely subtle ways. Near the end, for instance, the piano has a descending E-flat, D-flat, B, pungently harmonized over a sustained G; Bax immediately repeats the melodic motif a half-step higher, similarly harmonized over the same G. It serves a musical purpose, as Bax is preparing for a radiantly major ending, but few in the audience will notice the change in pitches.

Harmonically, it's extremely heterogeneous, alternating English modal harmonies, scraps of Debussy-like Impressionism, chains of chromatically altered secondary dominants, and even a few bars that wouldn't sound out of place in the Berg sonata. Sometimes he tries to reconcile them, as in the second statement of the second theme, in which a few extraneous chromatic chords in the piano part disturb the diatonic lyricism. Other times he just butts one harmonic system up against another without so much as a how-do-you-do.

The piece was written in 1923, and audiences of that period probably found this lack of harmonic unity more disturbing than today's audiences. In this respect it contains a streak of post-modernism lacking in that era's avant-garde productions. For instance, while Copland's 1930 Piano Variations are much more dissonant and modern-sounding than the Bax, I could tell within a week of starting to learn them when I was hitting a wrong note: It's that tightly written. With the Bax, I was goggling myopically at the music for a month, trying to figure out the harmonies.

The form is also interesting in a non-groundbreaking way. The sonata form is traditional; the proportions, anything but. The exposition is leisurely - more than half the movement, much of it consisting of a strangely repetitive transition to the second theme. The development is short, as are the extremely compressed recapitulation and coda. (The recapitulation begins in the wrong key - or actually, in no key at all, as the main theme returns in a whole-tone variant.) The intensity builds naturally with the compression.

It's an odd piece, but I love it, both for its gorgeous melodic material and for the imagination with which Bax treats it. And I admire Bax's courage in keeping it truly a viola sonata. Composers of chamber music sometimes succumb to a misplaced sense of fairness - one instrument played the theme, so the other(s) should get their chance - but Bax will have none of this. The themes are lyrical, and the viola is the more lyrical instrument, so that's where he concentrates the melodic interest. The piano part is difficult and intricately written, but I don't even play some of the themes.

Margaret plays the piece beautifully, and shares enough of my enthusiasm that we're going to at least attempt to learn the other two movements - a demonically difficult scherzo and a bleak, dissonant slow finale which turns consoling only at the last moment.

The concert is part of the Thursday Night Recital Series. The Louisa Center is located at the Colorado Springs School, 21 Broadmoor Avenue. (You can see a map at Tickets are $15 adults/$10 seniors; call 475-9747 for more information.