THE BLOG
11/06/2013 02:26 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Butterfly, Bach and Breasts in the Windy City - Part I

I was recently in Chicago for a weekend, passing through from engagement to engagement. I love Chicago for its arts and culture, architecture and the compact and walkable downtown arts area.

This time I stayed at a fine hotel only a block or so from most of my destinations. The Palmer House Hilton is old and venerable. On its walls are photos of luminaries who have graced it with their presence -- Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, George Burns -- well, you get the idea. While a number of years ago it underwent a significant remodel, there is still the whiff of age in the air. Its entrance on the outside is light with many small pink light bulbs, a peculiarity it seems that gives it the feel of a movie house entrance -- it feels just a tad tacky. There is insipid pop music that plays over loudspeakers to get you in the mood -- for what? In the large foyer area on the second floor where registration resides, is a bar and restaurant, again with bad pop playing. This music follows you in the elevators but finally stops when you hit your floor. We seem to be a culture now that can no longer abide listening to its own thoughts, but must always be anesthetized by omnipresent bad soundscapes. It is quite trying for those of us with sensitive ears.

I attended performances of the Lyric Opera, Andras Schiff and visited the Art Institute.

The Lyric was performing Madame Butterfly, a work I have seen previously on numerous occasions. The Lyric is a beautiful and spacious house and I tried a seat in the upper balcony. The production was lean, clean and elegant-Japanese minimalist. The voices were generally good, if lacking in a bit of strength and just not quite emotionally rich enough. The orchestral playing was superb, both vivid and expressive. I spent much of my time trying to capture the relationship between the vocal and emotional demands of the libretto and the orchestral support Puccini provides-his decisions to be lean or thick in orchestration, where to leave the voice bare and on its own, and how he wove in and out of his quotations of the Star-Spangled Banner. While Butterfly waits for Pinkerton to finally arrive, the middle part of the stage did a 360 degree turn. As it creaked and groaned, of course interfering with the apprehending of the music, I couldn't help but ponder why directors of operas now feel compelled to provide worthless gadgetry at huge expense that mostly doesn't work and interferes with the music. Do we really need a very low rent version of the helicopter in Miss Saigon? They would be good to remember that production values on Broadway hide a paucity of musical substance which shouldn't be the case in the opera world, unless of course, they no longer have faith in the quality of the music they present. For opera should be foremost about the music and the words, with everything else decidedly secondary.

Andras Schiff performed a concert including Bach's Partitas 1-6. It was a bravura performance, with Schiff displaying crystalline touch, balances and weightings of perfection and lines that unfolded perfectly. He took little time between movements to emphasize overall structure and the relationship between movements, and as is his won't, does not use any pedal. So why could I not partake of this concert in utter enjoyment, being in the presence of one of the greatest composers and greatest performers for almost three hours? I am not a completist, and thus I find this kind of programming to be so monochromatic that each piece sadly detracts from the others, rather than giving us pleasure and thought. No matter how great the music is, none is set off from the other. Could one eat a meal of only the world's finest chocolate? Wouldn't a little salad and fish be welcomed? And lastly, wouldn't it be nice if an artist of this stature and quality played just a little music of his own time, if only now and then? Mr. Schiff has taken a position on the ugly politics in his native Hungary for which I applaud him. But in his own professional life he apparently concludes that living in a sainted past is just fine. This is too bad, as music needs his voice in this regard as well.

On any visit to Chicago I try to visit the Art Institute. I greatly enjoy reviewing their remarkable collection of Monet, Vaillard, van Gogh, Renoir, Gauguin and Seurat, among many others. This time I was also entranced by Chagall's windows, with their rich deep blue hue and Hebrew lettering drifting into abstract shape; their simple figures floating off into space, suggesting perhaps a yearning to combat gravity and fly off to a better place closer to God.

After visiting Hartley and Dove, two of my American favorites, I went off to the nearby Modern Wing, as always, hoping for great things. I went into the exhibition by Monika Baer. Her work is all over the place: a bit of old time geometric abstraction in rather dirty and drab colors; a presentation of a man with a hole in the canvas next to him revealing the wood of the frame; other canvases that aren't completely stretched, and those aforementioned breasts. These breasts are not alluring or aesthetic. They are your every day working breasts, often shown with milk having spurted out, sometimes shown in slices. They are somewhat cartoon-like and tedious. Then I picked up the brochure on the show penned by one Lisa Gorin, a guest curator:

Painting today frequently seems lost in convention..... however they (the paintings) form a sphere of mythological, political, individual, and social expectations and experiences...painting--offers a highly referential symbolic form...Baer's work, by oscillating between literal and referential meaning, investigates this intersection, negotiating the possibilities of painting as a complex artistic language.

And that is all from the first paragraph! It goes downhill from there, exploring every academic cliché and using every new art buzz word, and low and behold, saying absolutely nothing of import. In the penultimate paragraph, Gorin says that Baer's view is "that it is not necessary to say anything in particular; in her work, significant statement exists apart from concrete meaning." That does about say it all -- the La-di-da and Whatever, or the Idea-less generation and its minions hit the Art Institute. I will hope for better next time.

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