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May 8, 2010

Hunting the Art in Things Picasso

Soup? Art? The Dresser is thinking about Lily Tomlin's comedic play on Andy Warhol's cans of Campbell soup. When does what is ordinary cross the line and become art? On April 29, 2010, the Dresser saw Kate Moira Ryan's Bass for Picasso and on May 1, 2010, she saw the exhibition of Picasso's artworks that were selected from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both shows had points of artistic engagement but neither achieves artistic perfection.


BassPicasso272_CRoseggTable.jpgBass for Picasso, which runs at New York City's Theatre Row's Kirk Theatre until May 23, highlights a dinner party given by a food critic. The focus of the meal is a whole fish prepared according to a recipe by Alice B. Toklas, the woman who for most of Gertrude Stein's adult life prepared the majority of the great Modernist's meals. The guests and chef in Ryan's play are all Lesbian or gay and they are all in crisis over the partners they have or once had.

Domesticity, not the high life of excess, stays front and center with the visible players. The Dresser says visible because there are sexually precocious children of the food critic Francesca (played by Anita Hollander) and her partner Pilar (Felice Neals) (the children play upstairs out of sight with things like nipple clamps) and the drug-addicted partner of a doctor named Joe. Joe and his partner are supposed to be present at the dinner party, but only Joe makes it to the table.

Central to the story are the friends Kev (Terry Small) and Bricka (Mary Theresa Archbold) who are the first guests to arrive. Kev who is a playwright has a drinking problem. Bricka, as a new widow with a small child, has "in-law" problems. The in-laws want custody of the child their deceased daughter bore. Kev was once Joe's partner and the audience learns slowly that Kev has not come to closure with Joe. Bricka's partner had had an affair with Pilar. Once Bricka realizes who Pilar is, Bricka wants to cause trouble between Pilar and Francesca by seducing Pilar. To further complicate the story, Kev and Bricka seem to be sexually attracted to each other.


Out of this soup of characters and situations, what makes this dark comedy worth digesting and whose story is this? The Dresser was impressed with the flinty light that emanated from Anita Hollander. BassPicasso306_CRoseggLeg.jpgShe plays the food critic who has only one leg to stand on. The other leg, which she removes to menace her unfaithful partner Pilar, is artificial. Yes, Anita Hollander is an amputee who does not hold back. Despite the title that links the food critic and her partner who is an art detective (she authenticates artworks), the story does not belong to them. By the end of the play, the Dresser realized that this is the story of Kev, Bricka, and Joe. They are not only linked by past relationships but also by the play Kev has written at their expense. Did Kate Moira Ryan mean to keep this a secret or did the playwright lose control of her characters?

There are plenty of whacky lines and situations to make Bass for Picasso work better than it does, but only if the director (who in this production is Ike Schambeian, the artistic director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers) had made it possible for these able actors to rise to the campiest kinds of behavior. Felice Neals as Pilar gets the closest to this kind of acting style and the Dresser could imagine her walking out of Picasso's portrait of a man with a lollipop, one of the more striking pieces in the Met's current Picasso exhibition. man with lolipop web.jpg



One perverse thought the Dresser had after going through the five rooms of Picassos at the Met was that playwright Kate Moira Ryan and director Ike Schambeian might have benefited from seeing this Picasso exhibit which included "The Blind Man's Meal" (a well known work from Picasso's Blue Period), an illustrated get-well letter from Picasso to Surrealist Jean Cocteau, and a large brass arm that might have been used as an oversized door knocker. However, a visitor to this exhibition also has to understand that the Met has many drawings that don't add up to more than idle doodles from the master who at the end of his life produced multiple drawings every day. Ok, give the Dresser a black eye, but she believes that even Picasso could not mass produce art.

Talking about perversion, Ryan made sure to emphasize what Picasso said to Alice Toklas after she presented her highly decorated cooked fish to him. After exclaiming how beautiful the fish looked, he said that she should have presented the decorated bass to Matisse and not him. In other words, her artful fish spoke more to Matisse's style than to Picasso's. With the title Bass for Picasso and the emphasis on a misdirected presentation to the wrong artist, the Dresser wonders what playwright Ryan meant to say. Was it that the guests weren't worthy of the meal? This seems too simplistic. Was it that the guests didn't recognize what was artful? For example, Kev incorporates the mishaps of Joe and Bricka into his play, much to their horror. Of course this begs the question about what is fair game in the attempt to create art and how do events from every day life and its tragedies move to a higher plane of reality?

So again what is the difference between what is ordinary (soup) versus something that transcends (art)? The Dresser thinks art is all about how things are put together and what sense can be made of the juxtapositions.

Barbara Crooker in her poem "Vol de Nuit/ Night Flight" explores how ordinary things can be transformed.


Now, isn't that more elegant than
taking the Red-Eye?
And don't you love it when the flight attendant
(Remember when she used to be a stewardess?
When everything matched her uniform,
even her luggage, and her makeup was heavy
and impeccable?) hands out pillows, blankets
soft as babies' dreams, eye masks,
ear plugs--everything Mother would do
but tuck you in and read you a story.
Or maybe she does--think of the fable
she recites at the beginning of the flight.
Or did you think it was true, that oxygen
miraculously drops from above,if the cabin
pressure fails? That your seat cushion becomes
a life preserver if you fall into the black night
of the North Atlantic? That emergency lights
will twinkle and glow, illuminate your path
to the exit chute, little constellations of hope?
Never mind. Relax into your backrest
of many positions. Enjoy the multi-course
many-sectioned meal brought to you hot,
without a kitchen in sight. Hear the tinkle
of the cart as she progresses down the aisle,
those cunning little bottles. Put on your headset,
find the channel with jazz or blues, unscrew
the metal top, sip your red, and voilà,
you're in Paris already, hours ahead of time.
So the pâté and camembert come in tin foil,
and the roll's hard as an iceberg. Thousands
of miles are rushing under your feet
beneath these silver wings. Soon,
you'll be racing the dawn, as morning throws
her rosy covers over the sky. Briôches,
café au lait, croissants and café noir will roll
down the aisles. You'll begin your long descent
from the land of the clouds. Things
may have shifted overhead. Everyone is speaking
in tongues, and none of them are yours.
You must go to le contrôle de passeports,
and you will need to declare: business
or pleasure. Someone is meeting you
at the gate; he's carrying a baguette
and a single red rose, knows the minute
your plane touches the tarmac.
Now you have reclaimed your luggage,
passed through customs, and entered
the terminal, where the rest
of your life is waiting.

by Barbara Crooker
from Line Dance

Copyright © 2008 Barbara Crooker

First two photos by Carol Rosegg from Bass for Picasso

Photo #1: (l-r): Mary Theresa Archbold as Bricka, Terry Small as Kev,
Nicholas Viselli as Joe, Felice Neals as Pilar, and Anita Hollander as

Photo #2: Anita Hollander (left) as Francesca and Felice Neals (right) as Pilar

May 18, 2010

Scored with Serranos and Limes: A Master Class

Here the Dresser presents herself as a student and not a reviewer.

Supko.jpgOn May 15, 2010, composer John Supko and the percussionists Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins of the Meehan/Perkins Duo provided critique to the Levine School of Music composition students of Frances Thompson McKay.duo.jpg The event was funded in part by grants from the D. C. Commission on the Arts and the Randy Hostetler Living Room Music Foundation as well as sponsors of the Meehan/Perkins Duo including Vic Firth Sticks and Mallets, Black Swamp Percussion, and Pearl/Adams Musical Instruments. The Dresser will say, despite the non-review disclaimer of this essay, that the master class concert offered a remarkable set of compositions with accomplished performers.

SupkoSpeaks.jpgLevine School students and faculty played seven works by seven composition students. All of the compositions included percussion. The Dresser will discussion what she learned following the order of composition presentation.

Fantasy for Percussion and Piano by M. C. Starr
In this composition, the piano has a conversation with timpani drums with a few comments from the snare. What is particularly interesting about what Mr. Starr does in this work is that occasionally the pitches achieved by the timpani blend with piano chords. John Supko phrased this as "pitch material of the timpani melds with the piano chords." One of the problems of this piece was how to contain the timpani so it would not overwhelm the piano. Mr. Starr said he had considered using rototoms, tune-able drums that have no shell and are not as loud as the timpani. Supko said he preferred the "Cadillac sound" of the timpani but thought the snares did not enhance the work. Todd Meehan suggested that the timpani drums need to be placed not in front of the piano but to one side so that a better balance of sound could be achieved. Meehan also said that between the pianist and timpanist, a "flexible leadership" needed to be established.

Black Line for snare drums by Aaron Burger
Supko noted the challenge in writing a solo composition for the snare drum. He asked the composer, who was also the performer, if he could "push the rhythmic language of this piece" so that the vocabulary could be larger. Supko suggested going for a mysterious sound that would include softer dynamics that might be made by also using a brush. "How about making one end the stick and the other the brush?" In the conversation between Supko and Burger, the Dresser also realized how inventive the title is. The title refers to a subway line colored black and therefore the composer, a graduating high school senior, was actually giving himself an unusual terrain to explore--was there something dark, sinister, mysterious about the transportation experienced on this line?

Bells for bowed psaltery and percussion by Nicholas Turnbull
At age 13, composer Nick Turnbull collects stringed instruments. Among his collection is a compact zither-like instrument called the psaltery, which he played for the performance of "Bells." To the Dresser, the piece seemed like a medieval folk tune. Supko while taken with the sound of the psaltery urged the composer to use the instrument as a "straight forward melodic agent versus using it to create atmospheric sound."psaltery.jpg

Fantasy in F-sharp Minor by Michael Yue
(for violin, cello, percussion, and piano)
"Full stick on the grand," professor McKay suggested as the instruments were being positioned for this composition. This was in contrast to Starr's "Fantasy for Percussion and Piano" where the lid of the grand piano was only opened halfway when it needed full volume to balance sound with the percussion. And from the fully exposed piano harp, the Dresser could hear the fluid arpeggios. The music was Romantic in flavor and heavy with emotional content that was unexpectedly complex. The Dresser reread the composer's bio several times. A sixth grader and yes, he looked like an elementary school boy, not even old enough for middle school. Supko cautiously queried, "Have you heard of a minor Neapolitan or a Neapolitan chord because that is what you are doing with some of the chords? The minor Neapolitan chord is something Eric Satie often used and it's a rather sophisticated harmony." No, Master Yue was not familiar with the term. Supko was impressed at the doubling between piano and vibraphone and how the "notes are glittering like stars in the sky." The Dresser thought the string instruments and piano represented Western classical music in this composition while the vibraphones leaned East. After the concert, she spoke with the composer who said that he had travelled to Taiwan and yes, his Chinese background came out in the vibraphones. Yue.jpg

Trio Sonata for flute, cello, percussion, and piano by Jules Metcalf-Burton
Supko said something about this composer's composition reminded him of the "idiosyncratic music" of Franco Donatoni. The Dresser isn't familiar with Donatoni but has learned in her Internet search that he worked with the 12-tone scale, which is also what this home-schooled high school junior was doing. The Dresser found the exchange between the flute and violin satisfyingly engaging. One unusual thing is the bowing of the vibraphone. This accent was performed not by the percussion who was busy with the timpani but by the composer. One suggestion was that the violinist might be able to perform that part of the composition but certainly not with the violin bow. Supko also pointed out that the title of the work was misleading since a sonata is a multi-movement work and this was not.

Three Short Pieces for Vibraphone and Piano by Ben Gunby
The consensus from Supko and the Meehan-Perkins Duo was that this delicate and sophisticated work begged for more music. The composer, a sophomore at a DC private school, said he would think about expanding the piece.

Streams for oboe, clarinet, percussion, violin and cello by Steve Messner
Supko characterized this sophisticated composition as having a Steve Reich attitude.

In Cliff Bernier's "Estero Beach," the poet captures the musical voice of nature and how an artist consumes, digests, and writes that down. The poem is an apt homage to this extraordinary master class at the Levine School.

Estero Beach

The voice of the palm fronds
draws its breath from the surf,
the measured exhalations
of waves on Estero Beach,
the cathedral of coconuts
on its bank, cantatas
scored with serranos and limes.
Julio translates the voice
with the nib of a pen
from a chair in a cantina,
the loops of his l's and t's
the stems of olives and figs,
his lyric Tequila
in a shot glass.
Eucalyptus and jacaranda
whisper the rolled r's
of the tide in his ears,
the generations,
the prayer of the surf
hymned by paisanos.
Julio pauses to listen to the voice,
and notes in the layered
rosary of leaves
that compose the pastorals
of the evening
the ascending breeze in the cantina,
the lines on his page,
the tortilla o's of the moon.

by Cliff Bernier
from Earth Suite

Copyright © 2010 Cliff Bernier

About May 2010

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in May 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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