April 18th, 2016

Early Music Now, “Constantinople: Paths to the Summit”

On Saturday afternoon, March 19th, we went to the Zelazo Center on the UW-Milwaukee campus for Early Music Now’s presentation, “Paths to the Summit,” by the group Constantinople.

Founded in 1998 in Quebec by brothers Kiya and Ziya Tabassian, Iranian expatriates, the group has evolved a reptoire including unique examples of long-lost early Persian music rediscovered through years of digging though libraries and archives across the world.

The afternoon’s ensemble included Kiva Tabassian, playing the setar; Sepideh Raissadat, vocals; Didem Basar, kanun; Patrick Graham, percussion; Mavrothi Kontanis, oud; and Pierre Yves-Martel, viola da gamba.

The setar might be a relative of the Indian sitar, with some similarities of tone, but they are very different instruments. The setar is a small instrument, about three feet long overall, with a small gourd-shaped soundbox. It has four strings, and is plucked with the index finger. I was interested in the way Mr. Tabassian held the instrument, with the fretboard and sound hole facing down, so that his hand was underneath it. The kanun is a lap-harp/zither, shaped like a large auto-harp, but without the chord bars. It is played by striking the strings with the fingertips. The oud is a twelve-stringed fretless cousin to the lute.

The pieces presented in “Paths to the Summit” were found in manuscripts dated from the 16th to 18th Centuries, and were written in the maqam system of modes, which was generally supplanted by a system of modes called dastgah in the 19th Century. The maqam modes use complex, cyclic rhythms that were abandoned in the dastgah system.

Being modal, rather than using western scales, the music has a very distinctive sound, and the repeating motifs make it very hypnotic. The vocals by Ms. Raissadat demonstrated that the musical style favors the lower female voice, with bluesy-sounding half-tones and micro-tones that we hear echoes of in Arabic and Egyptian music, and in the Moorish influences in tango and fado singing.

This was a fascinating concert to attend, with much beautiful music that was totally new to us.

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The Lady in the Van

Sunday, March 20th, we went to the Downer Theater to see “The Lady in the Van,” the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s quirky memoire covering the fifteen years that he had “Miss Shepherd” living in her increasingly dilapidated van in the driveway of his Camden Town, London, house.

Bennett is played with amused British low-keyed-ness (an ongoing topic of conversation in the movie) by Alex Jennings, and Miss Shepherd of course is Dame Maggie Smith, playing a role that’s not as far from the Dowager Countess of Grantham as you might initially expect.
“Miss Shepherd” is a bundle of contradictions. As an aging homeless woman partly dependent on the tolerance of others, she is wheedling, insinuating, and needy. However, she can also be imperious, rude, and ungrateful. Some of these are artifacts of her troubled past, but some are just her own crotchety character. Having known some individuals with “issues” ourselves, Georgie and I found the portrayal very creditable.

We never find out her entire story but do get enough bits to piece together her real name, and revelations about her relationships with music, the Catholic Church, mental health, and the police.
The piece is very much a tour de force for Dame Maggie, who claims by right every scene she is in, but Jennings very ably holds his own, especially given the script which allows him to literally talk to himself, as well as to the audience, a trademark of author Bennett’s plays.

It’s a very unusual story, particularly by American standards. Miss Shepherd survives not only on Bennett’s forbearance, but also on the bemused tolerance of the “liberal” people of Camden Town. Their willingness to allow the usually dirty and sometimes frightening old woman to squat among them passeth all understanding, save that the British tend to love their eccentrics. In America, at least one neighbor would have had police, lawyers, zoning, and health authorities thundering down on Bennett’s head.

Dame Maggie is worth the price of admission alone, but Jennings’ wry and understated performance is a pleasure, and they are supported by a comfortable and entertaining cast of faces familiar from British TV and film.

The ending is unexpectedly upbeat, but, as Bennett discussed (with Miss Shepherd, and with himself) there would come a point at which he could write whatever he wanted—so he did.

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Milwaukee Art Museum, “Nature and the American Vision”

On Sunday, March 27th, we went to see the exhibition “Nature and the American Vision,” at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This exhibition features masterpieces from the New-York Historical Society’s acclaimed collection of landscape paintings. The exhibition charts the emergence of the Hudson River School, considered the nation’s first original aesthetic movement.

Although the collective art works produced are often referred to as being of “the Hudson River School,” there was much more going on than just a “school” of painting. Writers and poets contributed to the movement, and many of the painters wrote extensively about the artistic, philosophical, and spiritual groundings of the ideas.

The school in particular sought to evolve a uniquely American vision and aesthetic based upon the observation, study, and recording of the American landscape. In part, the paintings preserve the unspoiled and fabulous wildness of America’s vast expanse, not just in the Hudson River Valley, but all up and down the East Coast, as far west as Yosemite, and into South America.

The founding artists of the movement, such as Thomas Cole, were born and trained in Europe, and brought polished technique and attention to fine detail to their often panoramic paintings. Later, Hudson Valley School artists traveled to Europe and applied their practice to creating expansive views of the Old World.

This exhibition was fascinating, in part because it preserves color views of landscapes since vastly changed. We do not, these days, think of New Jersey as a rural Arcadia, but many of the New York-based painters went afield there to find the pastoral and wilderness settings they sought. It’s interesting to see pre-photograph depictions of Niagara Falls, knowing how much erosion has changed the shape of the Falls in the decades that have passed. The paintings are in themselves beautiful, but perhaps they have their greatest value in preserving the vision of a land that was to the artists’ eyes, shining and full of promise.

“Nature and the American Vision” continues at the Milwaukee Art Museum through May 8th.


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