Category Archives: Arts and Music

Celebrating Cultures

In the past forty years several of America’s largest cities have made or renewed a commitment to support public art and performance, whether by creating new spaces or by adapting existing venues. Public art (or civic art) is seen as a vital component for enhancing urban life and contributing to a healthy community by providing residents with a commonality of experience.

This installment of the Helen Edison Lecture series brings together three innovative curators who have created change-making public arts programming in Houston and Los Angeles. Moderator Jonathon Glus, Director of City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, leads the panel in discussing their mission to boost government and audience engagement, as well as some of the practical considerations and implications – financial, logistical, political – of contemporary arts production/presentation in high-volume public spaces.

Marc Pally, Independent Curator based in Los Angeles, discusses the Santa Monica Glow Festival, a dusk-to-dawn arts event on the beachfront which attracted over 150,00 people in 2008, 2010 and 2013. Susanne Theis, Program Director of Houston’s Discovery Green Urban Park, outlines the history and purpose of the 12-acre park in the heart of downtown Houston, which opened in 2008. Karen Farber, Executive Director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, discusses her organization’s interdisciplinary collaboration with the University of Houston in inviting leading artists and creative thinks to the UH campus for workshops, public presentations, exhibitions, and performances.

Though differing in the nature and scope of their activities, the three curators share a common commitment to public art and performance as a unifying force in increasingly diverse communities. They extol the benefits of investment in civic art as including:

• Economic growth and sustainability
• Attachment and cultural identity
• Artists as contributors to society and the local economy
• Social cohesion and cultural understanding

The curators hope their experiences will encourage other towns and cities to explore and celebrate their own local cultures.

Watch — Contemporary Art and Performance in Public Spaces

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The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew

The 2019 edition of UC San Diego Geisel Library’s “Dinner in the Library” series celebrates new acquisitions from the estate of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, most of which have never before been exhibited publicly. The Library’s Special Collections already houses over 20,000 items related to Geisel, including sketches, paintings, cartoons, letters, and manuscripts, and these new arrivals will further enhance its status as the world’s premiere repository of Seuss miscellany.

University Librarian Erik Mitchell welcomes a distinguished panel to discuss their reactions to the unveiling of Geisel’s “private art.” Seth Lerer, moderator and Distinguished Professor of Literature at UC San Diego, traces the development of Geisel’s stylistic vocabulary though doodles and rough sketches not intended for publication, and invites fellow panelists and the audience to consider the proper placement of these works within Geisel’s larger oeuvre. Rob Sidner, Executive Director of the Mingei International Museum, notes that many of the new acquisitions were exhibited in Geisel’s home and speculates on their personal significance to the artist. Mary Beebe, Director of the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego, discusses Geisel’s acrylic paintings on display, noting they are uncharacteristic of Geisel and yet valuable for that reason. Beebe also cites Geisel’s delight in wordplay as a consistent feature of his work.

Other topics featured in this wide-ranging discussion include the challenges of exposure to a hitherto-unknown facet of an artist’s work, influences on Geisel’s development such as theatre and Surrealism (most notably Salvador Dali), the underlying social commentary in many of Geisel’s cartoons and books, his frequent portrayals of “sympathetic monsters,” and the importance of acknowledging that, in Seth Lerer’s words, “not everything in this collection is happy or funny; some of it is in fact quite dark.”

Theodor Geisel famously maintained that he wrote his books for adults, and that their adoption as beloved icons of children’s literature was a fortunate happenstance. The new additions to the Geisel Library’s Special Collections contribute to a fuller portrait of this complex and prolific artist, one possessed of considerable skills whose range of styles and thematic concerns is greater than previously appreciated.

Watch — The Private Art of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel – Dinner in the Library 2019

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War and Reflection

June 2019 marks the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I after five years of brutal conflict. In recognition of this epochal event La Jolla Symphony & Chorus’ 64th season, “Lineage: A Memory Project,” draws to a fitting conclusion with a program built around the composers and soldiers of the Great War.

Like most French composers Maurice Ravel was suspicious of German music, with one exception: he was an unabashed fan of the waltz. In “La Valse” Ravel develops surprising themes and variations on the distinctive waltz rhythm, and the result is one of the best examples of Ravel’s keen ear for instrumental colors and textures.

Charles Ives’ “From Hanover Square North…” commemorates the sinking of the British liner Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915. That moment when Ives and his fellow commuters heard the news on a Manhattan subway platform became the inspiration for his composition, but in typically idiosyncratic fashion Ives didn’t render the scene realistically; rather, it was the starting point for a musical meditation in which Ives registered the emotional impact of what he had witnessed.

Originally written as the second (slow) movement of a string quartet, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” became one of the most popular symphonic works of the 20th century in its orchestral arrangement. The solemnity of the Adagio led to its frequent use as mourning music, much to Barber’s dismay since it was not his intention to write a requiem. Whatever its unintentional cultural accretions, Barber’s melody is still both beautiful and powerful after countless hearings.

Commissioned in 1936 to compose a large-scale piece for a choral society’s centenary celebration, Ralph Vaughan Williams instead wrote for them a cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus, and orchestra entitled “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Give Us Peace”) – and it was anything but a celebration piece. This cantata was a protest against war and a heartfelt cry for peace at a time of growing international tension. Sadly, three years later Vaughan Williams’ worst fears would be realized.

Like the Lake Poets, George Butterworth’s works grew directly out of his contact with the English countryside. This is exemplified by “The Banks of Green Willow” with its evocation of pastoral life in all its idealized simplicity and tranquility; indeed, the composer characterized it as an “idyll.” As was common in his music Butterworth based this piece on several old English folk melodies, creating a series of brief fantasias on each of the themes before drawing to a peaceful conclusion.

Watch — Remembrance of Things Past – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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The Little Symphony in F

“Light-hearted” is not a word one normally applies to works by Ludwig van Beethoven, but it perfectly suits his Symphony No. 8. Falling between the exultant Seventh and the monumental Ninth, Beethoven’s “little symphony in F” seems out of place. It is the shortest of his symphonies and the one that most closely follows standard classical practice as developed by Haydn and Mozart (at least until the surprising fourth movement). For the attentive listener, beneath its genial surface the nimble Eighth abounds in unusual sounds, intentional “wrong” notes, catastrophes cleverly avoided, and other musical jokes, revealing a side of the composer rarely on display in his oeuvre.

The Eighth’s joviality is all the more remarkable considering the circumstances of Beethoven’s life surrounding its composition. Beethoven was grappling with profound deafness, legal battles with his sister-in-law, financial issues, a turbulent relationship with his nephew Karl, and unrequited love (for the mysterious “Immortal Beloved”). Yet, there is no trace of these travails in the Eighth; rather the music finds its composer in a good-humored and expansive mood. The piece is energetic – it has no slow movement – but never aggressive or overbearing. However knockabout the symphony seems at times (deliberately so) Beethoven is always firmly in command of his craft, and the high spirits are leavened with beautifully lyrical passages.

Beethoven wrote both the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies in quick succession in 1812, but while the Seventh was immediately proclaimed a masterpiece, the Eighth was met with indifference. According to contemporaries the composer was greatly annoyed by this reaction, insisting that the Eighth was the better symphony. Over time many critics and conductors have come to agree with Beethoven’s assessment, and the Eighth’s reputation continues to grow. Whatever its merits for professional musicians and for critics, for listeners one attraction emerges supreme: Symphony No. 8 is, quite simply, a lot of fun. One gets the sense that Beethoven relaxed from his normal preoccupation with posterity and was enjoying himself, encouraging performers and audience to do the same.

Watch Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Contrast and Concordance

In his program notes for the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus concert entitled “Bernstein Centennial,” conductor Steven Schick notes that:

At first glance, this concert program seems like a straightforward juxtaposition of light and dark: we have Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent Kaddish —his prayer for the dead— and, on the other hand, Beethoven’s genial Eighth Symphony. Tying them together— metaphorically if not musically—is Laurie San Martin’s evocatively titled, nights bright days.

As is the case with other concerts in the Symphony’s 2018/2019 “Lineage” season, those juxtapositions are more complex than is evident at first encounter.

Leonard Bernstein’s Third Symphony takes its name, Kaddish, from the Jewish hymns of praise to God. Interestingly, though frequently associated in the popular imagination with Jewish mourning rituals the word and/or concept of death is never mentioned in the text; rather, the intention is to express a continued commitment to life (chayim) and faith in God in the face of overwhelming loss. Bernstein’s music moves metaphorically through the well-known stages of grief, at times lyrical and serene and at others discordant and tempestuous, reflecting the struggles of post-Holocaust Jews to maintain their core identity and beliefs while reaching an accommodation with an often-hostile world. Bernstein dedicated this piece to the memory of President John F. Kennedy, whom Bernstein had befriended at Harvard and who was assassinated three weeks before Kaddish’s premiere. The dedication bestowed a universal sense of sorrow, mingled with hope, upon a work rooted in Jewish tradition.

The contrasts most evident in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 are with that composer’s other symphonies and the fraught circumstances of his life. The Eighth is Beethoven’s shortest symphony and the one which most closely adheres to classical norms as established by Haydn and Mozart. In comparison to his better-known symphonies, most notably the Fifth and epochal Ninth, the Eighth (which Beethoven called “my little symphony in F”) is jovial, light on its feet, and even – dare I say it – humorous. This is all the more remarkable considering that at the time he wrote it Beethoven was grappling with deafness, his estrangement from his nephew, and unrequited love. Perhaps the composer was seeking solace in familiar forms, but whatever Beethoven’s motivations his Symphony No. 8 stands as a beacon of clarity in turbulent times, both Beethoven’s and ours.

Laurie San Martin’s nights bright days takes its title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43:

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

San Martin notes that she wrote this piece in the middle of the night, and like Bernstein’s Kaddish, nights bright days contrasts light with dark, tranquility with anguish. The small hours of the morning are frequently a time for uncertainty mixed with reflection, with the approaching dawn promising the possibility of, if not resolution, perhaps a renewed sense of confidence.

Watch — Bernstein Centennial – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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