Sunday, June 28, 2009

Travel Journal: Marseille/Aix-en-Provence

My last travel journal chronicled an amazing day in Nice, and more great art than any one person should attempt to absorb in just a day. Following that day on the beautiful Côte d'Azur, we sailed up to the historic and culturally vibrant port of Marseille. Our excursion was to the famed medieval hill town in the heart of Provence, Aix.

With the imposing yet scenic Mt. Saint-Victoire in the background, the countryside of Cézanne has lost none of its allure. Amy and I skipped the excursion to his studio in order to spend more time exploring the ancient walls and cathedrals, lingering at the fragrant farmer's market in the center of town. (I will never buy "herbes de provence" anywhere else!)

Aix is home to one of Europe's most renowned music festivals, and we were disappointed to miss, among other classical superstars, Sir Simon Rattle. Cézanne's home and studio are among the chief lures for the art lover, and the town's museum, the Musee Granet, is a fine example of a small regional museum. This regional museum had just been transformed, however, into an international destination with the recent opening of the Picasso-Cézanne exhibit. I have been an art lover since the full awakening of my artistic consciousness in graduate school at Westminster Choir College in Princeton. Besides the world-class education I absorbed like a sponge, the Choirs' regular run-out performances to Philadelphia and New York and the residencies at summer festivals in Charleston, Spoleto, and Colmar whet an appetite for culture that has only increased. Before attending Westminster, I was just another wet-behind-the-ears kid with maybe above average brains & talent, but no worldly knowledge nor experience, and very little exposure to art and culture. I was, however, ready to open to it, and I am grateful my mind and soul were the fertile ground upon which an amazing amount of cultural experience could settle and begin to ripen.

That is all to say, some 15 years of international travel and experience later, the Picasso-Cézanne exhibit was the greatest single art show I've attended.

Though an amateur in the deepest sense of the word, I am not an art historian enough to give the background this exhibit deserves. I was aware the two artists were cousins: Cézanne's still lifes, for example, changed the way that genre was viewed and painted, and it is easy to discern his influence on Picasso. An exhibition of some of these paintings 100 years ago inspired a book's worth of letters from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. His "Letters on Cézanne" contain such insightful observations on the man and his work:

"To achieve the conviction and substantiality of things, a reality intensified and potentiated to the point of indestructability by his experience of the object, this seemed to him to the purpose of his innermost work..."

Rather than mere cousins, the P-C exhibit reveals these two great and utterly individual artists to be more surrogate father-son. At the end of the exhibit, a wonderful quotation of Picasso made me glad I'd taken my pocket journal along:

"I am interested in the unquiet of Cézanne, the teaching of Cézanne, the torment of Van Gogh, and what I call the 'drama of man.' The rest is false."

The exhibit is brilliantly organized in four sections. The Granet musuem is too small a building to adequately contain the size and scope of such an extensive, spacious, and overwhelming collection of paintings. The curators are all the more to be commended for the care with which the 100 plus canvas show was handled.

The first section, "Picasso looks at Cézanne" introduces us to the Spanish prodigy's early recognition of his colleague's "late bloomer" genius (this is an interesting point of departure between the two artists--Picasso is an example of that rare child prodigy; Cézanne one who only hit his stride after he'd turned 40, and whose fame has only ripened with age and time).

The first section of the show revealed side by side the influence of Picasso viewing Cézanne. The first two paintings on display, in fact were a pair of still lifes from each artist. Nudes and self-portraits further revealed the indebtedness. What opened a new window of awareness was a pair of landscapes where Cézanne's late period minimalism presages Picasso's modernist cubism. And somehow, I had also failed to see Picasso's indebtedness to Cézanne's portraits of his wife. Viewing Picasso's portraits of women, culminating in the famed painting of Gertrude Stein, the proximity was obvious.

"You do well to think I have looked at his paintings" was the quote by Picasso heading the second section of the exhibit, "Picasso collects Cézanne." Here, a handful of classic Cézanne's--another Madame C. portrait, a landscape, and a bathers painting--if not literally fruit as in the still lifes, are at least seeds of inspiration for Picasso.

The heart of the exhibit is the third section "Shared themes and forms." Another classic Cézanne portrait, "Man with a pipe" becomes a springboard for Picasso's cubist and fauvist paintings. More than any other section of the exhibit, it was apparent how one great artist takes from his predecessors, absorbs their influence, and creates wholly original works that both rejuvenate and reestablish a tradition. No one would mistake a Picasso for a Cézanne, just as no one could fail to distinguish between the symphonies of Mahler and Beethoven. Yet each artist in this equation worked from within a tradition, while expanding and renewing it, thereby enriching the tradition and laying the groundwork for the next generation to mine and plumb it anew.

"I've just bought Cézanne's Saint-Victoire [mountain]" said Picasso.
"Which one?" inquired his agent (C painted the mountain some 30 times).
"The real one."

Picasso bought a chateau at Vauvenargues, near Cézanne's beloved mountain, and it is fitting that Mt Saint-Victoire shades the resting places of both artists. The final section of the exhibit was entitled "Picasso reconciles with Cézanne." Though the last two dozen paintings of the show are Picasso's, the shadow of Cézanne looms large after spending so much time observing what, when, and how the younger artist absorbed his elder. The curvilinear arc connecting Cézannes work--the still lifes and "nature mortes" (memento mori, or vanities), portraits and landscapes--to Picasso's paintings in the same genres imbedded itself in the consciousness. And so the last section of Picasso's, with their pastiche-like collage of the many styles their creator assimilated, superficially bore little resemblance to the world of Cézanne. Yet beneath the blurred abstractions of Picasso's singular imagination was a through line of homage from one master to another.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends" (Francis Bacon: 1909-1992)

Since I have been musing on some of the art viewed during our recent Mediterranean Music cruise, I thought I'd write a bit about my visit to New York City yesterday. I was there to audition for the Westfield Symphony & Teatro Grattacielo. As every singer who's lived outside the City knows, straightforward auditions are rarely simple (you go through a number of hoops just to show up and sing your stuff--hopefully you're asked for a 2nd aria after you present your first choice--and the "big deal" is over before its begun. We consider ourselves lucky if we get one offer in 15 auditions).

I needed to fly to and from NYC on the same day, and was happy to find a cheap flight that left first thing in the morning, and returned before last call that evening, thus giving the requisite buffer time. I arranged to rent a studio at the audition site, a 1/2 hour before my audition, to alleviate any concerns about being warmed-up, etc. Since my audition was not until 5 pm, I had ample buffer time on the arrival side, and decided I was going to spend the day quietly taking in some art.

My destination was the Francis Bacon Centennial retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bacon has always captivated and fascinated me. The baroque carcasses and creatures juxtaposed with the modern urbane figures and settings; the wrestling male nudes and screaming Popes, the triptychs, crucifixions, and momento mori are both disturbing and engaging, and therein lies my primary interest in this boldly original, divisive 20th century painter. I've been intrigued by his biography since reading about and subsequently viewing the 1998 biopic film starring Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, and Tilda Swinton, "Love is the Devil."

The film focuses on the central relationship between Bacon and George Dyer, a petty thief who became the artist's lover and muse for one of the most fertile periods of his career. Dyer's death from an overdose haunted Bacon and inspired a moving series of portraits. But I get ahead of myself.

The exhibition is well-organized and is given the ample space these works require. Since Bacon's favorite form was the triptych, most of these are given their own walls. Given the violence in these paintings--both overt and latent in the tension between his figures--literal breathing room is necessary. Bacon found his style after WWII, and it is as a post-war artist depicting the horrors of war, the abuse of power, and human suffering (physical, emotional, psychological) where his unique voice first speaks.

A photograph of Goebbels delivering a speech became the model for many of Bacon's signature gaping mouths. Painted with bared teeth in detailed relief, these mouths appear on human, beast, and supernatural creature alike. Such creatures are the only figures present in his early masterpiece, 3 figures for the base of a Crucifixion, which looks back to the vivid fantasias of Bosch, while being firmly grounded in the present.

A Dubliner and apostate Catholic, Bacon's atheism found a potent outlet in turning Christian images and symbols on their heads. Besides the grotesque figures for the Crucifixion panels, one of his most famous series of works (featuring those gaping mouths) are the screaming Popes. Modeled on Valezquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X, Bacon juxtaposed images of the divisive contemporary Pope Pius XII with images from one of his favorite films, "Battleship Potemkin."

The specific image from Eisenstein's cinematic masterpiece was a still of the nurse whose glasses have been shattered by a bullet. Bacon's blurring of the lines between the backqround and foreground, and the chiaroscuro juxtaposition of charcoals, greys, and black with "royal" purple and gold create a tension which gives these works an unsettling power.

Influenced by the early photographer Eadweard Muybridge's photos of men wrestling, Bacon's male nudes from the 50's and early 60's are charged with another kind of tension. In reference to painting his lovers, he tried to portray "all the areas of feeling which you yourself have apprehensions of." Based on the result, his attempts were successful.

The triptych which is an elegy/eulogy for Dyer features a seated figure, with Bacon's characteristic expressionism (with traces of Fauvism): curvilinear angles creating blurred, bloated and distorted features. Set against vacuum-like black backgrounds, the figures each have unfinished limbs which dissolve in a surrealist, Daliesque manner onto the floor. The depiction of decaying flesh could not be more vivid, yet despite (or because of?) the grotesqueness, it is singularly moving.

Equally moving are the two self portraits from this period. Dyer was one of several intimates the artist lost around this time in the early 70's, and quipped that since his friends were "dropping like flies" he had no one else to paint but himself. And these self-portraits--Bacon seated, legs crossed, one arm folded, the other holding a half-crooked head--are among the saddest, most forlorn pictures I've seen. I've never looked at a more melancholy lavender. Both of these portraits feature a prominent wristwatch, another potent symbol for an artist obsessed with death and dying.

One of his last Triptychs was inspired by a bullfight, and a famous line of the tragic Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca:
"The rest was death, and death alone, at five o'clock in the afternoon."
Here the figures--the gored leg of the matador, the head of the bull--are isolated, viewed through a window, as if the artist was locating the spectator as a participant in the pageant, a parallel to the spectacle of the bullfight itself.

As I write about these works, I cannot help but think a stranger to them could be easily persuaded an artist so preoccupied with the grotesque & violent would not be their cup of tea. I am not on a mission to convert any fellow art amateurs to the unique universe of Francis Bacon's paintings. I find them engaging, moving, and provocative, and that is enough for me.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Travel Journal: Nice/St Paul-de-Vence

The Mediterranean Music cruise about which I've been writing reached a peak upon our arrival in Nice, the heart of the French Riviera. The twin poles of Elba and Nice balanced perfectly on an axis of natural beauty and cultural richness. If I preferred Elba's exotic island atmosphere for an ideal vacation setting, then Nice offered that unforgettable Mediterranean setting with significant doses of art.

Our morning began with an excursion to the hill town of St. Paul-de-Vence, off the sunny coast towards the Alps which dip down into France. One could not ask for a more compelling juxtaposition of mountains and sea. Nor could one ask for a more engaging day of 20th century art in such a charmed setting. St. Paul-de-Vence is home to the Maeght Foundation, a remarkable house of work collected by and created for the patrons & curators Marguerite and Aime Maeght.

A sculpture garden with mosaic lined walls and works by Braque, Calder, Chagall, and among others, Leger, lead the viewer to the house itself, which rivals the Barnes Foundation for the ratio of space to masterpiece. Stained glass by Miro and Braque were among the unfamiliar works in this gallery of masters. Chagall's sprawling "La Vie" (Life) dominated a room where it simply dwarfed its more petite neighbors. Bonnard's Gauguin-tinged "L'ete" (Summer) did the same in an adjacent room. A series of late, typically playful and surreal "bird" paintings ("Femme l'oiseau") filled the Miro room. New to me were abstract works by Jean-Paul Riepelle and Bram van Velde--the former more abstract expressionist; the latter cubist. Amy was particularly taken with Wilfredo Lam's sensually cubist canvas, "La Fiancee de Kiriwina," another discovery for both of us. Hauntingly familiar, like Doppelgangers, were the existentially minimalist sculptures of Giacometti. A courtyard of his signature "stick figure" bronzes led to a Miro Labyrinth, full of larger-than-life figures, creatures & combinations. The Spaniard's sculptures served a leavening purpose by inspiring some bearable lightness after the pervasive angst of his Swiss colleague.

That visit alone would have been sufficient for the thirstiest of modern art pilgrims. Our day continued, however, with visits to the two great single-artist museums in and around Nice: those of Chagall and Matisse. The Chagall museum (officially named National Museum Message Biblique Marc Chagall) was organized by the artist himself upon giving some 50 paintings--almost all on Biblical themes, arguably the central focus of his oeuvre--to the government of France. The museum was planned specifically for and around the series of huge murals depicting Old Testament stories--from the Creation to stories of Abraham, Jacob, Noah and Moses. In addition to these narrative and symbolically potent canvasses in the "Nave" of the museum, a "chapel" off the main room is devoted to a series of 5 paintings that are the ultimate sacred Valentines in gorgeous red & pink oils: Les Cantiques des Cantique (The Song of Songs). A stunning walled mosaic of the prophet Elijah is visible outside that room, from a gallery opposite, across a small reflecting pool. On the other side of the museum's sanctuary of Biblical paintings is a triptych that combines Jewish, Christian, and Russian imagery with typical Chagallian abandon. "Resistance/Ressurection/Liberation" feature his porous blending of images and symbols, the coexistence of the sacred and the sensual, and the high and low (and the blurring of all those lines). In short, the proximity of his work to kitsch fuels his critics and inspires his admirers; I am obviously and unashamedly one of the latter. The museum also had his series of 7 Creation stained glass windows, perhaps the most beautiful modern examples of that classic & sacred genre.

I have to admit I have always been less impressed--less moved, less engaged is more accurate--with Matisse. I would prefer to spend time with Chagall or Miro or when I'm feeling schizophrenic, Picasso. Cezanne and Manet are my favorites leading up to the twentieth century, and the line of abtract expressionism from Kandinsky to Pollock and De Kooning and beyond has always sustained my interest and imagination. Matisse (and Gauguin) have just not "done it" for me. I realize the problem is mine, and I continue to seek treatment for this and my many other "faults and derelictions" (Whitman), and of those I've tried, the visit to Matisse's house in Nice was by far the best remedy. The rooms contain a somewhat chronological history of his development and career, an interesting collection of sketches and drawings, and examples from nearly every period of his storied life. Most moving (therefore for me surprising) were the plans and models of the chapel in Vence he designed for a long-time friend. Juxtaposed with the Renaissance murals that inspired him, this late work possessed a very moving & human quality I had heretofore missed in the curvy figures and blue cut-outs stereotypically associated with this 20th century giant.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Travel Journal: Elba

The heart of the Mediterranean Music cruise about which I've been writing spanned the second half of the trip, from Palermo and Naples to the beautiful island of Elba to the gorgeous French Riviera. Our day in Elba was the first day "off" we had, as the previous days involved either recitals or rehearsals. Our final program was lighter fare, consisting of music theater favorites and standards, and was 3 nights away, so we decided to concentrate on relaxing.

For those readers of the Sunday NY Times, last week's travel section featured a front page article on Elba, the main attraction of the Tuscan archipelago. The cover shot of Portoferraio offers a glimpse of just how inviting the Mediterranean is on this Island getaway.

Before we arrived at the port, we heard the final lectures from our distinguished professors. Jim (Hepokoski, from Yale) delivered an informative and entertaining talk on the evolution of recorded music, from a scratchy record of Brahms playing one of his dances to the fabled recordings of the great Caruso. Alan (Fletcher, Aspen festival) spoke about his Clarinet Concerto, and whet all our appetites for hearing a performance of this engaging work. Treating the clarinet soloist as a real character, he quoted from William Carlos Williams:

I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely.
I am best so.

A sentiment every artist knows, at some level, through experience. I am now re-reading one of the best books on the spiritual life I know (recommended to me by my ultra-cool Lutheran minister cousin, Jeff Sonafelt): "The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality" by Belden C. Lane (publ. by Oxford). I will probably write more about it after I've had more time to process, but just this morning I read a passage that reminded me of Alan's talk and the quote above. In writing of solitude and its centrality to the spiritual life of the early desert fathers, Lane makes a connection to the creative life:

"To be a writer, an artist, a monk creating praise out of the stuff of his own being, one has to be able to endure staying alone in a room."

While I did want to be alone in my room upon our arrival in Elba, I did want to follow my own path and not accompany the group walking tour to the Vigilanti Theatre and the Villa dei Mulini--Napoleon's residence in exile.

So I took the proverbial road less traveled and hiked along one of the cliff's edges and climbed up the rough side of one for an even more stunning --and vertigo inducing--view of the sea and a panorama of the island. Gorgeous, clear green and blue water--diaphanous, luminous, beckoning: "Vieni qui. Dimenticate tutti degli lamenti, pieni e dolori." The sea WAS talking to me (and in my 2nd grade Italian): "Come and bring your melancholy to my pure bosom. Dissolve your hardness here. Be lost in me..."

The stunning vista was so inviting, and the call of the sea so vivid I had to find my way down that mountain and just go to the beach! The water was so cool, so clear, so cleansing. I have never been in water that felt better. It is difficult to describe with adjectives the physical and textural incarnation of the purity of that sea. It was more than refreshing; it was restorative. Julian of Norwich describes God's love as like a Mother's. God lets us fall like a watchful and loving mother in order to teach us. The loving embrace of the mother is even more comforting and cherished in such a context. Among other things, I was trying not to freak out about the fact I'd been sleepwalking on this cruise, for what I believed (hoped!) to be the first time in my life. The previous night I dreamt I was wandering around the ship, lost & confused, only to wake up in a hallway and realize I was not dreaming but literally wandering around the ship, and was now locked out of our room!

Anyway, my experience of the beautiful & invigorating sea was seconded by Amy and Scott (Beard) when I found them and shared my discovery (the beach was literally around the corner from the port, but the tour guides neglected to mention that!)

After the beach, I strolled along the boat-lined port, enjoying the mingling of history with the present: the medieval walls and buildings around a busy marina full of travelers from all over the world, some busy cleaning their skiffs, others enjoying a glass of wine and a chance to relax in the Meiterranean sun.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Travel Journal: Naples

The previous entry described the breathtaking vistas of leaving Sicily: the following morning's arrival at the port of Napoli was equally stunning. Our day began with an excursion to Pompeii, the fabled city preserved under ash for some 1800 years. As is my wont, I followed my own path and left the group to wonder and explore the ruins alone. It was fitting I found the group again an hour later, after coming upon one of the oldest and most interesting of the preserved floor mosaics, a black dog, marking the house of the mad poet.

It would be unfair to call a place as storied as Pompeii a tourist trap. It is, however, as crowded as Disney, and attracts some of the same set. Leaving the main colonnade of the forum, I explored the perimeters of the ancient city, heading to the alluringly named House of Mystery, following one of the few paths lined with vegetation. In so doing, I came upon the brightest field of poppies I'd every seen. I was one of several visitors snapping shots of the field, so vibrantly alive a sight after the ruins.

Following the morning trip to Pompeii, we headed into the center of Naples to prepare for our next recital. Appropriately, we programmed Neapolitan songs from both the 18th & 19th centuries (Amy sang from the ubiquitous "24 Italian Songs & Arias" --a collection every voice student in the U.S. knows, whether they like it or not! I sang a couple of the Neapolitan "standards," hyper-aware of essaying a distinct Italian dialect in front of the natives). The heart of the program was music of Puccini. In addition to the Act I arias and duet from Boheme, we offered the Butterfly duet, Amy sang the Canzone di Doretta from La Rondine, and I threw discretion to the Mediterranean wind and sang Nessun Dorma (with Amy joining me for the climactic line--not quite 3 tenors, but 1 tenor & soprano sufficed just fine).

We were duly humbled and grateful to be so well received by our Neapolitan hosts, the tour guides, and the staff at the amazing 17th century Palazzo, Pio Monte della Misericordia. Attached to the cathedral of the same name, the space housed both a long-established charitable foundation and a stunning collection of Neapolitan Art. We could not have asked for more beautiful surroundings in which to sing. If the Mediterranean cruise was not inspiring enough, the historically significant venues only fueled our performing desires further. The centerpiece of the Misericordia cathedral is a Caravaggio altarpiece depicting the 7 fundamental virtues and centering the focus and mission of this important space.

We were shuttled back to the ship and left another memorable port, with the historic fort of Naples receding into the background as we passed alongside Vesuvius. On the way out we passed more famed Italian islands like Capri, but even more important to me, Ischia. A haven for 20th century artist including William Walton, W. H. Auden & Chester Kallmann, Hans Werner Henze, and Ingeborg Bachmann. It was Auden & Kallmann's cat, Lucina, memorialized in a poem Henze set, that inspired the name of my own Luci. Auden told the composer his little elegy was modeled on an ancient Icelandic verse form:

In Memoriam L.K.A. 1950-1952

At peace under this mandarin, sleep, Lucina,
Blue-eyed Queen of white cats: for you the Ischian
wave shall weep,
When we who miss you are American dust, and
Epomeo in peace and war augustly a grave-watch

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Travel Journal: Palermo

[Another in an ongoing series of travel essays about our recent Mediterranean Music cruise; pictures are available on our website]

Following our excursion to Dubrovnik, we spent the only "day at sea" this eventful 9-day itinerary offered. James Hepokoski, music historian at Yale, and the author of the Cambridge opera handbooks on Otello and Falstaff (and therefore the source of much of my own research for performing roles in those operas in Roanoke this season) was onboard. Jim offered insightful, witty, and engaging talks on Mediterranean-tinged music. On this particular day he talked about the Tarantella, the famed Italian dance, and made associations from the "dance of death" to the tarantula to the psycho-stress disorder of tarantism, eventually wending his away around the heel of Italy's boot to the great tradition of Neapolitan songs.

Also on board was the director of the Aspen music festival, the composer, Alan Fletcher. Alan gave a series of engaging talks on how we listen, what we hear, and why we respond the ways we do. On this particular day he adroitly demonstrated the unique balance and symmetry of the major scale, and then proceeded to use the score of Carmen to illustrate how tonal music depicts character, emotion, and psychology.

We experienced our first "rough" night at sea--we were enjoying a lovely dinner with our new friends, the authors Joe Page and Martha Gil-Montero. Joe had served in the Coast Guard and thus enjoyed the weather, and his equanimity helped me maintain mine--the 5'-7' waves were just enough to challenge your balance but not enough to make you "lose your legs."

After passing through the famed mythical strait of the Scylla, we arrived in Palermo, Sicily. I decided to forgo the morning excursion to the famed cathedral of Monreale. Based on the pictures Amy took, its clear I missed a stunning example of ancient mosaics, murals, and architecture.

That afternoon brought the first of back-to-back full-bodied Italian programs (in Palermo and Naples, respectively) for us. The Palermo program consisted primarily of Verdi--the gran duetto from Un Ballo en Maschera, arias from Rigoletto & Don Carlo, and the Act I duet and scena from Traviata. The concert was held in the Palazzo Raffadali, an 18th century Palace still presided over by a bona fide Principessa. The ballroom held a beautiful Pleyel piano, a restored 19th century instrument that did not sound nearly as pristine as it looked. Regardless, this program was a thrill to sing, and was very well received (we felt incredibly grateful to be so congratulated by the locals in our audiences). It was followed by a fantastic reception, where the hit of the glamorous spread were trays of what appeared to be petit fours but were scrumptious squares of gelato.

Following a too-soon departure from a port whetting one's appetite for more, we were afforded another series of breathtaking vistas of the Mediterranean. The Sicilian archipelago was just such a one.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Travel Journal: Croatia

The previous entry about Venice was the first in a series of travel essays about our Mediterranean Music Cruise from Venice to Barcelona, May 16-28.
Photos from the trip are available on our website:

After boarding the 57 cabin cruise liner, the Corinthian II, we left Venice and sailed for Croatia. After a day at sea, the mountains of Croatia were a welcome and glorious sight. Our first stop was Split, one of the largest cities in Croatia, home to a beautiful port, an imposing football (soccer) stadium, an 1800 year-old palace from the Roman emperor Diocletian, and the highest number of shoe shops per capita in the world.

Our first stop was the impressive home of Split's (and Croatia's) greatest 20th century artist, the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. French critics claim his time in Rodin's studio was a formative influence, while his Croatian devotees find it was Rodin who was the artist under the influence. Regardless, Mestrovic's work is bold & original. His figures are literally larger than life in scope, shape, and motion. His work captures the complexity of 20th century human existence with unflinching courage. Aside from Giacometti's anguished & existentialist "thin men" I have not encountered such pained expressions. Yet his work is not easily pigeon-holed and his connection to history, especially the Renaissance, is movingly on display in a Pieta which is one of the greatest examples of that genre after Michelangelo. A biography storied by intrigue (he lived with his wife and his mistress in an odd menage) he was also a deeply religious man, and spent the last decade of his life as a professor in Amy's home town of South Bend, IN, at the famed University of Notre Dame.

Following that unexpectedly rich experience, we walked around the old city center, where walls from Diocletian's 3rd century palace are still occupied, making it the oldest ongoing "home" in the world. After visiting ancient chapels, crypts, caverns and rooms, we enjoyed the first concert of the trip by Festival Chamber Music, played in the naturally air conditioned basement of the palace--an aesthetically pleasing but practically unsatisfactory space (too cold & too damp, especially for instruments!).

The following day we arrived in Dubrovnik, and knew instantly why it is considered the feather in Croatia's tourist cap, and one of Venice's rivals in Adriatic/Mediterranean history. A stunningly beautiful port is one of the city's crowning features, and our recital at the historic Fort Revelin afforded many views to confirm this. We did not take the walking tour of the city, but did not mind, as the Fort afforded panoramic views of the port and the sea, the ancient walled city, and one of the jewels of the Dalmatian coast.

Following our first recital--a French romantic program featuring a good dose of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette--we had a late lunch with our fellow musicians in a restaurant off the main drag recommended by all the local guides. Specializing in fresh seafood, Amy had a delicious risotto with mussels. While my Italian is passable as far as getting around is concerned, I was totally reliant on the translations of the Croatian menu, and so I thought my "fried little fish" would be a lunch-sized fried fillet. I had one of those entertaining experiences of foreign travel--not exactly culture "shock" (more like culture surprise) when I received a plate full of barely breaded sardines. Fish is one of the few foods about which I'm picky (I love virtually all white fish, cooked any style, same goes with heartier fish like mahi, tuna, etc. But I have never acquired a taste for salmon or sardines).

I did make a small dent in a plate which seemed to be performing one of Christ's miracles--I swear those little fish multiplied every time I ate one. We had a great time, and enjoyed some drinkable Croatian beer which tasted even better than it otherwise would have!

The too-brief excursion to Dubrovnik ended with more amazing vistas of the Dalmatian coast and the city itself, as we sailed on towards Sicily.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Travel journal: Venice

Venice is the most alluring, enchanting, and poetic city I have visited. From the moment Amy and I boarded our water taxi to our departure on board the Corinthian II 60 hours later, Venice exceeded our already high expectations. We didn't realize just how fortunate we were to have our travel agent arrange that water taxi from the airport until the boat pulled up to the Hotel alla Salute via one of La Serenissima's innumerable canals, where we stepped off the boat and into the hotel lobby. Along the aquatic way of the most scenic and enjoyable airport transfer ever, we passed the glass-blowing shops of Murano, wound around the little island where Stravinsky & Dhiagalev are buried, and then rounded a corner to catch our first glimpse of one of the world's most glorious edifices, the basilica of San Marco.

The Hotel alla Salute is around the corner from another great basilica, Maria della Salute, just across the grand canal from St Marks square. Just ten minutes or so from the Gallerie dell'Accademia, we visited the great museum of the Venetian Renaissance first. Museums in Venice are a classic guilding of the lily, since the city's cathedrals are museums in and of themselves.

The Accademia is rightly famed for its impressive collection of Tiziano (Titian) and Tintoretto, two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. I was struck by Tintoretto's visionary "Creation of the Animals" which featured epoch spanning creatures like a fanged fish, a blazing bird, and a unicorn which seemed to sneak into the canvas. Bellini's "Madonna dei Cherubini Rossi" is a strikingly original iconic painting which lives up to its name. The cherubims are of so brilliant a red they not only appear modern, but they look like one of Andy Warhol's colorful screenprints. At the other end of the scale is Tiziano's haunting "Pieta," reminding us why he is considered Michelangelo's equal.

The visit to the Academy was followed by the first of a series of delectable, mutli-course Venetian meals. One doesn't know just how green Ireland is until the first visit; likewise, one has a new understanding and appreciation of the wonderful simplicity of real olive oil and fresh pasta after that first genuine Italian meal. Since it was Amy's first visit to Italy, one of many pleasures I enjoyed was watching her face as she took her first bite of bruschetta (the middle syllable is pronounced with a hard k, for the record). This was surpassed only by the pleasure of witnessing her first bite of gnocchi. I was grateful to be reminded just how tasty a simple Italian tomato sauce is when I had a plate of penne arrabiate.

After lunch we explored some of the labyrinthine alleys and canals en route to San Marco. We stopped at the cathedral of San Stephano, one of the large churches whose roofs were built by boatmakers. The wooden panels and crossbeams resemble what Noah's Arc might have looked like had it been built by Gondolieri! Splendid altars, replete with frescoes & sculptures line the sides of these cathedrals, and the mosaic floors and patterned ceilings are works of art themselves. We also visited San Salvador, which could double as a Tiziano museum (it has the most magnificent Transfiguration I've seen).

Following a map to get around Venice is an exercise in futility. Intuition, curiousity, and a sense of adventure are much better guides. That fact was made crystal clear when we rounded another canal-lined corner, passed under an archway and emerged at the back of St Marks square. A thousand pigeons and at least as many people could not come between that moment and me. After visiting St Marks square, taking in the bell tower and clock tower, the basilica and the surrounding palaces, and the grand canal, I felt that deep and unique appreciation that comes from visiting a great and justly famous place. It is one of the distinct joys of travel: the justification for it, the substance of the experience, and that which gives experience meaning.

We arrived late in the day, decided to forgo the Ducal palace, and waited in line to visit the Basilica itself. Our necks hurt from the awe-struck act of gazing at the endless gold mosaics which depict the stories and saints from the creation to the resurrection. We ascended the stairs to visit the Gallerie dei Cavalli (the Gallery of Horses) where fragments of the original, 1500 year old mosaics and the even older bronze horses reside. Besides a bird's eye view of the Basilica's mosaics, a balcony overlooking the square afforded us more unforgettable vistas.

We had dinner at another locally recommended Osteria, the aptly named Oneteca ai Artisti, around the corner from the Accademia, which featured exceptional pasta and pesce (fish), followed by the best chocolate torta either of us have had.

Our second day in Venice was just as eventful and memorable. After San Marco, THE cathedral to visit is the Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Frari (or the Frari). There is so much to see in the vast basilica that I forgive the author of my Lonely Planet Venice guide for omitting that Claudio Monteverdi is buried there! I suppose some would not be as impressed by the altar to Venice's greatest composer after viewing Tiziano's sumptious Madonna. This most famous of altars features Titian's signature red robe in absolute splendour. Approaching the altar is the most intricately & beautifully carved wooden choir loft. With seating for about 80 choiristers, it is no wonder Venice was home to the glorious music of the Italian baroque period.

Just around the corner from the Frari church is the smaller school and church of San Rocco. Another important home both for the Venetian baroque of Monteverdi & Gabrieli, and a veritable museum for Tintoretto. The San Rocco sanctuary is lined from wall to ceiling with frescoes and murals, making the visit to this corner of Venezia positively overwhelming.