Dilettante's Diary

March 11/11

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
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A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
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Art Toronto 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
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Toronto Art Expo 2011
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The Artist Project 2011
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Notables of 2006
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above will be the date of the most recent reviews. The newer reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Diverse Palette (Art); Of Gods and Men (Movie); C'est mon plaisir (Concert); Bright Lights, Big City (Novel); Drawing 2011 (Art); Academy Awards Ceremony 2011 (TV); Iphignie En Tauride (Opera)

The Diverse Palette (Art) Papermill Gallery, Todmorden Mills, Toronto; Gallery Hours: Wed-Sun 12 noon to 4 pm; until March 13

A friend involved in this show told me that the seven artists participating had all studied with the noted Canadian minimalist Peter Kolisnyk. After he died in 2009, they continued meeting once a week to critique each other’s work and, as their show program states, "to encourage the different talents of each artist within the group". This show of some ninety examples of their on-going work, nearly all of it abstract, is meant as a tribute to Mr. Kolisnyk. (Where available, links to the artists’ websites have been provided.)

For me, some of the most stunning paintings in the show come from Joan Soble, an artist who works in a stark, bold style that shows influences of Op Art and Cubism. Ms. Soble’s geometrical compositions in vivid, solid colours not only leap off the wall; they pull your feet out from under you. One of my favourites is "Yellow Roses", a painting that just manages to suggest something of the excitement of flowers by means of some yellowish blobs in the upper corner, some jagged, leaf-like projections and a surround of shapes representing things like a vase, a window and a wall. www.joansoble.com

Bianka Guna’s paintings are another matter all together: gentle blobs and streaks floating and shimmering through space in a way that’s almost magical. One of the most remarkable things about many of the paintings is the unusual palette: subtle purples, pale lime greens, whitish oranges, with black accents judiciously distributed throughout. The overall delicacy gives the works a feeling of child-like euphoria. I was wracking my brains to figure out why this series of paintings had the title "Elephant Dub". Was the recurrent motif of curved lines meant to suggest an animal’s ribs? That question just shows how pointless a critic’s uninformed speculation can be. Ms. Guna tells me that "Elephant Dub" is a sub-genre of Reggae music that she listened to while working on the paintings. Hence, their buoyant character. www.biankaguna.com

One of the strongest works in the show is Vineeta Hakimi’s "Aspire". A very dramatic painting, it features a central area of smouldering reddish stuff that looks something like the interior of an inferno. It’s surrounded by blacks and oranges, but what makes the painting so effective, to my eye, are slashes of white paint in strategic places. I was also intrigued by Ms. Hakimi’s "Avalon". At first, it looks like nothing more than a turbulent mixture of greyish whites and pale blues but, after a while, you begin to realize that it could be a stormy sea and some little blobs of reds and oranges could be boats struggling with the elements. Ms. Hakimi’s "In The Moment" also made me stop and ponder: against a cloudy, diffuse background, you get some smudgy reds and blacks, the focal point being some scribbled black lines swirling like one of those diagrams of an atom. www.vineetahakimiartist.com

I like very much Sandra Duba-Shubs mono print "Romancing the Moon": a moody, atmospheric combination of blacks, reds and whites. In an entirely different vein, Ms. Duba-Shubs’ "Texture of the City" captures something of urban reality with rectangular scratches and gouges on almost all-white surface. www.sandraduba-shubsartist.com  Leah Landau shows two or more different kinds of paintings. "Harmony", one of the most striking ones in her "Musicology" series, features what could be the lines on a musical staff pulled together into a greyish bundle with faint touches of stronger colour here and there. Some of Ms. Landau’s other paintings present serene studies of rectangular shapes in earthy tones of browns, oranges and rust. www.leahlandau.com  Many of Veronika Teichner’s paintings, most of them considerably smaller than the other painters’, offer charming studies, based on human-like shapes, in vibrant watercolour. "It is a Long Chain" is an 87-inch-long piece of vinyl bearing a series of several of tiny watercolours that have a delightfully primitive appeal.

On the other hand, Mia Thornhill’s huge paintings convey an entirely different take on the world around us. Her "Cityscape" shows something like the yellowish arm of a crane reaching aggressively across a jumble of recognizable, but not photographically realistic, city buildings. In "Cornfield", my favourite of Ms. Thornhill’s works in the show, a band of yellow at the top, with something like white clouds in it, helps to orient the viewer to a landscape teeming with brilliant colours distributed through the canvas in a way that creates a nice balance. I especially like the slight hint of buildings on a horizon in the distance.


Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et Des Dieux) (Movie) written by Xavier Beauvois and Etienne Comar; directed by Xavier Beauvois; starring Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loc Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin, Abdelhafid Metalsi, Olivier Perrier, Farid Larbi

Jubliation seems out of place in response to a movie with such sombre implications. Still, I can’t help rejoicing in the fact that here we have a film that deals with a subject that’s never been treated on the screen before, at least not in this context. And even more significantly, it’s a movie that raises questions that have never been addressed in movies.

At first, though, it looks like we’re getting a fairly typical documentary-style look at a monastery. These are French Trappists stationed somewhere in North Africa. You could call it the low-rent version of Le Grand Silence (See my review of that movie on the page dated July 20/07.) There’s nothing sublime or celestial about this monastery. It's not much more attractive than a relatively clean and comfortable youth hostel. Granted, there’s a certain dignity to the stripped-down liturgies in the faintly Islamic-looking chapel, but the Gregorian chant has a decidedly ragged edge to it. On Christmas, when the monks place the figurine of the baby Jesus in their little creche, the simplicity of the ceremony stabs at your heart. Even the surrounding countryside conveys the mood of restraint. If it could be said to have any beauty, it’s of the bleakest kind: dry, dusty hills and scrubby vegetation.

So we’re not getting any romanticism or sentimentality about monastic life as an escape from the world. These monks have their feet planted firmly in the local soil. Their involvement in the adjacent village has them attending kids’ birthday parties, selling honey in the local market, giving advice to a lovelorn youngster and, most importantly, providing medical care for everybody. In case you think their interests are somewhat insular, though, you can’t escape the message in the fact that a map of the world adorns the wall behind the table where they sit to discuss important community matters.

This all takes place very quietly, many scenes with no dialogue. After a while, though you begin to wonder if there’s going to be any story. Then, suddenly, one kicks in – in a big way – with the murder of some Croatians working on a road crew. This signals the presence of Islamic militants who are struggling for control of the area. If you don’t remember anything of this incident that took place in Algeria in the 1990s, or if you haven’t read the advance publicity on the movie (something I avoid as much as possible), it can be difficult to understand what’s going on. Not much narrative explanation is given.

But it soon becomes apparent that the presence of the monastery in the area poses problems. Should the monks’ Christian charity extend to the belligerents? More urgently, there's the question of whether or not the monks should de-camp. Because the abbot has refused to accept the military’s armed guard, the government wants the monks to leave the country for their own safety. But the villagers, having built up ties with the monastery over many decades, want the monks to stay, seeing them as the main bulwark against violence. Would it be tantamount to suicide for the monks to stay? Or, could it be argued that they shouldn't fear death now, given that they had already "died" to the world when they gave their lives to Christ? These questions take us to the heart of some of the key issues of Christianity.

All of which may sound preachy in the re-telling, but what makes the movie work so well is that it’s low-key and under-played. You almost never get the feeling that you’re looking at the work of a script-writer who’s striving to keep your adrenalin pumping. Everything is handled with great naturalism and realism. The monks voice their opinions, for the most part, with simple, measured statements. Thanks largely to the way they present themselves, you feel you’re caught up in a totally believable world where, even when dire threats are looming, everything happens with absolute authenticity. In fact, those monks are so convincing that this is the rare case where I felt the need for some background research before writing a review. It seemed impossible to me that these guys were professional actors. They look like monks in every line of their wizened faces. An ancient wisdom twinkles from their eyes. They’ve obviously lived as celibates for ages; you can’t picture them as family men.

Which just goes to show that even a hardened skeptic can be fooled. My research reveals that they’re all professional actors, with long lists of film credits behind them. Given such superlative acting, as enhanced by the directing and cinematography, the movie’s great triumph isn’t so much the airing of important questions but the representation on screen of some glowing examples of humanity. Nobody who sees the movie will ever forget the sight of the monks when their meditation is interrupted by the ominous racket of a military helicopter buzzing the monastery. The abbot stands and begins singing a favourite hymn. Gradually the other monks stand and join in, putting their arms around each other’s shoulders. Who would have thought that affection among elderly males could be so convincingly portrayed? What makes the fraternal love all the more believable is our knowing that one of the younger monks (Olivier Rabourdin), in a moment of frustration, isn’t above telling an older monk (Michael Lonsdale) to "Fuck off!" (as the English subtitles would have it). The sight of that younger monk when he’s having a panic attack in his cell at night also helps to amplify the reality of what’s happening.

One of the final scenes of the movie involves two bottles of wine and a tape cassette of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. To say any more would be to spoil the effect for you. Let’s just say that, by my reckoning, it’s one of the warmest, most humanistic scenes ever recorded on film. For a full five minutes, the camera simply pans the room, lingering lovingly on one monk’s face after another. They’re saying nothing, but the picture of them speaks volumes about what it means to be strong, courageous, loving men.

Note: As mentioned on the previous page, we’re dropping the rating system. How can you give a work of art a rating that positions it relative to other works of art according to some sort of scale? Every work of art is what it is on its own merits. From now on, therefore, we’ll provide a capsule comment (CC) at the end of every review, instead of a rating.

CC: A superb study of faith, charity and courage.


C’est mon plaisir (Concert) Nathalie Paulin, Krisztina Szab, Benjamin Covey, Stephen Ralls, Bruce Ubukata and Barry Shiffman; The Aldeburgh Connection; Walter Hall, Toronto; March 6

If you’ve had it with the contemporary scene – too much Lady Gaga, too much Charlie Sheen, too much Muammar Gadhafi – then you should attend one of the Aldeburgh Connection’s concerts. You’ll step back into a gentler, finer age (or one that seems like it from today’s perspective). The Aldeburgh events strive for an ambiance much like you’d find in the salon of a society lady around the turn of the 20th century. There’s a Persian carpet on the stage in front of the piano, an elaborate bouquet of flowers upstage. Tea and cookies are served during the intermission. The only things missing are gas-lit chandeliers and cigars for the gentlemen.

The founders of the Aldeburgh Connection, Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata, named their concert series after the seaside town in Britain where they have both taught at the music school established by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. Each of the Aldeburgh concerts is planned around a theme. This time, it was a celebration of Boston’s great patron of the arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner, the founder of the art museum that bears her name. Her motto, inscribed over the door of the museum, provided the title for the concert. Ms. Gardner was friends with Henry James (some characters in his novels are thought to owe some of their traits to her) and John Singer Sargent (his two portraits of her, one in her prime and one in her old age, are famous). The young T. S. Eliot was a frequent caller during his days as a student at Harvard. But music figured as much in her life as any of the other arts. This concert, then, featured music that was beloved by her or connected with her in some way. Some of the composers – Charles Martin Loeffler, for instance, and Clayton Johns – aren’t ones that we often hear today.

As well as acting as accompanists, and providing some rollicking duets at this concert, Messrs Ralls and Ubukata provided an on-going commentary about the life of Mrs. Gardner. Their script was well-written, clever and informative. To me, the somewhat arch style of delivery said something like: we’re immersed in high culture here, so the least note of humour must be perceived as hilarious. Which appeared to be the tone that perfectly suited the packed hall of some 500 attendees. Even the slightest jokes met with gales of grateful laughter.

It was not in a joking spirit, however, that we were informed at the outset that Krisztina Szab, a mezzo, was recovering from an illness. That could explain why her voice sounded a bit restrained. Although her singing was very beautifully delivered, Ms. Szab could hardly be heard in a Gioachino Rossini duet with the soprano. Ms.Szab seemed more relaxed and her voice seemed to flow more spontaneously and naturally in a duet with the baritone on an African-American spiritual. And her zippy attack on a Loeffler song about a jig was formidable.

In his initial offering, "An Old Rhyme" by Clayton Johns, Benjamin Covey seemed, at first, to have a pleasant, light baritone. His next number, however, "Srnade italienne" by Ernest Chausson, showed more of the richness and fulness of the singer’s voice. Some of the best aspects of his art are interpretation and modulation. He "sells" his songs very well and some of the sudden switches from loud to soft passages were very expressive.

Soprano Nathalie Paulin was a delight for several reasons, not least of them being her gorgeous voice. As well, her excellent articulation made very word perfectly clear – even in the French, a language that can be especially difficult to decipher when sung. Another thing about Ms. Paulin was that she seemed genuinely to be enjoying herself. Young singers are always taught that they should try to convey their pleasure to the audience but their attempts to do so can sometimes come across as strained and affected. Ms. Paulin, however, seemed to be having a really good time and the feeling was infectious. Her final solo, "Nymphes et sylvains" by Herman Bemberg, which gave Ms. Paulin a chance to show off some splendid coloratura, was a high point of the concert for me.

Another one was the Andante from Sonata, Op. 13 by Gabriel Faur, featuring Barry Shiffman on violin. At the piano, Mr. Ralls, functioning as far more than an accompanist, made an equal contribution to the soulful and dramatic rendering that made the piece the most serious and interesting item on the program.

In quite another vein, since Mrs. Gardner was an ardent Boston Red Socks fan, we were treated to a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" as sung by Mr. Covey. At the end of the concert, the song came back as an encore, this time with vigorous exhortations for participation by the audience members. They responded lustily. Talk about sending people home happy!


Bright Lights, Big City (Novel) by Jay McInerney, 1984

You’re sorting through decades of accumulated junk in the basement and you come across a book you’ve always meant to read. Wasn’t there a lot of fuss about this one when it first appeared? Isn’t this how Jay McInerney announced his presence on the literary scene? Didn’t this satire about life at The New Yorker offend a lot of people? Wasn’t it a case of a young smartass making his name by demolishing some sacred cows? And didn’t it lead to a movie starring Michael J. Fox? Did the book deserve all the acclaim?

Sort of.

The writing clips along in breezy, colloquial style, with tremendous narrative verve. It's all written in the second-person-singular: "you". (Like the first sentence of this review.) That works amazingly well. And there’s no question about the entertainment value of Mr. McInerney’s look at life behind the scenes at The New Yorker. His brief career in the magazine’s fact-checking department gets only the slightest gloss of fiction . Legendary editor William Shawn, here dubbed "The Druid," emerges clearly with his famous eccentricities. Another hallowed figure around the venerable magazine, writer Joseph Mitchell appears as "The Ghost", the man holed-up in his office for years on end without producing a single published article. Various other alcoholics and esthetes in the novel can easily be seen to personify certain aspects of well-known New Yorker contributors. Most of us wouldn’t be able to identify any real-life equivalent of the gorgon who is the narrator’s immediate boss but it’s not hard to imagine  some such task-master heading up the magazine’s fact-checking department.

Strange thing about the workings of that department, though. While Mr. McInerney lays on the sarcasm about the boss pretty thick, his narrator had always revered the magazine. As a young, hopeful writer, he initially felt privileged to be working for this bastion of US literary life. And, as everybody knows, one of the most notable aspects of the magazine is its reputation for accuracy. So why does Mr. McInerney’s alter-ego in this book get so hostile to the woman who’s upholding those high standards? Could it be because she’s the one who has to deal with the fact that he’s screwing up constantly? He can’t get his work done on time; he’s falling behind on his assignments; he flouts the department’s procedures and safeguards. Could it be, then, that there’s nothing wrong with the fact-checking department or its boss or the magazine, but there’s a whole lot wrong with our narrator?

That’s the problem with the book, in my opinion. Not that I want to go all judgmental here about a young guy’s constant quest for cocaine and for thrills in the club scene. I’m willing to grant that that’s what life may have been like for lots of upwardly-mobile strivers in Manhattan in the 1980s. So maybe some of the book’s fame comes from its vivid picture of that scene. My research reveals that the book was, in fact, credited with opening the door on a new lifestyle and that it launched a slew of books about young Manhattanites on the make.

For anybody who’s not fascinated with that subject, however, the callow, cynical narrator may not have much to offer. Admittedly, he can get off a witty line now and then. At one point he notes: "All sorts of beneficial effects are rumored to accrue from a good night’s sleep." And I feel a certain kinship with him when he says his ignorance about sports makes him feel shut out of the male fraternity. But he seems to think he deserves our attention as a sort of latter-day Holden Caulfield: some lonely, misunderstood youngster who’s calling the grown-ups on all their phony pretensions. Holden Caulfield, however, was Mahatma Ghandi compared to this guy. Maybe we’re supposed to cut him some slack because his wife, a fashion model, has just left him. But the woman and her relationship with him never seem real enough to make us care what happened. Almost at the very end of the book, the narrator divulges a great sorrow that has been dogging him all this time. Mr. McInerney deals with that in a touching and poignant way. But then it’s on to more screwing up, more aimless wandering and self-deluding.


Drawing 2011 (Art); John B. Aird Gallery, 900 Bay Street, Toronto; until March 4

This annual show always makes me wonder: how do you define drawing? Given that almost every imaginable medium is on display here (including video), in works that are representational and non-representational, it’s hard to see what definition of drawing the jurors have in mind, if any. It might seem that we could  identify a drawing as any two-dimensional creation, on a flat surface, that makes a statement of some kind. It’s hard to see, though, how that would make drawing any different from painting. Never mind, plenty of works among the thirty-six here (chosen from some 200 submitted from across Canada) are interesting enough to dispel any quibbles about genre.

The first-prize winner by Olexander Wlasenko catches your attention immediately on entering the room – if for no other reason than its size. Measuring about five feet by twelve feet, it’s entitled "The Waiting." In charcoal on paper, it pictures a darkly brooding group of twelve people, most of them men, scattered about a room, all of them staring bleakly at the viewer. Given their number and their business-like attire, at first it seems obvious that they’re jurors waiting to be called back into court. If so, though, why aren’t they sitting at a deliberation table? And why do some of them have their coats on? It’s hard to say, then, what they’re waiting for. The important thing is that the work conveys an unforgettable mood.

In terms of actual portraits and other depictions of people, some works in the show are very skillfull and pleasing. John Laughlin’s small work in coloured pencil, shows a man’s face, up very close, lots of green touches adding special character to the work. Chantal-Andre Samson’s "Steady Gaze" in charcoal makes a haunting impact with a man’s fearsome expression. Two works in coloured pencil on masonite by Deborah Percy offer a muted, hazy take on children. Kendra Gadzala’s "Pool", a black and white work in graphite on mylar, creates a spooky, dream-like effect of children at the edge of a swirling whirlpool. The seated female nude in Martha de la Fuente’s drawing (charcoal, pencil and pastel) has a convincing, solid structure, while tiny slashes or scratches throughout the work impart extra dynamism. In Adrienne Dagg’s "Eros" a well-executed male figure seems tormented by several hands reaching out around his head. Homeira Rezaei’s "Creation" features Rubinesque figures locked together and tumbling across the canvas. Erin Finley’s work, in charcoal, chalk and cont, shows two young men in what looks like a romantic embrace, while the cartoonish representations of ducks and other wild creatures in the background make you wonder what else there is to the story. A large work by Agnieszka Foltyn, in splashes of grey, black and beige on white, that I took, at first, to be a total abstract with very pleasing effect, turned out to have emerging from it a female form.

Also in a somewhat abstract vein, Barry Coombs’ "Templar" (pen and ink over wash) manages to make an evocative statement with just a suggestion of architectural motifs like windows, arches and walls. Somewhat more representational in the architectural mode, but still with a measure of abstraction, Nomi Drory’s "Memorial and Collonade"(mixed media on mylar) offers an interesting juxtaposition between settings that look like a classic cloister walkway and a contemporary commercial lobby. The only strictly architectural work in the show (as far as I can see) is Pegi Kosa’s graphite drawing capturing the austere beauty of an apartment’s outside stairway and balcony as see from below. Teri Donovan’s work (mixed media on washi) could fit into either the "people" or "architectural" category, with its drawings of houses on a street, people lurking inside them and huge, fairy-tale-like plants surging in the foreground.

Approaching almost total abstraction, there’s Midori Fullerton’s large work (graphite, watercolour and india ink) that won second prize: brownish/greyish blobs that create an impression of depth, something like peering through the bare limbs of trees, but, if you look very closely, you’ll see a tiny, bluish moth clinging to one of the blobs. In the way of complete abstraction, there’s Pnina C. Gagnon’s composition of startling neon pink lines that fairly leap out at you. I like very much the subtle effect of Mary-Ann Kokoska’s work (graphite and pastel): mostly smudges and smears in pearly grey, peach and white. Amanda Schoppel’s "Vine", an intricate tangle of blue loops in an amorphous amoeba-like shape (ink on clay board) pulsates, thanks to its different hues of blue. Also in a vine-like theme, Thomas Hendry’s "Biomandala #11" (graphite on paper) shows delicate and meticulously drawn foliage snaking around a central symbol.

Even in a show that included more landscape depictions than this one does, Daniel Hutchinson’s "The Mountain", a work in ink and graphite on paper, would stand out. Simply by a series of parallel lines, Mr. Hutchinson has created a dizzyingly vivid picture of a mountain with its astounding geometry, its many planes and surfaces.

I am, admittedly, slow to warm up to the use of written messages in art works. The occasional word splattered here and there doesn’t give me any problem. But when we get chunks of text, I can’t help wonder whether we’re meant to respond to the verbal or the visual stimulus. Why not both? Well, maybe that’s a problem with my brain function. Still, I do see some intrigue in works like Hanna Hur’s two drawings, in colour pencil, of a young woman with a vapid expression and the messages super-imposed on her: "Home Run Who Cares" and "Slam Dunk So What". These works were awarded a third prize. Another third prize went to Scott Waters for his realistic rendering (oil, pencil and gesso) of a knife and its sheath. The long-ish message in tiny script across the top and bottom of the work begins: "God, I hope I’m not the guy who comes up to you in a bar....." And on it goes. Rather droll, to be sure.

And what shall we make of the video installation by Saba Moghtader? On a divided screen, it shows a young artist slaving feverishly at two works: one of them a stark, wintry landscape, the other an abstract that’s boiling with intense colour. Does this belong in a drawing show? The jurors certainly thought so: the work won the Curry’s Art Store Award. You’ve gotta admit that the young artist on screen is drawing, after a fashion. And who says everything in a drawing show has to be finished? Why can’t the drawing be happening?


Academy Awards Ceremony 2011 (TV) Feb 27th

Oscar Night is the one time of the year that we feel plugged into popular culture. (The Emmys and Grammys don’t mean a thing hereabouts.) We sit glued to the tv and take in as much of the show as strength and determination will allow. This year, we lasted the whole show. But, I must say, it was singularly lacking in any thrill that warranted staying up. No surprise appearances. No special moments – unless a silly, ten-second clip from Barack Obama does it for you. A film segment showing Bob Hope’s stylish hosting in the past only emphasized the fact that the show hit a much classier note back in the day.

As for this year’s hosts, one can guess why no major celebrity wanted the job. The big stars have all found, through unfortunate experience, that it’s a thankless assignment. The pressure’s just too much. What with all the on-line commentary, there’s so much more hype than back in Bob Hope’s day. The whole world’s heckling you. Plus, the technological wizardry tends to overwhelm any human being.

So why not give the job to a couple of youngsters who can be relied on to be pleasant, who have good teeth for lots of smiling, and who will be bland enough not to offend anybody? Anne Hathaway and James Franco would have suited admirably, if only they hadn’t attempted to be funny. Their "shtick" fell miserably flat. The low point of the evening was when Mr. Franco stumbled on in drag – red gown and blonde wig – effortfully trying to look as butch as possible. His co-host referred to him as "Marilyn" but if there was any point to the routine it was left behind in the writers’ room. Unless the idea was to show that Hollywood stars can look as bad as church basement amateurs.

Admittedly, some of the technical wizardry did work well. For instance, the opening montage, with the hosts inserted into scenes from the nominees for best movie. Ditto for the sections where digital manipulation turned some of the movies into musicals, with the actors mouthing dorky words. (The samplings of songs that had actually been nominated were mercifully brief.  That could be why the show moved along at a reasonable pace, without the usual longeurs.) The "In Memoriam" section of the show always offers some mild surprises. Oh, did he die? I hadn’t heard! I found that item especially moving this year, even with background vocals by Celine Dion. Snarky as that remark may sound, it may be to the singer’s credit that she didn’t require any elaborate introduction, or indeed, any introduction of any kind. It was only after the number, for the benefit of anybody who didn’t know, that she was identified.

The montage leading up to the announcement of the best movie was probably the most effective aspect of the whole show. Assorted clips from the nominated movies built to a climax while we heard the stirring words of Colin Firth’s rendering of King George VI’s call to arms at the beginning of the Second World War. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if it was unfair to the other contenders to give so much prominence to Mr. Firth and the movie he starred in. Did somebody involved in the planning know something that we didn’t know about the awards to be handed out?

The best acceptance speech, I’m pleased to say, came from David Seidler, whose work on The King’s Speech won him the award for best original screenplay. Mr. Seidler’s comments were brief and pithy. A man well into his senior years by the looks of it, he started with the best line of the night: "My father always said I’d be a late bloomer....." It’s especially gratifying to acknowledge Mr. Seidler as having given the best speech because, from the remarks made, it would appear that he, like his subject in the movie, suffered from a speech impediment at one time. The booby-prize for the least articulate, most bumbling speech would have to go to Melissa Leo. (Her award for best actress in a supporting role was deserved but unexpected, given her relatively low profile compared to most of the other nominees in that category.) The nice thing about her dog’s breakfast of a speech was that you kinda got the feeling she hadn’t expected to win. Colin Firth, on accepting his award for best actor in a leading role, was as calm, cool, charming and royal as you’d expect. I’m not buying his claim that he was all jittery inside.

And, since no Oscars critique would be complete without a comment on the wardrobes, here are a couple. Jennifer Hudson’s slinky tangerine-coloured gown really did dazzle. The goofiest dress was, without a doubt, Cate Blanchett’s square-shouldered item with an oval piece at the front that made it look like she was just putting a batch of cookies in the oven. Bravo to Ms. Blanchett for showing that a star is allowed to look as kooky as she wants to.

Footnote: The sound was impossible during the pre-show "Red Carpet" hoop-la. Especially in the case of the woman who was interviewing the celebs (I didn’t catch her name). Her voice was too low in register to be heard above the background noise. I guess the planners hadn’t reckoned on all those screaming females lining the runway. Is it comforting, then, to realize that even a show that gets the most elaborate and expensive planning imaginable can still run into technical problems?


Iphignie En Tauride (Opera) by Christoph Willibald Gluck; starring Susan Graham, Plcido Domingo, Paul Groves; with Lei Xu, Cecelia Hall, Gordon Hawkins, Julie Boulianne, David Won; production by Stephen Wadsworth; conducted by Patrick Summers, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Live in HD Transmission, February 26th.

After suffering through the Met’s Nixon In China (see review on page dated Feb 23/11), we felt we owed ourselves something beautiful and calming. Iphignie En Tauride certainly was. At least, in terms music. Plot-wise it’s something of a can of worms. Poor Iphignie, in case you’re not up to speed on your Greek mythology, was scheduled to be sacrificed by way of ensuring victory for Agamemnon, her dad. At the last minute, though, she was rescued by the goddess Diana and taken to Tauride. There she has what you might call a bit of a nightmare in which she sees her papa killed by Clytemnestra, her mom. Iphignie’s day job, though, is working as a priestess for Diana, which means she has to kill a couple of strangers in order to secure victory for the local king. Iphignie balks at first, but then agrees to kill one of the guys who are dragged in. The two strangers, Oreste and Pylade, vie with each other to become the sacrifice. Each of them wants to get himself killed to prove his love for his buddy. No stage or screen has ever seen a bromance carried to such extremes.

All this makes for a lot of dithering around the sacrificial altar. Apart from that, there’s not much happening. Which could be why director Stephen Wadsworth gives the women surrounding Iphignie lots of movement – most of it senseless, in my opinion. Some dancers provide a bit of pleasant diversion but all the arm-swinging from the rest of the women looks like an aerobics class at your local YWCA. When not whirling like dervishes, though, the women do make very attractive background groupings, gowned in warm, earthy tones of rust and Indian red, lit like figures in a Rembrandt painting.

Given that the visuals don’t offer much variety, this is one of those productions where you often feel moved to close your eyes and concentrate on the beautiful sounds. Which is what matters, really. None of the arias is as familiar as the beloved "Che faro" from Glucks’s Orfeo ed Euridice but certain passages could well become as popular if heard more often. At the outset of the show, the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb appeared in front of the curtain to ask our indulgence towards Susan Graham and Plcido Domingo, both of whom would be soldiering on in spite of heavy colds. I always wonder whether it’s necessary to make that kind of announcement. A skeptical person might suspect that it’s just a plea for sympathy. But I suppose it makes the singers feel better.

In any case, it was clear during the intermission interviews that Ms. Graham, at least, did have a cold. Nevertheless, she sang gloriously in the title role. Her voice is rich, warm and golden. Her ornamentation in soft passages was especially thrilling. Signor Domingo is truly amazing. At his age (seventy) you might expect some diminution of his vocal prowess. He has, in fact, begun to sing some baritone roles (Simon Boccanegra, for instance). But his tenor voice in the role of Oreste was ringing, clear and as powerful as ever. Mind you, the role was pitched a bit lower than the tenor role of Pylade. Paul Groves sang that part heroically and splendidly. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if the music might be better served by a sweeter, lighter tenor. A couple of Canadian examples come to mind: historically, the legendary Lopold Simoneau; or currently, the extraordinary Michael Schade.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com