Category Archives: Performance

Meaning and Melody

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Michael Wilpers is manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler.

The Sackler’s current exhibition Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy demonstrates the occasional tension between writing meant to be read and that which is valued primarily for its artistry. One of the more flamboyant Persian scripts on display in the exhibition is almost impossible for most viewers to read. Ornate Persian scripts have often been used in architecture and ceramics, more as decoration than signage.

This kind of tension between intelligibility and artfulness has played out many times in the history of music, between songs with easily understood words and those in which lyrics are almost overwhelmed by melodic invention. A Westerner might compare the emphasis on the words in Christian congregational singing with the kind of melodic invention of a choral fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, where sometimes the words hardly seem to matter.

Perhaps no sacred music tradition is more devoted to clarity of text than the Vedic chant of Hinduism. You can hear a sample in the first track of our 2006 podcast of Gustav Holst’s “Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda,” featuring Venkatesh Sastri of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple and recorded at the Freer Gallery. Only three pitches are used and almost every syllable gets its own note, making it easy for anyone who understands Sanskrit to follow along. At the opposite extreme of the Hindu tradition is the classical music of South India, where devotional songs (kritis) are so well known by their melodies that virtuoso musicians can perform lengthy improvisations on them without any need for words at all, confident that their audience will know them. A good example is our 2009 podcast featuring South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam performing highly elaborated variations on devotional songs by Tyagaraja (1767–1847) and his father, V. Lakshminarayana (1911–1990).

Coincidentally, at the very time that Persian nasta’liq script was reaching its peak of development—the mid-sixteenth century—the Roman Catholic Church ordered that sacred music be made more understandable. Composers were to refrain from disguising the words of the liturgies in overly elaborate melodies and counterpoint. One target of these reforms was a genre of medieval plainchant that stretched out each syllable of text over a long string of notes. An excellent example can be heard in our podcast of Cappella Romana singing the fourteenth-century Invitatorium in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Simpler music—and more intelligible lyrics—were in demand again two hundred years later when Bach and Handel were writing their most complex works, a style heard in the music of their contemporary Domenico Scarletti and in our podcast of the Gulbenkian Choir.

The Islamic world saw its own reforms of sacred music when orthodox legalists condemned the ornate style of Koranic recitations that appeared in the ninth to twelfth century. Melodic virtuosity is nevertheless still practiced by some specialists in Koranic recitation, while a much simpler chant style is prescribed for laypeople. In the South Asian music known as qawwali, Islamic texts are joined with praises for Sufi saints in renditions that are sometimes straightforward and at other times in a highly elaborated style. Such contrasts can be heard on our podcast by the Chisty Sufi Sama Ensemble.

View our complete list of podcasts here.

Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Poetry remains on view through May 3, 2015.

Whistler and the British Music Hall

The Manager's Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

The Manager’s Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

Michael Wilpers is public programs coordinator at Freer|Sackler.

Musical ideas abound in the work of American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), whose art is more abundantly represented in the Freer|Sackler’s collections than at any other museum in the world. Rather than use conventional labels for his works (such as “portraits” or “landscapes”), Whistler instead called them “harmonies,” “symphonies,” “nocturnes,” “variations,” and “arrangements.” But the connections between Whistler and music extend beyond these labels and their associated aesthetic concepts.

The London of Whistler’s time was virtually consumed with the burgeoning form of entertainment called “music hall,” a variety-show genre comparable to American vaudeville and French cabaret. When Whistler arrived in London in 1859, the Canterbury Music Hall had just been converted from a 700-seat establishment to one that held 1,500 guests, featuring tables and chairs for dining, ornate chandeliers, and a capacious mezzanine. By 1875, more than 375 music halls were open in greater London, ranging from modest taverns to massive entertainment centers, all with music and comedy to accompany their beer and food. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to wonder if Whistler’s famous night scenes (nocturnes) were so lacking in people because they were all at the music halls!

Along with sentimental and patriotic tunes, music hall’s trademark and biggest draw were its comic songs, replete with double entendre, tongue-twisters, and other risqué wordplay evidenced in such classics as “Pheasant Plucker” and the later “You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Key Hole.” Such lyrics contributed to a culture of wit and conversational cleverness—of which Whistler was a proud champion. His playful, public conversations with Oscar Wilde were the talk of the town; he once famously claimed to have perfected the “gentle art of making enemies.” In addition, one might be remiss in considering Whistler’s relationship to music hall without factoring in his many romantic liaisons, which were certainly not inconsistent with the genre’s bawdy themes.

Whistler also represented music hall directly in his artwork. The Freer collection includes several of his lithographs showing the exterior of the Gaiety Theater (pictured above), which opened in 1868 with a seating capacity of 2,000. In 1877, Whistler executed a portrait of one of the Gaiety’s child-stars, Connie Gilchrist, who was just twelve at the time. She became famous for her jump-rope dance routine, “taking the fashionable frequenters of the place by storm,” the Times noted, “her ingenuousness capturing all hearts, especially in contrast to the precocious cynicism of her stage dialogue.” Many artists and photographers created portraits of Gilchrist, who married well above her station, like so many of the “Gaiety Girls.” Of course, Whistler gave his portrait a musical name—Harmony in Yellow and Gold—with the overarching colors punctuated in three spots by the red of her lips and the two jump-rope handles.

The Freer Gallery celebrated the venerable music hall tradition this summer with a performance by the British Players, a revival troupe based in the Washington area. In a nod to Whistler’s nocturnes, the troupe included its own arrangement of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” a big hit of the very early 1900s. The Washington Post called the Freer show “a bawdy good time … full of bad jokes, genuinely funny acts, and naughty songs.” The critic continued, “The show went off with enormous good humor and energy, suggesting that the dark and somewhat spooky London that Whistler dwelt on must have had its lighthearted music-hall moments.”

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players give a series of charity performances every December and June at Kensington Town Hall in Maryland, under the patronage of Lady Kensington herself. Their shows come complete with the requisite “chairman” (a wise-cracking master of ceremonies), bow-belles, the Chord Busters vocal quartet, the Edwardians (ensemble choir), can-can, and plenty of food and drink.

For excellent material about music hall—its history, theaters, entrepreneurs, star performers, and sheet music covers—visit the Victoria and Albert Museum’s web feature and be sure to check out the related content.

A look at Whistler’s ode to a rapidly changing London, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, remains on view in the Sackler through August 17. #americaninlondon

Music in the Time of Kiyochika

Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight by Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1997; Robert O. Muller Collection

“Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight” by Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1997; Robert O. Muller Collection

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

What would it have been like to attend a piano recital in Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912), the period when the city called Edo ceased to exist and was renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”) by Japan’s new rulers? It was a time of modernization that featured the introduction of gaslights, steamships, railroads, brick buildings, and telegraph lines. It was also the time when self-trained artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) captured the rapidly changing city in the woodblock prints on view in Kiyochika: Master of the Night.

During the late 1800s, Western music was embraced with enthusiasm in Japan. (The most popular composer in Japan at the time was Beethoven; he remains so to this day.) With that in mind, Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel presented a program in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium that featured Western composers popular in Japan during Kiyochika’s lifetime. The pianist brought out deeper meaning and darker tones in the music, similar to what Kiyochika accomplished in his work.

The first half of the program, played with a combination of passion and precision, featured Beethoven’s “Bagatelles” and “Moonlight Sonata,” followed by Liszt’s “Pensée des Morts.” The pianist ended the first half of the program with “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu” (Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell) by Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992). Messiaen was born too late to fit neatly into the program, but his work echoes Liszt’s, which itself has ties to Beethoven’s famed sonata. After the intermission, Vonsattel played Schumann’s “Arabeske in C Major, op. 18″ and Books I and II of Debussy’s “Images.” This is where Vonsattel’s playing was marked with poetry and an ethereal air. The themes introduced in the first half—bells, water, and moonlight—reverberated with masterful panache.

You could close your eyes and imagine that you were back in Kiyochika’s Japan, listening to music in a concert hall that was illuminated by gaslight. When viewing the prints in Master of the Night (which often include images of light on water), however, we recommend you keep your eyes wide open.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night remains on view in the Sackler Gallery through July 27, 2014.

#kiyochika

Thunder on the Mall: Cherry Blossom Edition

Thundering taiko drumming met traditional Japanese dance as artists from Tokyo’s Tamagawa University treated National Cherry Blossom Festival visitors to a special performance this afternoon. The group, which is led and choreographed by Kabuki dance master Isaburoh Hanayagi, is one of the top-ranking Taiko groups in Japan and comes out of the country’s most prestigious performing arts school.

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