Tag: artistry

Yuja Wang: “I Respond To Something On The Spot”

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

What could possibly be said of Yuja Wang that hasn’t already been said?

Yes, she’s glamorous, yes, she gets a lot of attention, and yes, she’s one of the world’s most celebrated pianists. But she is also warm and funny, and a very thoughtful conversationalist, strong in her opinions, it’s true, but also entirely unapologetic in her individualism. It could well be that such innate authenticity, and never feeling the need to apologize for it, has been, and continues to be, part of what draws audiences around the world to her – that, and of course, her being one of the true greats of the piano.

Born into a musical family in Beijing (her mother is a dancer; her father, a percussionist), Wang began piano as a child, and went on to study as a teenager at the famed Curtis Institute of Music. In 2002, she won the concerto competition at the Aspen Music Festival, and a year later, made her European debut with the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich led by conductor David Zinman, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Wang debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival in 2006, and toured with the orchestra and conductor Lorin Maazel their very next season. Wang’s big international breakthrough came in 2007, when she replaced Martha Argerich as soloist in a concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

In 2011, Wang made a lauded debut at Carnegie Hall, in a program featuring the works of Scriabin, Liszt, and Prokofiev, and has since gone on to work with some of the classical world’s most noted figures, including fondly remembered conductors Sir Neville Marriner, Claudio Abbado, and Kurt Masur, as well as Zubin Mehta, Michael Tilson Thomas, Paavo Järvi, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and has worked with the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the London Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, NHK Symphony (Tokyo), Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and the Royal Concertgebouw orchestras. In reviewing a 2012 concert appearance in San Francisco, Joshua Kosman wrote that Wang is “quite simply, the most dazzlingly, uncannily gifted pianist in the concert world today, and there’s nothing left to do but sit back, listen and marvel at her artistry.”

Yuja Wang classical music piano artist Chinese creative

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Wang is almost always on hectic rounds of touring, and moves regularly between continents and concert halls. 2019 has been a particularly rich time; along with her tour with Capuçon, Wang gave a hugely well-received performance at the Enescu Festival in September (as part of a tour with the Dresden Staatskapelle and conductor Myung-Whun Chung), and also performed at the inaugural edition of the Tsinandali Festival in Georgia. Last month, she gave the first London performance of  John Adams’ “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”, a work commissioned by the LA Phil and written especially for Wang; music writer Jari Kallio called the performance “a ravishing experience.”

January sees further tour dates with Capuçon as well an extensive solo recital tour and concert performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (led by Andris Nelsons), the Toronto Symphony, (led by incoming TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno) the San Francisco Symphony (led by Michael Tilson Thomas) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Chances are she may collect a few more awards along the way; she’s already been the recipient of several, including being named Musical America’s Artist of the Year in 2017. A four-time Grammy Award nominee, The Berlin Recital (Deutsche Grammophone), released in November 2018, is a live recording done at the Philharmonie Berlin; in October it won the prestigious 2019 Gramophone Classical Music Awards in the instrumental category.

The recording evocatively captures Wang’s ferociously individualistic voice, her unapologetic musicality filling space – sonic, but also intellectual and emotional. These are qualities Wang balances so skillfully in her readings of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti, and Prokofiev. Gramophone’s David Fanning noted in her performances of both Rachmaninoff’s B minor Prelude as well as Scriabin’s Sonata No 10 that “she moves smoothly between feathery, evocative touches and maximum eruptive volatility.” The recording is a firm personal favorite of mine for a number of reasons, chief among them its beautifully therapeutic qualities. Speaking as a simple listener, it feels as if Wang has a special talent for poking holes in the many clouds of depression that have descended with such force, weight, and consistency over the past year. The way she shapes the trills of Scriabin’s Sonata, her twisty rubato of Prokofiev’s Sonata No 8 , her fierce, eff-you-haters phrasing of Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in G Minor (which opens the album) – these sounds, and the feisty spirit behind them, have been instrumental in envisioning a path through some desperately sad, cloudy times.

And so it is with Chopin-Franck (Warner Classics), released today. As I wrote in my feature on the French cellist earlier this week, the album offers truly enlightening approaches with composers whose works you may think you know well, with two works by Chopin (Sonata in A Major and Polonaise brillante in C Major), the famous Sonata in A Major  by Cesar Franck (in a transcription for cello by Jules Delsart), along with an encore of Piazzolla’s  beloved “Grand Tango”. Recorded at Toronto’s Koerner Hall at the end of a whirlwind tour that included stops in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York’s Carnegie Hall, the work brings inspiration both intellectual and emotional, and is a luscious sonic intertwining of two highly complementary artistic sensibilities, with Wang’s performance (blazingly sparky one moment, whisperingly delicate the next) matching Capuçon’s note for note, and, as you’ll read, breath for breath. The pianist told the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that for her, “playing music is about transporting to another way of life, another way of being” and this album is a very good display of such sonic transcendence.

Wang took time over the recent Thanksgiving holiday to chat about the nature of performance and the unique joys of collaborative musical partnerships.

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Gautier said he felt the creative chemistry with you immediately; did you have a similar experience?

Yes, definitely that feeling is mutual. On tour we’d sometimes joke, “Oh, we don’t have to rehearse!” We have the same ideas of phrasing and how a piece should go. It’s very flexible in terms of what we’re deciding on the spot. And with this (album), all the pieces are so centered on piano, like the Chopin Sonata – I told him, “This is harder than the solo stuff!” It was fun; it never felt like there was a dull moment, and if we play something beautiful for encores which he’s known for – like “The Swan” (Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” from his Le Carnaval des animeaux) or “Meditation” (from Massenet’s Thais)– he just melts every person in the concert. I enjoy that as well.

How did you decide on touring and recording these pieces specifically?

We did the tour and decided on Chopin, since I am always a big fan of Chopin. Even talking about repertoire is very easy, we never have to explain – it was just, “Okay, let’s do that!” And I always loved the Franck sonata. Violinists will hate me, but I love how it sounds on the cello more than the violin version,. We did Rachmaninoff when we played Carnegie Hall – he did record it in 2001, but I think it’s time to do another version.

How does the energy of your partnership affect other things you do?

I have a few fixed partnerships, and he is definitely one of them, the other is Leonidas (Kavakos). Gautier and I did that recording in April and now we are preparing to go out for another three weeks in January – it is a big chunk of your life, to travel together and play together. I always look forward to that because, as a pianist, you always usually travel by yourself, and this way it’s like having a partner around musically. I mean, as a woman and musician, this sort of work seeps into your psyche. It’s not like playing a concerto where you are soloist and there’s an orchestra. The hardest is the solo recitals, where you’re traveling by yourself and busy onstage for ninety minutes. But with Gautier or Leonidas, I’m onstage with another person, making music together – in a way it’s more relaxed, very relaxed – which I love.

That’s the biggest difference, but you know, you count on the other person as well, you give and take onstage, it’s not just you with full responsibility. And, of course, there’s the usual cliche, “we learn a lot from each other” – and of course we do – but in a way it feels like a musical family to be around. You can count on someone, and be very comfortable with them.

It feels protecting?

Yes, protecting, yes! That’s the word. And, because (Kavakos and Capuçon) are such amazing musicians, if I’m having an off day, if I’m tired, they are there to support and to be there. The recording session (in Toronto) was at the end of a two-week tour, and there was a photo session, and an intense recording session; it was a lot, but because Gautier was there I agreed to do it. He is very different from Leonidas – I don’t want to compare! – but with Gautier, we just breathe the music together and it’s there, super-spontaneous.

It’s a musical intimacy that feels rare for its authenticity.

It’s true, and we try to protect that as much as can onstage. It’s very delicate, very vulnerable, that kind of intimacy, and it’s really about intensely listening and just being there for each other, breathing together. It sounds so strange, but because of that, it’s why it feels so spontaneous – because there’s this other way of making chamber music, which is very calculated and planned. And that’s never my way of doing things, but the contrast of doing that also sometimes brings very good results. I think the only other musician like that was Claudio Abbado. He never said anything – he used his gestures and his musicians knew what to do. Gautier is a bit like that; his bowing and his breathing, his whole body is so involved in music. So artistically speaking, it was love at first sight!

Yuja Wang classical music piano artist Chinese creative

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Has this partnership changed your relationship with the piano? I would imagine when you experience such creative closeness, you return to your own instrument with a slightly different perspective… ?

I wouldn’t say I play very differently actually, I feel like the repertoire we chose is so piano-oriented so sometimes I feel as if I’m playing solo. But you learn how they use the bow, how they sing, what colours you can bring, and how they see music. That’s the thing with Gautier: we see it very similarly. When I play concerts, I always have been the same way – I’m very reactive; I respond to something on the spot. I see what others are doing and I respond like that.

I guess that’s why I love playing this music and my partners are happy with it too – it’s all about listening, which I learned from Curtis: that’s how you should play music. I’m not so much, I think, trying to be like the leader or like, “Do this! You follow me!” – I’m never like that in any kind of way, and I have the same principles doing concertos or chamber music. But solo is a very different thing, because it’s like being a conductor: you decide what pieces you’re going to play, what they mean to you, and you have to take full responsibility for everything. So that’s a totally different way of operating. 

But I would imagine you think of Chopin and Franck in new ways now.

The Chopin cello sonata is very enigmatic for me. I never played any Franck in any real sense! We did Rachmaninoff together – I’m doing Rachmaninoff 4 this week in Cleveland, it’s a language I know very well, so I would say it’s in my comfort zone – but the Chopin was a puzzle for me. The Polonaise, okay, that was very fun to play, but especially after we did the Sonata, it was so intricate, and so much voice, the cello… he just had one line and had to go in and out, but between all of my five lines, and the harmony is so forward-looking. It’s not just, “Oh, what a nice melody by Chopin!” except the third movement, which is so meditative and beautiful – especially the way Gautier played it! But the rest is a Mazurka, and it’s the Chopin we know, but not; he didn’t finish it, and it’s a late work and … it makes you think, where would he go if he didn’t die at 39? The harmony… it’s fun, but it’s really hard. There’s one passage in the first movement, these chords are almost like in Petrushka –but then you have to think about the balance with the cello and the melody.

I think, in a way, I do think more about orchestrating when I go back to my solo music: how to balance the sound, each voice in harmony. Those are the things that become more obvious as a result of doing chamber music-making.

Gautier called the Polonaise “pianistic.”

I think maybe he is conscious of choosing this repertoire because he’s aware that I am in my comfort zone doing all this stuff, rather than sometimes, you know… I mean, I don’t want to just be playing accompaniment…  

… but it seems like this is very much both of you doing equal give-and-take, like a tennis match.

Yes, totally! 

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Warner Classics

And I would imagine things will expand now? Gautier mentioned you’re in planning stages for future projects.

Exactly. I just love the chamber music by Rachmaninoff, and why not the cello sonata? There’s so much other repertoire, I was telling him yesterday, that I want to do: “Let’s do Brahms! Let’s do Rachmaninoff!” He already recorded that, but it’s very special when we do it. We can choose to stay with Russians: Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev… I mean, he makes the cello sing but he can also make it such a beast; I just take care of voicing. And it’s fun, I don’t have to always worry about, “Oh, I’m covering the cello now” because he has such a big presence.

So do you!

We little people have big presence! 

Sondra Radvanovsky in Toronto: Embracing Evolution

Radvanovsky Koerner Toronto

Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov, Show One Productions

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky’s recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto this past weekend was a firm integration of her past, present, and future. The concert, presented to a sold-out audience, also served as a good catalyst for personal reflection, since it marked my first classical event since returning to Canada after living in Europe for close to four months. Contemplations on the role of evolution — artistic, personal, creative, emotional (or textured, painterly integration of them all) — progressed amidst a program which, despite its “bel canto to verismo” title, offered its own form of evolution as well, offering tasty morsels of Baroque works by Cacchini, Scarlatti, Fluck, and Durante, as well as later (much later) Italian composers Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. The recital was a keen lesson on the importance of authenticity, grace, and generosity, qualities the American-born, Canada-dwelling soprano has in abundance. It also underlined the magic of transformative embrace, to beautiful effect. 

Radvanovsky’s plummy soprano tone and supple vocalism, combined with an instinctual stage presence, have garnered her a host of fans, particularly following her triumphant series of performances as the female lead in bel canto “Tudor trilogy” by Donizetti (in both Toronto and New York) over the past few years. Many personal stories were shared throughout the evening, ones connecting circumstances with inspiration and opportunity with growth. Much like driving by an old house after moving (and yes I inadvertently did this myself recently), there was a nostalgic flavour to the proceedings, though it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Her coquettish rendition of Rossini’s boat-romance song cycle “La regata veneziana” (which she recalled performing as a young singer) was sharply contrasted by a theatrically gripping “Una macchia e qui tuttora!” from Verdi’s Macbeth. Radvanovsky subsequently revealed she will be making her role debut as the ambitious wife of Shakespeare’s doomed sovereign, though gave no indication of when. Will it be Toronto first and then New York, as was the case with her Donizetti Tudor roles? Only time will tell.  

Radvanovsky Koerner Toronto

Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov, Show One Productions

After years of seeing Radvanovsky perform live, what I think makes her so powerful as an artist is her ability to meld blazing vocalism with charismatic theatricality; she physically acted out various scenes (from Roberto Devereux and Macbeth, for instance), reflecting the drama already so very present and palpable in her voice. Such a seamless fusion has won her many fans, both in her chosen country (she is American by birth but resides just outsides Toronto) and abroad.  The recital was marketed (and largely perceived by her many fans) as a homecoming, something she fully embraced, giving the enthusiastic Toronto audience a total of four encores at the concert’s close, which included recital chestnuts “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s La Rondine, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from Catalani’s La Wally, “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (thrilling), as well as a very charming “Over the Rainbow”, complete with melodic piano flourishes from accompanist Anthony Manoli. What Radvanovsky gave, however (in bucket-fulls), was far more subtle than that which can be easily or quickly comprehended. The rapturous cheers may have come fast and furious, but I had to sit, at the close of each piece, quietly and carefully absorbing the innate artistry of what had just unfolded; it was like watching a plant grow from a spindly, fine, eyelash-like sprout, into a lush tree full of emerald-green, merrily waving leaves, all in the space of a few hours, or even bars. Radvanovsky took listeners on the journey of her ever-expanding evolution — artistic, creative, dare I say personal — and it was wondrous to behold. 

Over the past fourteen months or so, a creative reawakening of sorts has occurred within me, and I’ve returned to the work of artists I’d once loved, and found connections to new ones who break down doors mental, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional; in the process my priorities and pursuits have evolved into something which is a far more accurate reflection of who and what I am as writer and music lover, outside of my mother’s considerable (traditional opera-loving) shadow. It has been a kind of homecoming in both personal and professional senses. Some homecomings, I realize more than ever, are more meaningful than others, and have absolutely nothing to do with geography.  Just prior to returning, I had been told that I’d become “a lot more adventurous” in my musical tastes. This observation, made by a colleague, was flattering if heartening. Evolution is an interesting thing; sometimes it can be less about dramatic change than reclamation, exploration, and integration — reclaiming those more tender, curious parts of ourselves we have left behind, neglected, hidden away from view, exploring which parts fit now and which parts don’t, and integrating those parts with a worldly (we hope) adult self in a way that allows for the meeting of responsibilities while still leaving room for beauty, wonder, and surprise.

Radvanovsky Koerner Toronto

Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov, Show One Productions

Those qualities — beauty, wonder, surprise — were the ones I took away with me from Radvanovsky’s recital. Her fearless rendition of “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Manon Lescaut, was luscious, passionate, her tone entirely unforced; she sang with a sensual zeal I have not, for all the times I’ve seen her perform live, quite heard before, and it was, in a word, breathtaking. The recital pointed at exciting new directions, a potential being realized, a new self flowering naturally from the old — not a forced transition this, but a progression, an extension, a risk into the unknown that feels utterly, bracingly right. Is one to deny evolution in favor of the familiar? Very often one does, yet another path beckons, and when taken, can yield the most beautiful of results. Radvanovsky is taking that path, as her recital in Toronto on Saturday proved, and doing it in own inimitable way. Brava.

Lush Landscape

This just blew me out of my chair.

I’ve sat through many awful Jobim interpretations. However, this cover, by Gretchen Parlato and Esperanza Spalding, is well and truly astonishing; it doesn’t belong anywhere near the tired old “predictable Jobim cover” bin.

Perhaps I’ve had covers on the brain lately, what with seeing Bettye LaVette perform this past weekend (and falling even more in love with that raspy voice of hers, if that’s possible), and giving Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy record a much-overdue re-listen -but it feels like when artists cover others artists’ work, they take the safe high road of sonic politeness and predictability. If I wanted to hear it exactly like the original… hell, I’d put the original on for myself. When I hear an artist do a cover version, I want something creative, original, soulful, and thought-provoking; I don’t have to agree with the result to appreciate the effort, but I want the feel the artist understands the meaning of the word “interpret.” Most don’t, or are cowed by the potential hisses of shrewd audiences. But what is artistry without a bit of risk? Chances are that just as many people will be pleased as be pissed off. Dear Artists: take the risk!

A composer like Jobim simply begs for interpretation. This duet delivers the goods. The poetically simple instrumentation – voices, hands, bass – combined with the tonal variations in voices, combined with that gorgeous, loping bassline, make for a swoon-worthy listen. My Monday just got a whole better hearing/watching this. Give it a watch/listen – yours may, too.

Addendum: for a beautiful version of the original, check out Ella Fitzgerald singing “Useless Landscape” live at Montreux in 1969. Awesome scatting included. Swooooon.

(Re)Birth


Oh dear, oh dear… several concerts, three openings, two books, a TV appearance, and one surgery (not mine) later, and I find I’m getting guilt-pangs. Dear blog, I’ve ignored you, and I am sorry. There will be a lot more posts in the coming days and weeks, including a review of the last North American stop on Hugh Masekela’s recent tour, an audio interview with the playwright behind a new opera about boxing and women, a preview of an upcoming Robert LePage show involving gender-bending, and my own musing on tattoo artist Kat Von D’s latest book.

In the meantime, a celebration of sorts is in order. Artist Louis le Brocquy turned 94 today. To say his work was a big reason I picked up a paintbrush sounds too trite, too twee, too completely earnest. But it’s true. I remember being introduced to his work by an art professor many years ago in Dublin; the way I look at art -and the world -hasn’t been the same since. Le Brocquy‘s fierce sensuality combined with his meticulous skill have cast such a powerful spell that I’ve literally lost hours staring silently at his work. And it isn’t just a technical admiration; there’s a real sense of love that pours forth from his works -for the works themselves, the act, the subject, the materials, the very spirit of art and artistry and poetry, the whole chaotic mass of creation, of birth, of death, of living, of knowing, of being …for the sake of it.

It’s not unusual for me to get emotional looking at his work, either; the magical combination of paint and brushstrokes, light and shadow, shape and form, work a kind of alchemical magic that bounces straight from head into heart, threading the two together until there’s no distinction between me, subject, and canvas. This Irish painter’s vision is so singularly unique as to make words very, very limiting in trying to describe its power. That’s the mark of good art in my books. And I try surround and immerse myself in that kind of awesome beauty as much as I can -or at least tote around the compact version, which isn’t always successful.

Only recently have I returned in a big way to my own art-making, and while it’s been a kind of homecoming, it’s also provided an alarming awakening (more on that in a future post). Every carefully-applied brushstroke whispers a primal, messy truth -one I’m coming to recognize and embrace in every aspect of my ever-expanding world. Le Brocquy’s work feels both soothing and a call for authenticity -in art, in love, in life. I hope I can heed it.

For now, I send my heartfelt thanks, joy, and good wishes to Mr. Brocquy. Love and gratitude, always.


Top painting: Fantail, 1989
Middle painting: Back, 1997
Bottom painting: Study for Children in a Wood, 1988

Bloomin’ Great

Today is Bloomsday.

Not having read Ulysses in over a decade, much less looked through it (ironically, I left my annotated copy in Dublin), I decided it was the perfect day to pick up a copy. As I flipped through page after page of beautiful, confounding prose, I was reminded of the place writing once occupied in my life, and how my perceptions around it have changed.

It’s not a higher calling to me anymore, nor is it some kind of holy act; it simply is, along with any number of other things people have a particular affinity for. I both fought and embraced the monikers of “writer” and “artist” for years, feeling, on the one hand I wasn’t worthy of those titles, and, on the other, I was purely defined by them. Neither, life has shown me, is quite accurate.

And yet there’s the same sense of wonder, joy, and wordless awe when I open Ulysses, just as there was way back when I first read it in the mid 1990s. The mad combination of drama, poetry, geography, and frankly… a jazz-like feeling of improvisation infuse every word in the 700+ page novel with wonder for me. It isn’t polite, tidy, or precise; this is rough, edgy, coarse prose, the kind you might find your brain -much less (eeek) soul -getting cut on (badly) if you’re looking for soothing respite. That’s a big part of its appeal. Who wants soothing? There’s yoga for that. Joyce’s words are real, raw, crude, shrewd, raunchy, sad, infuriating, confusing … and poetic. Like people. Like life.

This, of all days, feels like the right time to offer up a tribute, and I can think of no better way of saluting the book, and all of us still intoxicated by it. Yes, for real:

There’s a beautiful roughness to this, without the 360 frills, that feels right for the poetic (dare I say Joycean) lyrics; the musical rawness here feels (and sounds) like the perfect dance partner for the pitbull-like aggression of the prose, and, conversely, the prose has a wild, unhinged musicality that becomes more muscular with the beefy sonic accompaniment. My first reaction when I heard this song was: Joyce. And it wasn’t just the June 16th reference, either.

Words -they’re not much, but they can get us through some dark times. They, like any art, don’t define -they refine; the silence between syllables and the long yawning vowels become the music we understand. Writing isn’t reformation but sublimation to a higher power: imagination.

“How moving the scene there in the gathering twilight, the last glimpse of Erin, the touching chime of those evening bells and at the same time a bat flew forth from the ivied belfry through the dusk, hither, thither, with a tiny lost cry. And she could see far away the lights of the lighthouses so picturesque she would have loved to do with a box of paints…”

It’s So “Big”

Since when did the personal become the small?

So ends a recent column by writer Russell Smith in last week’s Globe and Mail. I pondered this line as I reviewed various favourite blogs, artworks, musicians and artists. “Personal” is a complicated matter, especially within the creative realm. Doing it well entails walking a fine, hair-thin line between insight and narcissism. Regarding the personal as “small” depends on who you’re asking, what you’re creating, and how you’re synthesizing elements of life, imagination, and observation.

I’ve always been a fan of the venerable Mr. Smith, for the way he manages to seamlessly integrate all three, while pouring in mounds of thought-provocation about the wet-dry trails of footprints that map out our contemporary lives. Last week I attended the launch of his latest book, Girl Crazy, which revolves around an established urban man’s obsession with a stripper and the seedy underbelly he is inevitably drawn to. I haven’t read it yet, but based on Smith’s past writing, as well as a recent (positive) review, it seems like a heady mix of questions around social class, the nature of modern life, the drag of adult responsibility, and the hot steaming throb of obsession ballsing the lot up. What’s more, it feels, like much of Smith’s past work, entirely shot through with a smart sensibility that embraces both male and female perceptions around the deliciously taboo two-backed beast that both scintillates and scorns our society, vampirically sucking at the humming root of desire that sits inside us all.


Just before attending Smith’s book launch, I went to an art opening featuring the work of Quebecois artist Dominique Fortin. Like the author, the personal is anything but small in her world; with references to family, friends, and her own history (and future), Fortin beautifully fuses the twin themes of epic and intimate to render the most personal moments understandable, real, and present. Ironically, the title of the exhibition is “Petits Geants” (or “Small Giants”. Fortin embraces and celebrates femininity in an epic yet intimate way that I found deeply moving as well as inspiring. Using faces and figures as her main motif, Fortin integrates the visual play of Klimt (notably with the creative use of spirals and intricate patterns, for which she employs a range of mixed media) and the graffiti ethos of Basquiat (especially in her use of text around and/or above her figures). The effect is something of a punk-rock Alice In Wonderland, with china doll-esque black and white female faces sitting atop large (sometimes winged) figures, lost (or maybe found) in a swirling, soft focus world of imprecise measurements and imperfect geometry.

One of the paintings features Fortin’s daughters as facial models, which is brave, considering the artist confessed her determination in depicting an all-around female archetype in her work. I’m not a mother, but I related to the dark-angel whimsy of her work and found myself mesmerized by the raw, aggressive scrawls and strong painterly colours, especially in the context of their contrast with the delicate-faced figures. Featuring one’s offspring as the model of that universal, and deeply powerful idea, is both brave and crazy -but overall, the show (running at the gorgeous Thompson Landry Gallery through May 9th) is totally beguiling. Fortin embraces both child-like wonder and adult desire with equal gusto, and the results pour beautifully forth on her mixed media canvases.

I have a feeling I may find the same powerful mix in Smith’s words as I do in Fortin’s artwork. The “personal” as small? Only if you’re small-minded to begin with. Done well, and there’s nothing more universal -which is, at least to little ole me, makes for the most memorable art.

Girl Crazy is published by Harper Collins and is available now.

“Petits Geants” runs at the Thompson Landry Gallery to May 9th.

Pleasing Spectacle

Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… returned to Canadian television in mid-March with a gorgeous music-filled episode that featured Sheryl Crowe, Ron Sexsmith, Jesse Winchester and Neko Case. Sexsmith and Costello performed a particularly affecting version of “Every Day I Write The Book“, with a simple arrangement, two acoustic guitars and voices. Another songwriter-focused episode featuring Richard Thompson, Levon Helm, Nick Lowe, and Alain Toussaint; the season closes with a two-part Bruce Springsteen interview and music session.

That’s a big part of what I so love about Spectacle: its stripping-down of fancy-dancy songs to their bare essentials. Rather like a less-hip cousin to Unplugged (but one with an incredibly good wine cellar), the show features a good slather of intelligent, artist-to-artist chat, discussing woodshed-ish chord-change stuff as well as inspiring books, poems, and places. Simply put, the show is a celebration of musicianship, artistry, and sonic inventiveness, with a good dose of humanity, curiosity, and discovery. These are human beings in Costello’s able hands, not mere superstars. His fascination and respect for his guests shows, and it’s inspiring to watch.

Rounding out the big-name guests on April 3rd will be the repeat showing of the Spectacle taster offered back in December, with Bono and The Edge of U2. I first heard about this episode far before its airing, when the program was taped the week the band were in Toronto last September. My curiosity was stoked, if only because the opportunity to see members of a super-mondo-mega-band in a small venue struck me as a unique opportunity to see taken-for-granted artistry up-close.

Stadium theatrics aside, U2 have always struck me as keenly aware artists. It was good to hear bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! get a mention by Bono as important influences; I sometimes don’t think a band of U2’s stature are given proper credit in terms of their passion for the decidedly non-mainstream sounds that have influenced them. Maybe it’s because those kinds of bands -the stadium-filling ones -aren’t thought of as artists, ergo, they never get asked the kind of artist-focused questions Spectacle specializes in. I’ve always heard a lot of different influences in U2’s work, while marveling at the way such off-the-radar sounds can be re-envisioned and rejigged for mass consumption and appreciation. Is that the mark of true artistry? Or just being clever? I’m still working that one out (though I’m sure longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois would have something to say, being incredible artists in their own right. I’m still waiting for Costello to interview them…).

Whatever the case, friends will probably tell you I have an unusual (bizarre, offbeat -take your pick) appreciation of U2’s creative output. Part of that appreciation includes a song called “Please“, taken from U2’s woefully under-appreciated 1997 album, Pop. I was excited when I heard Costello had opened this particular tune; Mr. Pump-It-Up taking on “Please”? Yes please.

Words, together in some mystical sacrament with music, have always provided a heady, hearty kind of sonic seduction for me, and “Please” is the dark, dangerous lover in the night: imposing, insistent, important, passionate, scary, mysterious, operatic. Oh, and smart. Touching on themes common to U2’s music -God, choice, humanity, a capacity for love, forgiveness, violence and intransigence -the song had, at the time of its release, a particular connection with the Irish peace process. Seeing it live (for the epic PopMart) had precisely the same effect on me as seeing Pavarotti at The Met many years before: it was shattering. “Please” is a very underrated piece of art that is every bit as vital, moving, beautiful, sad and searing as it was when I first heard it. (Also, the video for it is genius. Kudos, Mr. Corbijn.)

When I tuned in to Spectacle last December, I was dismayed to find that Costello’s cover had been cut from the broadcast. I can only speculate the reasons why, but suffice to say it was a huge bummer. But the woe was replaced with a chorus of Hallelujah for the internet: I found another acoustic version of “Please” performed by Elvis Costello in 2000. I can only imagine the audience that September afternoon was treated to something similar.

Years may have etched a few more lines into faces and made hitting those high notes a bit more trying, but time has done nothing to that dark dangerous lover of mine: “Please” is every bit as breathtaking, thrilling, and overwhelming as the first time. Spectacle is so much more than mere spectacle, and sometimes -just sometimes -so are super-mondo-mega-bands.

Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… airs in Canada on CTV and in the U.S. on the Sundance channel.
Check local listings for air times.

Who’s That Girl?

Behold, a very young Lady Gaga pounding out her life’s passion in New York City back in January 2006. I love this video. It shows Ms. Germanotta’s incredible musicianship, strong vocals, and most of all, her absolute dedication to her craft. She’s clearly enjoying the relationships she shares with her bandmates, instrument, and audience. She might seem to be an entirely different beast now, with choreographed dance numbers, flaming bras, big wigs and crazily inspired outfits, but I’d like to believe a true artist’s heart still beats within her Armani-clad chest.

Also: this is one damn catchy tune.

“Look at me now, dahlings!”

Banned

Casually checking my Flickr as a kind of break from mad bouts of transcribing and article surgery earlier this evening, I came across a rather stern-sounding message: YOU HAVE BEEN BANNED FROM THE ABSTRACT PHOTOS GROUP. Oh dear.

Slightly perplexed, a bit flummoxed, but altogether curious, I took a look around the group to see what rules I had violated. Hmm, no porn, check. No photoshopping, check. No borders, check. No people, well… it’s my hand. Does that count?

Perusing one of the Administrator‘s interestingly-labelled “Hall of Inappropriate” sections (I counted three) in which photos rejected by the group can be commented on by other (non-rejected) members, I came across my photo (above), with the following caption, written by said Administrator:

Attack of the hands still here for the month of April 😉

Yes, I like hands. And yes, I’ve posted weird close-ups of my hands before. They’re an ongoing theme for me artistically and personally. I’m fascinated not only by mine but by others’. One of my earliest, most seminal inkling into visual art, before painting, drawing, or anything else, was taking hand traces. This particular shot (or series of shots) was taken during an especially joyous -and very fruitful -sketching session that yielded a lot of good material. I find something weirdly romantic, and deeply moving, about artists’ hands dirtied by their passion. And yes, I do think some of these are abstract. But that’s my opinion.

Alas, I suppose it wasn’t -isn’t -shared by ImaginationAlone. Admittedly, I may have violated the group rules by posting too many, else the Administrator just doesn’t think my work is a good fit for his/her Abstract group. I wonder what he/she would make of Guggi.

Attack of the bowls/jugs still here since 1988! (insert cute winky)

Artists can’t help what they’re drawn to. By the same token, artists can’t help what they’re repelled by, either. It’s all a matter of beauty in the eye of the beholder, of maintaining a degree of respect between artists. Not stepping on toes can be a full-time job; it takes patience, maturity, and a good sense of communication. Holding something you may not like up to ridicule by way of group-think doesn’t strike me as an entirely classy way to handle what you deem to be a poor fit for your collection, even if it is egalitarian in a cold, technological sense.

Alas, I take being banned as a weird badge of honour. Here’s looking at you, Groucho.

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