The Lively Arts (redux)

Art and Music in Denver and Beyond


March 2019

Now at Denver’s Robischon Gallery – May 4th

The pressure on contemporary artists is unrelenting.  They must possess technique and an excellent field of vision, as well as absorb and project color.  In 2019, exhibiting visual artists have an additional responsibility to create art that provides social or political commentary.  The impact of urbanization on the environment is presented at Denver’s Robischon Art Gallery in a show that runs through May 4th. Featured are photographer David Maisel: Atlas, photographer Kevin O’Connell: Petrichor and videographer James Benning: small roads.

Maisel trained at California College of the Arts where he now serves on the board.  Without reading Maisel’s artist statement or his biography, a viewer might interpret his media as oil instead of archival pigment prints. In one of his aerial images, great abstract swaths of blue and copper collect and disperse.  Maisel reinvents the world atlas by framing his subject with the distance provided by his aerial gaze. In an interview with Mark Alice Durant, Maisel states, “We expect photographs to render some kind of truth but they’re actually very hard to read, and embody the kind of difference between subjective looking and objective data.”  Numbers may speak but his Butte, Montana photos show the grim effects from years of mining since 1864. Another image from the Atacama Desert in Chile reports on the damages from mining.  The hole seems to bore through to the center of the earth.

Photo by

Maisel studied architecture at Princeton and found photography a good bedfellow. In the Saint Lucy interview with Durant, Maisel said “What fascinated me was how…buildings sit in the landscape.”  He took a photography class with Emmet Gowin and changed his major to visual art and continued at Princeton. After his move to the Bay Area he enrolled in a weekend poetry workshop with Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz.   Milosz “spent his life dealing with words and images and history and trying to find a form. And here he was this sort of elderly man at that point, but still trying to find form, that was incredibly inspirational to me.”  Maisel choice of subjects is comparable to the poet’s careful selection of words.

While art activism is seen on the walls of the Robischon Gallery, Kevin O’Connell’s technique and attention to Western landscapes is what holds the viewer’s gaze.  Without defining the space with a specific geographical location he envelops the viewer with scents of forests and the “scorching heat of summer…not far off.” The artist goes on in his notes, “I long for the experience of being in the land.”  He has had solo shows at the MCA and the Aspen Art Museum and group exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum. His contributions to the Robischon show are pigment prints that make a record of the prairie, the high plains and Oregon beaches. His photographs reveal an artist who understands his assignment of recording what can be seen in the West now.

Photo by Robschon Gallery

Be certain to visit the viewing room at the gallery to see Benning’s video small roads.

Americano Live at the Vilar

photos by David Spira

Music is for people and auditoriums are sacred temples where music and magic happen and time is dismissed, according to Nacho Arimany, percussionist with the Americano Trio. The audience on a snowy night, March 11th, in Beaver Creek, Colorado was treated to an evening of Americana by a very Spanish trio: classical guitarist Pablo Villegas, Pedro Giraudo on double bass and Nacho Arimany on percussions.The warm Beaver Creek’s Vilar Theatre hosted a celebration of the 2015 release of Americano by Pablo Villegas, a native of La Rioja region of Spain.  The three musicians exchanged nods and grins like volts of electricity.. Pablo’s joy was infectious as he led the trio through a program much like the CD with tangos, a bit of Villa Lobos, Bernstein and bluegrass. Villegas’ tremulo on his ethereal solo ‘Un Sueno en la Floresta” (a dream in a forest) suggested the serene occupation of resting beneath fir branches.  

Giraudo won two Grammys in 2014 for best Tango album and best Latin Pop album. More often he is heard at the Blue Note and other preeminent jazz clubs in New York performing his arrangements and compositions.  He is principal bassist for Můsica de Cámara String Orchestra which commissioned him to write a piece for string orchestra in 2013.

Percussionist Nacho Arimany sat barefoot on the floor surrounded by the tools of his trade: a gourd from Mali, a clay pot and a wooden block that doubled as his perch while he drummed on its sides.  Arimany began his musical training at the piano at age 6 and as a teen he sang with Spain’s famed opera singer Montserrat Caballe. His vocals added an another layer of lucious sound to the trio’s performance. He claimed that he turned to the drums after hearing street drumming in Spain.

The American selections featured an arrangement of three songs from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a tribute to Pablo’s adopted West Side neighborhood.  His Maria was heartfelt and his rendition of America meant more for this adopted son. While it was highly entertaining to hear Pablo strumming on a banjo for three classic bluegrass songs, the highlight of the evening was a cool arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight for double bass and guitar that may have been inspired by Jim Hall’s transcription from 1975.

Pablo Villegas has collaborated on albums with violinist Augustin Hadelich and the opera singer, Placido Domingo.  He performs classical guitar repertoire often with symphonies around the world. Earlier in March Villegas offered a tribute to Segovia at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.  He will make his debut with the Chicago Symphony May 23rd.

World Music at Gates Hall

Gates Hall, on Wednesday night March 6th, was filled with tongue trilling, drumming, and strumming from a buzuq (a long -necked fretted lute), an oud (lutelike with a bent neck) and a qanun (a string instrument like a zither). Two old world music groups collaborated for a theatrical presentation that celebrated the tradition of music in coffeehouses in Leipzig and Damascus. Trio Arabica performed traditional songs from Syria and Egypt and Iraq. The Canadian Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra played music from the 18th century. Images of 18th century art from both Leipzig and Damascus were projected behind the musicians. The blending of the period strings and woodwinds with the Middle Eastern instruments and drums created a contemporary feel to the evening that was narrated by Alon Nashman. The sum of the whole exceeded the parts.

Both Leipzig and Damascus were diverse centers for trade and learning that attracted Muslim, Jewish and Christian merchants. The Collegium Musicum, founded by Georg Philipp Tellemann in 1720, performed weekly public concerts at Leipzig’s Zimmermans’ coffee house.  Johann Sebastian Bach took over and directed these free performances from 1729 – 1739. During this period coffeehouses in Damascus offered  traditional Arabic music to their patrons. This link was the foundation for the Tales of Two Cities program presented by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Trio Arabica for Friends of Chamber Music, Denver.

While the performance delighted the ears and entertained, it was the blending of Arabica and Germanic flavors that intrigued me to learn more about Alison Mackay, double bass player with Tafelmusik and originator of the multimedia concept of Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House. Other conceptual programming by Mackay included J.S.Bach: The Circle of Creation, The Galileo Project and Four Seasons, a Cycle of the Sun.  She created these programs for Tafelmusik to “turn a different lens on our music.”   A 2012 production, House of Dreams, moved the listener from the images of a house at the end of the Grand Canal in Venice to the Palais Royale in Paris and further yet to a bookshop in Leipzig.  A member since the inception of Tafelmusik, Ms. Mackay will retire at the end of the 2019 season.

Bartok, Janacek and Schiff: Men in Search of a Country:

Composers Bartok and Janacek and the pianist Sir Andras Schiff could not escape the politics that surrounded their lives.  Schiff, known for his virtuoustic performances at the keyboard, is Hungarian like Bartok. Janacek, from Czechoslovakia, and Bartok were heavily influenced by the folk music of their respective countries.

Bartok played the piano before he could complete sentences and according to Wikipedia he could play 40 pieces by age 4.  He became one of Hungary’s most celebrated composers, but the treatment of the Jews by the occupying Nazis compelled him to leave for the U.S. in the fall of 1940.  He did not return to homeland. In 1988 his remains were returned to Budapest to be buried beside his wife Ditta, who died in 1982.

Janacek, whose career overlapped Bartok’s, began choral studies although he had exemplary pianistic ability.  He went to Prague to study organ and piano and then left again to study composition in Leipzig. His subsequent efforts to win a studentship with Saint-Saëns in France failed. Again looking away from Czechoslovakia he found inspiration in Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata for his first string quartet. Despite a defined admiration for other nations his music was rooted in Moravian folk songs. His  personal tragedy of his daughter Olga’s death at 12 in 1903 led to his 1904 opera Jenûfa that he dedicated to Olga.  The following year he composed the piano sonata – 1.X 1905 after seeing a young man killed by local police.

On Wednesday, February 20, Friends of Chamber Music audiences were treated to Schiff’s performance of Janacek’s 1.X 1905 on a Bosendorfer piano, Schiff’s preference over a Steinway.  Those who did not know the tragic roots of the piece heard the pianist declare his personal connection to the piece written after Janacek saw a “peaceful demonstration” turn bloody. The two movement sonata was written purposefully in Eb minor to elicit the feeling of loss and disillusionment.  The first movement is titled Foreboding and the second is Death. Schiff’s program that included Schumann was something that Schiff admitted to labor over. He stated that the two European composers were linked by their ‘diversity’ and ‘rich language.’  While the Janacek Sonata of the second half was a very public revolution by the composer, Schumann’s Piano Sonata No.1 in F# Minor, Op. 11, according to Schiff, was a “personal revolution” against Clara’s father, “a dictator” that sent Clara away from Schumann.   Sir Andras Schiff posed his own rebellion in 1987 when repelled by Hungarian politics he embraced Austrian citizenship which he abandoned in 2001 for British citizenship.  He has reported that he will not return to perform in Hungary.

Tim Franks of BBC World Service remarked in a 2013 interview with Sir Andras Schiff, “Art and politics cannot be disentangled.”  The careers of the virtuosic Bartok, Janacek and Schiff prove this point. They were not just performers but musicians that continue to create a dialogue with their audiences. – Bartok’s 10 Easy Pieces/15 Hungarian Peasant Songs – Janacek’s Piano Sonata 1.X 1905 – Schiff’s 2017 performance of Beethoven’s Sonata 32 in C Minor

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