The Lawrence Weiner retrospective at the Geffen was enjoyable; it was pretty and amusing. His work is gleefully impure. Is it information? Instructions? Scores? Poetry? Typography? Advertising? Installation art? Yes and no. Wandering around the gallery, with the walls all transformed into pages in a giant book, the effect was not oppressive or irritating. His words and typography aren’t aggressive like real advertising. The tone is happily inconsequential. His mode is the deadpan absurd. There are groan-inducing puns, punctuation signs and newly devised dingbats. The spirit behind it all is a kind of optimistic, light-hearted, materialist-literalism. His drawings were surprisingly sensitive. There was a beautiful one from 2007 with two arcs of “Whereas Galileo is right” and “Whereas Galileo is wrong” beneath a circle of “As / the / balls / roll / into play” punctuated with arrows going counter-clockwise.
At first glance the parallel Allan Kaprow retrospective was a depressing spectacle of notes and typed pages in glass topped tables. To give something to look at there were some of AK’s early paintings (bad idea) and reconstructions of installations by students (worse). But there were also videos. I only watched a few, and they were delightful. He also was a poet of the absurd, with a particularly keen eye and ear for the weirdness of human interaction. There was a sublime realization of a piece in which a woman gradually moves further and further away from the telephone on which she’s talking to a man, apparently shouting for him to speak up. Another one in which a man and woman approach each other from opposite ends of a park walking backwards, looking at each other through pocket mirrors. I confess there was also the pleasure of the high-Seventies bell-bottom pantsuit look.
We did make it to L.A. Opera’s production of La Rondine, which was a complete botch. Granted it’s a problem piece: Puccini produced three different versions, the setting, characters and story are plagiarized from La Traviata, the libretto is lame, and—if you go with the original ending—it isn’t even a tragedy. The music is not transporting or passionate, but charming, insinuating; it’s reserved, not overwhelming. Rondine requires a sensitive and creative director, which unfortunately was not what it got at Dorothy Chandler. I was reserving judgment for the first two acts (unlike some people I know), but the last act was just inexcusable. Poor Magda had to walk the plank at the end, into a Mediterranean Sea made of PVC and disco lights, while her beach villa belched fog like a pulp factory.
Unfortunately I missed Thomas Adès’s concert devoted to François Couperin. I heard it was wonderful, especially the Troisième leçon de ténèbres. Adès’s own sonata for harpsichord, oboe and French horn, “da Caccia” also sounded lovely.
Later that week I did make it to Disney Hall to hear Salonen lead a jazzy, rowdy performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Then a few days later, at the last concert of the season, he supervised a version of Stravinsky’s Les Noces re-arranged for conventional, or rather Rite of Spring-ian, orchestra by Steven Stucky. Vandalism, and unnecessary, but never mind. Most of the time it was discrete and inoffensive; all of Stravinsky’s percussion was there, so it wasn’t too strange. It only became exasperating at the very end, where Stravinsky’s ending—one of the best things in music—got buried under a tangle of strings. But the Master Chorale was spot on. No tinkering could dim the ferocity of that music. The concert ended with Yefim Bronfman playing Salonen’s 2008 piano concerto. It actually was a concerto for orchestra with piano accompaniment: EPS gives the players all sorts of star turns (especially the cellist and violist), that are much more interesting than anything Bronfman does. And the whole tone of the piece was unexpectedly light, as if EPS had been listening to Milhaud, of all people.
I’ve been out of commission the last few weeks. Not so bad that Catherine Deneuve will need to recite Walt Whitman on Jumbotrons outside a church in my honor, but laying low. While recuperating I read Carolyn Brown’s Chance and Circumstance: twenty years with Cage and Cunningham. It must have been a chore to write; it certainly reads like a chore. I read every word, though. It was raw data: her performance schedule, her dance class schedule, Earle Brown’s premieres. When Cunningham created a new dance and CB danced it, she provides an essay on it. Less would have been so much more. Still, she humanizes both guys. She makes the point that chance was just one of their tools, it wasn’t a religion. She also shows how purposefully both omitted mention of subject matter, expression, even meaning in the conventional sense, even when they informed their work. The moral is to not take anything either said or wrote about their work literally. She is very good on the thrills and the grimness of a dancer’s life—no money, no security, injuries, obsolete at 40. She also makes a big point of Cunningham and Cage not being beneficiaries of the U.S. government’s Cold War cultural campaign. They did their historic tours of Europe on the fly. The first was literally unplanned. And it gives some of the flavor of the fun of New York in the Fifties. De Kooning making a pass at her at Cage’s going-away party for Boulez. Stockhausen telling her that as the wife of an established composer she was not permitted to dance with students, but only with peer composers.