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A Natural Fit of Music and Art


Collaborations between United States museums and orchestras date to at least 1923, when the Cleveland Orchestra premiered a suite by Douglas Moore inspired by four works in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection.

But the partnerships are growing today among institutions of all sizes, as museums and orchestras seek new audiences.

In June, for example, Jazz at Lincoln Center performed a series of concerts called “Portraits of America: A Jazz Story.” A dozen members of the orchestra composed new pieces of music inspired by the works of such artists as Romare Bearden and Stuart Davis in the collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

Accompanying the musical performances in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall was a digital presentation highlighting each work that inspired a composition. The museum also held a watch party of a live-streamed performance at its home in Arkansas.

Sandy Edwards, deputy director of the museum, called the watch party an “intimate” event and said the compositions “took our collection to a new place, creating an unexpected and provocative way for audiences to engage their senses beyond the visual.”

Some collaborations in the upcoming museum and orchestral seasons will mark important anniversaries, local in one case, national in the other. As Rebecca Salminen Witt, chief development and communications officer of the Detroit Historical Society, pointed out, “significant anniversaries are good markers for what history bears as important, what the public can connect to.”

The Detroit Historical Society and Detroit Symphony Orchestra are jointly celebrating the centennial of the city’s Orchestra Hall, which was designed by the theater architect C. Howard Crane and opened in 1919. Although it served as the home of the orchestra until 1939, from 1941 to 1951 it was renamed the Paradise Theatre and was a jazz concert hall; it then fell into disrepair before being saved in 1970 and restored, becoming the symphony’s home again in 1989.

To celebrate the hall’s 100th anniversary, the society lent a 1920 Dodge Model 30 car, owned by the former symphony vice president Horace Dodge, to the orchestra, which is displaying it for a month in the atrium of the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, a recent addition to the hall. The society also is creating special exhibitions of music-related memorabilia, including jazz-related items, that will be on display in the center through March, as well as at the Detroit Historical Museum early next year.

The New York Philharmonic is staging an elaborate multiyear initiative starting in February called “Project 19” to mark the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. A key offering will be a newly staged version of Virgil Thomson’s 1947 opera, with libretto by Gertrude Stein, “The Mother of Us All,” which tells the story of Susan B. Anthony, an early suffragist who died before the amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified. Other historical figures involved with the movement — ranging from Daniel Webster to Lillian Russell — are also portrayed. The production will be jointly presented by the orchestra, Juilliard School and Metropolitan Museum of Art in the museum’s Charles Engelhard Court, in its American wing.

Limor Tomer, general manager of the museum’s live arts program, said the museum and orchestra “are on the same page programmatically. We share a commitment to diversifying audiences for contemporary works by living artists.”

Another goal of this collaboration, added Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the New York Philharmonic, is to attract younger audiences, who she hopes will find the opera “absolutely riveting in terms applicable to today.”

A similar collaboration will take place next spring in Cleveland, when the Cleveland Museum of Art and Cleveland Orchestra, along with the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, Cleveland School of the Arts, Cleveland Public Library and Facing History and Ourselves, an educational nonprofit, will participate in a citywide festival called “Censored: Art & Power.”

The centerpiece of the festival will be three performances in May by the orchestra of the 1935 opera “Lulu,” written by the Austrian composer Alban Berg during the Nazis’ rise to power. Also featuring a program in the museum’s German Expressionist gallery about works made by artists considered “degenerate” by the Nazis, a display of books on this art in the museum’s library, and related concerts and lectures, the festival will “look at the relationship of art and politics in Berg’s lifetime,” said Franz Welser-Möst, the orchestra’s music director.

“Just as the character of Lulu is abused and abusive in her own way, we will look into how music and art can be abused by a system and how a system can turn people on one another. These are important topics, not only from the past but in today’s world,” Mr. Welser-Möst said.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, whose musicians have been performing contemporary chamber music in the Tadao Ando-designed Pulitzer Arts Foundation since 2004, will continue this tradition in the current season. In January, as part of the museum’s Susan Philipsz’ “Seven Tears” exhibition, the orchestra will perform the world premiere of the live version of her “Study for Strings.” It is inspired by a 1943 composition of the same name written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp by Czech composer Pavel Haas and performed in a 1944 Nazi propaganda film about the camp; Haas was killed in Auschwitz in 1944.

Not all collaborations between museums and orchestras involve huge institutions. From January through May next year, the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla., will display over 100 set designs and original costumes from the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts in a traveling exhibition developed by the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. It will also offer live performances of classical music, opera, dance, theater and poetry, working with the local Florida Orchestra and Detroit-based orchestra Sphinx Virtuosi. Many performances will take place on a custom-built stage in the exhibition’s galleries.

And the Omaha Symphony will continue its ongoing collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum, presenting concerts whose programs are inspired by works in the museum’s collection. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will perform the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 at a concert in May; its program is inspired by a Frank Stella mixed-media painting, “Nogaro,” named after an automotive racetrack in France.

“On some level, collaborations between museums and orchestras are the most natural thing. After all, all human beings paint, sing, dance, sculpt, draw and make music. Everyone connects with light, color, sound, line, movement, rhythm, texture and so on. It’s our institutions that have compartmentalized and separated the different art forms,” said Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras.

Music, added Arthur Cohen, chief executive of LaPlaca Cohen, an arts consulting and research firm, can enable museums to offer “new experiences around their collections” and attract new visitors of all ages, from Gen Z to people born before 1945.

He predicted there will be more such collaborations in the future, with art museums “adding new, live performance spaces.”


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