And I could have the faintest idea

Miscellaneous recent coverage:

At the NSO, a program under vibrant control (Washington Post, January 17, 2020)

Kopatchinskaja, Campbell subvert classical conventions (Washington Post, January 22, 2020)

At the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach casts the NSO in standard but staunch roles (Washington Post, January 25, 2020)

Poulenc Trio confronts their namesake’s image (Washington Classical Review, January 26, 2020)

Score: Han Young-Suk helped the world discover Korean dance (Boston Globe, January 30, 2020)

Honeck guest-conducts the NSO, offering the power of sound (Washington Post, January 31, 2020)

That last review originally had a kicker alluding to Current Events. On the one hand, was it a little bit superfluous? Absolutely. On the other hand, this was taking place in Washington, D.C.; I guarantee that everybody in the auditorium was well aware of the what has been happening on the other side of town, and was either hearing the music through that scrim or relying on the music to distract.

On a related note, let me present to you perhaps the greatest painting of the Renaissance.

This is the portrait of Pope Paul III and his grandsons by Titian, painted sometime between 1545 and 1546. It’s a fairly well-known painting, but I find it especially interesting because its perceived greatness is directly proportional to how much one knows about its subjects and its context. First off, you need to know about the Farnese family. Start with Paul III, born Alessandro Farnese in 1468. Paul III could have been one of the most influential popes. He was cultured; he increased the intellect and ability of the cardinalate; and managed to inaugurate the Council of Trent in an effort to bring the church back together after Martin Luther’s Reformation. But he was also insecure: the Farneses had been well-off, but Paul III was the first of the line to attain real power, power that he was desperate to keep in the family.

Alessandro Farnese, on the left, was the beneficiary and victim of that desperation. He was the eldest son of Pier Luigi Farnese, the Duke of Parma—Paul III’s illegitimate son, legitimized by Pope Julius II—and would have been in line to succeed his father except that, at the age of 14, he was instead made a cardinal. The blatant nepotism did not go unnoticed in the halls of power; moreover, it dismayed Alessandro, who not only forfeited his claim to the dukedom, but also his marital prospects. Instead, the rights of primogeniture passed to Alessandro’s younger brother Ottavio—the figure on the right.

What you also need to know is that a) Titian, instead of relying on sketches, worked out his compositions on the canvas, as he painted, and b) this particular painting is unfinished. Which means that, unusually among Titian’s portraits, this one preserves something close to his first impression. X-ray analysis of Titian’s surviving works has shown that, very often, his final, polished versions of his portraits of powerful figures were finessed from a more blunt initial conception into more flattering form. This one, though, was never given that final finesse, and Titian’s keen perception of psychology takes center-stage. The awkwardness is palpable. Ottavio, presumably in the process of prostrating himself to kiss the pope’s feet, looks as if he is about to fall over. The elderly Paul III, hunched over, with an iron grip on the throne, has an expression that is equal parts impatience and paranoid suspicion. (Notice how his eyes don’t quite meet Ottavio’s.) Alessandro, too, has a hand on the throne—obvious symbolism for his assumed succession to the papacy, which never actually came to pass—and peers out from the canvas, as if looking for an escape from the family dynamic. None of the figures seem to be in the same picture. Originally, Titian had Alessandro further to the left, but (presumably at Alessandro’s behest) repainted him to be closer to the pontiff. That results in my favorite detail: Titian then repainted the red table in the foreground, but didn’t ever finish painting Paul’s right hand. His grandson’s ambition seems to be taking an actual corporeal toll, Paul literally consumed by his corruption. Instead of an image of family authority, the painting instead becomes an unusually incisive snapshot of isolation and disintegration, the inevitable corrosion of a blind pursuit of power and influence.

One last moral: you might not have known much about the Farnese family, one of the most powerful in 16th-century European politics. But you probably already knew who Titian was.

* * *

Peter Serkin died last Saturday. I reviewed him a few times; I still think about this recital. (In retrospect, the hook on which I hung that review is a little artificial. Still, Serkin playing pianissimo remains one of the most magical sounds I’ve ever experienced as a concertgoer.) But I think I can best sum up his excellence thus: I heard him as the soloist in three of Seiji Ozawa’s periodic Boston Symphony performances of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, and Serkin actually convinced me that it was a good piece. Every note seemed like a newly-discovered surprise, a clue in a twisty, wildly entertaining whodunnit.

In a 2012 interview with Richard Scheinen, Serkin talked about what he learned from jazz:

[T]he quality of making something up on the spot, based on a real sense of discipline at the same time, which is something I really admire in classical music performances, too. With all the work that goes into it, and all the considerations of a composer’s intentions — that there should still be that sense of spontaneity, that it’s happening right now, on the spot.

When I think about the music I loved to hear Serkin perform, I realize it all had that quality, that necessity of seeming to be made up as it went along. When the repertoire wasn’t amenable to that ideal, the result could be eccentric. But when it was, he had me holding my breath.

(I also turned pages for him once. Not my finest hour! He was imperturbable.)

* * *

I was in a Target the other night, and I noticed that season 17 of Family Guy was now out on DVD. Seventeen seasons! I don’t really have an opinion on Family Guy itself, but that unexpected (to me) amount of mileage sparked a glimpse of a theory of 21st-century culture: at the moment, any idea, any style, stance, artifact only has cultural currency in as much as it lends itself to being run into the ground. Even defining patterns of current politics and society can be considered as deceased horses, persistently flogged. We are saturated with recursive familiarity, loops that continue, unbroken, even as they erode everything around them. And I am reminded of one of my favorite old, cheap keyboards: the Casio SK-1, the first consumer-grade sampling keyboard. It was so cheap that your homemade sample (yes, you could only record one at a time) would only be retained in memory so long as you didn’t turn the thing off. I used to think that was a drawback. Now? I’m not so sure.

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