Sweeney Todd at Rochester’s GeVa Theatre

We never saw Sweeney Todd on Broadway, nor did we get around to seeing the movie version of this musical. So our first taste of the demon barber of Fleet Street was the remarkably sharp new production currently at Rochester’s GeVa Theatre.

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Stephen Tewksbury as Sweeney Todd, and Kristie Dale Sanders as the maker of the worst pies in London

Granted, there’s no such thing as a “normal” premise for a musical play. By any standard, though the premise of Sweeney Todd is outrageous. The play’s hero, the barber Sweeney Todd (Stephen Tewksbury), has returned to late-eighteenth-century London obsessed with getting revenge on a corrupt judge who, years before, abducted and ravished Sweeney’s lovely young wife. Judge Turpin (James Van Treuren) had covered up his crimes by having Todd himself transported to Australia on a trumped-up charge.

Todd sets up his barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop, hoping to lure the judge into his barber’s chair so he can ply a fatal razor on the judge’s throat. In the meantime, though, he strikes up a stomach-turning relationship with the brassy, vulgar Mrs. Lovett herself (Kristie Dale Sanders); Todd slits the throats of random customers and slides their bodies down a trapdoor into her kitchen.  Mrs. Lovett incorporates the meaty parts of their corpses into meat pies and feeds to unsuspecting customers.

Here’s what you should know if you’re thinking of seeing this show:

1. The grisly business isn’t as stomach-turning as you might expect. Granted, throats are slit and customers sit at cafe tables clamoring for pastries made of human flesh. But the blood-shedding is minimal and stylized (especially compared to the oceans of blood that reportedly flowed in the movie version of Sweeney Todd). And of course the audience can’t actually smell or taste Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.

Maybe we’re jaded and shock-proof after all the graphic violence we’ve seen on film for the last 35 years, but in any case Sweeney Todd doesn’t really press the envelope. We may be titillated, but we’re not revolted.

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Stephen Tewksbury

2. It’s not as terrifying as you might expect. Sweeney Todd isn’t a thriller, and it doesn’t have nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat qualities. And the villains in the play (in fact, all the characters are scoundrels)are not played as larger-than-life sociopaths; they don’t terrify us. Director Mark Cuddy didn’t go for shock value.

3. You’ll end up enjoying the music. Of course, the music of Stephen Sondheim is a far cry from the feel-good, sing-along anthems of Oklahoma or the sentimental song in Fiddler on the Roof. Sondheim doesn’t shy aware from dissonance or from startling melodic leaps.  No hit songs came from Sweeney Todd.

But we liked the music — welcome relief from the bland, cliched numbers in popular musicals of recent years (think Wicked and Rent). Sondheim’s lyrics are perfectly fitted to the melodies, and the musical accompaniments are exquisite. We have only one real complaint. Why did Sondheim write duets in which the singers are singing different lyrics at the same time? The audience can’t understand either lyric.

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Roland Rusinek played Beadle Bamford

4. It’s an good cast. Stephen Tewksbury, as Sweeney Todd, and Kristie Dale Sanders as Mrs. Lovett have fine singing voices and as a couple they are remarkably well-matched. (Their relationship is worth paying attention to; the middle-aged Mrs. Lovett has lascivious, even matrimonial, designs on Todd, but he has nothing on his mind but revenge.) We liked the singing of Daniel Bogart, who plays Todd’s friend Anthony Hope, and we especially enjoyed Roland Rusinek as the judge’s brutal strongman, Beadle Bamford.

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Marissa McGowan: her lyrics were sadly unintelligible

We were disappointed only in Marissa McGowan as Todd’s daughter Johanna, whose diction was so poor that we simply couldn’t make out any of the lyrics of “Greenfinch and Linnet Bird.” We were sorry, incidentally, not to see any local actors in the cast.

We attended the last performance of Sweeney Todd before its official “opening,” and it wasn’t a good night for the sound crew. As the show opened with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the very first singer’s microphone wasn’t on (we heard him just fine anyway).  The amplified voice of the second singer came as something of a jar.

Having decided to mike the lead actors, the sound designer evidently felt he needed to mike everyone in the chorus as well — another eight or ten voices. This went badly. The vocal mix was much too loud and resulted in distortion, so we didn’t understand a lot of the lyrics sung by the ensemble. Unfortunately, the orchestra (especially the electronic keyboard) was also over-amplified at various points during the show.

But why amplify the voices at all? GeVa Theatre (550 seats) just isn’t that large. None of these talented performers would have had difficulty projecting their solo singing voices throughout the hall, and amplifying the ensemble was not only unnecessary, but deleterious to the sonic effect. We were against it.

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Some modest suggestions for Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery

steen-the-doctors-visit1When you visit an art museum, do you ever find yourselves mentally relocating one of its Cezannes or Rembrandts to the walls of your own home? This weekend in New York City, Emsworth was thinking, instead, that certain paintings might improve the galleries of his hometown art museum, Rochester’s Memorial Art Galley.

Money permitting, of course. In New York City for the weekend, we found ourselves vainly resisting the vices of envy and covetousness at Sotheby’s, the formidable art auction house. It is one of the great tragedies of Emsworth’s life that he was blessed with the ability to appreciate fine art, but denied the wealth to acquire it.

cranach-lucretiaSotheby’s occupies a ten-story building in Manhattan’s upper West Side, at the corner of York Avenue and East 72nd Street. It is unfortunately many blocks from any subway station — but, we suppose, people with enough money to be serious art collectors would never take the subway anyway. We took the elevator up to the 7th floor and wandered into a live auction of antique furniture.

We were fascinated. Instead of having assistants bring the pieces out and hold them high while they’re hammered down, Sotheby’s displays the lots on a large videoscreen. The auctions go quickly. Banks of drones sat at phones putting in bids for customers in London and Dubai, we imagined. Occasionally somebody in the crowd (several hundred people) would hold up his sign to bid. We arrived just in time to see an antique chest of drawers go for $1.5 million.

We had never visited Sotheby’s (or Christie’s) before, and an exhibition entitled “Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture,” consisting of art to be auctioned off this Thursday, January 29, gave us a pretext. And we have good news! The collection of European art at our own Memorial Art Gallery could be dramatically improved with just a few successful bids on paintings at this auction! Herewith our urgent recommendations:

1. Joseph M. W. Turner, The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored. Let’s cut to the chase: the MAG should go for broke and buy this Turner. turner-the-temple-of-jupiter-panellenius-restored1It will be the focal point of the auction, and it won’t be cheap — Sotheby’s expects the bidding to go to at least $10 million.

But it’d be worth it. Turner is conspicuously missing from the MAG’s collection; the MAG has only a Turner watercolor (which we’ve hardly ever seen). This gracious classical scene, nearly six feet wide, is mercifully free of the oppressive orange that dominates so many Turner landscapes, and it’s in excellent condition. The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored would instantly become the highlight of the MAG’s collection.

copley-john-wombwell-d1795-with-a-grey-hunter2. John Singleton Copley, John Wombwell with a Grey Hunter. My fellow Rochesterians, aren’t you tired of Copley’s unfinished portrait of Nathaniel Hurd? Don’t you feel sorry for the docents who have to explain why we have an unfinished painting in our museum? Don’t you resent the Cleveland Museum of Art for having the finished version of Hurd’s portrait?

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The unfortunate Nathaniel Hurd

Let’s put Nathaniel Hurd out to pasture. The kids will find this portrait of a English gentlemen with his horse a lot more interesting. And the price for this Copley will be a relief, especially after the MAG (or some philanthropic angel) drops all that swag on the Turner. Sotheby’s doesn’t expect to get more than $30,000 for John Wombwell.

3. Cranach, Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans. There’s no Cranach at the MAG, a gaping hole in its collection. In fact, the MAG has precious little by any German artists. (See this post by Emsworth on the MAG’s fine painting by German expressionist George Grosz.)

Here we were indecisive. Should we recommend that the MAG bid on Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans, this lively genre painting? Or should it go for Lucretia, the striking Cranach painting toward the top of this post? (Sotheby’s estimates that both will go for about $1 million.) In favor of the suicidal, bare-breasted Lucretia is the fact that the MAG could kill two birds with one stone: Lucretia represents a collaboration between Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger. On balance, however, we think Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans, painted by Cranach the Younger in the early 1600s, has more narrative interest.

steen-a-village-wedding4. Jan Steen, A Village Wedding and The Doctor’s Visit. Yes, we know, the MAG already has a picture by Steen. But why not more? We love Dutch genre paintings, and these two, together with the MAG’s The Pancake Woman, would make for a nice group. The Doctor’s Visit, shown at the very top of this post, is full of double entendres and symbolism and is in prime condition. A Village Wedding has perhaps darkened over the years, but this large party scene is fraught with interest. Let’s get them both!

5. Maerten Ryckaert, River Landscape with Flight into Egypt. This marvelous picture just slays us. None of the Dutch painters ever went to Palestine, maerten-ryckaert-river-landscape-with-the-flight-into-egypt1so their paintings of Biblical scenes show people with Dutch features in Dutch garb, and landscapes with Low Country topography.

Here, the Antwerp master Maerten Ryckaert, one of van Dyke’s colleagues, shows the Dutchman Joseph, his good wife Mary, baby Jesus, and their donkey being ferried down a Dutch canal, alongside of which we see a charming Dutch town and a castle featured in the landscape. The colors are precious. It’s a relatively large canvas (28 x 38 inches), and the MAG has nothing like it. Sotheby’s doesn’t expect the bidding to go beyond $500,000. If it were up to us, we’d snap it up.

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Hals's most famous portrait, "The Laughing Cavalier," belongs to the Wallace Collection, in London, and is not a candidate for acquisition by the MAG

6. Franz Hals, Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Woman. Heck, let’s blow the budget. Two of the sharpest pictures on the block at Sotheby’s are a pair of portraits by Franz Hals, being auctioned off together. If the MAG is the high bidder on all these Dutch masterpieces, we’ll will have the finest collection of old Dutch masters between New York and Chicago.

Unfortunately, we have no image of these Hals pictures to show. But take our word for it: they are highly polished, penetrating character studies of a man and his wife. Both are in formal dress, as in other Dutch portraits from the first part of the 17th century. Sotheby’s expects to get up to $20 million for the pair.

giovanni-francesco-barbieri-called-guercino-st-peter-penitent7. Guercino, St. Peter Penitent. The 17th-century Italian master Guercino has become a favorite of Emsworth’s over the last five years. Suffice it to say that he is not represented at the MAG. This may not be be one of Guercino’s major works, but the quality is high, and St. Peter’s tear is real.

claude-lorrain-an-evening-landscape-with-mercury-and-battus18. Claude Lorrain, An Evening Landscape with Mercury and Battus. Over the past few years, our appreciation for the two great 17th-century French masters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain has grown enormously. Regrettably, the MAG has nothing by either. This lyrical landscape by Claude, painted in 1654, would fill an enormous gap. If the MAG could acquire just one of the works that Sotheby’s will auction off on Thursday, this would be Emsworth’s choice.

We don’t mean to find fault with Tom Golisano; he’s been extremely generous to the Rochester community. But unless Sotheby’s has seriously underestimated the market, these impressive Old Masters could be had, and the MAG’s collection could be dramatically improved, for considerably under $50 million — which is a lot less than Golisano blew on his most recent, futile attempt to be elected governor!

Christmas concerts in Rochester

100_75201After our last child graduated, we didn’t have to go to high school Christmas concerts anymore if we didn’t want to, and we didn’t. We were proud of our offspring — still are — but thankful it was over. No more out-of-tune high school orchestras! No more unnaturally cheerful renditions of the execrable “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”! No more audience participation singing of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”!

Yet last weekend found us at not one, but two, Christmas concerts. Even though these were adult events, they were still a lot like the high school concerts, with ensembles parading onto and off the platform, together with audience sing-alongs.

The first of these was downtown, in the old part of the Bethel Christian Fellowship complex on East Avenue. This is a fine, old-fashioned sanctuary with a balcony, originally built in 1885 as the Asbury Methodist Church and eventually sold to the Pentecostals. It was packed to the gills; we suspected that many in the audience were friends, relatives, or parents of the performers. The high school concerts again!

But, to be fair, it was better. A brass quintet playing Bach, a little shaky at times, but ably on the whole. A junior high school choir, well above average, led by Carl Wager. A very serviceable string quartet, inexplicably miked, playing a movement of Smetana (we didn’t get the Christmas connection). A young woman singing “O Holy Night” (two verses would have been enough). A remarkably good flute quintet. Regrettably, some carol-singing from the audience.

And some modestly attired young women (evidently Bethel parishioners), the “Yahweh dancers,” doing “interpretive dance” to recordings of Twila Paris. Here’s a trend of which Emsworth decidedly disapproves. Are our churches so desperate to attract young families that they need to guarantee teenage dancers a chance to perform in church? Personally, we couldn’t help thinking of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn leading the women of River City: “One Grecian urn! Two Grecian urns!”

robert-shewan-grandpa-conductingAt any rate, we were there mainly to hear the Robert Shewan Chorale, which was giving its inaugural performance. The group consists of about forty hand-picked veterans of the Roberts Wesleyan Chorale, many of whom are music teachers themselves now. These former students of Dr. Shewan had sung under him, knew what he expected, and sang with a will.

We were glad to hear the unmistakable, robust sound of a Shewan-directed chorus again. This time Dr. Shewan had mature rather than college-age voices to work with, and even from our balcony seats we could see the fire in his eye. We were grateful to him for his compassionate decision to close the concert with a glorious “And the Glory of the Lord” instead of the ubiquitous “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Sunday evening found us at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church to hear the Greece Symphony Orchestra and the Greece Choral Society. There was another full house at this venue, a contemporary sanctuary whose ample seating capacity compensates for its bleak architecture and dubious stadium-like acoustics.

ralph-zecchinoThe high quality of these two groups of volunteers is, I think, due in good measure to continuity in leadership. Ralph Zecchino has led the Choral Society for decades and is still at the top of his game. We couldn’t help noticing that many of the members of the Choral Society have apparently been with him for decades, too. New blood is going to be needed.

Besides the orchestra and the Choral Society, we heard a high school women’s chorus and quite a good solo rendition of “O Holy Night” (only two verses!). The audience was bludgeoned into singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “White Christmas.” The Choral Society gave us two John Rutter pieces (Emsworth’s own choir is doing Rutter this Christmas too) and a Robert Shaw medley.

hallelujah-chorusFor their inconsiderate decision to end yet another holiday concert with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Zecchino and orchestra director David Fetler were duly punished. As many people know, there are four beats of rest at the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” just before the final “Hallelujah.” Fetler, who was conducting the combined orchestra and chorus, quite properly treated the rest as a grand pause. But at least half of the audience thought the piece was over and started to clap. Their applause drowned out Handel’s last four chords.

Jeffery McGhee in recital at Roberts Wesleyan College

jeffery-mcghee1One of the great things about life in Rochester is all the world-class music. Music here is anchored, naturally, by the Eastman School of Music and the Rochester Philharmonic, but there are also strong music programs at Nazareth College, on the east side of the city, and Roberts Wesleyan College, on the west. There’s a lot more music than even a dedicated music-lover like Emsworth has time to take in.

But we were very glad last evening (November 21, 2008) to have joined a large and enthusiastic audience at the Shewan Recital Hall on the Roberts Wesleyan campus for a recital by baritone Jeffery McGhee and michael-landrum2pianist Michael Landrum. We know Dr. Landrum well — there’s there’s no finer pianist in these parts — but somehow we had missed performances by Dr. McGhee till now.

Their program was sacred pieces, more of them familiar than not. Dr. McGhee has a marvelously rich baritone voice, heard to full effect on Mendelssohn’s “If With All Your Hearts,” with which he opened the recital, and on Aaron Copland’s “Zion’s Walls,” which we especially enjoyed. We were favorably struck with a new piece entitled “Himself,” composed by Daniel Barta in a style that reminded us of popular sacred songs from a century ago. Like the two performers, Barta is on the Roberts Wesleyan faculty.

Dr. McGhee has an exceptional physical presence, relaxed and expressive, no doubt attributable to his work in musical theater. His gestures and body language significantly enhance his vocal performances. He seemed to be one with his pianist as to how these pieces should be interpreted; Dr. Landrum consistently anticipated his vocalist’s use of rubato and his dynamics.

samuel-coleridge-taylorWe were especially intrigued with two piano solo pieces with which Dr. Landrum gave his vocalist a chance to rest halfway through the recital. The composer was the African-Englishman Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), and the pieces were from an obscure collection of arrangements of folk hymns — just the sort of off-the-beaten-track repertoire that Dr. Landrum delights in bringing to the light of day. We recognized the melody of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”; we also liked very much the unfamiliar southern folk song “Let Us Cheer the Weary Traveler.”

George Grosz’s The Wanderer at the Memorial Art Gallery: a connection?

Grosz: The Wanderer

One of my favorite paintings at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery is George Grosz’s The Wanderer. It’s a sobering image of a man carrying a cane and clutching his coat to his chest as he trudges through a wilderness mire, fleeing explosions and fire behind him. The picture was painted in 1943, during World War II, ten years after George Grosz fled Hitler’s Germany.

Julius von Leypold: The Wanderer

Maybe there’s nothing to this. But earlier this year, when I ran across Wanderer in the Storm, an 1835 painting by the German romantic painter Julius von Leypold in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was reminded of Grosz’s painting right away. In von Leypold’s picture, a wanderer trudges through a stormy, late-autumn landscape, clutching his coat to his chest. The posture of the wanderers is similar, though the figure in Grosz’s picture is much larger, is hatless, and faces the viewer, while von Leypold’s Wanderer presses ahead, against the wind, with his back to us.

Could Grosz have been familiar with von Leypold’s picture? One can assume that Grosz, who studied and worked in Berlin until he left Germany, was familiar with the 19th-century German masters. Indeed, the German expressionists, and Grosz was one of them, are said to have especially admired Caspar David Friedrich and his fellow German romanticists.

Friedrich: Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon

Consider for example, Friedrich’s Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, painted in 1834 about the same time as von Leypold’s picture. Both of these feature anonymous cloaked figures in forbidding landscapes; it’s easy to see they’re part of the same school.

But my research so far hasn’t come up with a link any more stronger than this: (a) the two paintings have the same title, (b) the solitary figures have similar poses, and (c) Grosz and von Leypold are both Germans, and (d) Grosz can be assumed to have been influenced by the school of romanticism to which von Leypold belonged.  The Met seems to have acquired the von Leypold picture just this year, 2008.  Who owned it before that?  Was it somewhere Grosz could have seen it?

Grosz: Hitler in Hell

Grosz’s picture at the Memorial Art Gallery isn’t hard to interpret, since the painter himself was an exile and the figure in the painting is a self-portrait. As he painted this scene, Grosz knew that Allied bombs were falling on his native land. By 1943, Grosz was an American citizen who hadn’t lost any of his contempt for Hitler, as is apparent from another of his “apocalyptic” pictures of the early 1940s, which he helpfully entitled Hitler in Hell, lest a viewer mistake his point of view.

Can von Leypold’s picture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art be given a similar socio-political interpretation?  So far, I don’t know. The “world war” of von Leypold’s day, the Napoleonic wars, had been over for nearly two decades when his Wanderer was painted. But what was the political climate in Dresden, where von Leypold worked, in the mid-1830s?  Did von Leypold, very likely a liberal, see himself as a stranger in a strange land, running against the wind, during the reaction that set in across Europe after the demise of Napoleon?  Were von Leypold’s political or social views reflected in his art?  We will study more.

Pride and Prejudice at Rochester’s Geva Theatre (a review)

Emsworth has no prejudices to speak of. Yet when I hear that someone has tried to adapt one of my favorite works of literature for stage or screen, I expect a failure or an abomination, and I’m usually right.

Of course there are exceptions. I think of Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1936 movie starring Katharine Hepburn), Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1949 movie starring Broderick Crawford), Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1980 musical play), and (surprisingly) The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, and 2003 movies starring Ian McKellen).

But the list of failures is much longer. Notorious among these are Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1974 movie starring Robert Redford); Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990 movie starring Tom Hanks); and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1997 Broadway musical; it was our misfortune to attend a performance with the unspeakably awful Sebastian Bach in the title role).

So when I saw that Geva Theatre (Rochester, New York) was planning to adapt Jane Austen’s Pride andGeva Theatre Prejudice for the last show of its 2007-08 season, my expectations were low. I know and love the novel, and I didn’t feel any need to see it enacted — or worse yet, “reinterpreted” and mangled — on stage. Fortunately, the Geva show was a pleasant surprise.

Marge Betley (Geva’s resident dramaturg) and Mark Cuddy (Geva’s Artistic Director and director of this show) adapted the novel themselves, and they stuck fairly closely to Jane Austen’s story. They added no new characters or new scenes, and they used as much of Austen’s language they could. Prudently, they decided not to use a narrator.

These were smart choices, but the result was not compelling theater. For one thing, there were simply too many characters; familiar as I am with Pride and Prejudice, I still had trouble keeping track of some of them.

David Christopher Wells and Meghan Wolf in But all the Geva audience really wanted was to see their favorite Austen characters come to life on the stage. They were not disappointed, especially in Elizabeth Bennet, played by Meghan Wolf, a fetching brunette who gave us all the vivacity, wit, and intelligence that one could want in Austen’s heroine.

For the romantically inclined, Ms. Wolf and David Christopher Wells, who played Mr. Darcy, made a striking couple. And as director, Mr. Cuddy made sure that his audience would believe not only in Elizabeth’s improbable attraction to the ill-mannered Mr. Darcy, but also in her relationships with her sister Jane (Alyssa Rae), her best friend Charlotte Lucas (Vanessa LaFortune), and, most of all, her father. As played by Guy Paul, Mr. Bennet was a gratifyingly complex character.

Most of the actors did seem to appreciate that they were there for the purpose of entertaining us. Randy Rollison played the pompous, self-absorbed Mr. Collins to full comic effect, and Melanie Little was an audience favorite as the bookish, sanctimonious Mary Bennet.

But some cast members seemed merely to be reciting passages from the novel — most egregiously, Vanessa LaFortune as Charlotte Lucas. Moreover, to my mind, Carole Monferdini as Lady Catherine de Bourgh did not even come close to capturing the essence of Austen’s dragon lady, and her odd costume suggested one of the witches from The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, we were not able to understand the first lines of the play, shrilly delivered by Mrs. Bennet (Peggy Cosgrove) in an accent that continued to challenge us throughout the play.

Women have no monopoly on Jane Austen, but if this had been a movie, it would have been a chick flick. The women at Geva loved Mr. Darcy’s bungling courtship of Elizabeth Bennet. But some men were less appreciative. In the men’s room at intermission (which followed immediately after Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Darcy’s proposal), one man was heard commenting to a friend, “She owes me big time for this.” His friend agreed: “I’m not saying I’m holding the gun to my mouth, but close.”

Incidentally, if one must adapt someone else’s novel, it seems to me that one is better off starting with a piece of literature that is merely second-rate, rather than a masterpiece like Pride and Prejudice. It worked with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1939 movie starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable), Edna Ferber’s Showboat (1927 musical), Stephen King’s The Shining (1980 movie also starring Nicholson), and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007 movie starring Tommy Lee Jones).

American Impressionists at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery

(June 8, 2008) The Phillips Collection, an art museum in Washington, D.C., has once again sent a group of paintings out on tour, and for the next week or so they are here in Rochester at the Memorial Art Gallery.

The last time paintings from the Phillips Collection were here, several years ago, we got a group of abstract twentieth-century still lifes. This was the only occasion I can remember that a painting by Pablo Picasso has been shown in Rochester, but all in all, I don’t think Rochesterians were much impressed.

But now the Phillips has sent us a fine selection of its American impressionists, painted from about 1880 through 1925, and these seem to be better received by MAG visitors. At any rate, we like it, even though, in our pride, we like to think of ourselves as having advanced beyond the ever-popular impressionists in our appreciation of art.

Sisley's "Overcast Day at Saint Mammes"

The American impressionists have a reputation as second-rate imitators of the “real” impressionists, the French. But I think that is due more to our inferiority complex on matters cultural than to any marked differences in artistic quality. And, of course, the French themselves have never had much interest in art created outside France, Italy, or Spain. American museums are littered with Monets, Pissarros, and Sisleys (just above, a Sisley from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; below, a Monet that can be seen right here in Rochester), but the Musee d’Orsay has nothing by any American impressionist. (It does own Whistler’s Mother, but Whistler was neither an impressionist nor terribly American.)

The best paintings of the American impressionists match up pretty well with the French. It is true that impressionism originated in France and that the Americans learned from the French impressionist masters. But who thinks less of van Gogh or Cezanne because they studied with Pissarro? Most artists are influenced by somebody.

The best-known American impressionist is Childe Hassam, represented among these Phillips paintings by Washington Arch, Spring (1890), a scene in soft pastels set in lower Manhattan. The show also includes three paintings by another prominent American impressionist, John Twachtman, including Winter (1891), a snow scene painted almost entirely in light blues and grays.

"Home Lessons"

Hassam and Twachtman will remind you of Monet. On the other hand, the juicy summer colors and broader brushstrokes of William Glackens’s Bathers at Bellport show him as a disciple of Renoir, while Theodore Robinson’s Giverny reminds us both in subject matter and style of Pissarro’s mid-career paintings of country people and farm scenes. We were especially taken with two interior scenes: Lillian Westcott Hale’s Home Lessons, a picture of a young girl studying a globe (affinities with Renoir), and Helen Turner’s A Rainy Day, a picture of a woman with a bird in her bedroom (affinities with the French post-impressionists Pierre Bonnard and Edward Vuillard).

Ice in the River

"Ice in the River"

However, the real focus of this show, and the main reason we returned several times, is that it includes enough paintings by Ernest Lawson (nine in all) to make up a decent exhibition by itself. The thick textures and glittering jewel tones that Lawson used to depict rugged urban and rural scenes, mostly from upper Manhattan and the lower Hudson river valley, put him in a class by himself, and the nine paintings visiting here from the Phillips, painted from 1900 through 1921, areSpring Night, Harlem River top-drawer. (So far as I know, no other museum owns such a large group of Lawsons.) I was especially drawn to Spring Night, Harlem River, a blue-green scene of a large bridge and the riverbank below it, and Ice in the River, done in greens and browns.

This exhibition does not amount to an overview of American impressionism because Duncan Phillips failed to collect several of the most notable American impressionists, and also because he seems to have preferred landscapes over interior scenes, still lifes, or portraits. Not represented, for instance, are Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell, Philip Leslie Hale, Frederick Carl Frieseke, Guy Wiggins, Jonas Lie, Willard Metcalf, or Colin Campbell Cooper. Fortunately, the MAG has some of the best works of Lie (see picture just below), Metcalf, and Cooper in its permanent collection.

Jonas Lie's "Morning on a River"

The Memorial Art Galley has presented this traveling exhibition together with a room of American impressionist paintings owned by the MAG itself. I had never seen most of them, apparently because they were in need of restoration and not suitable for exhibition.

A few of these were undistinguished, we thought, but most were first-rate, including Edward Redfield’s River Hills (just below) and a small painting by Guy Wiggins, Fifth Avenue in Winter. I was especially irritated to know that Elmer Schofield’s Devon Countryside has languished in storage, unseen and unloved, for so long. (I would like very much to know whether this “Devon” is in England or New England.) This is a fine large summer scene of a sloping village lane, lined with stone walls and dappled with sunlight. Now that it has been cleaned, perhaps the curators will keep it on view after the exhibition is over.

I recommend a visit to the Phillips Collection itself, which is the proud home of Auguste Renoir’s grand and celebrated Luncheon of the Boating Party. We have visited this Washington, D.C. museum several times; it’s about 15 blocks northwest of the White House, too far to walk from the Mall, nowhere to park, best reached by subway. Duncan Phillips founded it in the late 1920s to showcase his own personal collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern art. Besides Cezannes, Picassos, and van Goghs, it has an outstanding collection of paintings by Pierre Bonnard, Mark Rothko, and Jacob Lawrence.