Shostakovich Centennial Concert

The New York Philharmonic on Thursday, September 28.

Like many orchestras, the New York Philharmonic performed a concert in honor of the 100th anniversary of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth. The program notes focused on the debate about Shostakovich’s relationship to the Soviet government, and that, too, was probably fairly universal from orchestra to orchestra. The story of Shostakovich’s rocky musical career is too dramatic for any writer to resist.

Twice denounced by Stalin—the first time at the onset of the Great Terror—Shostakovich nonetheless survived to write numerous symphonies, string quartets, concertos, operas, and other works that entered the canon not only in his homeland but in America and Western Europe, too. The Soviet regime used much of his music as propaganda—and Shostakovich accepted and even encouraged that—but later musicians and historians have argued that some of his compositions were actually subversive, satirizing rather than celebrating Soviet aesthetic ideals and burying coded anti-government messages into his music.

The debate is fascinating, but I think it distracts from Shostakovich’s music. That’s unfortunate because, as the Philharmonic demonstrated Thursday night, Shostakovich’s music is thrilling—essentially romantic but enlivened by a vivid use of repetitive motives and a delicious crunch of chromatics. The Philharmonic’s selections—the cello concerto and the fifth symphony—are a joy to experience whether they contain subversive messages or not.

Sky Mirror

On display at Rockefeller Center through October 27.

Nearly every day for the past week, I’ve passed Sky Mirror, a gargantuan disc of stainless steel, on my way to eat lunch in Rockefeller Plaza. From what I’ve read, artist Anish Kapoor wants his sculpture to “explore the notion of void.” My first reaction, however, is an irrational fear that the twenty-three-ton behemoth, which leans backward without any visible means of support, will topple and crush the surrounding crowd.

Sounds of the Season

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on Thursday, September 21.

Wu Han, one of the Chamber Music Society’s artistic directors, described the program’s opening night concert as a “tasting menu,” a tantalizing preview of some of what the 2006-07 season has to offer. The metaphor is apt. Few of the selections were particularly filling in themselves, but the variety of musical offerings—from the Baroque to the twentieth century—was positively scrumptious.

Hollywoodland

In theaters.

The creators of Hollywoodland have styled the movie as neonoir—complete with a mysterious death, a bottom-feeding private detective, and several untrustworthy women—but those trappings aren’t really the point of the film. Despite feints in that direction, it’s not a murder mystery. It’s the sad tale of two lonely people whose lives don’t match their dreams. It’s about soul-crushing disappointment and the relentless indignities of aging. It’s about mortality.

That’s a lot to pack into the small, pitiable history of George Reeves, an actor who aspired to the realm of Hollywood stars but who foundered playing Superman in the trenches of kiddie television, but the film works surprisingly well. The screenplay is perceptive, the period detail is immersive without being ostentatious, and the strong cast boasts two remarkable performances: Ben Affleck is startlingly good as Reeves—this is the best work he’s ever done—and Diane Lane beautifully captures the complexities and contradictions of the unhappy Toni Mannix, Reeves’ older, wealthier, married lover.

The Office (U.S. version)

Seasons one and two on DVD. Season three debuts Thursday, September 21, at 8:30 on NBC.

I should acknowledge up front that, though I have great respect for Ricky Gervais’ The Office, on which the American version is based, I have never been able to sit through an entire episode. The painfully awkward humor and the merciless probing of embarrassment, folly, and ennui makes me so uncomfortable that eventually, inevitably, I give up and flee from the television. I appreciate the show’s insights and perfectly drawn characters, but I’ve always been too susceptible to vicarious humiliation, and the British Office is more than I can bear.

The American Office, on the other hand, is comparatively gentle. I might view some scenes through my fingers—(Yes, really. I’ll watch grotesque violence with no more than a wince, but show me a shame-faced person surrounded by a laughing crowd, and I run for cover. I have issues.)—but the American show is more generous about relieving the tension, perhaps more forgiving toward the characters, no matter how foolish or weak they might be. Some might argue that its relatively gentle nature indicates that it is more conventional and timid than the groundbreaking British version, but I think that would be unfair. Rather, it indicates that the American version has found its own path and its own sensibility—not better or worse but different.

A memorial of one

I thought about attending one of the many services held in New York to mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings from the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer

Special exhibition at the Neue Galerie, extended through October 9.

No matter how many times I experience it, the dramatic difference between viewing a familiar painting in a book or on a computer screen and viewing it in person still startles me. Fixed images give you the illusion of having experienced a painting, but they don’t really show you how large or small the painting is or how the brushwork looks in three dimensions or how vibrant the colors are or how the painting changes when viewed from different angles. Being in the presence of a painting touches you in a way that simply seeing it cannot. I have to relearn that lesson every time I visit a museum, and this time I relearned it at the Neue Galerie.

I’d seen Gustav Klimt’s first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer countless times alongside the numerous articles about its acquisition by the Neue Galerie, but the painting surprised me nonetheless. Photographs don’t do it justice. In person, the luster of the gold and silver and the bold accents of red and blue and green make it look almost mystical, like a religious icon.