We Jazz June

In honor of the DC Jazz Festival and our own Jazz ‘n Families Fun Days this weekend, here are some works in the collection to get your toes tapping, all of which relate to jazz. Can you see it?

collection music

Clockwise from top left: Gene Davis, Jasmine Jumper, 1966, Acrylic on canvas 119 1/2 x 161 1/2 in.; 303.53 x 410.21 cm.. Gift of Florence Coulson Davis In Memory of Gene Davis, 1992. Stuart Davis, Egg Beater No. 4, 1928, Oil on canvas 27 1/8 x 38 1/4 in.; 68.8975 x 97.155 cm.. Acquired 1939. Elizabeth Murray, Jazz, 2001, 3-dimensional lithograph, Edition 7 of 46 overall: 30 in x 34 in x 4 in; 76.2 cm x 86.36 cm x 10.2 cm. Purchased with funds from the estate of Nathan and Jeanette Miller, 2007. Arthur G., Dove, Me and the Moon, 1937, Wax emulsion on canvas 18 x 26 in.; 45.72 x 66.04 cm.. Acquired 1939. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

Gene Davis said, in a 1975 interview, “My work is mainly about intervals, that is, like in music. Music is essentially time interval, and I’m interested in space interval.”  He was also known to say that he painted “by eye” the way a jazz musician plays “by ear”. Stuart Davis collected jazz records that he played while he worked, replaying them much as he repeated visual elements in his paintings. His daily calendars chronicle purchases of new albums and when he played them. Elizabeth Murray captures the vibrant sound and broken branches of jazz improvisation in her colorful print, Jazz (2001). And Arthur Dove’s Me and the Moon (1937) is named after the 1936 song which he heard on the radio while he worked.

What visual art makes you think of jazz?

Classical Repetitions: Adès, Arcadiana

In classical music programming, repetitions of repertoire are supposed to be a bad thing. We are to reel at the idea of more than one instance of Beethoven’s Appasionata sonata, or shudder at two Death and the Maiden quartets by Schubert in one season. Whilst providing artists the freedom to choose their own repertoire and encouraging adventurous combinations of works is a central principle of the Sunday Concerts series, if the same piece of music appears on two concert programs it can also provide a welcome moment of reflection on the various aspects a piece of music can possess. Would we begrudge van Gogh his several iterations of the Postman Roulin if his subject matter and artistic process were not so fascinating? We can certainly lament their departure from the galleries of the Phillips, where several have lived in such happy juxtaposition during the recent Van Gogh Repetitions exhibition.

So it can be with music too. Those who were able to witness both the Calder Quartet’s performance in November 2013, and the Mivos Quartet Sunday, February 9, would have witnessed two very different performances of Arcadiana, a string suite by the British composer Thomas Adès (b. 1971). An inheritor of the 20th century tradition of Ligeti and others, Adès’s music creates allusions and connections to a musical past, whilst maintaining a thoroughly modern musical palette. The music of Arcadiana (composed when Adès was in his 20s, a year before his first opera, Powder Her Face) is loaded with literary and artistic significance, yet never burdened by it. Six of the seven movements evoke, in Adès’s own words, “various vanished or vanishing idylls.” The ‘idylls’ that he creates are in one breath rooted in the musical antecedence of what sounds like a quotation from Mozart or Schubert, and in the next uprooted, rushing floridly in another direction. Adès also draws upon the visual arts to inform his music: Nicholas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego, and Jean-Antoine Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour Cythère, both of which hang in the Louvre. This multiplicity of artistic reference and influence is never exhibited in an overtly programmatic way; rather they appear as opaque suggestions, ambiguous and unstable fragments of mythic realms and distant histories.

The music of Arcadiana is minutely crafted and precise, yet in the hands of excellent players, can appear—with startling immediacy and clarity—as though it were unfolding before you for the first time. When a work of music contains such diversity and artistic depth, it can be deeply invigorating to hear two different groups of players, both equipped with the same musical means, realize its endless possibilities.

The Calder Quartet in performance at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Josh Navarro

The Calder Quartet in a performance at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Josh Navarro

Jeremy Ney, Music Specialist

Prelude to Fame: Emanuel Ax at the Phillips, 1967

Sunday Concerts, the Phillips’s time honored music series, began in 1941. Before then music had always been a part of life at the museum, but the formal inauguration of the series aimed to bring the same level of ambition and experimentation that Duncan Phillips had for the visual arts, to music. The charge was led by the inimitable Elmira Bier, Duncan Phillips’s secretary from 1924 onwards. Phillips could scarcely have found a stronger advocate in Bier, who although not formally trained in music, schooled herself out of necessity across a broad range of artistic areas. Her lack of musical preconceptions may have been her strongest suit, as it led her to take risks, especially in her encouragement of young artists. This remains a central tenet of the concert series today as we carry the torch into the current 73rd season and beyond.

This spirit of openness and support for young artists is wonderfully encapsulated by letters of correspondence from 1967 between Bier, Polish pianist and teacher Mieczyslaw Munz, and his pupil, an eighteen-year-old Emanuel Ax. Fast forward to today and Emanuel Ax is regarded as one of the finest pianist of his generation who has collaborated with many of the major orchestras and conductors. He has won several Grammy Awards for his recordings, and along with a slew of competition wins and honorary doctorates, also teach at the Julliard School in New York.  But in 1967, he was a virtually unknown young Polish émigré studying under Munz at Julliard. Munz wrote to Elmira Bier in March 1967 suggesting that she consider Ax for a performance that season, mentioning his extraordinary qualities, and that the late Arthur Rubinstein thought highly of him. Bier wrote back:

Letter from Elmira Bier to Mieczylaw Munz, September 8, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Ax responded and made a recording, sending it to Elmira with a short but revealing disclaimer:

Emanuel Ax to Elmira Bier, undated. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

One can imagine Elmira and her staff huddling around an early compact cassette player listening to Ax’s DIY recording. We do not know what he recorded, but clearly it was enough to make an impression on the discerning music director, who wrote back in May of that year offering Ax a Sunday afternoon performance.

Elmira Bier to Emanuel Ax, May 18, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Ax wrote back soon after with his ambitious program: two Scarlatti sonatas; the Sonata, Op. 57, Appasionata, by Beethoven; two Liszt transcriptions of songs by Schubert; the Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116 by Brahms; L’isle Joyeuse by Debussy; and Chopin’s Etude, Op. 10, No. 8 and  Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. It was certainly a brave and auspicious choice of works, and shows a musical maturity that belied his young age. He was still a student cutting his teeth on the circuit when he performed at the Phillips, and it is a mystery what the audience would have thought about this young man, who in just 7 years’ time would go on to win the first ever Arthur Rubinstein competition in 1975, catapulting him to international stardom. If they were anything like Elmira Bier, they would have welcomed his ambition and passion for music-making with open arms.

There was one last piece of motherly advice that the worldly wise Elmira had for the young aspiring concert pianist, advice that we are sure did not go unnoticed.

Elmira Bier to Emanuel Ax, September 8, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Jeremy Ney, Music Specialist