Sunday, October 11, 2009

An Historical Landscape: Its Food and its Arts


Can one find memorable art experiences and good local cooking in one week?

If "local" means the Mid-Hudson Valley and New England in October, the answer is yes!

Day One: Joseph Bertolozzi, composer, and The CIA

Well, weeks ago, I had made this reservation
for a French lunch at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and somehow fouled up. Our name was not in the register. But fortunately, they are a gracious crew and the maitre d' placed us at a table with a river view in the Ristorante Caterina de' Medici. It was all that we had hoped it would be. An amuse bouche, a seafood appetizer and a beautifully prepared sea bass with vegetables. For dessert, a varied cheese plate and a well chilled muscato. And coffee.

Since I was already familiar with his Poughkeepsie Suite and had heard of his recent avant-garde success, Bridge Music, we had an after-lunch appointment with the composer, Joe Bertolozzi. We met at the base of the Mid-Hudson (auto) Bridge and walked out on the span (about 170 feet above the River) while Bertolozzi (medium height, forty-ish with soft brown eyes) explained how he had "harvested" the sounds of the bridge, recorded them on sensitive equipment (often in truly dangerous positions), and composed/arranged them by computer.
He entitled it Bridge Music.
Right: Bertolozzi at work on the Mid-Hudson Bridge

The premier was June 3, 2009, and was part of the area's quadricentennial.
English explorer Henry Hudson sailed up here and got as far as today's Albany in his "Half Moon" for Dutch enterprise in September-October, 1609.

Celebration activities included a Saturday re-creation of the early twentieth century Intercollegiate Rowing Association competitions on the Hudson (four miles and six crews!) and the grand opening of a new hikers' walkway laid down across a previously abandoned landmark at Poughkeepsie, a railroad bridge even higher than the auto span used by Bertolozzi.

Below: 1889 bridge and the new walking path, 2009

At one point, about a third of the way across, there is a Listening Station with a dozen buttons mounted on the bridge. Push one at a time and you hear the entire work, plus Joe's voice explaining in lay terms how he put it all together, an imaginative site-specific work of art.

It was cloudy,windy, and a chilly rain threatened, so Joe took us down to Cafe Bocca
at 14 Mount Carmel Place, in his old neighborhood. The congenial owner (and very well-informed art enthusiast) Erik Morabitu hustled us double espressos while we chatted. In his own words, Joe terms his work "vernacular music" or "vernacular art", using the otherwise unmusical structure (the one mile-long suspension bridge) as an instrument to create this highly percussive piece.
"The work" he said,"is site-specific and sound specific."

So, site-specific and vernacular - two central terms in the study of art and architecture.

Naturally, we bought his CD [Bridge Music, 2009, Delos Productions, PO Box 343 Sonoma, CA 95476-9998, or] and we hope that you will, too!

Oh, the other food.

Despite our elegant lunch, my gaze wandered to Erik's menu board and noted that he serves some delightful pasta dishes for lunch and sells fresh Italian bread. He's at the center of the re-emerging Italian-American profile in this city and doesn't mind talking about it. Good for him.

And for us; it was contemporary Italian-American art at its best.

Day Two: French Cuisine and the American Ballet Theater Premiers

The Village of Rhinebeck, NY, is famed for its County Fair, its World War I aeroplane museum, and the stately Beekman Arms, the oldest continually operating hotel in America, dating from 1766 (National Trust for Historic Preservation).

But I am a fan of the new-comer,
Le Petit Bistro, right in the center of town (Zagat Survey and voted best French restaurant in the Hudson Valley). Of course, the chef is a graduate of the CIA). I first ate there in 2004 and it's only gotten better. It is already crowded by 5:30 PM; one does not simply walk in.

Le Menu: Hors d'oeuvres draw on the ocean (snails, clams, Price Edward mussels) but also include the obligatory Soupe a la Oignon gratinee. Entrees (with a salad) are more daring: frogs legs,(I first had them in Paris at the Roger la Grenouille restaurant, 26-28 Rue Des Grands Augustins, Paris 75006, buit that was back in 1957), Veal Francais, and Poisson du jour, roasted Duck, and Pepper Steak (For reservations: Telephone 845-876-7400).

Ah, but to go on: During that beautiful autumn time we had the excellent fortune to be at Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY) for afternoon performances (and premiers) of the American Ballet Theater's newest work in the Fisher Hall Sosnoff Theater on campus. Designed by avant-garde architect Frank Gehry, the hall has its back to the woods and is approachable only from the front or sides. It requires some concentration to move from its exterior presence to the interior for the performances.

In plain language, the dance performance was both riveting and moving. A dozen or more young artists dancing on stage, accompanied expertly by only a pianist and a vio
linist, In the dance "Some Assembly Required," they were driven by William Balcom's "Second Sonata for Violin and Piano." The choreography flowed under the direction of Alexie Ratmansky, Artist in Residence. He was born in St.Petersburg, 1968, and studied dance at the Bolshoi in Moscow

"Seven Sonatas" comprised a new work set to "Keyboard Sonatas"(Eleven Keyboard Sonatas in three movements) by Domenico Scarlati.
Dissonance joined lyric melody. Other dances were Mazurkas and waltzes by Chopin It was a brilliant and memorable experience.

And the following weekend, they hosted composer Terry Riley and his fellow performers. What a venue!

Gehry' design (2003), like the spacious Frederick R. Weisman Museum at the University of Minnesota (opened in 1993), is both simple and startling and commands respect and demands contemplative viewing. However, complaints abound about a too-cramped lobby without seating and some winter season problems with snow avalanching onto students. Audience comfort inside is near maximum.

Day Three: North Adams, Williams College, and Brew-Haha Cafe

Later that week, farther north and watching the leaves change to reds and golds, we made a bee-line for The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Adams. We strolled through the exhibits, conferring, but actually we were working up an appetite. We received a very articulate, in-depth analysis of Sol DeWitt's stripes and lines and then Andrew Kuo's quantification of his art through colored graphs. Our well-prepared tour guide gave us clear insights into such contemporary works as Robert Taplin's sculptures based on Dante's Inferno and Sam Taylor-Wood's dramatic Vanitas: A Little Death (part of the series, A Constant Seige), in which a hanging rabbit decays in time-stop while a fruit remains whole and healthy. The visitor is expected to be familiar with 17th genre art, such as Desportes' Still Life with Hare (1711) or Eugene Verboeckhoven's similar painting, 1844.
Despite these distractions, a stranger's casual remark led us down to the Brew-Haha Cafe at 20 Marshall Street, just two blocks from the museum. There, lunch was a delight with home-made chowders, the best corn muffins in the world (They are a New England tradition, along with blueberry,etc), and lots of veggie dishes including the best tossed salad I have ever eaten! Their house blend coffee is currently a Costa Rican Tarrazu by MachMachristay [].

Over lunch we engaged in conversations with two couples who sat down and shared our table, one after the other, all artistic professionals: One was scholar Marta Finch, a poet and translator of the 16th century Renaissance work, Pernette du Guillet: Complete Poems; the other was and historian/novelist Charles O'Brien, author of Deadly Quarrel (2009).

Right: Williams College Art Museuim entry with Warhol.

Well fed, we carried on with gusto and visited the compact Williams College Art Museum (a kidspace show, "You Are What You Eat" and a rich survey of rare pieces, arranged for teaching, this month organized around the theme of the human body) and even the rather staid and manicured Clark Museum (many Impressionists), located on what can only be called "an estate." But there is depth at the Clark and their exhibit of Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keefe, "Circles of Influence," was a landmark event. And the influence is evident.

Arthur Dove, Sunrise, 1924

Georgia O'Keefe, Sunrise, 1916

First and Last days: DIA: Beacon and The Storm King Art Center

At the beginning of our trip, we spent an overcast afternoon at DIA:Beacon, a sprawling, former box printing plant (Thank you, Nabisco!) turned tastefully into a huge exhibit space for minimalist art. It is perched just above the east bank of the Hudson River, less than a mile off Route 9 or what people called it in the nineteenth century, "The Albany Post Road."

Below: DIA:Beacon on the Hudson River

We did a brief walk-through and then had a tasty lunch (soups and wraps)in the modernist cafe, designed to blend with the art. Adjacent is an excellent bookstore where you may be lost for hours. But a good three hours will be enough to see, contemplate and discuss the various rooms (300,000 square feet) displaying Donald Judd, Joseph Beuys, Zoe Leonard, Louise Bourgeois, Sol LeWitt, Imi Knoebel, Lawrence Weiner, and all the other big names.

Across the Hudson and a few miles south is the towering cliff called Storm King, with its treacherous road along the granite face, often washed out and given to frequent landslides. My parents and I drove that road once, long ago. But only once.

We didn't go there this time. Instead, on our final day in the region, we visited the Art Center, just off Route 9W (Their signage is terrible. One has to ask locals for directions). But once you find The Art Center, you will see a beautifully landscaped park, well cared for, and completely devoted to modern sculpture.

Louise Nevelson, City on the High Mountain, 1983

At the entrance, of course, is Caulder,and across the field are Louise Nevelson and Richard Serra, and beyond them are Alexander Lieberman and Isaac Witkin.

But what caught my heart was the adventurous works of two sculptors, British artist Andy Goldsworthy (born 1956) and the better-known (for her Vietnam War Memorial) American, Maya Lin (born 1959).

Lin's site-specific undulating piece is called "Wave Field", the result of a huge landscaping project, converting a gravel pit into a precisely-planned (sketches and templates are on display in the art center), gently rising and falling green field.

Goldsworthy, Storm King Wall, 1997-1998 (winter view)
Goldsworthy joins the traditional skills of English dry wall builders with his artistic imagination in his work entitled, "Storm King Wall. It slants across a hill and then seems to span a lake and emerge on the other side, to curl and twist itself for 2278 feet. It is the joyous confluence of folk art or traditional craft and fine art, and it took five British wall builders (as rare these days as roof thatchers) to create it.

Goldsworthy's wall, curiously enough, occupies the very site of an 18th century Hudson Valley farmer's field stone wall, borrowing its form and dimensions. And as the formal sculpture tapers off, one can easily see the former wall struggle on into the woods.

The main point, of course, is that both artists have noted and incorporated the natural landscape and the built vernacular landscape (in the cultural geographic sense) so that their work stands and blends and reminds us of the entire Hudson Valley - over four hundred years of environmental change and human adaptation.

The terms repeat themselves: site-specific and vernacular.

The two site-specific works are side-by-side at the south end of the park, and unless you catch the tour tram, it's a bit of a walk to the art center main building.
Woody's Cafe was closed and no dinner is served there anyway. We concluded this experience with a late-afternoon picnic of smoked salmon, olives, a loaf of Lithuanian rye, two cheeses (Cheddar and brie), some Majooli dates, a freshly-picked Hudson Valley apple and a cold bottle of B&G Vouvray.

We had hours to go before we slept.

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