By Heidi Waleson
Anyone who has wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly reinstalled European paintings galleries and wondered what music might complement the pictures can have their curiosity satisfied on Sept. 17 and 18 at the “Grand Tour” concerts. Each evening, 280 listeners, in groups of 70, will move through four galleries and hear a mini-concert of music related to the art in each one (Italian Baroque and 18th century French, for example) by a New York early music ensemble.
On Sept. 28, an even more ambitious undertaking is the all-day “John Zorn – A Museum-Wide Celebration,” marking the composer’s 60th birthday. There will be twelve different performances of Zorn’s music in eleven different spaces, ranging from a solo cello performance in the Assyrian art gallery and a duo improvisation in the Abstract Expressionism gallery to Zorn playing the organ on the balcony of the Musical Instruments collection, overlooking Arms and Armor.
These events are the creations of Limor Tomer, now beginning her third season as the museum’s Concerts & Lectures General Manager. The Met has presented concerts in its larger gallery spaces, such as the Temple of Dendur and the Medieval Sculpture Hall, but Tomer wants to go further. “I am more interested in exploring the museum than in using the galleries as beautiful backdrops,” she says. “We’re coming at it from a curatorial perspective, building programs that grow organically from gallery settings.”
A dramatic example of that perspective was last season’s presentation of Peony Pavilion. Mike Hearn, the Asian Art curator, had seen the composer Tan Dun‘s 70-minute adaptation of the 16th-century kunju opera in a garden outside Shanghai and decided it would be perfect for the museum’s Ming-style Astor Court. He and Tomer undertook the elaborate project, which involved importing a company of 17 from China, working with Tan Dun to adapt the performance to the space, and devising lighting to approximate an outdoor environment. They also set up an elaborate video suite so that the performance could be relayed live to the Met’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, thus reaching a larger audience than the 50 people who could fit in the actual garden space. The video was also posted on the museum’s website. To expand the experience still further, Hearn created a related exhibition about gardens.
The logistics of organizing such a production in the vicinity of precious objects might be daunting to anyone less determined than Tomer and Hearn. “The safety of the art comes first,” Tomer says. “Part of what we are doing is encouraging people to consider objects from an eye-level perspective. It encourages intimacy, and when you get comfortable with art, you might want to touch it. Or you might bump into it.” However, she says, “the curators for the most part are excited to have this kind of transformation happen to their galleries.”
One basic logistical issue involves controlling the number of people. For the Zorn day, Tomer wanted to “go deep” into the museum, which the composer knows intimately. Some of the galleries in which the hourly performances will take place can accommodate only 50 people, so every two hours, there will be one in a location that accommodates a bigger crowd, like the Temple of Dendur. There will be no chairs, and T-shirted ushers will lead listeners from gallery to gallery.
For Tomer and the curators, the idea of artistic interaction between the objects and the performers is key. “When dealing with an artist, whether visual or performing, you see the other works of art in a different light,” Hearn says. “For me, the garden court came alive, and all the paintings about gardens had a new resonance.”
Ideally, the objects and the spaces will prompt new kinds of audience responses. “When you’re attending a concert in a gallery, you’re focused, with a small group, after hours,” Tomer says. “You’re not just spending two hours in the museum. Second, we literally shine a different light on the objects – we use lighting. I think that will change peoples’ perspective.”
A 2011 gallery event – Still Moving, a dance performance by Shen Wei Dance Arts in the sculpture court of the American Wing – created one kind of powerful resonance. “With the choreography, and the fact that some of the dancers were nude, it was sometimes hard to tell if you were looking at a sculpture or a body,” Tomer recalls. “It recalibrated my brain about how the motion of bodies is captured in sculpture.”
A third goal is the inspiration of new work. Scheduled for February 2014 is the Gotham Chamber Opera‘s presentation of a double bill, Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda in the Arms and Armor Court and the world premiere of Lembit Beecher‘s I Have No Stories to Tell You in the Medieval Sculpture Hall.
In preparation, Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch were invited to bring a violinist and cellist/singer into the Medieval Sculpture Hall to experiment. The acoustics, Beecher says, were “very resonant and a little particular,” affecting how he wrote the music. The “aura of the space” was also influential. “We’ll be coming from a bright, colorful space, with all these suits of armor, into the Medieval Hall, which is a cooler, darker space, with religious overtones,” he says. “The objects are more domestic, like chests. It’s less about war. There’s a feeling of contemplation that is quite pronounced.” His opera, a companion piece to the Monteverdi work, which describes a battle, is about a female soldier returning home. It is set in the modern era. “An opera about the after-effects of war resonated with that space,” Beecher says. “And the space has a timeless feel. It seemed too literal to set it in the medieval period.”
Having performances in the galleries can bring new visitors as well as new perspectives. The curator of Arms and Armor, Tomer says, is delighted about having the opera staged in the gallery. “It’s primarily a place that adults come with children, and he’s interested in having people consider the work there not just as a threshold to entry for families.” She sees many other museum galleries, some of which are under-visited, as having great potential. Period rooms, for example. “They are static and silent. They are not living – and these are places that were not originally built just to be looked at,” she says. “There are some technical issues – you can’t put stress on the gallery and objects, or step on the carpets. I don’t have the answers, but I’m very interested. I’d really like to animate all kinds of galleries – European, Asian, Islamic – through an aesthetic perspective, not an ethnographic one.” “Dangerous Liaisons,” the 2004 exhibition that juxtaposed 18th-century dress and decorative arts in the setting of the French period rooms, is one inspiration. “Maybe we need to do it with sound, and memory,” she says.
Hearn is excited about more projects as well, even if it’s just an artist doing ink drawings or a musician playing the museum’s Ming Dynasty zither in the Asian Art galleries: “The transitory nature of performance – I want to bottle it!”
Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for the Wall Street Journal and writes about the performing arts for a variety of US and international publications.