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Time to Move On, but First, a Fond Look Back

By Terry Teachout
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 2, 2005

Terry Teachout, author of "All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine," "A Terry Teachout Reader" and "The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken," started writing Second City, a monthly column about the arts in New York, in the fall of 1999. In September, after six years and 64 columns, he filed his final report for The Post.

"I can't even begin to tell you how much I'll miss Second City," he says. "Not only was it a pleasure and a privilege to report to the readers of one great city about the artistic doings of another, but I learned to love Washington along the way."

Here are excerpts from Teachout's reports on the 10 most memorable events he covered in Second City. "I don't know whether they're the very best things I saw," he explains, "but of the hundreds of performances and shows I wrote about in the column, they're the ones I still talk about the most."

* * *

2000: If I had to see one March event over again, it would be "Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art," on display at the Equitable Gallery. . . . Porter has never been even slightly trendy (it's no accident that this exhibit is being presented by a corporate gallery, not a major museum), but those who love his work, myself included, regard him as one of the half-dozen greatest American painters of the postwar era.

This small-scale retrospective, curated by Justin Spring, author of a newly published Porter biography, makes the strongest possible case for his quiet, airy realism. Every painting has been chosen with scrupulous care, and the full range of his work is on display, from the coolly observant portraits of his family and friends to the near-abstract seascapes of his last years. I can't think of a better show to visit on a busy day: You'll come away feeling as though you'd wandered through a green glade dappled with bright yellow sunshine, and there'll be a big smile on your face.

* * *

2001: I have finally figured out "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," Mark Morris's masterly dance version of the Handel oratorio. For some inexplicable reason, I didn't warm to the dance when I saw it at the Lincoln Center Festival six years ago -- it struck me as virtuosic but empty. What was I thinking? "L'Allegro" is a whole world of dance in a single evening, everything from childlike pantomime to knockabout comedy to complex groupings reminiscent of George Balanchine in their control and clarity. I wish Morris's dancers did "L'Allegro" in New York each spring, just like New York City Ballet does Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," so that we could all revel in it as often as we want.

* * *

2001: I'm worn out, which is why I didn't want to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art two Fridays ago to hear Eighth Blackbird give the premiere of "The Time Gallery," Paul Moravec's latest composition.

Instead of staying home and going to bed early, though, I faced the music -- and I'm glad I did. Eighth Blackbird is a spiffy sextet from Chicago that specializes in avant-garde music of the old-fashioned, hyper-complicated sort, while Moravec is one of the accessibility-conscious "new tonalists" who are giving contemporary classical music a much-needed makeover. It's an odd match, but Moravec had the clever idea to write a piece that deploys the whole avant-garde bag of tricks -- a multimedia slide show, electronic-music interludes, even a touch of performance art -- in support of a score that is unabashedly tonal and breathtakingly beautiful. I sat on the edge of my seat as each movement unfolded, acutely aware that I was hearing an important new work, perhaps even a masterpiece, for the very first time.

* * *

2001: Of all the things I did in December, the one that best summed up the spirit of this wounded city was a midweek visit I paid to the Village Vanguard, New York's oldest jazz club, down whose narrow stairs I stepped gingerly one night to hear the Bill Charlap Trio. Imagine my astonishment when my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I spotted Tony Bennett sitting in the corner -- and imagine my delight when he sauntered up to the tiny bandstand and sang "Time After Time" and "The Lady Is a Tramp." Yes, we're battered and bruised and living with the worst kind of uncertainty, yet there we were, drinking up our minimums and goggling at a living legend, after which we all rushed home to call up our envious friends and tell them what they'd missed.

* * *

2002: Man cannot live by champagne alone -- he also needs the music of Emmanuel Chabrier, which is the aesthetic equivalent of a chilled split of Dom Perignon. If that sounds good to you, it's not too late to catch New York City Opera's divinely silly production of Chabrier's "L'Etoile," an operetta full of surreal happenings and sparkling tunes.

Mark Lamos's dizzy staging is as slapsticky as a Chaplin short, and Robert Orth, the star of the evening, not only mugs like a trouper but also does a cartwheel and a split, an event almost certainly unique in the annals of opera.

* * *

2003: As for the world premiere of Maria Schneider's "Bulerias, Soleas y Rumbas" at Alice Tully Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center has never done anything more important than commissioning this piece. It's no secret that Schneider is the foremost big-band composer of her generation, but this powerful large-scale work, in which she blends jazz and flamenco with the skill of an alchemist, is so good that I hesitate to limit its significance by calling it big-band music, or even jazz. It is as tightly woven and emotionally compelling as a symphony.

* * *

2003: I'd been looking forward to Lincoln Center's revival of Basil Twist's "Symphonie Fantastique" ever since it was announced last year, but when my friends asked me exactly what it was, I hemmed and hawed and finally said, "Well, uh . . . it's an abstract puppet show in a thousand-gallon water tank, set to a recording of Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique.' " Sounds crazy, no? And to tell the truth, "Symphonie Fantastique" is a little crazy -- a loony masterpiece that defies any sort of easy characterization, save to say that it is one of the half-dozen most entrancing theatrical experiences I've encountered since I started writing this column. Sure, all you see are strange objects swishing and swirling behind a colorfully lit wall of glass, but the images conjured up by Twist and his crack team of puppeteers are so inscrutably gorgeous (think of a cross between George Balanchine, Paul Klee and Chuck Jones) that they will stick in your mind like a wild but happy daydream.

* * *

2004: For me, the major thrill of the month came when Propeller, Edward Hall's London-based, all-male acting company, brought his production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAM Harvey Theater. Hall has a ritzy theatrical pedigree (his father is Sir Peter Hall), but his joyously informal approach to Shakespeare is all his own, and I can't remember when I saw a "Midsummer Night's Dream" half so good as this version, flung across the simplest of sets with imagination to burn. The female roles are done in deliberately crude drag, the actors supply their own incidental music (and sound effects) by singing in chorus and playing cheap harmonicas, and the results are both absurdly funny and -- when appropriate -- heart-catchingly affecting.

* * *

2004: Never mind the damn election. The most important art exhibit in Second City -- maybe even in all of America -- is the Giorgio Morandi show on display at Lucas Schoormans Gallery through Dec. 4. . . . The effect of this show is wildly disproportionate to its minuscule size: six oil paintings and two works on paper, all of them still lifes and none in any obvious way imposing. Yet as you look at how the greatest Italian artist of the 20th century painstakingly arranged and rearranged a dozen bottles, bowls and boxes on a table and painted them over and over again, you find yourself whisked out of the grinding noise of everyday urban life and spirited away to a place of intense stillness. It's as if a soft-spoken man had slipped discreetly into a small room open to the public, whispering life-changing confidences to the fortunate few who visit him there.

* * *

2005: The kind of surprise I like best is when something I'm already enjoying turns out to be even better than I'd first thought. That's what happened when I saw Austin Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow," now playing off-Broadway in an open-ended run at the Barrow Street Theatre.

At first I thought it was nothing more (or less) than a coruscatingly brilliant entertainment, a tour de force in which five actors portraying Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Kenneth Tynan and Joan Plowright are put onstage and turned loose like a fleet of bumper cars, sending blue sparks flying across the stage as they smash into one another. I was half right: "Orson's Shadow" is brilliant, all right, but it's far more than mere entertainment.

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