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    New Musical Union Rekindles Ancient Connection

    Those who view musical styles and artistic development as straight lines are generally lost when it comes the real story. Songs and forms flow in organic ways over time as directed by individual choices, personal contact, and cultures that collide for all sorts of reasons.

    When saxophonist Basel Rajoub was a boy in Aleppo, Syria, he wasn’t much interested in the Middle Eastern classical music surrounding him, yet he found his ears drawn to the panoply of sounds within Aleppo’s rich cultural blend. The stuff that grabbed his ears most, though, were the American jazz recordings his aunt played him. Miles Davis became a hero, and he picked up a trumpet.

    He studied classically at a conservatory in Damascus. By the time he was done with school, his musical interests settled back on jazz and, somewhat to his surprise, on the traditional Syrian music he’d once rejected. By then, he’d switched to saxophone. He took up the challenges of learning to improvise in jazz’s language, for which the saxophone is well suited, and of adapting the saxophone to the microtonal demands of Syrian music. He saw the lines between styles blurring. He began composing and recording music to reflect that approach and sought out musicians who felt the same way.  

    He found his most profound connection with an Iranian musician in, of all places, Shanghai, China. Before performing at a world music festival there, Rajoub was entranced by the music of another band, whose leader, Saeid Shanbehzadeh, played the ney-anbān, an Iranian bagpipe. Rajoub didn’t understand the lyrics, but the Iranian melodies sounded familiar.

    The two musicians met, talked, and then moved on until a year later, when they connected again by chance.

    Their subsequent collaboration has flowered into “Sound: The Encounter,” an ensemble that will make its New York debut December 7 at the Asia Society’s Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium in Manhattan. (They’ll also perform at the Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler Galleries on December 12 and the Asia Society in Houston, Texas, on December 14. The December 7 concert will be webcast live.)

    Though it is subtitled “New Music from Iran and Syria,” in reality the program features both ancient songs and recent compositions, draws on the traditions of several countries, and suggests an imagined space beyond borders. In addition to Rajoub on saxophones and duclar, a Syrian reed instrument, and Shanbehzadeh, who sings, dances, and plays several traditional instruments, the ensemble will include Shanbehzadeh’s son, Naghib, a percussionist, and Kenan Adnawi, an oud player from Syria.

    The concert is the result of an institutional collaboration between the Asia Society and the Aga Khan Music Initiative, which, according to its website, takes as a mandate “to support musicians from the Muslim world who are striving to reassemble diverse expressions of a shared musical heritage in contemporary forms.” That organizational collaboration began in 2010 and has led to several cross-cultural projects, bringing rarely heard traditions to American audiences. For the Asia Society, this concert fits within broader goals: it is part of “Creative Voices of Muslim Asia,” a multi-disciplinary series started in 2008, and is presented in conjunction with “Iran Modern,” an exhibition of Iranian modern art from the 1950s-70s on view through January 5, 2014.

    Theodore Levin, who is senior project consultant for the Aga Khan initiative and a professor of music at Dartmouth College, will give a pre-performance lecture on December 7. In an email, he wrote: “The ensemble’s multi-layered mixing of musical influences from East Africa, the Persian Gulf, the Levant, and Western Europe is like a sonic version of time-lapse photography in which you hear a millennium’s worth of history roll by in a couple of minutes. The group brilliantly illustrates that no music is ‘pure,’ and that musical migrations of the past leave an imprint on the present.”

    Rachel Cooper, a director for arts and culture at the Asia Society, was drawn to the project, she said, for the music’s beauty as well as its straddling of ancient and modern. “What has so moved me above all,” she said, “is the integrity of the meeting. I only wish more of our cross-cultural diplomatic encounters could be as productive and receptive.”

    Iran and Syria once shared rich musical traditions, which have been severed as a result of political realities. The mention of Aleppo now calls up mostly images of civil war, not the cultural ferment it meant to Basel Rajoub as a boy.

    Rajoub, who now lives in Geneva, Switzerland, spoke with me over the phone from his Manhattan hotel room earlier this week about his musical roots and ambitions, and his collaboration with Shanbehzadeh.

    What was Aleppo like for you as a boy?

    Aleppo was a nice place, and very rich musically. When you switched on the radio, there were at least 10 kinds of music to hear. So without thinking about it, I suppose I got the idea very early that there were many ways to make music. The city is known for its music, and it is a home to Syrian classical music. But at the time, I didn’t find that interesting.

    What music did interest you?

    Louis Armstrong. Billie Holiday, John Coltrane. And especially Miles Davis.

    Where did you hear that stuff?

    I had an aunt who was a close listener to that music, so she had a good jazz library. I don’t know if it is strange for a Syrian boy of 12 to be listening to Miles Davis’s “Kind Of Blue” and Coltrane’s “Ballads” album, but I was. Without those ideas, I’m not sure if I’d be a musician. And it was at that time that I fell in love with the sound of the trumpet.

    What grabbed you?

    This music, when you listen to it and when you get to play it, makes imagination primary. When they play solos, you can sense the freedom.

    Isn’t improvisation important in Middle Eastern classical music?

    Yes, that’s true, but I guess I didn’t hear it the same way I do now. I couldn’t appreciate it.

    Your studies on trumpet were in Western classical tradition, right?

    Yes. My family moved to Damascus, and I attended conservatory there. Damascus was very different than Aleppo. There is not as much a focus on culture and music. To study music, there was the old Syrian music, the Oriental School, which I wasn’t interested in, and the conservatory, which is a Soviet-style music school. But I found out I didn’t want to play classical music. And I developed a physical problem with my embouchure, which forced me to switch to the saxophone. I started on alto, and then moved to tenor and soprano saxophones.

    What kind of music were you playing?

    After I graduated, I played with a couple of bands in Damascus. I started playing Syrian music as well as jazz. I realized that I liked the Syrian music, and I especially liked the idea of mixing the two. The Jazz Ambassadors program from the U.S. would bring musicians to Damascus, and I would come to their workshops. That was really the first time that someone said to me, “OK, improvise.” It was difficult at first.

    And what about the Middle Eastern classical music — was that hard to master?

    On trumpet, it was nearly impossible because of the scales and microtones. But once I switched to saxophone, I could do it.

    Was it considered strange to play that music on saxophone?

    I can’t say it’s strange. The problem with any classical musician is that they are limited. I understand instruments like kanun and ney are technically limited. But also the mentality was limited. Most of these musicians weren’t listening to different kinds of music.

    When I began composing music, I was thinking about using Oriental instruments because I didn’t want to do a traditional jazz ensemble. The idea is that I want to put the melodies and solos I wanted within the Oriental sound. In Oriental music, there are solo parts and ensemble sections but there is very little real interaction between instruments. The parts are assigned, much like Western classical music. I wanted the beauty of Oriental music with the interaction of jazz.

    Was there much work as a musician in Damascus?

    In light of what’s happening now it’s a bit strange to think, but between 2000 and 2011 there was a music and culture revolution. The government started to support music and culture. They created festivals. When I lived in Damascus, I played 100 concerts a year.

    There was huge support for musicians in Syria. My very last day in Syria, I played a concert to celebrate the release of my album at Damascus Opera House with my quartet.

    It’s so painful to see what’s happening in Syria now. Do you fear that everything you knew will be lost?

    Thank god I didn’t lose any family in Aleppo, but I lost friends. I know plenty of musicians who are now in the military. It’s heartbreaking to see my friends selling their instruments. It’s not easy.

    Do you fear the culture being destroyed?

    I fear that my country and my culture will be destroyed.

    How did the collaboration with Saeid Shanbezadeh start?

    We both were playing in different projects at the Shanghai World Music Festival in 2011. He was playing before our band. When I heard his music, it was a shock because we have the same thing in Syria. We have the same kind of music. It’s so similar to the Bedouin music of Syria, it’s almost the same song. That was a revelation.

    In my country, this music is only played at weddings. But Saeid has pursued this music in a professional way, as concert music. This was interesting to me.

    After the concert, I approached him. I asked him, “Where are you from?” He told me about the seaport on the Persian Gulf, about the city of Bushehr. We jammed a little bit, just improvising, and we decided to work together. But we had to plan.

    And that was it?

    Until we met again, in Paris about a year later, by chance in a café. I was there to play with a group called “New Sounds from Arab Lands.” I told him to come to our rehearsal, and to bring his instruments. We played together again for a half-hour, and the producer decided then and there to make it a real project.

    What is so appealing about this combination for you?

    Well, there are challenges. His bagpipe plays in only one key, which would be like a G minor, but with altered microtones. These are hard to play on the saxophone. Also, the Iranian bagpipe is a sensitive instrument. If the weather is dry, for instance, the tuning will change. You have to listen to each other very carefully. So we are listening closely, like having a conversation. And it’s folk music. It has a beauty that is pure and it also gives me freedom. 

    "Sound: The Encounter": (l-r) Basel Rajoub, Saied Shabezadeh

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    NEW YORK — If the costumes are any indication, the Guggenheim Museum's annual production of Peter and the Wolf looks this year set to be an animalistic dance-off contrasting some elegant ballerina types with other rough, free-styling "street" characters. 

    But the designs' creator Isaac Mizrahi — who also crafted the set of Central Park and directed the actors and dancers — recoils at the suggestion that the project is one where theater meets fashion.

    Even though he is perhaps best known for being a ready-to-wear designer, Mizrahi has in recent days — after licensing his name and selling his company, now comprising four labels, to Xcel Brands for a reported $31.5 million in 2011 — been involved in more and more creative pursuits that have little to do with the design studio, boutique or runway. (A nice breakdown of his day-to-day involvement at his parent company, however, is detailed here.)

    Having made his directing debut in 2010 with a production of A Little Night Music at the Opera Theater of St. Louis, for which he also designed the costumes and set, the irrepressible multihyphenate will see his latest creation open tomorrow (December 7) to sold-out audiences at the museum's Peter B. Lewis theater. The concert will also see him reprise his role as narrator for the 7th consecutive year.

    “I don’t like having the word ‘fashion’ applied to this,” Mizrahi told BLOUIN ARTINFO on the phone while on his way to a rehearsal. “I mean, there are costumes but there’s no real fashion involved. I wouldn’t even strictly say I designed them — they’re just what I think helps to illustrate the concept of each character.  The music kind of dictates who the characters are before I conceive anything.”

    Fortunately, Mizrahi was still game to discuss his costume designs and character ideas for the show, starting with the Duck, played by Maira Kalman, an illustrator, designer and author, and a close friend of his: “Since I’ve been a balletomane my whole life, it was a forgone conclusion that the Duck should be wearing a tutu.  She’s a funny idea – kind of tickling rather than laugh-out-loud — and somehow all these years I’ve been thinking about Maira in the role. It’s meant to be.”

    Keeping with the balletic theme is another light-footed character, the Bird (Julie Cunningham), which Mizrahi said he’s always envisioned as a ballerina in pointe shoes. “That’s the closest I can get to flying,” he said, matter-of-factly.

    Meanwhile, the two title characters, Peter (Macy Sullivan) and the Wolf (Daniel Pettrow), as well as the Grandfather (Gus Solomons Jr., another friend of Mizrahi's), have all been reimagined as quintessential New York caricatures — the latter even fashioned after the Brooklyn-born-and-raised designer himself.

    “Peter is an Upper East Side kind of schoolboy, [the kind] who is mischievous on Madison Ave in their uniforms. The Wolf is a character that lives in Central Park — kind of a homeless, dangerous fugitive who should be in the zoo but is really hiding in plain sight,” he explained. “The grandfather is someone whom I'll ultimately become: A crazy New York kind of guy, hopefully very involved in the arts, or belonging to some kind of bridge club, and kind of grumpy. It’s the character closest to my personal alter ego.”

    Whereas previous stagings of the 1936 Sergei Prokofiev classic have featured sets by artists such as Will Cotton (2012) and Jason Hackenwerth (2011), Mizrahi emphasized that for all his roles in this year's production, his ultimate approach was really borne of the desire to use dance and movement to reinterpret the oeuvre, with the simultaneous aim to introduce the different elements of an orchestra to children — just as its original creator intended it.

    “Working with John [Heginbotham, the show’s choreographer], is great, and is a big part of my ability to do the show,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve been thinking about motifs, ideas, and what the music means, and this is a great opportunity for me to fulfill all those fantasies. What I hope to do with this show is to make it amusing, and give kids a grasp of artistic composition or help them associate the flute with the bird, or the oboe with the duck.”

    The Juilliard Ensemble, conducted by George Manahan, will provide the soundtrack. The costumes are just part of “creating mnemonic images that will really solidify this for them,” he added.

    To see Mizrahi’s sketches for Peter and the Wolf, which runs at the Peter B. Lewis theater at the Guggenheim from Dec 7 to 15, click on the slideshow.

    Isaac Mizrahi Redesigns Peter and the Wolf at the Guggenheim
    Isaac Mizrahi in a costume fitting for the Cat, played by Lindsey Jones

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    It’s been a big week in Miami as the art world descended on the annual behemoth market event Art Basel in Miami Beach, its overpopulated solar system of satellite fairs, and exclusive beachside parties. ARTINFO visited each fair, tracking its biggest sales and most obvious flops.

    Take a look at Miami Art week in pictures by clicking the slideshow here. 

    See Pictures From All the Fairs of Miami Art Week 2013
    The entrance to Art Basel Miami Beach

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    The Dream Logic of "Inside Llewyn Davis"

    Is Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” the representation of a nightmare, as were David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive”?

    Toward the end of the Coens’ depiction of the self-inflicted travails of the working-class Queens folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), he wakes for what seems to be the second time in the Upper West Side apartment of his Columbia academic friends the Gorfeins, who have treated him more kindly than he deserves. As it did before, the couple’s cat stares at him as he comes to. On leaving, he shuts the door on it, whereas “earlier” he allowed it to escape, his quick retrieval of it forcing him into the only companionship he knows in the film.

    On “both” occasions, he heads downtown and winds up playing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Café on MacDougal Street. It’s the winter of 1961 and Llewyn, clinging to the bleak traditional ballads and shanties he performs so hauntingly, is bound for obscurity — partially through his own intransigence, partially because the Greenwich Village scene is about to be transformed by Bob Dylan’s revolutionary original songs.

    The beating Llewyn takes from a gaunt good ol’ boy — a Kentucky-accented phantom protective of folk’s heritage — behind the club after his set replicates the beating he took from him at the start, though the second time round it’s shown from different angles. In his excellent essay on the movie in the current Film Comment magazine, Jonathan Romney asserts that the events that follow the “first” rendition of “Oh Hang Me” are a flashback. Thus Llewyn wakes once at the Gorsheins’ and takes one beating.

    The theory is watertight, yet it doesn’t nullify the film’s oneiric logic or the impression it leaves of eternal return. Like Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” he frequently nods off or looks sleepy after taking an early blow to the head, the effect of it blurring the boundaries between dream and reality, straightforwardly naturalistic though most of the movie is. 

    “Hasn’t everything Llewyn experiences happened before?” New York Daily News film critic Elizabeth Weitzman speculated when we discussed the movie earlier in the week. Her thinking led me to analyze the nature of Llewyn’s labyrinthine wanderings — which take him from alleyways and backyards to gauntlet-like tenement passageways, then on to a hell-and-back trip to the bleak Midwest. (I discussed the film’s topography here.)

    The movie is essentially naturalistic but, explaining the title, the tortuous maze Llewyn finds himself trapped in — every blind alleyway a reminder of his destructive obduracy or irresponsibility — is a mythic version of his troubled psyche, the conscious prickings of which he tamps down with self-righteousness, self-pity, sarcasm, and drunken belligerence. It’s no coincidence that Jean (Carey Mulligan), the unavailable folk singer he has impregnated, furiously likens him to “King Midas’s idiot brother” or that the cat is named Ulysses. Jean is Llewyn’s Circe. The drug-addicted old jazz cat (John Goodman), whose blowhard sneers rain down on Llewyn en route to Chicago, is one Minotaur, the music entrepreneur (F. Murray Abraham) he auditions for there another.

    Llewyn escapes one and, adhering to his cussed integrity at the cost of advancement, defies the other. It’s hard, though, not to believe that Jean won’t go on haranguing him after the movie ends; there’s an intensity in their relationship that’s lacking from the one she shares with her live-in musician lover (Justin Timberlake). Llewyn will survive his masochistic attraction to her as he does the symbolic “hanging” he receives from the ghostly assailant who mauls him, enabling him to struggle on through the ’60s and ’70s — musical vision intact, fame and wealth elusive. There are hints that his journey into himself has taught him a little self-awareness and that giving up isn’t an option, but that’s as sentimental as it gets.  

    John Goodman in "Inside Llewyn Davis"

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    Performing Arts Week in Review: "Treme," Bolshoi Ballet, and More

    — Larry Blumenfeld talks to series creator David Simon about the new and final season of “Treme”

    — J. Hoberman discusses the recent vote of the New York Film Critics Circle, giving us a peek at his proxy ballot.

    — The Bolshoi Ballet dancer behind the acid attack earlier this year was sentenced to six years in prison.

    — Graham Fuller writes about Joanna Scanlan, who gives one of the best and underappreciated performances of the year in “The Invisible Woman,” and reviews“White Reindeer,” a new Christmas classic.

    — Patrick Pacheco interviewsJohn Pollono, the man behind (and in front) of the current stage hit “Small Engine Repair”

    — A devastating report from the Library of Congress reveals that 75 percent of films produced during the silent period are still missing.

    Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in "American Hustle"

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    An Alternate Soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis”

    “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new film from the Coen Brothers, takes place in the folk music milieu of early-1960s New York City. The titular character, played by Oscar Issac, is a struggling folk musician who, in typical Coen Brothers fashion, goes on a hellish journey toward (possible) discovery. The soundtrack, filled with folk classics — many of them made famous by Dave Van Ronk, whose life provides the foundation for the story — is one of the best of the year.

    These songs have a long history, and have been performed by many great artists over the years. On the occasion of the film’s opening weekend, ARTINFO presents an alternate soundtrack to “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Below, you’ll find the same songs, all performed by different artists. You can listen to each song separately, or check out our Spotify playlist below. Enjoy.

    Dave Van Ronk, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”

    Bob Dylan, “Dink’s Song”

    Tom Paxton, “The Last Thing On My Mind”

    Hoyt Axton, “Five Hundred Miles”

    Mickey Woods, “Please Mr. Kennedy”

    Karen Dalton, “Green Rocky Road”

    Bascom Lamar Lunsford, “The Death of Queen Jane”

    Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “Roving Gambler”

    The Clancy Brothers, “The Shoals of Herring”

    Luke Kelly, “The Auld Triangle”

    Dave Van Ronk, “Dink’s Song”

    Bob Dylan, “Farewell”

    Kate & Anna McGarrigle, “Green Green Rocky Road”

    PLAYLIST

    Oscar Isaac in "Inside Llewyn Davis"

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    Watch ARTINFO video of 60 Works in 60 Seconds at PULSE Miami HERE.

    Pulse Miami, now in its ninth year, unveiled its 2013 edition at the Ice Palace near Miami’s Wynwood arts district on December 5. The brunch preview welcomed 3,000 visitors, including international collectors, advisers, and curators from the Carnegie Museum, the Peabody Essex, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the San Antonio Museum. Within the first few hours, a handful of galleries were reporting six-figure sales.

    Stalwarts like Galerie Stefan Roepke, Von Lintel Gallery, and Staley-Wise were joined by new exhibitors including Maserre (+R) Galeria, of Barcelona; Vertice Gallery, from Lima; Sanatorium, of Istanbul; and Contemporary by Angela Li, of Hong Kong, reflecting Pulse’s roughly 50/50 split between international and domestic galleries.

    This year’s fair comes with a few notable changes: first to the layout, which offers slightly wider aisles and more circulation, and also to a streamlined schedule, with the organizers deciding to forgo events earlier in the week in favor of a VIP brunch preview. “Thursday brunch has always worked well for us, so we just went with that,” said fair director Cornell DeWitt. But he dismissed the notion that the mushrooming array of satellite fairs this year might detract from Pulse’s core audience. “We essentially invented this market segment when the fair was founded in 2005,” he said.

    That middle-market segment proved a sweet spot for bargain-hunting established collectors and newbies alike, with works under $100,000 moving briskly in the fair’s first hours. Amid a champagne toast, newcomer Zemack Contemporary, of Tel Aviv, sold “Unitled; Olya,” an arresting portrait fresh from the studio of photorealist painter Yigal Ozeri, for $50,000.

    At Jerome Zodo Contemporary of Milan, Alexander Brighetti’s shiny black bone sculptures covered in a ferrous liquid and animated by magnets — such as “Shiver,” 2013, where the liquid coursed up and down a spinal column laid in a vitrine — drew many curious onlookers; a skull sold at $20,000.

    Other fair favorites included a deeply discomfiting sculpture by Patricia Piccinini at Hosfelt Gallery’s booth — owner Todd Hosfelt pointed out that each of the lifelike hairs on the fleshy wad had been applied by hand. He was one of several dealers to feature secondary-market material alongside gallery artists; he also placed a David Hammons basketball drawing for an undisclosed price in the six-figure range.

    Dealers seemed upbeat about the harvest from the preview. New York photography dealer James Danziger said sales had been “more than good,” and that he had placed several C-prints by Hendrik Kerstens, inspired by 17th-century Dutch portraiture, in the $15,000 to $36,000 range.

    New media art specialist Bryce Wolkowitz had sold six from an edition of eight digital pieces depicting rolling waves by Yorgo Alexopolous at $11,000 each, as well as a graffiti-inspired José Parla collage for $25,000 and a handful of lit-up book sculptures by Aaron Kang for $5,500. “We’ve had incredibly active, great collectors come through,” Wolkowitz said.

    As a rule, the art at Pulse tends more to the beautiful than the challenging, but even so, there were few overtly political pieces this year. One exception was the Malay artist Yee I-Lann’s giclee prints combining postcolonial theory with visual panache at Tyler Rollins. Another was South African “visual activist” Zanele Muholi’s arresting gelatin-silver portraits of African women and transgender youth, flying off the wall of Yancey Richardson’s booth at $5,000 a pop (Muholi will have a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2015.)  

    Fresh finds included C-prints of junkyards and industrial worktables by Argentine photographer Guillermo Srodek-Hart, which displayed a surefooted sense of the tension between order and chaos, and sold for $4,500 each at Kuckei + Kuckei, Berlin; and neo-constructivist paintings and sculptures by Oscar Rodriguez-Graham at Arroniz Arte Contemporaneo, of Mexico City.

    The third Pulse Prize, awarded to an artist exhibited in the solo-presentation Impulse section of the fair, went to Cristina De Middel, for her “Afronauts” photo series. The exhibiting gallery, Black Ship in New York, had sold more than two-dozen of the prints by Friday afternoon.

    Pulse Beats on With Strong Sales at the Middle-Market Satellite Fair
    Yigal Ozeri's Untitled; Olya

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    And the Award for Best Monologue Goes to…

    One’s heart goes out to the air traveler (Joy Carlin) in “Blue Jasmine,” the journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in “Philomena,” and Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) in “August: Osage County” when they are forced to endure a garrulous companion holding forth.

    The speakers are Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett), Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), and Karen (Juliette Lewis), the second born of the three Weston daughters, respectively. The experiences are tedious for the on-screen listeners but, thanks to the writing and acting in each sequence, illuminating for the audience. You can tell a lot about someone by the nonsense they speak.

    Blanchett and Dench are shoo-ins for Best Actress Oscar nominations; the former’s position as the clear favorite could be challenged when “August: Osage County,” adapted by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer-winning play, opens Christmas Day and Meryl Streep’s brutal, needy Weston matriarch hits the nation’s screens. Roberts, Margo Martindale (as the Streep character’s sister), Julianne Nicholson (as the youngest daughter, Ivy), and Lewis could all be in the frame for Best Supporting Actress.   

    Lewis won’t be hurt by her effusively delivered monologue, which, given the circumstances, is a classic of self-involvement and insensitivity. The Weston girls’ alcoholic father (Sam Shepard) has drowned himself and Karen has returned to her family home in rural Oklahoma, in the company of her feckless beau (Dermot Mulroney), for the funeral.

    The old man has barely been laid to rest when the camera picks up Barbara driving back to the house with Karen, who’s unstoppably narrating her romantic history, which incorporates the abuse and cheating of a louse called Andrew and the comparative charms of Mulroney's Steve. Delivering Letts’s soliloquy, Lewis radiates the inextinguishable buoyancy of a woman who believes each new lover is “the one,” but who is so chronically self-deluding she is destined never to make the right choice. (She reminds me of the stripper played by Frances Fisher in Susan Streitfield’s underrated 1996 indie “Female Perversions.”)   

    Oblivious of Barbara’s glares and a barbed remark she makes about their father’s suicide, Karen is still babbling when she and Barbara are indoors. “I live for today,” she lies out loud to her sister and herself. “You take it as it comes — here and now.” As played by Lewis, she is ultimately an object of pity. 

    It’s harder to muster that emotion for Jasmine. Woody Allen’s opening shot shows the plane carrying the fallen Fifth Avenue socialite to down-market San Francisco. That Jasmine’s head is permanently in the clouds is indicated by the one-way conversation she’s having with fellow passenger Carlin, who’s too polite to say, “I’m a little tired, dear…”

    A blinkered and unreconstructed victim of self-entitlement, marital dependence, and hubris, Jasmine regales the nodding and smiling old lady with her roseate early memories of being romanced and seduced by the now-dead conman (Alec Baldwin) she married. Like Karen, she is barely conscious that a cataclysmic suicide has occurred.

    Jasmine’s monologue, like Karen’s, is quite short, but Allen has Blanchett continue it as he cuts from the plane to the escalator at the airport to the baggage carousel, where her companion finally escapes. The comic sequence is dramatically implausible, but it does establish Jasmine’s glassy distance from reality and her neurotic habit of perseverating on her past life in an ivory tower made of sand. Although Allen bridges Jasmine’s actual descent into San Francisco at the start, it becomes clear at the end of the film that it was the start of her final descent into madness.

    A London airport is the setting for Philomena’s long speech. An ageing Irishwoman whose 3-year-old son was sold by nuns to an American couple in 1955, she is traveling with the Sixsmith to the US five decades later to try to locate him. Seated on the trolley that carries the humble old woman and the worldly reporter to the departure gate, she tells him the convoluted plot of the romantic novel she’s carrying. When I wrote about the scene before, I underestimated its tenderness.

    Though bored out of his skull by Philomena’s rambling account of the book, Sixsmith feigns interest in it to help put her at ease. He knows she not only faces the ordeal of the flight but the likelihood that the momentous journey will be in vain, and that she is describing a silly story that comforts her to silence the fear and doubt inside her.

    Trepidation peeking through her enthusiastic peroration, Dench conveys all this in her soft voice as the viewer’s eyes drift to Coogan, at his best here as a man taking care to monitor his reactions lest they needlessly hurt someone who’s been hurt too much. Of the three monologues, Philomena’s is the one that tells us most about its recipient.

    Meryl Streep and Juliette Lewis in "August Osage County"

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    Jay Z's "Picasso Baby" Up for Grammy, Charities May Save DIA, and More

    Picasso Baby Gets Music Industry Nod: Jay Z’s now-infamous performance art project-cum-music video "Picasso Baby" has been nominated for a Grammy. Jay has the most nominations this year, in nine categories, but none in the major ones like album, record or song of the year. Competitors for the Best Music Video prize include Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for "Can’t Hold Us," Jack White for "I’m Shakin," and Jay himself for "Suit & Tie" with Justin Timberlake. [WSJ]

    – Charities Could Rescue DIA: A new plan being brokered by U.S. Chief District Judge Gerald Rosen would safeguard the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts from being sold off to pay back creditors of the bankrupt city of Detroit, by having a coalition of 10 or more national and Michigan-based charity organizations donate sums totaling $500 million to the city's pensions. This scenario is one of the only feasible plans on the table, according to Judith H. Dobrzynski, who suggests that the other most viable solution would be for the state of Michigan to acquire the collection; a scenario governor Rick Snyder has yet to entertain. [Detroit Free Press, WSJ]

    Saltz and Smith Open Up: Art critic duo Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith were interviewed together by Christopher Bollen and the results are pretty darn cute. In addition to discussing their careers and working practices, the pair reveal that they have a thrift store painting collection and that Eric Fischl brought them together. "Our job is to watch artists dance naked in public, and then we will, in turn, dance naked critically in public," said Saltz. [Interview]

    LACMA Relaunches Art and Technology Initiative: Nearly 50 years after its innovative "Art and Technology" program, which paired artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell with an aerospace company among other fortuitous match-ups, LACMA is relaunching the initiative as "Art & Technology," which will let as many as 30 artists and technology innovators collaborate on projects in a lab setting. [NYT, Unframed]

    Germany Pressured to Improve Nazi Loot Process: The United States and Israel are lobbying the German government to beef up their procedures for handling Nazi loot claims from Jewish heirs by making them speedier and more transparent. [WSJ]

    Photographing Art Numbs Our Memory: A new study by Linda Henkel, a psychology researcher at Connecticut's Fairfield University, suggests that photographing works of art may inhibit museum- and gallery-goers' ability to remember the work — although zooming in on specific details of a piece can bolster viewers' memory of the entire artwork. [LiveScience]

    Suzanne Greening will be the first director of the Audain Art Museum, currently under construction in Whistler. [The Globe and Mail]

    Saatchi Gallery’s recently launched online sales site Saatchi Online has named former Ticketmaster president and CEO Sean Moriarty as its new CEO. [Emag]

    – The eighth fire in eight months (most likely due to arson) has destroyed another artist-designed house at Detroit’s Heidelberg Project art park. [Huff Po]

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    Review: Christoph Schlingensief Retrospective at the KW in Berlin

    VIDEO: Behind the Scene at Shanghai's Art021 Fair

    Check our blog IN THE AIR for breaking news throughout the day.

    Jay Z's "Picasso Baby" video

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    VIDEO: The Kennedy Center Inducts a New Class of Honorees

    Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaineCarlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Martina Arroyo were honored for their lifetime of contributions to American culture at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday during the star-studded 36th annual Kennedy Center Honors gala, preceded by a reception at the White House.

    “The fact is that the diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven’t just proven themselves to be the best of the best,” President Barack Obama said during the reception. “Despite all of their success and their fame, they’ve remained true to themselves — and inspired us to do the same”

    The Associated Press reported that Tony Bennet was on hand at the Washington, D.C. gala, hosted by actress Glenn Close in place of U. S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, to open the tribute to Joel with a speech. Don Henley, Garth Brooks, Rufus Wainwright and Panic! At the Disco singer Brendon Urie each performed a selection of Joel’s hits before all taking the stage to join Wainwright for his rendition of “Piano Man,” which inspired much of the audience to sing along, as well.

    “Above all, Bill Joel sings about America,” Obama said while noting a number of the Long Island native’s biggest hits, like “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon,” inspired by the American experience. Billy Joel probably would have been a songwriter no matter where he was born, but we are certainly lucky that he ended up here. The hard-working folks he’s met, and the music that he’s heard across this nation comes through every note and lyric that he’s written.”

    Kathy Bates took the stage to speak when it was MacLaine’s turn for the spotlight, while Anna Kendrick sang “It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish” from Broadway musical “Seesaw,” and Sutton Foster and Patina Miller sang selections from “The Pajama Game.”

    “Shirley MacLaine’s career isn’t defined by a list of film roles and musical performances, through raucous comedies and stirring dramas and spirited musicals — Shirley’s been fearless and she’s been honest and has tackled complicated characters, and she’s revealed the grittier, deeper truth in each one of those characters, giving every audience the experience of cinema at its best,” Obama said. “For her risk taking, for her theatrical brilliance, for her limitless capacity for wonder, we honor this American powerhouse.”

    Santana joined previous honorees Plácido Domingo and Chita Rivera to become one of the few Latinos to receive the Kennedy Center Honor, and was the first to be treated during the evening. Fher Olvera, the lead singer of the Mexican rock band Mana, led off with a medley of Santana songs, inlcuding”Corazon Espinado,” ”Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va.”

    Harry Belafonte paid tribute to the 66-year-old Mexican immigrant with a speech that recognized “the citizen of the world” for his influence on American music, as well as his humanitarian efforts.

    During the reception, Obama credited the Grammy winner for giving “a voice to a Latino community that had too often been invisible to too many Americans.”

    Hancock received recognition at the gala from rapper Snoop Lion for his impact on the birth of hip hop with 1983′s Grammy-award winning single “Rockit,” and Bill O’Reilly credited the jazz artist for being a “remarkable American.”

    “What makes Herbie so special isn’t just how he approaches music, it’s how he approaches life,” Obama said. “He’s done so many benefit concerts that Joanie Mitchell once gave him a watch inscribed with words: ‘He played real good for free.’ And We know this, because he’s played here for free a lot.”

    Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor led the tributes for opera singer Arroyo, who began her career with a breakthrough role in the New York’s Metropolitan Opera 1965 production of “Aida.”

    “For a lot of folks it was Martina Arroyo who helped them see and hear and love the beauty and power of opera. With her charitable foundation she is nurturing the next generation of performers — smart, talented, driven and joyous just like her,” Obama said. “For moving us with the power of her voice, and empowering others we honor Martina Arroyo.”

    Watch Obama deliver his remarks at the White House in the video above. The gala, however, will air December 29 on CBS.

    John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Kennedy Center Honors,

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    VIDEO: Jay-Z Tops Grammy Race with Nine Nominations

    Jay-Z led all artists with nine Grammy nominations, but newcomers Lorde, Kendrick Lamar, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis edged out industry heavyweights for nods in the top categories of the annual music awards.

    Although the Brooklyn-born rapper was recognized nine times, he failed to land solo nods in the top Grammy categories for Record, Song or Album of the Year— scoring only one as a producer on Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” record, nominated for in the Album of the Year.

    Justin Timberlake, who made a return to the musical spotlight this year, picked up seven nominations, but also failed to make the top three categories.

    Seattle rapper-producer duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis capped their stellar rise over the past year from the independent music scene into mainstream pop with seven nominations, including song of the year and the coveted best new artist category.

    The Grammy Awards are the music industry's top honors and are voted on by members of the Recording Academy. The winners will be announced live on January 26 on the U.S. network CBS.

    Jay-Z, Grammy nominations, Lorde, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis,

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    Designer Christmas trees were auctioned off for charity on December 9 at Paris’ Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild for a total of 78,500 euros.

    A tree designed by couture house Dior, made entirely of pink- and purple-hued roses, went for 10,000 euros.

    Another made of quirky miniature tea sets in Venetian glass, designed by Zahia Dehar, an Algerian lingerie designer whose nickname is “la scandaleuse,” went for 6,000 euros.

    And a tree wearing a lighted corset, designed by none other than the master of corsets Jean Paul Gaultier, was sold for 3,000 euros.

    The trees were created as part of an annual non-profit initiative, Les Sapins de Noël des Créateurs, which invites famous designers or artists to create or decorate holiday trees, then displays them in an exhibition over several days before selling them in a charity auction.

    Now in its 18th year, the auction is the brainchild of French journalist and broadcast show producer Marie-Christiane Marek, and this year's participants included fashion heavyweights like Kenzo, Louis Vuitton, Diane von Furstenberg and Stella McCartney, as well as lingerie brands Agent Provocateur and Chantal Thomass. And for the first time, edible trees by Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno and famous pastry chef Pierre Hermé were also among the lots. 

    Proceeds from the sale of the trees will go toward supporting the Fondation AVEC, headed by Professor David Khayat, chief of the oncology department at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, which promotes the fight against cancer. The sale raised 66,000 euros in 2012 and 81,300 euros in 2011.

    To see a slideshow of the designer Christmas trees, click here.

    Designer Christmas Trees Raise $100,000 For Cancer Research
    French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier poses with his Christmas tree during the 18th

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    When SITE Santa Fe launched in 1995, it was one of only a handful of international contemporary art biennials around the world. Now that these number in the hundreds and take place in venues as far-flung as Dakar and Istanbul, SITE is refocusing its hallmark exhibition to stand out from the pack. After a two-year biennial hiatus, the organization will relanch its signature exhibition next summer with a new focus on artists from the Western Hemisphere — or, as SITE pithily puts it in a recent press release, “contemporary art from Nunavut to Tierra del Fuego.” 

    Its new biennial format, titled “SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas,” will tackle a different theme each year; the first, “Unsettled Landscapes,” will present the work of artists who explore issues related to economies derived from the land, movement across the land and representations of the land,” SITE director and chief curator Irene Hoffman told ARTINFO. 

    While the biennial will ultimately include the work of more than 40 artists from 15 countries, SITE has released the names of the first 13 participants. The initial list includes Cape Dorset, Canada-based artist Shuvinai Ashoona, Santa Fe-based artist Jamison Chas Banks, Los Angeles-based artist Andrea Bowers, Cordoba, Argentina-based artist Adriana Bustos, London and Nassau-based artist Blue Curry, New York-based artist Juan Downey, Santiago de Chile-based artist Gianfranco Foschino, and San Francisco-based collaborative Futurefarmers, New York-based artist Pablo Helguera, Mexico City-based artist Antonio Vega Macotela, Lima, Peru-based artist Gilda Mantilla, Hudson-based artist Jason Middlebrook, and Toronto-based artist Kent Monkman.

    “The full list of artists will be announced in Mexico City at the beginning of February at an event co-hosted by the Museo Tamayo at the Zona Maco art fair,” said Hoffman, adding, “It will include artists from three generations, and a significant number of new commissions.” Hoffman has been organizing the show in coordination with SITE assistant curator Janet DeesCandice Hopkins, and Lucia Sanroman; SITE has additionally been working with five regional curatorial advisors that include Christopher CozierJulieta GonzalezEva GrinsteinInti Guerrero, and Kitty Scott. 

    Jamison Chas Banks, who recently won the top film prize at the Santa Fe Indian Market in August and had a well-received residency at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MOCNA) in Santa Fe earlier this year, will present a commissioned installation, “Retour Des Cendres Vol. 1(Return Of The Ashes)” that deals with the connections between the return of Napoleon’s ashes from St. Helena to France, the exile of the Cherokee, and the Louisiana Purchase. He hopes to eventually expand the project into a film.

    “I’m thrilled,” said Banks. “I’m really honored. I moved to Santa Fe in 1996 after I graduated high school to attend IAIA [Institute of American Indian Arts] and I went to one of the first biennials that they had. I remember it being so refreshing and so open for different discussions than what the gallery scene is, at least here. It’s always been the pinnacle of what Santa Fe has to offer. It blows everybody else out of the water.”

    To see images, click on the slideshow.

    SITE Santa Fe Announces Artists for Its New, Americas-Focused Biennial
    SITE Sante Fe

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    VIDEO: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry Star in London Jingle Bell Ball

    Some of music’s biggest stars helped kick off the holiday season at Capital FM’s Jingle Bell Ball at London’s O2 Arena.

    The Saturday show was headlined by Katy Perry and on Sunday, Lady Gaga was the main attraction.

    BRITs Critic’s Choice nominee Sam Smith took the stage alongside hit makers, Disclosure, whose album hit Number 1 earlier in the year.

    The duo says their rapid rise to fame still hasn’t sunk in, “I don't think it ever will to be honest, it's been such a whirlwind this year, everything that's happened. I think until we stop and have a break we'll kind of look back and go ‘that was a crazy time,’ but yeah, when you’re in the middle of it you’ve just got to keep going.”

    Other artists who entertained the audience included boy band Union J, Jessie J and Jason Derulo.

    Jingle Bell Ball, O2 Arena, London, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry,

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    Rare Timepieces Galore at Upcoming Watch Sales

    NEW YORK — Two watch sales here in the coming week will feature many rare and vintage timepieces from such storied watchmakers as Patek Philippe, Rolex, Breguet, Richard Mille, and even luxury house Chanel.

    Up first is Antiquorum’s Important Modern and Vintage Timepieces auction on December 11, where leading 343 collectible lots is an extraordinarily rare Patek Philippe Ref. 5207 Tourbillon Minute Repeater Perpetual Calendar, in platinum with a honey gold dial (est. $650,000-850,000). Sold in 2009, the timepiece features a one-minute tourbillon regulator, instantaneous perpetual calendar and moon phases.

    Christie’s will hold its Important Watches sale on December 17, featuring a wide variety of more than 370 lots that run the gamut from vintage pocket and wrist watches to historically rare timepieces to contemporary creations by the leading independent brands and makers.

    A thoroughly bejeweled piece by Chanel (est. $80,000 – $120,000) features automatic jeweled movement, two outer rings set with 84 baguette-cut diamonds and 12 baguette-cut rubies for hour numerals, a bezel set with 46 baguette-cut rubies, case sides and lugs set with 74 baguette-cut rubies, screw-down crown with cabochon ruby, case back secured by eight screws, 18k white gold Chanel link bracelet and double deployant clasp set with approximately 100 baguette-cut diamonds and approximately 360 baguette-cut rubies.

    An interesting lot is a highly unusual and oversized MB&F piece in 18-karat white gold and titanium, with inverted movement, date ring, and Day/Night indicator 
(est. $40,000–60,000). The automatic movement also features two large ceramic bearings, 36 jewels, and a battle axe-shaped 22-karat pink gold rotor.

    Also worth watching is a rare 18-karat gold Patek Philippe wristwatch with a cloisonné enamel dial depicting a tropical forest scene (pictured above). Manufactured in 1953
in Geneva and clad with 18 jewels, the outer edges of the enamel scene feature applied gold Roman numerals, while the outer minute track has Arabic numerals (est. $200,000–400,000).

    Rare watches by Chanel, Patek Philippe and MB&F

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    Hirst Building U.K. Town, Nelson Mandela Pop-Up Shows in NY, and More

    Welcome to Hirstville: Two spot paintings for formerly Young British Artist Damien Hirst were stolen from Notting Hill's Exhibitionist Gallery on Monday morning. The artworks — "Pyronin Y" (2005) and "Oleoylsarcosine" (2008) — are worth a combined £33,000 ($54,000). Meanwhile, the mega-rich artist has a scheme of his own in the works: He is planning to build a new town in North Devon near Ilfracombe that will eventually be home to a population of 3,000. The bucolic development, which will be erected on Winsham Farm — a wildlife reserve Hirst bought a decade ago for £900,000 ($1,474,000) — has been nicknamed "Hirst-on-Sea." [Guardian, London Evening Standard]

    NYPL Mounts Mandela Pop-Up Shows: The New York Public Library has mounted two pop-up exhibitions to honor Nelson Mandela’s life at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in Harlem as well as the library's main Fifth Avenue location. Antiapartheid ephemera, voting ballots from South Africa's first democratic elections, and a video from Mandela’s New York City visit in 1990 will all be on view. "He was incredibly sweet and humble," said Anthony Marx, New York Public Library's president. "He always paid more attention to the children in the room than to the grown-ups." [WSJ]

    Spiegelman on Reinhardt: “It was a revelation to find out that he was a great manipulator of words and pictures before he went over to the, um, dark side.” — Art Spiegelman, currently the subject of a retrospective at the Jewish Museum, reviews Ad Reinhardt’s show of cartoons at David Zwirner. [NYT]

    French Minister Snubs Google Cultural Project: The Google Cultural Institute inaugurated its brick-and-mortar offices — housed at Google's Paris headquarters — on Tuesday evening, but French culture minister Aurélie Filippetti canceled her plans to attend the event at the last minute, calling the initiative to make museum collections digitally accessible to a global audience "an operation that still raises a certain number of questions." [Guardian]

    Women's History Museum Considered: On Wednesday the House Administration Committee will hear arguments for building a museum devoted to women's history on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., namely from Joan Bradley Wages, CEO and president of the non-profit that has been pushing for the project for two decades. [WP]

    – Southampton has approved the plan for a museum devoted to the African American Coast Guard. [AP]

    Google Open Gallery, the company’s latest art venture, allows users to create “online exhibitions.” [Google, The Next Web]

    Sotheby’s is bringing in Alfredo Gangotena, current CMO of MasterCard, to be the auction house’s new marketing chief. [Press release]

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    Baltimore Museum of Art Claims Flea Market Renoir

    Case Involving Richard Prince Painting, Michael Ovitz, and Perry Rubenstein Comes to NY Court

    VIDEO: Examining Race and Gender With Kara Walker in London

    Check our blog IN THE AIR for breaking news throughout the day.

    Damien Hirst's first sketches for his development on Winsham Farm.

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