Arts Diary: A New England trip leaves me thankful for the opera and forbidden treasures

THANKSGIVING is the US holiday that defies the usual stereotypes about America. The biggest family gathering of the year, it is a secular celebration of the survival of the early settlements. "Turkey day", as it is also known, may be an over-eating binge, but thankfully it does not include the vast hand-outs of consumer items that is saved for Christmas, and in that sense it is perhaps more akin to Hogmanay, at least in spirit.

Visiting Massachusetts for Thanksgiving is also a sharp reminder that American culture does not start and end with Sarah Palin. The Boston Symphony Orchestra's performance of Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, under veteran music director James Levine, could not be bettered, though the audience on a Friday afternoon was even greyer than the Usher Hall on a Friday night.

Sophistication is hardly surprising in the New England state that is home to Harvard University and the New England Conservatory. And up the coast at Salem, a city usually associated with the persecution of witches, never-seen treasures from the Forbidden City in Beijing are on show at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), before they head to a showing in New York.

Hide Ad

The PEM already includes Yin Yu Tang, the only complete Qing Dynasty house outside China. The early 19th-century wooden family complex was removed, wholesale, from its original village location in Anhui Province, and reconstructed in the museum.

Mad Meg's travels

The talk of the cultural scene is the opening of the new, $345 million (222m) wing at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), devoted to the Art of the Americas. Spotted in a gallery lobby: a striking, wild-haired sculpture of one of Sir Walter Scott's mad heroines.

Meg Merrilies was the "ugly, half-made gypsy" from Scott's immensely successful 1815 novel Guy Mannering. He had based her, apparently, on the Scottish gypsy Jean Gordon, who was nearly six foot tall, and saw three of her sons hanged on the same day, for theft, on 5 June, 1730. She was later drowned by a crowd in Carlisle after voicing support for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In a measure of Scott's reach, John Keats made Meg the subject of a poem, and in about 1880 the American sculptor Edward Thaxter made his bust of her in Florence, Italy. It found its way to the Boston MFA in the 1960s.

Impressive mishmash

Do fine art and furniture mix in a gallery setting? Curators at the museum are gambling that they do. In the new wing historic American paintings are hung above or opposite tables, cabinets, and desks.(The Thaxter piece is at the entrance of an "American Artists Abroad" section.)

The MFA, founded in 1870, is an encyclopedic museum; the 5,000 objects newly on show run from model ships through Mayan pottery to the timbers of colonial Massachusetts homes - a real cultural melange.

Hide Ad

The museum's director, Malcolm Rogers, says mixing up paintings, furniture and decorative arts helps visitors understand the context and chronology of styles and periods. Some rooms are elaborately recreated with period features, giving them a country-house feel. The mix can be distracting, however, if not pointless. It's hard to know, for example, how a portrait of a Colonel James Swan, from 1795, by the gifted early American artist Gilbert Stuart is enhanced by putting it over a 19th-century table, imported from Italy. Should purists protest? "No- one has dared to say it so far, in all the reviews," said Rogers.

The new wing was designed by Sir Norman Foster. Critical reactions have been mixed. The Economist calls it a "whopping dose" of spaciousness and light, but "misconceived".

Hide Ad

The Boston Globe's award-winning architecture critic finds "a lot to love" in the interiors of the 53 galleries, but says it looks "too much like a stack of shipping containers" from the outside.

Watch out for Doug

CLOSER to home, the US comic Doug Stanhope is to headline next year's Magners Glasgow International Comedy Festival, launching his European tour with a performance at the city's King's Theatre.

Festival organisers describe the comedian as "vulgar, opinionated, brutally honest and shockingly uninhibited… and certainly not for everybody".

The festival runs from 17 March to 20 April, with tickets on sale from tomorrow at

A range of artists have already been confirmed, including Ed Byrne, John Bishop, Caroline Rhea, Mark Thomas and Jerry Sadowitz.

Full steam ahead

Scottish Opera's children's opera James Watt: A Head of Steam, by Karen MacIver, has won the British Composer Award 2010 for a Community or Educational Project. The production, with a libretto by Ross Stenhouse, was based on the life and work of Greenock's most famous son James Watt.

Hide Ad

Broadcast last night on Radio 3, this year's British Composer Awards boasted an unusually high number of female composers. Over 160 Inverclyde schoolchildren took part in the original project exploring the music, art, customs and lifestyle of people in the 18th-century in south-west Scotland, which formed the backdrop to Watt's incredible life.