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Art Meets Music in Kahren Arbitman’s Upcoming Lecture at the Peralta

Hieronymus Bosch, scene from hell

By Fredric Dannen

In 1879, American artist John Singer Sargent embarked on a five-month trip through Spain and North Africa. Enchanted by the pageantry of Spanish Gypsy dance, Singer began making preparations for a nearly twelve-foot-wide painting called El Jaleo, which he completed in 1882. The painting depicts a woman in a shawl, dancing flamenco with carnal passion, as a group of musicians – guitarists, a singer, and a handclap percussionist called a palmero – accompany her. The tableau is so dramatic that John Wayne – yes, that John Wayne – meticulously recreated it with actors in his 1960 motion picture The Alamo.

“The Art of Music”
By Kahren Arbitman
Thu, Jul 28, 5pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta

El Jaleo, and John Wayne’s cinematic adaptation of it, will be featured, along with many other images, in art historian Kahren Arbitman’s upcoming lecture “The ART of Music,” to be held at 5:00PM at the Teatro Angela Peralta, on Thursday, July 28. Arbitman has since 2009 been associated with the San Miguel International Music Festival, now in its 38th consecutive season. Her Thursday lecture, regarding artworks depicting musical themes, is the opener of this year’s festival, to be followed on Friday and Saturday with the first two concerts. (For more information, see Tickets for “The ART of Music” and all subsequent lectures are 170 pesos, and may be purchased online or at the theater box office. All proceeds benefit the festival.)

Arbitman, who received her Ph.D. in art history at the University of Pittsburgh, taught at Carnegie Mellon, and curated and directed museums in Pennsylvania (Palmer Museum, the Frick) and Florida (Cummer Museum), thinks of herself primarily as an educator. “I’ve always been interested in talking about art and explaining it,” she says. Arbitman’s lectures on art were a well-attended feature of last season’s music festival. The topics of art and music are congruent in and of themselves—understanding the Baroque period in art (one of Arbitman’s specialties) enhances one’s understanding of the somewhat later Baroque period in music, for instance. But Arbitman decided that her first lecture this year (on August 18, she’ll be giving a second lecture, on Rembrandt) would directly bridge music and art.

She elaborates: “Sometimes the inclusion of music in art is mandated by the subject: an artist depicting King David writing Psalms must include his harp; Orpheus needs his lyre. What happens when artists include music not specifically called for by the subject?

How important is the choice of violin over flute, or bass over bassoon, when an artist can choose any instrument in the orchestra? Selection can be dictated not only by context, but also by symbolic overtones carried by various instruments. Violins can be put to angelic and diabolic uses. Trumpets can call the faithful and wake the dead. Bagpipes can rouse the troops and arouse man’s baser instincts. Artists have long used musical instruments to lard their works with double meanings. My lecture will attempt to sleuth out some of the symbolism at work when artists literally set their works to music.”


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