This week: John Silber, cocktails with a curator, Knole House, Mahler’s Fourth, a play by Will Arbery & more.
Snapshots of My Father, John Silber by Rachel Silber Devlin (Peter E. Randall): My friend John Silber (1926–2012) was that rarest of creatures among college presidents. He was a man of serious intellectual accomplishment who believed passionately in the importance of liberal education. Regular readers of The New Criterion will remember his handful of fine essays for the magazine. It is a great sadness to me that he did not live to complete a review of a biography of his bête noir, the egregious Howard Zinn, author of the best-selling, anti-American socialist exercise in agitprop A People’s History of the United States.
John Silber, in short, was something far different from your usual credentialed apparatchik who occupies the presidential suite at those ivy-bowered institutions that, once-upon-a-time, concerned themselves with transmitting the riches of the past to their young charges. Those smiling, glad-handing repositories of politically correct clichés may be adept at separating the unsuspecting from their money, but no one would mistake them for intellectual leaders. Above all, no one would accuse them of exhibiting an abundance of courage, the virtue that, as Aristotle pointed out, was the most important—because without courage we cannot practice any of the others.
Silber was a man of unusual courage as well as intellectual distinction (among other things, he was a serious scholar of Kant). As such, he was cordially disliked by many of the flaccid mediocrities who taught at Boston University, the institution he led and transformed from a second-rate backwater into a first-rate research institution in his tenure as president and then chancellor from the early 1970s until the decade of his death. Rachel Silber Devlin, one of Silber’s seven children, has written a wry and affectionate portrait of her father. The man who emerges from this chronicle is first of all a family man with an unstoppable curiosity about the world. His polemical fire, something for which he was best known during his life, is glimpsed mostly from a distance here, but his omnivorous passion for life is patent on every page. It is a testament to Silber’s catholicity that he could at the same time be friends with me as well as the brilliant but preening and faintly preposterous literary critic Christopher Ricks. There are a lot of amusing moments in this book. Perhaps my favorite came when Devlin touched upon Silber’s politics. (He was a liberal of the old school, but not quite as old as my school.) “Even now,” Devlin writes, “Christopher [Ricks] can’t help complaining to me, ‘Why was John always inviting those ghastly conservatives like Roger Kimball to dinner?’” I would love to have had John’s answer to that question. —RK
Cocktails with a Curator, by Xavier D. Salomon with Aimee Ng and Giulio Dalvit (Rizzoli Electa): Holiday spirits are high at The Frick Collection, as the 2020 online series “Cocktails with a Curator” has been turned into a lavish 272-page book now out from Rizzoli Electa. Written by the deputy director Xavier F. Salomon along with the curators Giulio Dalvit and Aimee Ng, with a foreword by Simon Schama, the book pairs spirited histories of sixty-five works from The Frick Collection with recipes for their proper accompaniment: François Boucher’s A Lady on Her Day Bed (1743) with a “French 75” (2 oz. dry gin, 3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice, 3/4 oz. simple syrup, 2 oz. champagne); Jean Barbet’s Angel (1475) with an “Angel Face” (equal parts dry gin, Calvados, and Apricot Brandy); and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Louise, Princesse de Broglie, Later the Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845) with a “Jaded Countess” (1 oz. absinthe, 1/2 oz. vodka, 1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice, and 1/2 oz. simple syrup). Read closely and you can even learn how to turn a “Bellini” into a “Tiziano” to better appreciate that gold-chained looker Pietro Aretino (ca. 1537). With new illustrations by Luis Serrano, this book is as informative as a bar guide as it is as a tour of great works of art history. —JP
The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall (December 13): Mahler’s Fourth Symphony tends to crop up around the holidays—perhaps because the composer, ever a tinkerer with orchestration, included a part for sleigh bells. You’ll hear them most prominently in one of the oddest openings of any symphony in the repertoire: after an arresting stab of flutes (one might call them Hitchcockian) and wintry sleigh bells, Mahler turns on a dime and gives us a lively Viennese dance that could be gleefully ripped from the scores of Haydn or Mozart. Humorous, picaresque, and humane in scale: these qualities distinguish the Fourth from the dramatic furor of the Third and the Romantic apotheosis of the Fifth. This Tuesday, Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Philadelphia Orchestra with the soprano Pretty Yende in a performance of the Fourth, together with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major and the New York premiere of Xi Wang’s Ensō. —IS
Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, by Will Arbery, directed by Danya Taymour (through December 18): The character Peter in Will Arbery’s Evanston Salt Costs Climbing sounds an awful lot like today’s paint-flinging climate protesters when he says, “It would be better for the world if we all killed ourselves. The planet would thank us. And we all know it.” But Peter isn’t an activist at all—only a middle-aged salt-truck driver at the end of his rope, whose wife has died in a single-car accident on a dangerously icy stretch of road. In fact, Arbery’s play is only nominally about climate change: more properly, it’s a psychological dissection of the peculiar twenty-first-century pressures that might lead a depressive like Peter to welcome the new, environmentally friendly paving technologies that will put him out of a job. (That these new technologies are promised each year, only to be indefinitely delayed, is another of the play’s calculated ironies.) Addressing themes of isolation and social anomie that have only grown more pertinent since 2018, when it was first produced, Evanston is a beacon of light on a cold winter night. —RE
Knole: A Private View of One of Britain’s Great Houses, by Robert Sackville-West, with photography by Ashley Hicks (Rizzoli Electa): Records show that around 1620, the Earl of Dorset kept a household of 111 people at Knole, the great stately house in Kent. Now that the house is owned by the National Trust, fewer are in residence. But the “smoldering spirit” of Knole that Robert Sackville-West—the current châtelain, still living in the house—identifies, in his introduction to Knole: A Private View of Britain’s Great Houses, is still present. Ashley Hicks’s sumptuous photographs accompany Sackville-West’s descriptions, giving us a privileged look into a site that, as Edmund Burke wrote in 1791, has “preserved in one place the succession of several tastes of ages.” —BR
“Music for a While #68: Preludes and other short wonders.” Jay Nordlinger, The New Criterion’s music critic, talks music—but, more important, plays music.
From the Archives:
“A great, baggy monster: Rilke’s Duino Elegies,” John Simon (January 2000). On verse, prose, and Reading Rilke.
“A farewell to voices,” by Luke Lyman. On the Orlando Consort and their final New York Concert.