Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S8 E29 | FULL EPISODE

"Boston's Apollo," Violinist Aisslinn Nosky, and more

The mystery surrounding Thomas McKeller, the African American artist’s model for artist John Singer Sargent. Then, Handel and Haydn concertmaster, violinist, Aisslinn Nosky and the Colour of Music Festival – Black Classical Musicians Festival.

AIRED: February 21, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio.

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,

John Singer Sargent's model relationship.

>> I thought, "What's going on here?

"Who is this man?

Has anyone figured out who he is?"

>> BOWEN: Then, violin virtuoso Aisslinn Nosky.

>> All these people on stage,

playing these different instruments,

playing different notes,

can come together in this unified, explosive

experience of emotion.

>> BOWEN: And a festival addressing the lack of diversity

in classical music.

>> These people of African ancestry,

many of whom can't get the coveted spots--

and there are limited spots in orchestras around the world--

this is an opportunity for them to present these huge works.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

First up, when artist John Singer Sargent

was commissioned to paint a series of gods and goddesses

at the Museum of Fine Arts,

he turned to one man, Thomas McKeller.

He was a young, strapping, African American model.

Little has been known about the pair's relationship,

until now.

The upper reaches of the Museum of Fine Arts rotunda

is where the gods and goddesses live.

They stand in radiant glory,

they ride chariots,

and they soar on feathered wings.

They are white and idealized, but they...

are him.

>> The man in these drawings was clearly black,

and I thought, "What's going on here?

"Who is this man?

Has anyone figured out who he is?"

>> BOWEN: These murals and figures

have hovered over the MFA for roughly a century

since they were conceived by painter John Singer Sargent

in 1916.

But it's only now that there's been

a comprehensive look at Thomas McKeller,

the black model behind the murals.

It's all thanks to an accidental discovery

at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

by collection curator Nathaniel Silver.

>> In 2017, I was in our storage facility

looking for another work of art,

and I opened the wrong cabinet, and...

And happened to find this portfolio-- it was huge.

And I thought, "What's that?"

So I pulled it out, and I had a look through it.

And I had never seen these Sargent drawings before.

>> BOWEN: That find has led toBoston's Apollo,

an exhibition examining the relationship

between Sargent and McKeller,

who was the painter's principal model

for the MFA murals--

an artistic relationship lasting eight years.

>> It wasn't that just anyone could have helped Sargent

get to this point.

It was Thomas McKeller specifically

that allowed Sargent to unlock a creative potential

that had not been tapped before.

>> BOWEN: Sargent was a celebrity painter,

and tired of doing the portraiture

that was his bread and butter

when he received the MFA commission.

There are no known pictures of Thomas McKeller,

who was a 26-year-old bellman when he met Sargent

at Boston's posh Hotel Vendome.

>> He was a veteran, a Roxbury resident.

He came from Wilmington, North Carolina, in the 1890s,

in the wake of devastating racial violence.

So certainly, coming to Boston meant

the opening up of professional opportunities

that he never would have been able to explore in Wilmington.

>> BOWEN: In these charcoal sketches

Sargent ultimately gave

to his friend and patron Isabella Stewart Gardner,

we find the artist drawing

the fine contours and musculature of McKeller,

a sometime contortionist

turned stand-in for mythological gods.

>> There were specific skills that a model needed to have.

You needed to be able to hold difficult poses

for very long periods of time.

But you also had to be able to work with somebody

who was constantly moving you around.

>> BOWEN: There is little known about the extent

of the relationship between the two men,

but consider this Sargent painting of McKeller.

It's Sargent's only major nude

and was hung prominently in his studio,

never intended for public view.

>> Sargent lavished attention in making this work.

You can see it in the highlights on the shoulders

and on the chest here.

This incredible tiny little shadow

just over the Adam's apple,

and another one just under the bottom lip.

This was not a painting that was dashed off in a few strokes.

This was a painting that he spent

an incredible amount of time, effort, and love in making.

>> The first thing I saw was all the drawings together,

and so that impact, that first and initial impact

on my eyes and on my senses and...

That got me so excited!

>> BOWEN: Performance artist Helga Davis

is a visiting curator who directed this short film,

in which the last of McKeller's direct descendants

literally comes face-to-face with his legacy.

>> The posing of my great-uncle for these sketches was...

really a... means of survival for him.

>> He had many jobs, but...

the modeling feels like his work, his life's work.

>> BOWEN: Sargent was paid $40,000 for the murals,

a tremendous sum in 1916.

McKeller, as this letter reveals, was cash-strapped,

and for his modeling made just a few dollars a day.

>> He had this life that, that put him in a uniform,

that put him in a box.

That perhaps people would see him

and they identified him as one thing.

And we are never only one thing.

And he certainly was not one thing.

>> BOWEN: McKeller was also the model

for Sargent's murals at Harvard University

and for the body of onetime Harvard president

Abbott Lawrence Lowell,

who had expelled black students from freshman dorms.

He also stood for this statue of Massasoit in Plymouth.

But with the exception of census and military records,

Thomas McKeller has been erased from this story.

>> How could we possibly forget somebody who was so pivotal,

who played so pivotal a role

in the production of Boston's public art?

That's a question that revolves around blind spots

in the discipline of art history,

of history, and of society in general.

>> BOWEN: The Gardner is confronting history here,

calling out the erasure of a black man by a white artist

a century ago

and what that looks like today,

when there is finally a reclamation.

What do you see when you look up at those murals

at the Museum of Fine Arts?

>> I see yes, and...

Yes.

You, you made Apollo, you made...

You made these things, and...

here's the body that inspired it.

Here's the body that really made it.

>> BOWEN: Next, Aisslinn Nosky

is one of the most dynamic violinists

of her generation,

as witnessed in concert halls around the world.

Since 2011, she has also been the concertmaster

of Handel and Haydn Society,

which presents Haydn and Beethoven

later this month.

We talked about that and the chance she had recently

to play one of the world's most famous violins.

But first, a performance in our own Fraser Performance Studio

of Preludio from Partita by Bach.

(playingPartita for Violin No. 3 in E Major)

>> BOWEN: Aisslinn Nosky,

thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thanks for having me.

>> BOWEN: And a beautiful performance.

So you're about to do Beethoven and Haydn.

This is Beethoven's 250th birthday this year

being celebrated around the world.

How's he holding up?

>> In my opinion, better than ever.

Uh, I would, I wish that every year

was a Beethoven anniversary,

because I would play it all the time, if I could.

We're going to be featuring his First Symphony

in our concert next week.

And I really hope people will come and...

and hear the difference that it is

that can be brought to life when his music is played

on the instruments that he actually would have known,

um, and played himself, and written for.

We play instruments from the 18th century.

And I think the experience of, of living in

and playing Beethoven's music on these old instruments

brings it really to life in a visceral way.

>> BOWEN: I was being a little bit cheeky when I asked

how he's holding up. >> (laughs)

>> BOWEN: But you, the way you answered, too,

I mean, you're constantly, it seems,

finding fresh ways into the music,

fresh ways into a man who had his birthday 250 years ago.

>> It's true, at the Handel and Haydn Society,

we use instruments that Beethoven

would have been familiar with himself.

And one of the reasons is that

we feel that it helps us enter more thoroughly

into the sound world that Beethoven had

in his life-- well, in his mind after he lost his hearing--

but the instruments that he himself played.

One of the things that people sometimes forget

is that composers of the 18th century

were all players themselves.

And Beethoven was no exception.

He was an excellent pianist,

but he also had a rudimentary knowledge

of several of the orchestral instruments that he wrote for.

>> BOWEN: Well, over your career, have you done research,

have you, have you gone back to looking

at what Beethoven wrote down and tried to understand

what he was thinking, how he was playing in the moment?

>> I have spent probably an embarrassing amount of time

thinking about what Beethoven might have been

wondering about when he was writing his music.

It's a little embarrassing to admit, um...

I don't flatter myself that I could imagine

what was going on in the great man's mind,

but I do spend a lot of my time

poring over scores and other documents.

Some of his letters, uh, have been preserved.

And to try to understand what he was getting at

when he was putting the notes down on the page.

I mean, he really gives us relatively little information.

>> BOWEN: Watching you play, you are a very physical player.

(playing "Summer" from Vivaldi'sFour Seasons)

>> BOWEN: Is that something that you do to do,

or is it just tied into what the music...

how the music pulls you into the piece?

>> I...

I hear a lot that I'm a very physical player,

and thank you for saying so-- I don't even notice that I am

when I'm doing it! (laughs)

So, uh, I think I'm drawn

to the physical side of the playing by the content,

the emotional content of the music.

And there's anecdotes about Beethoven

playing the piano wildly, with great emotion

and his hair being all over the place

and his eyes rolling around in his head.

And, um, it's not that I think

that gives me permission to be physical,

but I think maybe, maybe it's there for a reason.

Maybe it's designed in the music, and I...

What I try to do is get in the emotional space of the music

and then just let it carry me away.

>> BOWEN: I wanted to ask you that.

Where do you go in your head when we're watching you play?

>> Oh, interesting.

I go into the sound of the orchestra,

when it's with the orchestra.

I'm really, it's not-- I don't think in words anymore,

I think in, uh, sounds and...

Probably I'm just, I'm thinking about,

what does it sound like?

But not in words, wondering...

Listening for my colleagues, often,

because it's such a participatory

and such a collaborative experience.

>> BOWEN: Well, it's so interesting that you just talked

about the other things you were listening to, but not yourself.

>> Right. >> BOWEN: Is that because it's

just in you? >> Yeah, I'm not,

I'm not perceiving my own playing

when I'm part of a large group,

the same way that I would if I'm playing alone.

Yeah, it's there.

And occasionally, I've had a, um...

In a rehearsal, I'll think,

"Someone should be playing right now,"

and it's me. (laughs)

But that's rare, because I've trained myself

to play with the notes that are on the page,

but yeah, I look to, I guess I'm trying

to transcend my personal experience

and listen to what everybody else is playing

and contributing in the orchestra together.

(ensemble playing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3)

>> BOWEN: What is the instrument you play?

>> It's a 1746 instrument, made in, uh, Barcelona

by Salvatore Bofill.

There's not much known about him.

It's thought that he must have trained in Italy,

because Italy was a hotbed for violins in the 18th century.

But it's quite a rare instrument,

and, and I do love it.

>> BOWEN: How tied are you to it?

I was thinking about,

knowing that this interview was coming,

I saw a man in the supermarket the other day

who I think was carrying around a cello.

Massive instrument on his back, it was, of course, in a case,

so I wasn't sure exactly what the instrument was,

but I thought, "He doesn't want

to even leave it in the car, he has to have it with him."

If there was a car, in that case.

What is that like for you?

>> I take it everywhere with me.

And, one time in my life so far, I went on vacation without it.

And I probably should have just taken it with me,

because I spent the whole week looking for it.

(both laughing)

So it, it feels like an extension of myself,

I could-- I'm not going to leave the house without it,

because I wouldn't leave without my shoes, either.

So, it's never out of my sight.

>> BOWEN: Speaking of instruments,

you played a Stradivarius recently,

just a couple of months ago... >> I did.

>> BOWEN: At the Metropolitan Museum.

What was that like?

Especially since you have a very fine instrument yourself.

>> Oh, it was really, really an honor to play the Gould Strad

at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

It's, uh, rare in that, of all the Stradivarius instruments

that survive in the world--

I think there's 400-something, uh, and that's all--

this is one of them and, and it is...

It's in the condition that it would have been

when it came out of the shop.

In the 1960s, somebody put it back

carefully and lovingly to its original condition, so--

changed the strings, changed the bridge,

changed the tailpiece--

made it back into a Baroque violin.

And that's, that's an exception.

And I've played a few other Stradivarius violins

across North America,

but none quite like this.

And it was, it was a powerful instrument

with, I believe, gorgeous color, tonal properties.

And, you know, it was really a privilege

to play something so rare.

>> BOWEN: I read that you left home to study at age 15.

>> I did.

>> BOWEN: I mean, I look at that,

maybe as somebody who couldn't do it himself,

I think, where does that conviction come from,

to know that at 15?

>> Well, I knew a lot more at the age of 15 than I do now.

I don't know what happened,

but I was absolutely going to be fine at the age of 15.

You couldn't, couldn't have stopped me had you tried.

Um, and I think maybe that, uh, optimism and maybe naiïveté

served me well.

>> BOWEN: And have you ever wavered?

>> Uh... (both laugh)

Well...

No, ultimately, no, but I want to...

>> BOWEN: There was a hesitation,

what was the hesitation? >> No, that's the thing,

is that-- the thing is, I've never wavered to the point

where I considered not doing it,

but when I was a teenager, there's no doubt

that I went through phases where it felt

as though I had to give things up

in order to, um, pursue music.

By that, I mean social time, certain social activities.

But in hindsight, it was the right choice for me.

I think it might not be,

not have been the right choice for everyone.

Um, and ultimately, my parents were very smart,

because they never forced me to do anything.

I had to do it on my own.

>> BOWEN: But always the violin?

You never thought to cheat on it with the tuba...

>> (laughs) >> BOWEN: Or something else?

>> I played the trumpet in high school band.

I was loud, I wasn't very good.

And I have actually always played the piano, as well.

Violin came first, but then I took up the piano.

And I love playing the piano, but I'm...

It's just not the same.

>> BOWEN: Well, to go back to, end where we began,

you know the conversation that people have

about classical music, and...

People think there's a struggle to get audiences in.

I feel that's changing to some degree in Boston,

where people, especially younger generations,

are finding it in new ways.

But the, your description of Beethoven

at the outset of this interview

is like any rock star or pop star

or anybody who has a, a personality,

a captivating personality on stage.

I mean, is that who Beethoven was, and his peers?

>> Beethoven was the rock star of his day.

There's no question.

He was one of several,

but he may have been first and foremost

at, at the front of the idea

of the composer as personality and, and celebrity.

I guess the wildness that we associate

now with rock and roll,

to me, the wild, that wildness is also present

in Beethoven's music

if you know how to experience it.

And I think that, I agree with you that there are

younger people being attracted to classical music

for, I think, lots of different reasons.

I think that there's a wildness in the approach

that we take on our, on our 18th-century instruments

that can be very appealing to people

who may not go to other kinds of classical music concerts,

and it's really exciting to see people coming to, to share that.

>> BOWEN: Well, Aisslinn Nosky,

it's such a pleasure to have you here,

and you're going to play us out-- tell me a little bit about

what you're playing us out with. >> Yes!

That's right, I'm going to play a piece by Telemann.

And it's a movement

of his solo Fantasia for Violin in E flat Major.

>> BOWEN: Well, thank you so much for being here.

>> Thanks for having me.

(playingFantasia No. 7 in E flat Major)

>> BOWEN: You say you want a revolution?

We have one, in Arts This Week.

Iranian photographers combine

documentary-style photography with Surrealism

inReimagining Home.

See it Monday at the MFA.

The sun rises on the musical masterpiece

Fiddler on the Roof Tuesday.

Catch it at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.

On Wednesday, it's Tchaikovsky and all that jazz.

Greater Boston Stage Company presentsSwan Lake in Blue,

a new interpretation of the classic ballet.

Boston Ballet'srEVOLUTION features three works

that changed the course of ballet.

See the choreography of George Balanchine,

Jerome Robbins, and William Forsythe, Thursday.

80 years ago Saturday,

Gone with the Wind won eight Oscars

and Hattie McDaniel became the first African American

to win an Academy Award.

Finally, the Colour of Music Festival,

which is presented around the country,

celebrates contributions that people of African ancestry

have made to classical music.

From vocalists to musicians to composers,

the festival gives artists of color

access to a stage not always open to them.

(piano playing)

>> Why do I sing?

(singing classical piece)

I sing because I know that I have something to say.

And I know that it's important.

(singing classical piece)

There's a challenge involved in singing classical music.

It's the memorization component.

It's the style component, it's the component

of actually communicating what the composer

has asked of you to communicate.

(singing)

One is constantly thinking about your focus.

At this moment, what is the character thinking?

At this moment, how would the character sit?

At this moment, how would the character look into the eyes

of someone that she loves?

And so when you have those things running in your mind,

the music lends itself to be sung.

(singing)

I'm involved with the Colour of Music Festival

because I think it's a fantastic premise.

The idea is quite amazing.

(instrumental ensemble playing)

>> The Colour of Music exists to showcase

the extraordinary talents people of African ancestry

have contributed to the classical genre.

We are truly the largest black

classically presenting organization.

(playing classical piece)

The talent of the musicians that perform

in the Colour of Music Festival

is truly global.

(singing classical piece)

From the natural voice, having Ms. Laquita Mitchell,

who's a phenomenal soprano,

to conservatory-trained musicians

that come from the Curtis Institute, Oberlin, Juilliard,

Manhattan School of Music, the Royal Conservatory.

I could go on and on and on.

(playing "Winter" from Vivaldi'sFour Seasons)

>> I think something like this can thrive,

because the importance of inclusion and diversity

is needed, and with classical music,

I think there's, it's like 0.01% of orchestras

have people of color.

(playing classical piece)

>> So, like many black institutions that start,

it's out of necessity.

We have to create our own institutions

when they're not giving us access.

The classical music world

is a very complicated, expensive world.

That's where it started, by aristocrats

who used to pay very poor composers to do things

that they could show off their wealth.

So, it still carries all those standards

of what classical music should be

and how it should be presented.

These people of African ancestry,

many of whom can't get the coveted spots--

and there are limited spots in orchestras around the world--

this is an opportunity for them to present these huge works.

>> (singing Gounod's "Ave Maria")

>> Ms. Jessye Norman is probably one of the most

celebrated African American sopranos of our time.

She has sung in every major opera house

there is in the world.

So at the age of 14, I was able to meet Jessye Norman,

and then I was able to see her on stage.

I'm a kid from Brooklyn.

I had no idea that that was actually a possibility for me.

So, the importance of diversity on stage, it's, it's paramount.

It must happen.

It's really, really important

that young people understand that there is a possibility.

When I walk out on stage, I'm thinking that.

There probably will be someone in the audience

who's never seen anyone look like me

that is doing what I'm doing.

So, I need to always put my best foot forward

when I'm performing.

(singing conclusion)

(audience applauds)

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, we return to our regular 8:30 timeslot

for a MassArt makeover,

as the art school opens a new museum.

And we chill out with the creator

of Ice Dance International.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

And as always, you can visit us online

at wgbh.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioWGBH.

(playing Partita for Violin No. 3 in E Major)

(piece continues)

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