Feb 19th 2019

Musicians in word and art: Portraiture and caricatures: Conductors, pianists, composers by Michael Johnson

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

 

Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own. 

As a resident of Bordeaux, Johnson chose many of the luminaries who have come to his city where he has gone back stage to draw them. Others have taken hold of him with their style, their panache, their originality. Here’s a brief selection of my favorites: 

Paul Daniel, conductor, whose wit and charm Johnson describes and then captures in the gesture of his hand, curl of his lip. Alain Lombard whose broad chest and open heart are revealed in the portrait along with a swift, precise and empathic overview of his career. Hans Graf’s distinguished conducting career is captured in Johnson’s words and illuminated with a shimmering portrait. 

Leonard Bernstein is here along with composers Philip Glass and John Cage: names familiar to all music lovers for breaking new ground. 

Pianists are clearly Johnson’s love: Alfred Brendel’s troubled past in World War II when he dug ditches closes with Brendel’s love of jokes and a portrait that captures joy out of adversity: it glows. Alessandro Deljevan gets a write-up that will intrigue you with Deljevan’s dismissal of piano competitions accompanied by a passion-laden portrait of intensity. I adore the portrait of Lang Lang, who gets a slap on that talented hand for his “swoons” at the keyboard. Johnson pulls no punches about his opinions: loves and dismays—and Lang is not the only one to be speared—read to find out. Lang’s double page gets followed by the contained, controlled Radu Lupu, whose wiry hair and beard surround his solemn expression and emerge from Johnson’s pen. Beautiful women pianists capture his fancy as well: Hélène Grimaud whose black and white portrait on a swath of azure focuses on her eyes without color, eyes that surprise and hold you in their glance from the page. My top of the chart is Olivier Messiaen whose love of birdsong merits a bird on a thin wand like an angelic flight inside this composer’s portrait and life that found creativity while in a concentration camp. 

You will be entranced by the overview of artists and then return, as I did, again and again to Johnson’s distinctive style of pale ochre on skin and of what might be touches of alizarin crimson that swath the portraits with Johnson’s remarkable, signature use of color. 

This review glows because Johnson lights the pages with his words, with his art, with his love of the creative spirit.

 

 

You can order Michael Johnson's book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”  here.

 

 

 

 


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