Boston Arts Festival Praised As Greatest Success to Date

Last month's annual Boston Arts Festival was the fifth to date, and by far the best. Its great success is attested by the record number of 700,000 people who attended its exhibits and ancillary cultural events. Included this year were competitive exhibits in architecture, painting, sculpture, drawing and graphic arts, plus two special invitational shows--one of 50 eminent American water-colorists, and the other of works by New England craftsmen in such fields as ceramics, jewelry, woodturning, and weaving.

The corpus of sculpture was of exceptionally high quality, and provoked a good deal of favorable comment. I had the impression that a larger percentage of the items were in traditional style than in any previous year, though some of the best were stylistically "progressive."

In painting, however, the preponderance of entries were clearly non-traditional in conception and execution. This was evidently a good thing, for the exhibit was as a whole the finest yet in its category.

From the two thousand or so works submitted, the juries made their selections on the bases of "standards of quality, originality of thought, and the accomplishment of the artist's creative purpose." It came as a great shock, then, that they awarded the Festival Grand Prize to Walter Meigs' "The Earth Dies in Winter," which was not even worthy of being exhibited at all. A sloppy and trashy piece of work, the jurors praised it for "the artist's ability to transcend visual symbols." What on earth does that mean? How could any painting transcend visual symbols?

The First Prize in the architectural competition fared no better. It was nothing short of scandalous to award the prize to Eero Saarinen's Chapel at M.I.T. for "the strongest statement in terms of structure and space enclosure for its purpose." Although the interior has many praiseworthy features, the exterior is one of the chief eyesores of Cambridge--an ugly brick storage tank with foully proportioned arches set into it (see cut). Compare with it, for example, the Mexico City church erected several years earlier and shown in the other cut. The basic idea (which Saarinen thought original with him) is the same, but how much more skillfully and tastefully the details were worked out! The result was an aesthetically handsome church of which anyone could be proud.

The jury, led by ex-Dean Joseph Hudnut of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, compounded their insult by rating M.I.T.'s impressively daring Kresge Auditorium, adjacent to the Chapel and also by Saarinen, at the bottom of the list and emphasizing in their decision that "we wish it understood ... that the award is for the chapel building alone." They should be downright ashamed of themselves.

First of the series of evening stage presentations was Gian-Carlo Menotti's "The Saint of Bleecker Street." This is not Menotti's best work. It has numerous faults, one being that its length cannot support its dramatic content. But its subject matter and conservative musical style make it a very wise choice for a show aimed at the Boston public at large.

Evelyn Lear, Richard Cassilly and James Gibbons turned in particularly outstanding performances in leading roles. And conductor Samuel Krachmalnick merits praise for eliciting such polished and nuanced playing from his orchestra members.

Wellesley's Group 20 Players offered a fine foretaste of the high standards that we can expect during their regular summer schedule in their production of Robert E. Sherwood's "Abe Lincoln in Illinois." This too was a good choice; it is not so much a play as a series of twelve vignettes, but it has already become a warm and humane American classic. It is great because it doesn't try to be.

William Swetland and Michael Higgins, who triumphed so magnificently in "Desire Under the Elms" last summer, were superb in the roles of Lincoln and Ninian Edwards, respectively. Both have fine, resonant voices that they always control with care. Jerome Kilty '49 made the most of the unpleasant task of delivering one of Stephen Douglas' pro-slavery speeches, and Edward Finnegan was a lovably gently Judge Bowling Green. Laurinda Barrett and Nancy Wickwire were commendable as the objects of Lincoln's affection.

William Roberts ingeniously solved the problem of the many scene shifts by projecting settings on a screen from back-stage. The main fault of the production was director Benno Frank's ill-advised decision to ruin Sherwood's simplicity and sincerity by suffixing a saccharine pantomime: a group of young Negro girls ran up on stage and raised their hands to the American flag while the loud-speakers blared forth a recording of "Glory, glory, hallelujah, for his truth goes marching on."

The Festival Poetry Prize this year deservedly went to Archibald MacLeish, Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. On June 17 a large crowd turned out to hear him read from his works. The featured item was a deeply felt and thoughtful poem expressly written on the occasion of the 1956 Festival.

The final days of the Festival provided a program given by members of the New York City Ballet. Although the ensemble of the orchestra and supporting dancers was sometimes imperfect, the two stars--Maria Tallchief and Andre Eglevsky--were in top form and rank with the best of ballerinas and danseurs nobles.

Of the six groups of dances, four were traditional, the best being Glazounov's "Raymonda" with the Balanchine choreography. But it seems to me that a contemporary arts festival program should be at least half made up of modern works. The Jean Francaix number was cute and innocuous; but the Festival committee ought to have vetoed "The Duel," in which William Dollar's gifted choreography was wasted on incredibly cheap music by Raffaello de Banfield. I would like to have seen one good modern American work, perhaps a new ballet from a New England composer.

All in all, though, the 1956 Boston Arts Festival tallies up as the finest so far, and for this much of the credit must go to general chairman Nelson W. Aldrich '34 and Festival director Peter Temple.