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A Magic Night at the Gardner Museum January 17, 2012

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.

Saturday night, January 14, 2012, my wife Linda and I seemed to be in Venice, but we were in Boston. We were at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, or Fenway Court, as it was known during Isabella Stewart Gardner’s lifetime. She was a woman of drive, imagination and spirit. She loved art. The museum was designed to emulate a 15th century Venetian palace and was opened to the public in 1903.

Saturday night was below freezing and Linda and I parked on Palace Road, walked in the dark around the corner only to find the street was lit up by a stunning glass building–the new wing of the Gardner Museum. People were hurrying into the vast foyer dressed for the grand opening. As a former Artist-in-Residence at the museum, I ‘d been invited.

Everything was welcoming and well organized. Our coats were taken and we walked down a glass hallway and could see the outside trees lit up stretching towards the stars. Waiters and waitresses in black shirts greeted us carrying trays of tall glasses of white wine.  Suddenly we were at the Courtyard, the heart of the original museum.  I’d never come in to the Gardner Museum this way. I was disoriented. All around me were the stone columns, statues and an ancient sarcophagus. The courtyard stretches up four floors to a glass roof. The Venetian walls look as if a great cloth of orange and white has been rubbed in them. Your eye goes up to balcony after balcony. The courtyard itself was filled with ferns and flowers of all sorts, small trees, sculptures from ancient Rome and a quintet of young people playing flutes. There was the scent of the flowers and the earth. There are mysterious shadows and the lovely cacophony of people talking. It had the magic of a palace in Venice long years ago where you were surrounded by beauty, elegance and light.

In the courtyard, the quintet played baroque music, while on a balcony, an oboist played modern solos.

We walked up the marble stairs into the Dutch Room, a room I’ve visited since my twenties.  There’s a self-portrait of Rembrandt which he painted when he was twenty-three.  Rembrandt wears a dashing hat and cloak. His black eyes are full of wonder, mischief and surprise. Nowadays Rembrandt’s surprised because instead of looking across the Dutch Room at another of his paintings, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, he looks at empty frame. On the morning of March 18th, 1990, two robbers dressed as policemen bound and gagged the guards and stole thirteen artworks including “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and also Vermeer’s “The Concert”.

We visited many of my favorite paintings: Titian’s “Europa” showing Zeus as a bull flying off with Europa on his back, Botticelli’s “The Tragedy of Lucretia” and John Singer Sargent’s El Jeleo, which is so alive you can almost hear the Spanish music.

Everything that night was astonishingly beautiful. The voices, the people, the paintings, the scent of the garden, music and sculpture everywhere. We joined several hundred people in the new wing for a delicious, inventive supper.  At quarter to eight Linda and I climbed to the new concert hall, which is shaped like a tall box with seats on all four sides. We were on the third of four tiers. The stage floor level had two rows of seats and each upper tier just a single row of red seats.

Before the concert began, Ann Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, welcomed us all. She was greeted with a great ovation, for this new building was Ann Hawley’s vision. Hawley struggled long and brilliantly and to date has raised one hundred and forty five of the one hundred and eighty million-dollar goal.

The third tier was high and we looked down on the Borromeo String Quartet. Surprisingly, each of the members of the quartet had a laptop instead of musical sheets. They played Schoenberg’s String Quartet No2, Opus 10. The music for my untutored ear was freeing, strange and full of sharp shadows. The soprano, Mary Elizabeth MacKensie, sang, “I feel the breeze from another planet.” Listening to the music I had the feeling that Schoenberg was exploring something we haven’t yet caught up with.

The second half of the program was Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-Flat Major. Amazingly, Mendelssohn composed this when he was sixteen. Eight musicians played violin, viola and cello. The music, as the program said, “portrays Mendelssohn’s talent for painting music dappled with light and shadow.” It was playful and it builds and builds and builds. At the end there was an explosion of applause.

We descended the stairs after the concert and again were greeted with waiters this time holding trays of champagne and—and platters of warm donut holes.  The warm donut holes were genius!

Before we went out into the cold night, I ducked into the men’s room and I heard someone saying the Patriot’s had scored two touchdowns. I liked that because Isabella Stewart Gardner would attend the Boston Symphony concerts wearing a headband bearing the words, “Oh You Red Sox.” (In red letters, of course.)

We in Boston are so enriched by two wonderful artists–Isabella Stewart Gardner and Ann Hawley.



1. Pat Schneider - January 17, 2012

Beautiful writing, Jay. You take us in, show us around, let us hear music and also (best of all) let us hear your voice. Thank you.

2. Janet and Johannes - January 18, 2012

Nicely written description of a well-loved place, giving tribute to the new wing and capturing attention to see it. I like that your description walked through all the senses, including the description of the musical experience.

3. skip gregory - January 20, 2012

Appreciate the vivid and personal account. Thanks much.

4. Lynn DeHart - January 24, 2012

Thank you for taking us along with you as you experienced the magic of Isabella’s palace.

5. Molly Symons - February 25, 2012

The story about the Gardner museum was so rich and powerful. I really visualized being in that grand museum enjoying every minute includying drinking the champagne and eating those little dognuts. I really loved every detail of this story includying the cold weather and your parking the car. Looking forward to reading more stories and trying to come to one of your workshops this year. Sincerely, \Molly Symons now in Brazil vacationing for a few weeks….

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