Friday, February 03, 2023

Aly Bain with Jenna Reid - Sophie's Dancing Feet / Andy Brown's Reel

I had the pleasure, and honor, of meeting the great Shetland fiddler Aly Bain after a Boys of the Lough concert at Town Hall in the mid 1980s. My introduction was enabled by my date's having been his sister in law. In the video above he's joined by another fine exemplar of the Shetland fiddle tradition, Jenna Reid. They do a segue of two lively traditional fiddle tunes, "Sophie's Dancing Feet" and "Andy Brown's Reel." Backing them is a true all-star group of musicians: traditional Irish music stalwart Dónal Lunny on bouzouki, a Greek instrument that has become widely used in Irish music; Jerry Douglas, whose work on dobro guitar has spanned bluegrass, jazz, and Celtic music; Russ Barenberg, known for his contributions to old time and bluegrass music, on guitar; Phil Cunningham, a many talented Scottish musician known primarily as an accordionist but who here plays piano; and English multi instrumentalist Michael McGoldrick on whistle.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Go Iggles!

The Philadelphia Eagles, or "Iggles" as true Philadelphians call them, have won the NFC championship, and so will face the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl. After the Eagles won the NFC championship game, the Empire State Building was illuminated with green and white, the Eagles' colors. The New York Daily News demurred, noting that the Eagles are "locally despised". 

I'll confess that I'd rather see another team that wears green, the New York Jets, heading to Arizona in February. Still, I'm casting my lot with the Eagles this year. I have nothing against K.C.; I've had some good times there; sampling, among other things, Arthur Bryant's Barbecue. But I'm a Keystone State native (albeit from closer to Pittsburgh than Philly). Thanks to my wife's genealogical research I know that my great-great-great-great grandfather Samuel Miles served for a year as mayor of Philadelphia. He declined to serve a second term, probably to devote his attention to business matters. Also, my daughter, her partner, and my granddaughter live in Chester, Pennsylvania, part of the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

So, go Iggles!

Saturday, January 28, 2023

R.I.P. Tom Verlaine

Lately this blog has been a sad series of death notices of musicians I've loved: Jeff Beck, then David Crosby, and now Tom Verlaine, guitarist, singer, and songwriter of the band Television. Verlaine, born Thomas Miller, took his professional name from the French Symbolist, and later Decadent, poet Paul Verlaine. While Television was considered part of the punk rock scene that emerged in the mid 1970s, their style differed from the minimalistic three chord approach of groups like the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. Verlaine and Television's other guitarist, Richard Lloyd, played complex runs that reflected jazz influences as well as, according to Verlaine, inspiration from surf guitar bands like the Ventures. You can hear them, along with Verlaine's vocal, on the clip above of Television's live performance of "Foxhole."

Saturday, January 21, 2023

How I learned to love David Crosby

The past few months have seen the passing of three musicians who profoundly influenced the development of rock music: Jerry Lee LewisJeff Beck, and now David Crosby, who died Wednesday at the age of 81. The clip above, made in 2018 when Crosby was in his late 70s, shows him, along with mandolinist Chris Thile, doing "Déjà Vu", the title song of the first (1970) album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

I first became aware of David Crosby in 1965 when I was nineteen and a student at the University of South Florida, and heard on the University Center café jukebox the Byrds' cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man". What excited me was the "jingle jangle" of Jim (later called Roger) McGuinn's Rickenbacker guitar and the group's celestial singing harmony. I didn't know it at the time, but it was Crosby's high tenor and precise melodic sense that gave the harmonies their special quality. 

Crosby later became my least favorite Byrd. What precipitated this was "Mind Gardens", to me at the time (1967) the one great blot on the Byrds' otherwise superb fourth album Younger Than Yesterday. My musical taste at the time was broad, encompassing classical, baroque, folk, country, bluegrass, blues, and soul, along with rock. Thanks to the Beatles I was beginning to appreciate Indian raga, and to Dave Brubeck jazz. "Mind Gardens", though, was a step too far for me at the time. Crosby's solo vocal and the instrumental accompaniment didn't follow any convention I could understand; it simply sounded discordant. Despite its ultimately optimistic lyrics, it seemed to me to lead nowhere. 

Jon Pareles, in the New York Times, provides a list of what he considers Crosby's "Fifteen Essential Songs". About "Mind Gardens" he writes:
"An artifact of psychedelia's experimental heyday, 'Mind Gardens' is a parable about protection and openness, with an Indian-tinged vocal line rising above a multi-tracked droney web of guitar picking: acoustic and electric, picked and sustained, running forward and backward and completely reveling in disorientation."

Now, with the benefit of half a century plus more of living, which have included a generous share of disorientation, I've come to appreciate "Mind Gardens", along with other Crosby songs like "Everybody's Been Burned", also from Younger Than Yesterday, which ends with the lines, "But you die inside/ Every time you try to hide/ So I guess instead I'll love you."

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

R.I.P. Jeff Beck; another rock great lost.

Certainly one of rock's most exciting guitarists, Jeff Beck, died today. In the clip above he plays "Little Wing" as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Vocal and drums are by Naranda Michael Walden.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Remembrances and appreciations, 2022

 On June 2, 1953, Coronation Day, I was with my parents and Rex, the bull terrier mix puppy I had been given as a seventh birthday present, at Stile End, a cottage built, if you believed what was on the doorpost, in 1597. We occupied half of the cottage, located at the edge of the village of Rushden in Hertfordshire. The other half belonged to its owners, a farm family named Warner. They were lovely people, and their daughter, Peggy, single and in her thirties, was my caretaker whenever my parents were out for a play in London or an event at the Officers' Club at Chicksands, the small outpost in Bedfordshire where my father, a U.S. Air Force captain, was stationed. 

In 1953 BBC television's signal didn't extend beyond metropolitan London, so we listened to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on our radio. She had been Queen since February 6, 1952, the day her father, King George VI, died. Her ascension to the monarchy took place while she and Prince Phillip were on tour in Kenya. In the almost year and a half from then until the coronation I saw many newspaper and magazine articles with photos of the, I thought, beautiful young Queen. She was also a prominent subject of conversation at the Sandon County Council School, where I was the only American but, in the course of two and a half years, became thoroughly anglicized in habits and speech.

I would no doubt have been surprised to know, at age seven, that her reign would last until I was almost seventy seven. Indeed, I would have been surprised to know I would live that long. I was a military brat, and thought that my destiny was to die gloriously in battle, after uttering some phrase that would later resound in history. The Queen was not known for stirring quotes, but this one seems very characteristic: "It’s worth remembering that it is often the small steps, not the giant leaps, that bring about the most lasting change." 

As I've noted before, with my advancing age, every year brings a larger number of contemporaries and admired or influential elders who have died. This year I won't try to make a comprehensive list; I'll stick to those who were most important to me, either because I knew them personally or found them especially impressive or influential. Besides the Queen, among those who were influential worldwide that we lost were Mikhail Gorbachev and Madeleine Albright. Although I'm not a soccer fan, I can't not mention Pelé.

F. Donald Logan was Martha's professor, mentor, and history major adviser at Emmanuel College. I got to know him when Martha and I visited Boston on several occasions, and enjoyed his hospitality, cooking, and love for Bailey's Irish Cream. He was a superb raconteur with a great depth of knowledge about medieval Europe, Church politics, and contemporary controversies. I enjoyed reading his The Vikings in History. Once, when I was attending a convention in Boston and Martha was unable to join me, Don let me stay in his Brookline apartment alone while he was on one of his annual trips to London, thereby saving my clients a hotel bill.

Clark Green schooled me in the fine art of church ushering during his term as Head Usher at Grace Church. Another Grace parishioner I will miss is the always delightful Shirley Baldwin. A neighbor missed by Martha, me, and many is Lesley Carter, a charming Scottish woman whom I would often encounter during my daily walks as she walked Bear, her massive and placid brown Labrador. Whenever we stopped to chat, Bear would attract kids who would shower him with attention, which he received gladly. I lost a Facebook friend whom I never met in the flesh, Walter William Milner, whose intelligence and wry English wit I'll never forget.

Among the ever dwindling roster of Lion's Head alumni, ones I will keenly miss are former co-owner Al Koblin (the Kettle of Fish, which Al mentions in the linked interview, later moved into the spot at 59 Christopher Street previously occupied by the Head), Cheryl Floyd, Jules Kohn, Marie Murphy, and Virginia Lucy Zox, known to all as "Sha", who served on the waitstaff and was a constant source of joy. She became a character in Head alum Robert Ward's novel The Stone Carrier. Thanks to friend Dermot McEvoy for keeping me, and many others, abreast of news concerning former Head regulars.

Among the musicians lost were all-around wild man Jerry Lee Lewis (for a comprehensive biography see my late friend Nick Tosches' widely praised Hellfire), composer Ned Rorem, jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, singer-songwriter and producer Thom Bell, singers Gary BrookerLoretta LynnChristine Perfect McVieMeat LoafOlivia Newton-JohnAnita Pointer, Bobby Rydell, and Ronnie Spector, guitarists and singers Ronnie Hawkins and Danny Kalb,  mandolinist and singer Roland White, and drummer Dino Danelli

The stage and cinema world lost, among many others, actors Kristie AlleyAngela LansburyJames CaanWilliam Hurt (whom I had the pleasure of seeing in 1989 when he played Augie-Jake in Joe Pintauro's "Beside Herself" at Circle Repertory Company, for which I then served on the Board of Advisors), and the incomparable Sidney Poitier; comedian and fellow USF alum Gallagher; and directors Peter Bogdanovich and Jean-Luc Godard.

The visual arts lost painters Carmen HerreraSam GilliamJennifer Bartlett, and Paula Rego, along with sculptors Lee Bontecou and Claes Oldenburg and New Yorker cartoonist George Booth. Among those lost to the world of literature are my law school classmate John Jay Osborn, Jr., author of The Paper Chase; historian David McCullough; historical novelist Hilary Mantel; drama critic, biographer, and playwright Terry Teachout; satirist P.J. O'Rourke, with whose political views I didn't always agree but whose writing I often found delightful; Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the indispensable Nickel and Dimed; and restaurant critic Gael Greene, whose novel Blue Skies, No Candy. was once described as an exemplar of the "shopping and f---ing" genre. 

One writer lost last year with whom I was unfamiliar is Peter Straub, whose works are described in his linked New York Times obituary as "novels of terror, mystery and the supernatural" but who "insisted that his work transcended categorization". As he observed, "Adult human beings live with the certainty of grief, which deepens us and opens us to other people, who have been there, too." He was the father of Emma Straub, also a novelist, and the co-owner of Books Are Magic, which now has a location two blocks from where I live. 

Now I'll turn to appreciations. As always, I must start with my wife, Martha Foley. For those who don't know, I fractured my left ankle on November 24, 2021. Since then I have had two surgeries and periods of rehabilitation, and now face a third surgery this coming Thursday, January 12. This has been a most trying period for Martha, who has had to do household chores and shopping that I would otherwise do,  tend to my medical needs, and work for her clients as well as volunteering at the Brooklyn Women's Exchange. I'm hoping this coming surgery will resolve all remaining problems. My thanks to the physicians at NYU Langone Health, including Doctors Kenneth EgolPierre SaadehMikel Sadek, and Mona Bashar, and the physicians' assistants, nurses, and technicians, who have provided me with the finest of care.

On to pleasant matters. Our daughter, Elizabeth Cordelia Scales, and her partner, Drew Rodkey, have presented us with a granddaughter, Ada Xiomara Rodkey. They live in Chester, Pennsylvania, just south of Philadelphia, and we have enjoyed two visits, the most recent over Christmas. We're also grateful to Drew for the work he did on our apartment and furniture during their visit. We look forward to seeing them again soon.

Finally, thanks to all my friends and readers for your support and encouragement. I wish you all the best of everything for 2023.

Homage to the King

Elvis Presley was born on this date, January 8, in 1935.

In 1956 I was ten years old and riding with my father in our '55 Chevy on a two lane blacktop in the pine woods of Northwest Florida. Dad had the radio tuned to a station that played country music. The DJ said, "And now, here's Elvis Presley." I'd heard of him, and seen his photo on the cover of a magazine. I presumed, from the way he wore his hair, and his clothes, and that he drove girls crazy, that he was a crooner; perhaps a next generation version of Frank Sinatra. But what I heard was the clang of a single guitar chord, followed by, "You ain't a-nothin' but a hound dog!" in a voice that snarled. I thought, "This is a song this guy has done as a joke, but I love it!" 

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Wherein I connect Edward Hopper with Neil Diamond -- trust me!

Edward Hopper's "A Room in Brooklyn" (1932) came to me courtesy of my friend Adrian Rice. My first reaction was, "Wow! Here's a view of some row houses seen from a bay window, just as I have from mine here in Brooklyn." I've long been a Hopper fan, and eagerly await a visit to "Hopper in New York" at the Whitney Museum.  

In accordance with my love for connecting visual arts with music -- see here and here -- the painting immediately brought to mind a song I first heard on the radio some time around 1968 to '69, Neil Diamond's  "Brooklyn Roads":

The odd thing is, when I first heard the song, I understood the title to be "Brooklyn Rows". I knew that Brooklyn, like Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was at the time, was characterized by row houses. Besides, "rows" was a perfect rhyme with "those", which ends the preceding line. Also, "rows" is the way he sings it, with no noticeable "d" at the end of the line.

What I think happened was that someone at MCA, Neil Diamond's label at the time, thought that "Brooklyn Rows" would sound odd to the suburban detached houses or college dorms audience to whom the song would be pitched, so changed it to "Brooklyn Roads." This wouldn't be the first (or certainly last) time a record company exec would change a song's lyrics; consider how I think Columbia Records changed the Byrds' version of Welsh poet Idris Davies' "The Bells of Rhymney".

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Repast Baroque Ensemble performing music of the Italian baroque.

Martha and I have been fans of the Repast Baroque Ensemble; indeed, have been friends of the musicians, for almost a decade. This video shows them performing Fuggi dolente core ("Flee broken heart"), a sonata by the seventeenth century Italian composer, Biagio Marini. The musicians are, clockwise on the video: Amelia Roosevelt, violin (she plays two parts, recorded separately and synced for the video); Sarah Stone, viola da gamba; Gabe Shuford, harpsichord; and Stephanie Corwin, bassoon. Ms. Corwin's husband, Joseph Di Ponio, did the superb editing.

Repast has had a recent change in its core musician roster. In order to devote time to environmental and climate matters Ms. Roosevelt has yielded her position as first violinist to the equally capable Natalie Kress. Amie will remain very active with Repast as its executive director.

We are eagerly anticipating Repast's next concert, "Dutch Masters: Painting and Music in the Early Baroque", on Saturday, January 28 at the McKinney Chapel of the First Unitarian Congregational Society, in Brooklyn Heights. It will also be held on Sunday, January 29 at 3:00 p.m. at the Manhattan Country School. It plays to my fascination with connections between music and the visual arts -- see here and here. It will feature an expanded musical line up, with parts for recorder, theorbo, and a second viola da gamba.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

The Wayfarers: Appalachian roots music from Southeastern Ohio

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that my taste in music is wide ranging. It includes pre-baroque through contemporary "classical"* music, all kinds of jazz, folk (American, English, Irish, and Scottish), blues, R&B, soul, country, Cajun, rockabilly, calypso, surf, British invasion, punk, psychedelica, reggae, '70s and '80s rock, and (yes) hip-hop.

One style of music of which I've long been fond is "old time" or "roots" music, including its predecessors and offsprings Appalachian, bluegrass, hillbilly, honky-tonk, and recently "Americana", formerly "folk rock", which combines rock and traditional country styles, and which has its origins in Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and in Gram Parsons' Cosmic American Music, A few days ago I was introduced to the music of The Wayfarers, a young (at least from my perspective) band whose "style encompasses Appalachian dance music, traditional mountain fiddle tunes, and pre-bluegrass music of the 1920's - resulting in a dose of nostalgic Americana." The group includes Josh Hartman on guitar, Brandon Bankes on mandolin, Matt Opachick on fiddle, Justin Rayner on banjo, and Nathan Zangmeister on washtub bass.

In the video above they play two very lively fiddle tunes, "Angeline the Baker" and the enchantingly titled "Sal's Got Mud Between Her Toes". It's 3:34 of sheer joy. 

 * I put "classical" in scare quotes because I've long wondered what to call music composed in our times that is played to audiences in places like David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. I asked my friend, the composer Theodore Wiprud, what music he and his contemporaries are making today is called. How can you call contemporary music "classical"? Ted said some call it "symphonic", but noted that much of it is made for small chamber groups or for solo instrumentation. I've also seen it called "serious" music, but I wouldn't want to be the one to tell Wynton Marsalis that jazz (or tell Mick Jagger that rock) isn't "serious." Same for "artistic." I'm left with "music I enjoy that doesn't fit any other category."

Monday, October 17, 2022

The delights of the Fenimore Art Museum: Part 2: decorative arts, Hirschfeld caricatures, and Americans in Venice

Across the hall from the Florida Highwaymen exhibit was a sign indicating that the gallery there featured "Fanfare for America: 19th Century Decorative Arts." The objects on display (photo) were not actual 19th century pieces; they were made by members of the Historical Society of Early American Decoration (HSEAD) which seeks to "record and preserve examples of Early American decoration" and to "promote . . . the elevation of the standards of its reproduction and utilization . . . and to cooperate with other societies in the accomplishment of purposes of mutual concern." These items were exquisite in their execution and beauty.

Our next stop was at the gallery featuring works of Al Hirschfeld, Caricaturist to the Stars. Above is his drawing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. As former Texas governor Ann Richards said, "Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backward and in high heels."

According to the late playwright Terrence McNally, with whom I enjoyed a brew or two at the Lion's Head,"No one 'writes' more accurately of the performing arts than Al Hirschfeld. He accomplishes on a blank page with his pen and ink in a few strokes what many of us need a lifetime of words to say."
Hirschfeld also drew some stars of the 1960s music scene. How many do you recognize?
Our last gallery visit was to an exhibit of works by American artists done while or after visiting Venice. I'm a lover of things maritime, so my eye was caught by Jane Peterson's "The Lagoon, Venice" (ca. 1920). I thought her composition and use of light were superb. Ms. Peterson was born in Illinois but studied art at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute
I next turned to "Chapel of the Crucifix, St. Mark's, Venice" (1871) by Frank Hill Smith, a Boston native who was both a painter and an interior decorator. This may explain his choice, and sensitive execution, of an interior scene. Note the small figures of the priest and two seated parishioners at the painting's lower right. 

We look forward to next summer and our annual visit to the Glimmerglass Festival, which will always be accompanied by a visit to the Fenimore Art Museum.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Run Rose Run, by Dolly Parton and James Patterson

Until a few weeks ago I was one of, I'm sure, a minority of regular American book readers who had never read anything by James Patterson. This isn't because of distaste for his kind of fiction. Until about twenty years ago, I was a fairly frequent reader of "thrillers" and mysteries. What killed that habit was the internet. For one thing I started this blog. Shortly after I did, I became a contributor to, and later editor of, the Brooklyn Heights Blog. Time spent researching and writing cut into time for purely recreational reading. 

While I was ignorant of Mr. Patterson's work, other than by reputation, I wasn't of Dolly Parton's. I've been a fan of country music since my childhood, when it was what I heard on the car radio when my parents and I made our annual triangular trip from Florida to visit relatives in central Pennsylvania and southern Indiana. I first knew of Ms. Parton when I read that Jerry Garcia was a great fan. Despite that recommendation, I can't say she's my favorite woman country singer. Her voice seems a little too saccharine. I prefer the harder edged sounds of Emmylou Harris, or Lacy J. Dalton. I love it when Dolly joins Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt on harmony, for example on Rodney Crowell's "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" from Emmylou's album Blue Kentucky Girl, and later on Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" on the splendid Trio album the three of them made in 1987.

I have other reasons for liking Ms. Parton. Her philanthropic activities are well known; especially her Imagination Library, which provides free books for children. I give her kudos for purchasing two Baldwin built narrow gauge steam locomotives from Alaska, now named "Klondike Katy" and "Cinderella." that power the Dollywood Express on tours through the Great Smoky Mountain foothills. I've been a train buff since early childhood when, on visits to my grandmother in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, Dad would take me to the station to watch traffic, much then steam powered, on the four track main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Trains are also a popular theme in country music.

So, to the book. Friend, it's good. Good; not great. It starts with something improbable. A young woman, AnnieLee Keyes (not her real name, but that isn't revealed until the end), is standing by a Texas highway looking for a ride "East." She gets a ride from the driver of an eighteen wheeler and, when she wakes up and finds him feeling her thigh, pulls a gun from her jacket pocket and forces him to pull over and get out, leaving the keys for her. She thanks her "asshole" stepfather for teaching her how to drive stick, double clutch, and listen to revs. Thanks to this she's able to get going, but what about braking and maneuvering? Sheesh! People take special training to learn how to drive "big rigs."

The next thing we know about AnnieLee, she's arrived at her destination, Nashville, somehow without wrecking, or being arrested for driving, a very large stolen vehicle with a trailer likely loaded with hot merch. Why Nashville? She's a musical prodigy; someone who can spin a song from a moment's thought, and can play guitar. 

She finds a dive bar, the Cat's Paw Saloon, that proves to be her cat's paw into the Nashville music scene. She convinces the bartender to let her borrow a guitar and have a turn at the mike, where she thrills the small audience with songs she's written. This catches the attention of a young musician, Ethan Blake, who offers to buy her a drink. She refuses, and walks out as he goes to the stage to do his act. As we might suspect, this is the beginning of a long and tortuous relationship, made difficult by the need both see not to reveal or commit too much, or, in AnnieLee's instance, much of anything.

It's through Ethan that AnnieLee meets Ruthanna Ryder, "one of country music's grandest queens" and also owner of the Cat's Paw. Ruthanna has one intriguing parallel to Ms. Parton: she runs a charity that gives books to needy children. Beyond that, they seem to have little in common. She never wants to sing in public again. When she reluctantly yields to Ethan's insistence that she come to the Cat's Paw to hear AnnieLee, she is surprised and impressed, and lets a gob-smacked AnnieLee know. She adds that, though she doesn't do it often, "I'm going to help you out." Her advice: "Get out of Nashville while you still can."
"It's a hard, tough business  . . .  A tiny thing like you? You'll get chewed up and spit out like a hunk of gristle. Sure, you might taste success, but you're more likely to end up broke and alone."

AnnieLee's response to this includes an F-bomb. Of course, this isn't the end of the adventures these three characters -- AnnieLee, Ethan, and Ruthanna -- will have together, each while dealing with their fears, regrets, and secrets. AnnieLee, with help from Ruthanna and Ethan, will "taste success" in plentiful draughts, while escaping occasional attempts by mysterious men to kidnap her. The last of these will lead to another improbable occurrence: her surviving a four story fall from a hotel balcony.

Improbables aside, this was a book that kept me going; 409 pages in three days. The writing is concise and compelling. As I noted above, I was not familiar with Mr. Patterson's style. It may be best described as a lack of "style." There are no flourishes. He is sparing in his use of adjectives; he does not tell you something is "horrifying"; he describes it and lets you draw the conclusion. 

Although I'm convinced Ms. Parton could write a novel by herself -- she has written an autobiography -- stylistic uniformity makes me assume Mr. Patterson did all, or almost all, of the composition of the novel's text. Where does that leave Ms. Parton's claim to co-authorship? We know she wrote the lyrics, quoted in the text, of AnnieLee's songs (all of which, including some not quoted in the novel, can be heard here). Beyond that, I'm sure she contributed considerable knowledge of the Nashville music scene -- on that score I have also to recommend my friend Marshall Chapman's autobiographical Goodbye Little Rock and Roller -- and a description of the level of pain a woman's feet can endure from wearing stiletto heels. 

Sunday, September 04, 2022

The delights of the Fenimore Art Museum: Part 1, Ralph Fasanella and The Florida Highwaymen


The Fenimore Art Museum is on the outskirts of the Village of Cooperstown, New York, named for William Cooper, who founded it in 1786. The Museum is named for his son, James Fenimore Cooper, a novelist known for his depictions of Indigenous Americans and of frontier life. The Museum's building was originally the mansion, completed in 1933, of Edward Severin Clark, an heir to the Singer Manufacturing Company (best known for sewing machines) fortune. After his death his brother, Stephen Carlton Clark, gave it to the Museum, along with substantial collections of American fine and folk art. The Museum also has a large collection of Indigenous American art.

Upon our arrival at the Museum, Martha and I headed for the exhibition "Drawn from Life: Three Generations of Wyeth Figure Studies". Our visit in 2007 to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, and its extensive collection of works by Andrew Wyeth, had made us admirers. Unfortunately, the gallery holding the Wyeth exhibition was crowded, so we turned to the nearest other exhibition.
That was "Ralph Fasanella: Americans Unseen". This proved fortuitous. Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997) was born in the Bronx to Italian Immigrant parents. As a boy he helped his father on his ice route. He later worked at various jobs, became a union organizer, and prominent in leftist causes. Martha was already aware of him because of her previous work at the NYU Tamiment Library & Wagner Labor Archives. He was a self taught artist who didn't start painting until 1945, when he was over thirty. His early works were typically scenes of workers in their workplaces, like "Bench Workers (Morey Machine Shop)" (1954) above, in which Fasanella himself is the worker on the right, or crowded outdoor urban scenes, often depicting events like strikes or May Day celebrations.
The Fasanella exhibition at the Fenimore, according to the website text,
"explores Fasanella's portrait-making as a vital tool for staying connected with people in an intimate, emotional, personal way, in order to give meaning to their collective actions in society at large."

"Zingarella" (1973) above is, according to the explanatory text accompanying the painting, "an Italian word for a lively and vivacious woman." It is "loosely based on a friend, Virginia Simon, who encouraged Fasanella to draw in the mid 1940s."

"Marc's World" (1973) "depicts the artist's son, Marcantonio Fasanella, posed as a confident -- and a little cocky -- young man." Note the figure of a striptease dancer in the background, and the magazine on the floor. Marc Fasanella went on to get a PhD in Art and Art Education from New York University and now does consulting work on environmental design through Ecological Design Partners. According to his website linked above, he
"has also written and lectured about his father, a self-taught social realist painter, and wrote the monograph Ralph Fasanella: Images of Optimism which was published by Pomegranate Press in 2017."

Leaving the Fasanella exhibition, I made another fortuitous discovery. On the hallway wall outside was an exhibit concerning The Florida Highwaymen, twenty six Black artists who, according to the explanatory material, "from the early 1950s through the 1980s . . . used vivid and bright colors to capture the beauty of the untouched Florida landscape."  The Highwaymen "were self taught and painted on basic material like Upson board, a material made of compressed wood fiber, and used crown molding for frames."

Two Florida Highwaymen paintings were displayed. Both were untitled. The one on the left is by Mary Ann Carroll (1940-2019), the only woman member of the Highwaymen. "The painting depicts a singular palm tree surrounded by lush greenery and the inviting blue waters of the ocean." The one on the right is by Tracy Newton, considered a second generation Highwayman as he is a nephew of Harold Newton (1934-1994), considered a founding member of the group, and a son of Sam Newton (1948-), also considered one of the original twenty six, but who denies that either he or Harold was ever part of the group. "[Tracy's] landscape, done in the same style as his predecessors, depicts the changeable Floridian weather as a storm rolling in on the Atlantic Ocean."

There will be a second part to this account of our visit to the Fenimore, in which will be some Al Hirschfeld caricatures and some American artists' views of Venice.

Pete Seeger - "The Bells Of Rhymney" - live in Australia 1964

This song began as a poem, "Gwalia Deserta XV", by Idris Davies. "Gwalia Deserta" translates as "Wasteland of Wales"; what became "The Bells of Rhymney" when Pete Seeger discovered it and set it to music was the fifteenth part of a much longer piece. Mr. Davies was born and raised in Rhymney, a town dominated by coal mining. He began work as a miner at fourteen, but at 21 he suffered an injury and went on the dole. He educated himself at the local library and began writing poetry, at which he found some success. His works were promoted by both Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot. Mr. Davies died of cancer at the age of 48.
Pete Seeger recorded "The Bells of Rhymney" in 1957. but the song remained largely unknown outside of folk music devotee circles until 1965, when the Byrds recorded their version, which was included in their debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man, and is driven by the jangle of Jim (later Roger) McGuinn's Rickenbacker guitar. The Byrds' version has one interesting lyric change. The line. "Who robbed the miner?" is replaced by "Who killed the miner?" I can only speculate that someone in the Columbia Records hierarchy thought that accusing "the mineowner" of having "robbed the miner" (as opposed to killing him) by denying him a living wage and better working conditions sounded a bit too socialist.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev, 1931-2022

 By no reasonable person's standards could he be considered a saint. Attaining the position he held at the apex of his power, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which he held from 1985 to 1991, required a high degree of ruthlessness. He combined this with skill at making allies who would support his ambition. According to his New York Times Obituary, as a student "[h]e became familiar with Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel and Rousseau." 

During his time as General Secretary he pursued perestroika, or restructuring, and later glasnost, or openness (though perhaps not quite transparency). These were pragmatic moves. Throughout his career he became keenly aware of the sclerotic condition of the Soviet economy and politics. He sought a way to change Soviet society so as to eliminate the sclerosis while staying within the Marxist-Leninist tradition. 

In December of 1990 I attended a Christmas party given by a friend and law school classmate and his wife. My friend had become a United Nations official and worked in a division of the Secretariat that, under U.N. protocol, was always headed by someone from the Soviet Union. My friend's boss, who to hold that position most likely was at least a KGB colonel, was there. He was quite the contrast with a predecessor of his whom I had met at a Christmas party during the Reagan years who, when I asked him how he liked living in New York, scowled and said, "Why should I like it?" The new boss was nothing like that, and I recall his insisting that we should take what "Michael" - he deliberately used the English version of Gorbachev's name - was saying and doing seriously.

It's tempting to use the buzzword "transformative" to describe Gorbachev's time as General Secretary. In some important ways the transformations he helped to bring about endure today. The former "captive nations" of Eastern Europe are now independent, though some, Hungary in particular, are lapsing into authoritarianism, as Russia itself unfortunately has. In his later years, Gorbachev had an uneasy relationship with Putin; the Times reports that he praised the seizure of Crimea and Putin's restoration of order after the chaotic Yeltsin period, but opposed "Mr. Putin's crackdown on news media freedom and his changes in electoral laws in Russia's regions." Gorbachev described Putin as thinking himself "second only to God".

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A Visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame

Our return to the Glimmerglass Opera Festival put us close to Cooperstown, New York, best known for being the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame (photo above: Kenneth C. Zirkel, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons). It is also reputed to be the birthplace of the game, though that claim is disputed. Regarding Mr. Chadwick's claim, I can say that during the three years of my childhood spent in an English school, I learned the game of rounders. On returning to the U.S. and learning about baseball (along with re-learning how to be American), I thought it had a strong similarity to rounders.
Martha had a strong reason to visit the HOF. She was celebrating the induction of David "Big Papi" Ortiz, of her beloved Red Sox. Here she is with his induction display.
And here I am, surgical boot and all (Thanks to which Martha was able to get Marc's car a handicapped permit that allowed us close in parking at Glimmerglass) with Gil Hodges' induction display. I'm wearing my Brooklyn Dodgers cap, they having been my first love in Baseball. Hodges later managed the Mets, to whom I owe my present loyalty, to their victory in the 1969 World Series. (Photo by Martha).
Our next stop was the art gallery. I've long thought of LeRoy Neiman (1921-2012) as America's, and perhaps the world's, pre-eminent sports artist. He was that, but also more. A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where his schoolmates included Leon Golub and Robert Clark, who became better known as Robert Indiana. Mr. Neiman developed a neo-expressionist style, well suited to paintings of action, whether it be sports or the action at P.J. Clarke's bar. The painting above, displayed in the Hall of Fame gallery, is "The Hall of Famer", his notion of a generic HOF honoree, or perhaps two.
Another painting that got my attention was Joel Libby's portrait of the pitcher Christy Mathewson, whose Major League career lasted from 1901 through 1916, mostly with the New York Giants. He was known for his precise control. Chicago Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers, part of the Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combination, said of Mathewson, "He could pitch into a tin cup." 
Moving on to Monument Hall, I stopped to pay my respects to Gary "The Kid" Carter, the catcher who came to the Mets from Montreal in 1985, the year I became a Mets fan. In 1986 he was an important contributor to the Mets' National League championship and to their second World Series victory, both on defense and with his bat.
Looking out a window I saw this sculpture, by Stanley Bleifield, of Johnny Podres pitching to Roy Campanella, my first baseball hero. This was the battery that lasted the complete Game Seven of the 1955 World Series, won by the Brooklyn Dodgers over the New York Yankees.
“'Millennium,' yes; 'pandemonium'!
Roy Campanella leaps high. Dodgerdom crowned
had Johnny Podres on the mound."

Marianne Moore, "Hometown Piece for Messers Alston and Reese"

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Return to Glimmerglass: Carmen, The Sound of Music, Tenor Overboard, and two new short operas

Two weekends ago, after a two year hiatus, Martha and I joined our friends Marc and Stewart for a return to the Glimmerglass Festival, held in the Alice Busch Opera Theater, on the shore of Lake Otsego near Cooperstown, New York. Our first opera. on Friday evening, was Bizet's Carmen. I had seen several productions of this very popular romantic opera before; indeed, I first heard its highlights on a record album my parents bought when I was about ten. Perhaps my memories of earlier performances had faded, but to me this was the best ever. It was directed by Denyce Graves, who has considerable experience with the role of Carmen. According to the Glimmerglass program,"[s]he made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role in 1995 and went on to sing the role at the great opera houses of the world for decades."

The title role was sung brilliantly by the mezzo soprano Briana Elyse Hunter (photo), whom we had seen in 2019 as Mother in the then new opera Blue, which later received the Music Critics Association of North America 2020 Award for Best New Opera. She brought to the role of Carmen an almost unstoppable forcefulness, even in the scene in which she draws fortune telling cards that in each instance predict her death. The program includes the transcript of a dialogue between Ms. Hunter and the director, Ms. Graves. Near the beginning of the conversation Ms. Hunter asked, "Do you feel like you take a little bit of [Carmen] with you each time you play her?" Ms. Graves answered, 
"She made me the woman I am today, without question. I feel like it was no mistake that she came into my life, and I think she's been strengthening me from the moment I met her."

Ms. Hunter responded: "Every time I play her, I leave proclaiming, 'This is how I'm going to be now' . . . and then I realize how hard that really is."

The Don José role elicited another excellent performance, this by tenor Ian Koziara, who skillfully assumed the various emotional states the role demands, from obedient soldier to reluctant suitor to outlaw to enraged jilted lover. During her conversation with Ms. Hunter, Ms. Graves said:
"I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Don José, for the person he becomes and the trajectory of his experience. . . . By the time we see him in Act Four he's not a priest, he's not a corporal, he's not the lover of Carmen. He's lost his mother, Micaela, his dignity, home, country, everything. Carmen rises in society. . . . That's what I want to show in our production, this incredible elevator effect where he's going down as she's going up."
Richard Ollarsaba, a bass-baritone, was convincing as the bullfighter Escamillo, showing bravado but also a touch of vulnerability. The role of Micaëla, the village girl Don José's dying mother wants him to marry, was played to perfection by soprano Symone Harcum, a member of Glimmerglass's Young Artists Program. Bass baritone Peter Morgan was the model of a martinet as the Army Captain Zuniga. The rest of the cast was superb. Credit must also be given to the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, conducted by Joseph Colaneri, for its forceful presentation of Bizet's score.

Glimmerglass presents one musical comedy or operetta each year. This year's selection, The Sound of Music, is far from Martha's or my favorite Broadway show by a long stretch. Still, the performance on Saturday afternoon was very well done. Baritone Michael Mayes was spot on as the intensely disciplined and patriotic Captain Georg Von Trapp, as was soprano Mikaela Bennett playing the talented and flighty Maria. Soprano Alexandra Loutsion was authoritative and compassionate as the Mother Abbess, and Alyson Cambridge did well in the role of the scheming Elsa Schraeder. Among the Von Trapp children, all well played, I'll give special mention to Tori Tedeschi Adams, a member of the Young Artists Program, as Liesl, and to Oliver Horvath as Kurt and Cordelia Dziuban as Brigitta, both members of the Glimmerglass Youth Chorus. The orchestra, conducted by James Lowe, was faultless. Unfortunately, I was left with "Do, Re, Mi" as an earworm for several days, despite hearing some Rossini that evening.

So, to the Rossini. Ken Ludwig has been described, by Barry Edelstein, Artistic Director of The Old Globe, as "America's preeminent comic playwright." (Well, now that Neil Simon is no longer with us.) Mr. Ludwig not only writes plays; he is also an opera librettist. Since he doesn't write music, he needs to use someone else's. In Tenor Overboard that someone else is Gioachino Rossini. Mr. Ludwig assembled a pastiche of music from several Rossini operas to accompany his story. 

The story begins in "1940s New York." Petronio, an Italian immigrant, well voiced by Bass-baritone Stefano de Peppo, has two daughters, Gianna (mezzo soprano Reilly Nelson) and Mimi (soprano Jasmine Habersham). He wants to marry Mimi to the son of a friend, but Mimi has her heart set on a young man she met during a trip to Sicily. 

The sisters attend a performance by the Singing Sicilians, and want to return with them to Italy. They are refused an audition because the group is all male, so they put on drag, audition as Joe and Jerry, and are welcomed. They board a liner bound for Italy, and a series of bizarre adventures follows. Petronio, not knowing his daughters are on board, gets on the same ship, having decided he's had enough of America. A movie actress, Angostura (soprano Keely Futterer; her part named for a kind of cocktail bitters) keeps threatening to expose the sisters as women. Mimi recognizes fellow Sicilian Singer Dante (tenor Fran Daniel Laucerica) as the lad who won her heart in Sicily. Gianna falls in love with another Sicilian, Luca (baritone Armando Contreras). Petronio is thought dead following a blow struck during a storm, but revives just as the Captain (tenor Matthew Pearce) is about to commit his body to the sea. Petronio then recognizes Dante as the friend's son whom he wanted Mimi to marry. Weddings follow. 

It's a thoroughly delightful piece, drawing, as Mr. Ludwig explains in his notes, on such comedic resources as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Some Like It Hot. As for the music, taken from, by my count, seventeen different Rossini scores, it was performed beautifully by the orchestra, conducted as it was for Carmen by Joseph Colinari.

On Sunday afternoon we saw a double bill of new one act operas, both on religious themes. The first was Taking Up Serpents, with music by Kamala Sankaram, Glimmerglass Artist in Residence this year, and libretto by Jerre Dye. A young woman, Kayla (soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley) has left her family, charismatic preacher Daddy (baritone Michael Mayes, also Captain Von Trapp in Sound of Music), and her pious and dour mother Nelda (mezzo soprano Jacquelyn Matava) on a self searching journey that takes her to Gulf Shores, Alabama, where she works in a drug store. She gets a phone call from Nelda telling her Daddy has had a fatal bite while handling a snake during a worship service, and is in hospital dying. Kayla goes home to Birmingham where Nelda, wracked with grief over her husband's condition and guilt for having sought medical treatment in defiance of her and Daddy's beliefs, gives Kayla no comfort. After prayerful consideration, Nelda smothers comatose Daddy in his hospital bed. Kayla, facing contradictory feelings about her parents and upbringing, seeks spiritual reconnection in a potentially striking way. The story places emotional demands on the singers, all of whom met those demands with aplomb.

As the Glimmerglass program tells it, the librettist Mr. Dye drew on his own upbringing in a small Mississippi town where his family belonged to a charismatic church, although one without snake handling. "It completely captured [his] imagination as a child." When his family turned to a more conventional, mainline Protestant church, he was "suddenly left with an empty feeling, a great sadness, a sense of disconnect." He transferred that feeling to Kayla. 

Ms. Sankaram found inspiration for her music in "Christian mysticism" that she used "to create musical ciphers that are hidden throughout the score." It was performed by an ensemble using some unusual instruments, including "whirly tubes, which are plastic percussion instruments that are played by being swung in a circle." These were used to accompany "Kayla's retreat into memory." The ensemble was conducted by Lidya Yankovskaya.

Second in the double bill was the world premiere of Holy Ground, with music by Damien Geter and libretto by Lila Palmer. The story involves a departure from Christian theology. As it is told in Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel appears before Mary, a young woman of Galilee, and tells her she will have a son. She asks how this can happen, as she's a virgin. Gabriel says she will become pregnant by "the power of the Holy Spirit" and that her child "will be called Son of God." Mary isn't asked if she consents to this; she is just told it will happen. 

Holy Ground opens with three archangels listening to signals from earth, hoping to find a woman with a pure soul who will consent to give birth to God's son. Unlike the story in Luke, consent by the prospective mother is required. Their scanning device picks up a promising signal, coming from a young Black American woman named (you guessed it!) Mary (soprano Jasmine Habersham, who also was Mimi in Tenor Overboard). The archangels deputize Cherubiel (tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes, a member of the Young Artists Program), newly promoted to their order, to try to convince Mary to accept. He's reluctant, as 849 other women (implicitly including Galilean Mary) have refused. The other archangels convince him that he can do what hasn't yet been done.

Meanwhile, Mary is facing an impending marriage about which she has serious misgivings. Her mother, Ann (soprano Alyson Cambridge, also Elsa Schraeder in Sound of Music), argues that she must go through with it, as a woman without a husband is not safe. (This is evidently some perhaps near future Handmaid's Tale style dystopian America.) Still, Mary thinks she wants something beyond safety with a man. This is when Cherubiel appears with his offer. As the program puts it, Mary "experiences a kaleidoscope of emotions" but concludes that she cannot do it. 

Mary then suffers nightmares in which "[m]ultitudes cry out for help, but there are too many for her to save." Ann tells her that when she became pregnant she initially didn't want to be a mother, but changed her mind and gave birth to Mary. Cherubiel, braced by several (ambrosial?) cocktails with, and encouragement from, the other archangels, returns for a second try. This time Mary says "Yes." Cherubiel concludes with, "Hail Mary, full of grace." 

Mr. Geter's music, conducted as in Taking Up Serpents by Lidya Yankovskaya, complements the story well.

Addendum: Martha tells me that she found Trevor Bowen's costume designs for Holy Ground to be spectacular.

The 2022 Festival is the last under Francesca Zambello, whose twelve years as artistic and general director of the Festival  have been transformative. She has widened the appeal of the Festival, and of opera, to audiences as young as elementary school children, achieved diversity in performers, composers. librettists, and subject matter, and deftly mixed traditional with new material. She will continue serving as artistic director of the Washington National Opera, a position she has held since 2012. Her successor will be Robert Ainsley, who until now has served as director of the Young Artists program at Washington National, "and of the American Opera Initiative where, over a span of six years, he commissioned, developed and premiered more than 30 new operas and other works."

Monday, May 16, 2022

Paradise Square: ten Tony nominations well deserved

If the name Joaquina Kalukango isn't familiar to you, as it wasn't to me until a few days ago when she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, be assured that if you're even mildly interested in Broadway, or theater in general, it will be. In Paradise Square, nominated for Best Musical, she plays Nelly O'Brien, Black wife of Irish immigrant Willie O'Brien (Matt Bogart). Willie and Nelly are owners of a saloon called Paradise Square, situated in what was in the mid nineteenth century a notorious Manhattan slum called Five Points.

When the show begins, Willie has left and joined the Fighting 69th, a U.S. Army regiment formed during the Civil War and made up entirely of Irish immigrants. While Willie is away fighting, Nelly is left to run the saloon. Its customers are a mixture of Black and Irish people, reflecting the neighborhood as as a whole. Their nights at Paradise Square are a joyous outpouring of music and dance, combining Irish and African styles, in which all participate, for which Bill T. Jones has been nominated for the Best Choreography Tony. 

As the story goes on, dark clouds begin to gather over this pleasant landscape. "Lucky" Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis) returns from the war missing his right arm, a fate for which he blames his adopted country. Then President Lincoln orders a draft of able bodied White men, non-citizen immigrants included, for which exclusion can be bought for $300, a very large sum at the time. This seems especially unfair to young Irish men, including Willie's newly arrived nephew Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively; nominated, along with Sidney DuPont -- see below -- for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical), who sings "Why must I die in springtime?" to save Blacks from slavery. This sets up a conflict involving his aunt, Willie's sister Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), wife of Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley), a Black minister who serves as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. Reverend Lewis takes in Washington "Wash" Henry (Sidney DuPont; nominated, along with A.J. Shively, for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical) and his beloved Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton), fugitive slaves who are doubly endangered because they are accused of the murder of their slave master in Tennessee. Both Owen and Wash are in desperate need of money; Owen to escape the draft and Wash to finance his and Angelina's escape to Canada and to establish a new life there.

The Draft Riots brought an end to Paradise Square and to the Five Points as it was, but Nelly retains her faith that the harmony that existed there can be restored. Her rendition of "Let it Burn" evoked a standing ovation. Here's an interview with Joaqina Kalukango in which she tells what she learned about history from preparing for her role in Paradise Square:

I was drawn to see Paradise Square because my old friend Larry Kirwan is credited with conceiving the story, and is nominated, along with Christina Anderson and Craig Lucas, for Best Book of a Musical. I got to know Larry in 1978 when he and Pierce Turner, as Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, were the house band at the Bells of Hell. I'll confess that the last time I saw him was in 2011 when, at his invitation, I attended a Bloomsday event and, sufficiently lubricated by Guinness, gave a reading that was videoed by his wife, who also was my daughter's dance teacher at P.S. 150.

Paradise Square is now scheduled to run at the Barrymore Theater through November 27. Update: unfortunately the show just closed. I'm surprised it didn't get better attendance, given at least Ms. Kalukango's best performance award.