Sunday, July 08, 2018

Bertrand Russell on growing old.

Bertrand Russell was one of the pre-eminent philosophers of the past century. Although much of his work was devoted to analytical philosophy, particularly to exploring the logical foundations of mathematics, he also wrote and spoke eloquently and with wit about ethical and political matters, and about concerns of everyday life.

As I progress further into my eighth decade of life I, like, I'm sure, many of my contemporaries, spend time reminiscing and sometimes regretting roads not taken. Russell, in his Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, offered this observation:
"Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being."
To my fellow Christians, this may seem perplexing. Loss of individual being doesn't jibe with traditional notions of immortality. It seems, if anything, more like Buddhism. To me, though, the crucial words are "the walls of the ego recede".  I believe this to be central to the message of the Gospels; perhaps best summed up in Luke 17:33. Russell was not a Christian, nor a Buddhist, but to me it seems his thinking was in concurrence with both traditions (which, I think, have more in common than many believers in either would care to admit.)

I'm indebted for the Russell quotation to Maria Popova's blog Brain Pickings, which I find a reliable source of thought provoking insights. If you follow the link and scroll down, you can subscribe for free. Maria relies on donations to keep up her very valuable work and, if you would like to help, please follow the link provided on her blog.

The photo (public domain; photographer unknown) is of Russell with his children John (born 1921) and Kate (1923). Judging by the children's appearances, the photo was made in the late 1920s when Russell (born 1872) would have been in his mid-fifties.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Repast Baroque Ensemble's "Bohemian Fantasy" features works by Biber, Schmelzer, Buxtehude, Finger, and Purcell.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was a true Bohemian; that is, he was born and raised in Bohemia, then a German speaking enclave in what is now the Czech Republic. Most of his musical career, however, was spent in Salzburg, Austria. Biber's music is not as well known today as is that of his near contemporaries J.S. Bach, Handel, Telemann, and Vivaldi, except perhaps among music historians and Baroque aficionados. Nevertheless, he was quite creative, using novel tunings and techniques. His music was the inspiration for this concert, although he is the only Bohemian among the five composers whose works were represented in it.

Repast's performance of Biber's works was at their usual standard of excellence. For this concert, they were joined by violist Jessica Troy, whose playing fit seamlessly in the group's style. None of the works in the concert called for a bassoon, so Stephanie Corwin was afforded an opportunity to travel. Biber's Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum #11 in C minor (the Latin title translates loosely as "Sacred and Profane Fiddle Music") got the program going on a lively note, using a rhythmic technique he called "Harpeggio". His Praeludium from Partita No. 6 (from the Harmonia Artificioso Ariosa was dance music, also very lively. The Mensa Sonora in A minor No. 3 is described in the notes I took during the concert as "swooping - gentle". The Passacaglia in G minor for solo violin gave Amelia Roosevelt a chance to do a star turn, and she handled it with her usual aplomb. My notes include the words "twittering flourishes". The Balletti Lamentabili was in six short parts of which I made the following notes: "(1) contemplative, (2) steady, (3) aspiring, (4) sprightly, (5) emotive, (6) sorrowful".

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer was an Austrian born composer almost all of whose career was spent at the courts of the successive Hapsburg emperors Ferdinand II and III, and Leopold I, the last of whom ennobled him and gave him the rank of Kappelmeister. Unfortunately, this happened just a year before Schmelzer's life was cut short by a plague epidemic. The death of his second emperor occasioned his composition of the Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinand III. My notes on this were: "mournful, lively at end - ascent?" The final movement may express Ferdinand's spirit ascending to the realm of glory. Schmelzer's Polnische Sackpfeifen ("Polish Bagpipes") was given pride of place as the final work in the concert. My notes: "Puff! Puff! Puff! chanting melodies; round with violin and viola, and cello". The cello was played superbly, as always, by Katie Reitman.

Dietrich Buxtehude, whose birthplace and nationality were disputed (Danish or German?) was a superb composer and organist. It's said that J.S. Bach walked 250 miles to hear Buxtehude play. Buxtehude's Toccata in G major for solo harpsichord, BuxWV 165, gave Gabe Shuford his opportunity to break from continuo and show his considerable talent, which he did to full effect.

Gottfried Finger was born in Moravia, now also part of the Czech Republic, but spent much of his musical career in London. His "Sonata Op. 1 No.4 in B flat major" got my notes "ethereal to upbeat."

Henry Purcell was considered the greatest of British Baroque composers. His production of orchestral, chamber, and operatic works during his too short life (1659-1695) was prodigious but also of great quality. Repast performed his Fantasia in A minor for 4 parts; the only "Fantasy" in this concert. My notes: "languid; dreamlike until final".

This was a superb concert. Repast's concert schedule will resume in the fall; I'll keep you advised as soon as details are available.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Celebrating an oil tanker's 80th birthday.

Oil tankers don't, as a rule, survive for eighty years. The giants that haul crude from oil fields to refineries are reckoned to have a useful life of about twenty years, maybe thirty tops. This isn't about one of those.

The Mary A. Whalen was launched in 1938 at the Red Hook, Brooklyn shipyard of Ira S. Bushey & Sons, as the S.T. Kiddoo. (Mr. Kiddoo was a vice president of Fairbanks Morse; the ship has a Fairbanks Morse engine.) She is all of 172 feet long, and served to haul refined products on coastal routes between New York and New England, as well as carrying bunker fuel to ships in New York Harbor. In 1958, when she was converted from carrying gasoline to carrying fuel oil for home heating or for ship bunkering, her name was changed to Mary A. Whalen. An old maritime superstition has it that changing a ship's name brings bad luck. Mary had bad luck on Christmas day, 1968 when she went aground off the Rockaways. This led to a Supreme Court decision that had considerable effect on maritime law.
Mary was taken out of service in 1994. Instead of going for scrap, she was bought by a maritime services firm that used her as a dock and office. In 2006 she was acquired by PortSide New York a not-for-profit organization headed by my friend Carolina Salguera (photo above). PortSide fixed Mary up, secured a berth for her near her Red Hook birthplace, and in 2011 succeeded in having her listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
For Mary's eightieth birthday, PortSide invited artists aboard. I found Janice McDonnell (photo above) working on a painting of the giant gantry cranes that load and unload container ships at the Red Hook Container Port, a last vestige of ocean going cargo shipping in New York City, almost all of which has moved to New Jersey, and whose demise has ben predicted for some time but which, so far, has survived.

For an account of an earlier party on the Mary A. Whalen, featuring folk music, see here

Friday, March 30, 2018

Mets win opener; lose an icon.

The Mets won their season opener, at home, today, beating the Cardinals 9-4. I was at work while they were playing, so all I know is the score and, from their website, that Syndergaard got ten Ks, although giving up all of the Cards' four runs. The bullpen, evidently, was strong.

This happy news was clouded by the loss of a former Mets great, Rusty Staub (photo), a fearsome slugger and generous humanitarian. Adieu, le Grand Orange/

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Repast Baroque Ensemble's "Dresden Fireworks" illuminated little known works and often overlooked instruments.

Some wag -- probably a frustrated clarinet or English horn player -- once defined the oboe as "an ill wind that nobody blows good." That gag was put to rest at the Repast Baroque Ensemble's "Dresden Fireworks" concert at First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights on Friday, March 2, which featured guest oboist Geoffrey Burgess (photo). Mr. Burgess ably demonstrated his mastery of the instrument, as well as its range and versatility. Repast's regular crew --Amelia Roosevelt on violin, Stephanie Corwin on bassoon, Katie Reitman on cello, and Gabe Shuford on harpsichord -- were also on top of their game.

As the title suggests, the playlist was of works by composers who were active at the Dresden court of the electors of Saxony and Polish kings during the baroque era -- the early 18th century -- with one exception. That was Vivaldi, who never visited Dresden, but whose music was greatly admired there. The others were: Johann Friederich Fasch; Francesco Maria Veracini (whose stormy engagement in Dresden ended with his self-defenestration from a third story window, fracturing a leg and hip); Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach; and Jan Dismas Zelenka.

The first piece on the program, Fasch's Sonata in F Major for Violin, Oboe, Bassoon, and Continuo, begins with the bassoon playing solo, then joined by the oboe, violin and continuo (cello and harpsichord) in a lush, romantic series of variations. The second movement features lively interplay among the bassoon, oboe, and violin. The third is contemplative, with the oboe dominant, and the final movement is sprightly.

The Vivaldi Sonata in C Minor for Oboe and Continuo begins with a mournful slow march, begun by the bassoon, then joined by the oboe. By contrast, the second movement is upbeat, with the oboe leading from the start. The third is restful, but gave Mr. Burgess the opportunity to demonstrate the oboe's range, and the frenetic fourth movement allowed him to show his virtuosity to the fullest.

Ms. Roosevelt described Francesco Maria Veracini as "certifiably crazy." The first movement of his Sonata in E Minor for Violin and Continuo begins at a loping pace, then picks up to a fast canter, then back to a slower lope. The second is dreamlike, with Ms. Roosevelt's violin carrying the mood superbly. Her violin is decisive in the third, and final, movement, which is stormy, perhaps reflecting the composer's inner turmoil.

Fasch's Sonata in C Major for bassoon and continuo gave Ms. Corwin and her instrument an opportunity to be in the foreground. The first movement is mellow, a quality associated with the bassoon, but the second is bouncy, allowing Ms. Corwin to demonstrate the instrument's range. The third is reflective, with the lower range dominant. The fourth is playful and rapid, showcasing Ms. Corwin's dexterity.

Just as Ms. Corwin got her star turn thanks to Fasch, Mr. Shuford got his with WF Bach's Fantasia in A Minor for Harpsichord. Each note seemed to race from the keyboard to the string to the sounding board in an effort to beat the one before it. A bravura performance.

Before this concert, I was ignorant of the works of the Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka. His Trio in B-flat Major No. 3, for Oboe, Violin, Bassoon, and Continuo convinced me that I need to hear more. The first movement is languid, with the instruments seeming to perform a slow dance. In the second, the bassoon picks up the pace, followed by lively interplay between oboe and violin. The third is pensive, giving Mr. Burgess another chance to show the oboe's range. The last movement starts with a duet between violin and bassoon, then the oboe joins in a rollicking finale that had me wanting to dance in the aisle.

Throughout, Ms. Reitman's cello, along with Mr. Shuford's harpsichord, provided a strong and reassuring sonic base over which the other musicians performed.

Repast's next concert is titled "Bohemian Fantasy" and will include compositions by Biber, Schmelzer, Purcell, and an original work by Repast. It will feature guest violist Jessica Troy. Performances will be at 8:00 PM on Friday, May 4 at the McKinney Chapel, First Unitarian Church, 119 Pierrepont Street, Brooklyn, and at 8:00 PM on Saturday, May 5 at Advent Lutheran Church, 2504 Broadway (at 93rd Street), in Manhattan.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, "Finnegan's Wake"

James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, reckoned one of the most difficult books to read, took its title and a tiny bit of its narrtive from an Irish comic ballad, author unknown, first heard in the 1850s. It tells the story of a bricklayer who, having had "a drop of the craythur" before work, falls from his ladder and dies. At his wake, "a row and a ruction" starts, until whiskey spills on his corpse. This revives him.

I heard the song first as "New Finnegans Wake" on a now out of print Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem vinyl album "Recorded Live in Ireland." What was "new" about it was Liam Clancy's announcement that, to introduce the song, his brother Tom would read the entire Joyce novel. Tom then read these connected excerpts from the first few pages:
Bygmester Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand, freemen’s mau-rer, lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit toofar — back for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helviticus committed deuteronomy. ... During mighty odd years this man of hod, cement and edi-fices in Toper’s Thorp piled buildung supra buildung pon the banks for the livers by the Soangso. ... A waalworth of a skyerscape ... entowerly, erigenating from next to nothing, ... with a burning bush abob off its baubletop and with larrons o’toolers clittering up and tombles a’buckets clottering down. Of the first was he to bare arms and a name: Wassaily Boos-laeugh of Riesengeborg. ... Hahahaha, Mister Finn, you’re going to be fined again! ... Hohohoho, Mister Funn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! ,,, But Dimb! He stot-tered from the latter. Damb! he was dud.
There's no video available of this version of the song, but here are the Clancys doing it without Tom's introduction, but with a preferatory explanation of how the song inspired Joyce:

Monday, March 05, 2018

Roger Bannister, 1929-2018.

On May 6, 1954 I was eight years and not quite two months old. My parents and I were preparing for a European vacation before returning to the U.S., as my father's tour of duty in England was ending. The next day, I looked at a newspaper and saw a photo of man with long, flowing hair running toward a finish line alone. The headline said he was Roger Bannister, and that he was first (since records had been kept) to run a mile in less than four minutes.

I knew roughly how long a mile is; I'd been told that it was a mile from the railroad station to the paper mill in my mother's hometown, Tyrone, Pennsylvania, where she and I had sojourned with my grandmother for several months before joining my father in England. It wasn't a great distance to walk; I'd done it once. It did seem to me a long way to run. Like most kids, I ran a lot, but in short bursts, either playing tag or what we call soccer and my English schoolmates called football.

For some reason that image of Bannister running alone to the finish line remained engraved in my memory. As I grew older, I began running on my own. In my senior year of high school, I would run in the morning before breakfast and in the evening after supper, following a course through our neighborhood that may have been a good half mile. Looking back, I regret not having tried out for my school's track team. At the time, I was shy about pitting myself against competition, fearing I might not be as good as I hoped.

Roger Bannister, since 1975 Sir Roger, died Saturday at the age of 88. His New York Times obituary tells much that I didn't know about his later life. When he broke the record, he was a medical student. Not long after, he left competitive running to devote himself to a successful medical career. He didn't entirely leave the world of sports, serving for three years as chairman of the British Sports Council and for seven as president of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Recreation. For three years, he was head of Pembroke College, Oxford.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Bench, Robert Galinsky's searing play about homelessness, directed by Jay O. Sanders

How could I pass up a play that had as its author and sole performer, and as its director, men I had known since our children had all been in elementary school together? I got to know Jay O. Sanders, the director, and his wife, Maryann Plunkett because my daughter, Liz, and their son, Jamie, became close friends. I didn't know Robert Galinsky well at the time, which was my loss. During conversation after the play, we recalled our connection, which I now wish had been closer.

I saw the play in November, when it was at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village. There were only two performances left in its run there, and I hoped to write it up before it ended. Unfortunately, work and other responsibilities prevented that. I'm now delighted that Mr. Galinsky has notified me, by e-mail, that there will be more performances, on Friday evenings January 26 through April 13, in a new venue, the East Village Playhouse.

The play shows Mr. Galinsky to be highly skilled both as a writer and as an actor. Alone on stage, with a backdrop of artworks depicting New York street scenes by Daphne Arthur and a musical score by Deep Singh, he brings to life five distinct characters -- four men and one woman -- and makes us see them as individuals, each with a distinct background and story. We see their bonds and their conflicts, sometimes sharp and loud, but also the love that sustains them. Most of all, we see that the circumstances that put them on the streets are not "bad choices" but simply bad luck.

I cannot recommend this enough. Tickets for for the January 26 and February 2 performances are sold out, but tickets for the remaining performances may be purchased here.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mavis Staples, "We Shall Not Be Moved."

In the clip below, Mavis Staples sings a song that's perhaps more timely now than since the years leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. The music is accompanied by a still photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we celebrate today.



Photo of Mavis Staples by Adam Bielawski.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

2017: remembrances.

2017 was a year of many losses. The Grace Church community suffered the loss of several long standing members. Ann Gaffney was an artist whose paintings of local scenes decorated greeting cards and calendars; her last calendar is shown at the top of this post. Her residence in a Hicks Street brownstone was a salon where she frequently entertained gatherings of friends. On one occasion, we were treated to a recital by a young Danish operatic soprano who was staying in Ann's downstairs apartment during her brief residency in New York. Other congregants who are greatly missed are Patrick Owen Burns, Sr.; Bill Meade; and Bill Newbury.

The music world suffered a great toll. Ones I noted here are: Al Jarreau, Chuck Berry, J. Geils, Gregg Allman, Glen Campbell, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, and Mel Tillis. Others I didn't mention, but should have, include Della Reese, Malcolm Young, and David Cassidy. On happier notes, I posted on the centenary of Ella Fitzgerald's birth, and Van Morrison's 72nd birthday.

From the world of stage and screen, I noted the loss of Brooklyn Heights native Mary Tyler Moore. Among others I should have are Dick Gregory and Don Rickles

Oh, yes, and the Mets had a lousy season.

I'll post some happier reminiscences soon.

Erratum: the deaths of my neighbors Dorothy Azouni and Lillie DeBevoise seemed so fresh in my mind that I mistakenly included them in this year's remembrances. In fact, they died in 2016 and were included in my 2016 Remembrances.