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.

Monday, May 09, 2022

The Mets are 20-10; should I be worried?

My wife is a Red Sox fan. I've dealt with this by declaring them my favorite American League team (I can no longer call it the "Phony Baseball League" now that the National League has adopted the execrable Designated Hitter Rule). For my Tampa friends: my excuse is that the Rays didn't exist when I lived there. I root for the Rays when they play anyone except the Mets or -- well, when they play the Red Sox I keep very quiet.

Anyway, Martha believes that when the lads from Fenway get off to a hot start, they are doomed to a late season collapse. Last year at this time I posted that the Mets were first in the NL East. They managed to cling to that position until early August, largely because they were in a weak division. I recall some pundit writing, while the Mets were still cruising, something like "until the inevitable implosion." He was right; they finished third in the division, with a 77-85 record.

This year I again decided to wait until a month had passed since the season opener before trying to get a sense of how good the team is and what its weaknesses might be. As it stands, things are looking good. Two months from now I may regret these words; after all, these are the Mets, a team I once described as having the "ability to rouse hopes, then smash them like cheap china."

I had some trepidation as the Mets opened their season on the road against Washington. Ace starter Jacob deGrom was recovering from surgery and unlikely to pitch until June. New manager Buck Showalter called on Tylor Megill (photo), who began his career in the majors with the Mets last year when he was called up on June 21. He pitched eighteen games in 2021 and had a season record of four wins to six losses, with an earned run average of 4.52, and 99 strikeouts over 89 2/3 innings pitched. Not stellar stats, but he did pitch six scoreless innings in a game against the Blue Jays. Showalter's decision proved good when Megill pitched five scoreless innings in a 5-1 Mets win over the Nationals in the 2022 opener. On April 29, at Citi, Megill would pitch five hitless innings against the Phillies, and the bullpen would continue for a combined no hitter and a 3-0 Mets win.

Looking at the Mets' record to date several things stand out. They have yet to lose a series, although they were tied in a four game series with Atlanta at Citi. They have also not yet swept a series. Their longest winning streaks, of which they have had three, were for three games. They have only once lost two in a row; that was the final game of their season opening series at Washington followed by the opener of their series at Philadelphia. 

Statistically, they look good on all fronts. Mets pitchers have an average ERA of 3.24, second best in the National League. Their starters so far look very good with the exception of Taijuan Walker, whose 4.91 ERA is the result of six earned runs allowed over four innings in a game against the Phils at Citizens Bank Park that the Mets, trailing 7-1 going into the ninth, won 8-7. 

Their team batting average of .255 is also second in the NL. Of their regular starters, second baseman Jeff McNeil has the best average, .323, with ten RBIs and one homer. First baseman Pete Alonso has a .276 average and seven homers. The Mets' total of 25 homers is seventh in the NL, but they're second overall in runs scored, with 136. They haven't been overly reliant on the long ball.

The Mets' stats on defense aren't as reassuring as those for pitching and for offense, but still aren't bad. Twelve errors, four charged to shortstop Lindor, puts them fourth in the NL, but their fielding percentage of .989 ranks third. 

On the upside, we look forward to the return of deGrom to what is already a very effective starting rotation. What's not to like? There is some stiff competition. In the Mets' division there are the defending world champions, the Atlanta Braves, who at present have a 14-16 record and are six games behind the Mets. However, things were similar at this time last year. Then the Braves got hot and the Mets collapsed. On the West Coast are all the pundits' favorites to win the NL crown and perhaps the World Series, the Dodgers. Their 19-8 record is better than the Mets'. Then we can't forget the crosstown rivalry. The Yankees today sport the best record in the majors, 20-8. The Mets have two two game series against the Yanks: at Citi on July 26 and 27, and at Yankee Stadium on August 22 and 23. For some of us Mets fans -- maybe for most -- having a winning record against the Yanks is almost as important as the overall season record. Then there's the prospect, not entirely unlikely, of another Subway Series, in which victory for the Mets would assuage the lingering pain of 2000, but a loss would be unspeakably depressing.

The big question mark hanging over any Mets season is what the pundits call the "injury bug." I once speculated as to why the Mets seemed, season after season, to be plagued by injuries. At the close of my post, I asked if it could be shown statistically that they are more injury prone than most teams. In 2019 a writer for the Lineups website claimed that it's true, but cited anecdotal rather than statistical evidence. In any event, I can only hope it's not a factor this year.

Friday, April 01, 2022

Does time show the wiser? Fairport Convention from 1967 and 2017


Fairport Convention recorded their version of Emitt Rhodes' "Time Will Show the Wiser" in November of 1967, and it was included in the band's self titled debut album. The musicians on the song were Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol on guitar, Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings on bass. Shaun Frater, who left the band shortly after, on drums, Ian MacDonald, later known as Iain Matthews, on lead vocal, and Thompson and Judy Dyble on harmony vocals. Thanks to an earlier blog post Judy and I became connected on line; in time this evolved into a warm and lively trans-Atlantic virtual friendship. In July of 2020 I was devastated by her untimely death at 71

Remarkably, almost the same lineup of musicians -- Thompson, Nicol, Hutchings, Dyble, and Iain Matthews (the former Ian MacDonald), joined by long time Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks -- performed "Time Will Show the Wiser" fifty years later, at the 2017 Cropredy Festival. There's a video; unfortunately it's only available by taking this link to YouTube. Please do, and compare it to the 1967 version. I find the instrumental work in 2017, unsurprisingly, more mellow, but still stirring. What surprised me is that, in the battle of the personae, I found Matthews (2017) more interesting than MacDonald (1967). In his youth -- he was 21 when the song was first recorded -- he was earnest and straightforward, reflecting the plaintiveness of his longing for a friend's girlfriend or wife. At age 71, the earnestness and plaintiveness are still there, but his delivery also evinced some perspective and even -- especially in his ad lib at 2:20 -- a bit of humor.

Let me know what you think.


Monday, March 21, 2022

Happy 337th, Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on this date -- the calendar in effect at the time of his birth gave the date as March 31, but by today's calendar it was March 21 -- in 1685.

The clip above is of one of my favorite Bach pieces, the first movement, allegro, of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047, by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The musicians are identified on the video.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Pete Hamill and the Clancy Brothers -- a St. Patrick's Day reflection.

I first met Pete Hamill in 1994, at a Barnes & Noble bookstore on Fifth Avenue in Midtown. He was there signing copies of his newly published autobiography, A Drinking Life. I handed him my copy and said I had started drinking at the Lion's Head, a Greenwich Village saloon Pete had loved, about a year after he had quit drinking, and had gotten to know his brothers Denis and John there. He signed my book, "For Claude, who keeps the flame alive." There was a line behind me, so our conversation was necessarily brief. 

I next saw him several years later, when he was in a panel discussion at Brooklyn Borough Hall on a topic I can't recall. When the talk ended, I went up to him, sure I would have to re-introduce myself. Before I could, he extended a hand and said, "Hello Claude, how are you?" I've mentioned this to several people who knew Pete well; the response was always to the effect of, "Yep, that's Pete."

Two years after our encounter at Barnes & Noble, the Lion's Head closed. Pete noted the occasion with a column in the New York Times, "A Whisky-Golden Time." He declined the opportunity to go there for the Head's final night farewell party, "because I didn't want to spend a night carousing with ghosts."
They would all be there, moving among the living, as if it were just another packed, dense night in the late 1960's. They would reach past shoulders for fresh drinks or curse some politician or wander to the big table in the back room where Tommy Clancy of the Clancy Brothers was singing, ''Castles are sacked in war, chieftains are scattered far/truth is a fixed star, Eileen Aroon . . .''

Pete, his brother John, and the Clancys are all gone now. I'm blessed to have known Pete and John, and cherish the memory of having, at the bar of the Lion's Head, sung a duet with Paddy Clancy without knowing who he was until I was told later. So I pass on to you, my reader, beannachtaí na féile Pádraig, "blessings of St. Patrick."

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Loudmouth by Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan's Loudmouth was published in October of 2020, and I've had my copy for just over a year. Various things have delayed my reading, and thus this late review, for which I offer Rob an apology. You should know that I consider Rob a friend, more than just of the Facebook variety (although that's been our sole means of communication in recent years) and I'm confident that he returns the favor.

I got to know Rob near the tail end of the 1970s when we were both regulars at the Bells of Hell. We shared a love of rock music, and enjoyed the company of some of the other regulars, two of whom, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs and "The Village Legend" to whom Rob gives the pseudonym Eddie Neil, appear as important characters in Loudmouth. I was invited to Rob's birthday party, held in a Village apartment much spiffier than the Gum Joy Tower flat occupied by Thomas Ransom, protagonist of Loudmouth. When I got there, I saw a long black limo, its engine idling, parked in front. At the party a woman with black hair, wearing a black dress, broke into an upward mezzo soprano glissando. Someone standing next to me said, "That's Liza Minnelli." He then said he understood she and Rob had been in high school together. 

But enough about me; what did I think of the book? First, it's bracketed by rivers. The brief "Chapter 0" at the beginning has the title "Cuyahoga," that being the river that flows through Cleveland and is notorious for having once caught fire. It concerns a tour arranged by Tom Ransom for "Bruce," identified only as such but obviously The Boss, and guided by Charlie, a Cleveland native and friend of Tom's. Charlie shows them a series of dive bars, a record store, and the radio studio where Allen Freed held forth back in the day. At this point I can't resist another personal anecdote. One afternoon in 1970 I was in a law school friend's room when he tried to return a call from his brother, a writer for Cleveland After Dark. When there was no answer at home he called information for Cleveland (remember those days?) and got an operator who, asked for the number of Cleveland After Dark, said something like, "You've got to be kidding." Anyway, at the end of the tour, Charlie takes three 45 caliber bullets, gives one each to Bruce and Tom, then holding his says, "This is how we'll remember."

At the book's end comes "Chapter 00," even shorter than "0," with the title "Hudson." In it, Tom removes the bullet from his Rolodex, in which it's rested for some time. He worries that the gunpowder might be deteriorating in a way that will cause it to discharge spontaneously, with possible fatal consequences. He takes it to a nearby pier and throws it into the Hudson.

Why rivers? One of my teachers, probably my late, beloved twelfth grade English teacher Eleanor Blalock, asserted that rivers, in literature, always signify Life. Loudmouth is a "life," in the sense in which the British use that word where Americans use "biography." Consider W.H. Auden's "A Shilling Life Will Give You All the Facts." in which the poet observes that "all the facts" don't tell the reader what was really important to its subject. Loudmouth is biography. It is a fictional autobiography of Thomas Ransom. Unlike the book mentioned in Auden's "Shilling Life" it lays bare Tom's secret longings, failures, and disappointments, along with his accomplishments.

After I had gotten into Loudmouth, I began to wonder how much of it is fictional. I was led to compare Loudmouth's description of Tom Ransom's life with Rob's, as given in the brief "About the Author" squib at the back of the book. Southern mother; check. Writer for Creem magazine; check. Author of a book about Kiss; check. Singer and songwriter; check. And, as I've mentioned above, hanger out at the Bells; friend of Lester and of The Village Legend. So, is Loudmouth just disguised autobiography? Rob answered that question when he was interviewed by Deborah Kalb:
"Like most debut novels, there's a lot of non- in Loudmouth's fiction. But it's still not an autobiography or memoir. And if only a part of it is fact, all of it is the truth -- perhaps the deeper truth, arrived at by reimagining a life at slightly different times and places, in a slightly different order, with slightly different characters, blurring the physical reality to bring the metaphysical into slightly sharper focus."
I know that when I contemplated writing a novel, I started with my present situation, then tried to imagine how things might be if, at certain junctures, I had - taking a cue from Robert Frost - chosen a different path, or if I were to set off on a different one. Unlike Frost, I took what was, I'm sure, the path more travelled, seeking success in a conventional, bourgeois way. Still, there was that part of me that wanted to be a writer, as well as a corporate lawyer. This had a bad effect on my career in two ways. First, I got into a pattern of missing deadlines because I wanted my memos not only to be legally airtight but also stylistically worthy of consideration for a Pulitzer. Second, as I noted here, the amount of time I was spending in the "Village demimonde," meaning the Bells, and after it closed, the Lion's Head,  contributed to my work woes. The Head had a reputation as a writers' hangout. A woman once came in and said to those assembled at the bar, "I hear this is a place for writers with drinking problems." Village Voice scribe Ace Gillen replied, "No, it's for drinkers with writing problems."

My writing problem was that I never got started, except for a few short pieces in professional journals, at least until I started this blog. Loudmouth gave me a view of what life was like for a music writer in the 1970s. More than that, it gave me a sense of what my life might have been like had I decided to jettison my desire for conventional respectability and indulge that for artistic renown. It wouldn't necessarily have turned out badly; things didn't turn out badly for Rob.

Returning to Rob's interview, Ms. Kalb asked him, "What do you want readers to take away from the novel?" His answer:
"I hope that readers think it's funny, sad, surprising and maybe, in parts, lovely. I hope they enjoy the words, sentences, and paragraphs, the rhythms and music, as much as the characters and scenes. I hope they pick up on what's going on between the lines and among the lines, the wordplay, inside jokes, compulsive allusions to songs, bands and pop culture."

I found it funny, sad, surprising, and, yes, lovely.  I can't say I caught all the inside jokes and allusions, but did get enough to give myself a figurative pat on the back. Then there's this:

"Ultimately, I hope it gives the reader a fresh glimpse of the wonderous/disastrous complexity of life."

That it gave to this reader. I commend Loudmouth without reservation.

Monday, January 17, 2022

How best do we honor Dr. King today?

On May 15, 1957, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech to a group assembled for a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. The theme of that speech was "Give Us the Ballot". Eight years later Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned practices concerning eligibility or ability to vote that disproportionately affected racial or linguistic minorities. 

However, in two decisions the Supreme Court has drastically limited the Act's effectiveness. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S.529 (2013) declared the Act's section 4, which determined which jurisdictions should be subject to the Act's section 5 empowering the federal government to pre-clear any proposed changes to voting regulations in jurisdictions that historically practiced discrimination, unconstitutional on the grounds that the conditions that justified it in 1965 had been eliminated and that it therefore constituted an infringement on the states' power to regulate elections under the Tenth Amendment. There were strong arguments that the Court's decision lacked a factual basis.

Last year the Court delivered an even stronger impediment to the efficacy of the 1965 Act in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, 594 U.S. __, 141 S. Ct. 2321 (2021). This decision held that Arizona's statute prohibiting third party collection of ballots and out-of-precinct voting, despite having disparate impact on minority voters, could not be invalidated under the Act's section 2 or the Fifteenth Amendment. In its decision the Court proposed "guidelines" for evaluating voting restrictions that would allow those having disparate impact where the burden imposed is seen as small in comparison to the state's interest in imposing the restriction. The Court's analysis of section 2 has been characterized as "ahistorical and atextual"

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, now combined with the Freedom to Vote Act, would effectively overturn Shelby and Brnovich, as well as providing new protections for access to the polls and governing the redistricting process. However, the likelihood of passage is now close to zero, given Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's opposition to changing the filibuster rule. Meanwhile, many states have been busy enacting legislation to restrict access to the polls. As of last July eighteen states had enacted some such legislation. Texas has since enacted its omnibus bill that places many restrictions on voting.

What can be done, given the almost certain unavailability of legislative relief and the Supreme Court's (and many lower courts') hostility to challenges of state voting restrictions? Given the new landscape, the best we can manage - and it will be a challenge - is to do all we can to assure that all prospective voters, minority or not, get whatever assistance they need to jump through whatever hoops are raised between them and access to the ballot, and to get their votes counted accurately. By doing so, we will be honoring Dr. King's legacy.

Monday, January 03, 2022

Remembrances and appreciations, 2021

A year ago I did a separate post to show 2020 the door. I'm sure we can all agree that 2021 has, on balance, been less than delightful. There were many good things that happened, including in our neighborhood. Still, the emergence of Omicron, some severe weather disasters, and inflation driven by, in my view, a combination of manufacturers' misestimation of demand, supply chain problems largely caused by COVID, and concentration of economic power in some important industries, have made it a trying year indeed.

There are plenty of remembrances. Those most personal to me include Ron Jones, who was a valued mentor during my early years of law practice and a friend for years after; Wally Brewer, friend and fellow Grace Church parishioner; friend Leonard Ryan; and Martha's cousin and our friend Alice McFarlane.

2021 saw the passing of many people prominent in matters of government and statecraft; local, national and international. I remembered Colin Powell and Desmond Tutu on this blog. They were joined by F.W. de KlerkBob DoleFrances "Sissy" FarentholdVernon JordanWalter MondaleHarry ReidGeorge Shultz, and John Warner. Special mention goes to Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who, at the age of 26, successfully argued for appellant "Jane Roe" before the U.S. Supreme Court, and who went on to serve as a Texas legislator and, later, advisor to President Jimmy Carter, in which roles she continued to be an effective advocate for women's rights. There are others I've failed to mention, for which I trust you'll forgive me.

Music suffered many losses. Those most keenly felt by me are Don Everly, who joined younger brother Phil among the departed; Maestro James LevineMary Wilson of the Supremes; Nanci GriffithPaddy Moloney of the Chieftains; Stones drummer Charlie WattsMichael Nesmith, best known for having been one of the Monkees but who had a fruitful solo career as a singer and songwriter; and Chick Corea. One musician we lost whom I wish I had known better is the rapper DMX

Straddling the worlds of music and the stage was the magnificent Stephen Sondheim. The worlds of stage and screen lost, among many, Ed AsnerNed BeattyOlympia DukakisHal HolbrookCloris LeachmanChristopher PlummerCicely TysonMelvin Van Peebles, and Michael K. Williams. I wasn't a Betty White fan, not because I disliked her (who could?), but because I rarely watched the TV sitcoms and game shows on which she made many of her appearances. If anything, I associated her with commercials. I'm now delighted to learn that in 1954 she defied demands from Southern viewers that she remove Arthur Duncan, a Black dancer from her variety show. 

The literary world had its share of losses. Those the impact of which I feel most are novelist, essayist, and social critic Joan Didion, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whom I once saw, bent over his manual typewriter, during a visit to his City Lights bookstore in San Francisco), and Larry McMurtry, realistic chronicler of the old and contemporary West.

Space exploration lost Michael Collins. As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module, "Iron Mike" remained aboard while crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the Lunar Excursion Module to the moon's surface and back.

Among baseball's losses were Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth's long standing career home run record in 1974 and held it for thirty years; Jim "Mudcat" Grant, the first Black twenty game winning pitcher who enjoyed a post-baseball career as an R&B singer; and Tommy Lasorda, who began as a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and went on to manage the L.A. Dodgers for twenty years, winning four league championships and two World Series. 

True to form in recent years, the Mets started hot but soon cooled off, again largely thanks to their injury proneness.  Owner Steve Cohen, looking for a quick turnaround next season, said "Fie to you, luxury tax; I'll pay" and opened his wallet to acquire ace pitcher Max Scherzer. The Mets also have a new manager, veteran Buck Showalter, three time American League Manager of the Year: once with the Yankees (1994); once with the Rangers (2004), and once with the Orioles (2014). The best I can say now is, I'm cautiously optimistic.

As always, I must begin my list of appreciations with my wife, Martha Foley, now not just for her encouragement of and suggestions for my blogging, but also for her self sacrificing help as I recover, slowly but surely, from my ankle injury. I also thank our daughter, Liz, and her boyfriend, Drew Rodke, for summoning help to deal with my injury, caring for me for two days - including a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner - and driving me home to Brooklyn. Thanks to the physicians and nurses at Riddle Hospital in Media, Pennsylvania for stabilizing my fractures, and to the physicians, nurses, and physical therapists at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital for surgery, post operative care, and therapy. Finally, thanks to all my friends, too numerous to mention individually, who have provided support and encouragement, either in person, on the phone, or in writing.