April 16, 2014

For the past 15 years, the Brentano String Quartet, comprised of violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee, has been Ensemble-in-Residence at Princeton University. As part of this residency, the Brentano has assisted with classes and workshops, and has presented concerts to the public each year, many of them free. The last of these public performances took place last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium, as the quartet played a fond musical farewell to an extremely fruitful relationship with the Princeton University department of music. 

For this performance, the Brentano selected music of two composers who would at first seem unrelated. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the founders of the string quartet genre, certainly taking the form to new heights with elegant melodies and courtly dance styles. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich may have had access to the traditional classical music forms, but under the repression and censorship of early 20th-century Russia. The two Mozart chamber works presented by the Brentano Friday night to the full house at Richardson were replete with grace and late 18th-century sophistication, while the Shostakovich quartet was based on the same form, but infused with melancholy and idioms rooted in the Russian church tradition.

Mozart’s String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575 came relatively late in his career (although “late” is relative for a person who only lived to be 35) and showed the composer’s full command of melodies which could pull at the heartstrings of any generation. Mozart composed this quartet (intended as part of a set of six) for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, and one could easily hear elements of the 18th-century court in the piece’s delicate figures and tapered ends of phrases. Friedrich Wilhelm was an amateur cellist, and Brentano cellist Nina Lee was featured extensively in the four movements.

The Brentano Quartet played from the outset with style and precise conversation among the instruments. Trills were well-heard in the hall, and the sound often collectively dissipated away, such as in the return to the exposition in the first movement. This movement in particular was conversational, with Ms. Lee leading the four-way chat.

Ms. Lee also showed elegance of phrase in the more lyrical sections of the work.

For the other Mozart piece on the program, the Brentano String Quartet added a fifth instrumentalist. Violist Hsin-Yun Huang, a soloist with numerous credits and awards of her own, added a light touch and crisp playing to Mozart’s String Quintet No. 4 in G Minor. A product of one of Mozart’s more trying years, this four-movement work showed the dark color of the composer’s other works in the same key, enhanced by rich viola lines and interplay between the two violins. This quintet reflected the frustration of Mozart’s year in a relentless ostinato in the opening movement, but occasionally moments of joy came through. The five players brought out well the drama in the music, and in the third movement Adagio, one could easily hear the tenderness of Mozart’s operas. In the closing movement, Mr. Steinberg played a graceful and aria-like violin line, and all five players brought the work to a close with finesse.

The chamber work which contrasted with the elegance of Mozart’s style was Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, composed in 1965, 200 years after Mozart. Shostakovich dedicated this quartet to a member of the Moscow Conservatory Quartet which had premiered most of his string quartets and who had recently died, and the structure of the work showed how far the form had come in 200 years. Shostakovich incorporated into the piece musical forms popular throughout the 19th century, tying them together to both pay homage to a colleague and create an eloquent musical palette.

The seven movements flowed seamlessly as the players of the Brentano found both the plaintive melodies of the work and its occasional sense of peace and calm. Mr. Steinberg in particular exhibited a persistent musical figure in the second movement, both on single string and in double stops. Ms. Canin drew an especially rich tone from the second violin in the closing movement, sounding almost like a wind instrument at times.

The Brentano String Quartet may be ending their formal residency relationship with Princeton University, but the players are certainly not going far; they are scheduled to return in recital next February with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. As the Brentano takes up its new residence at Yale, Princeton will welcome the innovative So Percussion Quartet as the Edward T. Cone Ensemble-in-Residence. This group of young musicians will no doubt bring a new style of music to the University as music at Princeton moves further into the 21st century.

 

WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?: Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, right) has been accused of plotting to sabotage the railroad that he was being forced to build by his Japanese captors during World War II. His interrogator Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada) refuses to believe Eric’s explanation that he has always been fascinated by railroads and even as youngster would make sketches of railroads in his hometown of Edinburgh.

WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?: Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, right) has been accused of plotting to sabotage the railroad that he was being forced to build by his Japanese captors during World War II. His interrogator Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada) refuses to believe Eric’s explanation that he has always been fascinated by railroads and even as youngster would make sketches of railroads in his hometown of Edinburgh.

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) served as a signals officer in the British Army during World War II. His unit was dispatched to the Pacific theater where it was captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942.

The members of the unit soon became part of the 60,000+ prisoners of war who were forced to build the Burma Railway that stretched from Bangkok to Rangoon. The Allies came to call the 258-mile construction the Death Railway, because so many soldiers perished along the way, including 6,318 of Lomax’s fellow Britains who were pressed into slave labor by their barbaric captors.

Their grueling ordeal has been made into the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Academy Award winning classic that starred Sir Alec Guinness and that swept the Oscars in 1958. The fictional adventure  movie was about the daring exploits of some heroic saboteurs in the face of overwhelming odds.

In contrast, The Railway Man is an introspective movie. This poignant character study is based on Lomax’s moving memoir of the same name. And although he survived the war, he remained mentally scarred many long years after his physical wounds had healed.

Lomax had been subjected to unspeakable torture that ranged from brutal beatings to waterboarding, most of which was at the direction of one particularly sadistic interrogator, Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Eric had aroused the suspicion of the Japanese when he was caught with detailed drawings of sections of the railroad on which he was working.

Eric had always been fascinated by trains while growing up in Edinburgh and had sketched such maps throughout his childhood. Nonetheless the suspicious Nagase suspected Eric of making plans to sabotage the railroad and so the punishment escalated.

When the war ended, Lomax returned home a broken man who was unable to readjust to civilian life. Although he could commiserate with former platoon mates at the veterans club, nonetheless the memories of Burma continued to haunt him.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (Better than Sex), The Railway Man is a heartrending, flashback film set both during World War II and in 1980 which is when Lomax’s wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman), urged him to track down Nagase. She hoped that a meeting might help her traumatized husband exorcise his demons and hopefully recover from his severe psychological afflictions.

Eric’s ensuing search for his torturer inexorably leads to a confrontation with the tormentor, whose face he’d never been able to erase from his mind. However, the question is whether he’ll choose revenge or reconciliation.

Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing violence. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

April 9, 2014

Book RevIn his introduction to Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (Library of America $29.95), James Shapiro writes of the “steady stream of American tourists” visiting the Bard’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, among them “a pair of future presidents,” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. According to Abigail Adams, Jefferson “fell upon the ground and kissed it” while her husband cut “a relic” from a chair said to have belonged to the poet himself.

Although legions of tour busses may never be a fact of life the way they are in Shakespeare’s home town, Princeton is something of an American Stratford for people coming to pay their respects to Albert Einstein, who lived the last half of his life here, and Paul Robeson, who was born here on this day, April 9, in 1898, and spent the first nine years of his life in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Jackson having been at one time the street now known as Paul Robeson Place.

A Realm Unto Himself

The many facets of Paul Robeson’s genius — as a speaker, athlete, singer, actor, and world figure like his friend Einstein — led the PBS series, American Masters, to refer to him as “the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man.” Shakespeare, who wrote the signature role of Robeson’s acting life. is beyond terminology. There’s no end to him, or to it, if you believe that no single human being could have created what he created, a vast, complexly intelligible realm that will always be there to be discovered, explored, inhabited. “Reading Shakespeare continues to bless us, long past the first encounter,” says another former president, Bill Clinton, in his foreword to Shakespeare in America. Clinton entered the realm when an English teacher in Hot Springs, Arkansas had him memorize a hundred lines from Macbeth (“I was not overjoyed”) from which he learned an early lesson about “the perils of blind ambition and the emptiness of power.”

Paul Robeson was introduced to Shakespeare in 1915 by an English teacher at nearby Somerville High School. According to Martin Duberman’s 1988 biography, the 17-year-old senior, one of 12 African American students, played the Moor in a burlesque version of Othello. His teacher “later recalled her hesitation in asking him to take on the parodic role of Othello as a hotel waiter, since the performance was designed to raise money for a class outing to Washington, D.C.,” which Paul could not have attended “because no hotel in the capital would accept a black guest.” Even so, he played the part and “proved a huge hit with the audience.”

Although he seems to have been popular with his white classmates, Robeson was aware of a more subtle version of prejudice in high school society that, as Duberman points out, “allowed him through practice and forewarning, to keep his temper under wraps.” A teacher who called him “the most remarkable boy I have ever taught, a perfect prince” still “can’t forget that he is a Negro.” It was Robeson’s understanding of the social reality, of always knowing his “place,” that sustained his popularity. The situation suggests a microcosm of his later career. Even when turning in superior performances, whether as speaker, athlete, singer, or actor, he had to “exhibit maximum affability and minimal arrogance.” Whenever whites were “surpassed” by him, his attitude could “never smack of triumph.” Duberman quotes Robeson repeating “a litany drummed into him by his father, ‘do nothing to give them cause to fear you.’”

Consider how it must have been for a man conditioned to downplay his power finding himself in a realm of language as rich as Othello, peering into the mirror Shakespeare held up to him as he assumes the character of a black general, a leader of men. Othello’s first great speech (Act 1, scene iii) is one that Robeson must have been thrilled to perform, the way it brings the actor and the character together as Othello discourses on his success as a performer disarming Desdemona with stories like those he dazzled her father with, moving her to tears “when I did speak of some distressful stroke/That my youth suffer’d,” recalling how she “gave me for my pains a world of sighs:/She swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange;/’Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful.” Describing how Desdemona “wish’d/That heaven had made her such a man,” and if the Moor could but teach a friend how to tell his tale, it “would woo her,” he shows that the “witchcraft” he used to seduce her was simply a matter of stepping forth as the hero of his own story: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d/And I loved her that she did pity them.”

The speech about the wooing of Desdemona also gave Robeson the ammunition he needed to woo and win audiences at the play’s start, creating a bond that assured his power over them even through the climactic moment. It was there that Margaret Webster, the director of the triumphant 1943 New York production, felt that he fell short, unable to convincingly summon up the full measure of rage that would have shaken the theatre and filled Desdemona with mortal terror — Robeson being, remember, the man who grew up repeating the survivor’s mantra “Do nothing to make them fear you.”

Webster, who also played Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s confidante in the same production, had hoped that Robeson would be able to bring “his anger over racism onto the stage with him,” but “he could not recapture it.” In the turbulent final scenes he “never matched at all the frenzy and passion the role called for.” Robeson himself “acknowledged that he had trouble unearthing his rage on demand,” because “he had been brought up, as a survival tactic, to keep it carefully interred”

Triumph and Tragedy

Robeson has a chapter to himself in Shakespeare in America titled “Paul Robeson’s Othello,” which consists of an ecstatic, topically resonant, politically driven notice in the Leftist journal, The New Masses, by Samuel Sillen, “a prominent figure in the Communist literary movement of the 1930s and 1940s.” It’s clear that though he’s sounding the party line, Sillen is genuinely moved by Robeson’s “indescribably magnificent” performance; nevertheless, his rhetoric reveals where he’s coming from when he calls Robeson “the greatest people’s artist of America” and the performance “an epochal event in the history of our culture.”

Given what would befall Robeson in the decade ahead, the reference to the “people’s artist” is galling, as is the partisan drumbeat that ends the “review” (by now you definitely feel the need to put that word in quotes): “We treasure the event. We mark it as a birthdate. We carry on from here, lifted by Paul Robeson to a height from which new and vast horizons of a creative people’s culture endlessly unfold.”

Robeson followed that drumbeat to his fate, which Sillens inadvertently forecasts in his reference to Othello as “a play primarily of a vast human injustice” where “Othello’s injustice to Desdemona is only a part of the great injustice that has been done to him and in which he himself has unwittingly collaborated.”

Always a Challenge

Trying to follow the last 25 years of Robeson’s life (he died on January 23, 1976) is disheartening, what with all the well-meaning, self-confounding moves he made, the exploitations and the betrayals, the black-listers and witchhunters smearing his name in the consciousness of the American public and contributing to the state of mind that led to a breakdown and a suicide attempt. Duberman’s biography concludes by observing that when he died, the white press “after decades of harrassing Robeson now tipped its hat to a ‘great American’” while discounting “the racist component central to his persecution” and ignoring “the continuing inability of white America to tolerate a black maverick who refused to bend.” Meanwhile, the black American press provided editorials depicting a “Gulliver among the Lilliputians” and a life “that would always be a challenge and a reproach to white and black America.”

Home to Stratford

In 1959, when Robeson was 62 years old, he returned to Shakespeare’s roots in Stratford to play Othello in Tony Richardson’s gimmicky production of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. His Desdemona, 26-year-old Mary Ure, was told to play Othello’s wife “as if she were acting in an Arnold Wesker kitchen-sink drama.” According to Duberman, Richardson filled the stage “with splashy special effects that called maximum attention to his own lively powers of invention” and that were clearly at odds with Robeson’s “gravity and reserve.”

In the end, Robeson carried the day, as the “critical majority succumbed to the authority of his stage presence.” Othello sold out its seven-month run immediately, and on opening night, the audience gave Princeton’s native son 15 curtain calls.

Last month Princeton celebrated Einstein’s birthday with a community event full of fun and fondness for an adopted local icon. This past Sunday Paul Robeson’s birthday was celebrated in the building named for him with a screening of Show Boat. Our Stratford honors two of the giants of the previous century, mythic figures both, but of the two, the largest, most tragic, and most truly Shakespearean is Paul Robeson. 

The Princeton Public Library has a large Robeson component in its collection, which includes Martin Duberman’s Paul Robeson (Knopf 1988) and Paul Robeson Jr.’s The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 (Wiley 2001). 

The painting of Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1943 production, still the longest running Shakespeare play in Broadway history, is by Betsy Graves Reynau (1888-1964).

 

THE COMMODORE COMES HOME: Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866), or at least this pastel on paper representation of him by the New Jersey artist Micah Williams (1782-1837), has returned to Morven as part of an exhibition, through September 14, of work by the prolific portrait painter. The exhibition, “Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” will be unveiled at an opening reception this Thursday, April 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

THE COMMODORE COMES HOME: Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866), or at least this pastel on paper representation of him by the New Jersey artist Micah Williams (1782-1837), has returned to Morven as part of an exhibition, through September 14, of work by the prolific portrait painter. The exhibition, “Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” will be unveiled at an opening reception this Thursday, April 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Morven Museum and Garden will launch it’s newest exhibition, “Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” with a public reception on Thursday, April 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The exhibition draws upon a somewhat larger show organized by the Monmouth County Historical Society with one exception, a recent Morven acquisition of a portrait of Commodore Robert Field Stockton, (1795-1866) completed by Micah Williams around 1821. Grandson of the original owner Richard Stockton, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the commodore was a third-generation resident of the historic home.

His portrait is one of 40 paintings, mostly in pastel (six are in oil), by the 18th century itinerant painter Micah Williams (1782-1837), a prolific artist with 272 existing works known. Monmouth County was his largest source of patronage, said Morven Curaror Beth Allan. “Happy customers would recommend him to other members of their family and to friends.”

The exhibition, which will be on display through September 14, offers an unmatched look at the state’s 19th century farmers, orchard growers, militia officers, politicians, silversmiths, potters, carpenters, and their families and elucidates much about the life of the New Jersey artist whose works are in many major museum collections and highly sought after by folk art collectors.

“The first time Micah Williams shows up in the historic record is in New Brunswick working as a silverplater alongside his brother-in-law,” said Ms. Allan, interviewed on Monday while she put the final touches to the exhibition. “Economic issues drove him into debtors prison for two months. He had 123 creditors and left prison with only the clothes on his back and $10 worth of tools.”

It seems that at this point, the artist embarked on a new career as a portrait painter working in pastels. One of the first in the exhibition is of his wife, Margaret Priestly Williams (1787-1863), with whom he had seven children, The depiction shows Margaret dressed simply in a black dress and white cap. According to information compiled by Bernadette M. Rogoff, the Monmouth County Historical Society Curator of Museum Collections, who has researched the artist and his patrons for some two decades, Margaret was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child when the Middlesex County sheriff and his men arrived at the doorstep to seize the family’s household possessions.

“Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” is on loan from the Monmouth County Historical Association. Ms. Rogoff’s research shows that he married in 1806 and later set himself up as a portrait painter in Monmouth County. He spent several years in New York City, where sometime in 1828 or early 1829 he continued his efforts in oil painting. It is not known with whom he studied.

The Exhibition

The exhibition is in four galleries on the second floor. Don’t miss Commodore Stockton’s portrait, bought recently at auction. Ms. Allan wouldn’t say what had been paid for the piece, but whatever it was, it was worth it for the brooding “Heathcliff” quality of the man that the artist has captured. Stockton who would become a U.S. Senator, would have been 27 when he sat for the artist, and recently returned from service off the coast of Liberia as captain of the U.S.S. Alligator.

Compare it with Thomas Sully’s 1821 full-length oil on canvas on view in the first floor of the West Wing, the first and last room that visitors will pass through on the way to and from the galleries. There, too, you will find a daguerreotype of Stockton taken later in life.

“Williams lined his work with newspaper and it was amazing to find pages from the January 22 edition of the Trenton-based newspaper, The True American, on the back of this new acquisition,” said Ms. Allan.

All but one of the images on display are by Williams. The exception is a portrait of the artist, presumed to have been painted by his teacher. It shows the artist with his oil palette complete with daubs of paint and two thin paint brushes and may have been made when he was studying oil painting in New York City.

The small oval, only ten inches high, painted on a thin wood panel shows Williams to have been a slightly built man, with thinning sandy-colored hair above a narrow face. He is dressed simply in a plain white shirt without ruffle or bow under a somber black coat and waistcoat.

The likeness descended within the Williams family to his great granddaughter Anna I. Morgan, the last direct descendant to own the portrait, which was purchased by the Monmouth County Historical Association in 1980 after her death.

The exhibition demonstrates the progression in the artist’s skills and his rise in portraiture. Among his sitters was Clarkson Crolius (1773-1843) who was also painted by Albany portrait painter Ezra Ames, a work from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Eight years after he painted Daniel I. Schenck and his wife Eleanor Schenck (they were first cousins) he painted Daniel’s brother DeLafayette and his wife Eleanor (Nelly) Conover Schenck (a daguerreotype shows them in later years).

One nice touch is the inclusion of objects that are directly related to the images, such as the chair with a painted yellow rose border that is depicted in the portrait of Dinah Van Winkle Morgan the wife of Jonathan Morgan, stoneware potter of Morganville, Monmouth County (1823-1826). The chair is on loan from a descendant of the sitter.

Another feature is an interactive photo-booth which offers visitors a chance to have their own portrait made, courtesy of a museum staff photographer. Some period props are available.

Ms. Rogoff will share her unique perspective on the artist and his works in a brief powerpoint presentation followed by a gallery walk focusing on individual works on Thursday, April 24 at 10 a.m. Admission is $10, ($7 for Friends of Morven); reservations are required. Contact (609) 924-8144 ext.10, or msheridan@morven.org.

Morven Museum & Garden is a National Historic Landmark. Hours are Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call , or visit: www.morven.org. 609.924.8144.

 

The Richardson Chamber Players focused its final program of the season on “words in the English language that carry poetic promise,” and decided “England” was one of those words. The music selected for Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium also emphasized spring, and fortunately the weather cooperated. Those who chose to come inside on Sunday afternoon heard pieces which not only evoked England and spring, but also demonstrated the Chamber Players’ mission of bringing lesser-known masterpieces of unusual combinations of instruments to the forefront. 

Few countries take their countryside more seriously than England, and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song cycle Along the Field used solo violin and voice to depict a pastoral atmosphere. Soprano Rochelle Ellis and violinist Anna Lim presented five of these songs with both expressiveness and simplicity.

Ms. Ellis made her first entrance in the opening “We’ll to the Woods no More” with a great deal of resonance and fullness of sound. The pentatonic scale from Ms. Lim’s violin line gave the song an Eastern feel, and the two performers gave this first song a tapered finish. Throughout the five songs, Ms. Ellis and Ms. Lim brought out the folk elements of the set, from a Scottish bagpipe-type drone from the violin and clarity in the poignant text from Ms. Ellis. Ms. Ellis showed solid composure singing extensive a cappella passages, holding her own well against a violin line which was often contrary.

Tenor David Kellett also chose to present a song cycle of a British composer, but with a much different musical palette. Benjamin Britten composed a large amount of vocal music for British tenor Peter Pears, who possessed a unique tenor voice. In 1976 Britten was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II to write a piece for the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday. The resulting A Birthday Hansel (“hansel” is a Scottish word for “gift”) combined the tenor voice with the intricacies and distinctive colors of the harp. Mr. Kellett was joined in selections from A Birthday Hansel by harpist Elaine Christy, harp instructor at Princeton University.

Like Vaughan Williams, Britten drew from Scottish influences for this song cycle, stretching the limits of both the tenor voice and the harp. As Ms. Christy explained to the audience, Britten composed extensively for the harp, but demanded unorthodox patterns, fingerings, and intervals. Ms. Christy showed no trouble at all with the Scottish bagpipe and drum impressions, flowing lines and repeated patterns extending into the highest register of the instrument. She achieved effects rarely heard from the harp, an instrument often buried in orchestral texture. Mr. Kellett, despite his protestations of the challenges of singing music composed for the unique voice of Peter Pears, sang with lyricism and clean diction.

Two instrumental works rounded out the program: a Folk Tale in G Minor for Cello and Piano by early 20th-century British composer Arnold Bax and Edward Elgar’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Minor. Bax composed his Folk Tale on the heels of World War I, and the work clearly reflects the impact of the war on England. Cellist Susannah Chapman and pianist Jennifer Tao brought out Bax’s fascination with Ireland in the long melodic lines for the cello and precisely-timed keyboard accompaniment. One could easily imagine meandering in the countryside as different life events and weather pass by. Ms. Chapman in particular showed a very pure sound in the higher register of the cello while sustaining the extended melodic lines well.

Elgar’s Quintet also dates from 1918 and claims not to reflect World War I, but one can easily hear poignancy and nostalgia in the lush music. Violinists Anna Lim and Stephanie Liu, violist Shmuel Katz, cellist Ms. Chapman and pianist Ms. Tao blended together seamlessly to create a smooth musical ambiance, becoming particularly lush in the first movement. The five musicians built in ferocity toward the end of the first movement, tempered with sweet duets between first violin and cello, and second violin and violist. The second movement Adagio was rich and hymnlike, as one could hear a cathedral rising in the distance of the countryside. With a majestic close to the work, the musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players succeeded in capturing a reflective side of England. 

 

IT RAINED FOR 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: Noah (Russell Crowe) prays to God for guidance and help in meeting the problems that he anticipates he will encounter after the deluge is over.

IT RAINED FOR 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: Noah (Russell Crowe) prays to God for guidance and help in meeting the problems that he anticipates he will encounter after the deluge is over.

Anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible is familiar with the story of Noah and the ark. That scriptural passage, found in Genesis, is about a righteous patriarch recruited by God to build an ark before the arrival of the flood that was a divine punishment for mankind’s wicked ways. 

Heeding the word of the Lord, he proceeded to construct a mammoth vessel and then herded two of each species of animal into the hold. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights and the water covered the entire Earth’s surface, thereby drowning all creatures living on the surface except for Noah’s family and the animals on the ark.

Oscar nominated director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) has come up with a novel and intriguing reinterpretation of the Biblical story by portraying Noah as a complicated soul who is wrestling with inner demons during his quest to do the Lord’s bidding. The movie also has an ecological message and some computer-generated monsters that presumably were designed to hold the children’s interest. The film stars Academy Award-winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator) in the title role, and features a supporting cast which includes fellow Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs), three-time nominee Nick Nolte (Warrior, Affliction, and The Prince of Tides), as well as Emma Watson and Ray Winstone.

The picture opens with a refresher course about the creation of Adam (Adam Griffith) and Eve (Ariane Rinehart) who begat three sons: Cain, Abel, and Seth. The evil Cain slew his sibling Abel, and the children descending from Cain continued to do the devil’s work by exploiting the planet’s natural resources.

Noah, by contrast, as a son of Seth, learned how to live in harmony with nature. He and his wife (Connelly) raised their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and Ham (Logan Lerman) with the same eco-friendly philosophy.

Eventually, of course, Noah receives a message from God, and the plot thickens when the steady drizzle develops into a never ending downpour. Suddenly, his neighbors no longer see the ark as such a nutty idea, and it takes an army of animatronic angels to keep the desperate hordes from climbing aboard.

Meanwhile, a visibly-anguished Noah agonizes over what’s about to transpire and consults his wise grandfather Methuselah (Hopkins) for advice, and prays to God for help.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, suggestive content, and disturbing images. Running time: 138 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

 

April 2, 2014

julianI watched him work in the back house where his study was located, his silver hair framed by the window and I wished I had something interesting to tell him.

—Molly Moynahan

It’s been said that if you throw a stone in Princeton you’ll hit a writer. Molly Moynahan’s picture of her father at work would make a good cover image for a book on the subject: the writer daughter peering wistfully at her writer father in the lighted study window. 

Last Tuesday I was checking over the page proofs at Town Topics and there in the middle of the obituaries was a photo of Julian Moynahan. It was a proof to read, a fact of working life, but the room felt different, as if all the air had been sucked out of it. He was 88 and I hadn’t seen or spoken with him for years. In that moment at the window, his daughter wishes she had something interesting to tell him. I’m thinking about what he can tell me in a book I’ve been meaning to read for the better part of 20 years. The only issue was whether or not I still had my copy of his novel from 1963, Pairing Off. As soon as I got home, I hurried down to the unsorted no-man’s land of books in the basement, my former study, where, to my great relief, I found it, and a good thing, too, because the Princeton Public Library no longer has a single one of his four novels, nor his study of D.H. Lawrence, nor his Princeton University Press book on Anglo-Irish literary culture.

The last time I remember talking with Julian was in that “back house” mentioned by his daughter Molly. I’d been there to pick up several bags of donations to the Friends of the Princeton Library Book Sale. Since most were review copies from his days writing for the New York Times, the Observer and numerous other newspapers and journals, his scribbled notes could be found tucked between the covers and sometimes penciled in the margins. Now here I am scribbling notes and marking up the margins in my copy of Pairing Off.

Visions of Julian

Led by Richard Poirier, the English Department at Rutgers was an exciting place to be in the late 1960s. Arguably the best-looking man in the department, Julian was the one who made you think of terms like “dashing,” “breezy,” “witty,” and “roguish.” He was, in other words, refreshingly counter to the remote, buttoned-up academic, which is why I wasn’t the only grad student who felt comfortable calling him by his first name, a liberty we were less likely to have taken with his colleagues. Julian has always been Julian, never Mr. Moynahan, never Professor Moynahan, and, perish the thought, never Dr. Moynahan.

The first time I had a real conversation with him was at a cocktail party where he was, as they say, in his cups, three sheets to the Irish wind, feeling no pain, etc. etc., while serving up juicy slices of literary gossip. In time I would see a more subdued Julian the evening he hosted and fed the members of his D.H. Lawrence seminar at his home on the Princeton-Lawrenceville road near Squibb, the model for the corporate monolith in his third novel, Garden State. His wife Elizabeth and daughters Catherine, Bridget, and of course Molly, must have been visible on the fringes, but all I remember is Julian holding forth near the hearth and the blazing fire like an inn keeper conversant with all things Lawrentian. The daughters turned up again a few years later in the Rutgers suite at the New York Hilton, where he was calmly, even heroically, counseling semi-hysterical job seekers in the high energy environment of the Modern Language Association convention. The girls must have been in their teens, coming and going, red-cheeked and giddy with the afterglow of Christmas in the city. The interaction of father and daughters in that otherwise feverish, monomaniacal atmosphere was refreshing, a breath of fresh air in the MLA hothouse.

The Christmas snapshot of the daughters leads to the saddest image of Julian, the one I will never forget. A decade or more after that particular MLA, my wife and I ran into him while walking on the path along the lake between Kingston and Princeton. Usually we’d have stopped to talk, for it was unusual to see him simply out walking by himself; instead, after saying hello and exchanging knowing glances, we moved on. There was nothing to say. We had only just learned that his eldest daughter, Catherine, had been killed by a hit and run driver while crossing a street in Hoboken.

Dealing With It

I’m still in the dark about the origins of my copy of Pairing Off. The Rutgers University Library sticker inside the front cover states that it was “Presented by Julian Moynahan,” which would suggest that it came to me with the books Julian donated to our library. In effect, I’ve been reading an ex-library copy of a novel that begins in a Boston library, with a librarian protagonist, presented by the author to not one but two libraries. It’s also hard to ignore a certain gallows humor that the author himself might have appreciated, given the fact that he had to die before I finally got around to a book that had been languishing unread for decades in the basement. Most important of all under the circumstances is that death is what Pairing Off is essentially dealing with, at once sensibly, humanely, wittily, touchingly, and undepressingly. The dying of Milly Rogers, friend and lover of the rare books librarian Myles McCormick, is the heart and soul of a novel that ends, happily and improbably, in an Irish cemetery. Being by profession a nurse devoted to terminal patients, Milly herself is an authority on the subject and knows she’s dying more than a year before her clueless, self-involved lover figures it out.

One of the book’s charms is that for all the style, verve, intelligence, and metaphorical fancy the author employs on his behalf, Myles has a tendency to trip himself up, most painfully while courting Eithne Gallager, the other major female character, who also knows a thing or two about death, having lost her husband in a gruesome dockside accident.

At one point Pairing Off pictures a fate for Myles wherein he becomes a “kind father … to rosy-faced and elfin-limbed children, the doting husband of a clever, passionate, beautiful woman as yet unmet but not undreamed of, who would take him not for what he was, but for what he had in him to become” (he finds his dream in  the closing chapter). Almost in the same breath, Myles improvises a playfully morbid bit of business about “Milly and Myles Mumblecrust, barkeep and barmaid in the Last Chance Saloon …. Only she had slumped suddenly behind the stained and bulletmarked counter, and he could do nothing for her now but carry her on the last ride to Boot Hill.” Indeed, Myles does everything for Milly, holds a wake, attends to her dying wishes, and carries her ashes on the last ride from Boston across the Atlantic to the Irish cemetery.

The closest Pairing Off comes to taking sentimental advantage of the situation actually provides one of its finest moments, when Myles buries Milly, the dust of death’s truth in his hand, and is “swamped by a feeling of wild, desolating tenderness” for her, wishing “that he had held onto her, gotten in bed with her to warm her … as her life lapsed, been with her then like a husband, or at least a lover, or even a brother.” It’s at the moment of this admission that the author blindsides the guardians of probability with the help of a Greek fairy godfather who produces Myles’s dreamed-of woman as if to reward him for that seizure of “desolating tenderness.”

Although the denouement of the novel is prefaced by an italicized meditation on its title — “Pairing off is the fate of mankind” — the darker truth behind the phrase is suggested earlier in the narrative after Milly dies: “He wondered how he would die, whether he would die alone, and knew there was no other way of dying.”

Father and Daughter

In the passage about watching her father at work, Molly Moynahan also refers to his first novel, Sisters and Brothers (1960), “a stunning account of the experience of a young boy who spends a year in a terrible orphanage while his mother struggles to support the family after his alcoholic father has disappeared.” She finds the novel “painful to read, but even more painful” when she learns from her mother “that his book was close to an autobiography. He had never told us anything about all that, and whatever he did to be a full scholarship student to Harvard remained unspoken, as well.”

The idea of revelations untold or unspoken brings to mind the daughter’s wish that she had “something interesting” to tell her father. One way to tell him would be to write three novels. Perhaps that’s what makes her recall the time her third book had been published and she was to give “a hometown reading in Princeton” at which Julian would introduce her. She was nervous because “most of the crowd” had known her “forever.” Father and daughter were sitting in the car together, parked across the street from where she’d been born. When she admits she’s scared, he tells her not to worry, that it’s a good book: “You worked hard …. I’m very proud of you.”

The quotes from Molly Moynahan were found in an article on Neworldreview.com. She also writes for the Huffington Post and at Mollymoynahanblogspot.com.

 

WHO’S AUDITIONING WHOM?: Thomas (Dan Ames), director of the play-within-the-play, helps his intriguing auditioner Vanda (Evelyn Giovine) to fasten her dress in Theatre Intime’s production of David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 5.

WHO’S AUDITIONING WHOM?: Thomas (Dan Ames), director of the play-within-the-play, helps his intriguing auditioner Vanda (Evelyn Giovine) to fasten her dress in Theatre Intime’s production of David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 5.

Bursting into the audition room, she looks like every director’s worst nightmare: crude, ditzy, desperate, needy, self-pitying, late, and completely wrong for the classy role. She seems like a composite of all the auditioners that Thomas, the earnest, cerebral director, has been complaining about in his phone conversation with his fiancée in the opening minutes of Venus in Fur, David Ives’s 2010 tour de force of wit and eroticism currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus 

Thomas needs a female lead for “Venus in Fur,” his adaptation of the classic sadomasochistic 1870 novella by the Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name has given us the word “masochism” — but at this point Thomas is packing up to go home.

Thomas does not go home. The would-be actress, strangely and conveniently named Vanda, the name of the female character in the play, persuades Thomas, through force of will and multiple manipulations, to let her read the first three pages of the script with him.

The ensuing 90 minutes becomes a psycho-sexual battle, with the erotic tensions of the two characters in Thomas’ play blurring with the tensions between the director and this increasingly beguiling actress in the ongoing audition. He is auditioning her, but she turns out to have a surprisingly thorough knowledge and understanding of the script and its passionate characters, not to mention a huge bag full of necessary costumes and props — and, increasingly and mysteriously as the play progresses and the balance of power swings back and forth, she also seems to be auditioning and directing him — for what purposes, remains to be seen.

Mr. Ives, a New York playwright perhaps best known for his brilliant collection of one-acts comprising the off-Broadway hit All in the Timing (1993), is a master of wit, of word play and dramatic twists and turns, of comic timing, and of the intellectual acrobatics that blur the lines between theater and life. He’s at the top of his game in Venus in Fur (2010), a Broadway hit and Tony Award nominee for best play. The dialogue is sharp, realistic, and funny. The two characters are thoroughly engaging, as they struggle for dominance and power, and their relationship develops. The tension rises and the plot moves swiftly towards its climax.

Evelyn Giovine as Vanda is magnificent. The challenging role requires so many shifts, subtle and unsubtle — from the desperate, classless auditioner to the sophisticated woman who knows what she wants, from scrappy, foul-mouthed 21st century New Yorker into her sophisticated character role as Vanda von Dunayev and her constant maneuvers and manipulations, erotic and otherwise, as she contends with Thomas. Whether in leather skirt, black lingerie and dominatrix black boots, or elegant white 19th century gown, Ms. Giovine, a Princeton University sophomore, is captivating — in more than one sense of the word, funny and sometimes charmingly, sometimes frighteningly, believable, as she progresses from chatty, gum-chewing, wanna-be actress chick to no less than an evocation of the mighty love goddess Aphrodite (Venus) or even the vengeful god Dionysus with his Bacchae bent on cruel revenge against any mortal who denies his dark powers.

Ives’ dialogue includes much dispute between Thomas and Vanda about the quality of the play she is auditioning for and whether it is pornography or great literature. Venus in Fur, in the hands of a lesser playwright or a less talented female lead, could easily have misfired or descended to tasteless, pornographic titillation. This production, however, under the intelligent, capable direction of Princeton University junior Julia Hammer, seldom lets down the erotic tension, but remains tasteful and entertaining throughout.

Princeton graduate student Dan Ames as Thomas, though overshadowed at times by the powerful, charismatic Ms. Giovine, is a worthy counterpart and a credible young director, finding himself in a power struggle with this Venus figure and caught between the erotic urgings of Vanda and the insistent phone calls of his fiancée. The sexual chemistry between Thomas and Vanda is palpable and potentially powerful, but needs to build as the performers settle into these demanding roles in the second weekend on stage.

Matt Seely’s bare-bones, rehearsal-room set effectively creates the stark world of director and auditioner, with Marissa Applegate’s lighting to help shift the mood when necessary and to give Vanda, who operates the fuse box light switches, yet another means of control over the proceedings. Annika Bennett’s costumes – Vanda’s and Thomas’, though they never stop “acting,” actually change back and forth from 1870 setting to real life attire several times during the course of the evening — are spot on, and vital to the depiction of these characters and particularly of Vanda’s increasing dominance.

The production does need, and with luck will see in its second weekend on stage, some clarification — in the line delivery by Mr. Ames and in articulate projection of Ms. Giovine’s European accent in the role of Dunayev — and quickening of the pace, which occasionally drags, at times diminishing, rather than building the erotic tension.

Thomas auditions Vanda. Vanda auditions Thomas, as the characters in Thomas’ play intertwine with the characters of the director Thomas and the actress Vanda. Intrigues surrounding the identity and psychology of these characters deepen, as the stakes rise and the roles — director-actress, Kushemski-Dunyaev, master-slave, man-woman — reverse again and again.

Venus in Fur is hard to beat for a combination of powerful drama and captivating psychosexual fun and games. With David Ives, Evvy Giovine, and the fine Intime company as the games masters/mistresses, the evening is a memorable one.

 

Musical dream sequences often occur in opera, but symphonic works conveying dreams are less common. Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) presented a concert of “Nights and Dreams” this past weekend, exploring three pieces which musically told stories of dreams and things that go bump in the night. The Princeton Symphony Orchestra Edward T. Cone Concert on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium showed the orchestra in more than fine form — tackling a very challenging and intriguing repertoire. 

Princeton composer Julian Grant was described in the concert program as specializing in opera and “experimental music theater.” Commissioned by Princeton Symphony Orchestra for a new work, Mr. Grant looked back to his own 1998 opera to create Dances in the Dark, a four section work depicting scenarios one might run into after dark. Incorporating a musical potpourri, including classical piano works, jazz and instrumental impressionism, this work resembled speeding in a time warp through New York City after midnight. While conveying musical tidbits and sounds of hypothetical random recitals, Mr. Milanov always found direction in the music, and the overall orchestral effect in this world premiere was very clean. Intriguing scenarios were created from a solo English horn (elegantly played by Nathan Mills) with sectional cellos, and a bit of jazz cacophony from the trumpets. Principal flutist Chelsea Knox was kept busy with quick passages, but Mr. Milanov seemed to always be aware of where the piece was going.

Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Opus 31 is a set of six poems preceded and followed by a solo horn. Britten drew poetry from four centuries for this setting, including both familiar and lesser-known writers. For this work the Princeton Symphony was joined by horn soloist Eric Ruske, professor of horn at Boston University; and tenor Dominic Armstrong, a soloist with a great deal of experience with the music of Britten. Mr. Ruske opened the work with a clear tone in the Fanfare and effectively matched the moods of the poetry throughout the piece, whether bugle calls, providing a distant effect, or calling forth from purgatory. Britten set the six poems with serenity, evoking the English countryside and the grand stature of castle architecture. Mr. Armstrong matched the quality of the poetry well, especially the relentlessness of the anonymous 15th-century Dirge.

All composers surely dream, but no one’s dreams were more beyond the edge of reality than those of 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz. His 1830 Symphonie Fantastique, (an “Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts”) was programmatic, like many symphonic works of that period, but Berlioz provided the story of a fantasy well contrasting with the 19th-century focus on romance and melodrama. Mr. Milanov began the complex orchestral work with clarity, painting a dreamy picture while allowing instrumental soloists to present the idée fixe of the heroine cleanly. Musical ideas took a long time to spin out in this work, but Mr. Milanov consistently maintained control over the dramatic tension. Melodies were kept chipper, especially from horn soloist Douglas Lundeen and oboist Nicholas Masterson.

Mr. Masterson and English horn player Mr. Mills played a poignant duet in the third movement Scene in the Country, as Berlioz’s story develops continually more anguish. Throughout this movement, Mr. Milanov never rushed the tempo, creating a musical study in intensity at the close as a high flute blended well with the upper strings. The eccentricity of the story culminated in the final movement, as Berlioz sees himself at his own funeral, musically depicted by quirky clarinets, oboes and bassoons. This was likely the most familiar movement to the audience, with the medieval Dies Irae theme punctuated by bells coming from the balcony. Raw sounding col legno (playing with the wooden part of the bow) from the strings added to the creepiness of Berlioz’s thinking, but precision from the orchestra closed the symphony in 19th-century clarity.

 

LEARNING FROM THE MASTER: The so called “Lobby Boy” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, right) is learning the tricks of the hotel trade from Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Hotel Budapest.

LEARNING FROM THE MASTER: The so called “Lobby Boy” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, right) is learning the tricks of the hotel trade from Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Hotel Budapest.

Wes Anderson’s films are one of a kind, as easy to identify as, say a Thelonious Monk piano solo or a Frank Sinatra vocal. You can spot one of his works by just watching a snippet of the film. 

Anderson’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has his signature vibrant visuals and is true to his tongue-in-cheek narrative style. The movie is right up there with his best films, which include Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Darjeeling Limited, which was this critic’s pick as the no. 1 film of 2007.

Ralph Fiennes is perfectly cast to play the picture’s protagonist, and he is ably assisted by a cast comprised of many alumni of Anderson’s films: including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Waris Ahluwalia, and Scott Rudin.

The droll drama is set in 1932 in the fictional eastern European nation of Zubrowka which is where we find the unctuous concierge Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) plying his trade at the hotel. We soon find that he lavishes his attention and affections on vulnerable ladies, provided they’re rich, blonde, elderly, and needy. Narrating his escapades is Gustave’s protégé, Zero (Tony Revolori), a lowly, loyal, “Lobby Boy,” who is learning the tricks of the trade.

Just past the point of departure, we learn that one of the hotel’s guests, Madame D. (Swinton), has died mysteriously. A swarm of relatives, close and distant, show up for the reading of the wealthy widow’s will by her attorney (Brody), each hoping for a sizable chunk of the estate.

However, it turns out that she left the only valuable painting in her entire art collection, titled “Boy with Apple,” to the gigolo Gustave. Consequently, when an autopsy reveals that she was poisoned with strychnine, Gustave is arrested and charged with murder.

It’s not long before he hatches an elaborate jailbreak with the help of Zero, and soon the chase is on, with the heirs, authorities, a hired assassin (Dafoe), and even Nazis in hot pursuit, as Gustave desperately attempts to clear his besmirched name so he can hold onto the priceless portrait.

A sublime whodunit designed for sophisticated cinephiles.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and violence. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

March 26, 2014

books robert frost181Every time I pull into a parking lot, regardless of the season, I notice people just sitting in their cars, probably texting, or surfing the net, or talking on cell phones, or listening to music, or just being alone for a quiet moment. This is on the way to admitting that I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon parked outside a strip mall near Woodbridge reading the poetry of Robert Frost, whose 120th birthday is today. 

I was reading out loud. Aware that passers-by might think it odd, I tried to read invisibly, barely moving my lips, like someone practicing to be a ventriloquist. Maybe that’s what made me feel closer to the poetry than I ever have before, except Frost was the ventriloquist and I was the dummy. And who else but a dummy would sit for hours outside a place called Vintage Vinyl reading poetry while his vinyl-addict son wanders through the vastness of the largest secondhand record and CD outlet this side of the Princeton Record Exchange.

But it’s fine, being Frost’s dummy, staying under the radar, so that the words and thoughts you’re voicing become intimate, clandestine excursions to the far side of the everyday. Aware of the traffic sounds a stone’s throw behind me on Route One, I’m reciting an early poem called “The Demiurge’s Laugh” and getting carried away with lines like “I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail” and “It was just as the light was beginning to fail/That I suddenly heard — all I needed to hear.” And what laughter, sleepy but mocking, “As of one who utterly couldn’t care.” If only YouTube had a clip of Jim Cox reading Frost. Born in Independence, Virginia, where he died in 2012, Cox was the most exciting teacher I ever had. Intoning the lines in his compelling Virginia accent, he could make words like “fail” or “utterly” sound fated and final, a broadcast direct from the den of the demiurge. Simply to hear Cox recite the title would be worth the small fortune my son was spending in Vintage Vinyl.

A squad car just pulled into the lot. Oh-oh, is there a misdemeanor for reading aloud in a parked car? Will I be busted for possession of an uncontrolled literary substance?

When the Demon laughs, the lines start making coincidental sense: “I felt as a fool to have been so caught.” So while the cops cruise by, I pretend to be musing innocently on some sort of inspirational guidebook to inner peace. In the poem, the speaker pretends it was only “something in the leaves” he’s seeking before he gives up and cools his heels: “Thereafter I sat me against a tree.”

Taking the Plunge

I came to the “Demiurge” after a plunge at random into Robert Faggen’s edition of Frost’s Notebooks (Harvard 2006) in which, according to a recent article in the New York Times, Frost scholars found “thousands of transcription errors that turned the poet into a dyslexic and deranged speller.”

Since the same could be said of James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake or e.e. cummings, or George W. Bush, why not take a holiday from the prescribed formality of stanzas and iambics and flow free with Frost on a stream of consciousness, for instance, “Progress is escape civilization is sublimation emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from God.” Based on what I’ve been reading by and about Frost over the past few days, this delirious  entry makes refreshing, fascinating sense. Better yet, it was Faggen’s footnote to thrice “terrified flight” that send me to “The Demiurge’s Laugh” in the first place.

All About Performance

Frost was 86 in April 1961 when Richard Poirier interviewed him for The Paris Review. Six years after the appearance of Poirier’s landmark study of literature and popular culture, The Performing Self (1971), he published Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (Oxford 1977), which he introduces with a seminal statement made by Frost during the interview: “The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about these things?”

Frost had already used similar terms when speaking of the poet “as a man of prowess, just like an athlete. He’s a performer …. Every poem is like that, some sort of achievement in performance.” In the later exchange, Frost rephrases the thought: “Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score … in all the realms — theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.” When asked how he approaches “a new poem” that might be sent to him, Frost rings the same bell while echoing another much-stressed word (“what a feat it is,” “what a feat it was”): “This thing of performance and prowess and feats of association — that’s where it all lies …. That is in the realm of performance, that’s the deadly test with me.”

Poirier continues to press the theme, using it to frame his last question, regarding Dylan Thomas, who “put all the rhymes down first and then backed into them. That’s clearly not what you mean by performance, is it?”

After vehemently dismissing the idea of backing into rhymes (“that’s very dreadful”), Frost says “It ought to be that you’re thinking forward, with the feeling of strength that you’re getting them good all the way …. You see somebody coming down the street that you’re accustomed to abuse, and you feel it rising in you, something to say as you pass each other …. It’s him coming toward you that gives you the animus, you know. When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it’s mostly animus.”

At this end-point in the interview, readers who think of Frost as a great stone face on the Mt. Rushmore of American verse may be wondering who they’ve been reading about over the years. In fact, Frost’s reference to those “who want to know about inspiration” is likely meant for the commentators who have popularized the poet of homey odes to plowing fields, chopping wood, and mending walls.

The Dark Side

The stress on abuse, animus, strength, prowess, feats of association, and the notion of performance as “the deadly test” would seem relevant to the dark side of Frost discussed in the aforementioned New York Times article about Volume One of the new Harvard edition of the Letters (“The Road Back: Frost’s Letters Could Soften a Battered Image”). The “cruel, jealous egomaniac” portrayed by Frost’s “handpicked” biographer Lawrance Thompson is an additional violation of the image of the beloved white-haired elderly American poet Poirier has been undermining, as when he refers to the dinner celebrating Frost’s 85th birthday, where, with the poet seated next to him, Lionel Trilling spoke of Frost’s “representation of the terrible actualities of life” in “a terrifying universe.” After admitting being taken by surprise (“I thought at first he was attacking me”), Frost puts his animus in gear: “He made the mistake himself. He was admitting he made it himself, wasn’t he? He was telling what trouble he’d had to get at me.” The poet then slyly wonders why Trilling “hadn’t seen it sooner: that there’s plenty to be dark about, you know. It’s full of darkness.”

Getting to Know Him

So here I sit faced with shelves teeming with the letters, notebooks, and marginalia of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all too aware that I parted company with a single volume of Frost’s letters years ago. The only Frost I own at the moment is Poirier’s Work of Knowing and an edition of the Complete Poems with a woodcut on the cover showing a man plowing a field behind a team of horses, an image that binds Frost to the dull, workaday stereotype. What makes my situation all the more improbable is the fact that Dick Poirier, who died in 2009, was my best teacher in graduate school, and that Jim Cox, who has written brilliantly on Frost as well as editing a collection of critical essays about him, was my best undergraduate teacher.

Even with Cox and Poirier, however, you sense more admiration for the work than affection for the poet. Not that people who try to “get at” Frost or “get to know him” turn against him the way his biographer did. But imagine associating “animus” with Keats or demonizing Coleridge. And imagine even Frost’s most devoted follower saying of him what Elizabeth Bishop said of Coleridge after sitting up all night reading the letters “of that adorable man”: “His intestines are my intestines, his toothaches are my toothaches.”

So instead of rushing out to buy the first volume of the new edition of Frost’s correspondence, I go down the street to the library, only to discover that they, too, no longer have the earlier edition of the letters, the one edited by Lawrance Thompson. But they do have the Notebooks that led me to the “terrified” quote and they have Mark Richardson’s edition of The Collected Prose (Harvard 2007), where I found, searching at random, “Some Definitions by Robert Frost (1923).” After admitting that he sometimes has “doubts of words altogether,” the then-49-year-old poet says that words “are worse than nothing unless they do something: unless they amount to deeds, as in ultimatums or battle cries. They must be flat and final like the show-down in poker, from which there is no appeal.” This may not be a particularly appealing admission, but it’s perfectly consistent with a poet who has made so much of prowess and performance and feats of association.

But now consider the warmer, more human turn Frost takes in the last of the four short paragraphs: “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a home-sickness or a love-sickness.” It might not be “adorable,” but it’s hard not to like and hard not to smile to see that the poem Frost equated to a show-down in poker has become “a reaching-out toward expression: an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”

And where the words found me was in that strip mall parking lot.

 

LOTUS: The lotus in all its stages is captured by artist Dallas Piotrowski, whose acrylic painting will be on view in “The Curators’ Exhibit” opening at the Gallery at Chapin School on April 1. Including Ms. Piotrowski’s work, the show will feature work by five artists who are also gallery curators. The exhibition will run from April 1 through April 30, with a reception for the artists on Wednesday, April 2, from 5 to 7 p.m., in the Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, on view during school hours by appointment by calling (609) 924-7206.

LOTUS: The lotus in all its stages is captured by artist Dallas Piotrowski, whose acrylic painting will be on view in “The Curators’ Exhibit” opening at the Gallery at Chapin School on April 1. Including Ms. Piotrowski’s work, the show will feature work by five artists who are also gallery curators. The exhibition will run from April 1 through April 30, with a reception for the artists on Wednesday, April 2, from 5 to 7 p.m., in the Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, on view during school hours by appointment by calling (609) 924-7206.

Dallas Piotrowski has been walking the paths of Grounds For Sculpture for years, finding inspiration in the grounds of the park itself. Most recently, the lotus plants there made such a profound impression that she is currently working on a series of paintings that will show the plant species in its many varied stages of development. “I generally work in themed series and I was captivated by the transformations of the lotus,” said the artist, who is curator of the Gallery at the Chapin School on Princeton Pike.

“I became fascinated by this mysterious and ancient plant as I watched it evolve into many different forms over the course of the seasons,” said Ms. Piotrowski. “The flowers are particularly spectacular with their huge pink blooms. The pods are the most interesting. I look for abstraction and the rhythm of the repeated pattern in nature and create my painting from its design.”

Ms. Piotrowski is curating an unusual exhibition opening at the Gallery on Tuesday, April 1. “The Curators’ Exhibit” will feature work by five artists who are, like Ms. Piotrowski, also gallery curators from local private schools. It gives curators a chance to shine a light on their own artwork while allowing members of the community to meet the people who are so often behind the scenes.

The exhibition will run from April 1 through April 30, with a reception for the artists on Wednesday, April 2, from 5 to 7 p.m.

The artist’s initial interest in the plant’s biology led to further explorations of the history and symbolism. “The flowers are called ‘enlightenment’ and also ‘the Buddha’ and they have been revered and honored in the cultures of Asia for five thousand years,” she said. “I’m looking forward to catching the buds this spring and to seeing again how they sink back into the water at night and rise again in the morning, fresh and pristine. It amazes me that they never get dirty.”

So far, she has completed three paintings which will be on view in “The Curators’ Exhibit.” She expects the series to comprise six paintings. Currently she is at work on a painting of the blossom that she began last November. As for the Chapin exhibition, it has been a challenge to hang work by such different artists, especially when there is just 10 feet of wall space available for each. “Many curators have a strong background in the history of art, but all of the curators shown here are also artists in their own right,” said Ms. Piotrowski,

Joining Ms. Piotrowski are Dolores Evangelista Eaton of the Silva Gallery of Art at the Pennington School; Jody Erdman of the The Anne Reid Art Gallery at Princeton Day School; Jamie Greenfield of the Marguerite and James Hutchins Gallery at the Lawrenceville School; and Phyllis Wright of Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart.

Ms. Eaton, who paints and works in clay, feels issues of identity and voice continue to dominate art making. “In these recent works I am exploring the idea that we are all in a constant state of emerging,” she said. “Over and over again we adjust our relationship to the world by realizing new ways of being, and new ways of knowing ourselves. Sometimes this is a struggle; sometimes it is as natural and quick as a snake shedding its skin; and sometimes we are given experiences that in a way force us, and we do not resist, to use new lenses through which we see the world and ourselves.”

Ms. Erdman uses photography as a means to explore parts of the world around her that she loves. “It’s a means of self expression, to better understand my reality and to embrace the parts of the world which are important to me,” she said. “I like to explore the world as fragments and as abstract form. I like to focus on things which are timeless; to stop in a meditative space which is timeless.”

Known for her drawings of figures, Ms. Greenfield is also a painter of nature whose work draws upon inner sources of personal history in combination with close observation of light and form. “In much of my work, objects, like thoughts, are held in tenuous relation to one another, seemingly unrelated yet anchored in a structured pictorial space,” she said. “Some affinities are provided to the viewer while others remain ambiguous and, as in dreams, may be the result of memory, longing or prescience.”

Ms. Wright is a photographer and painter with a deep interest in the mysteries surrounding ancient cultures, archeology, and the language of symbols. “My art-making helps me make sense of the world around me,” said the artist, who travels a great deal learning about indigenous cultures and attempting through color, texture, and form to convey through her art the mystery and wonder of the world.

The exhibit in the The Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, can be viewed during school hours by appointment by calling (609) 924-7206.

 

It has been a season of musical birthdays in Princeton, and the Dryden Ensemble added to the mix with two concerts celebrating Bach’s 329th birthday this past weekend. Sunday afternoon’s venue in the Dryden Ensemble’s Trinity Church, Solebury home (the concert was also performed the night before in Princeton Seminary’s Miller Chapel) proved to be both an intimate chamber performance space and equally as musically appropriate a site for the ensemble as its Princeton base. 

The four members of the Dryden Ensemble — violinist Vita Wallace, viola da gamba player Lisa Terry, oboist Jane McKinley, and harpsichordist Webb Wiggins — clearly found Trinity Church a space in which it was easy to communicate, and all four of their instruments spoke well in the sanctuary. Sunday afternoon’s concert, dedicated to the memory of long-time Dryden supporter Mardi Considine, principally featured music of J.S. Bach, as well as that of his son and a predecessor.

The Dryden Ensemble explored two works of Bach originally composed for organ and transcribed for chamber string and wind ensemble. The players of the Dryden themselves transcribed BWV 525, originally an organ sonata in E-flat, to feature oboe d’amore and violin, accompanied by viola da gamba and harpsichord and retitled Trio in D Major. The Baroque oboe d’amore is not as rich and mellifluous as its modern counterpart, but Ms. McKinley was able to achieve both a smooth melody in the second movement and clean rapid lines in the closing passages. Ms. Wallace provided a crisp second voice in this instrumental dialog, and all four players maintained Bach’s intricacy within complex Baroque counterpoint.

Bach was preceded in history by Dietrich Buxtehude, primarily known for his keyboard works, but also a big fan of the viola da gamba. Gamba player Lisa Terry capitalized on the great musical variety found in Buxtehude’s instrumental sonatas, in this case Sonata in G minor for violin and viola da gamba. Crisply accompanied by Mr. Wiggins, Ms. Terry and violinist Ms. Wallace sustained both the rhythmic drive of the fast movements and the sensitive lines of the slower sections. In the penultimate Grave, Ms. Terry especially showed that she had complete control over the entire range of her instrument.

Mr. Wiggins introduced a new member of his keyboard family to the Dryden’s audiences this past weekend in a harpsichord built by William Dowd on the model of early 18th-century German builder Michael Mietke. Mr. Wiggins’ new harpsichord was a large instrument with a particularly rich lower register and capable of producing a substantial sound for what one thinks of from a Baroque instrument. Interpolated into Sunday’s program was a keyboard suite of Buxtehude, featuring Mr. Wiggins showing off the William Down harpsichord. As two voices chased each other on the keyboard in one of the quicker movements, the upper register of the harpsichord showed a well-rounded sound. Mr. Wiggins ably handled the challenge of the very fast lines, and was more than successful in finding sensitivity and lyricism in an instrument primarily heard accompanying or in continuo style.

In the closing work of the program, Bach’s Sonata in D Major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, Mr. Wiggins’ quick right hand matched the elegance of the melodic lines drawn out by Ms. Terry. Throughout this work, repeating sequences were exactly timed, and as the two instruments traded roles in a question-and-answer dialog, Mr. Wiggins and Ms. Terry seemed to enjoy the musical repartee.

 

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF THE SITUATION WE’RE IN: Four single mothers are waiting for the fifth member of their group to show up. From left May (Nia Long), Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Esperanza (Zulay Henao), and Lytia (Cocoa Brown) are expecting Hillary (Amy Smart, not shown) to join them for one of their weekly night out get togethers where they try to figure out how to solve their problems with their children and deal with the men in their lives.

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF THE SITUATION WE’RE IN: Four single mothers are waiting for the fifth member of their group to show up. From left May (Nia Long), Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Esperanza (Zulay Henao), and Lytia (Cocoa Brown) are expecting Hillary (Amy Smart, not shown) to join them for one of their weekly night out get togethers where they try to figure out how to solve their problems with their children and deal with the men in their lives.

Fast food waitress Lytia (Cocoa Brown) lives from paycheck to paycheck and has to rely on public transportation in order to get around. By contrast, Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is an ambitious executive at a prominent publishing company who can afford many amenities and drives a luxury car. 

May (Nia Long) is unemployed but dreams of a career in journalism. Hillary (Amy Smart) is a recent divorcée who’s a bit overwhelmed because she is raising her kids alone in suburbia. And, Esperanza (Zulay Henao) cowers and hides from her abusive ex-husband (Eddie Cibrian) who continues to threaten her long after their separation.

At first blush, it sounds like these five women would have little in common, let alone a reason to cross paths. But they do when they’re all summoned to the principal’s office at West Merryville Prep where they each have a child who has just been put on probation after they were caught smoking and spray painting graffiti.

At the meeting, Principal Walters (Carrie L. Walrond) leaves the parents no choice but to co-chair the school’s annual fundraising dance. They grudgingly agree to organize the affair, but can these black, white, and Latino women get past their considerable class and cultural differences? That is the question raised at the outset of The Single Moms Club, a humorous story of female empowerment.

Written, produced, directed, and co-starring Tyler Perry, the picture first pits the protagonists against one another and then has them gradually see their similarities as overburdened sole providers. At that point, they create an informal association which functions as a babysitting support group and provides them with a weekly girls’ night out where they decompress by singing karaoke and trading relationship advice about their experiences with men.

Perry tones down the sermonizing in this movie in favor of more humor. Of course, before the closing credits roll, he makes sure his heroines bond into a tightly knit band whose lovers and children are all behaving.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality and mature themes. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

March 19, 2014

book revTen years ago, in the March 31, 2004 issue of Town Topics, I wrote my first column about the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale (BM-W), “Billy Collins and the Homeless Poets of Bryn Mawr.” By “homeless poets” I meant the ones whose books were left behind when the dust of the sale had cleared. Being the rare poet whose books sell well, Billy Collins was, and presumably still is, the obvious exception, as are collectible poets like Wallace Stevens. Yet here’s the storied, much anthologized Edgar Allan Poe, a perennial player in the American narrative whose market value is the gold standard of literature, and somehow the “homeless” idea applies. 

What is it about Poe? What makes him seem to this day somehow disreputable, unstable, not quite to be trusted or taken at his word, the uninvited guest rapping at the door we’re not sure we want to open? Even now, he’s one of the most useful reference points to be cited or consulted whenever weird or unearthly or inexplicable events occur, such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. If the author of Tales of Mystery and Imagination were around he’d be taking notes and perhaps already working out an updated sequel to that bizarre epic of death ships and disappearances, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which ends with the narrator and his swarthy companion in a canoe with a dead native rushing “into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us.” And what do they see at the final moment but “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”

Lusting for Gold

When the doors open at 10 a.m. on this year’s Preview Day, Friday, March 21, the collectors in the crowd will be pursuing a dream volume or volumes while the dealers continue their high-stakes business mission, some having come from great distances looking for stock that could make a serious financial difference for them in the year ahead. At the same time, any book-wise, market-savvy dealer or collector who has paid $20 for the preview equivalent of a lottery ticket is hoping that this sale may finally prove to be the grand prize winner, the route to buried treasure, the “gold in them thar hills.” And of all authors, who do enlightened book folk think of in association with treasure and riches? Who is the “shrouded human figure” they see “at the final moment?” Who else but the author of “The Gold Bug”?

Consider the against-all-odds likelihood of a Poe first edition somehow slipping between the cracks in the form of a shabby ne’er do well, the tattered equivalent of the troubled, storm-wracked author himself, dying down and out on the streets of Baltimore. Let’s say you stumble on a copy of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, the two volume collection of Poe’s stories published by Lea and Blanchard in Philadelphia in 1840. Because of its condition, covers worn, spine faded, title all but illegible, a stain covering the author’s name on the title page, let’s imagine that the beggarly twosome turns up on the Old and Unusual table marked for $10. If you have even a clue as to the value of the decrepit item, your telltale heart will begin pounding, your hands will get moist, and your manner will become shifty and suspect even though you’ve done no wrong; the prize is in your hands, you fully intend to buy it, so pay no mind to the nagging of your conscience. If your life seems a constant scuffle after money, as Poe’s was, you’ll be morally within your rights. Better you than some billionaire bibliophile, you’re thinking.

But when the time comes to pay, it’s a challenge to appear casual. Twinges of dread and guilt undermine you. You may even sense the presence of a spectral Poe leering over your shoulder at the friendly female volunteer tabulating the cost of your various purchases (for even should you find nothing else worth buying, you need other ordinary books for cover, to dim the glow of the nugget, as it were.

What a moment when the volunteer opens the first volume of the treasure, sees the price, hesitates, ponders, furrows her brow — oh no! does she —, is she —, will she call on some higher authority for a price check? Poe’s definitely by your side now, whispering fancies of deception in your ear, urging you to prevaricate; if you have a veteran book dealer’s chutzpah, you’ll ask the lady if maybe she could take a dollar off, I mean look at the condition!

You die and come back to life as the volunteer closes the second volume and writes $10 on your tab, which for, say 12 books, comes to a total of $54, not a bad day’s shopping, seeing as how your ten-dollar purchase is being offered, in lesser condition, for $40,000 online.

“Got some nice bargains today, I bet,” says the smiling volunteer. To which you have all you can do to stifle an outburst of maniacal laughter. Poe is tickling your ribs and cackling. And so with a brave new world of possibility swelling in your breast, you take your time (easy, slow down, don’t run, you haven’t done anything wrong, you’re no thief) walking out the door into a mad, mad, mad new world.

What gives the imaginary situation a peculiar and uneasy moral resonance is knowing that Poe was paid nothing, not a cent, no royalties, for the book you will sell at auction for at least 20 grand after taxes. All the author got was 20 free copies. His hopes had been high. Writing to Washington Irving, the monied master of Sunnyvale, he humbly begged an endorsement he never received (“If I could be permitted to add even a word or two from yourself … my fortune would be made”).

It’s beyond irony. Poe’s fortune is made all right, but not for him, he whose first book Tamerlane and Other Poems, a 40-page pamphlet authored “by a Bostonian” in 1827, sold at Christies in 2009 for $662,500.

How does it happen that in 2014 the name Poe means spectacular numbers on the antiquarian market? Why this perversion of the typical American rags to riches story leading to no riches, nevermore, only the phantom semblance of literary glory and immortality? While small print runs of the original volumes can be factored into the equation (it’s said that only 12 copies of Tamerlane have survived), the reason Poe’s books command immense sums is the immensity of his legend, his tragedy, his fate, the depth of his misery, the curse and blessing of his greatness. The irony is embedded in his very identity — a poet without a “t” whose name in certain dialects can be mistaken for another mockingly pertinent word. In David Simon’s portrait of Baltimore, The Wire, “Poe” is heard as “poor,” one of the real-life public housing projects bears his name, and in Season Two a white tourist asking directions to the Poe House is told “Look around you — all the houses ‘round here are po’ houses.”

There you have him — homeless, down and out, poor, misunderstood, and worth his weight in gold.

A Preview’s Preview

Since this is a preview of the upcoming March 21-25 BM-W sale rather than a report after the fact, it was necessary for me to visit the PDS gym as the stock was being unboxed and assembled, a process that had only just begun when I stopped by last weekend. Fortunately, the tables devoted to the last half of Peter Oppenheimer’s extraordinary donation were already being filled. And what do you suppose was the smallest, shabbiest, most despondent, most truly forlorn-looking volume I found among the otherwise solid, weighty, well-taken-care-of, seriously scholarly ranks? Yes, here he is again in all his grubby glory, our creepy Kilroy, a rubber band holding him together since the front cover bearing his signature in gold is about to become fully detached. On the spine, the gold lettering stands out, clear, unfaded, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Down the spine also in gold is a William Morris-style arts and crafts embellishment. Across the bottom of the spine are the words “Plymouth Publishing Company.” In all the years I’ve been going to book sales and secondhand bookshops, I’ve never seen the name of that publisher, which is located, says the title page, at 7 West 42. If you know and love New York, you will try to picture what such an address would look like around the turn of the previous century, in the days before Times Square, when midtown was uptown.

At the top of the title page are three words that say it all for Poe, as good as singing his dark song: The Midnight Edition. Curious to see if any of the Plymouth Poes are available online, I could find only two, the first one from Old Church Books in Webster, N.Y., which is asking $30 for a copy “bound in burgandy [sic] leather with guilt [sic] paper edges.” That’s what it says, guilt paper in a volume of Poe. The text is “clean and mark free,” but “the top third of spine has been chewed on and is partly missing.” (Who or what did the chewing is best left to the imagination.) The only other copy in abebooks.com comes from Banks Books & Etc in Palmetto, Georgia. This one is a black hard cover, same size, gold on the top edge but “fly-specked on the other two.” Ah, but there’s a vertical crease in the backstrip; sounds very like the crack running through the House of Usher. This one is $70. Byrn Mawr is asking $6.

More Oppenheimer

The first box I saw being opened in Collector’s Corner contained some familiar volumes from the magnificent Princeton University Press/Bollingen edition of the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, something Peter Oppenheimer and I had talked about more than once in the bank vault housing Witherspoon Books, where Peter used to work. Speaking of the author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of the prizes of the Oppenheimer donation is a 20-volume set of Purchase His Pilgrimes, which was among the chief works inspiring both the “Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Other volumes from Peter’s massive library include a three-volume set of Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica; John von Neumann’s Theory of Self Reproducing Automata; and a two-volume set of William of Tyre’s A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.

Based on the concluding image of Arthur Gordon Pym, the illustration shown, from 1864 is by Yan’ Dargent.

 

TARASCON STAGECOACH: “La Diligence de Tarascon” by Vincent van Gogh is just one of the masterworks on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum from the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation that museum visitors will have to wait for some time to see again. The 1888 oil on canvas, along with the rest of the collection, began a five-venue international tour when it opened at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford last week. It won’t be back in Princeton until September 2015.(Courtesy of the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection).

TARASCON STAGECOACH: “La Diligence de Tarascon” by Vincent van Gogh is just one of the masterworks on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum from the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation that museum visitors will have to wait for some time to see again. The 1888 oil on canvas, along with the rest of the collection, began a five-venue international tour when it opened at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford last week. It won’t be back in Princeton until September 2015. (Courtesy of the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection).

A collection of major modern artworks in the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM) has been carefully packed up and sent to Europe where it will be seen by art lovers in England and France before returning to the United States later this year. Then, the collection, including paintings by Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Modigliani and Van Gogh, will go on show in Atlanta and Vancouver before coming home to Princeton in September of 2015. 

According to a museum press release, this is the first time in 40 years that the works will go on tour. Titled “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” the international touring exhibition is now on view at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

Amassed by the American entrepreneur Henry Pearlman (1895–1974), it includes 16 Cézanne watercolors that have been described as “the greatest collection outside of France,” as well as some 50 modern masterworks from the late 19th through early 20th centuries.

“We at Princeton are delighted to share the Pearlman collection with a wider international audience on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Henry Pearlman’s death,” said Museum Director James Steward. “This spectacular collection is a testament to Henry Pearlman’s dedication to the transformative power of the creative avant-garde, to his passionate engagement with artists, and to his self-taught discernment.”

Formally known as the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection, the paintings have been on long term loan at the Princeton University Art Museum since 1976. Paintings from the collection, which is regarded as a critical research and teaching tool, are regularly on display. Half of the artworks are by Cézanne, and the collection offers insights into the development of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as well as the history of collecting avant-garde art in the United States.

Among the highlights are Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (ca. 1902), Vincent van Gogh’s Tarascon Stagecoach (1888) and Amedeo Modigliani’s portrait of Jean Cocteau (1916–17). Other artists represented in the exhibition are Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lembruck, Jacques Lipchitz, Édouard Manet, Camille Pisarro, Alfred Sisley, Chaïm Soutine and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Co-curated by Betsy Rosasco, PUAM’s research curator of European Painting and Sculpture, and Laura Giles, PUAM’s Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings, the exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with contributions by more than a dozen members of the Princeton University community as well as a personal narrative, “Reminiscences of a Collector,” by Mr. Pearlman.

A lifelong New Yorker, Pearlman founded the Eastern Cold Storage Company in 1919. He began seriously collecting avant-garde art in the 1940s with purchases of work by Soutine and Modigliani and by some of the artists who influenced them, including Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne. He built close relationships with a number of art dealers in the U.S. and abroad, and befriended artists directly. Over three decades, he assembled one of the finest collections of European art remaining in private hands.

Residents of Princeton will have to wait for some time before seeing the collection on its return from its travels. After the Ashmolean in Oxford, it goes to the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence (July 11 through October 5); to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (October 25 through January 11, 2015); and then to Canada’s Vancouver Art Gallery (February 7 through May 18, 2015). It will be on display at PUAM, from September 12, 2015 through January 3, 2016.

 

THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE: This poster for a new short film by Princeton resident Charles Evered shows actors Marty James and Joshua Fardon. The film will have a free screening on Saturday, March 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arts Council of Princeton before it premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles next month.(Courtesy of Charles Evered)

THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE: This poster for a new short film by Princeton resident Charles Evered shows actors Marty James and Joshua Fardon. The film will have a free screening on Saturday, March 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arts Council of Princeton before it premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles next month. (Courtesy of Charles Evered)

Out, a 19-minute long comedy begins as its main character, Raymond Bilotti, arrives home to find the County Sheriff knocking on his door, and progresses through a series of bizarre scenes to what shall be called a satisfying conclusion, so as not to give away too much and spoil the fun. Out will screen at the Arts Council of Princeton this Saturday, March 22, at 3:30 p.m. 

“The screening is free and there is bound to be a party atmosphere,” said playwright, director and screenwriter Charles Evered. “There will most definitely be Bundt cake.”

If you are wondering why Bundt cake, you’ll have to see the film to find out.

“Marty James plays Raymond, a down on his luck ‘everyman’ who in less than twenty minutes faces the prospect of losing his home, his mother, and his most closely held secret, not necessarily in that order,” said Mr. Evered, who lives in Princeton with his wife Wendy and their two children, and works in Los Angeles.

“I have the longest commute but it’s worth it to have my kids grow up in Princeton,” said Mr. Evered, in a telephone interview, Monday. “We love the schools and we love the history and all that the town has to offer and when we had our kids, John is 13 and Margaret is 14, we didn’t want to raise them in Los Angeles. Besides I have family here,” said the filmmaker who grew up in Bergen County.

Mr. Evered is no stranger to the Arts Council where he was an artist in residence 2006/2007.

Out, which Mr. Evered wrote and directed and his wife Wendy produced, was shown to the cast and crew at Disney Studios in Burbank last month and will premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles in late April.

Like most short films, it was made on spec, with professional actors. “Shorts are made for the love of it. They are great fun to make. Out was shot in four days with a budget of $6,000,” said Mr. Evered.

Written shortly after Mr. Evered had completed a much darker feature film, the thriller, A Thousand Cuts, which was nominated for a Saturn Award and starred Academy Award nominee Michael O’Keefe, Out riffs on several meanings of the word “out.” Beside the “gay” connotation of coming out, and the rather charming almost defunct usage of having a gay old time, there’s also being “kicked out,” being “out on a limb,” and being “found out.”

The character Raymond just happens to be gay, said Mr. Evered, who acknowledges that while this features in the film’s plot, it is not what he would call “integral” to the machinations of the story. “We all have secrets, we all face pressures and each and every one of us will end up having to deal with loss,” said the filmmaker who eschewed pressure from one publicist to label the film as a “gay” film and market it as such.

“That struck me as kind of funny at first,” said Mr. Evered, who feels that his film is much more in tune with having a “gay old time” with a few laughs as well as a few moving moments. “But the idea of ‘labeling’ the film itself in a marketing strategy seemed at odds with the spirit in which we made it in the first place. Because our film isn’t about being gay, it’s about being human. Our hope was it would be a non-issue. And I’m pleased to say that thus far, it is. At the screening at Disney, it never came up. In various private screenings on both coasts, no one bothered to mention it. It’s a new film rather than a new gay film.”

“If I continue to have any control over the film at all, I will never let it be ‘categorized’ or cornered or swept under the rug and into a marketable niche. Because to me, it’s a story about all of us and any of us, at any time in our lives. The fact that we don’t feel compelled to create special categories or marketing strategies seems to me to imply nothing but progress. And a kind of progress we can all be proud of,” said Mr. Evered.

Out was shot using a digital camera which allowed for exactly the sort of intimacy the filmmaker was aiming for. “I come from a background in the theater so I like to stay close to my characters,” he explained. “Besides being less expensive, a small digital camera requires a small crew and is easy to maneuver.”

He credits his wife for finding the veteran actress Gloria Leroy, who plays Raymond’s mother. “Gloria is not all that mobile and had to be persuaded into the part,” said Mr. Evered. “I told her that she would have to stay in bed for two days and that we would supply everything she could want. She was doted on by everyone.”

Other films by Mr. Evered include Adopt a Sailor, starring Emmy winners Peter Coyote and Bebe Neuwirth.

Why doesn’t the public see more short films? “Not all festivals have short films and they are not all that easy to see, although You Tube has changed that,” said Mr. Evered. After Out has been shown at festivals, it will be made available via You Tube, he said.

The Arts Council’s showing is the east coast premiere of Out. The screening is free and open to the public. For more information, please go to: www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

 

Superstar instrumentalists rarely come to Princeton, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented a real treat to the community this past weekend with violinist Hilary Hahn. Playing Johannes Brahms’ demanding Violin Concerto in D Major, Ms. Hahn brought the audience at Richardson Auditorium down to pin drop level several times with her fiery playing, tempered with lyrical melodic lines.

Guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, himself a violin prodigy as a child, seemed to be from the old school of conductors, taking command of the podium with little fanfare, but at the same time maintaining absolute control over the performance. Mr. Tortelier began Friday night’s performance of the concerto by immediately building drama with the horns in sync with the celli and violas, and winds nicely enmeshed in the orchestral texture. Ms. Hahn’s violin solo emerged from this palette with fire, and Ms. Hahn proved from the start that she is one fierce, intense, and powerful performer.

Ms. Hahn was able to create graceful cadences amidst continuous action for the soloist and mesmerized the audience with extended solo passages and a cadenza during which one could hear a pin drop in the audience. She used the full weight of her body while playing, while the musicians of the NJSO were perfectly timed with her. When not playing, Ms. Hahn often watched the orchestral players, showing that she was never for a moment disengaged from the music. Several players excelled at solo passages during the concerto, including oboist Robert Ingliss, bassoonist Robert Wagner, and concertmaster Eric Wyrick. Throughout the work, Mr. Tortelier wisely allowed Ms. Hahn to lead the way, with the musicians perfectly in tandem. Following the concerto, Ms. Hahn further delighted the audience with a solo encore of a “Loure” from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major.

Mr. Tortelier paired the Brahms work with two smaller 20th-century works. Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has turned his attention to composing in recent years. His 1981 Giro (which he revised in 1997) combined many small instrumental parts into a cohesive musical whole, with coloristic effects provided by solo instruments. The title of this symphonic poem can be translated as “turn,” and the work showed many twists and turns as the musicians seemed to be in their own worlds but clearly part of something larger. English hornist Andrew Adelson provided elegant solo lines, as did oboist Mr. Ingliss, bassoonist Mr. Wagner, E-flat clarinetist Andrew Lamy, and violist Frank Foerster. An unusual orchestral palette was added with the extensive use of harp and marimba.

Igor Stravinsky composed several versions of the Suite from the ballet The Firebird, the last of which was in 1945. The ten movements of the Suite flowed together well, as conducted from memory by Mr. Tortelier. Musical effects such as the “walking-like” ostinato from the celli and double basses reminded the audience that this music was originally composed for the dance, and the characters of the Russian Firebird folktale could be heard in the melodic wind fragments. Mr. Ingliss was kept very busy on Friday night, as he provided graceful solos in several movements. Flutists Bart Feller and Kathleen Nester played crisply against precise pizzicato writing in the strings, and clarinetists Karl Hermann and Mr. Lamy added a silky color to the “Pantomimes” which glued the movements together. Piano accompaniment, played by Elizabeth DeFelice, was well-timed with the winds, and hornist Lawrence DiBello provided a comforting melody following the chaos of the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei.” Conducting this work from memory, Mr. Tortelier showed himself to be a very energetic conductor, tying the movements together well with effective builds of intensity.

Usually in the spring, the NJSO takes a moment to acknowledge the educational component of the orchestra’s activities. At the start of the concert, a string quartet of NJSO’s Greater Newark Youth Orchestra — violinists Rachel Seo and Winifred Waters, violist Melissa Holfelder, and cellist Danielle Lee — proved, with their performance of an excerpt from Antonin Dvorak’s American String Quartet, that they could hold the stage and the audience’s attention as well as the professional NJSO members behind them.

 

REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED COLD: Artemisia (Eva Green, center) was a Greek child who was sold into slavery by her countrymen after they slaughtered her family in front of her eyes. She was freed by her Persian owners and is now leading a formidable armada of over 1000 Persian warships to battle the Greeks.

REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED COLD: Artemisia (Eva Green, center) was a Greek child who was sold into slavery by her countrymen after they slaughtered her family in front of her eyes. She was freed by her Persian owners and is now leading a formidable armada of over 1000 Persian warships to battle the Greeks.

The epic movie 300 (2007) chronicled the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. when an outnumbered band of 300 soldiers were sent on a suicide mission to defend Sparta against a horde of more than 100,000 Persian invaders. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, that minimalist, monochromatic adventure was shot almost entirely against blue screens on assorted soundstages. 

300: Rise of an Empire is a rare sequel that actually is better than the original movie. This film has sweeping seascapes and panoramic mob scenes. By exploiting the visual appeal of Eva Green the film also increases the sequel’s sensuality.

At the point of departure, we find triumphant King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) plotting to lead the Persian army against forces led by the Greek General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). The play-by-play action is narrated by Sparta’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) who devotes considerable time to a detailed explanation of ancient history in order to set the table for the ensuing story.

We learn that the commander of the Persian 1,000 ship armada is the warrior Artemisia (Green), a Greek traitor who turned against her own people for good reason. In her youth, she’d been brutally raped and sold into slavery after being forced to witness the murder of her entire family.

The orphan was freed and raised as a warrior by Xerxes’ late father, Darius (Yigal Naor). In the film, she has matured into a ravishing fighting machine who is as likely to subdue an adversary with her womanly wiles as with her sword. In perhaps the movie’s most memorable moment, she decapitates a foe and then plants a kiss on the skull’s lips.

Such gruesome displays are the norm for the movie, as scene after scene shows either sensuality or stomach-churning depictions of torture and gore.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and violence. Running time: 102 minutes Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

 

 

March 12, 2014
MAKING MUSIC: Sheila Bodine’s black and white photographs of musicians’ hands playing instruments are complemented by her 17-year-old granddaughter Grace Glovier’s shots of abstract architectural patterns in an exhibition titled “Generations” at the RWJ Hamilton’s Lakefront Gallery. Both photographers are members of the Princeton Photography Club. The exhibition features members of the club and opens with a reception on Thursday, March 13 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 584-5900.

MAKING MUSIC: Sheila Bodine’s black and white photographs of musicians’ hands playing instruments are complemented by her 17-year-old granddaughter Grace Glovier’s shots of abstract architectural patterns in an exhibition titled “Generations” at the RWJ Hamilton’s Lakefront Gallery. Both photographers are members of the Princeton Photography Club. The exhibition features members of the club and opens with a reception on Thursday, March 13 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 584-5900.

Lakefront Gallery will debut “Generations,” an exhibition of photography by members of the Princeton Photography Club with an opening reception on Thursday, March 13 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The exhibition will continue through June 12.

The generations featured are: mother and daughter Sandy and Rachel Shapiro; grandmother and grandson Janet Hautau and Sam Klein; brother and sister Michael and Lynn Padwee; father and son Daniel and Adam Goldberg; grandmother and granddaughter Sheila Bodine and Grace Glovier; father and son Richard Trenner and Winslow Radcliffe Trenner; fathers and daughters: Irwin Vogel and Karen Neems; and Randy and Taylor Koslo; and the three-generation, father, daughter and granddaughter John (Jack) Diehn, Ellen and Caitlin Rogers.

It stands to reason that the basic rule of organization would dictate placement. But simply grouping like items together just didn’t seem right to Princeton curator Sheila Geisler. As she plotted the layout for the upcoming juried exhibit at Lakefront Gallery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton (RWJ Hamilton), she knew it called for something more.

“They all had a flow so much so that I didn’t have to group them by individual artists,” Geisler said of “Generations” an exhibit of photographs taken by generations of nine families. “It must be in the genes,” she said.

Whether it is nature or nurture, this collection of images captured by grandmothers and granddaughters; mothers and sons; fathers and daughters will express the differences and commonalities that are present in all families. These expressions, Geisler thinks, connect people to the art and help people connect to each other.

That’s not only true for the patrons, but also for the artists.

Princeton’s 76-year-old Sheila Bodine whose black and white photographs of musicians’ hands playing instruments were paired with her 17-year-old granddaughter Grace Glovier’s shots of abstract architectural patterns. It was Bodine who brought the idea of the “Generations” exhibit to Geisler after seeing a similar show elsewhere. Both women belong to the 287-member Princeton Photography Club that has been supplying some of the subject matter for Lakefront and other local galleries. Geisler, whose husband Carl has been president of the club for the past eight years, said members are always looking for ways to bring the community together.

As for Bodine, she said she is certainly excited about displaying her family’s work. While she and her granddaughter both enjoy photography, they have never collaborated together. “I wanted to do something I’d never done before and I thought it would be great to do it with her.”

“That’s what art is all about,” Geisler said. “Involving the community around us — so that the community will walk into RWJ Hamilton before they need it and see what else is there and have them excited about what they can come in for before they need hospital services.”

Ilya Genin, a Hamilton cardiologist and director of Lakefront Gallery, agrees. “The gallery brings original photographic art to the walls of the hospital, enriching the patient, visitor, and staff experience.”

For more information, call (609) 584-5900.

 

dvd revHiroshima is a film about which you can say everything.

—Eric Rohmer

Coming out of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) into a sunny summer day in Manhattan, still deep in the film, you look over at your best friend. It’s one of those essential check points of a relationship. Have we connected? Did the movie do to you what it did to me?

Your friend is frowning. Wherever you were, he was somewhere else. While you were fascinated, he was squirming and groaning (you wouldn’t have noticed, you were so locked in). You can think of more than one relationship that came unravelled after a difference of opinion about a movie. Not to worry. You and he have passed plenty of check points and moments of truth and you move through this one without a hitch.

A Resnais Moment

The memory of that first college-age viewing of Hiroshima mon amour was still potent, still so much a part of my life in film, that when I learned of the death of Alain Resnais ten days ago, I felt something like the conflicted uneasiness of that moment walking out of the theater realizing that instead of sharing a special experience, my friend and I had seen a different movie. I also felt the way I had sitting cluelessly through Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which left me feeling as disoriented as I did on March 2, Oscar night, when I saw his name appear during the In Memoriam segment of the telecast. For a second I was thinking that he’d died earlier in the year, otherwise wouldn’t I have seen the story in the papers sometime before the Academy’s formal roll call of the dead? Maybe I’d been out of town, away from the internet and the New York Times. How else could I have missed it? Or was my failure to remember the death of the cinema’s poet laureate of memory a sign of creeping dementia? Appearing out of sequence, seemingly after the fact, the next morning’s Times obit with its reference to the “nonlinear” narratives of the “acclaimed filmmaker who defied convention” created further confusion; it was as if the director’s reputation for subverting time had subverted the presentation of his own death. And what a story — the most elusive and enigmatic of filmmakers dying on the eve of the film industry’s signature event. Any way you looked at it the news of his passing had become, itself, a Resnais moment.

Taken In

When you walk into a film with Hiroshima in the title, whatever the other words are, there’s no escaping the magnitude of the context, as the voice of Emmanuelle Riva intones, “Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds.” Abbreviating the title in a discussion of the film inevitably underscores the catastrophe. Yet the grisly images of the aftermath occupy only a half a dozen of the film’s 90 minutes or about half of the 15 minutes preceding the love affair at the center of the film. If this had been a short documentary — as originally planned — Resnais might have produced something comparable to Night and Fog, his then-and-now 1955 film on the Nazi death camps. Instead, he and novelist Marguerite Duras joined forces to create a seductive, profoundly suggestive work.

The instant the title and credits appear, a subtle, sinister music is probing at you with the piping of a single note, alien, eerie, both surreal and intimate, as if the film were already reading your mind, scanning your susceptibilities; when the sound of a piano enters in atonal freefall, the effect is otherworldly. The credits are superimposed on a scarred landscape, a ragged stitch leading into a nexus of agitated lines indicating the center of the explosion, ground zero.

The actual opening image resembles a landscape formed of human flesh, two torsos striving together, sprinkled with glittering dust, a signifier of atomic ash, radiation, fallout. Faceless human forms seen at close range, neither one clearly male or female, appear dehumanized, fragmented, the opposite of erotic, until you see the woman’s hands moving over the man’s back as she recites a toneless, unnatural, oddly inflected narration to accompany the horrific images of the explosion’s human toll. Driven by a score that ranges from somber melodic intervals to jaunty, quasi ragtime dance music,  the sequence is a counterpoint of sight and sound, the female voice dominant (“I saw everything …. I saw the hospital … the museum … the anonymous masses of hair”), the male voice confined to a monotone chorus of denial (“You saw nothing in Hiroshima”).

The fugue-like opening ends abruptly when the camera finally reveals Emmannuelle Riva’s lovely face smiling up at us and at the man (Eiji Okada) as she says, playfully, naturally, romantically, a long way from the spaced-out narration, “You!” They both then laugh, and from that point the conversation follows the obvious conventions of the situation. She asks if he’s “all Japanese” (perhaps because he has, as Duras’s screenplay suggests, “a fairly Western face”) and he tells her she’s “like a thousand women in one.” If you were to begin the film at this moment, without the hypnotic prelude, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a cliched inter-racial love story with a provocative background.

Excluded at Cannes

Hiroshima mon amour was excluded from the official selection process at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival to appease the U.S. government, according to online sources. It seems that some 15 years after Hiroshima, the bomb was still “a taboo subject.” The Special Jury Prize that year went to a forgotten film by a forgotten director, Konrad Wolf’s Star (Sterne), which was about a Nazi officer who falls in love with a Jewish girl while escorting prisoners to a concentration camp. Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows opened the festival, where its young star, Jean Pierre-Leaud, was cheered. Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or.

By July of 1959 Resnais’s film was deemed worthy of a round-table discussion in Cahiers du Cinema that included directors Eric Rohmer, Jean Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette. During the dialogue, Rohmer speculated that “in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we shall know whether Hiroshima was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema, or whether it was possibly less important than we thought.” In 2002 the international contributors to the 50th anniversary issue of Positif, another French film journal, answered the speculation by naming Hiroshima mon amour one of the top ten films produced between the years 1952-2002.

Enter Duras

The way Resnais tells it in an interview included on the Criterion Special Edition DVD, he’d been assigned to make a film on the atomic bomb. In the beginning no one was ready to touch so daunting a subject (Resnais notes with obvious amusement that Françoise Sagan was among the writers approached); the subject was considered “unfilmable.” Finally, Duras, a writer whose work Resnais admired, was enlisted. Working closely with Resnais, she produced a finished script in two months. According to Kent Jones’s essay accompanying the DVD, D.W. Griffth’s Intolerance was the model Resnais and Duras had in mind: the idea, as Resnais puts it, of “working in two tenses,” the present and the past, but “the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” The possibility that everything Riva tells her Japanese lover — the story of her affair with a German soldier in France during the Occupation, his death, her despair, and her humiliation at the hands of the townspeople of Nevers — might be a fiction was a potential “ambiguity” that Resnais admits finding formally “interesting.”

Emmanuelle Riva’s performance in Hiroshima mon amour stood out even at a time when female characters of range and depth were being played by actresses like Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti, and Stephane Audran, among others. In the July 1959 Cahier du cinema discussion, Jacques Rivette describes Riva’s character: “She doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t analyze herself …. [she’s] a woman who no longer knows where she stands, who no longer knows who she is, who tries desperately to redefine herself in relation to Hiroshima, in relation to the Japanese man …. In the end she is a woman who is starting all over again, going right back to the beginning … as if she were once more unformed matter in the process of being born.” Rivette goes on to say, “In the same way that Hiroshima had to be rebuilt after atomic destruction,” she “is going to try to reconstruct her reality,” which she can achieve only through “what she herself has discovered at Hiroshima and what she has experienced in the past at Nevers.”

While Riva’s character is tormented and nearly undone by what happened at Hiroshima, it also holds an element of fascination for her, to be acting in a film “about peace” at the site of the unthinkable event while making love to a man who grew up there. The handsome Japanese architect is her audience and her accompanist, and though she may truly be “a thousand women in one” to him, what he finds most exciting and gratifying is not so much the story of forbidden young love and punishment in Nevers but the fact that she has never told it to anyone else. When she admits as much, he reacts like a delighted child, hugging her, exclaiming “I’m the only one who knows!”

If you substitute “understands” for “knows,” the man’s enthusiasm could be translated to express the enthusiasm felt by those who were so intensely engaged by the challenge of the film that they felt that he was directing it for them alone. All these years later I’m still in touch with my friend, by the way. He remembers our difference of opinion and promises to tell me one day what that was all about. So here we are, another enigma wrapped in another mystery. Another Resnais moment.

 

The Princeton University Orchestra concerts this past weekend had something for everyone, featuring two student instrumental soloists, one faculty vocalist, and two conductors. The music spanned close to 200 years, with a variety of ensemble combinations.

Saturday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Friday night) focused on student talent in the first half, with two exceptional underclassmen who were winners of this year’s University Orchestra Concerto Competition. Australian junior Nicholas Stead took on one of the most difficult piano concerti in the repertory — Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Composed as a single movement concerto for a performer who had lost his right arm, this work presented Mr. Stead with the unique challenge of avoiding the temptation to add his right hand to the full keyboard range of the music. The strength required of the left hand was substantial to sustain the slow and intense dynamic and harmonic crescendo as the piece seemed to rise from the sea.

Conductor Michael Pratt led a smooth and flowing Allegro, emphasizing the many coloristic effects and percussive orchestration. The solo piano part required the same dexterity from the left hand as the most difficult works for two hands, and Mr. Stead showed no difficulty handling the intricate lines. Timing between piano and clarinets was exact, and the concerto was enhanced by elegant instrumental solos from English hornist Tiffany Huang and bassoonist Louisa Slosar. No one created musical sunrises better than Ravel, and as the University Orchestra reached full force at the end of the piece, the effect was dramatic.

Sophomore violinist Jessie Chen selected his solo challenge from the late 19th century, with the four-movement Scottish Fantasy of Max Bruch. Each movement incorporated a different folk song with its own unique character. The late 17th-century tune “Auld Rob Morris” was set for plaintive violin solo and orchestral accompaniment, giving the impression of the broad landscape of Scotland. Mr. Chen maintained a very folk-song style while conveying the tuneful theme against the broad string strokes of the orchestra. Mr. Chen was decisive when he needed to be, as the orchestra, led by Ruth Ochs, built the intensity of the movement well. The second movement country dance included numerous double stops for the violin soloist, and Mr. Chen was joined in a playful duet by flutist June Yoon. The most virtuosic passages for the violin solo came in the fourth movement, which Mr. Chen played against an elegant harp accompaniment.

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the University Orchestra presented the composer’s dramatic cantata Phaedra, based on the mythological story of the daughter of Minos of Crete. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick, a member of Princeton’s voice faculty, dramatically conveyed the text with its minimalistic accompaniment provided by a small orchestra including harpsichord. Britten sought a Baroque approach to this piece, but the harpsichord in this case had a more percussive and pointillist effect than the usual accompanying chords heard in Baroque music. Ms. Rearick worked effectively to present a vocal line that was not always melodic, accompanied by graceful accompaniment, especially from cellist Bradley Berman. Mr. Berman played an especially poignant melody toward the end of the work, as a commentary on the death of Phaedra, as conductor Mr. Pratt allowed the piece to fade away. The concert closed on a chipper note, with a spirited performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major. The University Orchestra had no trouble finding the drama in Mozart’s music and the six wind players providing flute, oboe and bassoon accompaniment were especially strong in the Finale.

 

IT’S GOOD TO BE A DETECTIVE AGAIN: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, right) goes over some material with her ex boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring). Logan is the principal suspect in the murder of Bonnie De Ville, however, Veronica, who is now living in New York City, is convinced that he is innocent, so she drops everything and returns to Neptune, California to help Logan prove his innocence.

IT’S GOOD TO BE A DETECTIVE AGAIN: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, right) goes over some material with her ex boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring). Logan is the principal suspect in the murder of Bonnie De Ville, however, Veronica, who is now living in New York City, is convinced that he is innocent, so she drops everything and returns to Neptune, California to help Logan prove his innocence.

Veronica Mars was a critically acclaimed TV series that ran from 2004 to 2007. Kristen Bell starred in the title role as a teen age detective who solved crimes committed in her mythical hometown of Neptune, California. 

Fans of the series will be delighted to learn that Kristen and eight other principal cast members have returned for the movie version of the program. Written and directed by the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, this faithful reincarnation was substantially funded by a Kickstarter funding campaign.

At the point of departure, we find Veronica happily living in New York City, where she’s preparing for the bar exam, having recently graduated from Columbia Law School. She’s also now in a long term relationship with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell) and expects to be offered a job with a prestigious Manhattan firm.

However, fate intervenes when pop singer Bonnie De Ville’s (Andrea Estrella), body is found in her bathtub and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend, Logan (Jason Dohring), is the prime suspect. So, Veronica returns to Neptune to help him find a good attorney, since she’s convinced that he’s innocent.

Not surprisingly, her detective instincts kick-in and, just like old times, she’s uncovering clues with the help of her father (Enrico Colantoni), who is a private investigator. Veronica’s arrival back in town conveniently coincides with her 10th high school reunion.

The gathering proves to be the best place to interrogate persons of interest in the unsolved murder. It turns out that Bonnie had attended Neptune High, and several alumni seem to have had reasons to want her silenced. That’s as far as it’s fair to go without spoiling this nostalgic whodunit that is laced with surprising plot twists.

Consider this movie compelling enough to even hold the attention of folks who are unfamiliar with the original TV show.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, profanity, and drug use. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

March 5, 2014

DVD revIn the afterglow of the Oscars, with Shakespeare’s 450th birthday approaching, the time is right for a column about actors and acting, not just on the stage and screen, but in so-called real life. Shakespeare lays it out for the ages in As You Like It when Jacques says “All the world’s a stage,” and we’re all of us “merely players.” Skip ahead 400 years and you’ve got reality TV and the 2014 Academy Awards.

As full of mischief and wicked energy as Puck in an Oscar-themed Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ellen DeGeneres gave a theater brimming with glitzy unreality a spin toward the real by darting in and out of the star-filled audience as if all that seated glittering glamour was a comedy waiting to happen; she wisecracked and kidded in an infectious “What fools these mortals be” style that stirred things up nicely and made for the first watchable-without-nausea Oscar night in my memory. Well aware that stars are humans whose stomachs would be growling because of the timing and length of the event, she waved her puckish wand and ordered pizza, and not just for laughs. When a real-life pizza delivery man showed up, she handed out slices that were devoured (reality bites!) and then hit on a real-life Mr. Moneybags Harvey Weinstein for the tip — “No pressure, only a billion people are watching, whatever you feel is right!” In that intensely artificial, self-conscious environment wherein spontaneous behavior is so rare that even the genuine article comes off looking staged, she created moments everyone everywhere could identify with, like the group-photo tweet fest that began as a selfie with Ellen and Meryl Streep and just kept growing (1.7 million retweets in less than an hour).

Without actually altering the hallowed, hackneyed ritual of the reading of nominations and calling out of winners, this mercurial emcee brought the ceremony down to earth and made the streamlined machinery of the show seem less ponderous and absurd. Above all, she shortened the distance between the folks at home and the event, turning the elites in the seats into photo-taking, pizza-eating mortals. It would have made Shakespeare smile. Hadn’t he been doing a version of the same thing when he had Queen Titania fall in love with a donkey? His Midsummer Night’s Dream may have been performed for the swells and the monarch, but you can be pretty sure he brought the donkey in knowing it would delight the groundlings no less than the swells.

Audience Participation

Years ago I went to a Megan Terry/Tom O’Horgan  production called Massachusetts Trust at Brandeis University. It was a free-form, deliberately incoherent, heavyhandedly “uninhibited” piece of work where the actors ran through the aisles and invited members of the audience to come mingle on the stage. For all the strenuous pretending that somehow the players were dashing the membrane between art and life, theatre and reality, the whole thing was totally bogus, as I found when I went onstage (a frustrated actor at heart) and found the actors all had scripted gimmicky phrases; when you tried to engage them in playful conversation by tossing out some inspired nonsense of your own, their eyes went blank and so did their minds as they said their prearranged piece.

If Midsummer Nights Dream is the most popular and most frequently reinvented comedy in the repertoire, there must have been occasions when the players spilled into the audience to breach that boundary between the stage of the theatre and the metaphorical real-life-and-death stage Shakespeare is outlining in Jacques’s soliloquy. No doubt Ellen DeGeneres had it all worked out in detail, but she made it feel real and fun. Whether she was wearing white or black or camping it up as Glinda the Good, she actually seemed to be enjoying herself.

50 Years Ago

Theater was the dominant presence 50 Years ago at the 1964 Awards, with a filmed musical, My Fair Lady, winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison) and Best Director (George Cukor). Even the Best Actress pick had implicit reference to the Lerner-Lowe original in that it went to Julie Andrews, the first Eliza Doolittle, for Mary Poppins; there had been much debate about whether Andrews should have been cast in the film instead of Audrey Hepburn, and others resented Hepburn’s being passed over when the nominations were made because her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon, which made it only “half a performance.”

It was at the 1964 ceremony that Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern’s hilarious black comedy Dr. Strangelove (with its spurious subtitle) actually crashed the high end of the party, copping nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Peter Sellers received a Best Actor nomination for his virtuoso triple-play as an understandably frantic British officer, a mild-mannered president, and the madman of the title. While the film was a comic field day for Sellers (not to mention George C. Scott, Keenan Wynn, and Slim Pickens), the purest movie acting in the picture was done by Sterling Hayden as Col. Jack D. Ripper, the supremely convincing supreme commander of precious-bodily-fluid paranoia who sets doomsday in motion. Hayden took it beyond caricature, in part thanks to the lines Southern gave him and the way Kubrick filmed him, in looming close-ups. Hayden is the most filmically effective actor in Strangelove because he plays it straight, resisting the sort of overacting Hamlet advised against in his instructions to the acting troupe performing the play he wrote to “catch the conscience of the king.” Shakespeare’s criteria are still valid: to let “your own discretion be your tutor,” to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” for “the purpose of playing” is to hold “the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” What makes Strangelove not only the best film of the year but one of the best films of the sixties is the audacity with which it expresses the “very age and body of the time.” In a lighter but equally fitting sense, the same could be said of the Beatles and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which was released in the summer of 1964.

This Year’s Best

The Shakespearean criteria are also relevant to the two Oscar-winning actors in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. If you can humor me and imagine the Bard in his celestial den streaming this year’s flow of film, including not only the best of Hollywood but the best on cable, it’s likely that these two players would command his particular attention as lean and hungry humours of lust and loss, life and death and death in life, and wounded male beauty. In McConaughey’s AIDs-stricken wild man Ron (a Texas Christopher Marlowe), he would see a player suiting the word to the action in a situation where the stakes are as high in their way as they are in Hamlet. McConaughey’s wasted warrior’s physique is a soliloquy in itself, and his antagonist, rather than a fratricidal king, is the disease that turned his life around, making a homophobic substance abuser into a focused student of the plague. And the “conscience” of AIDS-the-king that he catches is the soul of the film, which is the endgame relationship developing between Ron and the transgender AIDS-stricken Rayon.

Being in heaven, with access to HBO, Showtime, FX, and Netflix, and no need to make distinctions between a feature film and a 12-part series, Shakespeare would also have access to the dark and driven extremes experienced by Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad and Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. What else can you call the arc followed by Walter Heisenberg White — from classroom to meth lab, science teacher to crime lord — but Shakespearean? That Dinklage is a dwarf, so much the better for an actor playing clown and witty prince, lustful warrior, hero, and villain, all in one. Claire Danes at her best is hair-raisingly expressive, but then so is the wide-eyed self-astonished fantastically verbal Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder in Justified. Of course the most openly Shakespearan performance currently on view is Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood in House of Cards, with his dark asides and Robin Penn Wright as his Lady Macbeth.

Spacey was also one of the most visible presences on Oscar night. He even gave the audience a Frank Underwood moment, a clear reminder of the power and glory of the television series as an art form. So did television’s Ellen DeGeneres, for that matter. I haven’t watched her show but apparently her interaction with  Sunday night’s Academy audience was a more ambitious version of what she does for a living.

“All Human Souls”

Fifty years ago Rex Harrison, who was born on this day in 1909, stepped onstage to accept the Best Actor trophy from Audrey Hepburn, the Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. With the human touch Ellen DeGeneres gave this Oscar Night in mind, here’s a Henry Higgins quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that probably didn’t make it into the film: “The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.”

Puck says something similar when addressing the audience at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “So, good night unto you all./Give me your hands, if we be friends.”

 

TENDERNESS CAPTURED: “Ternura,” the title of Miek Boltjes’s photograph showing graffiti art in Miami is intended to evoke not only the tenderness so obviously shown in the mural but also the vulnerability of the artists who painted it. A series of photographs of street and graffiti art and artists by Ms. Boltjes will go on view at Gallery 14 in Hopewell next week, Friday, March 14, alongside a collection by fellow Gallery 14 member Rhoda Kassof-Isaac. For more information, visit: www.photogallery14.com.

TENDERNESS CAPTURED: “Ternura,” the title of Miek Boltjes’s photograph showing graffiti art in Miami is intended to evoke not only the tenderness so obviously shown in the mural but also the vulnerability of the artists who painted it. A series of photographs of street and graffiti art and artists by Ms. Boltjes will go on view at Gallery 14 in Hopewell next week, Friday, March 14, alongside a collection by fellow Gallery 14 member Rhoda Kassof-Isaac. For more information, visit: www.photogallery14.com.

Hopewell’s Gallery 14 will showcase the work of the Dutch photographer Miek Boltjes in an exhibition opening next week. Ms. Boltjes is a relative newcomer to Princeton. Her “Street Art Portrait(s)” will be displayed in the main gallery alongside an exhibition of work, titled “Autumn’s Beauties,” by longtime Gallery 14 member Rhoda Kassof-Isaac in the Jay Goodkind Gallery.

Both shows will run from March 14 through April 13, with an opening reception on Friday, March 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. and a “meet the photographers” event on Sunday, March 16, from 1 to 3 p.m.

“Miek Boltjes presents eye-catching photographs that intrigue and make you smile,” said Gallery 14’s Martin Schwartz. Her 17 framed color prints record artwork as painted on buildings together with the artists who produce it; passersby and posing models are also shown in their environment. The end result is a portrait of contemporary street art painted within the past 18 months.

Taken together, Ms. Boltjes’ photographs form a contemporary portrait of street art culture. They also shine a spotlight on the significance of eyes in street art. “The focus of everybody’s immediate attention, well executed eyes are the artist’s signature and pride,” said Ms. Boltjes, for whom this work has become an ongoing exploration of the street art and graffiti writing of Wynwood, Miami. She plans to publish a book of her photographs in the near future.

Ms. Boltjes came to Princeton from the Netherlands two years ago when her husband took up a position at the Institute for Advanced Study. By profession, she is a mediator in intra-state conflicts and an editor of publications on that subject.

Her photograph “Ternura,” for example, was shot last December in Wynwood, a Miami neighborhood that Ms. Boltjes describes as “formerly a rough warehouse area that is being transformed into a hip and happening destination” primarily because of commissions to famous street artists who have been asked to express themselves on its walls.

Art Basel is the Miami event by which this transformation is being wrought and the two artists in Ms. Boltjes’s photograph, “Ternura,” are known jointly as EntesYPesimo. “They flew in from Peru for the week of Art Basel, which attracts visitors to the many galleries that have moved into the neighborhood,” said the photographer. “Ternura translates as ‘tenderness’ in English, and is both a reference to the expression of warm and affectionate feelings and to the quality or state of being vulnerable,” she explained. “It speaks to the gentleness and care with which the man holds the woman and the couple holds the bird, but it also hints at the relationship between the artists and their art, both imagined and real,” she said.

“At first sight we are taken by the contrast between the tough-looking tattooed man in the foreground and the soft loving scene in the background. A closer look at the tattoos on both establishes the man as one of the artists and reveals that he has put a part of himself into his art,” said Ms. Boltjes, whose photograph allows the viewer to see both graffiti writer and his work in a new way, not juxtaposed but connected. “Looking at the art is seeing part of the artists,” she said.

The images in her exhibition provided the photographer with a revelation of sorts. “After a week-long immersion in the street art and graffiti writing scene in Wynwood, I came away with the realization that the artists care intensely about their creations both in terms of the subject matter and the execution; they really put their heart into it, making themselves vulnerable to all of us.”

“The beauty of our brain is that it allows us to ‘see’ the woman in the mural looking affectionately at her creator, who is sweating in the midday heat. This touch, together with the reflection on the car and the way the temporary fence happens to complete the bird cage, both firmly placing the art in its environment, make this photograph stand out among others,” she acknowledged.

For more information on Ms. Boltjes’s work, visit: miek-boltjes.artistwebsites.com.

Fall Foliage

The images on show in “Autumn’s Beauties” were inspired by brilliantly colored autumnal leaves gathered by Ms. Kassof-Isaac, who is both photographer and painter. “These fallen leaves are jewels dropped,” said Ms. Kassof-Isaac in her artist’s statement. “The colors are blindingly beautiful. The reds run from blood red to glowing fire. Orange vies with red for superiority with yellow gold not far behind. The yellows move in, either turning to greens or brown.”

According to the artist, each leaf has its own finger print. She gathers and rearranges her finds into new patterns and combinations. “By turning a leaf over, we find colors faded, but still lined with delicate veins,” she said. “With light coming from above or below, the opaque or transparent quality is seen.”

The long-time resident of Princeton has been an artist for most of her life. Living in Switzerland and Italy for many years, taught her to “value the almost hidden secrets when looking at tiny veins, lines, cracks, breaks, textures and other messages in objects and things that surround us.”

While living in Europe, she graduated as a Jungian psychotherapist and is well versed in the healing values of the arts. She has worked as an art teacher, given seminars, and exhibited her art, and trained in art therapy. “Her photography is unique,” said Mr.Schwartz. “Since she paints on every photograph, each is a ‘one of a kind’ piece of art.”

“Autumn’s Beauties” is described as combining the art of the camera with the art of painting to make the lasting visions of the brilliant colors of fallen Autumn leaves.

Gallery 14 is at located at 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, N.J. 08525. Hours are Saturday, Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. For an appointment, call (609) 333-8511.

For more information, email galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.