July 23, 2014
The Bucks County Playhouse’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” will run through August 10 at 70 South Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Call (215) 862-2121 or visit BCPtheater.org for show times, tickets, and further information.

The Bucks County Playhouse’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” will run through August 10 at 70 South Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Call (215) 862-2121 or visit BCPtheater.org for show times, tickets, and further information.

The Bucks County Playhouse summoned all the appropriate muses last Friday night for the opening of its current production of Christopher Durang’s highly acclaimed comedy, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. It’s a wonderful script, cleverly combining Durangian absurdity and hilarity with Chekhovian references (starting with the names of the three protagonists), a certain tone of poignant melancholy and a richness of characterization.

Also intriguing is the notion of the playwright himself playing the role of Vanya and the proximity of the theater just a few miles from the “lovely farmhouse in Bucks County” where the play is set, with numerous local references, along with Mr. Durang’s usual vast quota of humorous contemporary pop culture allusions throughout the evening. Production values here are consistently strong, and the Bucks County Playhouse (BCP), refurbished and reopened two years ago after a two-year hiatus, seems to be on a roll with high quality Equity productions (Mothers and Sons, starring Tyne Daly premiered at BCP last season before debuting on Broadway four months ago). Marilu Henner and Deirdre Madigan lead a top-flight cast in Vanya and Sonia…, under the skillful direction of Sheryl Kaller, who also directed the debut of Mothers and Sons.

A beautiful summer evening on the banks of the Delaware seemed to indicate all the planets and muses aligned, but the mother of the Greek muses, Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, was a conspicuous no-show. Mr. Durang, at several points during the evening forgot lines, derailed in the middle of a long climactic monologue, and needed prompting from off-stage. His characterization of the middle-aged Vanya was appealing, mostly on-target and effective, and he has, in the past, successfully taken on major roles in his own works on stage, but here, the lapses undermined the power and credibility of the character and caused problems for both audience and other actors.

Tales of famous actors “going up” on their lines are legendary, but there is the inescapable irony of this happening to the playwright who created the lines, in a character who, like his creator, is a middle-aged Bucks County resident and who voices much of the playwright’s wit, humor, and attitude towards contemporary life. Spencer Tracy’s terse advice to actors — “Remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” at least the first part, is not to be scoffed at, and let’s invoke the mighty Mnemosyne to bestow her gift of memory on future performances.

The three protagonists here are middle-aged siblings, given names from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters — Vanya (Mr. Durang), Sonia (Ms. Madigan), and Masha (Ms. Henner) — because their professor parents were enthusiasts of community theater and Chekhov in particular.

The action of the play takes place in the sunroom, vividly and realistically presented in great detail in Lauren Helpern’s fine set, of the old family farmhouse where Vanya and Sonia have lived for their whole lives. From the sunroom, characters can look out on a pond, as they eagerly await — still waiting hopefully at the end of the play — the appearance of a propitious blue heron.

Early in the first of two acts, Masha, a narcissistic, movie-star actress who has been gallivanting around the world being a celebrity, arrives with her much younger boyfriend Spike (Jimmy Mason), an aspiring actor who was “almost cast in the sequel to Entourage, Entourage 2,” and specializes in taking off his clothes and parading around in his underpants.

Also appearing is a wildly dramatic cleaning lady Cassandra (Mahira Kakkar), who reveals an array of psychic powers, blood-curdling prophecies, and excruciatingly painful voodoo techniques. Nina (Clea Alsip), a star-struck ingénue from next door also drops in, much to Masha’s dismay, on invitation from Spike.

Masha, who has been financially supporting her siblings, announces — shades of Chekhov, and, yes, they do have a cherry orchard — “I’ve decided to sell the house.” Vanya and Sonia are devastated, but Masha, ever self-absorbed, moves forward with her plans to attend a local costume party as Walt Disney’s Snow White, with Spike as her Prince Charming and her siblings as attendant dwarves. She has, characteristically, brought all the requisite costumes with her.

As the action proceeds through the evening into the next day, Masha’s efforts to self-promote and hold onto Spike meet with some surprising obstacles, and Vanya and Sonia both experience potentially life-changing moments. As in Chekhov, in some ways it seems as if “nothing happens,” but indeed something meaningful does happen for all of the characters, and, in Mr. Durang’s play, those happenings keep the audience laughing throughout.

This vastly entertaining Bucks County Playhouse production in many ways compares favorably with the 2012 McCarter Theatre world premiere production that went on from Princeton to Lincoln Center then Broadway, where it enjoyed a long run and numerous awards including the Tony for Best Play.

Ms. Madigan’s Sonia is extravagantly funny and sympathetic, larger than life in her Chekhovian gloom and world-weariness (“I’m in mourning for my life”), delightfully energized in her anger and animosities, poignantly moving in her desire for love, attention, a life. She is especially memorable in donning tiara and sequins for the costume party to defy her sister and play the role of evil queen in the mode of Maggie Smith, then later in a tour-de-force extended phone conversation with her first-ever prospective suitor.

In the prima donna part, written for and performed by Sigouney Weaver in the McCarter production, Ms. Henner brings her own star-studded credentials — Broadway, movies and TV, most memorably perhaps in the long-running TV series Taxi. She embraces the aging, ego-centric starlet role with panache, and contributes a new, more appealing, more human dimension or two to the characterization.

Mr. Mason’s hilarious boy toy Spike provides an occasionally shocking, sexually-charged glimpse of the new generation and creates an entertaining incongruity in the Chekhovian setting and a source of sharp conflict for the older generation.

Ms. Kakkar in her flamboyant, attention-grabbing role and Ms. Alsip in a more understated, realistic part, both provide strong support and contribute significantly to the eventual outcome of events.

Ms. Kaller has directed with finesse, fine comic timing, and an intelligent balance between the serious and the hilarious. The ensemble interacts credibly and effectively, and we do care about these three engaging, aging siblings, as they struggle to work out their individual destinies.

This production does need the blessing of the goddess of memory and the advice of Spencer Tracy during the next three weeks of its run, and audience members who saw the McCarter-Lincoln Center-Broadway production will certainly miss the brilliant David Hyde Pierce, who originated the role of Vanya. But the script is a masterpiece of comic writing, one of the best from the pen of one of the finest American playwrights of the past fifty years, and Ms. Kaller and company have provided an evening rich in laughter and dramatic interest — well worth the trip to Bucks County.

 

For eleven years, a musical treasure has been taking place in Princeton in the summer. The Golandsky Institute has been presenting a symposium and International Piano Festival each summer, training artists in a specific technique known as the Taubman Approach, which develops virtuosity while preventing the injuries affecting highly-accomplished players. As part of the symposium, the Institute has presented public concerts to show off the faculty and talented students.

With the generosity of William and Judith Scheide, the Golandsky Institute took a journey through the history of the piano concerto in a performance last week at Richardson Auditorium. Last Thursday night’s “Scheide Concerto Evening,” offered two of the Institute’s long-time faculty members and two other talented participants in the Institute in four concerti spanning 200 years. Prominently featured were works by two of the biggest names in 18th-century keyboard music — Johann Sebastian Bach, who transcribed virtuosic works for other instruments to the keyboard; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who took the keyboard concerto form to new heights with an instrument that was still evolving.

Father Seán Duggan, a performance expert on the music of Bach, paid tribute to the hosts of the evening Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major a work originally for harpsichord and which was based on Bach cantatas first recorded by William Scheide with the Bach Aria Group. Concerti in Bach’s time were beginning to take the shape known today, with keyboard concerti characterized by virtuoso requirements usually seen from string instruments. Performing this concerto on a modern piano created a more powerful interpretation than Bach would have imagined, but Father Duggan’s playing was every bit as clean and precise as Bach would have expected. With graceful mordents and trills, Father Duggan well handled the virtuosity required of the work, especially in the extremely quick third movement. Conductor Mark Laycock kept the accompanying orchestra appropriately in the background, building tension between the strings and keyboard and elegantly bringing the music down to nothing to close the second movement Siciliano.

The other Golandsky faculty member featured in this concerto evening was Ilya Itin, a pianist with facility in all centuries of music. By Mozart’s time, the concerto placed certain expectations on the performer in terms of structure, and in Mozart’s case, melody. Mr. Itin’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major used similar orchestration to the Bach Concerto, but the lower strings in particular served a very different role, and all orchestral parts were responsible for line and drama. Mr. Itin perfectly matched the orchestral colors of the opening introduction and showed that he was capable of both a delicate touch and a forceful style within a graceful framework. The dialog between pianist and ensemble was exact, and Mozart’s humor was well brought out in the third movement interplay among the players.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich composed for a piano that was capable of conveying a full range of emotions and musical styles. An experiment by Shostakovich in neo-Baroque orchestration, Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra added the color of a brass instrument to the light instrumental character, with Mr. Itin again playing solo piano. The first movement seemed to incorporate a Russian folk tale, with a walking bass line and a musical atmosphere that was not as dense as other Shostakovich works. The violins of the New Jersey Symphony provided mournful tunes in the second movement, but with lean playing to accompany the Mr. Itin’s pounding left hand in the keyboard part.

The combined third and fourth movements were the most dramatic of the concerto, with the most virtuosic requirements of the soloist, and more technically demanding playing required of all the musicians. Shostakovich’s humor could be heard in the col legno playing from the strings, while Mr. Laycock kept the musical action moving right along. Shostakovich seemed to throw everything but the kitchen sink into these two combined movements, and the players of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, as well as Mr. Itin, had it all well in hand.

The two Golandsky faculty members were joined by two younger members of the Institute in the closing work of the concert: Bach’s Concerto for Four Pianos in A Minor. Originally scored for four harpsichords, this work was a transcription of a work by Antonio Vivaldi in its day, and in Thursday’s concerto showed all four players to be of equal artistry. Nathan Grabow and Sakura Myers both clearly have futures as concert pianists, and as the melodic material traveled among the keyboards, all players knew their roles as either featured soloists or harmonic background. Ms. Myers in particular showed a great deal of style at the keyboard as the concert closed with typically Vivaldi harmonic drive and intensity.

 

THIS HOMESCHOOLING GIG HAS SOME BENEFITS: Aidan (Zach Braff, center) finds that he enjoys reconnecting with his children Grace (Joey King, right) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) when circumstances force him to give up his quest for becoming a Hollywood movie star and homeschool his children instead.

THIS HOMESCHOOLING GIG HAS SOME BENEFITS: Aidan (Zach Braff, center) finds that he enjoys reconnecting with his children Grace (Joey King, right) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) when circumstances force him to give up his quest for becoming a Hollywood movie star and homeschool his children instead.

As an actor, Zach Braff is most closely associated with the character J.D. from Scrubs, the Emmy-winning sitcom which ran for nine years on network television. As a director, he’s best known for Garden State, the quirky, semi-autobiographical feature film where he played a struggling actor who returned to his hometown in Jersey for his mother’s funeral.

Wish I Was Here is more akin to the latter, and is a delightful family drama/comedy which Zach directed and stars in. He also co-wrote it with his brother, Adam, and the movie derives much of its mirth from Jewish culture in a manner evocative of Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man (2009).

The point of departure is suburban Los Angeles, where we find 35-year-old Aidan Bloom (Braff) in the midst of a midlife crisis. The struggling actor is on anti-depressants and is in denial about his dwindling career prospects, conveniently forgetting that his last role was ages ago in a dandruff commercial.

What makes the situation difficult is that he fritters away his time auditioning, oblivious to his wife’s (Kate Hudson) resentment. She hates being stuck in a stultifying government job where she’s sexually harassed on a daily basis by the co-worker (Michael Weston) who shares her cubicle.

However, she can’t quit her job because their children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), won’t have food on the table or a roof over their heads. As it is, they’ve already been forced to sacrifice some luxuries such as the built-in pool that sits empty in their backyard.

A change is forced when Aidan’s father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) suddenly announces that his cancer has returned and he can no longer afford to subsidize his grandchildren’s expensive private education. Not wanting to subject them to the substandard local public schools, Aidan grudgingly agrees to abandon his dream of Hollywood stardom in order to homeschool his children.

This turn of events provides him with an opportunity to not only have quality time with his offspring, but also to orchestrate an overdue reconciliation between his brother (Josh Gad) and their rapidly-declining father. Soon, adolescent Grace develops the confidence to blossom from a repressed wallflower into a show-off who is unafraid to wear a metallic purple wig, and 6-year-old Tucker finds fulfillment toasting marshmallows in the desert with his father.

By the film’s end, expect to be moved to tears by this poignant picture’s bittersweet resolution and its message about the importance of family.

Excellent (****). Rated R. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

July 16, 2014

book revJohn Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century — and lifts the hearts of the rest of us. 

—Studs Terkel

John Howard Griffin (1920-1980) is known best for the book that inspired people in his hometown of Mansfield, Texas, to hang him in effigy from a traffic light on Main Street. The book is Black Like Me (1961), an account of his six weeks in the Deep South passing as a Negro.

A decade before Black Like Me, Griffin’s first novel, The Devil Rides Outside (Smith’s, Inc. 1952), had created another sort of stir. Hailed by the Saturday Review (“This first novel has in it the power of life itself”) and the New York Herald-Tribune (“this big symphonic novel sets up a theme worth writing about and attacks it with passion, knowledge, and the authority of experience”), the Book of the Month Club selection sold well (400,000 copies in hardcover and paper), and later in the decade the critic Maxwell Geismar declared The Devil Rides Outside one of the best novels of the 1950s. Meanwhile, Griffin’s “long, strong, and tormented story of the war between the flesh and the spirit” was condemned by the Legion of Decency and became the subject of a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Felix Frankfurter: “The state [Michigan] insists that, by thus quarantining the general reading public against books not too rugged for grown men and women in order to shield juvenile innocence, it is exercising its power to promote the general welfare. Surely this is to burn the house to roast the pig.”

Blindness and Beethoven

The Devil Rides Outside is absolutely unique among American novels of its time, or any time, for that matter. How could it not be? It was written by a blind musicologist from Texas whose formative years were spent in France. Since he felt more comfortable speaking French, Griffin told the story into a wire-recorder each night, translating the French into English the following day and typing it. The blind author needed a week to learn how to get around on a typewriter and seven weeks to complete the first draft of what would be a 596-page novel. In Griffin’s autobiography, Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision, he says he began The Devil Rides Outside with Beethoven’s Quartet, Opus 131 in mind, “a work that I knew intimately. The characters enter as Beethoven’s themes enter and are developed in the same way …. When the thematics of the novel did not match the music, I changed the novel.”

A year before the book’s publication in 1952, Griffin converted to Catholicism, having written himself “into the church” by reliving in fiction his time in the monastery at Solesmes, France, and the Benedictine Abbey there, “the motherhouse of the Gregorian Chant,” where he had a cell and was allowed to work on various original manuscripts. At the same time,  his sight was “rapidly diminishing,” and when he became totally blind and could no longer work on the music, he experienced “an unexpected awakening to the realities of the spirit” that eventually led to a friendship with philosopher and longtime Princeton resident Jacques Maritain.

The problem with writing about Griffin is that his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction personal history diverts attention from his literary labors. This man’s whole life is like a novel written to enlighten readers about the nature of faith and vision in a world blinded and violated by prejudice. Born into a genteel Texas family that detested the vulgarity of racism but treated segregation as an absolute, Griffin went to France at age 15 as a scholarship student at the Lycée Descartes, then to the University of Poitiers in Tours to study music and psychiatry, becoming assistant to the director of an asylum where he experimented with the therapeutic effects of music, the Gregorian Chant in particular. With the Nazi occupation of France imminent, and having by then been shamed by his French friends into accepting that blacks were allowed to eat in the same restaurant with whites, he saw the lethal evils of another form of racism first-hand. Staying on to oversee the asylum when the director was conscripted, he joined the underground resistance, using the asylum ambulances to transport children of Jews out of Tours to the country and then to the port of Saint Nazaire. Discovered by the Gestapo while attempting to help an Austrian family, he escaped to the U.K., returned to Texas at the age of 21, joined the Army Air Force, was shipped to Guadalcanal, and then to the Solomon Islands on a special mission that involved living with the natives. Wounded by a bomb that caused the concussion that ultimately destroyed his sight, he married, had three children, wrote The Devil Rides Outside and Nuni (about his time in the Solomons), and in 1957, after a decade of blindness, he suddenly regained his sight and saw his wife and children for the first time. Two years later he dyed his skin and lived the nightmare of prejudice described in Black Like Me.

That’s only a shamefully superficial tour of Griffin’s “once in a century” life.

An Incredible Work

What is it like, then, this massive, passionately written novel? Right away you’re caught up in a first-person present-tense narrative that’s sustained throughout except for an 11-page past-tense flashback. The present-tense creates a sense of acceleration and sometimes seemingly involuntary forward movement. Griffin says he used it to “feel the immediacy of the experience in contrast to the eternal rhythms” of the monastery. He chose not to name his protagonist, intending his anonymity to match that of “those unknown masters who had composed the chants centuries ago.”

Knowing that Griffin, like the American music student who narrates the story, has studied Gregorian Chant, you become aware of the way the prose evokes a chanted rhythm that can seem alternately incantatory and prayerful; the effect is of intense, charged passages of prose encompassing long interludes of dialogue. In the notes I made even before I learned that he’d dictated the narrative in French, my way of describing Griffin’s often awkward, fragmented, unstable style was to compare it to reading something in a sound and occasionally eccentric English translation.

You can get an idea of what the reading experience is like in the following passage:

It grows late. Nothing satisfies. I open a volume of Rilke, but I can’t read. I stand at my window, nose pressed against the pane, breath fogging the glass, and stare down the street. Strange brassy tonality of the full moon, now breaking through the clouds onto clustered housetops: more abstract, more frozen than abstraction. We strive for warmth in color to forget these scenes, these moments, these liturgies of dissonance, these cold angles lost in heavy shadows, just as we try to live warmly to escape death.

It’s a passage in which you hear more than you see, with the “brassy tonality” of the moon on the other side of fogged glass, a moon that isn’t shining so much as blaring, an abstraction imagined by a man speaking into darkness, unable to make out the equally abstracted housetops. Rather than seeing color, he seems to want to wrap himself in its warmth. This is heavily, almost oppressively internalized writing, driven by a visceral “power of life,” that breaks through the divisions of the senses and not always gracefully.

“A frightful and horrible creature”

While the novel’s first third is essentially concerned with the American’s relationships inside the monastery, its most eventful scenes occur outside the walls in the town where he rents a room in a villa overseen by Madame Renée, a middleaged widow who sees to his needs, arranges for a maid, cooks delicious meals for him, and slowly, subtly begins to impose herself, body and soul, on his life. What begins as an innocuous relationship develops into a battle that by the end has become a matter of spiritual life and death.

The reviewers’ comparisons of Griffin to Balzac are inspired by the creation of Madame Renée, the embodiment of French subterfuge and perversity so vividly documented by the author of the Human Comedy. In his New York Times review, Orville Prescott refers to Griffin’s “gruesomely expert study of a hysterical woman consumed by vanity, hypocrisy, and old-fashioned meanness … a frightful and horrible creature, but never a monster. She is pitifully human, too.” He goes on to observe that she is “a character such as Balzac would have enjoyed writing about.” Of course Balzac, the master, not only wrote about such characters, he invented them and the France they inhabited, much as Dickens invented England.

In and Out of Print

The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown on this day, July 16, in 1951, was put into best-seller orbit by the Book of the Month Club. A year later, the BOMC did the same for The Devil Rides Outside. Salinger’s book has been read by millions and will be in print, it seems, forever. Unless you troll the net for a used copy, Griffin’s novel, which has long been out of print, is available only as an e-book. According to amazon, it can apparently be downloaded on Kindle for $7.95.

Anyone interested in knowing more about John Howard Griffin and his work should visit www.wingspress.com, which published the Kindle version of The Devil Rides Outside, along with other fiction, non-fiction, and photography by Griffin, not to mention a book I found especially helpful, Robert Bonazzi’s Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me.

Black Like Me promises to be in print indefinitely, however. A 50th anniversary edition issued in 2011 is available at the Princeton Public Library. In February of that year, 50 years after his hometown had hung him in effigy and driven him and his family into exile in Mexico, the former first lady Laura Bush came to Mansfield to unveil a plaque honoring Griffin at a ceremony sponsored by the Friends of the Mansfield Public Library.

Note: The image of the battered cover of The Devil Rides Outside shown here belongs to the copy I’d been meaning to read ever since I found it many years ago for 25 cents in a Hutchinson Kansas rental-library book store that was going out of business. My excuse for finally reading this amazing novel was due to an online error that gives Griffin’s birth date as July 16 when in fact it is June 16. Serendipity works in strange and wonderful ways.

 

DANCING SUNFLOWERS: Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo’s painting of this title will be among her works on display, along with photography by members of PEAC Health at Fitness, during the month of August at 1440 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the artist, visit www.artsbychristine fineart.com. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.peachealthfitness.com.

DANCING SUNFLOWERS: Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo’s painting of this title will be among her works on display, along with photography by members of PEAC Health at Fitness, during the month of August at 1440 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the artist, visit www.artsbychristine
fineart.com. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.peachealthfitness.com.

As part of its “Art on Display” program, PEAC Health & Fitness will showcase a combined artwork display of photography from PEAC members and paintings from local artist Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo during the month of August.

PEAC’s member photography exhibition will give PEAC members a chance to share their photography skills with others. “It’s a fun way to see the creativity and talents of our members,” said PEAC President, Michael Briehler.

In addition, Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo of Ringoes, will exhibit her paintings. Ms. Ochab-DiCostanzo has been interested in art since she was young, studied at the DuCret School of Art in Plainfield, N.J., and continually takes classes and workshops to develop her skills. She finds inspiration wherever she looks and believes that “art captures the love and feeling you put into it.”

She is a member of Artsbridge artist community. In April 2014, one of her pieces won the “People’s Choice Award” at the 28th Annual Byers Buck’s Fever Art Exhibition. She has also received Honorable Mention for the past two years at the Hunterdon County Library Art Show. This will be her first exhibit at PEAC Health & Fitness.

“Art on Display,” will run at PEAC Health and Fitness, 1440 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, from August 1 through 31, during regular business hours: Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information about the artist, visit www.artsbychristinefineart.com.
For more information about the PEAC Art on Display program, contact Christine Tentilucci, PEAC Health and Fitness, at (609) 883-2000, ctentilucci@peachealthfitness.com, or visit www.peachealthfitness.com.

 

 

What is enjoyable about the Princeton University Summer Concerts Series is that people tend to come as they are on a warm summer evening — anything goes with attire and the audience has an upbeat summery attitude. Apparently the Summer Concerts committee has also taken an “anything goes” attitude toward the ensembles presented, particularly stretching the imagination of the audience in last week’s performance of the Donald Sinta Quartet. Comprised of four highly-accomplished saxophone players, the Sinta Quartet took the instrument out of its more familiar jazz setting and showed that the saxophone can be just as virtuoso a classical instrument as the violin or flute. Last Wednesday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium took a “Then and Now” approach to the repertoire presented, alternating classical works (some arranged for saxophone quartet) and newly-commissioned pieces.

The combination of four saxophones is well known in jazz, and an element of casualness carried over as Dan Graser, Zach Stern, Joe Girard, and Danny Hawthorne-Foss sauntered onto the Richardson stage with their instruments. Freed by a lack of music stands, the members of the Sinta Quartet stood tightly together and communicated well throughout the concert, especially when passing musical fragments around among the players. The opening Quartettsatz in C minor of Franz Schubert was originally composed for string quartet, and Mr. Graser carried the long melodic lines well with the soprano saxophone. This instrument could reach quite high in register, and seemed to have two distinct colors — one for the upper register and one for the lower and richer range. The sound from the four players together was most remarkable when they played softly, capturing the Viennese flavor and subtlety of Schubert’s music.

The Sinta Quartet turned again to the string repertoire with a transcription of Barber’s timeless Adagio from String Quartet, Op. 11. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Graser described the saxophone quartet as made up like a choir (with soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone instruments) with the sound of an organ. The quartet began the Adagio almost imperceptibly, as the melodic line flowed from Mr. Graser’s soprano sax. The dynamic builds in the music were all the more dramatic because there was air behind them, and the quartet could uniformly break the lines with breath. One could hear a pin drop in the house during the rests, and tenor saxophonist Joe Girard combined with Mr. Graser for a smooth melodic duet.

The “Now” portion of the concert came from several very contemporary composers, including one commissioned by the quartet through a composition competition. Natalie Moller’s Phantoms began as if from afar, with a sound so well unified the instruments easily resembled horns. A haunting melody was played by alto saxophonist Zach Stern and one could hear more of the baritone sax from Danny Hawthorne-Foss than in previous pieces. A tenor cadenza played by Mr. Girard was definitely borrowed from jazz as Ms. Moller’s piece became sharper and more cutting toward its close.

David Maslanka’s 2006 Recitation Book draws on music from old sources for each movement, in the case of movement V, the 16th-century chorale tune “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt,” set multiple times by J.S. Bach. Mr. Maslanka’s “Fanfare/Variations on the Chorale ‘Durch Adams Fall’” recalled the majestic style of Giovanni Gabrieli, with superimposed jazz precision. Bach could never have imagined the sound of a saxophone ensemble re-interpreting his music or the musical idioms which followed the 18th century as this set of variations combined more 250 years of music history. The Sinta Quartet easily handled Baroque ornamentation, passing motives among all four instruments.

The Sinta Quartet has included film music in its repertory, with transcriptions of two selections from The Piano, scored by British composer Michael Nyman. “Here to There” and “The Promise” were played with chipper and bright attention to detail and smooth melodies. Speed Metal Organum Blues, which closed the concert, was a mix of several musical styles within the span of a minute, and one could hear the medieval organum influence, while the “blues” was led by soprano and baritone saxophones. This quick survey of musical history showed all the best aspects of the instruments and the polished manner with which the Sinta players work together.

No doubt many in the audience had not heard a saxophone quartet before, and certainly not in classical repertoire. The Princeton University Summer Concert series, known for the excellent string quartets in its series, stretched its range with this foray into saxophone ensembles, and the audience clearly enjoyed the ride.

The Princeton University Summer Concerts series concludes on Monday, July 21 with the Harlem Quartet, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Tickets are free and can be picked up at 6 p.m. the night of the performance.

 

LET’S PLAY THE WHAT IF? GAME: What if the Minutemen, shown here from a scene in the film, had not succeeded in repulsing the English Red Coats and England had won the Revolutionay War. That is the hypothetical question posed in the beginning of the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” The film, directed and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza makes the case that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a socialist society.

LET’S PLAY THE WHAT IF? GAME: What if the Minutemen, shown here from a scene in the film, had not succeeded in repulsing the English Red Coats and England had won the Revolutionay War. That is the hypothetical question posed in the beginning of the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” The film, directed and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza makes the case that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a socialist society.

What would the United States look like today if the Minutemen had lost the Revolutionary War and England had prevailed? That query is in the beginning of America: Imagine the World without Her, a right-wing documentary written, directed, and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza.

D’Souza, a political pundit who immigrated here as a teenager in the 70s, proudly wears his patriotism on his sleeve, announcing at the outset, “I love America! I chose this country!” before launching into an attack on controversial left-leaning leaders and public intellectuals like Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Eric Dyson, Bill Ayers, Howard Zinn, Saul Alinsky, and Hillary Clinton.

But he levels his most caustic remarks at Barack Obama whom he indicts as a liar by showing a number of film clips that show Obama saying “If you want to keep your doctor, you can keep your doctor” and “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.” D’Souza goes on to explain that the president’s behavior is part of a socialist conspiracy that is bent on destroying the capitalist system.

The movie is an attempt to prove that the United States is a great nation with no reason to be ashamed of its past, as suggested by detractors like Reverend Wright who is heard again in his most notorious sound bite, “No! No! No! Not God bless America… God damn America!” D’Souza brushes aside shameful chapters in our history like slavery and the slaughter of the Indians by arguing that there were just as many black slave owners as white ones, and that Native Americans had fought with each other for millennia prior to the arrival of European settlers.

His goal is to inspire the masses to rise up and save the country before it’s too late. I suspect that the movie will serve as red meat to conservatives already inclined to dismiss Obama and other progressives as communists in liberals’ clothing. Unfortunately, it won’t do much to encourage civil discourse or bridge the intractable stalemate between Democratic and Republicans sitting on opposite sides of the aisle in Congress. Fair (*½). Rated PG-13 for violent images. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

July 9, 2014

Record revArt is the most beautiful deception of all!

—Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Simplicity and truth are the sole principles of the beautiful in art.

—Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Debussy’s line about art and deception jumped out at me while I was searching for a quote to liven up a column on Gluck’s tercentenary. It’s one of those I-dare-you-to-dispute-this statements that gets your attention, starts you thinking, and then follows you around until you begin to distrust it. As for Gluck, Debussy has little good to say about him, far from it. The composer of Orfeo ed Euridice is “a court musician” whose music is tainted by the “pomposity of moving in such high circles.”

After bringing together art, beauty, and deception in the same brief essay for Musica (October 1902), Debussy bemoans the idea of incorporating “the everyday events of life in art,” which he hopes “will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.” Yet when taking Gluck to task in a snarky February 1903 Open Letter to “Monsieur le Chevalier C.W. Gluck,” Debussy chastises him for being so far removed from the everyday events of life that “the common people participate only at a great distance,” as if Gluck’s music were a “wall behind which they know something is going on.” Debussy won’t even give the man credit for conducting the first performance of Iphigénie en Aulide in his nightcap; that spontaneous assertion of independence was only “for the sake of pleasing” his “king and queen.”

On Beethoven’s Wall

But what of Christoph Willibald Gluck? What did other composers think of his music? Beethoven kept Gluck’s portrait on the wall of his room along with Handel, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, because “they can promote my capacity for endurance.” Mozart’s admiration is expressed throughout his letters. In Schubert’s diary, he contrasts the “pure, holy nature” of Gluck to Beethoven’s “eccentricities.” According to Johann Mayrhofer’s recollections (1829), Schubert was 15 when Gluck’s Iphegénie en Tauride left him “moved to the depths and to tears.” After that he embarked on “the keenest study of all of Gluck’s scores,” which “quite enraptured” him for years. As for Berlioz, Gluck inspired him to give up medicine for music. In his Memoirs, Berlioz writes, “The Jove of our Olympus was Gluck. The most passionate music-lover of today can have no conception how fiercely we worshipped him.”

Gluck’s Travels

Gluck was born on July 2, 1714, in what is now called Bavaria, his father a forester who became head forester in the service of Prince Philip of Bohemia and who expected his son to, as Gluck puts it, “follow in his footsteps.” But at that time music was “all the rage” and “inflamed with a passion for this art,” Gluck “soon made astounding progress and was able to play several instruments.” His “whole being became obsessed with music” and he left all thoughts of a forester’s life behind.

After studying at the University of Prague, Gluck turns up in Milan in 1737 composing operas for the Milanese Carnivals, before venturing to London in 1745, where the future mover “in high circles” decides to raises some money, according to a handbill he had printed, “By performing a Concert upon Twenty-six Drinking Glasses, tuned with Spring water … being a new Instrument of his own invention, upon which he performs whatever may be done on a Violin or Harpsichord; and therefore hopes to satisfy the Curious, as well as the Lovers of Musick. To begin at Half an hour after Six. Tickets Half a guinea each.”

From London he goes to Dresden, Prague, and finally Vienna to the Hapsburg Court where he becomes Princess Maria Antonia’s music teacher, though she’s not much good at the harpsichord. According to Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette, she was “a dilettante,” but she “had a liking for this seemingly fierce man, broad in the beam and jovial” and when she went to Paris, Gluck went with her. He’d written Iphigénie en Tauride, which he wanted to present in the French capital. When court musicians called it “unpresentable,” Marie “insisted it have a fair trial.” But “the unruly and choleric Bavarian, animated with the characteristic obstinacy of the great artist,” in Zweig’s words, “did not make it easy for her to advance his cause. At the rehearsals he berated the ladies of the cast so savagely that these spoiled darlings complained bitterly to their titled lovers. He dragooned the instrumentalists, who were not used to the demand for such exactitude; and, in general, played the tyrant in the opera house. His mighty voice could be heard resounding from behind the closed doors as, time after time, he threatened to make an end of the whole business and return to Vienna. Nothing, in fact, but the dread of the Dauphiness prevented an open scandal.”

Marie was steadfast in supporting “her bon Gluck,” made his cause her own, and seeing that the opera seemed to be getting a lackluster reception at court, she “loudly applauded every aria” so that the courtiers and their ladies had to chime in. Though Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride would be remembered as a “famous event in the history of music,” it was Marie’s triumph, the first time she had “imposed her will upon the capital and the court.”

The Wig

As for the nightcap Debussy dismissed so cavalierly, Gluck kept one handy because he was prone to throw his wig at the ground whenever the singers and musicians were not performing to his expectations. His wife Maria had to go to rehearsals and performances to restrain her husband “within the limits demanded by French manners, and moderate the hostility that the orchestra and above all the women singers show him.” No wonder. According to the account included in Michael Rose’s recent book, The Birth of an Opera (Norton $35), “Gluck’s impatience with pretension was notorious.” When the “eminent soprano” Sophie Arnould complained that the music was all declamation and that she wanted to sing great arias, Gluck said “To sing great arias, you have to know how to sing.” Rose provides an account that has Gluck running “like a man possessed from one end of the orchestra to the other; sometimes it was the violins who were getting it wrong, sometimes the basses, or the horns, or the violas. He would stop them short and sing them the passage.”

In time Gluck’s eccentricities became famous, the gossip going viral in the 18th-century Parisian version of the social media network. Accompanied as ever by Mme Gluck, he would be “bathed in sweat” and “had to be revived with hot towels and a change of clothing,” and when the rehearsal was over, “one could see great noblemen, even princes, eager to present him with his overcoat and his wig, for he was accustomed to throw all these off and put on a night-cap before beginning rehearsals, just as if he were about to retire for the night at home.”

Time to Listen

Earlier in the essay celebrating deception, Debussy looks back to Bach (“the essence of all music”) and the age when “music was subject to laws of beauty inscribed in the movement of Nature herself.” Listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Gluck’s arias from Orfeo, not to mention the overture to Alceste, and you’re hearing the essence of music and some of the most beautifully un-deceptive works ever composed. When a melody is close to the movement of nature, the effect is, for me, much as it was the first time I heard Orfeo’s aria lamenting the loss of Euridice. I had no idea what the words meant. I was in another room when it was playing and suddenly it was as if the music were coming from an open window on a street in another country, the prelude to a romantic adventure, a hauntingly beautiful song sung by a stranger. The effect was the same the first time I heard, really heard, Clair de Lune. The identity of the pianist was of no importance because in that moment, thanks to the “beautiful deception of art,” the music coming through an open window in some twilight dream of Paris was being played, thought out, composed by Debussy himself.

—Stuart Mitchner

Three hundred years after his birth, the glories of Gluck can be accessed on YouTube and Spotify. I found him the old-fashioned way in the form of the only secondhand record I ever purchased at the Bryn Mawr Book Sale, a very used, musty-smelling Bach Guild boxed set of Orfeo ed Euridice featuring Maureen Forrester as Orfeo and Teresa Stich-Randall as Euridice, with the Akademie Choir and Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras. There is an online version of the aria Che farò senza Euridice? from the 1982 production staged at The Glyndebourne Festival Opera, with Dame Janet Baker in her final operatic appearance singing as she holds Euridice (Elisabeth Baker) in her arms. The quotes from Debussy come from Debussy On Music (Knopf 1977).

As usual, I have the Princeton Public Library to thank for the numerous Gluck recordings I listened to and for Michael Rose’s excellent book.

(Image courtesy of The B Home Project)

(Image courtesy of The B Home Project)

An experimental project to design homes based on sustainable building practices is the focus of a gathering this Saturday, July 12, on the grounds of D&R Greenway Land Trust, from 5 to 9 p.m.

The B Home Project is described as “out-of-the box spaces made from reclaimed materials” as well as “a living arts installation.” These sculptural-architectural-communal dwellings are the brainchild of artist Pete Abrams and engineer Graham Apgar.

The structures are designed to provide low cost shelters with applications ranging from disaster relief, to eco-tourism, to alternative dwellings for under-served populations.

Built from shipping pallets and other post-industrial and natural materials such as steel pipes, recycled tires, and bamboo, examples are currently on display at D&R Greenway, including three single cells and one three-cell structure. At Saturday’s event, a transportable bakery and community gathering space, the mobile bread house, will also be on view.

The B Home modular shelter system was developed several years ago in collaboration with Princeton University professor Wole Soboyejo and the Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS) program. The idea is to provide a fast, cheap way to provide shelter and security for those in need. Unlike tents and trailers, the B Home is also designed to support a sustainable community.

As its name suggests, it was inspired by the geometric efficiency of honey bees.

“The display at the D&R Greenway is more of an art installation, although it was originally developed as an emergency shelter system,” said Mr. Abrams who lives in Princeton and works from a studio on North Clinton Street in Trenton. “I’ve been working on this since last August every month on the evening of the full moon. I’m a bit of a hippie, I guess, and the moon is a reminder of how much time I have left before my next effort.”

The installations can be explored outdoors at D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place (off Rosedale Road), Princeton through August 15.

For more information about the B Home Project, visit: thebhome.wikispaces.com/. To follow the project’s progress, visit: thebhome.blogspot.com or www.facebook.com/bhomenow.

 

TRYING TO TRAVEL INCOGNITO: Tammy (Melissa McCarthy, right) and her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon), set out on a road trip to Niagara Falls after Tammy’s life falls apart when she loses her car, job, and catches her husband sleeping with the next door neighbor. Since Tammy has no money and car, Pearl agrees to pay for the trip so she can escape from her retirement community, which she feels is like a prison for senior citizens.

TRYING TO TRAVEL INCOGNITO: Tammy (Melissa McCarthy, right) and her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon), set out on a road trip to Niagara Falls after Tammy’s life falls apart when she loses her car, job, and catches her husband sleeping with the next door neighbor. Since Tammy has no money and car, Pearl agrees to pay for the trip so she can escape from her retirement community, which she feels is like a prison for senior citizens.

After winning an Emmy for her TV sitcom Mike & Molly in 2011 and receiving an Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids in 2012, Melissa McCarthy apparently was able to write her own ticket when negotiating with the studios. She used that leverage to create a production where she would not only portray the title character, Tammy, but also make her screenplay debut.

Keeping it all in the family, Melissa had the studio hire her husband, Ben Falcone, to direct and co-write the film, which might not have been a problem if it weren’t his first time attempting either of those tasks. The upshot is that their ill-advised collaboration has produced a road comedy that has precious few laughs.

And in the process, the picture squandered the talents of an impressive cast that included Academy Award winners Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) and Kathy Bates (Misery); Oscar nominees Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) and Dan Aykroyd (Driving Miss Daisy); and veteran actors Allison Janney, Sandrah Oh, and Gary Cole. Unfortunately, the talented cast was given a cringe-inducing script that is more crass than funny.

As the film unfolds, we find Tammy having one of those days. First, when a deer darts in front of her car, she totals her Toyota Corolla on her way to a thankless job at a fast-food restaurant. Then, she’s fired by her exasperated boss (Falcone) for arriving late for the umpteenth time. On her way out the door, she launches into an expletive-laced tirade during which she trashes the premises in front of the mortified staff and customers.

Things go from bad to worse when Tammy arrives home earlier than usual and catches her husband (Nat Faxon) in bed with their next-door-neighbor (Toni Collette). Shocked and brokenhearted, she decides to take a break from her mess of a life, only to realize she can’t even afford to leave town because she has no cash and no car.

Her grandmother, Pearl (Sarandon), agrees to subsidize Tammy’s vacation provided she can tag along for the ride, since her retirement community feels like a prison for old people. The two set out for Niagara Falls and raise a ruckus at every port-of-call along the way, whether jet skiing, over-imbibing, trading insults, picking up strangers at bars and diners, triggering pyrotechnic displays, landing in jail, or crashing an all-lesbian barbecue on the 4th of July.

If only some of their sophomoric antics were witty or amusing. The film is a depraved escapade that will disappoint even diehard Melissa McCarthy fans.

Fair (*). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

July 2, 2014

DVD revI hate guns, have never had any use for them.

—Eli Wallach (1915-2014)

A week ago Eli Wallach, the actor who gave the world Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, died at home in Manhattan. Tuco was last seen, freeze-framed forever, shouting curses at the distant figure on horseback played with cryptic cool by Clint Eastwood, the supremely sane, enlightened Don Quixote to Tuco’s feral Sancho Panza.

Chances are there is no Actor’s Studio exercise for how to enter the body of a man standing on a crooked, creaking, perilously unsteady graveyard cross with a hangman’s noose around his neck, hands tied behind his back, a fortune in gold spilled out on the ground below, shining in the sunlight. As the wooden cross teeters under his weight, the noose tightening, he’s sweating, gagging, his eyes darting up, down, and all around, he can hear the caw of crows as he struggles to keep his balance. Lose it and he’s dead with his share of the treasure at his feet. Since the mere effort to speak might be fatal, he can’t talk, can’t call for help, can’t finish the word “Bl–bl–” for Blondie, the name attached to his only hope, the bounty hunter who has strung him up and left him to his lonely fate. There’s no hangman present this time, no audience as in the past charades of execution he and his fair-haired cohort played out in small towns  across the West. With the Bad (Lee Van Cleef) dead and buried after a trumpet-glorious shootout, and the Ugly teetering between life and death, the Good lifts his rifle, sets the sight, aims, and fires, the shot severing the rope, and down goes the Ugly, a 51-year-old Jewish actor from Brooklyn howling out the closing seconds of a performance for the ages.

Filmgoers may question Quentin Tarantino’s claim that Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967) is “the greatest achievement in the history of cinema,” but by now you’d think that anyone conversant with the motion picture medium would at least comprehend the possibility. The sad truth is that people who should know better still seem to be unaware of the magnitude of Wallach’s accomplishment, not to mention Leone’s. In the June 25 New York Times obituary (“Eli Wallach, Multifaceted Actor On Stage and Screen, Dies at 98”), there is only passing mention of the actor’s appearance in a “so-called spaghetti western.” In the late sixties it was worse; if you dared to enthuse about Leone to a “serious” film person, they’d have laughed in your face. No wonder Eli Wallach had doubts about what he was doing when he went to Rome in the spring of 1966, asking himself what does an Italian director know about westerns (“An Italian western sounds like an Hawaiian pizza”). But the money was good and he was curious.

“A Great Clown”

The notion of Tuco as a more villainous Sancho Panza was integral to Leone’s picaresque vision of a Mexican lowlife joining forces with a mysterious bounty hunter. The actor playing Tuco had to have a natural comedic ambience, a knack for one-liners, and an abundance of raw humanity to go with a crazed, unstoppable ferocity. Although he’d seen Wallach as a Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven, what convinced Leone was a moment in How the West Was Won when the bad guy played by Wallach amuses himself by pointing both index fingers at some children and miming the firing of two guns. People had warned Leone to stay away from Wallach (“he comes from Actor’s Studio”), but the director “knew he would be a great clown.” And something quite a bit more, as it turned out.

Wounded in Brooklyn

Long before Wallach had anything to do with the Actor’s Studio, there was Brooklyn. In his memoir The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage (Holt 2005), he remembers Saturday mornings at the Rialto watching westerns starring Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. One day after seeing a “particularly bloody” silent version of Beau Geste, “I lay on my bed and began to fantasize. Reenacting episodes that I had seen in movies always gave me a sense of power. I always seemed to be crawling around on the bed wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death. My light tan blanket was the Sahara desert, and I began crawling over the sand dunes … surrounded by enemy Arabs. Suddenly, a shot rang out and I was wounded.”

Another incident from Wallach’s Brooklyn childhood that foreshadows his penchant for darker film roles took place one stormy night when he saw from the front window of the family candy store “a man kneeling in the middle of the street, his hands above his head. Standing over him was a dark figure holding something in his hand.” Hiding under the counter, young Eli hears a shot, and is dragged to the back of the store by his father, who tells him, “You didn’t see anything.” Eventually the family moved from their Mafia-friendly neighborhood to Flatbush, where Wallach attended Erasmus Hall High School. From there he went to the University of Texas, as unlikely a destination for a Brooklynite as Leone’s west would be three decades later: “I felt as if I’d landed on another planet …. Here, everyone looked tall and strong, spoke slowly, and wore boots.”

Wallach’s time in the Lone Star State would come in handy. Though it was the low tuition ($30 a term) that made Texas his choice, he still needed to make money, and in addition to selling soft drinks at football games, he had a job working with polo ponies, which is when he learned how to ride; another job involved “sitting in the library typing up memoirs of old cowboys and their battles with the Indians in the Southwest.” More important still, after playing minor parts with a theater group called the Curtain Club, he was cast in the title role of Ferenc Molnar’s play, Liliom. Like Tuco, Liliom is flawed but essentially sympathetic, in  Wallach’s words, a “tough drifter … who got involved in a robbery, and was ultimately killed.” He felt “strong and secure” in a role in which all his “fantasies, dreams, and yearnings about acting came to fruition.” He knew “then and there” that this was to be his life’s work.

The Gun Shop

The scene where Wallach’s Tuco truly comes into his own as a character occurs in a gun shop run by a little rosy-cheeked Gepetto right out of a Commedia dell’arte farce. While the shop owner (Enzo Petito) winces and flinches and lovably rolls his watery blue eyes, Tuco, fresh from a desperate trek across the desert, rummages crudely but purposefully through the shop, swigging whiskey from the old man’s bottle while assembling the perfect gun and at the same time revealing qualities unexpressed until that moment; now you’re seeing an artist at work, as actor and gunman. Watching how methodically and expertly Tuco creates a perfect weapon, it’s hard to believe Wallach’s claim in the memoir that he hates guns and never had any use for them. His only direction from Leone was “to take apart some of the guns, then put them back together using different pieces.” Wallach writes, “I pretended to be an expert as I squinted through the barrel of a Colt … and spun the bullet chamber of a Winchester and put it to my ear.”

“Pretended” doesn’t do the scene justice. It’s almost as if Tuco were a musician tuning an instrument, gauging the pitch or timbre, which makes sense in a film lifted again and again to greatness and glory by Ennio Morricone’s score.

Ecstasy

In The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, when the composer wishes to express his feeling for the music of Christoph Willibald Gluck, who was born on this day 300 years ago, he writes, “An ecstasy possessed me.” Berlioz had been studying to be a doctor when he began to read and reread the scores of Gluck, which he not only copied and learned “by heart” but “went without sleep because of them and forgot to eat or drink,” so that when he finally heard Gluck’s music at the Opéra, he vowed to become a musician.

During the magnificent finale of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly something like a sonic ecstasy possesses the grubby, devious, scavenging, shifty-eyed scoundrel played by Eli Wallach. In fact, “The Ecstasy of Gold” is the title given to Morricone’s scoring of Tuco’s fierce, frantic run through a vast cemetery searching for the tomb under which the long-sought treasure is buried.

When Leone’s direction, Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography, and Morricone’s music come together, you find yourself in a region where ecstasy and euphoria overwhelm reality and it’s possible to imagine that Berlioz himself would be stirred by soprano Edda Dell’Orso’s wordless aria soaring over a delirium of trumpets playing at Dies Irae intensity as Tuco sprints, spins, whirls, through the immense landscape of crosses and headstones, his surroundings whirling, blurring, as if the cameras had been cut loose in the turbulence. When the symphonic juggernaut finally subsides, there’s Tuco, the unholy sinner, sobbing with excitement as he begins digging up the coffin he mistakenly thinks is filled with gold. After all the grandeur of the music, you’re down in the dirt with him, his story your story, you and the boy in Brooklyn who found “a sense of power” in movies and came home to crawl around on the bed “wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death.” You know what he means, you’ve been there. You feel like a kid at the grandest and most glorious of Saturday matinees, and the excitement has only just begun. Here come Morricone’s trumpets.

 

SCOUNDRELS IN COMPETITION: Lawrence Jameson (Steve Lobis, right) and his protégé ­Freddy Benson (Travis Przybylski) wager over who can first win over and extract $50,000 from a rich American soap heiress, in Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s revival of the musical comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playing in Hopewell.

SCOUNDRELS IN COMPETITION: Lawrence Jameson (Steve Lobis, right) and his protégé ­Freddy Benson (Travis Przybylski) wager over who can first win over and extract $50,000 from a rich American soap heiress, in Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s revival of the musical comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playing in Hopewell.

“What you lack in grace, you certainly make up for in vulgarity,” the suave con-man Lawrence Jameson advises his young rival Freddy Benson, as the two compete for supremacy in the swindling of rich heiresses on the French Riviera in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, playing through July 26 at The Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell.

A Broadway hit of 2005 starring John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, based on a 1988 movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels re-emerges here with a cast of seasoned area professionals along with a contingent of young and talented Rider College performers — all under the able direction of Robert Thick.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, book by Jeffrey Lane and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, is funny and engaging. But, like its main characters, a couple of scurrilous international charlatans, the show, under a veneer of suaveness and style, does at times lack grace, and it does occasionally push the boundaries of good taste with an abundance of silly shtick and bawdy humor. Mr. Thick and company have taken on a big, challenging, difficult production.

So this week you’ll get two reviews, two perspectives.

The Good News

The protagonist explains his philosophy of the art of the con in his opening number. “Give Them What They Want,” he says, and last Saturday night’s sold-out audience appeared to be thoroughly entertained from pre-curtain desserts to final bows, responding with frequent loud laughter and applause. The show is at times hilarious, as Lawrence and Freddy take on multiple guises and disguises in pursuing their romantic and financial interests. There is much clever dialogue, with richly inventive, amusing, and outrageous song lyrics.

The cast of ten is well rehearsed, extremely versatile — with most taking on multiple roles — and skilled in acting, singing, and dancing. The older veterans blend well with the energetic, attractive younger performers. The motley array of characters is interesting and engaging, the plot takes a number of intriguing twists and turns, and the evening passes swiftly and pleasantly.

Mr. Thick knows his craft and directs with a swift pace and a deft touch. The simple, brightly colored set design serves to move the action by spinning a large staircase and wall through 18 scenes, as the action shifts to different interior and exterior locales throughout the elegant Riviera resort town.

The music, though hardly memorable, is mostly tuneful, with at least three or four strikingly clever and entertaining numbers. The pit band, under the direction of Philip Orr, with three keyboards, a bass and a percussionist, is thoroughly professional and consistently strong in support of the soloists and ensemble members.

There are abundant reasons why this show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and 10 Drama Desk Awards and ran for a year and a half, followed by a year-long national tour from 2005 to 2007. But,

The Less Positive Perspective

There are also problems, with both the show itself and the Off-Broadstreet production. The humor misfires at least as often as it hits the target — sometimes just through inanity, sometimes in a tiresome flatness, sometimes in its tastelessness. The lyrics are often more corny than clever, the musical score fails to offer a single number that resonates in the memory, and there is some unevenness in the power and quality of the voices here.

Though Mr. Thick has indeed staged the action resourcefully, the seams sometimes show in this frugal production, as performers spread themselves a bit thin in taking on many different roles; the scenery — literally and figuratively — at times creaks; and what should pass for the luxury and polish of the rich and famous on the Riviera sometimes looks a bit shabby here.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opens with the debonair Jameson (Steve Lobis) in the process of working his art on Muriel Eubanks (Melissa Rittman), a bejeweled American heiress. Posing as a prince and aided by his friendly local gendarme, Andre Thibault (Michael Lawrence), Jameson has no difficulty in quickly acquiring the lady’s jewels and affections. “What Was a Woman to Do?” Muriel laments in chorus with a small support group of sympathetic women.

Jameson then decides to take on the coarse, brash, young Freddy (Travis Przybylski) as an apprentice con artist, and Jameson proceeds to demonstrate his craft on an Oklahoma oil heiress, Jolene (Milika Cheree Griffiths). In order to extract himself from an imminent marriage, he enlists the services of his protégé to play the role of the prince’s mentally defective brother.

Next to arrive on the scene is purported American soap heiress, Christine Colgate (Ally Hern), and the bet is on. Who can be the first to extort $50,000 from her? The battle of the two scoundrels quickly comes to a head in a dramatic Act One finale, as Freddy poses as a paralyzed wheelchair veteran in need of a $50,000 operation from a distinguished Viennese doctor. And who should suddenly appear at the Riviera resort, but Jameson in the guise of the illustrious Dr. Shuffhausen himself.

Both scoundrels are taxed to their limits in the ongoing deceptions, stings, and desperate battles for one-upmanship. No spoilers here, but more than a few twists and turns ensue, and the action-packed second act even features a comically romantic subplot, with Muriel and Andre, before it reaches its surprising finale.

As the aging virtuoso con man, Mr. Lobis is convincing, comical, poised, and consistently in character, with relentless resourcefulness and the requisite “supreme confidence.” His voice is sturdy and strong. His expressive reactions are fun to watch in his varied interactions.

He delivers his most memorable number, however, when caught in an uncharacteristic, serious, vulnerable moment in the second act, as he confesses, in a romantic ballad, that “Love Sneaks In.”

The rivalry between Lawrence and Freddy is especially entertaining, fast-moving and rich in bristling repartee:

“Freddy, what I am trying to say is know your limitations.”

“Which are?”

“You’re a moron.”

Mr. Przybylski’s Freddy, pink-cheeked and youthful in an over-the-top, rock-star mode with bouffant hair and aggressive demeanor, lives up to his billing of “Great Big Stuff,” as his hilarious signature number is titled. He threatens to steal the show with his energy and comical, larger-than-life persona (though his scene as the “prince’s” mentally defective, lascivious brother crosses the boundaries of good taste). He and Ms. Hern provide another highlight of the evening, accompanied by the vibrant, sure-footed chorus, in “Love is My Legs,” one of several amorous encounters during the evening.

Ms. Hern’s Christine is appropriately charming and focused, though not always strong enough vocally to embrace fully this powerful leading lady role. More successful, albeit in a supporting role, is Ms. Griffith’s Jolene, who plays to the hilt the bright-eyed, straight-from-the-prairie, husband-seeking Oklahoma oil heiress, complete with a chorus of country-and-western line dancers and a spoof on the musical “Oklahoma.”

Ms. Rittman’s Muriel and Mr. Lawrence’s Andre supply further strong support, some deft footwork, and a diverting, romantic second-act interlude.

Emily Elliott, Sarah Whiteford, Sean Magnacca, and Robert Risch, all first-rate Rider College-trained performers, make up the talented, attractive ensemble, taking on four, five, six, even seven different roles apiece throughout the evening. Julie Thick has choreographed the enjoyable dance numbers here, and, though occasionally spread thin — needing perhaps another member or two, this ensemble is vocally, dramatically and physically, kinesthetically up to the challenges of the demanding show.

Ultimately, Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s spirited, ambitious, at times scintillating production of this flawed musical romp provides a diverting evening. You might not find yourself humming the tunes, and you might not care too deeply about these two-dimensional scoundrels and their shenanigans. But, especially with Princeton Summer Theater dark this season, fans of musical comedy will find it worth the short trip to Hopewell to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and to celebrate Off-Broadstreet’s 30years (and 238 shows!) of popular, entertaining theater — and delicious desserts too.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” runs through July 26, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, and dessert served from an hour before curtain time. Call (609) 466-2766 for reservations and further information or visit www.off-broadstreet.com.

 

Princeton Festival is many things during its month-long season, including opera, jazz, and instrumental genres. Last Saturday night was the Festival’s chance to be choral, with a presentation of one of the region’s most successful youth choirs. The Keystone State Boychoir, based in Philadelphia, maintains a musical education and performance program for 190 boys (its sister Pennsylvania Girlchoir is equally as active), and 47 of these boys came to Princeton’s Trinity Church to perform a sampling of their core repertoire. Conductor Steven Fisher and accompanist Joseph Fitzmartin (also an arranger for the choir) led the trebles, tenors, and basses through an engaging program which thoroughly entertained the audience at Trinity.

Keystone State Boychoir prides itself on diversity of repertoire, and the program Saturday night was billed as an “Americana Program.” Perhaps acknowledging the concert venue, the Boychoir opened with a verse from Percy Buck’s “Oh, Lord God” sung by a clear-voiced soloist, together with one of the international anthems of boychoirs — C. Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem.” The “Evening Prayer” from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, led by two soloists, showed a free and open tone in the upper registers of the singers. The Boychoir recently paid tribute to 90-year-old American composer Ned Rorem, and the excerpt from Rorem’s What is Pink? was sung at a sprightly tempo, with a tricky piano part effectively played by Mr. Fitzmartin.

Mr. Fisher divided the concert repertoire into music for trebles, then music for the changed voices, and the remainder of the first portion of the program included familiar works for treble chorus, sung with a well-blended full sound and good diction. Alan Naplan’s arrangement of “Al Shlosha” demonstrated some of the best tuning of the concert, and Mr. Fisher used the acoustics of Trinity Church well in Michael Scott’s arrangement of the American folktune “Dance, Boatman Dance.” The Keystone State Boychoir clearly emphasizes showmanship in performance, which could be seen in their rendition of “Food, Glorious Food” from the musical Oliver.

The “Graduate Choir,” comprised of the changed voices, showed both creative programming and singing through selections from Broadway to old pop music. The young men of this chorus displayed good animation in a clever arrangement of the Everly Brothers hit “Hello, Mary Lou,” with Mr. Fitzmartin maintaining good command over the jazz elements, as well as a unique vocal treatment of the Arabic change “Zikr.” Several soloists in particular proved themselves to be well-trained singers throughout the performance, including Nick van Meter and Colman Cumberland.

The impact of participating in a children’s choir goes way beyond the music, and the members of the Keystone State Boychoir showed that text can be equally as meaningful. A set of South African music sung by the entire choir and dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela, gave the singers a chance to point the way to a global future through music. The Boychoir’s rendition of “The Circle of Life” was quick and smooth, with Mr. Fitzmartin once again revealing himself to be an amazing pianist. More poignant was Mr. Fitzmartin’s arrangement of Dan Heymann’s “Weeping,” which the Boychoir had augmented with added rap written by choristers.

As the Keystone State Boychoir prepares for its upcoming tour to Australia, the energy of the singers was infectious and their commitment to choral performance confirmed.

The Boychoir’s performance Saturday night also fit well with the mission of the Princeton Festival to identify talent and create the musicians of tomorrow.

 

LET’S SEE IF WE CAN FIGURE OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR PHONES: When all of their cell phones went crazy and “barfed” simultaneously, Tuck (Astro, right), Munch (Reese Hartwig, center), and Alex (Teo Halm) decide to find the cause of the disturbance. Their quest leads them to a remote site in the Nevada desert where they find Echo, an alien from another planet, who desperately wants to go back home.

LET’S SEE IF WE CAN FIGURE OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR PHONES: When all of their cell phones went crazy and “barfed” simultaneously, Tuck (Astro, right), Munch (Reese Hartwig, center), and Alex (Teo Halm) decide to find the cause of the disturbance. Their quest leads them to a remote site in the Nevada desert where they find Echo, an alien from another planet, who desperately wants to go back home.

Most people know that E.T. is about several kids who befriend an alien that has been stranded on Earth and who is eager to return home before suspicious adults can do him any harm. That classic film won four Academy Awards in 1983, and was even voted the best science fiction movie of all time in a recent survey by the web site Rotten Tomatoes.

However, if you’re too young to remember Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming adventure — or if it’s been so long since you saw it that the story is a little fuzzy — have I got a movie for you. Much about Earth to Echo screams remake, starting with the picture’s vaguely familiar poster that features a human hand reaching out to touch an extra-terrestrial.

Still, this remake refreshes the original by incorporating current cultural changes such as texting shorthand and the use of social media. So, when the protagonists communicate with each other, they often rely on inscrutable slang that may befuddle folks who are unfamiliar with the slang employed by today’s average adolescent.

As the film opens, we find the narrator Tuck (Astro) lamenting the impending separation from his BFFs Alex (Teo Halm) and Munch (Reese Hartwig) because their Nevada neighborhood will be razed in a week to make way for a turnpike. The plot thickens when all their cell phones inexplicably “barf” simultaneously, and they decide to try to find the source of the mysterious malfunction.

Equipped with a camcorder and state-of-the-art spyglasses, the youngsters ride their bikes into the desert in the middle of the night, accompanied by a rebel (Ella Wahlestedt) who is running away from home. Their GPS device sends them to a site in the desert where they find Echo, a cuddly visitor from another galaxy who, like E.T., is anxious to return home

The kids, of course, go into high gear to help Echo, keeping just a step ahead of the untrustworthy authorities. Their efforts lead to a satisfying resolution every bit as syrupy as Spielberg’s in E.T.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for action, peril, and mild epithets. Running time: 92 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

June 25, 2014

book revMusical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.

—Horace Silver (1928-2014)

You never know. Things happen. Life happens, death happens, music happens. You set out to write a column about George Orwell and a dog steals the show. Then a thrush. Then a jazz musician. It’s like the old line, “a funny thing happened to me on the way to —” wherever. Or like “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” the Rolling Stones song from 1967 that wouldn’t let me alone all last week. Now I know why. “No one’s sure just what it was/Or the meaning and the cause.”

Something Dreadful?

So there I am buried in books from the library by or about George Orwell (born on this date in 1903), skimming my way through the Orwellian universe with Mick Jagger singing in my head, when Horace Silver dies. Talk about parallel worlds colliding.

It’s like the moment in 1984 when Winston Smith hears someone singing a song composed “for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department.” Peeking out the window, he sees “a monstrous woman” down in the court below singing, in “a powerful contralto,” “It was only an ‘opeless fancy,/It passed like an Ipril dye,/But a look an’ a word an’ the dreams they stirred/they have stolen my ‘eart awye!”

The funny thing is, she’s singing “the dreadful rubbish” so tunefully that Smith finds it “almost pleasant” to hear.

You never know what Orwell’s really up to when he uses words like “dreadful.” Like the “something dreadful” that happens in his essay from 1921, “A Hanging.”

In a May 22 New York Times column about the “pivotal books” in his life, David Brooks puts the essays of Orwell at the top and dubs him “a master of the welcoming first sentence.”

While it’s mostly true about Orwell and first sentences, “A Hanging” has an undeniably unwelcoming opening: “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains.” The condemned prisoner is a Hindu, “a puny wisp of a man” whose mustache is “absurdly too big for his body,” reminding Orwell of a comedian from the movies. It’s a walk of 40 yards to the gallows and when at one point the prisoner has to step “slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path,” Orwell, who was an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in his twenties, admits that until then he “had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.” As if this were the essay’s intended message, Orwell expounds on “the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive …. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

But “a funny thing happens on the way” to the hanging, something actually not funny at all but “dreadful,” says Orwell, as a “large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah” comes seemingly out of nowhere “with a loud volley of barks,” leaping among and around the men, “wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together.” And before anyone can stop it, the dog makes a dash for the prisoner, jumps up and tries to lick his face.

For a reader, this sudden surprising departure from decorum is, like the woman’s singing in 1984, the opposite of dreadful; it’s the sort of thing only a comic genius with a view of life as enlightened as Chaplin’s might have conceived. The business about “a party of men understanding the same world” is exposition; the romping dog is life as it happens.

Everyone stands “aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.” One of the men escorting the prisoner goes charging clumsily after the happy animal, but it dances and gambols just out of his reach, “taking everything as part of the game.” Another of the jailers throws some gravel, trying “to stone the dog away,” but it dodges the stones and comes eagerly back to them again, “its yaps” echoing “from the jail walls.”

Since you’ve been reading a lot of very nuanced prose up to this point, the yapping, romping, gamboling dog is the equivalent of music, like jazz, “the sound of surprise.” At the apex of life-and-death solemnity, the uncontainable, irrepressible behavior of an animal makes you smile when you should be frowning, lifts your spirits when there is no earthly reason for that to be happening.

What does the doomed man think of this playful intervention? He looks on “incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging.”

It takes several more minutes before someone manages to catch the dog. Then Orwell puts his handkerchief through its collar and they move on once more, “with the dog still straining and whimpering.” In describing the grim business at hand, Orwell makes no further mention of the fact that he’s the one restraining the dog. When the noose is fixed around the prisoner’s neck, he cries out to “his god,” chanting incessantly the one word, “Ram! Ram! Ram!” No command has been given the hangman. Everyone’s waiting for the “Ram! Ram! Ram!” to stop. It’s as if he’s being allowed “a fixed number — fifty, perhaps, or a hundred … each cry another second of life.”

Finally the command is given, the lever’s released, the prisoner plummets, “the rope twisting on itself,” and at this moment Orwell lets go of the dog! All this time he’s been restraining the animal, the one lyrical, spontaneous, poetical element in the narrative, its unacknowledged glory, until the fatal moment wherein the dog gallops immediately to the back of the gallows, stops short, barks, and then retreats to a corner of the yard, standing “among the weeds, looking timorously out at us.” The last we hear, the animal is “conscious of having misbehaved itself.” The word “misbehaved” is no more to be trusted than the word “dreadful” here or in 1984, where such spontaneous behavior can put you in Big Brother’s sights and land you in Room 101.

The Playerrecord rev

Having compared Orwell’s dog to music, I may be straining at the rhetorical leash to intrude on the Orwellian moment by extolling the virtues of Horace Silver. But thanks to that half-Airedale/Pariah, it makes a kind of sense. Who else, after all, could do justice in music to such happy cavorting in the face of death but the composer of “Nica’s Dream,” “Peace,” “Sister Sadie,” and “Blowing the Blues Away”? The internet makes the accomplishing of such unlikely associations swift and seamless, as happened the other night when I went from a reading of “A Hanging” to the online New York Times headline, “Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead,” to YouTube, which instantly puts you face to face with the man who has given so much serious joy to so many people.

A wave of the iMac wand and here he is very much alive, in person, smiling out at you, in his early thirties, as ready for a romp as an Airedale at a hanging, a vagrant forelock drifting over his forehead, his shoulders hunched; this man is something better than handsome or charming, he could be a gypsy in suit and tie or a surrealist poet moonlighting on piano in a Latin Quarter dive. As he hovers over the keyboard, dark hair tumbling in further disarray, long stiff fingers driving the hypnotic riff that begins “Señor Blues,” this most cheerful and welcoming of musicians takes on the sinister aura of a demented genius capable of “seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding” the same world where “with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

Happenings in 1984

Things happen when you “read around” in Orwell. D.J. Taylor’s Orwell: The Life (Holt 2003) contains a full-page full-face photograph of Orwell’s first wife Eileen that stops you, holds you, and haunts you. Photographs of Orwell himself somehow never really quite happen or adhere; you have to search online to find a smile, which turns up, not surprisingly, whenever he’s shown holding his adopted son.

Look through 1984 and the words and phrases that are set apart from the text proper stand out, most obviously and famously, the slogans of Big Brother. Even more conspicuous, however, are the lyrics of that “dreadful” song (“It was only an ‘opeless fancy”) and the three words Winston Smith finds on a small piece of paper handed him by a young woman he hardly knows — “I love you.”

Life happens, death happens, love happens, and it’s love that seals Smith’s fate, that and the “torrent of song” poured forth by a thrush when he and his lover are standing in the shade of hazel bushes, their hiding place. The music goes “on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself,” a “flood of music” that flows “all over” him and gets “mixed up with the sunlight” filtering “through the leaves.” It’s a passage that might seem florid or cliched in any other novel, with phrases like “her body seemed to melt into his,” but this is 1984, where “pure love or pure lust” are impossible, where “their embrace” has been “a battle, the climax a victory … a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”

But not the singing of the thrush. That’s life as it happens.

 For a more in-depth appreciation of Horace Silver, see my July 16, 2008 column, “Charming Persuasion: A Stroll with Horace Silver,” http://www.towntopics.com/jul1608/book.html.

MONUMENTAL SCULPTURE: From left: a detail from Steve Tobin’s “Steelroot” sculpture, his cast and welded bronze “Syntax,” and his “Earth Bronze.” All are on view in the exhibition “Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin,” opening at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown this Saturday, June 28. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit michener artmuseum.org.(Photograph by Kenneth Ek)

MONUMENTAL SCULPTURE: From left: a detail from Steve Tobin’s “Steelroot” sculpture, his cast and welded bronze “Syntax,” and his “Earth Bronze.” All are on view in the exhibition “Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin,” opening at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown this Saturday, June 28. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit michener
artmuseum.org. (Photograph by Kenneth Ek)

For anyone who missed the incredible New Jersey showing of Steve Tobin’s work at Grounds for Sculpture (GFS) in 2012, the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown offers another chance to view art by this Bucks County native, including the massive Steelroots that dominated the GFS outdoor sculpture garden.

The Michener’s show opens this Saturday, June 28, and continues through October 26. It’s title, “Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin,” reflects the choice of monumental works in steel, bronze, and clay.

The exhibition features a broad range of the work Mr. Tobin has produced during the last decade including Exploded Earth Vessels, and Forest Floors from his Earth Bronzes series.

Curated by Museum Director and CEO, Lisa Tremper Hanover, the exhibition takes the Michener beyond its usual location and out into the community. In addition to works on view in the Paton/Smith/Della Penna-Fernberger Galleries, the Fred Beans Gallery, the Sculpture Garden and as part of the Outdoor Sculpture Program, the exhibition includes outdoor placements throughout Doylestown. Playing on the sheer size of Mr. Tobin’s works, Ms. Hanover has turned Doylestown into a museum by placing his Steelroots and Walking Roots in the town.

With the cooperation of George Ball, chairman and CEO of W. Atlee Burpee Company, she has also brought sculpture to the grounds and gardens of the nearby Fordhook Farm.

As part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program, free passes to Fordham Farm will be available from the museum on the opening day of the exhibition with the cost of general admission.

Mr. Tobin is perhaps best known for his epic work, Trinity Root, permanently sited at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway in Lower Manhattan. He cast the root system of the 80-year-old Sycamore tree that had stood across the street from the World Trade Center in the churchyard of the Trinity/St. Paul’s Chapel. First responders to Ground Zero had taken shelter there. Dedicated on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2005, the sculpture was “a massive undertaking of 20,000 man hours,” recalled Tobin in an interview for Princeton Magazine in 2012. “It incorporates the dirt and DNA of that place.”

Mr. Tobin’s work has been shown at numerous museums and outdoor venues across the country in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. His larger pieces reference Stonehenge and the monuments of Easter Island and the Great Pyramids.

Initially trained as a scientist, Mr. Tobin has described his work as closer to visual philosophy than art history. After graduating from Tulane University in 1979 with a Bachelor’s in mathematics, he studied glassmaking at the Pilchuck Glass School, founded by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly and others. In 1989, he became the first foreigner invited to build his own studio in Murano, Italy. By 1994, he was building his first foundry and casting in bronze.

Of the Michener show, Ms. Hanover said: “The soaring steel sculptures echo the stretched elegance of his early glass work; and the Earth Bronzes are filled with whimsy and capture the residue of a forest floor, complete with pine needles and insects. Visitors will be confronted with an array of exploded clay vessels that reveal majestic interiors of glass and dynamite-incised textures.”

Mr. Tobin has exhibited extensively throughout the world, including New York’s American Museum of Natural History; the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus complex in Los Angeles; and in museums, art fairs, and public sites in Italy, Russia, China, and Finland.

“I thank Lisa and the Michener for the opportunity of bringing it all back home,” said Tobin. “While my work has taken me far and wide, from the deserts of Ghana to the caves of Nutijarva in Finland, its genesis and inspiration originated in the treehouse of my youth, along Philadelphia’s Main Line.”

“The long arc of Steve Tobin’s success will be celebrated at the Michener with a dynamic installation that recalls his own roots in Bucks County and the Philadelphia region,” said Ms. Hanover. “We are proud to present Tobin’s work … to an audience eager to interact with articulate and engaging artists.”

“Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin” is supported by Visit Bucks County and an anonymous friend of the Michener. Along with the show, there will be a lecture about the artist’s work on July 22; tours of his Quakertown studio on August 21 and September 5; and contemporary dance performances on August 27 and September 21.

The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, Pa. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. from 4:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit www.michenerartmuseum.org.

 

BIRD WHISPERER: The endangered mangrove hummingbird is one of the subjects of Jared Flesher’s documentary “Field Biologist,” being screened Saturday at Princeton Public Library as a special event of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Mr. Flesher followed Hopewell Township resident Tyler Christensen in his travels through Costa Rica, where he found rare species.

BIRD WHISPERER: The endangered mangrove hummingbird is one of the subjects of Jared Flesher’s documentary “Field Biologist,” being screened Saturday at Princeton Public Library as a special event of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Mr. Flesher followed Hopewell Township resident Tyler Christensen in his travels through Costa Rica, where he found rare species.

While shooting the documentary Sourlands a few years ago, filmmaker Jared Flesher was having trouble getting some needed shots of birds in the forest. A friend suggested someone he thought would be able to help.

“He said, ‘You have to meet Tyler Christensen, he’s the best,” recalled Mr. Flesher, who has screened Sourlands and The Farmer and the Horse at previous Princeton Environmental Film Festival (PEFF) showings. “I got in touch with him and we went into the woods together. Sure enough, he found birds that would otherwise have been really hard to see. We got some great shots.”

A friendship developed between the two men, and inevitably, another film. Field Biologist, Mr. Flesher’s account of Mr. Christensen’s bird-researching venture to Costa Rica, will have its New Jersey premiere this Saturday night at the Princeton Public Library. At the screening, a special event of the PEFF, the two men will be on hand to answer questions after the 7 p.m. showing in the library’s Community Room.

Mr. Flesher, who is 31 and lives in East Amwell Township, followed Mr. Christensen, 22, a resident of Hopewell Township, through travels to the cloud forests of Monteverde and the mangrove swamps of the Nicoya Peninsula. In the film, Mr. Christensen comes up with a plan to try and help save the highly endangered mangrove hummingbird.

Talking about his colleague last week, Mr. Flesher was clearly enthusiastic. “This is a guy who loves the natural world,” he said. “When you go out into the woods with him, he’s an incredible communicator. He finds birds, bugs, frogs, and snakes, and he can tell a really interesting story about everything he finds.”

The fact that Mr. Christensen failed biology in high school is an irony not lost on Mr. Flesher. “Tyler wasn’t a great student. He didn’t really know how he was going to put his passion for nature into a career,” he said. “But he got really interested in studying birds. He just kind of traveled a bit, and did some rock-climbing. He was working at a couple of places in New Jersey doing bird-banding. He eventually decided to pick up, one winter, and head down to Costa Rica, and he started doing his own research on migratory birds. No background, no degree — just amazing passion.”

Field Biologist has dual themes. “There’s the age-old question of ‘What should I do with my life,’ and finding your way,” Mr. Flesher said. “And then there is the bigger story, which is that scientists say we stand to lose 50 percent of the species on earth in this century due to habitat destruction, climate change, and over-harvesting. There is definitely a bio-diversity crisis. My goal is to bring up some of these issues and tell the story through Tyler’s eyes, focusing not just on the problem but on why we should bother to save what we have left. It’s ultimately a positive story about the natural world.”

Mr. Flesher trailed Mr. Christensen in Costa Rica two winters ago. “We spent eight weeks there,” Mr. Flesher said. “The plan was ‘wherever he goes, I go.’ So I just followed him. We were chasing incredible birds, snakes, and butterflies. It was really special, which I hope comes through in the film.”

Susan Conlon, Princeton Public Library’s Youth Services Team Leader and the librarian in charge of the PEFF, said the showing of Field Biologist this weekend is part of an effort to broaden the popular annual event, which takes place in January. “We want to expand the reach of the PEFF and continue to screen even more films year-round,” she said in an email. “It is also exciting to have the opportunity to present new films like Field Biologist, and for the film to have its New Jersey premiere with us, with Jared and the film’s subject, Tyler Christensen, here for a question and answer session.”

Admission to the screening is free. Visit www.princetonlibrary.org or call (609) 924-9529 for more information.

 

“SUMMERTIME, AND THE LIVING IS EASY”: Clara (Brandie Sutton) sings a lullaby to the baby cradled in her arms in the opening scene of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” while the people living in Catfish Row go about their business in the early summer evening.(Photo by Costa Papastephanou)

“SUMMERTIME, AND THE LIVING IS EASY”: Clara (Brandie Sutton) sings a lullaby to the baby cradled in her arms in the opening scene of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” while the people living in Catfish Row go about their business in the early summer evening. (Photo by Costa Papastephanou)

Princeton Festival continued its season this past Sunday afternoon with a sultry performance of George Gershwin’s immortal opera Porgy and Bess at the Matthews Theater of the McCarter Theater Centre for the Performing Arts. Considered the first completely successful and truly American opera, Porgy and Bess was revolutionary in its palette of American musical styles and influences. Although its 1935 premiere was on the Broadway stage, this work’s operatic vocal demands ask much of the singers, but leave the audience with some of the great tunes of early 20th-century America. Despite its length (productions often cut material, mostly in the first act), Porgy has remained a continued hit on operatic stages.

Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk took a brisk tempo for the musical introduction to the opening scene (often pared down in other productions), and a set bathed in purple combined with sinuous dance sequences (choreographed by Graham Lustig) created a steamy atmosphere marking the South Carolina setting. Porgy and Bess has a number of signature songs, the first of which heard was “Summertime,” sung on Sunday afternoon by soprano Brandie Sutton as the content and matronly Clara. “Summertime” recurs several times in the opera (including in a poignant duet with Clara’s husband Jake) and each time Ms. Sutton sang with a full rich voice often accompanied by a sinewy flute solo.

For an almost four-hour opera, the plot to Porgy and Bess is a bit thin, and much of the work serves as a blend of American musical idioms — including jazz, gospel, and parable-in-song — and opportunities for phenomenal singers to present lush melodies and snappy rhythms. Princeton Festival seemingly spared no expense in bringing talent to this production, and soprano Janinah Burnett brought her experience at the Metropolitan Opera to create the role of Bess. Deliberately dressed indecorously, in contrast to Marie Miller’s subdued costuming for the first act, Ms. Burnett demonstrated a full command of dramatic and forceful singing while floating notes in the upper register. Most intense was her Act II duet with the dock-loader Crown, commandingly sung by baritone Michael Redding.

As Porgy, Richard Todd Payne brought a full sense of both jazz and passion to the role of the gentle crippled competing with Crown for the affections of Bess. Both he and Ms. Burnett sought to “bend the rhythm” of Gershwin’s luxuriant melodies, with both voices synchronizing well to create a heavenly duet in another signature song, “Bess, You is my Woman Now.” Mr. Payne also effectively found the spirited syncopated effects in “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” with a small battle of musical wills between Mr. Payne’s desire to stretch the rhythm and the Festival Orchestra’s quest for exact precision.

Bess’ attempts to follow the straight and narrow are not only thwarted by Crown, but also by the drug dealer Sportin’ Life, sung with animation and character by tenor Robert Mack. Dressed like the proverbial fox in one of the few costumes of color in the first act, Mr. Mack drew on physicality and comedic timing as he continually tried to lure Bess back to the dark side. Mr. Mack’s rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was full of lively animation, physical presence, and precise timing with the orchestra.

From chorus member through the principal leads, all singers in Porgy and Bess were required to produce, and the singers of this production did not disappoint. Soprano Reyna Carguill sang “My Man’s Gone Now” with luxuriance, while Kenneth Overton provided sassiness and attitude to “A Woman is a Sometime Thing.” As Crown, Mr. Redding was sufficiently menacing when he needed to be, showing a rich voice that would make one want to hear his next Don Giovanni performance. At full force there was a full assembly of people on the stage, with the chorus providing the fullest sound heard in a Princeton Festival production. Clearly allowed to sing with color and expression, the many singers of the “Residents of Catfish Row,” prepared by Gail Blache-Gill, showed power and solidity; even when humming, the chorus was vocally strong. The adult chorus was joined by an equally as strong contingent from the Trenton Children’s Chorus, prepared by Dawn Golding.

Mr. Tang Yuk kept the action flowing well as conductor, leading the Princeton Festival Orchestra through a score that was as complex as any orchestral score from the early 20th century. Gershwin incorporated a number of effects characteristic of the time, including the use of banjo, played on Sunday by Patrick Mercuri. A number of elegant instrumental solos and unique colors could be heard, including from violist Julie DiGaetani, flutist Kim Reighley, clarinetist Rie Huebner, and a trio of saxophones played by Jay Hassler, Josh Kovach, and Robert Huebner. Costume designer Marie Miller used a wide range of dress to convey the times and lighting designer Norman Coates complemented John Farrell’s practical and effective sets with lighting nuance. This production of Porgy and Bess was more than a handful for Princeton Festival to take on, but the singers and instrumentalists down to the last were fully committed to bringing this story to life.

 

I CAN MAKE YOU INTO A STAR: Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo, left) is trying to convince Greta (Keira Knightley) that he can make her into a super star. However, Greta, who just broke up with her boyfriend, has had enough of dreams of stardom and just wants to go back home to England.

I CAN MAKE YOU INTO A STAR: Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo, left) is trying to convince Greta (Keira Knightley) that he can make her into a super star. However, Greta, who just broke up with her boyfriend, has had enough of dreams of stardom and just wants to go back home to England.

Greta (Keira Knightley) followed her college sweetheart (Adam Levine) to Manhattan when he signed a lucrative record deal with a major music label. However, the overnight fame went to his head and he soon started to stray. This resulted in not only the end of their romantic relationship but also the demise of their promising partnership as songwriters.

Nevertheless, Greta is still very talented in her own right, which she readily proves when pushed by a pal to perform at a Greenwich Village club on an open microphone night. The haunting strains of “A Step You Can’t Take Back” catch the ear of Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a legendary talent scout who happens to be in the audience.

Dan imagines how much better Greta would sound if she were accompanied by a full band instead of simply her acoustic guitar. So, right after she steps offstage, he offers to help turn her into the next singing sensation.

But Greta is initially reluctant for a couple of reasons. First of all, she had just decided to abandon her dream of becoming a superstar and was on brink of moving back to England. Secondly, the solicitous stranger standing in front of her reeked of alcohol and looked nothing like a veteran music executive.

Truth be told, Dan was recently fired from Distress Records by his Harvard classmate (Mos Def), with whom he had co-founded the company. Furthermore, he misses his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) ever since he was kicked out of their house a year ago.

In fact, he was actually contemplating suicide until Greta’s voice gave him a new reason to live. Will he be able to revive his career and launch Great’s simultaneously, or will the ambitious endeavor fail miserably? And, will the two fall in love, despite the age difference, or maybe they’ll return to their respective exes? Those are the potential plot twists presented in Begin Again, an absorbing musical drama written and directed by John Carney.

The movie is reminiscent of Carney’s earlier movie Once, which won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Song (“Falling Slowly”) and then went to the Broadway stage where it swept the Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Begin Again is also about a pair of losers down on their luck whose close collaboration yields a cornucopia of songs.

Who knew that Keira Knightley could sing so well? Or that she was capable of generating palpable screen chemistry? Kudos are also in order for the top flight supporting cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Mos Def, James Corden, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, and CeeLo Green.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

June 18, 2014
The Astor Place Riots - The Macbeth curse?

The Astor Place Riots – The Macbeth curse?

The theatrical superstition known as the Macbeth curse has it that terrible things may happen if you say the name of the play offstage; to be safe, say “the Scottish play.” The legend of the curse is said to have begun with the first performance, at the court of King James in August 1606, when the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth became ill and died; according to legend, he had to be replaced at the last minute by Shakespeare himself. Inhumane though it may be to think so, that tragic twist of fate had its upside, since the Bard was apparently an esteemed actor, having played, among other parts, King Hamlet’s ghost. The prospect of seeing Shakespeare impersonating one of his greatest creations, and in Medieval drag, is amusing to imagine in this, his 450th birthday year.

Of course if any of Shakespeare’s works is likely to carry a curse, it would be the one driven by the prophetic ravings of witches. But then Macbeth has been anything but unlucky at the box office, witness the three productions playing in New York in the past year, a major film currently in production, not to mention perennial allusions in the news media (“The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock”) and the updated version of the fearful couple played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Penn Wright in the Netflix hit series, House of Cards. 

Amazing Space

Since Macbeth is wrapped in a language as often as not unfathomable to members of the audience new to Shakespeare’s music or else innately antagonistic to it due to boring classroom assignments, the challenge is how to package it, or how to most effectively exploit its horrors and wonders or even its poetry? Last year’s Alan Cummings version at the Ethel Barrymore simplified matters by reducing the production to a one-actor, one-act virtuoso piece set in a mental institution. Now, not five months after the closing of the Lincoln Center Macbeth, Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s you-are-there spectacular is playing at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue through June 22. In an online introduction to this, his New York stage debut, Branagh expounds on the theatrical advantages of the space, the military associations inherent in the massive Gothic Revival building with its vast drill hall once used by soldiers preparing for war, or coming back from it. Branagh and Ashford envision theatregoers being engulfed by the production from the moment they pass through the castle gate into “an amazing space, of amazing dimensions.” On its way to the heart of the action, the audience experiences the mist and rain of the heath, the world of the witches, wholly exposed to the “primitive energy” of the play, close enough to the battle scenes to see the sparks flying as swords strike swords. “You’ll be there in all the rain and blood and sweat,” says Branagh.

But will Shakespeare be there? The best of all possible outcomes would be for the spectacle and atmosphere to sustain the acting and the language until the audience is witness to “the things that make Shakespeare Shakespeare.” As Herman Melville observes, these “things” are not to be found in the “sort of rant” that “brings down the house” for “those mistaken souls, who dream of Shakepeare as a mere man of Richard-the-Third humps and Macbeth daggers.” Writing in the summer of 1850 shortly before embarking on his Shakespearean masterpiece, Moby Dick, Melville is talking about “those deep far-away things” in Shakespeare, “those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality.” Through the mouths of his “dark characters” Shakespeare “craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them. Tormented into desperation, Lear the frantic King, tears off the mask, and speaks the sane madness of vital truth.”

Macbeth’s truth is in all the “sound and fury” surrounding and speaking through him. Critics questioning his intellectual/poetical capacities make me think of the naysayers who refuse to believe that someone who missed out on Oxford or Cambridge was capable of writing the plays. How then to explain Macbeth’s claim to all that glorious language? In The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom imagines Macbeth’s “language and imaginings” to be “those of a seer,” the poetry coming to him “unbidden,” as with a fit or a seizure like the one that takes possession of the usurper when he sees Banquo’s ghost. Much as the poet and killer latent in the character of Hamlet are awakened by the narrative of a ghost, the poet and killer in Macbeth are spawned in the demonic realm occupied by the three witches, which, though they “terrify us by taking over the play,” according to Bloom, “also bring us joy, the utmost pleasure that accepts contamination by the daemonic.”

Bloom makes the point that while Shakespeare confers “his own intellect upon Hamlet, his own capacity for more life upon Falstaff, his own wit upon Rosalind,” he gives Macbeth “what might be called the passive element in his own imagination.” This sounds like the area Melville has in mind when he speaks of “those deep far-away things,” and like what Keats is thinking of when he speaks of Negative Capability, the quality “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.”

In the Mines of Macbeth

As a Rutgers graduate student in David Kalstone’s Shakespeare class, I happily submerged myself in the reading, with Macbeth and Hamlet the high points. But when it came to the moment of dissertation truth, I couldn’t get past the base camp on Mt. Hamlet. For Macbeth, I lowered myself down into the mines, way way down. My ravaged copy of the Yale paperback is a ballpoint-spattered chaos, all ink-specks and scribbles. This is where you set the theatrical and historical reality to one side because on the page it’s all Shakespeare. No special effects. No legends or curses. It’s the word, the word, and nothing but the word. “Close reading,” they called it. In fact, the notion became so much a part of your approach to life that on long walks you would find yourself close-reading nature or even the gritty sidewalks of New Brunswick.

Close reading develops a species of know-it-all arrogance in the student with the leaky ballpoint. What fools those mortals be, namely the mandated custodians of the text who sleep through their watch, allowing alien subversions and perversions of the Word. The most egregious example of a rent in the fabric of Macbeth occurs in the first scene of Act IV, when, after Shakespeare’s truly written third witch adds to the pot “maw and gulf/Of the ravined salt-sea shark” along with “Finger of birth-strangled babe/Ditch delivered by a drab,” a bogus Heccat enters, reducing the infernal brew to a children’s naptime sing-along, “And now about the cauldron sing, Like elves and fairies in a ring,/Enchanting all that you put in.” Though he knows the passage is spurious, Eugene M. Waith, the editor of the Yale Shakespeare, leaves it there to be pounced on by the vigilant grad student scoring and circling and exclaiming, “not WS!”

 A Deadly Riot

A few days prior to the May 1849 Astor Place Riots described at length in James Shapiro’s new anthology Shakespeare in America (Library of America $29.95), Herman Melville and Washington Irving were among the signers of a petition addressed to the Scottish actor William Macready, whose performance of Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House had been savaged by the hisses, threats, and cat-calls from supporters of his American rival, Edwin Forrest, who was across town playing the same role at a less elegant venue. When Macready refused to be driven from the stage, rotten eggs, and coins and chairs were thrown, and the police finally stopped the show. Macready had planned to take the next boat home until he received the petition, which requested him to reconsider his decision, and assured him “that the good sense and respect for order, prevailing in this community, will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performances.”

Macready was convinced, another performance was announced, and the city geared up for a riot. Though the chief of police had 900 policemen at his disposal, he called in the militia, with the result that among the thousands mobbing the streets around the Opera House, 22 people, including a number of innocent bystanders, were killed. One can’t help wondering if the rioting would have led to fatalities on the same scale had another less curse-plagued play been on the stage of the Opera House. Few lines in Hamlet or Othello seem as creepy, as ominous, as inviting of catastrophe, as the Second Witch’s “By the pricking of my thumbs,/Something wicked this way comes.”

Voodoo Claims a Critic

Another bizarre instance that believers in the Macbeth curse could cite is described in John Houseman’s account of the Negro Theatre production overseen by Houseman and directed by 20-year-old “boy wonder” Orson Welles. Known as the Vodoo Macbeth (all-black cast, Haitian setting, a troupe of African drummers including an authentic witch doctor, the sacrifice of five goats), the play that opened on April 14, 1935 at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre and received generally good notices, with the notable exception of one by the Herald Tribune’s Percy Hammond, who panned the performance, calling it “an exhibition of deluxe boondoggling.” Housman describes Hammond’s piece as a political polemic “savage but eloquent” and as a theatrical notice, “irrelevant and malignant.” While the producers were not “unduly disturbed” by the wording, the witch doctor and members of the drum troupe solemnly informed Houseman that they believed the review to be “an evil one, the work of an enemy, a bad man.” A day later the newspapers announced the sudden illness of the well-known critic Percy Hammond, “who died some days later — of pneumonia, it was said.”

Once again this ongoing celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary would not be possible without the Library of America’s anthology, Shakespeare in America, which includes Melville’s unsigned love letter to Hawthorne (“Hawthorne and his Mosses”), from which the quotes about Shakespeare are taken, as well as the information about the Astor Place Riots and John Houseman’s essay on the Voodoo Macbeth, “Run-Through.”

 

SPECIES ON THE EDGE: Calendar Cover Atlantic Green Sea Turtle by Roslynn Jumbo of Essex County’s Ann Street School, Newark.(Photo Courtesy of Ann Street School, Newark)

SPECIES ON THE EDGE: Calendar Cover Atlantic Green Sea Turtle by Roslynn Jumbo of Essex County’s Ann Street School, Newark. (Photo Courtesy of Ann Street School, Newark)

 

An exhibition of artwork by New Jersey fifth graders will be on display in the Olivia Rainbow Gallery at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, through Friday, August 29.

“The Best of Species on the Edge” calls attention to the state’s endangered and threatened wildlife and features work submitted by the state’s fifth-grade students to the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

Conserve Wildlife’s Maria Grace has selected the best of the submissions from 2008 to 2013 for this show. Ms. Grace is the Foundation’s departing Education and Outreach Manager and the show includes an arresting array of personal favorites of winning wildlife art by fifth graders from every New Jersey county.

Named in memory of Olivia Kuenne, the Olivia Rainbow Gallery presents children’s art. Among the items currently on view are multiple winners from Mercer, Hunterdon, Middlesex, and Somerset counties.

They include a bobcat by a Warren County home-schooled student, Joseph Hernandez. It is part of an array of bobcat images that Ms. Grace has curated in order to remind viewers that this elusive wild creature can be found in healthy habitat in our state, primarily the northwest section.

Conserve Wildlife publishes an annual calendar of winners and the 2014 cover image is “Atlantic Green Sea Turtle,” by Roslynn Jumbo, a student at Essex County’s Ann Street School, of Newark. Her fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Cardoso and free copies of the calendar may be obtained at the D&R Greenway gallery.

Also on view are images of the elusive Pine Barrens tree frog, peregrine falcon, shortnose sturgeon, and timber rattlesnake. The variety of subjects and lively representations are tributes to New Jersey’s fifth-grade teachers, as well as to Maria Grace’s management of this program over her years as Education and Outreach Manager.

D&R Greenway exhibits this art annually, joining with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation, to call attention to the urgency and importance of preserving Garden State habitat for all creatures. New Jersey is home to over 80 endangered and threatened species of wildlife. It is not unusual for this contest to result in over 2,000 entries.

““Best of ‘Species on the Edge’” in the Olivia Rainbow Gallery, D&R Greenway Land Trust can be viewed weekdays during business hours. Admission is free, open to public, no need to call for availability. For more information on Conserve Wildlife Foundation of N.J., visit: www.conservewild
lifenj.org; For more on the D&R Greenway Land Trust, call (609) 924-4646, or visit: www.drgreenway.org.

———

 

It is summer in Princeton, and one again, William and Judith Scheide are in a sharing mood. To the delight of Princeton choral aficionados, the Scheides brought the renowned Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, led by the equally as renowned conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, to New Jersey. But, as Judith Scheide explained in her pre-concert remarks, this performance was about more than the music.

Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium was in part inspired by a portrait of J.S. Bach, painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in the 1740s and lost to obscurity after Bach’s death in 1750. The portrait resurfaced in the early 1800s, and like the legendary red violin was passed down through generations until it was smuggled out of pre-World War II Germany to England, where it hung in the home of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. In 1951, William Scheide bought the portrait for his own home, and in Judith Scheide’s view, Sunday’s concert brought together all parties in this painting story to one place to celebrate the musical master himself. Also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Monteverdi Choir, Mr. Gardiner presented an identical program to one performer earlier this year at London’s Buckingham Palace.

Mr. Gardiner is known for 18th-century performance practice, and his choice of Bach and Handel was right in the wheelhouse of the two performing ensembles involved. Bach’s double-chorus motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied requires singers to perform as instruments, executive coloratura passages at top speed, simultaneously phrasing lyrical melodic lines high in the vocal register. With counterpoint that was so clear one could take dictation from it, the thirty members of the Monteverdi Choir presented Bach’s music with precision and transparency. Throughout the motet, Mr. Gardiner led the choir through smooth transitions among the movements, emphasizing key words in the text while maintaining an overall orchestral character. Accompanied by two celli, double bass, and keyboard continuo, the soprano parts of the two choirs were equal in suppleness, and a gentler tempo to the middle movement made the closing “Alleluia” all that more effective.

Bach’s Cantata #4, Christ lag in Todesbanden, may have seemed a dark work to pair with the joyful Singet dem Herrn, but under Mr. Gardiner’s leadership, the cantata became dramatic and full of emotion not seen in choral music until 50 years after Bach. Beginning with the opening Chorale, in which repeated phrases were sung with innovative dynamics, the eight movement cantata became at times a quiet conversation between singers and instrumentalists, rising in volume on such text as “er ist wieder erstanden” (“He has risen again”). The players of the English Baroque Soloists played every phrase with character, often reducing the sound to almost nothing, together with the chorus, at the “Alleluia” which closed each movement.

Rather than use individual vocal soloists for some of the movements, Mr. Gardiner used the full choral sections. Most impressive were the tenor and bass sections, which sang with completely unified sound among the six singers in each of the sections, with the violins playing passages that would rival any of Bach’s most intricate instrumental music. In the fifth movement’s mostly a cappella chorus, one could easily hear the struggle between Life and Death, as the closing “Alleluia” dissipated as if overseeing carnage on a battlefield.

The music of G.F. Handel was innately more vocal than that of Bach, due to Handel’s extensive work in opera. However, as Mr. Gardiner pointed out in his comments, Handel could also require great virtuosity of string players, and the 1707 Dixit Dominus was a true concerto for voices in its time. With the Monteverdi Choir, Mr. Gardiner took a symphonic approach to the piece from the outset, with a first movement full of operatic nuance and dynamic variety. The top soprano choral sound had a fierce edge that could well have taken paint off the wall with its intensity, and such phrases as “conquasabit capita” were sung with such brutality one could hear the smiting of the enemy.

The performance included five vocal soloists, all of whom sang with the clarity for which British choirs are known. Sopranos Katy Hill and Emilia Morton sang with refined color, with Ms. Hill never seeming to run out of air in her triplet-filled aria. Soprano Esther Brazil sang the mezzo-soprano solos expressively, and with Ms. Morton, sang a duet full of sharp intensity. Tenors Guy Cutting and Peter Harris, along with bass Alexander Ashworth rounded out a vocal quintet which had both solo and choral lines well in hand. The dramatic close to the work brought the audience to its feet, showing the great appreciation for choral music which exists in the Princeton area, and in particular for this small sampling of the rich palette the British choral tradition has to offer.

 

WE FINALLY HIT THE BIG TIME: The quartet The Four Seasons (from left Michael Lomenda as Nick Mazzi, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito) are shown here performing in a television studio. The group quickly rose to superstardom thanks to Frankie’s unique falsetto voice.

WE FINALLY HIT THE BIG TIME: The quartet The Four Seasons (from left Michael Lomenda as Nick Mazzi, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito) are shown here performing in a television studio. The group quickly rose to superstardom thanks to Frankie’s unique falsetto voice.

Francesco Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) was born on the wrong side of the tracks of Newark, New Jersey where he was raised in a public housing project that was controlled by the mob. As a rebellious adolescent he started hanging out with the hoodlums in his Italian neighborhood in spite of his mother’s (Kathrine Narducci) objections. She was afraid that her son was either going to wind up dead or in jail.

Even though Castellucion was eventually arrested for burglary, he managed to evade imprisonment at age 16 when a lenient judge let him off with a stern warning. His saving grace would turn out to be that distinctive falsetto that in 1962 catapulted him to the heights of superstardom as Frankie Valli, the front man of The Four Seasons.

His meteoric rise, self-destruction, and resurrection are the subject of Jersey Boys, a scintillating spectacular with a jukebox soundtrack featuring all of the group’s hits. Directed by Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood (for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), the entertaining biopic is based on the play of the same name which won four Tonys in 2006, including Best Musical.

The picture stars Tony winner John Lloyd Young (for Best Actor in a Musical) who originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway. The rest of The Four Seasons are played by Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, and Michael Lomenda as Nick Mazzi.

Other pivotal cast members include Renee Marino as Frankie’s long-suffering wife, Freya Tingley as his neglected daughter, and Joey Russo as his childhood pal Joe Pesce. Oscar winner Christopher Walken (for The Deer Hunter) steals every scene he’s in. He plays Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, the mafia don who ran the Genovese crime family’s loan sharking operations back in the 60s.

However, the real appeal of the movie is in the tunes, whose derivations are often implied or expressly explained. For example, Bob was presumably inspired to compose “Big Girls Don’t Cry” after watching Kirk Douglas slap Jan Sterling in the face in the film, Ace in the Hole.

The cast performs all of the songs themselves, from “Sherry” to “Dawn” to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to “Rag Doll” to “Who Loves You?” to “Working My Way Back to You” to “Walk Like a Man” to “Oh, What a Night!” and beyond. Who knew The Four Seasons had so many hits?

Excellent (****). Rated R for pervasive profanity. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

June 11, 2014

dvd revI fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

—Maureen Dowd

Like Maureen Dowd, who gave a shout-out for Game of Thrones in her April 6 New York Times column (“Bring Me My Dragons!”), I came to the HBO phenomenon reluctantly. Besides being generally indifferent to the fantasy genre, I’d heard nothing about the series to suggest that it would become as addictive as Breaking Bad was last year.

There was a moment in the saga of Walter White when he went over to the dark side as surely as though a bell had tolled his passage, and we began to care less and less about what happened to him even as we continued, fascinated, to follow him to his fate. With Season Four of Game of Thrones approaching its final episode, we’re caring more and more about Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, who was born on the dark side and is staying there, as he tells the love of his life when explaining why he can’t abandon the Lannisters: “These bad people — it’s what I’m good at, out-talking them, out-thinking them.” Now that his fate is in the hands of his father and his sister, who both loathe him, viewers have reason to wonder if Tyrion will survive the season, especially in view of what’s happened to other seemingly indispensable players in the series. While it’s true that the word of mouth about last season’s penultimate shocker, Red Wedding, brought many new viewers into the fold, it isn’t gore alone that’s lifting HBO’s Game of Thrones above mere sports events in the cable ratings, it’s the ongoing mortal threat looming over this witty, snarky, supremely articulate dwarf. If anyone is carrying the series these days, it’s the show’s most diminutive character, its imp genius, bastard prince, and most charming rogue.

The June 11 Club

Peter Dinklage will celebrate his 45th birthday today, June 11, 2014. While other members of the June 11 club are an illustrious lot that includes the likes of Ben Jonson, John Constable, Richard Strauss, and William Styron, Dinklage is happening here and now, a man of the moment coming into his own as an actor and a star, and if that weren’t enough, he’s a New Jersey native, born in Morristown. From all indications, Dinklage’s Tyrion is a Renaissance man who belongs in the company of his great birthmates. Given his talent as an actor, his mastery of abusive phrasing, he could do wonders with Ben Jonson’s comic invective. As someone who conceived and drew up the plans for an apparatus to make it possible for the crippled son of a rival family to ride a horse, he might have more in common with DaVinci than with Constable, although since he’s a man of vision and imagination with a gift for the grotesque (witness his disquisition on beetles in a recent episode), he might have more in common with Hieronymous Bosch. As for Strauss, who else but Tyrion is capable of an opera based on the Lannisters?  And in the unlikely event that he lives to a ripe old age, imagine the novel he could write (call it Tyrion’s Choice), he who when asked why he’s always reading a book, says that his brother, Jaime, has his swords “and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”

Saver of Lives

Match Jaime’s warrior’s heart with Tyrion’s cutting-edge mind and nimble tongue and who knows, they may well prevail against odds in the latest crisis. You could lose count of the number of times Tyrion has saved his own life with his wit and cunning, but then he’s already saved more than his share of lives in Game of Thrones. Besides saving various members of that despised rival family such as Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow and wife Lady Catelyn Stark, he rescues Ned’s sweet, virginal daughter Sansa from torture at the hands of the monstrous boy-king usurper Joffrey; saves his own bodyguard the sellsword Bronn; he even saves his horrible nephew, father, and sister by shrewdly and heroically (in his own bizarre way) commanding the defense of King’s Landing against the army of Stannis Baratheon. Though he may whore and drink and discourse obscenely and outrageously, even at the point of death (as he does with devastating effect in the first of two trumped-up trials), all in all, he’s a true knight.

Tyrion’s secret, as he confides to Jon Snow, is to be himself. “Let me tell you something, Bastard. Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.” When Jon asks him what he knows about being a bastard, Tyrion replies, “All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

Quite a Large Man

The essential ironic dynamic of Game of Thrones is that its largest character is a dwarf. Dipping into the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic, which I may yet actually read, I found a passage where Lord Tyrion is visiting the Night Watch at the Wall, showing off his wit to the point where some members of the Watch think he may be mocking “their noble purpose.” After saying “We all need to be mocked from time to time,” Tyrion asks for more wine; when someone observes that he has “a great thirst for a small man,” Aemon Targaryen, the ancient blind maester of the Watch, declares that Lord Tyrion “is quite a large man … a giant come among us here at the end of the world.” Surprised, Tyrion says he has been “called many things, but giant is seldom one of them.” Looking in the direction of Tyrion’s voice, Master Aemon repeats, “Nonetheless, I think it is true.”

Aemon only says what he hears, and he hears a man who can out-talk and out-think (and out-act) anyone.

If Tyrion is a giant among those playing the Game, Peter Dinklage is becoming a giant among actors, with both a Golden Globe and an Emmy to his credit. True to Tyrion’s advice to Jon Snow, Dinklage wears the fact of his stature proudly, which means that in the course of his career he’s turned down dwarf-for-dwarf’s-sake roles and crass career moves (no leprechauns need apply); in his first screen role, in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), he vents on the subject. Cast as a blue-suited, blue-top-hatted dwarf in a dream sequence for the film-within-a-film being directed by Steve Buscemi, he goes after the harried director: “Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? I don’t even have dreams with dwarfs in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarfs in dreams is in stupid movies like this!”

On the Way to Tyrion

The most significant role Dinklage played on his way to Tyrion Lannister was Finbar McBride in The Station Agent (2003), directed by fellow New Jerseyan Tom McCarthy, and set, where else but in Newfoundland, N.J. One feature of this film likely to catch the attention of seasoned cable viewers is that, like Dinklage, the actors playing Fin’s friends Olivia and Joe had HBO in their future, Patricia Clarkson as Ruth Fisher’s hippie sister in Six Feet Under and Bobby Cannavale in an Emmy-winning performance as the mad mobster Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire. Fans of AMC’s Mad Men will also notice John Slattery/Roger Sterling’s brief but vivid turn as Olivia’s estranged husband. A star-in-the-making lighting up the film is Michelle Williams as a pregnant librarian with an obnoxious boyfriend.

The first third of The Station Agent is dominated by Fin’s somber unsmiling presence. I was tempted to say “dwarfed by”  because it’s more than gimmicky wordplay when you turn that noun into a verb; the double meaning perfectly describes the scope of Dinklage’s cinematic presence. McCarthy plays on extremes of scale by balancing long shots of the tiny figure trudging purposefully along the railroad track with nuanced close-ups of his remarkably expressive face. As determined as he is to keep to himself, remote and closeted in the abandoned depot he inherited, the film won’t leave him alone; the camera loves his face, much as the close-up cameras of Hollywood’s golden age loved Garbo and Bogart and James Dean. All Dinklage has to do is cast his eyes moodily upward and you’re seeing a star who could hold his own in a love scene with any actress anywhere, including Michelle Williams’s needy librarian, who is already clearly falling for him, thus the kiss when she comes to visit and chastely spends the night.

The upside of Fin’s grimly resolute withdrawal from the world and his grudging resistance to the friendship offered by Joe and  Olivia is the beauty of the moment when he finally smiles in spite of himself at Joe’s joyously uninhibited way of going at life. In this warmly human film, Dinklage’s first smile is an event, like a sunset breaking through a cloudy sky.

The same expressive power is in force in Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. For Fin the definitive coming out — the moment that finally releases the tension created by the cumulative effect of days of being a one-man freakshow under the community gaze — is when he gets drunk and climbs up on the bar, turning this way and that, both arms extended, displaying himself, and yelling to the bar crowd that had been gawking, “Here I am! Take a look! Take a look!”

The way Dinklage growls the last “Take a look” may remind Game of Thrones viewers of Tyrion’s passionate “confession” in Season 4, probably the actor’s most intense, unguarded, Emmy-worthy moment so far; wounded and infuriated by the betrayal of his lover Shae, he dispenses with the cynical persona, confessing that he’s guilty only of being a dwarf: “I’ve been on trial for that my whole life.”

Viewers who would like a sample of what Peter Dinklage and Game of Thrones are all about will find a strong selection on YouTube, which features several compilations of Tyrion’s Best Moments. The Station Agent, a feel-good classic, is available at the library, as are DVDs of previous seasons of Game of Thrones. Also on YouTube, you can see Dinklage addressing the graduating class at his alma mater, Bennington College, where he deliveres a free-form commencement address that has the class of 2012 cheering as lustily as the armies of King’s Landing when Tyrion rouses them to action.

 

KISSIN’ THE BOSS: Mike Gordon, bass guitarist and founding member of the rock band Phish, couldn’t resist bussing the cheek of his idol, Bruce Springsteen, albeit a scuptured version by Princeton artist Stephen Zorochin. The sculpture, shown here when it was displayed in Long Branch, is now at the corner of Faculty and Alexander Roads. It is featured in a newly published Rock Atlas: “The Musical Landscape of America” by David Roberts, a guide to great music locations across the country.(Image Courtesy of the artist).

KISSIN’ THE BOSS: Mike Gordon, bass guitarist and founding member of the rock band Phish, couldn’t resist bussing the cheek of his idol, Bruce Springsteen, albeit a scuptured version by Princeton artist Stephen Zorochin. The sculpture, shown here when it was displayed in Long Branch, is now at the corner of Faculty and Alexander Roads. It is featured in a newly published Rock Atlas: “The Musical Landscape of America” by David Roberts, a guide to great music locations across the country. (Image Courtesy of the artist).

Commuters to and from Princeton using the Alexander corridor will have noticed new artwork at the corner of Alexander and Faculty Roads. Sited at Larini’s Service Center and gas station, the bust of famed New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen is drawing the interest of local residents and tour bus visitors alike.

Titled, “Bruce Springsteen, Soulful Humanitarian,” Steve Zorochin’s sculpture has placed Princeton on the map of rock music history through its appearance in a newly published book, Rock Atlas USA: The Musical Landscape of America by David Roberts, which pays homage to legends of American music. Mr. Zorochin’s sculpture is featured inside and also prominently on the back cover between photos of Janis Joplin and a pink Cadillac.

The cast cement sculpture, which has a hand-patinated finish that gives it the look of bronze, was previously displayed in Asbury Park and Long Branch, places of significance in Mr. Springsteen’s life. Its current location recalls the first day of November 1978, when “The Boss,” performed at Jadwin Gymnasium on the Princeton University campus.

“I really admire Bruce as a humanitarian. He’s keeping it real, man, there’s nothing pretentious about him,” said Mr Zorochin, in a phone interview from his home on Jefferson Street. “I’m grateful to Ken Larini for giving me a location for the Springsteen piece, even though I’m sure he’d probably prefer Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Here it is on the corner of what will be Princeton University’s newest arts campus.”

Born and raised in Princeton, where he graduated from Princeton High School in 1970, Mr. Zorochin lived for a while in Manasquan. But when his home was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, he moved back to Princeton where he is currently recovering from a fall in February on the ice outside his home. He suffered a massive haematoma and credits neurosurgeon Seth Joseffer of the Princeton Brain and Spine Institute for saving his life. “As soon as Dr. Seth saw me, he told me to call my wife. His prognosis was that I had to have immediate surgery, but after five days, I walked home,” he said.

Inspirational Mentors

The artist also credits two major influences on his life and work, his former Princeton neighbor, the folk singer Cynthia Gooding (1924-1988), and noted figure sculptor Joe Brown (1909-1985), a professor at Princeton University until retiring in 1977.

Born in Minnesota and brought up in the midwest, Ms. Gooding moved to New York City, to develop her musical career. She performed there in the mid 1940s, including long standing appearances at the Club Soho in Greenwich Village. One of the first musicians to appear on the Elektra label, she is remembered for a 1962 interview she did with Bob Dylan on the radio show she hosted for WBAI.

“She was a national treasure, pre-Joan Baez,” said Mr. Zorochin. “I had a chance to meet a lot of interesting people who came to her house.” Although inspired by Ms. Gooding, Mr. Zorochin didn’t follow her lead into folk music. When he sang, it was classical music, performed with Princeton Pro Musica.

Professor Brown specialized in sculptures that depicted athletes, which is no surprise, since he had been one himself. The son of Russian immigrants, he grew up poor in South Philadelphia He won a football scholarship to Temple University but left before graduating to work as a professional boxer before turning to the arts. He was the boxing coach at Princeton University until the late 1960s and a professor of art from 1962. His works are featured on numerous college campuses and in collections that include the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His monumental Benjamin Franklin-Craftsman (1981) sits at the corner of Broad Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Philadelphia. “Joe Brown took a kid wandering around campus and gave me direction,” remembered Mr. Zorochin, who went on to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Boston Museum School.

Springsteen

Mr. Springsteen lives in Colts Neck and is known for guarding his privacy. So how did the sculptor work without a sitter? “Though it’s always great to model from life, I used shots from movies to inform the work, in particular Bruce as he appears singing ‘One Trick Pony,’ the song he wrote for the Mickey Rourke film, The Wrestler,” said Mr. Zorochin.

“Bruce Springsteen uses his art to help people and that’s what art is all about,” said Mr. Zorochin. “When he played Jadwin Gym, I wasn’t so much a fan of his then, I was more interested in blues and had my own garage band for a time.” Still, the artist is planning a full length portrait of the New Jersey rocker as a way of “paying respects.” “When I showed the head to Springsteen’s first drummer, Jimmy Lopez, who was playing in Freehold recently, he told me: ‘Dead on, man, beautiful.’”

He’s also at work on a portrait of Sid Bernstein, the man who brought The Beatles to Shea Stadium and the Rolling Stones to the Academy of Music in Manhattan.

According to the sculptor, his “real anchor piece,” is a monumental tribute to Captain John T. Dempster that stands outside the Mercer County Fire Training Center on Basin Road. “Dempster, who was know as ‘Cap’ was quite a character in the Trenton Fire Department; he was 85 when I did this life-size portrait of him.” The sculptor was later commissioned to create the bronze award presented to recipients of the David N. Kershaw Award in commemoration of the first president of Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton. In addition, he has created two crosses, one Catholic and one Protestant, for the Princeton University Memorial Chapel, and numerous bronze commemorative plaques.