February 6, 2014

The musical birthday accolades to scholar and philanthropist William H. Scheide just keep coming in honor of his 100th birthday; the latest was a tribute concert of the Dryden Ensemble presented this past weekend in Solebury, Pennsylvania and Princeton. Sunday afternoon’s performance at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Miller Chapel (the concert was also performed Saturday night in Solebury) was devoted to Bach, paying tribute to both Mr. Scheide’s Bach expertise and his long-time support of the Dryden Ensemble. Nine instrumentalists and four vocalists presented a Bach “CantataFest” — two complete cantatas and several excerpts from other cantatas.

Joining the Dryden Ensemble were four more than excellent singers, each with a long history of Baroque performance practice. Soprano Teresa Wakim, mezzo-soprano Kristen Dubenion-Smith, tenor Jason McStoots, and baritone Mischa Bouvier were individually featured in arias and joined together for the opening and closing chorales of the cantatas. Ms. Wakim demonstrated a glorious top register, quickly finding the optimum resonance of the space in Miller Chapel. She had a real ring to her voice within a Baroque context, elegantly handling melismas on specific words, such as “freundlich” in her opening aria. Ms. Dubenion-Smith sang with a remarkably smooth register, especially in the aria “Wie furchstam wankten meine Schritte” of Bach’s Cantata 33 — an aria loaded with octave skips. Conceived more instrumentally than vocally, Bach’s arias can be difficult for mezzos because of range and register, but not for this mezzo. Ms. Dubenion-Smith handled the tough intervals and figures with a voice as smooth as silk and her Cantata 33 aria was particularly gracefully accompanied by violinist Vita Wallace and Daniel Swenberg playing theorbo.

Tenor Jason McStoots demonstrated a lyrical and lighter sound, singing expressively with clean diction. Mr. McStoots’ aria “Woferne du den edlen Frieden,” from Cantata 41, was a complex dialog between voice and violoncello piccolo, played by Lisa Terry. In this aria the musical roles were almost reversed, with the cello taking on most of the melodic movement and the voice serving in more of an obbligato role. Mr. McStoots also provided a complementary voice to baritone Mr. Bouvier, with whom he sang a duet toward the end of Cantata 33. Mr. Bouvier had his opportunity to shine in the aria excerpt from Cantata 62, “Streite, siege, starker Held.” Mr. Bouvier clearly had the potential for a great deal of vocal firepower, with well-handled and articulate coloratura on the words “Streite” (“struggle”) and “kräftig” (“mighty”). The closing Cantata 97 featured each soloist in an aria, with Ms. Wakim’s voice like icing on the cake over the counterpoint of the other three soloists.

As instrumentalists, the Dryden players stayed true to the Baroque character of the music. The concerto-like opening Sinfonia contained delicate swells in the music with clean trills, with sequential phrases which were always going somewhere. Organist Webb Wiggins provided bell-like passages on a chamber organ and the ensemble as a whole maintained a clean texture, even when at full sound. Ms. Wallace had several opportunities for obbligato playing with one of the vocal soloists, playing especially sensitively in the tenor aria of Cantata 97. Oboists Jane McKinley and Julie Brye provided chipper playing, often in thirds, and were particularly supple in accompanying Ms. Wakim in her Cantata 97 aria. Cellist Lisa Terry, bassoonist Sue Black, theorbo player Mr. Swenberg (also playing Baroque lute) and Mr. Wiggins provided solid continuo playing throughout the performance, allowing each of the instruments to speak well in the space.

The Dryden Ensemble has devoted itself to music of the 17th and early 18th century, and Sunday afternoon’s all-Bach performance was particularly appropriate for its dedication to Mr. Scheide. On first glance, Dryden Ensemble concerts may not seem to have a great number of pieces on the program, but Sunday’s performance was well-informed with nuance, and introduced four great singers to a Princeton audience.

The Dryden Ensemble will present a birthday concert to J.S. Bach on Saturday, March 22, 2014 at Miller Chapel on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary. This concert, in honor of Bach’s 329th birthday, will feature chamber music by Buxtehude, C.P.E. Bach, and J.S. Bach. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting www.drydenensemble.org.

 

THESE ITEMS ARE PRICELESS: Two of the seven experts who were chosen to retrieve the art objects that were plundered by the Nazis during World War II are shown examining one of their finds. James Granger (Matt Damon, left) and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchettt) carefully examine some documents in the hope that it will reveal more clues about where other stolen art objects have been hidden.

THESE ITEMS ARE PRICELESS: Two of the seven experts who were chosen to retrieve the art objects that were plundered by the Nazis during World War II are shown examining one of their finds. James Granger (Matt Damon, left) and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchettt) carefully examine some documents in the hope that it will reveal more clues about where other stolen art objects have been hidden.

Most people are probably unaware that while Hitler’s army were sweeping across Europe during World War II, he had also directed his army to sieze any priceless works of art found in the course of its pillaging. The cultural rape of Europe was part of the Führer’s diabolical plan which not only included conquest and ethnic cleansing, but also turning his Austrian hometown into the cultural capital of the Third Reich.

Consequently, millions of artifacts were looted from museums, churches, and private collections and transported to subterranean sites such as salt mines where they’d be safe from aerial attacks. In addition, the scheme also called for the destruction of any treasures he deemed degenerate if they conflicted with his propaganda campaign that promoted Germany’s racial purity and manifest destiny.

So, towards the end of the war, when the Allies realized what was afoot, they assembled a team of curators, archivists, and art historians whose mission was to retrieve and preserve as many of the stolen items as possible. With time of the essence, the seven experts started scouring the ravaged countryside in search of missing masterpieces.

That effort is the subject of The Monuments Men, a bittersweet adventure directed by George Clooney. The movie of the platoon’s heroics is loosely based on Robert Edsel’s best seller of the same name — a meticulously researched, 512-page opus that is encyclopedic.

The film adaptation understandably conflates events and characters as a concession to the Hollywood cinematic formula. Clooney, who stars as Frank Stokes, surrounded himself with a talented cast that is capable of convincingly executing with perfect aplomb a script which veers back and forth between suspense and gallows humor.

The cast features Academy Award winners Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), Cate Blanchett (The Aviator), and Jean Dujardin (The Artist); and nominees Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), and Bob Balaban (Gosford Park), as well as John Goodman and Hugh Bonneville.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence and smoking. In English, French, German, and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

 

January 29, 2014

Rec Rev 1Like so many music-related happenings in Princeton, this one began at the Record Exchange. With snow on the ground and more coming, it was time to do what I should have done two years ago and buy Kate Bush’s album 50 Words for Snow, along with Paul McCartney’s new CD New, which is already three months old.

Mercy Mission

Driving into yet another snowfall Saturday, I was counting on the Bush/McCartney blend to keep me going on what promised to be a difficult journey. It was wildly irrational to be traveling to Siren Records in Doylestown under such conditions, except that this was a mercy mission on behalf of my vinyl-addicted son. Rock giveth and rock taketh away. Bathing a baby in the Beatles can come back to haunt you. The albums I was bringing to sell or trade, most of them former inhabitants of the Record Exchange, are by obscure American, British, and European groups from the late 1960s and early 1970s that owe their existence in one way or another to the four young men from Liverpool who arrived in New York 50 years ago, February 7, 1964.

By the time I was driving west on 518, the snow had taken over. Predictions had been for an inch or so. Some “inch” — how could anyone or anything measure the element that was sucking up miles and miles of the world in all directions. With the snow falling harder, the road getting smaller, and the first track on New playing, the windshield wipers were working overtime, the front ones going about half as fast as the one in back, adding a polyrhythmic effect to the song. The lyrics were timely: “In the heat of battle, you got something that’ll save us,” the wipers clacking and whooshing, the heater/AC/defroster roaring fullblast. Between Blawenburg and Hopewell, we seemed to be on a long one-lane bridge to nowhere, the shoulders gone, the center lines going, as we penetrated the relentless totality of that fabulous all-encompassing inch of snow.

On every recent McCartney album, there’s at least one song that inspires thoughts of the Beatles in their mid to late sixties prime. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) had “Friends to Go,” in Memory Almost Full (2007), it was “Only Mama Knows.” At the junction of 518 and NJ 31, when the visibility was so poor I was thinking of turning back, McCartney delivered another winner with the title track. Like the other big songs, “New” is about the Beatles. Spiritually, musically, emotionally, all four are on board. When Paul sings the phrase “All my life,” that’s what he’s saying, and the joy of it is only a more polished, elegant, but no less uplifting expression of the same old undying rock and roll passion, whether it’s driving “Please Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Hey Jude” and “I Am the Walrus.” Look at the video on YouTube and what you see is a group of musicians led by McCartney playing before crowds of unimaginable magnitude, an image that will always spell B-e-a-t-l-e-s.

And what d’you know, as the song plays, I find I no longer need the windshield wipers, the road’s clear, the music’s working, telling me “It’s way too soon to see what’s gonna be.” This new song called “New” soars as it dances, a buoyant marriage of rhythm and melody riding the “fine line between chaos and creation” that Paul has been living on ever since he wrote “I’ll Follow the Sun,” four years before the Beatles had their first number one.

So why not believe that you can snuff the snow with music when a singer’s singing, “You came along and made my life a song” and “I never knew what I could be, what I could do,” and “Now we’re new”? And a few miles west of 31, so we were, no more snow, we were through, over the Delaware with a clear road to Doylestown and Siren.

Snow Queen

It was thanks to my son, who was already collecting and playing records at the age of four, that I discovered Kate Bush one day when he was listening to Pat Benatar sing “Wuthering Heights.” I couldn’t, as they say, believe my ears. Right away I had to know who had the audacity to write a song from the point of view of Cathy’s ghost rapping on Heathcliffe’s window. Surely not Pat Benatar. “K. Bush” said the composer credit. It took awhile to find out that K. Bush was a woman who already had recorded two albums of her own, which I found at the Record Exchange when it was still located in a hole in the wall across from Holder Hall.

I gave an account of this discovery seven years ago in a column about Kate’s album Aerial (2005) where I refer to her as a “creature” who “does things witches, elves, alien beings, and ventriloquists can only envy.” Once, when asked who her favorite singers were, she said, “a blackbird and a thrush.” I thought of her tonight watching Veronica Lake as a delightful witch making love to Fredric March in Rene Clair’s I Married a Witch. In 50 Words for Snow, Kate is beyond witchcraft, she’s a force of nature. Bing Crosby sings about snow. Kate Bush becomes snow.

What better than a force of nature “born in a cloud” to see me through the passage home? By the time I left Doylestown, the snow was falling as fast as before and the roads were worse. On the hills outside Lambertville I passed cars pulled over and one stopped in its tracks. All the while, Kate’s hypnotic snow music is playing, she’s at the piano quietly, hauntingly creating variations on the same figure, subtle and suspenseful, just the balanced steady accompaniment you need as you strain your eyes to pick out the vanishing segments of road at 30 m.p.h., focused to the nth degree.

The voice on “Snowflake” belongs to Kate’s son, Albert, the subject of “Bertie” on Aerial, but I heard it as her, or all the voices of the snow speaking though her, “We’re over a forest. There’s millions of snowflakes. We’re dancing.”

“Lake Tahoe,” the story of “a woman in a Victorian dress” who drowned in the lake, suggests this snow-blown song cycle could be her Winterreise, though a less melancholy winter journey than Schubert’s, with that ebbing and flowing piano. In “Misty” she makes love to a snow man. Is there another singer on the planet who would take that one on and get so beautifully away with it? Like Heathcliffe’s window, hers “flies open” as her bedroom “fills with falling snow” and in he comes and “lies down beside me.” Who else could put together such a storybook moment, Goodnight Moon meets Wuthering Heights. It’s beauty seducing Frosty the snow beast, as she kisses “his ice cream lips/And his creamy skin” and wakes in the morning to find “the sheets are soaking.” He’s gone, she opens the window, can’t find him, it’s still snowing, he’s out there somewhere, so she steps on to the ledge.

The Last Stretch

There’s another car pulled over. And another. A coyote leaps across the road five slow miles east of Lambertville. The music’s working, the beat picking up with “Wild Man,” another bizarre love song from the snow queen, this time the object of Kate’s affection is the Kangchenjunga Demon (“Lying in my tent, I can hear your cry echoing round the mountainside”). As we coast into Hopewell, she’s singing a duet with Elton John, and I remember why I passed up buying the album when it came out. I wasn’t ready for that duet, but they bring it off, two lost souls singing through the ages in “Snowed in at Wheeler Street.” In the title song, the 50 words are spoken by Stephen Fry, but it’s Kate’s poem, her way of improvising on the myth that Eskimos have that many words for snow. After some playful words like “lolefaloop/njoompoola,” the last ones say it all for the stretch of road through the windy Siberia between Blawenburg and 206: “vanishing world,” “mistraldespair,” and last of all, “snow.”

Home at last, a cup of tea, some YouTube interviews with Kate with photos of her bundled up and beautiful in snowy attire, and videos from New, including the one for “Queenie Eye” shot at Abbey Road studio where the Beatles made history. McCartney is alone at the piano until the room begins filling with people   listening, mingling, dancing, some familiar faces among them. The first one you see is slumped on the floor at the foot of the piano. It’s Johnny Depp. In the video about the making of the video, he expresses his awe, to have entered the hallowed space where all that music was made: “That’s the room that changed the world,” he says.

The quotes from Kate Bush are from a Huffington Post interview. Both records are available at the Princeton Record Exchange. Strange, Paul has just won a Grammy for the Best Rock Song, recorded with surviving members of Nirvana. On the strength of one listen, “Give Me Some Slack” can’t hold the proverbial candle to “New,” not to mention “Helter Skelter.” You can see for yourself in the video from the December 12, 2012 Concert for Sandy Relief, where Paul is playing the “cigar-box guitar” given him by Johnny Depp.

—Stuart Mitchner

 
art lead 1-29

EAST WEST HARMONY: Titled “Fish,” this silk painting by Chinese American artist Shaomei Zhong Wan is on view among others of her work at the Plainsboro Public Library. An artist’s reception will be held Saturday, February 8, from 1 to 3 p.m. as part of the library’s annual Chinese New Year celebration. For more information, call (609) 275-2897.

A gallery exhibition by artist Shaomei Zhong Wan will usher in the Chinese New Year at Plainsboro Public Library later this week with a collection of watercolors and silk paintings that are influenced by both Eastern and Western traditions.

The Chinese New Year begins on January 31 and the animal associated with this year, which is not 2014 but 4712 according to the Chinese calendar, is the horse.

“I am very excited with the exhibit and very grateful for such a wonderful opportunity,” said Ms. Wan, who has featured in Plainsboro Public Library events in the last several years, regularly demonstrating the techniques of Chinese and watercolor painting.

Born in Guangzhou, China, Ms. Wan graduated from the South China University of Fine Arts there. She is a member of the Guangzhou City Artist Association and Chinese American Art Association and has lived in the United States for 11 years, at present residing in East Windsor.

After serving for many years in the creative arts and advertising design industries, Ms. Wan currently works as an independent artist and design consultant. She has entered and won prizes in various professional exhibitions, and her work was exhibited in Flushing, New York and in the Mercer County Artists Exhibition at the Mercer County Art Gallery every year for the past five years.

Of the current exhibition and its influences, Mrs. Wan said: “In my youth, I focused on watercolor, engraving, and oil painting. My education was in Western fine art, but my spirit remained in the East. After immigrating to the United States, I discovered that none of the various forms of Western fine art could provide a sufficient outlet for the emotions that I wished to articulate. Several years ago, through serendipitous chance, I was introduced to silk painting, and I have been enamored of it ever since.

“Silk-weaving is an ancient Chinese invention, and silk painting has been alive in China for millennia. However, the fine brushwork painting techniques used in the ancient periods required that the colors be added layer by layer due to limitations in pigment technologies in ancient times, making it a difficult medium for the freehand brushwork of traditional Chinese painting on paper. The use of modern Western dyes and watercolor techniques has helped me discover my own artistic language, enabling the expression of those emotions I feel while facing the conflict and confluence of Western and Eastern cultures.

“Ancient Chinese civilization made its way from East to West through the Silk Road. While I physically traveled from East to West, my creative inspiration moved in the opposite direction, from Western art forms back to my Eastern roots. This exhibition is my first step in a new artistic path, and I hope that my exploration can bring fresh sentiments and inspiration to my audience as well.”

Timed to coincide with the Chinese New Year, the longest and most important celebration in the Chinese calendar, the exhibition has allowed Ms. Wan the opportunity to explore some of her recollections of the celebration. In China, months are reckoned by the lunar calendar. New Year festivities traditionally start on the first day of the month and continue until the fifteenth, when the moon is brightest. In China, people may take weeks of holiday from work to prepare for and celebrate the New Year.

“In the city of Guangzhou, one major event of Chinese New Year celebration is the flower market and lantern festival,” Ms. Wan recalled. “It’s very much like carnival celebrations in other parts of the world and when I was little, the whole family used to go together. My father would put me on his shoulders so that I could see all the beautiful flowers and lanterns as well as the traditional firecrackers. I still remember the loud cracking sounds and the smells of the burning firework powders. The purpose of the firecrackers is to send off the old year and welcome the new year. At midnight, everybody lit them up at the same time. The noise was so loud that it seemed like the whole city was exploding. And the echoes seemed to vibrate in the air for a long time.”

Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. When twelve showed up, he named a year after each one and said that the people born in each year would have some of that animal’s personality. Those born in horse years are cheerful, skillful with money, perceptive, witty, and good with their hands. They include Rembrandt, Aretha Franklin, Chopin, and President Theodore Roosevelt.

As for Ms. Wan, she was born in the year of the snake, which puts her in possession of great wisdom, passion, and perception.

A reception for the artist will be held Saturday, February 8, from 1 to 3 p.m. to coincide with the library’s annual Chinese New Year celebration, which also features performances, crafts, and cooking demonstrations. The exhibition of Ms. Wan’s work will continue through February 26 at the Plainsboro Library, 9 Van Doren Street, Plainsboro. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Sunday; 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday. For more information call (609) 275-2897.

 

Arts Council of Prince-ton, 104 Witherspoon Street, shows “Terrace Project: Ayami Aoyama” until April 30. Through March 8, “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press, Contemporary Works” is on view. (609) 924-8777.

Artworks, Everett Alley at Stockton Street, Trenton, has “Transitions,” works by Colleen Gahrmann, on view through February 15. “The False Mirror: Surrealism Forward and Back” runs through February 22. (609) 394-9436.

A Space Gallery @ New Hope Arts, 2 Stockton Street, New Hope, has “I’ll Explain Later-Works by Guy Ciarcia” through January 31.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Arts and Interactive Media Building, Route 31, Ewing, has paintings and prints by Ruane Miller through February 20. (609) 771-2633.

D&R Greenway Marie L. Matthews Galleries, 1 Preservation Place, has “Wild Creatures: 40 Years Protecting Endangered Species” art exhibit January 29-March 21. The opening is January 31, 5:30-7:30 p.m. On February 12 at 7:30 p.m., the Princeton Photography Club will present photographer Wendel White in “African American Landscape, Architecture, and Artifacts: A Photographic Journey.” www.drgreenway.org.

Ellarslie, Trenton’s City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, presents “Adopted: Restored, Art, Artifacts and Books from 2012” and “Frank Applegate, George Bradshaw and the School of Industrial Arts” through February 9. The Trenton Public Schools Biennial Student Art Show runs through March 2.

Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, shows “Patterns of Nature” by Charles McVicker February 3-28. (609) 924-7206.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “People, Places, and a Parrot Called Pancho,” photos by Richard Trenner; “One Heart One Mind” by Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner, through February 2.

Gourgaud Gallery, Town Hall, Cranbury, has “Winter Dreams,” an open call exhibition, through January 31. From February 1-23, the A-Team Artists of Trenton present “Art from the Heart.” www.cranbury
artscouncil.org

Historical Society of Princeton, 158 Nassau Street, has “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press Bicentennial Portfolio.” At its Updike Farmstead location, 354 Quaker Road, “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press Ten Crucial Days Portfolio” is on view.

Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington, has “Common Threads 2,” work by five Trenton area artists, February 1, 12-5 p.m. www.hopewellvalleyvineyards.com.

Lucas Gallery, Prince-ton University, 185 Nassau Street, has work by students in drawing, painting, photography, graphic design, sculpture, film and video through February 21. The opening is February 4, 4-5 p.m. www.arts.princeton.edu.

Mariboe Gallery, Peddie School, Hightstown, has “Zara Stasi, Lynnette Hesser and David Bair,” an exhibit by three alumni, through February 4. (609) 944-7551.

Mercer County Community College Gallery, Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, has “Left of Central: Later 20th Century Visual Arts in the Capital City” through February 20. Visit www.mccc.edu/gallery.

Princeton Day School Anne Reid ‘72 Gallery, 650 Great Road, has an Origami exhibit through January 30. From February 10-March 6, “Metamorphosisters,” works by Liv Aanrud and Samantha Ritter, is on view. Visit www.pds.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Man” and “The Kite That Never Flew,” sculptures by Alexander Calder, on view outside the museum through June 15. Through May 11, “500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum” is on view. “Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print” runs February 8-June 8. Call (609) 258-3788.

Princeton University Mudd Manuscript Library has an exhibit to mark the centennial of the Graduate College, “Building the House of Knowledge: The Graduate College Centennial” through June 6. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m.

Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street, has “Grand Blooms,” paintings and drawings by artists from Princeton Senior Resource Center, through February 4. The store at 14 Witherspoon Street has works by students from The Waldorf School of Princeton, “Sacred Geometry,” through February 4. From February 4-March 4, “The Love Show” is on view. The opening party is February 7, 7-9 p.m.

West Windsor Arts Council, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, shows “Out of the Blue” through February 28; works by 39 artists. Visit www.westwindsorarts.org.

Joy comes in many forms and has been represented in music in many ways. Joy was definitely the overriding theme of the annual William H. Scheide “Birthday Benefit” concert held last Saturday night to a full house attendance at Richardson Auditorium. What was special about this concert was its celebration of Mr. Scheide’s 100th birthday (his actual birthday was January 6). Born on the edge of World War I, Mr. Scheide has seen a century of tumultuous events, larger-than-life personalities, and great music. William and Judith Scheide brought together honorees of past Scheide birthday concerts, as well as many old friends, to celebrate Mr. Scheide’s music, philanthropy, and humanitarianism.

This year’s “Ode to Joy” concert benefitted Westminster Choir College, honoring the Choir College’s model of “how to work together in harmony for the service of others.” Featured in performance was Westminster’s renowned Symphonic Choir, which clearly enjoyed its role in the celebrations. One of the vocal soloists for the keynote piece, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, also had a past connection with Westminster.

Conductor Mark Laycock began the festive evening in a first half dedicated to Mr. Scheide’s former academic life, with J.S. Bach’s setting of Philipp Nicolai’s 1598 hymn which became Cantata BWV 140, “Wachet auf.” The Westminster Symphonic Choir, accompanied by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, set the tone for the evening with the words “Gloria to you be sung with human and angelic voices.” As Mr. Scheide’s scholarly and performing reputation has been rooted in Bach, this was an appropriate way to open the concert. The Symphonic Choir, prepared by Joe Miller, presented a serene yet majestic sound, with the soprano section singing with an appropriately light Baroque timbre. Mr. Laycock maintained a broad tempo throughout the short selection, building the orchestra and chorus to a fortissimo in the closing lines of the chorale setting.

Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture seems to characterize academic youth, especially in its closing “Gaudeamus Igitur,” a popular student song in its day. The work’s emphasis on “rejoicing while we are young” was demonstrated in the brisk tempo with which the Vienna Chamber Orchestra began the piece. The strings of the orchestra presented a smooth and unified sound, accompanied by rippling clarinets and very clean horns. The brass sections throughout the concert were as well blended as an a cappella chorus. With Brahms’ compositional roots in Vienna, this music would be in the Vienna Chamber Orchestra’s blood, and the graceful melodic lines and playful winds showed that this overture is much more than a silly drinking song at the end.

Mr. Scheide’s own compositional skills were honored by a premiere public performance of a work he composed while a student at Princeton. Pianists Marian Nazarian and Andrew Sun performed Mr. Scheide’s 1936 Prelude, clearly inspired by the orchestral concerti of Bach, with high-spirited humor and clean counterpoint. Ms. Nazarian has long been a Scheide collaborator, bringing expertise to the keyboard in other birthday performances, and Mr. Sun proved why he is an up-and-comer to watch.

Forces came together in a variety of ways for the Beethoven Symphony No. 9, a work which holds a strong historical place in Westminster’s history and surely fits well into the Vienna Chamber Orchestra’s repertory. The orchestra began the open fifths of the first movement with sharp attacks, punctuated by well-timed timpani, in a tempo that was not too fast. Mr. Laycock kept things moving steadily along, with lyrical wind parts, allowing the orchestra to reach full volume until the recapitulation of the movement.

Mr. Laycock and the orchestra began the second movement Molto Vivace in a brisk tempo, with entrances lightly handled by the players. The wind section’s rhythmic lines were especially clean, as were the melodic lines played by the horns. Mr. Laycock created numerous small builds in the music, enabling the tricky wind entrances of the third movement to seem that much more serene.

In the third movement, the players kept the long lines smooth, with particularly rich second violin and viola sectional playing. Sections of the movement sounded quite hymn-like in tranquility as the orchestra overall played with a very lean sound. The players presented the familiar “Ode to Joy” theme of the fourth movement with very little vibrato, enabling all parts, especially during the presentation by the strings, to be heard.

The Westminster Choir and Vienna Chamber Orchestra were joined by four vocal soloists with strong operatic backgrounds, which were a necessity, even with only 18 minutes or so of music in the movement. Bass-baritone Mark Doss was dramatic and forceful, and well answered by the men of the chorus. Mr. Doss was a good vocal partner for tenor William Burden, who handled the quick pace of the “Turkish march” section well. Mezzo-soprano Leah Wool and soprano Ah Young Hong rounded out the quartet, handling the demanding quartets at the end of this challenging symphony well. An equal star of this movement is the chorus, providing a solid sound in the thematic sections, while being somewhat haunting and ethereal on the text “Do you bow down before Him, you millions?” Mr. Laycock (who conducted the entire program from memory) led the orchestra and chorus through the transitions well, wisely allowing at times to let the music play itself.

As Judith Scheide noted in her introductory remarks to the concert, Mr. Scheide begins each day with music. She also shared with understandable pride a letter received from President Barack Obama congratulating Mr. Scheide on reaching his 100th birthday and commending his “unique and important contributions to American culture and society.” For those unable to attend this past weekend’s celebratory concert, it was taped for later broadcast on PBS, and it is only 342 days until William Scheide turns 101.

—Nancy Plum

 
WE’RE OFF TO FIND QUEEN ELSA AND PUT AN END TO THIS ETERNAL WINTER: Our three intrepid heroes: Ana (Kristin Bell, left), the snowman (Josh Gad, center), and the Mountain Man (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer, set out to find Ana’s elder sister, Queen Elsa, who put her country Arendelle into an state of eternal winter just before she disappeared. They hope to find the missing queen and persuade her to remove the enchanted winter spell from Arendelle.

WE’RE OFF TO FIND QUEEN ELSA AND PUT AN END TO THIS ETERNAL WINTER: Our three intrepid heroes: Ana (Kristin Bell, left), the snowman (Josh Gad, center), and the Mountain Man (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer, set out to find Ana’s elder sister, Queen Elsa, who put her country Arendelle into an state of eternal winter just before she disappeared. They hope to find the missing queen and persuade her to remove the enchanted winter spell from Arendelle.

Given the toll the polar vortex has been exacting on the continental U.S. lately, plenty of people can relate to the frigid predicament of the people living in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle. Disney’s Frozen is an animated adventure loosely based on “The Snow Queen,” a classic Hans Christian Andersen fairytale first published in 1845.

This delightful musical stars Kristen Bell as the voice of Anna, the young princess who takes it upon herself to save the day after her sister, recently-crowned Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), plunges Arendelle into a permanent winter before disappearing. It turns out that Elsa was born with the power to freeze things in an instant.

Complicating matters is the fact that Elsa, who became queen after her parents died, had just forbidden her sister from marrying Prince Hans (Santino Fontana). So Anna, accompanied by an anthropomorphic snowman (Josh Gad) and a rugged mountain man (Jonathan Groff) with his trusty reindeer, embark on an epic journey to find Queen Elsa with hopes of reversing the curse and reconciling the two sisters’ differences.

En route, Anna and her companions are afforded ample opportunities to belt out a tune and survive numerous perilous situations. The enchanting movie is memorable for its pleasant luminescence, catchy soundtrack (including the Best Song Oscar nominated “Let It Go”), and its unpredictable resolution.

Frozen puts a novel spin on the hackneyed nursery rhyme plotline that has the prince arriving in the nick of time to save the damsel-in-distress. Instead, the film is a touching tale of sisterhood with the message that blood is thicker than an ill-advised crush.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for action and mild rude humor. Running time: 102 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

—Kam Williams

 
January 22, 2014

Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song, and I’ll try not to sing out of key.

—Lennon and McCartney

There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.

Sir Francis Bacon 1561-1626

With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America looming, the idea of an odd couple like Strindberg and Byron performing on the same imaginary stage isn’t so far fetched — at least not if you recall the most celebrated album cover of its day, in which the Fab Four appear costumed as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band standing with a photo montage of “infinite riches” from past and present, movie stars and mystics, poets and explorers, celebrities and occasional lesser lights. The star attractions in this page’s music hall are some literary gentlemen who share the same birthday, and it seems only right that a knight of the realm should open and close the festivities. Coming all the way from January 22, 1561, to deliver words of wisdom on the strange beauty of the occasion, Sir Francis Bacon, performing an imperfect flourish, announces the main event: “In this corner, stage right, wrapped in the Greek flag, Lord Byron (1788-1824), and entering stage left, the pride of  Stockholm, August Strindberg (1849-1912).

book rev2A Byron Treasure

Of course the best place outside the internet to find Byron, Bacon, and Strindberg under the same roof is in a well-stocked secondhand bookstore like the Old York in New Brunswick or the Wise Owl in Bristol, England. In bygone days at the Old York, when the word on the street had it that the owner would be unpacking some treasures to put out for sale, book dealers would flock like birds of prey to feed on the grossly underpriced new arrivals. In all the years I frequented the store, the one time I happened to be present when John Socia was unpacking a freshly bought lot, he pulled out a set of Byron from the 1820s, eight elegant little volumes with gold-tinted pages. It didn’t matter that I’d never bonded with Byron the way I had with Keats and Coleridge. I was gaping, dazed, in awe. Even the most generous of book dealers would have put a hefty price on that set, but when John saw the lovesick gaze in my eyes, the classic starving grad student, he quoted an unthinkably low price. As it turned out, I was more at home reading Byron in the copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature I’d been living with during my year as a Norton college traveler.

book rev1Strindberg in Bristol          

Strindberg’s autobiographical novel, The Inferno, cost me the equivalent of 50 cents at the Wise Owl, which was located just around the corner from a 17th-century alms house. Although Bristol had a number of browsable secondhand stores in the 1970s — from the magnificent George’s at the top of the Park Street hill to the lowly George’s on the Christmas Steps — my favorite was the Wise Owl, a paradise of “quaint and curious volumes,” most of them reasonably priced. It was there that I found an illustrated set of the Brontes, a copy of the works of Milton the size of a package of cigarettes, and an equally charismatic volume from the same year (1837), Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil. This bookshop specialized in the occult, shelves and shelves of it, which is where the Strindberg turned up, seething like a smoky red beacon amid its unprepossessing neighbors.

First published in English in 1912, the year its author died, The Inferno’s once-brick-red front and back covers were so haunted by mysterious stains and shadows that most discriminating book buyers would have hesitated to touch it let alone buy it. Being a believer in the Baconian aesthetic of strangeness, I found the condition of the leprous object fascinating in itself, and after reading a page or two I realized that I was holding one of those volumes where the medium, due to the ravages of time and misuse, had come to reflect its demented message. The thing looked as though it had been set on a hearth stone to dry after being dipped into one of the sulphurous solutions that flayed and ravaged Strindberg’s hands on his descent into the nether regions of alchemy.

Anchor or Be Wrecked

At that time I only knew Strindberg as a dramatist (Miss Julie, A Dream Play), not as a tortured mystic obsessed with “the problem of making gold” in his makeshift laboratory in Paris as he suffered through hell, purgatory, and paradise in 1896. Though tormented by demons of paranoia, he took pleasure in bizarre transformations, hunks of coal taking the shape of grotesque tableaus; the detached germ of a nut appearing on “the glass-slide of the microscope” as “two tiny hands, white as alabaster, folded as if in prayer … fingers clasped in a beseeching gesture”; a zinc bath showing “on its inner sides a
landscape formed by the evaporation of iron salts,” the latter image not unlike the stain I saw on the book’s cover.

If you wonder what the author of The Inferno can have in common with the Don Juan who wrote Don Juan you need read no farther than Byron’s Faustian dramatic poem Manfred (which Strindberg “greatly admired” for its “criticisms of society”) or the opening lines of Childe Harold, who has “through sin’s labyrinth run” and “for change of scene would seek the shades below.” More to the Byronic point, there’s translator Claud Field’s introduction to my copy of The Inferno, quoting Robertson of Brighton (“Woman and God are two rocks on which a man must either anchor or be wrecked”) and pointing out that even toward the end of Strindberg’s life, when “the storm has subsided” and “the sea is calm, though strewn with wreckage,” one bitter fact remains: “He cannot forgive woman. She has injured him too deeply. All his life long she has been ‘a cleaving mischief in his way to virtue.’”

Both men were shipwrecked on those rocks, just as both were wounded from birth, Byron literally, having been born with a club foot and sexually abused by a sadistic governess, Strindberg growing up with a fear of the “invisible powers” that “robbed him of all peace of mind.” According to Sue Prideaux’s recent biography “he could do nothing without doing wrong,” was slapped, scolded, caned, and birched (“It had been effectively dinned into him that he had no right to exist”).

Strindberg was sent to a notoriously strict school, where he fell in love with the rector’s nine-year-old daughter, the only female in his class (boys who dared to so much as look at her were whipped), and it was for the love of this girl that he threatened to cut his throat. In Edna O’Brien’s Byron in Love (Norton 2009), eight-year-old Byron “felt the attendant joys and uncertainty of first raptuorus love,” the girl, named Mary, “one of those evanescent beings, made of rainbow, with a Greek cast of features, to whom he would for ever be susceptible,” her “successor” a distant cousin “for whom he also conceived a violent love.”

No doubt Byron and Strindberg would raise their respective eyebrows if they knew that the biographies of the moment are by women: besides Edna O’Brien’s, there are Benita Eisler’s Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (Knopf 1999), and Sue Prideaux’s Strindberg: A Life (Yale 2012), which features an author photo showing Ms. Prideaux at the feet of the Strindberg monument in Stockholm, a nude sculpture of the dramatist as a Greek god so sprawling, muscular, and immense that you can barely see the comely biographer smiling in its shadow.

Women, Women

Admitted, my knowledge of Byron hasn’t progressed much beyond the 90 pages afforded him in my frayed, faded copy of the Norton Anthology. And to be brutally honest, it wasn’t the poetry that struck a certain lonely Norton college traveler writing a freeform novel about a ravishing teen-age goddess named Susanna: it was the commentary revealing how Byron “found himself besieged by women” and the way this “period of great literary creativity coincided with a period of frenzied debauchery, which, Byron estimated, involved more than 200 women, mainly of the lower classes.”

Among the numerous compelling illustrations in Prideaux’s handsome biography of Strindberg (including a selection displaying his Turneresque paintings), there’s a photograph of the funeral procession on May 19, 1912, when ten thousand people lined the streets of Stockholm to honor the dramatist. What stands out most among the photographs, however, are those of Strindberg’s children he took himself and the photographs of his first and third wives, both actresses, the first, Siri von Essen, costumed to play Jane Eyre, the third, Harriet Bosse, a charming Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Her movements … were like music for the eyes”). Writing in his Occult Diary, Strindberg describes encountering 22-year-old Harriet backstage, where her “little face … assumed a supernatural beauty,” her eyes “ensnaring me with black lightning.” In the dream he had of her appearing “in her costume as Puck,” she gave him her foot to kiss, but then, inevitably with Strindberg, things took a demonic turn, the angel was an “incubus,” and everything became “quite ghastly.”

The Last Word

Although Sgt. Pepper’s “band you’ve known for all these years” kicked off the music hall festivities, and although Harriet Bosse’s supernatural beauty and black lightning glances suggest the “kaleidoscope eyes” of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the last word belongs to Sir Francis, who tells us that “love is ever matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies,” which “in life … doth much mischief; sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury.”

 

Theater rev 1-22-14

SINNED AGAINST AND SINNING: Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett), former Negro League baseball star, confronts death and an abundance of domestic and social adversities in McCarter Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” through February 16.

James Earl Jones was the star of the original production of Fences, at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987, where it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play. Then it was Denzel Washington, in a 2010 Broadway revival, in the larger-than-life role of Troy Maxson, his name itself evoking the grandeur and tragic fall of the unforgettable protagonist of Wilson’s drama. But in McCarter Theatre’s searing, deeply moving production of this masterpiece, it’s August Wilson, the playwright himself, who emerges as the star of the show.

This poetic drama is set in 1957 in the early years of the civil rights movement and focuses on the struggles of a former Negro League baseball player, now a Pittsburgh sanitation worker, and his family. The dialogue is at the same time natural and poetic, and so powerful, humorous, and moving. Wilson, who died in 2005 after completing his highly acclaimed Century Cycle of plays set in every decade of the twentieth century, frequently cited the influence of the blues on his work, and Fences — in its sympathetic, suffering characterizations, in its bitterness and solace in alcohol, humor, language, music, and humanity — resonates with the rich life and tone of a blues song that sticks in the mind and soul.

Fences depicts a family in conflict. Troy (Esau Pritchett), the middle-aged patriarch, is at odds not just with the society that barred him from the major leagues through the 20s, 30s, and 40s and consigned him to a job carrying garbage, but also with his wife Rose (Portia) and sons, 34-year-old Lyons (Jared McNeill) from a failed earlier marriage and 17-year-old Cory (Chris Myers). Troy is indeed a victim of the racism of his time and environment, but he is also a victim of his own bitterness, his personal excesses, and his wary detachment from family and friends.

Early in the first of two acts Troy and Cory clash over Cory’s hopes of gaining a football scholarship to college. Troy, who hit 43 home runs in one season in the Negro League but was born too soon to break the color barrier in the Major Leagues, distrusts the white man’s enticements for Cory and also harbors his own resentment and jealousy over this opportunity that he never had. The conflict grows increasingly hostile as Cory attempts to assert his independence from Troy’s influence, and Troy, seeing his authority and control challenged, fails to accept the changing world of America on the cusp of upheaval, along with his son’s entrance into adulthood and his own aging.

The shattering of the fragile family is complete when Troy comes home, early in the second act, to announce to Rose that he has fathered a child with another woman.

August Wilson and his characters are brilliant storytellers. In the tradition of Arthur Miller — Death of a Salesman in particular — where intense family conflict plays out its tragic drama of the common man against a background of powerful destructive social forces, Fences is a story about families, a marriage and, especially, through the generations, fathers and sons, with the sins of the fathers repeatedly being visited on the sons. It is also a play about the power of speech as our greatest weapon in shaping our stories and our lives and in battling against oppression and death.

In McCarter’s production, in association with Long Wharf Theatre where it opened last month, Mr. Pritchett as Troy is convincing, powerful, charismatic — as a man past his prime, finding himself in a new world, on unfamiliar ground with wife and sons. He’s a storyteller, angry but loving his family, his friends, his life, and fighting, as a great athlete fights to win the game, his battle to turn back mortality. Mr. Pritchett, of course, lacks the physical magnitude of James Earl Jones (Rose describes Troy: “when (he) walked through the house he was so big he filled it up”) and the instant star- recognition of Denzel Washington, but Mr. Pritchett thoroughly engages the audience in his joy and loves, his frustrations, and his anguish. He radiates a gift for spell-binding storytelling, a warm humor and a virtuoso musician’s gift for delivering the music of Wilson’s rich poetic language.

Portia establishes Rose as a worthy counterpart and counterbalance to Troy. She is enormously sympathetic as she moves through the rich territory of emotions required as wife and mother in her fight to keep her family together. Troy and Rose may be the most finely, fully, and convincingly developed husband–wife portrayal in all of Mr. Wilson’s ten plays.

“Jesus, be a fence all around me every day,” Rose sings as she hangs out the laundry at the start of the second scene. The fence that Troy and Cory are building emerges on both sides of the stage as the action progresses. It becomes a symbol of the security and protection — from white America, from his own inner demons, from death itself — that Troy seeks. And it also represents Rose’s struggle to keep the family together against the forces that threaten to pull it apart.

Mr. Myers’ Cory provides the third side of the immediate family triangle, and, though not as fully developed as the character of Troy, Cory faces many of the strains, aspirations, and frustrations of his own generation. Growing up in the shadow of his formidable father, Cory, though in many ways his father’s son, strives bravely, in Wilson’s version of a classic oedipal battle, to break out and achieve manhood on his own terms.

As Troy’s friend Bono, Phil McGlaston creates an engaging, credible, and interesting character foil, a grounded follower in contrast to Troy and his high-energy rashness. He is a worthy confidant, a sharp, funny, sympathetic listener and counterpoint to Troy’s tales, and a concerned friend.

Jared McNeill’s portrayal of Lyons, Troy’s musician older son, vividly and effectively provides yet another dimension in the play, as well as another perspective on the father-son dynamic, with son fully adult and clashing with his father in both values and life style.

In the magnificent role of Gabriel, G. Alverez Reid creates this wounded World War II veteran with great sensitivity and winning, loving detail. Having lost a significant part of his brain in the war effort and often needing help from his brother Troy, Gabriel is a sort of peddler, prophet, and angel of St. Peter, making sporadic appearances at key points in the story. With the character of Gabriel, as with Troy himself in his dark musings on death and the devil, this play, though never leaving its firm grounding in particularities of time and place, does at the same time transport its audience to a realm of spirituality where devils and death, St. Peter and the angels are brought to life.

Appearing in the final scene of the play, set in 1965, eight years after the first eight scenes, Taylor Dior as the seven-year-old Raynell, delivers a spot-on characterization of Troy’s youngest offspring and an appealing hope for a new generation.

John Iacovelli’s dirt back yard, back-porch, worn house setting in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, 1957, pre-television, pre-electronics, provides the ideal locale for the action of the play. A big tree stands on stage right with a bat leaning against it and ball made of rags tied to it for batting practice. Vivid warm lighting by Xavier Pierce, realistic costumes by ESOSA, and sound by John Gromada contribute rich background and resonance to the characters and concerns of the play.

Though this production does gain great strength from its focus on the ensemble, rather than risking the distractions associated with casting a big-name star, the director of this production is indeed a big star, Phylicia Rashad. An accomplished Tony Award-winning actress, experienced performer and director of Wilson’s work (including Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean on Broadway in 2004 and at McCarter the following year) as well as the acclaimed Claire Huxtable in “The Cosby Show” on TV for many years, Ms. Rashad possesses an extraordinary list of accomplishments on stage and screen, and, in recent years, as director. Her direction here brilliantly manifests her respect for the play and the playwright, bringing out powerfully and vividly the music and meaning of Fences and its characters.

In 2007, in a foreword to Gem of the Ocean, Ms. Rashad commented on Mr. Wilson, “He understood the power of sound and rhythm inherent in words, speech and music. He worked in alignment with that power …. August’s characters are defined by speech — the rhythms of speech serve as emotional building blocks that support the progressive movement of the play.”

In this exciting production of Fences at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, Ms. Rashad, with her top-flight design team and ensemble of seven fine actors, has faithfully and imaginatively brought to life the power, beauty, and value of August Wilson’s great drama. McCarter has just announced a one-week extension of this run of Fences, to February 16. It’s a dazzling production of one of the great plays of the 20th century. Those additional seats will fill up fast. Don’t delay.

 

 August Wilson’s “Fences” will run through February 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. For tickets and information call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.

 

A floral supplies store would seem an odd place to shop for musical instruments, but in preparation for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s (NJSO) recent North American premiere of Tan Dun’s Earth Concerto, members of the ensemble’s percussion section found themselves looking at planters of varying sizes and materials to serve as drums. Audience members at NJSO’s concert last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium peered with great interest at the three sets of multiple planters, not necessarily realizing that the three percussionists were creating amazing music on items available at the neighborhood gardening emporium.

NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe programmed Friday night’s concert of the Tan Dun concerto and Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde as part of the orchestra’s Winter Festival theme of the relationship between music and the elements of nature. Both the Tan Dun and Mahler works were “songs to earth” concerning man and nature. In a type of “chicken and egg” cycle, Chinese composer Tan Dun drew his inspiration for Earth Concerto from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, while Mahler found inspiration for this work in Hans Bethge’s poetic translation of Tang dynasty poetry.

NJSO programmed Earth Concerto as a closing bookend to Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, performed in the Winter Festival of 2011. The complete title of the work is Earth Concerto for Stone and Ceramic Percussion With Orchestra, and the three-movement work is scored for 99 ceramic and stone instruments with large orchestra. The concerto had its premiere in 2009, and what made NJSO’s North American premiere unique was its use of local instruments. The terra cotta, ceramic, and metal planters played by David Cossin, James Neglia, and James Musto provided scales, bell-like tones, and a somewhat rustic effect which Mr. Cossin noted “brings people back to a quieter and less distracting time.”

Understandably, most of the focus during the performance of Earth Concerto was on the three percussionists, as well as guest artist Zhang Meng, who played three traditional Chinese instruments — ceramic horn, xun, and flute. The most melodic of these instruments was the xun, a globular ocarina-type instrument providing a rich and mellow sound, especially when accompanied by harp. Adding to the percussive effects of the piece was the ceramic horn, which Mr. Zhang blew into, not unlike the indigenous Australian didgeridoo. The ceramic flute, used primarily in the third movement, contrasted with the ostinato played by the three percussionists and a slightly tipsy string sound to match the movement’s title: The Drunkard in Spring.

Tan Dun’s concerto was a work of innovation, as was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in its time. Composed in 1907-08, the six-movement work straddled the genres of orchestrated song cycle and symphony, while musically addressing Mahler’s obsession with mortality. Beginning with the trademark Mahlerian horn calls, Mr. Lacombe and the NJSO kicked off the piece majestically. Mahler changes musical moods on a dime, and throughout the work the players had no trouble navigating the composer’s very complex and evolutionary imagination.

American tenor Russell Thomas, who presented the first, third, fifth and final movements, sang with bright and sometimes fierce sound which was necessary to be heard over the thick orchestration. A nice Viennese flow from both singer and instrumentalists marked the reflective third movement, and like its companion third movement of the Tan Dun concerto, the fifth movement of the Mahler was sufficiently tipsy.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop displayed exactly the rich vocal tone and sensitivity to the text required for Mahler’s pensive approach to Bethge’s poetry. Both of these vocal soloists were necessarily operatic, and Ms. Bishop was in no hurry to rush the text, providing a bit of sauciness in the fourth movement. In the closing movement, in which both soloists sang, Ms. Bishop floated text describing the peaceful earth as Robert Ingliss’ oboe solo combined with undulating violas to depict a brook that “sings loudly through the darkness.”

The mid-19th century was a heyday for horns, and the horn section of the NJSO showed clarity and unified sound throughout. Mahler exploited almost every instrument of the orchestra in his larger-than-life musical concepts, and NJSO’s wind players in particular demonstrated both grace and strength. A pair of clarinets “wandered” through eternal love and English hornist Andrew Adelson provided supple melodic lines periodically throughout the movements. Mahler’s unique orchestration of piccolo solos, played by Kathleen Nester, added to the playfulness of the Drunk in Springtime fifth movement, and Bart Feller’s sensitive flute playing added to the pathos of the final farewell. Mahler’s underlying optimism was conveyed by the celeste, played by Elizabeth Difelice, as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra brought the substantial yet poignant work to a close.

 

WE’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF THIS ALIVE: Marcus Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) is one of a team of four SEALS who were caught in an ambush in Afghanistan. The unfortunate unit, who were on their way to locate a Taliban leader in a nearby village, was surrounded by over 100 Taliban fighters after their presence in the area was reported by seemingly innocuous shepherds. As the title of the film suggests, only Lutrell survived the ordeal and later wrote a memoir about the incident.

WE’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF THIS ALIVE: Marcus Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) is one of a team of four SEALS who were caught in an ambush in Afghanistan. The unfortunate unit, who were on their way to locate a Taliban leader in a nearby village, was surrounded by over 100 Taliban fighters after their presence in the area was reported by seemingly innocuous shepherds. As the title of the film suggests, only Lutrell survived the ordeal and later wrote a memoir about the incident.

On June 28, 2005, a team of four Navy SEALs based in Afghanistan were issued orders in accordance with Operation Red Wings to locate and terminate a Taliban leader whose militia had been targeting coalition troops in the Kush Mountains of Kunar Province. The four were dropped by helicopter line into rugged terrain outside the tiny village that was suspected of harboring al-qaeida sympathizers.

Soon the soldiers encountered several shepherds and, against their better judgment, allowed the seemingly innocuous civilians to continue on their way in accordance with the U.S. military’s rules of engagement. Unfortunately, about an hour later, the SEALs found themselves ambushed by over a hundred Taliban fighters who had apparently been tipped off as to their whereabouts.

The ensuing battle is the subject of Lone Survivor, a gruesome war film based on Marcus Luttrell’s (Mark Wahlberg) memoir of the harrowing ordeal. Adapted and directed by Peter Berg (Battleship), the picture is reminiscent of Black Hawk Down, that was another film about an American, overseas helicopter operation gone bad.

Given the movie’s title, there isn’t any suspense about how the disastrous misadventure ends. Consequently, the movie amounts to little more than watching members of Luttrell’s unit — and over a dozen of the reinforcements sent to try to rescue them, perish — as well.

Good (**). Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive profanity. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

—Kam Williams

 

Artists’ Gallery, 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville, has its annual holiday group show through February 2. “Lyrical,” a group show, is February 6-March 2. Visit www.lambertvillearts.com.

Arts Council of Princeton, 104 Witherspoon Street, shows “Terrace Project: Ayami Aoyama” until April 30. Through March 8, “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press, Contemporary Works” is on view. (609) 924-8777.

Artworks, Everett Alley at Stockton Street, Trenton, has “Transitions,” works by Colleen Gahrmann, on view through February 15. “The False Mirror: Surrealism Forward and Back” runs through February 22. (609) 394-9436.

A Space Gallery @ New Hope Arts, 2 Stockton Street, New Hope, has “I’ll Explain Later-Works by Guy Ciarcia” through January 31.

Bank of Princeton Art Gallery, 10 Bridge Street, Lambertville, has the work of Jody Furch through February 15.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Arts and Interactive Media Building, Route 31, Ewing, has paintings and prints by Ruane Miller January 22-February 20. (609) 771-2633.

D&R Greenway Marie L. Matthews Galleries, 1 Preservation Place, has “Wild Creatures: 40 Years Protecting Endangered Species” art exhibit January 29-March 21. The opening is January 31, 5:30-7:30 p.m. www.drgreenway.org.

Ellarslie, Trenton’s City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, presents “Adopted: Restored, Art, Artifacts and Books from 2012” and “Frank Applegate, George Bradshaw and the School of Industrial Arts” through February 9. The Trenton Public Schools Biennial Student Art Show runs through March 2.

Erdman Gallery, Princeton Theological Seminary, 64 Mercer Street, has “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” watercolors by Suzanne Mahn Hunt, January 25-March 31. The opening is January 25, 5-7 p.m.

Gallery Art Times Two, Princeton Brain and Spine Care Institute, 731 Alexander Road, has “A View Within,” fiber art collaboration by Paula Chung and Karen Rips, through April 25. (609) 921-9001.

Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, shows works by sculptor John Spedding and painter Kathleen Wallace, “When Paint Meets Stone,” through January 29. February 3-28, the gallery shows “Patterns of Nature” by Charles McVicker. (609) 924-7206.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “People, Places, and a Parrot Called Pancho,” photos by Richard Trenner; “One Heart One Mind” by Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner, through February 2.

Gourgaud Gallery, Town Hall, Cranbury, has “Winter Dreams,” an open call exhibition, through January 31. www.cranburyartscouncil.org.

Grounds for Sculpture, Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton, has “Edwina Sandys: Provocative and Profound” and “William Knight: Out of Context,” through April 13. Visit www.groundsforsculp
ture.org.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, has photographs from its collection in the Princeton Pride Gallery. “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street” and “Einstein at Home” are also on view. For more information visit www.princetonhistory.org.

Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington, has “Common Threads 2,” work by six Trenton area artists, February 1, 12-5 p.m. www.hopewellvalleyvineyards.com.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly, Beyond the Icon,” through January 26. “Local Mill Makes Good: Celebrating 75 Years of American Theater at Bucks County Playhouse” is on view through March 2. Visit www.michenerartmu
seum.org.

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, has “Staging Symbolism: Programs for the Theatre de l’Oeuvre in Paris” through February 2. “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture” is January 25-July 13. “Stars: Contemporary Prints by Derriere L’Etoile Studio” is exhibited through March 2. Historic Japanese photographs, “Meiji Photographs,” are exhibited through July 31. “A gift in Honor of Tyler Clementi: Dale Chihuly’s Riviera Blue Macchia Chartreuse Lip Wrap” is on view through July 31. “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture” runs January 25-July 13. Visit www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.

Lewis Center for the Arts, 701 Carnegie Center, has a sculpture exhibition of work by Princeton University students through January.

Lucas Gallery, Princeton University, 185 Nassau Street, has an exhibition of student work featuring drawing, painting, photography, graphic design, sculpture, and other media, through January 31.

Mariboe Gallery, Peddie School, Hightstown, has “Zara Stasi, Lynnette Hesser and David Bair,” an exhibit by three alumni, through February 4. (609) 944-7551.

Mercer County Community College Gallery, Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, has “Left of Central: Later 20th Century Visual Arts in the Capital City” through February 20. Visit www.mccc.edu/gallery.

Plainsboro Public Library Gallery, 9 Van Doren Street, has watercolors and silk paintings by Shaomei Zhong Wan January 25-February 26. The opening is February 8, 1-3 p.m. (609) 275-2897.

Princeton Day School Anne Reid ‘72 Gallery, 650 Great Road, has an Origami exhibit through January 30. The opening reception is January 23, 12:30-1:30 p.m. Visit www.pds.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Man” and “The Kite That Never Flew,” sculptures by Alexander Calder, on view outside the museum through June 15. From January 25-May 11, “500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum” is on view. “Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print” runs February 8-June 8. Call (609) 258-3788.

Princeton University Mudd Manuscript Library has an exhibit to mark the centennial of the Graduate College, “Building the House of Knowledge: The Graduate College Centennial” through June 6. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m.

Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville, has “Basil Alkazzi: An Odyssey of Dreams – A Decade of Paintings 2003-2012,” February 6- March 2. A reception and program is February 20, 6 p.m. (609) 921-7100.

Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street, has “Grand Blooms,” paintings and drawings by artists from Princeton Senior Resource Center, through February 4. The store at 14 Witherspoon Street has works by students from The Waldorf School of Princeton, “Sacred Geometry,” through February 4.

West Windsor Arts Council, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, shows “Out of the Blue” through February 28; works by 39 artists. Visit www.westwindsorarts.org.

January 15, 2014

book rev Amiri“Amiri Baraka, The Last Poet Laureate of New Jersey.” This is how Baraka, who died at 79 on January 9, signed the introduction to his 2007 short story collection, Tales of the Out & the Gone (2007).

In the headline above the photograph on the front page of Friday’s New York Times, he’s “Amiri Baraka, Firebrand Poet, Playwright, and Activist.” Inside, in the headline over the full-page obituary by Margalit Fox, he’s “Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright.” The first sentence describes him as a writer of “pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others” — which is what Fox News might call a Fair and Balanced Farewell.

The terms would probably have been less extreme or at least differently phrased except for a few lines toward the end of a long poem Baraka read at the 2002 Dodge Poetry Festival called “Somebody Blew Up America.” Unless you read the whole poem, you might assume, as I did, that the central thrust builds toward the six lines echoing the hateful, ludicrous, and much-denounced rumor about Israel’s possible foreknowledge of September 11. That’s what set off the uproar leading then-Governor McGreevey to attempt to remove Baraka as poet laureate. What followed was a stunning example of poetic justice. When the poet predictably refused to be removed, the position of poet laureate was abolished, giving Baraka the opportunity to justly refer to himself as the last poet laureate of New Jersey. In effect, the poet himself wrote the last line of that particular piece of public poetry.

Harsh and Bluesy

Search for Amiri Baraka on YouTube and you find a long scream of a poem from the 1970s called “Dope,” performed with theatrical, at times evangelical, gusto and a harsh, bluesy, jazzy fervor. This verse exorcism, which in its litany of evils is not unlike the poem that blindsided the laureateship, puts in play what Baraka once said of jazz great Charlie Parker, “who would literally imitate the human voice with his cries, swoops, squawks, and slurs.” Written in 1963 when he was still known as LeRoi Jones, the observation comes from his book Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed From It. “Parker,” he goes on to say, “did not admit there was any separation between himself and the agent he had chosen as his means of self-expression.” The same is true of Baraka and his poetry. The big difference is, to use the terms from the Times, that Parker’s playing is incandescent and Baraka’s writing, at least in “Dope” and “Somebody Blew Up America,” is incendiary.

Remembering LeRoi Jones

When I read Baraka’s Black Power/Third World Socialist/Marxist narrative in the Times obituary, I was remembering a slightly built, neatly bearded man in a three-piece suit named LeRoi Jones. Working in a bookstore in the heart of Greenwich Village in the time period recently reprised by the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I saw someone whose dapper attire seemed a marked departure from the customary who-cares attitude of the Beat scene in which he was active as a poet and founding editor of the journal Yugen. Jones’s first book of poetry, Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note, was published, as was Yugen, by Corinth, the small press run by my employer, the Eighth Street Bookshop. Having heard just the other day, out of the blue, that Jones was employed there himself at one time, I assume he dressed more casually when he was working the cash register, helping customers, or unpacking books.

Baraka’s Autobiography of LeRoi Jones lends credence to my memory of the serious dresser, however. Around the time he transferred from Rutgers to Howard University in 1952, he frequented a “kind of English store the likes of which are found no more in Newark …. With saddles and riding boots and crops for decoration, cloth laid about. Very traditional and English and it impressed the hell out of me …. And the clothes now I began to buy out of that mold. The English conservative clothes that the Ivy tradition is the natural extension of.”

He must have been 18 at the time. Aspects of his sartorial evolution can be seen in the photos accompanying the Times article: dashiki-clad in one from 1968, looking Thelonius-Monkish in performance with jazz bassist Reggie Workman in 1999, clad in a suit and dancing with Maya Angelou in 1991, and appearing the thoughtful, pinstripe-shirted scholar poet at home in Newark in 2007.

Baraka and King

When I realized that this issue of Town Topics would be coming out on January 15, Martin Luther King’s 84th birthday, I went to YouTube again and found a video of Baraka’s address at the 2011 Community Celebration of King at the University of Virginia.

Of all the tributes and remembrances on Martin Luther King Day 2014, you’re unlikely to find any to equal Baraka’s from January 28, 2011. In his hour and twenty minutes he hits all his personal flash points, reads “Somebody Blew Up America,” answers questions, and makes it clear that he’s still angry about the 2003 murder of his daughter. Nevertheless, the heart of the talk — and “heart” is the word for it — is Martin Luther King, Jr. At 77, Baraka still shows flashes of the firebrand when he refers to people not knowing “why Christ got iced.” As that piece of street talk suggests, Baraka isn’t attempting to mimic King’s inspirational style in his toned-down paraphrasing of passages from the best known speeches. He mutes his angry muse even as he’s subverting the benign stereotype of King, who was not, as Baraka puts it, “the passive individual that the McDonald’s commercials suggest.” You could almost say that he’s remaking King in his own “incendiary” image, stressing the man’s toughness and stamina, his moral courage, the fact that he was jailed 16 times, that he put his life on the line every day.

About 45 minutes into the video, Baraka appears moved as he offers his version of King’s eve-of-death “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech at the Bishop Charles J. Mason Temple in Memphis. Baraka begins by pounding out a beat on the lectern as he softly half-sings half-chants “Don’t Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” the protest song King and  six thousand protestors were singing as they marched in downtown Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers. Stressing the life-on-the-line theme, Baraka puts his more informal language in place of King’s rhetorically heightened account of the incident in New York when he suffered a near-fatal stabbing and was later told by doctors that if he had “merely sneezed” he “would have died.” Even a genius orator would be hard put to bring off King’s “If I had sneezed” mantra, surely not one of the high points in any King documentary. Still speaking as King, Baraka simplifies and quietly underplays the incident, reducing it to a sentence, “Only a few years ago a woman they said was crazed plunged a knife into my chest and the doctors said if I’d sneezed I would have died.” Keeping it low-key while quietly building to the emotional peak of the speech, Baraka tamps down the rhetorical dynamite of the mountaintop and the promised land, so that the emphasis falls on the simplest but most powerful line in the speech: “I may not get there with you.” Baraka’s King says “wit” instead of “with” and it’s effective. He’s singing King’s song in his own way. For the last lines, though, Baraka stays with the text, letting the passion surface but still without attempting to match King’s glorious, ringing “And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

King Comes Calling

The warmest part of Baraka’s 2011 tribute comes in the context of King’s visit to Newark to lead “the poor people’s march” in late March 1968. Baraka describes looking from his front window at the crowds coming down the street, the sound of helicopters overhead (“I thought we were about to get busted”): “The doorbell rang. I opened the door, There’s Dr. King standing on the doorstep. A photographer took a picture of me with my mouth hung open …. Dr. King came in my house, he says, ‘Hello, Leroy.’ [Baraka chuckles at the “Leroy”] You don’t look like such a bad person.’ [another chuckle] People told me you were a bad person.’ [one more chuckle] Here’s King came with stubble on his face, open shirt, poor people’s march, the next week he was dead.”

Baraka says the photograph he mentions hung for years in Newark’s City Hall — until it was moved by Mayor Cory Booker, perhaps a variation on the removal of the title of poet laureate. Baraka has his own ideas about that. He figures every time the mayor walked past the picture it was “making noise” about issues Baraka had with Booker.

Amiri Baraka’s funeral will be held at Newark Symphony Hall at 10 a.m. on January 18. Metropolitan Baptist Church will hold a viewing on Friday, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Carl Faith

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I received a nice message from Carl Faith, who died January 12 (see this week’s obituaries). In his response to my piece on George Kennan, he recalled talking with Mr. Kennan at tea and lunch during Mr. Faith’s tenure at the Institute. I remember him not only as the first reader to write me but as a fellow book lover and devoted customer of John Socia’s Old York Bookstore in New Brunswick and later of the ongoing used book sale at the library.

 

The academic year goes by quickly, especially with a holiday break half-way through. The Princeton University Opera Theater always takes on a challenging opera to be presented shortly after the winter break, but it is hard to imagine Princeton’s operatic students and faculty undertaking a production as testing as Claudio Monteverdi’s TheCoronation of Poppea so soon after break. Fifteen singers, accompanied by harpsichords, strings, lutes, and theorbo presented Monteverdi’s final opera this past weekend, demonstrating the depth of vocal and instrumental talent in an opera which even the Metropolitan Opera would find daunting.

Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the opera was repeated on Saturday night) was staged with pairs of musicians on either side onstage and a small string ensemble in the pit. The directorial team led by conductor Michael Pratt and director Ethan Heard sought to complement a production of the same opera in 2001, featuring countertenor and Princeton student Anthony Roth Costanzo, now on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. This year’s production featured a number of University singers also headed for promising careers in music.

The Coronation of Poppea harks back to opera’s beginning; with an Italian libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, it was one of the first operas to use historical events and real people as subject material. Princeton University’s production was primarily in English (with translation by Peter Westergaard, Wendy Heller, and Arthur Jacobs), with the original Italian retained at specific moments, such as in a late duet between Nero and Poppea. The singers were accompanied by an appropriate combination of harpsichords, played by Nicholas Lockey and Jason Nong; as well as lute and theorbo, played by Charles Weaver and Daniel Swenson alternating among instruments. All of these period instruments spoke well in the hall, with the lute and theorbo accompaniment easily balancing the singers as solo instruments.

The description of the opera’s Prologue could easily be used to describe the state of the world today: “Fortune and Virtue argue about who holds the true power of the world; Love proclaims his supremacy.” Accompanied by a nice light touch from the strings, Fortune and Virtue, sung by Allegra Wiprud and Sarah Cooper, respectively, solidly opened the production. Ms. Wiprud, costumed a bit like Lady Gaga, showed a voice with a good ring in the hall and well handled the extensive recitative text. Ms. Cooper deftly handled the extensive runs of Virtue’s role. Varshini Narayanan joined Future and Virtue onstage as the character of Love, bringing an energetic and nymph-like interpretation to her role throughout, with consistently impressive movement and singing.

The Coronation of Poppea revolves principally around the illicit love affair between Nero and Poppea, both married to others. Contrary to Italian morality of the time, the adulterous relationships prevail, with Nero’s wife Octavia and Poppea’s husband Otto banished in exile. The two students cast as the leads Nero and Poppea have worked very hard toward probable careers in singing. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen has proven his scholarly and performance command of music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and soprano Katie Buzard has been refining her vocal skills both at Princeton and the Royal College of Music in London. Mr. Cohen took command of the stage immediately, showing that the extensive vocal runs (precursors to the coloratura fireworks of the subsequent decades) were squarely in his wheelhouse, showing no trouble at all with the vocal demands of Nero’s role. Ms. Buzard demonstrated a sparkling top register, also keeping the 17th-century Italianate style well in hand. Monteverdi’s music, revolutionary for its melody and humanism, served the text and the emotions conveyed by the singers, and both of these performers never lost sight of the connection among these elements.

The two hapless spouses of these conniving individuals were also well performed. Countertenor Michael Manning sang the music of Otto, deliberately composed to show Poppea’s husband as tentative and timid, lyrically, and demonstrating despair well. Marie-Gabrielle D’Arco, singing the role of Nero’s wife Octavia, sang with incredible richness and maturity and showed that she will have no trouble pursuing her chosen career in opera as she powerfully executed the almost exclusively dramatic recitative-style. Operas of the early 17th century feature upper voices, and the one significantly lower voice in this production was Jonathan Choi’s interpretation of the philosopher Seneca. Seneca’s music is bold and wide-ranging, and Mr. Choi was especially effective in the extreme lower register. In addition to the onstage Baroque instruments, conductor Michael Pratt effectively led a small ensemble of strings to support the singers. Most impressive among the strings was cellist Nathan Haley, who provided a great deal of specific accompaniment to arias and extensive solos.

Following its premiere in the mid-17th century, The Coronation of Poppea was neglected until the late 1800s and achieved new popularity in the second half of the 20th century. For a university opera company to take this production on could have been an invitation for difficulties and frustration, but the Princeton University Opera Theater provided itself to be more than up to the task.

 

HOW CAN WE GET THESE CROOKED CONGRESSMEN TO INCRIMINATE THEMSELVES?: Flamboyant FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, left) confers with small time con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) about how to entice the seven corrupt politicians to allow themselves be bribed by FBI agents disguised as wealthy Arab sheiks.

HOW CAN WE GET THESE CROOKED CONGRESSMEN TO INCRIMINATE THEMSELVES?: Flamboyant FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, left) confers with small time con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) about how to entice the seven corrupt politicians to allow themselves be bribed by FBI agents disguised as wealthy Arab sheiks.

In the late 70s six U.S. Congressional House Representatives  and a United States Senator were caught on camera taking bribes from FBI agents who were posing as wealthy Arab sheiks. The elaborate sting in which the disgraced Congressmen became ensnared was code named Abscam, a contraction of Arab Scam.

American Hustle is a fictionalized account of that embarrassing chapter in the nation’s history. Set in New York and New Jersey in the Disco Music era, the film was written and directed by David O. Russell, who has been blessed with the golden touch in Hollywood in recent years.

His earlier movie Silver Linings Playbook received eight Academy Award nominations, including 2013’s Best Actress Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence. That picture arrived close on the heels of The Fighter, which had earned seven Oscar nominations which included trophies for both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in acting categories.

In this film, Russell has produced another engaging and entertaining production featuring a plethora of powerful performances. The movie co-stars Christian Bale as con artist Irving Rosenfeld and Amy Adams as his mischievous British mistress, Sydney. They play a pair of small-time crooks who help the Feds catch bigger fish in exchange for avoiding prosecution.

Reluctantly, they cooperate with Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a flamboyant and ambitious FBI agent who draws attention to himself by curling his straight hair and wearing trendy clothes. Sydney flirts with the fashionable G-man, feeling little loyalty towards her partner Irving, who’s dragging his feet about filing for a divorce from his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

But when Rosalyn realizes that her husband has been cheating, she decides to get even by seducing a shady character (Jack Huston) who, unbeknownst to her, is under government surveillance. Generating great hilarity, these tawdry love triangles escalate into attention-grabbing distractions that threaten to ruin the FBI’s covert operation.

Meanwhile, the naive Mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner) is being manipulated by Irving to introduce a notorious mob boss (Robert De Niro), as well as the aforementioned corrupt politicians, to Sheik Abdullah (Michael Pena). However, the FBI looks more like the Keystone Cops when the agent trying to pass as an Arab can’t even speak his native language.

Who knows whether any of these ridiculous incidents shown here ever actually transpired? But you don’t really worry about the truth when the laughs just keep coming and the witty repartee remains so inspired.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, pervasive profanity, and brief violence. Running time: 138 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

January 8, 2014

book revI kept thinking of Shakespeare as I watched the eleven-minute BBC video of London’s spectacular New Year’s fireworks display. All that celestial excitement exploding above his river, his city, his Globe — the show was worthy of a stage direction like the one in the last act of Cymbeline: “Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. The Apparitions fall on their knees.” Or the Soothsayer’s image in the last scene of the same play, “The fingers of the powers above do tune/The harmony of this peace.” Or in the play’s last speech, King Cymbeline’s “Laud we the gods;/And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils.” 

It was all there in the first half hour of 2014, Jupiter’s thunderbolts and apparitions (except they weren’t on their knees, they were flying like drunken angels), “crooked smokes” ascending and descending, the fingers of the powers above (and below) tuning all that glory, and why not? What better word for the fantastical audacity of the phenomenon than Shakespearean? Admittedly, literature had nothing to do with it, the display having been billed as a “multi-sensory” event featuring clouds of apple, cherry, and strawberry mist, peach snow, thousands of bubbles filled with Seville orange-flavored smoke, and 40,000 grams of edible banana confetti. This looney idea nevertheless created a unique concatenation of visual delights that evoked Hamlet’s “brave o’erhanging firmament, this Majesticall roofe, fretted with golden fire.” Such, at least, were my thoughts as I wondered what was so special about 2014 that the city and its Tory mayor should launch so fabulously excessive a celebration.

With the big number staring me in the face, I finally figured it out — Shakespeare’s birth year is 1564, which means 2014 marks his 450th anniversary, which explains the over-the-top New Year spectacle. Or does it? Not a word about Shakespeare could I find ahead of the event, nothing but references to the edible aspect, like the headline in the Express: “Willy Wonka to take over Boris Johnson’s fireworks display.”

Meanwhile, London’s golden fire had inspired a New Year’s resolution, which begins with this column. During the next 12 months I’m going to binge on Shakespeare, starting with Cymbeline.

Why Cymbeline?

On my first summer in Europe, a friend introduced me to the first verse of the funeral song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,/Nor the furious winter’s rages;/Thou thy worldly task hast done,/Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:/Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” All these years later in the hour after midnight, 2014, I remembered the song and decided it was time to read the play it came from, as a sort of down payment on my New Year’s resolution. Why hadn’t I ever read it? Perhaps I’d kept my distance until now because of something negative I’d read or heard, most likely the suggestion that other playwrights had had a hand in its creation. And what is it anyway? Surely not a comedy, with all its evil, passion, rage, and vile deceit, not to mention a beheading, with the headless corpse in view at the center of the play’s supreme dramatic moment. Is it a romance? A tragedy? A problem play? Hazlitt called it “one of the most delightful” of Shakespeare’s histories. Samuel Johnson couldn’t abide it: “To remark the folly of the fiction,” he wrote, “the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”

The intensity of Johnson’s dismissal made me curious. Here was a work by the greatest writer in the world that could not be fitted into “any system of life.” And suppose Johnson was even a little bit near the truth, how could that peerless lyric “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” possibly make sense amid “unresisting imbecility”?

My reading of Cymbeline began as a search for the song. It went badly at first, with a tedious account of the background of the ostensible hero, Posthumus, from Sicilius to Cassibelan to Tenantius to Leonatus. The names piled up, the movement of the language seemed awkward, halting, perfunctory. Looking for the music, I prowled through a series of bizarre episodes dominated by intemperate kings, evil queens, and devious Italians. Where was the song? For that matter, where was Swinburne’s “heavenly harmony of Cymbeline”? And Hazlitt’s “tender gloom” that “o’erspreads the whole”? How could Keats celebrate it as an example of the “poetical Character” that has “as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen”?

Imogen in the Flesh

It was Imogen who drew me in, dazzled and seduced me. Swinburne ends his Study of Shakespeare with reference to “the name of the woman above all Shakespeare’s women … the name of the woman best beloved in all the world of song and all the tide of time … the name of Shakespeare’s Imogen.” Shakespeare allows us a remarkably intimate view of Cymbeline’s daughter asleep, half naked; thanks to the wily Iachimo’s clandestine visit to her bedchamber we know that her body is “whiter than the sheets” of her bed and that there’s a mole on her left breast, “cinque-spotted: like the crimson drops/I’ th’ bottom of a cowslip.”

It made sense, then, that Imogen would be there when I found the song about the golden lads and girls. Where in this bizarre “system of life” could lines of such depth and simple beauty turn up? Where else but in Act IV, scene 2, one of the most outlandishly brilliant sequences in all of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Magnaminity

Act IV begins with a travesty of a soliloquy spoken by an idiot signifying nothing more than his almost sublime cluelessness. Here in the character of Cloten, the evil queen’s son, is the embodiment of the “imbecility” that must have encouraged Johnson’s use of the term.

What Baudelaire said of the author of the La Comédie humaine — “Everyone in Balzac has genius — even the door-keepers. All his minds are weapons loaded to the muzzle with will” — can also be applied to characters in Shakespeare since almost every character is invested with the essence of his brilliance, fools and kings, rogues and killers, whether speaking in blank verse or earthy prose. But Cloten? You can’t help feeling that having created so deeply obnoxious a character, Shakespeare decided not to provide so much as a fig-leaf of intelligence or style to hide his naked worthlessness. Cloten can’t even, in effect, “speak Shakespeare.” His tasteless attempts to woo Imogen, who has already been wed to her true love, the banished Posthumus, are met with eloquent scorn by the object of his absurdly cloddish advances. At one point, having already torn him verbally to tatters, Imogen plants with one word the seed of his doom by declaring that he is not worth the “meanest garment” worn by Posthumus. The word garment seems to clutch Cloten by the throat. He’s invaded by it, addled by it, stupefied by it, idiotically repeating it to himself, four times over, “His garment!”

Cloten’s idea — an imbecilic stroke of literal-minded genius — is to steal an actual garment belonging to Posthumus so that he can be seen wearing it by Imogen while he carries out his doomed plan to kill his rival while she looks on, after which he will have his way with her before dragging her back to court and marriage. You know he’s doomed because everything he says falls as flat as the philosophical flourish with which he prefaces his boast, Cloten’s dumbed down version of “To be or not to be”: “What mortality is! Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be off; thy mistress enforced; thy garments cut to pieces before thy face: and all this done, spurn her home to her father; who may haply be a little angry for my so rough usage; but my mother, having power of his testiness, shall turn all into my commendations.”

Cloten is still plagued by the g-word. Even though the head is off, the face of his victim will be watching as the hateful garment is cut to pieces. And the king will be a little angry? Please. Cymbeline is never “a little angry.” It should be obvious by now whose head will “within this hour be off.”

Thus the masterful sequence that follows is prefaced by a fool who lacks even the literary charm with which Shakespeare endows his silliest clowns. And how gross is his fate, to have his severed head displayed a mere minute after he goads his killer “When I have slain thee with my proper hand,/I’ll follow those that even now fled hence,/And on the gates of Lud’s-town set your heads.”

The rest of the scene has to be read to be believed. Imogen, who has found refuge disguised as a boy in the cave of the “mountaineers” (her lost brothers, it turns out), wakes from a drugged death-like state to find herself lying beside Cloten’s headless corpse, which because it’s dressed in Posthumus’s garment she thinks is the mutilated body of her beloved. This gruesome situation follows directly upon the performance of the funeral song, the object of my quest, which her still-unrecognized brothers, thinking her dead, sing over her body. Shakespeare then magnanimously allows the slain Cloten to share the afterglow of this tender moment; he’s a queen’s son, after all. His head having been tossed in a stream, his body is ceremoniously placed beside Imogen’s.

The 1982 BBC film of Cymbeline is labeled a comedy. And no doubt the groundlings would roar with laughter should the scene be played poorly. How cruel, how dreadful is our knowledge that the body Imogen laments over so passionately and movingly, embracing it, wiping her face with blood from the gaping wound, is not her husband but the man she loathes, the despicable Cloten. Yet this ugly irony in no way distracts from the emotional impact of a speech that Helen Mirren delivers with hair-raising intensity in the BBC film — you seem to see her reaching out to touch the master overlooking the scene, he who gave her these words, ignited these extraordinary theatrical fireworks. What makes it sublime is Shakespeare’s understanding that for the sake of the play, the integrity of his vision, the hideous delusion will be redeemed by the harmony of a happy ending she alone has the force to make possible, she alone great enough to comprehend it. It’s the infectious genius of her character, the very electricity that created her, that Cymbeline observes, in the play’s final moments, Imogen reunited with Posthumus and the others, as “she, like harmless lightning, throws her eye/On him, her brother, me, her master, hitting/Each object with a joy.”

Cymbeline the Film

Believe it or not, Cymbeline has been updated to the present and filmed, only this past fall, with Ed Harris as the title character, leader of a biker gang, and Princeton’s own Ethan Hawke as the devious Iachimo, Mira Jovovich as the evil queen, and as Imogen Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey. The film will be released in the new year — if a distributor can be found. 

 

MOONRISE OVER MANSET: Trudy Glucksberg’s 24”x36” acrylic on canvas work will be on view as part of the Arts Council of Princeton exhibition “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press, Contemporary Works,” which opens with a reception on Saturday, January 18 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Paul Robeson Center. The exhibition is part of the overarching project,“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Birth of Artists’ Communities in Central New Jersey” that includes several art exhibits, as well as film, gallery talks and panel discussions.

MOONRISE OVER MANSET: Trudy Glucksberg’s 24”x36” acrylic on canvas work will be on view as part of the Arts Council of Princeton exhibition “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press, Contemporary Works,” which opens with a reception on Saturday, January 18 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Paul Robeson Center. The exhibition is part of the overarching project,“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Birth of Artists’ Communities in Central New Jersey” that includes several art exhibits, as well as film, gallery talks and panel discussions.

“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Birth of Artists’ Communities in Central New Jersey” is a series of art exhibits, film, gallery talks, and panel discussions focusing on notable art communities that developed in central New Jersey beginning in the late 1930s. The project explores the role New Jersey has had as a creative cauldron since the mid-20th century and it opens at the Arts Council of Princeton, the Historical Society of Princeton and the Princeton Public Library on January 18. It will also open in the Gallery at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) on January 21, and at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton on February 15. 

Much of America’s creative activity took root in small but important enclaves all across the country. Beginning in the mid-20th century, central New Jersey became one such hotbed, and played an important role in American cultural life of the last century. The accomplishments of the artists who lived and worked here are documented in the paintings, drawings, and sculpture they produced.

Among the groups being explored are the original Queenston Press artists; the artists of Roosevelt; Princeton Artists Alliance; the Trenton Artists Workshop Association (TAWA); and the Princeton Art Association (now ARTWORKS in Trenton).

Original artwork and portfolios, featuring both historical and contemporary works, will be displayed in participating venues in Mercer County and its environs now through spring 2015. Concentric Circles overlaps with “New Jersey as Non-Site,” an independent exhibition organized by the Princeton University Art Museum that focused on experimental artists of the postwar era, another group of artists in central New Jersey.

Concentric Circles organizers Ilene Dube and Kate Somers originally set out to celebrate a group of women artists who came together in Princeton in the 1960s to learn printmaking from Judith K. Brodsky. From this small group, along with other artists who established the Princeton Art Association during the same period, many other art groups eventually formed. Just as interests during this period began to overlap as artists joined multiple groups and influenced one another’s work, the original project grew to encompass more of these “Concentric Circles.”

“We discovered that not only had the women artists’ group come together at this time, but other important artists in the area were taking classes with each other, interacting, and influencing each other,” says Dube. “Although the artists of Roosevelt had formed in the 1930s, many were still active in the 1960s and 70s, and knew the artists of the Queenston Press. In addition, there were connections to artists who had taught at Mercer County Community College, as well as the artists who formed the Trenton Artists Workshop Association.”

“Today our region continues to flourish in the arts with artist groups such as the Princeton Artists Alliance and MOVIS,” says Somers, who has curated exhibitions of most of these artists.

Exhibitions will take place as follows. “Concentric Circles of Influence: the Queenston Press, The Woman Portfolio” at Princeton Public Library, January 8 through April 15, with a reception Saturday, January 18, from 3 to 6 p.m. For more visit: www.princeton
library.org.

“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press Bicentennial Portfolio” at Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, January 18 through July 13 with a reception Saturday, January 18, from 3 to 6 p.m. For more information, visit: www.princeton
history.org.

“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press Ten Crucial Days Portfolio” at Historical Society of Princeton, Updike Farmstead, January 18 through July 13, with a reception Saturday, January 18, from 3 to 6 p.m.

For more information, visit: www.princetonhistory.org.

“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press Contemporary Works” at Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, Taplin Gallery, January 18 through March 8, with a reception Saturday, January 18, from 3 to 6 p.m. For more information, visit: www.artscouncilof
princeton.org

“Left of Central: TAWA, Artworks and Art in the Capital Region” at The Gallery at Mercer County Community College, January 21 through February 20, with a reception Saturday, January 25, noon to 2 p.m.For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery

“Artists of Roosevelt” at New Jersey State Museum, February 15 through May 25. For more information, visit: www.statemuseum.nj.gov

“America: Through Artists’ Eyes” at New Jersey State Museum, October 25, 2014 through April 5, 2015. For more information, visit: www.statemuseum.nj.gov

The PNC Foundation is the generous Lead Funder for the 2014 Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press exhibitions at the Arts Council of Princeton, Historical Society of Princeton, and the Princeton Public Library.

The Arts Council of Princeton and The Gallery at MCCC are supported, in part, through a grant from the Mercer County Cultural & Heritage Commission, in partnership with the NJ State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

BILL SCHEIDE AT 100: At his 100th birthday party, which he celebrated on Sunday, January 5, Bill Scheide, shown above with his wife Judy, entertained 22 children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He recited Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” played a Bach prelude, and said “I’d rather be 80.” At the upcoming birthday concert in honor of Mr. Scheide at Richardson auditorium, the program will feature a piano piece by Mr. Scheide, as well as works by Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. Performers include the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Tickets for “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” are available from www.scheideconcerts.com or University ticketing, (609) 258.9220.

BILL SCHEIDE AT 100: At his 100th birthday party, which he celebrated on Sunday, January 5, Bill Scheide, shown above with his wife Judy, entertained 22 children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He recited Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” played a Bach prelude, and said “I’d rather be 80.” At the upcoming birthday concert in honor of Mr. Scheide at Richardson auditorium, the program will feature a piano piece by Mr. Scheide, as well as works by Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. Performers include the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Tickets for “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” are available from www.scheideconcerts.com or University ticketing, (609) 258.9220.

Princeton philanthropist William H. Scheide, known affectionately as “Bill,” turned 100 on Monday. For the past six years, the ever youthful music lover, Bach scholar and bibliophile, whose name is associated with numerous educational institutions, has celebrated his birthday with an annual concert of music conducted by former music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra Mark Laycock. 

This year, “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” will take place Saturday, January 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, on the campus of Princeton University.

As befits the special occasion, the concert will feature a stellar line up that includes the local and the international: Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra (Wiener KammerOrchester), soloists Ah Young Hong (soprano), Leah Wool (mezzo-soprano), William Burden (tenor), and Mark S. Doss (bass-baritone), and pianists Mariam Nazarian and Andrew Sun.

Several of the performers have strong connections to the Princeton area. Ms. Wool received her Bachelor of Music magna cum laude from Westminster Choir College and Mr. Sun, who is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at New York University, was born in West Windsor.

Many local residents will recall a small recital held at Jasna Polana in which Mr. Scheide joined Ms. Nazarian at the piano. Ms. Nazarian made her U.S. debut in 1995 with a solo recital in Princeton as well as in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. At age 16, she was the youngest pianist in the history of Carnegie Hall to have performed J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. She is associate director of the Scheide Fund and has also served as programming advisor to the Arts Council of Princeton (incidentally, she recently coached Elijah Wood for his role in the upcoming thriller, Grand Piano).

The concert, which Mr. Scheide will attend, pays tribute to his love of Bach by opening with the composer’s “Gloria sei dir gesungen” from Cantata BWV 140. Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (Op 80) will follow and then a work composed by Mr. Scheide in his student days: Prelude for Piano Four Hands. The evening will culminate with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Choral,” with Mr. Laycock conducting the Wiener KammerOrchester for the third time at a birthday celebration for Mr. Scheide.

Known for his work with Opera New Jersey, especially a concert of Mendelssohn’s rarely performed Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang, with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Laycock was music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years. He is credited with transforming what was a small chamber orchestra into a full and critically acclaimed professional symphony orchestra.

Westminster Symphonic Choir, led by conductor Joe Miller, is considered among the world’s leading choral ensembles and is composed of all juniors and seniors and half of the graduate students at the college.

Each year, proceeds from the annual Scheide birthday concert go to a worthy cause. In past years, lsles, Centurion Ministries, The Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton HealthCare Foundation, Princeton Public Library, and the Princeton Recreation Department have benefited. This year, Westminster Choir College of Rider University has been chosen as the local institution to receive funding that will be used for renovations to rehearsal space that has seen some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur, and Simon Rattle.

“I have a deep and abiding belief in the critical role that Westminster Choir College plays in our community, bringing the joy of music into our lives,” said Mr. Scheide in a letter that accompanies the concert program. Mr. Scheide has had long and faithful relationships with Westminster Choir College where he served on the Board of Trustees.

Born in Philadelphia on January 6, 1914, Mr. Scheide is the only child of John Hinsdale Scheide and Harriet Hurd. He grew up in a household that was passionate about music, culture, rare books, and the well-being of humanity. His father played the piano, and his mother sang. At the age of six, he began piano lessons.

In a “This I Believe” essay broadcast in New York during the 1950s, Mr. Scheide said that his early love of music has made him “sensitive to values that cannot be expressed in language.”

Mr. Scheide attended Princeton University (Class of 1936) where he majored in history simply because at that time there was no music department. He went on to earn an MA in music at Columbia in 1940 and became the first American to be published in the Bach Jahrbuch journal of Bach scholarship. In 1946, he founded and directed the Bach Aria Group, a vocal and instrumental ensemble that performed and recorded for 34 years.

The Scheide Library, now housed in Firestone Library at Princeton University, contains books and manuscripts that Mr. Scheide, his grandfather, Willam T. Scheide, and his father, John H. Scheide (Class of 1896) acquired. It holds copies of the first four Bibles ever printed; materials on the invention and history of printing; books and manuscripts on the early voyages to the Americas; and musical manuscripts of J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and many others.

Mr. Scheide’s long life has been dedicated to fostering the arts, education, civil rights, health, and poverty relief programs. In his “This I Believe” essay he stated his own credo: “When Bach set to music the words “Credo in Unum Deum,” — I believe in one God — he did not express a pious ideal or a devout or romantic aspiration. The here and now poured out of him. What inspired was simply the basic material of his life. That, he recognized, was his belief. And that, I think, is any man’s belief if the word is to have any actual substance that can be grasped.”

His own words from over half a century ago bear repeating in this his centennial year. “I believe that a democratic society must be ultimately founded on love for enemies, real and fancied enemies, who daily and inevitably trample our personalities and threaten to destroy our innermost beliefs — that is, our essential natures. I believe also that a love for enemies, as I conceive it, is impossible without that vague but deep thing which is usually called belief in God …. Belief in an ultimate absolute makes love and tolerance possible in a group of creatures seen through a glass darkly …. My faith is both that which I am and that which I feel I ought to be. It represents the energy — sometimes more, sometimes less — with which I cling to life, but which also confers the apprehension of a higher and more perfect life. When I am at my best, I work on the problem of bringing this higher life to realization.”

Mr. Scheide’s essay can be heard by visiting: http://thisibelieve.org/essay/16961/.

“Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” will take place Saturday, January 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. General admission tickets are $35 each from University ticketing, (609) 258.9220, or online from www.scheideconcerts.com.

 

O MAMA, DADDY WILL COME HOME SOON, YOU’LL SEE: Barbara (Julia Roberts, top) tries to console her mother Violet (Meryl Streep). Barbara and her two sisters Ivy and Karen (not shown) all returned home to be with their mother when they heard that their father had suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared.

O MAMA, DADDY WILL COME HOME SOON, YOU’LL SEE: Barbara (Julia Roberts, top) tries to console her mother Violet (Meryl Streep). Barbara and her two sisters Ivy and Karen (not shown) all returned home to be with their mother when they heard that their father had suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared.

In 2008, the play August: Osage County not only won a Pulitzer Prize, but it also received five Tony Awards, including Best Play. However, the screen version of Tracy Letts’ haunting story about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family is unlikely to be as well-received because of the story’s morose plot. Who goes to the movies to get depressed? 

Nevertheless, the picture has a stellar cast headed by Meryl Streep, who turns in an Oscar-quality performance as Violet, the substance-abusing, cancer-stricken matriarch of the Weston clan.

The film is about Violet’s three daughters, who come home when they hear about their suicidal father’s (Sam Shepard) sudden disappearance. As the action unfolds, we find each daughter involved in a bizarre relationship.

The eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives from Colorado with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), a philandering college professor who is dating one of his students, and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Jean is a sullen drug addict who is upset about the state of her parents’ disintegrating marriage.

The youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis), arrives with her fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a successful businessman who is also a pedophile. Meanwhile, the middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), is having an incestuous affair with her first cousin, Charlie, Jr. (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), is a shrew who openly abuses both her son and her husband. She has a humdinger of a skeleton hidden in her closet that just might trump everybody else’s shocking situations.

A movie with so many sensational storylines certainly lends itself to melodrama, which is an accurate description of August: Osage County. The film often feels more like an adaptation of a dime-store romance novel than a film version of an award-winning Broadway production.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, and drug use. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company

 

January 2, 2014

DVD rev“In My Life” started out as a bus journey from my house to town … and it wasn’t working at all …. But then I laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember.”

—John Lennon

For the first time in the 10 years that I’ve been writing for Town Topics, we’re printing on New Year’s Day and I’m thinking about the words and music people all over the world still sing at the chimes of midnight. The earliest known manuscript of Robert Burns’s poem “Auld Lang Syne” is in the permanent collection of the Lilly Library in my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, a place that for me is synonymous with “old long since” or “long long ago” or “days gone by,” among the numerous listed English versions of the three-word title of the poignant New Year’s anthem.

This year of columns began with Ravi Shankar, who died December 11, 2012, and now 2014 begins with Peter O’Toole, who died December 14, 2013. It’s been my good fortune to see both the musician and the actor in live performances in India and Bristol, two of “the places I’ll remember,” a line John Lennon claimed for posterity when he wrote “In My Life,” which is, if you think of it, a perfect Beatles “Auld Lang Syne” — “All these places have their moments/With lovers and friends I still can recall/Some are dead and some are living/In my life I’ve loved them all.” It’s fitting that Paul and John were not in complete agreement about whose song it is. No one doubts that John wrote the lyric, but as he admits, the “middle eight melody” was Paul’s contribution. John sings it with such feeling that ownership is not an issue. Paul is in the spirit of the song. So are all four. Listen to it now, with John and George gone but never forgotten, and take “a cup of kindness for old time’s sake” those of you were fortunate enough to be alive when the Beatles recorded Rubber Soul and began their all too brief Golden Age only three years after Peter O’Toole made what must be the greatest debut in motion picture history.

Enter O’Toole

Memory being the subject of both “Auld Lang Syne” and “In My Life,” I’m recalling the most memorable theatrical entrance I ever saw, 40 years ago at Bristol’s Theatre Royal. By “memorable” I don’t mean most moving, dramatic, or grandiose. “Impressive” won’t say it either. Even “eloquent” doesn’t describe the moment Peter O’Toole took the stage as the title character in the Bristol Old Vic production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. A decade after Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was performing for the first time in 20 years on the stage where his career took off with a Hamlet that brought critics like Kenneth Tynan hurrying over from London to see for themselves what all the excitement was about.

The stage direction for Vanya’s entrance is not complicated: “He has been asleep after dinner and looks rather dishevelled. He sits down on the bench and straightens his collar.” While the right costume can replicate “rather dishevelled,” the instant O’Toole crept limply, brokenly, decrepitly into view, a one-man theatre of the absurd, he delivered the character. It was a “To Be Or Not To Be” of head-to-toe, benignly disordered body English. As he took several breathlessly unsteady steps forward, everything about him, every inch, was skewed, untuned, amiss, his face in a transport of uneasy lassitude, eyes lost, at sea in a dream world, a Chaplinesque loser you can’t help hoping will carry the day in the end; you feel for the actor and character as one being, you’re on their side, they have you. The applause that erupted the instant O’Toole made his gracefully ungainly entrance may have been inspired by the movie star who had come home to the theatre and the city where he’d found himself as a young actor, but when the ovation soared toward a cheer, it was for the Vanya he’d delivered without a word, the dreamer, at once closeted poet, cosmic victim, fool, and indolent prophet. It was as if Chekhov himself had slyly taken the stage.

When asked if he has any news, Vanya says “I don’t do anything now but croak like a raven.” When the beauty he’s futilely in love with observes what a fine day it is, he says, “A fine day to hang oneself.” The play’s barely begun and you already know Vanya is its embattled Hamlet.

That our year and a half in Bristol coincided with Peter O’Toole’s season of three plays and one reading at the Old Vic was one of those rare strokes of good fortune. I made passing mention of the actor’s fondness for the city in my October 30 column about a recent return visit. The pleasure of seeing plays in the Theatre Royal wasn’t just the low cost ($1.75) and the quality of the staging and performances, it was the cozy old place itself. As O’Toole told an interviewer, “the ships come right to the stage door of the theatre in Bristol. It’s a jewel … a little 1760 affair built without a facade, built in a corn merchant’s house. The Puritans had closed it, but with the issue of a little silver coin you entered into magic. You would go through the corn merchant’s front door, then his bed room, and after that — Paradise. The Paradise the Puritans tried to forbid …. It’s the most beautiful theatre in the world …. But I’m rambling. Such a fixée for me, Bristol is.”

Think of the Auld Lang Syne midnights when O’Toole raised a glass to those early days at the Bristol Old Vic, especially after the triumph of Lawrence: “Bristol became my home,” he told the interviewer. “I was accepted there and it’s where I became me. You see, when I left Bristol, I was famous, and the city haunted me.”

2013

No doubt about it, the past year of columns has a certain Auld Lang Syne quality, with prose cups of kindess to the memory of giants like Wagner and Verdi in their bicenentary years and to Richard Nixon on his centenary; birthday toasts to Grand Central Station on its 100th, Proust, Kafka, C.F. Cavafy, D.H. Lawrence, Rainer Maria Rilke, James Agee; farewell toasts to stars like Deanna Durbin, Julie Harris, James Gandolfini, Eleanor Parker, Audrey Totter, and Joan Fontaine; to Princess Grace and rocker Lou Reed, Spenser scholar Paul Alpers, and Dostoevsky biographer and longtime Princeton resident Joseph Frank, not to mention conductor Colin Davis. Even fictional characters like Walter White and Nicholas Brody have come and gone and been remembered.

Remembering a Librarian

The death of a Joseph Frank or a Peter Lewis is major local news and so reported, but every now and then, as happened this year with bibliophile Peter Oppenheimer, you begin to wonder why you haven’t seen an “old Princeton acquaintance” on the street only to receive the shock of the news off the record, without benefit of an obituary. This is how I learned about reference librarian Terri Nelson, who retired in 2010 after 22 years at the Princeton Public Library and died this past July at 66.

Terri started out as a children’s librarian around the time my son turned 13, let his hair grow long, began wearing army jackets with peace buttons, and listening to sixties music. Like all Princeton kids of various ages, he was fond of Dudley Carlson, but the sixties person who knew what he was feeling and where he was coming from was Terri Nelson, who had gone to school at Berkeley and had opinions about politics, race relations, and rock and roll. While I got to know Terri, a fellow Hoosier, through volunteer work with the Friends of the Library Book Sale (I regularly set aside Princeton-related materials for her), my son knew more of her Vietnam-impacted story than I ever did.

According to Ellen Gilbert’s Town Topics article (“A Passion for Genealogy Inspires Princeton Librarian’s Seminars on the Past”), Terri’s fascination with genealogy was inspired by the discovery that her family could be traced back to the Starbucks of Nantucket — meaning, of course, the family of Captain Ahab’s steadfast first mate, not the coffee makers. In July 2008 when the article appeared, Terri was not only overseeing the Princeton Room and numerous online resources on Princeton and African American history (including a site devoted solely to Paul Robeson), she was teaching classes on genealogy whose students included two Mayflower descendants. According to Library director Leslie Burger, Terri was also instrumental in designing and maintaining the library’s “very first website.”

The comment from one of Terri’s colleagues at the library, who remembers her as “a brilliant person whose life was tragic,” reflects the complex story behind the familiar figure seen over the years by people driving down or idling on Sylvia Beach Way behind the new library. As John’s song says, “All these places have their moments.” Perhaps you remember her as the lady on the bench, smoking a cigarette, a lonely community cameo worth a special thought at this time of the year, a special cup of kindness. 

The Peter O’Toole quotes are from an interview with Roy Newquist in the collection, Counter Point (Rand McNally 1964). The story about Terri Nelson can be found at www.towntopics.com/jul3008/other2.php. The John Lennon quote is from the Playboy interview.

 

“LAUGHTER IN THE DARK:” Portraits such as the one shown here by local photographer Richard Trenner will be in the main gallery at Gallery 14 in Hopewell, where images by his son, Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner, 16, will also be shown in a exhibition that opens with a reception this Friday, January 3, from  6 to 8 p.m. and a meet the artists open house on Sunday, January 5, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333 8511, email: galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or visit: www. photogallery14.com.                                        (Photo Courtesy of R. Trenner)

“LAUGHTER IN THE DARK:” Portraits such as the one shown here by local photographer Richard Trenner will be in the main gallery at Gallery 14 in Hopewell, where images by his son, Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner, 16, will also be shown in a exhibition that opens with a reception this Friday, January 3, from
6 to 8 p.m. and a meet the artists open house on Sunday, January 5, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333 8511, email: galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or visit: www.
photogallery14.com. (Photo Courtesy of R. Trenner)

Photographers Richard Trenner and Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner will be showing the best of their recent work at Gallery 14 in Hopewell this month when their two-man show opens with a public reception this Friday, January 3, from 6 to 8 p.m. 

There will be an opportunity to meet both photographers on Sunday, January 5, from 1 to 3 p.m. In addition to being a photographer, Richard Trenner is a writer, teacher, and consultant. He runs his own Princeton-based company, Advanced Communication Training, and he’s written and co-written books on communication and edited some 20 titles for the Lodima Press, a publisher of fine art photography books.

His part of the two-man show, titled “People, Places, and a Parrot Called Pancho,” includes portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, as well as the intriguing image that inspired the show’s title: a picture of “a wise-looking parrot contemplating a beautiful woman’s knee.”

Mr. Trenner’s work comprises the main part of the exhibition and, as such, will be displayed in Gallery 14’s main gallery. Images by his 16-year-old son, known as “Win,” will be displayed in the Jay Goodkind Gallery that is attached to the main space. A junior at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, where he boards, “Win” is named after the painter Winslow Homer.

The Gallery 14 exhibition is not the first for the father and son photographers who might be said to have image-making in their genes. Their first joint show was last spring, also at Gallery 14. That show was Win’s debut and the beginning of his part in a family tradition that goes back to his great-grandfather, George L. Trenner, a Londoner by birth, who arrived in New York City around 1894 at the age of 20. His grandfather, Nelson R. Trenner, was a serious amateur who fostered Win’s father Richard’s interest. This makes Win the fourth generation in this family of keen photographers.

Richard Trenner began making photographs when he was 12 and in recent years has had several solo and group shows. He has won a number of awards, and had several of his photographs published in magazines and books. His first solo show was sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton at the Princeton Public Library in 2009 was followed by a second at the Chapin School Gallery in 2010.

Last year’s exhibition at Gallery 14 was titled “Where The Land and Water Meet” and featured mostly landscapes. Those by Richard, shot mainly on the coast of Maine but also in coastal areas of New Brunswick, Canada; Cape Ann and Nantucket, Massachusetts; and Europe. Win exhibited photographs from a school trip to Chile, Argentina, South Georgia Island, and the Southern Ocean (weather kept them from reaching Antarctica).

This year, Win is showing images gathered on two recent study trips to Shanghai and Beijing. His section of the display is titled “One Heart, One Mind,” and pays tribute to a Chinese philosophy to which he found a deep response. “The Chinese idiom ‘one heart, one mind’ is the driving force behind my decisions in life,” said the young photographer. “It means to have the undivided attention of the spirit by linking what your heart and your mind want.”

As with all Gallery 14 shows, the work on display is for sale. Last year Win out-sold his father by a large margin. Did he mind? “Intensely, for about ten minutes,” laughed Trenner. “Win’s success reminded me to get out there with my camera, which was no hardship because I’m a photography addict.”

Almost all of the recent works by Mr. Trenner were taken on travels in New York, Philadelphia, Princeton, as well as Castine, Maine, and St. Andrews, Scotland.

Mr. Trenner has been a full member of Gallery 14 for three years. The group meets regularly for member to critique each other’s work and provides exhibition space once a year in the main gallery and once in the Goodkind Gallery. The former holds about two dozen images, the latter about a dozen.

“People, Places, and a Parrot Called Pancho,” photographs by Richard Trenner and “One Heart, One Mind,” photographs by Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner will be at Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell N.J. 08525, from January 3 through February 2. Gallery hours: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, call (609) 333 8511, email: galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

 

WHEN A ROCK MEETS A HARD PLACE: Gregarious and sociable Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, left) takes a sceptical and reluctant P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Disney World in an effort to obtain the movie rights to one of the “Mary Poppins” books that Travers had written. Travers does her best to thwart Disney’s efforts to woo her, however, the irrepressible Disney prevails in the end and she signs over the right to the book.

WHEN A ROCK MEETS A HARD PLACE: Gregarious and sociable Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, left) takes a sceptical and reluctant P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Disney World in an effort to obtain the movie rights to one of the “Mary Poppins” books that Travers had written. Travers does her best to thwart Disney’s efforts to woo her, however, the irrepressible Disney prevails in the end and she signs over the right to the book.

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was the pen name of Helen Lyndon Goff (1899-1996), the creator of the children’s classic series of Mary Poppins books. When his daughters were young, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) promised to turn their favorite book into a movie, since they were so enchanted by the British nanny with magical powers.

Little did he know that the effort to secure the film rights would drag on for 20 years due to the uncompromising author’s inflexibility and insistence that any adaptation remain faithful to the source material. The protracted courting process finally proved fruitful in 1961, when Walt wined and dined the reluctant writer at his Hollywood studio and made an elaborate sales pitch to turn the story into a musical.

He succeeded in wooing Travers with the assistance of the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting team (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), and the deferential chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), assigned to drive her around during her stay, would also play a pivotal role.

That productive two-week visit is revisited in Saving Mr. Banks, a dramatization directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side). The picture’s title is a reference to Mary Poppins’ employer George Banks, who was among the many characters Travers was trying to protect.

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson portray their roles in such a convincing fashion that a period piece about a contract negotiation actually proves entertaining. Hanks pours on the folksy charm impersonating the legendary Disney opposite the chameleon-like Travers who requires time to soften from being skeptical to enthusiastic about the proposed project.

Although Saving Mr. Banks waxes sentimental and ends on an upbeat note, a Mary Poppins sequel was not to be, despite the fact that the original won five Academy Awards. Travers and Disney had such a big falling out prior to the picture’s release that she wasn’t even invited to the premiere.

Furthermore, she was so enraged about her book’s mistreatment at the hands of the studio that she went to her grave refusing to turn over the rights for another adaptation, and even wrote that refusal into her will. However, the truth does not get in the way of a syrupy movie with a stock, “happily ever after” ending.

To paraphrase Mary Poppins, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps revisionist history go down in a most delightful way.”

Excellent (***½) Rated PG-13 for mature themes and unsettling images. Running time: 125 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

 

December 26, 2013

DVD rev“The bad girls were so much fun to play …. Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.”

—Audrey Totter (1917-2013)

When actress Audrey Totter died December 12, the obituaries all but unanimously labeled her a “femme fatale of classic film noir.” There’s something darkly addictive about the term “film noir,” two words that, along with “noir,” have spectacularly transcended the genre of American film French cinephiles gave a name to in the mid-1940s. Whether you think of it as a mood or a state of mind or a way of putting a convenient handle on something that challenges description, film noir has, in the internet sense, gone viral. It’s infinitely adaptable, one of those so-called “winged words” that fly well beyond their origins. Sometimes it seems we’ve been looking for film noir, waiting for it, ever since Cain slew Abel, Mephistopheles signed up Faust, and Macbeth heeded the witches and his femme fatale wife.

A Recent Noir Romance

Cain and Abel aside, the original noir couple is Adam and Eve, and right now I’m thinking of a couple whose last night together was recently watched by millions of cable television viewers. In this case, the man is a killer on the run and the woman hiding him out and risking her life on his behalf is complicit in the murder, which was done on assignment, in a justified cause (the “service of their country”), but guilt or innocence has nothing to do with it. That’s the beauty of this fantastically star-crossed couple. Theirs is so improbable a romance that we know from the start it has to be doomed; that’s what makes it so fascinating. Everything about these two has been ambiguous. He enters as an instrument of evil, which the woman has figured out long before anyone else suspects it, and one reason she knows is because she’s already begun to fall in love with him. They have sex, make love, know love, express it unconditionally, the “bigger than both of us” sort. This is what it’s all about, life and love, love and death, duty and country.

One of the tropes of film noir is the man of action wounded, embattled, in need of help, finding safe haven for a time in the arms of the woman who may betray him or protect him or bring him to his fate, which is sometimes beyond her control, as it proves to be here. She’s hustled him undercover and against all odds to a desolate refuge where they are to be rescued from the forces pursuing them. Alone together at last in that bleak sanctuary, they make no explicit avowals of love — they don’t need to, it’s understood — and they have no time for lovemaking; they’re both exhausted, both beyond it. Later we see the man nestled asleep with his head in her lap. This again is pure noir romance. She has him to herself and she has his child in her womb. But it’s folly to imagine for a moment that they can actually have a life together. It’s not, to put it crudely, in the script. He’s doomed and she will be a helpless witness to the moment of his death, screaming his name as he dies so that he knows she’s there for him right up to the end.

If you were watching Homeland on Showtime a couple of weeks ago, you’ll have recognized the story I’m describing. Three seasons of this award-winning series have taken viewers through all kinds of issues and actions and relationships, plots and counterplots, and innumerable graphic violations of probability. And it all comes down to the last night the doomed couple spend alone together. Bloggers may quibble about how tired they are of Carrie and Brody, but without that romance and Mandy Patinkin’s Saul, Homeland is little more than an updated, poor man’s 24, minus Jack Bauer.

A Christmas Film Noir

This was supposed to be a Christmas column. After all, we’re printing on Christmas day, at least according to the masthead (we actually put the paper together on Monday). So what does Christmas have to do with film noir? Doesn’t the very nature of the phenomenon resist such niceties as Christmas Eve, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, stockings hopefully hung by the chimney with care, stock images of the Nativity?

Most of the obituary summaries of Audrey Totter’s career single out Adrienne Fromsett in Lady in the Lake (1947) as her “breakthrough” role and give special notice to actor-director Robert Montgomery’s unique use of the subjective camera, the “You be the Detective” point of view, where all the action is seen through Philip Marlowe’s eyes. Perhaps because it makes such an odd match with the noir-flavored headlines, the obituaries ignore the key role Christmas plays in the story. Lady in the Lake offers a full serving of the holiday right from the opening credits, which are all decked out in holly and other seasonal trappings, plus images of the three wise men and the guiding star, and a Christmas choir singing carols. The wordless a cappella choral singing suspensefully interspersed throughout the action creates a transitional undertone of “warm and fuzzy” menace between scenes of violence and depravity, murder and mayhem. It was not Raymond Chandler’s idea to put Christmas into the mix; nor was it his idea to give Adrienne Fromsett so central and romantic a role and to turn the company she works for from “Gillerlain Regal, the Champagne of Perfumes” into a sleazy publisher of pulp magazines with titles like Lurid Detective and True Horror. These changes were the work of Montgomery and screenwriter Steve Fisher. Chandler hated the film and tried to take his name off it, but he’d already sold the rights to the novel, which, however loosely, was based on his story, with his characters, including of course, Philip Marlowe, who still has the benefit of Chandler’s infectious language.

Chandler’s portrait of Ms. Fromsett is true to style: “She wore a steel gray business suit and under the jacket a dark blue shirt and a man’s tie of lighter shade. The edges of the folded handkerchief in the breast pocket looked sharp enough to slice bread …. She had smooth ivory skin and rather severe eyebrows and large dark eyes that looked as if they might warm up at the right time and right place.”

Granted, Audrey Totter and the costume department at M-G-M can’t produce anything to equal Chandler’s sliced bread, but the woman we see through Marlowe’s eyes is in some ways an improvement on Chandler’s sketch. I omitted the novel’s account of her hair’s “loose but not unstudied waves” because the filmmakers style her hair to the “smooth” and “severe” nuances of the original: it’s pulled up in back and coiled on top to give a no-nonsense effect. The film’s one true femme fatale is played by Jayne Meadows (to get an idea of her first ditzy appearance before Montgomery’s relentless stare, imagine Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall with a gun in her hand). Totter’s character appears devious enough to be a suspect, all the while being groomed to be Marlowe’s loving protector; in the cozy Christmas Eve scene after she’s gathered him up, taken him home and healed his wounds, they’re listening to the happy ending of a radio performance of A Christmas Carol — a work, when you think of it, that Dickens steeps in noirish atmosphere replete with rattling chains, ghosts, fog, and death.

Noir Is Where You Find It

In the past few months of cable viewing we’ve found elements of film noir not only in Homeland but in Harlan County, Kentucky (in Justified, an amazing series with a for-the-ages performance by Walton Goggins), Atlantic City (Boardwalk Empire, with Gretchen Moll as the classic femme fatale Gillian Darmody), and, most recently, in Washington D.C. (Netflix’s House of Cards), where Kevin Spacey, whose face is a film noir all by itself, holds everything together. As he delivers his sinister Shakespearean asides, the House majority whip conjures up the primal noir of Richard the Third, Iago, and the Thane of Cawdor, with Robin Wright as his Lady Macbeth.

The Femme Fatale at 90

When my wife was visiting her mother in the Motion Picture Home, a retirement community for people formerly in the film business, she met Audrey Totter, the “bad girl,” who was then 90 and knitting a sweater, not holding a gun. There’s a quirky poetry in the image of the former femme fatale as a little old lady knitting ice-blue sweaters that my wife says matched her eyes. It’s because Totter earned modest fees compared to the big stars that she ended life in the Motion Picture Home. Were it not for her noir connection she would be getting even less exposure in the press than Joan Fontaine, a bigger star who died December 15 with headlines labeled “Academy Award winner,” for her role as Cary Grant’s paranoid wife in Suspicion; while Fontaine’s best film was probably Max Opuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), she was in two noirs, sympathetic in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) and profoundly nasty in Born to Be Bad (1950). Even as the devil’s bait in John Farrow’s mix of Faust and noir, Alias Nick Beal  (1949), Audrey Totter has a heart of gold, but in Tension, which was made the same year, she’s beyond-redemption bad and she has a gun.

 

WE’RE ON THE WAY TO FIND MY SON: Philomena (Judi Dench, left) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) are riding on an electric cart in the airport on their way from Great Britain to America. Investigative journalist Sixsmith has found out that Philomena’s illegitimate son Anthony had been adopted at the age of three by a family from the United States.

WE’RE ON THE WAY TO FIND MY SON: Philomena (Judi Dench, left) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) are riding on an electric cart in the airport on their way from Great Britain to America. Investigative journalist Sixsmith has found out that Philomena’s illegitimate son Anthony had been adopted at the age of three by a family from the United States.

Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench) made a big mistake as a teenager. She had sex with a boy (D.J. McGrath) whom she had just met at a carnival and became pregnant, which was a serious issue in Ireland in 1952. 

To avoid disgracing her family with the shame of having an illegitimate child, she was sent to a convent that cared for young women in her situation. When she arrived, she was forced to sign a document relinquishing her parental rights and promising to never ask to see her son after he was adopted.

Three years after he was born and raised in the convent by the nuns — where he would spend about an hour a day with his mother — he was adopted by a wealthy family from the United States and taken away without being allowed to say good bye to his mother.

Meanwhile, Philomena remained at the abbey where she continued to work until she had paid off her debt to the convent for the costs incurred in having the baby. She eventually left the convent and became a nurse, however, she remained forever haunted by the absence of her son, whom she had named Anthony.

50 years after Anthony’s birth, Philomena wanted desperately to learn about his fate. So, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a recently-disgraced investigative journalist who agreed to help her look for her son. After being denied access to any of the convent’s adoption records, Martin found out that Anthony had been taken to America.

Directed by two-time Oscar-nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen and The Grifters), Philomena is a true tale based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Sixsmith’s account of their search for the missing son. Dame Judi Dench gives an inspired performance as a wayward woman from a humble background who summons up the strength to search for her son and confront the former Mother Superior (Barbara Jefford)  of the convent when Anthony was born and taken away from Philomena.

A poignant description of motherhood and a searing indictment of the Catholic Church’s attitude, at that time, about what were the best interests of an illegitimate child.

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, and sexual references. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

December 18, 2013
PHILADELPHIA CHRISTMAS 1945: Except for one of the most powerful combat sequences ever filmed, “Pride of the Marines” is set in Philadelphia. Returning from the war blinded and bitter, John Garfield, as real-life hero Al Schmid, has collided with the Christmas tree; here he’s getting the loving support of Ruth, “the girl he left behind,” played with warmth and spirit by Eleanor Parker, who died December 9.

PHILADELPHIA CHRISTMAS 1945: Except for one of the most powerful combat sequences ever filmed, “Pride of the Marines” is set in Philadelphia. Returning from the war blinded and bitter, John Garfield, as real-life hero Al Schmid, has collided with the Christmas tree; here he’s getting the loving support of Ruth, “the girl he left behind,” played with warmth and spirit by Eleanor Parker, who died December 9.

Here we go again, life or death on the dreaded Williamsburg Bridge. I know to stay in the far right lane but as I come to the Brooklyn moment of truth, I brace myself for the possibility of a hellbent truck shunting me off to Staten Island or darkest Queens. All it takes is a look at the date of this column and I know one reason I’m afraid of being forced onto an expressway to nowhere. On the early evening of December 18, 1978, taking an unfamiliar route to see my dying mother at a Melbourne, Florida hospital, I got trapped going the wrong direction on a busy expressway, panicked, and barely avoided crashing into a guard rail. When I finally reached the hospital I rushed to my mother’s room and found that an empty bed had already been made up for the next patient. 

Though she had her share of dark moods, my mother was a shameless enthusiast. It was always the best meal, the best trip, the most beautiful, most glorious this or that, which may explain why my point of view in these columns is essentially positive, my preference not to attack but to celebrate. Even now, rather than demonizing the Williamsburg Bridge (my mother loved bridges), I’m reminding myself, as I always do, that in addition to its straight-forward matter-of-fact magnificence, the way it simply rolls off Delancey Street like a Brooklyn-bound wayfarer’s dream made manifest, the bridge belongs to Sonny Rollins.

While the jazz legend may not legally own it, he laid claim to it five decades ago during his self-imposed retirement from the scene. Night after night for two years, he left his Grand Street apartment and hiked along the pedestrian walkway to the middle of the span, removed his tenor sax from its case, and blew to his heart and soul’s content a couple of hundred feet above the East River. Rollins did not set out to create a legend, though he had to know that it would make a great story for the press. It also made a great story to tell my mother to get her in the mood the first time I introduced her to his music, especially when I clued her in on his reason for the trek to the bridge, which was that “the lady next door had just had a baby,” and he didn’t want to disturb his neighbors.

When I saw Sonny Rollins in one of his first appearances after the sabbatical on the bridge, he had formed a new group including the somewhat off-puttingly professorial presence of a balding, bespectacled white guitarist. Like most Rollins fans, I soon came to appreciate Jim Hall, who died at 83 a week ago, less than a month after the November 25 death of his old bandmate from the 1950s, drummer Chico Hamilton. Though I haven’t heard Hall’s recent work and know his music mostly through the Rollins albums and his extraordinary collaborations with Bill Evans, a message from Visions of Jazz author Gary Giddins tells me that he was “one of the great old-school liberals who wore his politics on his sleeve,” and that “his playing got hotter during the Bush years, because he was so fired up with outrage.”

The news of Chico Hamilton’s death took some time to register because the lasting and even life-changing impression he made on my clueless 14-year-old self had little to do with his drumming or the records he made with Jim Hall or Buddy Colette or George Duvivier. No, what impressed, amazed, and enchanted me (here I go enthusing again, like mother, like son) was his singing, or humming, or whatever it is that he’s doing in the background of the moody Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont.” That performance, with its Chico-Hamilton-haunted chorus, revolutionized my listening habits; it’s where jazz began for me.

Woman of a Thousand Faces 

It seems there’s no escaping the symbolism of the bridge. Life-spans, this side, That Side, the passing or the crossing, so that once I’ve run the gauntlet of the ramps and am navigating the streets of Brooklyn, I’m feeling like a survivor, if not exactly reborn (it’s no fun anticipating the chaotic rush-hour return across the bridge to Manhattan). While my son spends the afternoon at Academy Record’s newly relocated Oak Street store, I keep warm in the Greenpoint Public Library looking in vain for a biography of John Garfield (1913-1952) and thinking about Eleanor Parker (1922-2013), who died December 9, a day before Jim Hall.

If you love old movies, there’s always a birth or death rationale for searching out a certain film. It might only be the passing of an obscure actor who played a small but memorable part or it might be an all but forgotten actress like Eleanor Parker, who was, however, remembered in June as Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month. When we heard of her death, my wife and I turned to Comcast On Demand and found Pride of the Marines, where she plays John Garfield’s steadfast girlfriend. That’s it. Someone dies and you to bring them back to life On Demand.

Parker’s role as the rejected Baroness in The Sound of Music gave obit writers a point of reference most people could connect with. “She was wonderful in the part,” director Robert Wise said, “a sort of light ‘heavy’ who was also ultimately quite touching.” He should know, since her farewell scene is filmed so sympathetically you have to think the director was under her womanly spell. She would have been 43 at the time. Julie Andrews remembers her as “charming, elegant, and beautiful … one of the legends of Hollywood.”

Thanks to TCM, we saw enough of Eleanor Parker last June to comprehend the truth of the “legends” reference. What set her apart from other female stars was her ability to give herself up to a wildly different assortment of roles (the only biography is titled Woman of a Thousand Faces). She was nominated three times for Academy Awards, for Caged in 1950 (she should have won; it’s as touching and terrifying a performance as you’ll ever see), for Detective Story a year later, and for Interrupted Melody in 1955. What she accomplishes as Mildred in the rarely shown 1946 version of W.S. Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is more terrifying than touching; neither Bette Davis nor Kim Novak approach Parker’s uncanny blend of the abrasive and the pathetic, at once vulnerable, fascinating, hostile, arrogant, and seething with passion. You may be repelled by Mildred but you love the heroics of the actress. Talk about heroics — as a wide-eyed innocent, brutalized in prison in Caged, she steals your heart and breaks it, and she does it again playing multiple personalities in Lizzie, part shy thing, part slut, part good girl. She’s a wicked delight as the gorgeous, clowning knockabout mistress of Stewart Granger in Scaramouche and she gives warmth and light to The Voice of the Turtle, later retitled One for the Book, in which her quiet, quirky charm seems to rub off on Ronald Reagan, who is quite likeable as a soldier on leave finding romance with the adorably untogether girl played by Parker.

The Anti-Hero

Until we brought John Garfield back from the dead in Pride of the Marines and He Ran All the Way on successive nights, I hadn’t realized that 2013 was his centenary.  While Eleanor Parker lived into her nineties, the heart condition that kept Garfield from serving in World War II killed him at 39, even as the dogs of the Communist witch hunt’s spineless studio overlords were baying at his back. He Ran All the Way makes an all too appropriate title for the final picture from the actor some consider to be Hollywood’s first rebel, the precursor to Marlon Brando (Garfield turned down the role of Stanley Kowalski), Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and later the young Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.

The Broadway role Clifford Odets wrote with “Julie” in mind, as the violinist/prizefighter on Broadway in Golden Boy, suggests the Garfield dynamic — you could imagine him as both a tough guy and an artist. The endgame intensity he gave to playing the hapless punk Nick Robey in He Ran All the Way — the combination of headlong force and desperate, wrenching anguish — is painful and moving to behold. His death at the end — the last shot in the gutter, his face fixed in close-up as it was in the extraordinary combat sequence in Pride of the Marines — is the epitome of the fallen anti-hero. A native New Yorker (he grew up fighting in street gangs), Garfield had a large local following, his funeral service drawing a crowd of more than 6,000, the largest such gathering since the death of Valentino.

According to Robert Nott’s biography, He Ran All The Way: The Life of John Garfield (Limelight 2003), “The mourners came from all boroughs of the city and all walks of life.” Nott mentions businessmen, housewives with toddlers, “bobbysoxers … crying over their fallen idol,” and “working-class stiffs clad in their dirty trousers and weathered jackets, lunch boxes in hand, who came by to bid farewell to one of their own.”

Falling Stars

The body count is getting out of hand. Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Eleanor Parker, John Garfield, not to mention my mother, and now the news that even as we were watching her in Robert Montgomery’s noirish Christmas tale, Lady In the Lake, Audrey Totter had died, and now it’s Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine.

When I got back to my mother’s condo on that long ago December 18th, I found some extraordinarily revealing journals that she’d kept when she was in her mid-thirties, papers, letters, and drafts of stories I’d never seen before, written in her prime as a writer, mother, wife, lover, and working woman. I go back to those papers every year on this date, one more way of bringing her back, On Demand, which is why this day of all days in the year has always been more about life than death.