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.

 

ICED BERRIES: Tasha O’Neill’s photograph will be on display at the D&R Greenway as part of the exhibition, “Artistic License and the Land,” from December 18 through January 15. For more information, call (609) 924-4646, or visit: www.drgreenway.org.

ICED BERRIES: Tasha O’Neill’s photograph will be on display at the D&R Greenway as part of the exhibition, “Artistic License and the Land,” from December 18 through January 15. For more information, call (609) 924-4646, or visit: www.drgreenway.org.

A new exhibition of landscapes by members of the Princeton Photography Club (PPC) opens today, December 18 and runs through January 15, 2014.

“Artistic License and the Land” showcases traditional and experimental images by 50 artists. The exhibition was created by the Club at the request of D&R Greenway President and CEO Linda Mead as a means to convey the importance of land use and land preservation.

All of the artwork is for sale with a percentage supporting the land trust’s preservation and stewardship mission in the Garden State. “We delight in our ongoing partnership with D&R Greenway Land Trust,” commented PPC President, Carl Geisler, who explained that the PPC holds regular meetings and workshops open to the public at the D&R Greenway, where members gather at 7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month from September through June.

Founded in 1982, PPC has almost 300 members, from beginners through professionals. It provides local photographers with community, as well as workshops, exhibits, group travel, and a series of talks by invited speakers. Its goal is to promote artistic excellence, while helping members enhance their expertise in photographic techniques.

This exhibition “is a wonderful opportunity to spread the word about PPC,” commented exhibition curator Sheila Geisler. “Our exhibition reception coincides with our January 8 general meeting, which is free and open to the public.”

Noted local photographer, Tasha O’Neill, joined in 2004 at the invitation of former Town Topics photographer Ed Greenblat, who will be among the participants. Born and raised in Germany, Ms. O’Neill credits her mother for teaching her to be a thorough and inquisitive observer. Her work displays this aspect of character in landscapes, blooms, cobwebs, insects, reflections, or shadows, captured from all angles and distances.

Ms. O’Neill came to Princeton in 1973 and tried her hand at many things: foreign languages, catering, being a licensed private pilot, running a small restaurant, until deciding on photography. “Nothing has held my attention more than being a photographer,” she said.

The largely self-taught photographer experienced an epiphany of sorts when observing “frost flowers” on the D&R Canal. The experience prompted her to study at the New York Institute of Photography. Nature is her mentor, said Ms. O’Neill, who enjoys summers in Maine, finding inspiration in dew, cobwebs, seaweed, rocks, water, reeds, waterlilies, flowers, marshes, and boats.

When the image of Ice Berries, shown here, was taken, Ms. O’Neill was on her way to Maryland. It was Valentine’s Day and she considered canceling her trip because of freezing rain but, since the roads seemed to be clear, had decided to go ahead.

“The further south we drove from Princeton, the more the trees were coated with ice. Dark stormy clouds and rays of sun transformed the landscape into a magical winter wonderland,” she recalled. At some point along the road, she spotted the tree and its red berries. “I consider myself an ‘opportunistic photographer.’ I know it when I see it. So I asked my husband to stop, got out with my Canon D40, walked around the tree and photographed it from every angle. I used a shallow depth of field to isolate the tree from the background and later cropped the image to focus more on the icy berries.”

Photography out-of-doors has its own special challenges, one of which, said the photographer, “is that you see something you want to capture but it is difficult to get a clear view of it, or else it has a distracting background.”

Ms. O’Neill documented “Princeton Writers Block,”  “Healing through Creativity” and other nature, arts, and preservation efforts. Her work has been featured in newspapers and magazines, exhibited in regional shows in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maine and is in numerous private collections around the world.

She has served as vice-president of Hopewell’s Gallery 14 and is known for abstract flower portraits, reflections in water, notably at Ken Lockwood Gorge and Barbara Smoyer Park, and portraits of Frank Gehry buildings that “distill” the architect’s iconic style.

In 2012, she joined the newly-formed group ART+10, contributing photographic and organizational skills to painter colleagues. In addition, examples of her work can be seen year-round at Another Angle on Nassau Street, at the dental offices of Dr. Lekha Tull on North Harrison Street and in Gelavino’s at the Princeton Shopping Center.

Artistic License and the Land” is in D&R Greenway’s Marie L. Matthews Galleries, One Preservation Place, Princeton, on business hours of business days, through January 15. Call (609) 924-4646 to be sure galleries are not rented on the day of the prospective visit. For more information, visit: www.drgreenway.org.

For more about Tasha O’Neill, visit: www.tashaphotography.com. For more about the Princeton Photography Club, visit: www.princetonphographyclub.org.

The public is also welcome to the PPC’s January 8 open meeting, for a light reception followed by a presentation by Mike Peters who will speak on creating film-like digital images. This event begins at 7:30 p.m. No registration is required.

 

As a professor in Princeton University’s music department specializing in Russian and Soviet music and dance, Simon Morrison is an expert on the famed Bolshoi Theatre. The Moscow arts institution has been frequently in the news since the bizarre acid attack last January that left Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet company, nearly blind.

Mr. Morrison, who is writing a history of the 227-year old theatre, has been frequently called upon by The New York Times and other news outlets to comment on the volatile situation, especially since Russian dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was found guilty this month for his role in the attack. A Moscow judge ruled that the dancer and two co-defendants had intentionally caused grievous bodily harm to Mr. Filin, who had a jar of acid thrown in his face by a masked assailant.

Mr. Dmitrichenko, who maintained that he wanted Mr. Filin roughed up but didn’t expect acid to be hurled in his face, was sentenced to six years in prison. Yuri Zarutsky, convicted of carrying out the attack, got 10 years.

“The horrible part of Dmitrichenko’s defense is that he said what happened to Filin wasn’t so bad,” Mr. Morrison said during a recent interview in his office at the University’s Woolworth Center of Musical Studies. “But I was in Moscow in October and I met Filin, and what was done to him is ghastly. He has crimson lines on his face from the battery acid that was used.”

The attack last January left Mr. Filin writhing in pain in the snow outside his apartment building. The incident revealed the bitter behind-the-scenes rivalries that exist at the Bolshoi. Mr. Dmitrichenko was reportedly angry with Mr. Filin for denying him and his girlfriend, a ballerina, important roles in Bolshoi productions. Mr. Filin said that Mr. Dmitrichenko had spread false rumors about him having affairs with ballerinas. Defense witnesses portrayed Mr. Filin as imperious and Mr. Dmitrichenko as a champion of those afraid to speak out against the artistic director.

“The problems are multi-layered,” Mr. Morrison said. “It seems clear that there were favorites. There was no proper collective agreement. No union represented the dancers properly. So if you got sick or got pregnant, you were in trouble. That absence of a proper collective bargaining agreement is the cause of the problem, and it needs to be fixed.”

The Russian government dismissed the Bolshoi Theatre’s longtime director Anatoly Iksanov last July. The new director, Vladimir Urim, is trying to make things more equitable. “He’s a no-nonsense guy,” Mr. Morrison said.

Mr. Morrison has lectured and written articles on numerous topics related to Russian and Soviet music and dance. He is the author of the book Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, which was published by Random House this year. He plans to return to Moscow next month to do more research on his history of the Bolshoi Theatre. He has done extensive studies of the works of composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev, both of whom were involved in the Bolshoi.

“I’ve loved ballet for many years,” Mr. Morrison said. “I took some classes as an adult, just to know what I’m talking about. I’ve been involved in staging historic projects on campus. And it has become a real addiction, through research.”

Mr. Morrison said he was surprised that Mr. Dmitrichenko was sentenced to six years in prison instead of the 12 that Mr. Filin’s lawyer requested. “Given how volatile he is, he will have a hard time,” he said of Mr. Dmitrichenko. “He’ll go to a ‘strict regime’ prison, and he’ll be made to work a lot.”

The recent scandal will play a minor but important part in Mr. Morrison’s upcoming book. “It’s not the main part of the book, but something I have to mention,” he said. “And it’s relevant, because it’s reflective of the system of the past.”

 

I’VE STRUCK IT RICH!: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) holds the letter in his hand that he’s convinced has informed that he has won a million dollar grand prize in a sweepstakes drawing. In spite of his family’s attempts to eplain to him that he is mistaken, Woody sets out on a trip to Omaha, Nebraska to claim his prize.

I’VE STRUCK IT RICH!: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) holds the letter in his hand that he’s convinced has informed that he has won a million dollar grand prize in a sweepstakes drawing. In spite of his family’s attempts to eplain to him that he is mistaken, Woody sets out on a trip to Omaha, Nebraska to claim his prize.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a 77-year-old addlepated alcoholic whose brain is so damaged that he’s convinced that he’s struck it rich after getting a mass-mailed letter announcing that the recipient may have won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes. As a result, he sets out, alone and on foot, from Billings, Montana to collect his grand prize in Omaha, Nebraska.

Once it’s clear that the cantankerous curmudgeon can’t be talked out of his foolhardy endeavor, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) decides to drive his father there. This doesn’t sit well with Woody’s acid-tongued wife, Kate (June Squibb), who doesn’t want to waste her time indulging the old coot’s nonsense.

However, in spite of the futility of the quest, the pair’s ensuing trip across four states does prove fruitful. Not only does it afford father and son a chance to spend some time together, they also get to reconnect with long-lost friends and relatives whom they visit along the way.

Eventually, Kate and their elder son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), join them en route, and the long trip becomes a family affair. However, it’s hard for them to forget that the outing has been initiated by a fraudulent marketing scheme.

Still, sometimes getting there is all the fun, as is the case with Nebraska — a nostalgic road trip that unfolds against the barren backdrop of the heartland’s crumbling infrastructure. The film was directed by two-time Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (for writing Sideways and The Descendants) whose decision to shoot the picture in black-and-white was a stroke of genius.

The lack of color emphasizes the absence of hope in a rural region that has been devastated by the failure of its factories, farms, and subsequent deterioration of life in small towns. It’s no wonder, then, that some of the poor souls the Grants encounter along the way seize upon Woody’s pipe dream as a way of alleviating their own misery.

Bruce Dern’s performance is destined to be remembered during awards season. Nebraska is a lighthearted character study which, ironically, offers a cold sober look at the downsizing of America’s midwest.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

 

December 11, 2013

book rev“You should be serious about serious things and playful when you play. There’s an hour for your Lord and an hour for your heart.”

—said by Zanuba, the lute player

This is the 102nd birthday of Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel-prize-winning author of The Cairo Trilogy (Everyman’s Library/Knopf $30). The book’s dominant character, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, is the stern, humorless, autocratic master of a household where his wife, two daughters, and three sons live in fear of his iron hand, the women confined to quarters while unbeknownst to his family Ahmad lives life to the limit, a luminary of the Cairo night who drinks and carouses and womanizes, loved by his friends for his stories, his wit, and his effervescent personality.

A Half-Open Window

Of Ahmad’s cloistered daughters, Aisha is “as beautiful as the moon” with “golden tresses and blue eyes” while Khadija is relatively plain, though she has a wicked tongue and a sense of humor about her big nose (a feature she shares with her father). The often combative interplay between the sisters is charming and true, and within a few pages, you feel you know them. One of the side-effects of this monastic home life is the romantic subterfuge practiced at the same hour every day by Aisha, who “peers out through the holes in the grille” of the balcony overlooking the street. As soon as the young police officer she’s looking for appears below, she heads for the window in the sitting room, turns the knob and opens “the two panels a crack,” her heart pounding as she waits for the officer with his “gold star and red stripe” to cautiously raise his eyes, his face shining “with the light of a hidden smile that was reflected on the girl’s face as a shy radiance.” For the man to have raised his head rather than his eyes was “not considered proper in such circumstances.”

After closing and nervously fastening the window, Aisha sinks into a chair, “roaming through the space of her infinite sensations, experiencing neither sheer happiness nor total fear.” It’s as if that brief moment by the window had encompassed an extravagantly sinful adventure. She stands where she does so that her clandestine Romeo has to strain his eyes to discern her because she loves to see him look up at the partially
closed window with “concern and longing.” She would then revel in the “light of joy” on his face as he begins to make out “her figure” through “the crack.” For her this exchange of looks is “a vision to enchant the mind and ravish the imagination.”

But when a marriage is suggested by the officer’s family, the offer is summarily rejected by Aisha’s by-the-book father, his excuse being that according to tradition, the elder sister, Khadiya, must be the first to marry.

A Half-Open Door

One of the great moments in Palace Walk, the Trilogy’s first volume, occurs when Ahmad’s grown son Yasin stumbles into the truth about his father’s nocturnal escapades after hearing of a man with his father’s name who plays the tambourine “better than a professional,” and “tells one gem of a joke after another until everyone with him is dying of laughter.” Yasin is thinking, “Who could this man be? His father? That stern, tyrannical, terrifying, God-fearing, reserved man who kills everyone around him with fright?”

As it so happens, his father is in the same house at that very moment carousing in a nearby room. Yasin begs the woman he’s been trying to seduce to leave the door partly open for a moment so he can see for himself. The image of the half-open door recalls the half-open window through which the young officer gazes in hopes of glimpsing Yasin’s beautiful sister.  During the moment the door is ajar, the son sees his father sitting next to the ample, voluptuous singer who is his mistress, his “wife,” in the night world: Ahmad has “removed his cloak and rolled up his sleeves,” he’s “shaking the tambourine” and gazing at the woman “with a face brimming with joy and happiness.” Yasin “had never seen him without his cloak … never seen him with his black hair sticking up … never seen his naked leg as it appeared at the edge of the divan …. Perhaps most of all he had never seen his face smile. It was glistening with such affection and goodwill that Yasin was stunned.”

“Stunned” doesn’t say it. “He awoke like a person emerging from a long, deep sleep to the convulsion of a violent earthquake.”

Pulling Out All the Stops

For the reader, this revelation is all the more powerful because we’ve already been permitted a full view of the father in action, having witnessed the headlong one-night courtship that led to the drunken mock marriage ceremony with Zubayda, the fleshy singer. We know the side of Ahmad that has been hidden from the family, and we’ve been wondering when and how the author is going to arrange this moment of astonished recognition. Although Mahfouz describes the two sides of Ahmad early on, he’s 14 chapters into the story before he shows the charismatic libertine in action, and when this happens, the author and the character nearly become one, so wild and free and mad with energy is the prose. In finally giving full range to Ahmad, Mafouz ratchets up the language and pulls out all the stops in a daring commingling of eroticism and religion, the tropes of faith and sex, so that when the singer opens the door to Ahmad upon his surprise arrival, she shouts, “In the name of God the compassionate, the Merciful! … You!” To which Ahmad says, “In the name of God. God’s will be done!” as he ogles her “prodigious body, its pronounced curves sensuously draped in a blue dress,” which inspires this deliriously Disneyesque image: “His eyes ran over her body as quickly and greedily as a mouse on a sack of rice looking for a place to get in.”

Later in the “festive hall” in Zubayda’s house, where the candelabras look “as lovely and intense as a beauty mark on a cheek,” Ahmad and his author are running on full throttle. A paragraph begins by claiming “He was not simply an animal” but was “endowed with a delicacy of feeling, a sensitivity of emotion, and ingrained love for song and music” and ends with Ahmad pursuing “all the varieties of love and passion, like a wild bull.” Later Zubayda asks, “Do you love being naughty this much?” to which Ahmad sighs and says, “May our Lord perpetuate our naughtiness.” When the music starts, “Echoes of many different melodies from a long era filled with nights of musical ecstasy burst into flame within him, as though small drops of gasoline had fallen on a hidden ember.” Ahmad grabs a tambourine and joins in, and as the woman sings “‘I’m an accomplice against myself/When my lover steals my heart,’” it’s again as if Mahfouz is as rapt as his character: “The inflection of her voice made the strings of his heart vibrate. His energy flared up and he beat the tambourine in a way no professional could match,” at which Mahfouz makes you hear the beating of the tambourine: “His intoxication became a burning, titillating, inspiring, raging drunkenness.” At this point Ahmad and the woman are so “agitated by desire they seemed trees dancing in the frenzy of a hurricane.” When the melodies vanish, it’s “like an airplane carrying a lover over the horizon.”

This is the sort of scene that sweeps everything aside, that has you thinking of Dmirti Karamazov dancing with the gypsies, of Natasha’s first ball in War and Peace, of Balzac in full orgiastic flight. Vanishing melodies in the form of an airplane? In Egypt in 1917? So be it! A great writer is soaring, drunk on his story, head over heels in love with his creation and its central character. It’s amusing to imagine the expression on the face of the translator attempting to do justice to this scene, not to mention the reaction of the elegant editor who made the English language edition possible.

A Very Special Editor 

After learning that Naguib Mahfouz had won the 1988 Novel Prize for Literature, a Doubleday editor with a face known round the world read The Cairo Trilogy in a French translation, talked the publisher into acquiring it, and then saw the book through to publication in 1990-1992. According to the primary translator William Hutchins, the three volumes were “edited in New York at Doubleday by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis herself, using a pencil on paper.” Hutchins considered her “an excellent, respectful editor and very thorough.”

Given the not so secret life of JFK, it would have been interesting to see Jackie O’s reaction to the account of Ahmad’s wild night, and to lines like this one: “Whenever desire called, he answered deliriously and enthusiastically.”

Tahrir Square

It’s worth noting here that the popular movement ousting President Hosni Mubarak began on the January of Mahfouz’s centenary and that one of those who helped ignite it was his 26-year-old namesake (if not blood kin) Aasma Mahfouz. When her four-and-a-half-minute Facebook video went viral, the four-person protest she was part of on January 18 became a prelude to the history-making mass demonstration of January 25. Among the events marking the Mahfouz centenary was the March 11 Emirates Festival of Literature and the announcement from Oxford University Press of plans for a 20-volume Centennial Library of his works.

Firsts

As Sabry Hafez points out in his introduction, Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and The Cairo Trilogy was the first modern Arabic literary work to appear in Everyman’s Library. The “grand narrative project took over six years (1946-1952) to accomplish, its completion coinciding “with the collapse of the old regime. Inspired by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks,” it was also “the first family saga in modern Arabic literature.”

 

THE ART OF MEDITATION: “Being Still,” an exhibit of paintings imbued with Buddhist thought by local artist, S.L. Baker will be on view in the East Lobby Gallery at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch of the Mercer County Library, 2751 Brunswick Pike (Bus. Route One), Lawrenceville, through December 31. Ms. Baker works mostly in acrylic on canvas and uses her fingers instead of brushes. Her work is often influenced by meditation practice. Born in Princeton, Ms. Baker is a retired New Jersey public school teacher and also a published poet and lyricist. For more information and hours, call (609) 989-6920, or visit www.mcl.org.

THE ART OF MEDITATION: “Being Still,” an exhibit of paintings imbued with Buddhist thought by local artist, S.L. Baker will be on view in the East Lobby Gallery at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch of the Mercer County Library, 2751 Brunswick Pike (Bus. Route One), Lawrenceville, through December 31. Ms. Baker works mostly in acrylic on canvas and uses her fingers instead of brushes. Her work is often influenced by meditation practice. Born in Princeton, Ms. Baker is a retired New Jersey public school teacher and also a published poet and lyricist. For more information and hours, call (609) 989-6920, or visit www.mcl.org.

“Steel Ice & Stone: An Experiential Sensory Exhibition,” a multi-media interactive installation by Anita Giraldo, opens at the Artworks ArtLab in Trenton this Saturday, December 14, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. and runs through January 4, 2014.

The installation comprises nine suspended LED panels with sensor-triggered sound that is intended to create an environment for memory recall. According to Ms. Giraldo, “the work aims to open a discourse on how technology and abstract media can awaken nuanced memories in our lives.”

Sounds vary according to the presence of viewers in the exhibition space. Images plus sound plus viewer create an interactive environment with different sounds playing simultaneously in an impromptu composition that depends on the number and location of viewers in the room. The artist uses diesel engines in idle mode and bird calls for the mini-computer embedded sound units that are programmed to respond to visitors. When viewers are absent, there is no sound.

“I began work on “Steel Ice & Stone” as a ‘chapter’ of a larger work. But as I photographed the objects, the piece took on a life of its own and my commitment changed to the creation of an independent installation,” explains the artist on her website. Her previous installation, “See My Voice,” contained spoken word sound bites that accompany photographs of people’s faces. In “Steel Ice & Stone,” both images and sound are abstract.

This is the latest multi-media work created by the New York-based artist and it melds the latest technology in transmitted imagery and micro-controller sound playback.

Although LED technology is not new, thin, light-weight HD panels are, and Ms. Giraldo’s backlit photographic film prints are in vibrant, high-resolution color.

“Memory recall is at the heart of the piece,” said the artist. “I was thinking about fleeting events in my life and how I could make sense of what held them together. I had to share this experience: How could I get others to feel the same way I did?”

“To recreate the experience, I made photographic images of what I was sensing. I taped the sounds similar to what I heard inside and outside my head. I came up with an arrangement that would be confrontational yet allow passage through it. And, there had to be interplay only with those present in that environment. By adapting visual and sound technology, I layered sensory experiences to create a surreal environment and bring dormant subtleties to the forefront. A discourse opens on how technology awakens nuances in our lives.”

Ms. Giraldo grew up in New York City and has been a photographer since her teens. She earned a BFA from Cooper Union in 1982 and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in Photography and Related Media in 2004. She taught a seminar at the International Center for Photography and won a fellowship from The Puffin Foundation to continue her multimedia installation work in 2005. Her work has been shown in Germany, and Holland and she designed James Rosenquist’s catalog for the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“Steel Ice & Stone: An Experiential Sensory Exhibition” at Artworks is located at 19 Everett Alley, Trenton, N.J. 08611. For more information, call (609) 394-9436, or visit: artworkstrenton.org

 

There are numerous musical ensembles on the Princeton University campus which occasionally combine for joint concerts. An unusual musical collaboration took place this past week as the University Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble combined their efforts in Richardson Auditorium for a program celebrating the concept of freedom. Dedicated to the memory and legacy of Nelson Mandela, Friday night’s performance (the concert was also presented Thursday night) intermingled the musicians of both ensembles for a concert that was “about as American as a concert can get.”

Current events have influenced musical composition for centuries, and Princeton University Jazz Studies director Anthony D.J. Branker found inspiration and message in the 2012 Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Dr. Branker composed Ballad for Trayvon Martin, that was premiered at these performances, as a “song of healing that speaks to the urgent need for all of us to continue to work together.” Featuring guest tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen, Ballad for Trayvon Martin honored victims of several civil rights incidents of the 20th century, and musically brought together members of the Jazz Ensemble with the string sections of the University Orchestra.

Branker brought a sprightly energy to the conducting of his work, creating a flowing lilt in the Bach-like canonic entries from the strings. He placed saxophonist Bowen within the orchestra and alongside a trio of piano, double bass, and drums, allowing Bowen’s smooth and rich sound to emerge from the instrumental texture as Branker finessed the colors within the strings. Throughout the one movement piece, Bowen changed tempo with the pace of the work, but never lost the sleekness of the line.

University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt added brass and winds for a second world premiere, demonstrating that American jazz is a continually evolving form. David Sanford’s Teatro de Strada was a more abstract piece than the Branker work and was commissioned by the University Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble to also feature tenor saxophone soloist Ralph Bowen. The one movement work was marked by the improvisatory sounds of street music and the urban musical environment, with conventional harmonies juxtaposed against the free playing of Mr. Bowen. The University Orchestra was joined in the piece by the complete Concert Jazz Ensemble, including trumpets, trombones, and a trio of double bass, piano, and drums. Pizzicato strings showed the work’s classical side, while a bit of “wail” in the saxophone solo and solo brass parts emphasized the variety of colors within the complex piece.

The Princeton University Orchestra continued the “freedom” theme with a piece composed for a theatrical production that was a play concerned with oppression. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont incorporated “the heroic triumph of good over evil” into crisp music performed with elegant wind solos by the University Orchestra players, especially oboist Katrina Maxcy, clarinetist George Liu, and flutist Marcelo Rochabrun. Led by the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor J.J. Warshaw, the familiar thematic passages were played very cleanly, and Warshaw clearly had the piece well in hand.

These three one-movement works were preludes to the final symphony on the program, which fit into the overall theme. Antonin Dvorak composed Symphony No. 9 in E minor just as jazz was emerging from the American musical scene and as his own expression of American musical idioms and traditions. A rich and clear lower string sound opened the first movement and with crisp rhythms and subtle dynamic builds the orchestra was off and running. Conductor Michael Pratt allowed the sound to flourish on its own, with tunes that recall the open spaces of early 20th-century America. Clean horns and elegant winds, including from clarinetist Paul Chang, flutist Lila Xie, and oboists Alexa McCall and Ms. Maxcy, kept the lively themes at the forefront.

The second movement Largo featured an eloquent English horn solo played by Tiffany Huang which became more expressive as the movement progressed. Mr. Pratt and the players brought out the “Goin’ Home” theme gracefully from a number of instrumental solos and combinations, from pairs of clarinets and oboes against pizzicato double basses to a solo string quartet. A sensitive horn solo by Gabe Peterson and intense playing by the orchestra brought the broad symphony and challenging program to a close.

 

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela (Idris Elba) secretly started writing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom while still serving what he had every reason to believe would be a life

IF FIGHTING FOR THE END OF APARTHEID IS TREASON, THEN FIND ME GUILTY: Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba, center in focus) was tried and convicted for treason for attempting to break the rule of apartheid that was imposed on the black population of South Africa. While he was imprisoned, his cause was taken up by groups all over the world, and after 27 years in prison, Mandela was pardoned and then became the first black president of the country.

IF FIGHTING FOR THE END OF APARTHEID IS TREASON, THEN FIND ME GUILTY: Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba, center in focus) was tried and convicted for treason for attempting to break the rule of apartheid that was imposed on the black population of South Africa. While he was imprisoned, his cause was taken up by groups all over the world, and after 27 years in prison, Mandela was pardoned and then became the first black president of the country.

sentence on Robben Island. The lawyer-turned-spokesman for the outlawed African National Congress had been convicted of treason for trying to dismantle South Africa’s racist regime.

However, he was freed, after 27 years, when a bloody civil war was on the brink of bringing an end to apartheid. At that point, Mandela assured the apprehensive white minority that despite the fact that, “Fear has made you an unjust and brutal people, when we come to power, there will be no revenge.”

Soon thereafter, he was democratically elected to be the nation’s first black president, and assumed the reins of power in 1994. And that transition to majority rule proved to be smooth — helped by pardons for crimes against humanity that were granted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to guilty parties from both sides of the conflict.

Directed by Justin Chadwick, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a biopic chronicling the rise, incarceration, and ultimate redemption of the recently-deceased Nelson Mandela. Versatile British actor Idris Elba exhibits the requisite combination of outrage, dignity, empathy, and steely resolve needed to portray the late leader convincingly.

However, since Mandela is behind bars for most of the movie, much of the action revolves around his wife Winnie’s (Naomie Harris) efforts to raise their children while spearheading the anti-apartheid movement in her husband’s absence. Sadly, the decades-long separation eventually took a toll on their marriage.

This film easily surpasses a biopic covering the same subject called Winnie Mandela, that was released just a couple of months ago. That disappointing movie, co-starring Terence Howard and Jennifer Hudson as Nelson and Winnie, was marred by the protagonists’ atrocious accents as well as a disappointing script.

In contrast, this adaptation of Madiba’s autobiography does justice to his legacy as a freedom fighter and his role as a unifying figure for all of South Africa.

Excellent (****). PG-13 for sexuality, intense violence, disturbing images, and brief profanity. In English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa with subtitles. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

December 4, 2013

book revno one, not even the rain, has such small hands —e.e. cummings

This column began during one of those steady unthreatening rainfalls when you can imagine you hear the night thinking and you want to read something to complement the sound, something that does justice to the atmosphere. A year ago the same sound evoked dread and thoughts of flooded basements and power outages.

Looking ahead to the December 4 issue of Town Topics several days before I saw the news in Friday’s New York Times (“Salinger Stories Leaked Online”), I found a poet with rain in his name, Rainer Maria Rilke, who was born on 4 December 1875 in Prague, and died 29 December 1926 in Switzerland. I also found that the person who convinced him to change his first name from “René” to “Rainer” was his former lover and lifelong soulmate, the Russian-born author of The Erotic, psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937). In a letter from 1897, the year their affair began, Rilke calls her his “summer rain.” A year before his death, he refers to a “sheltering” letter from her that brought him “so much that ties in with earlier things.”

“Sheltering” seems the right word for a rainy night and the companionable presence of a poet who wants to “have someone to sit by and be with” and “softly sing” to in “To Say Before Going to Sleep,” which opens with “someone” and ends when “something in the dark begins to move.” In spite of the hint of menace, the line fits the rainy night mood where nothing has a name because everything is the rain.

The only poem of Rilke’s I could find with rain in the title is “Before Summer Rain” and though it was written years after Rilke called Salomé his “summer rain,” it’s not really all that much of a stretch to think that he and she shared a special understanding of the title beyond the content of the poem. They were, after all, continually in touch up to the day he died. She was his devoted confidant, and his “stupendous letters” to her are, according to William H. Gass’s introduction to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Vintage International 1985), “the actual origin and early text” of that work. In fact, drafts of novel and drafts of letters were interrelated and “clearly come from notes, from prose trials and errors, so that when Rilke revises sections of them for inclusion in the novel, they are already in their third kind of existence.”

It’s only natural to wonder what this woman of the “summer rain” looked like. You have to think that any female attached to a name like Salomé has to be bewitching. The photographs online do not disappoint. This is a woman with beautifully intense, intelligent eyes, a sensual mouth, and a hint of sly humor in her expression even when she’s not smiling.

Enter Salinger

Appropriately enough, it was a leak that brought J.D. Salinger and his Esmé into this rainy night rumination on Rilke and his Salomé, with her exotic name and history, and her intimate connections to Nietzsche and Freud. I knew that Rilke was on Salinger’s list of the writers he most admired, and after a little searching I found the passage early in Franny and Zooey where Franny’s obnoxious boyfriend Lane is collared by another English major who wanted to know “what this bastard Rilke was all about.” The assignment creating the dilemma is the fourth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Lane’s reply was that “he thought he’d understood most of it.” Given the importance of letters in the work of both Salinger and Rilke (most famously his Letters to a Young Poet), it’s no coincidence that Lane had been reading a letter from Franny (quoted in full) when “this bastard Rilke” intruded seconds before Franny’s train pulls up to the platform of a station generally assumed to be modeled on Princeton’s embattled Dinky terminus.

The Necessity of Rain

A letter is also crucial to the denouement of Salinger’s “For EsméWith Love and Squalor,” a story in which the rain is absolutely essential. After looking at how rain is used in works by several different writers, including Chekhov (“Bad Weather”), Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms), Stephen Crane (George’s Mother, Maggie), I remembered that Esmé began with the narrator, Sgt. X, ducking out of “the slanting, dreary rain” of “a very rainy” Saturday in Devon into a church while children’s choir practice was underway. In the examples from Chekhov, Crane, and Hemingway rain is either metaphorical or impressionistic. In Esmé, it puts a glow on Salinger’s portrait of the title character when she and the narrator meet in the tearoom, where he notices “Her hair was soaking wet, and the rims of both ears were showing.” When she comes over to his table in her tartan dress, he finds it to be “a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day.” In the course of their conversation, there are references to her touching “the top of her soaking wet head with the flat of her hand” and again when she “raised her hand to her wet head again, picked at a few limp filaments of blond hair, trying to cover her exposed ear rims,” which is when the state of her hair actually enters the conversation (“I look a fright …. I have quite wavy hair when it’s dry”). Salinger sustains the self-conscious gesture of touching the wet hair right through to the end of the first part of the story. The last he sees of Esmé she’s “slowly, reflectively testing the ends of her hair for dryness.” The radiant image of the lovely child, daubed with rain, hovers in the background of the dark second half of the story where the war-damaged narrator finds healing solace in the letter from Esmé and the gift of her dead father’s watch.

The Rilke Connection

If you look online, you’ll find at least one site devoted to the Rilke-Salinger connection, plus links to papers such as “The Pattern of Withdrawal and Return in J.D. Salinger and R.M. Rilke,” ”A Source for Seymour’s Suicide: Rilke’s Voices and Salinger’s Nine Stories,” or “East Meets West: Zen and Rilke in Salinger’s Catcher,” in which the carousel scene from Catcher in the Rye is compared to Rilke’s poem “The Merry Go Round” (Das Karussell). Critics assume that the German poet Seymour wants his wife to read in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is Rilke, though he’s not mentioned by name.

From the Cutting Room Floor

Until the distraction of the Salinger leak, I had been exploring the rain theme to the point of referencing other media where rainy weather is a defining force. Of the innumerable films where this is true, one of the first that came to mind along with no-brainers like Singing in the Rain was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Try to imagine that film without the relentless rain that pursues poor Janet Leigh like the wrath of the fat god orchestrating her doom, which comes in the semblance of a downpour created by the shower in the Bates Motel.

Finally, I recommend an online search of quotes about rain, where you will discover pages of nuggets on the subject from, among others, Venus Williams who finds it “very calming,” Pablo Neruda, whose poetry “took its voice” from it, and W.H. Auden, who once said “My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain,” perhaps inspiring one of the most bizarre lyrics ever written, Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.”

 

Black Friday is principally known for early Christmas shopping, but music has its own post-Thanksgiving tradition in Princeton with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Black Friday” concert. Starting within just a few minutes of the packed house at the Palmer Square tree-lighting, Friday night’s NJSO performance at Richardson Auditorium was no concert of holiday fluff — Music Director Jacques Lacombe programmed an evening of demanding piano and orchestral music, including a world premiere.

The NJSO New Jersey Roots Project has become an integral part of the organization’s commitment to bringing the works of the state’s composers to the forefront. Lowell Liebermann found inspiration for Barcarolles for a Sinking City in the city of Venice, but the four-movement work began with a somewhat dark view of the “Floating City.” The barcarolle, a song of the Venetian gondoliers, rolls along in a motion depicting a boat on waves. The opening Funeral Gondola of Liebermann’s work maintained the smooth roll, but dark melodies from solo instruments and sectional violins made it clear that this was not a sunny ride through canals.

The second movement paid direct tribute to the most well-known barcarolle in music with Liebermann’s incorporation of Jacques Offenbach’s Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann into a hymn-like orchestral fabric punctuated by unusual instrumental effects. Throughout the Quodlibet movement, refined instrumental solos came through the texture, including from trombonist Charles Baker, bass clarinetist Lino Gomez, and English horn player Andrew Adelson. The carillon effect of the third movement Ostinato/Carillon was created by the scoring of marimba and xylophone, contrasted by Alexandra Knoll’s eloquent oboe solo. Like Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (whose Concerto for Orchestra closed the concert program), Liebermann likes to explore all instruments of the orchestra, and Barcarolles for a Sinking City created a palette from a myriad of instrumental combinations and abrupt shifts in dynamics which were well-handled by the NJSO.

Mr. Lacombe turned his attention to virtuosity in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, featuring a dazzling pianist in Texas native Adam Golka. Although only in his mid-20s, Mr. Golka has amassed an impressive array of credits, both as a recitalist and concerto soloist. Ravel’s concerto is short by concerto standards, but full of technically demanding passages within an impressionistic palette. The key to this performance was precision, beginning with the percussive snap which opened the first movement. Mr. Golka excelled in both languid and technically quick passages, showing very fluid playing against the orchestra’s light and crisp sound.

Ravel patterned the middle movement Adagio after the music of Mozart, leaving great opportunity for Mr. Golka’s sensitive playing. The steadiness of his left hand never stopped, with graceful counter melodies provided by flutist Bart Feller and English horn player Mr. Adelson. The NJSO brought out the jazz influences in the work with klezmer-like winds and fierce percussion in the closing passages of the work.

Bartok’s five-movement Concerto for Orchestra showed the capabilities of almost all the players in the orchestra, with solid lower strings in the opening movement and wind scales going in many different directions. This piece required vigorous playing from the strings, complemented by sweet timbres from the English horn, bass clarinet, and a pair of harps. Winds were kept busy with solos, including from Ms. Knoll and clarinetist Karl Herman, and pairs of winds effectively brought out the Eastern flavor of the work. A rare movement of double bass exposure in the third movement was contrasted by clean piccolo playing from Kathleen Nester as Mr. Lacombe gently tapered phrase endings amid the full sound of the orchestra. Mr. Lacombe also worked hard to build dynamics slowly, effectively closing the concert with the orchestra in robust form.

 

HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is stuck in a dead-end job at a rural Pennsylvania steel mill that is rumored to be closing soon. However, he’s not in a position to leave the area in search of greener pastures because he has to care for his terminally-ill widowed father (Bingo O’Malley) and a younger brother, Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Rodney, a military veteran, hasn’t been able to make the adjustment back to civilian life after having served several tours of duty in Iraq. In fact, he hasn’t been the same since their mother died.

Because of a burgeoning gambling debt, Rodney has agreed to participate in street fights — that are fixed — that are being staged by the bookie (Willem Dafoe), to whom Rodney owes a lot of money. Trouble is Rodney becomes so blinded with rage after being punched, that he can’t be relied upon to throw the fight as promised.

Russell is so desperate to help his brother that he’s even willing to pay off Rodney’s I.O.U. in increments on his modest salary. But even that plan goes up in smoke after Russell is arrested for manslaughter when he was driving under the influence of alcohol.

By the time he’s paroled, Rodney has disappeared and is rumored to have been abducted out of state by a ruthless gang of drug dealers who are led by a sadistic Ramapo Indian (Woody Harrelson). The local police chief (Forest Whitaker) is sympathetic, but has no jurisdiction in New Jersey, which leaves Russell no choice but to take the law into his own hands with the help of his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard).

Written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), Out of the Furnace is a gritty thriller that unfolds against the backdrop of a decaying American landscape. Thus, almost overshadowing the desperate search at the center of the story, is the background behind the film of an aging national infrastructure that is irreversibly past its prime.

While the violence occasionally goes over the top, the film nevertheless remains highly recommended, because the cast is as adept at delivering dialogue as it is in dispensing street justice.

The movie is a gruesome showdown between warring clans that is reminiscent of the backwoods feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, drug use, and graphic violence. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

November 27, 2013

New York City, how I love you, blink your eyes and I’ll be gone

just a little grain of sand.

—Lou Reed (1942-2013),

from “Nyc Man”

If anybody starts using me as scenery, I’ll return to New York.

—Grace Kelly (1929-1982)

dvd rev1Writing shortly after he’d moved to New York in August 1932, James Agee, who was born on November 27, 1909, describes listening at night to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a phonograph in his office on the 50th floor of the Chrysler Building: “An empty skyscraper is just about an ideal place for it … with all New York about 600 feet below you, and with that swell ode, taking in the whole earth, and with everyone on earth supposedly singing it …. With Joy speaking over them: O ye millions, I embrace you … and all mankind shall be as brothers beneath thy tender and wide wings.”

Typically, the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family balances his swelling rhapsody with some topical reality, referring to “all this depression over the world” and of two feelings the city inspires, “one the feeling of that music — of a love and pity and joy” for people and the other for the “mob of them in this block I live in … a tincture of sickness and cruelty and selfishness in the faces of most of them.”

Coming to the City

Until I started relistening to Lou Reed’s music, I hadn’t intended to write about the singer songwriter and self-described “New York City man” who died at 71 on October 27. My plan, after a birthday nod to Agee, had been to focus on Grace Kelly, whose life is the subject of “Beyond the Icon,” the lavish exhibit that will be at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown through January of next year. Although I’m still absorbing Reed’s music, his identification with New York is reason enough to bring him on board. Some 40 years after Agee came to the city, Reed released his best-known solo album, Transformer, featuring  “Walk On the Wild Side,” an edgy ode to people drawn to Andy Warhol’s Manhattan domain, namely Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Little Joe Dallessandro, Sugar Plum Fairy Joe Campbell, and Jackie Curtis. Joining them in two other great Lou Reed songs are “Sweet Jane,” who knows “that women never really faint/and that villains always blink their eyes,” and seven-year-old Jenny in “Rock and Roll Music” who “one fine mornin’ puts on a New York station” and “starts dancin’ to that fine fine music. You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.”

New York was also 18-year-old Grace Kelly’s destination in 1947 when to the chagrin of her well-heeled Philadelphia family (her father saw acting “as a slim cut above streetwalker”) she decided to devote herself to a career in the theater. Living at the Barbizon Hotel for Women might not exactly be a walk on the wild side (men were denied access above the street level foyer), but there were lovers to come, and it’s fitting that her two most memorable performances are in movies with Manhattan settings, The Country Girl, for which she won an Oscar cast against type as the nagging adulterous muse to a drunken actor played by Bing Crosby, and Rear Window, which gave her the sexiest role of her brief career thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s talent for turning his erotic fantasies into cinematic art.

The Plot Thickens

As for Andy Warhol himself, he came to New York from Pittsburgh two years after Grace’s arrival; meanwhile Brooklyn born Lou Reed grew up on Long Island and definitively entered the life of the city in 1964 after graduating from Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz (“the first great person I ever met”). Reed showed his appreciation by dedicating the Velvet Underground song “European Son” to his mentor and later by composing a tribute called “My House” (“to find you in my house makes things perfect”). Another Brooklyn native, Schwartz had settled in Manhattan in the late 1930s and just as Reed would find himself as an artist in the Warhol/East Village scene, Schwartz flourished through his connection with the Partisan Review, where he befriended the wildly talented, driven, reckless human being laboring for Fortune and Time 50 floors up in the Chrysler Building. As it turned out, James Agee would make his name writing the column on film for The Nation that W.H. Auden dubbed “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism.” Had Agee’s hell-bent heavy-drinking lifestyle permitted it and had he stayed on as a film reviewer into the 1950s, we might have known his thoughts on Grace Kelly and Rear Window, which was released the year before he died and a mere two years before Grace became a princess, an event that Hitchcock helped make possible by casting her in the film (To Catch a Thief) that took her to Monaco.

By now it seems that once New York becomes the common denominator, all bets are off and the plot fantastically thickens. Though he lived outside Manhattan over the years (in Hollywood and up the Delaware River in Frenchtown), Agee was, like Reed and Schwartz, a New York City man right up to the day he died, stricken with a fatal attack of angina in a taxi in May 1955. What more Manhattan-centric place to make your quietus than in a Yellow Cab, commanded in this case by a driver who knew to rush his passenger to Roosevelt Hospital, the same facility to which an ambulance brought another New Yorker of note named John Lennon 25 years later on December 8, a day that coincides with the date of Delmore Schwartz’s birth — a hundred years ago this year.

Hitchcock’s New York

You might say that Hitchcock has “done” New York. There’s Cary Grant in Grand Central Station in North by Northwest (1959), Robert Cummings in the crown of the Statue of Liberty as the villain goes screaming to his death in Saboteur (1942), Grace Kelly as the victim in a New York apartment in a lesser film, Dial M for Murder (1954), Henry Fonda falsely accused in The Wrong Man (1956), Jimmy Stewart in a Manhattan apartment where a murder has been committed in Rope (1948), and most significantly in relation to the myth of Grace Kelly, Stewart is the central character in Hitchcock’s salute to the voyeur in all of us, Rear Window, where he’s in a wheel chair, his leg in a cast, observing with morbid fascination the play of life going on in the windows of the apartment building across the way. The scenario even provides a street address to help situate you, 125 West 9th, but this is strictly a Hollywood Manhattan made on a Paramount sound stage and the most New York thing about it is the voice and vigor of Brooklynite Thelma Ritter.

dvd rev2All Grace

Rear Window is adored by Hitchcockians and film buffs in general for exploring the act of seeing, the voyeur as audience; it’s also appreciated for its automat-style tableau of city life (each little window a movie screen featuring the newlyweds, the quarrelling couple, the lonely woman, the composer at the piano, the party, the lady with the dog, the losers and winners, and the act of murder deduced by Stewart’s prying photographer), but the film’s most memorable, most glamorously cinematic moment is all Grace. Nowhere else in her career does the legend so enchantingly shine forth.

Hitchcock takes pride in having deliberately subverted the decorous Princess Grace stereotype. “I didn’t discover Grace,” he has said, “but … I prevented her from being eternally cast as a cold woman.” In an interview with Oriana Fallaci, after nastily disposing of Kim Novak and Vera Miles, Hitchcock has nothing but kind words for Kelly: “She’s sensitive, disciplined, and very sexy. People think she’s cold. Rubbish! She’s a volcano covered with snow!”

That oft-quoted metaphor is unworthy of what happens when we first see Grace Kelly’s Lisa Carol Fremont in Rear Window. This is an appearance, not an entrance, and far more subtle, stylish, and erotic than a snow-covered volcano would suggest. The sequence begins with the camera panning across the vista of windows Stewart has been inspecting; you hear a woman singing scales and you can see people walking and traffic moving on a portion of Ninth Street through a space between the buildings opposite. The disabled photographer in the wheelchair is dozing when a shadow falls over him. The shadow is characteristic Hitchcock, a sly tease leading you to imagine for a second that some malign force is about to descend on the helpless man. After all, this is an exposed first-floor apartment on a steamy Greenwich Village summer evening. But instead of the fearsome source of the shadow bending over its victim, a beautiful face is coming toward us, right at us, filling the screen (still with a hint of the sinister, could be a green-eyed vampire in a nightmare Stewart’s having, red lips parted, lusting for the bared throat), there’s the shadow again flowing over him as his eyes open, he looks up, and sees the luminous face of his lover bending close to kiss him, she in a swooning motion; shown in profile, it’s the epitome of a kiss, promising everything but only promising, as she asks, her lips touching his, kissing each question, how’s his leg, how’s his stomach, and then, smiling sublimely, “And your love life?”

This is the woman in the print Andy Warhol made after Kelly’s death in 1982, less Princess Grace of Monaco than Lisa Carol Tremont, who has definite features in common with Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” Now imagine you’re 50 floors up in the empty Chrysler Building on James Agee’s birthday, it’s late at night, and instead of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy you’re listening to the long version of “Sweet Jane,” the one on Fully Loaded, the expanded version of the Velvet Underground’s 1970 album Loaded, where everyone “who ever had a heart…wouldn’t turn around and break it,” and anyone “who ever played a part…wouldn’t turn around and hate it,”— and the restored lines, all Grace, “Heavenly wine and roses/Seem to whisper to her when she smiles.”

Books consulted were Letters of James Agee To Father Flye and Donald Spoto’s High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly.

The Westminster Conservatory, which houses the Westminster Community Orchestra, has within its ranks a wealth of musical talent not often heard on area public stages. The Community Orchestra and conductor Ruth Ochs have a long relationship with Westminster Conservatory pianist Phyllis Alpert Lehrer (who performed with the orchestra last season) and this past weekend showcased another conservatory colleague in pianist Ena Bronstein Barton. Sunday afternoon’s concert by the Community Orchestra in Richardson Auditorium featured a Beethoven piano concerto played by Barton with both lyrical classicism and a bit of dramatic fire. 

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major had an auspicious start at its premiere in 1808, sandwiched among at least five other monumental works by Beethoven, but has since found its place in concerto repertory. A concerto from this period should be  marked by classical sparkle, and a pianist of Barton’s caliber would no doubt bring drama to the piece, and neither aspect of the performance disappointed the audience.

Barton opened the concerto with elegant but strong chords, cleanly answered by the strings. Both orchestra and soloist brought out the dynamic accents heard to the extreme in late Beethoven. Subtle instrumental solos by oboist Helen Ackley and flutist Judy Singleton complemented Barton as she launched into keyboard runs in the middle of the first movement. Barton used a bit more pedal than some might be used to in a piece from the early 19th century, but she maintained exceptional clarity, especially among parallel thirds as her hands flew over the keys.

Throughout the concerto, the Community Orchestra matched Barton’s level of virtuosity, as Ochs watched Barton carefully to keep ensemble and soloist exactly in time. Barton found intense fire in the cadenza to the first movement, with shades of drama amidst the long melodic scales and false cadences.

Ochs paired the Beethoven concerto with an expansive symphony by Antonin Dvorak, whose works contain complex ideas within small spaces and require great orchestral stamina to maintain musical intensity. In the opening movement of Dvorak’s 1884 Symphony no. 7 in D Major, Ochs brought out the rolling drama of the music with trumpets and trombones which were always clean. The first and fourth movements of this symphony had an overall dark character, but Dvorak can also be nimble and airy, and the oboes, clarinets, and flutes of the Community Orchestra aided in creating contrasting lighter sections.

The orchestra achieved its fullest sound of the afternoon toward the end of the first movement of the Dvorak, with a trio of clean horns paying homage to Wagner’s orchestration. Throughout the symphony, wind playing was precise, including solos from flutist Ms. Singleton, clarinetist Daniel Beerbohm, and oboist Ms. Ackley, and the winds particularly came to the forefront in the Trio of the third movement. Ochs whipped the orchestra into a frenzy for the close of the third movement Scherzo, with the rhythmic motives of the movement clear. This is a work which grew more settled within the players as the movements progressed, with the back row of brass, including trumpets, trombones, and tuba, always accurate. The fourth movement in particular contained a myriad of musical ideas, and the orchestra always managed to hang onto their focus to convey the complex instrumental palette.

The Dvorak symphony was an especially challenging work for the Westminster Community Orchestra, and Conductor Ochs was deservedly proud of the players following Sunday’s performance. The Beethoven concerto held the audience’s attention for Ms. Barton’s exceptional playing, and the Dvorak brought the Community Orchestra together to reach a demanding and difficult new performance height.

 

FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

The Hunger Games book trilogy has so captured the collective imagination of children the world over that it has already eclipsed Harry Potter as the best-selling children’s book series of all time. Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic adventure is set in Panem, a dystopia in which the poverty stricken majority are brutally subjugated by the powerful, privileged few.

In the first film, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) grudgingly participated in a winner-take-all death match against other teens, each representing his or her home district. Known as the Hunger Games, the annual competition is presented to the masses as entertainment designed to distract them from their miserable plight.

Wise beyond her years, underdog Katniss emerged triumphant at the end of the first episode by virtue of a combination of craftiness, compassion, and her skills as an archer. However, she did break a cardinal rule by sparing the life of her co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her friend and male counterpart from District 12.

At the second movie’s point of departure, we find the pair embarking on a government sponsored victory tour around the country. However, when their speeches stir up revolutionary fervor in the crowds, vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland) breaks a promise by drafting the pair to take part in the Quarter Quell, a tournament of champions comprised entirely of former Hunger Games winners.

So, it’s not long before they’re back in training for another life or death contest, this time against elite opponents with weapons and capabilities that range from fang-like teeth, uncanny intuition, chameleon-like camouflage, and the ability to harness electricity. Each of the entrants, known as tributes, is introduced by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the festivities’ unctuous master of ceremonies.

Once the pomp and circumstance of the opening ritual are out of the way, the gruesome main event begins. Alliances are forged, and bargains are made, followed by literal and figurative backstabbing in a desperate contest which ultimately forces a cruel betrayal of any loyalties.

In spite of all its frenetic action, this movie nevertheless suffers from a classic case of inbetween-itis, since it is a bridge to the third book’s conclusion.

Very Good (***). PG-13 for profanity, intense violence, frightening images, mature themes, and a suggestive situation. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

November 20, 2013

book revI used to have the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through. It’s a funny thing that as long as you have that feeling you seem to get through. I’ve lost that feeling lately but as a matter of fact I don’t feel bad about it. If anything happens to me I have this knowledge that if I had lived to be a hundred I could only have improved the quantity of my life, not the quality. 

—John Kennedy, from a letter to Inga Arvad

Written from the South Pacific following the August 1, 1943 sinking of PT-109, the long letter from Navy Lt. John Kennedy to his lover is worth a close look for what it says about a man in his mid-20s who already appears to have an enlightened sense of history and an interesting sense of himself. It’s one of the most revealing documents in The Letters of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury $30), edited by Martin W. Sandler and billed as the first such collection ever.

If Kennedy was satisfied with the quality of his life in 1943, what he achieved in the limited quantity he had left is astonishing, especially given what he was dealing with physically, day by day. As Sandler points out in the book’s last section (“A Triumph of Will”), here was a man who received the last rites of the Catholic Church four times, whose image of “glowing health and energy” (“vigor” a presidential buzz word) was “a well-orchestrated lie.” After mentioning how Kennedy “relied heavily on drugs and pills,” Sandler refers to the spending of “many days in bed,” which can be read two ways, given JFK’s legendary sex life. In fact, if he had been healthy, he might have graduated from Princeton, having actually enrolled at Old Nassau in 1935 “where he immediately concentrated on what was to become a lifetime obsession — the conquest of beautiful women.” We’ll never know how this need played out in the unlikely setting of pre-coed Princeton, for he soon “fell ill” with Addison’s disease, the sickness that would “continue to plague him for the rest of his life.” As a result, he missed most of the school year and enrolled at Harvard in 1936.

While most of the letters in this collection were written by the candidate or senator or president and will be of primary interest to historians, the exchange with Inga Arvad offers a teasing glimpse of the protagonist of the novel Norman Mailer imagined but never wrote, an existential adventurer with style and wit and a political agenda. Mailer tested the idea in “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” the Esquire essay on the 1960 Democratic Convention projecting candidate Kennedy as “‘your first hipster’ … a man who has lived with death, who, crippled in the back, took on an operation which would kill him or restore him to power, who chose to marry a lady whose face might be too imaginative for the taste of a democracy which likes its first ladies to be executives of home-management, a man who courts political suicide by choosing to go all out for a nomination four, eight, or 12 years before his political elders think he is ready, a man who announces a week prior to the convention that the young are better fitted to direct history than the old.”

Jack and Inga

Inga Arvad (1913-1973) was a Danish journalist who met Jack Kennedy (1917-1963) through his sister Kathleen when both women were working for the Washington Times Herald. Winner of a beauty contest at 16, she competed for the Miss Europe title a year later, around the time she eloped with an Egyptian diplomat, divorced him and in 1936 married Hungarian-born Paul Fejos, director of the silent classic Lonesome (in later life she married movie cowboy Tim McCoy, settled down in Hollywood, and raised a family). She was still married to Fejos when the romance with Kennedy began in November 1940. The FBI took an interest in the affair after the U.S. entered the war and it was discovered that Inga had conducted several sympathetic interviews with Adolph Hitler. That, and a photo of Inga and Hitler at the Summer Olympics, was all it took for her to be cast as a German spy. Hotel rooms were bugged, with FBI agents listening in, compiling transcripts indicating that besides making a whole lot of love, Jack and Inga took the relationship seriously, Kennedy with thoughts of annulling both her marriages so he could wed her in the Catholic Church, Inga with thoughts of carrying his baby (“you are the kind the world ought to swarm with”).

In the only letter from Arvad in the collection, she sounds at once amorous, sisterly, and maternal when she describes “the young handsome Boston Bean” who “when you talk to him or see him you always have the impression that his big white teeth are ready to bite off a huge hunk of life.” Her advice to him has an almost Emersonian ring: “Go up the steps of fame. But — pause now and then to make sure that you are accompanied by happiness. Stop and ask yourself ‘Does it sing inside me today.’ If that is gone. Look around and don’t take another step till you are certain life is as you will and want it.”

Kennedy’s reference to “the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through” echoes the wording of an earlier letter to his parents describing the man in his PT-109 crew who “always seemed to have the feeling that something was going to happen to him …. When a fellow gets the feeling that he’s in for it, the only thing to do is let him get off the boat because strangely enough, they always seem to be the ones that do get it.” Kennedy refers to the same man’s fate more explicitly in his letter to Inga: “He told me one night he thought he was going to be killed …. He was in the forward gun turret when the destroyer hit us.”

A Ranch in Texas?

In view of the day in Dallas when the survivor who had lived with death finally failed to “get through,” the most curious reference in the letter is when he tells Inga “you said you figured that I’d go to Texas and write my experiences. I wouldn’t go near a book like that. This thing is so stupid that while it has a sickening fascination for some of us, myself included, I want to leave it far behind when I go.”

With the 50th anniversary of the assassination looming (this year, as it did in 1963, November 22 falls on a Friday), the mention of Texas requires at least a moment or two of reflection. Without access to the other letters, there’s no way to track down previous references to the possibility that Kennedy might have considered going to Texas to write a book about his wartime experience. According to Michael O’Brien’s biography of Kennedy, he discussed presidential ambitions with Inga as early as 1941 and was “torn between postwar dreams of moving to a ranch out west or pursuing an extraordinary political ambition.” Inga was “quite convinced that he had it in him to become president if he set his mind to it.” She saw “the ranch out West” as an alternative to “the highway to the White House,” and “out West” presumably could mean Texas. Considering the labyrinth of coincidence and conspiracy surrounding the assassination, perhaps someone will do some research on whether Kennedy ever imagined a life for himself on a ranch in Texas.

In his preface to the letters from May-October 1963, Sandler cites the various warnings Kennedy received about a visit to Dallas in the third week of November. A member of the Democratic National Committee from Texas said that the city “simply wasn’t safe for Kennedy and should be avoided.” When Senator William Fulbright repeated the warning and advised him not to go, “Kennedy responded by saying that if any president ever reached the point where he was afraid to visit any American city, he should immediately resign.”

More Than a Celebrity

A month ago in the October 22 New York Times Book Review, there was a piece on “Kennedy the Elusive President” discussing the “Kennedy fixation” that has inspired “an estimated 40,000 books.” One of the biographers, Robert Dallek, told the Times that “the mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” seeing him “more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.”

Kennedy was more than a celebrity, he was a star, which is one reason why even as history books are negatively reassessing his administration, he still enjoys the highest approval rating among presidents of the 20th-21st centuries.

The 60s had begun with the frigid weather of the inauguration, a bareheaded old poet reciting, a bareheaded young president declaiming. After the shots in Dallas, it was if the decade had been cut down in its tracks with the man who had symbolically set it in motion. A few months later, on February 7, 1964, four young men from Liverpool arrived in America and for many of us, the 60s, for better or worse, stood up and got moving again.

 

NEW WORK BY JUDY BRODSKY: Works by acclaimed New Jersey printmakerJudith K. Brodsky, including “How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced (Male),” shown here, are currently on view at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (PCNJ) in an exhibition marking the Center’s 40th anniversary. “Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” at PCNJ, 440 River Road, Branchburg, runs through December 31. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (908) 725-2110, or visit: www.printnj.org.

NEW WORK BY JUDY BRODSKY: Works by acclaimed New Jersey printmakerJudith K. Brodsky, including “How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced (Male),” shown here, are currently on view at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (PCNJ) in an exhibition marking the Center’s 40th anniversary. “Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” at PCNJ, 440 River Road, Branchburg, runs through December 31. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (908) 725-2110, or visit: www.printnj.org.

An exhibition at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (PCNJ) offers a rare chance to see works by two influential New Jersey artists who have shaped the development of printmaking in the state.

“Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” opened earlier this month at PCNJ and will continue through December 31. Marking the Center’s 40th anniversary year, the show celebrates the commitment of both of these artists to printmaking. Ms. Brodsky and Mr. Chapin were the moving hands behind two of New Jersey’s most important printmaking institutions.

Mr. Chapin was one of five New Jersey artists who founded the Printmaking Center back in 1973, when it was known as the Printmaking Council of New Jersey. Ms. Brodsky, Distinguished Professor Emerita of the Department of Visual Arts at Rutgers, is the founder and former director of the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, renamed the Brodsky Center in her honor. This is the long-time Princeton resident’s first exhibition of new work since 2010.

Of late, Ms. Brodsky has been so focused on curating shows by other artists that she has had little time to devote to her own artistic endeavors. In conjunction with Ferris Olin, with whom she co-founded and co-directs the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art and The Feminist Art Project, a national program to promote recognition of women artists, she curated “The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society” last year. The exhibition and accompanying events and book focused on women artists, filmmakers, writers, and composers of the Middle East.

Recently, Ms. Brodsky completed work on a catalog and traveling exhibition of a decade of work by painter Basil Alkazzi, which will arrive at Rider University in February.

“I wasn’t in my studio very much until the PCNJ asked me to have an exhibition there in celebration of its 40th anniversary,” acknowledged Ms. Brodsky. “It was wonderful because it gave me a deadline that would help me shift gears from curatorial and other organizational activities to concentrating on my own work again.”

In September, the artist worked “night and day to finish 10 large pieces that make up the PCNJ exhibition.” Half of them are etchings and the other half consist of digital collages and drawings, part of a new project called “The Twenty Most Important Questions of the 21st Century.” “I was inspired by a list I saw in the science section of The New York Times at the turn of the millennium and that has been on my mind ever since,” she explained.

On view here are the first 10 of Ms. Brodsky’s 20-piece series inspired by the millennium questions. They are large by print standards, one is five feet in length, and bear thought-provoking titles such as What Came Before the Big Bang, How Does the Brain Work, Why Do We Sleep, Can Science Prove There’s a God, and Will We Go to Mars. How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced, shown here is one half of a male/female a diptych.

Created using digital and traditional mark-making techniques, Ms. Brodsky’s visually provocative images strike a balance between content and formal qualities. They prompt the viewer to an intellectual as well as an emotional response. The artist has said that she has always thought of her work as “visual responses to, and documentation of, the defining elements of the era in which she has lived.” Always conscious of history she believes that people in the future will learn about our time through works of art.

For the exhibition, Ms. Brodsky shares space with fellow printmaker Peter Chapin. Originally from New Jersey, Mr. Chapin now lives in New Mexico. “Works by the two of us make a nice combination,” commented Ms. Brodsky, whose work is in the permanent collections of the New Jersey State Museum, the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, the Library of Congress, the Zimmerli Art Museum, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and Berlin’s Stadtmuseum, among others.

Mr. Chapin’s drypoint prints, other works on paper, and acrylic paintings are in the collections of J. P. Morgan Chase, Prudential Insurance Company, and the estate of Elaine deKooning. He served as executive art director of the Printmaking Council of New Jersey and co-directed Skylight Conversations in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” runs through December 31 at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, 440 River Road, Branchburg. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (908) 725-2110, or visit: www.printnj.org.

 

Each year at this time, Princeton takes on Yale in a football game that, for more than a century, has been bringing out the best in student competition. Over the same century, the Princeton and Yale Glee Clubs have presented a joint concert to kick off the weekend of collective school spirit and friendly rivalry. Glee clubs have a long tradition of fostering camaraderie but collegiate choral singing is not just for drinking and football songs anymore. This past Friday night’s “Centennial Football Concert” with the Princeton and Yale University Glee Clubs in Richardson Auditorium featured a challenging mixture of choral works, together with a commissioned premiere.

Princeton Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch and his Yale counterpart, Jeffrey Douma each programmed a range of music reflecting a variety of anniversaries as well as their own personal repertoire specialties. Following works by Brahms and Victoria, Dr. Douma led the Yale Glee Club in music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including his own arrangements. In the Brahms piece, which opened the program, Douma found a Viennese flow to the music, showing off a light and clear sound from the sopranos in the Glee Club. In a refreshing piece by Mark Sirett, the 16-voice Yale Glee Club Chamber Singers demonstrated the same exact tuning under the direction of Yale Masters student Kathleen Allan.

Douma paid tribute to British composer John Tavener, who died this month, with a performance of Song for Athene, probably Tavener’s most well-known piece. Although the low choral drone was hard to hear from these young voices, the lone melodic lines were well sustained and harmonic shifts from major to minor were well executed. The singers achieved particular intensity on the text “Life: a shadow and a dream.” Douma closed his half of the concert with two of his own imaginative compositions, as well as a medley of football songs by historic Yale Glee Club conductor Fenno Heath, sung to the backdrop of the obligatory friendly heckling from the Princeton Glee Club members in the balcony.

Princeton Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch focused his half of the concert on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, acknowledging a myriad of anniversaries. Most significant was the choice of Herbert Howells’ Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, composed for the funeral of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week, and the Carol (Maiden in the Mor Lay) who would have turned 100 on the same date as Kennedy’s assassination. Interspersed throughout the Glee Club’s program were other unofficial anniversaries, including 400 years since the death of Carlo Gesualdo and 70 years since the death of Sergei Rachmaninoff, both composers of works in the concert. With his choice of the jazzy I’m a Train, Crouch may also have inadvertently paid tribute to the legendary “Princeton locomotive” cheer heard so often in Richardson Auditorium over the past decades.

In their opening selections from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, the Princeton Glee Club presented large blocks of sound, with an effective flow to the music. Crouch kept the members of the nearly 80-voice Glee Club close together, allowing the solid chords to ring through Richardson as they would have resounded through spacious Russian churches. Commendable in the second selection Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda was mezzo-soprano soloist Saunghee Ko, who displayed a rich sound well beyond her years and complete ease with the low register of the solo.

Crouch’s conducting “bread and butter” is the music of late 19th-century and early 20th-century England, and he showed his mettle with the Glee Club in the music of C.V. Stanford and Herbert Howells. The harmonies in Stanford’s Beati quorum via unfolded luxuriantly from the women’s voices, and the difficult harmonies in Howells’ Take Him, Earth were well-handled by the chorus. Crouch showed a lighter side of the Glee Club Chamber Chorus in a double-chorus selection by Bach, with a polished and clear sound from the singers. He also gave a student the chance to lead the Glee Club, and Princeton senior Kamna Gupta showed that minimal conducting gestures can produce tremendous results in a crisp presentation of Britten’s Carol.

The two University Glee Clubs joined forces for a premiere of a work by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi commissioned specifically for this occasion. The Famous Tay Whale, led by both conductors (each conducted their own respective chorus in tag-team conducting) was a jazzy and homophonic setting of humorous text appropriate for the concert. Pianists Paul Noh and Min Joo Yi well handled a keyboard accompaniment which was entertaining in itself.

As one can read elsewhere in this paper, Princeton beat Yale in the football game Saturday and is on its way to an Ivy title. Friday night’s performance by the two Glee Clubs showed that the students from these two Universities were well capable of handling complex and difficult choral music while asserting their places in their respective scholastic histories. Equally as important, this engaging concert also proved that healthy competition in a choral setting can do as much as sports to create fine young individuals in a college setting.

 

MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) was informed that he had 30 days to live when he was diagnosed as being HIV positive in 1986.

While pharmaceutical companies around the world were testing hundreds of chemical compounds in hopes of developing an antidote, the only one approved for distribution in America was AZT, a medication so toxic that it almost killed Ron. Rather than resign himself to a quick death, the tough Texan resolved to fight for his life.

First, he visited a clinic in Mexico that was promoting a cocktail of alternative therapies and purchased enough drugs to test the experimental regimen on himself. When the trial proved effective, he sneaked back across the border, posing as a priest, and smuggled a trunk full of pills out of the country.

Soon thereafter, the enterprising Woodroof founded the Dallas Buyers Club in order to skirt the law and distribute unapproved substances such as Interferon, Peptide T and Compound Q. A mere $400 per month would afford club members access to a variety of state-of-the-art AIDS remedies.

Because of his homophobia, the gruff good ol’ boy wisely went into business with a partner who had deep roots in the gay community. Flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV positive transsexual, played a pivotal role in attracting a clientele of fellow AIDS patients because Ron often used offensive slurs when referring to homosexuals. Together, the pair built the fledgling enterprise into an economic success that provided a service for patients who were frustrated by the FDA’s response to the epidemic.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Café de Flore), Dallas Buyers Club recounts Ron Woodroof’s desperate struggle to survive in the face of a governmental bureaucracy that appeared indifferent to people in his plight. The movie was inspired by “Buying Time,” an article by Bill Minutaglio which appeared in the Dallas Morning News on August 9, 1992.

Riddled with historical inaccuracies, the biopic frequently plays fast and loose with the facts in order to fashion an entertaining movie that fits the Hollywood success formula. In truth, the real-life Ron was apparently not as intolerant of homosexuality as depicted. Furthermore, he was initially given a two-year life expectancy by his doctor, in contrast to the picture’s one month fiction.

However, perhaps most important of all, some of the drugs he imported were banned for very good reasons. Nevertheless, the movie is a terrific tour de force that is likely, at last, to give Matthew McConaughey an Oscar nomination because he convincingly conveys the acute mental anguish of a person ravaged by AIDS.

Excellent (****). Rated R for nudity, drug use, graphic sexuality, pervasive profanity, ethnic and homophobic slurs. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

November 13, 2013

book revBorn on this day, November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was writing The Weir of Hermiston when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 3, 1894, in Samoa. He dedicated the unfinished novel to his wife Fanny:

Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who

Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal,

Held still the target higher, chary of praise

And prodigal of counsel — who but thou?

So now, in the end, if this the least be good,

If any deed be done, if any fire

Burn in the imperfect page, the praise be thine.

Although Stevenson considered his marriage “the best move I ever made in my life,” he described Fanny, in a letter to J.M. Barrie written the year before he died, as “a violent friend, a brimstone enemy.”

“Damn Queer”

Painted at Bournemouth in the summer of 1885, John Singer Sargent’s portrait, Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, which was on loan to the Princeton Art Museum some years ago, has to be one of the strangest images Sargent ever put on canvas. For one thing, Mrs. Stevenson is seated off to the side, at first glance barely distinguishable from the decor, so much so that she draws attention to herself by almost not being there. This frame from a home movie on pause may say more than the painter intended about the couple’s relationship, though Sargent seemed in amused agreement when Fanny observed, “I am but a cipher under the shadow.” Stevenson looks too thin to cast more than a sliver of shadow. He’s wandering away from his wife, not deliberately, but as if he were following the course of a stray thought. In his own account, he judged the painting “excellent” but “damn queer as a whole” and “too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme other end.” Draped in a colorful Indian fabric, with one bare foot just peeping through, Fanny resembles not so much a ghost as a spaced-out gypsy dancing girl cooling her heels. The portrait may be to blame for the rumor that Mrs. Stevenson showed up barefoot at London dinner parties.

Books Without Women

In an essay in the April 1888 Century Magazine, Henry James, who was a frequent guest when the Stevensons were living in Bournemouth, points out that Stevenson “achieves his best effects” in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde “without the aid of the ladies …. It is usually supposed that a truly poignant impression cannot be made without them, but in the drama of Mr. Hyde’s fatal ascendancy they remain altogether in the wing.”

It’s no surprise that the author of The Portrait of a Lady and creator of numerous memorable female characters would be sensitive to their absence in Stevenson, as he noted at the outset of the same essay. After describing the “gallantry” of Stevenson’s style (“as if language were a pretty woman” and the author “something of a Don Juan”), James goes on to observe that “it is rather odd that a striking feature” of Stevenson’s gallant nature is “an absence of care for things feminine. His books are for the most part books without women, and it is not women who fall most in love with them.” James surmises that “It all comes back to his sympathy with the juvenile, and that feeling about life which leads him to regard women as so many superfluous girls in a boy’s game …. Why should a person marry, when he might be swinging a cutlass or looking for a buried treasure? Why should he go to the altar when he might be polishing his prose?”

In “real life” and real time (1880), Stevenson pursued Fanny all the way to California with the fervor of a cutlass-wielding, treasure-hunting action hero, risking everything, health, funds, work, parental disfavor, crossing an ocean and a continent to track her down and win her hand, though doing so meant taking responsibility for three children from her previous marriage.

Contrary to the situation pictured by Sargent, Fanny was an immensely formative force in Stevenson’s life. She was nearly as close to his work as he was, his first reader, his conscience, his antagonist. The writing he’s known and loved for, from Treasure Island on, was accomplished when she was by his side. How intimidating, then, to attempt to form a fictional woman when a very real and fearlessly judgmental one is peering over your shoulder. After reading the first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fanny was not only underwhelmed, she questioned the essence of his approach to the tale so heatedly that it led to “an almighty row,” after which, to Fanny’s horror, he threw the entire manuscript on the fire, having decided that she was right. The novel the world knows (or thinks it knows, given the liberties taken by various film versions) was written to address Fanny’s reservations about the first draft and in particular her insistence that he undertake to develop the “moral allegory” implicit in the situation.

In a letter to Henry James quoted in Claire Harman’s suggestively titled biography, Myself & the Other Fellow (2005), Stevenson describes the back and forth between husband/author and wife/critic, she “who is not without art: the art of extracting the gloom of the eclipse from sunshine.” He goes on to recount a recent falling out: “she tackled me savagely for being a canary-bird; I replied (bleatingly) protesting that there was no use in turning life into King Lear …. The beauty was we each thought the other quite unscathed at first. But we had dealt shrewd stabs.” No wonder Stevenson would call Fanny “the violent friend” and “brimstone enemy,” addressing her in letters as “Dear weird woman” and “my dear fellow.” In the same 1893 letter to J.M. Barrie he admitted, “She runs the show … handsome waxen face like Napoleon’s, insane black eyes, boy’s hands, tiny bare feet, a cigarette …. Hellish energy …. Is always either loathed or slavishly adored. The natives think her uncanny and the devils serve her. Dreams dreams, and sees visions.”

Maybe by now you’re thinking, as I am, “What a fantastic challenge such a character would be for any novelist.” Never mind James. Think Balzac or Dostoevsky or Proust.

From all accounts, Henry James knew Fanny better than did Stevenson’s other friends. He routinely added his “love” to her at the close of his letters, and the long letter he sent her after Stevenson’s death in December 1894 was warm and caring, yet he privately confessed to thinking her “a poor, barbarous and merely instinctive lady,” characterizing her to Owen Wister as “a strange California wife … if you like the gulch & the canyon, you will like her.” James’s invalid sister Alice compared her to “an organ grinder’s appendage” (her way of not saying “monkey”), with so large an ego that it “produced the strangest feeling of being in the presence of an unclothed being” (her way of not saying “naked”). Obviously, such comments say as much about James and his sister as they do about Fanny, but words like “barbarous,” the monkey reference, and Stevenson’s own use of “weird,” “insane,” “uncanny,” “devils,” “dreams,” “visions,” and “hellish energy” indicate qualities Mrs. Stevenson shares with Mr. Hyde. It was she, after all, who heard her husband’s scream and came to wake him when he was being consumed by the nightmare that inspired the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde.

Below Him

No less weird, uncanny, and barbarous is the P.S. that Stevenson appended to a letter praising Roderick Hudson, one of James’s lesser works. After prefacing the crude blow he’s about to strike as “a burst of the diabolic” (a Hyde-like note) he says, “I must break out with the news that I can’t bear The Portrait of a Lady …. I can’t stand your having written it; and I beg you will write no more of the like …. I can’t help it — it may be your favorite work, but in my eyes it’s BELOW YOU to write and me to read.”

This assault on a novel already being acknowledged as James’s masterpiece is wildly out of character. Perhaps Stevenson had had one drink too many. What was he thinking? What could have brought it on? More bewildered than hurt (“My dear Louis, I don’t think I follow you here — why does that work move you to such scorn?”), James knows better than to take it any further (“I feel as if it were almost gross to defend myself”). If nothing else, the outburst underscores the fundamental division James touched on when noting the “absence of care for things feminine” in Stevenson’s work, a point he comes back to decades later in his preface to the New York edition of The Portrait. Addressing the difficulty some novelists have with making a female character “the center of interest,” he observes that “even, in the main, so subtle a hand as that of R. L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave the task unattempted.”

Last Words

There’s no evidence that the female character at the heart of Stevenson’s last work, The Weir of Hermiston, was a considered response to James. If anything, making Christina Elliott “the center of interest” was a tribute to Fanny, as “the praise be thine” dedication implies. When the narrative breaks off in the ninth chapter, Christina is in emotional disarray, furious because the man she adores has come to her not to make love but “to trace out a line of conduct” for them “in a few cold, convincing sentences.” Her response is to subject him to “a savage cross-examination” that must have evoked smiles in readers familiar with the dynamic of Stevenson’s marriage, the “canary bird” meets King Lear.

The last passage Stevenson was ever to write, dictated to his stepdaughter the day he died, begins with a sentimental cliche with juvenile overtones (“He took the poor child in his arms”) — until “He felt her whole body shaken by the throes of distress, and had pity upon her beyond speech. Pity, and at the same time a bewildered fear of this explosive engine in his arms, whose works he did not understand, and yet had been tampering with. There arose from before him the curtains of boyhood, and he saw for the first time the ambiguous face of woman as she is. In vain he looked back over the interview; he saw not where he had offended. It seemed unprovoked, a wilful convulsion of brute nature ….”

And so everything ends with those two scarily resonant words.

It’s all there, as James would undoubtedly have recognized, from “the curtains of boyhood” to the “face of woman as she is.”

 

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES: Chris (Peter Giovine) pleads with his mother (Uchechi Kalu) to face reality, move on, and leave the past behind, as his father (Jordan Adelson) looks on in Theatre Intime’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (1947) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 16.

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES: Chris (Peter Giovine) pleads with his mother (Uchechi Kalu) to face reality, move on, and leave the past behind, as his father (Jordan Adelson) looks on in Theatre Intime’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (1947) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 16.

In the manner of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Oedipus and the great tragedies of Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) is a drama of retrospective analysis. Written and set in the wake of World War II, All My Sons, Miller’s earliest success, just two years before Death of a Salesman, depicts one tragic day in the life of the Keller family. When the play begins, most of the key events of the story have already taken place. The dramatic action on stage is an exploration and revelation of a past that shapes and weighs upon the tortured lives of the main characters.

All My Sons, currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is the story of Joe Keller (Jordan Adelson) and his wife Kate (Uchechi Kalu). It takes place “in the outskirts of an American town” on a Sunday in August, 1946. Their son Larry, an air force pilot, has been Missing In Action for three years, but Kate cannot give up hope and let the family move on with its life. Joe, jailed three years earlier when his aircraft engine business issued damaged cylinder heads that resulted in the deaths of 21 pilots, has recently been exonerated, released, and returned home, where he lives with his wife and 32-year-old son Chris (Peter Giovine), who is back from military combat service in Europe.

Recently arrived and staying at the Kellers’ house is Annie (Nadia Diamond), formerly engaged to Larry and currently anticipating a proposal from Chris, who has been corresponding with her by mail over the past two years. Annie, who grew up next door to the Kellers and whose father was a partner with Joe in the aircraft engine manufacturing business and who is still serving time in the penitentiary, serves as a catalyst figure in the drama, forcing the family to confront the truths of Larry’s death, of Joe’s guilt, and of the necessity of moving forward with their lives.

Miller’s characterizations are deep, complex, and interesting. The plot, focused on the single day when the crises of the past emerge to engulf the Keller family, is carefully articulated and intense. And the issues here — ethical dilemmas of capitalism, corporate greed and its human consequences, family strife, dealing with loss — are universal, perhaps even more timely today than they were 65 years ago.

Unfortunately, however, although Theatre Intime, with a cast of 10 undergraduates under the capable direction of sophomore Oge Ude, does present a worthy production of this difficult work, the plot occasionally creaks, some dialogue seems forced, and the characterizations do not always ring true.

All My Sons is similar to Death of a Salesman, Miller’s next and most famous play, in many ways: characters, dramatic structure, theme and tragic impact. The plotting of the earlier play, however, seems more contrived, some dialogue less realistic, the monologues less gripping, and the parent-son relationships less emotionally gripping than those in the later play.

The young Intime company will certainly settle into its rhythm and its characterizations more fully in its second weekend, but opening night last Thursday revealed some difficulties in the realistic portrayal of both generations of troubled characters.

Mr. Adelson as the central figure is a fascinating picture of denial, attempting to elude, to rationalize the ugly truth of his past. “That’s business. That’s a mistake, but it ain’t murder.” Experienced and comfortable on stage, and well-rehearsed, Mr. Adelson delivers this brusque character with clarity and force, though the character stretch across 40 years and an unfathomable depth and darkness of life experience, at times proves daunting and makes this protagonist less than fully credible.

Ms. Kalu, facing similar challenges, succeeds in creating a convincing and sympathetic wife and mother, grasping and communicating Kate’s struggles to accept her son’s death, her husband’s guilt, and the necessity of burying her false hope and moving forward with her life.

Mr. Giovine’s Chris is uneven in his performance, though mostly appealing and intriguing in his anguished relationships with his father and mother, his haunting memories and survivor’s guilt from the war, and in his budding romance with his brother’s former girlfriend. As Ann, Ms. Diamond provides a worthy match for Chris and a welcome freshness and air of truth from outside the tortured Keller family.

Charlie Baker lends helpful support as Ann’s brother George, a lawyer, arriving in the second act with vital, devastating information just received from his father in prison. Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn as a meddling, troublesome neighbor; Evan Coles as her beleaguered husband; Blake Edwards and Tess Marchant as another, contrastingly upbeat neighboring couple; and the spirited young Adam LeCompte as a boy in the neighborhood — all provide capable, significant support to the principals in the first act, with less stage time in act two, as the drama narrows its focus to the Keller family.

Matt Seely’s sturdy, functional unit set depicting the Keller backyard, with symbolic apple trees (“Larry’s tree” is struck down in a storm just before the play opens.) and a small trellised arbor upstage is realistic, except for an expressionist touch on a stage right wall covered with newspapers, presumably the fateful newspapers from three years earlier that broadcast the crime and punishment of Joe Keller and his partner.

Lighting by Hannah Yang and Rebekah Shoemake and appropriate 1940s costumes by Joane Joseph effectively complement the actors and plot. Ms. Uge’s direction unifies the production elements effectively, moves the action along smoothly, and mostly sustains the audience’s interest in this, at times, long-winded drama.

“The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity,” Arthur Miller wrote in his 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man.” “From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in his society.”

That is the struggle of Joe Keller and also of Willie Loman and of all the tragic protagonists of a cluster of other great plays written by this giant of the 20th century American Theater. In All My Sons the ambitious Intime company brings to life this classic tragic pattern of inevitable, shocking climax, followed by catharsis and restoration of the moral order with accompanying lessons for society.

 

Between the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and next year’s 70th anniversary of D-Day (as well as a few World War I anniversaries) there are a myriad of opportunities to acknowledge the role of music in and around the military. War and anti-war songs and marches are straightforward in interpretation and role, but musical works inspired by times or literature of war are more subtle and pieces which link two completely different battle periods are especially intriguing. Princeton Pro Musica took advantage this past weekend of its opening concert’s close proximity to Veterans Day by presenting four works connected to U.S. involvement in war over the past two centuries. Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau found a common theme in works using the same poetry in some cases to showcase Pro Musica in precise choral form in both chamber and full force configuration.

Saturday night’s performance began with an acknowledgment by Dr. Brandau of veterans in the Richardson Auditorium audience, together with a musical tribute by Aaron Copland to all the “common men” involved in the war effort of World War II. One of ten fanfares commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942 (and the only to survive with any longevity), Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man has often been a go-to piece to convey patriotism, and the eleven brass players of the orchestra accompanying Pro Musica for the evening filled the hall with clean playing and spirit. The sectional sound from the trumpets, an unofficial instrument of battle, was especially vibrant and ringing.

Both early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and mid-20th century American composer Jeffrey Van musically set the poetry of Walt Whitman, in some cases the same poems. Vaughan Williams composed his choral/orchestral Dona Nobis Pacem from the depths of uncertainty between World Wars I and II, while Van’s 1990 A Procession Winding Around Me was inspired by the composer’s visit to the Civil War battlefield Gettysburg, and both pieces find commonality in the post-Civil War poetry of Whitman. Van’s four-movement work was scored for chorus and guitar (Van is a member of the guitar faculty at the University of Minnesota), and Dr. Brandau presented this piece with the 35-voice Pro Musica Chamber Chorus, accompanied by guitarist James Day.

Van’s setting of Whitman’s poems was primarily homophonic, with a clear-cut declamation of the text. The singers in the Pro Musica Chamber Chorus demonstrated clear diction, with a consistently well-blended sound (especially from the men) and with vowels reliably pure. The setting of the third poem, “Look Down Fair Moon,” was the hardest to tune (admirably achieved by the chorus), beginning with whistling as from afar and well accompanied by Mr. Day with guitar playing that was both accompanying and percussive. Van composed some particularly effective word painting passages in the fourth poem, “Reconciliation,” which ended the piece on a positive note.

The Dona Nobis Pacem of Vaughan Williams was textually more complex than Van’s work, combining verses from the Bible with Latin liturgical text and Whitman’s poetry. Vaughan Williams composed the six-movement free-flowing choral/orchestral work as a plea for peace, using chorus and orchestra with soprano and baritone soloists. Williams began the work with text from the last part of the Latin mass — starting right off in despair. Soprano JoEllen Miller consistently sang with pure and ethereal tone, contrasting with the chorus’s expression of past devastation and impending return to war. This composer wrote effectively for chorus, and the full forces of Pro Musica handled well the driving rhythms and demand for sustained sturdy sound.

The Civil War was a very different kind of war from World Wars I and II, yet Vaughan Williams brought Whitman’s poetry new meaning in the 20th century with sensitive orchestration and solo writing. Baritone Paul Max Tipton (who also sang an Edward Cone song setting poetry of 19th-century British poet Matthew Arnold) sang Vaughan Williams’ version of “Reconciliation” with compassion, aided by the full-bodied sound of the chorus and refined solo playing from oboist Carl Oswald. Soprano Miller returned periodically throughout the piece as the voice of the people, interpolating the text “dona nobis pacem” into Whitman’s verses. Throughout the Vaughan Williams work and the entire concert, the chorus, soloists, and orchestra together brought life to music paying tribute to the dead, and presented well these four pieces which are not heard often enough.

 

HONEY, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I LOVE: Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, right) reassures his suspicious wife Robin (Sanaa Lathan) that even though his head was temporarily turned by his ex girlfriend Jordan (Nia Long, not shown) when he saw her for the first time in 15 year, he really never seriously considered leaving Robin.

HONEY, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I LOVE: Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, right) reassures his suspicious wife Robin (Sanaa Lathan) that even though his head was temporarily turned by his ex girlfriend Jordan (Nia Long, not shown) when he saw her for the first time in 15 year, he really never seriously considered leaving Robin.

When released in 1999, The Best Man was dismissed by some as merely an African American version of The Big Chill, and by others as the black male answer to Waiting to Exhale. But the romantic film about a sophisticated set of college graduates was entertaining enough to stand on its own, and even won three NAACP Image Awards, including Best Picture.

Set 15 years later, The Best Man Holiday is a sequel reuniting the principal cast for a mixture of reminiscing, rivalry, and sobering reality during an eventful Christmas season. Written and directed by Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother), the film features Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Taye Diggs, Harold Perrineau, Regina Hall, Melissa De Sousa, and Monica Calhoun reprising the roles they played in the first movie.

At the point of departure, we find the gang gathering at the sprawling mansion of Lance Sullivan (Chestnut), an NFL running back about to retire after a recording-breaking career with the New York Giants. The God-fearing family man is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Mia (Calhoun), and children.

Author Harper Stewart (Diggs), the best man at their wedding, had stirred-up considerable controversy in the original film by writing a thinly veiled account of his buddies’ sexual exploits. This time around, he gets in trouble when plans to publish a biography of the host Lance come to light.

Furthermore, despite the fact that his wife, Robin (Lathan), is 9-months pregnant, Harper feels pangs of passion when he sees his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, Jordan (Long). So, when her beau (Eddie Cibrian) excuses himself to spend Christmas with his parents, it’s just a matter of time before Harper’s flirting with Jordan leaves him in the dog house with Robin.

Meanwhile, Julian (Perrineau), who married the stripper (Hall) he fell for way back at Lance’s bachelor party, is currently worried that an old YouTube video of his scantily clad spouse might surface. Also, it is hard to ignore Julian’s flamboyant ex-girlfriend, Shelby (De Sousa), a drama-loving reality TV star.

All of the above is cleverly narrated by Quentin (Howard), a one man Greek chorus that supplies intermittent comic relief.

The storyline is thoroughly absorbing throughout the film and alternates between fond reflections and fresh crises.

At the end, all of the loose ends are satisfactorily resolved, allowing for a memorable, bittersweet sendoff, as well as a transparent setup for the next installment in the series.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, ethnic slurs, and brief nudity. Running Time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures

 

November 6, 2013

book revAccording to David Waldstein’s story, “Trying to Outrun the Cardinals’ Long Reach” (New York Times, October 29), “the penetrating strength” of 50,000 watt radio station KMOX is said to reach 44 states and “as far away as the Netherlands, East Africa, and Guam, spreading the gospel of St. Louis Cardinals baseball across the planet.”

After tuning his car radio to 1120 AM for the broadcast of Game Four of the 2013 World Series, Waldstein headed south to see if he could “outdrive the signal before the end of the game.” KMOX prevailed, “The Voice of St. Louis” clearly audible in Horn Lake, Mississippi as Cardinal broadcaster Mike Shannon gave his shocked account of the pick-off play ending the action in Boston’s favor, the turning point in the six-game battle that the Red Sox would eventually win. You can hear the call for yourself if you check out the story at nytimes.com, which includes a map of Waldstein’s 600-mile trip and additional audio samples of the quality of the reception in Marion, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee.

As a lifelong Cardinals fan, I was pleased to read that Bill Clinton grew up listening to the Redbirds “on a transistor radio hidden beneath his pillow in Hope, Arkansas” at the same time I was tuning in broadcasts in Bloomington, Indiana. But my most strenuous and determined transistor radio seances occurred in Princeton during the “Running Redbirds” era of the mid-1980s when the only way to keep track of a night game was to invest serious quantities of body English in the little SONY, holding it high and low, sweeping it westward, going outdoors to aim it at the summer sky, as if maybe the KMOX signal was bouncing off Venus — I was doing everything but standing on my head to decipher the play by play of Jack Buck and his then-sidekick Shannon, who played for the Cardinals’ 1964 and 1967 World Championship teams. Shannon has a big hearty voice with lots of grit in it and an expressive, salt-of-the-earth style that to me conjures up the Cardinal glory days of Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang.

After all my transistory gyrations came to nought, my only recourse was to get in the car and follow the signal, like a pilgrim pursuing the holy light, but as often as not just when a rally was brewing in the bottom of the ninth inning, a redneck voice from a West Virginia station would horn in, or else it would be the ravings of some hysterical Evangelical or simply a prolonged storm of static that would bury KMOX until the game ended with Jack Buck’s exalted mantra, “That’s a winner!”

Listening in England

When I bought a ticket for a mid-October flight to London last March I realized I was going to be out of the country during the heart of the post-season and so naturally wondered if I could watch baseball over there. Thus I found myself on Friday, October 18, at 1 a.m. searching through a dizzying assortment of channels on the TV at the flat I was renting. No luck. It looked as though I was going miss Game Six of the National League Championship Series with the Cardinals only a win away from capturing the pennant. I stared helplessly at the remote. Surely I could find the magic hidden in this wand. In a fit of mindless desperation I decided to go backwards, something I’ve never done on a television set in my life. With cable, there is a backwards, and in England the backward channels are audio only, so, feeling a glimmer of hope, I clicked back from BBC One, back, back until, wonder of wonders, I found the game and a minute later heard a familiar voice that seemed to ride a transatlantic beam from KMOX — Mike Shannon doing the play by play by way of BBC Five Live Sports. I expected to stay up all night, but fortune was smiling and the Cardinals soon staked the phenomenal rookie pitcher Michael Wacha to a 9-0 lead over the Dodgers. At 3:15 a.m. I figured it was safe to turn the TV off and go to sleep.

Theater of the Absurd

You can talk all you want to about the nostalgia value of cozying up to games huddled around the radio, but when it comes to being in the middle of the action, television can’t be beat, and Game 3 of the World Series, which happened the night I got back to the States, was something you had to see to believe. When the dust of the ninth inning cleared, Alan Craig of the Cardinals was lying near home plate surrounded by players and umpires and coaches as if he’d been hit by a car on his way from third to home with the winning run. Forgotten in the Obstruction Call chaos that followed were the Kirk-Gibson-like heroics of Craig’s clutch hit. After missing most of September and all of the NLDS and NLCS with an injured foot, he came limping off the bench to face the Red Sox’s lights-out closer, Koji Uehara, and drove the first pitch into left for a double. The bizarre turn of events that followed gave Craig the curious distinction of producing, in effect, the game-winning hit before the third out had been made and then scoring the game-winning run while seemingly being thrown out at home plate.

YouTube is replete with reruns of the play that turned Busch Stadium into a Theatre of the Absurd. Yadier Molina is on third, Craig on second when John Jay’s grounder is fielded by Dustin Pedroia, who easily nails Molina at home. Meanwhile Boston’s catcher Saltalamacchia sees the hobbled Craig galumphing toward third base like an albatross with broken wings, and excited by the prospect of a sure inning-ending double play he throws, but way wild, to the third baseman Middlebrook, who is sprawled on the base path reaching for the throw as Craig comes stumbling into third, where he would normally be able to touch base and head for home. But there are no bridges over Middlebrook and to make matters worse Middlebrook raises his legs as Craig attempts to crawl over him toward victory. Umpire John Joyce, who has a way of being in the middle of landmark events, makes the obstruction call, the Red Sox briefly freak out, and a must-see clip is stashed away for any future anthology of World Series highlights.

That was not a play you want to hear on the radio (or read about here), unless maybe it could be written up and recited by Franz Kafka.

Tortoise Talk

Most Cardinal fans knew that while all this chaos was swirling about, Alan Craig’s pet tortoise was watching from the dugout and making comments on his Torty Craig Facebook page. You can imagine how Torty felt watching his namesake slog it out on the bases, tumbling over Middlebrook, only to crawl with tortoise tenacity toward home: “The Red Sox tripped Master Allen. It was obstruction! I just hope Master Allen is OK! I’M SO PROUD OF MASTER ALLEN!!!!!!!!!!”

Actually, you don’t have to be a Cardinal fan to enjoy Torty’s blog. A favorite refrain is inspired by the stellar play-off hitting of Carlos Beltran, as in “The Beltran tolls for thee, dread Pirate Liriano!” Or, for the pitching of Michael Wacha: “It’s The Hunt for Red Wachtober!” After winning the NLDS, Torty prepares to join the celebration: “Master Allen handed me my tortoise poncho. Now let us charge once more into the champagne void!” When Torty’s injured master is inserted into the starting lineup for Game Four in spite of the beating he took the previous night, he celebrates by joining pitcher Adam Wainwright “in a synchronized dancing of the Sprain with Master Allen performing Lisa Turtle’s moves and Wainwright doing Screech’s [from the sitcom Saved by the Bell].” The entire team “burst into applause at the end of the routine,” and, as in a baseball movie, the Cardinals GM John Mozeliak entered in a panic lest Craig reinjure his injury. “We were careful,” said Wainwright. “We were dancing the Sprain.”

Perhaps they were having too much fun, for it was all downhill for the Cards after Game 3, and there is a conspicuous gap in Torty postings until he congratulates the Red Sox (“a worthy foe and deserving champions”).

Love and Hate

When my father drove us 250 miles to St. Louis for the first Cardinal game I ever saw, we stayed the night at the Mayfair Hotel. On the morning of the game, we were riding the elevator down to the lobby with a big sweaty man in a dark suit who was complaining about the heat and the city.

“God, I hate St. Louis!” he growled.

Someone hates St. Louis??? I was 12. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was like we were in the Emerald City and someone said they hated Oz. “I love St. Louis!” I squeaked, glaring up at him while my embarrassed father, who was clueless about baseball, explained, “He’s a Cardinal fan, you see.”

This book review without a book involved a fair bit of reading, even so, including the story in the Times, Torty Craig’s Facebook page, the chapter on Obstruction in So You Think You Know About Baseball (Norton $16.95), and parts of Lucas Mann’s excellent new book, Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Pantheon $26.95).

 

FINE FEATHERED FRIENDS: Award winning wildlife sculptor Pat Godin will show what it takes to become a world champion in the art of decoy carving when he speaks at the Johnson Education Center this Friday, November 8, at the invitation of the D&R Greenway Land Trust off Rosedale Road. To register for the event, contact (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more on Mr. Godin, visit: www.godinart.com.

FINE FEATHERED FRIENDS: Award winning wildlife sculptor Pat Godin will show what it takes to become a world champion in the art of decoy carving when he speaks at the Johnson Education Center this Friday, November 8, at the invitation of the D&R Greenway Land Trust off Rosedale Road. To register for the event, contact (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more on Mr. Godin, visit: www.godinart.com.

Nature lovers and art enthusiasts alike will take their seats at the D&R Greenway this Friday, November 8, for a presentation by one of the world’s leading experts in the art of wildlife sculpture.

Canadian Pat Godin is a biologist and ornithologist whose decorative bird decoys have been named “Best in World” no less than 13 times. Following a public reception at 5:30 p.m,, he will speak from 6 to 7 p.m. about his life and the combination of art and science that is evident in his work.

In addition to his skills in carving and painting, Mr. Godin is a respected writer and lecturer known for sharing his technical discoveries. He has written, illustrated, designed, and published three instructional books for bird carvers and a reference guide to waterfowl as well.

Mr. Godin’s visit to Princeton coincides with the D&R Greenway’s current exhibition from its Jay Vawter collection of fine-art decoys: “Champions, the Best of the Best,” which is on view during business hours of business days through April 4.

Donated to the Land Trust by Princeton resident Mr. Vawter, the collection includes work by Mr. Godin as well as other masters such as Jimmy Vizier; Greg Pedersen; Jim Sprankle; Elmer Crowell; Bob Guge; Victor Paroyan, and Lemuel Ward, one of the legendary Ward brothers of Maryland whose decoy and decorative bird art is the focus of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art there.

“I first saw Pat’s work in 2000 at the Wildfowl Festival in Eastern Maryland, an important venue for decoys and art,” said Mr. Vawter. “I was looking at top-notch examples when I spotted a Cinnamon Teal drake, primarily a western bird with a red breast. I told him that I was interested and returned the next day to buy it. Later I asked him to make me a hen to complete the pair.”

The Cinnamon Teal pair are in the exhibit and are part of the Jay Vawter collection at the D&R Greenway, along with a Godin Merganser whose feathers look as if they would ruffle at the slightest breeze. Recently, Mr. Vawter commissioned a pair of Mandarin Ducks from the artist. These too hold pride of place in the exhibition and although Mr. Vawter is holding on to them for the time being, he said that they will ultimately be donated to the Land Trust.

The Vawter Collection focuses on decorative decoys as distinct from earlier hunting or craft decoys and are much more intricately carved. Nonetheless, for show purposes, they must meet the standards of a hunting decoy. “They have to be able to float in the water like a duck,” said Mr. Vawter. “The gunning decoys that you shoot birds over are rather plain in comparison to these, these are works of art, people reach out and want to touch them,” he said.

Asked what makes Mr. Godin’s work special, Mr. Vawter explained the difference between craft and art.

“Gunning decoys are working birds made with skill but not painted in great detail. This is craft. Decorative birds, such as I collect, are made to the same standards in that they must be able to float as well as any working decoy, but the skill involved in their painting is of a different order. The look is absolutely realistic. This is art,” he explained.

“When Pat made the Mandarin Ducks for me, he had never seen these ducks in real life, but he did an enormous amount of research and the result is stunning. One expects them to move at any moment.”

At the D&R Greenway, Mr. Godin will talk about the levels of competition and what differentiates carvings at each level. In other words, he plans to share his knowledge and experience of how competitions work and perhaps convey some of his enthusiasm for the wild life that his art celebrates. For although much of his work has been inspired by competition, Mr. Godin’s deepest concern has always been the cultivation of bird sculpture as an art form.

This is work that combines art and science, informed by Mr. Godin’s studies at the University of Guelph and with the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Delta Waterfowl Research Station in Manitoba, where he helped graduate students conduct studies on Redhead Ducks, Wigeons, Mallards, and the Western Grebe.

Born in 1953, Mr. Godin lives in Paris, Ontario. A childhood fascination with the natural world inspired him to carve his first bird in 1967. At first, he carved solely for his own pleasure but before long, he began entering his work in competitive exhibitions of decorative duck decoys and other wooden bird sculptures.

His work quickly became competitive at the “World Class” level and he is now recognized across the globe not only for accuracy in form and color but also for imbuing his birds with the spirit of their live counterparts.

In 1976, Mr. Godin’s world championship streak began with a pair of Common Goldeneyes. He went on to win titles in 1980, 1984, 2008, and 2009 in “Decorative Decoy Pairs” and in 1982 and 1995 in “Decorative Lifesize Wildfowl Sculpture.”

Examples of Mr. Godin’s work with titles such as “Prairie Courtship,” “Spruce Grouse on the North River,” and “Prairie Dance — Greater Prairie Chicken,” part of a series of miniatures showing birds involved in breeding displays, go beyond simple representation to feature birds in action in their habitat. Mr. Godin’s close attention to wildfowl in their environment led to his unprecedented achievement in 2001 when he entered a pair of Black Ducks with a drake Mallard Black Duck hybrid into a 2001 competition. Although such hybrids are common in nature, this was the first time that they had been portrayed in the competitive arena. Needless to say, Mr. Godin took first place yet again.

His most recent win, in 2011, his 12th World Championship, was for a miniature scale Prairie Chicken entitled “Battle on the Lek.” Besides the D&R Greenway, his pieces are in numerous private collections and in the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, Maryland. He has exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and has been inducted into the Waterfowl Festival Hall of Fame, Easton Maryland.

The D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center is located at One Preservation Place, off Rosedale Road, Princeton.

To register for the event, contact (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more information, visit: www.drgreenway.org. For more on Mr. Godin, visit: www.godinart.com.

 

A crisp and sunny fall afternoon on Sunday contradicted the unifying theme among the works presented by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. Led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Princeton Symphony performed three pieces focused on “notions of death and the eternal,” two by Romantic composer Richard Strauss and one by contemporary American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Despite the dark themes and intense musical tone, the Princeton Symphony played with sensitivity and continuous focus through some very challenging music.

Aaron Jay Kernis composed the three-movement Colored Field in 1994 as a concerto for English horn and orchestra. Rooted in the tragedy of World War II as interpreted by the composer himself through visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau, Colored Field uses the solo instrument as a voice of anguish. Following the work’s premiere, Mr. Kernis rescored the piece for solo cello and orchestra, and this was the version the Princeton Symphony brought to Richardson Auditorium Sunday afternoon. Joining the Symphony was soloist Susan Babini, principal cellist of The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and soloist in this piece’s East Coast premiere with Mr. Milanov’s other ensemble, Symphony in C. As solo cello has often represented a voice of pathos to composers, Ms. Babini had no trouble conveying the despairing vocal character of Mr. Kernis’ work.

Ms. Babini began Colored Field with a somewhat light but definitely intense tone, conveying simplicity while maintaining a musical dialog with oboist Rita Mitsel. The Princeton Symphony cleanly played the many repeated patterns in the first movement, as the solo cello line blended well into the orchestral fabric, but just a step or two apart from the ensemble in character.

Despite the complexities of the Kernis piece, the audience persevered in catching every nuance and musical gesture. Mr. Milanov kept conducting patterns strict, so that there was no question for the players as to where Colored Fields was going. The sound was rather harrowing at times in effect, and elegant wind solos (including from clarinetist Alexander Bedenko and bass clarinetist Sherry Hartman Apgar) were so well submerged in the texture that one had to look hard to see where the player was. Through it all, Ms. Babini maintained firm control over the intricate music, meeting both the virtuosic demands and the call for sweet melodic lines.

Mr. Milanov paired the Kernis piece with two programmatic works of the pioneering 19th-century composer Richard Strauss. Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) is one of Strauss’ most well-known symphonic poems, a form which Strauss brought to a zenith with lush orchestrations and unique combinations of instruments. Although based on a somewhat depressing story line (a man’s final days), Death and Transfiguration ends in uplifting fashion.

The symphonic poem began peacefully, with stylish wind solos, especially by Ms. Mitsel, accompanied by harpist Andre Tarantiles. An identical melodic fragment passed among players, from oboe to flutist Chelsea Knox, English horn player Nathan Mills, and concertmistress Basia Danilow. Notwithstanding the lavish orchestration, the work never sounded thick, with melodies clearly heard. This being Strauss, there was a heavy emphasis on brass in the texture, and the brass sections of the Princeton Symphony played cleanly, never allowing the music to become bombastic.

Mr. Milanov kept an even flow to the music, bringing out the heroic character which is inherent in many Strauss symphonic poems. The Princeton Symphony extended this flow into frenzy in the closing work on Sunday’s program — “Salome’s Dance” from Strauss’ opera Salome. This high-spirited operatic excerpt began with a brisk Middle Eastern musical effect, with a snake-charmer melody from Ms. Mitsel, who carried the bulk of the melodic work of the piece. Rich unison upper strings contrasted with steady celli and harp, and Strauss’ unusual percussion effects added to the seductive character. Mr. Milanov whipped the Princeton Symphony into an appropriate frenzy, but the music always gracefully returned to the Middle Eastern melodies from the winds.

These three works may have been rooted in concepts of death, but Sunday afternoon’s program by the Princeton Symphony was subtitled “Eternal Light,” recognizing the optimism beneath each piece. This was a very challenging program for the players, who more than rose to the occasion, but may well have felt they had been through the “Dance of the Seven Veils” themselves by the end.