May 13, 2015

100 best novels murphyExcept for the lack of a parking spot on Charlie Parker Place, the transition from Princeton to Manhattan has never been smoother, turnpike to tunnel, uptown, crosstown to a bench in Tompkins Square Park and a sunny spring day of chirping sparrows and grumbling pigeons. While dogs are romping nearby in their own playground, I’m reading about dachsunds “of such length and lowness” that “it makes very little difference to their appearance whether they stand, sit or lie.”

Until I bought the Grove Press paperback of Murphy (1938) last week in Doylestown, I’d never found a way to read Samuel Beckett. In all the English courses I took in college and graduate school, he’d never been on the reading list, no friend had ever chanted his name in my ear, “you must read this,” and I’d never seen a performance of Waiting for Godot. But when I read in Chapter 5 of Murphy that the title character was one of those “who require everything to remind them of something else,” I caught a glimpse of myself in Beckett’s mirror. Of course everything reminds everyone of something, but to require it is another matter and not unlike what I do when I compose a column. Beckett is requiring it in a room where the “lemon of the walls whined like Vermeer’s,” “the unupholstered armchairs” resembled “those killed under him by Balzac,” and the linoleum’s “dim geometry of blue, grey and brown delighted Murphy because it called Braque to his mind.”

Having it Both Ways

After a mere 109 pages of Murphy, Beckett has become a state of mind, a place, a way of life. It’s very Beckett, in fact, that my motive for finally reading and writing about him is based on misinformation about his birth. According to, he was born on this date, May 13, in 1906. Look elsewhere and the date is April 13. The New York Times obituary of December 27, 1989, has it both ways: “Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock, a suburb of Dublin, on Good Friday, April 13, 1906 (that date is sometimes disputed; it is said that on his birth certificate the date is May 13).”

You don’t need to read far in Beckett to appreciate the April/May conundrum. If you have it both ways, or all ways, right or wrong or neither, whether you’re looking for a subject for a column or a New York moment, it becomes possible not only to penetrate what had seemed impenetrable but to see Beckett spilling off the page into the “real life” ambience of dogs and sparrows and people on a spring day in an East Village park.

Enter Nelly and Shelley

As the reader on the park bench in New York resumes reading, Murphy’s title character is in London’s Hyde Park placing five biscuits “face upward on the grass, in order as he felt of edibility … a Ginger, an Osborne, a Digestive, a Petit Beurre and one anonymous.” While he contemplates those items “of which it could be said as truly as of the stars, that one differed from another,” a “corpulent middle-aged woman” asks him if he would mind holding “her little doggy.” Miss Rosie Dew has come all the way from Paddington to feed greens from her garden to “the poor dear sheep” grazing nearby (such was the case in those days). The doggy, a dachsund called Nelly, is, her owner admits, in heat, and Miss Dew is afraid that if Nelly is not held she will “be off and away,” to “plunge the fever of her blood in the Serpentine or in the Long Water for that matter, like Shelley’s first wife you know, her name was Harriet was it not, not Nelly, Shelley, Nelly, oh Nelly how I ADORE you.”

At this moment the reader on the park bench, who has come all the way from Princeton, is grinning as he rereads the passage, with its abrupt, absurd, delightfully rhymingly remindfully blending of Shelley and Nelly. It’s really as if Beckett’s doggy mind has gone for a romp in the park of the page, and Murphy, who “requires everything to remind him of something else,” has found another Romantic poet in the “dingy, close-cropped, undersized and misshapen” sheep that want nothing to do with Miss Dew’s offerings. It’s right about now that the reader is reminded that the author served as James Joyce’s secretary when he was writing Finnegan’s Wake, so is it any wonder that he imagines “a compositor’s error” transforming Wordsworth’s “lovely ‘fields of sleep’” into “‘fields of sheep.’”

Time for a breather after all this chasing after Beckett, who has been cavorting unleashed all over Tompkins Square Park, and we haven’t even come to the first of several denouements, or punch-lines. It seems that while Murphy was engaged by the spectacle of Miss Dew’s “tendering of lettuce” to the dejected, disinterested sheep, the dachsund was eating all the biscuits “with the exception of the Ginger, which cannot have remained in her mouth for more than a couple of seconds.” Murphy thereupon points out to Miss Dew that while “the sheep may not fancy your cabbage … your hot dog has eaten my lunch … or as much of it as she could stomach.” The matter is settled when Miss Dew gives Murphy threepence for “his loss.”

Much more could be said about Miss Dew’s talents as a medium “who could make the dead softsoap the quick in seven languages,” but once you start quoting Beckett you’re lost. As Leslie Fielder notes in a 1997 New York Times appraisal of Murphy, Beckett’s “eerie deadpan humor” involves “the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation,” for it’s as a “vaudevillian of the avant-garde” that he “especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.” Fiedler finds Murphy the “funniest, perhaps, of his novels,” one that “evokes a ferocity of terror and humor that shames most well-made novels of our time.”

Beckett in Manhattan

In Norman Mailer’s 1958 collection Advertisements for Myself, the excitement generated among New York theatregoers and intellectuals in the spring of 1956 by the Broadway production of Waiting for Godot inspires Mailer to, in effect, jump all over Godot in his column for the Village Voice before, as he admits, either seeing or reading the play. After facetiously congratulating the critics for revealing that the title “has something to do with God,” Mailer points out that Godot “also means ‘ot Dog, or the dog who is hot,” thus “To Dog The Coming, and God Hot for Waiting,” or “Go, Dough! (Go, Life!)” (among “a hundred subsidiary themes”), though in the end he likes “To Dog the Coming” best.

This romp in the dog park of Mailer’s undaunted and ever expanding ego precedes his announcement that a quarrel with the editors of the Voice has made the outburst on Godot his “last column” for the paper “at least under its present policy.”

How rare, how sweet, how very Beckett, that after finally seeing and reading the play and realizing “it was, at the least, very good,” Mailer returns to the Voice long enough to write a mea culpa (“It is never particularly pleasant for me to apologize, and in the present circumstances, I loathe doing so”), which he ceremoniously titles “A Public Notice on Waiting for Godot.” It’s six pages of Mailer throwing everything he’s got at Beckett’s “sad little story, but told purely” — until the character Lucky enters and delivers “the one strangled cry of active meaning in the whole play, a desperate retching pellmell of broken thoughts and intuitive lurches into the nature of man, sex, God, and time” that “comes from a slave, a wretch, who is closer to the divine than any of the other characters.”

Thirteen years later, when the Nobel Committee gave the prize in literature to Beckett, an Irishman who had lived in France most of his life, his French wife said, “This is a catastrophe” while the author of Godot left them waiting in Stockholm and gave away the prize money.

Earth Opera

I’m sitting on the same bench in Tompkins Square Park with my son watching the dogs at play and talking about Earth Opera, one of the great lost groups of the sixties. The words and music from the self-titled debut album had been haunting me for days because the lead singer and lyricist, Peter Rowan, was the first and only person to point me in the direction of Beckett. True to Murphy’s law about requiring everything to remind him of something else, Beckett reminds me of Rowan, who reminds me of watching Earth Opera perform free summer Sunday concerts on the Cambridge Common.

Back from three hours browsing the stock at Academy Records, my son had been hoping to find the first Earth Opera album, which had seen him through some hard times in his late teens. The same record had meant so much to me in my late twenties that I looked up Peter Rowan’s number in the Boston phone book and called him to talk about it. Here was someone whose roots were in bluegrass, who had played with Bill Monroe, and now he was writing Brechtian songs like “Home of the Brave” (“and the war was grand, a glorious parade”), “Death by Fire,” which ends “no willow will weep for her silence of ashes, will sleep in the new fallen snow,” and “Time and Again,” which begins “Every day is the same growing gently insane/it’s the wind or the rain/but I don’t feel anything.” Then there were lines like “and it is being only being, it is as it was before” and “I can see you combing sleep from your hair as you choose what to wear and you whisper who’s there to the mirror on the wall.”

So here I was, a total stranger calling Rowan up like Holden Caulfield calling Fitzgerald after reading Gatsby, asking, in effect, who’s your favorite writer, where did all this come from?

Said Peter Rowan without hesitation, “Beckett. Samuel Beckett.”

CHILDHOOD MEMORY: That’s the title of this work by Taryn, a participant in the Arts Council of Princeton’s ArtsExchange program in conjunction with HomeFront. It will be shown with other works by children in the exhibition “All Eyes on Nature,” which opens Thursday, May 14, in the Olivia Rainbow Gallery at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place. The show will continue through June 26. For more information, call (609) 924-4646 or visit:

CHILDHOOD MEMORY: That’s the title of this work by Taryn, a participant in the Arts Council of Princeton’s ArtsExchange program in conjunction with HomeFront. It will be shown with other works by children in the exhibition “All Eyes on Nature,” which opens Thursday, May 14, in the Olivia Rainbow Gallery at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place. The show will continue through June 26. For more information, call (609) 924-4646 or visit:

D&R Greenway welcomes the public to “All Eyes on Nature,” an exhibition of innovative works by ArtsExchange students of the Arts Council of Princeton, through HomeFront. Dynamic images of nature from the insects’ perspective may be viewed in the land trust’s Olivia Rainbow Gallery from May 14 through June 26.

Since 1993, the Arts Council of Princeton has partnered with HomeFront, which serves thousands of Mercer County families to help break the cycle of poverty and end homelessness in offering ArtsExchange, a weekly program where year-round arts instruction is provided to more than 75 children, ages 5-18, whose families are currently living in transient circumstances.

For “All Eyes on Nature,” Arts Council of Princeton Outreach Program Manager/Instructor Eva Mantell guided her students to create paintings from the vantage point of insects. Ms. Mantell asked, “What are flowers, leaves, even surrounding landscapes, when you are an insect? Where is the horizon? Where is the ground? Where is the sun? What size are the elements in the painting?”

“All Eyes on Nature” comprises the children’s vibrant answers. The lively results are intended to catalyze a greater sensitivity to nature, its beauty and its peril. “They recreated nature’s own shifts in scale, colors, and textures, as well as its marvelous complexity and interconnectedness,” explained Ms. Mantell. “Native species were their starting point, each communicating his or her own ‘insect’ energy and excitement.”

D&R Greenway’s Olivia Rainbow Gallery is funded in memory of four-year-old Olivia Kuenne, who cherished nature and art. Sequential nature exhibitions by students extend Olivia’s enthusiasms into our time.

The Arts Council of Princeton thanks the following funders for their support of the ArtsExchange programming in 2014-15: ACP Fundraising Galas, Charles Galbraith Testamentary Trust, Colgate via United Way, The Concordia Foundation, The Firmenich Charitable Foundation, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies, Contributions Fund of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, Mary Owen Borden Foundation, The Migedan Foundation, Inc., New Jersey State Council on the Arts, NRG.

“All Eyes on Nature” will be on view at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place, from May 14 through June 26. For more information, call (609) 924-4646 or visit:


SMALL-TOWN CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Rufus (Nathan Darrow), back home for a visit from New York, and Mary (Kristen Bush), still living in the small town where they grew up, share memories, hopes, frustrations, and gummy worms in McCarter Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. © T Charles Erickson

SMALL-TOWN CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Rufus (Nathan Darrow), back home for a visit from New York, and Mary (Kristen Bush), still living in the small town where they grew up, share memories, hopes, frustrations, and gummy worms in McCarter Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. © T Charles Erickson

“Where does one get to with your heroes?” Leo Tolstoy complained about his Russian contemporary Anton Chekhov,” from the sofa to the outhouse and from the outhouse back to the sofa again.” And audiences might well make a similar complaint about the characters and plot of Five Mile Lake, Rachel Bonds’ new play (which premiered at South Coast Repertory in California a year ago) now at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31.

Not much seems to happen or change for Ms. Bonds’ five troubled, frustrated, young characters, but the greatness of Chekhov and the power of Ms. Bonds’ play lie not in sensational plot twists or dramatic events, but rather in the subtleties of human behavior and the understated relationships and interactions that can quietly shape people and their lives. Ms. Bonds’ characters, all struggling to work through the demands and disappointments of early adulthood, reveal themselves gradually, realistically, through what looks like casual dialogue, but resonates with realism and emotion.

The richness here lies often in the subtext — what is not said, rather than what is said — as these characters in their gestures, intonation, body language, facial expressions, perhaps a quick glance or movement — display their deepest selves and greatest needs.

Five Mile Lake takes place in a small town near Scranton, Pennsylvania in seven short scenes (just one hour and 40 minutes of uninterrupted running time), that occur over a period of several days in winter. Jamie (Tobias Segal) and Mary (Kristen Bush), both approaching 30, run the local bakery/coffee shop. Jamie never left town because he loves the beautiful lake and he is in love with Mary, and his ambitions lie locally: fixing up his grandfather’s house that he has inherited on the lake, taking care of his mother — and winning Mary’s attention and affection.

Mary, however, still dreams of escape from the claustrophobia of small-town life. She feels trapped, and is currently taking care of her brother Danny, who is back from two military tours in Afghanistan, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling to get a job and lead a normal life. A cross country runner in high school, Mary has found her runs becoming shorter and shorter as her world shrinks and her life becomes more limited. She yearns for an escape.

Near the end of the first scene, Jamie’s brother Rufus (Nathan Darrow) and his girlfriend Peta (Mahira Kakkar) arrive from New York on an unexpected visit that will unsettle the worlds of Mary and Jamie. Rufus is unsuccessfully trying to write his PhD dissertation, and Peta is an assistant magazine editor. They come out to Rufus’ old hometown and the house he co-owns with Jamie (but seldom visits) in order to “work on their relationship.”

Tension is high from the start — Between Jamie and Mary, between the two brothers and between Rufus and Peta, whose relationship, we discover, is seriously troubled. There is an immediate attraction between Rufus and Mary, who share an affinity for the larger world beyond the confines of Five Mile Lake, and that attraction proves seriously upsetting to both Peta and Jamie.

Five Mile Lake is about the difficulties of entering adulthood, about ambitions and about small-town life versus the allure of the big city. It is about memories and regrets, about establishing relationships, and finding a path forward towards fulfillment.

Though “nothing happens” as the scenes move back and forth between Jamie and Rufus’ lake house and the coffee shop, the four protagonists, all convincing, credible individuals, become more and more intriguing as we learn more about their pasts, their present fears, and their dreams for the future.

The character of Peta, the least thoroughly developed of the four principals, would be interesting to know in more depth and detail — as would the relationship between the two brothers. It’s difficult to believe these two actually grew up together in the same home, though maybe that’s the point, as these estranged siblings struggle in vain to make connections with each other in the face of so many barriers and so much time apart.

Near the end of the play, as Mary and Jamie are preparing to open the coffee shop for the first customers of the day, Mary relates a story about a figure skater on TV, who, near the finale of what would have been a spectacular performance, misses her landing. “You can see something breaking in her,” Mary reports, “–it’s like this little crack running down the side of a teacup, just this terrible sense of failure like running across her skin. And she’s thinking, I missed it. I missed it.”

As Ernest Hemingway described in A Farewell to Arms, in the context of World War I, “the world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The cracks in Five Mile Lake, some more subtle than others, appear in all of the characters — “something breaking,” some wound from the past that does not fully heal, something they’ve “missed.”

Ms. Bonds’ script that, like Chekhov and Hemingway at their best, is rich in its reticence and its unadulterated realism, along with these highly committed, capable, focused actors under the wise, loving, scrupulous direction of Emily Mann, ensure that audiences will care about these people. Even the occasionally arrogant, insensitive Rufus and Mary’s volatile brother Danny (Jason Babinsky), in a supporting role, win over the audience. We care deeply about these characters, worry about them, wonder where they’re heading as the play ends. To establish that degree of audience engagement is an extraordinary accomplishment for playwright, director, and performers.

Production values here are exquisite, most notably Edward Pierce’s meticulously realistic set design, with lighting by Jeff Croiter, to create the detailed scenes inside and outside the bakery shop and also inside and outside Jamie’s lake cabin. The turntable revolves with impressive efficiency and style to shift venues seamlessly and convincingly.

Tolstoy and his preferences for high-action drama notwithstanding, Five Mile Lake provides a moving, memorable evening in the Berlind Theatre. Rachel Bonds is a young playwright whose work will surely be staged frequently in the future.

Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake” will run at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit for tickets and information.

Princeton Pro Musica closed its 2014-15 season this past Saturday night with a work well suited for the ensemble, and in an appropriate acoustical space, but the performance may have missed the opportunity to educate its loyal audience about a unique period in music history. The 100-voice chorus presented 11 movements of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil to a full house at the Princeton University Chapel, but a lack of context for why the chorus selected the movements it did for performance may have left the audience unaware of the unique and historic musical effects Rachmaninoff employed in the piece.

Rachmaninoff composed his setting of the All-Night Vigil in 1915, as Russia was teetering toward revolution and Rachmaninoff was conversely achieving worldwide acclaim as a conductor, virtuoso pianist, and composer. The Vigil, the traditional Russian Orthodox service celebrated before major feasts or on Saturday evenings, combined portions of three daily services. These texts were not foreign to Russian composers; Tchaikovsky also produced a setting in 1882. Rachmaninoff set 12 traditional parts of the Vigil, with the addition of three movements of his own. Like much of Russian choral music, Rachmaninoff set the Church Slavonic text for a cappella chorus, which was tailor-made for the vast acoustics of the University Chapel.

Conductor Ryan James Brandau selected movements 1-8, and 10, 11 and 15 — excluding the movements that Rachmaninoff added, as well as one movement of traditional praise text. With unfortunately no explanatory notes in the printed program, it was difficult to know why specific movements were selected or deleted. The singers of Pro Musica certainly had their hands full; the concert was less than an hour in length, but an hour of music in Church Slavonic would require great preparation. Through much of the piece, the preparation of Pro Musica came through well. There were many passages during which the chorus moved through dynamics uniformly, and diction was consistently clean. The reverberating acoustics of the University Chapel made it difficult to always discern choral precision and when the music split the chorus into as many as 12 parts Brandau maintained good control over ending movements gracefully. There were some unfortunate lapses in tuning in a couple of movements, particularly at the end of the piece, when the choral chords became a little unstable at the close of the work.

Joining Pro Musica were mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook and tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven. Ms. Cook, featured in the second movement, sang from the Chapel lectern with incredible richness while accompanied by a stream of sound from the chorus (interestingly, this solo was sung by a boy in the work’s premiere). The soprano sectional sound in this movement was especially clean, as Brandau kept the combined sonority of soloist and chorus steady. Kyle van Schoonhoven is a Westminster Choir College graduate who has done well, singing with opera companies throughout the country. From the Chapel lectern, his solid tenor sound fit in well with the upper choral voices that provided the bulk of the responding text in the fourth movement, with the basses answering “Alliluiya.” Both soloist and chorus created more fervency in the text, ending the movement with a joyful character.

In his introductory remarks to the concert, Brandau suggested that the audience “let the music come to you and wash over you.” This was easy to do in the University Chapel, but what the audience missed was listening for the different types of chants Rachmaninoff employed in the piece. Znamenny, the oldest form of unison, melismatic Orthodox chant, figures prominently in this work, contrasted with Rachmaninoff’s use of Greek and regional Russian chant, as well as chants of his own composition. Without knowing the details of the chant setting, the piece runs the risk of becoming a set of homophonic movements with no connection or delineation. However, the audience present at the University Chapel on Saturday night seemed committed to supporting Pro Musica throughout the season, including this concert of challenging Russian choral works.

WHAT A WAY TO GET AROUND IN THE POST-APOCALYPTIC YEAR 2060: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) directs the driver of his Rube Goldberg means of transportation. He will soon meet up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, not shown) and help her in her quest to rescue a group of sex slaves from their captor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, not shown).(Photo by Jasin Boland—© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

WHAT A WAY TO GET AROUND IN THE POST-APOCALYPTIC YEAR 2060: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) directs the driver of his Rube Goldberg means of transportation. He will soon meet up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, not shown) and help her in her quest to rescue a group of sex slaves from their captor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, not shown). (Photo by Jasin Boland—© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Fury Road restarts the legendary Mad Max series which has been dormant for several decades. This fourth movie was again produced, written, and directed by Oscar-winner George Miller (Happy Feet) who chose Tom Hardy to replace Mel Gibson in the title role of Max Rockatansky — the former highway patrol officer who has become an intrepid road warrior who dispenses grisly vigilante justice.

Set in 2060 A.D., this post-apocalyptic adventure unfolds in the grim dystopia that is left after a series of global calamities that led to a breakdown of civilization. At the point of departure, we find Max haunted by his tragic past and hunted by desperate scavengers as he drifts around the vast wasteland in a rusty, rattling, off-road car.

The stoic gunslinger’s resolve to go it alone changes when he crosses paths with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fearless female fleeing across the desert with a group of sex slaves hidden in her big rig. She’s just freed them from Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a ruthless tyrant who wants his breeders back, especially Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), since she’s pregnant and may be carrying his first male heir.

The enraged warlord has dispatched a caravan of bloodthirsty goons who will stop at nothing to retrieve his so-called “wives.”

Fortunately, Max agrees to join forces with Furiosa when he learns of their plight. They plan to drive across the desert to “The Green Place,” a Shangri-La rumored to be teeming with water, vegetation, and other scarce natural resources. But to get there our hero and heroine must negotiate a gauntlet of evil adversaries driving dune buggies that are fitted with a variety of deadly military hardware.

An edge-of-your-seat high body-count movie that is riveting from start to finish despite the lack of any plot development.

Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing images and relentless, intense violence. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 6, 2015

book revIt was like playing in a ghost town. — Baltimore pitcher Zach Britton

You’ve heard of the Ship without a Crew. Last Wednesday it was the Game without a Crowd, Camden Yards entering the Twilight Zone as the man who wrote “The Raven” put his stamp on the Field of Dreams. For the first time in history, a Major League game was played with the fans locked out. Of those nine innings in a vacuum, what should have been a dramatic high point, the moment Chris Davis of the Orioles hit a long home run, produced only a small, quick, brittle sound instantly buried in silence (“But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token”) as the white speck disappeared from view, landing on Eutaw Street a few blocks from the spot where in the early fall of 1849 Edgar Allan Poe was found lying on the pavement, delirious, in mortal distress, outside Gunner’s Hall tavern.

The official explanation for the bizarre state of affairs in Baltimore is that the gates to Oriole Field had been closed to protect fans from the “civil unrest” set off when Freddie Gray died in police custody. Or perhaps, as I prefer to think, Poe’s perturbed spirit whispered the idea in the ears of the mayor, the owners of the Orioles, and the commissioner of Major League Baseball. That might help explain grotesqueries such as the recorded singing of the National Anthem into the “quaint and curious” void and the organist playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the benefit of 46,000 empty seats during the seventh inning stretch.

Locked Out of the Hall

The idea of organized baseball denying entrance to its fans has ironic resonance if you’ve been reading Princeton resident Mort Zachter’s Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (University of Nebraska Press $34.95), about a great player and manager who has been denied entrance to Cooperstown. Eminently qualified players like Pete Rose and Mark Maguire have been excluded because they did not live “Hall of Fame” lives while Gil Hodges did just that. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci says of Zachter’s book, “In these pages you understand how Hodges defined what it meant to be a role model in a golden age.”

It’s reported that the foul balls retrieved from the empty seats at last week’s fanless affair were collected for the Hall along with other relics. Thus do the gatekeepers of a domain built for the fans enshrine a surreal event that could serve for a painting illustrating the ignominious effects of the 1994 strike. So it goes: baseball trivia finds a place in Cooperstown but not the man who hit 370 home runs and managed the Miracle Mets.

Ebbets Field

The empty stadium in Baltimore also has elements in common with the fate inflicted on the Dodgers faithful following the 1957 season a mere two years after Brooklyn’s first and only world championship. The forces that shut down Ebbets Field violated a neighborhood gathering place where some of baseball nation’s  most colorful crowds convened every summer for the better part of a half century, until the owners absconded to the West Coast with the beloved Bums.

The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn’s classic memoir of Brooklyn and baseball, put the depth of the loss into words: “Ebbets Field was a narrow cockpit, built of brick and iron and concrete, alongside a steep cobblestone slope of Bedford Avenue. Two tiers of grandstand pressed the playing area from three sides, and in thousands of seats fans could hear a ball player’s chatter, notice details of a ball player’s gait and … see the actual expression on the actual face of an actual major leaguer as he played. You could know what he was like!”

Hodges Was Here!

Mort Zachter grew up haunted by the ghost of a field without a game, a city without a team. The first sentence of his preface states the specifics: “I was born in Brooklyn four months, twelve days, and six hours after the Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game at Ebbets Field.” Clearly he was also born to write the life of the only Dodger star who “still called Brooklyn home after the team moved to Los Angeles” and “lived a few blocks away from where I grew up. Every morning as I walked to my elementary school, PS 197, I crossed Bedford Avenue and looked north in the direction of Hodges’s home, proud that he had stayed.”

Hodges was “a visible figure in the neighborhood” and “could be seen walking his dog, a German Shepherd named Lady Gina, down Bedford Avenue or stopping by Gil Hodges Field on McDonald Avenue to watch the kids play, or buying Marlboros at Benny’s Candy store on Avenue M.” The reference to Marlboros stings a bit once you learn that Hodges was a heavy smoker who would die of a heart attack in 1972, at age 47. Zachter ends the preface recalling how “if you walked into Benny’s candy store shortly after Hodges had left, you could hear the owner…in a voice so filled with excitement you would have thought the Dodgers had just moved back to Brooklyn, saying over and over again, ‘Hodges was just here, Hodges was just here, Hodges was just here.’ “

The Face

The cover of Zachter’s book features a close-up of Hodges, the rough, grizzled, middle-aged manager of the Mets, frowning, intense, eyes narrowed, chin propped in his clasped hands. Tom Clavin and Danny Peary’s 2012 biography, on the other hand, shows Hodges the Brooklyn Dodger slugger in his prime, blue-eyed and young, bat poised, face free of lines except for the furrowed brow, his gaze fixed on the pitcher. The pose reminds me of the color portraits of players I used to paste in scrapbooks. My devotion to the Dodgers’s arch rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, didn’t rule out a 10-year-old fan’s fondness for other stars. While my feeling for Hodges centered on his resemblance to the ultimate Cardinal Stan Musial (two role-model-worthy coal miner’s sons with lopsided grins), what clinched it was knowing he’d grown up in southern Indiana, like me. The fact that his birthplace was a town called Princeton meant nothing at the time, of course, but now that I’ve spent most of my adult life in another Princeton, I can’t help smiling when Zachter refers to young Gil “on the playing fields of Princeton,” or when I read that as Hodges’s casket was being carried out of a Brooklyn church the organist played “Back Home in Indiana,” just as the Ebbets Field organist did every time he hit a home run.

The Manager

A further absurdity concerning Hodges’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame is that by all rights his career as a star on one of baseball’s most storied teams should have been enough, all by itself, to save him a place there with his teammates Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella. Yet on top of that, he led the hitherto cosmically hapless New York Mets to their miracle, the winning of the 1969 National League pennant the vanquishing in five games of the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Though few Brooklyn fans accepted the notion that the Mets could ever in any way take the place of their Bums, what Hodges had accomplished in his brief term as manager was like a microcosm of a half-century of Dodger history, a team that went from being the joke of the National League, a perennial loser, to a dominant force.

Hodges the manager is shown in action in Zachter’s prologue, “His Reputation Preceded Him.” As the title suggests, it was the big man’s stature, along with his “reputation for integrity” and the fact that he’d always treated umpires with respect (one of the rare players who had never been thrown out of a game) that enabled him to convince Lou DiMuro to reverse a crucial call in what proved to be the turning point of the fifth and deciding game of 1969 World Series against the Orioles. As Zachter describes it, “Hodges didn’t yell or scream. He didn’t have to. It was all measured and calculated—even the modulation in his deep voice.”

The Voice

There are references to the persuasive power of Hodges’s voice all through A Hall of Fame Life, one of the most powerful examples being the night in Washington D.C. when he talked a player out of suicide. This was when Hodges was managing the lowly Washington Senators and one of his best pitchers, Ryne Duren, drunk and despondent, had climbed to the top of a bridge over the gorge on Connecticut Avenue and was threatening to kill himself. Zachter quotes from Duren’s autobiography describing how Hodges came to the bridge with the police and told him, in that voice, “You’re too good to do this to yourself.” As Zachter relates in the epilogue, Ryne Duren “overcame his demons, stopped drinking, and worked to help other athletes with their addictions” before he died in 2011.

I wonder what Gil Hodges, the “role model in a golden age,” would make of last week’s strange doings in Camden Yards. Most likely he would join the city, the owners, and the commissioner in opting for caution over tradition. Still, it’s possible to imagine him seeing the empty stadium as a symbolic defeat, a surrender to death in life over what might have been a validation of baseball’s right to be called the National Pastime. Perhaps he would have told the powers that be, in that voice of his, “You’re too good to do this to yourself.”

TARASCON STAGECOACH: Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting will be back in Princeton this fall when it will be showcased in the exhibition “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” opening in September at the Princeton University Art Museum. The painting, which has been held by the art museum since 1976, has recently been on tour with other 19th and 20th century masterworks by the likes of Cézanne, Degas, Manet, and Modigliani. The Princeton University Art Museum is open to the public at no charge. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 258-3788 or visit:

TARASCON STAGECOACH: Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting will be back in Princeton this fall when it will be showcased in the exhibition “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” opening in September at the Princeton University Art Museum. The painting, which has been held by the art museum since 1976, has recently been on tour with other 19th and 20th century masterworks by the likes of Cézanne, Degas, Manet, and Modigliani. The Princeton University Art Museum is open to the public at no charge. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 258-3788 or visit:

A major exhibition of masterworks by Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Modigliani, and Van Gogh will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from September 12, through January 3, 2016.

The exhibition, “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” will feature works collected by American businessman Henry Pearlman (1895–1974) in the years after the Second World War. Fifty modern masterworks from the late 19th through the early 20th century will be on view.

Princeton is the concluding venue for the exhibition, organized by the Princeton University Art Museum in cooperation with the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, and the culmination of the first international tour of the entire collection since Henry Pearlman’s death 40 years ago.

The exhibition showcases works by leading Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and School of Paris artists, including Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Amedeo Modigliani and Chaïm Soutine, as well as the collection’s centerpiece: a stellar group of oil paintings and watercolors by Pearlman’s favorite artist, Paul Cézanne.

“We are proud to have been the custodians of this superb collection since 1976, and now to have shared the collection with venues in four countries,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher-David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director. “Its return to Princeton is an auspicious moment, marking the first time in decades that our visitors will have the opportunity to discover the whole of the collection at one time, and thus to appreciate the Pearlmans’ passion for some of the 19th and 20th centuries’ most important artists.”

Among the exhibition’s highlights are Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (ca. 1904–6), Van Gogh’s Tarascon Stagecoach (1888) and Modigliani’s portrait of Jean Cocteau (1916). The Pearlman Collection is especially known for an exceptional group of intimate works: 16 watercolors by Cézanne, forming perhaps the finest collection in the world in terms of their quality and condition, as well as the continuing freshness of their colors. Due to the delicacy of the medium, the watercolors can be shown only rarely, so this is likely to be the only opportunity for decades to see them in the context of Cézanne’s oils. Other artists represented in the exhibition include Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lembruck, Jacques Lipchitz, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

A richly illustrated catalogue, published by the Princeton University Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, accompanies the exhibition.

The Princeton University Art Museum is located on Princeton campus; admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.


Opera popularity is often in reverse chronological order. Much is made of contemporary works, the most popular of the genre date from the 19th century, and enthusiasm has grown for Baroque opera in recent years. One does not often get the opportunity to hear the “Big Daddy” of them all — Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which upon its debut in 1607, set opera on its course to what we know today. Thanks to the continuing generosity of Scheide Concerts, Princeton was able to hear the best of the best last Wednesday night as the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists presented L’Orfeo in Richardson Auditorium.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir have spent the last half century exploring the depths of choral music from throughout history, including performing 198 Bach sacred cantatas in Europe. Most recently, the choir has turned its attention to Monteverdi, who changed the course of music history with his staged works, sacred choral music, and secular madrigals. Last year, the Monteverdi Choir celebrated its 50th anniversary performing Monteverdi’s towering 1610 Vespro della Beata Virgine, and this year has been touring L’Orfeo. With this opera, accompanied by the English Baroque Soloists (which Mr. Gardiner also founded), the Monteverdi Choir showed an incredibly rich level of talent within the ensemble.

In his commentary on Wednesday night’s performance, Mr. Gardiner wrote that he views L’Orfeo as a “secular sibling” of the 1610 Vespers. At the turn of the 17th century, opera was emerging from a combination of musical intermedios and stage plays; just seven years before L’Orfeo, Jacopo Peri composed the first official “opera,” also based on the Orpheus and Euridice story. With L’Orfeo, Monteverdi put opera on the map, with his expansive five-act production appearing throughout Italy and inspiring a new generation of composers. Even with this first opera, Monteverdi tested the limits of harmony and sonority at the time, using word-painting and a smooth synthesis of recitative and aria to support the opera’s text and drama.

The soloists for the Monteverdi Choir’s performance, who came from within the choral ensemble, were immediately up to speed with Monteverdi’s style of setting narrative to music. Four Shepherds — tenors Andrew Tortise and Gareth Treseder, alto James Hall, and bass David Shipley — all declaimed recitative text with speed, accuracy, and vocal weight suitable to the period of music. Mr. Hall sang with a rich vibrato in the counter-tenor register, and Mr. Tortise excelled at the voice of reason in a second act recitative. The two tenor shepherds were particularly clean in the climbing harmonies of a later duet.

One of the few female soloists in the opera, soprano Francesca Aspromonte sang the role of the opening narrator Musica with vocal sparkle and a great deal of character to set up the story. Ms. Aspromonte accompanied herself on the guitar in her opening musical monologue, enabling her to draw out the drama in the text. Ms. Aspromonte returned later in the role as Euridice, singing the role with nymph-like flirtation and always being dramatic within the style of the music.

As Orfeo, tenor Krystian Adam sang recitative passages like spoken dialogue, and as a somewhat dark and brooding character, sang the particularly dramatic arias with passion. Mr. Adam was able to shift moods easily, nimbly handling spirited and highly rhythmic passages as well as the lyrical and sensitive love songs.

The English Baroque Soloists provided solid accompaniment to the opera, with the addition of multiple lutes to the string and wind orchestra. The orchestra seemed to be divided into two ensembles: one of strings and lutes and the other of winds and lutes. Playing in Baroque style, the strings were not as loud as modern strings, which required the audience to listen more carefully. A trio of recorders enabled the orchestra to bridge the Renaissance and Baroque musical eras. The Monteverdi Choir sang with as full a sound as any sacred work of Bach, yet was able to be nimble and sprightly as an ensemble of “nymphs and shepherds.”

Wednesday night’s performance was the last concert William Scheide planned with great anticipation of hearing the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Early opera maintained an emphasis on spectacular scenic effects; although there were no special effects in this production of L’Orfeo, the enthusiasm of the performers and diversity of talent among the performers was a visual effect in itself in an evening of great entertainment and high quality performance.

FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU: When she wins the lottery, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) a woman with bipolar disorder suddenly finds herself with enough money to make her dream of hosting a TV show like Oprah’s come true.(Photo by Suzanne Hanover

FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU: When she wins the lottery, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) a woman with bipolar disorder suddenly finds herself with enough money to make her dream of hosting a TV show like Oprah’s come true. (Photo by Suzanne Hanover)

Let’s say you’re a diehard Oprah fan who has always wanted to have your own television series just like Oprah. What would you do if you won the lottery and suddenly had enough money to turn that dream into a reality?

That’s what happened to Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) when she won $86 million in the California Stacks Sweepstakes. The trouble is that she suffers from bipolar disorder and deludes herself into believing that now that she’s rich she no longer needs drugs.

So, she informs her psychiatrist (Tim Robbins) that she’s going off her medications and then offers him a bribe to give her a clean bill of health. Next, she approaches Rich, the general manager (James Marsden) of a TV station that specializes in infomercials, about buying air time for the talk show about herself that she wants to host.

Concerned about his struggling network’s bottom line, Rich gives his okay as soon as Alice gives him the $15 million needed to underwrite the project. His brother and business partner (Wes Bentley) is less enthusiastic about taking advantage of Alice until she proceeds to seduce him.

Since she’s the topic of every episode, Alice appropriately names the program “Welcome to Me.” The themes for the programs range from titles like “Jordana Spangler – a Liar,” “Matching Colors to Emotions,” “Lucky Foods,” “I Can Still Smell You,” and “Regulating Your Moods with a High-Protein Diet.” The only thing they have in common is that they focus on some aspect of the narcissistic emcee’s life.

The emotional exhibitionism proves compelling enough to improve ratings and Alice proceeds to self-destruct in front of her audience who can’t get enough of her no matter what she’s discussing. But at $150,000 per episode, it’s obvious that she’s eventually going to have a crash-landing .

Directed by Shira Piven, Welcome to Me is a droll dramatic comedy that is made for the comedic style of Kristen Wiig. Alternately vulnerable and bizarre, but always endearing, this movie is the Saturday Night Live (SNL) alumna’s best since Bridesmaids.

Kudos to Kristen for baring herself, literally and figuratively, and for delivering a performance that could easily have degenerated into the sort of slapstick she did on SNL.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, profanity, graphic nudity, and brief drug use. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Alchemy.

April 29, 2015

record revSomeone should write a blues for the lonely offline souls suddenly bereft of all access, thwarted by codes, passwords, various unknowns. One minute you have the lyrics to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” at your fingertips, next thing you know all the song’s “very gay places, those come what may places” have been denied you, and if you can’t get on “the wheel of life,” how can you get “the feel of life” when the lines are down? If you want to bounce some ideas off a friend in the U.K. at 3 in the morning — he’s not there. If you want to find when “Lush Life” was first recorded and by whom, you can’t. Above all, if you want to get your train of thought moving toward the subject of Duke Ellington, whose birthday is today, and Billy Strayhorn, whose centenary is 2015, the wheels are locked, you’re grounded, shut down, the column grinds to a halt — until the light-bulb of a simple truth goes on in some cobwebbed corner of the brain and a little voice says, “Try unplugging it, stupid.” And so you do, and when you plug it back in, your train is moving and the world is yours again.

Sinatra Gave Up

Back online you can choose to enjoy any one of a dozen renditions of “Lush Life.” If you want someone here and now, like Lady Gaga, she’s yours, instantly, or you can have Linda Ronstadt or Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie or maybe you prefer Billy Eckstein or John Coltrane with or without Johnny Hartman, or, at last, Strayhorn’s own naked voicing of a composition that has been said to contain “the entire jazz project.” says that while there are over 500 covers of “Lush Life,” there’s nothing from the man born to sing it, Frank Sinatra.

Which brings into play an example of the resources abounding online — should you want to make sure that Sinatra never actually did put the song on final vinyl, all it takes is a little looking and you can hear what happened in the studio the day he threw in the towel (go to bigozine2./Sinatra studio outtakes). Says Sinatra’s arranger Nelson Riddle of the 1958 session, “It’s a rather complicated song, and I think Frank would have been momentarily put off by all the changes that had to go on. Not that he couldn’t have sung it with ease and beautifully had he tried a couple of more times.” It’s too bad, for sure, because there’s enough bold and beautiful singing in these three and a half minutes to suggest that this was exactly the sort of material made for the classic “wee small hours, set ‘em up Joe” incarnation of Sinatra. You can hear him finding it, making love to it, almost living it, only to lose faith when he gets to the heart of the matter, the long-delayed descent to the melody, where he falters, loses patience (“it’s tough enough the way it is”), makes fun of his failure, then kisses it off, shouting “Put it aside for about a year!” as if the song and not the singer had somehow come up short. Stranger still, of all the music Strayhorn brought to Ellington over the years, from “Take the ‘A’ Train” on, “Lush Life” never found a place in the repertoire.


My next online adventure, courtesy of YouTube, is “The Mystery Song,” recorded by Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra in Camden, N.J., June 17, 1931. As soon as I keyboard the title, I’m head down in a vintage Orthophonic Victrola, close enough to kiss the ornate black Victor label on the original 78 with the image of the dog bending an ear to the gramophone. Meanwhile a disembodied hand appears on the right side of the iMac screen, hits a switch to set the platter spinning and down I go again, deep in a delirium of spinning shellac on the cloudy-shiny lustrous blackness wherein lies every crackling, clicking, hissing, imperfectly perfect second of otherwordly Ellingtonian rapture. You could say the sounds are dated, as in a dream of Harlem played by a ghostly orchestra, yet the strains of the main theme could serve as well as Nino Rota’s Via-Veneto night music for the world weary crowd caught on the “axis of the wheel of life “in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Who else on or offline can create word-pictures to compare with the Duke’s? Who else would Samuel Taylor Coleridge turn to were he looking to set “Kubla Khan” or the “Ancient Mariner” to music? An absurd idea, of course, as though something as unimaginable as the internet were available to S.T.C. in his Nether Stowey lime-tree bower in 1798, but say it had been, he’d have called up Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-oo” from 1927, where the medium for the Mariner’s halting, hypnotic tale is Bubber Miley and his growling prowling curses and cadenzas, while swirling all around “the greybeard loon” is the sound of swooning seamen and seasick listeners, as in a drugged-out Harlem seance. And for “woman wailing for her demon lover” S.T.C. would have conjured Johnny Hodges and Strayhorn to score the opium backstory of the greatest poem never written.

Channeling M.H. Abrams

All these allusions to the Romantic-period are a way of paying homage to the Norton Anthology of English Literature and its scholar editor M.H. Abrams, who died last week at 102. If this column were worthy, it would be dedicated to his memory.

I still have my road-worn, lived-in copy of the great book, and turning to the Coleridge pages at random, I see immediate intimations of Strayhorn in “A little child, a limber elf,/Singing, dancing to itself,/A fairy thing with red round cheeks,/That always finds and never seeks.” And then I come to the “numberless goings-on of life,/Inaudible as dreams” in “Frost at Midnight” where “the thin blue flame/Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not …/the sole unquiet thing” whose “motion in this hush of nature/Gives it dim sympathies …/Making it a companionable form.” My intention, by the way, is not to coyly reference Strayhorn’s homosexuality but to see him as Ellington did in naming him Sweet Pea after Popeye’s infant, and to get the sense of dim companionable sympathies projected by moody ballads like “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Prelude to a Kiss.”

Now turn two Norton pages farther to “Dejection: An Ode” before or after listening to Ellington numbers like “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Harlem Air-Shaft” and “Memlick: The Lion of Judah,” and you find “viper thoughts, that coil round my mind,/Reality’s dark dream” and “the wind/Which long has raved unnoticed./What a scream/Of agony by torture lengthened out/That lute sent forth” and “Mad lutanist! …/Thou actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!/Thou mighty poet, e’en to frenzy bold!/… But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!/And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd/With groans and tremulous shudderings — all is over ….”

“Dejection” evolved from a letter to the love of Coleridge’s life, Sara Hutchinson, written from the ruins of his marriage, where the quarrels were surely the equal of the domestic brawls being played out in “Harlem Air-Shaft,” and of course the down-to-the dives descent of Lush Life”: “Ah yes! I was wrong/Again,/I was wrong” and “Life is lonely again/… I’ll forget you, I will/While yet you are still burning inside my brain.”

Strayhorn and Shakespeare

If the association of Ellington and English literature seems a stretch, it should be remembered that Shakespeare was the subject of one of the most ambitious of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaborations, Such Sweet Thunder, the title taken from Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” After pointing out a discord in one of his compositions, Ellington said, “That’s the Negro’s life …. Dissonance is our way of life in America.”

In an NPR interview about Such Sweet Thunder, jazz critic A.B. Spellman described the 12-part suite based on the plays and sonnets as “one of the most remarkable orchestral pieces in all of American music,” in which Ellington and Strayhorn “gave great attention to the material of Shakespeare and tried to make pictures that would take you into the mood.” As for Strayhorn’s acquaintance with the Bard, Spellman says he “was deep into Shakespeare” and “could quote whole sections of plays” and “vast numbers of sonnets from memory, at the drop of a hat” while understanding it all “very, very well.”

Strays as Ariel

There are some choice insights about Ellington and Strayhorn in Clark, the 2011 memoir by the late Clark Terry, that most Puckish of players, who, no surprise, was Ellington’s choice to “play” Puck in Such Sweet Thunder. “Talked through my horn,” as Terry puts it. “A way of speaking and playing at the same time.” Duke, he recalls, “was also a great poet” who “used a lot of unusually creative language.” One tune Terry “loved” to hear Ellington announce was Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” the way Duke said, “A passion flower is one that is more enjoyed than discussed.”

The free flights of Strayhorn cited in Terry’s book suggest that if anyone was the Puck to Ellington’s Oberon, or the Ariel to his Prospero, it was Strayhorn: “Strays was a man who lived the most unique life style …. He had no bills: no hotel bills, no apartment bills, no food bills, no clothes or tax bills. No nothing. He didn’t have a salary either. He just signed a tab. Duke paid for everything.”

If Strays “decided that he wanted to go to Paris and have breakfast, he’d just get on a plane — fly to Paris and have breakfast and come back …. And Duke paid for it all. It was as though their partnership was made in heaven. Although they rarely communicated directly on the bandstand or in the studio, they understood each other. Like they could read each other’s minds.”

So assuming you’re online, or within reach of the magic, as I thankfully am, you can see Ellington and Strayhorn in person, when Duke presents his alter ego for the evening’s encore, surrendering the piano and the spotlight to the bespectacled, studious-looking, casually attired man (in contrast to members of the band), who plays a strong, studious solo on “Take the A-Train,” the song that was his first and greatest gift to his Prospero.

At the end, Ellington coaxes applause with a waving motion as he declaims Strayhorn’s name one, two, three times and after it the names of some of his gifts, “Take the A Train!  Passion Flower!  Chelsea Bridge!”

Opera is a complex musical genre, and sometimes simplicity is the best approach. This past weekend, Boheme Opera NJ used simplicity to its advantage in its production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, presented Friday night and Sunday afternoon at The College of New Jersey. Boheme Opera NJ brought together a cast of experienced and polished singers to make the most of an opera which did not have the best of premieres, but which has become a favorite of the repertory since then.

La Bohème premiered in 1896, when Puccini was at the height of his popularity, but reception to the initial performance was mediocre at best. Audiences found the storylines “inconsequential,” but the 100 or so intervening years have endeared the stories of the four “Bohemians” and the tragic Mimi to opera fans worldwide. Based on an Henri Murger novel, which in turn incorporated characters modeled on real individuals, La Bohème brought these characters to life with Puccini’s rich melodies and lush harmonies.

The four “Bohemians” — poet Rodolfo, painter Marcello, philosopher Colline, and musician Schaunard — have struggled to survive on little money in their Paris loft. To some extent a 19th-century operatic version of Friends, La Bohème follows these four characters and their two principal love interests — Mimi and Musetta. In Friday night’s production, artistic director and conductor Joseph Pucciatti updated the time to 2014, complete with laptop computer props and costumes of jeans and leather jackets. The time may have changed, but the challenges of starving artists have endured, and with a few tweaks to the dialogue, Boheme Opera NJ’s production remained close to Puccini’s original.

Musically, the unusual aspect to the four principal male characters is their voicing. Puccini scored Marcello and Schaunard as baritones and Colline as a bass, saving the tenor voice for Rodolfo, whose ill-fated romance with soprano Mimi forms the dramatic core of the opera. Baritones Eric Dubin (Marcello) and Charles Schneider (Schaunard) were very similar vocally, sounding almost indiscernible when singing together. Mr. Dubin was a bit hard to hear at times over the orchestra, but when called for, soared over the accompaniment. Mr. Schneider played the role of Schaunard with good character, lyrically singing about the mundane details of everyday life. Bass Martin Hargrove proved time and time again the richness of his voice as Colline, especially commanding the stage in the fourth act soliloquy aria Vecchia zimarra. However, by the time Colline decides to sacrifice his favorite coat for the sake of heroine Mimi, it is too late for the fragile seamstress, sung by Erica Strauss.

Ms. Strauss has a solid background in 19th-century opera, including performances with the Metropolitan Opera. She was in total control of the role, proving that she could float high notes well, spinning the sound until the ends of the phrases. Her chemistry with Rodolfo, sung by tenor Benjamin Warschawski was solid, as Mr. Warschawski sang with such ease that one felt his voice could go on forever. He sang his first act aria, Che gelida manina, to Mimi with tender affection, making the most of a tenor range which Puccini used for dramatic impact. Marcello’s love interest Musetta, sung by soprano Sungji Kim, came onstage in Act II as a saucy and presumptuous character, and took the stage immediately with a real vocal edge to her sound. Ms. Kim’s waltz aria Quand m’en vo quickly endeared her to the audience as she lured Marcello into her web.

To accompany the opera, Joseph Pucciatti had assembled a full orchestral ensemble which, although overwhelming the singers at times, kept the musical pace moving along. In return, the lead singers were exact in their rhythms with the players. Boheme Opera NJ has established a new relationship with Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart to provide singers for the children’s chorus, which Erin Camburn had well prepared to sing cleanly and energetically. Digital set designer J. Matthew Root made simplicity work on the stage of the Kendall Theater, with a few pieces of furniture creating a complete scene, aided by a digital screen providing simple but elegant graphics of starlight, snow, and other backdrops.

Boheme Opera NJ is celebrating its 26th anniversary of presenting two full operas each year. Producing opera is a complicated and expensive venture, but in its new home at The College of New Jersey, Boheme Opera should find performance life comfortable.

WELCOME TO PARADISE: Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, left) is greeted by the CEO and owner of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After winning a company wide lottery, Caleb was rewarded with a visit to Nathan’s mountain retreat. As it turns out, Nathan had an ulterior motive. He wants Caleb to evaluate his latest fembot to see if she can pass the Turing test, which means that she can pass as being a human instead of a cyborg.(Photo © 2015 — Universal Pictures International)

WELCOME TO PARADISE: Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, left) is greeted by the CEO and owner of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After winning a company wide lottery, Caleb was rewarded with a visit to Nathan’s mountain retreat. As it turns out, Nathan had an ulterior motive. He wants Caleb to evaluate his latest fembot to see if she can pass the Turing test, which means that she can pass as being a human instead of a cyborg. (Photo © 2015 — Universal Pictures International)

Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) is a computer programmer for Blue Book, the most popular internet search engine in the world. When he wins a staff lottery, he is summoned to the hilltop retreat of the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

After being brought there by corporate helicopter, he discovers that his billionaire boss has a hidden agenda. As it turns out, the place is really a high-tech facility that is conducting research in artificial intelligence.

In order to stay, Caleb is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement in which he promises to keep secret what he’s about to witness. Nathan next explains that an android has been invented, and he wants to see if it will pass the Turing test — which means that the software will be examined for signs that reveal the android is not human.

He then introduces Caleb to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful fembot that he wants Caleb to study for a week. Caleb is surprised by her level of sophistication, since her brain is complex enough to discern the meaning of idioms like “breaking the ice.” He’s even more impressed by her non-deterministic nature, as she appears to have been successfully programmed to have free will.

The plot thickens several days into the project when Ava senses Caleb has developed feelings for her. At that point, the attractive automaton quietly confides her fears about being expendable. She claims that Nathan wouldn’t have a second thought about wiping her memory banks clean once she’s no longer considered to be state-of-the-art. She points out that that’s what he’s done to each of her predecessors in his quest to build a better cyborg.

Where does Caleb’s loyalty lie? With the callous employer whom he suddenly sees as a heartless tinkerer? Or with the flesh-covered machine that exhibits a full range of emotions, including a seductive vulnerability? That is the dilemma confronting the anguished protagonist in Ex Machina, an intriguing science fiction adventure that is the directorial debut of Alex Garland. Best known as the scriptwriter of 28 Days Later, Garland proves he is a capable filmmaker here, with a thought provoking thriller that is guaranteed to keep you enthralled.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, violence, sexual references, and graphic nudity. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: A24.

April 22, 2015

record revDriving into Philadelphia Friday, we’ve got music on the stereo, as always. The day began with rain, it’s still overcast as we cross the Delaware on I-95, and the CD we’re listening to is powerfully upbeat and melodic with strong singing. The songs have titles like “Sky High,” “Lonely Lonely Love,” and “High and Dry,” with typical love-song lyrics and shameless rhymes like “fishes” and “this is.” It’s a British group, Jigsaw, from the 1970s, and my son, who rescued them from rock’n’roll oblivion, will tell you they “should have made it big.” Anyway, about five miles into Pennsylvania one of the songs backs into beauty, bringing tears to my eyes and changing the course of the day and the subject of this column.

Whether it’s Jigsaw or Gershwin, Bach or the Beatles, or Rodgers and Hammerstein, music can take you out of an ordinary moment (traffic intensifying as we near the outskirts of the city) and force you face to face with an event you thought you’d moved beyond. What’s come out of nowhere and caught me by the throat is the death of a neighbor we’d known for almost 30 years. I’ve had plenty of time to absorb the news, I thought I had, but all I’d done was walk around it. I hadn’t seen Marion face to face for months, and most of our contacts over the years had been the routine next-door-neighbor variety, as when one or the other is out of town, you take in the mail and the paper, water plants, turn on and off lights, feed the cats. It was different with my wife because she and Marion had had long, more than casual talks.

A Burial Ground

After I drop my son off at the Philadelphia Record Exchange (no relation to its renowned Princeton namesake), I find a parking spot on Frankford Avenue and prowl around the strange neighborhood thinking about the woman who lived next door. By now the sun is out and it’s feeling more like summer than spring. After passing through a small, pretty park where tulip trees are blooming, I come to the sprawling gloomy chaos of an urban cemetery of crooked gravestones where the winter is still bleakly and grimly in evidence. It’s a devastated spot, the bare trees looming pale and twisted, worthy of a place of creepy honor on the grounds of the House of Usher. That Poe comes to mind is to be expected since he once lived in the same general area, down on Sixth and Spring Garden.

As I was to learn at Saturday’s memorial service, even as I was peering through the iron bars of Palmer Cemetery (also known as the Kensington Burial Ground), Marion was being buried next to her husband Demos in a plot at Princeton Cemetery. They had been married at the Princeton University chapel in 1957. He died in 2002. The last time I’d seen Demos was to witness the signing of his will. The first and last time I gave Marion a real hug (as opposed to a hello/goodbye one) was in the hallway just outside the room where Demos was already clearly sinking into the terminal mindset, unaware of the slideshow of family scenes repeating themselves on a computer screen that no doubt included images of the three Bakoulis daughters at play with their friends on our street, Laurel Circle.

“Our House”

It seems that some form of music is always playing in my head, usually without being consciously tuned in, no devices, no headset, and half the time I don’t know what the song is until I find myself whistling or humming it. Back in the epicenter of winter, around the time Marion slipped and fell on the icy driveway as she was going to the mail box, the song that wouldn’t leave me alone was “Our House,” off the 1970 Crosby Stills Nash & Young album, Deja Vu. I never owned the LP, never thought much of the song except that close friends of ours in the U.K. seemed always to be playing it when we were over there. One reason it may have been on my mind this past February was that we’d been asking ourselves how much longer we could afford to live in our “very very very fine house,” with Princeton’s very very very over-the-top property taxes.

This is why our neighbors and our neighborhood were on my mind as CSNY’s “Our House” was following me around, with its rare-for-rock vision of domestic tranquility, “I’ll light the fire, you place the flowers in the vase that you bought today.” And there we all are “staring at the fire for hours and hours” listening to “love songs all night long” or in the cozy room with windows lit by sunshine, and here comes the irresistible chorus, “Our house is a very very very fine house with two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard, now everything is easy ‘cause of you.” It’s sung by Graham Nash somewhere on the human side of ethereal. The back story is it was written when he was living with Joni Mitchell in a place they were sharing in Laurel Canyon, which could lessen its universal appeal, but come to think of it, we live on Laurel Circle, so there we are.

An Everyday Situation

What makes Marion’s death hard to accept let alone think about is the ordinary everyday situation of a neighbor doing what we all do six days a week when we go to the mailbox to get the mail. But Marion slipped on the ice, fell, hit her head, and no one saw it happen. And no one, it appears, could have saved her. After a seemingly successful six week rehabilitation at the Medical Center, she was home and I saw her walking with an aide up and down our street. Only a day or two later her eldest daughter called with the news.

The chorus of “Our House” won’t leave me alone. Asked about the song, Graham Nash said it came “out of an incredibly ordinary moment that many, many people have experienced.” An interesting contradiction in terms “incredibly ordinary” — the song became meaningful to “so many people,” as Nash knows, by making an ordinary moment extraordinary.

rec rev2“All Who Live in Love”

Marion’s life was remembered by the rector at All Saints as “a work of art,” which applies as well to a service that began with the singing of Alexa Cottrell, who could hardly be seen from where I was sitting, creating the effect of music coming from a virtually invisible source. Since the composer of the music was not identified in the program, the mystery seemed as much a part of the service as the Bach Prelude and Postlude and the eulogies from family members, among them Marion’s brother Stanley Bergen, who remembered his younger sister as a little girl living and playing on Princeton Avenue, near Aiken; he also recalled her fondness in later years for the music from Camelot, which she saw when it opened on Broadway starring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton.

The Mystery Solved

The last hymn Saturday was sung to Beethoven, the Hymn to Joy, with words written by Princeton resident Henry VanDyke (1852-1933): “all who live in love are thine; teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.”

After contacting the All Saints Church, I learned that the music sung by Alexa Cottrell was Die Jesu or “Prayer to the Good Jesus for Everlasting Rest” from Fauré’s Requiem.


One of my first stories for Town Topics (“A Hard Day’s Night Gone Right: Laurel Circle Makes History,” May 5, 2004) was about a gas leak that gave Laurel Circle the distinction of being the first and only neighborhood in the history of Princeton Township to have been evacuated. Given the late hour and the fact that no one had time to get dressed, the scene in the main Meeting Room at Township Hall (as it was known in those days) turned into “a pajama party,” according to Sgt. Sean Reed. The only exiles from the meeting room were three dogs and their three male owners, who had to wait out the hours in a less comfortable area. It’s fitting that the only cat who made the trip came with Marion, whose extended feline family included Samantha and Tom, Albert, Fleetie, and daughter Julie’s 13-year-old tortoise shell Jade, who clung to a fireman while Julie’s 4-year-old daughter Leah was clinging to Julie. Jade eventually allowed herself to be disengaged from her protector and put into a carrier.

This neighborhood event happened between 1:30 and 4 a.m. on Communiversity eve 2004.

FAMILY MATTERS: Albin (Carey Camel, left) as the drag star Zaza, and Georges (Evan Strasnick), manager of La Cage Aux Folles transvestite nightclub, share an intimate moment amidst conflict and chaos over their son’s new fiancée and his conservative in-laws, in the Theatre Intime — Princeton University Players’ production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical comedy, “La Cage Aux Folles,” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 25.

FAMILY MATTERS: Albin (Carey Camel, left) as the drag star Zaza, and Georges (Evan Strasnick), manager of La Cage Aux Folles transvestite nightclub, share an intimate moment amidst conflict and chaos over their son’s new fiancée and his conservative in-laws, in the Theatre Intime — Princeton University Players’ production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical comedy, “La Cage Aux Folles,” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 25.

“I beg you, open your eyes … you have arrived at La Cage Aux Folles,” announces the master of ceremonies for the evening. In the opening number, “We Are What We Are,” of the 1983 hit Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles, book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, the characters of the show present themselves and their world, a popular drag nightclub theater on the French Riviera.

The captivating Theatre Intime-Princeton University Players’ production currently at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, does indeed present a remarkable array of characters from the glittering world of drag performance. “What we are is an illusion,” they sing, “We love how it feels, putting on heels, causing confusion,” and, as the lyrics of the opening number declare, “You’ll find it tough guessing our gender.”

Directed by Princeton University junior Morgan Young with a talented cast of 14 undergraduate performers, this production is fun and appealing, to the eye and the ear. Though it was the first Broadway musical to focus on a gay romantic relationship, it was designed as a family-friendly, song-and-dance entertainment in 1983 when it debuted, ran for four years and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score.

Thirty-two years later, though at times overly sentimental or stereotypical or old-fashioned in characterization, plot and theme, La Cage Aux Folles still resonates powerfully in its moving portrayal of a loving couple — and family — and in the ensemble’s dynamic presentation of these characters and their theatrical world of glitter, performance, and illusion.

Carey Camel as Albin, aka the temperamental star Zaza, and Evan Strasnick as Georges, manager and emcee of the nightclub, are first-rate, committed, and convincing both individually and through the ups and downs of their loving relationship. The seven lively, quirky, flamboyant “Cagelles” are also consistently fun and fascinating to watch in their dramatic performances onstage and backstage at La Cage nightclub.

Based on a popular 1973 French stage play by Jean Poiret and a 1978 movie, which was followed by two sequels in 1980 and 1985, “Les Cages Aux Folles” is set in the St. Tropez nightclub, backstage and onstage, and in the adjoining apartment of Georges, Albin and their 24-year-old son Jean-Michel (Paddy Boroughs), who, conceived by Georges in a brief tryst long ago, hasn’t seen his actual mother in more than 20 years.

Early in the evening the point of conflict arises and the stakes rise rapidly as Jean-Michel prepares to marry — a female — and has invited not just his fiancée Anne (Lydia Watt) but also her ultra-conservative — Dad is the leader of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party — parents (Dan Caprera and Nadia Diamond) home to dinner to meet his family. The situation is ripe for humor and dramatic tension (shades of the Sycamore family in Kaufman and Hart’s 1936 You Can’t Take It With You trying to act normally as they entertain their daughter’s stuffy future in-laws), as Georges and Jean-Michel revamp their apartment, Georges straightens up his deportment and they struggle to figure out what to do with the flamboyant Albin, who is first uninvited, then transformed into a macho Uncle Al (“walk like John Wayne”), before he takes matters into his own hands with startling results.

In addition to the French films and the original Broadway musical version, this show has seen numerous other productions in the U.S. and around the world, including two popular Broadway revivals, 2004 and 2010, both of which won the Tony Award for Best Revival. Also, Mike Nichols directed a successful U.S. film adaptation, The Birdcage, in 1996, set in South Beach (Miami) and starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

Mr. Camel’s Albin provides the heart of the show here, as he draws the audience into his life as an aging prima donna, and also a devoted partner to Georges and “mother’ to Jean-Michel. His numbers provide high spots of the evening, including “A Little More Mascara,” as he reflects at the make-up table on the illusions of theater and life before going on stage as Zaza, then in his show-stopping, act one solo finale “I Am What I Am,” as he publicly refuses to compromise his identity to accommodate the expectations of society, and also in a second-act Edith Piaf-style refrain that brings his whole audience — onstage and off — into the beautiful world of his song.

Mr. Strasnick is a worthy counterpart, presiding over “La Cage Aux Folles” nightclub and the larger Hamilton Murray stage. Caught in the middle between the demands of his life with Albin at La Cage and his son’s plans for the future, Georges is a sympathetic character, and Mr. Strasnick presents a credible, interesting figure. Though at times uneven vocally, he is particularly effective in leading the nightclub proceedings and in portraying the depth and emotion of his 20-year relationship with Albin.

Mr. Boroughs as Jean-Michel, contrasting sharply with the world of “La Cage Aux Folles,” presents a clean-cut, likeable young man in love but desperately apprehensive as he prepares to introduce his fiancée and her parents to his unusual family. Ms. Watt is suitably sweet and innocent as the fiancée, and Mr. Caprera and Ms. Diamond successfully portray the one-dimensional, cartoon-like characters of the straitlaced, shocked parents of the bride.

The wonderfully creative — in dress, movement, dance, and characterization — Cagelles deliver memorable, relentlessly interesting and entertaining characters, including the alluring and athletic Jacqueline (Victoria Lee, who deftly doubles as an effusively distinguished restaurateur), the expressive, sarcastic Jacob (Dylan Blau-Edelstein, who also plays with panache the sassy butler/maid for Albin and George and is outrageously funny enough to almost steal the show in a couple of scenes), the amazing operatic-voiced Chantal (Julia Peiperl), Phaedra (Matt Blazejewski) with the acrobatic tongue, the dominatrix Hanna (Kat Giordano) in black leather, red boots, and a whip that she knows how to use, the curiously mustachioed but feminine Mercedes (Alex Vogelsang) and the colorfully cross-dressed Nicole (Brian McSwiggen). Cat Sharp provides a down-to-earth, believable contrast to the gaudy Cagelles as Francis, the nightclub stage manager (though her visible injuries, apparently due to her relationship with Hanna, upsettingly miss the mark for humor).

Choreography by Tess Marchant is simple but successful in rendering this diverse assortment of characters in their wild nightclub setting — with a rich variety of slithering, undulating movements and provocative poses and a kick line or two that might challenge Princeton Triangle Show’s all-male chorus.

The capable eight-piece orchestra positioned behind the set, under the direction of Sam Kaseta, provides strong, appropriate musical accompaniment to the action and singing on stage. David White’s set, depicting backstage and onstage at The Cage nightclub, as well as the apartment of Georges and Albin and several other scenes around town, is less than lavish, but effectively economical, in creating multiple locales without delay between scenes, and striking in its centerpiece curtain made up of dozens of gold mylar strips shimmering in the wind and light (designed by Marissa Applegate) to create the tone and ambience of this play and its world. Rebecca Schnell’s numerous, vivid costumes are on target in further complementing characterizations and tone in the production.

Despite the uniform youthfulness and relative inexperience of the undergraduate cast, some problems and unevenness in the book and score, and the ambitious scope of the entire undertaking, Ms. Young has directed with such fine intelligence and spirit, and her company performs with such admirable focus, energy, and commitment that the show transcends its limitations.

Ms. Young’s wise, perceptive comments in her program note get the last word here and provide compelling motivation to see La Cage Aux Folles in its last weekend at Hamilton Murray Theater: “I have always been drawn to drag as an art form. The eccentricity, excess and inherent performativity of drag is a form particularly suited to musical theatre, the singing, dancing, sparkling queen of the stage world. I find it is also a form particularly suited to self-expression. Drag, to me, is not a disguise, deception or escape, but a heightened representation of self. When something is more extravagant than it is natural or “real” — when someone’s inner monologue is musical, someone’s face is covered in make-up, someone’s hair was bought at Party City — it is not, as a consequence, less “truthful.” Drag performances can be moments of pure self-acceptance, a medium through which everyone can strut their assorted stuff and proclaim, “We are what we are!”

Just a week before the 100th anniversary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli during World War I, a musical representative of Australia paid a visit to Princeton to present a concert of crisp playing, musical clarity, and joy. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, brought its unique performing style to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night (as part of Princeton University Concerts) in a program of Prokofiev, Mozart, and innovative English composer Jonny Greenwood.

The piano works of Sergei Prokofiev are not well-known to concert audiences and orchestral transcriptions of these works even less so. Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, a collection of 20 short piano pieces composed between 1915 and 1917, capture the composer’s concise harmonies and rhythmic treatments. Beginning in the mid-1940s, arrangers and conductors began to transcribe these short works for string ensembles. The Australian Chamber Orchestra presented 16 of the 20 pieces on last week’s program, including one orchestrated by Chamber Orchestra conductor and concertmaster Richard Tognetti.

The Prokofiev pieces were musical miniatures of precision, and the Chamber Orchestra played the transcriptions with a lean and well-unified string sound. With all players except the cellos playing from a standing position, the Australian Chamber Orchestra demonstrated that all members of the ensemble were soloists, yet could play solidly together with a fresh and vibrant sound. Throughout the Prokofiev selections, the string players showed unified bowings and an ability to change styles in unison.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra was joined by New York clarinetist Charles Neidich for a historically informed and elegant performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. So accurate was his performance historically that Mr. Neidich had an instrument built to replicate an 18th-century “bass clarinet.” Unlike the modern bass clarinet, the 18th-century version played in an extended treble register, and Mr. Neidich played with richness and transparency throughout all the ranges. The clarinet was still evolving as an instrument in the 1790s, and it was both entertaining and enlightening to see and hear as close to what the instrument might have been like as one can get in this century.

Mozart’s clarinet concerto dates from the last year of Mozart’s life, and in this work one could easily hear the lyricism of vocal duets from The Marriage of Figaro and the fiery coloratura of the Magic Flute’s “Queen of the Night” aria in the concerto’s three movements. As in Mozart’s most challenging vocal works, there were large intervallic skips and long melodic runs in the solo clarinet line, and Mr. Neidich handled all aspects of the concerto with ease. Playing with the orchestra at times and then breaking out for the solo lines, Mr. Neidich articulated cleanly and led the ensemble through both the drama and humor of the music. Teasing yet elegant cadenzas closed both the first and third movements, as Mr. Neidich drew out the poignant melodic lines and extended trills.

The Chamber Orchestra returned to Mozart later in the concert, but first turned their attention to an unusual work by a composer familiar with a number of genres. Jonny Greenwood made his career as lead guitarist and keyboard player of the band Radiohead, but maintained a parallel career as a composer of orchestral and film music. Greenwood scored the acclaimed films There will be Blood and The Master, and collaborated with Krzysztof Penderecki on the renowned Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Greenwood was commissioned by the Chamber Orchestra last year, and composed Water, a one-movement work for orchestra and the unusual twist of tanpura, an Indian string instrument. The overall musical effect of this piece was indeed that of water, with the violin sounding like raindrops. The tanpura, played by Vinod Prasanna, provided a drone to underpin the music, and added the exotic effect of running fingers around the edge of a glass filled with water. Even in string cacophony, the music of Water was accessible, in endless streams of color and sound.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra closed Thursday night’s program with a clean and quick performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor. Playing with great direction in the melodic lines, the players brought out the “question and answer” aspects of Mozart’s spirited music, with the second movement played as a study in suspensions, resolutions, and graceful appoggiaturas. The Chamber Orchestra maintained a consistent Viennese lilt through all four movements, especially in the delicate Trio of the third movement. Throughout the symphony, the Australian Chamber Orchestra proved that it is a performing treasure from the Land Down Under, and one that may not be heard in Princeton that often.

TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF SITES TO VISIT: The computer screen automatically presents a list of choices as the user starts to type in the name of Laura Barns who committed suicide after being mercilessly hounded by cyberbullies. Her spirit takes revenge on her torturers a year later by terrorizing them online.

TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF SITES TO VISIT: The computer screen automatically presents a list of choices as the user starts to type in the name of Laura Barns who committed suicide after being mercilessly hounded by cyberbullies. Her spirit takes revenge on her torturers a year later by terrorizing them online.

On April 9, 2013, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) drank too much at a high school classmate’s unsupervised keg party and passed out and soiled herself. In the past, such immature behavior would have been forgiven as youthful indiscretion and quietly swept under the rug the next morning.

However, in the unforgiving digital age the slightest faux pas can easily come back to haunt you forever. That’s precisely what happened to Laura, thanks to a mean-spirited guest who, instead of helping her, whipped out his cell phone and recorded an embarrassing video of her sprawled on the ground.

This invasion of privacy escalated to cyber bullying when the video was posted online followed by a thread of cruel comments. After several days of merciless teasing, Laura took her life with a gun.

Now, exactly one year later, we find Laura’s former best friend Blaire (Shelley Hennig) flirting with Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) on Skype. Their exchange comes to an abrupt end when they are joined in the chatroom by a trio of friends, Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki).

Next, an anonymous intruder claiming to be Laura appears and starts divulging deep secrets about each of them. The spooked quintet assumes that the uninvited guest is their prankster pal, Val (Courtney Halverson), until she pops up on a separate screen. Then, when “Laura” starts knocking them off one-by-one, it becomes clear that they are dealing with a disembodied spirit bent on vengeance.

Directed by Levan Gabriadze, Unfriended is a found footage horror film designed for millennials. This novel movie unfolds on a computer screen from its beginning to its terrifying end. Although some people over 30 are apt to find the film disconcerting, the younger generation — that is addicted to electronic stimuli — 24/7, may feel right at home.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, sexuality, teen drug and alcohol abuse, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 82 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 15, 2015

Book Rev LincolnWriting in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which occurred 150 years ago Tuesday, Walt Whitman refers to the fallen president as “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality.”

Henry James had just turned 22 on April 15, 1865. According to his biographer Leon Edel, he received the news as “the shrill cry … of an outraged and grieving America standing at the bier of the assassinated president.”

Three months later, in one of his first reviews for the newly founded journal, the Nation, James denounced Whitman’s book of war poems, Drum-Taps, as “an offense against art.” How dare Whitman presume to be the “national poet” only to “discharge the contents” of his “blotting book into the lap of the public?” Although James goes on at length, chiding “the great pretensions” of the stanzas beginning “Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries” and “From Paumanok starting, I fly like a bird,” he ends his review by citing, almost as if in spite of himself, the qualities most famously associated with a poet he would come to appreciate years later — “the vigor of your temperament, the manly independence of your nature, the tenderness of your heart.” As he concludes, James seems to be speaking as much to himself as to Whitman: “You must be possessed, and you must strive to possess your possession. If in your striving you break into divine eloquence, then you are a poet. If the idea which possesses you is the idea of your country’s greatness, then you are a national poet.”

In April 2015, few will dispute Whitman’s claim to be “a national poet,” but who thinks of the expatriate Henry James in those terms? How could that most regal of American writers, who, as Leon Edel puts it, “wielded his pen as if it were a scepter,” be possessed by the idea of the great, sprawling, vulgar country’s “greatness?” Yet when James returns to the U.S. for the first time in 20 years and writes The American Scene (1907), he “possesses his possession” every bit as passionately, expansively, and poetically as Whitman, doing so all the while in a supremely Jamesian manner.

James Asks Directions

In the vaudeville of American history, Lincoln struts his stuff, cracking jokes and quoting Shakespeare, while Whitman gathers the audience to his bosom and does everything but dive into the 19th-century equivalent of the mosh pit. James meanwhile is caricatured in the press during the ten-month visit to the States (1904-1905) recounted in The American Scene. As Edel points out, “Jokes became current in cultured circles about the lady who knew ‘several languages — French, New Thought, and Henry James.’” Then there was “the lady who boasted she could read Henry James ‘in the original.’” Like bloggers today, letter writers to the New York Times sniped about a convoluted style that would “drive a grammarian mad.”

James’s friend, novelist Edith Wharton, recalls his attempt to ask directions upon their arrival late at night in the town of Windsor in her 1904 Pope-Hartford motor-car. As Wharton tells it, James called over an elderly passer-by and proceeded, thus, “My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station …. In short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to — ”

At this point, seeing the confusion on the old man’s face, Wharton loses patience: “Oh, please, do ask him where the King’s Road is.”

“Ah —? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”

“Ye’re in it.”

Henry James Book RevLiving in Style

James lived his style, whether the situation was formal or casual. Even when felled by a stroke a hundred years ago this December, he told a friend that his first thought was, “So it has come at last — the Distinguished Thing.” He died three months later.

Probably the most frequently cited critic of James’s late prose was his brother William, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, who in 1907 urged him to “sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action …. Say it out, for God’s sake and have done with it! For gleams and innuendoes and felicitous verbal insinuations you are unapproachable, but the core of literature is solid. Give it to us once again!” He contrasted his own manner (“to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made”) to his younger brother’s determination to “avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader … the illusion of a solid object, made wholly out of impalpable materials, air and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space.”

Bringing It Off

When William wrote to Henry expressing doubts about his plan to return to America in 1903, advising him of “the sort of physical loathing with which many features of our national life will inspire you,” he provoked a long letter that becomes a manifesto outlining the rationale for the Master’s visit to the land of his birth: “If I shouldn’t, in other words, bring off going to the U.S., it would simply mean giving up, for the remainder of my days, all chance of such experience as is represented by interesting ‘travel’.”

James took eloquent advantage of that experience in The American Scene, where the depth and richness of the prose he lavishes on the “loathed” subject can leave the word-drunk reader reeling. In more than a century of writing about New York City, there is nothing to equal what happens when James takes on the metropolis. As W.H. Auden makes clear in his introduction to the 1946 edition, The American Scene is best read “as a prose poem of the first order,” to be relished “sentence by sentence, for it is no more a guide book than the ‘Ode to a Nightengale’ is an ornithological essay.”

Walt Whitman Book RevMoral Personality

In the end, James and Whitman, each in his own way, lived lives worthy of the “the best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” that Whitman ascribed to Lincoln on April 16, 1865.

The same term surfaces in Edel’s reference to the “deep affection” James was to develop in later years “for the personality of Whitman,” whose poetry he knew “by heart and on occasion liked to declaim.”

As Whitman writes in his entry on the assassination, “the soldier drops, sinks like a wave — but the ranks of the ocean eternally press on,” so it happens that the 22-year-old reviewer who told Whitman in the Nation that to “sing aright our battles and our glories” it wasn’t enough “to have served in a hospital” finds himself at 70 on the fringes of the Great War visiting wounded Belgian and English soldiers in hospitals, while, according to Edel, likening himself to Walt Whitman during the Civil War. “Friends of the Master wondered how the soldiers reacted to his subtle, leisurely talk,” but what came through was “his kindness, his warmth.” All during 1914 and into 1915 “when illness slowed him up, James surrendered himself to the British soldier.”

Seeing Lincoln Plain

Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the site of the assassination, is marking the 150th anniversary with a series of programs centered on around-the-clock events, April 14-15. On the street outside, throughout the day and night, living historians will provide first-person accounts about the end of the Civil War, the experience of being inside the theatre at the moment of the assassination, medical reports from the Petersen House, and the impact of Lincoln’s life and death. Starting the evening of April 14, the public will be able to visit the Ford’s Theatre campus throughout the night. The morning of April 15, Ford’s will mark Abraham Lincoln’s death at 7:22 a.m. with a wreath-laying ceremony; church bells will toll across the city, just as they did in 1865.

Also in the news recently is Yale’s acquisition of a major photographic collection featuring “a definitive assemblage of portraits of Abraham Lincoln.” Although Walt Whitman doubted there could be a satisfactory portrait, he tried his hand at a word-picture in summer of 1863: he is “dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man …. I see very plainly [his] dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression …. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.”

THE GODDESS: That’s the title of this work by the late Jeanne Calo who will be remembered as a talented artist and generous spirit at an exhibition and sale of her work at the Princeton Senior Resource Center at 45 Stockton Street this Sunday, April 19, from 3 to 6 p.m. Ms. Calo donated her artwork to the Center and the exhibition of her colorful and highly stylized works will be on view through Friday, April 24. For more information, call (609) 924-7108; or visit: Courtesy of PSRC)

THE GODDESS: That’s the title of this work by the late Jeanne Calo who will be remembered as a talented artist and generous spirit at an exhibition and sale of her work at the Princeton Senior Resource Center at 45 Stockton Street this Sunday, April 19, from 3 to 6 p.m. Ms. Calo donated her artwork to the Center and the exhibition of her colorful and highly stylized works will be on view through Friday, April 24. For more information, call (609) 924-7108; or visit: (Image Courtesy of PSRC)

The life and artistic creativity of the late local artist Jeanne Calo will be celebrated at the Princeton Senior Resource Center (PSRC) with an opening reception for an exhibition and sale of her work this Sunday, April 19, from 3 to 6 p.m. The public is invited to view Ms. Calo’s vibrant paintings, the sale of which will benefit the Center.

Ms. Calo, who passed away at age 98 in the spring of 2014, was a longtime resident of Princeton; she donated her paintings to the Center.

Born in Tunis in 1916, Ms. Calo took up painting later in life following a career at The College of New Jersey where she taught French. She traveled widely in Tunisia, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia, Morocco, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Thailand, acquiring objects from markets, festivals, dance, and music events. Such finds served as inspiration for Ms. Calo’s paintings, imbuing them with the essence of the countries and the cultures of the artist’s travels. She was also influenced by her love of Gauguin, Matisse, Derain, and Bonnard.

By many accounts, Ms. Calo was a remarkable woman with an indefatigable spirit. Her friends remember her as modest, unassuming and genuinely surprised when her paintings were appreciated and sought out by museums.

Long before she became an artist, Ms. Calo lived in Tunis as a young wife and mother. She moved to the United States with her cardiologist husband and children in 1958. After teaching for a while at a private school, she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in order to obtain a PhD degree so that she might pursue a career as a professor of French.

It wasn’t until her retirement at the age of 70 that she took up painting for the first time. It would become her major interest and a source of joy and achievement. According to her friend Paola Blelloch, Ms. Calo attended art courses at Mercer County Community College every week until shortly before her death last year. She studied under the famed New Jersey realist painter and teacher Mel Leipzig and discovered a favorite medium in acrylics. She quickly developed her own style which, said Ms. Blelloch, well-represented her personality. As artist, Ms. Calo favored strong colors and often added touches of humor.

Ms. Calo’s paintings have been exhibited in many museums and galleries. “Various institutions asked to exhibit her paintings which she did willingly, always giving the proceedings to charity,” said Ms. Blelloch.

“But her greater gift to me and her other many friends was the way she made each of us feel special, her optimism was contagious and her advice invaluable as it was always wise,” recalled Ms. Blelloch in a written account of her friend of 35 years. “The quality that can better sum her up is her ‘generosity,’ not only with presents that she gave to everybody in abundance, but with what she gave of herself. All her friends benefited from that.”

The exhibition and sale of Ms. Calo’s highly stylized works will be on view and available for purchase at the Princeton Senior Resource Center at 45 Stockton Street through Friday, April 24. For more information, (609) 924-7108; or visit:


THE PACK HAS REFORMED AND IS ON THE PROWL: In order to avenge the assassination of his brother, Deckard Shaw has convinced the gang to get together and help him track down his brother’s killers. They are shown here driving their cars on their way to making Shaw’s vow for revenge come true.(Photo by Scott Garfield - © 2015 - Universal Pictures)

THE PACK HAS REFORMED AND IS ON THE PROWL: In order to avenge the assassination of his brother, Deckard Shaw has convinced the gang to get together and help him track down his brother’s killers. They are shown here driving their cars on their way to making Shaw’s vow for revenge come true. (Photo by Scott Garfield – © 2015 – Universal Pictures)

The late Paul Walker (1973-2013) was best known for playing Brian O’Conner, a charismatic lead character of the Fast and Furious series. During a break in the filming of this seventh film, he perished in a fiery crash while being driven in a Porsche by his friend and financial advisor, Roger Rodas.

Director James Wan (The Conjuring) put the production on hold and consulted with Walker’s family before deciding to complete the project. After revising the script, he resumed shooting, using Paul’s younger brothers, Caleb and Cody, as body doubles.

As a result of the delays and complications from the changes in the movie, its budget ballooned to over a quarter-billion dollars. Nevertheless, the rewrite was worth the effort, since Furious 7 is easily the best movie in the series because it convincingly combines sentiment with its trademark swagger and spectacular action sequences.

The movie is still mainly a muscle car demolition derby featuring an array of sensational stunts that destroy 230 automobiles. But it’s also a touching tribute to Paul Walker.

At the point of departure, we’re reintroduced to Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a trained assassin who is hell-bent on avenging the death of his brother, the diabolical villain who was killed during the climax of the previous episode. Deckard’s already killed Han (Sung Kang), so gang leader Dom (Vin Diesel) encourages his wife (Michelle Rodriguez) and the rest of his ragtag crew of mercenaries to regroup in order to avoid the risk of getting picked off one-by-one, since there’s strength in numbers.

However, coaxing brother-in-law Brian out of retirement isn’t easy because he has settled down in suburbia and started a family with Mia (Jordana Brewster). However, the playboys Roman (Tyrese) and Tej (Ludacris) are game for another round of bombastic vehicular warfare, as they compete for the affections of the computer hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) who has just joined the gang.

The plot plunges the mercenaries headlong into a familiar concatenation of fisticuffs and gravity-defying car chases.

The movie is a captivating combination of camaraderie and action scenes tempered by enough nostalgia to tug at your heartstrings.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for pervasive violence and mayhem, suggestive content, and brief profanity. Running time: 137 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 9, 2015

record rev

The other day a high school friend wrote to say that in the course of selling off his record collection he’d found an old Stan Kenton LP of mine and wondered if I wanted it back. I’d have told him no thanks, except that Stan Kenton had autographed it to me, so of course I wanted it and here it is on the desk as I write, with the legendary band leader, mid-century modernism incarnate, gazing out at me from the cover. On another occasion, the same friend and I had our Count Basie Dance Session LPs signed by everyone in the band, including the Count and Henry Snodgrass, the old guy in charge of the equipment.

This siege of jazz nostalgia was inspired by the fact that 2015 is the centenary year for Billie Holiday, who was born April 7, 1915, and Frank Sinatra, born eight months later on December 12. Around the time I was in thrall to Kenton and Basie and singing along with Sinatra, Billie Holiday was somewhere else far far away, terra incognita, no man’s land. Scary. Creepy. After all, this was someone whose rendition of “Gloomy Sunday” had supposedly driven people to suicide, and then there was “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching. I couldn’t listen to her. It wasn’t just that she sang songs with depressing subjects, it was the way she sang: dreary and dismal, our lady of misery. So I thought.

Sinatra was something else again. Like his character Maggio in From Here to Eternity, he came off as an in-your-face life-force, pugnacious, hip (so I thought), totally upbeat, and what a singer. I lived in albums like Nice and Easy, Swing Easy, and Songs for Young Lovers. I knew every smooth and sly and sliding Sinatra nuance from hours and hours of singing along with him, songs like  “A Foggy Day,” “The Girl Next Door,” and “How Little We Know,” with that joy-to-enunciate couplet, “How little we understand what touches off that tingle/That sudden explosion when two tingles intermingle.” Definitely a lot more fun than than a song that rhymes “sweet and fresh” with “burnin’ flesh.”

So it goes in the pilgrim’s progress of a lifetime of listening, where Sinatra falls by the wayside, marred by his smug Rat Pack image and those gaudy Nelson Riddle arrangements, while Billie Holiday looms among the absolutes, like Charlie Parker or Lester Young or Wardell Gray, all of whom were either unknown to me or unfathomable in the days when Kenton and Sinatra reigned supreme. It hurts to think that as an underage youth at Birdland I once saw a sad old man named Lester Young playing as if he might not live to see the end of the next solo (he was actually only 48 at the time), standing so close to my clueless teenage self that I could see the bloodshot whites of his eyes and sense only the faintest possibility that the music he was dying for might be something special.

How She Happened

A mid-April night of rain and mist on Christopher Street in the Village, the window open, fresh wet air blowing in, a blue transistor radio perched near the edge of the sill. Someone is singing. The song seems to come in with the wet breeze, it’s a ghostly voice, wayward, out of line, beyond borders, extraordinary. I’m hearing, finally really hearing, Billie Holiday. Misery had nothing to do with this siren song in the New York night leading the way to a brave new world of music.

Three years later I’m leaning on another window sill in a brownstone at 33 West 87th Street listening to Billie Holiday on my portable Columbia stereo, unaware that she’d once lived in the building across the street, number 26, her last home. The next stop after that was Metropolitan Hospital, where she died at 44 on July 17, 1959.

“This Heart of Mine”

I can’t remember the name of the Billie Holiday song I heard that first misty night but the ones that feel closest to the mood of the revelation are “Yesterdays” and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” both recorded in 1944 for Commodore, a jazz label that evolved from a midtown record store. She might not have the copyright but she owns those words, those titles, not to mention that she was born 100 years ago yesterday, as Eleanora Fagan, to Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday. While the name “Billie” was reportedly inspired by the silent film star Billie Dove, the singer would tell more than one interviewer that because her father had wanted a boy he called her Bill (this was before he left her and her mother behind to become a jazz guitarist).

Listening to Holiday sing “Yesterdays,” there’s the sense at first that she’s whispering the words in your ear with her dying breath, but next thing you know she’s rhyming and romancing the choice phrase “sweet sequestered days,” she whose personal university offered a course in English taught by lyricists, most of them white males. In this song, her teacher is a Danish-American named Otto Harbach who came from Salt Lake City to New York looking for a graduate degree at Columbia until Tin Pan Alley gathered him in. One of Holiday’s loveliest moments is when she and Harbach and Jerome Kern join forces for the rushed ascent, as smoothly sinuous as a phrasing by Lester Young translated into “gay youth was mine, truth was mine/Joyous free in flame and life/Then sooth was mine.”

In “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the muted, musing accompaniment casts a subtle spell behind Billie, who turns each distinctly felt word of the lyric to her emotional advantage. Critics and publicists talk about singers selling a song, or putting one over, but this is a transformation performed by a born poet on the material of everyday life: ordinary words for old familiar places, small cafes, parks across the way, children’s carousels, wishing wells, sun and moon, and above all “this heart of mine,” wounded, devoutly bitter, and true to the end of life.

Lady in Satin

Of the early/middle/late periods of a career Gary Giddins has compared to “the three works-in-one” of Don Quixote (only Giddins could find a way to connect Billie to “the equally inscrutable Edgar A. Poe”), the more stately, measured, middle-period Commodore sides are in clear contrast to the jubilant, sassy, free-swinging Holiday of early Columbia recordings like “Me, Myself, and I,” which is distinguished by the extrasensory rapport between Lady Day and her soulmate Lester Young.

Bathed in Ray Ellis’s grandiose arrangements for her penultimate album, Lady in Satin, Holiday lingers over the challenge of every song as if she knows that a little more than a year later she will be lying for hours on a gurney in a hospital corridor, unidentified, unclaimed, and uncared for. Left off the original album but included as a bonus track on the remastered 1997 CD is a forgettable composition called “The End of a Love Affair.” Her struggle to learn, to like, or to at least endure the piece is at once fascinating and painful, the crisis coming when she sings, rasps, lives, and dies the mundane words a cappella. The process resembles an eccentric form of critical thinking: as if she were weighing and measuring the ridiculous material, dissecting the song as she sings it.

Quoted in the liner notes to the reissue, Ray Ellis says “After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.”

Fine and Mellow

Google “Billie Holiday Fine and Mellow” and there she is, as close as you’ll ever get to her, radiant, singing, smiling, making beautiful music even when she’s simply listening, being herself, seated on a stool at the center of a circle of legendary musicians in New York City, CBS Studio 58 on 10th Avenue, where The Sound of Jazz was filmed, December 8 1957.

The first thing you hear is Billie saying “The blues to me is like being very sad, very sick, going to church, being very happy. There’s two kinds of blues, happy blues and there’s sad blues.” One of the few songs Billie wrote, “Fine and Mellow” is both.

Nat Hentoff, who along with Whitney Balliett, helped produce the session and enlist the musicians, suggests that what made “Fine and Mellow” the climax of the show was what went on between Billie Holiday and Lester Young: “she had given him his nickname, Prez, and he was the guy who called her Lady Day, which other people came to call her. They had been very close for a long time, but then they stopped being close. They paid very little attention to each other while we were rehearsing the show… When it came to his solo, Lester stood up and he blew the purest blues I have ever heard. Watching Billie and Lester interact, she was watching him with her eyes with a slight smile, and it looked as if she and Lester were remembering other times, better times. And this is true — it sounds corny — in the control room, the producer had tears in his eyes. So did the engineer. So did I. It was just extraordinarily moving.”

Billie’s appreciative reactions to each musician’s solo may be the best thing in the number. As she listens, the beauty of her face, seen in profile, is uncanny. Those close-up side views are as luminously here and now as they are otherworldly. It’s as Giddins says, “the greatest art never loses its mystery. The better we know hers, the more dreamlike and sensational it seems.”


Out just in time for the centenary is John Szwed’s new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking), which Richard Brody’s review on, terms a meta-biography, about the creation of Holiday’s public image in media of all sorts: print, television, movies, and, of course, her recordings, but with special attention to the composition of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.

The Gary Giddins quotes are from Visions of Jazz and Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century.

ELISHA’S MIRACLES: Bible enthusiasts have a treat in store at the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Center at 20 Library Place where illuminated images like this one of “Elisha and the Six Miracles” by renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson (here in collaboration with Aidan Hart) are on display in an exhibition of prints from The Saint John’s Bible project. The exhibition runs through May 10 with several educational events open to the public as well. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m. For more information, call (609) 497-7990, or visit: Courtesy of Erdman Center)

ELISHA’S MIRACLES: Bible enthusiasts have a treat in store at the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Center at 20 Library Place where illuminated images like this one of “Elisha and the Six Miracles” by renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson (here in collaboration with Aidan Hart) are on display in an exhibition of prints from The Saint John’s Bible project. The exhibition runs through May 10 with several educational events open to the public as well. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m. For more information, call (609) 497-7990, or visit: (Image Courtesy of Erdman Center)

The idea of a handwritten illuminated Bible conjures up the image of a heavy leather-bound tome reverently presented for display in a glass case in some hushed library. Most of the examples we see today were created by monks laboring for years.

Thanks to the efforts of one contemporary calligrapher who is scribe to Queen Elizabeth II’s Crown Office at the House of Lords in London, England, the form has been revived. Donald Jackson has been commissioned by a Benedictine monastery to create the first completely handwritten and illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press more than 500 years ago, the most extensive scribal commission the world has seen since the Middle Ages.

Mr. Jackson suggested the project to the monks at a monastery in Wales and he can be found talking about the project and demonstrating his skill with hand-cut quill and ink that he makes himself on You Tube ( A team of scribes, artists, and crafts-people in a Welsh scriptorium worked on The Saint John’s Bible for more than 13 years.

Prints on loan from The Saint John’s Bible are currently on display in the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Gallery. The exhibition runs through May 10.

The Erdman gallery exhibition, which is free and open to the public, is a rare chance to view a unique project intended to “ignite the spiritual imagination of Christian believers throughout the world and illuminate the Word of God using ancient traditions and today’s technology for a new millennium.” It features 25 approximately 22 by 30 inch giclée prints from the illuminated Bible that was commissioned in 1998 by the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Standout prints include Jacob’s Ladder by Donald Jackson in collaboration with Chris Tomlin; Faithful Friends by Diane von Arx with scribe Brian Simpson; Donald Jackson’s Village of the Dry Bones and The Life of Paul; and two works by Thomas Ingmire: Messianic Prediction and The Ten Commandments. For the latter, the artist’s brief was to combine five different passages from Exodus into one single illumination. Mr. Ingmire’s is a modern take on his subject. While the top half of the page depicts traditional images of burning bush, the first Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the twelve pillars of Israel with Biblical texts arranged across them in gold lettering, the bottom half of the page contains the Ten Commandments in letters that are stenciled rather than penned, or should we say “quilled.” The result emphasizes the authoritative nature of the “laws.”

Don’t miss Chris Tomlin’s Monarch Butterflies, alongside which helpful wall notes explain the symbolic significance of the butterfly in Christian art. You will also learn that that the margins of medieval Bibles were often decorated with plants and animals that had symbolic meaning and that all of the species of flora and fauna depicted in the margins of the Saint John’s Bible are either native to the Minnesota woods surrounding St. John’s University or to the Welsh countryside near Donald Jackson’s home. Mr. Tomlin, a specialist in botanical and nature illustration, went to Minnesota to research marginalia subjects.

Along with the show, the Seminary plans three special events that are also open to the public. On Wednesday, April 22, at 7 p.m. Tim Ternes, director of The Saint John’s Bible at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, will recount the story behind the project and discuss the art on display. His interactive presentation, “From Inspiration to Illumination: An Introduction to The Saint John’s Bible,” takes place in the Erdman Center. To attend, register at

Working directly with the project’s artistic team, Mr. Ternes facilitates exhibitions for the original pages and reproductions, as well as curating and caring for the original folios of the Bible. He travels extensively offering presentations, exhibitions, and educational programs for the Bible project and library collections. “They’ve brought together a team of theologians and artists who thought through the entire project,” said Dayle Rounds, associate dean of continuing education at the Seminary. “It’s amazing to hear Tim [Ternes] walk you through each of the images on display.”

Following Mr. Ternes’s presentation, there will be a reception and a demonstration of techniques used in the creation of the Bible by calligrapher Diane Von Arx, whose own work is among those on display.

A native Minnesotan, Ms. Von Arx has been a graphic designer for more than 25 years. She specializes in creative lettering and calligraphy and conducts workshops throughout the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Australia. She has published three beginning calligraphy workbooks and her work has been included in numerous exhibitions and private collections.

One of only three U. S. calligraphers asked to participate in the creation of The Saint John’s Bible, Ms. Von Arx will share her experiences as an artist working on this more than a decade-long project as well as her personal insights on the creative process and the challenges of going from word to image with sacred texts.

For those interested in delving deeper into the project and even trying their hand at grinding inks and using hand-cut quills, the Seminary is offering a 24 hour retreat, “Seeing the Word: A Retreat with The Saint John’s Bible” on April 22 and April 23.

Led by Mr. Ternes and Ms. von Arx, participants will examine the creative and artistic processes involved and “enter into a deeper understanding of the scriptural passages with the new, exciting way of experiencing God’s Word: visio divina.” The cost of the retreat is $145 and includes the program and three meals. For a complete schedule or to register, visit

The Erdman Art Gallery is located in the Erdman Center at 20 Library Place, Princeton. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m.

For more information, call (609) 497-7990, or visit:

April 2, 2015

book wallaceOne of my favorite moments in Mad Men, maybe my all time favorite, is when the craven Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) thinks he has the goods on Don Draper (Jon Hamm). He’s got proof that the genius who landed the Lucky Strike account for Sterling Cooper is a fraud, a man with a sleazy past and a stolen identity, so the two of them, the self-righteous loser and the handsome mystery man, march into the shoeless boss’s office where Pete smugly delivers the awful truth to little Bert Cooper. In a moment Robert Morse was born to play, Bert stares at Pete with the mother of all withering looks and says, “Whoooo cares?” Twice. And he doesn’t just say it, he leans forward and croons it, packing his total disregard of conventional small-minded morality into those two words.

My wife and I will go back to Mad Men next Sunday for the first time since we gave up after losing patience and moving on to the more compellingly plotted pleasures of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

You may wonder why a column planned for the first day of April begins with a recollection of that moment of sublime dismissal. Simply put, when I handed the first draft of this piece to my wife, with its opening paragraph celebrating National Poetry Month, she gave me the Bert Cooper look. Whooooo cares? “Most people,” says she, “think of April as Tax Month.”

Stevens Unbuttoned

Granted the pomposity of a national month, but it does offer a chance to at least acknowledge the Valentine’s Day death of the former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, and the news last week of the passing of Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer, plus my belated discovery of Wallace Stevens’s “Adagia,” which I found by doing a search pairing poetry and austerity, the Orwellian buzz word that you will know even if all you ever read is Paul Krugman. A few clicks of the mouse and up pops “Money is a kind of poetry.” Intrigued by that message out of cyberspace from the austere author of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” I looked further and found a  proverbs-gone-wild one-man jam session he calls “Adagia.” This is Stevens as I’ve never seen him, unbuttoned, unplugged, unbowed, and unapologetic: we’re in his workshop, the rag and bone shop of his heart, his suit coat is off, his sleeves are rolled up, his tie is loose and flying in the wind though he’s sitting still, unburdening himself in the spirit of Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

This is the same Wallace Stevens who came to Princeton in the summer of 1941 to deliver a lecture titled “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” for a collection of essays edited by Allen Tate and eventually published by Princeton University Press as The Language of Poetry. In a letter written after the event, Stevens says the lecture was “worth doing (for me), although the visit to Princeton gave me a glimpse of a life which I am profoundly glad that I don’t share. The people I met were the nicest people in the world, but how they keep alive is more than I can imagine.”

“The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” would work as well as “Adagia” for the elemental questions Stevens is asking, such as what’s poetry? What’s a poem or a poet? A sample of the answers: “Poetry is a purging of the world’s poverty and change and evil and death,” a poem is “a meteor,” “a pheasant,” “a cafe,” “the disengaging of (a) reality,” “a health,” “the body,” “a cure of the mind,” “a renovation of experience,” “a pheasant disappearing into the brush,” “a search for the inexplicable,” “a revelation of the elements of appearance,” “the scholar’s art,” “a nature created by the poet.” My favorite at the moment is “The poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman.” This is someone who when people would tell him they found his poetry hard to understand would say, “I understand it; that’s all that’s necessary.” Yet here he’s somewhere on the far side of austerity: “In poetry you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.”

There’s a hint of this Stevens in a letter to Allen Tate written the October following the Princeton visit. After a politeness (“I should not trouble you again”), he goes on, noting that “when a man is interested, as you are, in honesty at the center and also at the periphery (as both of us are, I should say) you might like to know of a remark that Gounod made concerning Charpentier. He said … ‘At last a true musician! He composes in C-natural and no one else but the Almighty could do that.’”

book heavenTomas Tranströmer

The reference to “a true musician” fits Tomas Tranströmer, who died March 26. Like all too many people who should know better, I had never read a word of him until I did some catching up online and found a copy of The Half-Finished Heaven (Graywolf $15), a selection made and translated by Robert Bly, which includes what may be the best poem about Schubert ever written, and by a poet pianist who loves the “stout young gentleman from Vienna known to his friends as ‘The Mushroom,’ who slept with his glasses on/and stood at his writing desk punctually of a morning./And then the wonderful centipedes of his manuscript were set in motion.”

In “Schubertiana” Tranströmer brings Schubert into Manhattan (“giant city … a long shimmering drift, a spiral galaxy”), where he knows “that right now Schubert is being played/in some room over there and that for someone the notes are/more real than anything else.” Listening to the great string quintet, the poet suddenly feels “that the plants have thoughts.” The fifth and final stanza concerns the Fantasia in f minor for two pianists: “We squeeze together at the piano and play with four hands …, two coachmen on the same coach; it looks a little ridiculous./The hands seem to be moving resonant weights to and fro, as if we were/tampering with the counterweights/in an effort to disturb the great scale arm’s terrible balance: joy and/suffering weighing exactly the same.” A reference to the “heroic” music launches a sequence that has a certain ring on April 1, 2015: “But those whose eyes enviously follow men of action, who secretly/despise themselves for not being murderers,/don’t recognize themselves here,/and the many who buy and sell people and believe that everyone can be/bought, don’t recognize themselves here.”

PRINCETON OBSERVED: Local artist Jay McPhillips’s paintings of familiar spots around town feature in an exhibition opening at Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street, April 7. The show, which continues through May 9, is titled “Princeton Studies, Paintings of Princeton & Beyond,” and features original oil paintings. The artwork is for sale along with some of Mr. McPhillips’s Prince-Ton tote bags and mugs. For more on the artist, visit and Courtesy of the Artist)

PRINCETON OBSERVED: Local artist Jay McPhillips’s paintings of familiar spots around town feature in an exhibition opening at Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street, April 7. The show, which continues through May 9, is titled “Princeton Studies, Paintings of Princeton & Beyond,” and features original oil paintings. The artwork is for sale along with some of Mr. McPhillips’s Prince-Ton tote bags and mugs. For more on the artist, visit and (Image Courtesy of the Artist)

Paintings of familiar scenes around town by local artist Jay McPhillips will feature in a display of his paintings opening at Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street, on April 7. The exhibition will continue through May 9.

“Princeton Studies, Paintings of Princeton and Beyond,” will feature original oil paintings, including Princeton locations and some New Jersey shore scenes. Some unframed oils on panel will be available for under $350.

Mr. McPhillips will also offer a complimentary digital file of the paintings to any local businesses for a limited usage should they purchase a painting. Also, the show will feature some of Mr. McPhillips “gift shop items” including Prince-Ton tote bags, mugs.

The award-winning artist has been celebrated for over a decade in the Princeton, New York City, and Bucks County areas.

Highlights of his art and design career include work for Comedy Central TV, The Guggenheim Museum, Chiat Day TBWA Ad Agency, and Princeton’s Tony Award Winning McCarter Theatre.

This year Mr. McPhillips work was featured on George Takei’s Facebook page (over 150,000 likes),,, and Mo Rocca’s TV show My Grandmother’s Ravioli.

He is currently working on a book of his Princeton paintings to be Princeton Studies, Paintings of Princeton. His paintings can be viewed at and

For more information (including pre-show orders), visit:


Get Hard Movie

DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: James King (Will Ferrell) is at the top of his game and seems to be going even higher. Having just been made partner in his hedge fund company and about to marry his boss’s daughter, the future looks bright. However, he is brought down by a securities fraud conviction and is about to spend ten years in prison. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)


Thanks to a successful career as a hedge fund manager, James King (Will Ferrell) is living in the lap of luxury in a sprawling Bel Air mansion. Furthermore, his good fortune seems about to skyrocket because he has been promoted to partner and is going to marry the boss’s (Craig T. Nelson) daughter, Alissa (Alison Brie).

In contrast, working man Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) lives on the other side of the tracks in South Central Los Angeles where he worries daily about the welfare of his wife (Edwina Findley) and young daughter (Ariana Neal). He’s eager to move his famiy out of the area but needs $30,000 to secure the mortgage on their dream house.

As a regular patron of a valet car washing service, James regularly interacts with Darnell. Nevertheless, he thinks that Darnell is a mugger one day when the black man approaches him in the office parking lot.

To add insult to injury, instead of apologizing for his mistake, James insensitively claims ”I would’ve reacted the same, if you were white.” Then, he rubs salt in Darnell’s wounds by suggesting that, “I got to where I am by hard work,” and smugly adds, “Success is a mindset.”

However, their roles are reversed when James is convicted of securities fraud and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin. A month before he has to report to prison, he asks Darnell to prepare him for life behind bars, based on the unfounded assumption that Darnell is an ex-convict.

Darnell agrees and charges James the $30,000 he needs as a down payment for his ticket out of the ghetto. However, the joke is on James, since the supposed “incarceration expert” he’s just hired has never even seen the inside of a jail.

Get Hard is a comedy co-starring Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell. The movie marks the directorial debut of Etan Cohen, whose successful mix of slapstick comedy and subtle social satire yields a cinematic experience that is silly but also thought-provoking.

So, one moment, we see goofy nudity from Ferrell who prances around in his birthday suit. Then we hear the musings of a spoiled rich kid boasting about how he built his company with his own two hands, before admitting that he had actually relied upon an 8 million dollar loan from his father as seed money.

If you are ready for politically incorrect fare that is racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, you probably will enjoy the inspired pairing of Ferrell and Hart who are at the top of their games.

Very Good (***). Rated R for nudity, drug use, ethnic slurs, profanity, sexuality, and crude humor.

Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 25, 2015

book revI have a large tumor and if they don’t make haste and get rid of it, they will have to remove me and leave it.

—Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

The characteristic quip about the tumor is from a letter Flannery O’Connor wrote months before her death on August 3, 1964. I was hoping to find a copy of her first novel, Wise Blood, at the Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale. I’d have gladly settled for the Ace paperback with a blonde in a black negligee on a cover promising “A brutal passionate novel of sin and redemption in a southern town.” One online bookseller is asking $5,000 for a copy of the rare first edition, which comes with “a custom clamshell slipcase” to “protect” it. If she were around today, the author would no doubt be amused, and appalled, to know that a novel that blindsided reviewers and scandalized her hometown washed up on the shores of bookland 2015 housed in a clamshell slipcase.

Intimations of Flannery O’Connor’s unsparing sense of humor can be seen in the photo of the 27-year-old author seated, demure and smiling, at a May 1952 autograph party for Wise Blood held in the library of her alma mater, the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville. The story behind the smile (“Cocktails were not served but I lived through it anyway”) is related in Brad Gooch’s excellent biography Flannery (Little Brown 2009), where the “quandary that had befallen so many of the dressed up visitors” is described by an eyewitness: “What to do? Everybody liked the child. Everybody was glad that she’d got something published, but one did wish that it had been something ladylike. What to say to her? What to do with your book once you bought it and she had signed it?” The observer also mentions noticing from time to time that day “the quick light of laughter in Flannery’s eyes.”

There she sits, only recently recovered from the first searing onslaught of lupus, the disease that would kill her at 39. In the little over a decade that she has left, the child who “got something published” will produce a body of work that places her among the greatest American writers. Her level, unbending gaze hints at where she’s headed. Her first novel is in her lap, and however proud she may be to have it close, she seems to be holding it down, both hands clenched in fists, as if the book’s crazy energies are about to explode and wholly destroy the already compromised decorum of the occasion. After all, this is a novel that puzzled, disturbed, shocked, and unhinged its readers, including critics who even while admiring it made misguided comparisons (“I’m no Georgia Kafka,” she insisted); some reviewers found it “terrifying,” and in one instance, “insane.” Years later when a Chicago newspaper claimed that O’Connor had created a Lolita years before Nabokov, she saw no reason to reject the association, having once told a friend, “All these moralists who condemn Lolita give me the creeps …. I go by the notion that a comic novel has its own criteria.” She says as much in her brief preface to a later edition of Wise Blood, “a comic novel” that was written “with zest” and “should be read that way.”

No amount of “zest” in the reading could have eased the consternation Wise Blood created in Milledgeville. According to Gooch’s biography, reactions from family, schoolmates, and locals were picturesque in the extreme. Her writing instructor at the College for Women “threw the novel across the room” and later claimed “that character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead.” Some folks apparently passed Wise Blood among themselves “in brown paper bags,” and one lady claimed to have “burned a copy in her backyard.” A high-minded cousin in Savannah “went to bed for a week” after her encounter with the book and wrote notes of apology to all the priests who had received a copy. Asked by the publisher for a quote, Evelyn Waugh replied, “If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product,” adding, off the record, “Why are so many characters in recent American fiction sub-human?” Flannery’s mother resented “this Evalin Wow” for daring to suggest that her daughter might not be a lady.

In Iowa

In a long letter about what she has read “and been influenced by,” O’Connor admits that she didn’t really start reading and writing fiction until she entered the State University of Iowa writing program in 1945. At her first meeting with her teacher, Paul Engle, her Georgia accent was so thick that he was unable to understand a word she said. He soon found that “on the page her prose was imaginative, tough, alive: just like Flannery herself.” Engle pictures her in his class sitting “at the back of the room, silent … more of a presence than the exuberant talkers who serenade every writing-class with their loudness. The only communicating gesture she would make was an occasional amused and shy smile at something absurd. The dreary chair she sat in glowed.”

Religion Without Religion

“The short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me” is how Bruce Springsteen responded when asked in a recent New York Times interview to name one book that made him who he is today. After mentioning “the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters,” Springsteen echoed O’Connor’s visionary language to say that her work made him “feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.”

The stories “landed hard” on me at the American Library in New Delhi. Lightheaded after reading my way through Everything That Rises Must Converge and the title story in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, I knew something like the “swirling” and the “reeling” and “the earth barely beneath us” as I walked into the blindingly bright Indian afternoon. O’Connor’s fiction and India had become one and the same; the spiritual intensity of her writing, like the life-and-death force of spirituality surrounding me in India, was so overwhelming and so vivid that it didn’t matter if I understood Catholicism or Original Sin any more than if I understood Hinduism or Buddhism. There’s a reference to this sense of secular religiosity in one of O’Connor’s letters, where she finds the Notebooks of Simone Weil an “example of the religious consciousness without a religion,” something “maybe sooner or later” she “will be able to write about.”

Rumbling Toward Heaven

The vision that followed me out of the American Library the day I discovered Flannery O’Connor occurs at the end of “Revelation,” a long story most of which takes place in a doctor’s waiting room where a smug, hugely fat woman named Mrs. Turpin, thankful to be who she is, with “a little of everything and a good disposition,” is physically and verbally attacked by a disturbed girl who called her “an old warthog” and told her to go to hell. At the end, standing in the “pig parlor” on her hog farm, the woman lifted her head to see “a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” She saw “whole companies of white trash” and “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs,” and at the end of the procession “a tribe of people” like herself and her husband “marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

As the story ends, “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

Referring to “the vision” in a letter written on May 15, 1964, three months before her death, O’Connor says she likes Mrs. Turpin: “You got to be a very big woman to shout at the Lord across a hog pen.” The letter ends like the story. Having just had another blood transfusion (“I have declared a moratorium on making blood”), she recalls coming home from the hospital earlier that month “hearing the celestial chorus” singing “My Darling Clementine.”

In the Air

I didn’t get around to Wise Blood until years after my introduction to Flannery O’Connor. I read it straight through on a plane from Los Angeles to Newark, smiling most of the way, and now and then laughing out loud, for I was reading, true to the advice in her preface, “with zest.”  As she says in the preface, Wise Blood is a comic novel, “and, as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”

The Springsteen quote is from “By the Book,” NY Times, Nov. 2, 2014. All quotes by Flannery O’Connor are from the indispensable Library of America volume of her collected novels, stories, essays, and letters.