March 4, 2015

book revWhenever I see the snow-covered ruins of the former medical center I’m reminded of the euphoria of the day I became a father and of the trauma of enduring an all-night ER vigil in July 1997 shortly after my son turned 21. It’s also impossible to drive by the site without thinking of two of Princeton’s most illustrious residents: Albert Einstein, who died in the hospital in April 1955, and George Kennan, who died ten years ago on the 17th of this month at home on Hodge Road. On both occasions, Princeton was datelined around the world.

Thoughts of George Kennan evoke memories of Princeton during the first six years of the 1980s when my wife, son, and I lived in a garage apartment on the “ample grounds” behind “the sturdy, spacious turn-of-the-century structure” described in Kennan’s Memoirs 1950-1963. When he returns to the house in August 1953 after the tumultuous period during which he served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, he finds the place, as recounted in The Kennan Diaries (Norton 2014), “in dismal shape: empty, battered, barn-like, electricity and telephone shut off, the yard neglected and unkempt,” poison ivy growing all along the drive, and “a family of cats” living in the garage, above which my cat-loving family would live some 30 years later. In the necessarily more circumspect and polished Memoirs, 146 Hodge Road is the “comfortable, reliable and pleasant shelter” George Kennan and his wife Annelise would inhabit for five decades. While being “devoid of ghosts and sinister corners,” the house was “friendly and receptive in a relaxed way, but slightly detached, like a hostess to a casual guest, as though it did not expect us to stay forever.”

Kennan’s Tower

When the former Kennan home was on the market a few years ago, my wife and I returned to it for the first time since trick or treat visits with our son in the late 1980s. My objective was to see the tower study where GK (as I refer to him in my own journal) had done so much of his writing. I used to imagine him up there communing with Chekhov, warmed by the wood-burning stove he would feed with firewood he chopped himself. From Kennan’s tower I looked down at the windows of the garage apartment and the ground-floor room that had been my study, remembering how at night I would often gaze up at the lighted window when he was at work. Since I was busy writing a novel under contract, it was a way of keeping company.

In fact, there’s a passage in the Diaries that writers everywhere would do well to memorize. On September 4, 1951, George Kennan’s only message to himself after “a thoroughly wasted summer” is “Write, you bastard, write. Write desperately, frantically, under pressure from yourself, while God still gives you the time. Write until your eyes are glazed, until you have writer’s cramp, until you fall from your chair for weariness. Only by agitating your pen will you ever press out of your indifferent mind and ailing frame anything of any value to yourself or anyone else. Think neither of rest, nor relaxation, nor health, nor sympathy. These things are not for you.”

He held to his mission, writing just under 20 books, winning two Pulitzer prizes and two National Book awards.

On the Bench

While I’d never had the nerve to ask Kennan if I could see his tower study, my irrepressible six-year-old son wasted no time in charming a personal tour out of our landlord. My journal includes several encounters between the two, for instance, May 24, 1983, when GK came over for a chat before he and Annelise left for Europe. While we talked, my son, a first grader at the time, was sitting between us on the bench in front of the carriage house that was our home. Kennan had painted it rust-red with green trim (“Norwegian style,” he told us) to match the miniature replica opposite, a playhouse he’d built for his own children. The author of American Diplomacy was talking about his attempt to develop something better than the standard foreign service prose for the famous “X article” when the boy on the bench suddenly began discoursing on the subject of codes. According to my journal, “GK patted him nicely but firmly on the head and said ‘Let me finish, Benjy,’” while continuing to cheer me up by relating some of his own experiences with clueless editors (my novel was published that October, the first copy hand-delivered to me by a smiling Annelise, who had intercepted the UPS man).

Star Wars and Cookies

Two sides of life behind the Kennans are on view in my entry from Dec. 17, 1985: “Walked out to get the empty trash can and GK was sweeping the driveway where the bricks slope down to the street. We started talking about the Star Wars madness. He told me it was [Edward] Teller’s idea, that he had talked Reagan into it. ‘He’s been trying to start a war between the U.S. and the Soviets for years and now it looks as though he may succeed!’

“While I was writing this, the phone rang, and it was Annelise. She was coming over with some cookies she’d baked. I went out to meet her — the first snow of the winter was falling. I walk her back to our house. She has brought us wine, too. She comes in. Leslie is already ready for bed, Ben is watching a Christmas cartoon special, this journal is lying open on the floor of the living room. She is remarkably nice, this woman who at first view intimidated us (back in the summer of 1980). But now she has real fondness for us (especially Leslie whom she hugged and called “sweetie”) and we for them both.”

For a change in tone, there was the time during a heavy snow later that same winter when a taxi carrying Leslie home couldn’t find the driveway. After the driver dropped her off: “We look out the window and there’s the taxi — on the Kennan’s lawn! I mean all the way down by the patio! He’d driven right over the flower beds! About an hour later our distinguished landlord is on the phone booming, ‘Stuart! What happened to the lawn? Somebody’s been driving all over the lawn!’”

Facing 80

The winter of 1985-86, George Kennan was approaching his 82nd birthday. He’d been anticipating the big number in a September 3 1983 entry from the Diaries: “I shall soon be 80 years old. I am not in good health. My days are narrowly numbered …. In my personal life I see nothing but grievous problems and dangers on every hand …. At the same time, I am impressed and humbled by what, as I am constantly being reminded, my name, and the image they have of me, have come to mean for many thousands of people.” He goes on to observe that “if, in these final years, there is little I can achieve by doing, there is still something to be achieved by acting creditably the part in which fortune has cast me … to try to look, at least, like what people believe me to be … and, by doing this, to try to add just a little bit to their hope and strength and confidence in life.”

I realize now that he was “doing this” every time he spoke with us, whether he was identifying the skink “Benjy” had found and held out for his inspection, or talking with me about writers and agents. According to the Diaries, in August 1983 Kennan was suffering from a kidney stone that “gnaws and hurts” and will become life-threatening the following year. In my journal from November 1984, I note how worried we’d been (“feeling in these past weeks as if a close relative were in danger”): “Things did not go well and Annelise says he’d had pneumonia and that they might have to operate.” By Thanksgiving we were relieved to hear the laser surgery in New York had worked and he was home and healing: “Today he was outside and we talked. He is going to be at the house and ‘idle’ (for him) for some time, which means, he said, we would have time to talk.” Meanwhile my wife had baked a Russian coffee cake that she and Ben had taken over to the Kennans. In early December, I record this exchange: “GK: ‘When I got home from the hospital I was about ¼ myself. Now I’m feeling about ¾ myself.’ Me: ‘That’s about as much as most people ever feel isn’t it?’” Seeing how exhausted I was (about ½ myself) after a typical day keeping up with my son, he tells me, “You’ll make it.” We agree that Ben at 8 is “sometimes over 100 percent himself.”

Long Lone Walks

In the November 15 1989 entry of Diaries, after the Berlin Wall had been brought down (“by the power of an entourage that wants performers more than it wants scholars”), which led to a deluge of “requests for interviews, TV appearances, articles, statements,” he asks “Where, then, do we go from here?” Where he goes is for a “long lone walk through the empty nocturnal Princeton streets, trying to think out the answer to that question.” This image of Kennan walking at night moves me but at the same time makes me smile because a more familiar image has the sage of Hodge Road seated tall in the saddle of a bicycle pedaling on his way to and from his office at the Institute for Adanced Study.

One Last Thought

When the hospital was undergoing the grotesque process of deconstruction, it was hard to remember personal moments, like watching my wife give birth, holding my son seconds after he was delivered, and seeing him through a serious operation at nine months and life-saving surgery at 27, on either side of the ER crisis of July 1997, from which we continue to feel the aftershocks. But nothing will ever diminish that time of happiness, April 28, 1976, in a room in a building that is no more, sitting on the bed with wife and newborn baby, and, as George Kennan describes a perfect moment in his student days at Princeton, “all was complete.”

Previous backyard views of the Kennan’s are in the review of John Gaddis’s Life (Nov. 23, 2011), a column on two Princeton streets (July 19, 2006), and one on the occasion of Kennan’s 100th birthday (Feb. 18, 2004). These can be accessed at www.towntopics.com/backiss.html.

AZUL II: Simply titled, this 47 by 47 inch cement and acrylic on canvas painting by Mexican artist Emilia Sirrs can be seen by appointment only in an exhibition of the artist’s work in the home gallery of Ilana and Mauricio Gutierrez in Princeton. Ms. Sirrs’s paintings establish a rapport with the viewer through an empathic use of texture and color to convey emotional content. To make an appointment to view the exhibition, which will be on display through March, call (822) 275-6586, or email: gutierrez.ilana@gmail.com or yslebi@yahoo.com.(Image Courtesy of the Artist.)

AZUL II: Simply titled, this 47 by 47 inch cement and acrylic on canvas painting by Mexican artist Emilia Sirrs can be seen by appointment only in an exhibition of the artist’s work in the home gallery of Ilana and Mauricio Gutierrez in Princeton. Ms. Sirrs’s paintings establish a rapport with the viewer through an empathic use of texture and color to convey emotional content. To make an appointment to view the exhibition, which will be on display through March, call (822) 275-6586, or email: gutierrez.ilana@gmail.com or yslebi@yahoo.com. (Image Courtesy of the Artist.)

Using rich traces of rust with cement and ash, Mexican artist Emilia Sirrs creates depth and color in her large abstract canvases.

The artist’s bold technique is shown to good effect on the walls of a home gallery in an ultramodern home on Random Road in Princeton.

Ms. Sirrs has found a unique showcase for her work in the home of Ilana and Mauricio Gutierrez where the Mexican artist presents her most recent exhibition of work through March.

The artist’s palette is one of earth hues that evoke the familiar and have a soothing quality with touches of azure and crimson for dramatic effect.

Although born in Cincinnati, Ms. Sirrs defines herself as a Mexican artist. She has lived most of her life in Mexico; it is where she developed as an artist while engrossed in the cultural richness of that country.

Since 1990, she has experimented in diverse media and more than 40 individual, collective, and social responsibility events in Mexico, United States, Asia, and Europe have provided international visibility for her work, which has been shown in the Ibero American Art Fair, Seoul; Acento Gallery and Ghaf Gallery, Dubai; Fisher Island Design Center, Miami; Galeria Crisolart, Barcelona; and Galeria Johanna Martinez, Belgium, as well as at various events in Mexico.

The exhibition, which is open to the public, consists of a series of 14 abstract paintings. The artist’s use of metallic rust, cement, ashes, and bold dashes of striking red and blue hues results in work that has warmth and depth. The effect is one of mystery.

“Each of Emilia’s paintings begins with a simple idea that progresses in complexity until the work is finished, with no pre-conceived notions,” said home gallery owner Ilana Gutierrez. As Ms. Sirrs explained, her creative process “starts with an abstract concept that is not constrained by an established purpose, objective, or method. I prepare paints and materials using mundane elements, in this case rust, concrete, and ashes, and then let the brush strokes lead me to the place where my inner feelings reside. The final product always expresses my vision of how to mix innovative materials and techniques in a way that is vividly captivating.”

The paintings demonstrate an artistic style that establishes a rapport with the spectator by sharing and transmitting the abstraction of human feelings through textures and shades of color. Her work aims to establish a dialogue where matter and visual impact do the talking. According to Emilia, sometimes the material aspects of a painting surpass its intellectual or creative intent, which helps to establish an immediate connection.

Together with her husband Mauricio and their three children, Ms. Gutierrez shares a unique architect-designed ultra-modern home on Random Road in Princeton. Besides a large number of windows letting in natural light, the home has a great deal of wall space as well as gallery space dedicated to the showing of art. Ms. Gutierrez’s mother is the Mexican-based art dealer Eva Beloglovsky and the couple has a growing collection of canvas paintings, prints, and sculpture, including some displayed outside.

I have lived with art all of my life,” said Ms. Gutierrez, whose mother has been an art dealer for 40 years. “She always made it a point for us to be involved.”

When the couple moved to Princeton, they found a house that suited their own extensive art collection. Now they are keen to “expose the Princeton community to Mexican and Latin American Art,” said Ms. Gutierrez who was introduced to Ms. Sirrs’s work through her mother.

“My mother loves Emilia’s work and deeply believes in her as a professional artist who is producing abstract work that is emotional rather than purely intellectual. Emilia’s work shows a high sense of emotion as well as great academic standards. She created this work specially for the walls in our own gallery with the thought that it could go into any home, public, or corporate art space.”

Still, not many people would welcome strangers traipsing through their home looking at the artwork on the walls. Intrigued by the idea of a home gallery, I asked Ms. Gutierrez about the concept. “Even though this is not a public space, we feel comfortable sharing this experience with the community. Collectors and art lovers are welcome by appointment,” she said. “This experience is so satisfying we are planning another show sometime in the near future. It has been a great source of inspiration to pursue the idea and share responsibilities with my artistic business partner Yamile Slebi.”

Asked if the business partners might be opening an art gallery in Princeton at some time in the future, Ms. Gutierrez said that she hasn’t ruled it out. “Time will tell and the idea is not disregarded,” she said.

To make an appointment to view the exhibition, which will be on display through March, email: gutierrez.ilana@gmail.com or yslebi@yahoo.com.

 

The coronation of a monarch is not an event to which the American public has much exposure. However, throughout the past four centuries, these events in England have produced some of the greatest choral music ever written. Several of Princeton University’s choral ensembles took the opportunity this past weekend to musically honor both the tradition and some of the monarchs in the annual Walter L. Nollner Memorial Concert.

2014 marked the 300th anniversary of the coronation of King George I, but Princeton University Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch paid tribute to monarchs starting from 1685 and leading up to the most recent, that of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Mr. Crouch began Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium with this most recent coronation, graciously handing over the podium to student conductor James Walsh, who led the University Glee Club in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ O Taste and See. With fluid conducting gestures, Mr. Walsh elicited a well-blended sound from the chorus, with soprano Kaamya Varagur singing intermittent solo lines with a pure voice perfectly in tune.

Taking the podium back, Mr. Crouch led the chorus, with organ accompaniment, in a crisp performance of William Walton’s Coronation Te Deum. Alternating the full choir with two semi-choruses, this anthem was sung by the Glee Club with a clean and well-contained choral sound. The men’s sections were especially well-blended, answered by equally as precise soprano and altos. The third composition in honor of Elizabeth II’s coronation was Herbert Howells’ Behold, O God our Defender, sung as a study in choral color, with one lush chord after another.

The music of Henry Purcell is synonymous with royal events, and there was plenty of Purcell’s joyous and majestic music to be had in Friday night’s concert. Although C. Hubert Parry’s I Was Glad is the most recognizable setting of the Psalm text, Purcell also composed an a cappella setting for the 1685 coronation of James II. Sections of the piece corresponded to the choreography of the event, and the Princeton University Chamber Chorus Choir kept the joyful dotted rhythms crisp and clean. Again, the tenor and bass sections were lean, with phrases well tapered by the whole ensemble and the words appropriately stressed. The vocal clarity of the closing Doxology made it easy to imagine the architecture and acoustics of Westminster Abbey. Purcell’s My Heart is Inditing served the same role in royal choreography for James’ Queen Mary; accompanied by the Nassau Sinfonia, the Chamber Choir demonstrated a light choral texture and effective phrase echoes. Two semi-choruses were heard clearly through the orchestral texture.

The 1714 coronation of George I also inspired William Croft’s The Lord is a Sun and a Shield, for chorus and counter-tenor, tenor, and bass soloists. Princeton alumnus and counter-tenor Tim Keller was joined by tenor James Kennerley and bass-baritone Jacob Kinderman to provide a smooth male semi-chorus of soloists against the Glee Club. The Nassau Sinfonia, including valveless trumpets, captured the Baroque flavor of this piece well.

The Glee Club would never have let the evening go by without Parry’s monumental I Was Glad, composed for Edward VII in 1902 and revised for George V in 1910. For this performance, the Glee Club was joined by the newest addition to Princeton’s choral program: the William Trego Singers. As organist Eric Plutz cranked up the onstage instrument (which rang well throughout the hall), the combined choruses brought out well the strong melodic lines and lush harmonies.

Mr. Crouch closed the concert with one of royalty’s musical highpoints — the 1727 coronation of George II, for which Georg Frideric Handel composed four coronation anthems. The Glee Club closed the concert with Handel’s stately Zadok the Priest, which Mr. Crouch began with restrained choral sound to maintain the suspense until the piece reached its zenith. The coloratura runs in the piece were well executed by the chorus (most impressively from the bass section), and the spaces in the choral texture were well articulated.

This performance by the Princeton University Glee Club, Chamber Choir, and Trego Singers combined history, royalty, and music, offering a bit of something for everyone in the audience. What was consistent was the flexibility of the ensembles and the secure knowledge that Mr. Nollner would have enjoyed the repertoire and the concert.

WE’D BETTER HURRY OR WE’LL BE LATE TO SCHOOL: Three potential candidates for Coach Jim White’s newly formed cross-country track team race to school from the fields where they were picking fruits or vegetables from first light until school started. Because the farm workers received such low wages, their families needed the extra income their children earned in this manner. As it turns out, their daily sprint to school made them excellent candidates for the track team.(© 2014-Disney Enterprises, Inc)

WE’D BETTER HURRY OR WE’LL BE LATE TO SCHOOL: Three potential candidates for Coach Jim White’s newly formed cross-country track team race to school from the fields where they were picking fruits or vegetables from first light until school started. Because the farm workers received such low wages, their families needed the extra income their children earned in this manner. As it turns out, their daily sprint to school made them excellent candidates for the track team. (© 2014-Disney Enterprises, Inc)

In the fall of 1987, Jim White (Kevin Costner) was fired as head football coach of a high school team in Boise, Idaho after he lost his temper and hit one of his players in the face. With his wife (Maria Bello) and two young daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) to support, White found himself in urgent need of another job.

So, he accepted a demotion to assistant football coach at a public high school in the predominantly Latino, working-class town, of McFarland, California. However, once it became clear that being the second-in-command football coach wasn’t working out, White came up with the idea of creating a cross-country track team instead.

Though skeptical, Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez) grudgingly agreed, and White immediately started looking around the school for prospects. As it turned out, many of McFarland High’s Chicano students were excellent candidates, since they were used to running the long distance from the crop fields to the classroom after picking fruit and vegetables alongside their parents in the hours of light before school started.

When he found seven promising protégés, Coach White had to figure out how the runners’ families could afford to let their children train instead of working in the fields in the early hours of the morning. After all, the boys were being offered an opportunity to expand their horizons, and a standout runner could possibly receive an athletic college scholarship.

Directed by New Zealand’s Niki Caro (Whale Rider), McFarland, USA is more than the typical overcoming-the-odds sports story. True, it’s a classic case of a disgraced coach redeeming himself with the help of a crew of undiscovered underdogs. Nevertheless, this true story is touching because it simultaneously sheds light on the plight on of an invisible sector of society — the Chicano immigrants who harvest our produce for low wages.

Kevin Costner has never been more endearing than in this film where he portrays a devoted mentor and family man. And he’s supported by a talented cast of actors. When the closing credits roll we see photos of the real-life people portrayed in the film, plus updates about their present lives that validate all the sacrifices that were made.

Heartwarming!

Excellent (****) Rated PG for violence, mild epithets, and mature themes. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

February 25, 2015

book revClark Terry (1920-2015), whose horn could charm the birds off the trees, was adept at translating the lyric of a song into what he called the language of jazz, “how to bend a note, slur it, ghost it, how to say ‘I love you’ to a lovely lady.” Terry had what critic Gary Giddins called “comic esprit” — “every note robust, beaming, and shadowed with impish resolve and irony.”

It’s fitting that news of the death of a great jazz musician has surfaced in the last week of Black History Month, which also happens to be, for obvious reasons, Jazz Appreciation Month. The music some call “the sound of surprise” also plays a part in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley), most compellingly in the book’s vivid account of the dance hall scene in wartime Harlem. Black history and jazz history came together again when Clark Terry died on February 21, exactly 50 years to the day Malcolm X met a violent end in a Harlem ballroom.

Clark was There

“I was known to almost every popular Negro musician around New York in 1944-45,” says Malcolm X, who once hung out at the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theatre, most often with members of Lionel Hampton’s band. According to his biography Clark (2011), Terry was in the trumpet section of Hampton’s band around the same time and soon after played at the Apollo with Illinois Jacquet. His account of the time has the feel of similar passages in the Autobiography: “I felt the beat of Harlem, the soul of black, brown, and beige America …. We played a few hot swinging tunes that night …. The audience was on their feet!”

Anyone intrigued by the scene brewing in New York in the swing to bop era of the war years will find one of the richest accounts of the period in Malcolm X’s book. While it’s understood that he’s on his way to salvation (and betrayal and death) with Elijah Muhammad and the Church of Islam, he clearly enjoys recounting his years as a hustler and petty thief and provider of reefer highs to jazz musicians whose names he also clearly enjoys dropping. If the right person had been around when he was growing up in Lansing, Michigan — say a teacher as generous as Clark Terry was known to be — Malcolm’s mission in life might have been music.

The Film

Thanks in part to the media fallout around Sunday’s Academy Awards, I watched the DVD of Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, for which Denzel Washington received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Besides comparing film and book, I was curious to see if Lee did anything with the anecdote about 13-year-old Malcolm Little’s short-lived career as a boxer, which is where I connected with and committed to the narrative. That Lee would bypass Malcolm’s misadventures in the ring is understandable, but the exclusion is related to the fact that the film begins with young Malcolm already enjoying life as a zoot-suited free spirit in Boston. By going with that structure, Lee consigns Malcolm’s traumatic, pivotal years growing up in the midwest to a series of flashbacks, which inevitably lessens the impact of the teen-ager’s escape to urban excitement from a middle American past marked by Klansmen firebombing his house and murdering his father and the definitive realization that the only future possible for him was a life of menial labor.

The Boxer

My encounter with the Autobiography coincided with a reading of the letters and speeches of Lincoln for last week’s column. One quality the two leaders have in common is self-deprecating candor of the sort found in Malcolm X’s account of adolescent humiliation in the boxing ring, the scene that Spike Lee chose to ignore. While I’ve been unable to find any quotes from Lincoln on his time as a wrestler who reportedly lost only one match out of 300, it would be in character for “honest Abe” to offset his prowess, perhaps by talking about the one match he lost.

While the incident has been framed by Haley, who introduces it with reference to the jubilation “among Negroes everywhere” when Joe Louis became the heavyweight world champion by knocking out James J. Braddock, Malcolm X’s voice comes through loud and clear as he recalls his first fight, with a white boy named Bill Peterson: “Then the bell rang and we came out of our corners. I knew I was scared, but I didn’t know, as Bill Peterson told me later on, that he was scared of me, too. He was so scared I was going to hurt him that he knocked me down fifty times if he did once.”

The defeat took a toll on the 13-year-old’s reputation (“I practically went into hiding”): “A Negro just can’t be whipped by somebody white and return with his head up to the neighborhood …. When I did show my face again, the Negroes I knew rode me so badly I knew I had to do something …. I went back to the gym, and I trained — hard. I beat bags and skipped rope and grunted and sweated all over the place. And finally I signed up to fight Bill Peterson again.” In the standard Hollywood scenario the training would pay off, but “the moment the bell rang, I saw a fist, then the canvas coming up, and ten seconds later the referee was saying ‘Ten!’ over me …. That white boy was the beginning and the end of my fight career.”

Only at this point does the Muslim activist of the present intrude, declaring, “it was Allah’s work to stop me: I might have wound up punchy.”

Turning Point

One of the most devastating moments in the Autobiography (“the first major turning point of my life”) is delivered by a sympathetic teacher who tells a boy who was chosen class president that his superior academic performance will be of no use to him if he hopes to be a lawyer or a teacher. “One of life’s first needs,” the teacher tells him, “is to be realistic about being a nigger” and “a lawyer is no realistic goal for a nigger.” The white students whose grades were no match for his had been encouraged to become whatever they wanted while Malcolm, being “good with his hands,” was encouraged to be a carpenter.

“It was then,” Malcolm writes, “that I began to change — inside.”

The casual use of the n-word no longer “slipped off his back,” he stared at classmates who used it, “drew away from white people,” answered only when called upon, and found it “a physical strain simply to sit” in that teacher’s class. The “very week” he finished the eighth grade, he boarded the bus for Boston and his destiny.

Pure Breathtaking Cinema

There is, thankfully, nothing in the prose style of the Autobiography comparable to the bravura shot in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X that the director and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson must have been proud of, and rightfully so; for pure breathtaking cinema, nothing else in the film comes close to it.

The equivalent moment is in the book’s opening chapter. After a team of mounted Klansmen terrify Malcolm’s family and his pregnant mother (she’s pregnant with him), they ride “into the night, their torches flaring, as suddenly as they had come.”

In the film they ride into an immense luminous storybook moon, each rider equidistant from the other, as if they had been posed in place for the shot. All the fearful immediacy of their galloping shouting torch-waving window-shattering presence has been redefined into “something rich and strange” with a flick of the directorial wand. In 2015 viewers might assume some form of digital enhancement has been put spectacularly into play, so perfect is the effect of the tiny figures silhouetted against a moon as big as Mt. Everest and as luminous as some mad genius’s fantasy of the godhead. There it is, you gape in wonder, then it’s gone and you’re thinking “what’s a piece of visual poetry like that doing in a place like this?” We’ve just witnessed Klan terrorism in a film about the black leader who became famous chastising the “white devils,” and the coda to that episode of racist viciousness is — a thing of beauty?

Writers are taught to “kill your darlings.” If a phrase or a metaphor makes you pat yourself on the back, chances are it’s something you want to look at very carefully the next morning. Graham Greene termed the tracking of suspect figures of speech “shooting tigers.” But really, why in the name of contextual decorum deprive the audience of an image so stunning? How to justify leaving a piece of perfect cinema on the cutting room floor? Still and all, it feels wrong — a bit like showing John Wilkes Booth galloping away from Ford Theatre into a moonlit dreamscape.

Clark Terry

Better to end with one of Clark Terry’s “darlings.” Describing the way Duke Ellington handled his musicians (“all these very different attitudes and egotudes”), Terry writes, “He knew exactly how to use each man’s sound to create the most amazing voicings. The sounds of trains, whistles, birds, footsteps, climaxes, cries. Rhythms that vibrated the floor. Harmonies with ebbs and flows that almost lifted me right out of my chair.” Terry imagines the eyes of the audience “glued to us like we were the fountain of life. The music was so powerful and electric, if I’d had a big plug I could have stuck it in the air and lit up the whole world.”

———

The passages from Clark’s lively memoir were also quoted in my review. “The Time of His Life: Reading Between Clark Terry’s Lines,” Town Topics, Feb. 15, 2012.

SEX, LOVE AND SHOW BIZ: Hollywood star Mitchell Green (Nico Krell, on left) and Alex (Cody O’Neill), his rent boy, confront each other in Mitchell’s hotel room — Are they gay?  embarking on a relationship?  just curious? — in Theatre Intime’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” (2006) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through February 28.

SEX, LOVE AND SHOW BIZ: Hollywood star Mitchell Green (Nico Krell, on left) and Alex (Cody O’Neill), his rent boy, confront each other in Mitchell’s hotel room — Are they gay? embarking on a relationship? just curious? — in Theatre Intime’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” (2006) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through February 28.

The Little Dog Laughed, Douglas Carter Beane’s 2006 Tony-nominated hit comedy, is a play about Hollywood, about truths and illusions, unbridled ambition and control. It is also about relationships, working through gender confusions, making meaningful connections, and struggling to sustain those connections. Mr. Beane is a skilled craftsman, and his play is also about language and theatrics and how humans (including writers) use that language in the pursuit of power and love and the creation of worlds, both fictional and actual. Theatre Intime’s current revival, directed by Princeton University senior Jack Moore, capitalizes on creative, intelligent, tasteful staging and four dynamic, committed performances to deliver the sharp humor and depth of human relationships here.

The four characters in The Little Dog Laughed develop a sort of love rectangle. As Diane, a high-powered Hollywood agent, explains, “My rule of thumb is that in the first act you put your people in a tree, in the second act you throw stones at them while they’re in the tree, and in the third act take them down from the tree.” At the end of the second of only two acts in The Little Dog Laughed, Diane promises the audience that she will “sort this all out,” and she proceeds to do just that.

Diane’s principal client is the rising Hollywood star Mitchell Green, whose homosexuality, though hesitant and mostly closeted, is causing public relations problems for her. Ever the consummate pragmatist, problem-solver, epitome of the Hollywood businesswoman, she warns Mitchell about his budding gay relationship undermining the new movie they are planning: “We are investing money into a property that will fill the common woman with lust and fill the common man with envy. My problem is that if you start walking around with your “friend” over there. You will not inspire lust in common women and every common man will feel superior to you.”

Meanwhile Mitchell and his rent boy Alex are developing a serious relationship, despite confusion and questioning of sexual preferences on both sides. To further complicate matters, in residence back at Alex’s apartment, where he’s been missing for five days, is his girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend, Ellen.

Theatre Intime’s undergraduate ensemble is in top form here. The actors make the most of Mr. Beane’s polished dialogue and clever plotting. The play develops its characters and moves the plot forward with a captivating counterpoint between interior monologues spoken to the audience and dynamic exchanges among the characters.

Katie Frorer as Diane presides with authority and style over the evening’s misadventures. The age stretch here is challenging — Diane is a hardened veteran of the Hollywood wars, probably twice the age of Ms. Frorer. — but this witty, cynical, charismatic woman comes across in technicolor. Despicable? Perhaps, but she is devilishly charming, funny, and devastating in her skewering of the hypocrisies and delusions of Hollywood and its denizens. From her long opening monologue through frequent asides and extended commentary to the audience, Ms. Frorer’s Diane serves as narrator and the driving force in “problem-solving” and moving the plot forward. She frequently breaks the fourth wall to engage the audience, as she seems to be supervising the writing and directing of the action.

As the closeted Hollywood star Mitchell, at the center of the clash here, Nico Krell creates a convincingly conflicted character, often self-absorbed but trying hard to find meaning and love in his unusual life amidst the demands of Hollywood stardom. The comedic Hollywood exchanges with Diane are perhaps more convincing than the romantic scenes with Alex, but Mr. Krell, also stretching to portray a character twice his age, is on target and sympathetic throughout. There are many fine scenes during the evening, moments of poignant emotion, as well as high hilarity, but Mitchell and Diane’s ingratiating themselves with a pretentious playwright over a fashionable lunch is most memorable in its razor-sharp, humorous satiric commentary — impressive evidence of these two actors’ ability to create, out of thin air, the setting, the third (invisible) character, his (silent) comments, and the whole “Hollywood” scene for the audience’s enjoyment.

As the rent boy/prostitute, Cody O’Neill’s Alex is probably the most sympathetic of the four characters — and the most vulnerable to the brutalities of the Hollywood he encounters in the personas of Mitchell and Diane. Mr. O’Neill creates an intriguing three-dimensional young character, exploring his sexuality and his life with a certain toughness and independence that the other characters do not possess. In a range of challenging scenes, Mr. O’Neill, whether communicating directly to the audience, trying to cope with his distraught girlfriend, or charting his path in the awkward relationship with Mitchell, conveys convincingly the bravura and the vulnerability of the sensitive young hustler.

Abby Melick’s Ellen establishes the fourth side of the romantic rectangle with her lingering relationship — friend? girlfriend? ex? — with Alex and plays a crucial role in Diane’s ultimate scheme. Though in some ways more of a supporting character than a protagonist, Ms. Melick’s Abby also creates a three-dimensional persona for her 24-year-old character and delivers a credible, strong stage presence, established early on in a memorable monologue about returning home to visit “Screecher,” her mother, and witnessing the horror of what has happened to her old room.

David White’s set design here vividly and economically establishes the hotel room of Mitchell and Alex at center stage, a large desk stage left for Diane’s domain, and minimal furniture for Alex’s apartment and a home base for him and Ellen stage right. Diane as narrator and master problem-solver-manipulator-director of the action frequently wanders to center stage and downstage to address the audience or engage in the action. Lighting by Michael Kim enhances both mood and creation of these locales, as it also speeds the rapid shifts from scene to scene throughout more than 20 scenes over the course of the play. Costume designs by Emma Claire Jones are realistic, appropriate, and expressive of each of these four interesting individuals.

This world of big-money Hollywood power plays and publicity, of movie stars and their rent boys, may seem rather removed from the average Princeton audience’s frame of reference, but The Little Dog Laughed successfully draws its viewers into the intriguing lives of these four characters. Skillful playwriting, intelligent staging, and dedicated, talented acting grab the audience’s attention from the start and make us laugh and care about these four characters and their lives.

Theatre Intime’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” will run through February 28 at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org for tickets and further information.

LESSONS FOR LEARNING: Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is the focus of a week-long series of events that begins at The College of New Jersey Monday, March 2 and ends Saturday, March 7. A highlight will be performances of the 65-minute dramatic song cycle for orchestra and voice “Katrina Ballads” by Ted Hearne on Friday, March 6, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 7, at 1 p.m. The piece will be performed by X Trigger, a contemporary music ensemble based in the greater Princeton area and founded by TCNJ Director of Bands David Vickerman.(Photo by Lynda Rothermel, Courtesy of TCNJ)

LESSONS FOR LEARNING: Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is the focus of a week-long series of events that begins at The College of New Jersey Monday, March 2 and ends Saturday, March 7. A highlight will be performances of the 65-minute dramatic song cycle for orchestra and voice “Katrina Ballads” by Ted Hearne on Friday, March 6, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 7, at 1 p.m. The piece will be performed by X Trigger, a contemporary music ensemble based in the greater Princeton area and founded by TCNJ Director of Bands David Vickerman. (Photo by Lynda Rothermel, Courtesy of TCNJ)

Next week The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) will focus on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with a variety of interdisciplinary events open to the campus community and the general public.

The series begins with a free screening of Spike Lee‘s 2006 documentary film, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, on Monday, March 2, at 7 p.m., and culminates with a full day of workshops for high school students on Saturday, March 7.

A highlight of the activities will undoubtedly be the two performances of composer Ted Hearne’s award-winning Katrina Ballads by X Trigger, a contemporary music ensemble based in the greater Princeton area.

The group’s founder, artistic director, and conductor David Vickerman is TCNJ’s director of bands and a champion of contemporary music.

A 65-minute dramatic song cycle for orchestra and vocalists, Katrina Ballads is set entirely to primary-source texts from the week following Hurricane Katrina. It uses the words of politicians and celebrities, survivors and relief workers, taken directly from media footage as experienced by those outside the Gulf Coast, as it unfolded via a constant and real-time stream of national media. The performance will be accompanied by a film created by Bill Morrison.

Performances will take place on Friday, March 6 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 7 at 1 p.m. Composer Ted Hearne will be the guest speaker at a free public brown bag lecture in the Mayo Concert Hall on Friday, March 6, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

Sometimes raw and shocking, the Katrina Ballads text draws upon commentary from Anderson Cooper, Barbara Bush, Kanye West, and Dennis Hastert and includes George W. Bush’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” The score is a multi-stylistic combination of gospel, jazz, classical, and electronic elements.

A call to remember shared history, Katrina Ballads conjures anger, shame, rebuilding, and a commitment to truth. The work, which premiered at the 2007 Piccolo Spoleto Festival, received the 2009 Gaudeamus Prize for composition. It premiered in New York in 2008 and was included in the New York City Opera’s 2009 VOX Festival.

In 2010, when a full recording was released on New Amsterdam Records (distributed through Naxos of America), the work garnered rave reviews including a place on The Top 10 Classical Albums of 2010 of The Washington Post and Time Out Chicago.

Social Justice in the Arts and Humanities

According to a press release from the The Institute for Social Justice in the Arts and Humanities, Mr. Hearne’s work ties into TCNJ’s 2014-15 justice theme by “exploring how justice is perceived and defined across time or cultures, if justice is contextually bound or if it represents a universal truth, and how justice is related to notions such as fairness, equality, generosity, opportunity, and love.”

“In 2015 TCNJ was selected by the Carnegie Foundation to be a Community Engaged Campus, as part of that we have chosen to focus on the theme of justice for the year and established an Institute for Social Justice, which will focus on the issues raised by the responses to Hurricane Katrina,” explained Dean of the School of the Arts and Communication John Laughton.

Part of that focus includes the “Teaching the Levees” curriculum that was developed in response to Katrina’s devastation to promote democratic dialogue and civic engagement. It uses Mr. Lee’s documentary about the devastation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to prompt discussions about citizenship, economics, democracy, media, and systemic injustice. The film will be shown again in the Kendall Screening Room on Tuesday, March 3, at 7 p.m.

“We want our students to engage in a dialog about race and class and have the ability to articulate well-informed judgments rather than mere opinion about where they stand in relationship to these issues,” said Mr. Laughton.

The college is working with local educators to develop a corresponding K-12 curriculum.

Among the other activities are a visit to the campus by a New Orleans chef who will cook a regional specialty for the community to enjoy on Wednesday, March 4, from 11 to 4 p.m. in the Eickhoff Dining Hall. Tickets, $8, for “Cooking Cajun: Celebrating Creole Culture,” a lunch buffet celebrating the food and music of the people of Louisiana can be had at the door. Later that evening, there will be a panel discussion in the library auditorium from 6 to 7:30 p.m. with the contributing authors of the “Teaching the Levees” curriculum.

A public lecture by Katrina Ballads producers David Vickerman and Colleen Sears will take place in the Mayo Concert Hall, on Tuesday, March 3, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

TCNJ’s Institute for Social Justice engages multiple disciplines to draw attention to the ways in which the arts and music can contribute to economic and social development and awareness.

Tickets for performances of Katrina Ballads in the Mayo Concert Hall on Friday, March 6, at 89 p.m. and Saturday, March 7 at 1 p.m. are free and available from the TCNJ Box Office, www.tcnj.edu/boxoffice.

For more information and the full schedule of events, visit tcnj.edu/katrinaballads, facebook.com/isjahTCNJ, or call 609-771-2065.

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE PROVEN TO BE AN EXCELLENT STUDENT: Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, left) celebrates Jess Barrett’s (Margot Robbie) on being such a quick learner. Nicky took her on as his student after she botched an attempt to rob him by having her “husband” discovering them together in her hotel room.(© 2015-Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE PROVEN TO BE AN EXCELLENT STUDENT: Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, left) celebrates Jess Barrett’s (Margot Robbie) on being such a quick learner. Nicky took her on as his student after she botched an attempt to rob him by having her “husband” discovering them together in her hotel room. (© 2015-Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) is an aspiring con artist who picked the worst guy to steal a wallet from when she chose Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith). She had no way of knowing that he was a third generation flimflam man whose grandfather once ran a crooked poker game in Harlem.

Nicky, after sharing drinks with Jess at a bar in midtown Manhattan, was curious to see what would happen when he accepted her invitation to come to her hotel room. So, he was ready when her accomplice (Griff Furst), posing as her angry husband, burst in brandishing a fake gun.

Instead of handing over his wallet, Nicky laughed and pointed out the flaws in their little shakedown, such as not waiting until he was naked to try to rob him. Jess is so impressed that she begs him to take her on as a protégé and tells him a hard luck story about having been a dyslexic foster child.

Nicky agrees to show her the ropes and even invites her to join his team of hustlers who are on their way to New Orleans where they plan to pickpocket unsuspecting tourists. They also devise an elaborate plan to fleece a wealthy compulsive gambler (BD Wong) of over a million dollars.

Jess proves to be a fast learner and the plot is executed without a hitch, however, after they become romantically involved, Nicky is reluctant to include her in his next operation. Instead, he moves on alone to Argentina, where he plans to bilk a racing car mogul Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).

The plot thickens when Nicky finds Jess on the arm of the playboy billionaire when he arrives in Buenos Aires. Is she in love with Garriga or simply staging her own swindle? Will she expose Nicky as a fraud or will she be willing to join forces with her former mentor?

Co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love), Focus is an overplotted story that apparently takes its ideas from the House of Games (1987). But whereas that multi-layered mystery was perfectly plausible, this film goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Nonetheless, co-stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie generate enough chemistry to make the farfetched romantic romp worth seeing.

Good (**). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and brief violence. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

LAMBERTVILLE ART SALE: Jacqui Alexander’s painting, titled “The End,” will be on display along with more of her work in the Pop-Up Gallery show at 22 Church Street in Lambertville on Saturday, February 28, starting at noon. There will be an opening reception with refreshments and a meet and greet with Ms. Alexander and her fellow artist in the show, Elina Lorenz, from 5 to 6:30 pm. Proceeds from the sale of the artists’ work will benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mercer County. For more information, visit: www.bbbsmercer.org.

LAMBERTVILLE ART SALE: Jacqui Alexander’s painting, titled “The End,” will be on display along with more of her work in the Pop-Up Gallery show at 22 Church Street in Lambertville on Saturday, February 28, starting at noon. There will be an opening reception with refreshments and a meet and greet with Ms. Alexander and her fellow artist in the show, Elina Lorenz, from 5 to 6:30 pm. Proceeds from the sale of the artists’ work will benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mercer County. For more information, visit: www.bbbsmercer.org.

A Pop-Up art show at 22 Church Street in Lambertville will showcase the works of two local artists, Elina Lorenz and Jacqui Alexander, on Saturday, February 28, starting at noon. There will be a reception with refreshments and a meet and greet with the artists from 5 to 6:30 pm.

Proceeds from the sale of the artwork will benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mercer County (BBBS) in the first ever partnership of this kind for the organization.

“We are honored that these talented artists have chosen to share the proceeds of their art show with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mercer County,” said Susan Dunning, executive director of the organization. “Money raised will enable us to match qualified volunteers with local children who are in need of a caring adult mentor.”

Lauren Helfrich, a graduate student at Rider University in the MBA program, has organized the art show as a part of a project for a management course. She and her fellow group members are passionate about the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “The future is in the hands of our nation’s youth; every small encounter, relationship, moment, or event that transpires in these children’s lives affects them immensely,” she said.

Both of the artists live and work in Mercer County. Ms. Alexander’s artwork can be described as a personal narrative, told using symbols and forms from the natural world. Her recent paintings are inspired by the wildlife of her home state of New Jersey, with a healthy dose of wanderlust mixed in. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, she currently lives and works in Princeton, where she is a marketing consultant to businesses large and small.

Ms. Lorenz has been painting since her early childhood. Her style is varied, but she mostly draws her inspiration from the nature and wildlife right outside her window in her home studio in Princeton. She currently also has pieces on display in the ArtJam Pop-Up Gallery. Ms. Lorenz graduated from the Art Lyceum in Kishinev in her native country of Moldova.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mercer County is the oldest, largest and most effective youth mentoring volunteer organization in the United States. The BBBS-Mercer Mission is to provide children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally supported one-to-one matches that change their lives for the better forever.

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

February 18, 2015

book revIn Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus calls history “a shout in the street.” Too bad the classroom windows were closed as I sleepwalked through high school, no shouts, no streets, only a miasma of mimeographed fact sheets and quizzes and essay questions, with a lone figure towering over it all. From fourth grade on, in spite of uninspired history teachers and deadly dull textbooks, Abraham Lincoln transcended the classroom tedium associated with the H-word. My first encounter with the Liberty Bell, at 12, was uneventful. A few weeks later when my father took me to the scene of the crime, Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., I was on sacred ground.

I found Lincoln on my own in the book mobile that came to the country school I attended in roughly the same part of Indiana Lincoln grew up in reading by firelight in his homebound log-cabin classroom. In the post-election speech he gave before the New Jersey Senate February 21, 1861, after noting that “few of the States among the old Thirteen had more of the battle-fields of the country within their limits than old New-Jersey,” he recalls “the earliest days of being able to read” when he got hold of a small book called Weem’s Life of Washington with “all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves” upon his “imagination so deeply” as the struggle at Trenton, the “crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time,” all remembered “more than any single revolutionary event” — “and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others.”

Ride on Fire

In The Library of America’s Selected Speeches and Writings of Lincoln (Paperback Classics $16.95, on sale at Labyrinth for $6.98), the first passage that caught my attention and gave evidence of the greatness of character I intuited from my own “earliest days of being able to read” is from a speech given on Washington’s 110th birthday. Lincoln was 33 at the time and what he had to say to the folks in the Springfield Temperance Society must have caused jaws to drop. While casting the light of his understanding, not to say fellow feeling, on habitual drunkards, he declares that the only reason most people have never fallen is due to absence of appetite rather than presence of moral superiority, for if we take drunkards as a class, “The demon of intemperance ever seems to have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and of generosity.” A few paragraphs later, to express “the price paid” for the “glorious results” of the ’76 revolution, he channels Blake: “It had its evils too. It breathed forth famine, swam in blood and rode on fire; and long long after, the orphan’s cry and the widow’s wail continued to break the sad silence that ensued.”

“Something of Ill-Omen”

Arriving in Springfield from the backwoods of Indiana five years earlier, Lincoln was already riding the rhetoric of fire and blood as he spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum on January 27, 1838. The speech was inspired in part by a “horror-striking scene” in St. Louis where a “mulatto man” had been “seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death.” Like some wild young prophet from the wilderness, Lincoln is warning the American People about the “approach of danger.” Where will it come from? “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.” The answer to that burst of Whitmanesque hyperbole is that “it will spring up amongst us.” The terms are dire — “something of ill-omen,” “wild and furious passions,” “savage mobs” — as he cites the hanging of gamblers and negroes in Mississippi along with white strangers “from neighboring States” until “dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.”

Although he’s talking about mob rule and mob violence, it’s hard not to read an involuntary prophecy into the passion with which he delivers the message, as if he senses that the “approach of danger” foreshadows the national calamity that will cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, including his own.

Think of it: he’s coming out of a rough pioneer village in Indiana, unschooled, self-taught, still in his 20s, and here he is launching the Lyceum speech like the defender of the nation’s faith testifying before the Supreme Court of posterity: “In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running, under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era. — We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth.”

And then to end with a eulogy to Washington, “that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place …. Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Two decades before the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln’s vision of the Union is so large that only Christianity is greater.

Beware Bewitchment

Princeton University Professor of Politics Emeritus George Kateb’s challenging new book, Lincoln’s Political Thought (Harvard $24.95), suggests that in spite of the darkly prophetic innuendoes in the Lyceum speech, Lincoln misread or underestimated the “ferocities” of the South and was subject to a “minimization of the trouble that the country was in before secession.” Kateb sees the “unappeasable ambition” of the South as “the original American malignity” that was “often but not always race-based” and “is still operative today.” Conflicted from the outset, he admits that his “intense admiration” for Lincoln (“a great writer”) is “joined to some dismay.” He seems at times to be pleading his case in a courtroom under the purview of Lincoln or some powerful subordinate, asking “Are we not allowed, however, to have certain suspicions about Lincoln?” On the subject of Lincoln’s “opacity,” Kateb warns us not to give in “too quickly to the temptation of sheltering ourselves in the comfort of the notion of negative capability.” His quest to solve the “riddle” of Lincoln’s mind leads to some odd entanglements around a subject who “either was captivated by what he was saying or was afraid to look closely enough at it, or he did not want to insist on it. Or he wanted to leave it uncertain because he was uncertain, or certain but out of season.”

After pondering sentences like those you know that when Kateb advises us “to struggle against bewitchment” in the “task” of understanding Lincoln, he’s speaking from experience. Reading Kateb on Lincoln is like being in the company of an explorer just back from a journey so disorienting that he’s hard put to make sense of it. In the immediate vicinity of the bewitchment alert, Kateb tells us “You cannot pin Lincoln down; he did not want to be pinned down, especially about his aversions.” Thus while Lincoln’s style is “simple and averse to grandness and clutter” and he writes “to be understood without having to be re-read,” some of his work “must be reread often” and yet he writes “as carefully as if he would be reread but did not quite expect to be.”

A page later Kateb gets closer to Lincoln’s own account of his method: that in writing or speaking “one should not shoot too high; shoot low down and the common people will understand you …. The educated ones will understand you anyhow … if you shoot too high your bullets will go over the heads of the mass and only hit those who need no hitting.”

An example of how charmingly Lincoln “shoots low” comes in the speech to the Temperance Society when he spins an analogy to show what keeps non-drinkers from taking the pledge: “Let me ask the man who could maintain this position most stiffly, what compensation he will accept to go to church some Sunday and sit during the sermon with his wife’s bonnet upon his head? Not a trifle, I’ll venture. And why not? There would be nothing irreligious in it: nothing immoral, nothing uncomfortable. Then why not? Is it not because there would be something egregiously unfashionable in it?”

The Riddle

On the eve of Washington’s birthday, February 21, 1861, after addressing the New Jersey Senate, Lincoln spoke to “the other branch of this Legislature.” The contrast between the two speeches, both brief, interestingly reflects the president-elect’s range. To the Senate he speaks as “an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty,” while to the House he refers to himself “piloting the ship of State through this voyage, surrounded by perils as it is; for, if it should suffer attack now, there will be no pilot ever needed for another voyage.”

George Kateb suggests that Lincoln’s mind “becomes a riddle to us” when “the antagonistic ideas of personal responsibility and overmastering providence coexist independenty, and neither one can defeat or banish the other.” While Kateb resolves the riddle by observing that “as a materialist” Lincoln found both ways “rhetorically expedient,” I prefer his rationale for the enigma of Lincoln’s faith, that we’ll never know for sure “what he really believed metaphysically,” for “He was always a free spirit.”

THE BAPTISM: This watercolor by local artist Terri McNichol won a Purchase Award from the Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission, and will be on display as part of the Mercer County Artists 2015 exhibition at the MCCC Gallery through February 27. For more information and gallery hours, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

THE BAPTISM: This watercolor by local artist Terri McNichol won a Purchase Award from the Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission, and will be on display as part of the Mercer County Artists 2015 exhibition at the MCCC Gallery through February 27. For more information and gallery hours, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

The Mercer County arts community came out in force earlier this month to view the rich and varied works of fellow artists at the Awards Ceremony and Opening Reception for “Mercer County Artists 2015,” which will be on display through February 27 at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College (MCCC), located on the second floor of the Communications Building on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road.

The show features 89 works by 63 artists in a variety of media including oil, acrylic, and watercolor paintings, as well as mixed media collages and 23 sculptures.

Gallery Director Dylan Wolfe, who curated the show, announced the award winners with fellow presenters Tricia Fagan and Nora Añanos from the Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission. “This exhibit clearly demonstrates the immense talent and culture of Mercer County,” said Mr. Wolfe. “Supporting the arts sustains the inspirations we can each find when we are living in a community flush with creativity, culture, and the expression of passions.”

Mr. Wolfe thanked juror Kyle Stevenson, an artist and MCCC Professor of Fine Arts, for making his selections from 244 pieces submitted by 138 artists. “Having been present during his deliberation, I can tell you with certainty that he made many difficult choices,” Wolfe told the crowd. Mr. Wolfe also acknowledged the Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission for its continuing support of the exhibit. “The commission not only supports us through grant funding, but also purchased artwork totaling over $2500 from this exhibit. They continue to build a remarkable permanent collection of county created, county owned artwork, and provide direct support and encouragement to our community of artists,” he said.

Award winners include: the Utrecht-Blick Best in Show Prize to David Orban of Trenton for “The Work Party: The Workbench.” The Juror’s Choice Awards went to Janis Purcell of East Windsor for “Phoenix Rising” and Megan Uhaze of Hamilton for “The Eye.” Juror’s Honorable Mention recipients were Marina Ahun of Princeton for “New York Grand Central Terminal”; Elise Dodeles of Lambertville for “San Francisco Area Fighter A219, Ike O’Rourke”; James Doherty of Lawrence for “Wynwood Walls”; Timothy J. Fitzpatrick of Mercerville for “Low Tide”; and Bill Plank of Lawrenceville for “Birth.”

County Purchase Awards went to Jamie Greenfield of Lawrenceville for “Seven Gold Coins”; Libby Ramage of Princeton for “Incantation”; John Pietrowski of Ewing (untitled); Adam Hillman of Pennington (untitled); Terri McNichol of Cranbury for “The Baptism”; and Cathy Saska-Mydlowski of Hamilton for “South Beach.”

Arin Black, executive director of the West Windsor Arts Council, awarded the Council’s prize to Kathleen Liao of Princeton Junction for “Quantum Leap.”

Featured artists from the Princeton area included: Priscilla Snow Algava, Joanne Amantea, Mechtild Bitter, Katja De Rutyer, Mary Dolan, Janet Felton, Sejal Krishnan, Ronald A. LaMahieu, Ghislaine Pasteur, Christa Schneider, Judith Tallerman, Ellen Veden, and Andrew Werth.

For more information, directions and gallery hours, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

Although there are many fine higher education institutions training choir directors in the country, two choral powerhouses have remained at the top of the heap for decades. For many years it was an unwritten tradition in the field that students who wanted to be choral conductors and wished to attend school on the East Coast came to Westminster Choir College. In the Midwest, students have been trained at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. These two institutions have maintained a friendly rivalry for the better part of a century while producing choir trainers who formed the backbone of the choral arena throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Rather than view each other as competitors, the Westminster and St. Olaf Choirs have shared their individual choral personalities, and occasionally have turned up in the same neighborhood at the same time.

The Snowmageddon that wasn’t — at the end of January — cancelled the Westminster Choir concert, however the St. Olaf Choir came to Princeton last Monday night as part of a 19-concert tour through the midwest and the east coast. Monday night’s performance in the Princeton University Chapel showed the full house why the St. Olaf Choir has been a drawing card for its resident college for more than a century.

Large choruses can have a difficult time in the expansive University Chapel. Listeners in the front tend to hear mass choral sound more clearly than those in the back of the Chapel, but the sound of the St. Olaf Choir was so well blended in this performance that the overall effect was clean throughout the hall. Conductor Anton Armstrong, only the fourth conductor in the Choir’s more than one hundred year history, is currently celebrating his 25th anniversary directing the choir. Dr. Armstrong approached the repertoire for this concert as a tribute to the legacy of the choir, with the first half of the program focusing on the music of his predecessors.

Bach has been a part of their repertory since the beginning, and Dr. Armstrong used Bach’s fourth motet, Fürchte dich nicht, as an opportunity to show off the St. Olaf Choir’s crisp diction and clean Baroque phrasing. The choir has been renowned for its ability to unfold sound in endless streams of chords, and Robert Stone’s The Lord’s Prayer and William Byrd’s I Will not Leave You Comfortless demonstrated this skill well. Throughout these pieces, the soprano sectional sound in particular was careful and well controlled, as the choir swelled together to close pieces with purely tuned chords.

The music of Felix Mendelssohn and Leonard Bernstein was also part of the performing repertoire of Dr. Armstrong’s predecessors — Kenneth Jennings and the father and son team of F. Melius and Olaf Christiansen. Mendelssohn’s Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe began with a men’s sectional sound reminiscent of the historic Glee Club sound of the past. Mendelssohn composed this work in the tradition of Bach, and the St. Olaf Choir sang with clean texts and solid chords. Kenneth Jennings’ own piece, The Lord is the Everlasting God brought out the well-mixed sound of the choir, while F. Melius Christiansen’s setting of 16th-century composer Philipp Nicolai’s Wake, Awake for Night Is Flying was a clever off-beat arrangement of a conventional text showing clean vocal coloratura and musical effects. In this set of pieces, violist Charles Gray provided elegant obbligato accompaniment. Soprano Chloe Elzey added a rich solo line to Ralph Johnson’s Evening Meal.

Dr. Armstrong devoted the second half of the program to the choir’s next chapter — the legacy of looking forward. Several of the pieces in this part of the program were composed for Dr. Armstrong by colleagues, and these works confirmed St. Olaf’s commitment to discovering the newest in choral music. All of these pieces were written in the past 50 years, and included two premiere performances. One of the most intriguing works was Kim André Arnesen’s Flight Song, composed as a birthday present for Dr. Armstrong. Arnesen writes effectively for chorus, with tunes that stay on the mind, and the choir sang the appealing music well, with a soprano obbligato that topped off the sound like icing. The American Boychoir (of which Dr. Armstrong was a member in his youth) joined the St. Olaf Choir for the St. Olaf Choir’s signature piece, Melius Christiansen’s setting of the 18th-century hymn Beautiful Savior.

During the concert, Dr. Armstrong acknowledged his debt, in inspiration and musical training, to the three choral organizations which had a large presence in the chapel that night: the American Boychoir, Westminster Choir, and St. Olaf Choir. The ongoing collaboration among these three ensembles can only serve to strengthen each one and the choral field as a whole.

I’VE COME TO GIVE YOU SOME GOOD NEWS: Caine Wise (Channing Tatum, left) has arrived from a planet in a distant galaxy to inform Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) that she is not a poor housekeeper living from hand to mouth, but in reality is the rightful ruler of the planet Earth and is a member of a royal family.(Photo © 2015 - Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)

I’VE COME TO GIVE YOU SOME GOOD NEWS: Caine Wise (Channing Tatum, left) has arrived from a planet in a distant galaxy to inform Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) that she is not a poor housekeeper living from hand to mouth, but in reality is the rightful ruler of the planet Earth and is a member of a royal family. (Photo © 2015 – Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)

In 1999, Andy and Lana Wachowski wowed the world with a spectacular mind-bender called The Matrix. But that was ages ago — another millennium — in fact, and their fans have been patiently awaiting for another ground breaking science fiction series.

Their patience may have been answered by Jupiter Ascending, a futuristic adventure featuring Mila Kunis in the title role of Jupiter Jones. The film is probably the first installment in a series about the fate of humanity.

The picture opens in Chicago, which is where we meet Jupiter, a humble housekeeper — born without a country, a home, or a father. She hates her life of cleaning other people’s houses and her never-ending string of tough luck. However. she has an astrological chart marked by Jupiter rising at 23 degrees ascendant which supposedly means that she’s a woman who has a great destiny.

In truth, she’s not a maid, but is an alien with royal blood. It turns out that Jupiter is destined to inherit Earth, and she is informed of that by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an emissary from a distant galaxy.

The epic unfolds by introducing a plethora of characters and filling in their back stories. For instance, we learn about Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton), three aliens, each of whom is vying for control of their family’s food business in the wake of the death of their mother.

That gruesome business involves the seeding of countless planets with life forms that will be consumed on the trio’s home planet. And, since Earth is now overflowing with people, they are ready to harvest humanity.

The only thing standing in the way is Jupiter, whose royal genetic signature has established her to be an Abrasax and the rightful heir to Earth. For that reason, there’s a price on her head. And Jupiter and humanity’s survival rests on the shoulders of her proverbial knight in shining armor, Caine.

Once this creepy Soylent Green (1973) subplot is revealed, the pace of Jupiter Ascending ramps up. At that point, Jupiter is taken on a visually captivating journey which careens around the universe at breakneck speed, and finally deposits her back home where she happily finds herself surrounded by familiar faces.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, science fiction action, partial nudity, and some suggestive content. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

For it’s annual fundraiser, the West Windsor Arts Council (WWAC) has planned the party of the year inspired by the spectacular Brazilian Carnaval known around the world. On February 28, guests are invited to experience one night in Rio complete with Samba dancing to the members of Alo Brasil band, professional Samba performers in traditional costume; international food and drink including the Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil, and exclusive silent auction items.

The West Windsor Arts Center’s old firehouse building will be transformed by in-house staff, volunteers and sponsors.

“The success of last year’s sold-out fundraising event told us we were on the right track,” said Executive Director Arin Black. “Our community is committed to our Arts Center and they want to have some fun! We want to continue to remind everyone that the Arts Center is here for great art and performance but also as a social outlet and community connection for the residents — Carnaval Magic is sure to do that!”

Event sponsors include: Charles Schwab, Peter Ligeti and Katie Stokel, Marketfair of Princeton, IBB Consulting Group, LLC, McCaffery’s Food Markets, Noto Insurance, PNC Bank, Princeton Air, Bhatla-Usab Real Estate Group, The Primary Residential Mortgage Inc., The Sherman Team, Sandler Training: Sales and Management Training, State Street, Princeton, Rakesh & Suneeta Kak. Food and drink sponsors are Leblon, Flying Fish Brewery, Americana Diner, Seasons 52, Terra Learning, Tre Piani, Efes Mediterranean Grill, The Taco Truck, Sahara, Brothers Pizza, Lindt, Palace of Asia, Field Roast, Stop and Shop, and Bai.

Tickets to Carnaval Magic are $75 per person. To purchase tickets and for more information, call (609) 716-1931, or visit: https://westwindsorarts.org.

February 11, 2015

record rev2Have you heard the word is love — Lennon/McCartney, “The Word”

With Valentine’s Day almost upon us, and the Oscars not far behind, I’ve been thinking about love scenes in film, love as a force in classical music, and love in the abstract, as it is, for all purposes, in “The Word,” one of the strangest things the Beatles ever recorded, and one of the best.

In that eerie, relentless, evangelical incantation of a song, John Lennon and Paul McCartney reduce the most used and abused term in popular culture to its word-for-word’s-sake-Gertrude-Stein essence. In the chorus, “Say the word and you’ll be free/Say the word and be like me/Say the word I’m thinking of,” word isn’t sung so much as wailed, and not in any bluesey rock and roll revival sense, but dementedly, despairingly, like the cry of souls lost in a loveless wilderness, or like “woman wailing for her demon lover” in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” The song is driven by a determination to possess that one word/note, a worthy challenge, as McCartney once suggested: “To write a good song with just one note is really very hard. It’s the kind of a thing we’ve wanted to do for some time. We get near it in ‘The Word.’” Lennon, whose go-to-the-marrow voice gives the performance its obsessive edge, says “it’s all about gettin’ smart.” Both admit they were smoking grass when they put it together (“We normally didn’t work while we were smoking,” says Paul), which helps explain the myopic, out-of-time focus on a single element.

Speaking Love

The word is spoken only once, and indirectly at that, in the love scene shared by the painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) and his Margate landlady Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) in Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner, which just opened at the Garden. No need for music, nor any other accompanying emotional stimulants. Spall and Bailey deliver the sequence with the verbally nuanced true-to-life warmth Mike Leigh consistently draws from his actors. Admiring the outline of her profile against the parlor window, Mr. Turner compares the chirpy, not quite homely widow to a statue of Aphrodite, adding “the goddess of love” in case the embarrassed lady is unaware of the fact. After he compares his own face to that of a gargoyle, Mrs. Booth gently reminds him of the folly of those who “fish for compliments,” looks him directly in the eye and firmly, sweetly, tremulously tells him that he is “a man of great spirit and fine feeling,” which are qualities of Turner’s the audience definitely needs to be reminded of at this point in the film. His way of sealing his declaration of love is to tell her, after a long, equally direct look, that she is “a woman of profound beauty.” The landlady’s response, beautiful in itself, is the high point of the film’s most moving performance. When she says she’s “lost for words,” she sounds the last note of a love duet composed by a master — almost the last note, for the scene actually ends with a satisfied noise from Timothy Spall, possibly the most eloquent grunt in his repertoire.

record rev1Playing Love

It may be that the proximity of Valentine’s Day had something to do with the BBC’s decision to mark the February 1 death of the renowned pianist Aldo Ciccolini with a video in which he performs Salut d’Amour, the piece Edward Elgar composed in July 1888 as an engagement present to his fiancée. Born on August 15, 1925, a month and a half after the passing of Erik Satie, whose piano music he helped bring to life in the 1960s, Ciccolini presents “Salut d’Amour” as if he’d lived and written it himself. Delicately taking creative possession of Elgar’s piece, he seems very much the self-confessed “solitary man” who once said he “should have been born on a desert island” rather than Naples.

Asked in March 2013 why he chose to perform Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod after winning the ICMA (International Classical Music Awards) lifetime achievement award, Ciccolini called the aria “the most beautiful hymn to love ever written …. Many composers have given wonderful expression to love in their music but Isolde’s Liebestod is unique in its sublimity. She becomes reunited with the man she loves …. They are no longer two people, but one.”

Filmed at 87 in a concert performance, his death less than two years away, Ciccolini is seen from above, in mid-range, and close-up, his expression impassive as he channels Liszt and Wagner; his classic Italian profile prompts thoughts of the boy of ten who was “totally transfixed” hearing Tristan for the first time at Teatro San Carlo in Naples and who in his teens interrupted his budding career to play for American soldiers and in bars to help support his family.

Music Is His Love

I found it all but impossible to locate Ciccolini in relation to family or friends or lovers. He never married and, according to the obituaries, left no survivors. A Los Angeles Times interview in March 1986 when he was 61 depicts a devoted, caring teacher allowing a master class to run half an hour past its scheduled conclusion: “Fully absorbed, Ciccolini hovers over the keyboard and later makes a few simple yet profound observations on the interpretive matter at hand.” As for love: “I am more and more in love with music and playing. So I learned to sleep while crossing the Atlantic and to need only three hours a night.” Which gives him that much more time to spend with the love of his life. Move ahead to 2013 and the ICMA interview and he’s talking about “incurable insomnia” and his preference for working at night because “the silence at night is not the same as during the day.” Night is also more forgiving: “one is better disposed and more patient with oneself if everything doesn’t work out as one wishes.”

During the 1986 visit to L.A for an all-Liszt performance at Royce Hall on the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, Ciccolini scoffed at the journalistic fondness for the idea that he “recorded all of Satie’s piano music and practiced Zen Buddhism and became a French citizen [in 1949].” He expresses no interest in “building popularity,” saying so “with the slightly husky, growling laugh of a Maurice Chevalier,” adding that he “should be a very foolish pianist” to think about “reinforcing” his renown every time he performed: “People will not speak of me in 100 years, but they will still be talking about Liszt. That’s the reality.”

It took a lot of determined searching online to find those few personal details, the Maurice Chevalier laugh, the Zen Buddhism, the philosophical view of his fame next to Liszt’s, and perhaps most interesting, the admission that he “always played what others avoided.”

Ciccolini and Chico

While the proximity of Satie’s exit and Ciccolini’s entrance in the summer of 1925 may not be worth mentioning except as a calendar coincidence, the fact is that Ciccolini’s name became “virtually synonymous with that of Satie,” according to the liner notes to Satie: Great Recordings of the Century (EMI Classics 1986). Listening to Ciccolini playing the first of Satie’s Gymnopédies, so simple and straightforward, you may be reminded, as I was, of the life-walks-on-and-on left hand of Bill Evans’s “Peace Piece.” Listen to the Sports et divertissements, however, and you hear the “intelligent mischievousness” Stravinsky saw in Satie, who composed send-ups of Mozart and Chopin (describing the Funeral March as a “famous mazurka” by Schubert, who never wrote a mazurka), and then in his Embryons desséchés (“Desiccated embryos”), created surrealist fantasies on fossils and crustaceans, including “a sea cucumber that purrs like a cat.”

Though I’ve been unable to find any reference to the other Ciccolini, meaning Harpo and Groucho’s brother, the ever-resourceful character with the same name played by Chico Marx in Duck Soup, you have to believe that the master interpreter of compositions as zany as Satie’s was well aware of Chico and the slapstick sleight of hand he uses to shoot music from the keys like gunfighter counting off shots.

A Day in the Life

Thanks to Ciccolini’s embrace of Satie, we’ve come through Elgar and Wagner and love back to the Beatles, whose groundbreaking recording “A Day in the Life” has some obvious points in common with Satie’s Sonatine bureaucratique, performed by Ciccolini on the Great Recordings album, and accompanied by Satie’s “commentary telling of a day in the life of an office worker.” The Beatles famously end their Day with an orchestral hurricane, a development in their music that may have been first signaled by the chilling, verging-on-atonal chorus of “The Word,” which was recorded in November 1965. Speaking of surrealist fantasies, the title of the album the song eventually appeared on was Rubber Soul, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.

“Everywhere I go I hear it said/In the good and the bad books that I have read,” John sings, then repeats that line in an interview quoted on the site, Beatles Bible — “whatever, wherever, the word is ‘love.’ It seems like the underlying theme to the universe.”

MERCER COUNTY’S SCOTTISH CONNECTION: This winter, volunteer stitchers at Morven Museum and Garden worked on this panel paying tribute to General Hugh Mercer as part of the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry project. When completed, the finished panel, which has the famous Mercer Oak as its centerpiece, will be sent back to Scotland to join others like it celebrating the achievements and contributions of Scots around the world.(Image Courtesy of Morven Museum and Garden)

MERCER COUNTY’S SCOTTISH CONNECTION: This winter, volunteer stitchers at Morven Museum and Garden worked on this panel paying tribute to General Hugh Mercer as part of the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry project. When completed, the finished panel, which has the famous Mercer Oak as its centerpiece, will be sent back to Scotland to join others like it celebrating the achievements and contributions of Scots around the world. (Image Courtesy of Morven Museum and Garden)

Morven Museum and Garden on Stockton Street is participating in a worldwide celebration of The Scottish Diaspora by bringing volunteer stitchers together to work on a single tapestry panel that is to be included in a larger work in tribute to the accomplishments of Scots around the world.

Princeton’s contribution features elements from the life of Revolutionary War hero General Hugh Mercer (1726-1777), who died a slow death over several days from bayonet wounds received at the hands of British soldiers during the Battle of Princeton.

After his horse had been shot from under him, Mercer was bayoneted repeatedly and left for dead. Legend has it that he lay under the famous oak tree that would become a symbol of the county named for him, before being taken to the William Clark house nearby.

But Mercer’s story goes back a long way before his friend George Washington, with whom he had fought in the French and Indian War, made him a brigadier general in the Continental Army.

Like many of his patriotic companions, Mercer had fled his native Scotland for the colony of America. As a battlefield surgeon at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, he had witnessed the bloody butchery that ended the Scottish attempt to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. Led by Charles Edward Stuart, the legendary Bonnie Prince Charlie, hopes for this Jacobite Rebellion were dashed at Drumossie Moor where the battle was fought, just north of Inverness.

Two years earlier, at the age of 19, and newly graduated from Aberdeen University, Mercer had been inspired by thoughts of replacing the German-speaking King George II with the prince that highlanders regarded as the rightful heir to the united monarchy of Scotland, England, and Ireland.

Centuries later, the name Culloden retains the power to evoke chills in the Scottish psyche and in a dramatic account of Mercer’s death in General Hugh Mercer: Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution, author Frederick English describes Mercer’s defiance of the British redcoats as a throwback to his days as a battlefield doctor. He would not ask for mercy of soldiers who called to him to surrender, calling him a “rebel.”

Morven’s contribution to the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry Project involved many hands. The Museum’s Barbara Webb commends “stalwart stitching volunteer” Alison Totten for the lion’s share of the work, helped also by Edie Tattersall during the recent holiday period.

The embroidered panel connects Princeton to two dozen other communities engaged in documenting their Scottish connections. The aim is to pay homage to emigrant Scots over the centuries by gathering and celebrating the stories of those individuals who had a profound impact on the areas where they settled.

“I hadn’t picked up a needle since the 1960s but knew this was something I could contribute to,” said Ms. Totten, who welcomed the opportunity to “honor all my Scottish ancestors, who represent a cross section of the Diaspora. I am part of the McLean clan of Argyll.”

According to the project’s organizers, Scots and their descendants “never lost a deeply held pride in Scotland’s culture and its democratic ideals: they took with them their religion, skills in medicine, engineering, botany, education, administration, agriculture, and more besides.”

“I saw a lot of people who, like me, had not done needlework in a long time, and who, like me, were taught by a mother or grandmother all those years ago,” said Ms. Totten who was quick to credit the skills of an accomplished embroiderer from the Embroidery Guild of America for stitching the Mercer Oak and the recumbent figure of Mercer under it. “It was a sheer delight to encourage them to put in a stitch or two and watch their faces transform with joy. We even got a few cub scouts to participate! One 4-year-old girl had to be pried away by a very patient mother.”

Soon to be shipped back to Scotland, Morven’s panel shows the Mercer Oak alongside the names of significant places in the life of the soldier physician. The international artwork of which it will form a part, is a successor to the first communal Scottish tapestry project, The Great Tapestry of Scotland, completed in 2013.

Hundreds of stitchers in 25 countries volunteered thousands of hours to craft panels which illustrate such contributions as the arrival of tea in India; the creation of a steelworks in Corby, England; military leadership in Sweden and Russia; national parks and tobacco growing in the United States; and the gold rush in Australia.

Mercer was one of Washington’s most trusted advisers. According to military historian and Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, had Mercer lived, he “might have been [Washington’s] peer and possibly his superior.”

For more on the Morven project, visit: http://morven.org/the-scottish-diaspora-tapestry-project/. For more about the tapestry, visit: www.scottishdiasporatapestry.org.

When one thinks of an organ recital, the first thought that comes to mind is a church setting, listening to an organist with his back to the audience, playing music for the most part written by classical composers. Cameron Carpenter, whose Princeton roots go back to his student days at the American Boychoir School, is trying to change all that. Along with his prodigious technical ability at the piano as a child, his first concept of what an organ should be was not the church-based instrument, but the theater organ, originally used to add a musical backdrop to a silent film. Mr. Carpenter has long stated that one of the frustrations of being an organ recitalist was adjusting to a different instrument in each venue. A decade ago, Mr. Carpenter began to address this issue by designing a transportable organ which can be taken anywhere and which would allow the organ repertoire to move in more compelling directions. For the past year, Mr. Carpenter has been unveiling his imaginative musical instrument across the United States, and last Friday night was Princeton’s turn.

Cameron Carpenter’s Princeton recital last Friday night took place not in a venue such as the University Chapel, with its majestic Skinner organ, but at McCarter Theater, where his five-manual International Touring Organ filled the stage of Matthews Theater. This instrument represents a fusion of Mr. Carpenter’s performing career, incorporating sonorities from his favorite musical experiences, with a goal of “innovating the relationship between organ and organist.” Built by Marshall & Ogletree, the Touring Organ includes modular console, numerous speakers, supercomputer/amplifier unit and LED lights to provide uplighting.

Mr. Carpenter’s organ recitals are usually a combination of classical repertoire and improvisation, and Friday night’s performance was a highly entertaining amalgamation of music history, visual media, and Mr. Carpenter’s imagination. Beginning with back-to-back Bach and Shostakovich works, Mr. Carpenter demonstrated the more fluty registrations of the Touring Organ, aided by his own dexterity among the five keyboard manuals.

The Bach pieces were richer and louder than Bach likely heard in his own time, with abrupt shifts in registration that Bach could not have imagined. The Touring Organ has a great spectrum of dynamics, and Mr. Carpenter’s own fascination with being able to “teeter on the edge of audibility” was clear.

Mr. Carpenter has made a career of transcribing orchestral works for the organ, and his treatment of Isaac Albéniz’s piano suite Iberia toyed with soft dynamics and heavy use of the lower two keyboard manuals and pedals. Oliver Messiaen’s God Among Us, one of the more difficult pieces in the repertory, was played with devilish virtuosity, force, and conviction, with the dissonances all the more discordant when heard digitally.

Mr. Carpenter’s own work, Music for an Imaginary Film, showcased some of his more astounding technical capabilities, including playing scale passages with one thumb while the rest of his fingers are playing on the manual above. At one point, Mr. Carpenter’s arms and legs all seemed to be going in different directions, creating a myriad of sonorities in the process.

As a tribute to his inspiration from silent film, Mr. Carpenter spent a highly enjoyable 20 minutes or so accompanying the Buster Keaton 1920 comedic film One Week. Playing with a great deal of vibrato and tremolo suitable for the time of the film, Mr. Carpenter provided an improvised accompaniment that included such sounds as train whistles and drumbeats that one would never hear from an organ. Throughout the film, he maintained solid musical control over the action on screen, and one could easily just have listened to the accompaniment and be just as entertained as watching the film. Mr. Carpenter further demonstrated his improvisational skills with the encore to the performance — his own interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, recreating the orchestral sonorities in almost unrecognizable form through unique registrations.

Cameron Carpenter is one of a kind. His musical training, whether in his hometown in western Pennsylvania, at the American Boychoir School, North Carolina School for the Arts, or Juilliard, provided him with technical abilities to take his chosen instrument into new realms (not unlike what Liszt did with the 19th-century piano). Along the way, he also picked up an understanding of interacting with audiences, becoming a “cross-over” artist who will bring new appreciation for all the genres of music he touches.

GOOD MEETS EVIL: Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, right) the evil tech mogul who is planning to take over the world, is introduced to Eggsy (Taron Egerton, left), who has just been recruited into the elite group of spies called the Kingsman by Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Valentine is planning to take over the world by devising a  plan to surreptitiously download an app, that he can control, into every cell phone in the planet.(Photo by Jaap Buitendijk©TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

GOOD MEETS EVIL: Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, right) the evil tech mogul who is planning to take over the world, is introduced to Eggsy (Taron Egerton, left), who has just been recruited into the elite group of spies called the Kingsman by Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Valentine is planning to take over the world by devising a plan to surreptitiously download an app, that he can control, into every cell phone in the planet. (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk©TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is so unassuming and buttoned-downed that no one would suspect him to be a highly skilled secret agent capable of killing at the drop of a derby. However, as a Kingsman, he belongs to an exclusive fraternity of nattily attired spies who abide by the motto “Manners Maketh Man.” Members of this covert organization consider themselves to be modern day knights, and they consider their suits to be their body armor.

Despite his distinguished service record, Harry still regrets the mistake he made during a 1997 operation in the Middle East that cost a colleague his life. Today, Harry hopes to make it up to his dead partner by taking his orphaned son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), into the service.

This will be easier said than done since, aside from completing the requisite Navy SEAL-like training program, the young apprentice has a lot of rough edges that need smoothing, including a grating cockney accent. Since he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, Eggsy needs some lessons in etiquette.

Meanwhile, a matter of more pressing concern comes to Harry’s attention. There is a plot being hatched by Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is an evil tech mogul who is bent on world domination. He is giving away billions of free SIM cards that will give free phone calls and internet access to everyone. People are lining up for the freebies all around the planet, not realizing that they’re about to download an apocalyptic app into their cell phones.

Adapted from the comic book series The Secret Service, Kingsman is a satire of the espionage genre which will have you recalling the early James Bond adventures starring Sean Connery. The picture was directed by Matthew Vaughn who co-wrote the script with Jane Goldman.

Colin Firth is delightfully debonair, here, whether turning on the charm or dispatching bad guys. Samuel L. Jackson is just as amusing and is cast as an adversary who has a flamboyant persona complete with a lisp.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and graphic violence. In English and Swedish with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

February 4, 2015

rec rev2Listeners can journey back and forth between Dylan at 73 and Dylan at 25, in Shadows in the Night (Columbia), the new album being released this week, and The Basement Tapes Raw, the shorter 2-CD edition of 2014’s 6-CD set, Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes Complete (Columbia).

Dylan sings 10 standards in Shadows in the Night, including “Autumn Leaves,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “Lucky Old Sun.” Asked “Why make this record now?” in an exclusive interview in AARP The Magazine, he says, “Now is the right time …. I love these songs.” As for the fact that all ten were originally recorded by Frank Sinatra: “That’s the mountain you have to climb, even if you get only part of the way there …. He’d be the guy you got to check with.”

There’s a striking if fleeting indication of Dylan’s feeling for standards and Sinatra in his memoir, Chronicles Volume One (Simon and Schuster 2004), where he mentions playing Sinatra’s version of “Ebb Tide,” which “never failed to fill me with awe. The lyrics were so mystifying and stupendous.” When Sinatra sang that “phenomenal” song, “I could hear everything in his voice — death, God and the universe.”

But forget the superlatives, enough about Sinatra, Dylan trucks right ahead in the offhand devil-may-care style typical of that likably bumpy ride of a book, calling back over his shoulder, “I had other things to do, though, and I couldn’t be listening to that stuff much.”

The “other things” included a series of historic recordings that peaked 50 years ago with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, after which came the game-changing July 1966 motorcycle accident that set the stage for the basement tapes.

“At” or “To”?

Be advised, The Basement Tapes Raw is not to be played while cleaning up in the kitchen unless you can endure the moans of protest from otherwise-Dylan-friendly family members. No doubt about it, there’s a definite let-it-all-hang-out, howling-at-the-moon aspect to some of the sounds coming from the Ulster County bunker where Dylan and his band betook themselves as if to escape the fall-out from Sgt. Pepper, psychedelia, and the summer of love.

In the AARP interview, Dylan singles out Sinatra’s “ability to get inside of the song in a sort of a conversational way. Frank sang to you — not at you. I never wanted to be a singer that sings at somebody. I’ve always wanted to sing to somebody.” This would be an interesting distinction to follow through the Works as a way of sorting things out. The guy howling “Subterreanean Homesick Blues” is not singing to anyone. It’s more a matter of for — for our attention, the world’s notice, or for the gods of word-drunk glory, who may be moved to grace his arrogant genius with a smile or a clapping of spectral hands. Nor is he necessarily singing to or at anyone on the basement tapes while hanging out with the Hawks aka Crackers soon to be The Band. What he’s doing is harvesting a new crop of songs he knows will become a cult commodity as long as he keeps them a mystery. Thus, curious, needy fans had to make do with the cover versions from the various performers for whom he made a 14-track demo tape. In that sense, if he was singing to anyone it was to Manfred Mann (“Quinn the Eskimo”), the Byrds (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”), Fairport Convention (“Million-Dollar Bash”), Peter, Paul and Mary (“Too Much of Nothing”), and The Band themselves (“Tears of Rage,” “I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s On Fire”).

Best Heard on the Road

For the sake of family harmony, I tried playing the songs from the basement with the volume down. Not a good idea. What’s the point of muting something that brands itself Raw? Always the best place for music, the true test, is on the stereo in the Honda CRV called Moby (after Melville’s whale). In fact, the first of the two Basement Tape CDs was in the player a few days ago when the battery died. A short wait for AAA later, Moby was running, but the audio system was not. It needed a code I couldn’t find. After a day in silent limbo, I found the code and we were back in business, on our way to a doctor’s appointment in Plainsboro with Dylan turned way up. No problem, the heavy traffic, the long wait at the light on Harrison and U.S. 1, and the 40-minute rush-hour slog driving back. This is road music strong enough to survive the stop and go, start and stop, all the better because it means more time to listen to everything from “Open the Door, Homer” to “Please, Mrs. Henry,” with its impossible-not-to-sing-along-with chorus (“I’m down on my knees/and I ain’t got a dime”). Whatever’s happening here, to us or at us or for us or with us, it’s all working, it’s all good, Moby’s clearing pot-holes in a single bound, zipping through yellow-light intersections with the grace and force of a speeding bullet as we cut a neat right into the parking lot at McCaffrey’s and some quality time, engine idling, with “I Shall Be Released.”

As the dust of the drive clears, it’s the lyrics that reveal how close these songs are to the previous year’s Blonde On Blonde, with couplets like “Well, I looked at my watch/I looked at my wrist/Punched myself in the face/With my fist/I took my potatoes/Down to be mashed/Then I made it over/To that million dollar bash.”

Or “Lo and Behold,” which provoked an answering surge from the CRV: “I come into Pittsburgh/At six-thirty flat/I found myself a vacant seat/An’ I put down my hat/What’s the matter, Molly, dear/What’s the matter with your mound?/What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?/This is chicken town!”

rec rev1He’s There Now

“I’m Not There,” a five-minute wonder I’d never heard before, at least not by Dylan, was sung by Sonic Youth and provided a fitting title for Todd Haynes’s 2007 “many lives of Dylan” film. The beauty of discovering a great song, or having it discover you, better yet, is like the feeling of being submerged in magic and mystery when all the time you thought you were buried in traffic on U.S. 1. If the song passed me by when I saw the film, it was because someone else was singing it. In his notes to The Basement Tapes Raw, Ben Rollins speculates about “what this might have sounded like with a finished lyric.” Never mind, finished or unfinished, Dylan’s there, the singer’s inside the song singing to someone, pushing and pleading, as if striving to be heard, to find a way through, to make himself felt, with lines like, “She’s my prize forsaken angel, but she don’t hear me cry/She’s a long hearted mystic and she can’t carry on” and “She’s a long haunting beauty/But she’s gone like the spark.” As with his best songs, Dylan is singing about what William Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” For this song, it’s like Faulkner’s phrase for novelists who try to say all there is to say, it’s like putting “the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin.”

“Stay With Me” 

At this writing, on Schubert’s birthday, January 31, only two songs from Shadows In the Night can be heard online. Both are best listened to during the “Visions of Johanna” time of night when the “heat pipes just cough and the country music station plays soft.” Dylan’s rendition of “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a ballad sung by Sinatra in 1945, was the first I ever heard of this song. You’d think that something with so divinely dippy a title and a melody line lifted from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto would have come my way by now. Dylan keeps his promise, made in the AARP interview, not to “disrespect” these songs. He’s singing in clear measured thoughtful tones, caressingly complemented by Donnie Herron’s pedal steel guitar, a great improvement on the overbearingly lush orchestration on the Sinatra version.

“Stay With Me” is a wonder much like “I’m Not There.” Dylan does more than respect it; as in the other song, he makes it a mission, he’s striving like a pilgrim on a quest, undaunted though his “feet sometimes stumble on the way” and “the road buckles” under him. It’s like an inspirational alternative to his dark masterpiece, “Ain’t Talkin,” from Modern Times (2006). Schubert comes to mind again, given his devotion to the metaphor of the walking figure on the path, be it a pilgrim, a rejected lover, or an old musician playing for alms, wandering from town to town.

———

The new Dylan went on sale Tuesday of this week at the Princeton Record Exchange, which also has The Basement Tapes Raw, and Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes Complete.

ANGEL WINGS: As a trained botanist, Mary Allessio Leck combines a singular photographic eye for detail together with informed scientific knowledge. Shown here are her images of ice and water that will be included in the Gallery at Chapin’s “Parallel Views–Flowers and Ice,” through February 27, at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike. An opening reception for the artist is scheduled for tonight, Wednesday, February 4, from 5 to 7 p.m., but in case of inclement weather, visitors are advised to check for rescheduling details by calling (609) 924-7206 or visiting the Chaplin School website: www.chapinschool.org.

ANGEL WINGS: As a trained botanist, Mary Allessio Leck combines a singular photographic eye for detail together with informed scientific knowledge. Shown here are her images of ice and water that will be included in the Gallery at Chapin’s “Parallel Views–Flowers and Ice,” through February 27, at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike. An opening reception for the artist is scheduled for tonight, Wednesday, February 4, from 5 to 7 p.m., but in case of inclement weather, visitors are advised to check for rescheduling details by calling (609) 924-7206 or visiting the Chaplin School website: www.chapinschool.org.

The Gallery at Chapin’s latest exhibition brings artistry and botanical science together for a close look at flowers and ice, the twin interests of local photographer Mary Allessio Leck. “Parallel Views – Flowers and Ice,” will run through February 27. An opening reception for the artist is scheduled for tonight, Wednesday, February 4, from 5 to 7 p.m., but in case of inclement weather, visitors are advised to check for rescheduling details by calling (609) 924-7206 or visiting the Chapin School website: www.chapinschool.org.

Ms. Leck appreciates water in all its forms. Known locally for her work with the freshwater wetlands once called the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh and now known at the Abbott Wetlands, Ms. Leck was among the founders of the Friends of the Marsh (www.marsh-friends.org). She is also a member of the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission (DRCC), which overseas and manages the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park and protects the streams that feed into the canal.

As a photographer she is drawn to both ice and flowers. Although these seem to be such separate subjects, one suggesting coldness and the other passion; one inanimate and the other living, “the properties of water underlie both,” explained Ms. Leck in a recent interview.

While the connection is obvious in the case of ice, it’s a little more subtle in the case of flowers. “As a scientist I’m interested in flowers right down to the level in which water is transported into the cells,” said the trained botanist who is a Rutgers University professor emerita. “My interests in flowers and ice run in parallel, both subjects have a great variety of forms, textures, colors, and patterns. Both are dependent on particular properties of water. Both can be extraordinarily beautiful. Both, also, can surprise and prove opportunities for discovery,” she said.

Her photography reveals forms in flowers as “simple” as a tulip or as complex as an orchid. Recent photographic explorations of flowers have yielded “enlightening” views “of the sparkle and wrinkled surfaces of petals, for example. Flowers can be deconstructed, petals removed to reveal inner details.”

Ms. Leck, who gained a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Massachusetts and a PhD in the subject from the University of Colorado in Boulder, is partial to photographing irises, orchids, and white flowers in general, but feels that all deserve a look.

When it comes to ice, Ms. Leck has found just as much diversity. She has discovered that ice can be textured. “The surface, bottom, and/or internal crystal formation is critical to determining what happens to light; sometimes the light pattern on the bottom of a puddle can create a complex mosaic superimposed on the leaves that collected there,” she has observed.

Photographing her two subjects combined with her deep scientific knowledge has enriched Ms. Leck’s awareness of the natural world and its myriad of connections: “I’ve come to realize that regardless of the subject, light is critically important to what I see (or that my camera captures). It is the properties of the cells and cell walls of flowers and features of ice crystal formation that determine whether light is transmitted, reflected, or refracted. Ultimately, it is the transparency of water to light that allows us to see, and to see patterns in ice or the pigments in petal cells.”

Her work draws upon the basic scientific techniques of observation and experimentation. “Underlying my photography is the fun of exploring, discovering, and trying to figure out explanations for what I’ve seen.”

Ms. Leck has participated in many shows including Phillips Mill Photography Exhibit, Grounds for Sculpture, Ellarslie at the Museum of Trenton, and D&R Greenway Land Trust.

The Chapin School is located at 4101 Princeton Pike, Princeton. The exhibition can be viewed during school hours by appointment. For more information, call (609) 924-7206, or email: sgomberg@chapinschool.org.

LET ME HELP YOU WITH YOUR HOMEWORK: Wealthy attorney Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner, right) coaches his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). Due to an unfortunate accident, Elliot’s wife is killed in a car accident which leaves Elliot to raise Eloise as a single parent. Eloise’s father is a convicted drug addict, who also happens to be black. A bitter custody battle ensues when the child’s black grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer, not shown) sues for custody of her granddaughter.

LET ME HELP YOU WITH YOUR HOMEWORK: Wealthy attorney Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner, right) coaches his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). Due to an unfortunate accident, Elliot’s wife is killed in a car accident which leaves Elliot to raise Eloise as a single parent. Eloise’s father is a convicted drug addict, who also happens to be black. A bitter custody battle ensues when the child’s black grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer, not shown) sues for custody of her granddaughter.

When Elliot Anderson’s (Kevin Costner) wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle) perishes in a tragic car accident, he is left with the task of raising his 7-year-old granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) alone. The couple had originally assumed custody for her when their daughter had died giving birth to the little girl, since the baby’s drug addicted father Reggie (Andre Holland) was behind bars and totally unfit to be a parent.

Today, however, Elliot has a drinking problem which escalates out of control in the wake of his spouse’s untimely death. His situation comes to the attention of Eloise’s fraternal grandmother, Rowena “Wee-Wee” Davis (Octavia Spencer).

She approaches Elliot about setting up visitation rights, in spite of her son’s substance abuse problems, since Eloise has a lot of other relatives on her father’s side of the family who are eager to see her. However, Elliot, a white wealthy lawyer, balks at the request, presumably because they’re black and from the ‘hood, and Elliot wants to shield his granddaughter from the ghetto and its host of woes.

Wee-Wee asks her attorney brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), to file suit. The parties end up slinging mud at one another in an ugly custody battle where Reggie is accused of being a crack head with a criminal record and Elliot is labeled a racist and an alcoholic. Additionally, the Judge Margaret Cummings (Paula Newsome), who is an African American female, might be biased in favor of the plaintiff Rowena.

All this leads to a courtroom showdown in Black or White, a cross-cultural melodrama written and directed by Mike Binder (Reign over Me). Inspired by true events, the picture pits Elliot and Wee-Wee against each other and are capably played by Oscar winners Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves) and Octavia Spencer (The Help).

Thanks to the media, everyone knows that a lawyer never asks a question on cross-examination that he or she doesn’t already know the answer to. Nonetheless, Jeremiah violates that cardinal rule by asking Elliot, “Do you dislike all black people?” This affords the grandfather an opportunity to rehabilitate his tarnished image in a scintillating soliloquy reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” monologue in the movie A Few Good Men.

Unfortunately, the rest of this drama doesn’t match the intensity of that climactic moment. Nonetheless, the film is worth seeing because of Costner’s performance and for the way in which the script dares to tackle some tough social questions in a realistic, if perhaps politically incorrect, fashion.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity, fighting, ethnic slurs, and mature themes involving drugs and alcohol. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

January 28, 2015

book revThis being a week after the national holiday devoted to the man who gave his heart, soul, and life to the cause of racial justice, I’ve been reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, edited by Clayborne Carson and published in 1998 by IPM Warner. With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X coming up next month, I’m also reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley and published in 1968 by Grove Press. In addition, thanks to TCM’s special MLK birthday programming, and Comcast On Demand, I’ve been able to see One Potato, Two Potato (1964), an unforgettable yet sadly all but forgotten film about racism in the midwest.

Getting Physical

For me, the most striking photograph in King’s autobiography is the full-page medium-close-up of him taken staring through the bars of his cell the Birmingham jail in October 1967, half a year before his death. He’s seen from the side, his chin propped in the “V” formed by his thumb and index finger, the other hand holding one of the bars. He appears to be in casual attire, workingman’s shirtsleeves and trousers, a notable departure for a man most often seen in suit and tie, arm in arm with colleagues or supporters at an event or declaiming at the pulpit. The preacher and public speaker, perennial leader of Civil Rights gatherings, usually looks a bit buttoned-up, which makes it that much more dramatic the moment that voice comes thrillingly forth. When he belts out his stirring “I have a dream” mantra, it’s hard to believe such oratorical ecstasy is coming from the man in the well-tailored suit. The grainy, close-to-soft-focus quality of the prison photograph gives an aura of mystery to the pose, as if the index finger of his left hand might be sending a subtle signal to his followers, a calming “Ssh, hush now,” that contrasts with the presence of latent, virile force and great physical strength, like that of a star player about to charge onto the field or the court or the diamond or the stage.

No wonder, then, that the first chapter of his book presents him as a newborn exemplar of physical and mental health: “From the very beginning I was an extraordinarily healthy child. It is said that at my birth the doctors pronounced me a one hundred percent perfect child, from a physical point of view. I hardly know how an ill moment feels.” The same thing would apply, he says, to his “mental life,” that he has “always been somewhat precocious, both physically and mentally. So it seems that from a hereditary point of view, nature was very kind to me.”

As for his homelife, it was also “very congenial. I have a marvelous mother and father. I can hardly remember a time that they ever argued … or had any great falling out. … It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present. It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood experiences.”

In Contrast

King’s emphasis on a happy, healthy, loving “quite easy” upbringing shines a light on the world of difference between the lot he was born into and the one that was Malcolm Little’s. The first chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, titled “Nightmare,” begins with his pregnant mother watching as torch-bearing, shotgun-brandishing Klansmen surround the house on horseback shouting for her husband to come out before proceeding to smash all the windows with their gun butts. That was in Omaha, Nebraska. Three years later in Lansing, Michigan, six-year-old Malcolm’s activist father was beaten to death and “laid across some tracks for a streetcar to run over him.” From that horror forward it’s one blow after another, the insurance company refusing to pay (claiming the murder was a suicide), the forces of welfare applying pressure rather than helping, the mother finding and losing another man, then going mad, the family shattered, Malcolm taken in by caring foster parents, doing well in school, only to be told by one of his teachers that he has no future as a lawyer or a teacher in that community even though he has shown himself to be academically superior to white students.

Right now I’m 100 pages into the Autobiography and can’t put it down. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to what is clearly one of the major books of the sixties. I hope to write more about it next month.

Brave and Brilliant

One Potato, Two Potato is a deceptively “small” film about an interracial couple living in what seems to be a relatively enlightened, reasonably tolerant northern Ohio town. Next to 1967’s overblown, Oscar-sweeping, hamhandedly politically correct Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Larry Peerce’s picture is both brave and brilliant, a landmark work, as human and powerful as Stanley Kramer’s blockbuster is hollow and belabored. Although One Potato, Two Potato received only one Oscar nomination (for Orville Hampton and Raphael Hayes’s’ original screenplay), it caused a stir at Cannes, winning the Best Actress award for Barbara Barrie and leaving those in the audience in stunned silence before they erupted with what Time magazine called “the longest, loudest ovation in nine years.”

To make a tasteful film on a taboo subject in a year where racial intermarriage was still illegal in 14 states would already be a noteworthy accomplishment, but there are scenes of such searing truth in One Potato, Two Potato that it’s hard to imagine them ever being surpassed or even equalled. The film works from the outset because the couple is believable, both as individuals and as partners in the relationship. Bernie Hamilton’s Frank is a long way, thankfully, from the handsome, accomplished, too-good-to-be-true character played by Sidney Poitier in Dinner. He’s not handsome, not ugly, just what you’d call a “regular guy” and is treated as such by his white co-workers. He’s introduced to Julie by his friends, a white couple. If you’ve seen Barbara Barrie as Dennis Christopher’s mother in the feel-good favorite Breaking Away (1979), you know how well-cast she is as a shy, pretty, thoughtful divorcee raising a little girl by herself in the four years since her husband (Richard Mulligan) walked out. What begins as a friendship never quite becomes a fullblown romance. Julie and Frank share a playful sense of humor, taking part in a spontaneous game of hop scotch in the town park at night (a reflection of the child’s game for which the film is titled) and a foot race that leads to their first and only kiss, an astonishing moment to imagine appearing on American movie screens in 1964 (no surprise, the film ran into serious distribution difficulties).

One of the most telling sequences comes when the ex-husband shows up at the house where the couple and the child have moved in with Frank’s parents. When he sees his five-year-old daughter playing in the front yard he’s instantly smitten. In a lesser film he would be the stereotypical mean-spirited, irresponsible father who abandoned her and is scheming to lure her away. While it’s true that he’s brought her a gift, a huge stuffed animal, the games he plays with her (she has a toy gun, he lets her shoot him dead, they face off in a show-down) seem spontaneous, without any ulterior motive other than the perfectly human one of wanting her to like him. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect in a flashback narrative framed by a grim court hearing over custody of the child. Thanks to Robert Mulligan’s performance, you feel for him, he’s so clearly taken with the little girl he hasn’t seen since she was an infant. When Julie comes out of the house to speak with him, he still apparently has no intention of taking the child away from her. But the instant he sees the black husband and his black parents everything changes. It’s a shocking, deeply ugly moment of truth, he’s truly horrified, and the audience finds itself facing, head-on, naked racism. It’s chillingly real, purely animal, not hatred, but an absolute of fear and disgust revealing a level of twisted, soul-sickness it’s disturbing to witness. He can’t speak. He has to turn away, sickened and afraid, really as if he were confronted with monsters who have his blond wife and his lovely little blond daughter in their clutches.

Several scenes that follow are no less powerful — Julie physically attacking Frank when the judge rules against them, the child hitting her mother in rage and confusion when she realizes this stranger she played with one afternoon is taking her away from her home, her mother and adoptive father, her baby brother, her grandparents. Why is she being punished, she asks. What did she do wrong?

The grim truth of the judge’s verdict in favor of the white father, which he realizes is morally skewed, allows that the child has a better chance in life with a single white parent than in a mixed-race family. However pained by it Dr. King himself might have been, he would understand all too well the judge’s terrible rationale.

His Link to Life

There is no mercy, no hope, no bright light in the ending of One Potato, Two Potato, only that devastating last image of a screaming sobbing heartbroken child who thinks that she’s being driven away from her happy home life because she did something wrong.

Again, think of Martin Luther King’s words about his birth and loving upbringing, his “marveous” parents and his mother Alberta Williams King, who “has been behind the scene setting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing link in life.” It’s interesting that the one time in the book when King takes off the coat and tie and lets his hair down is in a letter to his mother written in October 1948 when he was 19 going on 20. There, after telling her how he boasts to the boys at Crozier Seminary that he has “the best mother in the world,” he refers to a girl he “used to date” and has “been to see twice,” and then tells his mother, “I met a fine chick in Phila who has gone wild over the old boy.” At a point in his life when he’s reading Thoreau on civil disobedience, Marx on capitalism, Nietzche on the power of the will, and discovering Gandhi on passive resistance, King is writing to his mother about a “fine chick” and boasting of how “the girls are running me down” (as in chasing him). What’s particularly revealing about the letter is how open and easygoing his relationship with his mother seems. He can talk to her comfortably, as to a close friend, because, as he puts it earlier, she instilled in him “a sense of ‘somebodiness’ “ and then said “the words that almost every Negro hears before he can yet understand the injustice that makes them necessary: ‘You are as good as anyone.’ “

MOONLIGHT ON JUDGE’S SHACK: Ray Yeager’s star studded scene is just one of the evocative images in the D&R Greenway Land Trust exhibition, “High Noon to Midnight Moon–Talismans of the Horizon,” on view through March 20. An Artists’ Opening and reception will be held this Friday, January 30, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Johnson Education Center, One Preservation Place, off Rosedale Road. The exhibition features work by Silver Boureau, Annelies van Dommelen, Lora Durr, Deborah Land, Kathleen Liao, Paula Pearl, Rye Tippett, Diane Tomash and Ray Yeager. All the art is for sale with a percentage going to support the D&R Greenway’s preservation and stewardship mission. To register for the free reception, call (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more information, visit: www.drgreenway.org.

MOONLIGHT ON JUDGE’S SHACK: Ray Yeager’s star studded scene is just one of the evocative images in the D&R Greenway Land Trust exhibition, “High Noon to Midnight Moon–Talismans of the Horizon,” on view through March 20. An Artists’ Opening and reception will be held this Friday, January 30, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Johnson Education Center, One Preservation Place, off Rosedale Road. The exhibition features work by Silver Boureau, Annelies van Dommelen, Lora Durr, Deborah Land, Kathleen Liao, Paula Pearl, Rye Tippett, Diane Tomash and Ray Yeager. All the art is for sale with a percentage going to support the D&R Greenway’s preservation and stewardship mission. To register for the free reception, call (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more information, visit: www.drgreenway.org.

In celebration of its current art exhibition, “High Noon to Midnight Moon–Talismans of the Horizon,” the D&R Greenway Land Trust will host a reception and artists’ opening this Friday, January 30, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Curated by Diana Moore, the exhibition features the work of artists Silver Boureau, Annelies van Dommelen, Lora Durr, Deborah Land, Kathleen Liao, Paula Pearl, Rye Tippett, Diane Tomash and Ray Yeager. All the art is for sale with a percentage going to support the D&R Greenway’s preservation and stewardship mission.

Viewing the work on display has been described as a “virtual Whistler experience.” The artwork celebrates “the half-light, first glimmers of morning, last rays of evening and especially light in darkness” and is “the ideal tonic for occluded winter days.”

“The exhibit is dark, deep, yet sublime, with magical moons, suns, and stars illuminating rich land & skyscapes, encouraging one to contemplate the immense solitude of the skies,” said Ms. Moore. “The moons symbolize D&R Greenway’s silver anniversary; the suns suggest looking forward to the golden 50th celebration, and the stars remind us of land preserved in perpetuity.”

The art on display is characterized by Whistler-like delicacy. It includes intriguing boxes, which evoke the mysterious constructions of Joseph Cornell; and whisper-soft evocations of light on New Jersey landscapes, including the Pine Barrens and Island Beach by night.

High Noon to Midnight Moon–Talismans of the Horizon,” may be viewed in the Marie L. Matthews Galleries at the D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center, One Preservation Place, off Rosedale Road, on business hours of business days through March 20. For unscheduled gallery visits, call to be sure rooms are not rented at the time of prospective arrival.

The D&R Greenway’s home—a circa-1900 restored barn—the Johnson Education Center, has become a focal point for conservation activity. Through programs, art exhibits and related lectures at One Preservation Place, the non-profit inspires greater public commitment to safeguarding land.

Admission to both the exhibition and the reception is free. To register for the reception/artists’ opening, call (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more information, visit: www.drgreenway.org.

PASS BOOK OPPRESSION: Buntu (Atandwa Kani, left) helps Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) survive in apartheid South Africa through taking another man’s pass book and giving up his own identity, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” (1972), playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 15.

PASS BOOK OPPRESSION: Buntu (Atandwa Kani, left) helps Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) survive in apartheid South Africa through taking another man’s pass book and giving up his own identity, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” (1972), playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 15.

“You have to understand,” Styles, in his photo studio in the black township of New Brighton outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa, tells us, “we have nothing except ourselves. We own nothing except ourselves. This government and its laws leaves us with nothing except ourselves. Even when we die, we leave nothing behind except the memories of ourselves. That is my job.”

As the culmination of his genial, chatty opening monologue, Styles’ comments about the role of the photographer strike central themes of identity, who we are as human beings, and appearance vs. reality in Sizwe Bansi is Dead. Created by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1972 at the mid-point of South Africa’s four and a half decades of apartheid government, the play shifts back and forth in tone between low-key, light, humorous and intensely, painfully serious. It delivers a scathing indictment of the harsh system of racial discrimination and segregation imposed by the white South African government on its majority dark-skinned population.

Seeing this production of Sizwe Bansi, at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, more than 20 years after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, is a different experience from seeing the original on Broadway, where Mr. Kani and Mr. Ntshona shared Tony Awards for best actor, after its 1972 opening in South Africa and subsequent run in London. I remember feeling the political tension at that time. There was the sense that this controversial play was doing something dangerous. Mr. Kani, who played the role of Styles in the original and has directed this production with his son Atandwa Kani as Styles here, and Mr. Ntshona had, surprisingly in 1974, been allowed to travel outside of South Africa, but only with the official designation as servants to Mr. Fugard. After a subsequent performance of the play in South Africa, Mr. Kani and Mr. Ntshona were jailed for 23 days.

Unsparing in its detail of the world of apartheid South Africa, Sizwe Bansi presents a vivid, memorable picture of three characters, played by the two actors. But, though this production may have lost its specific political immediacy after 43 years, it reveals the rich universality and timelessness of human beings struggling to assert their identity against the oppressive forces of a society that would deny them that right. Along with blacks in apartheid South Africa, think of blacks in the segregated U.S. South (The recently released movie “Selma” comes readily to mind.) or of recent demands that African-American lives in Ferguson, New York and elsewhere matter and must be recognized and treated with dignity, or of other oppressed peoples throughout the world.

In the spirit and style of South African township theater, sets and costumes (designed by John Kani), props and staging are minimal. The two seasoned, brilliantly captivating actors create the world of Sizwe Bansi with their actions and their words. John Kani’s direction is focused, intelligent and on-target. The pacing is swift and nuanced, and the 90-minute show holds its audience from start to finish.

Atandwa Kani’s Styles is a dynamically personable, appealing character. In his opening monologue he reflects shrewdly, pointedly on events of the world and he describes working for the Ford Motor Company in South Africa, preparing the plant for a visit from the big boss, telling his white employers what they want to hear. But Styles has since persevered to surmount some of the bureaucratic and financial obstacles that the apartheid society placed in his way, and he has acquired his own tiny photography studio. With his irrepressible affability, his sharp sense of humor and his broad smile, he readily wins over the audience, even welcomes two audience members on stage to see his photos.

People come to him for passbook photos, family photos—selfies of 20th century South Africa?—in the hopes of creating and asserting their identities and preserving those identities into the future. “This is a strong-room of dreams,” he boasts. “The dreamers, mightiful…These are the people that would have been forgotten with their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations if it wasn’t for me, Styles.”

Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) enters the photo studio, dressed in a white double-breasted suit and fedora, with both pipe and cigarette, seeking a single snapshot to send to his wife in King William’s Town to show her how he is doing. But, clearly, he is unsure of his own identity. His suit seems too large for him, and he is uncomfortable as he hesitates before telling Styles his name is “Robert Zwelinzima.” In the form of a letter to his wife, who had to stay in far-off King William’s Town with their four children while Sizwe went to find work in Port Elizabeth, Sizwe tells the audience the story of his transformation. “Sizwe Bansi, in a manner of speaking, is dead.”

As he tells his story, illustrating so dramatically the destructive effects of the pass book laws, the scene changes in a flashback, and we observe Sizwe’s struggles with the repressive conditions of living as a black man under the South African apartheid government. Soon after Sizwe arrived in New Brighton outside Port Elizabeth, where he stayed with a friend, the police raided his friend’s house and put a stamp in Sizwe’s pass book demanding that he leave Port Elizabeth immediately. He could have found work in Port Elizabeth, but would surely have been arrested and either jailed or forcibly returned to King William’s Town where he could not find work to support his family except in the dangerous, back-breaking job of mining gold and diamonds.

Sizwe moves into hiding with a man named Buntu (also played by Atandwa Kani), who explains to him the harsh pass book system, but is unable to help him until, late at night, after a drunken visit to the local bar (the shebeen), Buntu and Sizwe come upon the body of a dead man in an alley. The dead man’s pass book is in order. Sizwe can take the book, assume the identity of Robert Zwelinzima, then live and work in Port Elizabeth.

In a world that treats people as pass book numbers rather than human beings, the decision for Sizwe, Buntu argues, is a simple, practical one. But Sizwe, confronting the existential dilemma of what it means to be a human being, protests, “I don’t want to lose my name…How do I live as another man’s ghost?” Echoing Shylock’s angry declaration of his humanity as a Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Sizwe asserts his pride and dignity as a man: “Am I not a human being? I’ve got eyes to see. I’ve got ears. I’ve got a head to think good things. Am I not a human being?”

The final scene of the play returns to Styles’ photo studio and the present, as Sizwe, now Robert Zwelinzima, smiles for the camera.

“Survival can involve betrayal of everything—beliefs, values, ideals—except Life itself,” Mr. Fugard wrote in his Notebooks 1960-1977. In Sizwe Bansi is Dead the title character lives in a world where, to survive, he must give up his very name and identity as a human being. It’s difficult to imagine a more powerful, moving depiction of a racist society that inflicts such devastating, pernicious effects on individuals and families.

McCarter Theatre’s production of “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead,” co-produced with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg and Syracuse Stage, will run through February 15 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre at 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org for tickets and further information.

One can never get too much J.S. Bach on a winter Sunday afternoon. The Dryden Ensemble brought some rarely-heard works to Miller Chapel on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary this past weekend, and the full house at Miller Chapel recognized that they were listening to something special.

The Dryden Ensemble built Sunday afternoon’s program as a “Cantata Fest” featuring two extraordinary singers. Soprano Ah Young Hong sang with a full and pure sound which was well under control. Her voice warmed up as the concert progressed, and Ms. Hong knew exactly how to send her voice to the rafters of the Chapel. Particularly in the closing Cantata No. 49, Ms. Hong’s powerful yet straight tone was reminiscent of the boys’ sound for which Bach composed so many of these cantatas. Throughout her singing, Ms. Hong demonstrated tremendous breath control while spinning out phrases, and she showed an expressive command of the texts.

Ms. Hong was paired with baritone William Sharp, who brought drama and expression to Bach’s cantata arias. Clearly at ease with the music of Bach, Mr. Sharp was a picture of reassurance in vocal duets in which he portrayed Jesus and Ms. Hong as “a soul.” Mr. Sharp demonstrated the epitome of vocal technique in the coloratura sections of the aria selection from Cantata No. 57. In his assigned arias and recitatives, Mr. Sharp sang with a great deal of character and showed himself to be a real storyteller.

The strength of this concert was also in the instruments of the Dryden Ensemble. Playing on original or replicated Baroque instruments, the musicians of the Dryden settled quickly into accompanying the singers with style and accuracy. Daniel Swenberg played a variety of unique instruments, including his usual theorbo, and both an archlute and Baroque lute. Mr. Swenberg came out from the continuo section to play the one piece not by Bach — a Tombeau sur la mort de M. Conte de Logy by Silvius Leopold Weiss, a German composer and lutenist who was a contemporary of Bach and the most important lutenist of his day. The Tombeau form was developed by French composers to pay tribute to those who had gone before, and Weiss’s Tombeau was typically tuneful and in Mr. Swenberg’s hands, resounded clearly in the hall. Playing on a Baroque lute, an instrument with at least 30 strings, Mr. Swenberg effectively introduced the audience to an instrument and repertoire rarely heard.

Oboist Jane McKinley had a number of passages in several cantata arias which required dexterity on the oboe, and her performance on the oboe d’amore accompanying Ms. Hong in the closing Cantata No. 49 was smooth and elegant. Bach created an unusual sonority in this cantata by combining voice with the oboe d’amore, the five-string violoncello piccolo (played by Lisa Terry), and the lute. Webb Wiggins, usually heard on the harpsichord in these performances, played a chamber organ which, in Cantata No. 49, provided lively solo passages (with a bit of chromaticism) closely related to Handel’s sprightly organ concerti.

Violinists Vita Wallace and Dongmyung Ahn, as well as violist Andrea Andros, moved well with the vocal passages, with solid string continuo from cellist Lisa Terry and Baroque double bass players Motomi Igarashi. The instrumentalists consistently communicated well, effectively handling transitions among sections.