March 18, 2015

book revAll in all the most useful volume I ever found at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, which begins with a $25 preview Friday, March 20, at 10 a.m., is “a compendiun of literary lore” called A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984), edited by Neal T. Jones. According to the title page, it includes “Notable Quotations, Scores of Birthdays, Myriad Marriages, Some Romances (& Quite a Few Deaths) — All Relating to the Literary Life — Profusely Illustrated with Photographs, Paintings, & Drawings.” It’s a source I keep within reach as I look ahead to each coming Wednesday. Even when I have a clear-cut subject in mind, I like to see what gems the little book has to offer for the date in question, and this week it’s March 18. For instance, this day in 1728 John Gay wrote to Jonathan Swift that because of his play The Beggar’s Opera he is “lookt upon at present as the most obnoxious person in England.” That remark seems appealingly in character for the author of Trivia or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, a poetical survival guide concerning pickpockets, wig thieves, overflowing gutters, falling masonry and emptied chamber pots, with advisory couplets like “Let firm, well hammer’d Soles protect thy Feet/Thro’ freezing Snows, and Rains, and soaking Sleet.”

On the same page, here’s The Reverend Laurence Sterne, who died at 54 on March 18, 1768, a reminder that I’m way overdue for a rereading of Tristram Shandy, which got me through the winter of my first year on my own in New York. I still have the deceptively damaged copy of Sterne’s masterpiece that turned up at Bryn Mawr a decade or so before the millennium. There it was, or I should say, there they were, two battered volumes from 1832, torn asunder, like siblings forced apart by the welfare fates, one at either end of a table that had been plundered by dealers and collectors who wanted nothing to do with such shabby specimens. If the crazed table-sweepers had had time for a closer look, they’d have seen that each volume was immaculate within, good as gold, complete with Cruikshank illustrations that are curiously out of tune with the text of a work that was centuries ahead of its time. Of the three copies of Tristram Shandy I own, the most precious, however, is the relatively recent one that kept me company on West 87th in Manhattan, a well-underlined and asterisked volume edited by James A. Work, chairman of the English Department at Indiana University when I was a student there.

But the The Book of Days has more to say about the Rev. Sterne, who, on the Sunday following his 1741 marriage to Elizabeth Lumley, “shocked his parishoners by discoursing upon the fifth chapter of Luke: ‘we have toiled all night and taken nothing.’”

Princeton’s Coleridge

It had to happen that the writer of this column, who has from his late teens claimed Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a literary fairy godfather, would end up living in the same town as Princeton University Press, publisher of the Bollingen Edition of the Works, a treasure of mind, spirit, and heart, most of it available for purchase in Collectors Corner at Bryn Mawr. This last vein of gold mined from the library of the late Peter Oppenheimer, who shared my interest in S.T.C., offers access to the critical, theological, and philosophical writings and intimate notebook musings and marginalia of one of the most fascinating performers to strut and fret his hour on the literary stage. The first time I opened Volume 1 of the Notebooks at random I came to this unintended haiku about his first-born child: “Hartley fell down and hurt himself. I caught him up angry and screaming, and ran out of doors with him. The moon caught his eye — he ceased crying immediately; and his eyes and the tears in them, how they glittered in the moonlight!”

What I felt as a father when chancing upon this passage was a more intimate version of the excitement I knew at a highly impressionable age when chancing upon “Kubla Khan.” What gave the fragment of verse its in-the-moment immediacy was the story behind it, the poet waking from a dream, writing down the lines, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. And is it mere “magical thinking” to suggest that something of this poetry of happenstance evokes the possibilities in force when a vast congregation of books from who-knows-where is assembled under the same roof?

Barbara Freedman

“My mother tied a ribbon in my hair the day she took me to the public library for my first card. I wore my best dress and I was nervous.”

In respect of the subject of bookish congregations, this column about the area’s largest and longest-running book event is dedicated to the memory of longtime Princeton resident Barbara Freedman (1928-2015), who was for three decades the driving force behind the relatively small but ever-flourishing Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale.

The army of volunteers called upon to unload and arrange Bryn Mawr-Wellesley’s estimated 85,000 volumes came to mind when I was reading Barbara’s essay on volunteerism, wherein she rejects her mother’s advice (“If you’re going to do something, get paid for it!”) and finds that volunteers need not resemble the “earnest, hat-bedecked matrons” in Helen Hokinson’s New Yorker cartoons. As far as I know, BM-W’s volunteers are hatless, and include a fair number of men, as is true at the Friends of the Library sale.

It’s odd to think that after 25 years working together, always in the context of the library book sales, annual and ongoing, Barbara never spoke to me about her favorite authors. Clearly she was well read, having done some writing of her own, with op-ed and travel pieces in the New York Times, in addition to planning and working on several novels. When I asked her son Jonathan about his mother’s taste in reading, he mentioned a fondness for mysteries, especially those by Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar, whom Jonathan and his parents got to meet during a family bird-watching vacation in California (the author and his mystery writer wife Margaret Millar being active in birding and conservation circles). Thinking to use Macdonald to link Barbara with Bryn Mawr, however obliquely, I searched the mystery table, one of the few that had been set up when I visited Princeton Day School Saturday. Surprised to find nothing by the prolific creator of the Lew Archer series, I asked one of the BM-W organizers about it and was assured that the boxes and boxes of mysteries still to come contained a stash of Macdonalds.

Meanwhile I decided to look a little deeper into the man’s life and guess who I found there? It seems that in 1951 Kenneth Millar earned a PhD at the University of Michigan. The mystery writer’s dissertation was titled The Inward Eye: A Revaluation of Coleridge’s Psychological Criticism.

Quaint and Curious

The subject of last year’s Bryn Mawr column was the outrageous market value of certain volumes by Edgar Allan Poe and here he is again, in The Literary Year, which gives March 18 1842 as the birth date of poet Stéphane Mallarmé, author of L’Apres-Midi d’une Faun, and yes, translator of the poetry of the ever-present Poe.

I like to think that when Poe was writing “The Raven” he was within arm’s reach of a library or at least a few shelves brimming with “quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.” Keeping that term in mind, I’ve scanned a list just sent to me by BM-W’s Fran Reichl, and here are some Q and C items spotted at random that will be for sale in Collectors Corner this year, beginning with a bound run of Graham’s Magazine, where some of Poe’s most famous work first appeared; Salvador Dali’s Les diners de Gala; Andy Warhol’s Wild Raspberries cookbook; Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues; Tiffany Million’s Guide to Meeting Exotic Dancers; the Villas of Pliney from Antiquity to Posterity by Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey; The Best Sex I Ever Had by Steven Finz; The Trials of Eve by Pnina Granirer; Paris Shopkeepers and the Politics of Resentment by Philip Nord; Mrs. Tuthil’s I Will Be a Gentleman: A Book for Boys, and (we have to stop somewhere), The Springtide of Life by Algeron Swinburne, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham

A Little East of Kansas

One last entry for March 18 in The Literary Year concerns the birth of novelist John Updike on that day in 1932, in Shillington, Pa. I don’t know what Barbara Freedman thought of Updike’s work, but she’d surely approve of the way he imagines his intended audience, as quoted in A Book of Days: “When I write, I aim my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.”

Barbara Freedman’s library memory is from her NY Times article “Are Libraries Doomed to Dry Up and Blow Away?” A plaque in the Friends bookstore at the Princeton Public Library remembers Barbara as founder of the Friends Book Sale: “a True Champion and Friend of the Library.”


The image shown is the frontispiece for The Book of Days, from a poster created by N.C. Wyeth for the Children’s Book Council in 1927.

IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES: The wit and whimsy of children’s book illustrator Matthew Cordell will be on display in an exhibition at Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery later this month. The artist’s “Hello! Hello!,” from Disney Hyperion Books, 2012, shown here, is part of “Drawing and Drawing Again,” which opens March 30 and runs through April 23. There will be an artists’ reception on Monday, April 20 from noon to 12:30 p.m. For more on the artist: visit: Part of the school’s “Imagine the Possibilities” guest artist series, the exhibition is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday when the school is in session, and by appointment on weekends. For more information, call (609) 924-6700, ext. 1772, or

IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES: The wit and whimsy of children’s book illustrator Matthew Cordell will be on display in an exhibition at Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery later this month. The artist’s “Hello! Hello!,” from Disney Hyperion Books, 2012, shown here, is part of “Drawing and Drawing Again,” which opens March 30 and runs through April 23. There will be an artists’ reception on Monday, April 20 from noon to 12:30 p.m. For more on the artist: visit: Part of the school’s “Imagine the Possibilities” guest artist series, the exhibition is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday when the school is in session, and by appointment on weekends. For more information, call (609) 924-6700, ext. 1772, or

The Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery at Princeton Day School is pleased to present “Drawing and Drawing Again” featuring the artwork of book illustrator Matthew Cordell from March 30 through April 23. There will be an artists’ reception on Monday, April 20 from noon to 12:30 p.m., which is free and open to the public.

Mr. Cordell has been drawing and making art for as long as he can remember. He has illustrated many books for children, including works of poetry, novels, and picture books. He has written and illustrated Trouble Gum, Another Brother, Wish, and Hello! Hello!, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book. Mr. Cordell lives outside of Chicago with his wife, author, Julie Halpern, and their two children. (For more information, visit:

The exhibition is part of the “Imagine the Possibilities” guest artist series at Princeton Day School, which is made possible through the generosity of the John D. Wallace, Jr. ’78 Memorial Guest Artist Series Fund.

The series has brought in celebrated authors, poets, and illustrators to work directly with Princeton Day School students for the past 20 years. Imagine the Possibilities coordinator Bev Gallagher remarked, “What a delight it has been working with this program for the past 20 years. It truly is inspiring to welcome amazing artists to our campus and watch teachers, students, and parents enjoy the experience. We are certainly thrilled that Matt will be with us this year — our 20th anniversary year!”

“Drawing and drawing again” is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday when the school is in session, and by appointment on weekends. For more information about the Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery, please call Jody Erdman, Art Gallery Director, at 609) 924-6700 x 1772 or visit


MYSTERY ON THE MOORS: Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) and Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) investigate reports of a deadly gigantic hound on the Devonshire Moors, in McCarter Theatre’s world premiere production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through March 29.(Photo by Margot Shulman)

MYSTERY ON THE MOORS: Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) and Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) investigate reports of a deadly gigantic hound on the Devonshire Moors, in McCarter Theatre’s world premiere production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through March 29. (Photo by Margot Shulman)

You might think you know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, but Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery will take you into surprising, hilarious realms of sheer theatricality, wild inventiveness, and over-the-top farce.

Running at McCarter‘s Matthews Theatre through March 29, Mr. Ludwig’s world premiere adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a bloodcurdling 1901 story of a family curse, a gigantic hound attacking its victims on the foggy Devonshire Moors, and the indomitable Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Doctor Watson navigating a slew of suspicious characters and situations to pursue the case, is as much about the magic of theater as it is about murder and mystery.

Baskerville is larger than life in its spirited embrace of the melodrama of the original story and also in its sheer delight in the rich array of theatrical contrivances necessary to create this world on a bare stage: the exuberant, versatile acting with just five actors playing more than 40 parts; wildly imaginative props and set; the astonishing abundance, cleverness and speed of costuming; and the sensational lighting, music, and sound effects.

Sherlockians and other murder mystery fans will enjoy the intrigues, the shrewd plotting and brilliant detective work, the colorful late 19th century world of London, the moors and the baronial manor of the Baskervilles, not to mention this “hero we can really believe in,” as Ludwig describes his protagonist, and the inevitable comparisons to Basil Rathbone (1939 movie), Jeremy Brett (1988 TV movie), and Benedict Cumberbatch (2012 BBC production).

But the greatest gifts to the audience here are the wild comedy, as Mr. Ludwig plays with plot, character and theatrical conventions, and the outstanding production values driven by the five brilliant actors and the dazzling technical feats involved in staging this action-packed melodrama.

The story is, of course, full of suspense and thrilling drama, but Baskerville delights in breaking through the fourth wall to show its audience its clever theatricality, as props and set pieces fly in through trap doors or from the wings or the rafters, venues change with the rising of a sunken platform, characters appear and disappear, then appear and disappear again, with the speed of a change of costume or maybe just hat and wig and accent. Over the top? Larger than life? Contrived? Artificial? That’s melodrama. That’s farce. Maybe that’s what theater — or at least this particular brand of theater — is all about. The performers and crews are obviously relishing the theatrical adventure, and it’s impossible not to enjoy it with them.

Director Amanda Dehnert keeps the complicated plot moving at a torrid pace and skillfully balances suspenseful drama with broad, deftly timed comedy. Mr. Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo) knows his craft, and McCarter’s first-rate actors and production team ensure that this material engages the audience and never becomes tedious.

Produced in association with Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, where it opened in January, Baskerville is a classic whodunit. Of course, as Doctor Watson, both narrator and major player, draws the audience into the intrigue, the question is not only “who?” but also “why?” and “how?” and “when will he or she do it again?”

 Early in the first of two acts, a visit to Sherlock Holmes’ 221B Baker Street London residence by an eccentric Dr. Mortimer (Stanley Bahorek) draws the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) and his no-nonsense assistant Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) into the mystery of the Baskerville curse.

Mr. Wooddell and Mr. Hall create a dynamic duo indeed, contrasting and complementary in their teamwork as they collaborate to solve the case. Mr. Wooddell’s Holmes is a dashing, histrionic figure, fearless and charismatic, while Mr. Hall’s Watson, more conservative, cautious, and approachable, provides the audience with a character foil to Holmes and an entrée into this wild Sherlockian world. As Mr. Ludwig states in his program notes, “[Sherlock Holmes] is quixotic, dangerous, and inspiring. Watson meanwhile is steady, stalwart, and wonderfully earthbound. Together they are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ariel and Caliban, fire and earth.” Mr. Wooddell and Mr. Hall are powerful and convincing in portraying these figures and their legendary, crime-solving teamwork.

Threatening to upstage this duo, however, are the three supporting players and the more than 40 characters that they play. Mr. Bahorek’s transformations, for example, are a delight to behold, from the business-like Mortimer to the ominous, misshapen Barrymore, gothic caretaker of the Baskerville estate, to the Castilian hotel clerk, then the shadowy figure of the Devonshire naturalist, butterfly-catcher Stapleton and others.

Michael Glenn as the Texan (one of Mr. Ludwig’s liberties with the original text) nephew and heir to the deceased Sir Charles Baskerville, injects a generous dose of humor — lots of Texas jokes for starters — and incongruity into the proceedings, as he and Watson probe the mysteries of the moors. Though Mr. Glenn, also playing the prickly, provocative rival Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, as well as a scullery maid and others, is no less busy than Mr. Bahorek, it is the amazing Jane Pfitsch who wins the chameleon prize for most characters, costumes, and wigs, not to mention the prize for most chaotic, fast-paced backstage costume changes. Her bewildering array of roles includes an eager London lad assisting Holmes and Watson, the frighteningly austere housekeeper Mrs. Barrymore, the lovely ingénue Miss Stapleton, mystery woman Laura Lyons, and, by her own count (I lost count early on!) as reported in an interview, 11 or 12 additional characters requiring seven wigs and three additional special hats with hair attached!

All of these transformations are great fun to watch, thanks to the extraordinarily proficient actors, who are able to present rapid-fire characterizations through voice, gesture, body language, and emotion and the brilliant, creative costume designs by Jess Goldstein, with the expert assistance of wig designer Leah J. Loukas and dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia.

Daniel Ostling’s set design, lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg, and sound design by Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli provide ample opportunities for theater magic in action. The mostly bare stage with lighting instruments clearly visible on scaffolding and lighting poles, footlights, and a cyclorama on the back wall, along with bone-chilling sound and music effects, in keeping with the larger-than-life murder mystery tone here, help to create the numerous rapidly changing locales.

“My hope,” Mr. Ludwig writes in his program notes, “is that Baskerville is about the theater as much as it is about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. I want it to be seen not only as a tale of fellowship and courage, but also as an adventure in theater making itself.” This Arena Stage-McCarter production, with its infinitely creative design and production team and these high-energy, high-versatility, highly imaginative performers more than fulfill Mr. Ludwig’s hope. It’s an entertaining evening for Sherlockians, theater-lovers and audiences of all ages.

McCarter Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” will run through March 29 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. Visit www. or call (609) 258-2787 for tickets and information.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra called their late winter concert this past weekend “Soulful Reflections,” presenting lush meditative music with a bit of virtuosity attached. Conductor Rossen Milanov began Sunday afternoon’s performance at Richardson Auditorium with a quirky yet rich orchestral work by a 21st-century American composer, followed by three works displaying the musical opulence of mid to late 19th-century Europe. Mr. Milanov and the Princeton Symphony chose to share the stage with a star American cello soloist Zuill Bailey.

Composer Sebastian Currier described his Microsymph as a “large-scale symphony squeezed into only ten minutes.” Within those ten minutes, Currier’s music crosses a number of different instrumental palettes, and conveys a wide range of musical effects from almost all the instruments possible in an orchestra. At times sounding like a lively accompaniment to an animated feature, Microsymph was comprised of five movements of different character. Most notable in the Princeton Symphony’s performance were a pair of melodic clarinets played by Anton Rist and Sherry Hartman-Apgar, three flutists doubling on piccolo, and a clean horn solo played by Douglas Lundeen.

Cellist Zuill Bailey has appeared with major orchestras throughout the United States, and his performance of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A Minor mesmerized the Richardson audience from the opening dark yet warm solo melody. Mr. Bailey demonstrated a lovely tone from the start, playing on a 1693 Venetian instrument which could produce both the clarity of the 17th-century and the richness of 19th-century repertoire.

In the give-and-take of the first movement, Mr. Milanov allowed Mr. Bailey to create his own musical spaces while maintaining strong communication between conductor and soloist. This was a concerto performance in which the soloist was clearly in charge, and as the three movements of this work melded together, Mr. Bailey held the audience’s attention with tender melodic lines and very light fingers changing notes in the fast sections. Mr. Bailey was joined by principal cellist Alistair MacRae to create a very smooth duet, finding variety in repeated passages. Mr. Milanov wove the three movements of the concerto together seamlessly, transitioning well to the closing movement.

Mr. Bailey and the Princeton Symphony treated the audience to a second musical gem in Jules Massenet’s “Meditation” from his opera Thaïs. With a crystal clear harp accompaniment provided by Sarah Fuller, Mr. Bailey drew out the familiar melody. Mr. Milanov built dynamics well within the ensemble, while Mr. Bailey showed himself to be a player of strength.

Mr. Milanov may have selected Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor to fit into the afternoon theme of “Reflections,” but it could just have easily been to show off the Princeton Symphony’s new principal clarinetist, Anton Rist. Sibelius’s symphony opened with an extended clarinet soliloquy, which Mr. Rist played smoothly over a musically icy terrain of jagged violins. The music of Sibelius is nationalistic, capturing Finland’s terrain in spacious orchestration and instrumental moments resembling icicles and ice crystals, while richness of instrumentation links this late 19th-century work to the rest of Europe. Jaunty winds and pure flute thirds played by Jake Fridkis and Amy Wolfe marked the first movement, which ended like the aftermath of an avalanche.

The quartet of horns led by Douglas Lundeen were consistently well blended throughout the symphony, and Mr. Milanov well maintained a sustained pastoral character in a musical winter wonderland marked by wind solos and a very solid brass ensemble of trumpets, trombones, and tuba. Furious string pizzicato marked the third movement scherzo, as a seven-note motive was passed around the orchestra in perfect time. Sibelius scored more for solo bassoon in this work than one normally hears, and Brad Balliett and Seth Baer conveyed these parts well. In the closing finale, Mr. Milanov led the lush orchestration with long conducting strokes as the Princeton Symphony brought the work to an opulent close.


BUT MY SON HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT: Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson, left) desperately tries to convince his long time friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) had nothing to do with the shooting of Shawn’s son when a drug deal involving two Albanian dealers went bad. Shawn was convinced that Mike, who happened to be the driver of the limousine hired by the dealers, was involved with the dealers and so had to be killed to avenge the death of Shawn’s son.(Photo by MYLES ARONOWITZ, © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

BUT MY SON HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT: Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson, left) desperately tries to convince his long time friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) had nothing to do with the shooting of Shawn’s son when a drug deal involving two Albanian dealers went bad. Shawn was convinced that Mike, who happened to be the driver of the limousine hired by the dealers, was involved with the dealers and so had to be killed to avenge the death of Shawn’s son. (Photo by MYLES ARONOWITZ, © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Hit man Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) and mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) have been friends for decades. So much so that the blood brothers from Brooklyn routinely recite their loyalty oath, “Wherever we’re going, we’re going together” as a reminder of their enduring alliance.

However, that unbreakable bond is shattered after Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is gunned down during a drug deal with a couple of Albanian heroine dealers that went bad. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), who is making an honest living as a chauffeur with a limousine company, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It turns out that he had no idea what was up when he was hired to serve as the Albanians’ getaway driver.

Nevertheless, revenge minded Shawn decides that his best friend’s son has to pay with his life. So, he tells Jimmy that he’s sending his assassins after Mike to even the score.

Of course Jimmy warns his son — who then calls the cops — ignoring his father’s advice to avoid the local police since they’re likely in cahoots with the Maguire crime family. When that turns out to be true, father and son end up on the run from both the authorities and the assassins.

Run All Night, features Liam Neeson, who’s cast in a role that he’s become associated with after his phenomenal performance as an overprotective parent in Taken. This picture’s premise puts a slight twist on the familiar theme because Jimmy’s not an empathetic protagonist given his career as a feared enforcer known as “The Gravedigger.”

Still, Jimmy wants to be redeemed in the eyes of his estranged son who rejected the notion of following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, Mike tried to be a boxer, and when that didn’t work out he took a legitimate job as a limousine driver.

Run All Night was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra who previously worked with Liam Neeson on Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014). Three times is definitely the charm as this adventure is their best collaboration yet. The film also features an excellent supporting cast which includes Nick Nolte, 2015 Oscar-winner Common (for the Best Song “Glory”), and veteran character actors Vincent D’Onofrio and Bruce McGill.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, graphic violence, and drug use. In English and Albanian with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 11, 2015

Just for fun, I’m going to do a number on Downton Abbey. Devoted fans may see no reason for tampering with that fabulously popular tour de force of an ensemble period piece, but after five seasons, even some of the faithful must be getting restless.

For me the key to making things more interesting is to reinvigorate Lady Mary, played to chilly perfection up to this point by Michelle Dockery, who is clearly giving the show’s creator Julian Fellowes exactly what he wants. In spite of attempts to add nuances and dimensions to her character (the dead Turk in her bed, star-crossed romance with Matthew Crawley, widow and motherhood, taking responsibility for the estate, primal birth-control devices, exploratory sex with creepy suitors, etc), she remains essentially bound by what Fellowes says of her in an interview on the Huffington Post: “The thing about people like Mary is that they just want to be in charge. They want to be at the top table.” When the interviewer presses him (“She’s difficult, even in love. And a cold mother?”), all he can say is “She wants more control. I think that whole generation were fairly cold!” More revealing is his non-answer when asked if he loves his characters: “I think what we got right is that we don’t give either side any more weight than the other.” That’s in case you ever doubted that the ensemble takes precedence over the individuals.

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A Cult Favorite 

There’s a 32-year-old British actress (a year younger than Dockery) who could make Mary scarily exciting and sexy simply by stepping into her shoes. Her name is Ruth Wilson and she just received a Golden Globe for her role in Showtime’s The Affair; at the moment she’s finishing an Off-Broadway run with Jake Gyllenhaal in Nick Payne’s two-person play, Constellations. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Jane Eyre in the 2006 BBC-TV production, and has won two Oliviers (for Stella in Streetcar Named Desire and as Anna in Anna Christie), but what made her, in the words of Mike Hale’s New York Times profile, “a cult favorite” was her role as “the murderous Alice Morgan” in the BBC series Luther. Hale offers a first-hand description of some of the physical force Wilson would bring to Mary, her “offhand intensity and overscale features — dramatically wide lips, piercing blue-gray eyes, architectural eyebrows.” But he doesn’t really do justice to her mouth, who could? There’s something seductively cunning and frankly feral in the beautiful deadly curl of her lower lip, as if she’s forever savoring some unimaginably sexy species of evil. She could do wonders for Mary given what she does for Alice, who enters Oxford at 13, earns a PhD in astrophysics at 18 for her study of dark matter distribution in disc galaxies, murders her parents, and then stalks the person investigating the crime, the troubled, ever-embattled black genius detective John Luther (Idris Elba of The Wire) on the way to becoming his ally, a demonic angel protector twice saving his life, and twice killing for him.

Far be it from me to suggest that Julian Fellowes release Lady Mary’s inner sociopath; still, Downton is only an Agatha Christie heartbeat away from a plot possibility that has Mary discreetly terminating her hated sister, Lady Edith. Now think how it would be if Mary were inhabited by an actress who, like Richard the Third, “smiles and murders as she smiles.” Mary’s darker possibilities are implicit in her fatal tryst with the Turk, but add a deadly measure of fierce Alice to her character, and Mary could be slowly destroying Edith simply through the toxic power of her presence. On the other hand, a Mary as fearless as Alice, who has access to supernatural forces, would have found a way to protect her maid and confidant Anna from Lord Gillingham’s rapist valet. Trust me, the loathed Green would not have got out of Downton alive if there’d been something of Alice in Mary. Of course that would have foiled the true perpetrator of the needlessly prolonged violation, Julian Fellowes, who inflicted it to continue the profitable exploitation of his favorite victims Bates and Anna.

Though she declares herself an enemy of love (as Mary appears to be during the epic mating dance with Matthew), Wilson’s Alice has a life-or-death crush on Luther. While Mary is chilly, Alice is beyond hot; well, she’s infernal and appealingly so. Lovely, sinister, and charming. It takes a very special talent to deliver a combination like that. Alice’s dangerous  flirtation with Luther may be rekindled when Luther goes into production again later this year after a two-year hiatus. As Wilson tells Mike Hale, she was already an admirer of Elba, and so not about to miss the chance of playing the deadly Alice, though she “wasn’t sure, necessarily,” until she realized she “could have a lot of fun with this character …. It was written like Hannibal Lecter, and I thought: ‘This is amazing. What woman gets to play Hannibal Lecter?’ ”

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The Turk in Mary’s Bed

One thing that sets violently compelling shows like Luther, Breaking Bad, The Americans, Orphan Black, and numerous others apart from Downton Abbey is that they have the courage of their outrageous convictions. That said, it was with an act of shameless outrage in the third episode of the first season, a single sensational violation of probability and Downton decorum, that Julian Fellowes fired his series like a comet over the pop culture landscape. No one but no one expected the Turkish diplomat to get into Lady Mary’s bed, let alone die in it. In the years since, I’ve been mistakenly visualizing Pamuk as a heavier, older type, when of course he was a ravishing, princely young blade, exactly the sort likely to have inspired and rebuffed a pass from Thomas, the gay valet, which in turn gives Pamuk the leverage to blackmail Thomas into showing him to Mary’s room. Most readings of the scene that follows see Mary as the victim. She’d flirted with Pamuk, to be sure, and then put him off when he kissed her earlier that evening. While it’s true that the Turk forces himself on Mary, she lets go at the moment of truth, submits, stifles a scream, and next thing we know a seemingly healthy, thriving young man is lying dead beside her. Whatever the cause, the impression is that Pamuk’s passion for the ice princess killed him. Put Ruth Wilson in that scene and the roles would be implicitly reversed: Mary no longer the ambiguously passive victim but the smiling instigator of his doom.

Making Nice

Another way to deal with the Mary issue — no need to go the dark route — would be to find an actress the viewer could easily admire, love, and pull for, someone so strong and centered and charming that you would still be on her side at the end of Season Five. From what I’ve seen of the Danish political series, Borgen, the most likely candidate (setting aside the language barrier) would be Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays prime minister Birgitte Nyborg with great charm and integrity. Almost from the moment she appears, Nyborg makes you care about her. A wife and mother, she’s strong, smart, pretty, vulnerable, human; she has great warmth, can be playful, sexy, funny, and altogether lovable without straining. If Hillary Clinton had half her charm, she’d sweep through the primaries and the general election in 2016.


“Butter Side Down”

After speculating on who among the characters in Downton Abbey might actually be writing the story, my choice is Lord Grantham’s perennially embattled valet Bates. He’s the only person on the premises who seems capable of it. I like to imagine him doing a Frankenstein and turning on Fellowes, his sadistic creator. He has good reason to feel abused. It’s hard to think of two more ill-fated beings than Bates and Anna, and all Fellowes can say when asked about the sufferings he imposes on them is “I think in life there are people who are unlucky — the bread always falls with the butter side down.”

That Fellowes resorts to that dinner table phrase in defense of his plotting says something about what keeps Downton Abbey from true greatness. Imagine Charlotte Brontë descending to the Fellowes rationale to justify the plight of Jane Eyre and Rochester. Still, the faithful were most likely happy with the Christmas finale of Season Five wherein the series celebrates itself; if you love it, you’re right there caroling along with the richly diverse ensemble, upstairs and downstairs. Even if you’ve been feeling estranged after the loss of characters like Lady Sibyl and Matthew Crawley and Cora’s maid from hell O’Brien, you have to admire the way Julian Fellowes keeps the many human marionettes of his Vanity Fair in play.

MCCC RETROSPECTIVE: Work by the acclaimed local artist and MCCC educator Frank Rivera, such as his “Liar, Liar,” shown here, is part of a retrospective of his work at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College. There will be an opening reception tonight, March 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The show will run through April 2. Gallery hours are Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit: Courtesy of MCCC).

MCCC RETROSPECTIVE: Work by the acclaimed local artist and MCCC educator Frank Rivera, such as his “Liar, Liar,” shown here, is part of a retrospective of his work at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College. There will be an opening reception tonight, March 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The show will run through April 2. Gallery hours are Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit: (Image Courtesy of MCCC).

There will be an opening public reception tonight, Wednesday, March 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the gallery in Mercer County Community College (MCCC) for an exhibition of work by the acclaimed artist and former MCCC professor Frank Rivera.

The Gallery is located on the second floor of the Communications Building on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road.

“Frank Rivera Retrospective: Selected Works 1945–2015” will continue through Thursday April 2.

Mr. Rivera taught art at MCCC from 1967 to 2003 and is now professor emeritus there. A resident of Hightstown, he has lived and worked in Mercer County for more than 40 years. His work has been exhibited prominently in the United States, including exhibits at the Whitney Museum, the Luise Ross Gallery, and the Abington Art Center, as well as numerous venues in Paris, where Rivera regularly spends time painting. He is a graduate of Yale Art School, with an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania.

According to MCCC Gallery Director Dylan Wolfe, the show will include work from all phases of the painter and educator’s creative career, which in earlier years featured large-scale abstractions, while in more recent times has focused on smaller narrative pieces inspired by storyboard graphics and computer art. The exhibition even includes a few pieces preserved from Rivera’s childhood.

“The work … has been arranged by theme and subject rather than by chronology. It is the persistence of these themes and subjects – not always linear – that has shaped my vision over the decades,” notes Mr. Rivera in the exhibition catalog,

The artist’s previous exhibitions have drawn glowing reviews. “There is an iconic quality to his pieces, recalling the carefully wrought panels and religious icons of medieval art,” wrote Cathy Vikso, of the Trenton Times. “Rivera says [his] paintings are autobiographical, but each [work] seems more like a distillation than a rapidly jotted down memory, and their complexity in such small dimensions is made the more interesting for their visual clarity, though their meanings are often elusive,” said Dan Bischoff of the Newark Star-Ledger. Dallas Piotrowski, former curator at the Chapin Gallery, has noted that “paintings of Rivera are for the mind.”

Gallery hours are Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit:


In recent years, a number of Princeton University graduates have turned up performing on the nation’s leading concert stages. These students’ success is a credit to the musical training they received at the University, but also to one particular showcase of their collegiate musical experience. The annual Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition is as serious as any professional competition, and when the winners are presented each year in concert, audiences can be sure they are hearing the musical stars of tomorrow.

This year’s Orchestra Concerto Competition was adjudicated by individuals accustomed to hearing the finest in musical performance —  Princeton’s Marna Seltzer, Dena Levine of Seton Hall University, Francine Storck of New Jersey Symphony, and David Hayes of Mannes College of Music. The University Orchestra presented this year’s three winners this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium in a program which interestingly progressed from earliest to latest in repertoire, but the soloists performed in order from oldest to youngest.

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen will graduate from Princeton this year, and will have no trouble walking from campus into a vocal performing career. Like recent graduate Anthony Roth Costanzo, currently on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Cohen has made a specialty of music of the castrato era, one of music history’s more insidious traditions, but one which produced some spectacular music. Castrati were the superstars of their time. Physical and musical anomalies — with the physique of a grown man combined with the range of a boy soprano — castrati and the composers who wrote for them created works with vocal tessituras and coloratura fireworks the likes of which 18th-century audiences had never heard.

For his portion of Friday night’s Concerto Competition Winner showcase (the concert was repeated on Saturday night), Mr. Cohen presented two of the tamer castrato operatic arias in terms of vocal virtuosity. Composer Nicola Porpora wrote some of the most extravagant operas of the 18h century, mostly for his brother, the renowned castrato Farinelli. His aria “Alto Giove” from the 1735 Polifemo stressed long vocal lines and dynamic intensity, both of which Mr. Cohen handled expertly. Accompanied by a small orchestra of strings and continuo, Mr. Cohen managed well phrases composed for a singer with a seemingly endless lung capacity, providing elegant ornamentation and flexibility in the closing cadenza. Conductor Michael Pratt kept the University Orchestra in a clean Baroque framework, tapering the sound when appropriate to accommodate the solo line.

Mr. Cohen’s second selection, “Scherzo Infida” from Handel’s Ariodante was in a similar style to the Porpora aria, and Mr. Cohen showed the same strengths with a more decisive vocal tone. Mr. Cohen was particularly attentive to the text, and despite the despairing nature of the words, took a gentle approach to the ornaments and cadenza. Although the Handel and Porpora operas were from the same 18th-century decade, the addition of a bassoon to the orchestra (gracefully played by Louisa Slosur) seemed to move the Handel aria historically ahead in orchestration.

Princeton University junior Edward Leung certainly has maintained a busy student career, studying at the Woodrow Wilson School and performing solo piano at a world-class level. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major is a work one expects to hear from a high-level professional orchestra, and its complexity and technical demands were a challenge well-met for both the University Orchestra and keyboard soloist.

Following the familiar horn introduction, Mr. Leung took immediate command of the piano. His well-timed chords fit right in place in the first movement, holding together the orchestral sound. Throughout the concerto, Mr. Leung never forgot he was part of an orchestra, but still managed to control a great deal of the musical suspense and dazzle the audience with riveting runs. The orchestra provided a solid accompaniment throughout, with Mr. Pratt taking a very Classical approach to the late 19th century concerto. Winds were particularly precise, with solos provided by flutist Marcelo Rochabrun and oboist Tiffany Huang.

The third soloist for the evening, sophomore violinist Emma Powell, was poised and calm as she tackled the demanding yet lyrical solos passages in Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Beginning the first movement with a crystalline sweet melody, Ms. Powell played excellent extended trills and was precise in both the lowest and highest registers of the instrument. Ms. Powell particularly took charge in the final Allegro, playing cleanly with timpani in the beginning and holding her own through the rollicking movement.

Mr. Pratt showed off the University Orchestra on its own to close the concert with a clean and bright playing of Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. A very precise ensemble of trumpets and trombones played from the balcony, with trumpet solo played by Junya Takahashi. Mr. Pratt built the tension in this early 20th-century work in an impressionistic fashion, bringing the work to a joyous closing in the final tribute to the “Pines of the Appian Way.”

ISN’T THIS PLACE JUST PERFECT!: In his usual irrepressible manner, Sonny, (Dev Patel, center) accompanied by Muriel (Maggie Smith), raves enthusiastically about the potential of the building that they hope to turn into the second best exotic Marigold Hotel, provided they can find investors to finance their dream.(Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2014Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

ISN’T THIS PLACE JUST PERFECT!: In his usual irrepressible manner, Sonny, (Dev Patel, center) accompanied by Muriel (Maggie Smith), raves enthusiastically about the potential of the building that they hope to turn into the second best exotic Marigold Hotel, provided they can find investors to finance their dream. (Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2014Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

When we last saw Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) who, in spite of the objections of his meddling mother (Lillete Dubey), he had proposed to his girlfriend Sunaina (Tina Desai). The ambitious young entrepreneur had also managed to raise enough money to renovate the ramshackle hotel with the help of Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), one of the residents of the retirement community.

In this sequel, we find Sonny and Mrs. Donnelly en route to San Diego where they hope to persuade an executive (David Strathairn) of the Evergreen Corporation to invest in a second old folks home he hopes to open. After all, the first is now flourishing and almost filled to capacity.

Meanwhile, back in India, Sunaina is focused on their impending engagement ceremony, known as a Sagai. In the groom-to-be’s absence, she’s asked Kush (Shazad Latif), a friend of the family, to fill in as a dance partner so she can practice the elaborate dance routine that she will perform with Sonny at the ceremony. It is subtly hinted that Kush might pose a threat to the impending marriage because Sonny became so preoccupied with business matters the minute he returned to India.

That is only one of several storylines in a sequel which unfolds more like a daytime soap opera than a feature film. Scene after scene is a setup for another transparent love triangle.

For example, as she checks into the hotel, Lavinia Beach (Tamsin Grieg) becomes interested in another new guest, Guy (Richard Gere), but he is interested in Sonny’s widowed mother. Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie), a pretty British pensioner, can’t decide between the two wealthy Indian suitors she’s dating. And Doug (Bill Nighy) has grown fond of Evelyn (Judi Dench) even though he hasn’t yet divorced his wife (Penelope Wilton). And so forth.

The irrepressible Sonny serves as the master of ceremonies and ties all these loose strands together. Unfortunately, because he’s more of a clown in this film, the movie is a joke-to-joke farce that cannot be taken seriously.

Very Good (**½). Rated PG for mild epithets and suggestive material. In English and Hindi with subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

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

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: or 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: or (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: or


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.


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 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,

For more information and the full schedule of events, visit,, 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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.”

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