February 25, 2015
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE PROVEN TO BE AN EXCELLENT STUDENT: Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, left) celebrates Jess Barrett’s (Margot Robbie) on being such a quick learner. Nicky took her on as his student after she botched an attempt to rob him by having her “husband” discovering them together in her hotel room.(© 2015-Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 18, 2015

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

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

Ride on Fire

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

“Something of Ill-Omen”

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

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

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

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

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

Beware Bewitchment

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

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

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

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

The Riddle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 11, 2015

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

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

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

Speaking Love

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

record rev1Playing Love

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

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

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

Music Is His Love

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

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

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

Ciccolini and Chico

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

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

A Day in the Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

“At” or “To”?

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

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

Best Heard on the Road

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

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

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

rec rev1He’s There Now

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

“Stay With Me” 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 28, 2015

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

Getting Physical

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

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

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

In Contrast

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

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

Brave and Brilliant

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

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

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

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

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

His Link to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EUREKA, WE’VE DONE IT: The team at Bletchley Park, led by Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, seated center) has successfully broken the encrypted radio transmissions of the Nazi military. Unbeknownst to the Germans, the team possessed one of the Enigma machines, which the Germans were using to encrypt their radio messages. Turing, a brilliant mathematician, was able to lead the team shown surrounding him to devise an electric powered machine that was able to decipher the code. They are shown here entering their machine’s results into the Enigma machine and receiving the unencrypted output.

EUREKA, WE’VE DONE IT: The team at Bletchley Park, led by Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, seated center) has successfully broken the encrypted radio transmissions of the Nazi military. Unbeknownst to the Germans, the team possessed one of the Enigma machines, which the Germans were using to encrypt their radio messages. Turing, a brilliant mathematician, was able to lead the team shown surrounding him to devise an electric powered machine that was able to decipher the code. They are shown here entering their machine’s results into the Enigma machine and receiving the unencrypted output.

At the outset of World War II, the Nazis gained an early advantage with the help of its Enigma, the encrypting machine which enabled the German military to communicate without having to worry about their radio messages being understood. In response, Winston Churchill authorized the eccentric math genius Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) to work with a team whose mission was to unscramble the Enigma’s encrypted codes.

Operating on the campus of a cypher school located in Buckinghamshire’s Bletchley Park, Turing’s team embarked upon a race against time to break the Enigma’s code that was equally as important as the fighting on the battlefield. And when they did manage to decipher the German communications, they understood that it was just as important to keep that fact a secret.

They realized that their information gave the Allies on the front lines an advantage that would be lost overnight if the Nazis changed the settings on their Enigma  machine. Fortunately, they were able to keep their secret safe from the enemy.

The British government credited Turing’s team with saving millions of lives and shortening the conflict in the European theater by a couple years. That important achievement is the subject of The Imitation Game, a bittersweet biopic directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum (Headhunters).

Nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor (Cumberbatch), and Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), the film is based on Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges’s biography of the unsung hero. Unfortunately, because of the secrecy of their work, and despite the pivotal role he had played, Turing contributions were never really recognized by the public. Instead, after the war he was arrested, convicted, and chemically castrated because he was gay (which was illegal in Britain at the time), which caused him to commit suicide.

The movie is a well crafted character study that just might earn Benedict Cumberbatch an Oscar.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sexual references, mature themes, and smoking. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

January 21, 2015

book rev2

“Paris is always showing its teeth; when it is not scolding it is laughing.” – Victor Hugo

Read in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on a satirical journal in Paris earlier this month, that declaration by Victor Hugo in Book Three of Les Misérables gets your attention. The passage continues in the same vein. When Paris allows itself the luxury of being stupid, “then the universe is stupid in company with it.” Having admitted as much, Paris “bursts out laughing in the face of the human race.” A century and a half before Charlie Hebdo, Hugo is telling us “What a marvel is such a city! it is a strange thing that this grandioseness and this burlesque should be amicable neighbors, that all this majesty should not be thrown into disorder by all this parody, and that the same mouth can to-day blow into the trump of the Judgment Day, and to-morrow into the reed-flute! Paris has a sovereign joviality. Its gayety is of the thunder and its farce holds a sceptre.”

“The Ideas of the Universe”

Amazing enough, to read that passage in mid-January 2015, but two paragraphs later, after Hugo pictures the city of Jean Valjean, Cosette, Marius, Gavroche, and Javert “showing its teeth,” he writes, “Such is Paris. The smoke of its roofs forms the ideas of the universe.”

Given the cloud of images and thoughts and sounds that has been spreading over the online universe since January 7, you have to think Hugo’s mind was tuned to some prophetic strain in the music of the spheres as he sat at his desk, writing in exile on the Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey.

The passages quoted are from the Collins edition of the novel (the Hapgood translation) that I found in a Bristol U.K. charity shop in April of 2000. It had taken me a shamefully long time to pick up and actually read Les Misérables. I knew the story well, not by virtue of the film or the musical, but, I have to confess, the comicbook.

Two Tomes

As I write, I’m sitting between two tomes. One contains the first 20 issues of Classic Comics, which my father had bound into a single volume for my eighth birthday. The other, weighing in at 1070 closely printed pages, is Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (Harvard 2002), the compendium Benjamin mined from the printed depths of 19th century Paris in the years between 1927 and death by his own hand in 1940; the book has been at my bedside or desk side for the past decade. That my earliest impressions of Paris were as turbulent as recent events was thanks to the crudely drawn caricatures of literature performed in Classic Comics, which I read compulsively as a child. No. 1 in the series is Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, which has D’Artagnan arriving at the gates of Paris on foot and ends with the beheading of the blonde “tigress” Milady, pretty heavy stuff for a first-grader. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, No. 6, begins as casks of wine are spilled on the cobblestones and Mme. Defarge, watching in “death-like silence,” thinks, “The wine is red — like blood! Someday, there will be blood in the streets.” The most powerful and lasting impression of any comicbook I ever read, however, was made by No. 9, Les Misérables, its cover showing Jean Valjean in flight through the rat-infested sewers of Paris, the wounded Marius draped over his shoulder; when you open the comic, there’s the shock of the enormous nightmare apparition of Inspector Javert rising over an array of factory smokestacks. Further food for nightmares is No. 18, another capricious adaptation of Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, whose cover depicts a vast cartoon Quasimodo rearing up larger than the cathedral itself, his huge hand clutching at a sword-waving soldier. Soon to come in the series were Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris. Is it any wonder that I have a history with the dark side of the City of Light?

Into the Unpresent Present

A half-century of lost time later I’ve progressed to the serial Fantômas, as filmed by Louis Feuillade in 1913, the year Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way was published. The cover of the Kino DVD and the first of the novels the serials were based on shows the giant masked avatar of evil standing over Paris looking curiously contemplative, chin propped on closed fist, the other hand holding a long bloody dagger. The actions of the fanatics who attacked Charlie Hebdo are dwarfed by the all-encompassing murderous ruthlessness of Fantômas, who, among other feats, wipes out the Simplon Orient express in an attempt to destroy his arch-enemy Fandor, a reporter, of all things, on the newspaper La Capitale. The pleasures of the Simplon episode, however, are not in the chaos and carnage of the crash but in the location footage of Paris streets, buildings, shops, cafes, and people, real-life citizens of the metropolis gaping at the camera as they approach it and move aside. It would be thrilling enough to see Proust and Debussy’s city coming to life before your eyes even if you didn’t already have Paris on the brain after Charlie Hebdo.

book rev1Passages

What first attracted me to The Arcades Project — described in the translators’ foreword as the “blue-print for an unimaginably massive and labyrinthine architecture, a dream city, in effect” — was the Hunt translation of Balzac’s Lost Illusions. Benjamin’s prose arcades or passages recalled Balzac’s elaborate descriptions of the Palais Royale and the “disreputable bazaar” of the Wooden Galleries, “the homeground of publishers, poets, pedlars of prose, politicians, milliners, and lastly the prostitutes who roamed about it in the evenings.” Reading Balzac in the aftermath of Hebdo, your eye is caught by the “witty news-sheet” that enjoyed “the right of ridiculing kings and the gravest events of the day, in short of using a bon mot to call everything into question.” There are also references to “witty caricatures sketched on grey paper by people who no doubt had sought to kill time by killing something else to keep their hand in.” The novel’s poet-journalist hero Lucien is told that he’s coming “into the thick of a fierce battle,” where ink is spilt “in torrents” of “cutting epigrams, stinging calumnies, unrestrained abuse.”

Baudelaire on Caricature

If The Arcades Project has a hero other than the man who imagined and compiled it, it’s Charles Baudelaire, whose essay “The Essence of Laughter” coins a phrase that could also serve for Benjamin’s “immense gallery of anecdote.” In the context of a journal like Charlie Hebdo, whose mocking images of Muhammad provoked the murderous attack, the other Charlie’s argument has an eerie resonance, as when he speaks of “the comic as a damnable element, and one of diabolic origin” and as “one of the clearest tokens of the Satanic in man.” A few paragraphs later he brings the matter even closer to the Hebdo/terrorist dynamic, noting that objects of veneration were taken with “deep seriousness” until “men began to laugh at them,” and so “Indian and Chinese idols are unaware that they are ridiculous; it is in us, Christians, that their comicality resides.”

Concerning the assassination of caricaturists in 2015 for laughing at objects of veneration, it’s likely that Baudelaire would take the long view of Charlie Hebdo, as “flysheets of journalism” that are “swept out of sight with the same tireless breeze which supplies us with fresh ones.” The most notable exception to this generalization is Daumier, who has a place in the Arcades, where Baudelaire celebrates the “foundation of decency and bonhomie” in his work and his refusal to handle “themes that exceeded the limits of the comic and could wound the feelings of his fellow men.” Nevertheless, Daumier spent months in jail for his anti-royalist work in the journal Le Caricature, a publication Baudelaire described as “a hurly-burly, a farrago, a prodigious satanic comedy, now farcical, now gory.”

While the Classic Comics version of Les Misérables offers, in its own crude way, the novel’s mixture of romance, heroism, injustice, evil, endurance, bravery, the flags and barricades, passion and beauty, it doesn’t have Hugo’s prose, for instance these sentences that appear in Walter Benjamin’s “Immense Gallery of Anecdote”: “All that can be found anywhere can be found in Paris” and “There is no limit to Paris.”

The more I think about it, in fact, the rallying cry that went up two weeks ago needs a broader subject. It should be Paris, not Charlie. That’s it — Nous sommes tous Paris! We are all Paris!


As the news of the attack broke, I was reading Canadian author and critic Murray Pomerance’s The Economist, a novel featuring Arnand de Flore the Prophet, who lives in Paris and publishes L’économie géo-globale or EGG, a highly influential journal “which had become, in Paris as everywhere, the talk of the town. Beacon, icon, fortification.” EGG was “absolutely everybody’s prayerbook,” including the “American State Department” and “Al Queda’s inner table.” You can find out more about Pomerance’s unique, richly woven tour de force centered on another terrorist event (7/7, the 2005 London bombings) at www.chapters.indigo.ca, or by contacting the publisher: oberon@sympatico.ca or on the Oberon Press web site.

MARCH ON WASHINGTON: Danny Lyon’s iconic images such as this August 23, 1963, shot of demonstrators during the march on Washington will be on view in an exhibition that will open at The College of New Jersey on Wednesday, January 28 and run through March 1 at the TCNJ Gallery on the campus at 2000 Pennington Road in Ewing. Gallery hours are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from noon to 7 p.m., and Sundays from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 771-2633, or visit: tcnj.edu/artgallery.(Photo Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York)

MARCH ON WASHINGTON: Danny Lyon’s iconic images such as this August 23, 1963, shot of demonstrators during the march on Washington will be on view in an exhibition that will open at The College of New Jersey on Wednesday, January 28 and run through March 1 at the TCNJ Gallery on the campus at 2000 Pennington Road in Ewing. Gallery hours are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from noon to 7 p.m., and Sundays from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 771-2633, or visit: tcnj.edu/artgallery. (Photo Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama that ultimately saw President Lyndon Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Besides being the subject of the recent feature film drama, Selma, the march, which was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., together with James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and John Lewis, is documented by the work of photographer Danny Lyon who lived through the period and witnessed the sit-ins, freedom rides, and the 1963 March on Washington that brought about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and legal desegregation of the South.

Some 50 iconic photographs of the period will be on view in an exhibition opening at The College of New Jersey on Wednesday, January 28. “Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement” includes works by the renowned photographer and filmmaker that are considered to be some of the era’s most defining.

Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Mr. Lyon became a leading post-World War II documentary photographer and filmmaker, helping create a mode of photojournalism in which the picture-maker is deeply and personally embedded in the subject matter.

As the first staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he began his career in the thick of SNCC and Civil Rights Movement activities.

From 1962 to 1964, Mr. Lyon traveled the South and Mid-Atlantic regions. His photographs were published in The Movement, a documentary book about the Southern Civil Rights Movement, and later in Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, the photographer’s memoir of his SNCC year.

“This young white New Yorker came South with a camera and a keen eye for history. And he used these simple, elegant gifts to capture the story of one of the most inspiring periods in America’s 20th century,” said former SNCC member and U. S. Congressmen John Lewis.

Presented as part of a campus-wide exploration of justice and in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the TCNJ exhibition features some of the photographer’s most powerful images, including the 1963 “Sit in Toddle House Atlanta” and Sheriff Jim Clark arresting two demonstrators with placards on the steps of the federal building in Selma. Both are exhibited courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery of New York.

Largely self-taught, Mr. Lyon is a graduate of the University of Chicago. He has had one-person exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Menil Collection in Houston.

“Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement” is on loan to TCNJ by art2art Circulating Exhibitions, a non-profit group that organizes traveling exhibitions. It is presented courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery of New York.


In conjunction with the exhibition, TCNJ’s Department of Communications Studies will screen Mr. Lyon’s 1975 film Los Niños Abandonados on Wednesday, February 11, at 10 a.m. in the Kendall Hall Screening Room.

Acclaimed as “one of the great cinéma-vérité documentaries,” the film focuses on homeless children in Columbia.

The exhibition, which will continue through March 1, and related programs are free and open to the public. The Art Gallery is located in the AIMM Building on the campus at 2000 Pennington Road in Ewing. Gallery hours are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from noon to 7 p.m., and Sundays from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 771-2633, or visit: tcnj.edu/artgallery.

Joyce Grenfell

Joyce Grenfell

Princeton resident and talented local actress Diana Crane will discuss and perform selections from the works of two very English notables, Noël Coward (1899-1973) and Joyce Grenfell (1910-1979), in “A Taste of Coward and a Spoonful of Grenfell” this Sunday, January 25, at 3 p.m., in the Lawrenceville School’s Kirby Art Center. The program is part of a regular series of events hosted by the English-Speaking Union.

Ms. Crane, who holds a certificate from The London Academy of Music and Drama, is well-known to Princeton audiences for her popular work with the PJ&B Productions and The Inn Cabaret some years ago. She is Professor Emerita of German and Fine Arts at Westminster Choir College, and has worked as a dialect coach at McCarter theater and for several Rider University theater productions.

She’s also been known to tread the boards herself. “Diana has performed in regional theaters, numerous cabarets and one-woman shows of her own creation,” said president of the English-Speaking Union, Princeton, Dulcie Bull.

On Sunday, Ms. Crane will present a selection of pieces by the well-loved Mr. Coward and equally popular but perhaps lesser-known, at least in the United States, Joyce Grenfell. “I’ve selected pieces from the 20s to the post-war 40s and I hope there will be some audience participation,” she said.

Asked about combining the works of the flamboyant English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer and the comic monologuist, Ms. Crane said: “I greatly admire both these brilliant writers, musicians, and performers and like to keep their legacy alive; I was inspired to combine the works of both after reading Grenfell’s letters to her mother in the United States, in the book Darling Ma: Letters to her Mother 1932-44.” 

Ms. Grenfell’s mother, Nora Phipps, was the youngest sister of Lady Astor. After divorcing Ms. Grenfell’s father, she married a former Yale football hero and moved to North Carolina.

In the book there are at least 20 references to Noël Coward’s works and lifestyle,” said Ms. Crane. “Not only did Noël know Joyce’s mother Nora when Joyce was little, but when Joyce began performing, their social and theatrical paths crossed frequently. They also encouraged one another to travel and entertain the troops during the Second World War.”

Ms. Grenfell, who was once a radio critic for the U.K.’s Observer newspaper, was a very popular performer on the British stage and screen. Her cheery and gossipy letters convey a sense of the English social scene during the Depression and World War II — about life on the London stage and at the Astors’ country estate, Cliveden, as well as snippets on her friends Coward, Myra Hess, Beatrice Lillie, and Stephen Potter.

The Princeton Branch of the English-Speaking Union (E-SU) is one of 68 local branches of the E-SU in the United States. A non-profit, non-political, educational organization, its primary goal is one of educational outreach and the usage of the English language to promote international understanding, friendship and goodwill. It meets once a month from October through June and holds events on Sunday afternoons with a speaker on a topic of interest and an opportunity to socialize with sherry, soft drinks, and finger eats afterward.

For more information, contact: princeton@esuus.org, or visit: www.esuus.org.

“A Taste of Coward and a Spoonful of Grenfell” will be held at the Lawrenceville School’s Kirby Art Center. All are welcome and for non-members of the English-Speaking Union, a contribution of $10 is suggested.

Each year, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) passes winter’s bleakest days by exploring music of a specific genre, composer, or singular theme. This year, the NJSO enhanced its “Winter Festival” with a two-week residency by violin virtuoso Sarah Chang. Ms. Chang has been earning her keep in this residency, with multiple performances and engaging school programs that interact with students. Ms. Chang brought her technical fireworks and unique performing style to Princeton last Friday night, as the NJSO presented its winter concert at Richardson Auditorium.

In this year’s “Winter Festival,” New Jersey Symphony is focusing on the “sounds of Shakespeare” — ways in which the Bard’s plays have influenced music throughout music history. One of the most common genres in which Shakespearean influence is heard is the programmatic orchestral works of the 19th century. In this tradition, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak wrote three overtures, one based on Othello. Although not as overtly dramatic as more well-known Romantic works on Shakespeare themes, Dvorak’s 1904 Othello Overture, Op. 93 was majestic and poignant as performed by the NJSO. Conductor Jacques Lacombe kept the sound under wraps for the first part of the overture, allowing for sweeping violin lines and clarity from the harps and pizzicato violas and celli. One could hear some of the same dramatic chords as in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture-fantasy, as the piece moved from tragedy to a peaceful closing section. English horn player Andrew Adelson added sweet solo lines to the tranquil passages of music.

Any interpretation of Shakespeare is all about the words, and two lush vocal/orchestral works brought two other plays to life in this concert. Tchaikovsky composed a number of pieces based on Shakespeare drama, and after the composer’s death, an incomplete “Love Duet” from Romeo and Juliet was found. 19th-century Russian composer Sergei Taneyev completed and orchestrated the work, which was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1894. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra added the duet to its repertory in the 2000-01 season, and Mr. Lacombe brought it to the stage again on Friday night with the assistance of two up-and-coming singers from the Curtis Institute of Music.

In Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet “Love Duet,” Soprano Elena Perroni and tenor Roy Hage often seemed to be singing more to themselves than to each other, but their lyrical voices conveyed the Russian text well. Soprano Heather Stebbins, also a Curtis student, had a much more rigorously dramatic workout in two scenes from Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Barber’s orchestration was much thicker than the other composers heard thus far in the program, and Ms. Stebbins sang her two soliloquy scenes with an intense approach and a rich dramatic voice. Ms. Stebbins succeeded in telling a story in both scenes with a great deal of orchestral activity behind her. In this work, as well as the Tchaikovsky duet, Mr. Adelson added a lyric touch of English horn to the orchestral color.

It is unusual for a performing ensemble to save its star solo performer for the final work on the program, but in this case, it was a perfect culmination of all the Shakespearean pieces. In her residency, Ms. Chang has been performing music of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, arranged for violin and orchestra by American film composer David Newman. This is not music one would expect to hear on a virtuoso instrument, but Ms. Chang played the familiar tunes saucily on the violin (with some unusual ornamentation of the lines) and found a wide range of dynamics. This music was clearly going to be fun for her to play, and it was apparent Ms. Chang felt the music in every fiber of her being, with a great deal of physicality in her playing. There were some notable musical effects in Newman’s orchestration, especially in the song “Maria,” in which motives were passed around among solo violin, bassoon, and cello. As likely the most well-known modern adaptation of music on a Shakespeare theme, Newman’s West Side Story Suite was a thoroughly entertaining way for Mr. Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to end the evening.

January 20, 2015
YOU’RE NOT BUYING A NEW FRIEND, YOU’RE HIRING A BEST MAN: Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart, left) warns Doug Harris (Josh Gad) about expecting too much from their developing friendship because, after all, Doug is hiring Jimmy to be his best man at his wedding. But in spite of Jimmy’s warning, the two do become friends.(Photo by Matt Kennedy - © 2014 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

YOU’RE NOT BUYING A NEW FRIEND, YOU’RE HIRING A BEST MAN: Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart, left) warns Doug Harris (Josh Gad) about expecting too much from their developing friendship because, after all, Doug is hiring Jimmy to be his best man at his wedding. But in spite of Jimmy’s warning, the two do become friends. (Photo by Matt Kennedy – © 2014 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Doug Harris (Josh Gad) and Gretchen Palmer (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) are putting the finishing touches on their impending wedding festivities. However, the groom has yet to find a best man, even though he’s going to be married in ten days.

Doug has been rejected by every acquaintance he’s approached, receiving rude responses ranging from “I thought you died” to “I didn’t even invite you to my wedding.” So, since he’s too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t have any friends, Doug decides to hide his predicament from his fiancée.

Instead, he hires a professional best man, Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) — along with seven other strangers — to serve as his groomsmen. Can they get to know Doug well enough in a week and convince Gretchen and members of the wedding party that they’re long-lost friends?

That is the point of departure of The Wedding Ringer, a comedy that is the directorial debut of Jeremy Garelick. If you are not offended by the farfetched setup, and are willing to suspend disbelief, you’ll enjoy the hilarious hijinks that ensue.

Most of the laughs emanate from the attempts by the assortment of unsavory characters to impersonate refined white-collar stereotypes such as a podiatrist, a principal, a lawyer, and a professor. The so called best man adopts the alias “Bic Mitchum” and poses as a priest.

And although Jimmy proves convincing at faking his friendship with Doug, he warns Doug that “You’re not buying a new friend. You’re hiring a best man.” But despite this strictly business understanding, coldhearted Jimmy gradually warms to Doug and the two somehow bond.

That unexpected development is what ultimately redeems The Wedding Ringer’s otherwise ridiculous premise. After all, how much hope could there really be for a marriage if the groom stages such an elaborate scheme rather than simply explain the situation to his bride-to-be?

Check your credulity at the box office and the talented cast of seasoned comedians will keep you in stitches in this lowbrow politically incorrect movie.

Very Good (***). Rated R for crude humor, pervasive profanity, coarse sexuality, and brief nudity. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Screen Gems.

January 14, 2015

book revEven if you work for a small, essentially well-meaning weekly, you don’t have to wear a Je Suis Charlie pin to connect with the fellow journalists who died in last week’s terrorist attack in Paris. Whatever the content, circulation, or point of view, the staff of a regularly published magazine or newspaper consists of editors, writers, designers, compositors, advertising and business staff, working together for a common cause, in our case, to ensure that Town Topics makes an appearance every Wednesday, which, as it happens, coincided with the day of the January 7 massacre.

As the story unfolded, I was already well into a column about Paul Muldoon’s new collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Farrar Straus & Giroux $24), and my point of view was strictly apolitical. It was the music, wit, scope, playfulness, and sometimes challenging allusiveness of the poetry that engaged and intrigued me. I was glad to feel no obligation to contend with the moral and political complexities of a terrorist atrocity. My original focus was on the contrast between Muldoon’s sheer shoot-from-the-hip inventiveness and the nightly bloodbaths of cable television my wife and I have been watching for the past months, up to our vicarious necks in Homeland (a jihadist massacre at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad) and The Americans (Cold War sex, married KGB spies living a double life of family values, and cut-throat espionage). In fact it was BBC America’s Orphan Black and its delirious pleasure in its own improbabilities (sex, urban violence, and kinky domesticity involving embattled clones in Toronto) that helped get me into the mood for Muldoon’s new work. I was playing around with the show’s impact on our mutual suspension of disbelief and how that related to what used to be quaintly termed “poetic license,” as in the free flow of fancy and other serious, sometimes strenuous fun and games going forward in Muldoon’s aptly titled volume, which was formally published yesterday, January 13.

Look at the Cover!

All this time, the cover of One Thousand Things Worth Knowing has been staring me in the face, and even so, I was ready to wrap up this week’s column without a word about it or about Muldoon’s poem, “Rita Duffy: Watchtower 2,” which originally appeared in Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics (Black Ocean 2014). Rita Duffy is the Irish artist whose painting gives the poem its title and the book its cover image, which is repeated something like 60 times front and back, no doubt to complement the “thousand things” concept.

A look at the painting as it should be seen, 180 x 120 cm, oil on linen, has an impact that can’t be fully appreciated in postage-stamp-sized multiples. Instead of a small, distant, vaguely odd-looking contraption overlooking green hills, what you see resembles a prison guard tower crowned by a surveillance camera aimed like an immense weapon at the countryside beyond a corrugated metal wall. The only human you can imagine walking up the iron stairway to look through the thing on top would be armed and uniformed, not someone there to admire the view that Muldoon presents “as if the whole country is spread under a camouflage tarp/rolled out by successive British garrisons/stationed in Crossmaglen.”

Explaining what gave her the idea, Rita Duffy mentions how she was on the way home after attending a lecture by Muldoon’s mentor Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) about his mentor Paddy Kavanagh (1904-1967) when she noticed the watchtowers and came up with the idea that she might transform one of them “into a work of art.” Upon writing to the Northern Ireland Office, she got a call from a colonel who asked her which tower she wanted. She “managed to get inside” the one that “looked down on the main Belfast-Dublin road, which sat on the hills that Cú Chulainn defended Ulster on,” but just when it was looking as if the tower project might happen, it stopped (“it is very hard to get anything done in Northern Ireland”). She is “still hopeful that some day the project will re-emerge.”

Never Too Late

If you agree that “It’s Never Too Late for Rock’n’Roll,” the title of Muldoon’s lyric for the lead track on Wayside Shrine’s album, The Word On the Street, your immediate association with Duffy’s image will almost certainly be with Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, who share a stake in Dylan’s composition, “All Along the Watchtower.” Nothing on the page or the canvas can match the excitement of either version when “the wind began to howl,” Dylan singing raw and true, Hendrix wailing into eternity. But Muldoon’s poem actually, quietly covers more ground, with the camouflage imagery and the memory of teenagers whose “vision of Four Green Fields shrinks to the olive drab/the Brits throw over everything.” The second part of the poem begins with reference to how a neighbor’s internment alerted the teenagers to the fact that “we’re not the first tribe/to have been put down or the first to have risen/against our oppressors. That’s why we’ve always sided with the Redskin/and the Palestinian.”

So here it is, staring me in the face again, not only one of the most openly political sentiments in a book that begins with a tour de force of eloquent denial dedicated to Heaney and ends with a 19-page-long bravura performance called “Dirty Data” starring Ben Hur, Ben Hourihane, and Billy the Kid, but one that offers additional insight into the poet’s lifelong fascination with the American west. Asked once about how he came to write his Wayside Shrines lyric “The Youngers (Bob and John and Jim and Cole),” Muldoon mentioned growing up immersed in The Golden Book of California, movies about Jesse James and the Great Northfield Minnesota raid, and an illustrated history of the James/Younger gang. Look at the lyric itself, however, and you’re hard put to find a word about the Troubles or “our oppressors.” Listening, you hear a clever, charming, hard-rocking song about a relationship gone south. You’ll find elaborate variations on similarly evocative material in fast and loose interplay with profundities all through One Thousand Things. If you keep your wits about you, you may detect occasional traces of the Princeton faculty member, New Yorker poetry editor, now an inhabitant of the metropolis after two decades as a local resident. The verse will be light and larky and downright silly one minute, only to dazzle and daze you with in-flight references requiring visits to the archives of Google, from which you emerge with enough esoteric information to fill ten pages of footnotes.

Catch Phrases

I love clichés,” Muldoon admits in a 2004 Paris Review interview. If you’re at all familiar with his lyrics for the “3-car garage band” Rackett and the still active musical collective Wayside Shrines, you’ll see common cause between the poetry on the printed page and the lyrics ringing changes on familiar pieces of the present like Pathmark, Jiffy Lube (which also turns up in One Thousand Things) and “Employee of the Week” parking spots. Muldoon has a hunger for everyday words, standbys of the culture, catch phrases, slogans, brand names, not to be patronized or mocked but put in play, sometimes as titles of Wayside songs like “Cleaning Up My Act,” “Feet of Clay,” “Dream Team,” “It Won’t Ring True,” and “Julius Caesar Was a People Person,” and now in the new poetry: “a little meet and greet,” “the elephant in the room,” “at daggers drawn,” “hell for leather,” “a smear campaign,” along with references to a McDonald’s Triple and a Port-a-John, and couplets like “We’ll swear this is the last time as we swore the rain/would never darken our doors again.”

It Really Happened

In the opening poem, “Cuthbert and the Otters,” you’re taken all over the place, from Durham to Desertmartin to Delphi, while “An altar cloth carried into battle/by the 82nd Airborne” shares a stanza with “A carton/of Lucky Strikes clutched by a G.I. on the bridge/at Toome.” It’s all swirling around Muldoon’s stint as a pall bearer at the funeral of the man whose death he finds intolerable, but rather than say so in plain terms, he twice distances himself and the reader from the reality by using an archaic verb: “I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead,” end-stopping the line to close the third stanza and sounding and end-stopping it again to close the 22nd. If you check the facts all through One Thousand Things, you’ll more likely than not find that the things you thought he might be making up really happened, if not in quite such far-fetched combinations. In “Pip and Magwitch,” for one, it turns out that what sounds improbable, Anwar al-Awlaki leaving a paperback of Great Expectations “all bundled up with a printer-cartridge bomb,” is well documented, unlike Magwitch’s attempts to mask his breath with a Polo Mint, “his cigar twirling in its unopened sarcophagus/like an Egyptian mummy.”

Cheering Stuff

While Muldoon keeps company at length with Lew Wallace and Ben Hur, he finds Keats “for sure” in a short Civil War poem by Whitman; all he needs is the one word “loitering” (an echo of “alone and palely loitering in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Mercy’”). As it happens, the same day the television set in a doctor’s waiting room was covering the scene in Paris as the net closed round the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, I was reading at random in a pocket-sized volume of Keats’s letters. Call it imagination, or fancy, depending on the depth of thought or feeling, it was cheering stuff. Even when writing of his brother’s death a mere two years before his own, Keats is unstoppable, irrepressible. On his joy in drinking a glass of claret, he appears to have sketched out notes for “Ode to a Nightingale”: “It fills one’s mouth with a gushing freshness, then goes down cool and feverless” — whereupon his fancy takes flight as “the more ethereal part mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments, like a bully looking for a trull, and hurrying from door to door, bouncing against the wainscot, but rather walks like Aladdin about his enchanted palace, so gently that you do not feel his step.”

Reading, smiling, you wonder “Where’s it coming from?” Never mind. What matters is it’s coming and it keeps coming. The same thing happens reading Muldoon at his best, whether in, above, or beyond politics. Never mind, it’s cheering stuff, like Keats’s claret bullying its way through the cerebral apartments to Aladdin’s palace. That’s how it is in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing.

Speaking of Keats, Paul Muldoon will be reading at the Keats House in London next week, January 20, and will be back in Princeton March 4 at Labyrinth Books. And next week I’ll be writing about Paris before, way way before, Charlie Hebdo.