Baby 2.0, with a Halloween bonus feature!

October 31, 2010 at 8:14 pm (Family)

I’ve had the swaddling lesson. Now there’s Tummy Time:

As you can see, this exercise requires great attentiveness on Dad’s part. As for Etta Lin, she’ll get a chance to flex those tiny muscles – maybe try to look up, look around, and wonder, “Run it by by me again: how did I get here??”

Meanwhile, here’s Mom looking fabulous just days after the birth of little Etta:

Here I am, a new grandmother, thrilled and deeply grateful:

For her first Halloween, Etta Lin is dressed up as a ladybug:

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The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, by Edmund de Waal

October 30, 2010 at 10:17 pm (Book review, books, Judaism)

In the upper left hand corner is a snapshot taken in 1936 of Emmy von Ephrussi and her grandsons, Victor and Constant de Waal.
In the upper right is seen a detail of the ceiling in the study of Palais Ephrussi, in Vienna.
In the lower left, Emmy von Ephrussi as a young woman out dancing.
In the lower right, German tanks in Vienna, March 14, 1938.

This is what happened.

The rise of the Ephrussi, a Jewish family, began in Odessa.

Odessa was a city within the Pale of Settlement, the area on the western borders of imperial Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. It was famous for its rabbinical schools and synagogues, rich in literature and music, a magnet for the impoverished Jewish shtetls of Galicia. It was also a city that doubled its population of Jews and Greeks and Russians every decade, a polyglot city full of speculation and traders, the docks full of intrigues and spies, a city on the make.

The family business, masterminded by Charles Joachim Ephrussi, centered on the exporting of wheat grown in the fertile fields of the Ukraine. The  venture proved so prosperous that wealth began to accumulate. Seeking an environment more congenial to their enterprise, the Ephrussi moved their business to Vienna.

Some of the Ephrussi siblings preferred to live in Paris. It is there that this story really begins: the story of how the collection comprising 264  netsuke  was amassed by Charles Ephrussi. Author Edmund de Waal sums it up succinctly: “It is a very big collection of very small objects.” One of those objects is the hare with amber eyes. .

Charles Ephrussi was an aesthete par excellence. In collecting netsuke, he was following the new fad for all things Japanese: “Japanese things – lacquers, netsuke, prints – conjure a picture of a place where sensations are always new, where art pours out of daily life, where everything exisis in a dream of endless beautiful flow.” Charles also collected the works of Impressionist painters. Indeed, he knew Renoir, Gustav Moreau, and others. He also knew many writers of the period; at certain points, Proust floats dreamily into this somewhat magical narrative.

What periodically brings the magic crashing to Earth is the inescapable undercurrent of anti-Semitism. The very presence of Charles at the city’s fashionable salons is repugnant to writer and taste maker Edmond de Goncourt, who complains that those venues have become “infested with Jews and Jewesses.” L’Affaire Dreyfus, which broke out in 1894, served to make matters worse.

At the beginning of the new century, Charles sent his netsuke collection and the vitrine in which they were displayed to his cousin Viktor in Vienna as a wedding present.

One of several works on Albrecht Durer written by Charles Ephrussi

A Young Hare by Albrecht Durer, 1502

Charles Ephrussi appears in Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party. He is the gentleman in the top hat, toward the rear of the painting:

(Here is a key to the identity of the other dramatis personae in this much loved work. The key is provided by Washington D.C.’s  Phillips Gallery, where the painting resides. Click on “Who’s Who.”)

Charles Ephrussi

Charles Ephrussi, by Jean Patricot

Charles lived near and knew another prosperous art-loving Jewish family, that of Nissim de Camondo. Their home has been preserved as a museum of decorative arts. Click here to access the museum’s website (in French) and learn more about the family.

The Grand Salon of the Musee Nissim de Camondo

Like his father, Charles Ephrussi possessed a weak heart. He was in his mid fifties when he died. The year was 1905.

As we have seen, the netsuke have already been relocated to Vienna. Since Edmund de Waal’s stated purpose in writing this book is to trace the progress of that collection, the setting of the narrative now shifts  to that city.


Fin de siecle Vienna was a famously fascinating place, filled with artists, musicians, and writers, with a cafe society that was the envy of the rest of the world. It was also a city with a burgeoning Jewish population. Jews of Vienna had achieved a prominence only dreamed of in former times:

Vienna was a city, said Jakob Wassermann at the turn of the century, where “all public life was dominated by the Jews. The banks. The press, the theatre, literature, social organisations, all lay in the hands of the Jews…I was amazed  at the host of Jewish physicians, attorneys, clubmen, snobs, dandies, proletarians, actors, newspapermen and poets.” In fact, 71 per cent of financiers were Jewish, 65 per cent of lawyers were Jewish, 59 per cent of doctors were Jewish, and half of Vienna’s journalists were Jewish.

Among the stars of this new Jewish aristocracy were the banker Viktor von Ephrussi and his beautiful young wife Emmy. Life flowed along in the Palais Ephrussi on the renowned Ringstrasse. There were balls and dinner parties, elegant clothes and jewelry, a fine library assembled by Viktor, and  beautiful works of art.

Four children of Emmy and Viktor lived to adulthood. The were Elisabeth, Gisela, Ignace, and Rudolf. Elisabeth was Edmund de Waal’s grandmother. More about her presently.

You would think that all this wealth and success would presage a dawning of freedom and acceptance for the Jewish population of this most cosmopolitan of cities. You would think this. But you would be wrong:

The flavour of Viennese anti-Semitism was different from Parisian anti-Semitism. In both places it happened both overtly and covertly. But in Vienna you could expect to have your hat knocked off your head on the Ringstrasse for looking Jewish (Schnitzler’s Ehrenberg in The Way into the Open, Freud’s father in The Interpretation of Dreams), be abused as a dirty Jew for opening a window in a train carriage (Freud), be snubbed at a meeting of a charity committee (Emilie Ephrussi), have yout lectures at the unniversity interrupted by cries of ‘Juden hinaus!’ – ‘Jews out!’ – until every Jewish student had pickedd up his books and left.

Somehow the Jews of Vienna were able to prosper and to enjoy life despite these repulsive gestures. But as we all know, that state of affairs changed drastically in 1938. Edmund de Waal describes in pitiless detail what was done to the Ephrussi family as Nazi fervor gripped the city. Everything they held dear was taken from them and desecrated or destroyed – or if valuable, sold to the highest gentile bidder.

Besides the confiscation of all their worldly goods, the purpose of this unprovoked cruelty was to humiliate persons of Jewish heritage to the greatest degree possible – to reduce them, in other words, to a stereotype of themselves:

They are beaten, of course; but they are also forbidden to shave or wash so that they look even more degenerate. This is because it is important to address the old affront of Jews not looking like Jews. This process of stripping away your respectability, taking away your watch-chain, or your shoes or your belt, so that you stumble to hold up your trousers with one hand, is a way of returning everyone to the shtetl, stripping you back to your essential character – wandering, unshaven, bowed with your possessions on your back.

Viktor, Emmy, and young Rudolf would surely have perished had it not been for Elisabeth. She was living elsewhere at the time that this Hell on Earth was being visited on her family in Vienna. In an act of tremendous courage, she traveled to the eye of the storm and rescued them. (Elisabeth was a person of singular achievement. The first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Vienna, she was also a poet and carried on a lively correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke.)

At this point, I’d like  to inject a personal note. This section of the book was extremely difficult for me to read. At first, I felt exasperated with the Ephrussi family: Viktor, wrapped about in his financial dealings, Emmy pampered by maids, making endless social rounds, both of them indulging in intermittent love affairs. Their complacency, and Emmy’s apparent frivolity, made me want to scream: Wake up! A cataclysm is heading straight for you. But soon I stopped blaming the victims. I felt instead a towering sadness for them. This in turn led to feelings of extreme anger and – I was surprised by this – a desire for revenge. This last was exacerbated by de Waal’s statement that at the war’s end, there was a general amnesty in Austria. No one was held accountable.

I looked into my own heart, and I realized something: I could run from my roots, but I could not hide. Once again, they had found me out; they were pointing a finger at me and reminding me: This is your legacy, too.


The Palais Ephrussi currently houses shops and is the headquarters of Casinos Austria.


I have here provided only the cursory outline of a complex story. I finished this book several months ago. It has no index – I think it should have – nor is there a “look inside the book” option for this title on Amazon. This has made fact checking very difficult. I apologize for any errors I may have made as a result.


Despite the excruciating parts of this book, I urge you to read it. As you have no doubt already gathered, Edmund de Waal, a potter and ceramics professor, writes beautifully. Early in my reading of The Hare with Amber Eyes, I looked up his Wikipedia entry and was surprised to find him described as “the son of Rev. Dr. Victor de Waal, a Dean of Canterbury Cathedral.” But how on Earth…?  The British subtitle of this book is “A Hidden Inheritance.” Hidden no more, once you’ve read the story of this family.

And finally, against all odds, the netsuke made their way to Edmund de Waal in England. The story of how this happened  stands as a tribute to one person’s determination to do the right thing in a world gone mad. Each of these tiny objects was a talisman.  They kept faith with their owners, and their owners kept faith with them.


Here is Edmund de Waal:

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Books with a Past; hope for the future of the book, in whatever form it may take

October 28, 2010 at 9:54 pm (Blogroll of honor, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

A recent visit to Books with a Past served as an all too vivid reminder of what has been lost with the demise of so many independent bookstores.

The first thing that struck me was the rich aroma…Is that decaying paper? No matter – it’s a balm to the senses. And then – what a treasure house of old volumes, some very old indeed. I’d say it was a pleasant jumble, but the store is much more organized and spacious than the usual establishment of its type.

(Some months ago we nearly lost Books with a Past. The near legendary owners, Mary Alice and Donald Schaefer, had decided to sell up. . Thoughts of the demise of this venerable institution were causing depression among the book lovers of the county (whose numbers, thank goodness, are legion). Then in rode a rescuer in the shape of Erin Matthews. We are no end grateful to you, Erin!)

Naturally I made for the mysteries first. I had stopped in at the shop some weeks before and been impressed to find several paperbacks by Francis Clifford. This is an author I had never heard of until reading Mike Ripley’s praise of this British thriller writer in the Summer 2010  issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. Now a more recent issue of that same excellent periodical had commended yet more titles that were of interest. Specifically, there was a feature concerning crime fiction set in Cambridge (UK). Naturally, these  books tend to deal with life in academia. Now mysteries set in schools or colleges are a particular favorite of mine. I love the claustrophobic, almost hothouse atmosphere, the mix of  different types of intellectuals: pseudo-, anti-, and genuine. I have my favorites (and I would include in this group teachers, professors, and scholars, like Isabel Dalhousie, who live outside academic institutions): 

And my all time favorite by Dorothy L. Sayers. (For a fairly comprehensive look at academic mysteries, see the list on Stop. You’re Killing Me!)

Here are two of the titles recommended in Deadly Pleasures:

(Click here for the complete list of books in the Cambridge Crime series.)

This particular search did not, alas, bear fruit. Thinking I was still in the mystery section, I turned a corner and came face to face with the classics – specifically, authors I through M.  Here was a treasure trove of titles by some of Western literature’s most esteemed writers:

James Joyce

Guy de Maupassant

Washington Irving

Henry James

One is of particular interest to me at the moment:

W. Somerset Maugham

Some weeks ago while I was subbing at the information desk at the Central Library, a patron came in and told me that she and a group of friends had been working their way through the works of Somerset Maugham. They were, she said, having a wonderful time. I asked her if she knew of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. This new  biography of the author by Selina Hastings  has recently been published to considerable acclaim.

When I read the reviews of this book some months ago, I remember thinking, Is anyone actually still interested in Maugham? O ye of little faith… I was about to get very interested in him myself. My interest was piqued by what this patron had told me, At Books with a Past.I purchased Cakes and Ale and Twelve Short Stories, published by Doubleday in 1966, with an introduction by Angus Wilson. I’ve since read four of the stories. They are riveting narratives; they can be disturbing as well. “The Yellow Streak” and “Mackintosh” depict the patronizing, condescending attitudes of British colonial administrators toward the natives in places like Malaysia.

“The Lotus Eater” is set on the island of Capri, a magical place where – I can hardly believe it! – I actually was, a year ago last May. It is a place that has cast a spell on writers and artists for many years. This story describes one man’s struggle to attain a dream; I found it very moving. Maugham himself spent some idyllic time on the island, in the company of someone he cared for deeply.

I have since purchased this volume of Maugham’s stories published by Everyman Library:

In The Literary Review, Diana Athill calls The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: “An impressively perceptive and often moving account of an extraordinarily interesting man.” I’m on page sixty, and I can tell you that so far, her comments are right on the money.

As I was buying the Maugham volume, I began introducing myself to the person at the cash register. My friends had got there before me and they chorused, “Oh, Tina knows who you are!” And Tina did. It seems that years ago, when I still worked at the Central Library, I had introduced her to two authors whom she has cherished ever since. The first is Robertson Davies

“You gave me Fifth Business,” she enthused, “and then I read the whole Deptford Trilogy.”  Those are indeed marvelous books. And as for The Cunning Man, published a year before the author’s death in 1995, I remember finishing the novel and clutching it close to me and thinking, Thank God people can still write fiction like this!

I also introduced Tina to  Josephine Tey, author of  two of my favorite novels:  

Upon seeing the volume I was purchasing, Tina remarked that she agreed with critics who maintain that Maugham’s stories are his true masterworks. She also asked if I had read Shirley Hazzard – not The Great Fire, in which we  were both somewhat disappointed, but her earlier, highly regarded work,  The Transit of Venus. (I had not.)

Amazon can be quite effective at recommending books. So can Novelist. (You need a card number in order to access that database via the library’s website.) Newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times and magazines such as The Atlantic and Harper’s still provide generous space for book reviews. And I am constantly in awe of the eloquence and enthusiasm of those who blog about books and/or maintain book-themed sites. In fact, I’ve been meaning to mention a few of my current and perennial favorites, among them:  Booksplease, Lost in Books, A Commonplace Blog, A Book and a Hug, Do You Write Under Your Own NameMy Porch, In So Many Words, Letters from a Hill Farm, Mysteries in Paradise, Petrona, and Howard County Library’s Highly Recommended.

But there is nothing – NOTHING – like getting a recommendation from a living, breathing fellow reader. Tina’s recollection of the Reader’s Advisory I provided all those years ago was immensely gratifying and gave me hope for the future of the printed (or electronically displayed) word. The value of the human element in such a transaction can never be overestimated. When libraries and booksellers make a space for this “marriage of true minds,” then the passion for literature becomes a real and living thing.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.


Here’s a provocative piece from NPR on the future(s) of books.


As for the mysteries I could not find, I was assured that the good folks at Books with a Past can search for them on my behalf, should I desire them to do so.

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The Met’s new production of Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, broadcast in HD and playing at a theater near you!

October 25, 2010 at 7:24 pm (Music, opera, Russophilia)

Rene Pape as Boris Godunov


Watching Boris Godunov is akin to seeing the Russian people bare their collective soul. And make no mistake about it: that soul is in torment. And that torment is personified by Boris himself.  Tsar and absolute ruler he may be, but he can find no peace in this life. The reason: he is responsible for the death of Dmitri, Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s youngest son and the rightful heir to the throne. Boris’s conscience will not let him forget or forgive this sin.

Thus the coronation scene, one of opera’s great set pieces, with its opulent setting and costumes, its swelling choral singing, the mighty orchestration, the tolling of the Kremlin bells – it’s all for show. Boris sets about playing the role of benevolent despot, but he is doomed from the outset. The only question is, how long will it take to destroy him – and who or what will be the agent of that destruction?

Boris Godunov was an actual historical personage; he seized power in 1598 and ruled Russia until his death in 1605. He was part of the Rurik dynasty.  Only a few short years after Boris’s demise, the Romanoffs, supplanted the Ruriks and ascended the throne of Russia. (Click here to see the genealogy of both dynasties.) Boris Godunov began his career at court serving under Ivan the Terrible. Indeed, he was present when Ivan killed his eldest son, the crown prince, also named Ivan. Throughout  the opera I kept seeing in my mind’s eye Ilya Repin’s portrayal of that horrifying event:

For his source material for the opera, Mussorgsky used the play written by Alexander Pushkin.

Boris Godunov is a complex, ambitious work of art. The cast is large, the chorus is huge – I believe I heard there were 140 voices! During the intermission, you saw the ranks of costumes that seemed to go on forever. At any rate – I can’t say enough about the Met’s superb production. This opera calls for spectacle on a grand scale, and that’s what we saw. Individual singers were superb – one powerhouse voice after another. As Grigory the Pretender, Alexandr Antonenko was terrific. He may not be a great actor – at least, not yet – but he has an incredibly impressive vocal apparatus. And I’d also like to single out Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool. Popov’s singing was wonderful and his performance, equally so. He was the scary, wild-eyed man of God in the flesh.


Alexandr Antonenko as Grregory the Pretender, with the equally spectacular Ekaterina Semenchuk as Marina


Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool, whose piteous lamentations predict all too accurately Russia's dire future

Finally, there was Rene Pape. Over the years, a number of bass baritones made history with definitive performances of Boris Godunov. Pape (pronounced “poppuh”) will now surely be named be among them. In an interview between acts, Pape acknowledged that as almost the sole non-Russian principal cast member – he hails from Dresden, Germany – he had to work to perfect  his “Russianness.”  I hope that this production will ultimately become available on DVD, so that all can witness how completely he succeeded in this task! Meanwhile – have a listen:

From the CTPost of Bridgeport, Connecticut:

A big man with a big voice and a big personality, Pape delivers the sort of visceral operatic experience one does not often get these days. But Boris is not just big, he is complex: he must also be a loving father to his children and the reflective, concerned father to his people. Pape gives us a multidimensional character whose musings and troubles linger with us long after the performance has ended. Bravo!

Boris’s death was incredibly moving. Here is that scene, in a different staging, sung by great Finnish bass Martti Talvela:

Here is the music from the coronation scene. The still photographs convey the majesty of the  setting. This was a production of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly  the Kirov, but before that, the Mariinsky!) The conductor is the great (and seemingly ubiquitous) Valery Gergiev , who also conducts the new Met production:

As with Das Rheingold, the theater was packed on Saturday, giving me hope for my fellow “culture vultures.” And what could be more endearingly wonderful than the fact  that Boris Godunov has pride of place in an article entitled, “What’s fun in Des Moines.” (This kind of thing  reminds me once again why I love this country so much!)


Modest Mussorgsky: 1839 - 1881, by Ilya Repin

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“If you lived on an island six miles long and two and a half miles wide, by the time you were ten you knew every inch of it.” – Red Bones, by Ann Cleeves

October 22, 2010 at 1:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland, The British police procedural)

In Red Bones by Ann Cleeves, we are once again back in Shetland, this time on the island of Whalsay. Folk  are deeply connected to one another in this small island kingdom, sometimes by consanguinity, other times by long association over the years. Violence is not a usual feature of life on Whalsay, so two deaths occurring quite close together are jarring and disruptive. The first appears to be a regrettable accident; the second, a tragic suicide. But is either fatality what, at first glance, it seems to be?

The quote in the title of this post refers to Sandy Wilson, born and raised on  Whalsay.  Sandy is a young policeman, serving under veteran Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. (Jimmy himself hails from tiny Fair Isle, Britain’s remotest inhabited island.) As in the first two novels in the Shetland series, Perez is the lead investigator, but Red Bones is really more about Sandy Wilson. The first person to die is a member of his extended family. As the investigation proceeds, the involvement of his family members increases. It’s an interesting family, with its share of tensions and secrets. In addition, Sandy lacks confidence in himself as a police officer. He is a vulnerable person, both professionally and personally, and one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve encountered recently in crime fiction.

As in Raven Black and White Nights, the first two novels in this series, Cleeves makes the most of her exotic, remote setting. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the little people called trows. A certain mound of land has been called a “trowie knowe.”  Hattie,an archaeologist working on the island, elucidates: “You know the myths about the trows, the little people. It was supposed to be a hole in the ground, a place where they kept their treasure.” (Orkney Jar is a great site for further exploration of the fascinating lore of the Shetland and Orkney Islands.)

I began my review of White Nights by saying , “Sequels make me anxious.” So they do, ordinarily. Loving  the first book in a series is no guarantee that you’ll be equally smitten by the next one. But I now feel that where the work of this fine author is concerned, I can put those worries aside. Red Bones is replete with fully realized characters and wonderful writing. It is, in short, a winner!


An interview appropriately entitled “Unsettling Undercurrents” appeared in Scene of the Crime this past August.


Ann Cleeves, flanked by Stuart Pawson (left) and Martin Edwards

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ann Cleeves, first in England and then again at Bouchercon in Baltimore.Not long ago she very graciously arranged for her U.S. publisher, St. Martin Minotaur, to send me an advance copy of Blue Lightning, the fourth entry in the Shetland Quartet. My only reservation about reading it is that it must perforce be the final novel in this hugely enjoyable series. Or…must it…?

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HD broadcast of the Met’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold

October 17, 2010 at 8:35 pm (Film and television, Music, opera)


Bryn Terfel as Wotan in Das Rheingold


In between learning that I was a grandmother and jetting out to meet the delightful cause of this transformation, I went to a live in HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner. As I waited for my friend in the lobby, I saw folks coming in with serious looking Wagner tomes clutched in their hands and equally serious expressions on their faces. I knew then that  some in the audience would be true believers, worshiping at the shrine…

By the time we entered the theater, almost every seat was taken!

Few composers elicit such single-minded devotion as does Richard Wagner. That devotion usually centers on the cycle of four operas called The Ring of the Nibelungs. Wagner not only composed the music, he also wrote the entire libretto, drawing for his source material from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda of Iceland, the Volsung Saga, and the Nibelungenlied.


Richard Wagner 1813 - 1883


Numerous books have been written on this subject, so I’m not going to attempt to tackle it here in any detail. Das Rheingold is the first of the Ring operas; in it, Wagner sets the scene  for what is to come. It is short – about two and a half hours – compared to the three monumental works that follow it.

The Met’s new production of Rheingold has been highly anticipated, mainly because of Robert LePage’s audacious set design. This consists primarily of a 45-ton edifice, reportedly costing in the neighborhood of $16 million and referred to as “the machine.” Click here for a harrowing account of how one of the Rhine Maidens nearly fell afoul of this Leviathan of a stage device!

Here’s a brief glimpse of the preparations involved in mounting this production:

There has also been plenty of excitement over Bryn Terfel’s taking the role of Wotan. The publicity stills, with their sinister aura, gave me goosebumps. I knew I wanted to see this production of Rheingold. (And granddaughter Etta Lin, with her quirky sense of  timing, made it just barely possible!) Terfel was great – when is he not – but in my opinion, Eric Owens as Alberich pretty much stole the show. (Alex Ross of the New Yorker is of the same opinion.)

Alberich is  the dwarf who lusts after the Rhinemaidens. After they mock and reject him, he decides to steal the gold which they are  charged with  guarding. The gold is heavily freighted with symbolism: whoever possesses it must renounce love It is this theft, with all that it portends, that sets in motion the events that play out in the next three operas: Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung.

My older brother is a fervent admirer of Wagner’s music. He and my sister-in-law were watching the matinée  live in California (where curtain time was 10 AM!) while I was watching it here in Maryland. Naturally we had to compare notes afterward. I was somewhat hesitant to voice my reservations about this production to my brother, the ardent and deeply knowledgeable Wagnerite. And so I was surprised that we actually agreed on several points

Although both the singers and the orchestra were positively transcendent, the opera itself (or ‘music drama,’ as Wagner preferred to call it) was not – at least not consistently, all the way through. There were some slack moments when I felt impatient. The music was less than riveting, or the drama stalled – or both. The following observation, from a synopsis on the site Music with Ease, sums up my chief frustration not only with Rheingold but with the subsequent operas as well:

The chief faults of dramatic construction of which Wagner was guilty in “The Ring of the Nibelung” are certain unduly prolonged scenes which are merely episodical — that is, unnecessary to the development of the plot so that they delay the action and weary the audience to a point which endangers the success of the really sublime portions of the score.

And as for the production itself, I felt insufficiently awed by “the machine.” For what was  basically an ingenious (and inordinately expensive) piece of stage craft, I didn’t think it added much to the work as a whole. Actually, I was relieved that at least it wasn’t more of a distraction. There has been a great deal of innovative staging in the Met’s new productions of late. This is all well and good and has generated plenty of attention-grabbing buzz, but IMHO, nothing – but nothing – should distract, or detract, from the music.

Finally, I had a problem with the characters themselves. Not a single one of them engaged my sympathies. Their status as gods, or at least beings with supernatural qualities, seemed to remove them from the sphere of ordinary emotion and feeling. At times, I found my self yearning for someone like Mimi in La Boheme – a real and vulnerable human being whom you effortlessly take to your heart. (As I was writing this, I felt a need to hear “Mi chiamano Mimi.” I found a video with one of my favorite sopranos, Angela Gheorgiu. I watched it with tears streaming down my face. No chance of that happening during Rheingold!)

I knew that I needed to remain patient. I knew that at the opera’s conclusion, I would be treated to an explosion of orchestral splendor rarely equaled in the operatic or symphonic repertoire: The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla.

I had difficulty locating a sound file that was free of distortion and that captures this music in all its glory. After much fruitless searching, I settled on this version by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (1961!):

I strongly suggest that you seek out the CD or DVD version of the opera and play it on the best sound system you can find. Then be prepared to have your music-loving socks knocked off!

I can’t say enough about the fantastic playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In his nearly forty years with the Met, James Levine has transformed this orchestra into one of the world’s greatest. In his incisive (and delightfully witty) review of this performance, Dr. Neil Kurtzman declares: “The star of the occasion was the Met’s spectacular orchestra brilliantly conducted by James Levine.”


This clip focuses on the “glitterati” who attended the opening night performance of Rheingold. At its conclusion, you’ll see some live footage of the opera.


Plenty has been written about this production. I cited Neil Kurtzman above; I also very much enjoyed Lord of the Internet Rings by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. She draws an interesting parallel between Das Rheingold and The Social Network, the new film about the founding of Facebook. Both, she says, address a question “…that I cover every day in politics: What happens when the powerless become powerful and the powerful become powerless?”

Dowd was wowed by Rheingold; others were more reserved in their assessment. Anne Midgette of the Washington Post calls much of the singing “pretty,” apparently using the word as a term of disparagement. She also advances the theory that the opera was “cast for the simulcast, which evens out vocal size and favors smaller voices that are easier to record–and of course, attractive looks.” The “cast for the simulcast” allegation has gained a certain amount of traction in the media, to the extent that Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, felt called upon to refute it. In a brief  letter to the Post, Gelb asserts: “Ms. Midgette was incorrect. We cast solely for our stage performances.”

For Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the production is “astonishing.”

It was gratifying to learn of the excitement generated in Europe by the Met’s HD broadcasts.

For another deeply informed review of Das Rheingold, followed by links to additional commentary and analysis, go to


Most people are familiar with UNESCO’s designation of certain places and structures as World Heritage Sites. While reading up on the Nibelungenlied, I discovered that UNESCO has another project called Memory of the World, whose stated purpose is “….to guard against collective amnesia.” The Nibelungenlied has been made part of this registered heritage. Other entities that have been registered are the Bayeux Tapestry (France),  the diaries of Anne Frank (the Netherlands),  the Magna Carta (United Kingdom), and the film The Wizard of Oz (U.S.).

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I learn a thing or two about the fine art of swaddling, while getting in some serious face time with Etta Lin

October 15, 2010 at 8:46 pm (Family)

And it’s quite a little face, too!

I’ve always thought that newborns look pretty much alike. But it’s different when that newborn is your child or grandchild.  Then she looks like…well, phrased with judicious restraint…SHE’S THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BABY EVER BORN IN THE UNIVERSE!!

Yes, I know: Everyone’s baby is deserving of such praise. But these little wonders can cause normally rational people to indulge in the most outrageous hyperbole!

I learned many things during my (all too brief) stay with Etta Lin and her deliriously happy parents (the delirium due in part to sleep deprivation). One is that swaddling helps to soothe a fretful infant. I don’t recall being encouraged to swaddle when Ben was born, but he and Erica have enthusiastically embraced the practice. They’ve become remarkably adept at packaging their tiny daughter in this manner. (As I saw for myself: Etta Lin was definitely calmer when swaddled.)

Enfin! She looks gift-wrapped  – very appropriate!



Ben provides the soundtrack and Erica looks on, as their friend Jonathan is enchanted by Etta Lin


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Peter Robinson comes roaring back with Bad Boy

October 10, 2010 at 8:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

It’s personal this time: Alan Banks’s daughter Tracy – or, as she’s taken to calling herself, Francesca – has fallen in with a bad lot. To make matters worse, she fancies one Jaffar McCready, the boyfriend of her roommate Erin. Realizing that the attraction is mutual, Erin angrily decamps  to her parents’ house in order to lick her wounds and sulk. For some inexplicable reason, she has brought with her a Smith & Wesson revolver, origin unknown. When Erin’s mother Juliet  finds the gun, she is baffled and horrified and goes straight to the police.

At the station, Juliet asks if she can speak to DCI Alan Banks. He’s a former neighbor and family friend. But Banks is vacationing in the U.S. So the case goes to his partner, DI Annie Cabbot.

Meanwhile, Jaffar McCready has troubles of his own.  He needs to get out of his own digs pronto and find somewhere to hide. Eager to ingratiate herself with her new flame, Tracy tells him she knows just the place. They can go together. And they do. This fateful act plunges Tracy, Jaffar, and a host of other people – innocent and not-so-innocent – into a world of trouble.

This novel was a page turner right from the get-go. My heart was in my mouth as I watched Tracy Banks teetering at the edge of a precipice:

She was standing by the car looking down over the terraced gardens and the river, which rushed along over rocks in little waterfalls below the steep castle walls to her right. She remembered walking there with her father when she was younger, holding his hand tight as they passed near the edge of a sheer drop, afraid of falling, asking him how the little flowers could grow out of the crumbling stone. He told her they were called rosebay willow herb and they could also grow after forest fires. She thought what a lovely name that was for something so strong and durable. Sometimes the wind was so wild that she thought it would blow them both away like autumn leaves, but he had said he wouldn’t ever let her go, and he never had. Not until now.

Oh my goodness – This is, after all, the daughter of Alan Banks, the stalwart, music-loving policeman whose family life and career I’ve been following since he first appeared on the crime fiction scene in 1987 in Gallows View. I wanted to leap into this narrative, confront Banks as he wanders around the American West waxing philosophical and looking for traces of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, grab him by the lapels, and shout,  Your daughter’s in serious danger, and that’s not the worst of it. Get on the next plane back to Yorkshire and straighten this mess out!

I was somewhat disappointed in the last book in this series, All the Colors of Darkness. Bad Boy is a better book in so many ways: tighter plotting, snappier dialog, and most importantly, believable characters whose fate you care about. Robinson’s writing is exceptionally fine here, with vividly rendered set pieces like the one quoted above. As with most great crime fiction, setting matters in this series. Robinson’s descriptions of Yorkshire are lyrical and intensely felt:

The room had a magnificent view north, from the thin ribbon of Gratly Beck glittering in the moonlight past Helmthorpe Church, with its square tower and odd turret attached, then beyond the lights of the small market town to the opposite daleside, peaking in the magnificent limestone curve of Crow Scar above the high pastures and drystone walls, still visible, white as bone in the silvery moonlight.

Wish you were there? I’ve been there, and I long to go back.

This is the site that was recommended to me when I signed up for Hidden Treasures of Yorkshire, a tour offered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2005. When I first gazed at these visuals, I exclaimed, “Surely it can’t still look like that?” And yet much of it still does. In this video, Peter Robinson talks about that landscape and its importance in Bad Boy. He makes some interesting observations about his main character as well:

Peter Robinson did one thing in this novel that I found disturbing. A young woman is killed in a most horrible way, and the scene of the crime is rendered in lurid detail. It was unnecessarily repugnant.


On a more positive note: Hopefully we here in the States won’t have to wait too long for this welcome addition to the vast and wonderful galaxy of British detectives to be seen on “the telly:”

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A granddaughter arrives!

October 7, 2010 at 2:20 pm (Family)

Please say hello to Miss Etta Lin Davis, born today at 6:14 AM. She weighed in at a robust seven pounds, fourteen ounces. Mother and baby doing great. Father, in his own words, “still trying to figure out  how to be useful.” (No worries there; he’s a quick study.)

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“Gentlemen, old Bach is here.” – Bach in Baltimore, at Christ Lutheran Church

October 5, 2010 at 10:41 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

On Sunday, Bach Concert Series kicked off its 2010-2011 season at Christ Lutheran Church with a rousing performance of Bach’s Cantata No.70: “Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet.” (“Wachet” means “watch,” “betet” means “pray.”)  The chorus got things off to a vigorous start;  their singing was punctuated by a most delightful trumpet fanfare. It was the soloists who got a real workout, though. This was especially true of the bass, John Eisenhardt, whose vocalizing was rich and  thrilling.

I found this fine performance of the opening measures of this cantata:

I have come to love the purposeful purity of Bach’s sacred music.

Organist Jonathan Parker treated us to several selections. I was especially delighted to hear this fine musician perform The Toccata and Fugue in d minor. I’ve been hearing this piece all my life but had never heard it performed live.

In the first video below, the Toccata is played by Karl Richter:

Ad this one is for fun!

The afternoon concluded with Tchaikovsky’s lovely Hymn of the Cherubim, sung a cappella by the choir:

Click here to access sound files of the Bach Concert Series Choir.


I highly recommend Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment, by James R. Gaines. It’s a sort of joint biography of Bach and Frederick the Great. The book begins by recounting a famous anecdote. Each evening, a courtier brought Frederick a list of names of those who had entered the city of Potsdam on that day. As Frederick – himself a musician of no mean accomplishment –  was perusing this list, he gave a start, looked up, and said to the others in the room: “Gentlemen, old Bach is here.” Those present said there was “a kind of agitation” in his voice.

The year was 1747. Frederick was in the seventh year of his reign as King of Prussia. Bach was 62 and nearing the end of his life.

I finished this book feeling that I needed to listen to much more Bach, and I wanted to read much more about Frederick the Great, a strange and fascinating man.

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