Friday night, February 19: we emerge gratefully from our snowbound solitude to celebrate the Thirty-Second Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry

February 22, 2010 at 12:51 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music, Performing arts, Short stories)

Plus  a gem of a short story called “Walk the Blue Fields.” Claire Keegan  read us her story in a gentle, lilting accent, heightening the effect of her reading by voicing the parts of various characters. From time to time she interpolated material, often of a wry or humorous nature. I can’t recall any of those comments specifically; I can only say that it was a captivating performance.

Claire Keegan

I wrote about this story in a previous post, and I feel  that I benefited greatly from hearing the author herself read it. It seems to me now a profound meditation on the essential sadness of the human condition. Something my mother used to say kept coming back to me: “People are always demanding justice, when they should be begging for mercy.” Or words to that effect. Anyway, ultimately there is a mercy to be found in “Walk the Blue Fields,” albeit a small one. But in the circumstances, it will have to suffice.

The story concerns a priest who is officiating at a marriage  ceremony. This should be a happy occasion, and it is for some, but not for others – and certainly not for the priest himself. At one point, one of his parishioners makes a deprecating remark about herself, and the priest gallantly contradicts her. All the time he’s thinking of how often he is forced to perform this tedious little dance. Here was an incident whose specificity made it ring absolutely true.

Claire Keegan’s story “Foster” appears in the February 15 & 22 issue of The New Yorker.

I should mention that Ms Keegan was introduced by His Excellency Michael Collins, the Republic of Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S. Ambassador Collins was also on hand last year to introduce Frank McCourt.

After intermission, it was time for music and dancing. The music was supplied by the excellent Narrowbacks: the Brothers Winch, Terence and Jesse, were joined by consummate fiddler Brendan Mulvihill, singer and guitarist Eileen Korn Estes (whose velvety voice I love), and piper and  flutist Linda Hickman.

The Narrowbacks. Bottom row: Terence Winch, Brendan Mulvihill, Jesse Winch. Top: Linda Hickman and Eileen Korn Estes

Jesse Winch plays the guitar and the harmonica, but he really wowed the audience with solo gig on the bodhram, or Irish drum. Here’s a video of a student of his playing that singular instrument.

Jesse’s brother Terence plays the button accordion and is also a songwriter and poet. He read us several of his poems, which I found quite delightful.

The Narrowbacks provided the musical accompaniment for the step dancers from the Culkin School. They were great! (See below):

Once again, our master of ceremonies was Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes, the Irish Evening chair for HoCoPoLitSo.. Among her several tasks for the evening was to issue a plaintive plea for donations. She mentioned that this was a hard thing for her to do, and I think we all appreciated her efforts and tried to respond in kind. (One does worry about the arts organizations in this country, what with the perilous times in which we’re living. We lost the Baltimore Opera, seemingly over night. Let’s hope that fate does not befall too many similar entities.)

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There’s a moment in one of Alexander McCall Smith’s recent Isabel Dalhousie novels when Isabel reflects on the many gifts that Ireland has given to the world. To that, one can only respond with a heartfelt Amen.

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Ballet

December 15, 2009 at 9:35 pm (Ballet, Music, Performing arts, Russophilia)

Here is a 42-second video clip that threw me back in my chair, gasping in amazement:

This is the great Alexander Godunov as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (Bolshoi, 1979). First, there is the arrogance, the smug heedlessness, of pure evil; then, the death agony. Watching this – over and over again – I am not only astonished but also downright frightened. Such is the intensity of this performance.

As an artist, Alexander Godunov embodies the idea of the flame that burns too brightly and must, inevitably, consume itself. We can only be grateful for the brilliant legacy he has left to the world of dance. (Additional videos featuring Godunov can be found on YouTube.)

Here is another clip of a performance of Romeo and Juliet by the Bolshoi.

Alexandr Tetrov is  wonderful as Tybalt, but Vladimir Derevianko pretty much steals the show as Mercutio. I can’t take my eyes off his legs – he becomes effortlessly airborne, then whirls like a top. Later, he turns around and taunts Tybalt – one is filled with dread, knowing what will happen next. I confess, I have never watched this video through to the end. I can’t bear the thought of losing Mercutio, the mercurial sprite so cunning and so free.

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Sergei Prokofiev is a composer that Ron and I both love. He wrote much great music; for us, Romeo and Juliet is his masterpiece.

Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev: 1891 - 1953

Russians really connect with the heightened passion that informs Shakespeare’s play. They have taken this timeless, turbulent tale of  love in adversity and through the magic of music and dance, made it their own.

[Valery Gergiev conducts the London Symphony in November 2008.]

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Puccini’s Tosca

November 2, 2009 at 1:59 pm (Film and television, Music, opera, Performing arts)

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This is it, right? Replete with drama, melodrama, and utterly gorgeous music, Tosca is a can’t miss night at the opera, is it not?

That was certainly my assumption when I got a group of friends and fellow AAUW members together to see, in a nearby movie theatre, the HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of this perennially popular work. No sooner were the tickets bought and paid for than the stories starting coming of a rather unusual opening night at the Met: a performance of Tosca had elicited boos from the audience!

“When was there last an opening night quite like this at the staid old Metropolitan Opera?” chortled Mike Silverman in the Huffington Post. What happened? The problem lay in the new production, one of eight being mounted at  the Met this season. Luc Bondy has made major changes in the staging and the sets, and they did not find favor with the opening night audience.

First – here’s a summary of the opera, in Alex Ross’s words:

“Revolutionary sentiment seethes in royalist Rome; a famed diva, in love with a rebel artist, confronts a Te Deum-singing, sexually slobbering chief of police; the villain is stabbed with a dinner knife, the lover falls to a firing squad, the diva leaps to her death while screaming about God. Each act unfolds in real time, in precisely mapped locales, with no major improbabilities impeding the flow of events. The music is both refined and brutal, late-Romantic opulence pinned to raw action.

(I couldn’t have said it better myself. Actually, no one can say anything about music quite the way Alex Ross does. Click here to read the complete article; and here for “The Storm of Style,” Ross’s stunning piece on Mozart.)

In brief, here are my observations: the set for Act One, which supposedly takes place in an opulent church, was ugly; the lighting was so dim that you could  barely make out what was occurring on stage. (This has to have been even more frustrating for those watching it live in the opera house. We filmgoers had the  major advantage of close-up photography of the singers.) The set for the second act was equally ugly, but thank goodness the lights had been turned up so we could see what was going on. That marvelous, hyperdramatic gesture of Tosca’s in which she places lighted candelabra on either side of the body of the murdered Scarpia and a crucifix on his  chest (see the above poster) was eliminated and replaced with nothing.

Act Three reverted to murky lighting, but for this melancholy finale, this seemed right. The glaring alteration here was at the very end, when a defiant Tosca hurls herself off the parapet. Usually at this moment, the soprano disappears behind the scenery.In the new production, however, you see the leap, which is stopped in mid-action. Bondy was apparently looking to create a freeze-frame effect that would awe the audience. Instead of being amazed, however, said audience was further annoyed by what was perceived as yet another senseless violation of the sacred canon.

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Karita Mattila as Floria Tosca

Alex Ross did not care for Karitta Mattila as Floria Tosca, and I must reluctantly agree with him. This renowned Finnish diva has a powerhouse vocal instrument – perhaps, too much so for this role. Her “Visi d’Arte” did not thrill me as I’d hoped it would.

For me at least, the ghost of the fiery Maria Callas hovers over every soprano who assays this role:

Yes, her voice wobbles slightly on the high notes – no matter. I just finished listening to it yet again; for me, its power is  never diminished.

Alex Ross was rather dismissive of Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi, and there I have to disagree with him. I did not know this singer before attending this performance; now I feel as though I’d follow him anywhere! In her piece in the Wall Street Journal, Heidi Waleson observes wryly that Alvarez understood that his primary task was to “nail those arias” – meaning “Recondita Armonia” in Act One  and “E Lucevan le Stelle” in Act Three. And did he nail them? For this opera goer, he certainly did:

“E Lucevan le Stelle” is such an elemental cri de coeur, and to hear it sung like that, so imbued with Cavaradossi’s anguish…Let’s just say that days later, it is still resonating. And as for Marcelo Alvarez:  it’s no mean feat to steal Tosca from Tosca – but IMHO, this Argentinian with his glorious tenor voice did just that. (Alvarez came to the singing of opera late and by a circuitous route. It’s an interesting story.)

During the two intermissions, Susan Graham (herself a singer of note) conducted interviews with several of the evening’s luminaries. Or at any rate, she attempted to interview them. Both Marcelo Alvarez and Karita Mattila spoke English reasonably well and came across as attractive individuals. Mattila was bubbling over with excitement; at one point, she broke into a stream of Finnish,for the benefit of the fans back home. This is a language that we virtually never hear in this part of the world, so her patter was charming but utterly incomprehensible. When she had finished, there was a moment of complete silence. Then this from the gallant Susan Graham: “I couldn’t have said it better myself!”

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George Gagnidze

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Luc Bondy

The interviews with baritone George Gagnidze and Luc Bondy went less well, primarily because both men had almost no English at their command. Gagnidze, a last-minute replacement for an ailing  Juha Uusitalo, hails from the Republic of Georgia. I though he made a suitably villainous Scarpia and sang the role with conviction. He gamely tried to answer Graham’s queries, but for the most part could only shrug amiably. I was more surprised by Luc Bondy’s almost complete lack of facility with the English language.

So, what you had here was a Finnish soprano, an Argentinian tenor, a Georgian baritone, and a French-speaking Swiss producer, all with varying degrees of fluency in English. And let us not forget the conductor Joseph Colaneri, who hails from the  Great State of New Jersey (the birthplace of Yours Truly, as you may have guessed.) How did these folks communicate, one wonders, and was that part of the problem…

The performance that we saw Wednesday evening was not the one which took place on opening night, September 21; it was, instead, “captured” on October 10. We neither saw nor heard any booing or catcalls. Was the encore film cleansed of these negative elements? Possibly.

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Joseph Colaneri

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James Levine

Also, as I mentioned above, our conductor was Joseph Colaneri rather than James Levine, who conducted on opening night. And here a word must be said about the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra: under Levine’s leadership, it has become one of the world’s great orchestras. Their playing was absolutely glorious.

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Peter Gelb

Finally, a word about Peter Gelb and the changes he has wrought. Since taking the helm at this venerable institution three years ago, Gelb has seen it as his mission to drag the Metropolitan Opera kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. As he pursues this goal, there are  bound to be some missteps and unpopular decisions.(Read “It’s a new Met. Get over it” from the September 22 New York Times.) I think most people would agree, though, that the HD movie theater broadcasts are a great innovation. These performances can now be seen at venues all over this country and worldwide as well. I had fun playing with this list of countries – you can see Tosca in Riga, Latvia! Carmen in Costa Rica and Croatia! Peter Grimes in Peru – and at three different locations in Poland! Want to know how to get tickets in Lithuania? See below:

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Here once more are  the words of the journalist whose task it was to review a production of Turandot in Covent Garden in 1927, three years after the death of its composer,  Giacomo Puccini:

“Covent Garden was haunted last night. It was haunted by the gentle and immaculate ghost of Puccini…who died with the final bars of Turandot still imprisoned within his brain, who disappeared to solve an enigma more terrible and profound than any created by the Princess Turandot. We like to think that Puccini revisited the glimpses of the moon last night to observe the opera’s performance in England, where his works are so universally cherished, to watch his tricksy spirits at their revels. We imagined him pleased with the magnificent production and the sensation it created.

“Universally cherished” – not just in England, but all over the world.

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Giacomo Puccini: 1858-1924

I love Tosca‘s opening musical salvo: five notes signal the advent of grandeur, passion, and tragedy. (Click here; scroll down to Act One and click on the word “play” across from Track One – “Ah! Finalmente!”)

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From Christie to Shakespeare, in one easy leap

October 5, 2009 at 11:50 am (books, Mystery fiction, Performing arts, Shakespeare)

So there I am, happily engrossed in this book: caribbean . My reading of A Caribbean Mystery followed our viewing of the film:

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery

This in turn had followed my listening to the audiobook, read by –  who else:  Caribbean-Mystery-N41110L There was something curiously mesmerizing in Ms. Hickson’s narration. A story which in itself is not remarkable became, at least for this listener, imbued with a deeper meaning.  (On the back of the book on tape, an Audio Editions Mystery Masters production, we are informed of the following:

“This audio performance is unique in that the recordings were made at Miss Hickson’s home when she was approaching her 90th birthday. Just as Miss Marple is an octagenarian, she is perfectly portrayed by an octagenarian par excellence.

Scroll down to the  bottom of this post, and you’ll see video of Joan Hickson being interviewed at a celebration of Agatha Christie’s one hundredth birthday. This video also features a segment in which Ms. Hickson and David Suchet, in character as Hercule Poirot, meet for the first time.)

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Here’s the set-up for A Caribbean Mystery: following a severe illness, Miss Marple is treated by her nephew Raymond to a stay at the Golden Palm resort on the lush ( and fictitious) Caribbean island of St. Honore. She’s not been there long when an elderly guest dies suddenly. Miss Marple has her suspicions regarding this death, but she is not sure whether she should communicate them to those in authority. At one point in her cogitations, she reflects on these lines from Shakespeare: ‘Duncan is dead. After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well!’

That first sentence is not rendered correctly: the exact words are “Duncan is in his grave.” The quote is from MacBeth; it occurs about midway through the play. MacBeth is already beginning to feel like a soul in torment. Speaking to his wife, he declaims these bitter words:

…better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.

This is an amazing speech. Here is a murderer, envying his victim the peace conferred by death – a death that the noble Duncan neither sought nor desired. It is as good an indicator as any of the moral cesspit into which MacBeth has already sunk.

And I can’t resist adding that where I come from, this would be called the ultimate in chutzpah!

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Here is the review I wrote of the Folger Theatre’s stunning 2008 production of “the Scottish play.” This performance is now available on DVD.

These images appear on the Folger site:

Henry Fuseli. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head.

Henry Fuseli. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head. 1793

Kenny Meadows. Lady Macbeth. Engraving, 1850.

Kenny Meadows. Lady Macbeth. Engraving, 1850.

 William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London, 1623.

William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London, 1623.

There is seemingly no end to Shakespeare’s power to astonish (or in Agatha Christie’s power to entertain and oftentimes, to provoke).

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The transcendent beauty of dance

September 30, 2009 at 2:15 am (Dance, Performing arts)

I spend a great deal of time on YouTube, and I thought that from time to time, I would share some of my favorite videos.

For many years I have loved classical ballet. This video captures the magic created by some of that art’s greatest performers. The music is the Adagio from Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian.

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Magic…Mystery…Mozart

August 7, 2009 at 10:46 pm (Music, opera, Performing arts)

magic-fluteWednesday night I went to the movies. This is something I have virtually stopped doing at  this point in my life, but the occasion was a special one: I was attending a screening of  The Magic Flute, an HD “encore presentation” by  the Metropolitan Opera. I had been meaning to do this since since the inauguration of these broadcasts in 2006. This was the performance that kicked off the series that year.

I have loved this opera my entire life – seen it in live performance at least three times and listened to it countless times. So I went Wednesday night with certain expectations. One of those was that  the work would  be presented in the original German. I also thought I’d be seeing the work in its entirety. I should have taken the time to read the blurb on the Met’s site. Had I done so, I would have know that I would be attending “…an abridged 100-minute version, sung in English.”

I had less trouble with the abridgement than with the language. I know this opera in German. I don’t speak German, but I am on intimate terms with the (German language) libretto of The Magic Flute. Obviously I had to get past this dismaying change if I were to enjoy the evening. I did get past it – for the most part. Now this film did use subtitles from time to time; even English, when sung, can be hard to understand. It seems to me that they could have retained the German and used English subtitles more liberally.

The Met blurb proclaims that the shortened version of the opera and its presentation in English makes this version “perfect for opera fans of all ages.” Well, maybe. I realize that there’s a fine line between making high culture more accessible and outright dumbing it down. Also, mixed in with that fine line is the problem of the bottom line, especially in these parlous times. I grant all this. Just don’t expect us purists to be always cheering these “innovations”…

In some instances, the Englsh translation of the spoken dialog verged on the slangy. At one point, Poppageno (Nathan Gunn) asks, “Can’t a guy get a beer around here?” – or words to that effect. Poppageno is certainly a comic character, but at times in the film, Gunn’s antics were, IMHO, a bit over the top.

And speaking of Nathan Gunn, why was it so difficult – if not impossible – to tease out the names of cast members from the Met’s site? Opera has always thrived on the star system; the last thing these singers need is anonymity! This is especially true re this production, in which the singing was quite simply superb. Ying Huang, Matthew Polenzani, and  Rene Pape were all three marvelous. And then there was Erika Miklosa as Queen of the Night, a role which is the ultiamte test for the coloratura, with its soaring showpiece arias. She triumphed – I had goosebumps!

Here she is in a concert performance of the fiendishly difficult (and incredibly gorgeous and dramatic) “Der Holle Rache:”

Doesn’t she just toss that off as though it were all in a day’s work! And incidentally, Miklosa is perfectly capable of “looking daggers”  without  the heavy make-up she wore in this production -make-up made even more grotesque by the frequent close-ups characteristic of filmed performance. A very attractive woman was transformed into a sorceress so frightful –  with costumes to match –  that it was almost hard to look at her. (The photo below does not quite convey the effect.)

erika Mikosa as the Queen of the Night and Ying Huang as her daughter Pamina

Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night and Ying Huang as her daughter Pamina

(Here’s the complete cast, courtesy of Internet Movie Database.)

You may have gathered that I’m somewhat ambivalent about Julie Taymor’s production. What with the lavish sets, garish lighting effects, and bizarre costumes, there was plenty of eye candy on display – perhaps, at times, too much. On the other hand, there were some wonderful touches; I particularly liked the outsized diaphanous puppets that looked like dancing polar bears:

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That’s Matthew Polenzani as Tamino, playing “die zauberflote” for everything he’s worth!

Alex Ross,  impressed by Julie Taymor’s “deeply dazzling vision,”  reviewed the production with customary eloquence on his blog.

Here is Rene Pape singing ” Isis und Osiris,” as it was performed in the production I saw:

Finally, here are Nathan Gunn and Jennifer Aylmer in the much beloved duet sung by Papagena and Papageno. This is Mozart at his sunniest:

I walked out of the theater feeling like the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s poem: “stunned / And…of sense forlorn.” For there is no experience quite like coming face to face with the genius of Mozart. I felt as though I had been in the presence of something holy.

Amadeus, indeed.

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The Year in Mystery: Group One, Part Two

December 19, 2008 at 3:24 pm (Anglophilia, Best of 2008, Blogging-the process, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction, Performing arts, Travel, Uncategorized)

stranger Stranger in Paradise by Robert B. Parker. I have a lingering affection for this author, though I usually stick to his (incredibly long-running) Spenser series. In the past,I haven’t cared for the Jesse Stone novels, finding them too touchy-feely. As it happened, though, my husband and I were very much liking the made for TV films, which feature Tom Selleck as Stone, a role he seems born to play. Hence, my decision to read Stranger in Paradise, which I quite enjoyed. This enjoyment was somewhat enhanced by having Tom Selleck in my mind’s eye for much of the time I was reading!

chat Chat by Archer Mayor. I love Mayor’s straight-ahead, unadorned prose style and his exceptionally appealing protagonist, Joe Gunther. This series also features a vividly rendered ensemble cast of law enforcement officers.

blue-heaven Blue Heaven by C.J. Box. The author manages to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the narrative;  you’ll be chewing your fingernails as you agonize over the fate of a seriously imperiled but amazingly courageous and resourceful 13-year-old girl. Definitely a candidate for my “thriller with brains” designation!

devil Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson. I’ve read every one of the Alan Banks novels, and what a pleasure it has been watching this author go from strength to strength in this outstanding series. The latest, All the Colors of Darkness, can now be reserved at our local library.

city-of-fire City of Fire by Robert Ellis. Setting: southern California. Where else, with a title like that? Homicide Detective Lena Gamble is one of the lead investigators in this fast-moving tale of  multiple murder and its far-reaching consequences. Ellis is an author new to me, but I’d certainly read more of his work. A commenter on my review said that City of Fire was the best book he read in 2007. ( I read it in January of this year.)

mistress-death-large Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. I forgot to include this title in my discussion of historical mysteries I enjoyed this year. I had some initial reservations about the premise of this novel, but I got swept up in the story and fell utterly in love with Franklin’s feisty protagonist, the splendidly named Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar.

And now, two classics and three pleasant surprises.

This year I went back to two of my favorite crime fiction greats of the past, Georges Simenon and Ross MacDonald. Both are masters at creating atmospheric thrillers shot through with crisp, no-nonsense dialogue; both follow the rules of the conventional forms in which they write while at the same time subtly pushing against the boundaries of those same forms. How can formulaic writing be so compelling? I can’t explain it, and it’s just as well that I don’t even try:

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Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon

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Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald

As for the pleasant surprises:

skeleton The Skeleton in the Closet by M.C. Beaton. I grabbed this book on tape – yes, tape, that finicky old technology! -off the shelf at the Central Library with no idea what it was about. Set in a village in the Cotswolds, a place almost too dreamily English to be real, Skeleton is not an especially compelling mystery. It is, however, an utterly enchanting love story, read by the eminently listenable Donada Peters. I commend it to you warmly!

hit I also listened to Lawrence Block’s Hit Parade. Block is one of the reigning masters of American crime fiction. At one time, I was a huge fan of this author’s Matt Scudder series. Those books, a chronicle of one man’s struggle to be a good person, are utterly gripping and tend to be quite somber in tone. I knew we’d be seeing Block at Bouchercon, where he was to be honored for distinguished contribution to the mystery genre. I was intrigued by this prolific author’s new series featuring John Keller. Keller flies all over the country carrying out various commissions while Dot, his business partner, stays home in White Plains. It’s a business much like any other – except that Keller is a professional hit man! Hit Parade was read by the author, with appropriate sardonic inflection. I haven’t come across fiction this deliciously subversive in years.

Here’s Block being interviewed by Charles Ardai at Bouchercon. (You can’t tell from this video snippet but the room was packed.)

And here’s the author discussing his latest creation at a book signing.

ash Ash Wednesday by Ralph McInerny. This author’s Father Dowling novels now number twenty-six; there’s also one story collection and another on the way. I hadn’t read one of these in a while and had forgotten how much I enjoy McInerny’s delicious low-key wit. Under the guise of a cozy set in a gossipy small town in Indiana, Ash Wednesday manages to examine some genuinely provocative moral and spiritual issues. And what the heck, it’s just plain fun to hang out with the wise, witty, self-effacing Father Dowling and his prickly housekeeper Marie Murkin.

Next – when I can get to it, what with wrapping presents, sending cards, etc. – Group Two: the creme de la creme of my mystery reading year!

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Gotham Diary: the otherworldly beauty of the Kirov Ballet

April 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm (New York City, Performing arts, Poetry, Russophilia)

Thursday night April 10, I took my friend Helene, a balletomane like myself, to New York City Center to see the Kirov work its magic. The program consisted of scenes from four different ballets: Le Corsaire, Diana and Acteon, Don Quixote, and La Bayadere.

How was it? Superlatives fail me. I don’t have the words, but the poets do. I keeping thinking of two passages in particular:: Romeo’s astonished declaration that “I ne’er saw true beauty till this night;” and the final lines of one of my favorite poems, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn:” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” Here’s the entire poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on,
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping song for ever new,
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

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As a meditation on the age-old desire to stop cruel time in its tracks, this work, for me, has no equal. I wished very powerfully that the performance we saw that night could be frozen in time, like “the marble men and maidens overwrought” on Keats’s vase. But I will cherish the memory. And there are pictures…

The corps de ballet in the exquisite La Bayadere.

Soloists in La Bayadere

Leonid Sarafanov, whose spectacular leaps and light-as-a-feather landings repeatedly thrilled the audience.* (Here’s a “head shot” of the astounding Sarafanov taken last year. Doesn’t he look as though he’s all of fourteen years old?!)

This photo of Diana Vishneva, taken by Andrea Mohin, appeared in the New York Times on Sunday April 13:

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The music, by turns robust and delicate, was played beautifully by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; most of the choreography was done by the great Marius Petipa. Helene and I gazed at the program in awe – such storied names…

Here is the Mariinsky Theatre’s official site. It is very oriented to the here and now – not much in the way of history, except for the acknowledgement, in tiny print, that this is there 225th season. For some interesting background, and great photos of the theater itself, see the Wikipedia entry.

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For a fascinating cultural hisory of Russia, see Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes. (I won’t claim to have read through this massive tome; I’ve been using it primarily as a reference work since I purchased it several years ago.)

*For more terrific portraits of ballet dancers, see Gene Schiavone’s site.

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All Hail Macbeth! The Folger Theatre’s stunning production

March 10, 2008 at 11:22 pm (Performing arts, Shakespeare)

macbeth-playbill.jpg This is the scariest, most formidable Macbeth imaginable. The play begins, in a sense, before it begins, with a lengthy announcement, presumably from the management. The announcer’s spiel is cut short in a way that theatergoers will not soon forget. (I will say no more about this, in case you are lucky enough to have tickets.)

Extreme stagecraft was employed in this production. Sudden loud noises, abrupt appearances and disappearances, blindingly bright strobe lights – and buckets of blood. In the capable hands of directors Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) and Aaron Posner, these elements intensified the focus on Shakespeare’s language and on the anguish of the characters. A collective “Ah!” seemingly arose from the packed house on many occasions. I felt as though I were watching the prototype of tragedy, reduced to its most laserlike capacity to terrify.

macbath.jpg Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth is transfixed by “a dagger of the mind.”

The acting is first rate. I admit to a prejudice where Shakespeare performances are concerned: I prefer the actors’ speech to have a British inflection. These were American actors, so they spoke American English. After the first five minutes or so, it ceased to matter. I was mesmerized and stayed that way, right to the end.

As this most inexorable of tragedies unfolded, certain lines of dialog seemed to leap out and hang in the air. Many of them were uttered by that archetype of bad influence, Lady Macbeth:

“The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements.

“We fail!/ But screw your courage to the sticking place / And we’ll not fail.

“Look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under’t.

There she is, giving her hapless husband lessons on how to be evil! But of course all of it catches up with her and overpowers her in the famous sleepwalking scene in Act Five. Here she plaintively voices her amazement:

“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

And finally, this line, which for some unaccountable reason chilled me to the bone: “The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?”

macbeth1.jpg Ian Merrill Peakes, with Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth

The play’s most famous speech is uttered by Macbeth himself, when he hears of his wife’s death:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

These may be the most despairing, nihilistic lines Shakespeare ever wrote.

bloom.jpg In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom observes: “Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that he does evil, and that he must go on doing ever worse.” Later in the same paragraph: “He scarcely is conscious of an ambition, desire, or wish before he sees himself on the other side or shore, already having performed the crime that equivocally fulfills ambition. Macbeth terrifies us partly because that aspect of our imagination is so frightening: it seems to make us murderers, thieves, usurpers, and rapists.”

I think Bloom is saying that because Macbeth seems at first to be a decent sort – decent in the way we like to think ourselves as being decent – that his swift descent into an infamous kind of Hell seems to exemplify a fate that could befall any one of us. Perhaps this accounts for the claustrophobic unease of the viewer caught up in the play’s precipitous downward trajectory.

macbeth200.jpg “By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.” The three witches, truly gruesome hags, were played by male actors. The witches are more often referred to as the the weird sisters. shakespeare-garber.jpg In Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber tells us that “Wyrd is the Old English word for “fate,” and these are, in a way,classical witches as well as Scottish or Celtic ones, Fates as well as Norns. The Three Fates of Greek mythology were said to spin, apportion, and cut the thread of man’s life. But the Macbeth witches are not merely mythological beings, nor merely historical targets of vilification, and superstition; on the stage, and on the page, they have a persuasive psychological reality of their own.”

The run for the Folger’s production of Macbeth has been extended; tickets are currently almost impossible to get. People are advertising for them on Craigslist. I’m not surprised.

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Addendum, March 11: I meant to mention Thomas De Quincey’s tremendously insightful essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” first published in 1823. In this passage, De Quincey describes the moments that follow Duncan’s murder:

“Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart and the
entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible.
Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region
of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady
Macbeth is “unsexed;” Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both
are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly
revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a
new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers,
and the murder, must be insulated–cut off by an immeasurable gulph
from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs–locked up and
sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world
of ordinary life is suddenly arrested–laid asleep–tranced–racked into
a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without
abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and
suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done,
when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes
away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and
it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made
its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat
again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we
live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had
suspended them.

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Stars and Stripes Forever! The United States Army Field Band

January 20, 2008 at 8:28 pm (Music, Performing arts)

Last night we attended a performance by the U.S. Army Field Band. The Field Band has four separate components; on this occasion, it was the turn of the concert band to strut their stuff. And did they ever!

us-army-field-band-concert-cover-playlist.jpg Imaginative and varied programming was one of the chief pleasures of this concert. First, we all stood and joined the players and their conductor Lieutenant Colonel Beth T.M. Steele in singing the National Anthem. This is not a moment to be lightly glossed over; I surprised myself by tearing up. Lieut. Colonel Steele then welcomed us warmly and introduced the evening’s guest conductor, Dr. Mallory Thompson of Northwestern University.

us-army-field-band-concert-beth-steele.jpg           mallory_thompson.jpg [Lieutenant Colonel Beth T.M. Steele, left, and Dr. Mallory Thompson]

The concert got under way with two short pieces by Aaron Copland: An Outdoor Overture and Variations on a Shaker Melody. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong with Copland; even harder to go wrong with that strangely irresistible little Shaker tune. I first heard it on Judy Collins’ Whales & Nightingales . It was the penultimate selection on the album and was followed by a memorable performance of Amazing Grace, in which Judy began by singing a capella and was then joined by a choir. For decades, those two pieces have been inseparable in my musical memory: both immensely moving, in entirely different ways.

The third selection was the Concertino, op.107 by Cecile Chaminade, a piece for flute and orchestra. We were informed that our soloist, Marissa Plank, a junior at Charlottesville High School in Virginia, was the winner of a Young Artist Competition recently held in the mid-Atlantic region. us-army-field-band-concert-marissa-plank.jpg Then on to the stage strides an absolute vision of blonde loveliness in a knockout red dress. “Wow!” I exclaimed involuntarily. “You mean she can play an instrument too?” Can she ever! The Concertino is a showpiece for the flute and a real challenge as well, studded with swooping melodic lines, trills, and numerous other embellishments. It was a delight, and Marissa Plank breezed through as though it were a walk in the park. A bravura performance!

The second half of the program consisted of Bach’s famous Toccata and fugue in D minor, transcribed for wind band by Donald Husberger, and the Symphony in B-flat by Paul Hindemith. If Chaminade’s Concertino was a showcase for the solo flute, the Bach was a showcase for the entire ensemble. The rich sonorities achieved by these wonderful musicians were thrilling! At the conclusion of this splendid performance, Dr. Thompson spoke to us briefly.

“Did you hear the organ?” she asked. “There was no organ! That’s what truly great intonation can achieve.”

My only objection to the Toccata and Fugue is that it ended too soon. I wanted them to play it again!

Instead, they proceeded with the Hindemith Symphony, with which I was unfamiliar. This work offered some great solo opportunities for these outstanding musicians, and I appreciated it from that standpoint. But I didn’t love the piece itself. Part of the problem, at least for me, was that came right after the Bach. Call me old-fashioned: the Bach gave me goosebumps; the Hindemith didn’t. (I very much like another piece by this composer, Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. I probably need to listen to the Symphony in B-flat again.; my husband assures me that it is considered a classic work for wind bands.)

The band played “Start and Stripes Forever” as an encore. In the course of this performance, the audience was treated to a really special variation: four band members and Marissa Plank stepped out front and center to play the famous piccolo part in this beloved march tune. Five piccolos for Sousa’s famous March!

Like October’s powerhouse performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, this concert was presented at the Rouse Theater, which is about fifteen minutes from our house. This is a small auditorium with marvelous acoustics, a great venue for this kind of music-making.

You can find out more about the U.S. Army Field Band at their site; you can also be apprised of their performance schedule by placing yourself on their e-mail list.

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