Friday, October 14, 2016

Bezbul's Been Bery Bery Bad

Fortunately, although I enjoy baseball, I've never lived nor died with a team. Perhaps that's something I've missed but I don't expect so. Baseball is a show that offers immense delight, mainly because every game is so different from the previous one. And there's something special still about being in the ballpark.

I've been in many of them. Nats Park is nice, especially because as well-designed as the Orioles' Camden Yards is, Nats Park is the first one that is defiantly not modelled after the Yards. It has its own character. I'm of course a traditionalist in that I despise the constant noise that the teams and leagues now think fans must be deluged under at all times. It was once pleasantly refreshing that the park would be quiet until something excited or something that could be anticipated to be exciting occurred.

Now not only is it always oppressively noisy but you are demanded to clap or toss your cap or stand up or do something. Real fans never needed any of that. I even remember with affection that the "Charge!" call that follows a horn blast was once initiated--in the L.A. Coliseum, I recall, soon after the Dodgers left Brooklyn for L.A.--with a few guys around the stands who blew their own horns, not the P.A. system.

Last night, I attended the third fifth-game of the opening playoff series that the Nats have been in during their existence. As on the earlier occasions, they blew it, helped along by a manager who made the wrong strategic decisions at critical moments. He stuck with Max Scherzer for one batter too long but even worse, brought in two successive ineffective relievers.

Probably not as awful as earlier managers--Davey Johnson and Matt Williams--relying on the clearly shaky Drew Storen to save fifth games in the ninth. Davey had a tendency to freeze and not act when he needed to, and Williams just made one bad move after another, to the point where the excuse that he was a tyro was irrelevant.

Writers have excused the third-base coach for his idiotic decision to send Jason Werth home when he would be out by 30 yards. I would fire him. Those decisions in crucial moments of decisive games are what you hire coaches to make. And to win a playoff series, you can't make mistakes. Being stranded on base is one thing but being sent to your doom by a moronic coaching call is entirely different.

For decades until 1955 the Dodgers seemed to be spooked. In The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant, a novel that came out in 1954, the character who was the Devil, a Yankee fan naturally, gave a benighted Washington Senators fan the chance to be a young star who would best the Yankees finally. When he scores the winning run despite being turned back to old age by the Devil, who whatever other powers he may have, could not convince an umpire to change his call, the Devil pleads with him to join up again for the Series.

"Without you the Senators can't beat the Dodgers and those Dodgers have never won a World Series," the man in red, played in the musical Damn Yankees by the wonderful Ray Walston, urged. So then in 1955, Next Year finally arrived for Brooklyn, followed two years later by the desertion of America's favorite losers, now winners, to the West Coast. 

The Nats can't blame the Devil this time or the previous two, just themselves, that their managers--like the other two touted strategists this year--Buck Showalter and Bruce Bochy--came up short when it counted.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


I grew up in an Italian neighborhood and went to Columbus School, so clearly I've been indoctrinated enough so that I'm not inclined to view the Admiral of the Ocean Sea as one of history's greatest villains. But this is a good occasion to consider how we apply what may be more advanced ethical concepts to the persons and events of the past.

My first thought here is that we need to be careful about how quickly we judge according to our contemporary outlook, however accurate or not it may be. As the Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans disappear, will be still harbor suspicions about current-day Germany? Those same vets made most feel that using the atomic bomb saved millions of lives--those of our servicemen who would have died in an invasion of Japan. 

Today some assert that dropping the bomb was a war crime. Others suggest that interning Japanese on the West Coast in 1942 was wrong. Very little consideration is given to the fact that expecting a Japanese invasion was far from out of the question then, nor was it clear that we were going to win World War II in either the Pacific or Europe.

The line that might well be drawn occurred right after World War II at the trial of General Yamashita, the "butcher of Malaya." The general's defense was that Allied--American--success in vanquishing his army led to his loss of direct control and thus allowed atrocities to be committed. His defense was summarily rejected at the war crimes trial in Tokyo, as well as by the interim emperor, Douglas MacArthur, and then by the postwar Supreme Court majority, with only the two most radical justices ever--Murphy and Rutledge, not Black and Douglas--dissenting, citing Tom Paine.

The world does sanctimoniously single out Israeli occupation of the West Bank for condemnation, but who but extreme partisans would defend Netanyahu's behavior toward expanding settlements and his attempt to interfere in U.S. politics. The world has seemed to ignore genocide in Rwanda and Sudan, but not in the Balkans, perhaps because both Serbs and Bosnian Muslims qualified as white.

And last but not least in terms of a loss for hypocrisy, the murders in the Charleston church seemed to turn the tide against the Southern revisionism that successfully depicted the antebellum South as a land of chivalry and happy slavery. The Jeff Davis Highway and J.E.B. Stuart High School across the river in Virginia may be renamed. We may finally escape the image created by Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation (1915 film, that is).

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Third Party Practice

There's rarely much to be gained from supporting a third-party candidate for President. Despite his recent efforts to shed the appellation "spoiler," Ralph Nader did cost Al Gore the 1980 election. Ross Perot, in contrast, aided Bill Clinton's victory by drawing more from the Republican side. Neither ever had a realistic chance of winning on his own.

But now we are presented with Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, who has outdone some other egregious candidates in his gaffes regarding basic foreign policy familiarity. You don't have to be a policy maven or wonk to be able to respond to simple questions about international leaders and the situation in Aleppo. Not to know what either is strikes me as ludicrous in a serious candidate.

This lacklustre performance merely emphasizes the danger in supporting candidates who only can play that spoiler role. Yes, at least one of our major-party candidates is a disaster, but that does not excuse assuming a righteous, above-it-all attitude justifying voting for someone who has no chance except to possibly flip the election result.

I suppose where I'm going is to say that a protest vote is fine if it really doesn't make a difference, but it made a difference in 2000, especially with a Supreme Court jumping into politics with a ruling that defiantly proclaimed it was not a precedent. It could well make a difference in certain key states this time. This is no year to throw away your vote.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Double Feature

This Saturday, we went to a one-man show, Satchmo at the Waldorf, presented by the Mosaic Theatre Company at the Atlas Theater on H St., NE, DC. It's been extended through this coming weekend and Craig Wallace, who plays Satchmo, as well as his manager, Joe Glaser, and the younger musical jazz star, Miles Davis, is absolutely outstanding.

This takes place in Louis Armstrong's dressing room when he was playing the great venue, the Empire Room at the Waldorf, a few months before his death at 71. The conflicts that raged within him, as he had become the most famous trumpeter in the world by pleasing white audiences are all articulated as he recalls his starting out and his coming of age. Davis and the younger jazz musicians see him as an Uncle Tom because he smiles and plays pop hits to please his fans.

His conflict with his late manager, whose financial dealings left Armstrong much less well-off than he should have been, come to the fore as well, although the explanation that emerges is a good dramatic turn in the play. It's 85 good minutes in the theater--very enjoyable.

Then we went to the Nationals Park to attend Opera in the Outfield--all right, we sat in the third-base line stands to have at least the backing of a seat--where they did a live transmission of Washington National Opera's ongoing Marriage of Figaro from Kennedy Center. Traditional but pleasant production, with excellent performance by Alicia Majeska as the Countess. Everyone else makes up a fine ensemble, with the notable presence of Elizabeth Bishop, Fricka in last year's Ring, in the minor role of Marcellina.

Figaro, from the Beaumarchais play and written in the 1790s by Mozart and DaPonte, caries forth the story of the clever servant who first helped Count Almaviva win Rosina in The Barber of Seville, which precedes Marriage in time although the opera was not written until the 1820s by Rossini. But this opera--one of the oldest in the repertoire--is still revolutionary. As with Cosi fan tutte, the women outwit the men and in this one, the servants are always a step ahead of the master. 

The music is glorious and was well conducted by James Gaffigan. In some ways this was one of the most enjoyable presentations of this major opera that I've seen. The four acts were combined into two and the show still ran 3 1/2 hours but who was noticing? Not I. 

Once I went with our work group to see this during my first overseas court project in Vilnius, Lithuania, at a beautiful modern opera house. My hosts wanted to leave at the end of Act III for a special reception but the opera company, as often occurs in these productions, ran Act III and Act IV together so I quietly mentioned to one of the rest of the group (mostly non-opera types) that Act III just ended and saw his face fall, since it was clearly going to be impossible to get a large group out in the middle of the performance.

Never did make it to the reception but the coffee bar at the opera during intermission had the thickest, most wonderful hot chocolate I've ever tasted.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Of Such Stuff That Dreams Are Made On

The Tempest is usually categorized as one of Shakespeare's "late comedies," which possess the comic label only in the most limited definition of a comedy as a play with a happy ending. The other one in that category that immediately comes to mind is The Winter's Tale, and everything in that except for the usually unconvincing ending is far from happy.

When done well, however, I find The Tempest to be among the most wonderful of Shakespeare's plays. It contains a wistfulness that makes you think he was truly beginning to see the end of his road and wanted to resolve a whole lot of themes. Yesterday's matinee at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C., which we attended, was done very well. Patrick Page, the Prospero, had a strong, deep voice that exuded the authority Prospero must exercise. Sara Topham moved across the proscenium on harness as a more playful Ariel than usual, adding to the spirited atmosphere as a more feminine Ariel--sometimes I think the part was Shakespeare's venture into creating a unisex role.

Veterans Ted van Griethuysen as Gonzalo and Edward Gero as Alonso were both authoritative, and Rachel Mewbron a delightful Miranda who seemed to use the stage as her climbing wall. Liam Craig and Dave Quay rendered the clowns--Trinculo and Stephano--far more effectively than others I've seen, succeeding in maintaining the delicate balance these fairly large but challenging roles demand.

There was a large ensemble of players who were ostensibly islanders--I found some of their processioning somewhat superfluous but not at all diminishing to the play. Clifton Duncan did as much as can be done with the role that makes The Tempest a "problem play" of the Merchant of Venice or Taming of the Shrew variety. His role as a supposedly undeserving native who is oppressed into servitude by the otherwise beneficent Prospero who forgives all the nobles who deprived the latter of his dukedom and presumably does the same for Caliban--although he never actually says so. Caliban of course is given that great line: "You taught me language; and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse./ The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!" So once again Shakespeare puts in just enough to make one feel that he has not imagined Caliban as nothing but a stereotyped "native" (i.e., black) villain.

But the overall spirit of forgiveness that Prospero applies to all the characters--deserving and mostly undeserving, while slowly encouraging the instant lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, does envelop the play and convey that glimpse of what the playwright was feeling as he finished one of his last plays. "O brave new world" indeed and yes, it was a superb few hours in the theater before "Our revels now have ended".

Friday, August 26, 2016

U. of Chicago Hits Home

"Political correctness" has too often provided an opportunity--real or imagined--for right-wingers to attack academe and other perceived leftist or minority groups but in recent years, the whole approach taken to restrict debate or enable it to be shut out has gone too far.

Now, the school I've always regarded as America's most truly intellectual university--the University of Chicago--has sent out a letter to entering freshmen by its dean, eschewing such artificial barriers as "safe space" and "trigger warnings." In part, the letter stated:

"The letter, signed by John Ellison, the dean of students, states that the university does not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' nor does it cancel controversial campus speakers or condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
"...Critics of perceived political correctness run amok have hailed the letter as a necessary corrective to a culture of oversensitivity on campuses.
"An editorial in the Chicago Tribune praised the letter as 'refreshingly direct,' applauding its commitment to the marketplace of ideas, the implicit endorsement of democratic freedoms, and the sheer feistiness.
"But defenders of trigger warnings and safe spaces have ripped the letter, saying its statements actually undermine the commitment to academic freedom cited as their motivation..."
My reaction is that it's about time someone in academe showed this kind of gumption to stand up for the kind of unrestricted free speech we were accustomed to having when I was in college. The whole point of going to a great university or a small liberal arts college is to expose your own thinking to the greatest minds as well as all kinds of opinions and attitudes that may be contrary to your own thoughts or views. 
Right-wing types have called for banning Huckleberry Finn and other classics and they found themselves joined by leftists offended by use of dialect and offensive terms commonly used in mid-America in the mid-1800s. Whenever some parent demands that a school board eliminate something controversial from the curriculum or reading list, my instant reaction is that that's exactly the book students should be reading to test their minds.
Given that students read far too little today--in this age of cell phones and video games--the idea that they need to be cosseted and protected by trigger warnings is ludicrous. They just need to read more--a lot more.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Forgotten Opera

In today's Times, a Critic's Notebook that featured reviews of two productions at Glimmerglass--Sweeney Todd, the musical, and The Crucible, the opera based on Arthur Miller's play--ended with a quick dismissal of Bard Festival's revival of Mascagni's Iris ("genuine obscurity"), which it compared to The Crucible ("a relative rarity").  

Even by opera standards, the plot as described is beyond the usual limits and sounds totally wild: the heroine is "a simple girl who is abducted and imprisoned in a brothel, where she commits suicide after being cursed by her father."  But I found myself wondering if at least some of Mascagni's likely limited musical talent that generated the resoundingly successful  one-act Cavalleria Rusticana could have produced at least some attracting music. 

Admittedly, there's little basis for assuming anything very encouraging. Years ago, I attended a Washington Opera performance of Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz, which had absolutely nothing in common with Cavalleria.  First of all, in terms of defying expectations, Mascagni, who ended his life (he lived until 1945--he wrote both Iris and Cavalleria, as well as Fritz, in the 1890s) espousing fascism in an effort to win patronage from Mussolini, wrote in Fritz a story set in some hitherto unknown Jewish rural setting that features one oft-performed duet (the "Cherry Song") between a landowner and his servant girl. There's even a rabbi in the cast--a baritone.

My assumption is that Iris has even fewer memorable musical moments than Fritz, but it apparently is performed now and then in Italian opera houses. There's a relatively recent recording starring Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni. And then I consulted the Met's archives, which disclose that between 1907 and 1931, the opera was performed 16 times, with the first performance featuring no less than Enrico Caruso, Emma Eames, and Antonio Scotti. The last, in 1931, was almost as impressive: Beniamino Gigli, Elizabeth Rethberg, and Ezio Pinza!

We probably should discount those casts a bit because the Met in those years was blessed with a seeemingly endless supply of world-class singers. And there's surely no evidence to suggest that Mascagni had a hidden hit here. Some authorities have contended that his partner for the ages, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, composer of I Pagliacci,  the "Pag" with which "Cav" is inevitably paired by opera houses everywhere, was really the bad-luck bearer, in that he wrote some perfectly good operas such as a La Boheme, that soon after it debuted, found itself challenged--and defeated in terms of quality and popularity--by Puccini's masterpiece.

Perhaps we have Puccini to thank even for this revival of Iris, because Leon Botstein entitled the summer festival at Bard at which it was performed "Puccini and His World."