Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Dorothea Lange photography and Repositioned MOMA Collection

Managed to take in a preview of a new show at the Museum of Modern Art featuring the photography of Dorothea Lange. She was a photographer who shot scenes all over the country but especially in down-and-out places during the Depression in the 1930s in the Dust Bowl and other similar locales. Her work reminded me of Walker Evans and some of her photos are just as famous--one in particular called Migrant Mother was featured in the New York Times.

The show has been put together very deftly. Different walls are devoted to different phases of her career. As usual, problems in seeing the photos are significant--even at a members' preview, the crowd was making getting close to many items difficult. And it's always hard to read the descriptive panels. But enough griping. It is a terrific exhibit and if you get to MOMA, you should definitely take the time to see it. I suspect it's one of those exhibits that if you go starting in its second week, it may be far easier to get close to everything.

The reinstalled permanent collection at the museum is magnificent, as one would expect. The first room has versions of Munch's The Scream, Van Gogh's Starry Night, several Cezannes, and work by Gauguin, Mondrian, Henri Rousseau, and Vuillard. Many pictures are placed with others that may come from a different style and time, but the contrasts are fascinating. I happen to get a charge out of seeing the Italian Futurists, of whose work MOMA has a good sampling. I even spotted a Severini out in the hall as you come off the escalator and a familiar (from previous visits) golden Boccioni sculpture beckoned from across a gallery.

Monday, February 10, 2020

'The Mother of Us All'

There aren't too many opportunities to get to see a production of the three operas by composer Virgil Thomson, who was also a highly-regarded critic in an age when such conflicts of interest were not regarded as problems. So this past Saturday, an unusual combination of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Philharmonic, and the Julliard School of Music presented a semi-staged version of Thomson's 1947 opera about Susan B. Anthony, The Mother of Us All, in the Engelhard court which is located in front of the old Subtreasury building facade that once stood at Wall and Broad, but now fronts the American Wing of the Met.

The space was set up with a raised stage that stood amid three banks of folding wooden chairs for viewers. Surtitles were flashed on a well-suited space in the colonade around the court and pictures were flashed with major points on the front of the Subtreasury facade. Felicia Moore was the excellent soloist who portrayed Susan B. Anthony, and the many other parts, ranging from John Adams to Ulysses S. Grant were filled by Julliard students. A half-dozen Philharmonic musicians, dominated by the trumpeter, provided the orchestral component.

Thomson's music was most enjoyable. He used techniques that Charles Ives was employing--drawing on American patriotic songs, folk music, and marches among many other influences. The plot, if it can be called that, was hard to follow because it was disjointed and mixed real and fictional characters. (Images of many of the characters were flashed up on the facade and identified as appropriate "Real" or "Fictional".) But what would you have expected from the famed avant-gardist who wrote it, Gertrude Stein?

She also had provided the libretto for Thomson's opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which had been written twenty years earlier in 1927-28. The Mother of Us All did win praise from many--an example comes from Opera News in 2013, regarding a Manhattan School of Music production:

"The opera remains riveting, too, in the lightness and wit of its approach to serious themes such as the struggle for women's suffrage. Preaching would soon pall, but Stein's playfulness, surprises and absurdities, like the Mozartean clockwork of so much of Virgil Thomson's all-American music, have a tonic effect, especially in their ability to keep the listener off guard."

The opera was originally produced at Columbia University, but later was presented (in this century) by the Santa Fe Opera and the San Francisco Opera.

It did not drag and I found myself wanting to know more about the long life and career of Susan B. Anthony, who lived to be 86 and died in 1906, fourteen years before the 19th Amendment giving women the vote went into effect.  

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Song of Names

Several years ago, which it must have been, since the book was copyrighted in 2002, I read a first novel by the English music critic Norman Lebrecht, called The Song of Names. It had been brought to my attention by my cousin "Doctor Bill" Hoffman (called that to distinguish him from his and my Uncle Bill, as families often behave with nicknames). I knew Doctor Bill was an opera aficionado but we had had few conversations during all the years and now that he's gone, I do regret not making more of an effort to engage him.

All this came back to me because Lebrecht's book was eventually developed into a motion picture, which opened within the last month. It is the story of a Polish Jewish violin virtuoso who is first saved from the Holocaust by being brought when nine years old to London by his father to live with the family of a Jewish impresario. When he returns to Poland and disappears, the host's son sets out to track him down. It got good reviews everywhere but in the local rag, the Washington Post. Most of the critics, however, thought that the movie, while good in total, had some dry spots; the critic for the Los Angeles Times gave it a strongly positive review and Variety noted its quality but thought it might have a limited audience, a way of saying that it might come off as too Jewish.. 

Doctor Bill had suggested the book to me because there is a reference to my granduncle Joe, who was formally known as Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Joseph H. Hertz . That was enough for me to go out and get it, which I did, and read it, which I don't always do.  The book was a lot of fun to read, mainly because Lebrecht, who writes a weekly music column in the London Evening Standard and occasionally appears in other British journals, such as The Spectator  sprinkles the text with appearances of British personalities, from Sir Henry Wood, the conductor who initiated the summertime Proms, George Orwell (Eric Blair), and Sir Neville Cardus, also a music critic and the most highly-regarded cricket writer as well. He also has a new book out on Jewish geniuses between 1847 and 1947. 

The movie,  also entitled The Song of Names, obviously lacks just about all these historical and personality references, which add a great deal to the charm of the book, since Lebrecht imparts his wide knowledge of English cultural and political life, and clearly has a built-in liking for British eccentricity. But there are two references to Chief Rabbi Hertz. The first:

There was only one impediment [to having a combined bar mitzvah for the two boys], raised by the unordained Goldfarb. Was it permissible in Jewish law, he wondered, to delay my confirmation in order to spare another boy's feelings? Father brooked no cavils from so lowly a functionary. He took me round to the Chief Rabbi's house on Hamilton Terrace, where the learned Dr. J.H. Hertz, a world-renowned scholar of notoriously short temper, caressed his well-trimmed beard and pronounced a psak, or precedential ruling, allowing the postponement of a bar mitzvah for the sake of emotional stability in times of war.

The mention of the house in Hamilton Terrace took me back a good many years to when we lived in London for most of a year. It had been broken up into apartments, but my cousin Jo, a daughter of the Chief Rabbi, resided in one of the flats, where we visited her often. The second reference occurs a few pages later:

Father went to see the Chief Rabbi, mainly to meet his red-bearded son-in-law, Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, who was running in and out of Poland in search of Jewish orphans. Dr Schonfeld took the particulars, made no promises. We met him weeks later at Victoria Station, heading a convoy of bewildered Jewish children. When immigration officials blocked entry, he blazed through the barriers with eyes of blue fire. Catching my father's eye, he shook his head slowly with a look of sorrowing exhaustion.

These incidents do not show up in the movie, nor do most of Lebrecht's Joycean recall of many notable persons, places, and happenings that he featured in the novel. But the film does a good job of telling the story, has wonderful music, especially the violin pieces played by the Taiwanese-Australian Ray Chen, and the exteriors take you back to prewar and wartime London. Tim Roth plays the son who shares his room with the violin prodigy David from Poland, and Clive Owen comes on masterfully later in the picture as the grown-up Dovidl.

My granduncle passed away in 1946, having served as Chief Rabbi since 1913, so I never met him, since I was was one year old then. I did encounter Solomon Schonfeld, called Oliver by his family, much later. I had read about his wartime exploits in enabling Jewish children to escape Nazi Europe, so it was compelling to meet someone who had been engaged in that heroic work.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Man Who Won't Go Away

It's important to see the documentary, Where's My Roy Cohn? The late disbarred lawyer started out representing possibly the most evil person of the '50s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and then had a lengthy series of rich crooks, fixers, and rotters as clients for the next few decades. One of the reviews of this film suggested that the key question we should be asking is: Why did the rich and famous not only hire him but socialize with him, knowing how evil he was?

Of course, Tony Kushner made him the leading figure in his superb Angels in America and showed him as who he really was: a closeted homosexual who had persecuted other gay men. In many ways, he was the evil genius with few redeeming attributes. Even the many who despised him acknowledged his smarts: he knew how to use the law for his purposes. I recall reading an account in the NYU Law Review about how several public interest cases were litigated. In one of them, he represented the bad guys and his performance was a demonstration of how to use the law to delay and obfuscate.

He's most relevant today--many years after his death in 1986--because he was the early mentor of our current President when the latter was learning the real estate business. Cohn taught him never to apologize, always to fight back harder than he had been hit, and to lie and cheat as necessary. Amazingly, it looks like the title of this film reflects his difficulty in finding a mouthpiece as skilled and effective as Cohn was. In another profile of Cohn, in Esquire some years ago, one observer said that Cohn was the lawyer you wanted when your case looked like a sure loser, because he had just about invented the hardball style of litigation.

He had been a prosecutor on the Rosenberg case and his statement in a TV interview years after it showed his propensity to lie. It has become clear that Julius Rosenberg was guilty and that Ethel Rosenberg was not, but was prosecuted and executed in a futile attempt to "turn" Julius. It's also important to add that their espionage was hardly "the crime of the century," in J. Edgar Hoover's phrase, because Klaus Fuchs had already given the Soviets all the secrets they needed to build an atomic bomb. Cohn said in the interview that "we had tons more evidence against Ethel Rosenberg that we didn't even need to use," an obvious lie that is rendered even more despicable because he was communicating ex parte with the trial judge to encourage him to impose the death penalty.

The film is worth seeing to remind us that sharpsters like Cohn do get away with their crimes. Yes, he was disbarred at the end and he suffered a somewhat painful decline and death from AIDS. But he was something of a social lion in New York, and was welcomed as a lawyer and friend by the highest figures in the Catholic Church in the city. Cohn should be featured in the new law school ethics courses (which we never had when I was in law school) as the clearest horrible example of how a lawyer can use every skill and technique to succeed in defending the worst among us. Everyone is entitled to be represented, but we've rarely seen someone who spent an entire career protecting the rich and evil and oppressing those who hoped to find justice in our justice system. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Huzzas for Chopin's Second Concerto

Tonight we enjoyed hearing at Kennedy Center in D.C. the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski play Chopin's Second Piano Concerto, with Lise de la Salle, the pianist. This was the third and last performance of this concert, which had not yet been reviewed in the Washington Post. The concerto itself is wonderful and the presentation by Mlle de la Salle and the NSO under Maestro Urbanski was magnificent.

Not being familiar with any Chopin compositions other than his piano works, which is a little bit like saying not knowing much about Verdi except his operas (ok, there's the Requiem, of course, and the quartet, which remains sort of an oddity), this concerto was a revelation and this pianist excited listeners and us as much as last year when I heard Daniil Trifonov playing Schumann and other piano challenges with much panache.

Chopin of course was the soloist in the 1830 premiere, and the piano soloist's part contains about every type of piano virtuoso element. It kept your interest without being either repetitive or merely pyrotechnical. It was entirely different in style, but still the bravura effect of the performance reminded me of the wonderful recording of Vladimir Horowitz playing the fantastic and famous Chopin Polonaise in A-flat Major.

The remainder of the concert featured Graznya Bacewicz's Overture for Orchestra written in 1943 which was brief (six minutes) and held interest as well as being enjoyable. The last section of the program after intermission was Tchaikovsky's Fourth. I hadn't heard it before but the one part that was more than pleasant was the second movement with its two great themes. This movement will be instantly familiar to you as one of those Greatest Moments in Music pieces, but that shouldn't diminish the delight it inspires. 

The rest of the symphony seemed mainly bombastic and repetitive to me, except for the third movement's pizzicato which sounded like nothing I had ever heard before and was definitely something worth hearing for the first time. Consider all the strings playing quite an extended section of purely pizzicato with none of the rest of the orchestra included for most of this scherzo movement.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Dedicating the Res Club Memorial at Cornell

After 52 years, Cornell has recognized the nine members of the university community who died in the Cornell Heights Residential Club fire—eight students and one faculty member—with a well-designed memorial placed centrally on the campus between Sage Chapel and Day Hall.

One member of our class, Anne Catherine McCormic ‘67, was among the deceased, and another, Sherry Carr ’67 ’70 MILR, delivered one of two reflections at the dedication ceremony at the memorial site on October 4. Both were senior women, who resided on the second, which was the top, floor of the Res Club.

Most people at Cornell then only were aware that 60 freshmen were living on the two lower floors: they had been recruited for the Ford Foundation-funded Six-Year-PhD program. But women in our class who learned about the housing opportunity, at a time when living on campus was severely limited for undergraduate women, occupied the rooms on the top floor, along with several female graduate students.

All, except for Anne McCormic, managed to be rescued by first responders and other residents who used ladders to reach the windows after those trying to escape punched out the screens. Those living on the lower floors either got out through a back door (on the lowest level) or through the windows on the first floor at street level.

The Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office has never initiated criminal proceedings in the case. Until recently, Cornell University did not allow any scrutiny of its archives and records relating to the fire. Our class’s 50th Reunion Book, published in 2017, featured an article by one of the ’67 survivors, Judith Adler Hellman, who recalled what happened that night and also analyzed what has been described as a cover-up by Cornell. Subsequently, the New York Times ran a long piece examining what it could find out about the case.

Cornell President Martha Pollack delivered opening remarks at the dedication of the memorial, acknowledging that “[F]or too long, all of you have felt unheard and your memories unacknowledged. No one can take away the pain of what you experienced. But what we can do is hear your stories and become accustomed, become the custodians of your memories with this memorial, which will remain here in the heart of campus for as long as the University stands.”

In her reflections, Sherry Carr described McCormic, who was one of her roommates and was enrolled in what was then the School of Home Economics during her time at Cornell, as a “dynamo” and observed that “earlier administrations” had refused to recognize the need to honor those who were lost in the fire or resolve the issue of its origin.

The case was complicated by the University’s admitted negligence in failing to observe fire codes in the building, which lacked fire doors, sprinklers, and other standard protective requirements. Subsequent investigations by the New York State Police, fire marshals, and other authorities have reached inconsistent conclusions as to whether an accelerant, which is a fire-causing substance, was detected on the Res Club premises.

One speaker at the reception in the Straight Browsing Library, which followed the dedication, mentioned the name of a former Cornell student whom many of the survivors, and their families and friends, believe started the fire and is living under an assumed name. Others have said that they don’t expect any legal cases—civil or criminal—to be brought unless the District Attorney’s Office ever decides to proceed or Cornell issues a finding regarding the fire’s cause.

Both of these possible outcomes are regarded as unlikely to occur, although the District Attorney’s Office regards the fire as an open case.

The memorial reads “In memory of nine vibrant and brilliant young scholars who died in a tragic fire at the Cornell Heights Residential Club on April 5, 1967,” then lists the names of the deceased and concludes: “Their families, friends, classmates, colleagues, and the entire Cornell community promise to never forget them.”

Monday, October 14, 2019

Mockingbird and Tootsie

Is it still possible to approach To Kill A Mockingbird without bringing the immense baggage that the title now carries all these years after becoming perhaps the most significant novel of the second half of the 20th century? Watching Aaron Sorkin's highly effective adaptation for the stage this weekend at New York's Shubert Theater leads me to conclude that the answer is yes. This is because the underlying subject--race--remains a major part of our culture and because the leading character--Atticus Finch, the lawyer who accepts a court appointment and believes he can achieve justice--is still compelling.

Last year a sequel to the famous novel by Harper Lee was published posthumously amid questions regarding both its provenance and its quality. It apparently (I haven't read it) presents Atticus as somewhat less than the saint portrayed in the renowned movie by Gregory Peck. Despite his proclamations in the movie (and original novel) that justice can be achieved and times have changed in the Deep South, the sequel suggests that he was more conflicted and wasn't in favor of change coming too quickly.

Even without that added input, however, the current rendition is moving and inspiring, while providing excellent characterizations through outstanding performances by the entire cast. The set design and production are excellent, reflecting traditional Broadway standards. Jeff Daniels may well give us a fairer portrayal of Atticus than the majestic Peck. My only complaint was not the appropriately strong Southern accents but the players' tendency to drop the ends of sentences or project them toward the side or rear of the stage.

Sorkin has managed to capture the novel's powerful impact even though by this time, most of us are familiar with the plot and many of the characters. In the end, Mockingbird stands as a formidable picture of our times because it confronts its challenging subject so well, showing all the different angles and impacts it has on each character.

On a lighter note, I was mightily surprised to enjoy the musical Tootsie so completely. My recollection of the Dustin Hoffman movie is now vague so I had no problem accepting the talented Santino Fontana in the title role. The book here is clever and often uproariously funny. That to me may be why this musical captured the Tony award for best musical. Others in the cast are also excellent: Sarah Stiles as the lead's ex-girlfriend performs what could easily be a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song with great spirit and charm.

The whole topic of men dressing as women to save a thus-far dead-end career is now freighted with our current battleground of sexual politics and culture. Even so, this show demonstrates that there's still room for enjoyment of clever lines and lyrics, accompanied by imaginative music. My weekend included these two exciting evenings in the theater--and even more, the weather in New York was palmy and pleasant. It remains challenging to walk through Times Square either before or after showtime, and that's as it should be.