Saturday, December 26, 2015

Brooklyn & Joy

I went to see Brooklyn with definitely low expectations. It sounded like some mushy romance. So, what a surprise it was to become enthralled by a marvelous performance by Saorirse Ronan as a seemingly plain girl who flourishes when she emigrates from County Wexford to Brooklyn in the early 1950s.

The film captures the period perfectly, so perfectly that I had forgotten how much things have changed since then. Brooklyn then had boarding houses and fancy downtown department stores. My aunt would send me shirts as birthday presents from Martin's, an old-line store, and I recall my first major Italian feast visiting a colleague of my dad's there.

Her return to Ireland makes it clear that while the locals may conspire to provide her with reasons to stay--a highly eligible man and a decent job--she will always have to deal with the gossip, often ill-intentioned, of a small town in rural Ireland. 

All of this is depicted with total clarity and understanding of the relationships involved. Sure, as in all movies, things proceed somewhat differently from real-life patterns, but here, the performances, including two by old-time pros like Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters, are superb.

Joy is more of a conundrum. Jennifer Lawrence fans will be well satisfied as she is on screen almost all the time and is highly accomplished. Robert DeNiro does what he does best: play a blustery man who has severe limitations may even start to recognize them. Other players contribute well: Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, and Isabella Rosselini, to name three. Bradley Cooper apparently was desired and thus paid quite well for a somewhat minor role.

The whole thing, however, fell short for me. It was a plot packed with occasions for many of the characters to display their eccentricities. It all started to come apart even as the title character demonstrated her moxie in soldiering on despite every kind of obstacle and problem, most of them created by her incredibly dysfunctional extended family. 

To me, the producers reassembled the Silver Linings Playbook team, but with a less well-made plot and too much distraction. The result of all this is a picture that drags--I kept looking at my watch.


Friday, December 18, 2015

If You Don't, I Will

We don't get enough foreign pictures here in Washington. Actually, we don't get a lot of good American pics until weeks pass after their opening in New York and Los Angeles. Of course, today, we and every hamlet larger than a population of 50 has the new Star Wars picture, which I will go see soon, especially because it's playing at our local house, the Uptown, which has what you don't run into very often now: one large curved screen and a large palatial auditorium.

But the Avalon, which was saved by community action and is run by a community board, is out on Connecticut Avenue just before the Maryland line, and on Wednesday nights, it shows foreign films, usually French, Czech, or Israeli. I often give French pics a chance because if nothing else, their style is appealing. This week, they had, for only the one Wednesday night showing, a French film released earlier this year, If You Don't, I Will

I'd never seen the stars, Emanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, before; nor had I viewed any of the previous work of Sophie Fillieres. The picture isn't great but it has its attractions. It was reviewed, by the way, in New York in December 2014 and Variety caught it earlier at the Berlin Film Festival. It's about a married couple who are at odds with each other for not entirely clear reasons except that they seem to push all the wrong buttons after getting to their 40s, being empty-nesters since her son has recently moved out and lives with his pleasant girl friend.

Their flare-ups at typical parties or when running for a bus don't seem that outlandish. The best gag comes when they put some Champagne in the "super frost" part of the freezer and it cracks up in no time. The wife, Pomme (I recall how Diane Kurys used that name for the heroine in her charming picture, One Sings, the Other Doesn't.), suspects that husband Pierre is having an affair with a younger weather broadcaster. But this obvious provocation falls apart when the younger woman appears to become as fed up with him as his wife.

The climax of the picture comes when the two go for a hike in a large forest park near Lyons, where the picture is set (it looked just like Paris to me). Pomme decides she doesn't want to go home and goes off on her own into the woods. She camps out and hikes for several days, with a few adventures but nothing very major. She stops in a small town where there's a chamber music festival and it is delightful when she joins all the participants in the fest are at a huge dining table as they identify themselves by the instrument each plays. 

She returns to the forest and Pierre is finally urged by her son to pursue her, which he seems to do in a half-hearted way. When she eventually returns and they are back together, the ending leaves it unclear as to what will happen next. Just like life.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sorry About 'Kiss Me, Kate'

Kiss Me, Kate is one of my all-time favorites in the Broadway musical comedy world. Cole Porter showed that he could write a new-fangled musical, post Oklahoma, in which the songs advanced the plot. At the same time, he outdid himself in composing marvelous tunes and the cleverest of lyrics, having no less than Shakespeare to play off.

So I saw the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production here in D.C., after a glowing Washington Post review, and alas, the production was all wrong. The director, Alan Paul, misconceived the show entirely.  The dancers were excellent and Clive Alves, playing the Bill who can't behave, was athletic and amazing as anyone playing the role should be. But the show leered. "Too Darn Hot" was subsumed by suggestive moves and one of Porter's sharpest songs, Bianca/Lisa singing "Always True to You Darling, in My Fashion," was belted out emphasizing the sex at the expense of the shrewd lyrics that always ride the line and don't go over into burlesque.

All the leads were over-amped and they compounded the sin by screaming or shouting, exposing their limits as singers. In the first act, I thought Douglas Sills as Fred/ Petruchio used his fine diction to stand out from the rest but in the second, he fell into the same pattern of pushing up the volume, thus demonstrating his limitations. Christine Sherrill, the Lilli/Kate of the show, made her vocal deficiencies all too evident after seeming to hit the right tone at the start of "So in Love."

The sets and costumes were fine, using the original 40s motif; also on the plus side were the best of this bunch, the two gangsters who turn up near the close to shine in Porter's most memorable creation here: "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."  Yet even they, after a strong beginning, let their diction falter in the last few verses; this is a song where you need to get every well-chosen word.

I saw the revival in New York sixteen years ago with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, both of whom have gone on to more successes and recognition since that early starring opportunity.  They were excellent, as was the Broadway cast. Even my daughter's school production (she shone in the small part of the stage doorman) showed better understanding of how to present this show in its best light.

So I will listen to some recordings I have of the original lead, Alfred Drake, employing his warm baritone to great effect, and Lisa Kirk doing full justice to "Always True to You"--the MGM (naturally) movie had its moments as well, most amusingly when the studio confirmed its belief that everyone on the studio payroll had to sing and dance by casting the fine actors Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore as the "Brush Up" gangsters. It was likely the first time either had been asked to sing or dance on stage or screen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dutch Class Distinctions

One nice part of spending a long weekend in Boston, ostensibly for my 45th law school reunion, was seeing the Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer at the Museum of Fine Arts. The show was organized to show how the great Dutch painters recognized the class lines in 17th century Holland. 

First there were the nobility then the merchants and artisans and then the working class and the impoverished.  Rarely did they mix. Perhaps the most amazing fact I picked up was when Rembrandt painted a portrait, full-length which was rare there then, of one of the most powerful men in Amsterdam. This worthy didn't go for Rembrandt's little touches such as showing one glove thrown on the floor, so he held off paying the master. 

It's delightful to think about a man who now is only remembered in history because he tried to stiff Rembrandt. A bit like the then-famous Viennese music critic, Edouard Hanslick, who was satirized by Wagner as the unpleasant (to say the least) character in Die Meistersinger, Beckmesser. Of course, that is the only reason he is recalled today at all.

There were two Vermeers, which of course is always an occasion, one I hadn't previously seen from the Louvre, and the other, one of the five usually found at the Met in New York. As is the case with Vermeers, the light is extraordinary. The many other paintings of that grand age are also worth the visit. It is a formidable show.

My reunion also surprised me, I expected little from a 45th, law school no less, but those who showed up were enthusiastic and it was amazing to see how the place has changed. A classmate of mine, now deceased, funded the construction of the major new building in which most of the proceedings occurred. And it was especially fun to hear Neil Chayet, who graduated a few years before I did, speak early one morning about his Looking at the Law radio spot and conflict resolution as well.

The program on the future of the legal profession was also enlightening and not at all defensive, except for the dean noting earlier that day that 96 percent of the graduates leave with jobs in hand.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mr. Court Administration

A man whom I worked for a good many years ago and who was one of the two most important figures in establishing the field of court administration passed away in August and was memorialized last week at the National Center for State Courts. He was Edward B. McConnell and he was 95 and had led a long and impressive life.

He became the State Court Administrator of New Jersey in 1953, the first significant American state court administrator. The two outstanding chief justices with whom he worked. Arthur Vanderbilt and Joseph Weintraub, recognized Ed's skill and gave him support so that he did administer the courts. He was no backroom manipulator or paper-pusher. In 1973, he was recruited to become the National Center's second head. 

I went to work for the Center the following year and found that Ed was a hands-on leader. I worked in a regional office but when I was involved in drafting any project report that would go to a court or be published, you could be sure that Ed would review it personally and call you with his comments. He didn't mince words and he told you exactly what he thought about the draft and about all the people with whom you were involved and dealing with in the courts.

Suffice it to say that I learned an incredible amount from him. He had gone through Harvard Business School right after World War II but I sensed immediately that Ed had a natural sense of how organizations run and how they should be run. He inherited an organization--the National Center--that was struggling in its early years after Warren Burger had founded it and he turned it around into the dominant organization in its field. Other competitors fell by the wayside.

I also saw how Ed operated in meetings. At times, he seemed like he was sleeping. A sleeping cobra, however. He wouldn't pop off and didn't get involved until he carefully assessed the tenor and tempo of the proceedings and then when he gauged it to be exactly the right moment, he made his move and usually succeeded in getting precisely what result he had been planning to achieve.

Ed established a remarkably adept administrative operation in New Jersey. When I first worked in the state in 1970, I could see immediately that he had become a major figure and achieved a level of respect that few state court administrators or any court administrators have ever gained. In court administration, the other leading giant of the field and the only one comparable to Ed is Ernie Friesen, with whom I've also had the privilege of working. Ernie now is nearing 90 and still out there doing his fine work but we truly are witnessing the passing of the greats.

Two good pictures

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing both Black Mass and Bridge of Spies. The first is set in Boston, and seems to have been filmed there, mostly in Southie. It is the story of James (Whitey) Bulger and how he more or less flimflammed the FBI for years by giving them some info about the rival Mafiosi in return for the feds leaving him and his gang free to engage in their wide run of illegal activities. 

Johnny Depp does a great job playing "Jimmy" Bulger and Benedict Cumberbatch is even better as his respectable brother, Billy, who was President of the Massachusetts State Senate and then Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts until it turned out that his claim that he had no knowledge of what his brother Jimmy was up to fell apart near the end of Billy's career and he was forced to resign as head of the university.

The whole sordid story--including how an FBI operative who had grown up with the Bulgers set up the special relationship and in the end was consumed by it--comes across through realistic portrayals of all the players, both gang members and federal agents. 

Bridge of Spies is the story of how New York lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, agrees to represent a captured Russian spy, Col. Rudolf Abel, in U.S. federal court in Brooklyn during the late 50s when anti-communism was rampant. He even took what seemed like a good legal case for a clearly guilty defendant all the way to the Supreme Court and was complimented for his willingness to take the case by Chief Justice Earl Warren, one of the dissenters in Donovan's 5-4 loss before the high court.

Hanks does a fine job especially in the Berlin phase of the picture, where Donovan, unofficially working for the CIA, negotiates Abel's exchange for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot captured by the Russians when they took his spy plane down. Donovan comes across as braver than I recall because clearly the judge, the prosecutor, the CIA, and Donovan's own law firm expected him to put in a pro forma appearance, not really engage in zealous representation.

In real life, Donovan's notoriety from this case led to his success--mentioned in the movie at the end--in negotiating the release of thousands of Cubans after the Bay of Pigs disaster. But the film did not mention that he also ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against the popular incumbent, Jacob Javits, and served as president of the New York City Board of Education, a somewhat thankless job that did not add any lustre to his record.

But he did deserve a lot of praise for his bravery in upholding the finest standards of the bar in defending Abel and then negotiating his exchange. Hanks also confirms his status as the greatest living portrayer of "everyman" in U.S. films.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Flick

It's appearing at one of those minimal Off-Broadway theaters in the Village, this production of Annie Baker's The Flick, which won last year's Pulitzer Prize for drama. There has been a new cast taking over from the originals who started this second New York production, but this play proved its worth over the long run: three hours and ten minutes, that is.

Some have compared the pacing, with pauses and empty stage set, to Pinter but it struck me as the opposite of Mamet and La Bute, the two contemporary playwrights who specialize in crackling, staccato dialogue. Baker takes her time in enabling you to grasp where her characters are coming from. 

The three principals (there's a fourth performer who plays two small parts in fine fashion, too) are representative of young people stuck in dead-end jobs in a society and milieu that deny any chance, it would seem, to escape into any kind of satisfying work. Instead, they soldier on in a movie house in Worcester, Mass., with outdated technology and few prospects.

Gradually the characters interact on deeper and deeper levels, though this process is characterized by misunderstanding and the immediate realization that nothing will turn out right. Overlaying this is the small talk and the banter of any workplace, especially one where there are those who are clearly heading toward a dead end and the others who are usually younger but retain the slim likelihood of escape, if not assured success.

Not many plays capture this scene effectively. One that I recall fondly was Arthur Miller's A Memory of Two Mondays, a marvelous chronicle of a young man spending a summer in an urban supply house, knowing that he will be leaving for college in the fall but that the others are there for their lifetimes.   I had jobs like this when I was a teenager, and felt I learned an incredible amount from my immersion into the working world.

Just as Miller did, Baker captures the sense of outsiderdom that the new hire has, yet he is there on a break from college, so his prospects remain far more exciting than those facing the experienced hands. Baker captures the subtleties as the three in this triangle feel each other out or expose themselves -- in the case of the two veterans -- to each other unsuccessfully from all sides.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Master Sculptor

On the way to see the major exhibit of Picasso's sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I wasn't sure as to how I would react. One reason my familiarity with Picasso's sculpture was limited is that almost none of the objects on display in this major exhibition have been shown in public previously.

But there was one Picasso sculptural work with which I was familiar. It is the massive concrete version of Sylvette that is located near New York University in New York's Greenwich Village. Eileen and I were surprised when we first saw this large work, not because we didn't like it, because we did, but because we had apparently met the woman who had been Picasso's model for the sculpture.

Years back, when we spent most of a year in Britain, Eileen worked with a colleague there who was married to a French woman. She had been recruited as a model for Picasso in her younger days, she said, and, her husband observed, had been known as Sylvie to her friends, one of whom was Picasso. Not too surprisingly, the master invited her to come away with him, which offer, she, as a fairly level-headed late teenager (he was then in his 60s), declined.

Perhaps as a result of that decision, her career as a model for him was curtailed. I have a print of his painting of her and today, we saw the original sculpture from which the massive  version at NYU was made. All in all, my reaction was similar to how I react to paintings, collages, sculptures, and other art that the man produced throughout his long life--the quality of all of it was incredibly high.

I'm adding nothing to the volumes of criticism that have been devoted to analyzing Picasso, probably the premier artist of the 20th century. Yet it continues to amaze me that he had so much creativity and so much imagination to anticipate in most instances ideas that others would have later, they possibly never realizing that he had done it first. He began the experimenting in cubism with Braque; while Braque never achieved the significance in his later work that he had when engaged in developing cubism, Picasso went on to several further periods of major productivity and so much of the work he produced is truly fantastic.

Seeing this at the Museum of Modern Art, where several of his major paintings hang and many exhibitions have profiled his various creative periods, I thought back to his magnum opus that was there on loan for years when we were growing up, the huge canvas Guernica--probably the ultimate antiwar statement. In those days no one ever thought it would return to Spain since that return was conditioned on Spain abandoning Franco's fascism and returning to a democratic government.

There was a small sculpture of a bull's head and horns on one wall that conjured up recollection of Georgia O'Keeffe's many paintings on this theme, many of which we had seen recently in Santa Fe. As always, though, it seemed to say that Picasso was invariably there before anyone else. And, moreover, it also struck up wonderful memories of what I still think was his finest and most piercing work: Guernica.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Noel Coward's Hay Fever

Noel Coward's 1925 play, Hay Fever, which he purportedly wrote in three days, drew us to the Olney Theater today to see it performed by a sterling cast and a fine production. It's early Coward (he was all of 25 or 26 when it opened) and is a country-house comedy where the residents are a "bohemian" family led by a not-quite-retired leading lady of the stage.  They are all prone to be "rude" in the English sense, which means that guests visit for a weekend at their peril.

My first reaction was that there weren't enough good lines exemplary of the wit that Coward infused into such perennials as Private Lives, or in my view, even better, was Design for Living, based on a vision Coward may have once had of living together with the Lunts--Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne--the doyens of the American theater in the 1920s and 30s. There were dead moments when pairs of characters exited the stage and it took a while for the next scene and its characters to get going.

Apparently, in his early days, Coward was delighted by his trips to New York and spent time at a country house inhabited by the leading actress Laurette Taylor and her playwright husband, who were the models for this cast.  Too few recall that Taylor, in her waning days on stage, produced a masterful characterization as the original mother, Amanda Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, when that classic premiered in 1945. 

Taylor's story is worth recalling because it was one for the books. She apparently overcame what had been years of alcoholism to record what was her greatest theatrical triumph. In Hay Fever, however, we see an eccentric actress trying to dominate her family and everyone else, producing nothing but conflict and distress for family and visitors.

Coward's being gay was never disclosed during his lifetime and his supreme archness and charm became legendary. The man was unstoppable from childhood in his love for performing (his autobiography was entitled A Talent to Amuse) which he carried on by putting on cabaret shows in which he sang his own classic songs in his late years. He staged patriotic morale-boosting shows in London in World War II and deserves to be remembered as an ornament of the theater.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Great Bert Williams

Two nights ago at the Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian, we saw a screening of a silent film from 1913 called Lime Kiln Field Day, starring Bert Williams.  Doesn't ring a bell? I'm not surprised, because Bert Williams may be one of the greatest figures of American show business, but sadly, we have few chances to see what all the shouting was about.

He was a black comedian who starred in The Ziegfeld Follies, wrote and performed many highly popular songs, and has been lauded as the greatest performer ever in vaudeville. I've heard him sing one of his most famous songs, Nobody, transferred at the National Portrait Gallery from cylinder recordings. He worked in blackface, which was virtually mandated for black comics around the turn of the century, right at the time--not right after the Civil War which we would otherwise assume until C. Vann Woodward exposed the real history--when Jim Crow reigned supreme in American race matters.

Lime Kiln Field Day was intended to run for about 35 minutes as a feature film produced at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx, where many famous silent pictures, such as Mack Sennett's comedies, were shot.  The Biograph vaults turned up the old film a few years ago and talented professionals at New York's Museum of Modern Art restored them and figured out who the players were, often relying on sheet music covers.

Bert Williams stars, and shows all his talents, many very subtle, in the film. He was a master of facial expressions, slowly reacting to action with a look perfectly responding to the cue. We have to figure out exactly what he and the other actors are saying and doing because this film was never edited for distribution, when titles would likely have been inserted. The ease with which you can figure the story out attests to the truth of that great line Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond uttered in Billy Wilder's marvelous tribute to the silents, Sunset Boulevard: "We had faces!"

The other actors, especially the female lead, Odessa Warren Gray, who later opened up a successful fashion and millinery store in Harlem, and Henry Troy, who plays Bert's rival for her hand, demonstrate their own excellence, too. The whole picture is highly sophisticated for its time, much more interested in characters than the great Mack Sennett comedies, but in many ways, reminiscent of the silent star who was most similar to Bert Williams in talent: Charlie Chaplin.

The tragedy of this picture's not being released was apparently caused by the release shortly after it was shot of Birth of a Nation, the D. W. Griffith epic that enshrined the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, and helped shaped American culture toward favoring the South as the Lost Cause, perpetuated, of course, in 1938, by the novel and movie, Gone With the Wind. We are finally beginning to rid ourselves of the accepted Southern version of the Civil War and Reconstruction, with the demise of the stars and bars and the recognition that the Civil War was indeed all about slavery. The reappearance of this silent movie should awaken us to the existence of the very strong theatrical tradition in the U.S. carried on by black performers and theatrical producers during those trying times.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Jesuits' Rabbi

When I moved to DC in 1979--after a few months living here in 1974-75--friends mentioned that a good option for High Holiday services was available at Georgetown University, where the school's Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Harold White, conducted services in Gaston Hall for large congregations that included both university students and broader community attendants.

We often attended back then, and it quickly became clear to me that Rabbi White was the rare clergyman whose sermons invariably left you with a lot to think about. I thought about this again when I read his obituary--he died Monday at 83--which recalled that he was Georgetown's first Jewish chaplain. The Washington Post obit noted that when he asked the Jesuits who hired him why they needed a Jewish chaplain as there were not many Jewish students on campus, they told him he was there for Christians as well. Georgetown, despite its Jesuit identity, wanted its students exposed to the several religions for which the university had established chaplaincies.I also heard that Rabbi White had been brought to Georgetown because the Jesuits wanted to have someone learned in theology with whom they could discuss the many topics that crossed religious boundaries. 

Aside from conducting good services with superb sermons, Rabbi White apparently also was a rare clergyman, especially when he started out, who looked at the positive side of interfaith marriages. He would perform them, observing that he found this offered a better likelihood that a Jewish partner would continue to identify with the faith. Having had the opportunity to hear many rabbis over the years, he stood out as the best rabbi in the pulpit I recall.

As in many universities, the combined holiday services used the longtime Conservative prayer book, edited by Rabbi Robert Gordis. In the never-united Jewish spectrum, this was the closest thing to a common denominator: too long for Reform, abbreviated in the Orthodox view. I always felt it provided the perfect basis for a brilliant rabbi, like Rabbi White, to use in relating his sermon to the service. Few of our newer prayer books--be they Conservative or Reform--possess the staying power of this well-edited and balanced one.

Rabbi White made you think. He did not preach about upholding rules or present tired arguments--I recall one rabbi who had but two sermons, on Israel and intermarriage: he was for one and against the other. That was just what Rabbi White wasn't. He had an unusual gift for taking everyday ethical challenges and forcing you to confront them with wisdom and imagination. For that ability alone, which he applied so well and for so long for so many, he will be remembered.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Homers

Much to my surprise, Eileen suggested yesterday that we watch the Redskins v. Ravens exhibition preseason game on TV. She developed a Raven-fan interest when she was at Hopkins three autumns ago and was imbued with Baltimore Ravens enthusiasts all around her. I of course see plenty of that when I go to my office in Towson and back when I was in Upper Marlboro where one lawyer had her door filled with Ravens posters and stickers.

For someone who enjoys sports, I watch less than average numbers of pro football games. I like games where something major is at stake and all my loyalties in pro football have more or less faded. I abandoned the Giants years ago when they went bad for ages--following their brilliant choice of not hiring either of their two top assistants, Vince Lombardi or Tom Landry, as head coach. I loved the Raiders for their attitudes right through John Madden's time coaching them. And back when the local eleven was in contention, I was even caught up in the furor. Heck, my staff at the Court of Appeals asked to come in wearing Redskins regalia the day of the Super Bowl victory parade and of course, I agreed--and wore my own.

But for years the local eleven has been synonymous with moronic management and the Raiders had passed their time even when Al Davis was still alive. I've been drawn over the years to the Ravens because they had great defense with the touch of outlawry that the Raiders had. I've been lucky enough to attend games both in Oakland and Baltimore to see how fervent their fan bases are.

So last night I realized that as these were preseason games, they would have local commentators. The Redskins are carried by the local NBC outlet, with Joe Theisman as the play-by-play man and the Ravens were on a Baltimore ABC station I picked up on cable. I only recall that the ageless Stan White was the color man. We switched back and forth and it was like hearing two different games.

They would go nuts when their team made a good play and more or less ignore anything done by the opposing club. If an opposing player went down, it hardly merited mention. It all reminded me of the old days of local baseball announcers on radio especially--known as homers. Some great ones, like Vin Scully, still calling the Dodgers for the last century or so, remain real pros and don't give off the aura of home-team favoritism to any major degree.

But then there are true homers like the late Bob Prince of Pittsburgh. I'll always recall driving into Pittsburgh and trying to find KDKA, the famous station there that still carries the Pirates. Suddenly, I heard those tones blaring out of the car radio: "All right, our team is up." And that was Bob. Like Howard Cosell, he had started out as a lawyer. Once Howard had him on his short-lived show covering the world, Speaking of Everything, and in response to Howard's challenge that Bob was a homer, Bob just responded that he was no different from Howard's backing his team.

He meant the Mets and Howard went nuts: "Don't call them my team! I have totally disagreed with everything that team has done for the past blankety-blank years etc etc." But there were lots of announcers like Bob Prince. Johnny Most of the Celtics comes to mind. It was fun hearing that old home-time religion if only for a preseason game. Most homers get old really fast but for one night, it was a trip back into a different pre-ESPN sports world.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Knee High

I'm two weeks past having my right knee replaced. Still somewhat stiff and swollen but I'm walking, going up and down the stairs fairly easily, and doing a lot of exercises twice daily to make the whole thing work in the end. It seems only slightly crazy that my "good" knee, i.e., the one which I plan to replace two months from now, feels better than good, now. 

The experience, on the whole, has been highly positive. The surgeon and the physical therapists have been great, as have been the home health nurse and the caretaker-in-chief, Eileen. Spending five days more in rehab was on the whole worth it for the more intensive physical therapy.

Either I could go right home and people would come to my house with therapy and home health care. Or I could go into what is called rehab for some days or weeks. Rehab sounded like a good choice. It meant I would be taken to physical therapy twice a day, and given some occupational therapy as well. The rehab unit--the physical therapy part, that is, and although less needed for my particular surgery, the occupational therapy--was excellent and stretched my capacities as those needed to be. 

Apart from the therapy, however, I was in a nursing home. And that's just what the contract for services that I signed said it was. Ostensibly they have tried to combine the two functions, but when you leave the therapy rooms, you are in a nursing home. This means reduced levels of service from what you expect in a hospital and a reduced level of competence in basic skills.

Things that I know all too much about, like legal liability and corporate structuring, help make this so. Example: if you are in one of these units, and it is attached to a hospital, it may not have access to the medical specialists that the hospital has available. It is a separate structure, designed to keep costs down.

Because you might fall, for liability reasons it struck me that no one encourages you to begin learning to get around without a walker. The five nights I spent in rehab were worthwhile because I began to get into the specific routine of focused exercises. This was highly desirable, since our house has lots of steps, with not all vital functions on the same floor.  This is also why I was eligible for rehab. But after five nights in this unit, I began to see that the experience wasn't desirable for me psychologically.

So, yes, all appears to be working out for the best. This is also an experience that draws on what might not be my most outstanding virtue: patience. Yes, for this procedure to work, doing the exercises is critical, but results are cumulative and I have to keep reminding myself of that.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Opera As It Should Be

My second night at the Santa Fe Opera was a fine experience: Verdi's Rigoletto tends to bring out the best in most productions. And as with other highly popular operas, it can withstand crazy ideas for new productions, not that that was what happened here. I forced myself to remember that summer opera--even at its most renowned venues like this one--is a chance to test out old and new operas that lack the popularity of  Rigoletto, as well as singers who are on the way up.

The combination of Georgia Jarman as Gilda and Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto was magical; they clicked as a classic Verdian father-daughter duo. Brian Sledge was a respectable Duke, not that this isn't the most sordid tenor role, since he is thoroughly awful and gets away with everything. His penalty, I suggest, was the tepid round of applause following his rendition of La Donna e mobile, the opera's most famous aria and probably one of the two or three most famous numbers in opera. It made me recall how Pavarotti attracted exultation by holding that final note of the song for what seemed an interminable time.

Kelsey had a fine rich baritone but while he was wonderful for much of the opera, I thought he disappeared in the famous last-act quartet. Jarman is a comer--she shone in caro nome's coloratura and trills as well as in the taxing final-act music for Gilda. Peixer Chen was a memorable Sparafucile, especially for holding the last low note when he repeats his name to Rigoletto while, in this production, he walks across the stage much as the legendary Rosa Ponselle was known to do.

Rigoletto is a wrenching tragedy. When well done, the characters reach your inner self and you feel for them, well, for Rigoletto and Gilda, anyway. Rigoletto is truly a fool, in life as in his profession of jester. But you see more beneath his surface than in the most celebrated operatic clown, Canio in Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. You also feel deep pangs of grief for Gilda's loss of both innocence and life. And you are revulsed by the "vile race of courtiers".

Mostly, though, you are overwhelmed by Verdi's seemingly endless flow of melody and every form of operatic singing: aria, cabaletta, quartet, trio, duet. From the opening questa o quella to the quartet, bella figure del amore, and in between, my own favorite, the Rigoletto-Gilda duet at the end of the penultimate act, the music flows with genius and brilliance.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Taos or/a Bust

So yesterday we drove to Taos from Santa Fe. It was a day trip I've long intended to make so here we were with enough time in Santa Fe to do it. Some guides suggest taking the High Road up and the Low Road back; others recommend the opposite. I don't think it matters a whole lot. You see some of the Rio Grande Gorge on the Low Road and it's nice, as was the friendly desk officer at the National Parks Service center for that part of the Rio Grande valley. Best sight was the view of the mountains looming past Taos.

But neither route lived up to its advance ballyhoo, and nor did Taos itself. I suppose I mayn't have enjoyed all the views on the High Road since I had to focus just a tad on driving, but I have had to do that for most of my life when negotiating the curves on the Bear Mountain Bridge Road high above the Hudson, so I'll leave it at that.

Taos has lots of galleries, which if that's your thing, probably makes a big difference, as it does, but to a far lesser degree, it would seem, in Santa Fe. Even the guidebooks concede that Taos Plaza is one sleazy commercial strip but there seemed to be a lot of those. The Taos Pueblo has history--inhabited for the past 1000 years or so--but yesterday they were doing road work so you had to park quite a ways away and wait for a shuttle--yes, you know the drill and I suppose my patience was not weighing in at record high levels, so, since I figured I wasn't going to scale the ladders anyway...

But we did head out to the Millicent Rogers Museum (MRM, to locals) which is a fine collection of Southwestern jewelry, religious objects and paintings, pottery, some paintings, and more. Learning about Maria Montoya's pottery--e.g., black relief on black--was excellent but if, as one source touted, this was the best museum in Taos, I missed little by skipping the rest.

Santa Fe is a delight, even if we're resisting that music tempting us to open up a restaurant here. There are already plenty of more than decent eateries and lots else going on. On the day we got here there was a sold-out chamber music concert and a Shakespeare company was doing The Tempest. I did come especially for the opera and so far, that's been superb, along with that marvelous line of the mountains and sunset looming out past the stage as the show starts.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Daughter of the Regiment

Seeing tonight's performance of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment at the Santa Fe Opera completes my trifecta--now, and with tomorrow night's Rigoletto here, I've managed to attend the three great U.S. summer opera venues: Santa Fe, St. Louis, and Glimmerglass (Cooperstown). It was a delightful evening, that maximized the opera bouffe character of Donizetti's work.

Kevin Burdette as Sgt. Sulpice was the pillar of the comedy as he danced, mugged, twisted, and, yes, sang his way to the audience's delight, fully deserved. Anna Christy in the title soprano role looked more, both in Act I military uniform and Act II aristocratic heir, like Olympia the doll in Act I of Tales of Hoffmann. Alek Shrader has a fine tenor that made his performance as Tonio. Phyllis Pancella, the veteran mezzo who joins hands with Sulpice at the end, lent her part, the Marquise of Berkenfeld some gravitas as well as humanity that it has often lacked in other productions.

For me, Santa Fe has the right idea in emphasizing the comic qualities of the opera which premiered at Paris's Opera-Comique. It's been more than half a lifetime since I was ever so lucky to see the incredible production at the Metropolitan in 1972, which starred no less than Joan Sutherland. As always, Sutherland made the coloratura singing look easy and her famously large frame looked great in a military uniform; she submitted to looking fairly ridiculous in her Act II gowns when transported to the Marquise's chateau.

Sutherland's most marvelous gift, though, in addition to her always glorious singing, was bringing along a then-little-known Italian tenor for his Met debut, a triumphant one, needless to say: Luciano Pavarotti. While Shrader could match Luciano's famed performing the nine high C's in Donizetti's score for the tenor's big aria, he could not equal the presence and beauty of Pavarotti's voice that was sprung then upon America for the first time.

It was pleasing to read the recounting of that great debut in the feature article in the Santa Fe program. The pre-performance lecturer, a former radio host of opera programs on New York's  WQXR, neglected to mention it, somehow managing to give some of the interesting history of the opera's performances in the U.S. and leaving out its finest moment.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

California Dreaming

People are often surprised that I enjoy visiting California on vacations. Oh sure, there's always some business involved, since I do manage to keep up with colleagues and previous business partners on these trips. But I just like spending time in California. Sure, there's a drought. And when you leave the coast, it can get hot, almost as delightful as Washington in July or August. But in Marin County, where I happen to be now, the views I pass almost everywhere are spectacular. The temperature is just about as temperate as in San Francisco, which shares with New York the distinction of being the only places inevitably referred to as The City.

Last night I saw Anna Deavere Smith perform her one-woman show at the Berkeley Rep, entitled Notes From the Field, etc. In it she portrays a series of about 20 characters, male and female, black, white, and Asian, concerned with how our educational system fails so many of its poorer students, who then end up in prison.  One of the characters she inhabited is a judge I met when assessing drug court at a Yurok tribe reservation in the northernmost part of California; the judge works as a municipal court judge in San Francisco but one weekend a month, drives many hours to the reservation to preside over tribal courts there.

There is a fine show of J.M.W. Turner's paintings and drawings at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. If you managed to see the movie, Mr. Turner, a while back, you should make it your business to see this show. Turner is increasingly seen as a key influence in the development of modern art. His fascination with light, usually on water, presaged the Luminists and then, perhaps most significantly, the Impressionists: Monet, for example, derives much of his technique directly from Turner. Turner, in turn, acknowledged what he learned from distinguished forebears who included Solomon van Ruysdaal, the Dutch landscape master, and Claude Lorrain, the early French engraver and painter of landscapes who more or less invented the field.

When driving to see a colleague in Sacramento, I recalled my first time headed that way when my friend living there suggested I stop at the then-famous Nut Tree--a combination of a store selling things you don't need, mostly to tourists, and a restaurant--in Vacaville. The signs for the Nut Tree are still there but I never could put my finger on the enterprise amid the numerous shopping malls and other indicia of how the area has developed. I did feel that another vestige of the older California had become hidden from view.

Lastly and by no means least, I had the pleasure of savoring sand dabs, a small, delicate, delicious, fish found in these parts. It has adorned the menus of San Francisco seafood places for generations. Twice in one day may have been pushing it, but should you find yourself in Sam's Grill, an establishment dating back to the 49-er days--no, not the NFL team--order them before they run out. It even says (Limited) after their entry on the menu.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Management Information

Ours is now an information-dominated society. We supposedly all make our carefully-formulated decisions drawing on "evidence-based" findings. But is it really different from the way people have always behaved--and responded to requests for accurate reports? The current revival of interest in the greatest children's book author of our time, Dr. Seuss, with the publication of a recently-discovered manuscript reminded me in this regard of his questioning conclusion of The Cat in the Hat:



should we tell her
the things that went on there that day?

should we tell her about it?
now, what SHOULD we do?
well...
what would YOU do
if your mother asked YOU?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Oozing Charm From Every Pore

It was a day of loss--Theo Bikel and E. L. Doctorow dying on the same day.  But it's hard to be sad about Bikel--he was 91 and had had a very amazing life.  He had become known for playing all kinds of relatively modest roles on stage and in the movies, as well as for his folk singing. And he did originate the role of Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway--a show I've studiously avoided for decades but figure at least he likely contributed a bit of authenticity to its schmalz.

Many will remember him as the most frequent portrayer of Tevye in Fiddler, which is fine, although as with every role Zero Mostel originated, it's hard for anyone to succeed completely when following in those footsteps. But Bikel donned the dairyman's overalls more than 2,000 times so I figure he earned his recognition and probably would have told you that it was a most reliable payday.  And given how many other accomplishments he earned on stage and in film, this was no James O'Neill stuck playing The Count of Monte Cristo to the exclusion of all else.

Bikel lent a note of charm to anything he played.  Supporting parts are not supposed to steal from the leads, yet you were enraptured when he appeared. His history--growing up in pre-war Austria and disclaiming any interest in "Viennese heritage" in view of how the posturing "first victims" had behaved toward "my people"--featuring a start in performing in, of all places, Palestine between the wars gave him a worldliness few possessed.

Moreover, he was a true union champion. He rose to the occasion during Equity's 1960 strike and after serving on many committees, was the union's president for many years and then headed the actors' international, the Four A's, for a quarter-century. Wouldn't we have been far better off had he, instead of another supporting player who headed a theatrical union, become America's first President who had served as a union prez?

Doctorow's legacy is more complex but equally stupendous. He had a way of planting you in the era of his loosely-related historical novels, most notably Ragtime. But his most enduring one may turn out to be The Book of Daniel, his imagining of what a son of the Rosenbergs might have experienced. As with so many artists, he saw the craziness of the Rosenberg furor for what it was: yes, we know Julius Rosenberg was guilty, and definitely that even the prosecutors knew Ethel wasn't, but what Sam Roberts and others have shown is that far from being "the crime of the century"--J. Edgar Hoover's phoney assertion--the Russians likely already had received all the nuclear secrets they needed from Klaus Fuchs, who was sentenced in Britain to a brief five years and then high-tailed it to Moscow.

Doctorow had the ability to get you beneath the skin of his characters so you felt yourself the torments they were experiencing. I remember getting annoyed with some of his archetypes in Ragtime until realizing that he had caught a particular character perfectly, like Mother's Younger Brother.  He too was willing to speak up for what he believed--and what he believed made sense.