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Monday, June 11, 2018

Venezia Millenaria

JUST WHEN YOU THINK you’ve heard everything, the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh starts to sound in a chamber-ensemble arrangement, and then soft voices creep in, singing, in French, “The night is dark ... let us go forth (to) wage war against the godless.” It’s a 19th-century cantata penned by the exiled Neapolitan Luigi Bordese, set to music by the composer who famously reversed his high opinion about Napoleon upon learning that the latter had declared himself emperor of France.

This oddball piece closes the new two-CD portrait of the musical beginnings of Venice, a place that long stood apart from other Italian cities. While this is unmistakably a Jordi Savall collection, it may have the most variety of material he’s ever presented. Which is very much the point, as “Venezia Millenaria” presents over a thousand years of material, from around 700, when the Byzantines began to inhabit it, to 1797, when Napoleon invaded, soon to cede Venice to Austria.

Savall recorded this material in 2016, and the musical portrait sparked a Carnegie Hall-based festival in February 2017 (coincident with Venice’s own Carnevale) at which Savall and his musicians performed, and which included lectures, museum shows, and other concert events  throughout Manhattan.

But this recording remains a most compelling souvenir. To make these musical points, Savall enlisted his usual ensembles: the instrumental groups Le Concert des Nations and Hespèrion XXI, and vocal ensemble La Capella Reial de Catalunya. Added to them are Salonica’s Orthodox Byzantine Vocal Ensemble and a quartet of specialist players comprising Driss El Maloumi (a previous Savall collaborator) adding wicked percussion lines on the oud; Dimitri Psonis, santur (hammered dulcimer) and morisca (a small guitar); Hakan Güngör, qanun (a zither cousin); and Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian on the oboe-like duduk and the lute-like belul.

Friday, June 08, 2018

A Cure for Insomnia

Guest Blogger Dept.: We’re revisiting To Think of Tea! by Agnes Repplier, one of America’s finest essayists. As I wrote earlier, her keen mind and colorful, precise prose style ensured a successful career. As a child, she quickly memorized and recited the poems her mother read to her, but resisted her mother’s efforts to teach her to read, which she did on her own at the age of ten. Apparently an unruly child, at 14 she was kicked out of Eden Hall, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and then asked to leave Agnes Irwin’s West Penn Square Seminary for Young Ladies three times because of her rebelliousness. By the time she was 20, her writing began bringing in enough money to help support her family. She died in 1950 at the age of 95 in her native Philadelphia.

                                                                        
           

THERE WAS NO AILMENT – none at least known to the uninstructed seventeenth century – of which the new drink was not discovered to be the cause or cure. “Every remedy,” it has been pleasantly said, “has its appropriate disease”; but tea had so many appropriate diseases that, if we may believe Dr. Cornelius Bontekoë, of the University of Leyden, the moral as well as the physical world stood waiting for this great regenerator.

Dr. Bontekoë had the good or the ill fortune to cherish opinions which were well in advance of his day. It was his wont to express these opinions in terms which insured him opponents, so that he never lacked the cheerful stimulus of a quarrel. His treatise on “The Most Excellent Herb, Tea,” claimed for this “wondrous distillation” qualities more potent and more salutary than ever lay hidden in the Fountain of Youth. The author was no mean-spirited advocate of abstinence. He did not cherish tea because it cheered without inebriating. On the contrary, he denounced water in unsparing terms as being the most dangerous, as well as the least comforting, of drinks. Wine and rum were admirable in their way, but demanded temperance. They were ill-suited for continuous or excessive drinking. Tea and tea alone was innocent of offence. It warmed the stomach, cleared the mind, strengthened the memory, befriended learning, and lent substantial aid to the acquirement of wisdom and piety. It was, moreover, a supreme remedy for heaviness of spirit and for all melancholy humours. It promoted the sober and moderate cheerfulness which the Dutch rightly valued, and the stubborn courage which had won for them the apprehensive respect of Europe.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Running a Round: La Ronde

IMMERSIVE THEATER has become the rage, which angers a theater-going friend. “I go to plays to be entertained,” he grouses. “Why can’t they do O’Neill? Or ‘Macbeth’?”

Fisch and Botwick in "La Ronde"
Troy Foundry Theatre closes its inaugural season with an immersive “La Ronde,” the Arthur Schnitzler play so controversial when it was published in Germany at the turn of the last century that it was banned by censors and not performed until 1920. The play’s no-holds-barred depictions of freewheeling sexual affairs invited equal measures of scandal and acclaim, but it’s at heart a look at the contrasting, though often similar, mores of a rigidly class-structured society. (Schnitzler probably is better known these days as the author of “Traumnovelle,” which inspired Stanley Kubrick’s final film, “Eyes Wide Shut.”)

So what if, instead of watching the ten short encounters of “La Ronde” in sequence on a single stage, they were take place simultaneously in a number of rooms (and a staircase)? This is the conceit of director Brenna Geffers’s production for Troy Foundry Theatre, and it’s set in the lovely old Frear House, part of the Russell Sage College campus.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Sydney Greenstreet: The Story Now Told

MY INTEREST IN MOVIES as an art form was sparked by a TV viewing of “The Maltese Falcon” one afternoon. Although the film was cut to fit a ninety-minute ads-filled slot, its unique style, unforgettable cast, and surprising finish were enough to set me searching for more information about this movie. One of the first books I consulted (and I can’t remember its author or title) identified Sydney Greenstreet as a stage actor who specialized in playing butlers. How insufficient a description that turns out to be!

Greenstreet made his motion-picture debut in that film at the age of 61 in the unforgettable role of the chuckling, booming villain Kaspar Gutman. He was nominated for an Academy Award and worked steadily in Hollywood for the next eight years, appearing in 24 movies – although, as his fame skyrocketed, some of those appearances were mere cameos trading on his notoriety.

Yet there’s been a dearth of biographical material. Greenstreet has been included in several “Character Actors of the 1940s”-type anthologizes, and merited mention in books by or about Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Joan Crawford, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and others. Why the lack? Peter Lorre, with whom Greenstreet appeared in several films, has merited book-length studies, and a joint study of the two by Ted Sennett offered a tantalizing amount of biography before spending most of its length on a film-by-film analysis.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Worthiest War

Guest Blogger Dept.: Who better to celebrate Decoration Day with than Mark Twain? Here’s a selection from Albert Bigelow Paine’s massive four-volume biography of Twain, published in 1912, to be followed by The Boy's Life of Mark Twain (1916), Mark Twain's Letters, (two volumes, 1917), A Short Life of Mark Twain (1920), and Mark Twain's Speeches (1923). This excerpt finds Twain in Vienna in the winter of 1989.

                                                                                                     

CLEMENS AND HIS FAMILY, as Americans, did not always have a happy time of it. It was the eve of the Spanish-American War and most of continental Europe sided with Spain. Austria, in particular, was friendly to its related nation; and from every side the Clemenses heard how America was about to take a brutal and unfair advantage of a weaker nation for the sole purpose of annexing Cuba.

Charles Langdon and his son Jervis happened to arrive in Vienna about this time, bringing straight from America the comforting assurance that the war was not one of conquest or annexation, but a righteous defense of the weak. Mrs. Clemens gave a dinner for them, at which, besides some American students, were Mark Hambourg, Gabrilowitsch, and the great Leschetizky himself. Leschetizky, an impetuous and eloquent talker, took this occasion to inform the American visitors that their country was only shamming, that Cuba would soon be an American dependency. No one not born to the language could argue with Leschetizky. Clemens once wrote of him:

Friday, May 25, 2018

Weekend Update

BACK IN 1968, when I was a slip of a boy, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which affixed Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, removing the flotation quality it (and three other secular holidays – there’s a contradiction in terms!) had sported when it was affixed to the 30th of that month. The Veterans of Foreign Wars decried this over a decade ago, noting that the three-day weekend thus presented “has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

It was known as Decoration Day up until around World War II, when the current moniker was affixed. It draws on a long tradition of decorating gravesites once the weather has warmed, and became particularly meaningful after the horrors of the Civil War, which was when the late-May practice began to become ritualized enough to warrant an official observance. Naturally, there’s some jockeying among those towns claiming to have been first, with the Finger Lakes-region town of Waterloo, NY, claiming a precedent that was officially endorsed by President Johnson in 1966, which would have been the centenary of that first celebration except for a newspaper error that set that event two years earlier than it actually occurred.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Teddy Wilson Touch

WE’RE TALKING ABOUT the most poised, the most elegant of jazz pianists. It’s no surprise that Teddy Wilson trained in classical music at first – the mighty influence of Bach alone has been acknowledged by keyboard wizards ranging from Fats Waller to Keith Jarrett, with a significant stop at Bill Evans. The influence shows in Wilson’s technical facility, of course, but there also is evidence in his harmonic language and in the construction of his solos, which build with a rare combination of logic, inevitability, and surprise.

You know him as part of Benny Goodman’s breakout trio and quartet configurations in the 1930s, when jazz was given its most visible portrait of racial integration; you also know him as the leader of Billie Holiday’s favorite recording ensemble. The Wilson recordings you’re missing are massed in a lavish seven-CD box set from Mosaic Records (which makes the term “lavish” redundant) that collects his work from 1934 to 1942.

The 21-year-old Wilson hit the recording studio for the first time in October 1933 for a couple of sessions with Benny Carter; the following May he cut four sides with a Goodman ensemble, and a week later recorded his first solo sides, which is where the Mosaic collection begins. Although new to recordings, he’d been performing long enough to have the beginnings of a distinctive style in place.