30 November 2010

Invitation to the Anthony Lawton Festival, Philadelphia

I am pleased to “officially” invite you to attend an exciting festival of spiritual theatre performances by one of the interviewees in my “Where Are We Now” Series, Anthony Lawton. Please read the information below and consider attending one of these plays, especially The Great Divorce. I recommend that you peruse my review of Lawton’s Screwtape Letters, my interview with Lawton, and the descriptions of the plays, below: I have added my thoughts, descriptions, and recommendations to each official press-release précis at the end of this post. Please read these before deciding to attend.

Lantern Theater Company Presents
Between Heaven and Hell: The Anthony Lawton Festival
December 3 – 19, 2010

First-ever festival of the Philadelphia actor and playwright Anthony Lawton
features works
by C.S. Lewis, Shel Silverstein, and Lawton

This three-week festival marks the first time Philadelphia-based actor and playwright Anthony Lawton’s C.S. Lewis and Shel Silverstein adaptations and his original play have been presented in repertory. Consider this festival as an alternative to traditional holiday theater; it features works about spiritual life intended for secular or religious audiences and is a series of dazzling, virtuosic performances. “In the best tradition of one-man shows, Lawton … quickly makes us forget that he is only one man,” says The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Festival will be held at Lantern Theater Company, located at St. Stephen's Theater at 10th & Ludlow Streets in Philadelphia. Tickets are $25-$35; $10 student rush tickets are available 10 minutes before curtain with valid ID; cash only; additional discounts are available for subscribers, seniors, and groups of 10 or more. Tickets are available online at or by calling the Lantern Box Office at (215) 829-0395 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (215) 829-0395      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

The festival will showcase Lawton in solo performances of three plays, opening with the critically acclaimed The Great Divorce (Dec. 3-19), C.S. Lewis' own favorite among his works.

The festival continues with The Devil and Billy Markham (Dec. 8, 11, and 15), written entirely in rhyming couplets by Shel Silverstein.

The last work is Lawton’s autobiographical play, Heresy (Dec. 14, 15, and 18).

Festival Performance Schedule
Friday, Dec. 3 at 8:00pm – The Great Divorce, Opening
Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8:00pm – The Great Divorce
Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2:00pm – The Great Divorce*
Wednesday, Dec. 8 at 7:00pm – The Devil and Billy Markham*
Thursday, Dec. 9 at 7:00pm – The Great Divorce
Friday, Dec. 10 at 8:00pm – The Great Divorce
Saturday, Dec. 11 at 8:00pm – The Great Divorce
Saturday, Dec. 11 at 10:30pm – The Devil and Billy Markham
Sunday, Dec. 12 at 2:00pm – The Great Divorce
Tuesday, Dec. 14 at 7:00 pm – Heresy*
Wednesday, Dec. 15 at 7:00pm – Heresy
Wednesday, Dec. 15 at 9:30pm – The Devil and Billy Markham
Thursday, Dec. 16 at 7:00pm – The Great Divorce
Friday, Dec. 17 at 8:00pm – The Great Divorce
Saturday, Dec. 18 at 8:00pm – The Great Divorce
Saturday, Dec. 18 at 10:30pm – Heresy
Sunday, Dec. 19 at 2:00pm – The Great Divorce, Closing

*Post-Show Discussion with Anthony Lawton, moderated by Lantern Associate Artistic Director Kathryn MacMillan

Here are further descriptions of the plays:

The Great Divorce
Based on the Novel by C.S. Lewis
Adapted and Performed by Anthony Lawton
Friday, December 3 – Sunday, December 19
C.S. Lewis' own favorite among his works, The Great Divorce tells the satirical and comic story of hapless professor Clive and the motley band of malcontents who join him on a very curious bus ride. Journeying between Heaven and Hell, Clive crosses a wildly inventive landscape filled with dazzling language and surprising insight. Note from IA: I have not seen this play, but I have talked to Tony about it and have reserved tickets for Sunday, Dec. 12th. I am sure that all readers of this blog would LOVE this play, and I heartily recommend it. Please go see it if you can!

The Devil and Billy Markham
By Shel Silverstein
Performed by Anthony Lawton
Wednesday, December 8; Saturday, December 11; Wednesday December 15
Written entirely in rhyming couplets and punctuated with blues and country music, this raucous and raunchy play follows songwriter, good ol' boy, and ne'er-do-well Billy and his betting misadventures with the Devil. This play includes themes of sacrifice and redemption and is unapologetically and joyously profane. Parental guidance advised for audience members under 17. Note by IA: I have not seen this play. I am sure it would be tons of fun. I just advise my readers to notice the word “raunchy” in the description and the advisory note; this might not be the top choice play for my typical readers.

Written and Performed by Anthony Lawton
Tuesday, December 14; Wednesday, December 15; Saturday, December 18
(press night: Dec. 14, 9:30 p.m.)
Heresy is a probing, comic, autobiographical solo play in which Lawton wrestles with the value of religion. Where is the line between faith and superstition? Why are so many Christians so un-Christian? What is the difference between faith that heals and faith that destroys? This play contains profanity, frank discussions of sex, and ideas that some may consider to be blasphemous. Children under 17 not admitted. Note by IA: I have not seen this play, but I have read it. It is extremely disturbing, graphic, and obscene; the warning description above is apt. None of the material is gratuitous, however; Lawton carefully crafted this play as both a public confession and a serious interrogation of the Christian (specifically, Catholic) religion. It is an honest, adult exploration of temptation, sin, degradation, perversion, doubt, identity, and love. So, if you have the guts for some vulgar content in service to serious questions, you might go see Heresy. If not, stick to The Great Divorce.

Running Time: All plays are approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

29 November 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

The Interview Series is on Thanksgiving break this week. Please take a look back in the interview archives and check back next Monday for a new interview. Hope you had a happy Thanksgiving!

25 November 2010

Five-Minute Taylor


Five-Minute Taylor

Here's another "five-minute book review"; I have piles of books I'm supposed to review on this blog, but very little time in which to do it. So, I'll set my timer for 5 minutes every now and then, write my first thoughts about the book, and share them with you. Enjoy!

Five-minute review

For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts edited by W. David O. Taylor

This book deserves much more than five minutes, but that’s all I’m allowing myself; plus my pastor is borrowing it, so I can’t refer to the text as I go.

So, another great and highly-recommended book. It calls itself ground-breaking, or perhaps something more tentative: it is trying to feel its way into new territory having to do with the arts in the church. It’s trying to start the dialogue, or add a new perspective into the dialogue. And I think it does that very well. It is a collection of essays by artists, pastors, and thinkers-about-the-arts. Five of the eight essays stand out in my memory:

1. Andy Crouch, on the “uselessness” of art (more on this in a minute)
2. Eugene Peterson, on how important artists have been to his ministry as a pastor. He wrote about the architect who designed a church for his congregation and taught him that a building is a artful space that can enhance and even be a part of worship.
3. Josh Banner, on how to nurture artists in your congregation. This one made me really sad, because we artists (like, the two-and-a-half of us!) in my church are ignored, overlooked, put down, suppressed, etc. Not intentionally, I’m sure; we just don’t fit into the mold. So, anyway, Josh wrote about how he has an art gallery in his church and prepares artists to show their work there. He goes to their studios, attends their rehearsals, reads their stuff, and guides them into using their gifts for God, sometimes outside of worship, sometimes in worship.
Oops, my 5 minutes are up; I’m going to keep going!)
4. W. David O. Taylor, the editor, on the dangers of artmaking in the church. This deserves a post on its own; but instead, read this.
5. Jeremy Begbie, on the future of art in the church. A very prophetic and inspiring piece.

One more point of interest: there was a fascinating thread of contradiction running through this volume. Some of the contributors, including Taylor, wrote about how art is “useless”; that is, superfluous, extra, unnecessary, munificent. On this point, see my description of Taylor’s talk in NYC. But several others wrote about how art has to be directly useful: one even listed the seven purposes or parts of a worship service (including confession, praise, the sacraments) and said that any given piece of art has to directly serve one very specific purpose in the service. So, an interesting debate contained within this book! The writers on the superfluous, gift-nature of art were definitely the better, more persuasive writers. But does that make them right?

24 November 2010

POTS production of Dickens' Christmas Carol

It wouldn’t be Christmas without Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol! If you live in Eastern Pennsylvania, make sure that this year your Christmas Carol is the Players of the Stage production directed by Sharon Barshinger. Here are all the details:

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Adapted for the stage by Anna Barshinger Lauffer

December 2, 3, 4 at 7:00 pm
December 4 at 2:00 pm

Living Hope Church
330 Schantz Road, Allentown

Admission is free; an offering will be taken to benefit the Allentown Rescue Mission

Players of the Stage is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year with yet another good production. Each of their plays proves just what children and teenagers are capable of doing with the right guidance and high expectations. With minimal sets, these young people create an entire world of emotion through cleanly delivered lines, smooth transitions, swift stage-crew work, and passionate performances. Jeffrey Harvey as Scrooge is especially to be commended: this is no light role for a seventeen-year-old, and he pulls it off convincingly and—more importantly—with conviction (in both senses of the word). His change is palpable and tons of fun to watch. Sharon Barshinger is a visionary director, seeing beyond the page to the spiritual and human universals of any story. She is also an excellent manager of her young cast, disciplining them into professional timing, technique, and character development. The Company has come a long way in her few short years of directing.

While this is a straight-forward, classic performance of the classic tale without any flashy modern updates or special effects, its charm is in its simplicity and fidelity to Dickens’ text. This is the ideal performance to see for the first time or for children to watch at any age. A great way to experience this play would be to read the book out loud at home (or listen to it; it is available from Learn Out Loud, World English, and other online venues), then come watch it together as a family. A few minor textual omissions and paraphrases will surprise purists, but most readers will find nothing amiss. The characters are true to type, the costumes historically accurate, and the climax as stirring as ever. While this is not the most merry Christmas Carol you will ever see, it is perhaps the most direct. Scrooge’s transformation is unambiguous, the moral obvious and relevant. One nice touch is Sharon’s subtle development of the character of Ignorance: in the book, the Ghost of Christmas Present pulls aside the folds of his robe to reveal two wretched children. The Ghost says: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” Watch carefully and you will see Ignorance appearing at crucial moments in the play, never speaking, but silently commenting on the dangers of many kinds of ignorance: oblivion to others’ sufferings, lack of a liberal education, and lack of acquaintance with spiritual truth.

So come on over to this classic production of A Christmas Carol to start your Advent season off right!

tiny post

Every now and then I feel like giving up blogging. Usually it's for a bad reason, such as because I don't have time to blog or because I feel I have nothing useful to say. But sometimes it's for a great reason: because somebody else is saying everything that needs to be said on the topic of the arts and faith. Today it's that good reason. W. David O. Taylor, that titan of arts-and-faith, has just started a series of blog posts on, whadduya know? The State of the Arts in the Church today. So why are you still here? Go read his stuff!

But come right back. Because I'm not about to stop blogging. In fact, I'm just about to publish another important post, and then another, and then another....

22 November 2010

Interview with Mia Chung, pianist

This is the thirty-fifth interview in the “Where are we now?” series and consists of selections from my conversation with pianist Mia Chung. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Interview with Mia Chung, pianist
on the phone
24 August 2010

IA: Let’s start out with talking about your work as a pianist. I was looking up your biography, and I saw that you have studied with quite a number of famous people: Peter Serkin, Boris Berman, and others. Can you tell us about what specific techniques you learned from these teachers?

MC: When I studied with Berman I was a Master’s degree student at Yale and when I studied with Peter Serkin I was a doctoral student at Julliard, and at that point, there’s no discussion of physical technique, per se. It’s so much a discussion of nuance, perception, and what you’re listening for. It’s the refined elements of interpretation. And so that conversation is probably more specific to each piece that I played, depending on the style that the piece was written in. I would say a lot of that was focused on artistry. That isn’t to say that a lot of my training before that wasn’t focused on artistry, but there was a lot more conversation on the high school and undergraduate level about execution and how to get certain kinds of sounds and ideas across, physically.

But I think if I were to sum up: Boris Berman was a wonderful teacher in a sort of generalized sense. He gave me an appreciation for beauty and projecting my ideas and being more nuanced. Those are the qualities I remember about Boris Berman. He is a thoughtful, somewhat restrained kind of player. That came across in his teaching.

Peter Serkin has similar qualities—he’s also thoughtful—but for him there was almost this meditative quality of music. He would hear things, because he was mentally on a different wavelength, he would hear things that most people wouldn’t hear. Connections, for example; he would hear timbral connections and qualities or sound effects. He would bring them to light. I remember Schönberg Op. 19, which is a suite of six small pieces, and that really sums up his teaching strength. Those pieces are miniatures, they’re tiny; the entire collection is about four minutes. But it was almost like Peter Serkin taught best in the context of these little miniatures, because he would draw you into this tiny little world where you could marvel at little details in the music. That’s what I found most memorable in his teaching: looking at a miniature painting and picturing almost a different world through that miniature, versus a large, overwhelming canvas that envelops you. You had to peruse the small canvas and look at it with the magnifying glass.

IA: That’s a beautiful, very clear description and analogy. Maybe we could talk about a couple of pieces or a couple of composers, then, since you said those discussions happened more in specific pieces. You’ve been especially noted for performances of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Are there specific historical performance practices that you bring to your interpretation of their works?

MC: In the purest terms, no. Because if you were to talk to someone who has a really clear, strong, particular view of what performance practice should look like in particular eras, no. I think I function with very general stylistic parameters in terms of expression that I bring out in each piece. But in the end, I do see music—and I think everyone does—through a twenty-first-century lens. There’s no way to avoid that. But I think ultimately the goal is to extract the humanity from the piece, because humans haven’t changed over time. Maybe the style has changed, but the essential desire, which is to communicate something from the mind and the soul and the heart, stays essentially the same. Our experience of life and death and joy and piece and whatever it might be, are still the same. Within a general sense, I try to be stylistically accurate, so in the Baroque era, I won’t play crescendi in the dramatic way I will in the nineteenth century pieces, or I’ll terrace dynamics more instead of sequence, or I’ll be very spare in my pedaling. So in a very generalized sense of the term “performance practice” I do observe that. But I won’t do that if it jeopardizes the sense of communication and the rapport. Because I do think you can pursue performance practice for the sake of performance practice, and then lose some of the heart communication. It’s about the balance.

IA: You’re playing on modern instruments for contemporary audiences, so you want to balance that with scholarly interest. If you were only scholarly, well, you would only play Bach on a harpsichord. But that wouldn’t be as interesting for today’s audience.

MC: That’s right. And also, in some ways, that limits the greatness of the piece. There are some things this music still communicates in spite of the change of instruments, in spite of the change of technique, in spite of our change in culture. It still connects with us. There’s a reason why, and I think that always has to be tapped into versus the more up-tight ideas of: “Don’t play Bach on anything but a harpsichord or a clavichord.”

IA: I think that answers what I was going to ask you next, because I had been reading some reviews of your performance of The Goldberg Variations. Of course, inevitably, people compare it to Glenn Gould’s recording—or his multiple recordings, over his life. One review was saying, well, essentially what you have just been expressing, that your performance was not specifically designed to be historical. You weren’t looking just at, they called it the “stylistic requirements.” So would you say that reviewer was probably accurate?

Note: the reviewer said Mia Chung gives an “intensely personal account of the music that clearly shows no regard to the traditional stylistic requirements her predecessors strove to preserve.”

MC: I would say that. Because there are already so many recordings that try to do that. So many performances that come from that perspective. So what’s the point of recording it again if I’m just going to have the same intent? And for me there was so much more about the sense of life-maturation. There was a cycle going on: a sense of dynamic travel that happens between the first aria going through the thirty variations all the way to the last aria. Something happens. When you hear the restatement of the aria, one is changed, and one perceives the aria differently. Why this change? What I talk about in my liner notes to the recording is that in many ways, there’s an increasing emotional complexity and structural complexity that starts to take place through the cycle of the variations. The pinnacle of that is number 25, in g minor. There is where I really try to unleash some of that emotional intensity that has been building up through the course of the variations. I liken it to the life stages of youth and adulthood and then one’s late years: that kind of a journey. It does have that sense of power. It’s very moving to hear that final aria. And one has to try to figure out why that’s the case. And the fact that he precedes the aria with the Quodlibet, which quotes all these sort of crass, common tunes that one would hear on the street -- a beer song with a song of a cabbage-vendor -- but he makes a fugue out of that. His sense of humor that he closes out the thirty variations with this is phenomenal. But the humor wouldn’t have that effect if it weren’t preceded by the profundity and depth and insight on life. And then you hear the final aria and it moves you to tears. Its gives you life in a microcosm, in other words, in that one piece. So that’s what I was trying to lend to it. It’s funny, because a piece like that that’s so sacred, in many ways, to keyboardists and reviewers—I think if we’re not open to these kind of perspectives, we’re going to continue to treat them like artifacts and that’s not going to go very far. We have to, in some ways, engage listeners who would be more interested in these kinds of works not just for the sake of preserving history, but saying: “Look, this is where it connects with you.” And I’m not trying to dump down on anything, but this message I just described to you of growing maturation through life is something that really fits great playing the way I studied it. And it was something I could communicate even to the lay listener.

IA: It sounds to me like a story: that it has a narrative trajectory without words, that it has growing tension up to a climax and then this beautiful resolution. And that’s something that I think anyone can respond to. But if it were played in too much of a wooden, historical way, perhaps that would suppress the narrative.

MC: And if you just think of each variation in isolation, separate from the others, then you can come up with a relatively wooden concept. And it’s easy to do that, because the variations alternate different approaches. Every third one is a canon with increasing distance in the intervals at which the canon is introduced. And then the other variations are these bravura virtuosic variations, so you’ve got that, and then you’ve got these other miscellaneous variations that might be a fugue or a French overture. It’s a smattering, but you have that consistent: every third variation is a canon. If you start focusing on the technical aspects of that, then you can lose sight of a much bigger picture and context.

IA: That’s beautiful. So when you teach, now, either your private piano students or the courses that you’re teaching now, do you try to convey to your students this sense of the enduring relevance of music and the story that still matters today?

MC: Yes, absolutely. Interpretation is ultimately that: it’s not about merely preservation of some truth. We have that element, but that’s not the end-all and be-all, for me. If music doesn’t resonate with them experientially; if they don’t resonate with the piece on a deeper level than simply their cognitive level, then it’ll never communicate the way the composer wants it to, or the listener wants it to.

So in classes like Interpretive Analysis, we have a tonal semester and an atonal semester: it’s all about this. It’s all about studying form and studying compositional technique, but always putting it in the perspective of how is form or technique harnessed by a composer to create something more, something larger. Because it’s not the fulfillment of form that is their goal. They are using form as structure: something to give it cohesion, to give it architectural soundness so that the parts are in proportion in the piece as a free-standing entity. But there’s something even more than that. There’s a sense of the dynamic going on. They’re not static. And in my mind, that is the trademark of a great composer. We study the masters: those who have accomplished this for their purposes, and then say: OK, what does that mean for you as an interpreter? How are you going to tap into this piece with the head knowledge you have? You understand form, you understand architecture and technique, and now what is that going to mean for you as a performer? So that is what the courses are all about. And that, to me, is really where my heart resides, which is why I choose those two electives in the course curriculum at Gordon.

IA: Do you feel kind of alone in your approach to historical works, or do you think this is a growing way to approach the great masters? Is there a whole generation of pianists and piano teachers who are playing and teaching in this emotionally relevant way?

MC: I don’t necessarily think so. There is a smattering of individuals who might be interested in that. One of the things I’ve always pursued in my work, and it has to do with my experience as a student, is this idea of bringing knowledge together with practice. But in a way that really excites listeners and that excites the performer. I think in the American academy, there is so much of a division between theory and practice. And those who study psychology and theory kind of look down on the performer and say, “Oh, they’re just practitioners.” And the practitioners are saying, “No, we’re bringing life to this music; you guys can’t play ‘Come to Jesus’ in whole notes.” So there’s this tension between these two halves of music. And really, neither of them is right. You have to understand both! You have to put both together. But that’s something that the American academy doesn’t do very well. I’m not going to say that doesn’t happen in Europe, because I think to a large extent in Russia and Western Europe, they’re more successful at doing this. There are all these prejudices and bias when it comes to how to approach music. There are pianists who will only deal with teaching music from the perspective of technique and fingering and hand position and arm position. That’s fine, that’s something a performer needs, but you have to have a vision guiding your technique. And to me, this makes the most sense. If they have the knowledge, if they can understand form and technique, they can apply that to any piece. The problem with most music students is that they study a piece and they bring it to a level of refinement and performability, then they start a new piece and they don’t know what to do! They’re at a loss. There’s no vision guiding it. They don’t know what to do. No hooks to hang their hat on.

IA: So who are some other pianists who might be in that smattering that you think might be taking a holistic approach?

MC: I’m a little hard-pressed to name people in this generation, and I’ll tell you why. Artur Schnabel, for instance, came from an earlier generation when there was a kind of license. Where there was a freedom of individuality layered upon the truth of what the composer wrote was expected and encouraged. And now, because you have many performances that are perfect: technically adapt and stunning in that way, but a little more sterile when it comes to individual perspective, and more conservative. Now, you can branch out and go to more radical players, and there are certainly those who do totally think outside the box. Awadagin Pratt is someone who—it’s all individual. It’s about his ability to think outside the box. Now, the performances are compelling, but there I think it has shifted too far towards the individual. So you have that, or you have rather sterile performances. So, I don’t know: a compelling balance of the two? I think is a little more difficult to find now-a-days. There are poetic pianists, for example, like Yundi Lee, a young pianist who plays a lot of Chopin and is very poetic and very sensitive to text. There are folks like Mitsuko Uchida. I love her Mozart, for example, there’s a tremendous personal element to it. And her Schubert as well: really fabulous. So these are the sorts of players that I resonate with.

IA: Now, you have tried a few other ways to bring your integrated vision to a larger audience: you give lecture recitals; you’ve produced one DVD and you talk on public radio. Are these sort of emerging venues for classical music to reach a larger audience? Are there other media opportunities that classical performers and teachers should take to promote their work? And how have these venues been working for you?

MC: Well, I have to say that there are perhaps ways I haven’t pursued that would serve my purposes even better, such as use of the internet, for example. That’s a sign of my age and my lack of adaptability when it comes to technology! But I think that there’s a lot of effort in this direction. There are a lot of musicians who are interested in talking about music; To take a commercial example: Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops are on WGBH radio, which is an all-Classical public station, and they’ll talk about music. His point of interest tends to be more biographical or personal and not so much about a sense of the structure or what’s written, the specifics. There’s a lot of effort in that direction. There’s also folks like Michael Tilson Thomas who does these DVD performances on which he talks about the music and he performs with examples of what makes it great. He covers Stravinsky and Beethoven and Copeland.

So, I do think there’s effort in this direction, but I almost feel as if the efforts come a little bit late. It’s kind of a response to a condition in society which is this waning interest in Classical music and increasing interest in technology. So we’ve never been very good at projecting and saying, “How can we stay ahead of these cultural tides? Let’s project and set out a vision for how we’re going to educate or how we’re going to inform and engage listeners, who are usually responding to something that’s taking place in culture.”

IA: Maybe we could finish up with talking a little bit about more contemporary music, because you usually record classic works, but have also done a little bit with contemporary composers, notably Lee Hyla. Would you want to describe your work with that piece or any other contemporary pieces you’ve performed? Have you premiered any works?

MC: All right, well, “Riff and Transfiguration,” which was composed by Lee Hyla about a decade ago, probably even a bit more than that, was written for me. So I had the joy of working with Lee, shaping the piece, creating that large concept for what the piece would be. It’s a seven-movement dance form. I did give him a passage from II Samuel, in the Bible, about David dancing furiously without any regard for those around him watching him. It was this authentic and feverish display of worship, praise, to his Maker. And so I just set that context for him and then he wrote this seven-movement piece. His style is not only influenced by rigorous classical training, but also by jazz and rock elements. So you will hear rhythms that are very propulsive and exciting, and then you’ll hear also beautiful colors. It’s meditative music as well. He just covers an emotional span. He’s one of those composers who captured my attention. I went through about a hundred and twenty composers, trying to figure it out, listening to tapes and works of theirs before I decided to ask Lee to write this piece.

But I also very much enjoy the music of others. For me, the single greatest point of interest in terms of the twentieth century hasn’t necessarily been American, but it has been the Second Viennese School. And that sounds old; at this point, that’s been on the shelf for a long time. But for me, it provides endless possibility in terms of color and nuance. And I do love those aspects of the Second Viennese School. For the ordinary listener it’s not as palatable because of the atonality. But as a performer, I find it captivating. I try to teach my students that as well: they are reluctant to take on that music, but hopefully as we cover it in History and Interpretive Analysis, they’ll have a healthy respect for it. So I feel like the Second Viennese School was, in many ways, what launched us into the second half of the twentieth century and set the ball rolling that is relevant to many composers in the U. S. in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s.

Peter Liebersonis a professor at Harvard who lived in Nova Scotia, Canada, for a while; he was also a Buddhist monk for a while and used to teach in a monastery in Nova Scotia. But his writing, to me, is very engaging. He’s an example of someone who was influenced by that Second Viennese School.

And there are others. There is Alexander Goehr, who is British. Wonderful. Again, very rigorous writing, but highly expressive. He has a piece called “Nonomiya” which is very electric. Elliott Carter is wonderful. The difficult of that is, of course, just the complexity of the writing. And in some ways I think that composers like Carter appeal to the performers and to a very, very narrow elite of listeners. Far more difficult to engage the layperson. But, you can talk about things like metrical modulation, tinkering with rhythm and meter, which would get people fascinated with that parameter of music-making. So there are still ways to bring people in. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I do love 20th-century music. Recently I haven’t had as much time to perform it, because it does take a long time to learn; way longer than any tonal piece. And that’s time that I don’t have at this point. I’m just trying to keep myself technically and musically in the game. But it is something that I do look forward to returning to. I would love to commission a set of works and get back into that and be a champion for works that are being written now. But, sorry to say this: I do think that our audience for music from the past, for the classics, is waning, so that jeopardizes listenership for contemporary works. If they can’t understand older works, works of the “Western Canon,” then we’re going to be hard-pressed to do that successfully with newer pieces.

IA: OK. Well, that’s kind of a depressing note to end on, but that’s everything I wanted to ask!

MC: Well, Sorina, I don’t want to end on that note. It’s in times of desperation when it seems like everything is so bleak, that you end up raising a generation of stalwart visionaries who have the means to bring it back. You do have to meet times before desperate action is taken. It also promises, in the end, in the future, that there will be better times.

IA: And isn’t that what your approach to Beethoven was, in “The Composer’s Response to Crisis”; he had a personal end-of-the-world experience, and then look what came out of it. It could be the same socially, as a whole: if we have a musical crisis going on in the entire culture, well, we’ll rise to the occasion and something totally new and astonishing could come out of it.

MC: Right. And I think what it is, is that the artists have to take charge of this. What has really stunk in the Classical industry is that it’s been the financial end of it that’s driven everything, so we’re constantly shaping ourselves according to what the market demand is and what’s going to sell recordings or what’s going to sell tickets. And we can’t do that, because then we’re not shaping, we’re responding. Every time we’re put in that position, where we’re responding, we’re moving aimlessly and we don’t have direction or vision about where we’ll be in twenty years with Classical music. But then I think we’ll get to a point where it’s so bad that we’ll get people who are true visionaries who say, “We can’t keep doing this.” I think we have people who are doing it in isolation: like Yo-Yo Ma. He works with students in New York City, or he gives benefit concerts, or he talks about music. He’s very engaging. There’s needs to be a solid movement, almost holding hands together and doing this as an entire industry: a cooperative effort to set vision for our discipline, our art. We can’t allow the producers and the record companies to do that, because they have a different agenda in mind, a different goal, which is the dollar. Yes, so, we need visionary artistic leaders. And that will come about. But we’re going to hit some hard times. We’re already there, but I think it is going to get worse before it gets better.

IA: Well, we’ll buckle our seatbelts and hold on!

20 November 2010

Another article in "Curator"

Here is my most recent piece in Curator: "In Praise of the Book." In this article, I recommend the reading of entire poetry books cover-to-cover, something I have started doing recently and which is a very edifying experience. Hope you enjoy this little piece and maybe take its advice. If you do, or if you are already an avid reader of complete poetry books, perhaps you can leave me a comment here telling me which volume you recommend? I'm especially interested in young contemporary American poets. Thank you.

~ Sørina

17 November 2010

Five-Minute Merwin

Here's another "five-minute book review"; I have piles of books I'm supposed to review on this blog, but very little time in which to do it. So, I'll set my timer for 5 minutes every now and then, write my first thoughts about the book, and share them with you. Enjoy!

Five-minute review

The Shadow of Sirius by W. S. Merwin

This is Merwin’s newest volume of poetry. As part of the “Where are we now” series, I’ve been asking poets who their favorite poets are, and reading works by both my interviewees and the poets they consistently recommend. To that end, I’ve read poems, chapbooks, and full-length books by Kelly Cherry, Ned Balbo, Barbara Crooker, and Heather Thomas. Several interviewees recommended Merwin.

So I read him all through my amazing NYC trip a few weeks ago: on the bus, on the train, in Barnes & Noble, in Starbucks. Then I continued reading him at home, at the hair salon, at school. It was slow going. Slower than I expected. I discuss this in an upcoming piece for Curator--I’ll link there when it’s published—but this particular book presented an astonishing challenge: There’s no punctuation. Not one period, semicolon, or even comma in the entire book. And I’m disappointed to find my poetry-reading power weak enough that that was a huge distraction. I found the poems, and the accumulation of them, exhausting. They have to be read slowly, out loud, over and over again to be understood.

And that’s fine. Poetry ought to take a lot of time. But I get the sense that these poems are really, really, really good; so I wanted to be able to appreciate them.

And finally, I started to. I read them over and over and over, and then started to sink in. They’re beautiful. They’re powerful. They’re important. The book as a whole is beautiful, powerful, and important. Merwin has that blessed talent to simultaneously see Nature and see through Nature to significance. The poems are soft, but without anything saccharine. They’re careful and graceful at once. They all seem wreathed in gray. My only concern is how quickly they will fade from my memory.

My favorites in this volume include:
“Far Along in the Story”
“The Odds”
”Youth of Grass” (really clear and perfect!)
“One of the Butterflies” (encapsulates the book, I think)
“Grace Note”
“Lake Shore in Half Light”

15 November 2010

Interview with Jeremy Begbie

I am very happy to offer you this, the thirty-fourth interview in the “Where are we now?” series, with noted scholar, theologian, concert pianist, and public speaker Jeremy Begbie. His talks, books, and online writings about theology and the arts are among the most important in the field. His books (written, co-written, and edited) include Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts (I’m reading this one now), Voicing Creation's Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts, Theology, Music and Time, Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, and Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts. He also contributed an essay to W. David O. Taylor’s For the Beauty of the Church. I also had the wonderful opportunity to hear Dr. Begbie speak and play the piano; I reported on those events here and here. Rosie wrote about him here. Note that even though this series is taking the pulse of North American arts, Dr. Begbie is from the United Kingdom. However, he teaches at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina and lectures widely around the U. S. and Canada. His perspective, then, is invaluable for this study.

Before or after reading this exciting interview, please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series, read others of interest, and leave a comment. Thank you.

Interview with Jeremy Begbie, arts theologian
via email
17 October 2010

IA: Please tell us about yourself: your career as a pianist, your theological training, your teaching jobs, and your current interdisciplinary work with “Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.”

JB: Well, I originally trained as a musician in Scotland (as a pianist and oboist), but around the age of nineteen switched to theology, and followed what I sensed was a call to ordained ministry. After a spell in parish work, I taught theology at Ridley Hall, Cambridge for over twenty years.

Throughout this time, I tried (and still try) to integrate the musical side of my life with the theological –– through a fair amount of performing, as well as in my speaking, writing and teaching.

For the last two years, I have been teaching theology at Duke University in North Carolina, while keeping strong links with Cambridge. In particular, I have been asked to promote a vibrant engagement of theology and the arts at Duke Divinity School, under the banner “Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.” Much of the work is being carried out in partnership with the University of Cambridge. We want to combine cutting-edge academic research with first-rate teaching, and interweave these with exhibits, concerts, performances and workshops. Duke is brilliantly geared up for this sort of enterprise –– I feel very privileged to be based there. Needless to say, all the details are on the Duke website.

IA: How did you find your way into your unique vocation as a teacher-speaker-writer-performer? Was it in response to specific needs you saw in the Christian community?

JB: Not really, although I do think that in a multi-media, artistically savvy culture, the need to help people find different ways of engaging with the Christian faith will be ever more critical.

I suppose I found myself combining these things because they all seem completely natural to me, and I saw no good reason to drop any of them!

IA: As a classically trained pianist, what specific techniques do you use? Were you taught a particular school of thought, physical approach, historical performance practices, etc. that still informs your playing?

JB: I was fortunate to have an outstanding teacher in my teens who didn’t belong to any “school,” but taught me a variety of basic techniques that opened up a huge range of repertoire for me, and very quickly. He was daunting and very demanding, but he was a brilliant performer and a first-rate academic. I loved his combination of practical know-how and intellectual rigour –– it’s not that common these days. He was interested in most kinds of music –– except Debussy. He once told me that if I wanted to learn any Debussy I would need to find another teacher. (I never found out why.)

IA: This is simplifying the matter quite a bit, but as I understand your approach to theology through the arts, it’s pretty much backwards from the traditional approach, which was “arts through theology.” The conventional Christian methodology was to think about a particular theological or doctrinal fact and then to examine the arts, or a piece of art, through that lens. This led to a very narrow concept of what was spiritually acceptable in the arts ––for instance, a Biblical worldview teaches us a sacramental approach to the body and sexuality, so public nudity is immoral, therefore we were very uncomfortable with nudity in art. But then you come along and say, instead: “Why don’t we examine the techniques of art and see what they can reveal to us about God’s character?” So, for example, you’ll look at first-species counterpoint and learn from it that two totally separate voices can coexist without canceling each other out or subsuming one another into a new single entity. You then read this as a metaphor, or, more, a physical microcosm for God’s sovereignty and man’s free will (this was the topic of your talk I attended at Biblical Theological Seminary). Am I expressing your approach correctly?

JB: Well, almost. But thank you for the question!

The best way of explaining it would be along these lines. On the one hand, there is “theology for the arts.” By this I mean bringing a Christian or biblical outlook to the world of the arts. Here we start with Scripture, or doctrine, or some basic Christian conviction and ask “What does this have to say to the arts and to artists?” This needn’t be restrictive, moralising, or narrow. Anything but, if it’s properly done. And it must be done. In all that I do in the arts I am trying to work with an orientation that is unapologetically Christian, that takes its cue from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, testified in Scripture. And “theology for the arts” keep us facing in the right direction. If we get lazy here, we will quickly find that our thinking is being ruled by some other perspective, some other Lord –– sub-Christian, or even anti-Christian.

However, working within that orientation –– always making sure our final bearings are taken from the biblical testimony –– it seems to me quite legitimate to ask: “How can the arts help us discover, unlock, and understand more deeply the truth given to us in that testimony?” That’s what I call “theology through the arts,” or “theology with the artist.” Music, for example, can not only help us express what we already know, it can help us discover what we don’t know, or don’t know as well as we should.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular “school” or “movement” of theologians?

JB: Not really. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of movements and labels. For me, being a theologian means returning again and again to the bedrock of Scripture, while drawing on the vast riches of Christian tradition to help me and others understand and live out the biblical Gospel every more fully. I’ve been influenced more by the Reformed tradition than any other, I suppose, especially in its strongly trinitarian versions. But I’ve also been nourished by numerous other traditions: especially Anglican, Orthodox, and evangelical.

IA: What can you tell us about the current state of the arts in the Church? I’m particularly interested in comparing North America with what you see happening in Europe.

JB: This is an enormous question, and I find it very hard to generalise. As far as the Church is concerned, in the States, you have (generally) more money, a philanthropic culture, seemingly endless enthusiasm and energy, and a refreshing “can-do” attitude. All this has made the U.S. a vibrant arena for artistic innovation and engagement in the Church. In Europe, on the other hand, we have a richer historical heritage staring at us on practically every street, and we are far more aware of tradition. This means that the arts in the Church tend to be far more historically alert. As far as general attitudes to the arts among the public are concerned, they would be very similar on both side of the Atlantic. Getting funding for the arts is especially hard in the U.K., and especially for anything Church-related.

IA: How do you think the arts are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism?

JB: I don’t think there’s much doubt that the “postmodern” ethos has liberated many artistic movements that previously would have been suppressed under a heavy modernist, secularist blanket. The postmodern concern for diversity, plurality, hearing many voices etc. has definitely had its effects, even if the results can be confusing and bewildering. Also, we are, I believe, living in a post-secular age, in the sense that the extreme “naturalism” that used to haunt our culture, denying the existence of everything except the material and observable, is now waning. (Exceptions like the “new atheism” of Dawkins have appeared, of course, but I see this as a fairly superficial fad, with little intellectual credibility.) I am part of many secular academic groups concerned with the arts, and I find the suspicion of faith is nothing like as strong as it used to be.

On the other hand, there are many circles where it is clear that the common pleas for “diversity” are not intended to include Christian faith. And the postmodern preference for “spirituality” over “organised religion” does tend to iron out the distinctiveness of any particular faith. What’s more, insofar as postmodernism involves a drive towards assessing everything solely in terms of its economic value, this has had a damaging effect on the arts.

IA: What topics tend to recur in the many speaking engagements you have had in the U.S.?

JB: In the States, I find a huge interest, especially among young people, in how the arts might link up with “spirituality.” Many seem to have a gut instinct that there is some kind of umbilical cord between the arts –– especially music –– and the “sacred.” Other very common themes are freedom and hope; again, many I speak to are fascinated in exploring the potential links between these foundational human concerns and music (not to mention the other arts).

Here are several videos of Dr. Begbie’s piano performances and lectures:
playing Schumann
playing Bach
playing Liszt
A talk about Jesus as worship leader
A talk about God's retiming and remaking
A talk called “The Sense of an Ending”
A talk on God and freedom
A talk called “Seeing God with the Mind’s Ear”