26 November 2011

The Bard of Our Time?

Here are some selections from my current Curator piece, a review of Anonymous.

...Anonymous is little more than a showcase for pretty boys to strut about in gorgeous, historically inauthentic costumes, speaking anachronistic lines and participating in fictional events.

...I laughed through most of the movie, but for mostly the wrong reasons: I was incredulous, amused, and bemused by its clichés, its psychological implausibility, and its lavish big-budget spectacular emptiness.

...this movie didn’t make up its mind. It could have been an educational immersion in 16th-century England that plunged its audience into the sights, sounds, and society of Elizabeth’s and James’s reigns. Or it could have been a watertight case for the Earl of Oxford’s authorship, ravishing the minds of its viewers with compelling evidence that he was the man who wrote “Shakespeare.” Or it could have been just a good movie.

...Why this movie, why this message, here and now? ...The message of Anonymous is essentially that a normal guy, an average middle-class fellow, could not achieve greatness.

Please read the whole article, then leave me your thoughts here! Thanks!


23 November 2011

Preview of "A Little Princess" by Players of the Stage

Players of the Stage, our only -- and therefore, but for many other reasons as well, an essential part of the local arts community -- Christian youth theatre, is presenting their semi-annual play. This time around, it is The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, adapted by the company's director, Sharon Barshinger.

There are some beautiful lines and very profound themes in this “children's” story. The main character, Sara, is a very intelligent, well-educated girl whose thoughts tend to the metaphysical. At one point, she tells a story about what she images Heaven to be like, infusing it with the generic conventions of myth and fairy tale (scandalizing some of her more conventional listeners). There are, of course, huge obvious themes of classism, with the traditional hierarchy only gently questioned and generally reinforced by Sara's renewed wealth and status by the end of the tale. The importance of education is both emphasized and embodied, with an especial focus on the importance of literature, history, and a large vocabulary. There is even a touch of posthumanism (according to Sara, the rat who shares her garret “is a person too: he gets hungry, he's married, he has children.”

But the two most prominent themes are patience under suffering, and the power of imagination. Sara's friend says, “When you talk about things, they seem real.” She responds that “they are real” and that, conversely, “everything is a story.” She understands the necessity of the past as a means of making sense out of the present: the major difference between Sara and her friends is that she knows history and literature and can both compare the present to them, and use them to transform the present. In other words, she has something with which to feed her imagination. The difference between herself and the “scullery maid” Becky is that she has a wealth of images, characters, and events to draw from to keep her mind and hope alive. It is not that she has an imagination and others do not, but that her imagination has a constant supply of material.

The theme the director has chosen to emphasize is the idea that we are given our trials and sufferings for a reason, and that suffering is part of life. The director's note will pick up on this theme, so you can read that when you attend the play.

December 1st, 2nd, and 3rd at 7:00 p.m.
December 3rd at 2:00 p.m.
At Living Hope Church, 330 Schantz Road, Allentown, PA

Due to the natural changes of the growing up and graduating of the most experienced members, the current cast is young and the result is much more artificial than previous performances. They are also quite difficult to hear, not yet having mastered the arts of diction and projection. In spite of that, these children show remarkable control. They are focused and intense, handling the slightly formal language with great aplomb. They are also not distracted by the reporters snapping pictures right in their faces, setting off flashbulbs with tremendous noise -- but they just go right on. All in all, an inspiring performance, and not “just” for kids.


18 November 2011

Allen Organ Concert

Review of a concert by Carlo Curley at Allen Organ in Macungie, PA

Carlo Curley, a burley wonder of an organ showman, is dazzling us with his talent, wit, and flashy technique. In a varied program of classics both poignant, boisterous, and overplayed, he's setting us laughing and slack-jawed with delight.

I first visited Allen Organ for a Lehigh Valley Arts Council event a couple of months ago and vowed to come back for a concert. It is well worth it. First of all, the hall itself is just about worth the ticket price: the audience sits inside the instrument, surrounded by pipes and bells and whistles. We feel the music as much as hear it.

Allen Organ is a remarkable place, and the instrument-makers masters of their craft. They have set some world records, earned many firsts (including first digital instrument), and sustained their reputation over nearly a century of making fine organs.

And Mr. Curley himself is as good and funny a storyteller as a dazzling musician and showman. It's almost as much fun to listen to him talk as to listen to him play, then talk, then play, story after story, piece after piece....

His program is very well chosen to exhibit the range of the organ's varied abilities and to exploit the varied sensibilities of a (mostly very aged) audience. We can see him listening to each chord, each note, each overtone, even. He holds the last chord twice as long as annotated, leaning into it, ears extending, body absorbing and enjoying the whole layered resonance of it all. This listening pleasure was reflected in the varied program, which started with a challengingly delicate, sustained bit of Dvorak, and proceeding through fast and slow, loud and soft, harmonic and contrapuntal and melodic: Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein....

So he told one story just now, before intermission, that set us off into paroxysms of amusement. He was asked to play at St. Paul's Cathedral in August of 1979. He was practicing on the fine instrument there (!), when a clergyman approached him and asked, “in a voice dripping with ridicule,” if he would “play something American” if he were asked for “a little something extra at the end of the show.” Well, Mr. British, thinks this North Carolingian to himself, I'll give you a little something extra. So he was encored at the end of a very heavy European program, and turned on all the brass in the place: trumpets over the entrance, trumpets up in the dome, trumpets over in the choir, and cranked the thing all the way up, and hit 'em with John Phillip Sousa's “Liberty Bell” March! Before he was done, “the thousands in the crowd were clapping, and dancing, and I looked down, and there was that same clergyman standing in the midst of a gaggle of 20 or 30 others, looking as if he'd been hit over the head with a cricket-bat. By the time I ended, there weren't enough stretchers in the whole city of London to carry out the corpses of the clergy!”

All together a delightful evening, even though accuracy often suffered for the sake of effect. Still quite enjoyable, though the aged audience meant an unending background of coughing, sneezing, and nose-blowing; tuneless humming along throughout the “Meditation” from Thais; and a constant accompaniment of hearing aids whistles. In spite of these small distractions, it was a concert in the bones, in the blood, in the gut. While he played a Bach Sinfonia, I never wanted it to stop. It was the rhythm of my body.

14 November 2011

Allentown Symphony review

Written on Sunday afternoon
I am here at the Allentown Symphony for the afternoon's concert. But first, the Young Musicians String Festival is playing a shortened version of this afternoon's (abridged versions or just movements from the three major pieces) for an audience composed mostly of their parents. It is a thrilling educational, musical, and community event. And that's not all. The 14-year-old composer of one of the pieces came out to talk about his composition: what a way to connect the young musicians, their parents, and the community together over Classical music! Now the violin soloist is talking to the young people about practicing, its challenges and rewards. She's very endearing. She's telling them about her unique violin—of which more below.

Now a college freshman, winner of the Voorhis Competition, played a gorgeous Paganini caprice—a sustained, delicate, challenging piece unlike the technical fireworks we usually expect from that composer. Young talent like that terrifies me!

The experts from the pieces are surprisingly short. I imagine the students would be a bit frustrated to just barely get going with the piece and have to stop. But they do have full concerts of their own?? They're good, but not quite “on” with their intonation and ensemble work. However, at least they're here, violins and violas in their hands, which is marvelous!!

This is one example of all the amazing initiatives that the Allentown Symphony has going on to include the community in the life of the orchestra—and to include music in the wider life of the community. Another example occurred on Friday afternoon, when the conductor Diane Wittry invited the community into Symphony Hall, onto the stage, to participate in a conversation about the weekend's concert. Diane spoke about her programming of the concert as a whole. Then she introduced Stephen Czarkowski, a conducting fellow here with the Symphony. I had a chance to talk with him later, and he is a wonderfully positive supporter of young musicians, finding and promoting new talent. He also has boundless energy of his own for conducting, playing cello, teaching, and starting new musical ensembles and programs.

So next at the bag lunch event on Friday, the “child prodigy” composer talked about his work. This young man's name is Rory Lipkis, and I interviewed his father, Larry Lipkis, for the “Where Are We Now?” series last spring. Rory is one of these multi-talented people: he sang the boy soprano solo on the recording of Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast by Paul Salerni (another interviewee, at whose CD release party I met Dana Gioia, yeanother interviewee (and a gracious endorser of my forthcoming book).

Rory Lipkis is a remarkably articulate person—not just “for a 14-year-old” (which denigrates the actual maturity of most well-educated 14-years-olds), but simply as a human being. He spoke intelligently about his education and experience, his composition process, his ideas, revisions, and working with the orchestra. How thrilling it must have been for him to hear these 100 or so professional musicians perform his composition today!

After Rory spoke, the conductor invited the weekend's violin soloist, Elizabeth Pitcairn, on to speak about the Prokofiev concerto and about her own famous violin: the notorious “Red” Stradivarius that inspired the film The Red Violin. She is a slender, willowy woman whose bony grace matches the lean woodwork of the famous instrument. I was rather shocked that she would just walk on stage in amongst a bunch of random Lehigh Valley residents (among whom I was the youngest by a good 30 years or so) with this priceless, irreplaceable instrument. It was made by Stradivarius When her grandfather gave it to her as a gift 21 years go, it cost $2 million dollars. That was 21 years ago. I can hardly imagine what it is worth now, two decades later, with that time and its notoriety added to the value. Whew. And she's just walking about, holding it in her slim hand. But I suppose that's the safest place for it.

Ms. Pitcairn was sweet in person, and a powerhouse on stage. Her playing ranges from delicate to devastating. And the whole concert was just thrilling. I am privileged to live here -- and blessed to be beginning to realize that! It might not be Lenox, Massachusetts, no siree, but it suits me.


03 November 2011

James Shapiro wrote Shakespeare?

Take a look at the cover of the book and you'll see what I mean. :)

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So far, this book is amazing! It purports to be a balanced view of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and presents the case for Francis Bacon, then the Earl of Oxford, then Shakespeare. The beginning, however, is a remarkable survey of early Shakespeare scholarship (late 1700s), tracing the lines that laid down the kinds of thinking that made the authorship controversy possible. I highly recommend it.

. . .

Now, after finishing this book, I still highly recommend it! It's excellent. It is not unbiased, but a long immersion in postmodernism has taught us that objectivity is impossible anyway. So, it's a lovely, lively survey of (not the authorship question itself, but) WHY people question Shakespeare's authorship. It has a great cast of characters: forgers, lunatics, spiritualists (one guy held seances in which his medium called up Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, and Shakespeare to get from them the whole story. He did get the whole story of who wrote what, and even got a couple of lousy sonnets out of them. Funny that guys write better when they're alive than when they're dead), philosophers, psychoanalyists (Freud was an Oxfordian), novelists (Mark Twain was, too), feminists, historians, politicians.... It's well-written, quite readable, and (in the end) quite persuasive that Shakespeare of Stratford was the guy after all.

If you're going to go see "Anonymous" (don't know why you'd waste your money, really), read this first!

View all my reviews