Saturday, August 20, 2016

Tilting at High Notes

The American Dream includes a fascination with fraud. We celebrate the dreamers who aim high with nothing to support their dream but pure gumption. Harold Hill is no musician but he brings magic to Iowa. This dream predates our country: it really extends at least as far back as Don Quixote. And when the effect of the madman or fraud is the uplifting of the people there is a point to the deception. I do not buy into that theory of uplift when it involves taking something totally ludicrous and insisting it is wonderful. At least Harold Hill got Marian out to the bridge. And Don Quixote taught people to see themselves a different way.

And so... Florence Foster Jenkins, the laughingstock of sopranos for most of a century, who has been rehabilitated into a figure admirable for living her dream. On one level she was. But on several others she was both a victim and a user. She parlayed her wealth into positions she could not have attained by talent or work alone. And she was ferociously used by sycophants who needed pieces of that wealth. St. Clair Bayfield may have had a fondness for her but she was his meal ticket. 

The real FFJ was a figure of ridicule in the classical music world. The movie featuring Meryl Streep (who, having mastered every accent in the world has now tackled the "accent" of out-of-tune singing) paints her gently as a figure of amusement. And had she been an amateur who sang for pleasure and did a few songs at musicales all would have been in proportion. But she swanned about in the manner of a diva and delivered not one drop of the musical content which each diva is charged with purveying. She didn't serve the music. I guess this is the sticking point for me. Whether consciously or not she guyed the music and proved how worthless it was to those who placed no value on it. I do not laugh at her singing -- it makes me feel sad. I stand in awe of the way La Streep has managed to almost perfectly reproduce the tinny whistle of FFJ's upper range, though she doesn't not venture nearly as far from rhythm as FFJ was also wont to do. Streep also makes bravura moments of simple acts like falling asleep. As a performer she is utterly admirable -- and the total mastery of acting that she displays completely undercuts the unmastery that she is portraying! 

Hugh Grant is his usual charming self. 

Simon Helberg is simply astonishing. Like Harpo Marx but with a speaking voice added. His plastic face and his verbal reactions are priceless. He is really the only character who has an arc in this movie, from total disbelief to fear of career suicide by association to human connection and support even though he knows he is forever linked to a living joke. And he does his own piano playing! 

Historical drama depends on a contract with the audience -- the made up story must be balanced with well-researched and realistic background details. I saw another review which mentioned that the automobiles were too modern by a few years! That I didn't notice, but what set me off bigtime was... Arturo Toscanini. The casting, costume and makeup departments got him reasonably right. BUT. FFJ fixates on Lily Pons (who was not a new young singer by then but I would have let that pass. I would even have forgiven the very un-French timbre of the excellent young soprano impersonating La Pons) and holds up a 78 of a Pons and Toscanini recording of the Bell Song. On Columbia Records! Toscanini was an RCA Victor exclusive artist. It would have taken so little to get that right. And I sincerely doubt the great maestro did his own money begging for the NBC Orchestra...He had minions for that!

The fake voice lesson with Carlo Edwards also bugged me. It was a caricature of what I do. FFJ lurched around. Edwards exhorted her without actually stopping her to fix anything (and yes, I know that the point is that she was unteachable and he was ripping her off). It just seemed so sad to me, not funny. 

The most realistic scene in the movie was the bit with all the pianists bitching in the waiting room while McMoon plays The Swan inside. I have been in waiting rooms like that!

Music is a holy art, sings the Composer in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. It doesn't all have to be serious. There have been wonderful comic takes on classical music: Victor Borge, PDQ Bach, the Hoffnung Festival, and so on. But the "humor" in FFJ was based on cruelty ("we're laughing at you"), which the movie tries without real success to transform into some kind of "we're laughing with you." Indeed the movie sets us up to laugh and then tries to convince us that we are wrong to laugh, a muddled message. Poor FFJ lived most of her life within a bubble of rich clubwomen, an audience she knew and understood, and with whom her money and status created a codependent relationship. Know your audience is one of the great rules of performance. When she ventured out into the wider world, making recordings and then a public concert, her bubble burst. Not an uplifting story, really. 

If Professor Harold Hill had shown up with his own band and charged for tickets to hear them play Beethoven using the think system... well, there would have been refunds!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

E strano, e strano

molina21f-2-web.jpg (970×559)


Love Is Strange
Not a review, just reflections

Spoilers galore: if you haven't seen the movie Love Is Strange yet please go! Then come compare notes with me.

Ira Sachs, the filmmaker, spoke to the audience after the screening I attended. He said the film was about generations and family. I saw those things but I also saw light and dignity.

Light in the sense of charm and levity is what Ben used to get through life. And light suffused his vision: scenes of him painting the Manhattan skyline from a Brooklyn rooftop evoked the big sky of the great plains lit by the warmth of the Hudson Valley. Dignity is what George had: a quiet independence that got him through even the toughest moments. He was often shot from behind so that all we saw was his massive back bearing up when he was sad or frightened. 

So many scenes had few or no words. The underscoring, all Chopin, mostly piano but with an occasional touch of orchestration, spun out long sequences of pure emotion. I loved the unhurried quality of the screenplay, which allowed moments to be savored. 

The contrast between the two men, one reticent and one voluble, underpinned the movie from the opening sequence of their getting ready for their wedding through the extended date night: concert, bar visit, and farewell at the subway station. They were so natural and comfortable and honest with each other, discussing music and gay history and their individual histories with sexual exclusivity or freedom. George registered both his acceptance and a touch of sadness without judgment at Ben's adventures.

Natural and honest unfortunately did not extend to the presentation of George as music teacher. His Catholic School choir sang Cantate Domino (good choice) while he flailed his arms in a way that did not suggest he had mastered conducting! And I think I heard him say something about the difference between a half step and a semi tone during his piano teaching scene (WTF?). That scene mostly showed him in a state of distraction, which may excuse his listen, lecture vaguely, have the student play it again teaching style. But his monologue over the repeated Chopin was a marvel -- was it a letter or email he sent to all the kids he had been exiled from teaching or was it what he wished he could send? It managed to be a powerful statement about honesty without in any way seeming to be an attack. 

I do not paint. So I wonder if painters had the same level of detailed reaction to Ben's painting that I did to George's musicianship! (and the level of music consulting that did or did not go into the writing and directing) (and this is a minor issue in a terrific movie!)

One feature of the screenplay was the way that plot events were carefully set up and then allowed to recede into background. That way when something happened there was a why but it didn't hit me over the head with a hammer. Why are these people stepping up to house the homeless couple -- oh yeah, they all swore to uphold them in their love at the wedding! Why does the story suddenly take a turn for the worse. Oh right, the orthopedist made a suggestion that was obviously ignored. 

Ben and George, forced to find separate refuges with friends and family but finding those refuges to be cramped, undignified, maddening, also find moments of tender communication: George rushing out in the rain in Manhattan and throwing himself sobbing into Ben's arms in Brooklyn... and the two of them cradling each other in a tiny lower bunk. 

They are not young. They are not gorgeous. They are two older people in love and they are both men. So weird and wonderful to see something other than airbrushed hunks and starlets in a movie! The generation below them consists of Ben's distant nephew and his very present wife, who take Ben in, and the gay cops downstairs, who take George in. The gay cops run a party pad and the scenes in their place were so crowded and confusing that I didn't get a very detailed sense of them as individuals. Ben shares the room of his grand-nephew, who runs the gamut of reactions to this invasion from sullen to furious. He has a weird friendship with a Russian boy who dominates him and also poses for Ben to paint. There is a fair amount of discomfort about all of these things but they end up as the cocoon state from which the boy will emerge in the final two scenes of the film, suddenly taking the lead. 

The other leading role is played by the city. The New York that Ben and George inhabit stopped existing decades ago, but due to rent stabilization and the possibility of buying for an insider price when buildings go coop they have lived for years in a manner that no-one can now afford. Greenwich Village. Piano and paintings. Losing the income to pay for it threatens not just their ability to be together but their continued presence in the artistic bohemia of the past. The audience at the Merkin Hall concert they attend is mostly older people because younger people cannot move here the way they used to. Some still do, crammed into tiny spaces in outer boroughs. But a painter and a music teacher in a nice downtown apartment? That stopped happening about 1980. And the only possible salvation is the random and magical offer of taking over a rent stabilized lease: that is the movie's Deus ex machina! But the Deus grants his boon to some and not others and George is left alone in a wonderful location to enjoy the rest of his life in his city as best he can. I hope all the people who vowed to support him and Ben in their love will be present for him going forward.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Melba

May 19th is the birthday of Melba. Dame Nellie. The grandest of dames. She lived a life ruthlessly devoted to the perfect emission of tone, as someone (Michael Aspinall, I think) once wrote. Every note steady, every trill perfectly even. Opinions about what her voice was best suited for ranged from Blanche Marchesi's (she thought Melba should have sung religious music) to Sir Thomas Beecham, who felt she lacked spiritual refinement. 

One thing she had was a raw, animalistic vigor to her singing: 
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NrIEeZ6QFQ

This is from the series of recordings made in 1904 at her home in London. They brought all the equipment to her! 

Here she is as Violetta:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdlbJvhb-10
The instrumental purity of tone is haunting. The lack of suitable dramatic expression is unfortunate. Her Italian is approximate at best, and rarely even that. Her verve as she tackles the runs in Sempre Libera is thrilling. What an oddly dull cadenza she sings!

Most of her recordings date from the acoustic era but she made a few electric sides. Here is the Act 2 duet from Traviata, with some interpretive touches that would never fly nowadays! 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSLE5tThj34

She was renowned for her ego and her rudeness, her generosity and the ferociousness with which she defended her turf, which meant life was hard for other sopranos! Unless they were her proteges...

Here's her wiki page:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nellie_Melba

I won't attempt to summarize her life and career, not to mention all the funny stories of her cutting remarks. Read and listen, there's lots on Youtube. Here she is the mad scene from Hamlet, finally on youtube! 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuIE3RzuF10

I first encountered that on an EMI LP I found at Bryn Mawr Records, a dusty, messy heaven of ancient discs, in the early '70s. Who was this woman with the silver voice? I was smitten and remain so, eagerly gobbling up the reissues of her recordings, the EMI Boxed set of the HMVs and then the RCA Australia set of her Victors. Then the Romophone CD set of the Victors and the Naxos CD series of the HMVs! (I skipped the Pearl versions). I have a framed photo with an autographed album leaf with her motto: "They say? What say they? let them say!" Now that is a standard of self-confidence to measure up to! 


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Where I was...

There are those defining events, those moments of frozen time. We recall where we were when X happened: 9/11, the death of Princess Diana, the Challenger disaster, the shootings of MLK and RFK, the dropping of the A bomb, Pearl Harbor... My earliest historical trauma memory is the death of JFK, 50 years ago tomorrow. Actually, I have a pretty vivid recollection of the tense Cuban missile crisis, with my parents staring at a B&W TV with the White House on the screen. But that was a slow-motion event. November 22, 1963 was different, it was a sudden shock.

I was in kindergarten and we had a half day. So I was on the front bank by the driveway playing with Matchbox cars with my friend Dick Walling. My Mother, a staunch Democrat and true believer, came racing out of the front door in hysterics, running down the driveway towards the house across the street. And amid her tears she was screaming, "they've shot our president!" I don't recall what happened then or how my friend got home. My next clear memory is two days later. We drove over to another friend's house (Gordon Cooney. Isn't it amazing how clearly I remember the names of my classmates!) and arrived just minutes after Ruby shot Oswald. It was another scene of adults in a state of pandemonium and children in a state of bewilderment. It sure seared itself into my brain!

I have spent the past three days reading tons of conspiracy stories and conspiracy debunking. I feel sad that we can never know exactly what happened, or perhaps can never be truly secure in our knowledge. The one truth that can perhaps be agreed upon is that the event was a traumatic shock. And our entire nation suffers PTSD from it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

My Name

The Minister at our UU society, Peggy Clarke, asked us all in her sermon this morning if anything of great importance had ever happened to any of us in restaurants. Well, I got my name, my internet name, in a restaurant: Yorkside Pizza in New Haven.

My roommate Miguel was directing West Side Story. Usually the solo "Somewhere" is sung by a female singer in the ensemble. But Miguel offered the song to me, to be sung from the orchestra. I guess it was a form of roommate nepotism. So one night when the cast had finished rehearsal and many of them had made their way to late pizza and beer I found myself at a table with my friend Charles while various other cast members were waiting to be seated. One dancer was loudly explaining to the others, in tones of disappointment and scorn, all about how no none of them would get to sing "Somewhere" because that "Richard the Tenor" would be doing it. I could clearly hear the italics in her voice and Charles nearly spat out his beer. He laughed and pointed at me and said, that's it, that's your name! And years later when internet handles became a way of life I remembered....

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Daddy


Samuel D. Slade
May 1, 1913 – October 15, 1973



Daddy was the son of a shyster lawyer (David Harold Slade) and a Vaudeville comedienne (Agnes Simonds, stage name Agnes Lynn). The lawyer parked his wife and son, along with his tough stage-mother mother-in-law (Sophia Augusta Josephine Byrne Simonds) and a Roumanian cook, in a large house in Freeport, Long Island. David then went off to gamble on trans-Atlantic ocean liners, have affairs with clients, bribe witnesses, and complain about the income tax. We’ll get to the bigamy part later. And he claimed he’d be reincarnated as a cat – stay tuned for more on that topic as well. Daddy did not speak of his father with love or respect but there was certainly longing there as well. His mother he adored – and he took care of for her whole life.
 
Daddy finished high school in Freeport when he was 14 so they sent him to boarding school: Cheshire Academy (since he was too young for college). There he took up smoking (3 packs a day for the next 46 years) and practical joking. He told me a story about putting water in the chapel organ pipes: disaster ensued at the first chord of the processional the next morning. The headmaster put the whole school on detention until the culprits confessed (Daddy and his friends). Daddy was sentenced to spend the rest of the school year reading the entire Waverly Novels in the library during all his free time. I must say, I learned much later to take all of Daddy’s stories with pounds of salt.  I wonder what really happened.

During the summers Daddy was sent to Maine to hunt and fish. He had a French Canadian guide named Neal Rancourt. Trout fishing was a love that stayed with Daddy for his whole life, even after he lost a whole day’s catch to a bear who helped himself to all the fish strung up outside the cabin one night!


After Cheshire he went to Yale, where he fenced, drank, and read old English. Beowolf. In the original. Which he loved, and wanted to become a professor teaching old English. But it was the depression and he was told he needed to make more money than professors do and so he went to law school, one year at Columbia and the remaining two back at Yale (where his father and both his uncles had gone, lawyers all). While at Yale Law he won money at a card game and took a road trip to Smith, where he met Patricia. They both played piano, maybe that’s how they got together. He got a law clerk job on Wall Street and married Pat. The marriage went sour immediately – but they had a son, John. And at the same time David, my grandfather, was being treated or a melanoma that started in his eye and spread – and his reaction was to get a Mexican mail-order divorce from Agnes and elope with Mary Montalban, whom he had been “keeping” in a love-nest on East 54th Street. David died, leaving a mess of unpaid bills and a will allegedly leaving everything to the bigamous second Mrs Slade, who promptly sued. But there was no estate since David’s two brothers, who were his law partners, swallowed whatever assets there were as part of their partnership. This left Daddy with nothing. His uncle Ben promised to maintain the mortgage on the house Agnes and Sophie lived in while Daddy moved to Washington, DC to take a government job. Ben defaulted and the house was auctioned from under Agnes’s feet. Pat left, taking John and starting a protracted divorce drama. And Agnes and Sophie moved to DC where they lived with daddy for the rest of their lives. My poor father – his late 20s were a nightmare!


He lived in Virginia and got a cat – George the Siamese. After George was “fixed” Agnes would sit in her chair and gloat, “Oh, David, what we did to you!”
 
Throughout the 1940s and ’50s Daddy worked for the government, first at Admiralty, then Price Administration (where he knew and detested Richard Nixon!), and finally at Justice, where he became Chief of the Appellate Division. Mastering the fine points of appellate law was as close as he could come to the Old English he loved. He became famed for arguing cases from memory and for dictating whole briefs that he had fully composed in his head, ready for the printer with no need of editing or revision.

His family continued to plague him – when his Uncle Ben died Daddy found that Ben’s estate was being taken by his cousin Helen, who had made him sign a will when he was completely senile. Daddy sued for half the estate – the battle raged for a decade. The court ruled in Daddy’s favor but by then most of the estate had been eaten by court costs.

Daddy was responsible for hiring new lawyers for his department. He interviewed a young Yale Law grad named Sondra Kaplan. And married her a year later! She moved in with Daddy and his elderly female relatives. A year later she lost her eyesight (Multiple Sclerosis, undiagnosed: she made a partial recovery) and went into the hospital. Agnes developed congestive heart failure and went into the hospital as well. Sophie, who was in her late ’90s and still sharp as a tack, knew that the hospital was where you went to die so she offered Daddy her sympathy: “You poor dear, losing them both at once!” She was astonished when Mother came home. Agnes did not. Daddy locked himself alone in his room and cried all night. That is the only time I have ever known of him crying – I certainly never saw such a thing.


Sophie lived one more year, still cooking and doing dishes until her last 6 months. And after she died my parents started a family. First me. And finally Daddy had life all figured out – he loved living in DC, he was happy at his job, and most of his dramas were quiet. Then my sister Anne was born, and it all came apart. Anne is profoundly autistic. Daddy knew, immediately, that Anne would require financial support far beyond his modest salary, so he accepted a partnership in a Philadelphia law firm and we moved to Villanova, PA.

I remember remarkably little about my first decade. I know that my sister was feral for about 7 years until the stelazine and thorazine began to modify her behavior. We had family therapy. Anne rocked back and forth, my parents fought, I was ignored. Daddy spent long hours at work, joined the Racquet Club, and played the piano. Mother joined the league of Women Voters and suffered various attacks and long-term effects of her MS, while doctors told her at was all psychosomatic. I went to the Episcopal Academy, where I discovered choir singing but was otherwise an outcast.

Mother used to spend most of her weekends in bed, suffering from MS-induced exhaustion and depression. Daddy and I were on our own, and we had our routines. The Saturday trip to the cheese shop for French bread, Gouda, and Tiptree Little Scarlet. Trout fishing, in season – he fished, I sat on a rock and read. I was no outdoorsman, which I think was a great disappointment to him. But singing – that we shared. We would sit at night in the kitchen, him with Bourbon and me with milk, and he would teach me folk songs and how to improvise harmony. The first two Peter, Paul & Mary albums were our textbook. And he told me stories about his youth, too many of which I have muddled or forgotten. And one night in October of 1973 he told me it was time for me to make friends my own age because he wouldn’t be around forever. And I cried and asked him not to say such a thing. But three days later he died in his sleep. What did he die of? All the cigarettes? All the disappointments? All the unlived passions he suppressed to be the most dutiful son and then the burdened husband and father? I was 15 and we had no yet fought the battle of my becoming my own person. So much I want to ask, to know. So much I miss you. Happy 100th birthday my honored Father. Your memory is for a blessing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

No Plums Were Injured in the Making of This Pudding

Here is the recipe for the plum pudding I made on Xmas Eve. This is what I grew up having every year but haven't cooked in ages.

Set a huge pot half filled with water to boil. I used a pasta pot with an insert so that the pudding could boil without touching the bottom. Mother used  a big pot with a round cake rack inside.

Step 1) Sift together
3/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 sp mace (who knows why)
and set aside

Step 2) Mix together
1/4 lb ground suet. (No, I didn't use this, I substituted margerine so the dish would be vegetarian. But the texture would be better with suet.)
1 cup plus 2 tbsps brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup brandy (I was generous)
add 2 well-beaten eggs and set aside

Step 3) Mix
1 cup seedless raisins
1 and 1/2 cups currants
1 cup candied fruit peel mix (I sued a half cup of orange peel and a half cup of mixed stuff plus a sprinkling of lemon rind)
1/2 cup chopped blanched almonds
1/4 cup flour
set aside

Combine items 1,2, and 3 and add 1 cup of bread crumbs, stir well.

Grease and flour a 2 quart pudding mold (I use the ancient one that my ancestors used!) and turn the mixture into it. Put on the lid and when the water in that big pot is at a boil set the pudding mold inside, with the water coming 2/3rds of the way up its side. Lower the heat so that the water simmers merrily and put a large lid over the whole thing: steam/boil for 2 and 1/2 hours and fret like Mrs Cratchit! Lift it out and unmold it onto a plate. Serve hot with the sauce I posted about.