Thursday, May 31, 2012

Quote of the Day (Daniel Barbarisi, on the Sick Yankees)

“A baseball team is a traveling germ factory. Twenty-five men living as a unit, sharing workout facilities and equipment, shaking hands with autograph-seeking fans, and pushing their bodies to exhaustion night after night—it's a recipe for illness. When one gets sick, sooner or later, they all do. And right now, the Yankees are sick.”—Daniel Barbarisi, “The Yanks Need Some Chicken Soup,” The Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2012

Easily the funniest scene in the Robert Redford baseball movie The Natural (1984) comes when a psychiatrist addresses the slumping New York Knights. “Losing is a disease…as contagious as polio,” he tells them dolefully, with scenes intercut of the hapless squad striking out, dropping easy fly balls, colliding with each other, etc. “Losing is a contagious as syphilis. Losing is a disease… contagious as bubonic plague...attacking one…but affecting all.”

Barbarisi’s article, appearing nearly two weeks ago now, came when the Bronx Bombers were at a physical low ebb, highlighted by the debilitating bronchial infection of Mark Teixeira (in the photo here). (Three years ago, that upraised hand was a mark of triumph; now, it appears more like a warning to stay away from him.) A physical illness was turning into something harder to shake, as the Yankee bats went to sleep and the team went on a losing streak.

The hapless Oakland A’s did wonders for the team’s morale—not to mention health—for awhile, including Teixeira’s. But a road stand at the Angels, where they lost two of three, are making many fans wonder all over again if this is longer lasting.

Some years ago, Bronx Bomber captain Derek Jeter noted that, while some teams have a single season of 162 games, you would think the Yankees have 162 seasons of one game each, based on the daily hysteria of the media. There have been other years when the team went through inexplicable cold spells, only to right themselves in the end. On the other hand, there’s also 2008, when they finished out of the money.

Here’s hoping that the team gets back to and stays on its winning ways, and that this is not just another manifestation of what Alex Rodriguez contracted after the 2009 World Series: The Curse of Kate Hudson. The team not only disregarded my perfectly reasonable suggestion that they vote her a full World Series share for how she helped turn the third baseman’s head (and performance) around, but Stray-Rod ditched her and took up with successive blondes (Cameron Diaz and Torrie Wilson) with nowhere near as good results.

Maybe a love doctor will cure what's ailing A-Rod and the Yanks. Otherwise, this latest slump could turn into the equivalent of the bubonic plague.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

This Day in Classical Music History (Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ Debuts)

May 30, 1962—Twenty years after St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry was destroyed in a German air raid, a new cathedral adjacent to the old site was dedicated, with a musical centerpiece composed by a pacifist widely shunned by many in Britain during WWII.

Since its tumultuous premiere, the reputational arc of War Requiem has paralleled that of composer Benjamin Britten: Tremendous acclaim followed by furious reaction, succeeded in turn by recognition near the top of 20th-century classical music.

The new musical at the Public Theater, February House, sounds like a fascinating attempt to capture an unusual moment in cultural history (i.e., Britten, W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee all sharing a home in Brooklyn in the early 1940s), but in the case of one couple—Britten and longtime companion Peter Pears, depicted as persnickety—the depiction sounds cartoonish. It doesn’t sound as if another tangible aspect of Britten’s life is examined much in this instance: his anxiety over the war-torn world and his place in it.

When war broke out on the continent in 1939, Britten and Pears, like W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, left Britain for the U.S. That action did not sit well with many who saw the conflict with Hitler as a struggle for national survival itself. When homesickness drew the composer back in 1942, he was accorded noncombatant status on the stipulation that he give concerts for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts.

During the war, the Luftwaffe’s blitzes—including attacks on the Midlands industrial city Coventry that left 380 people killed and 865 injured, along with the destruction of the 14th-century cathedral--did much to harden feelings against the Germans. It also left the nation’s 59,000 conscientious objectors, including Britten, in a position not always comfortable.

Flash forward 20 years. The reconstructed cathedral in Coventry enlisted the top names in the arts to participate in its rebirth: architect Basil Spence, architects Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland—and Britten, now the colossus of Britain’s classical music scene, largely due to landmark operas he had created in the meantime (notably Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw).

Britten saw an opportunity to fulfill two of his longtime aims: 1) compose a major choral work in the English tradition, and 2) not only commemorate the victims of a terrible act, but condemn war itself. The work would feature the dignity of ancient ritual—a requiem Mass in Latin—side by side with the searing modern poetry of Wilfred Owen, who had been killed just before the armistice that ended WWI.

The reception given Britten’s vastly ambitious work (scored for three soloists, a chamber orchestra, a full choir and main orchestra, and a boys choir and organ) was rife with irony. Here was a composer once castigated by large sections of the British public for refusing to fight against his country’s longtime enemy, now lionized by a country that, over the prior year, had grown increasingly terrified of the tensions between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev over Berlin.

War Requiem ended up posing an uncomfortable question: how much did one’s response to it depend on an aesthetic rather than political judgment? The issue came to the forefront because of the casting of the principals: From Britain, Pears; from Germany, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, his country’s greatest baritone; from Russia, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The Kremlin’s cultural commissars insisted that Vishnevskaya not attend the ceremony because of their fear that Britten’s work would put the U.S.S.R. in a negative light.

The appeal to international harmony may have had its limits, but otherwise the performance was greeted rapturously: “Unforgettable,” “Masterpiece on the folly of war,” and “A Britten triumph” were typical of the reactions. Then a counterreaction set in.

As Richard Fairman’s recent retrospective in The Financial Times noted, naysayers at “the high intellectual end of contemporary music in the 1960s,” perhaps put off by the hype, were scathing.  The first Munich performance prompted one critic to label the piece of “dubious quality,” while another German critic called it “an artistic lie.” Moreover, composer Igor Stravinsky cracked that “The Battle of Britain sentiment was so thick and the tide of applause so loud that I, for one, was not always able to hear the music.”

You’ll still find some quarters where this choral work—or, at least, the environment in which it originated—comes in for criticism. Terry Teachout, for instance, has lumped Britten in with Copland, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Hindemith and Randall Thompson among musicians with a particular bent in their worldview: “Only in the twentieth century did major composers get into the propaganda business, and then their preferred causes tended to be not religious but secular.”

Such sentiments have become increasingly rare, however. Because of its size, War Requiem has become the classical-music counterpart to King Lear: not as much performed as others in the career of a genius, but recognized as towering over others in his canon and, indeed, in the wider cultural landscape.

Quote of the Day (Thomas Wolfe, to His Favorite Teacher)

“I was without a home—a vagabond since I was seven—with two roofs and no home. I moved inward on that house of death and tumult from room to room, as the boarders came with their dollar a day, and their constant rocking on the porch. My overloaded heart was bursting with its packed weight of loneliness and terror; I was strangling, without speech, without articulation, in my own secretions—groping like a blind sea-thing with no eyes and a thousand feelers toward light, toward life, toward beauty and order, out of that hell of chaos, greed, and cheap ugliness—and then I found you, when else I should have died, you mother of my spirit who fed me with light. Do you think I have forgotten? Do you think I ever will?” —Thomas Wolfe, letter of May 30, 1927, to his former teacher, Margaret Roberts, in The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Elizabeth Nowell (1956)

In this season of graduations and moving on from one grade to another, most of us, if we have amounted to anything in life, can remember a teacher who glimpsed possibilities that we never knew we had. Sometimes we tell them what they mean to us; more often, they die or move on to who knows where before we can express what a difference they made in our lives.

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was one who got the chance to thank his teacher, and as seen above, he did not squander the opportunity. He was a gangling boy of 11 when the Asheville, N.C. schoolteacher Margaret Roberts picked his paper out of 60 in a writing contest and told her husband, “This boy, Tom Wolfe, is a genius! And I want him for our school next year.” For the next four years, at Orange Street School, where her husband John was principal, Margaret fired Wolfe’s imagination. The boy needed that stimulation because his home environment, a boardinghouse called Old Kentucky Home, was so chaotic that Wolfe slept in a different bed each night because of his mother’s need to accommodate visitors.

Wolfe being Wolfe, he had to turn Ms. Roberts into a character, in the novel that made his reputation and made him persona non grata in Asheville for awhile, Look Homeward, Angel. His depiction of her husband as someone who didn’t measure up to his wife’s sensitive spirit hurt her and led to a seven-year break in her friendship with her best student. But they reconciled again before his untimely death.

None of us can summon all the words and thoughts Wolfe showered on "the mother of my spirit." But a thank-you to those holding among the most thankless jobs in the country--the ones who motivated and inspired us when we needed it most--wouldn't hurt.

(The image accompanying this post was taken of Wolfe in 1937 by photographer Carl Van Vechten, and is now part of the Van Vechten Collection in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Quote of the Day (Martha Gellhorn, on Ernest Hemingway)

"When you're daydreaming as a child you're Joan of Arc or Richard Coeur de Lion: that's the one pleasure of childhood. But it's supposed to change. Ernest always cast himself in a bigger light. He didn't mythomane down, only up. He had an accurate memory of things you don't mythomane about: scenery, places, names. That worked very well. The scenery was exact and correct, but the hero striding through it was larger than life. Finally, in The Old Man and the Sea, he was a mixture of himself and Christ."-- Martha Gellhorn on ex-husband Ernest Hemingway, quoted in Nicholas Shakespeare, “Martha Gellhorn,” Granta, Summer 1998

I don’t have HBO, so no, I haven’t seen its movie Hemingway and Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. But it’ll be high on my list when it comes out on DVD. I’m dying to see what they did with the story of the closest thing the 20th century had to a Byronic hero and the only one of his four wives fully a match for him in writing and adventuring. Maybe that competitive factor also made this the shortest of Papa's marriages.

Well, that’s one reason why it didn’t last. Another was Ernest Hemingway’s talents as a fabulist—one, as I discussed in a prior post, that he shared with Mad Men’s similarly troubled macho man, Don Draper. You would expect that Martha Gellhorn—for whom a prize was named which celebrates “journalism that challenges secrecy and mendacity in public affairs”—would have a difficult time accepting that in private life, and she did.

It rubbed Gellhorn every kind of wrong way that she was remembered largely as an appendage to her husband, even though she stands in the front rank of reporters of all time. In the contest of egos between herself and the novelist, that stung, and you have to read everything she wrote or said about him with that in mind.

And yet, there’s rough justice in what she told Nicholas Shakespeare about her ex. At the Ernest Hemingway Museum in his native Oak Park, Ill., a surviving piece of his father’s stationery shows makeshift sketches by 2 1/2 –year-old Ernie Hemingway of a giraffe, a sailor, two guns, Noah's ark, a tree, a pipe, and a man on the moon—all testifying to his future love of adventure. He could not accumulate the material for his books without that love. Gellhorn, a woman lied to—and emotionally abused—by this psychologically frail man, had little understanding of her ex’s need.

Still, despite her annoyance, she could not help but admit that there were some things he got right: “scenery, places, names”—an unconscious echo of one of the most famous passages in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (“Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments, and the dates”).

Gellhorn also puts her finger on the problem of Hemingway studies: his corroding ability to sustain a piece of fiction after For Whom the Bell Tolls. The progressive battering taken by his mind and body were key to that deterioration, of course, but just as problematic was his growing capacity for myth-making. True, identifying himself with the protagonists of his fiction allowed him to enter fully into their lives. But there was something disturbing in the way that Hemingway not only identified with Santiago, the simple fisherman hero of The Old Man and the Sea, in his recent lack of good fortune (Santiago has not caught anything much in far too long, while Hemingway’s Over the River and Into the Trees was widely scorned by critics), but also with Christ.

Hemingway’s life, if nothing else, will keep people returning to his books. With the release of the Owen-and-Kidman literary epic, along with an upcoming Mint Theater Co. revival of her 1946 play co-written by Virginia Cowles, Love Goes to Press, we might, at last, also be having a season for Gellhorn. Sometimes truth does work to one’s advantage, after all.

(The photo of Hemingway with Carlos Gutierrez, first mate of his beloved boat Pilar, is from the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Photo of the Day: Clinging for Dear Life

The plant life wrapping itself around the column in the accompanying photo is a Chinese wisteria, taken in the back of the 19th century mansion at the Van Vleck House and Gardens in Montclair, N.J. , which I visited a week and a half ago.

Quote of the Day (Dorothy Parker, on a Multilingual Woman)

“That woman speaks 18 languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”—Dorothy Parker quoted in Lou Harry and Todd Tobias, “7 Entourages That Changed the World,” Mental Floss, September/October 2007