Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Departing Sopranos

The Family came to town last night for their annual press preview at Radio City (which I did not attend) and for a more intimate thematic gathering at the small museum where I toil.

As the series itself is facing its final hour (or final eight episode hours) we gathered together “whacked” Sopranos—those actors whose character had been killed off—along with master creator David Chase and Terry Winter, executive producer.

The dearly departed present were Steve Buscemi, "Tony Blundetto"; Drea de Matteo, "Adriana La Cerva"; Vincent Pastore, "Salvatore 'Big Pussy' Bonpensiero"; David Proval, "Richie Aprile"; and Annabella Sciorra, "Gloria Trillo"; with Bryant Gumbel moderating.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Update: 30th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

And the winner is, Tyler Hinman, the kid, now a 3-time winnder. Al Sanders came in second--I don't even want to now how close he came. Maybe we need a second documentary just focusing on him. Here are the 10 ten winners in category A from the official website:


1. Tyler Hinman
2. Al Sanders
3. Francis Heaney
4. Trip Payne
5. Patrick Jordan
6. Ellen Ripstein
7. Kiran Kedlaya
8. Katherine Bryant
9. Jon Delfin
10. Dave Tuller

My own experience was fun, but with abyssmal results. I don't work well against the clock (had the same trouble with SATS). And, there were some functional quirks--e.g., for the daily online NY Times puzzle, you move from clue to clue by hitting tab, which is on the left. For the tournament software, you hit return, which is on the right. Any gamer will tell you that fingers/thumbs are hard to retrain, especially on the most basic keying.

Still, I'll be in it again next year. I read they are moving the tournament from Stamford, Ct., to Brooklyn, so maybe in person.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: Love and Death in Prague

''A land of spires and toy palaces and golden painted gates and bridges with sad-eyed statues peering out over misty black water, a village of cobblestones and stained glass unlicked by cannon, and that fairy-tale castle floating above it, hovering unanchored by anything at all, a city where surely anything will be possible.''

Arthur Phillips’s perfect snapshot of the actual Prague, from the end of his novel called Prague, which is set in Budapest. In an interview he explains “The novel is named not for a city, but for an emotional disorder: if only I were over there, or with her, or doing that, then I would be where the action is. . . So for some expatriates living in Budapest, Prague felt like the place to be.”

Ah, yes, the “if only” disorder, combined with the desire to be in “the place to be.” Prague is a troublemaker, make no mistake about it.

Our visit starts well enough. The hotel in Vinohrady is great—very hip, very part of the new. The lobby has free Internet access. In a very funny, cinematic moment, I was trying to get information from the front desk clerk about one of the museums—lots of smiles and head bobbing, but no actual exchange of information. Cad comes up behind me with museum hours, directions, and fees—he’d been online getting all the answers.

And right then is when I should have thrown myself into the Vltava before allowing my fingers to log-on to my e-mail. I hadn’t missed it at all in Vienna, but the computer was just feet away, and I couldn’t stop myself.

There was an e-mail from The Talented Mr. Ripley, and one from my brother.

Again, I could have walked out the door and thrown myself in front of a tram. But no. I chose self-inflicted pain via e-mail.

Mr. Ripley’s e-mail said he’d been in the park with Consuela, gotten a sunburn, and they were in love.

My brother’s e-mail told me that the head of the small museum I work for had died.

Phillips had warned us that this was the city where anything is possible, but good grief.

I knew that geographical separation from Mr. Ripley wasn’t going to sever everything. We were collaboraters in an artistic endeavor, which meant we still had to see each other twice a week. Consuela had been on the scene for just a few months, starting out on the fringes and working her way inward. It was quick work from any angle. She would manipulate Mr. Ripley into a family and then down the aisle, but I’m getting ahead of the story (that’s part of Cad and my trip to Ireland).

I had seen my colleague two days before I got on the plane for Rome. He had been ill, but this death was still sudden. I had worked with him for 13 years on an almost daily basis. What had been a stable work environment would now be completely volatile. It was awful not being with my staff for this.

We headed out toward the Charles Bridge. The day was grey and raining, in that Shakespearean way when the elements are in sympathy with the sadness. I found it hard to concentrate. We had lunch, but I was too tired for general sightseeing. I wanted to lie down for a while, and Cad was happy to take a side trip to Costco.

Back at the hotel, napping didn’t bring much relief, as the "what ifs" of a failed relationship haunted me. But the bubble bath Cad picked up for me in Costco felt good.

We had accomplished one thing that day, getting tickets to the Prague Symphony Orchestra at Smetana Hall in the Municipal Building. And so we ended the day in beauty, with Dvorak’s 9th Symphony washing over us.

Here’s Dvorak's New World Symphony for home use. If you have 6 minutes, it’s really worth viewing. The video, from a German producer Volkmar on YouTube, starts out very straightforward, but it quickly enters the whimsical world of Balloonman looking for love, with a “hooked on classics” back-beat, and Thomas Crown Affair split screens. The twist at the end connects it to the universal saga of, yes, love and death. Strangely comforting.

It seems Prague is in the air. Here's the NY Times 36 Hours in Prague, which is a ten-most e-mailed article today.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Q.Q.F. File: The Strange Case of the Missing Corpse

No, it’s not a newly discovered Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew. It’s from the Merry Quips Department from the people who brought us The Avengers.

Filmed on the set of the episode Honey for the Prince, the last of the black & white Emma Peel episodes, it was a three-minute promotion for the American market announcing that the next season would be in color.

It was only seen as still photographs in books, until recently.

Steed in evening dress is particularly handsome, Mrs. Peel’s second entrance is stunning (this one’s for you, Tim), and banter abounds. Please note the music: you'll hear several of the series theme motifs, besides the classic opening. It's very well done. Good times all around.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The New Nico

Steed’s brother Osbert and I enjoyed an imaginative concert Friday night at Zankel Hall, Carnegie’s smaller venue programmed for the more adventurous parts of the classical music world. The snow-sleet had accumulated by the evening, giving the night a beautiful whiteness, charged with crisp, clean cold air as I walked over to 57th street.

The concert was programmed by John Adams as part of his farewell to the Composer’s Chair at Carnegie, and it featured one of his protégés, Nico Muhly.

Til now, Nico could only refer to the startling beauty who cut such a vibrant swath across the 1960s. That may change as this charismatic, accomplished, 25-year composer and musician continues to make his mark. (Although the original Nico “pre-punk’s celestial wraith” still has her followers, as Simon Reynolds tells us, by way of Mr. Wolcott. There must be something in the air. . . .)

Our contemporary Nico is reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright in the embodiment of beauty and ability. His collaborators are all young, deeply talented, photogenic musicians. Maybe there is something in a name . . .

For this concert, Nico reached back to his Anglican choir boy roots to pieces of Renaissance polyphony that he particularly loves. He performed his own pieces against the a capella masterpieces, performed by George Steel’s Vox Vocal Ensemble, creating an interesting antiphonal evening.

As much as I could appreciate the obvious accomplishment of Nico’s work, for me it all paled greatly against the light of the genius of the Renaissance. Especially the powerful Weelkes “When David Heard,” with Absalom’s mournful lament for his son in dramatic 6-part writing.

What was exciting about this mixture of musical genres was what it offered to the audience. The sold-out crowd was mostly the young downtowners, attracted by that magnetic pull of the hip-who-are-really-talented. For Nico to give his imprimatur to Renaissance music is a valuable thing. The Vox Ensemble was sterling in their performance—it was an excellent introduction for those who would never go to a Tallis Scholars concert. The best of all types of classical music must make it into the living space of the next generation. Maybe Nico will post something about it on his MySpace page, then all will be well.

Osbert quite enjoyed the evening. He had been commissioned by George to create a new edition of the Byrd "Senex puerum portabat." By a strange quirk of fate, we were sitting center seats, second row, so close that we could see the Vox holding Osbert’s scores. It was a very nice New York moment.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: Entr'Acte, Vienna to Prague

Our Viennese time. We did the tourist things, like the Hofburg and Schoenbrunn—and some traveler things, like taking the underground out to St. Mark’s Cemetery to where they think Mozart’s body was actually interred after being thrown into a bag of lime.

I learned much about the Austro-Hungarian empire, particularly the cult of SiSi. She was Franz Josef’s consort, the Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and basically the princess Diana of her day. She was beautiful and stylish, trapped in a loveless marriage to the Emperor, suffered the murder/suicide of her only son Rudolf and his lover Mary Vetsera, (known as the Mayerling tragedy, hence the films), and was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in Geneva, who had set out that day to kill a French prince. No wonder history is so vivid in Europe.

Then it was time for us to move on. We were driving to Prague, with a few stops along the way. The first was the monastery of Goettwig, near Krems in lower Austria, dedicated in 1083. We had a private tour from a friend of Cad’s, stumbled upon a soprano rehearsing Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, and enjoyed a private organ recital—all slightly surreal. Then we drove along the Danube to the great monastery at Melk. It has a very sleak, modern museum, where I ran into huge, gorgeously lit Lucite panels floating between galleries with this text:

When I am in motion I see only one side, one aspect. Some things are unclear; I see only parts, not the whole. Being on the move causes unrest, but this unrest enables me to move, lets my heart grow wide.

How odd. It was like getting advice and comfort from on high, a la the freeway sign in Steve Martin’s L.A. Story. Well, things turned out all right there.

We needed to press on. There was more beautiful driving along the Danube, passing through one small town upon another, talking of cabbages and kings. Finally it was time to cross over into the Czech Republic and head north to Prague.

It was later than we had planned, which meant we were going to enter Prague in the dark. Not ideal, since it’s a tough city to navigate, and I only had vague directions to the hotel.

In our division of labor, I navigate and Cad does all the driving. He can be quite adamant with the “tell me which way to go—I’m just driving” line.

I’ve got maps and mapquest pages, but I can’t get our bearings. One distinction of travels with the monk is that situations like this are always very funny, not tense. We’re laughing and laughing—-driving aimlessly in the dark, Lost in Prague (should have turned that one into a movie script).

We pass a taxi queue. PING. I have an idea. I’ll get out, and get a taxi to take me to the hotel, and Cad will follow.

Then we realize we have no Czech money. OHHHHHH—such a rookie mistake. Now we need to find a cash machine. Didn’t we pass one during the twentieth circle sweep two hours ago?

We get back to a Czech ATM. I lose the coin toss and go in. I am confronted by 3 slightly different machines—not clear why they look different or what they do. Damn. I pick a machine, feed it my card, and pray I can get to the screen with the glorious Union Jack that will offer me my native language.

Now, machines and I are not always in sync. And Cad knows this, having spent quite a bit of time with me . . . . .

Aha. Success.

We get back to the taxi queue. I show the driver the hotel address, and explain fervently that Cad will be following, and he musn’t lose him.

It’s going well—we’re driving for quite a while, to the Zizkov district. Finally I see Arcotel (that great German boutique chain) Teatrino. I’ve been afraid to turn around to see if Cad’s there. Ah, yes, he’s just turning the corner. We’re in Prague.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: Shirley Horn Trumps The Talented Mr. Ripley


“I will meet you anywhere in the world.”

It was the warm voice of my friend Cadfael. He was between semesters again, and I had vacation time I hadn’t used.

We decided on Vienna, Prague, and Budapest. Cad would be spending the summer in Vienna learning German, and he was very familiar with Budapest through the great Benedictine Archabbey at Pannonhalma.

So we were on the road again. Except this trip was clouded by two shadows, one I knew about when I left New York, the other I would only learn of when we got to Prague. When I got on the plane, I knew I had a broken heart (no, not Steed), although my friends were quite certain I had dodged a bullet. The blur of the last months was playing over in my head very clearly as The Talented Mr. Ripley, not The Way We Were, so I knew they were right. (Thank God we have films to help us make sense of our lives.)

Still, when someone gets under your skin you have to deal with it. And there’s no better way than to travel with a monk.

I met up with Cad in Rome for one great dinner in Trastevere, then we flew to Vienna. We stayed near Rathausplatz, which allowed for lovely leisurely walks to the city center of that white, imperial city.

We were in Vienna primarily to attend JazzFest Wien, which takes place at the Staatsoper in the off season. We had tickets for 2 evenings. One evening was the a capella, gospel vocal group Take 6, along with Marcus Miller. Take 6 did not disappoint, sweeping us along in its exuberant, uplifting harmonies. Miller was cool.

But the highlight was seeing Miss Shirley Horn. This was July of 2003; she would die just over two years later from complications from breast cancer and diabetes.

But on that July night, it was ALL about courage, and struggle, memory and loss. It was an extraordinary concert experience, with a chaser of bitterness for me. It was The Talented Mr. Ripley who had suggested we see Horn. Which meant I had tickets to see her in New York as part of the JVC series the last week in June, and then I saw her the very next week in Vienna—a strange quirk of timing that was an enormous gift.

Here’s Stephen Holden on the JVC concert: “Seated in a wheelchair and facing the audience, Ms. Horn exuded the authority of an amused grande dame, serenely but firmly in charge.”

Her right leg had recently been amputated below the knee due to complications from diabetes.

“The set was anchored in four elongated ballads, A Time for Love, Yesterday, Here's to Life, and May the Music Never End, that worked together to evoke a grand, ultimately optimistic summing up of a lifetime's bittersweet experience.”

Her performance was even stronger in Vienna. Her timing with accompanist George Mesterhazy was more certain and in sync. She had spent decades playing piano while she sang, but without her foot, she had to give that up. Her singing was warm and piercing. As Ben Ratliff wrote in her obituary, "She cherished her repertory, making audiences feel that she was cutting through to the stark truths of songs like Here's to Life and You Won't Forget Me."

This brave, talented woman knew real trouble, and in the face of it, did whatever she needed to keep singing. Her courage and love of life was inspiring and refreshing after the ugliness and hatred of life that engulfed The Talented Mr. Ripley. She reminded me of what is possible, if not always found. Thanks for the assist, Miss Horn.


Note: Blue Girl has a clip up of Horn singing "Shall I Catch a Shooting Star?" It is stunning. Definitely go over and listen--it's a real treat. Thanks Blue Girl.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Greater Pequa Ethos

I come from suburbia (don’t be judgmental), from a magical town. Maybe it’s something in the water, I don’t know.

Long Island is a suburb of New York City. It is known for many things: the alcoholic blitz of a drink dubbed iced tea; pronouncing letters that should be silent, as in Lawn Guyland; the Hamptons, that coveted playground of the rich and famous; Billy Joel (Hicksville); Fitzgerald’s East and West Eggs; Walt Whitman (Huntington) and Thomas Pynchon (Glen Cove). Ron Rosenbaum, before he entered the Shakespeare wars, had some pretty harsh things to say about the place in a New York Times piece called “The Devil in Long Island.” But he’s only from Bayshore, so we don’t have to listen to him.

It is time to acknowledge a special corner of LI: nothing compares with the concentration of talent and infamy that comes from the Greater Pequa area, and by that we mean Massapequa, Massapequa Park, and North Massapequa. I myself am a daughter of Massapequa Park.

What, you ask, is a Massapequa? It is a hamlet on the South Shore, which in Native American means “by the mall,” as Jerry Seinfeld quips. And he knows, because he’s from Massapequa.

So is Alec Baldwin (that brightest spot on 30 Rock), and his famous brothers, Daniel, William, and Stephen. I went to high school with Danny Baldwin (Alfred G. Berner High—-Go bisons!). He’s had some tough times as an adult, but the hometown embraces him still.

Jerry and the Baldwins are not alone in the Greater Pequa annals. So are:

Ron Kovic—-the author of Born on the 4th of July, played on film by Tom Cruise before he went mad

Peggy Noonan—-Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, prominent Conservative. Her sister was my art teacher in elementary school

Steve Guttenberg (North Massapequa)

Brian Setzer—-founder of the Stray Cats

Dee Snider—-our own Twisted Sister (although he went to school in Baldwin)

Stanley Drucker—-longest tenured principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic

Andre Eglevsky
—-great ballet dancer, began his studio in his Massapequa basement, before opening on Unqua Road

Jessica Hahn
—-does anyone other than Jim Bakker remember her?

Joey Buttafuoco (but please note: Amy Fisher is from Merrick and went to school in Bellmore)

Roy Demeo, and Carlos Gambino—-you could see the Gambino residence from the canal that led to Jones Beach. Can’t say much more about them, you understand.

Christine Jorgensen
—landed there later in life

updated 4/20/11: Candy Darling, nee James Slattery--Warhol star, died at 29 from Leukemia.

Years ago I saw Jerry Seinfeld on Letterman, and it happened that the Stray Cats were the musical guests. When Jerry got to the couch, he started with, “Dave, did you know that Brian and I are from the same hometown? What are the odds of that, that we would both be here, on your show, on the same night?” Dave just wasn’t getting Jerry’s enthusiasm at this connection between the hometown boys. But I understood.

The Pequa Ethos reaches beyond specific individuals. Phil Rosenthal worked references to Massapequa into many Everyone Loves Raymond episodes. The outrageous “Frog Woman” who ate flies was from Massapequa (gee Phil, what did we do to you?). And James Mangold, who wrote Girl Interrupted, and Walk the Line, also wrote the lesser romantic comedy Kate and Leopold. The last line of the movie is Meg Ryan saying, in the style of 18th century society, that she is "a McKay, from the Massapequa McKays!"

It’s a midsize town of 22,000 or so souls. And Wantagh, Seaford, Freeport are sister towns, but with no such fame. Pequa is a phenomenon.

And did you know it is the geographical borderline between Nassau and Suffolk County? Our house wasn’t far from 112 Ocean Avenue in the first town over in Suffolk. Have you ever heard of Amityville and something about a haunted house?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Sources Considered

Terry Teachout mused the other day that his contribution to humanity’s happiness is that he provides reliable sources for his almanac posts, and I quite agree. I paticularly enjoy the randomness of his snips from great literature of all kinds.

His further comment that “Cyberspace is cluttered with millions of pithy quotations, most of which are unsourced and thus unreliable” met up with something that’s been rambling around in my head.

Phrases go into daily language from literature—unsourced—as part of a language’s life. Some writers capture ideas or whimsy with such perfectly matched words that they belong to the ages and turn up in casual speech, as well as in movies, plays, headlines, novel titles, and the like.

A recent example is the surprise that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is directly from Alexander Pope’s Eloise to Abelard, and I remember being particularly surprised in college to learn that “salad days” was uttered by Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, “My salad days, When I was green in judgment.” Of course you can play the “This Is from Shakespeare” game for hours on end.

Then there are phrases that go into the language misshapen. The most famous is “money is the root of all evil,” which St. Paul wrote as “the love of money. . . (radix malorum est cupiditas.) That’s quite a difference, but usage trumps pedantic insistence. Centuries of the vox populi decided that what they needed was a warning against money, not greed, and so be it.

There’s another misshapen phrase bouncing around out there:

Ignorance is bliss.

What Thomas Gray wrote in "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" is

WHERE ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise

That’s a very different idea, and he made this pronouncement about a very specific situation.

In the life of the poem, the speaker is watching a rugby game on the playing field of Eton. As he watches the boys, he thinks about his own childhood there.

Ah, happy hills! ah, pleasing shade!
Ah, fields belov'd in vain!
Where once my careless childhood stray'd,
A stranger yet to pain!

After many stanzas then detailing intimate knowledge of the pain of life and the “slow-consuming age” that the adult knows, his attention is again focused on the boys:

Alas! regardless of their doom,
The little victims play;
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond to-day:

Why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?

Gray then very deliberately decides that there is no point to infringe upon the carefree innocence of youth with knowledge:

Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

Centuries have divorced the one phrase from the other, because as a declaration, “ignorance is bliss” is just so damn useful.

But for the record, Mr. Pope argued against just this sort of blithe trifling with the facts:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring

Okay, so what was that Pierian thing again?