Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Happy Anniversary, newcritics

One day a year ago, not long after I had launched M.A.Peel, I got an e-mail from Tom Watson. He had read my post about Joyce and Epiphany, and asked if I wanted to post at newcritics, which he had newly launched. Suddenly, I wasn’t such a tiny boat in the gigantic blog ocean. I was connected to Blue Girl, and Lance Mannion, Self Styled Siren, Maud Newton, Diary of a Heretic, Jon Swift, Dennis Perrin, and the whole gang.

Tom has asked us all to post on a piece of media from the past year that meant something to us.

I will point to the Mad Men phenomenon. Tom had the idea to live blog the show, and asked me to trade off driving the thing with him.

It was a perfect summer activity. It followed right after the end of The Sopranos, a media event itself that did not disappoint. MM offered a strange, wildly vivid world of late 1950s Madison Avenue. It found and gripped an audience very quickly. There was passion in its viewers, which is a wonderful thing. That might have been in part because it filled The Sopranos void, but only in part. It stirred passion all on its own merit. That was the phenomenon of it, and it was fun to watch it unfold.

I enjoyed the watching of and thinking about the series, I enjoyed the essays it led to, and some of the live blogging comments were very funny, truly witty. But I found the storytelling weak—-all form and no substance. Isolated scenes-—like Betty shooting the neighbor’s bird-—were fresh and interesting and memorable, but nothing held together. Each episode felt like a slightly different genre.

MM was a piece of music I couldn’t hear. But I liked its unique place on the landscape, and I’m interested in where it will go when it comes back.

A look back at the posts.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Out, Out, Damn Cold

I've succumbed to The Cold. Bad timing, since I had two performances of the Bach B Minor Mass to sing this weekend. Much steaming and Mucinex got me on my feet, and while my voice didn't have the power it usually does, the music was powerful enough itself. The performances went very well.

Maud, also down with The Cold, offers a recipe for a medicinal hot toddy.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bachin' in the New Year

In December a soprano I have sung with asked me if I wanted to sing the Bach B Minor Mass with a small chamber orchestra and chorus.

Oh, yes.

Bach scholarship tells us that his pieces were never meant for the large oratorio societies of 100 voices—-which is usually how Bach is performed in the city--but for a group of 25 or so voices, and that’s what this experience would be.

It’s hard in our world of constant hype to speak in superlatives; it’s hard to find vocabulary to talk about something superlative when you actually find it.

But that’s the B Minor Mass. “A complex system of thought at many levels went into the making of this great Mass, and lifts it not only above the rest of his oeuvre but also above the entire repertory of Western music.” (Chris Wolff, notes to the John Eliot Gardiner recording, 1985)

I know, it sounds like hyperbole. But this is an extra-ordinary piece.

I have sung the Latin Mass hundreds of times set by centuries of composers. But I am deeply struck by the sheer conviction that comes across in Bach’s setting. His “et incarnatus est” is the most reverent, most awe-filled I have ever heard. The “Gloria” is the most glorious; the man REALLY knows how to write for trumpets.

In the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” the bassoon and French horn somehow perfectly convey “You are the Most High.” His “et resurrexit” is the most joyous. And this from the arch, orthodox Lutheran, setting words that Luther had excised from the Roman rite.

Wolff explains a little of the historical incongruity of the German Protestant setting the Roman Catholic Latin Mass. In terms of musical history, “fashions came and went, one type of cantata was replaced by another. The mass, in complete contrast, stood above time and fashion.” It’s not surprising that Bach would want his legacy to include a contribution to that genre.

The fact that it is no mere “contribution” tells us more about the mind of the genius. Parts of the piece date from 1724, but the whole was not finished and assembled until 1749, the year before his death in 1750. It is a summation of his life, work, and unyielding faith. Stories persist about atheists, agnostics, and Jews converting to Christianity after performing Bach.

Well, it takes some sort of power to bring people together in 2008, after a long day of work of varying kinds, to give life to the notes Bach left on the page for us three hundred years ago. The group has every tier of instrumental and vocal musician, from the professional to the avocational amateurs. It is a thrill when things start to come together, when we collectively stop reading note . . . note . . . .note, and start inhabiting the phrases of the master. It is the closest thing to getting inside the head of a genius there is. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

TV doesn’t show music very often in the lives of our pop-culture characters. Morse sang with an Oxford choral group and amateur opera players; Bolander retired from the Homicide squad and concentrated on his cello playing; Frasier and Niles were seen playing the piano occasionally and singing.

Hmm, maybe when the strike breaks I can get a tv series about a wacky choral group into development: Cashmere Altos; Your Bass or Mine; Lend Me a Tenor. I feel the time is ripe . . .

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger, Pax Vobiscum

In a world where almost nothing shocks anyone, the news of the 28-year-old actor's death has stunned us.

I had no idea he was so young. I watched Brokeback Mountain on HBO just last week, and was again swept away by the depth and magnitude of his performance. How could he be SO knowing about all the extraordinary angles of that role?

As I click around to all the blogs with posts for him, I am chilled by seeing the date, today's date, January 22, 2008. A powerful reminder that we don't know the date of our own death. Only those who remain see that side of the equation of our life.

We don't know what was in his heart and mind today, and whether anything clouded his reason. Nor does anyone know how another carries the gift and burden that is life.

But from the outside, it seemed that this man had everything, except length of days.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

39 Steps and 1 Very Scary Blow

At Christmas I went with the time-honored tradition of buying my mother theater tickets for a Saturday matinee, with lunch included. That is how we came to be walking through the Amtrak part of Penn Station, en route to brunch at an Irish restaurant on 8th Avenue and 33 street late on a Saturday morning.

The Amtrak section is enormous, with a large rotunda-like space lined with stores. It was very uncrowded today, as we leisurely walked toward the 8th avenue exit. About midway through this rotunda space, I noticed a man ranting, raving, not making sense—not so unusual. But he was brandishing a detached metal luggage frame, with wheels. So we started veering to the left away from him. I think he ranted something at us, but we kept walking away from him.

In an instant, he came up behind us, and lifted this luggage frame above his head and slammed it down on us. We were walking somewhat arm and arm, and I felt the force of the metal frame hit my left arm, wrist and hand after it had crashed onto my mother's shoulder, before landing on her right forearm.

The rest is a little blurry. I started screaming “call the police.” The guy picked up the frame again, slammed it on the floor, then ran away. I’m sorry to say no one really came over to help. I had to go to the Amtrak security office myself and get them (they are a private security force, not NYPD.)

I brought the security officer back to where it had happened. A guy did come over and said he’d seen the whole thing and gave a description of the attacker, and the security guys went after him.

My hand and wrist were stunned and swelling and I was afraid maybe broken. My mother had a huge welt on her arm and an enormous blood blister formed immediately. And it was so shocking, to be attacked from behind.

But we were otherwise unharmed. We went to the Amtrak office to file a report; some Fire Department medics were in the area and them came for the medical side. They took pictures of the injuries.

The security guy told me that our attacker is a regular in the station, and that he has attacked people before. He gets locked up, and then he’s released, and the cycle starts over. They caught up with him, and took the luggage rack as evidence. They are going to file as Assault 2, but it’s likely to be pled out. If not, then we might have to testify at a grand jury.

That would be in the future. Today, we decided to continue on the path we’d planned. The whole incident had taken less than 45 minutes, and since we had allowed plenty of time, we still had time to eat.

We went to a fabulous Irish place called Tir Na NOg. The Irish pub is a place Mom and I would always feel secure and welcomed: the regulars are watching rugby with pints of Guiness, tables with several generations are having Sunday brunch, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.

If the attacker had hit either one of us square on, on the head or even the shoulder, we would not be enjoying the rashers of sweet Irish bacon and Irish cheddar omelette. The force of the blow was immense, but because it fell between us, we were saved.

Then it was off to the Roundabout-—not the one my mother knew back in the day, but the American Airlines version.

The London import The 39 Steps is as frivolous and entertaining as the critics say it is. Mr Brantley again gives a very fine review. 4 people—three men and a women—perform over 60 characters on a barren stage and bring their world to life with one other character: light. The lighting effects are pure THEATRE. The adaptation is faithful to the 1935 films staring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It’s light and frothy, funny and happy. That’s what it is, a genuinely happy theactrical experience. It was another comforting embrace from the universe after being attacked.

I’m sorry that the man who attacked us lives in an alienated world of some kind of mental insanity. I’m sorry that society doesn’t know what to do to help him. We all bear some responsibility for society’s failings. My share, right now, is a throbbing, swollen, stiff, bruised hand and wrist.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Important Search for New Leadership

Oh, you ask, is this another blog post about Hillary, tears, polls, and pundits?

No, it’s not. My neighbors have that very well covered, particularly Mannion, Swift, and Wolcott.

Someone's got to handle the other big page-one news yesterday, that Phillippe de Montebello is retiring. Now that’s something I know something about.

He became director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was in high school. My parents, particularly my mother, were avid museumgoers, and so even from the burbs, we went regularly.

And it was during one of those many visits that I picked up information about a high school apprentice program, run by a woman named Enid Ruben. My close high school friend Della and I both applied, and after three sets of interviews!, we were both accepted. My assignment was to help out in the Watson Library, which is the library only for the staff and well-credentialed graduate students or scholars who request admittance.

It was an exciting, heady summer for budding city girls. The Met is small city unto itself, and working there as a teenager made me feel like Orwell with a better gig.

When I got to college a few years later, studying Johnson’s Rasselas with Paul Fussell put some of that summer of my Met into perspective. Inspired by Fussell’s droll love of Johnson, I wrote a play about it.

Rasselas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Scene: The Catalog Department, The Watson Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 10:30 on a July morning


PAM: 27, short wavy hair, wide bland eyes; dress Preppy
KATRINA: Russian, very soft-spoken
MRS. PROSCH: went to Vassar; Prosch-house is in Princeton
MRS. ULSTER: director of the library
MRS. GALASKA: kind, congenial German woman
PAT: career librarian; also self-appointed art critic by virtue of the building in which she works
MICHELLE: petite French woman; gestures ardently
M.A.: 16 year-old museum apprentice

Act I

Phone rings.

PAM: Hello, Cataloging. Hello Bill . . . Sorry about this weekend, but I got the most terrific offer to go sailing on Long Island, and I had to go. Listen, the Philharmonic is playing in the park on Wednesday. Can you make it? . . .Great, wonderful. You bring the blanket, wine, and glasses, I’ll get the cheese and pate. Meet me on the stairs at five. Great, terrific. Bye.

(enter Michelle)

MICHELLE: Pam I just found the bathroom door unlocked.

PAM: Really? You mean our library staff bathroom?

MICHELLE: Yes. I really don’t understand. I was certain we had decided to keep it locked.

(Pat has been listening, now crosses the room to Pam’s desk and joins in the amazement)

PAT: Certainly, it was my understanding that at the meeting we decided to keep the staff bathroom locked because there were too many non-staff using it, instead of the public one.

(MRS. PROSCH congregates to Pam’s desk)

MRS. PROSCH: Absolutely, there’s no question. I have the memo here, signed by Mrs. Ulster, to call maintenance to have keys issued to every female staff person so we could keep the bathroom locked. As I recall, there weren’t any dissenters at the meeting. Everyone now has her own key, so I really don’t see what the issue is.

(Since the open discussion began, M.A. has been listening, while filing, as she listens to all office discussions in order to learn about the art world and the workings of a world-class institution. Unfortunately, because of Mrs. Prosch’s over-emphasizing, M.A. allows a muffled laugh to escape.)

PAM (glaring at M.A. and speaking in an annoyed tone): “Can we help you, M.A.?”

M.A.: No, eh, no, not all, excuse me.

M.A. tries the laugh-into-coughing-fit ploy, but does not think it successful. She picks up the book she is working on and crosses the room to the processing shelf

(enter Mrs. Galaska)

PAM: Edith, did you know the bathroom door was unlocked?

MRS. GALASKA: Yes. I didn’t lock it last time because M.A. doesn’t have a key, and I thought we should leave it open until she has one.

KATRINA (from across the room): There is one spare key. Why don’t we lend her that for the summer?

PAM: NO. No (less harsh). We need that for visitors. I suggest . . .

PAT (interrupting) Why don’t we go into the conference room and decide what we want to do. Also, we should bring this up with Mrs. Ulster.

EXIT Pat, Pam, Mrs. Prosch, Mrs. Galaska, Katrina, and Michelle.

--Audience retires to lobby for drinks---

Act 2

Pat, Pam, Mrs. Prosch, Mrs. Galaska, Katrina, and Michelle file back in. M.A. is back at her desk.

PAM: M.A., we are going to leave the spare key in this little index box right here, so any time you need to just take it, but remember to replace it when you’re done.

M.A.: Fine Pam. Thanks.

(10 minutes late M.A. goes to the index box, take the spare key, and exits. She goes down to the staff bathroom, opens the door, makes sure no one is there, laughs and giggles, then looks very afraid.)


Johnson’s Rasselas—-the story of his Prince of Abissinia seeking to understand the roots of happiness—- explained to me why I started laughing after this scene. I had thought it was because I had preconceived ideas as to what would be important at the MMA and what would be decorum in the office, and this problem with the bathroom key smashed those preconceptions. The key problem wasn’t ludicrous just because it had to do with the lavatory, but because I could not imagine where all the non-staff females could be coming from.

As with the pyramids, “The narrowness of the chambers proves that it could afford no retreat from the enemies, and treasures might have been reposited at far less expense with equal security”; the library is not open to the public at all, and the only possible “other women” would be female curators doing research or credentialed art scholars. How many women could that be?

Johnson tells us “All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity.” Locking a bathroom door that is already barred to most people is, to a degree, insane. Rasselas also tells us that everyone seeks power over something or someone, even if that power is mostly in your own head, “and I sat days and night in imaginary dominion.”

“A king, whose power is unlimited,” or a library worker whose power is very limited, “is compelled to solace” or to Johnsonian insanity, “by the erection of the pyramids” or the tyranny over a 16 year old.

For while everyone else could leave the office for ambiguous reasons, it was clear where I was going and how long I was gone. I noticed that Pam kept a tally on her memo pad of how many times I went to the little green index box. It seems my visit number did not exceed her preset limit.

(Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Q.Q.F. File: Alan Sepinwall's Strike Survival TV Club

I find the writers strike very inspiring. It gets to the very core of our entertainment industry: they who have the words set the world in motion. When they are silent, it all stops.

Although it’s true that the creative endeavors of film, television, and theater are maddeningly symbiotic. The writers could write til the cows come home, but if their words aren’t picked up by the Hollywood/Broadway machine, they will just lie there on the page. (Hence the attraction of the noncollaborative art of blogging . . . .)
Pop over to the Writers Guild of American, West to see the latest on the situation.

Now, what’s a tv critic with a fabulous blog on the side to do during this time of silence?

Alan Sepinwall has a very creative solution to the yawning abyss. He is running a Strike Survival TV Club: he is picking old tv series of particular note that can be completely viewed on You Tube, and then posting about them to start a conversation.

“Welcome to the first installment of the Strike Survival TV Club, where we reject the junky replacement shows the networks are offering, both scripted (Cashmere Mafia) and not (American Gladiators) in favor of looking back at good shows from years past.”

First up is Rob Thomas’s 1998 series Cupid, starring Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall. It ran for just 15 episodes before it was canceled “before its time.” I had never heard of it. It’s a twee series, predating Pushing Daisies and the Piven of Entourage. Piven plays Trevor Hale, who either is Eros, banished from Mt. Olympus until he unites 100 couples on Earth in true love without the use of the power of his bow and arrow, or he is a psychotic man who thinks he is the god of Love. Paula Marhsall plays the relationship expert/psychologist to whom the state releases Trevor.

I hope you’ll join us at the SSTVC. I think it’s an imaginative, engaging intersection of traditional “television” and new media.

And there is a little irony afoot here. As we know, the copyrighted material on YouTube is not monetized. I fervently hope that remains the case. But if in the future, TPTB change that situation, then the writers must get a share of booty, without a doubt.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Turning Over a New Leaf and Seeing Pink Elephants

The film T.E. Lawrence: "Nothing is written."

The film Sherif Ali: "Truly, for some men nothing is written unless THEY write it."

And so we come to another new year. Time to turn the page, as they say, to turn over a new leaf.

For we Readers, and that’s with a capital “R,” the idea that life is a series of a new, blank, Moroccan-bound, gold leaf volumes is very appealing. We each have a personal shelf in the great bookcase in the sky, with these handsome volumes sitting side by side, like a set of encyclopedias of yore. They are not all the same width—-some years will have more going on than others. And we don’t know how many volumes are sitting there . . . .

But that’s not important. What is important is the gift of those beautiful, inviting blank pages, and the writing implements of all sorts that we are supplied with: passions, needs, desires, talents, responsibilities, devotions, dreams. Each of these will help us to write our life story.

In the Beginning was the Word . . . .

It seems the primacy of the text is longstanding. Who are we to say otherwise?

And there is great pleasure too, as Monsieur Barthes tells us. “The Pleasure of the Text: like Bacon’s simulator, it can say: never apologize, never explain.

Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?”

Oh yes, the gapes. And the gapes in the text, my favorite place---

Best Wishes to Everyone for life volume 2008.

Tennyson (abridged) sums up the drama and hope of the new year , and we’ll give Rea Levin the last 1,000 words, his cover from 70 years ago today that had the babe of 1938 atop the pink elephant of too many martinis.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.