Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Vocalis Chamber Choir's "A Vocalis Christmas" concert -- this group is different

I am so impressed by this a capella group. I attended Vocalis's Christmas concert, Friday, December 1, at Saints Peter and Paul church in Williamsville. They sang a number of familiar Christmas songs and carols (Away in a Manger, I Saw Three Ships) along with pieces new to me. Everything about it was exceptional, the sound, the vocal dynamics, the pacing, the music selections. Marilyn and I had attended Blue Heron, Boston Baroque, Handel and Hayden, and other music and choral groups in Boston, and I think Vocalis is in the same league with them. They're a smaller group, fifteen singers I think. The director, James Burritt, pays enormous attention to all details.

Of the many beautiful pieces, I remember one song in particular, Winter Sun, by Don MacDonald, based on a poem by Malca Litovitz:

To light,
   to water,
and the flow of birds
through ancient stars.
To the wild sun of winter
   startling the dark green
trees: giants
of majestic silence.
To snow on roofs
and the peace of Sunday.
To quiet and certitude,
   to breathing, to air.
To acceptance, to dreams.
To disclosures of the sleeping heart,
   for air, for light.

This is good poetry. Many directors and choruses choose music mostly on the sound and the effect of the sound. The text is secondary (and you often can't understand the words in the audience). But Barritt and Vocalis is different, and this song shows that. This is very good poetry, and it sounded great. It all matters to this group.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A good read, but somewhat mechanical: The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016).

This well-written novel set in the 1850s is about an English nurse (Lib Wright) who is sent to a remote Irish village to observe an eleven year old fasting girl (Anna O'Donnell) who purports to have not eaten anything in four months. The village committee that hires her and a fellow nurse (a Roman Catholic nun), wants to certify that the girl is in fact not secretly receiving any nutrition and that her story is not a hoax. Lib, who believes religion is silly superstition, is certain the story is a hoax, and that she will soon get to the bottom of it within a few days, finds herself instead loving the starving little girl for her innocence.

Once I got a third of the way in, the book was very hard to put down. I wanted to know just how the girl was actually getting any food. She grows steadily weaker, and she is heading toward death. Lib's attempts to save the girl from herself and the delusional obsessions of her parents are gripping. She is joined in this fight by William Byrne, the newspaperman from Dublin. The two of them devise a somewhat hard to believe plot to save the girl.

I wondered how a nineteenth century nurse, such as Lib, could be so anti-religious. She clearly thinks religion is in general a sort of hoax. Even Darwin left room for religious belief as being rational. It would be easy to think this is an anti-Catholic book, but he book itself doesn't really take a stand on religious thought -- the nun Sister Michael turns out to play a crucial role in the fight to save the girl's life, and Byrne himself seems to be a faithful Catholic.

It was a little hard to believe that Lib would talk to Byrne the journalist in the first place. She seems too knowing herself to not realize that Byrne is in the business of making money on his stories, and that he will write about the little girl. Their eventual romance seems a bit odd, kind of mechanical, without much heat.

Yet, the book was hard to put down.

In case you're interested, Stephen King wrote a review in the NYT Book Review.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Buffalo Chamber Players Pergolisi concert at the Albright Knox

That was a great show. Lydia Evans and Lynne McMurtry were excellent in the first half. And we can't say enough about soprano Colleen Marcello, baritone James Wright, and actor David Bondrow in La Serva Padrona -- they performed as if they were major stars. In fact, the whole thing seemed so natural and solid, it felt as if the cast had already sung this many times before. And of course, the little Chamber orchestra was terrific.

Great food and wine, too. 

The acoustics in the Albright's old indoor courtyard are difficult. The acoustics were not a problem for the second half opera, probably because we were listening to solo voices, and they were at a distance from the musicians. It was more difficult hearing the two women in the first half in the Stabat Mater, with the orchestra directly behind them. (It would have been helpful having the Latin text in the program, along with the English translation.)

But a great show.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Happiest at afternoon tea: Robert Massie's book, Nicholas and Alexandra

Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie (Random House, New York 1967).

This biography of czar Nicholas II and his wife the empress Alexandra tells the story of their lives in the decades leading up to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the royal family's brutal murder in a basement in Ekaterinburgh in 1918. Massie pays close attention to the characters of the royal couple, and of their hemophiliac son Alexei (the heir to the throne). The family's intimate life is documented and detailed with excerpts from the czar's and the empress's diaries, as well as observations of the family by friends, relatives, loyal retainers like the French tutor Gilliard, and important political figures such as Kerensky. Massie is an excellent writer with a great sense of drama. Once you start the book, it's hard to put down. 

In this book, Nicholas is a gentle, earnest, pious man who never was comfortable with the demands of being czar. He wavered on significant issues, acceded too often to strong personalities (including Alexandra herself), and could not comprehend the vast social changes in Russia nor the growing crisis of the autocratic system itself. He seemed a likable man who was happiest with his wife and children around him at afternoon tea -- not something to hate him for, but not the best characteristics for the czar of Russia.

We see Russian history and the buildup to the Bolshevik Revolution through the lives of the royal family. Massie makes the history understandable and dramatic. I felt an increasing sense of dread, knowing the fate of the family. I sympathized with them and their world. How could you not sympathize with a family nursing and shielding the angel-faced young czarevich Alexei, who suffered the terrible effects of hemophilia?

Massie shows that it was Nicholas and Alexandra's isolation that both supported them and helped lead them to their doom. They relied on each other for mutual support in family and political matters. Their obsessive struggle with Alexei's hemophilia led them to rely on the crazy monk Rasputin. Rasputin did seem to have some weird beneficial effect on Alexei, and the empress thought of him as a kind of saint. She believed Alexei was doomed without him. She consistently relayed his deranged political advice to Nicholas and pressed him to follow Rasputin's direction (advocating the sacking of effective ministers, generals, and administrators, advice meant mostly to bolster Rasputin's position). Nicholas acceded with catastrophic consequences. They were unaware and ignorant of the growing hostility to themselves right up to the collapse of the czar's government in World War I.

I think it's a minor weakness of the book that the level of hostility directed at the royal family by the Bolsheviks is not really explained. Once they were arrested, following the czar's abdication, the family was treated crudely by their communist guards. They were repeatedly humiliated. Their escape routes were closed off by mobs of citizens and soldiers. Who were these Russians? What led to this? A short two years before, thousands were kneeling piously before Nicholas as he paraded in Petrograd. The discontent and hatred of the royal family comes as something of a surprise, at least to me.

One of the strong personalities who attempted to sway and control Nicholas was Kaiser Wilhelm (the czar's cousin), who successfully set up a private channel with Nicholas. Through their private correspondence, the Kaiser tried to weaken the anti-German alliance between Russia and France, and to maintain autocracy in Russia and Germany. In the time while I was reading Nicholas and Alexandra, I read a report that Donald Trump had attempted to set up a private channel in the White House with Russia's Vladimir Putin, and this channel would have supposedly been off limits to American intelligence agencies. If this report was true (which would be astounding), it's interesting to consider the parallel to that earlier private correspondence. We know that Putin's strategy has been to weaken NATO and the Western alliance, just as the Kaiser's had been to weaken the Russia-France alliance.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How relevant is a classical work like "Belshazzar's Feast"?

On Sunday, the Buffalo Philharmonic and its chorus (JoAnn Faletta conducting) performed Belshazzar's Feast, by William Walton. Based on the Old Testament story about Belshazzar, the son of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, this was composed in the 1930s. The story is of a king whose hubris and vainglory is such that he ignores biblical injunctions. After a wild feast and night of revelry, he is killed in his sleep (I'm not sure by what).

The chorus sounded strong (although they were sometimes overwhelmed by the huge orchestra), and Kevin Deas, the baritone soloist, projected the verses with a tremendous voice. It's a short piece, only 35 minutes, and the audience gave a good round of applause. Yet, the work didn't feel that compelling to me as a composition. The old bible language had an old-fashioned, voice-of-God tone that doesn't speak to me. It sounds morally right that heedless cruelty and wild revelry should exact a just punishment. Yet, as modern people we are accustomed to frequently seeing violent images and cruelty on television and in our media. Terrorist attacks, war, crime, greed, avarice, viciousness of all types -- it's in our faces all the time. But rarely do we see justice done in a succinct, satisfying way. Therefore, simply being told (or sung to) that Belshazzar met his just end one night just doesn't move me.

On the other hand, the piece that opened the concert, An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, by Maxwell Davies, was beautiful and emotional. After the dancing and drunken goings on of the guests celebrating the wedding, the sudden appearance of the bagpiper marching down the aisle of Kleinhans and playing the pipes -- the sunrise -- was wonderful and moving.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A forgotten hero of Crete during the German occupation: The Cretan Runner, by George Psychoundakis

The Cretan Runner: His Story of the German Occupation, by George Psychoundakis. (New York Review Books, 1998, first published in Great Britain by John Murray in 1955. Translated from the Greek by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

George Psychoundakis was a young shepherd on Crete in 1941 when the German army invaded. He joined other Cretans in the 10-day resistance. After the occupation of the island and evacuation by the British and Greek armies, he volunteered as a runner for the British underground service -- simply referred to as "the Service". The Cretan Runner is his memoir of the years of occupation, translated and annotated by his good friend, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor was a British officer who coordinated intelligence and resistance efforts on Crete, and George often took orders from him. George's modesty and humility help him come across as a very sympathetic and trustworthy figure.

He records the many missions, battles, encounters with the Germans that he took part in. As a runner, he carried messages and supplies over great distances and rough terrain, at great peril to himself. He was often on the brink of exhaustion and starvation, and was shot at numerous times. An uneducated man, George nevertheless writes with a good literary sense for observation, and a sense of drama. He describes his fellow Cretans and British soldiers as mostly brave and patriotic. However, he also names and identifies collaborators, and others who stole from fellow Cretans (sheep stealing was apparently common). George several times refers to the summary executions of collaborators by fellow Cretans. He offers no justifications for the executions, nor does he voice his disapproval.

I enjoyed the sense that I was reading a very "Greek" book, plainly written, with Greek intonations and behaviors. His fellow resistance fighters were "boys". Finding some good wine and hospitality is always a good thing. Spending a day resting with friends and eating well after so much hunger, is a very good thing. The egoism among the Cretans is there, their belief that each man is a heroic captain.

The memoir is somewhat repetitive, as this is a log of people and events, many of which have the same outlines. It will mostly be enjoyed by readers who want a closely observed account of what happened in those distant mountain villages.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Donald Marguiles should re-write Act 2 of "The Country House"

We saw "The Country House," a play by Donald Marguiles, at Road Less Traveled Productions, downtown Buffalo, on Thursday night, May 18, 2017.

This play depicts an acting family getting together for a summer holiday in the Berkshires in the family's country house. It is one year since the death of the daughter of the family matriarch has died of cancer. The deceased daughter's husband shows up with a Porsche and a young girlfriend. A famous handsome actor spends a few days in the house, attracting the active attention of every woman on the stage. The matriarch's son, a failed actor who wants to write a play, is angry at everybody. And so, a number of strained family interactions are set off.

The first half of the play has a decent share of humor. There are some nice quips. The set has a comfortable feel (although it doesn't hint at any underlying tensions in its design or setup). This is a very good cast, and they made the first act enjoyable. I especially liked Christian Brandjes as the failed actor Elliot, and enjoyed his energetic depiction of Elliot's cynicism. To my surprise I also liked Kristen Tripp Kelley as Nell, the gorgeous young girlfriend -- Nell did not come off as "incandescent" (in Walter's words) and didn't initially seem right for the part. Yet Kelley has a quiet focus and a way of depicting an interesting interior life that makes up for her not being the flashy eye candy referred to in the play.

By the intermission however, I began to feel that the playwright's grasp of the characters was weak. These were stock characters in fairly cliched exchanges. The hunky actor building schools in  the Congo as a display of his virtue. The deluded aging matriarch who thinks she still attracts young men. The aging director who mounts a defense of his wealth earned by making commercially successful films. The second act seemed predictable and strained. The last twenty minutes in particular, with Elliot wailing about how his mother, Anna, didn't really love him when he was a boy, were painful to watch. I couldn't help but feel that Marguiles needed a strong revision.

I wanted to like the play because of the very good cast. We appreicate the Road Less Traveled troupe and their energy in mounting the play. But the play itself needs work.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The BPO's Friday morning concert starring Natasha Paremski

The Buffalo Philharmonic concert this morning featured the young pianist Natasha Paremski. She was terrific in Beethoven's Piano concerto 3. From the first chords, I was struck by the bold clarity of her playing. Bought one of her CDs at intermission. I would have liked to hear the entire piece again, as I found my attention wandering at several points. Was there something slightly mechanical about  the  way she played, or is it the concerto itself?

A short piece on the program, titled Starsplitter, was by local born young composer Phillip Rothman, who was in the audience. It was a wall of sound, and we liked it, though I couldn't exactly discern much form. But I would hear it again.

Liked Kodaly's Dances of Galanta -- nice warm sound. However, I didn't think it has the earthy gypsy-inspired sound I want in folk dances. These were orchestral folk dances, folk dances for PhDs.
And conductor Joann Faletta -- she must give herself and the whole orchestra a good dose of caffeine (or something) when they play. She always achieves a bright, clear tone. With quick tempos.

Because of a scheduling problem, we had to move our Saturday night tickets to this morning for this concert. At 10:30 on a Friday morning, the audience was mostly in their 60s, 70s, and up. Kleinhans  was perhaps two-thirds full. Obviously, these were people who don't like driving at night, or driving into the city at night. It's good that the BPO accommodates this audience with 10:30 morning concerts on Fridays. But it's an awkward time in some ways, with the concert finishing at 12:40, leading to a late lunch. And I missed the little bit of diversity in the audiences that we see on Saturday nights.

Monday, April 3, 2017

How I understand the Russia-Trump thing -- a work in progress

I thought it might be useful to write down what I know about the current state of the Russian hacking of our election, and the possible links between the Russians and the Trump campaign. It's all very complicated. I usually try not to spend too much time on this political stuff (life is short), but I have had a feeling of foreboding about this, as if something terrible will come of this, one way or another. So I'd like to write it down, and be able to revise it, and look back on it, to see how my understanding changes. If friends are interested, they are welcome to make suggestions to correct factual mistakes or argue with my suppositions and announce what a naive fool I probably am.

1. Elements of Russian intelligence agencies, or their surrogates, "hacked" the presidential election campaign of the United States by (a) generating thousands of false and defamatory stories about Hillary Clinton and her campaign and spreading the stories on a number of blogs and media web sites (usually conservative and far-right sites); (b) using individual "trolls" with fake profiles who logged onto media sites to incite Trump supporters and spread falsehoods; (c) penetrating networks and Web accounts of Democratic and Republican Party staffers. In the case of the hacked Democratic party accounts (such as those of John Podesta) they relayed possibly embarrassing information to WikiLeaks and other outlets. The hacking attacks began perhaps a year before the election (I'm uncertain of the timing). This is my understanding of what our own intelligence agencies (the FBI, NSA) have found and reported. I believe them, or at least, I see no reason not to believe them.

2. It's significant to me that the FBI has reported that Republican Party networks were also breached by the Russians, but that the Russians did not visibly act on whatever information they obtained there. The Russians had a pretty good idea of what Republicans were thinking and doing in private. That was apparently enough for them. Near the end of World War II, when Stalin met Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta to discuss the final stages and aftermath of the war, Stalin was well informed about the Roosevelt-Churchill strategy thanks to informants within the American and British governments. The Russians apparently continue to be very good at this sort of thing.

3. From the time of the initial revelations about Russian cyber attacks and attempts to harm the Clinton campaign, I've had two concerns about the FBI narrative that Russia actively worked against the Clinton campaign.

a. Why would the Russians attempt to specifically harm the campaign of the likely winner? At the time they were hacking and supposedly posting thousands of fake stories against Clinton, Clinton was the strong favorite to win the election. If their espionage was discovered by the US, and if Clinton won the presidency, they would have then faced a president much more antagonistic than Obama.

b. How could the Russians be sure of what they would be getting if Trump was elected? They surely understood that Trump is an uninformed, erratic man who seems to believe and express falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Why would they want such a man in charge of thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at Russian cities?

4. The overall Russian intentions and strategy are not entirely clear. Under Vladimir Putin's direction, Russia has been conducting a political, cyber, and military campaign to weaken NATO and the West, and to expand Russian influence in Europe and the Middle East, for about ten years. Their hacking of our election may simply be a brazen continuation of that campaign. Perhaps they saw supporting Trump (a divisive, anti-democratic man with authoritarian tendencies) as the best way to accomplish their strategy. There's too much we don't know.

5. Yet, the Russian actions, as presented by James Comey, the director of the FBI, amount to espionage intended to harm the Clinton campaign, and to aid the Trump campaign. It is hard to imagine that Comey and the other American intelligence heads would publicly make these pronouncements unless they were dead certain.

6. The detail, scope, and penetration of the Russian campaign should be thoroughly investigated and published. I believe the FBI and NSA and Senate Intelligence committees are conducting that investigation. (The House intelligence committee is headed by an apparently partisan Republican, Devin Nunes, who has sadly discredited himself; it's unlikely that committee will get far.)

7. Aside from seeking to understand the scope of the Russian penetration of our electoral process, there is this question: did members of the Trump campaign, or Trump  himself, collude with the Russians in the effort to harm Hillary Clinton's campaign? I assume the FBI and Senate investigations will explore that question. There were financial and political contacts between members of the Trump campaign (Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn) and Russian oligarchs and Kremlin media. There have been reports of meetings between Trump representatives and Russian officials prior to the inauguration.This rises to the level of circumstantial evidence of collusion. That Trump himself expresses a high regard for Vladimir Putin is a possibly related matter.

8. However, there is currently no direct evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian intelligence agencies, at least none that has been made public.

9. My own speculation: it does not seem likely that Trump or his campaign directly colluded with the Russians in a deal to get himself elected. Whatever else he is, it is hard to fathom that anyone would think that such a deal could stay secret, and that he would not realize he was placing himself in impossible danger. More likely to me is that Trump himself or members of his campaign had willfully entered into financial or political ties with Russian oligarchs. Putin has established a system of exerting influence through wealthy associates who form useful relationships with influential non-Russian partners. They basically offer big profits and money to the non-Russians, achieving their acquiescence, compliance, and support. It's plausible that these connections and relationships helped Russian intelligence get easier access to American electoral resources and networks -- the job of the hackers was thus made easier thanks to unwitting American partners.

10. My own further speculation: the Russians under Putin probably see their cyber hacking as no big deal. They are simply using the tools at their disposal to push the Americanskys and get a desired result, and they assume that we do the same things. That they successfully hacked our system, and Donald Trump actually won the election, probably astounded them as much as it did many of us.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Knausgaard's My Struggle: why should I go on to Book 2?

My Struggle, Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux edition 2013 (originally published in Norway, 2009).

Knausgaard himself is the narrator of this book, and is often referred to within the narrative by his name. The events are frankly autobiographical, though I've read that Knausgaard modified sections and characters so as not to painfully offend some family members. This strikes me as perfectly legitimate for a work of fiction. Even autobiography is, in a profound sense, a work of fiction -- an autobiography is not a recording, but a work of the imagination. The work -- six volumes -- is an international sensation, having sold millions of copies. I finally got down to reading Book 1.

Book 1 bounces from present-day scenes of the author living in Stockholm and writing his novel, this novel. The events of his life gathered here mostly involve his teenage years and his relationships with his parents and other school-age people. We see him worrying about girls, getting drunk with acquaintances at parties, imagining himself as a rock and roll guitar player, playing in a band -- a boyhood that many suburban American boys and girls would recognize. A major theme, repeated many times, is his relationship to his father, a selfish, sometimes detached, and cruel man, whom Karl Ove nonetheless tries hard to impress, and whom he obviously loves.

The writing is very "plain". Knausgaard doesn't strive to carefully depict events and characters, or the  surroundings. There's little insight into people and their motivations. Here is a random paragraph:

I got up and went into the kitchen, put a plate of meatballs and  spaghetti into the microwave, because I hadn't eaten since lunch the day before, went into the bathroom and showered, mostly to pass the minutes it took for the food to heat, dressed,, found myself a kife and fork, poured a glass of water, fetched the plate, sat down to eat.
There's a lot of that. The narrator seems compelled to relate undramatic daily events from periods of his life as if these were bits from a journal. It's important to him because...I'm not sure why. Despite this prosaic quality, the work is absorbing. I was interested in Karl Ove's fumblings and adventures as a teenager. He reminded me of myself. This feels like an honest, unsparing work -- he doesn't shy away from depicting himself in an unflattering or selfish light. He does the same to his friends and family members (something not appreciated by some family members; I've read that his wife was deeply depressed by his exposure of her and their family life in the novel). How much of the plainness Knausgaard's  style, and  how much is contributed by the translation from the Norwegian (by Don Bartlett) is impossible to say.

Will I go on to Book 2? I don't know. I recognize that this is a literary accomplishment. It's absorbing, in the way that reading the diary or journal of close friend might be absorbing. It feels like an accurate psychological recreation of a life, of a journal. But I don't know if I really want to read much more. It's also quite boring at times. What about this has drawn so many millions to buy the books?

Angela Hewitt's Bach concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wonderful concert. We were unfamiliar with Angela Hewitt (as we are unfamiliar, in general, with internationally known concert pianists). She played  Bach's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D, which was immediately recognizable. It had an exciting, driving sound. Physically, she plays with a kind of commanding, strong presence -- you see and feel her really focus and control the keyboard. She also played Bach's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, also pretty recognizable. It was a wide river of sound.

The program started with Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, just before Hewitt came onstage. A nice piece. Didn't know Mendelssohn was a teenager when he wrote it. The second half of the program was Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 5, the Reformation. Very nice, and has the recognizable Mighty Fortress theme. Seemed like conservative choices -- nothing beyond the 1800s. And wouldn't it have made sense to have Mendelssohn in the first half of the night, and Angela Hewitt in the second half, as the climax of the evening?

The audience took up less than 2/3 of Kleinhans, with most of the audience near stage left, where Hewitt and the piano played. Wonder if the Sunday afternoon audience was bigger.

The Buffalo News's Mary Kunz Goldman reviewed the concert and had lots of good things to say.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Naivete is no excuse: the play "After the Revolution", by Amy Herzog

After the Revolution, a play by Amy Herzog. Directed by Saul Elkin. Seen at the Jewish Repertory Theater, Amherst, NY.

The central premise is about a fervent young, left-wing, Jewish lawyer who learns from her father that her beloved grandfather, who was blacklisted in the 50s, actually passed secrets to the  Soviets. The revelation has a shattering effect on her, and her relationship with her father. She's furious that he didn't tell her when she was younger.

A good cast, good performances. I especially liked Tom Makar's performance as Morty, the wealthy old leftist, who counsels Emma, the young lawyer to hold fast to her ideals and the foundation she started in the name of her grandfather.

I'm not convinced by the central premise. If we are to believe that Emma is a smart lawyer, how is it that she didn't herself question her grandfather's status years ago? There are numerous books on the subject -- we know that dozens of people working inside the US government turned over information to the Soviets. It would seem obvious that Emma would have questioned her grandfather's activities long before the play's action. Furthermore, we are meant to believe that her father, a leftist teacher played well by David Marciniak, actively deceived her all throughout her life. Were there no dinner table conversations in which grandfather was discussed? Of course. The man we see on stage does not seem like a man who would actively deceive his daughter on such an important subject. The family drama scenes therefore struck me as overwrought.

And what's with the annoying rotating stage? The whole thing creaked noisily like some eighteenth century elevator between scenes. I would understand if there were dramatic changes of scenery. But there weren't -- a few chairs were moved around. Was there some message in the rotating stage? Something about the generations changing? I didn't get it.

Saul Elkin directed the play. He was there, and he looks much the same after thirty some years.