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About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)


Friday, September 22, 2006
    TT: Apologies

    Our mailbox has been getting a huge amount of nasty spam in recent weeks. In response I turned up the spam filter too high, and only just discovered that a number of legitimate e-mails (including one from a fellow blogger) were mistakenly tossed into the wastebasket. I think I retrieved most of them, but if you haven't heard back from me and are wondering why, that may be the reason.

    Two tips for correspondents:

    (1) If you're forwarding an item to us, remove "FW:" from the subject header of your e-mail.

    (2) Mail with neutral-sounding one- or two-word subject headers like "Thank you" sometimes gets flagged by the spam filter.

    Sorry!

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 22, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: On the wing

    I’m off to Chicago, where Our Girl and I will be seeing the Goodman Theatre’s King Lear and Remy Bumppo’s revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, dining on encased meats chez Hot Doug, and doing whatever else occurs to her between now and the time of my arrival. I’m hoping to persuade her to drive us out to the Farnsworth House on Saturday morning, but she’s the boss.

    I don’t know whether either one of us will feel like blogging come Monday, when I return to New York. We might, and then we might not. Tuesday, yes—I promise something good on Tuesday—but Monday is anybody's guess.

    Till Tuesday. Or Monday. Or whenever.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 22, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Godot with a blackjack

    I reviewed three shows in today’s Wall Street Journal theater column, one of them in New York and the other two out of town: Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center, a new translation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and Richard II off Broadway at the Classic Stage Company. Here goes:

    Samuel Beckett’s slippery style clearly inspired Mr. Pinter to write “The Birthday Party,” the story (if you want to call it that) of Stanley (Henry Stram), a frightened misfit who is hiding out (or is he?) in a grubby boarding house (or is it?) from which he is forcibly extracted by Goldberg (Allan Corduner), a slick thug in a sharkskin suit, and McCann (Randall Newsom), his inexplicably anxious cohort.

    Why do they want him? Where do they take him? As is his now-familiar wont, Mr. Pinter leaves these questions dangling, and his deliberate vagueness enraged the London critics who covered the play’s premiere. Contemporary theatergoers, by contrast, grasp at once that “The Birthday Party” is (in the author’s words) “an extremely critical look at authoritarian postures—state power, family power, religious power, power used to undermine, if not destroy, the individual, or the questioning voice.” Indeed, therein lies its weakness: We’ve been subjected to so many authority-questioning theatrical jeremiads in the ensuing decades that Mr. Pinter’s over-purposeful ambiguities have become too clear for comfort.

    What remains fresh about “The Birthday Party” is its snarlingly black humor. Emily Mann’s production catches every laugh…

    Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company is currently performing a new translation of “An Enemy of the People” in which Rick Davis and Brian Johnston contrive to make Ibsen’s stodgy dialogue sound as though it was lifted from an episode of “The West Wing.” The production, directed by Kjetil Bang-Hansen, moves the action up to the ’30s and slathers it with an inch-thick frosting of nudge-nudge-did-ya-get-it point-making. The cast is great—I’ve never known the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s crack ensemble to put a foot wrong—but no amount of good acting could redeem so blatant a staging of so elephantine a script….

    “Richard II” isn’t one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, no doubt because it lacks the stiff spine of plot that keeps us coming back to “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” time and again. Even so, its gorgeous versifying rarely fails to enthrall keen-eared playgoers, and I commend to your attention the beautifully spoken, intelligently mounted production now being presented by the Classic Stage Company…

    No free link. To read the whole thing—of which there’s much more—buy today’s Journal and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, where my theater column appears every Friday. For a smarter alternative, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to the complete text of my review. (If you’re already a subscriber, you’ll find it here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 22, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "People commonly travel the world over to see rivers and mountains, new stars, garish birds, freak fish, grotesque breeds of human; they fall into an animal stupor that gapes at existence and they think they have seen something."

    Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 22, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, September 21, 2006
    TT: So you want to see a show?

    Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

    Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

    BROADWAY:
    Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
    The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
    The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)

    OFF BROADWAY:
    The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
    Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
    Seven Guitars (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Oct. 7)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 21, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength."

    Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 21, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "There comes a day, in the ripe maturity of late summer, when you first detect a suggestion of the season to come; often as subtle as a play of evening light against familiar bricks, or the drift of a few brown leaves descending, it signals imminent release from savage heat and intemperate growth. You anticipate cool, misty days, and a slow, comely decadence in the order of the natural. Such a day now dawned; and my pale northern soul, in its pale northern breast, quietly exulted as the earth slowly turned its face from the sun."

    Patrick McGrath, "The Angel"

    (Yes, I have cookied this passage before. And I'll no doubt cookie it again. It expresses exactly what I feel on a day like today. Fall is here, in the air if not yet on the calendar, and for this exultant northern soul it feels as if home has arrived.)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, September 20, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Men with money always assume there is no other medium of exchange."

    Rex Stout, Death of a Doxy

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 20, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
    TT: Almanac

    “Lists, by nature, lend themselves to comedy, as does any human effort to be comprehensive.”

    Patrick Kurp, “Flummoxed,” Anecdotal Evidence (Sept. 16, 2006)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 19, 2006 | Permanent link
Monday, September 18, 2006
    TT: Man at work

    I'll be spending the rest of the week working on Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and on Friday I'll be flying to Chicago to see two plays and hang out with Our Girl. Don't expect to hear much from me until my return next Monday.

    See you on the aisle!

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 18, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: S & G

    I recently posted about Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s wonderful film about the making of The Mikado. Watching it for the first time in a number of years reminded me of how much I love the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan—and how rare it is for them to receive first-class, fully professional productions in this country.

    Earlier this summer I saw the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore. I was impressed by the festival, but didn't care much for its Pinafore, which got all the things wrong that are usually gotten wrong whenever an American theater company tries its hand at Gilbert and Sullivan. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

    Music is often the weak link of regional companies located well away from major metropolitan areas. Such was the case with “H.M.S. Pinafore,” a Broadway-style version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that was staged in an overly jokey way by Brad Carroll, adequately but unmemorably sung, and accompanied by an “orchestra” consisting of three synthesizers and six non-electrified instrumentalists. The results sounded predictably cheesy, and the production as a whole wasn’t strong enough to surmount its weak musical values.

    One of the reasons why G & S (as they're known to buffs) are so enduringly popular is because their works are technically simple enough to be performed by amateurs. Alas, such performances tend to be…well, amateurish. Among the many instructive things about Topsy-Turvy is the exceptionally high musical quality of the singing and orchestral playing heard on the soundtrack. Contrary to the impression left by the 1980 Kevin Kline-Linda Ronstadt Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance and the 1983 film based on it, the G & S operettas are not musical comedies avant la lettre. Yes, Arthur Sullivan had a sense of humor, but he was still a classical composer through and through, and much (if not all) of his music must be sung by classically trained vocalists in order to make its full expressive effect. It is also gorgeously orchestrated, and cries out to be played with the same elegance and euphony you’d expect to hear in a professional performance of a piece by Mendelssohn—or Mozart, for that matter.

    Does this mean that Pirates, Pinafore and The Mikado are really operas in disguise? Back in the Fifties, Sir Malcolm Sargent recorded them for EMI in studio performances featuring English opera-house singers and accompanied by the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and the Pro Arte Orchestra. (Sir Charles Mackerras did much the same thing forty years later in his G & S recordings for Telarc.) The results were fascinating and often quite lovely to hear, but lacked the stage-savvy sparkle of the very best 78-era recordings of the D’Oyly Carte Company, for which the G & S operettas were originally written.

    It's the same kind of tradeoff you typically encounter in performances of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which is a brilliant but somewhat unstable cross between a Broadway musical and an operetta. As I wrote in the Journal apropos of Chicago Shakespeare’s 2003 revival of A Little Night Music:

    Even though two of the roles were originally written for non-singers (Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold), the rest of the score places heavy demands on musically unsure performers. Not only does it sound better when sung by classically trained voices, but Jonathan Tunick’s luminous orchestrations require a fair-sized band of competent players in order to sound as good as they can.

    Does all this make “A Little Night Music” a bona fide opera? Not exactly. Unlike “Sweeney Todd,” it’s more a book show with extended musical scenes than an opera with spoken dialogue, and few opera singers are sufficiently secure actors to bring off the starring roles. (I’d give anything to see it done with Bryn Terfel and Anne Sofie von Otter.) New York City Opera, which revived its large-scale production of “A Little Night Music” last season, tried to split the difference by casting Jeremy Irons, Judith Stevenson, and Claire Bloom, but Mr. Irons’ near-complete inability to carry a tune proved a near-insurmountable problem, though the 44-piece orchestra, directed by Paul Gemignani, emitted properly lush sounds.

    Chicago Shakespeare Theater, by contrast, has taken what might be called the off-Broadway approach. In Gary Griffin’s production, “A Little Night Music” is sung by actors, played on an all-but-bare thrust stage in a smallish house, and accompanied by a fourteen-piece orchestra. Lush it isn’t, but the gain in intimacy almost completely offsets the musical losses....

    Note, however, that I said “almost.” Chicago Shakespeare’s A Little Night Music, like last year’s Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, was a brilliant stage production, but if I’d “seen” it with my eyes closed, I doubt I would have thought nearly so much of it. In the end, the point of Sondheim’s shows is their scores. The same thing is true of the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan—and, for that matter, the operas of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. At the same time, though, no musical-theater work can remain alive in repertory without an effective libretto, and there are any number of operas and musicals with comparatively undistinguished scores that continue to be performed solely because they “work” on stage.

    So which part of the G & S operettas is more important, the words or the music? My Solomonic answer is that the musical numbers—which are, of course, by Gilbert and Sullivan—are vastly more important than Gilbert’s facetious libretti. As for the songs themselves, I’d say that Sullivan is primarily responsible for making them memorable, but that Gilbert’s words were primarily responsible for inspiring Sullivan to write such memorable music. (Except for “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “The Lost Chord,” he didn’t write a single piece of music without Gilbert that continues to be performed today.)

    As I’ve said many times, theater is an empirical art whose practitioners make their own rules, and any critic who isn’t prepared to dump his preconceptions at a moment’s notice is in the wrong business. Nevertheless, I hope I live long enough to see a performance of The Mikado that is beautifully sung, elegantly played, and imaginatively staged—though I’ll settle for two out of three, and if necessary even one.

    In the meantime, we’ll always have Topsy-Turvy.

    ELSEWHERE: By far the best short book about Gilbert and Sullivan is Leslie Baily’s profusely illustrated Gilbert and Sullivan: Their Lives and Times.

    To order a three-CD set containing superior transfers of the 1926 and 1936 D’Oyly Carte recordings of The Mikado, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 18, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Elsewhere

    Hither and yon:

    • Mr. Think Denk eats a hot dog, and rhapsodizes thereon:

    “Yes, I confess, to my eternal chagrin I am indeed a chip man.” I couldn’t really believe this sentence fell out of my mouth. If you haven’t traveled on Amtrak recently, you are in for a surprise; pursuant to some distant policy, the Acela workers are now aggressively pushing product. I came up, ordered a hot dog and a soda, and in those pregnant, magical moments while the dog steamed in a mysteriously recessed industrial microwave, the man behind the counter proposed a bag of chips. “Nothing could be better than a cold soda,” he said, his eyes seeming to mist, “a hot dog, and some chips.” I was swept up (as so often) in his faux emotion; I paused, teetered, acquiesced. He smiled toothily. “Yeah, I thought you were a chip man, just from the look of you,” he said, and I had to admit the obvious. And that’s when I said the ridiculous sentence….

    Keep reading—he gets from the hot dog to the Chopin G Minor Ballade in two steps.

    • Mr. Anecdotal Evidence nails it:

    Everyone, I suppose, complains about the quality of book reviewing and literary journalism in the United States. Much of it is badly written, snotty, theory-driven, pretentious, tin-eared, politically motivated, aesthetically unmotivated, pop culture-obsessed, or just plain dull. Friends boost the books of friends. Antagonists exact vendettas. These things, given human nature, have always been true and most likely will remain so….

    Yup.

    • So does the Little Professor:

    Am I the only person developing severe allergies to fiction about Emotionally Dysfunctional Adults Failing to Make Their Way in a Shallow and Commercialized World? Because it appears to me that this theme (which has been with us for quite some time, and is perhaps wearing out its welcome) tends to generate aggravatingly slick tales.

    • And so does Ms. twang twang twang:

    Passionate simplicity is at the heart of great art, whether you are playing, painting or writing about it, and the amateur's enthusiasm is a type of simple passion, lovely and to be highly prized. But in fact, the professionals have everything the amateur has: devotion (we adored once too), frustration, and the combination of the two that is also called love. Both groups tread the same path towards perfection or mastery, but the professional is further along it, and as any travel story will tell you, a journey is harder in the middle, or at the end, than at the beginning. You are more tired. Hopefully you are buoyed up by what you have seen along the way, but that depends on how lucky you are.

    Love begins simply; you fall in it. What happens to it after that is moulded by time, experience, battered by good and rotten chance. Couples get divorced; professionals give up; amateurs give up too, all the time, even though they love music. It is too hard. Other loves endure, grow along the path, human, alive; and like humanity itself are at once and always astoundingly powerful, and heartbreakingly vulnerable. That is the argument for sticking with it all: at the end is a great love. Or great art.

    On the other hand, perhaps it is better to stay amateur, a little naďve, not risking too much or travelling too far. Maybe music is too beautiful to risk losing it all together, hurtling too close to the sun….

    I really, really wish I’d written that.

    • The adorable Ms. Maccers is soooo funny:

    Becoming ever more pretentious is a privilege of the spinster and I find myself these days preferring music to be sung in French….

    (It’s even funnier if you actually know her.)

    • Finally, I don’t often occasion to commend the New York Times for its astuteness, but whoever had the bright idea of inviting Mr. Superfluities to write the paper’s fall theater preview deserves a raise.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 18, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: For serious Chesterton buffs only

    Readers interested in the works of G.K. Chesterton will remember that he owned a toy theater about which he wrote on many occasions. The Catholic Lending Library of Hartford is deaccessioning fifteen drawings made by Chesterton (who was also a talented artist) for use in this theater.

    Here’s the catalogue listing from the Allinson Gallery:

    Gilbert Keith Chesterton. 1874-1936.
    Original Drawings for his Children's Theatre.

    Figures in ink and watercolor. Some cut out with tabs on the back to enable the figures to be moved in a theatre. This is an exceptionally rare group of drawings, possibly unique. $10,000 the group.

    Letter to Father Kelly from Dorothy E. Collins dated August 3, 1944 stating that the works are by Chesterton and that she is sending them to Father Kelly for The Catholic Lending Library of Hartford, CT.

    1. The Knight and the Jester (title on the back). 12 x 14 1/8.
    2. The Hero (title on the back). 12 x 8 1/2.
    3. Counsellor (title on the back). 13 1/4 x 9 1/2.
    4. Journalist (title on the back). 13 1/4 x 9 1/4.
    5. [Male Figure in Long Stockings and a Long Pointed Cap Holding a Book]. 13 1/4 x 9 1/2.
    6. King's Physician (title on the back). 13 1/8 x 9 1/4.
    7. Chinaman (title on the back). 13 5/8 x 9 3/4.
    8. [Four Figures — four panels]. 15 5/8 x 25.
    9. Procession (title on the back). 12 x 15.
    10. Devils. Drawn on paper, not cardboard. 13 3/4 x 17 3/4.
    11. [Viking]. 9 1/8 x 3 5/8.
    12. [Knights on Horseback]. 6 3/8 x 12 1/8.
    13. [The Wood Cutter]. 12 3/4 x 6 1/8.
    14. [Soldier, Courtier, Man with a Moustache].
    15. Walter Tittle.

    If you know anything about Chesterton, you won’t need me to tell you that this collection of drawings is an extraordinary rarity that will be of the highest possible interest to collectors and scholars.

    I have nothing to do with this sale, but I purchased an etching from the Allinson Gallery a couple of years ago and was completely satisfied with the transaction.

    To contact the gallery, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 18, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "'It's just that there is nothing to discuss.'

    "'From your point of view,' Wolfe conceded, 'there probably isn't. And naturally, for you, as a consequence of the peculiar constitution of the human ego, your point of view is paramount. But your ego is bound to be jostled by other egos, and efforts to counteract the jostling by ignoring it have rarely succeeded. It is frequently advisable, and sometimes necessary, to give a little ground.'"

    Rex Stout, Before Midnight

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 18, 2006 | Permanent link
Saturday, September 17, 2005
    TT: Get out of town

    Today marks the publication of the inaugural issue of the Saturday Wall Street Journal. It also marks my debut as a columnist for the "Pursuits" section of the new Saturday paper. In "Sightings," to be published every other week in "Pursuits," I'll be covering the arts in America. Here's a taste of my first column:

    Remember "View of the World From 9th Avenue," the 1976 New Yorker cover in which Saul Steinberg depicted New York City as the outsized capital of a squashed-together U.S.? It's still good for a laugh—but when it comes to the arts in America, Mr. Steinberg's comically chauvinistic scene bears little resemblance to reality....

    I live and work in New York, and I'm happy to be here. Still, I learned long ago that if you want to stay in touch with the best of what's happening right now, you've got to look beyond the city limits—no matter where you live. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Carolina Ballet, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Miami City Ballet, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Washington's Phillips Collection, the San Francisco Symphony: All rank high on my personal list of America's top arts organizations, and all are a long, long way from Ninth Avenue....

    The Journal has been kind enough to post a free link to Saturday's "Sightings" column. To read the whole thing, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, September 17, 2005 | Permanent link
Friday, September 16, 2005
    TT: No laughing matters

    Friday again, and time for another Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. This week I review Jean Cocteau Repertory's off-Broadway revival of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and a Washington production of Shakespeare's Othello, both of them enthusiastically:

    Lorinda Lisitza, the excellent Pirate Jenny of the Cocteau's production of “The Threepenny Opera,” is even better this time around as Mother Courage, the brutally cynical camp-follower who means to survive the Thirty Years' War no matter what it takes, not knowing that she is purchasing her “survival” with pieces of her soul. (It isn't hard to imagine her sloshing through the waterlogged streets of New Orleans, filling her cart to the brim with looted goods.) Made up to look like the haggard older sister of one of Vermeer's serious young women, Ms. Lisitza also gets ample opportunity to show off her formidable skills as a cabaret singer, and while Paul Dessau's settings of Brecht's lyrics are nondescript, you'd swear they were tuneful when she sings them….

    The Shakespeare Theatre Company is currently putting on an “Othello” so fine that I don't see how it could be bettered, except maybe by bringing it to Broadway, where even more people could see it.

    This “Othello” is played as straight as [David] Fuller's “Mother Courage,” with no overlay of conceptual hoo-hawry to loosen the grip of Shakespeare's terrible tale of jealousy and envy run amok. Michael Kahn, the company's artistic director, has put his actors on a dirt-plain set built of unfinished boards, dressed them in period costumes, given them plenty of room to do their stuff and (I suspect) told them not to dawdle….

    I also pass on a bit of theatrical news:

    William Finn's “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is having a “parent/teacher night” on Oct. 2 at 7:30. Translation: This performance is for adults only. Jay Reiss plays the vice principal in charge of responding to the question, “Could you use that word in a sentence, please?” Some of the sentences he came up with in rehearsal were, um, child-unfriendly. Mr. Reiss plans to trot them out in public Sunday after next for the first time…

    No link, and there's plenty more where that came from, so buy a copy of today's Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Reminder

    "Sightings," my new biweekly column about the arts in America, kicks off tomorrow morning in the inaugural issue of the Saturday Wall Street Journal, on sale at your local newsstand. Don't miss it!

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Synchronicities

    It occurred to me as I drove off in my Zipcar Tuesday afternoon that some people might find my forthcoming journey...well, supererogatory. After all, I'd just spent eight days tearing around Wisconsin in a rented car, looking at plays, visiting museums, and sleeping in Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Why on earth would I want to jump in another rented car and drive off to the Catskills less than twenty-four hours after coming back to New York?

    The difference, of course, is that I went there not to look at plays and museums but to do nothing. Now, nobody ever does absolutely nothing, at least not strictly speaking. I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday driving up and down country lanes in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, listening to the satellite radio in my Zipcar (I'm especially fond of "Frank's Place," "Savoy Express," and "X Country"), and reading the galleys of a new biography of Elia Kazan. On the other hand, I did these things when I wanted to, not when I had to, and when not doing them I sat in comfortable chairs on quiet balconies and looked at two of the prettiest views I know. Except for reading the book, I couldn't have done any of this at home. That's why I got up on Tuesday morning, wrote my drama column, packed the smallest possible bag, and returned to the road.

    I don't usually bring my iBook with me when I take short trips, but I had to this time, since it was necessary that I stay in touch with The Wall Street Journal to resolve any last-minute problems with the launch of my Saturday column, which was still working its way down the production line as I left town. Having admitted this much, I'll go further and confess what a few of you already know, which is that I also succumbed more than once to the temptation to check the rest of my e-mail. (Naughty, naughty!) In it I found this note from an old friend, written apropos of a recent posting:

    I felt, during my chemotherapy, that I lived in the Goldberg Variations, because it was the universe.

    I've never undergone chemotherapy (though I've watched it being given many times), but I have had a not entirely dissimilar experience with Bach's Goldberg Variations. If you're going to have mystical experiences accompanied by a piece of music, I guess you can't do much better than the Goldbergs, and should the time ever come when I find myself in an extremity as dire as being on the business end of chemotherapy, I hope I'll have the presence of mind to recall that reassuring fact.

    I thought about my friend's message late Wednesday night as I sat in a rocking chair on a screened-in balcony overlooking the Delaware River. His wasn't the only piece of mail I had occasion to answer on my trip. That very morning I'd stopped at a Catskills post office to send eight postcards to a West Coast blogger with whom I've been exchanging handwritten snail mail of late. Each of them bore a reproduction of a painting by an artist I like, the artists in question being Milton Avery, Richard Diebenkorn, Hans Hofmann, Winslow Homer, Wassily Kandinsky, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, and Fairfield Porter.

    This correspondence was inspired by my new friend, who wrote to me a few weeks ago as follows:

    Isn't it nice to open letters, too? In a funny way, I think all the email/blogging returns an almost romantic, Victorian specialness to pen & paper correspondence.

    Until I answered her note, it had been years since I'd last sent anyone a handwritten letter longer than the compass of a notecard. Part of what inspired me to do so was her handwriting, which is neat, fresh, and a delight to behold. It took the place of the imagined sound of her voice: I felt as if she were sitting across a table, telling me about herself, and I felt irresistibly inspired to reciprocate.

    My own hand, alas, is not so easy or rewarding. I'm left-handed, with an ink-smudging overhand hook so exaggerated that my first-grade teacher, who in 1962 was already a thoroughly cranky old woman, tried briefly and vainly to get me to write with my right hand. I've found penmanship awkward ever since, which is why I learned to type as a boy and why I took so readily to e-mail as a grownup. Yet my correspondent was right: convenient though e-mail is, there's something uncanny about receiving a handwritten letter, and no less uncanny about sending one. To be sure, we also exchange e-mail on occasion, but what we say to one another in our own hands (what a perfect phrase!) is subtly but nonetheless distinctly different in tone and character from the notes we send electronically, and while I wouldn't want to go back to snail mail on a full-time basis, it always makes me smile to peer in my mailbox and see her handwriting twinkling among the bills and press releases.

    One of the postcards I sent her from the Catskills was a list of ten pieces of piano music to which I feel especially close (she's a pianist). Three, as it happened, were musical impressions of water, and all are on my iPod, so I decided as I rocked away in the near-silent night to listen to Dinu Lipatti's 1948 recording of the Chopin Barcarolle, Vladimir Horowitz's 1966 recording of Debussy's L'isle joyeuse, and Alfred Cortot's 1931 recording of Ravel's Jeux d'eau. I first heard these classic performances some thirty years ago, and by now I know them well enough that I tend not to return to them too often, but hearing them again as I sat by a river at night brought them back to life. I wondered as I listened what my friend was doing. Was she practicing piano? Looking at the Pacific Ocean? Listening to Chopin or Debussy or Ravel? Might she somehow sense that she was on my mind?

    When Jeux d'eau was over, I felt the need to hear a bit more music before calling it a night, so I dialed up Carlos Salzédo's glittering, gorgeous Chanson dans la nuit and the "Moonlight" interlude from Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, a portrait in music of the sight and sound of moonlight on the sea, now disturbing, now consoling. The performance on my iPod is by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony, recorded live at the last concert Bernstein gave before his death, and that in turn made me think of my other friend, who (as John Wayne once put it) "licked the Big C" and lived to tell the tale.

    By then I was more than ready for bed. I checked my e-mail once more before retiring, and sure enough, I found a note from my piano-playing correspondent, written while I'd been sitting on the balcony. I marveled at the chain of coincidence (if you believe in coincidence) that put two far-flung friends into one another's minds at more or less the same moment on a warm, muggy September night. Then I turned out the light and went to sleep, listening to the thrum of the crickets down by the riverside.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Cost of one of the 50 investor's shares in the original 1949 Broadway production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: $2,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $15,348.59

    (Source: Richard Schickel, Elia Kazan: A Biography)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    Picture and book remain,
    An acre of green grass
    For air and exercise,
    Now strength of body goes;
    Midnight, an old house
    Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

    My temptation is quiet.
    Here at life's end
    Neither loose imagination,
    Nor the mill of the mind
    Consuming its rag and bone,
    Can make the truth known.

    Grant me an old man's frenzy,
    Myself must I remake
    Till I am Timon and Lear
    Or that William Blake
    Who beat upon the wall
    Till Truth obeyed his call;

    A mind Michael Angelo knew
    That can pierce the clouds,
    Or inspired by frenzy
    Shake the dead in their shrouds;
    Forgotten else by mankind,
    An old man's eagle mind.

    W.B. Yeats, “An Acre of Grass"

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 16, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, September 15, 2005
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    (Pardon my Mary McCarthy kick, the latest in a series...)

    "The arts have aged too, and it is impossible for them to 'go back,' just as it is impossible to recapture the youth or reinstitute a handicraft economy, like the one Ruskin dreamed of. These things are beyond our control and independent of our will. I, for instance, would like, more than anything else, to write like Tolstoy; I imagine that I still see something resembling the world Tolstoy saw. But my pen or my typewriter simply balks; it 'sees' differently from me and records what to me, as a person, are distortions and angularities. Anyone who has read my work will be at a loss to find any connection with Tolstoy; to Tolstoy himself both I and my work wold be anathema. I myself might reform, but my work never could; it could never 'go straight,' even if I were much more gifted than I am. Most novelists today, I suspect, would like to 'go straight'; we are conscious of being twisted when we write. This is the self-consciousness, the squirming, of the form we work in; we are stuck in the phylogenesis of the novel."

    Mary McCarthy, "Characters in Fiction"

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, September 15, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Five books enter, one book leaves

    Don't let the placid website fool you. For the last two months, like industrious shoe-stitching elves, the members of the Litblog Co-op have been busy behind the scenes nominating, reading, and voting on books. Today we unveil the outcome of our labors, the novel we've selected to throw our collective promotional prowess behind this fall. Watch this space for the big scoop. And keep watching as the four runners-up are revealed, one a day, into next week.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, September 15, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "Intellectual responses are known as opinions and Mary had them and had them. Still she was so little of an ideologue as to be sometimes unsettling in her refusal of tribal reaction—left or right, male or female, that sort of thing. She was doggedly personal and often this meant being so aslant that there was, in this determined rationalist, an endearing crankiness, very American and homespun somehow. This was true especially in domestic matters, which held a high place in her life. There she is grinding the coffee beans of a morning in a wonderful wooden and iron contraption that seemed to me designed for muscle-building—a workout it was. In her acceptance speech upon receiving the MacDowell Colony Medal for Literature she said that she did not believe in laborsaving devices. And thus she kept on year after year, up to her last days, clacking away on her old green Hermes non-electric typewriter, with a feeling that this effort and the others were akin to the genuine in the arts—to the handmade."

    Elizabeth Hardwick, foreword to Mary McCarthy's Intellectual Memoirs

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, September 14, 2005 | Permanent link
Monday, September 12, 2005
    TT: Out of the woods

    This is where I am tonight, a Frank Lloyd Wright cottage perched on the edge of a heavily wooded bluff overlooking Wisconsin's Mirror Lake. I'm two miles from the Wisconsin Dells as the crow flies, though that viper's tangle of water parks, roller coasters, resort hotels, and candy stores seems at least half a continent away from the stone terrace I'm sharing with a couple of curious squirrels. I dug the iPod out of my suitcase a little while ago and pressed the shuffle-play button, and what came crashing out of the speakers, much to my bemusement, was Stephen Sondheim's "Color and Light": Order...design...composition...tone...form. Check and double check.

    By the time most of you get around to reading these words, I'll be somewhere in the middle of the protracted process of making my way from Mirror Lake to my Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. A two-and-a-half-hour drive, two flights, a cab, and the thing is done (sigh). The Teachout Museum awaits me. Also a ton of snail mail. Also a Wall Street Journal deadline, which I have to hit before lunchtime on Tuesday. Also a major development in my professional life, which comes to pass first thing Saturday morning. (See immediately below for details.)

    Conclusion: I need a break, not merely from blogging but also from the beck and call of my lunatic schedule.

    Solution: I'm blowing town for a couple of days, purely for my own pleasure.

    I'll go up the spout tomorrow afternoon, mere minutes after I file Friday's Journal drama column (that's the deadline). I won't post again, not even one measly little almanac entry, until Friday. Between now and then, my whereabouts will be known only to a tightly knit group of intimates, all sworn to absolute secrecy on pain of excommunication.

    Commandments:

    I shall attend no performances of any kind, nor shall I read any improving books.

    I shall not check my e-mail.

    I shall not turn on my cell phone (it doesn't work where I'm going, anyway).

    See you Friday.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 12, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Very big news (for me, anyway)

    Those of you who keep up with the newspaper business are doubtless aware that The Wall Street Journal is launching its long-awaited Saturday edition this week. What you don't know—this is the first public announcement—is that I'll be writing a new biweekly column called “Sightings” for the Leisure & Arts page in the new paper's "Pursuits" section. I'll be writing about the arts in America—all the arts, and not just in New York City but from coast to coast. (Yes, I'll continue to write the Journal's Friday drama column as well. Broadway isn't getting rid of me that easily.)

    To find out more about what I'll be up to in “Sightings,” pick up a copy of the first Saturday Wall Street Journal on September 17 and read my inaugural column. If you're already a Journal subscriber, off or on line, you'll automatically receive the Saturday edition as part of your subscription. Otherwise, buy a copy at your favorite newsstand and check me out.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 12, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Entries from an unkept diary

    • Anyone who questions the commoditization of baby-boom ideals need only reflect on the fact that I recently ate my breakfast at a hotel in downtown Milwaukee to the accompaniment of a Muzak version of Steely Dan's “Monkey in Your Soul.” All popular culture begins in rebellion and ends in infomercials.

    • I drove up to Connecticut the other day to see Goodspeed Musicals' production of The Boy Friend and have lunch with Paul Moravec. We went to the River Tavern in Chester, a tiny restaurant-pub with wonderful food, in whose front window the waitress seated us. A few minutes later, a prosperous-looking businessman-yuppie type sat down at the next table, roughly two feet away. He ate in silence as Paul and I chatted away cheerfully and volubly about everything under the sun—the Pulitzer Prizes, my Louis Armstrong biography, his latest composition, the difference between opera and oratorio—and departed without a word before we were through.

    A couple of minutes later, Paul called for our check.

    “It's been taken care of,” the waitress informed us with a grin. “The man sitting next to you paid for your lunch.”

    We gaped speechlessly at one another. Then we burst out laughing, jointly left a big tip for the waitress, and went on our way.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 12, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Rerun

    December 2003:

    Would that it were more widely understood that high art is good for you—not in the fallacious "Mozart-effect" sense, but in the far more profound sense of soulcraft. Alas, that uplifting notion has largely vanished from American culture. In matters of high art, we must start from zero: we actually have to make the case that listening to operas by Mozart and Verdi and looking at ballets by Balanchine and Tudor are pleasurable experiences.

    Fortunately, the strongest card in our hands is that we’re telling the truth, an amazing and miraculous fact that it’s never too late to discover, even if you’ve never held a clarinet or stood at a barre or wielded a paintbrush...

    (If it's new to you, read the whole thing here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 12, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Cost in 1908 of single-sided Victrola Red Seal Record No. 96200, the sextet from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (playing time: four minutes and one second), performed by Enrico Caruso, Marcella Sembrich, Antonio Scotti, Marcel Journet, Gina Severina and Francesco Daddi: $7

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $138.54

    (Source: Mark Obert-Thorn)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 12, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “The lesson I learned from the Charlie débâcle is that you've got to punch your weight. Charlie was out of my class: too pretty, too smart, too witty, too much.”

    Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 12, 2005 | Permanent link
Friday, September 17, 2004
    TT: Inch by inch

    Madeleine Peyroux’s Careless Love, about which I wrote in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, is now #3 (!) on amazon.com, at least as of the time stamped on this post.

    You go, girl.

    UPDATE: Now she's at #2. You go, readers!

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Sad clowns, cute psychopaths

    After a two-week vacation-related hiatus, the Friday drama column of The Wall Street Journal is open for business again this morning. I reviewed two shows, Slava’s Snowshow and an off-off-Broadway revival of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane, and liked them both:

    Created by Slava Polunin, best known in the U.S. for his work with Cirque du Soleil, "Slava’s Snowshow" is a zany fantasia for five melancholy-looking Russian clowns, several squirt bottles full of water, a dozen or so king-sized balloons, enough fog to shut down an airport and enough confetti to welcome home an astronaut.

    I’m acutely allergic to pretentious clownery, so when I read that Mr. Polunin was influenced by Fellini and describes his brand of theater as "counter-Beckett," I reached for the nearest cream pie. Fortunately, nobody says anything out loud in "Slava’s Snowshow" (nothing intelligible, that is), and whatever Mr. Polunin thinks it all means, the results aren’t even slightly intellectual, though my guess is that American dancegoers will detect a certain resemblance to the quirky comedy of Pilobolus Dance Theatre, minus the dancing. To be sure, the self-contained vignettes that make up "Slava’s Snowshow" are not without their dark moments—especially the bit in which Mr. Bolunin lurches around the stage with a chestful of arrows ŕ la St. Sebastian—but judging by the ecstatic response of the children who came to the preview I saw, nobody was fooled for a moment. "Slava’s Snowshow" is meant to make you smile, and it does so with impressive efficiency….

    Joe Orton, the greatest farceur since Feydeau, has never quite gone over in this country, least of all on Broadway, where the most recent revival of an Orton play was in 1986 (and where his last and best play, "What the Butler Saw," has yet to be produced). If you want to see his work on stage, you have to depart the beaten path, so when I heard that Working Stiff Productions, an off-off-Broadway troupe, was presenting "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," I went out of my way to go. Jonathan Silver’s staging, which runs at the American Theater of Actors through Sept. 25, is far from perfect, but it’s more than good enough, and if you’re unfamiliar with what Terence Rattigan called "the best first play" he’d seen in "thirty-odd years," it will give you a clear idea of what Orton was all about.

    To watch "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" today is to understand at once why it ran for only 13 performances on Broadway in 1965. Back then, New York playgoers weren’t exactly accustomed to folks like the title character, a lethally cute juvenile delinquent in tight pants (Stephen Weston, who is just about ideal) who comes to the South London home of Kath (Caroline Langford), a blowsy, middle-aged working-class woman of dubious virtue, looking for a room to rent. Kath promptly starts trying to lure her new boarder into bed. Enter Ed (Steve Pesola), Kath’s brother, who has shinnied his way up the greasy pole to a suit-and-tie job, and who in turn decides that he wants to entertain Mr. Sloane in the sack. Enter Dadda (Sean Dill), the ancient father of Ed and Kath, who recognizes Mr. Sloane as a murderer and is foolish enough to tell him so. The ensuing hijinks soon take a deadly turn—which, amazingly, makes you laugh even harder….

    No link, so if you want to read the whole thing, do the usual, just like yesterday: either buy a copy of today’s Journal or subscribe to the paper’s online edition.

    Got it? Good.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Brush with greatness

    I went to Joe’s Pub on Thursday to hear the debut of what may ultimately evolve into something of a vocal supergroup. Voices Collective consists of Theo Bleckmann, Peter Eldridge, Kate McGarry, Lauren Kinhan, and Luciana Souza, all of whom have formidable individual reputations (and one of whom has figured frequently and prominently on this blog right from the start).

    Here’s how the Joe’s Pub Web site described them:

    Voices Collective is a meeting of some of New York's most talented and diverse jazz singers…For this evening at Joe's Pub, they make their world premiere, uniting all their creative talents; presenting original compositions from each member and resetting them for five voices and a trio. Peter Eldridge and Lauren Kinhan are members of New York Voices and also have solo projects of their own in the original song writing arena; Theo Bleckmann is one of the vocal magicians with Meredith Monk and his own genre-bending work; Kate McGarry has been gracing New Yorkers with her soulful timbre for many years; Luciana Souza has been at the Pub in all her incarnations, Brazilian, jazz, and poetry-inspired.

    The extreme stylistic diversity of these five singers is part of what made their first performance as a group so thrilling, ranging as it did from a heartfelt version by McGarry of Neil Young’s "Old Man" to an electronically enhanced duet by Bleckmann and the avant-garde jazz guitarist Ben Monder, a member of the trio that accompanied Voices Collective and another of my favorite New York-based instrumentalists. Most of the ensemble vocals, including Souza’s gorgeous unaccompanied setting of Joni Mitchell’s "Shadows and Light," were sung in skin-tight five-part harmony ŕ la the Singers Unlimited, and much of the original material, including a brand-new standard-style ballad by Eldridge called "Busy Being Blue," was immediately memorable.

    I won’t kid you: the first set last night was rough around the edges. All five singers were visibly nervous (and occasionally sounded that way). To forge a unified, smoothly finished ensemble sound is more than sufficiently tricky under the easiest of circumstances. For five stylistically disparate vocalists to do it while singing such demanding material is…well, let’s just say they set themselves one hell of an obstacle course. But the promise outweighed the problems, and the palpable excitement of the crowd clearly buoyed up the members of Voices Collective. They all assured me after the show that this won’t be the last time they step up to the plate together, and my guess is that they mean it. I hope so.

    As if all that weren’t enough for one weeknight, Souza announced from the stage that Jonatha Brooke was in the audience, a piece of news that just about made me fall out of my seat, seeing as how I’d heard her live album for the first time last Friday and had an instantaneous on-the-spot conversion experience. I couldn't spot her in the semidarkness of the club, nor did I run into her backstage, but the mere fact that we happened to show up at the same gig a mere six days after she became my new musical superhero struck me as nothing short of omenesque.

    Have I mentioned lately that New York City is the coolest place on the planet? Because it is.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "She was definitely the sort of girl who puts her hand over a husband's eyes, as he is crawling in to breakfast with a morning head, and says: 'Guess who!'"

    P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 17, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, September 16, 2004
    OGIC: Deadline sandwich

    Hello from a small and quickly vanishing window of breath-catching in between the ironclad deadline that I met today (barely, heroically) and the one that I'm going, I'm absolutely going, to meet tomorrow. It's been one of those weeks. Things I blithely take for granted under normal circumstances, like sleep, social activity, cooked meals, the outdoors, and, yes, blogging, have through the magic of deprivation been revealed as tremendous gifts and blessings. In other words, I miss this old place.

    After I slay this last dragon, you'll be hearing from me on this, that, her, and quite possibly them, if I'm feeling self-indulgent (which I often am). This week may stink, you see, but last weekend was pretty excellent.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, September 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: A parodist is born

    Some people mooch all the talent:

    A dragonfly darted at my feet. I’d been looking forward to seeing one but once you were there in person it wasn’t all that great. Just a giant insect, really, with wings. Dragonflies are critically overhyped, the gilded Donald Trumps of the beach world.

    The parodist is Ms. Tingle Alley. To find out who the parodied is, you'll have to click through (first removing any sharp or heavy rings and bracelets so as not to injure yourself when you slap your forehead in delighted recognition).

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, September 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: I will blog no more, forever

    At least not until Friday, anyway. Yes, I know, I said on Tuesday that I was probably going to take Wednesday off, and look what happened! On the other hand, "About Last Night" racked up an exceptionally high number of page views yesterday—about 8,300, one of our best days ever—so I didn’t feel I could shut the shop down with a clear conscience.

    Today, alas, is different: I really, truly have to finish writing an essay about A.J. Liebling, so I ain’t gonna blog no more. Until tomorrow. No matter what happens. I swear.

    Really.

    UPDATE: The Liebling piece is done and gone. One quick nap coming up.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Lost and found

    I made a special guest appearance on the Leisure & Arts page of this morning’s Wall Street Journal to write about Madeleine Peyroux:

    Eight years ago, Madeleine Peyroux was a star on the rise. "Dreamland," her debut album, was selling nicely (200,000 copies, all told). Critics were fascinated by the idea of a singer-guitarist from Brooklyn who’d learned her trade from the street musicians of Paris, where she lived as a girl. Though she sounded very much like Billie Holiday in the late Forties—the same salty rasp, the same squeezed-out spurts and swoops—her music, a torchy blend of blues, country and old-time pop, bore no resemblance to the middle-aged Holiday’s languorous brand of jazz. Ms. Peyroux (prounounced pe-RU, like the country) first caught my ear, for instance, with a lazy, loping cover version of Patsy Cline’s "Walkin’ After Midnight," a staple of broken-bottle honky-tonks the world over.

    So what did she do for an encore? She disappeared.

    Not only did Ms. Peyroux fail to follow up "Dreamland" with a sequel, but she did virtually no performing in public between 1997 and 2002. No one seemed to know what had happened to her, though I found vague hints scattered around the Internet….

    Then—just as abruptly and inexplicably—Ms. Peyroux resurfaced. Rounder, the highly regarded independent country-bluegrass-jazz label, announced earlier this year that it had signed her to a recording contract. In June she opened for Gary Burton at the Blue Note, one of New York’s top jazz clubs. "Careless Love," her long-awaited second album, was released this week, and on Monday she kicks off a week-long run at another high-end Manhattan nightspot, Le Jazz Au Bar.

    All this would mean little were it not for the fact that "Careless Love" is a stunner, a laid-back, quietly sexy stroll through a dozen songs that appear to have nothing in common save that Ms. Peyroux, accompanied by a crack team of Los Angeles session men anchored by the peerless jazz organist Larry Goldings, sings each one as though it had been written for her personally….

    No link, so if you want to read the whole thing, you have two options:

    (1) Go to a newsstand and buy today’s Journal.

    (2) Sign up for the online edition of The Wall Street Journal, which costs half as much as an ink-on-paper subscription and gives you complete access to each day’s edition, plus various other bells, whistles, and special features. Do this and you also get to read my drama column—starting tomorrow! If you’re interested, go here.

    To purchase Careless Love (which I strongly recommend) or listen to samples thereof, go here.

    Madeleine Peyroux’s Web site (which includes the itinerary for her upcoming concert tour) is here.

    Le Jazz Au Bar’s Web site is here.

    Now, get cracking.

    UPDATE: Careless Love is now #4 on amazon.com, while www.madeleinepeyroux.com appears to have crashed, presumably from unexpectedly high traffic. Whoooee!

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Sorrow comes in great waves—no one can know that better than you—but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot, and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see."

    Henry James, letter to Grace Norton, July 28, 1883

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 16, 2004 | Permanent link
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
    TT: Res ipsa loquitur

    • From Booksquare:

    When we go into a library, we usually spend a few minutes in the children’s book section, looking for old favorites. There is some comfort in knowing that another generation is puzzling over the (rather tame) antics of Beany Malone. That the Boxcar Children haven’t aged. That Margaret is still talking to God. That on any aisle in any library, we can find a book that changed our little world (look under Laura Ingalls Wilder, and you will discover the summer we captained an expedition to build a cave to protect our gang from the wild tornadoes of California’s Central Coast…).

    • From Jolly Days:

    I’m not entirely a fan of Impressionism. The "joy of life stuff" can feel flimsy, shallow, leaving out the full experience of consciousness, of being alive. Art is an analog to life, not a feel-good reassurance that things can be better — New Age self-absorbed dreaminess trying to be art. An emphasis on decoration and sensation ignores the mind and the spirit.

    • From Household Opera:

    Just under three years ago, I turned off the TV after two or three days glued to the screen because I could not, just could not, watch that footage one more time, couldn't stand any more speculation about who or what might get blown up next, couldn't listen to any more man-on-the-street interviews with people calling for the bombing of the entire Arab world to smithereens. Having hit my saturation point, I spent the better part of a day listening to Bach's two- and three-part inventions over and over and over. I couldn't tell at the time if it was escapism, or some part of my brain looking for equilibrium, or what. It may have been simply the need to remind myself of what other things human beings are capable of besides mass murder.

    • From Cup of Chicha:

    The back of my high school yearbook was reserved for senior ads, the rich suburban teen’s equivalent to graffiti. Groups were aesthetically demarcated, their ads’ "look" determined by their social status. The most popular girls made collages of beach cleavage, group hugs, and baby photos; the popular boys, meanwhile, wore wife-beaters, crossed their fingers into "west side," and kneeled in front of Beemers.

    • From Mixolydian Mode:

    Today's grooming tip: Guys, if your tonsorial model is Sinead O'Connor or Telly Savalas, remember to shave before heading off to evening Mass. A five o'clock shadow that covers the entire scalp is not a pleasant sight for your fellow parishioners.

    • From Killin’ time bein’ lazy:

    I see the impact of IM/texty/whatever you call it on my students. When they e-mail, they use it all the time; luckily, most of them know enough to not use it in actual papers and on projects in school. A few, though, seem to have a problem telling the difference between appropriate and inappropriate writing.

    I don't think it makes them look dumb, however. It makes them look like middle school and high school students.

    When I see a message from someone my age, however, I worry. I don't have a problem with getting a short text message on my cell from someone that says that they'll be "l8". But an entire message written like that? It's as nails-on-a-blackboardy as reading something from an adult where they confuse your/you're, too/to/two or (as one of my friends has discovered) weather/whether.

    I wonder if it's an attempt to act young. It can't be a lack of education because this type of writing didn't arise until recently. And there can't possibly be that many former stenographers out there!

    • From Reflections in D Minor:

    Have you ever wondered what makes us cling so tenaciously to our beliefs - not just religious beliefs or belief in a political ideology but any little insignificant belief, such as belief in urban legends or the belief in the superiority of one brand over others of equal or better quality? We hold on to beliefs as if they were cherished possessions, like trinkets that have sentimental value but no practical use.

    I have to plead guilty to this myself. Sometimes I really hate Snopes. I come across a remarkable but perfectly legitimate sounding story from a reasonably reliable source, share it with other people and the next thing I know someone sends me a link to Snopes. What a shattering blow. Why do they have to tell me the truth? Why can't they just let me believe? (And, by the way, why do I believe Snopes is a reliable source of information?)

    • From Eve Tushnet:

    We've all heard the cliche that "truth is stranger than fiction," and I expect most authors have been frustrated to realize that we just can't write stories in which things happen the way they really did happen! because it would appear too coincidental and too neat. Fiction is not about presenting the raw world. Life does that for us. Fiction is supposed to tease out some kind of language from the raw world. Fiction is meant neither to replace nor to mirror life, but rather to interpret it.

    • From Lileks:

    The show went fast, as ever – radio time is not like any time you’ve ever experienced, and oddly elastic. When it’s going well it shoots by like caffeinated mercury on a griddle, and when you’re bombing the minutes actually come to a full stop, and you can hear the air brakes hiss to signal that time, and possibly your career, are no longer moving.

    • From Tingle Alley (who just gave up her day job to spend the next seven months working on a novel):

    This is my first day reporting to my desk as an Unemployed No Account (also known as a Novelist) so am not allowed any blog-related or email-type fun till this afternoon. If you see me haunting backblogs or receive an email from me between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., please send a firmly worded reprimand to the effect of "You are a jerk. Your poor husband is working morning, noon and night to make this possible. Get back to work."

    • And, finally, from Supermaud:

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but open bar + cupcake for dinner = hideous, unthinkable hangover. Even if you don’t drink much.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: A vengeful bolt from the blogosphere!

    Tom Scocca wrote a funny column about bloggers called "TomScocca.com: Blogging Off Daily Can Make You Blind" for this morning’s New York Observer. He interviewed a number of old-media writers who’ve taken to blogging on the side, myself among them, and his tone is slightly snarky but basically friendly, if you know what I mean:

    What blogging provides, [Teachout] said, is an "immediacy, informality and independence that you can’t find in the print media."

    He’s not worried, he said, about using up his ideas on the blog. "I really see the blog as a kind of public notebook or sketchbook," he said. Part of the appeal, he said, "is that backstage glimpse it gives of the writer’s life."

    Blogging is more spontaneous than regular writing, but it’s writing nonetheless—as opposed to spontaneous blathering on cable TV, he said: "Blogging, by contrast, I think …. " (Here my notes, in my hasty scrawl, appear to say "CRIDLY OCITHS") " … takes us back to a more considered but spontaneous" form of expression….

    Not that any carefully constructed device can protect you from the withering and omnipresent scorn of the blogosphere, should it think it’s being attacked. The blogosphere is sensitive.

    "I could write an account of this conversation while we are having it," Terry Teachout said. I checked—he didn’t. Whew.

    Indeed not. In fact, I happily certify that all direct quotations attributed to me in "Blogging Off Daily Can Make You Blind" are pristinely accurate and not taken out of context. (Scocca takes better notes than I do!)

    Still, I want to mention one thing I said that Scocca didn’t print, which is that writing a piece solely about print-media journalists who’ve taken up blogging seems to me to be more than a little bit beside the point. In my opinion, most of the really interesting people in the blogosphere—all of whom, needless to say, are represented in the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column—launched their blogs without any significant print-media experience. They’re the pioneers, whereas I'm just a Johnny-come-lately who's having a ball and making all sorts of cool new friends along the way. What's more, I think it’s a hugely significant development that these bloggers are now migrating to the print media in fast-growing numbers—without giving up their blogs. If you seek the future of American journalism, look to them.

    As far as I'm concerned, that's the big story of blogging, and I hope Tom Scocca gets around to writing it soon.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Outer limit

    From I Want Media’s "Media Offline: Unlinkable Media Items" (a great idea for a regular on-line feature, by the way):

    Is Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "Daily Show," comfortable as a member of the "real media"? asks the Sept. 17 issue of Entertainment Weekly. "In this day and age, anybody with a Web site is part of the real media," says Stewart. "Media is so all-encompassing. But we're not journalists, we're comedians. ... My colleagues are other fake news shows. Ted Koppel's not my colleague." What is Stewart's take on his recent interview with John Kerry? "It was a relatively mediocre talk-show experience," he says. "Actually, that's a great example of the limits of this program. People expected the show to create a 'new paradigm of info-enter-propa-gainment!' It ended up just being a comedian lamely making jokes to a presidential candidate who didn't want to embarrass himself or appear stiff."

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: With the bark on

    I was thinking today about how so few public figures are willing to admit (for attribution, anyway) that they’ve done something wrong, no matter how minor. But I wasn’t thinking of politicians, or even of Dan Rather. A half-remembered quote had flashed unexpectedly through my mind, and thirty seconds’ worth of Web surfing produced this paragraph from an editorial in a magazine called World War II:

    Soon after he had completed his epic 140-mile march with his staff from Wuntho, Burma, to safety in India, an unhappy Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell was asked by a reporter to explain the performance of Allied armies in Burma and give his impressions of the recently concluded campaign. Never one to mince words, the peppery general responded: "I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, and go back and retake it."

    Stilwell spoke those words sixty-two years ago. When was the last time that such candor was heard in like circumstances? What would happen today if similar words were spoken by some equally well-known person who’d stepped in it up to his eyebrows? Would his candor be greeted by a wholehearted roar of astonished approval? Or would he be buried under the inevitable avalanche of told-you-sos from his sworn enemies and their robotic surrogates, amplified well beyond the threshold of pain by the 24/7 echo chamber of the media, old and new alike? Is it possible that the hair-trigger litigiousness of modern-day American society, in which admissions of error are treated as a license to sue, stands in the way of such confessions? And even if our hypothetical Joe Stilwell II took a savage beating in the press for a day or two—or longer—might it be possible that in the long run he’d come out on top, simply because he was honest?

    I doubt we’ll be getting a real-life opportunity to see what would happen any time soon. But having recently watched Paddy Chayefsky’s Network for the first time, it occurs to me that such a scenario might well make for an interesting movie. In Network, the American public is so hungry for the spin-free frankness of a seemingly honest man that it embraces a TV anchorman who goes off his rocker in the middle of a newscast. (That’s what makes the film so provocative, by the way. In the hands of a West Wing-type screenwriter, the anchorman would have been presented as a Christ-like figure, but Chayefsky leaves us in no possible doubt that Howard Beale really is off his rocker.) Imagine, then, a film about a present-day public figure who screws up in a big way, calls a press conference, admits his errors, and throws himself upon the mercy of the public. It’s not hard to see how a socially aware writer-director like, say, John Sayles might weave the resulting tangle into a smart story about imperfect people who get caught up in the whirlwind of circumstance.

    If anyone out there in cyberspace likes this idea, talk to my agent. In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to settle for the freeze-dried, pre-digested, focus-group-tested spin that has come to dominate so much of our public discourse in my lifetime. It makes me sick—but it seems to work. I don’t like to think what that says about us.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: New for me

    No doubt you're all way ahead of me, but I only just discovered Jonatha Brooke last Friday night (courtesy of Kristin Chenoweth, who sang one of Brooke's songs at her Carnegie Hall concert). I'm still well and truly blown away.

    Brooke is kind enough (and smart enough) to allow visitors to her Web site to listen to her albums in streaming audio, so if you're curious, go here and give Live a spin. I'm sure she's not for everyone—otherwise she'd be rich and famous—but she's definitely for me. Don't bother if you don't care for female singer-songwriters of the Joni Mitchell/Aimee Mann/Allison Moorer/Ani DiFranco variety, but if you do, check her out.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Don't stop the presses

    Here’s Allan Kozinn in the New York Times:

    In the weeks since American and European authorities approved the merger of the recorded-music businesses of Sony and Bertelsmann, two of the world's five biggest record companies, virtually all the discussion has been about what the deal means in the vast popular-music market, with barely a mention of the labels' classical catalogs….

    No one at either Sony or BMG, either in their classical divisions or among corporate spokesmen (to whom journalists are immediately referred by workers terrified to talk, lest they earn an instant spot on the list of 2,000 employees expected to be sacked), has been able to say what will become of the labels' classical operations. So faintly do the classics register on the corporate radar that BMG's spokesman, when told that his company had recorded the likes of Enrico Caruso, Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein, said he was pleasantly surprised to hear it.

    (Read the whole thing here.)

    This is an important story, right? Sort of. I’ve been writing about the crisis in classical recording since 1996, and I summed up my thoughts two years ago in an essay called "Life Without Records" (it’s reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader) in which I predicted, among other things, that the major classical labels were doomed:

    What remains to be seen is whether existing classical labels can operate profitably on the Web, especially given the fact that sound recordings go out of copyright in Europe fifty years after their initial release. This means that by the year 2015, the classic early-stereo recordings of the standard classical repertoire currently being reissued by the major labels will have entered the public domain, meaning that perfect digital copies can be legally distributed by anybody who cares to make them available for downloading. Callas’ Tosca, Heifetz’s Beethoven and Brahms, Herbert von Karajan’s Strauss and Sibelius—all will be up for grabs. Once that happens, it is hard to see how any of the major labels will be able to survive in anything like their present form.

    Well, the future is now, and judging from Allan’s Times story, it seems perfectly clear that Sony-Bertelsmann, Inc., isn't going to give a good goddamn about the classical-music treasures in its vaults. On the other hand, it’s only a matter of time—and not much of it, either—before all those old records become universally available on the Web, there being no way that American computer users can be kept from downloading them from European Web sites.

    And what about the new records that Sony-Bertelsmann, Inc., won't care to make? Once again, I refer you to "Life Without Records":

    I, for one, think it highly likely that more and more artists, classical and popular alike, will start to make their own recordings and market them directly to the public via the Web. To be sure, few artists will have the patience or wherewithal to do such a thing entirely on their own, and new managerial institutions will presumably emerge to assist them. But these institutions will act as middlemen, purveyors of a service, as opposed to record labels, which use artists to serve their interests. And while even the most ambitious artists will doubtless also employ technical assistants of various kinds, such as freelance recording engineers, the ultimate responsibility for their work will belong—for the first time ever—to the artists themselves.

    For all these reasons, I’m not too terribly disturbed by the recent developments described in Allan’s piece. I’ve been expecting them for a long time, and thinking about what they might mean to the culture of classical music:

    [O]ne aspect of life without records is not only possible but probable: henceforth, nobody in his right mind will look to classical music as a means of making very large sums of money. Of all the ways in which the invention of the phonograph changed the culture of classical music, perhaps the most fateful was that it turned a local craft into an international trade, thereby attracting the attention of entrepreneurs who were more interested in money than art. Needless to say, there can be no art without money, but the recording industry, by creating a mass market for music, sucked unprecedentedly large amounts of money into the classical-music culture, thereby insidiously and inexorably altering its artistic priorities….

    Hard though it may be to imagine life without records and record stores, it is only a matter of time, and not much of it, before they disappear—and notwithstanding the myriad pleasures which the major labels have given us in the course of their century-long existence, it is at least possible that the 21st century will be better off without them.

    To be sure, this prospect is understandably disturbing to many older musicians and music lovers, given the fact that the record album has played so pivotal a role in the culture of postwar music. Nor do I claim that life without records will necessarily be better—or worse. It will merely be different, just as the lives of actors were irrevocably changed by the invention of the motion-picture camera in ways that no one could possibly have foreseen in 1900. But one thing is already clear: unlike art museums and opera houses, records serve a purpose that technology has rendered obsolete.

    We’ll sure see, anyway—and soon.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "The only brickbat that angered Orton was the grudging praise of his plays as 'commercial' from John Russell Taylor in his introduction to the play [Entertaining Mr. Sloane] in Penguin's New English Dramatists 8. 'Living theatre needs good commercial dramatists as much as the original artist,' Taylor wrote. Orton was furious at such critical stupidity. 'Are they different, then?' he asked, quoting John Russell Taylor's distinction between commercial success and art to his agent and asking to withdraw the play from the volume. 'Hamlet was written by a commercial dramatist. So were Volpone and The School for Scandal and The Importance of Being Earnest and The Cherry Orchard and Our Betters. Two ex-commercial successes of the last thirty years are about to be revived by our non-commercial theatre: A Cuckoo in the Nest and Hay Fever, but if my plays go on in the West End, I don't expect this to be used as a sneer by people who judge artistic success by commercial failure. There is no intrinsic merit in a flop.'"

    John Lahr, introduction to Joe Orton: The Complete Plays

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 15, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, September 14, 2004
    TT: Coming up roses

    Regular readers will recall that I wrote earlier this year about Rick McKay’s film Broadway: The Golden Age, both here and in The Wall Street Journal:

    Mr. McKay is one of those starry-eyed small-town types who moved to New York in the ’80s, found that the parade had already gone by, and longed to know what he’d missed. Instead of retreating to his apartment to play his original-cast albums, he bought a digital-video camera and finagled more than a hundred Broadway stars of the pre-"Hair" era into letting him interview them. He shaped the resulting footage into "Broadway: The Golden Age," in which talking-head interviews with the illustrious likes of Carol Channing, Ben Gazzara, Robert Goulet, Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, Shirley MacLaine, John Raitt, Gwen Verdon, and Elaine Stritch are ingeniously commingled with heart-stoppingly rare performance footage lifted from home movies, newsreels, theatrical trailers and videotapes. The result is an irresistibly nostalgic portrait of a lost era, albeit one that zips along like the Twentieth Century Limited. The editing alone deserves an Oscar.

    Not to worry, for Mr. McKay knows when to ease back on the throttle and simply let his subjects talk. And talk they do, often amusingly and always movingly, about what it was like to work alongside such near-forgotten giants as Laurette Taylor (who is seen in her Hollywood screen test, the only sound film she ever made) and Kim Stanley (where on earth did Mr. McKay dredge up what looks like a kinescope of a live performance of "Bus Stop"?). You’ll weep—I did—to hear them share their fond memories of crummy apartments, Automat meals and big breaks.

    Produced and marketed on half a shoestring, this one-man labor of love is slowly making its way across America, one screen at a time….

    Well, you know what? It still is. I recently received an electronic press release from McKay announcing still more openings for Broadway: The Golden Age, which is already showing all over the place. To find out whether it’s headed for a multiplex near you, go here. A DVD is in the works, but trust me—this film deserves to be viewed in a theater, in the company of hundreds of other stage-struck men and women who either remember the good old days or wish they’d been alive to see them. I myself look forward to its return to New York on Sept. 28. See you there.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 14, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Paying the rent

    The reason why I posted so much yesterday is that there really wasn't much else I could do. A three-man film crew moved into my apartment after lunch to tape me talking about Paul Taylor. Their arrival time fluctuated throughout the morning (first they wanted to come at two, then they wanted to come at four, then they wanted to come at two...), and though they were perfectly nice in every possible way, the vacillations disrupted my writing rhythms. Once they finally arrived, it took them an hour to set up and another hour to knock down. Unable to summon up enough consecutive thought to write a piece, I gave up and started knocking out blog entries instead.

    Today will be different. It'd better be. I have two Wall Street Journal pieces due, a profile for Wednesday's paper and a drama column for Friday's paper. Assuming I get them done on time, I can start working on the 2,000-word book review that I'm scheduled to ship off to a magazine some time tomorrow. (To my credit, I've already written 500 words' worth of the review, but the rest has yet to make itself manifest.)

    For all these reasons, I'm leaving the show to Our Girl today, and maybe tomorrow, too, depending entirely on how smoothly the prose flows. For the moment, I put out enough food on Monday to keep you happy, right?

    Later.

    UPDATE: One down, two to go....

    UPDATE #2: Two down, time for a nap.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 14, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "The loss of excitement is the beginning of professionalism. The thrill of standing on a stage, of receiving the audience's attention and admiration, the release of becoming someone other than yourself: all these stimuli are transient and superficial. They must be replaced by something much more deeply rooted which takes as its starting point the audience's experience rather than your own."

    Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 14, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, September 13, 2004
    TT: Touché?

    Last week I wrote:

    Anyone who writes a serious book with the expectation of making a lot of money and/or becoming famous is a fool. If you can’t afford to write a book in your spare time for its own sake, you’re in the wrong business.

    To which a reader with a good memory promptly replied:

    Your comments today on the book business seem right on. But wasn't it one of your heroes who said "Only a blockhead writes for anything but money"? I confess I don't know the context of that remark, but always found it amusing. I would be curious to see your response to the good doc in your blog.

    Far be it from me to differ with Samuel Johnson, so I won’t. I’ll simply supply the context of this famous saying, which comes from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

    When I expressed an earnest wish for his remarks on Italy, he said, "I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work." This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.

    Since Dr. Johnson is always right, I can but yield to his greater wisdom. The only defense I can offer is that I didn’t say "money," I said "a lot of money." But that’s pretty lame, right? Right.

    Never let it be said that I’m unwilling to publicly admit to having been caught blogging with my pajama pants down!

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Two last baby steps

    I went through today’s snail mail and found an envelope from Harcourt that contained the dust jacket for All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine—the real thing, not a photocopy. It’s even more handsome than I imagined.

    As I ogled the finished product, it hit me that I’d forgotten to ask the managing editor in charge of All in the Dances how the photo insert ended up. (That’s how distracted I was by my vacation!) As you may recall, we were having permission problems with one image, a photo of Balanchine at the piano taken by Walker Evans, and Harcourt asked me to come up with a Plan B in case Plan A fell through at 11:59:59. It was a tricky assignment: I had to find a picture that would fit into the same space, both physically and chronologically, and if at all possible it had to be out of copyright. I went on the Web and quickly located a terrific photo of Igor Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev, and within a day or two Harcourt reported back that it was in the public domain. I breathed a sigh of relief, went off on vacation…and forgot all about it.

    I just shot an e-mail off to the Harcourt back office in San Diego, which wrote back immediately to tell me that they'd had to go with Plan B. That was fine with me (I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me in the first place to include a photo of Diaghilev). And that’s really, truly the end of the story. All in the Dances went to the printer while I was on vacation. We’ll be getting back the first copies at the end of September, and it’ll be shipped out to bookstores shortly thereafter.

    Order your copy today!

    P.S. Harcourt just informed me that the bound galleys have gone out to reviewers. Eeeeee....

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Observance

    I just got this e-mail from a friend who was downtown on 9/11 three years ago, and wanted to share it with you.

    * * *

    Mourning is tricky business—very tender and private, at least for me. I knew I wanted to do something on Saturday, but didn't know what, until this post on the Gawker blog caught my eye:

    Saturday, September 11, 2004
    Floating Lanterns Ceremony, Hudson River

    A traditional floating lanterns ceremony commemorating the victims of the WTC tragedy will take place on Saturday, September 11th at Pier 40 (South Side) at W. Houston and West, starting at 7:30 PM. Buddhist priest T.K. Nakagaki will lead the ceremony with assistance in the water from the New York Kayak Company.

    Each year people in Japan gather to float lanterns in remembrance of the victims of the atomic bombings and all victims of war….The ancient custom of "Floating Lighted Lanterns" in the waterways is a symbolic way of respecting the lives that have gone before us. Also, it can represent a light of hope for peace and harmony that we send out over the waters of transmigration. As we pay respect to the lives which were lost at the World Trade Center, we offer the light of hope for a peaceful world in which no one else will suffer.

    Somehow, that sounded right—something quiet that involved music and prayer, although I'm not a Buddhist by any stretch of the imagination and the combination of lanterns and kayaks struck me as kind of weird. I called a friend, who was game, and together we went down at dusk.

    "Follow the smell of pot," I kidded. I wasn't sure what to expect. But the turnout was a surprising mix of folk, and as the ceremony and chanting was not in English, I felt as comforted as if I were at High Mass, hearing Latin plainsong. I also didn't realize that Pier 40 was within spitting distance of the site of the WTC, and so we had a perfect view as the Lights came on. It was a very moving sight. One could see sparkles of light within the beams ascending to the stars, just like one sees dust reflected from a flashlight. Made me very weepy, although I can't tell you why.

    We must have been there for two hours. The night was crystal clear and the ceremony was one of the coolest things I've ever witnessed.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: To be (a)live

    Last Friday I saw Kristin Chenoweth make her Carnegie Hall recital debut. I was there as a fan, not professionally, but I’ve written about Chenoweth quite a bit in my Wall Street Journal theater column, most recently in my review of the New York Philharmonic’s semi-staged concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide:

    Cunegonde, Candide’s shopworn sweetheart, is far beyond the reach of ordinary musical-comedy singers, for "Glitter and Be Gay," her big number, is an all-stops-out coloratura aria requiring a rock-solid high E flat. I knew the diminutive Ms. Chenoweth had operatic training, but it never occurred to me that her high notes would have survived years of Broadway belting, much less that she could still nail them with the brilliance and panache of a full-time opera star. Add to that her impish charm and switchblade-sharp timing and…well, let’s just say I’m no longer capable of being surprised by the amazing Ms. Chenoweth. After "Glitter and Be Gay," I wouldn’t have boggled if she’d picked up the baton and conducted the second act.

    Though Chenoweth didn’t conduct the band on Friday night, nothing else happened that was inconsistent with what I wrote about her performance as Cunegonde. Yet what impressed me most forcibly about her concert was the fact that it was a concert—an experience whose impact relied in substantial part on her physical presence. Tiny though she is, Chenoweth has the kind of outsized charisma that is impossible to capture on record. I hadn’t seen her on stage when I first heard her solo album, Let Yourself Go, and so I didn’t quite get what she was all about. It wasn’t until I covered the opening of Wicked last year that I got the point, which was hammered home by Candide and her Carnegie Hall recital. As the saying goes, you have to be there, the way earlier generations claimed that you had to see Al Jolson or Ethel Merman on stage to understand why they were so great. I hope Chenoweth someday finds a record producer (or TV director) who can figure out how to translate her astonishing energy into a medium that puts so high a premium on one-to-one intimacy. In the meantime, all I can say is that if you’ve never seen her in the theater, do so as soon as you can.

    Last Friday was also, of course, the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, an occasion Chenoweth marked by singing a touching version of Stephen Foster’s "Hard Times (Come Again No More)." On the day itself I was awakened by the sound of jets flying overhead, presumably on their way to the ceremonies at Ground Zero, and by the time I got outside to partake of the glorious weather, I was startled by how thinly populated the streets were. Perhaps everybody was downtown—or out of town.

    Me, I had a press preview to cover, and I'd given quite a bit of advance thought to what I wanted to be seeing that day. In the end, I settled on the Dodger Stages revival of Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique, which opens on Thursday. Since I’m reviewing it for the Journal, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’ve written about Symphonie Fantastique before, most recently in my Washington Post column when it was performed at Lincoln Center a couple of years ago as part of a Berlioz festival. Here’s what I said back then:

    I’d been looking forward to Lincoln Center’s revival of Basil Twist’s "Symphonie Fantastique" ever since it was announced last year, but when my friends asked me exactly what it was, I hemmed and hawed and finally said, "Well, uh…it’s an abstract puppet show in a thousand-gallon water tank, set to a recording of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie fantastique.’"

    Sounds crazy, no? And to tell the truth, "Symphonie Fantastique" is a little crazy—a loony masterpiece that defies any sort of easy characterization, save to say that it is one of the half-dozen most entrancing theatrical experiences I’ve encountered since I started writing this column. Sure, all you see are strange objects swishing and swirling behind a colorfully lit wall of glass, but the images conjured up by Twist and his crack team of puppeteers are so inscrutably gorgeous (think of a cross between George Balanchine, Paul Klee and Chuck Jones) that they will stick in your mind like a wild but happy daydream.

    What I didn’t mention back then, and what struck me with special force on 9/11, is that Symphonie Fantastique, like Kristin Chenoweth's singing, is a theatrical experience whose effect is deeply rooted in the fact that it’s presented live. True, you don’t see or hear the puppeteers until they emerge at show’s end for their curtain call, and it would be quite feasible to film it for TV, but it wouldn’t be the same, precisely because it’s slightly different every time. It is, in short, not merely live but alive.

    Of all the essays reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader, the one that stirred up the most controversy on its original publication was "Tolstoy’s Contraption," a piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 1999 in which I suggested that "film has largely replaced the novel as the dominant mode of artistic expression, just as the compact disc has become the ‘successor technology’ to the phonograph record." I went on to explain:

    We are not accustomed to thinking of art forms as technologies, but that is what they are—which means they can be rendered moribund by new technological developments, in the way that silent films gave way to talkies and radio to TV. Well into the eighteenth century, for example, most of the West’s great storytellers wrote plays, not novels. But the development of modern printing techniques made it feasible for books to be sold at lower prices, allowing storytellers to reach large numbers of readers individually; they then turned to writing novels, and by the twentieth century the theatrical play had come to be widely regarded as a cultural backwater. To be sure, important plays continue to be written and produced, but few watch them (unless they are made into movies).

    As I pointed out after the fact to any number of irritated readers, I wasn’t talking about quality: all I had in mind was the immeasurably greater power of film to shape the cultural conversation, both in America and throughout the world. Since then, though, I’ve spent the last year and a half going to a play or two each week (if not more), and while that experience hasn’t made me change my mind about the cultural significance of live theater, it’s reminded me that the real value of theater lies in the fact that it isn’t a mass medium. In a way, it’s more like painting. No matter how much money you pour into a theatrical production, there’s still an absolute upper limit on the number of people who can see it at any one time. (The theater where Symphonie Fantastique is playing, for example, contains only 199 seats.) The importance of this upper limit is that it similarly limits the amount of money that can usefully be spent on any individual production. Hence big-budget shows like Bombay Dreams and Dracula: The Musical are an aberration. Real theater is about making magic out of next to nothing. As the director John Dexter wrote in his autobiography, "To hell with economy, spend imagination."

    That’s one of the reasons why I went out of my way to see Symphonie Fantastique on the afternoon of 9/11. Later that day I went with a friend to Michael Mann’s Collateral, a film on which a very large amount of money was spent in very obvious ways. I liked it, too—I wouldn’t dream of pretending otherwise. What’s more, Collateral will be seen by infinitely more people in a single weekend than will see Symphonie Fantastique in the whole of its run. Nor is its technology-enabled ubiquity in any way a bad thing. As I wrote several years ago in Fi,

    I never heard Bill Evans play in person: he died before I moved to Manhattan. Thus, my whole knowledge of his playing derives from his recordings. In fact, I suspect most of the really important musical experiences of my life (not counting the ones in which I was a participant) have come to me not in the flesh but through the medium of recorded sound….

    It may well be that the most important thing about the phonograph is its unique capacity to reproduce and disseminate those aspects of musical performance which cannot be notated. (If you doubt this, take a moment to reflect on the difference between reading about The Who and listening to Live at Leeds.) This capacity is not without its disadvantages. For one thing, it has caused us to grossly overemphasize the role of execution in musical experience: veteran record collectors habitually spend far too much time talking about whose recording of the Bartók Violin Concerto is best, and not nearly enough talking about the Bartók Violin Concerto itself. But it has also made it possible for us to re-experience great performances of the past—including, among many other things, the world premiere of the Bartók Violin Concerto. I've been listening to old records for well over half my lifetime, and yet it never quite ceases to amaze me that simply by pushing a button, I can hear Joseph Joachim playing Bach, or Louis Armstrong rapping out that golden introduction to "West End Blues."

    And yet, and yet…there is no possible substitute for being in the same room with Kristin Chenoweth (even if it’s a really big room), or standing five feet away from a painting made by the hands of Vermeer or Manet or Fairfield Porter, or sitting ten feet away from Luciana Souza at Joe’s Pub, listening to a performance that will never again be repeated in exactly the same way. What’s more, it does nothing to diminish the significance of Citizen Kane or The Rules of the Game to acknowledge that fact. Film and recorded sound are wonderful, immensely powerful things—but the one thing they cannot do is remind us of how good it is to be alive, here and now, in the evanescent moment. That's why I chose to spend the afternoon of the anniversary of 9/11 in the company of a group of puppeteers, immersed in the immediate experience of art.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "The part of the inexplicable should be allowed for in appraising the conduct of men in a world where no explanation is final."

    Joseph Conrad, A Personal Record

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 13, 2004 | Permanent link
Friday, September 19, 2003
    And then some

    Too much, too much—and a hurricane to boot. I’ve had enough for one week. You must content yourself with a varied but essentially miscellaneous set of offerings today. I’ll post something more ambitious on Monday. Today’s topics, from brisk to torrential: (1) Puck in shades. (2) Dancers without money. (3) The Iran National Museum and its discontents. (4) An opening line I wish I’d written. (5) It must be Jelly, ’cause jam don’t swing like that. (6) The debut of "Today’s Installment" (part one of an enigmatic new daily feature). (7) The latest almanac entry.

    Have a nice weekend. In the immortal words of J.J. Gittes, I plan to do as little as possible.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 19, 2003 | Permanent link
    Stranger than Hollywood

    I went to Washington last Friday for the opening of Shakespeare in Hollywood, Ken Ludwig’s new play, at the Arena Stage. My review is in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s how it starts:

    I’ve been spending so much time in Manhattan aisle seats that I almost forgot there was life beyond the Hudson River. To recapture my sense of perspective, I took a train to Washington, home of the Arena Stage, a well-regarded regional theater-in-the-round that launched its new season last Friday with the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s "Shakespeare in Hollywood," a noisy, funny, thoroughly agreeable play about what happens when two of the Bard’s best-known characters take a wrong turn at Albuquerque and find themselves stuck on a soundstage.

    "Shakespeare in Hollywood," which runs through Oct. 19, is based on a real-life event that in retrospect seems almost as comically implausible as Mr. Ludwig’s script. In 1934, Max Reinhardt brought his lavish staging of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" to the Hollywood Bowl. Jack Warner, of all people, got the idea of hiring the German émigré director to make a big-budget film version for Warner Bros. starring Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, Dick Powell as Lysander, Jimmy Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck. Released the following year, it took six months to make and cost a whopping $1.5 million ($19.4 million in 2002 dollars).

    Mr. Ludwig, the author of "Lend Me a Tenor," has used that fantastic event as the pretext for an even more fantastic backstage comedy in which Oberon (Casey Biggs), Shakespeare’s King of the Fairies, and Puck (Emily Donahoe), his jester and general factotum, get their spells crossed and are transported to the set of Reinhardt’s film, on which hijinks are already well under way….

    To read the rest of the review, pick up a copy of the Journal and turn to the drama page in the "Weekend Journal" section, which contains, as usual, lots of interesting stuff.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 19, 2003 | Permanent link
    Elsewhere

    Artsjournal.com, which hosts "About Last Night," linked to a hair-raising story in Backstage about a recent NEA report predicting that "not-for-profit dance companies may see as much as a 30% loss of earned income in the next few years, and even a heavier fall in contributions." I haven’t yet seen the whole report (which is coyly titled "Raising the Barre"), but it clearly demands a closer look.

    The "Leisure & Arts" page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried an abridged version of a detailed briefing given last week by Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine officer in charge of the official investigation of the looting of the Iraq National Museum. No matter what you think you think about this event, you need to go here and read what Col. Bogdanos has to say about it.

    In other news, The Minor Fall, the Major Lift, who is both cleverer and funnier than I am (that’s not news), actually managed to come up with a clever and funny way to explain why he wouldn’t be posting anything yesterday.

    Meanwhile, Maud Newton passed along some famous and not-so-famous first sentences from novels (presumably they’re favorites of hers, though she didn’t say). This happens to be one of my own preferred games, so I am embarrassed to admit that she snagged one from a book I love by an author I love…and I never noticed it until now. Do you recognize it?

    It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

    If not, go here and scroll down to behold the source of my shame.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 19, 2003 | Permanent link
    This one's for you, Paul

    One of my most loyal readers (who was kind enough to introduce me at the Mencken Lecture in Baltimore last week) has been after me to do this again, so…

    Go here and click on "Wolverine Blues," and if you have a RealAudio player you will be rewarded with three minutes of pure pleasure, courtesy of Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, and the folks at www.redhotjazz.com.

    Consider it my present to all of you for toughing out a long week with me.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 19, 2003 | Permanent link
    Today's installment

    1.

    The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 19, 2003 | Permanent link
    Almanac

    "But listen here, there ain’t anything worth doing a man can do and keep his dignity. Can you figure out a single thing you really please-God like to do you can do and keep your dignity? The human frame just ain’t built that way."

    Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, September 19, 2003 | Permanent link
Thursday, September 18, 2003
    In the moment, significantly elevated

    A report on current events: I’m still riding the crazy-busy wave, and still staying afloat. I went to bed at three and got up at seven to write my review of Shakespeare in Hollywood for Friday’s Wall Street Journal (watch this space for details). Then I hailed a cab that dropped me off in Harlem, where I ate red beans and rice (Louis Armstrong’s favorite dish) with Leonard Garment and Loren Schoenberg, masterminds of the Jazz Museum in Harlem, which at present consists mainly of a frugally decorated office and a lot of good ideas. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.

    Following up theory with practice, I returned to my own office, signed off on the Journal piece, then went to the Jazz Standard to hear Bud Shank’s quartet. As I listened to Shank cleave the air with his flame-thrower tone and remembered that he was born in 1926, I asked myself, How does he do it? Of course it’s possible to play alto saxophone like that when you’re that old (I heard Benny Carter play as well—though with less stamina—when he was a decade older), but it’s a long, long way from possible to probable. And did that faze Shank? Not in the slightest. He stood up in front of a world-class rhythm section that was lobbing musical hand grenades into the crowd and soloed like a man half his age, if that.

    After performing Gerry Mulligan’s "Idol Gossip," Shank announced a medley dedicated to another "fallen warrior," Bill Evans. That set me to thinking. Yes, the titans of prewar jazz are gone now, and the surviving giants of the Forties and Fifties are dropping like flies, but it’s still possible to go to a New York nightclub and hear a man who played alto sax with Stan Kenton in 1950, left an indelible mark on the West Coast jazz scene—and then got even better. Back in the Fifties, Shank’s playing was smart, elegant, and sweetly lyrical. Now it’s ferocious. Midway through "Idol Gossip," he sauntered away from center stage, planted himself in the bend of Bill Mays’ piano, and tore off a half-dozen choruses without benefit of amplification, soaring effortlessly over Joe LaBarbera’s drums. Microphones? He don’t need no stinking microphones! So forget the good old days—they’re right now.

    (If I’ve piqued your curiosity, go here to purchase Silver Storm, a 2000 sextet date also featuring Mays and LaBarbera.)

    Anyway, that’s what I did yesterday, and now I’m back home again, running on fumes and adrenalin in order to give you something to read today. I have two more items to write, then I’m taking the phone off the hook and going to bed for as long as my brain permits. Tomorrow is—thank God—another day, with no appointments, no deadlines, nothing to contend with but (A) a birthday party in Brooklyn and (B) a hurricane.

    Assuming that I haven't been washed into the Hudson River by Friday, I’ll be having lunch that day with one of the celebrated bloggers who graces "Sites to See" (guess who?), then going to the press preview of Bill Irwin’s Harlequin Studies at the Signature Theatre, about which more on Monday. The fun never stops around here….

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 18, 2003 | Permanent link
    Things not seen

    While in Washington last Friday, I dropped by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to see "Gyroscope," a large-scale, long-running exhibition drawn from that museum’s permanent collection. I don’t plan to write about it in detail, mainly because I don’t need to (Tyler Green, who blogs at Modern Art Notes, did it here, better than I possibly could), but I did want to tell you about an educational experience I had while walking through the show.

    As those of you who know me personally are all too aware, I have reached that unhappy age when I am sorely in need of bifocals. Alas, I’m too stubborn/vain/lazy to go to the trouble of getting a pair, so I continue to do without. I noticed for the first time at the Hirshhorn on Friday that I can no longer read the wall labels at museums without taking off my glasses. At first I found this to be irritating, but before long I realized that it was liberating.

    Confession time: I have another little problem, which is that my eyes reflexively go to the labels in a group show, very often before I’ve taken in the works of art they identify. I can’t help myself—I’m a slave to the printed word. Only I can’t do it anymore. To read the labels, I now have to pull off my glasses and move in close, which takes away all the fun. As a result, I looked at "Gyroscope" the right way, meaning what first and who second, and not infrequently, I didn’t even bother to find out who. (In addition to a reasonably generous helping of good stuff, "Gyroscope" contains more than its fair share of crappy art.) Dr. Albert Barnes, who deliberately hung the paintings in the Barnes Collection without labels in order to force visitors to think harder about the art they were there to see, would have been proud of me.

    Needless to say, I had no trouble identifying many of the artists whose work was on display (no points for spotting a Kenneth Noland at a hundred yards), but even in the galleries where there was no possible doubt about what I was seeing, I learned a lesson from consistently looking at the paintings first. Take the gallery devoted to what I suppose might be called Pop Art and Its Predecessors. The big stuff, the jumbo canvases by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Indiana, caught my eye first, but as soon as I glanced at the two medium-sized Stuart Davises (one of which was the amazing Rapt at Rappaport’s) facing each other on opposite walls, I knew who the real master was.

    I've just admitted to a naďve-sounding disability which I’m sure will make some of you smile. I came late to the visual arts, and I still fall on my face with humbling regularity. I’m no connoisseur, just a guy who likes to look at paintings, though I trust my eye and my taste. On the other hand, I don’t trust them far enough to be absolutely sure I’m always seeing paintings, not reputations, which is one of the minor reasons why I think I’ll put off getting that first pair of bifocals for a little while longer.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 18, 2003 | Permanent link
    Almanac

    "The difference between a critic and a reviewer is, I forget."

    Wilfrid Sheed, Max Jamison

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, September 18, 2003 | Permanent link
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
    Immediate experiences

    Kindly note the time stamp. Contrary to the suspicions of certain of my loyal readers, I do sleep from time to time, but Tuesday was yet another crazy-busy day, climaxed by a cultural double-header—I went to see Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation in Chelsea and the Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard, with sushi in between—from which I literally just returned. So instead of serving up a made dish, I’ll scratch down my first impressions of both events, followed by an item I wrote this morning and the latest almanac entry, in the hopes that the immediacy will excuse the haste.

    About Lost in Translation I don’t have much to add to what most of the critics have been saying, which is that it is a thoughtful, elegant, amazingly self-assured piece of work. I’m as suspicious of bandwagons as the next guy, but anyone capable of writing and directing a film like this is the real deal, regardless of her last name.

    Two observations:

    (1) I love the way Coppola catches the strangeness of surfaces in Tokyo—the subtly disorienting quality of a city that looks Western at first glance, but isn’t.

    (2) Bill Murray really is as good as everybody says, partly because he looks so nakedly middle-aged. The lines in his face are like the rings in a tree stump—you can read his age off them. (In another half-dozen years he’ll be a dead ringer for W.H. Auden.) I kept trying to figure out who he reminded me of, and all at once two names popped into my head: Jeff Bridges and Robert Mitchum, both of whom reek of that same barely penetrable disillusion. In fact, Murray’s performance is just inches away from film noir—I can almost imagine him playing Philip Marlowe, or Bridges’ part in The Fabulous Baker Boys.

    As for the Bad Plus, about whom I held forth in this space just the other day, I can only say that there isn’t another jazz piano trio in the world that sounds nearly as fresh. Not that their music is "jazz" in any strict sense of the word, since it draws no less deeply from the wells of contemporary pop and 20th-century classical music. Ethan Iverson, in particular, has liberated himself completely from the impressionism-derived harmonies and blues clichés that are the Scylla and Charybdis of post-1960 jazz piano. Yet there’s no question that the Bad Plus plays jazz, even when it’s merrily deconstructing such unlikely rock tunes as "Every Breath You Take." If you haven’t heard These Are the Vistas, their debut CD for Columbia, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

    That’s a lot of art to digest in one evening, but New York is like that. You can go straight from one memorable event to another without a break, and still get home before sunrise. Nevertheless, this posting is called on account of exhaustion (in addition to which I’ve got to get up first thing tomorrow morning and crank out a review of Ken Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood for Friday’s Wall Street Journal), so let me knock two more runners in and I’ll be off to bed.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 17, 2003 | Permanent link
    Your vote counts

    My editor and designer at Yale University Press are cooking up a dust jacket for A Terry Teachout Reader, the volume of my selected essays coming out next spring. First, it was going to be an all-typography jacket, which was perfectly fine by me, so of course that wouldn’t do. Then they wanted to put my photo on the front cover, which I nixed without hesitation. Then they asked me what I’d like to do. Since all the essays included in the book are about American artists (we actually planned at one point to call it All American: A Terry Teachout Reader), the thought occurred to me that it might be fun to put one of my favorite works of American art on the cover. To this end, I suggested four pieces that seemed to me variously evocative of American art and culture in the modern and post-modern eras.

    The first, logically enough, is my celebrated John Marin etching, Downtown. The El, a semi-cubist portrayal of downtown Manhattan circa 1921.

    The second, Fairfield Porter's 1971 color lithograph Broadway (not part of my collection, alas), is a more contemporary variation on a similar theme.

    Finally, two of Stuart Davis’ jazz-flavored paintings struck me as eminently suitable. The Whitney Museum’s Owh! in San Pao contains snippets of text that I thought highly suitable to a book about American art. And Ready-to-Wear, which belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago, seemed to me particularly appropriate because of the color scheme, in which red, white, and blue predominate.

    I sent all four links off to Yale last week, but haven’t heard back yet. What do you think?

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 17, 2003 | Permanent link
    Almanac

    "If intolerable alternatives are to be avoided, life must achieve various types of often uneasy equilibrium. I believe this deeply: but it is not a doctrine which inspires the young. They seek absolutes; and that usually, sooner or later, ends in blood."

    Sir Isaiah Berlin, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, September 17, 2003 | Permanent link
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
    The unintended consequences of gridlock

    Apologies—I spent most of yesterday either sitting in cabs (the traffic in New York was insane all day long) or waiting for other people who were sitting in cabs. Hence I spent very little time sitting at my desk, which means that today’s edition of "About Last Night" lacks that discursive generosity to which you’ve become accustomed. Nevertheless, I’m here, and so are you, so let’s get going. Today’s topics, from crisp to concise: (1) Music from a charnel house. (2) Paul Desmond’s ghost. (3) Middle-aisling it with Felix Salmon. (2) Murder at the Corcoran Museum. (4) The latest almanac entry.

    Say, where were you yesterday? The ratings were way down. Am I the only person in the blogosphere who didn’t take Monday off?

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 16, 2003 | Permanent link
    From beyond the grave

    Edmund Wilson claimed that one of his greatest pleasures was telling a friend about an especially good book he’d read, so long it was (1) out of print, (2) rare, and (3) written in a language the friend didn’t speak.

    Aside from being a hopeless monoglot, I’m too kind-hearted a soul to play that mildly sadistic game, but I do want to tell you about a recording I heard the other day that you almost certainly haven’t heard, and very possibly will never hear. It’s the first recording of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, made by Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic just four months after they gave the 1937 premiere. So far as I know, this recording has never been issued, much less reissued, in the West. It turned up a few years ago as a bonus CD in an obscure Japanese box set devoted to Mravinsky’s early recordings, and a collector I know burned a copy and presented it to me Saturday afternoon at the Mencken Day celebrations in Baltimore.

    If you’re a Mravinsky buff or a Shostakovich scholar, the inherent interest of this performance will be self-evident. If not…well, give this some thought. Shostakovich wrote the Fifth Symphony not long after Stalin’s culture thugs put him in the hot seat by attacking his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Pravda. All at once, Soviet Russia’s most celebrated composer had a bull’s-eye hung around his neck, and for the rest of his life he would be haunted by the memory of the fear he first knew on that terrible day. Shostakovich was well aware that the KGB could drag him away in the middle of the night, never to be seen again, just like they’d already disposed of tens of thousands of his fellow Russians. He wrote the Fifth Symphony when that fear was still fresh and raw, and though a Communist "critic" (i.e, hack) dubbed it "a Soviet artist’s creative reply to just criticism," everybody with ears to hear knew that it was a lament for Russia.

    Years later, Mravinsky was rehearsing the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony with the Leningrad Philharmonic, an occasion about which one of the violinists told the following story:

    Mravinsky turned around to the violin sections and said, "You’re playing this tremolo with the wrong color, you haven’t got the necessary intensity. Have you forgotten what this music is about and when it was born?"

    Can you hear any of that in the 1938 recording? I’m not sure. My experience of it is colored too sharply by what I know of the circumstances under which it was made. I have no doubt that beneath the scratch and grind of the old shellac discs, I can hear an orchestra playing with fire and commitment, performing a still-unfamiliar piece on which the ink was still barely dry—and playing it as if they knew it was a masterpiece, which of course it was. But what were they thinking? What was Mravinsky thinking? I cannot imagine my way back to the time and place in which that recording was made, in a country ankle-deep with the blood of innocents, mere weeks after a premiere performance at the end of which the audience cheered for a half-hour.

    I dropped my new Alex Katz lithograph off yesterday afternoon at a framing shop in my neighborhood. I do a good bit of business there, and so I struck up a conversation with the fellow who runs the store. He’s a refugee from Afghanistan, and we got to talking about how that country has suffered—first at the hands of the Russians, then at the hands of the Taliban. I mentioned that the Taliban had banned all secular music from Afghanistan. He shook his head in disgust. "You cannot live like that," he said. "You cannot. You know I still have family over there? They tell me there is much poverty, many poor people who are lucky if they eat twice a day—but they’re happy now, because they don’t have to live like that anymore."

    I don’t know if my framer much cares for Western music, and I know he doesn’t care for Russians, but I think he might possibly appreciate my new recording of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. Even if he didn’t like the music, I think he’d understand what it must have meant for a man to write a piece like that, and for a hundred other men to play it, in the midst of such horror. I know I can’t appreciate it, not really—and I hope I never do.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 16, 2003 | Permanent link
    Nothing but the truth

    I had dinner on Sunday with a friend of mine who is the daughter of a guitarist who played quite a bit with the late Paul Desmond, the alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and my favorite jazz musician ever. She’d recently been interviewed by Doug Ramsey, who is at work on a biography of Desmond, so we got to chatting about his life and music. Then we strolled around the corner to a Japanese restaurant, and just as we were sitting down, we noticed that the background music was "Le Souk," the last track on the first side of the Brubeck Quartet’s Jazz Goes to College, the very first jazz album I ever heard. (My father owned a battered copy which I found in his record cabinet some 35 years ago, thereby changing my life beyond recognition…but that’s another story for another day.)

    We both heard it at exactly the same moment. Then my friend looked at me, grinned, and said, "Paul’s here."

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 16, 2003 | Permanent link
    Elsewhere

    Felix Salmon has taken note of my recent postings on Zankel Hall, and begs to differ with my suggestion that the joint needs a center aisle. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but he definitely makes a strong case, not to mention witty and well-informed.

    Blake Gopnik, art critic of the Washington Post, recently torched and sewed salt on the ashes of "Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited: The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr.," a show of three-dimensional sculptural renderings of impressionist paintings currently on display at Washington’s Corcoran Museum of Art. I’ll cut right to the rough stuff:

    Once upon a time—as recently as the '70s and even later—the Corcoran was a significant force on the national art scene. That reputation has slipped badly over the last few years; when I'm on the road, people often ask me, "What's with the Corcoran these days? Is it still around?"

    And now, thanks to the prankster art of J. Seward Johnson, the Corcoran has fallen even further. It has tumbled all the way from nobody to laughingstock.

    Go here to read the whole thing. I regret to say that it sounds all too convincing.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 16, 2003 | Permanent link
    Almanac

    "In cities men cannot be prevented from concerting together and awakening a mutual excitement that prompts sudden and passionate resolutions."

    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, September 16, 2003 | Permanent link
Monday, September 15, 2003
    Back at the helm

    The weekend was eventful—Washington and Baltimore in quick succession—but New York beckoned, so I returned. How could I leave you hanging? Here are today’s topics, from quick to dirty: (1) How to spend your jazz-related entertainment dollar this week in New York. (2) Turn your radio on and I’ll croon for you. (3) "In the Bag." (4) A pair of revealing vignettes. (5) The latest almanac entry.

    My ratings fell off a bit last Friday, after a very encouraging week. Did all of you take one last long weekend before the fall season gets going in earnest? If so, did you remember to exhort your friends, colleagues, lovers, and enemies to read www.terryteachout.com regularly—before leaving town? (Long, awkward silence.)

    I suspected as much. All is forgiven—but get with the program.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 15, 2003 | Permanent link
    Words to the wise

    Two jazz gigs worth hearing:

    The Bad Plus is appearing Tuesday through Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Here’s what I wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year about their debut CD, These Are the Vistas:

    The Bad Plus is a piano trio, one of jazz’s most familiar lineups—only Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and David King don’t sound anything like Ahmad Jamal or Oscar Peterson. Instead of the usual show tunes and jazz standards, they play "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Heart of Glass," and weirdly tilted original compositions with titles like "Silence Is the Question" and "Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass." Their producer is Tchad Blake, whose credits include albums by Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega and Pearl Jam. And "These Are the Vistas" (Columbia), their major-label debut, isn’t just a breath of fresh air—it’s a tornado….

    The Bad Plus doesn’t do cutesy watered-down covers of hit singles. Instead, they deconstruct the songs of Blondie, Nirvana and Aphex Twin with the same rigorous conceptual clarity that goes into their own originals, and their group sound—blunt, clear-cut, full of splintery dissonances and jolting musical jokes—blends jazz, rock and classical music so indissolubly as to make the differences between the three musics seem trivial.

    Alto saxophonist Bud Shank is appearing on Wednesday and Thursday at the Jazz Standard. If you don’t recognize the name, Shank is one of the indisputable giants of West Coast jazz. Prominently featured on dozens of classic Contemporary and Pacific Jazz albums of the Fifties, he’s still alive, well, and by all accounts playing his ass off. As if that alone weren’t recommendation enough, he’ll be backed by a world-class rhythm section anchored by pianist Bill Mays, who was staggeringly adventurous last week at Marvin Stamm’s Birdland gig.

    I can’t remember the last time Shank played a New York nightclub gig—in fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never heard him live—and I don’t plan to pass up this rare opportunity to find out what he’s sounding like these days. You come, too.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 15, 2003 | Permanent link
    On the air

    I’ll be appearing Tuesday on National Public Radio’s Performance Today to talk about the opening of Zankel Hall, as part of a broadcast from the new hall of a concert by Emanuel Ax and the Emerson String Quartet.

    Performance Today airs at different times in different cities. To find out more about the show, including where and when to tune in, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 15, 2003 | Permanent link
    In the bag

    Time again for "In the Bag," the game that challenges you to put aside pride and admit what art you really like. The rules: you can put any five works of art into your bag before departing for a desert island, but you have to choose right now. No stalling or dithering—the armies of the night are pounding on your front door. No posturing—you have to say the first five things that pop into your head, no matter how uncool they may sound. What do you stuff in the bag?

    Here are my picks, as of this second:

    PAINTING: Arthur Dove, Rain or Snow (scroll down to see it)

    MUSIC: Maurice Ravel, Piano Concerto in G (slow movement, performed by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli)

    NOVEL: James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

    FILM: Roman Polanski, Chinatown

    POP SONG: Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

    Your turn.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 15, 2003 | Permanent link
    Two snapshots of the art world

    (1) I ordered a copy of this Alex Katz lithograph from a London print dealer three weeks ago. It hadn’t reached me as of last Thursday, so I sent the dealer an e-mail asking if anything was wrong. He wrote back to say that he’d been having quite a bit of trouble of late with slow deliveries to the United States, adding that the reason must be that the U.S. Postal Service had been "Bushed."

    (2) When I arrived at Washington’s Union Station on Friday, I jumped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. He looked puzzled, asked me if I knew where it was, scratched his head, then had an epiphany. "Oh, yes," he said, "I believe I do know that one, but nobody ever wants to go there—I take somebody there maybe once a year."

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 15, 2003 | Permanent link
    Almanac

    "During a technically very complicated recording at Goldwyn Studios, one of the playback machines broke down time and time again, causing endless delays. Finally I succumbed to the luxury of pointless anger. ‘How long do we all have to sit here waiting?’ I shouted loudly. ‘Why can’t this thing be fixed, and fixed now?’ I finished this Wagnerian moment and turned rather imperiously. Right next to me, seated at the orchestral piano, was the great jazz pianist Russ Freeman, a good friend. He leaned over so he could whisper to me. ‘Can I stay and watch you wig out, man?’ he asked, a man interested in the answer. I was very grateful. One small put-down, friend to friend, had saved me from acting like a total ass."

    André Previn, No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, September 15, 2003 | Permanent link

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