Friday, December 20, 2013

The best movies of 2013 (that I saw, anyhow)

Movie critics often lament in December how few memorable films came out over the previous 12 months. I’ve done that from time to time, but not this year: 2013 had plenty of highlights. You’ll have to take my word on some of these, as three films in my top 10 won’t get here until Jan. 10, and another two never opened locally at all (as far as I know). That’s why we have DVD players – and patience.

Here’s the roster, with honorable mentions at the bottom that were just as good as most of the entries in the first 10.

1) “Gravity” – Technically jaw-dropping, deeply moving, compelling acted, gorgeously shot, not a moment too long or too short. An astronaut marooned in space tries to get home, with Sandra Bullock delivering the performance of her career and director Alfonso Cuaron taking our eyes places they’ve never been (and in 3-D).

2) “12 Years a Slave” – Impossible to watch twice, essential to watch once. British director Steve McQueen has made the best film ever about American slavery, as a free man in New York state (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gets kidnapped by slavers and tries to regain his freedom without losing his dignity, physical well-being or sanity.

3) “Her” – Writer-director Spike Jonze makes a tender drama about a shy, lonely man (the terrific Joaquin Phoenix) who finally develops a satisfying relationship. Unfortunately, it’s with the disembodied voice of a personal operating system in his computer (Scarlett Johansson), and “she” understands him like no one else.

4) “Captain Phillips” – Director Paul Greengrass maintains the “you are there” tension in this story of a cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Tom Hanks and talented newcomer Barkhad Abdi play a cat-and-mouse game as the ship’s shrewd captain and the ragged pirate on whom the Somalis rely.

5) “Inside Llewyn Davis” – The Coen brothers deliver their first unexaggerated portrait of a protagonist. He’s a folk singer in the early 1960s (well played and sung by Oscar Isaac) who clings stubbornly to his would-be career, despite everyone else’s insistence that he’ll never succeed. Touchingly down-to-earth.

6) “A Hijacking” – Another story about a ship taken over by Somali pirates, but the focus in this Danish drama is on the cook chosen to communicate with the home office and the company president who hires a professional negotiator to advise him. As weeks drag on without resolution, a different kind of tension begins to grip us.

7) “The Spectacular Now” – One of the most honest movies I’ve ever seen about high school students. Miles Teller plays a smart, self-assured senior looking for a reason to care about anything; Shailene Woodley is the smarter, quiet girl who may give it to him, if she believes he can stop drinking and grow up.

8) “The Great Gatsby” – One of the greatest American novels finally gets a worthy screen adaptation in Baz Luhrmann’s re-imagining, modern rap soundtrack and all. Leonardo DiCaprio surpasses himself as the rich, reckless, tragically fated investor who realizes too late that he’s empty at his emotional, spiritual core.

9) “Room 237” – This fascinating documentary takes its name from the place in “The Shining” where terrible things occur. It consists of fantastical fan theories about Stanley Kubrick’s film that occasionally illuminate it (perhaps) but mostly show the deranged lengths to which Americans go to support crazy notions.

10) “August: Osage County” – The most dysfunctional family since Oedipus’ clan reunites when the father goes missing. Tracy Letts’ stage version had more bite than this adaptation, but the acting ensemble – including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch – may be the year’s best.

Honorable mention in alphabetical order: “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Enough Said,” “Frozen,” “The Hunt,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Five musical post-Christmas gifts

No reason to stop giving just because the holiday season has come and gone, right? Your friends will appreciate these five CDs if they drop out of the sky for no reason at all. Two of them are essential listening; the other three have their charms.

I'm going to start with the most impressive classical recording I've heard in months: Igor Levit playing Beethoven's last five piano sonatas on a two-disc set for Sony. At 26, he has gone head to head with all the greats who've recorded these pieces so impressively -- Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff, Mitusko Uchida and so many others -- and come out with a fresh interpretation. Each rush of excitement or moment of gentle musing seems spontaneous, as if he were improvising. The Russian pianist knows Chopin was already composing when Beethoven died, and his poetic playing links the two composers in spirit. Here's a sample from a live performances of Beethoven's Sonata No. 31, slightly different from the one on this superbly recorded studio set:

My favorite original cast recording in multiple moons comes from "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," an adaptation of one section of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace." I can't begin to give you a sense of it with a lone excerpt, because composer-lyricist Dave Malloy veers from cabaret-style songs to melancholy ballads to comic numbers that bolt like a runaway horse. (He even has time for a brief, funny parody of a Philip Glass-style opera.) Here's an excerpt, with the cast singing the prologue at an outdoor gig:

The show was created as an immersive experience, with members of the cast serving Russian food and dropping by to sit briefly at your table. The recording on Ghostlight Records goes as far as any could in recreating that feeling of being at a party, among friends related a tragic but ultimately redemptive story. (Well, redemptive for one character, anyhow. No spoilers here.)

The other three albums may appeal more to niche audiences. (All of these come from Ghostlight, too.) A new recording of "Marry Me a Little," assembling 17 rarely heard Stephen Sondheim songs, slightly changes the off-off-Broadway show conceived by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene in 1980. (For instance, the wistful "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" is in; "Pour le Sport" is out.) Lauren Molina and Jason Tam sing sensitively; though few of these songs are top-drawer Sondheim, they hold up.

If you enjoyed the recent TV "Sound of Music," especially Laura Benanti's performance as Elsa, you're the target audience for "In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention," a live recording of her act from 54 Below in New York. (I'd call it a solo CD, but music director/pianist Todd Almond and his trio make crucial contributions.) Benanti scales down her Broadway-sized pipes, shows a quirky sense of humor and works through a strong, 13-song set with monologues attached. She ends with numbers from two roles she played on Broadway, "Unusual Way" (from "Nine") and the hilarious "Model Behavior" (from "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown").

For me, the main attractions in "Somethin' Real Special" are the still underappreciated lyrics by Dorothy Fields. As the notes by Maury Yeston say, she could write romantic standards ("I'm in the Mood for Love," "The Way You Look Tonight") or Lorenz Hart-like banter ("Then You Went and Changed Your Mind"), and she was comfortable with composers who favored the blues (Harold Arlen), old-fashioned romanticism (Sigmund Romberg) or jazz (Jimmy McHugh). Philip Chaffin's light baritone best conveys the lyrical ballads; he can't quite swing, but he puts over sweeter songs seldom heard nowadays, including the title cut and the introspective "Alone Too Long." A 25-piece orchestra backs him with a rich sound.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Farewell, Peter O'Toole

The last member of an acting generation -- and my favorite film actor, Daniel Day-Lewis possibly excepted -- died Sunday. Before I go further, here's a sample of the acting that knocked me out:

O'Toole was the last of the grand personalities from the 1950s who boozed and brawled and womanized while acting up a storm: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Peter Finch and others. O'Toole had the longest career of any of them: He was acting right up to his death, often in small roles in movies with religious themes, and "Katherine of Alexandria" will come out in 2014. (He once described himself as "a retired Christian," expressing admiration for Jesus' teachings.)

There are two kinds of movie stars: comets and chameleons. The first impress us with the force of their personalities, often playing similar characters, and the second choose to hide inside characters. I couldn't name a dozen performers who could fit into both categories across their careers, but O'Toole was one of them.

Consider what may be his greatest work, playing a mad nobleman in the savage satire "The Ruling Class." He begins by proclaiming himself the reincarnated Christ and preaching peace; when his disgusted upper-crust family cures him of this delusion, he manages to pass for sane and take his seat in the House of Lords -- this time, convinced he's the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper:

O'Toole set an all-time record for futility at the Academy Awards, though he received an honorary Oscar in 2003 for career achievement. He was nominated for best actor eight times and lost eight times. Without fail, his most brilliant work was ignored in the hubbub over an iconic performance: John Wayne in "True Grit," Marlon Brando in "The Godfather," Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull," Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi." O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia, which Premiere magazine deemed the greatest film performance of all  time, had the evil fortune of competing against Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The auburn-haired Irishman certainly made subpar movies from time to time. But he was never subpar IN a movie, and his work sometimes brought a touch of greatness to an otherwise pleasant outing. One of those was "Venus," the 2006 drama that earned him his last Oscar nomination; he played an elderly actor infatuated with a tough young woman. (Sure enough, he lost to Forest Whitaker's rampaging Idi Amin in "Last King of Scotland.")

The title character in "Venus" asks O'Toole's Maurice if he believes in anything. "Pleasure, I like," he replies. "I've tried to give pleasure. That's all I'd recommend to anyone." He never stopped.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Five Christmas songs that make me sad

Technically, that would be any Christmas song. The uplifting ones remind me of how far we fall short in carrying out Christ's messages about tolerance, kindness, love for our fellow man -- including the ones we don't immediately find lovable -- and assistance for those who need it. I see too little of that in North Carolina (or the world, for that matter) these days.

Most intentionally sad Christmas songs, such as "Blue Christmas," remark on the absence of a loved one. Those aren't especially sad to me, unless the singer is imprisoned for life, because a reunion is possible if the parted lovers get together or make up or overcome obstacles. Here are my five choices, in alphabetical order:

"I Believe in Father Christmas" -- Greg Lake expresses his disgust for humanity, which has failed to achieve the dream: "They said there'll be snow at Christmas/They said there'll be peace on Earth/But instead it just kept on raining/A veil of tears for the virgin's birth." He concludes with this: "Hallelujah! Noel! Be it heaven or hell/The Christmas we get we deserve." Ouch.

"If We Make it Through December" -- Merle Haggard has wrongly been claimed by conservatives (he's more of a libertarian), but people from any political party can appreciate this mournful tune about a guy who gets laid off at a factory just before the holidays. His "little girl don't understand why daddy can't afford no Christmas here." An all too common story nowadays.

"Mamacita, donde esta Santa Claus?" -- Sung to a cha cha beat and meant to be funny, as a little boy asks his mother where Santa may be. The kid expects to hear Santa click his castanets on the roof and call out to his reindeer: Pedro, Vixen, Pancho and Blitzen. But his mom doesn't reply, and somehow I don't think he's getting any gifts. Might just be me, though.

"Pretty Paper" -- Shoppers bustle to and fro. Money changes hands, everyone's loaded with presents and heading home in a good mood -- except for the weeping homeless guy sitting on the curb. The narrator thinks about stopping to do a good deed, but he's in such a hurry! And homeless guys are depressing, so he moves on. Written by Willie Nelson, sung unforgettably by Roy Orbison:

"Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto" -- James Brown urges Saint Nicholas to leave "a toy for Johnnie, a dog for Mary, something pretty for Donnie, and don't forget Gary." Everybody has forgotten these kids except, perhaps, Santa. Brown puts a little poignant coda on it, remembering childhood poverty: "You know that I know that you will see/'Cause that was once me."

Friday, December 6, 2013

Was Nelson Mandela a cheap tipper?

Probably not. But after countless tributes to selflessness, patience and high-mindedness -- all of which I'm sure he had -- I'm starting to wonder if he spent 27 years on Robbens Island without once cussing a prison guard.

The film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" comes out later this month, and advance word suggests it depicts the title character as a saint. I'm willing to believe he had deep wells of kindness and dignity, but I don't want to sit through a canonization. I'm looking forward more to "The Mountaintop," the Katori Hall play that Blumenthal Performing Arts will import in February. It depicts Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of his assassination as a brave, conflicted, intelligent but imperfect man.

I don't expect anyone to pay tribute to Mandela a day after his death by saying he liked to punch kittens. But this constant flow of lofty praise washes away his humanity. Was he bad at ping-pong? Addicted to car-chase movies? An irritating kibitzer at poker games? Likely to loll around the living room when company came and refuse to put on a decent shirt? The person emerging from this adulation isn't a person at all: He's a symbol.

On the day after Richard Nixon's obituary ran, a reader asked me why the news about Watergate had to be placed so high in it. Now that Nixon was dead, why not simply report the good qualities he had? I pointed out that Nixon was the only president chased out of office by his misdeeds, however significant or trivial one considers them, and that was enormous news. (As the caller was a staunch Republican, I promised that Bill Clinton's obit would mention Monica Lewinsky prominently. I'm sure it will.)

Nobody forced Mandela to quit the presidency of South Africa, of course, and one needn't wash every piece of dirty linen in public. If Mandela had screaming arguments with his brother-in-law over Christmas dinners, who cares? But worshipping at the base of his tomb -- especially in the case of a man who, by all accounts, would have been embarrassed by such attention -- doesn't do this great man a service.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

You're naked, lecturing to strangers

Did you ever have that panic-inducing dream? Maybe you've had the "taking the final exam in a course I've never attended" nightmare. If so, the look on your sleeping face was probably like the one on pianist Maria Joao Pires in this video, when she realized she had showed up for a concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra after preparing the wrong concerto.

This moment of confusion came before a free rehearsal for the evening performance, but the hall was full of people. (The Charlotte Symphony invites the public to its rehearsals, too.) Pires had the right composer: Mozart, one of the three men this poet of the keyboard has made her specialty all her career. (The others are Chopin and Schubert.) But where music director Riccardo Chailly had prepped his orchestra for Concerto No. 20, Mozart's most dramatic, she had been working on the sunnier 21st.

I like this video for three reasons. First, it shows that a world-class artist can make a horrible mistake but pull herself out of it almost immediately: Pires starts playing the D Minor from memory after a few seconds of preparation, and the opening bars indicate she's in full emotional command.

Second, the genial Chailly can elicit a tremendously weighty sound from one of the world's best orchestras while chatting with his soloist: When she explains that she'll try to play the piece he's started, he calmly says, "I'm sure you do that. You know it too well." He never stops conducting, never looks worried, never falters.

Third, it reminds me that a great performance of Mozart can't be topped, and you can see this will be one. The combination of the Dutch orchestra and the Portuguese pianist looks like it must have been a terrific blend. In case you'd like to hear her do the whole piece, here's a performance from 10 years ago with Pierre Boulez and the Berlin Philharmonic:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Maria Callas, gone too soon

The greatest soprano in the world was born 90 years ago today in Manhattan, christened Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou and died exactly one month after Elvis Presley in 1977. At 53, an age when most sopranos begin gracefully to withdraw from leading roles, she was already retired and 20 years past her prime.

But what a prime! At her best, she married vocal skill to dramatic expression like no soprano before or since. Here's a sample:

That's what she sounded like in 1953, in the title role of what may be the most perfect opera recording: A "Tosca" with Victor de Sabata conducting, Giuseppe di Stefano (also in his very short prime) as the ardent Cavaradossi and Tito Gobbi as the venomous Scarpia.

And here's a video excerpt of a performance of the same role five years later with Gobbi. This consummate actress made only one official piece of video, the second act from "Tosca" in the mid-'60s, when her voice was beginning to go. But bootlegs such as this one abound.

She had limitations: She sang almost entirely in Italian, only occasionally making a foray into French. (The same was true of Pavarotti.) She never ventured into comedy, except for a couple of biting Rossini roles. She had no desire to play -- and perhaps could not play -- less complex parts. On the other hand, she started the revival of bel canto operas (where beautiful singing is paramount) and helped us rediscover Bellini and rarer Rossini and Donizetti pieces.

No one I have ever heard could be such a self-sacrificing yet embittered Norma in Bellini's opera, such a mercurial (and deep) Carmen in Bizet even after her voice was shaky, so pathetic a doomed Lucia di Lammermoor in Donizetti. (She's the only singer who has ever made Lucia's 15-minute mad scene tolerable.) Leonard Bernstein reportedly called her "the Bible," referring to the unquestionable authenticity of her performances.

Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi (Callas' main rival in the 1950s) and other contemporaries had longer careers and burned just as brightly in certain parts. After Callas dropped 80 pounds in 1954, her vocal production changed; she said she lost strength in her diaphragm, which made her lose confidence in herself. That led to vocal strain and a pronounced wobble. But in her brief, glorious heyday, no one could touch her.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Jean Shepherd: Back after 14 years in the grave

Some of you first encountered humorist Jean Shepherd through "A Christmas Story," the movie (and later Broadway musical) based on his boyhood experiences in Hammond, Ind., during The Depression. Some of you may have read his stories in the immortal collection "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."

I first heard him on a tiny transistor radio, smuggled into my bed so I could listen to his 11 p.m. broadcasts on WOR-AM out of New York. I was in high school at the time, roughly 1969-71, and I enjoyed his sardonic, faux-folksy commentaries on life's absurdities. He had a first-rate radio voice: relaxed, avuncular when he wanted it to be, ironic and occasionally moved by genuine emotions.

Here's a taste of Shep, reading one of his stories:

He died in 1999, long after he'd left radio behind. But I could hear that voice again as I read "Shep's Army: Bummers, Blisters and Boondoggles." The Opus book, which goes for $14.95 in paperback, has been billed as "the first volume of fresh Shepherd tales in 25 years." Eugene Bergmann, a Shep-o-phile for decades, has edited transcripts of some of Shepherd's radio monologues about his stint in the U.S. Army, mostly in the Signal Corps. He never saw action in World War II, but he makes inaction on the home front pretty entertaining. (They're not consistent in details, but he wasn't a historian. Impressions were what mattered to him.)

As Shep noted in one of his shows, this was the Army experience for countless guys who never went overseas: mosquito-filled swamps, obsessively carping officers, foul food, training on gear they'd never get to use, incompetence and laziness and tomfoolery at all levels. Funny stuff -- and pretty credible, even when exaggerated -- but Shep wasn't content only with laughter.

He talks about a timid loner whose barracks-mates bully him into a suicide attempt, an acrophobe who has a panic attack when ordered to climb a telephone pole, the fools who disregard the report of a German sub off the Florida coast and allow it to attack a freighter. These tales come out in a matter-of-fact, "c'est la vie" fashion that lets us draw our own unhappy conclusions. Reading them, I thought of a comment by British essayist Horace Walpole: The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.

I see we're now about halfway between Veterans Day and the 72nd anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor. I can't imagine a better time to pick up "Shep's Army."

Friday, November 22, 2013

The day the authors died

Today the world notes the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Yet November 22, 1963, was also the day when three internationally known, prize-winning authors all died within a few hours of each other.

One of them created a fantasy series that has been beloved by four generations of children and many adults. Another wrote one of the most famous novels of the 20th century and inspired the last orchestral work written by Igor Stravinsky. The third won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for his volume of biography.

Do you know who they were?

C.S. Lewis, the Oxford University professor who died in that English city at the age of 64, created "The Chronicles of Narnia," the seven-volume series about children who pass through the back of a magical wardrobe and become kings and queens of a new world. He also wrote the most perceptive books about Christianity and the difficulties of daily living that I have read. (I recommend "The Problem of Pain" and "The Great Divorce" as places to start.)

Aldous Huxley, the novelist, poet and essayist who died at 69 in Los Angeles, remains best known for "Brave New World," the novel that showed us a future based on a rigidly intellectualized class system. It became a byword for dystopian societies, yet there was more to him. Among other things, he was a talented screenwriter, collaborating on the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice" and the 1944 "Jane Eyre," still perhaps the best film adaptation of that story.

And the third? John Fitzgerald Kennedy himself. He was a first-term Senator from Massachusetts when he wrote "Profiles in Courage," which paid tribute to eight U.S. Senators who broke ranks with their party or constituents to do things they felt were morally right (if politically inexpedient). His speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, authored some of it -- reports vary as to how much -- but JFK's name stood alone on the cover and on the Pulitzer Prize.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The coolest video I have ever seen

YouTube phenom Vania Heymann has created a video to Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" that allows you to switch across 16 channels. Folks from rappers to BBC weather analysts to the cast of "Pawn Stars" can be seen lip-synching to the lyrics -- REALLY lip-synching, not having their mouths rearranged by a computer trick -- while Dylan's scathing indictment of upperclass greed and indifference unfolds.

You toggle from channel to channel, using a switch to the left of the video (or the up-down keys on your keyboard), and no matter which place you land -- a kid's cartoon or a hipster's podcast -- the performers match the lyrics. (One of the channels shows Dylan doing the song live.)

I don't know whether this is the greatest rock song ever, as some have claimed. But this is the best video I've ever seen. The only place I've found it is here:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Authentic" history? You bet.

We always hear that history is written by winners, who slant stories their way. But sometimes history is told through popular culture of the period, which may not be 100 percent factual but certainly reveals what people believed (or were taught to believe by the media).

The upcoming 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination sent me to The Authentic History Center to look at some of the visual and aural memorabilia of the period. The site's a new one, and a lot of it remains under construction.

But when I clicked on The Kennedy Mystique, I saw a ticket from the inauguration, lots of photos of JFK and Jackie, even a complete story from Dell Comics Combat #4 in June 1962, relating the story of P.T. 109. (And don't tell me some voters didn't read it and pick up their heroic impression of Kennedy there.) There are audio clips, too, including one from "The First Family," Vaughn Meader's best-selling comedy album about life at the White House.

Sites like this can be addictive, so I started hopping around. Soon I was listening to Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address (depressingly full of common sense, in comparison to modern political bushwah) and all kinds of songs from the Depression: hobo ballads, tunes inspiring optimism and the immortal "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" I don't know a more moving tribute to World War I veterans who were out of work a dozen years later, though Rudy Vallee's version doesn't do it full justice.

The oldest entries come from the Revolutionary War; you can see posters against the Stamp Act and Sugar Act, political cartoons and a headstone in Granary Burying Ground paying tribute to victims of the Boston Massacre. You can even hear a 1913 broadcast of a man delivering Patrick Henry's incendiary speech, "Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!"

By the way, the site's emblem -- a bald, snaggle-toothed boy with an oversized nightshirt and a jaundiced look -- is The Yellow Kid, a character who appeared in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World from 1895 to 1898 and then in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal.

He comes from Richard Outcault's strip "Hogan's Alley," one of the first (maybe even the first) color comics to run in Sunday supplements; he inspired the term "yellow journalism," because of the questionable nature of the reporting in those pages. So he's a piece of history himself. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Deep thoughts (not mine) about music

Let['s start with a masterpiece from the Great American Songbook, "Autumn in New York," with words and music by Vernon Duke and a warm rendition by Frank Sinatra:

I began there because an excerpt from Duke's out-of-print autobiography, "Passport to Paris," is one of the highlights in a magazine I read this week: the fall issue of Daedalus, the quarterly journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. (Go here to learn more.)

The forward by Gerald Early tells us the last and only issue of Daedalus ever devoted to music was "The Future of Opera" 27 years ago. This one encompasses everything from hip-hop to Johnny Cash, dance-floor politics in the 1940s to racial politics in a play about Louis Armstrong (Terry Teachout's "Satchmo at the Waldorf," excerpted in this issue).

Some of the scholasticism made me think of a saying of my dad's: When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Many American 20th-century classical composers were homosexual or bisexual -- Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, Gian-Carlo Menotti -- but I don't think their music is more interesting or comprehensible if heard through that filter, and I don't believe homophobia led to Copland's downfall in the 1950s and '60s. (He incorporated serial techniques and wrote music most people didn't want to hear.)

But most of the academicians turn phrases well and make salient points. I especially enjoyed Ellie Hisama's retrospective on Ruth Crawford Seeger, the pioneering folklorist and classical composer (and Pete's stepmother), and John McWhorter's essay about "Early to Bed," the lost Fats Waller musical from 1943 that was the first one written by a black composer for a mostly white cast. (Waller died six months after the premiere, and no cast album was recorded.)

Most of the issue deals with music we listen to purely for pleasure. But we can get a different kind of pleasure when a thoughtful writer takes it apart and puts it together again for us.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Does anybody else miss Bobby Darin?

The 40th anniversary of his death, which will fall on Dec. 20, inspired me to listen recently to a bunch of Darin's music. I seldom hear it on oldies stations, and I don't know of any big commemorative reissues. But the guy born Walden Robert Cossotto, who died during a heart operation at 37, was one of the most talented performers of his generation.

He started as a teen-pop idol with the No. 1 hit "Splish Splash." He learned to swing, Sinatra-style, on big ballads ("Beyond the Sea"). He could deliver a Joe Williams-type jazz shout on uptempo numbers ("Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?"). He could write memorable tunes ("Dream Lover"). He earned an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor, playing a shell-shocked serviceman in the 1963 film "Captain Newman, M.D." Here's a taste of him singing "Mack the Knife" live in 1970; his earlier recording stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard charts for nine weeks and won him a Grammy in 1960 for Record of the Year:

He's gotten plenty of official acclaim: induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2010. Kevin Spacey remains a huge fan: His biographical movie "Beyond the Sea" paid tribute to Darin in 2004, though Spacey was too old to play Darin throughout his adult life. (He was 44 when he shot the film, six years older than Darin when he died.) But he sang well and looked remarkably like Darin in his late years.

Darin probably always knew his career would be a short one: He had bouts of rheumatic fever as a boy and had artificial heart valves installed in his early 30s. Maybe that's why he got interested in politics and folk music as he matured into his 30s, trying to do work with more of a social conscience. (He was a big Robert F. Kennedy supporter and was present when RFK was assassinated in 1968.)

The world of music contains countless "what-if" stories about artists who died young, from Mozart and Mendelssohn to Elvis Presley. I'd guess Darin would have continued to expand his musical songbook -- he was dipping a toe into country music near the end -- and upped the stakes on his acting career. But we'll never know.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

90% of the truth is a lie

Did you read the recent article about Ezra Vogel? The Harvard University professor emeritus had written "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China," an 876-page examination of the Chinese leader's legacy. It had sold 35,000 copies in America, a respectable number, but he knew the real market would be in China.

All he had to do to sell it there was take out things that Chinese government censors didn't like.

No more acknowledgment that Chinese newspapers refused to report the fall of Communism in eastern Europe in the 1980s. No more mention of the state dinner during the Tiananmen Square uprising, where a shaky Deng couldn't keep food on his chopsticks in front of Mikhail Gorbachev. You get the idea.

Ka-ching! The book sold 650,000 copies. When asked about his decision, he said, "To me, the choice was easy. I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero."

I can forgive a professor for wanting to earn royalties on which he can live out his days. But why not just say, "Hey, I needed the money"?

Imagine the uproar if a biographer agreed to remove the Monica Lewinsky incident from a Bill Clinton biography and said, "Well, it still covers 90% of his time in office." (Actually, Hillary Clinton comes off well in this context: The New York Times reports that she yanked her book "Living History" off Chinese shelves in 2003, when she learned substantial portions had been removed.)

At least Vogel's book presumably made some sense when the censors were done. Qiu Xiaolong, who was raised in China but lives in St. Louis, now refuses to let his Inspector Chen mystery novels be published in his native land.

He told the Times his first three books were re-edited so badly that plots became incoherent. Chinese censors altered characters, rewrote plot lines to make them more flattering to the Communist Party and relocated the action from Shanghai to an invented locale called H City. Why? Because, of course, major crimes are never committed in Shanghai in real life.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The day the Martians landed

I grew up in South Jersey in the 1960s, about an hour from the city where the first Martian warships came to Earth exactly 75 years ago.

What -- you don't remember reading about the attack on Grover's Mill that sent thousands of people running for their lives? You can relive the event Tuesday at 9 p.m. on PBS-TV, when "American Experience" explores the most famous panic in radio history.

The show "War of the Worlds" pays tribute to the broadcast of that name by Mercury Theatre on the Air, which adapted H.G. Wells' novel into a one-hour show on Oct. 30, 1938. (Aptly, it was heard on the night before Halloween, aka Mischief Night.)

Folks who listened from the beginning knew they were hearing a radio play directed by Orson Welles. But much of the audience, which switched over to CBS during a lull in ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's popular show, broke into a "news bulletin" about a Martian heat ray wiping out U.S. troops.

Here's the original broadcast, perhaps the greatest hour of scripted radio ever:

Americans were already prepared to hear disastrous news on the radio. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932 and especially the explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin in 1937 -- both of which happened in New Jersey -- had created radio sensations. And the international news leading up to the week of the "War" broadcast suggested that Hitler would trigger World War II at any moment.

So the terrifically exciting broadcast told us the apocalypse was near, and gullible folks reacted accordingly. The TV documentary recreates their reactions, with actors speaking lines from original accounts. (And not always convincingly: An alleged New Jersey resident mispronounces "Bayonne.") My favorite comment came from judge A.G. Kennedy of Union, S.C., who believed CBS should be sued and called Welles "a carbuncle on the rump of degenerate theatrical performance."

Any discerning listener would have known an Army unit couldn't mobilize within 15 minutes of the "landing," and anyone who stayed with the program soon realized it was collapsing time: Days go by before the story ends. But in an America that had no other forms of mass communication, plenty of people didn't make such distinctions.

Could we be fooled as easily again, in an era when television and the Internet give us immediate visual access to breaking news? Read Facebook posts and Twitter feeds the next time a bogus rumor spreads like cancer and give me your reply.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Want art for your neighborhood? Grab some!

If your neighborhood lacks public art, here's a heads-up: The city of Charlotte, the Public Art Commission and the Arts & Science Council have created an initiative called Neighborhoods in Creative pARTnership. (Yeah, that's how it's written.)

What's the idea? To get public art to places around the city that lack it. Five projects of up to $23,600 each (or a total of $118,000) will be awarded according to multiple criteria: neighborhood participation, geographic distribution, the strength of the idea and the potential impact on community growth.

Go back to that last sentence and read the phrase again: "the strength of the idea." That means YOU submit the idea. No stranger will drop a piece of sculpture at the entrance to your neighborhood or paint some mural on a nearby wall. You don't have to execute the concept, but you get to weigh in on it.

A panel of selected officials, city staff and urban planning and design pros will make the final decisions, but ordinary people such as you and I can make proposals. (Well, you'd better leave me out of it. Most of the public art people have put up around here doesn't appeal to me.)

You'll find applications, guidelines and selection criteria at, and you have to submit an application by 5 p.m. on Nov. 14. Folks from the ASC are available to attend scheduled neighborhood meetings to discuss eligibility guidelines, artist selections and the design process. The city's Neighborhood and Business Services department will help the ASC connect with neighborhood groups.

According to the press release, this art is meant to enhance the city's character, contribute to economic development (isn't that rather a tall order?) and add "warmth, dignity, beauty and accessibility to public places." That sounds mighty good to me.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Vadym Kholodenko: Catching greatness on the wing

Twice in my life, I've seen a 27-year-old pianist who had won a major competition, had yet to achieve worldwide fame and took my breath away.

The first time was in 1975, when Murray Perahia played Chopin's First Piano Concerto at Duke University. He has since been showered with too many accolades to count and remains one of the greatest living keyboard artists. The second time was Friday night at Central Piedmont Community College, when Vadym Kholodenko played the second gig in the Charlotte Concerts season.

They'd booked him into Halton Theater because he won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition this year. Here's a video of his recital at the Cliburn, which includes the performance of Stravinsky that showed up (along with Liszt) on his solo debut album from Harmonia Mundi:

If you missed Kholodenko, you missed a poet. He sustained the long, wandering melodies of Rachmaninov's First Piano Sonata for 40 minutes, an achievement most pianists wouldn't attempt. (Pretty much everyone goes for the more structured and concise Second Sonata.)

After the break, he played a series of Rachmaninov transcriptions: pieces by Bach, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Bizet and others. His traversal of Rachmaninov's adaptation of themes from "Carmen," now sensuous and now thunderous, left the audience hollering in approval.

Like Perahia, he seems to be shy: He nodded briefly during the applause between pieces, sometimes not even rising for a bow. He talked only to introduce two encores -- the Bizet and something I didn't recognize -- but his mumbles didn't reach row N, where I sat. He spoke through his keyboard, from a whisper through a roar, and said all he needed to say.

Friday, October 4, 2013

God, Hollywood and Jackie Robinson

A friend sent me an article recently about "42," the Jackie Robinson biopic that came out this spring and can now be seen in all formats. Writer Eric Metaxas wondered why the filmmakers left out mentions of Robinson's religious faith: He was praised for adopting a dignified stance toward the people who hated him for breaking the color line in Major League Baseball, but the film didn't stress his real-life adherence to Christian principles or respect for Jesus' teaching.

I wonder why that was. A film biography should explain how the character of the protagonist was formed. A movie about Napoleon would stress his military beginnings; a film about John Keats would explore his literary roots; a movie about a practicing Christian ought to bring Christianity into the story, if it had a serious effect on his life.

Some people will interpret this as a financially motivated decision: In order not to annoy nonbelievers, the producers decided to drop this element of Robinson's life. But surely the average moviegoer, believer or not, wouldn't be put off by hearing that some of Robinson's patience and perseverance came from the Bible or other Christian teachings.

Some will see it as a further slap in the face of a large section of the public that has already given up on movie theaters, preferring to watch, rent or buy a miniseries such as "The Bible" for home enjoyment. Metaxas argues that Hollywood should cater more to this audience, which spent $600 million on "The Passion of the Christ" nine years ago. I think that's irrelevant, because "Passion" became a unique, must-see event in the way "Titanic" did. Christian films before and since have found small audiences in theaters and larger audiences at home, and none have been blockbuster hits.

I'm assuming the people behind "42" just didn't care one way or another. They may have had the stereotypical idea that all black kids raised in the Depression-era South grew up as churchgoers, so his faith went without saying. They may have stressed the sectarian side of his non-violence, because that's the side with which they could identify themselves. Neglect seems a likelier cause to me than caution: This is a sin of omission, rather than commission.

If you look around a bit, you can find Hollywood films that examine spirituality. "Gravity," which has now become the most memorable movie of the year for me, shows a life-changing event that may or may not be inspired by God: The viewer must make up his own mind. Maybe filmmakers feel freer to think about such things in works of fiction, where nobody calls their research and accuracy to account.

Monday, September 30, 2013

What happened at the Charlotte Symphony concert?

After the first movement of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's rendition of "The Planets" Friday night, my wife leaned over and said, "I have never heard 'Mars' played like that." Neither had I. An orchestra I've frequently enjoyed had rocked me in a new way, and it continued to do so up to the mysterious end of Gustav Holst's symphonic suite. I felt like I was watching an ever-reliable baseball pitcher throw a perfect game. Had a recording of this performance been available, I'd have dropped $20 for it on the spot.

I've since heard from three people that the CSO accomplished the same feat Saturday night with its second performance of the piece. So, to quote one of them, what was going on?

Maybe the sheer size of the orchestra, which used larger forces than it did in the KnightSounds "Planets" three years ago, made the difference. Maybe conductor Christopher-Warren Green communicated his love for the piece (and/or British music in general) more deeply this time.

Maybe, to continue the athletic metaphor, the players upped their game for a new coach. (This happens all the time in sports: Teams suddenly play better under new management.) Robert Stickler, recently appointed as the permanent executive director, started the concert by announcing that ticket sales were up for every CSO series this year.

Maybe sentiment made a difference: The concert was dedicated to bassist Ivan Zugelj, who died of pneumonia this month after 39 seasons with the CSO and was acknowledged with a wreath laid on a chair at the edge of the stage. Maybe the nearly full house provided a boost: Most performers give their best when faced with an appreciative, alert crowd. Maybe the fact that WDAV-FM was broadcasting live (as it has done for opening concerts over the last five years) gave players added incentive.

For whatever reasons, the musicians made magic. Pianist Artur Schnabel liked to say he was attracted to music better than it could ever be played, music that could be explored infinitely without revealing every aspect of it. "The Planets" belongs in that category, I think. But Friday night, the Charlotte Symphony came as close as anyone I've ever heard to sounding its depths.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bashing Vladimir Putin at the Met

Did you read about the furor at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night on Monday? The auditorium was jammed for a black-tie gala presentation of "Eugene Onegin," with Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in the lead and Valery Gergiev (artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg) conducting.

Before anyone could sing, a man shouted "Putin, end your war on Russian gays!” He went on to address the two artists, both of whom campaigned for Putin's re-election last year, and shouted, "Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” The New York Times reported that four protesters in the Met's Family Circle seats were asked to leave and did.

This prompts a flood of thoughts. First, the protest was pointless. Operagoers no doubt wrote it off as the work of kooks. If Netrebko and Gergiev were going to re-think their support of Russia's virtual dictator, this wasn't going to make them do it.

Second, protesters outside were already chanting in front of a 50-foot rainbow banner that read "Support Russian gays." That might have encouraged people going in to think harder about their stance on Russia in general and Putin's anti-gay laws in particular. (In June, he signed a bill banning "propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships." Naturally, any public mention of LGBT behavior might be construed as "propaganda.")

Third, it's tough to judge what "support" for an authoritarian means in a place like modern Russia. If a rumor reached Gergiev that the Mariinsky's budget would be slashed unless he put in a good word for Vlad the Impaler, he might well have said kind things to keep himself and other artists on the payroll.

Fourth, we'd have few performances of operas or anything else if we insisted they be cast with people whose political, religious and social ideas were in accord with our own. Scholars still debate the extent to which artists who remained in Nazi Germany aided Hitler. The honorary Oscar given to director Elia Kazan in 1999 provoked a storm of anger from people who felt his testimony to government witch-hunting committees cost innocent people their careers. Trying to draw lines in the moral sand is a tricky business.

Fifth, although Putin is dead wrong on this issue and many others, he and his nation must be in an astonishing state of denial. Their most famous composer -- the one whose opera was being performed at the Met on the night of the protest -- is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who was homosexual himself and may have committed suicide in 1893 at the behest of a court of honor that learned of his affairs. (This debate, too, rages on.)

Does Putin simply deny Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation? Does he wish Russia still functioned as it did in the late 19th century, with himself as virtual tsar? Either way, we can be sure that, if Tchaikovsky behaved now as he did then, he'd be likelier to be in jail than in a conservatory.

Photo:  An anti-Putin protestor demonstrates in front of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, in New York. AP PHOTO/JAMES WAGNER

Friday, September 20, 2013

Emerson String Quartet: True teachers never quit

12:15 p.m. today, South Mecklenburg High School auditorium. Four brave young string players from Providence High School perform the last movement of a Mozart quartet before a couple of hundred peers, having learned it shortly before the performance.

Onto the stage come two members of what may be the premiere string quartet in America: The Emerson, which plays a concert tonight at 8 p.m. at Halton Theatre. (Tickets are still available here for the Charlotte Concerts season-opener, though it's almost sold out.)

Violinist Phil Setzer and violist Larry Dutton warm the crowd up with a couple of gentle jokes: The other two members of their quartet, violinist Gene Drucker and cellist Paul Watkins, haven't arrived yet. If they're unavoidably delayed, could the Providence players work up tonight's program and sit in?

Dutton mentions that neither of his parents played classical music, and a chance exposure in third grade to a school concert made him want to take it up. "It's important that we learn about music in public schools. It doesn't mean everyone's going to be a professional musician, but they'll know this great repertoire."

Then, gently, they begin to make suggestions. Dutton repositions the young musicians, so they can see each other better and project sound more efficiently. Setzer suggests new fingering for one player and helps him work on bowing. They explain how a string quartet has to give the illusion that it's a tiny orchestra by using dynamic contrasts, though its loud-to-soft range will be less than that of a symphonic group.

Some folks in the audience have simply come to hear the group play. They'll get their wish in a bit; when all four players reach the stage, the Emerson plays one movement from each of the three pieces on the bill tonight (Mendelssohn, Britten, Beethoven). Yet nobody's talking or distracted during the teaching moments, because they're hearing sound basic advice from masters of the craft.

South Meck music teacher Marc Setzer is Phil's brother, and Marc's wife teaches at Providence. So some special pleading may have been involved to get this 75-minute event to happen, though Charlotte Concerts regularly asks touring musicians to spend time in the community while they're here.

But you can see that these quartet players, who are in residence at State University of New York-Stony Brook, are having a good time. They love talking about the sound of the music, the mechanics of the music, the ideas of the music.

Globe-trotting and Grammy-winning though they be, they are teachers at heart. Performing matters to them, of course: That's how they make a very good living. But if you watched them at South Meck, you got the sense that sharing what they know matters just as much.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Best movie of the year*

Why the asterisk? Because we have another three months left in 2013, and Oscar-contending heavyweights get packed into them like commuters into the Tokyo subway on Friday afternoon. So I'm keeping an open mind, but I'm having a hard time imagining what's going to be more impressive than "Captain Phillips."

My full review will run Oct. 11, when it opens. My first take, two hours after walking out of the theater, is that Tom Hanks has never given a more impressive performance than he does as Rich Phillips, a shipping captain whose vessel was taken over by Somali pirates four years ago. The film's director, Paul Greengrass, took a similar kind of documentary-fiction approach to "United 93," about the doomed flight crashed on 9/11/2001 with al-Qaeda hijackers aboard. (He also did the second and third "Bourne" movies.)

Here's a trailer:

I came away from the film with three impressions. First, top-rank artists can always surprise us. I thought I'd seen everything Tom Hanks had to show us, for good ("Philadelphia") or ill ("Cloud Atlas"), but he made me forget I was watching one of the most recognizable actors in the world.

Second, suspense movies always require an emotional component. Not sometimes, but all the time. And I don't mean a happy hug between John McClane and his son after blowing up chunks of Russia. I mean a deep sense of what's at stake personally for the people in danger of their lives.

Third, Hollywood needs to find a better way to spread release dates for movies of this quality throughout the year. Shoving them all into a three-month period is like telling a hungry person to fast for a week, then cram all the delicious food down his gullet that he can stand. There must be a way, among the "Lone Rangers" and "Supermen" and "White Houses Down," to accommodate a film as great as this one during the summer.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ivan Zugelj: The man in the shadows

Had Ivan Zugelj lived another three weeks, he'd have begun his 40th season as co-principal bassist for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Destiny was especially unkind to Zugelj: The basses play in virtually every piece of orchestral music yet virtually never get a spotlight. Yet when the CSO opens its Classics season Sept. 27 at Belk Theater, it'll play Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" -- which includes a section demonstrating the value of the lowest strings.

I first met him when he called himself John Zugel, before he embraced his Croatian roots (and the new spelling of his names) and grew his hair into a long ponytail. He always seemed to me like a kind of elder statesman, so I was surprised to learn he was just 66 when he died of pneumonia Sept. 9. Here's his official symphony photo:

Like most concertgoers, I had no idea that he had a string instrument repair shop, served as President of Local 342 of the American Federation of Musicians since 2009 and was an avid amateur astronomer, working on the Observatory Committee of the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club. (The CSO will dedicate its opening concert to him; appropriately, that show also includes "The Planets.")

For me, he remains a symbol of all the unsung musicians who underpin the sound of any symphony orchestra without seizing our attention.

Cellist Alan Black knows he'll get a lovely third-movement solo whenever a guest artist plays Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. Oboist Hollis Ulaky knows she'll have a chance to shine in the adagio of Brahms' Violin Concerto. The tone of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is set by clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo's first upward slide. Many musicians get a time to sparkle somewhere throughout the season, even if only for a few bars. 

The basses occasionally have a moment of their own, but it's almost always a unison moment: striding forth in a Beethoven symphony, setting a somber mood in Wagner. Almost nobody in the audience would know whether Ivan Zugelj was making a significant personal contribution or not.

Yet there he stood at the left of the stage all those years (as we faced him), invariably with a serious and attentive expression, contributing his sonic thread to the overall tapestry. Without the basses, that tapestry would fray. So here's a toast to one unheralded man who helped the CSO rouse us, soothe us and speak to our souls.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Sparrow who has never been silenced

A friend challenged me a few years back to name the 10 greatest popular singers of the 20th century. After we compared rankings, only three names had made both our lists: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Edith Piaf.

Piaf was the first to die -- she passed away 50 years ago this fall -- was the one with the shortest career and is the least remembered today. Yet her voice, which throbbed with emotion, had the power to shake you even when it was all but shot at the end of her career. In that way, she was like Billie Holiday with more vocal energy. Here's a sample of Piaf singing her late-life anthem, "Je Ne Regrette Rien" ("I Regret Nothing"):

If you've seen Marion Cotillard's Oscar-winning performance as Piaf in the 2007 movie "La Vie En Rose," you know a little about her life. She began as Édith Giovanna Gassion but was nicknamed "La Môme Piaf" ("The Little Sparrow") by a nightclub owner, who also told her to wear her trademark black dress. Her life was a whirlwind: Though she married just twice, she had numerous affairs, including one with actor/singer Yves Montand and another with former middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, who died in a plane crash while flying from New York to Paris to reunite with her. Liver cancer claimed Piaf at 47. You'll find her unostentatious but much-decorated grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, overshadowed by the monument to Oscar Wilde and the shrine-like tomb of Jim Morrison.

She appeared in seven obscure French films and one in Spanish, where she sang her famous "La Vie en Rose" in that tongue. At her best, with careful coiffure and makeup, she was modestly attractive but never beautiful. She sang slightly under pitch at times, like Holiday. But she feels every number so deeply that you do, too, even if you have only a one-sentence synopsis of the words. (She re-recorded most of her famous numbers in our language, and an anthology called "Hymn to Love: All Her Greatest Songs in English" deserves a listen.)

Here's a link to "Milord," one of her strongest numbers, with English lyrics displayed as she sings. It's about a streetwalker who encounters a man in a bar whose woman has just left him; she has often seen him from afar, and now cheers him up with no hope of getting him for herself:

Piaf frequently sang about underdogs: poor people, sick people (lovelorn or physically ill), people struggling and often failing to express themselves or make themselves heard. Perhaps, if she'd lived a more comfortable life, she'd have found lasting joy. But I doubt she'd have left behind such a moving catalog of songs.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Hey, City Council: Tours of my house, just $30!

Did you see the story in Saturday's Observer, where the developers of the proposed movie studio complex estimated that 350,000 tourists per year would pay $30 a head to tour their site?

My first reaction was, "Somebody needs to put down the crack pipe." Whatever the merits of the studio's business proposal may be, there's no way a thousand people will visit the refurbished Eastland Mall every day to see a project being shot (though most sets are closed these days), empty sound stages or a classroom in a film school. The notion that this joint could outdraw a well-located McDonald's, let alone the NASCAR Hall of Fame -- especially in a neighborhood with zero foot traffic -- seems like the apex of foolishness.

Then I thought, "This could be seen as a business opportunity for you, L.T. You live in the same Charlotte City Council district as the defunct mall (district 5), so perhaps development dollars would be available to underwrite YOUR proposal." So I'm preparing to offer tours of my home and grounds for the same $30, and I promise a much better bargain. Consider the advantages to having the council support me instead:

1) Activity. There will always be something new to see in my yard. The studio may not always host film projects, but my four backyard bird feeders guarantee constant action in all seasons. Squirrels, chipmunks, possum and deer have been spotted, and our butterfly garden attracts multiple varieties of flying creatures.

2) Food. The studio does not intend to feed visitors for free. My $30 ticket would include your choice of three varieties of cereal, milk (regular or soy) and a plateful of cookies. (Chocolate chip and vanilla cream are always available; maple cream can  be had if you call ahead.)

3) Hospitality. At my house, you'll feel like a member of the family: Our cats will welcome you, you can coo over the pretty new baby next door, and we'll give you the best recliner (the dark green one downstairs) if you need to rest. I'll bet you won't find any recliners at the movie studio!

4) Entertainment. The capacious main building (2100 sq. ft. of heated space), comfortable screened back porch and handsome lot (a full two-fifths of an acre) should provide plenty of pleasure for visitors. But we also offer hundreds of DVDs for your viewing enjoyment, a thousand books on diverse subjects and a trained animal act. (One of our cats turns somersaults, if you're willing to snap a feather back and forth in front of her.)

I don't claim that I'll outdraw the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but I've got a fair shot at outpacing the proposed movie studio at Eastland Mall. I'll start booking tours as soon as City Council gives me the first economic development grant.  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Is the world's greatest painting in Atlanta?

We could dispute the question of greatness forever, and eternal masters can't really be compared to each other. Is Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" more dazzling than Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or Velazquez' portrait of Juan de Pareja or Seurat's "Grande Jatte" or Monet's water lilies or Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa?" (For my money, "Mona Lisa" isn't even the greatest painting in its room at the Louvre: Veronese's "The Wedding Feast at Cana," which hangs on a nearby wall, kept me goggling at it longer.)

I've had the good luck to see all of these in person, and my candidate for the top spot depends on the one that's in front of me at any moment. Last weekend, I finally saw a painting I'd waited decades to encounter: Jan Vermeer's immaculate "Girl With a Pearl Earring," on display at the High Museum of Art through September 29.

No copy could hope to reproduce exactly the olive tints of her clothing, her alabaster brow, the subtle gray-green of her eyes (which I had thought were brown). But here's the painting I'm talking about:

Vermeer's most famous work sits alone, in the last room of the gallery devoted to Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. (It returns there next year, after the Mauritshuis completes a renovation that will nearly double its size.)

When you see"Girl" at the High, you have already walked through rooms devoted to landscapes by Jacob Van Ruisdael (including an extraordinary depiction of winter that's realistic yet fantastic), moral paintings by Jan Steen (one bearing the oddly prophetic title "As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young"), portraits by Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn.

All of them spoke to me, especially memento mori paintings that showed the passage of time and reminded us to make the most of our days (a skull by Pieter Clausz, dying flowers by Abraham Van Beyeren). But "Girl" justified the 250-mile drive to Atlanta.

Her enigmatic expression, with lips slightly parted (to say a word of welcome?) and eyes seeming to approve of the person she observes over her shoulder, has earned this painting the sobriquet of "the Dutch Mona Lisa." It's a tired truism to say we can't fully appreciate a piece of art until we see the original, but that's never been as accurate for me as it was Sunday, when I could study every shade of blue in her headdress.

I learned she was what the Dutch called a tronie: possibly someone from real life, possibly invented or a composite of women the artist knew, but certainly painted as she would never have been seen in Holland in 1665. (Other tronies, two of them by Rembrandt, stand out in this show.)

To see her is to marvel not only at Vermeer's skill, his keenness of eye and hand, but his imagination: He knew this exotic head scarf would set off her Northern European beauty and make her instantly memorable. Not all the postcards and calendars and boxes of mints bearing her picture in the inevitable gift shop dulled my memory of this amazing work.

Is it THE greatest in the world? Impossible to say. But after staring at her off and on for almost half an hour, I can accurately say I've never seen a painting greater than this one. Maybe someday I'll get over to the Mauritshuis to confirm my first impression.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Hoist a pint and sing "Danny Boy" today

Many classical composers celebrate big anniversaries this year: Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were born 200 years ago, while Witold Lutoslawski, Jerome Moross, Morton Gould and Benjamin Britten would have been 100 this year. But I'm paying tribute to a classic Irish song, which also gets its centenary in 1913.

To some, this beautiful farewell to a loved one remains a tear-jerker. To others, it has become a corny joke. It can be interpreted as a father's blessing to his son, a woman parting from a lover/husband or a symbolic tribute to the Irish people spread across the globe by the diaspora of the 19th century. 

It has been recorded by Eric Clapton and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Conway Twitty (whose rockabilly version was apparently banned by the BBC) and Cher and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett (with Stan Getz on sax and Herbie Hancock on piano) and Elvis Presley, at whose 1977 funeral it was played.

Here are a couple of my favorite performances. The first is by Frank Patterson, a traditional interpretation heard on the soundtrack of "Miller's Crossing." The second is by the late and definitely great Jackie Wilson.

The music predates the lyrics by English attorney Frederic Weatherly, (He also wrote the religious song "The Holy City" and the World War I hit "Roses of Picardy.") Weatherly first wrote these verses to a now-forgotten tune in 1910; only after his sister-in-law in America sent him the 19th-century instrumental piece known as "Londonderry Air" did he produce the immortal version that Elsie Griffin made popular in 1913.

By my own youth in the 1960s, comedians could get a laugh by mocking the opening line: "Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling..." But the last verse has always seemed poignant to me, as the parent (or possibly lover) imagines Danny coming back to Ireland and standing at the singer's grave:

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
And then you'll kneel and whisper that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

I'm about as Irish as a plate of felafel, but this song has always made me feel just a little like a son of Erin.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Conquer constipation with Brahms!

The Japan Philharmonic Orchestra is reaching a younger, tech-savvy audience by marketing music in "prescriptions" that can be applied to daily life. The Japan Pill-Harmonic program sells "pills" -- mini SD cards loaded with classical music -- to customers in small envelopes like the ones used for prescription drugs. You identify your condition; the Pill-harmonic prescribes a remedy.

Thus the "Spring" section of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" can be used to restore beautiful skin, the overture to Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" enhances appetite -- it may indeed, as its rotund composer was a famous gourmand -- and Barber's Adagio for Strings induces a good cry. (No surprise, as it's been a tearjerker in movies from "Platoon" to "The Elephant Man.")

Here's the general idea:

A few of the suggestions strike me as bizarre: Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," based on the fable of a hapless character who makes a terrible decision, is billed as a way someone make a decision. Mahler's Tenth Symphony provides "pleasant sleep," though it churns up profound emotions that aren't always peaceful. The Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's "Die Walkure" presumably makes one "feel male," but all the singing Valkyries are female.

And listening to the first movement of Brahms' First Symphony supposedly relieves constipation, although that piece recycles themes at great length. (I don't agree with Tchaikovsky's assessment of Brahms as "a giftless bastard," but the music doesn't exactly surge forward.) I couldn't find any explanation of how the Pill-harmonic made these distinctions, but Brahms would probably be amused.

This advertising campaign won a top prize in June at the Cannes Lions 60th International Festival of Creativity. I'm all for increasing the size of the classical music audience, and if this works, I hope American orchestras will consider it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a spot of indigestion. The final movement of Haydn's C Major Cello Concerto ought to clear that right up.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The best Broadway musical you never saw?

In the furor over "Kinky Boots," "Matilda" and "Pippin" two months ago at the Tony Awards, one musical show got skunked -- and it's my favorite new score of the last few years, hands down. (Good though "Kinky Boots" is.)

"Hands on a Hardbody" got three nominations: best score (Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green) and featured actor/actress nods for Keith Carradine and Keala Settle, who play two of the Texas contestants trying to win a truck by keeping one hand on the vehicle's body longer than the others. (Charlotteans may remember her cheerful Tracy Turnblad in the 2005 national tour of "Hairspray" or tragic Bloody Mary in the 2009 tour of "South Pacific.")

I've never been a Phish fan, but Anastasio (its guitarist and vocalist) wrote a diverse, melodically rich score for this musical. It ranges from rousing gospel numbers to fiddle-flavored country tunes to uptempo blues full of nasty electric guitar. Here are a couple of samples:

Lyricist Amanda Green ("Bring It On: The Musical"), the daughter of Tony-winning lyricist Adolph Green, grew up in New York. Librettist Doug Wright (a Pulitzer-winner for "I Am My Own Wife") grew up in a Dallas suburb. They have written compassionately for all the characters, from the Marine unable to adjust to civilian life to the Latina woman filled with the heavenly spirit to the elderly couple scraping along on their last thin dimes. Even the token bad guy, who has won a truck before and re-enters the contest out of sheer ego, justifies himself along the way and gets the most powerful song in the show: "God Answered My Prayers (He Said No)." The writers treat everyone with respect and affection, even the rib-shack hostess who tries to rig the contest.

Maybe the musical got short shrift because it doesn't have visual dazzle, power ballads, reams of cute kids or climactic uplift: The person who wins the contest, left alone onstage, can scarcely believe what has happened, though the cast reunites for the moving anthem "Keep Your Hands On It." The photos in the original cast album from Ghostlight Records show simple lighting, humble costumes and nothing on stage but 15 people and one truck.

But maybe that simplicity could make it attractive to a local producer. It ran for just one month this spring on Broadway, so I don't expect a national tour to come here. If any impresarios can get a vehicle onto their stages, this might play better in the South -- where people actually drive trucks -- than on the Great White Way.

Friday, August 23, 2013

All our racial problems are in the past!

Or so it seems, if you take mainstream Hollywood's view. I thought about that while "Lee Daniels' The Butler" dominated the domestic box office this week, beating all competition.

It's a comprehensive, heartfelt, well-constructed look at America's civil rights history, set mostly in the 1960s. Meanwhile, "Fruitvale Station" played to much smaller audiences in a much more limited release. That film depicts the last day of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man fatally shot in the back by a white police officer in San Francisco five years ago. (The films have something in common: Forest Whitaker plays the title role in the big one and was a producer on the little one.)

This seems to be a pattern: We embrace movies set in the past, maybe even before most of us lived, but stories set in our own time make us uncomfortable. "The Help," "42," "Red Tails" and even "Django Unchained" get national attention; movies about the way we live today get relegated to one screen at the multiplex, if nothing more marketable can be found.

That wasn't always true. While America wrestled with racial issues in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood writers and directors based big films on that controversy. From 1958 through 1967, six such movies -- all with contemporary settings -- earned Academy Award nominations for best picture. There have been just six more racially themed nominees in the last 45 years, and only two of them ("Crash" and "District 9") are set in the era when they were made.

So what happened? Are we tired of talking about a problem that has existed for more than 300 years in this country? Do we think this issue is happily settled forever? Or do we believe the racial divide is here to stay -- and maybe can never be bridged -so there's no point in thinking about it?

I see a connection here with war movies. Hollywood busily made stories about World War II during and after that conflict, because virtually all Americans agreed Nazis were terrible and Hitler had to go. That's why "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" could still be hits 40 years after the fact. But Vietnam divided us, and recent wars have left us queasy with indecision. So we don't see many mainstream pictures about Iraq or Afghanistan, unless they have the "We killed Osama!" vibe of "Zero Dark Thirty."

Nobody but a fool or a sadist now thinks racial segregation was a great idea and Jim Crow laws were appropriate legislation. We can all cheer for Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat, for African-American kids walking proudly into once-forbidden public schools, for brave students sitting-in at lunch counters in the 1960s. But that's the last time the vast majority of Americans knew what had to be done to improve race relations.

Things have gotten more confusing, even ugly, since then. So we retreat in movie theaters to times that are simpler, easier to define, more soothing to troubled psyches. That's a natural reaction. But it means a lot of things are left unsaid, at least in Hollywood. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Moms: Why bring small children to 'You're Next'?

Just a handful of questions:

1) Which parts of this R-rated horror film did you think they'd enjoy most? The scenes were people were slain graphically with machetes and arrows from a crossbow? The segment where a grizzled older man rolls off a bored student after grunting through sex, and she walks around with her shirt open for a while? Maybe the ones where people curse like drunken sailors who have just been mugged in an alley?

2) Could you really not afford a caretaker? I know they don't work for pizza any more, but was two hours' worth of babysitting beyond your budget?

3) I realize that, to some degree, your attendance was the distributor's fault: Lionsgate should have insisted that no one under 12 be admitted for any reason, and you should have been sent home or shunted over to another movie. But do you really think no harm was done by exposing your elementary schoolers -- the two kids I saw were little girls -- to savage images of slaughter?

4) Are you this neglectful and inept in all aspects of motherhood? If so, when your kids' moral fiber is as thin as a communion wafer someday, you may wonder how the heck they turned out so badly. The answer will be looking back at you from the mirror.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Could you use 100 shoes? CAST is emptying its attic.

From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre will hold its first "indoor yard sale" at 2424 N. Davidson Street, in the building that houses Amelie's. CAST will clean out props and costumes to get ready for the upcoming season, which opens Aug. 29 with "Elemeno Pea."

In just two years in its NoDA space, the company has accumulated stuff it will never use again: umbrellas, lamps, clothes, a Hammond organ in working order, candle-holders and the candles to put in them, and (Sadly, the rowboat that was somehow acquired was too damaged to sell. Hey, it's hard to find a used rowboat for next to nothing.)

Executive director Crystal Dempsey says CAST needs the middle of its three spaces, which had inadvertently become a kind of storage room, to become "what it was originally intended to be: a space where you can gather to talk about shows and meet other theater lovers." It could also be rented out for workshops, classes or parties.

Folks from other theater companies are welcome to browse, but so are unaffiliated bargain-hunters. There's no inventory or price list: You just have to drop by to see if anything suits you. I picked up a powder-blue polyester tuxedo at a similar event years ago at CPCC Theatre, so I guarantee you amazing treasures can be found at these events. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hey, theater folks: My bladder needs guidance!

I don't know what made me ask an usher at "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" last week if it had a break in the middle, but I was glad I did. "Nope," she said, tearing my ticket. "It's 110 minutes without an inter-" Before she could get to "mission," I was bolting for the bathroom.

Now, I realize 110 minutes isn't a long time to sit. Virtually every movie for adults runs at least that long, and almost all of us can watch those without getting up, sometimes after drinking a cup of soda the size of a Hyundai.

But most of us attending plays have been trained to expect an interval. Theater can often be a special event, preceded by a big meal with a couple of glasses of wine or tea. (One glass of wine, if I'm reviewing. Or none.) Psychologically, we're going to be ready to stretch our legs after 60 or 70 minutes.

Some plays lose their impact when they stop in the middle. (Not "Lucy," which had a natural place for a break but didn't use one.) When feelings run high, a playwright may not want to pull us up short, then build that emotional arc again from scratch in the second act.

If that's the case, producers should have a crier walk through the lobby beforehand yelling, "Hear ye, hear ye! There is no intermission in tonight's show!" (A big sign by the front entrance would also do.) But an announcement from the stage just before the lights go down isn't good enough: There's too little time for people to come and go in a mass exodus.

I'd think most producers would want an intermission every time, in hopes of selling snacks and drinks in the lobby. But if there's not a break, they should let us know well before we settle into our seats. Even the most youthful theatergoers would appreciate a word to the wise.