Thursday, July 29, 2010

Da Vinci - The Genius

Kudos to The National Geographic Society. If you are an East-Coaster, or if you find you're going to be in the Washington DC area before 12th September, be sure to visit the NGS Museum on 17th Street N.W. You're in for a mighty fine surprise. "Da Vinci - The Genius" is one of the most fascinating exhibitions you're ever going to see.

[And yes, I recognize that it's beginning to appear that I spend my business trips going to museums, but one is required to do something between meetings, isn't one?]

Described as "the most comprehensive travelling exhibition ever assembled on Leonardo da Vinci," this one is a spectacular undertaking. For one thing, the term "blockbuster exhibition" is generally reserved for the really big museum shows, especially like some of the huge crowd-pleasers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the Grand Palais or the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, or the de Young in San Francisco. But blockbuster is the only descriptor that does justice to this exhibition (despite the fact that it's packed into a rather small space).

I learned more in two hours that I ever thought I could learn about Leonardo, and the special section on the Mona Lisa, describing the multi-spectrum camera and photography used in capturing the images of the painting in 2004 really is an eye-opener. Accompanied by a very informative short film, there is much, much to  learn about this exceptional painting by visiting NGS, including what is purported to be an image of what the colors really were before the painting had aged for 500 years.

Similarly (but not as dramatically), the exhibition of other art works (including a fascinating story about The Last Supper) turns out to be equally gripping. Then there are all the drawings, the codices, the models (miniatures, life-size, and exaggerated), all topped off with a description - and film - of the Vitruvian Man which, again, provided more information than I ever thought I would learn about this remarkable work of art and science (but which I am delighted to have provided to me).

Take yourself to Washington and go to the NGS. It's worth the trip (and give yourself plenty of time - it's a big exhibition - so big that I never did find the Sforza horse, which I really wanted to see) and you won't want to rush through this). The exhibition's site is here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Washington DC: A Very Special Museum

A recent business trip took me to Washington, DC, where I found myself with a little time to kill between meetings. As often happens, I took myself to one of the city's splendid museums.

We Americans seem to take for granted the great treasures that are available for us in our nation's capital, and one of the delights of visiting Washington is to visit all the fine museums (and - since they are national museums - being charged nothing to enter and stay as long as you like).

This time, I decided to return to the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, named for the museums' largest donor. A few years ago, the government restored the long-unused U.S. Patent Office, one of America's best examples of Greek Revival architecture. Design and construction of the building began in 1836, and some call it "the noblest of Washington buildings." That point might be debated, especially when one tours the great and equally splendid National Building Museum, just a few steps away, but it's not a point worth debating. The old U.S. Patent Office is a treasure, in every sense of the word.

The restoration came about because government leaders saw an opportunity to put the magnificent Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery both under one roof (hence the somewhat cumbersome official name). And while we all go there for the collections and the wonderful changing exhibitions, I take particular pleasure in going just to look at the architecture and trying to imagine what it must have been like in the 19th century. President Lincoln's Inaugural Ball was held there, in what is now called Lincoln Hall (of course!) and which now displays contemporary art. The delightful juxtaposition of contemporary art with what must have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience at that ball makes for a joyous visit indeed.

And contemporary takes a very special turn with one of the current temporary exhibitions, "Remembering the Running Fence," a major early project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Visiting Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, 1972-1976 is a fascinating experience, heightened greatly by three films about the project currently on view at the museum, "Running Fence" (1978), "Running Fence with Commentary" (2004), and "Running Fence Revisited" (2010). While I cannot show any photographs here, the fact that the Smithsonian American Art Museum has acquired and has selected for view items from the project's archives (the work was 24.5 miles long, with one end dropping down into the Pacific Ocean) is an occasion for great joy. And as for the motivation, the drivers for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work, the why? The question is answered in one of the films by Jeanne-Claude: "It's only a work of art. It has no purpose."

So there are no photos of Running Fence (although there is more information at the Running Fence entry on Wikipedia). But in the photos I did take (at Mr. Guy's July Museum Visit Album), I tried to do justice to the building itself. And there are a few photos of some of my favorite portraits.

This museum is worth a visit to anyone visiting Washington.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Birthday Greetings - The Other Way 'Round

Sure, birthdays come and go, and some people get excited and some people just, well, just roll along and thank the good folks who send cards and then get on with their lives. And in other places there is even less observance of birthdays, a finding that surprises me in Kenya. Apparently as a relatively new country, and with a long tradition of basic life styles and not much discretionary money, birthdays - especially among the folks who are not very well off - are pretty much ignored. It made me sad to see some of my friends not celebrating their children's (or their own) birthdays until it was explained to me: there are so many other places to put one's limited resources, So birthdays just don't get much observed.

Not so us Westerners, right? And while I've tried to be pretty reasonable about most birthdays, these big 10-year events call for special attention. Many readers of these notes were with me on this date (or this week, for we pulled out all the stops, in many different locales!) ten years ago, when we celebrated Mr. Guy's Big-6-0, and it was quite a blow-out (and it took weeks to recover!).

And here I am again, ten years later and delighted today to do reverse birthday greetings all over again. What better time than one's 70th to reflect, to share a little of one's joy with one's life, and to anticipate what's coming yet with enthusiasm and - not to put too fine a point on it - a big dose of optimism.

"Optimism?" you say. "Come on, Mr. Guy. With the world in the state it's in, how can we be optimistic?"

I'll respond by saying yes. I really do mean "optimism." I'm aware of all the things that worry us, at all levels of society and in all locals and cultures but you know what? We've been dealing with those same types of supposedly "life-threatening" and "dangerous" threats for centuries and we've always come through. For me, I prefer to focus on what's good about our lives, what's good about society, and on what we are accomplishing. Has there ever before been a time when people - as individuals - had the opportunity to develop and build their individual strengths, when they could develop their own individual potential as people? No society before today's has ever had that strength.

And then we think about what's coming, all that's available and on offer, to us as consumers and as learners? We have opportunities that could not even have been dreamed of in other times. Of course there are huge issues in poverty, health care, homelessness, food supplies, water supplies. Of course we have those problems, but we also are living in a time when, as a global society, we're aware of what needs to be done and we are trying to do it. Sometimes it is just a step at a time - sometimes even "baby steps," but at least we live in a time when we know what to do and we're trying to do it.

So of course I'm optimistic.

I'm also very comfortable about where we are as a people and as a society because I've been very fortunate to find myself aligned with friends, people, colleagues, family and other loved ones who are very comfortable within themselves. That's what my long-gone English friend Kathleen Brooks used to say, no matter how bleak a prospect might be. When asked how she was doing, she would just smile and say, "Thank you for asking. I'm well in myself, thank you." We are so lucky to live in a society where so many of us - regardless of the pressures and the troubles - turn out to be well in ourselves, comfortable in ourselves, and we can, in fact, turn to ourselves for much of the strength we need. As a people, we are very lucky that way.

So it's a fine time to be turning seventy and I'm happy to have the opportunity to share some of these thoughts with readers of these posts. At the same time though, as I review the above remarks, I'm reminded that I must be careful not to get too preachy or too philosophical about being seventy. In a way, though, it's hard not to, when you're as much of an optimist and lover of life as I am. But I'll slow down, and I'll try to keep as even keel (is that the expression?) as we move through the week.

And whatever happens, I doubt, at the big party on Friday, that I'll be quite as remarkable as Mark Twain was at his seventieth, when he was feted at "a lavish affair" at Delmonico's. "The seventieth birthday!" he said. "It is a time of life when you arrive at a new and awful dignity; when you may throw aside the decent reserves which have oppressed you for a generation and stand unafraid and unabashed upon your seven-terraced summit and look down and teach - unrebuked. You can tell the world how you got there. It is what they all do. You shall never get tired of telling by what delicate arts and deep moralities you climbed up to that great place. You will explain the process and dwell on the particulars with senile rapture. I have been anxious to explain my own system this long time, and now at last I have the right."

OK, Mark Twain. I might "have the right" but I promise, I'm not going to be a crashing boor about it. I'll keep on being optimistic and anticipating the great future we've all got in front of us and as I stand on that seven-terraced summit, with my new and awful dignity, I'll try to be careful about telling the world how I got there. Sure, when there's the opportunity for Mr. Guy to "expound" a little, using his own experience and telling stories from those seven decades, of course I'll rise to the occasion and let people hear my "version" of whatever it is that's being discussed. But I will be promise to try to do it only when asked, and I'll be careful to NOT do it when it isn't appropriate.

So it all comes back to all that individualism, doesn't it? We have the right - the opportunity - to make our own choices. We are so lucky.

And as for what the next decades will bring? I plan to keep enjoying life, keep loving my many, many friends, enjoying their company (and hoping they're enjoying mine). And I'll probably keep doing something professional, since I'm a great Drucker advocate and the one piece of advice of his which I've followed avidly (and which I've never been able to authenticate but I heard somewhere that it was his, and I believe it - and in him - so strongly that I choose to believe Mr. Drucker said it). When asked about how to have a good working life, Peter Drucker is alleged to have said something like, "Two things to remember: continually re-invent yourself, and never retire."

Better advice was never given. The re-inventing seems to have happened throughout my life, even without my having much to do with it it seems, and as for the prospect of retirement? Not likely.

So how to wrap this up (doing it now so I don't have to make a speech on Friday - but I'll probably have a few comments to make anyway)?

Just this:

I like to think this particular decadal observance is simply entering one's eighth decade, nothing more. But since a lot of folks are kind of put off by that particularly construction, so I'll just sign off with a birthday wish to all my wonderful friends, acquaintances, professional colleagues, and, well, just about anyone else who happens to cross my path (or reads these comments):

Thank you for all you do for me, for your families and friends, for the strengths and successes of our larger society, and may the next ten years be as fruitful and as happy as the last seventy have been. As a society (global and local) and as a people we've come so far. We are so blessed and so fortunate. Let's keep it going.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Trip to Virginia - Visiting Two Ladies

As the photographs of the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway indicate, America is a great country for what some refer to as a "motoring holiday," and that's exactly what I indulged in during the days surrounding the Fourth of July (America's famous Independence Day).

Travelling to Tennessee, it seemed to make sense to drive into the Virginia countryside where I grew up and call on two ladies who always meant a great deal to me. My first stop was in Salem, Virginia. Alma Austin Perdue, now 97 years old, was my mother's first cousin and always referred to my mother as her best friend. A little younger than my mother, I can just see the two of them when they were children, with Mildred Austin, my mother, taking a "big-sister" role in Alma's life. My mom was an orphan, having lost her mother at two years of age and her father nine years later, and Alma's parents - her aunt and uncle - were often sort of surrogate parents for her, with their children, including Alma, being the brothers and sisters my mother never had.

So the relationship with Alma is very special to me. We correspond from time to time, and she is interested in all my various activities, and enjoys hearing stories from me about this or that adventure. And of course we have still many relatives in common, and we enjoy talking about all the people we've known over the years. It was a real pleasure to be with Alma for a visit, for we had not seen one another for many, many years (I believe the last visit about about ten or twelve years ago but I can't be sure). So we had a lovely visit, and it made me very happy to be with this first-cousin-once-removed and share some family memories.

On up the road in Radford, Virginia, I was able to spend a day with Suzanne (always "Susie" to me) Ripley Goodykoontz, whose parents had been my own parents' best friends at one point in their lives. Bud and Verna Ripley had several children - including three sons who all had illustrious military careers - and Susie was one of two daughters. An accomplished musician and teacher, Susie was a great influence in my musical development and gave me many opportunities to come to her house to sing while she played. Or simply to sit and speak about music, with her sharing her knowledge and expertise in amazing bursts of generosity and - not surprisingly - much fun and laughter as we would get tangled in some explanation that I couldn't quite understand. It was all wonderfully enlightening and along with the musical education provided by another couple of childhood influences - now gone - engendered in me the love of music that seems to have characterized my life.

And of all the musical people I've known, Susie was probably the most eclectic, because anything that even remotely smacked of music interested her. Throughout her own long career she had great success in a great variety of roles: teaching music, playing in clubs, serving as a church organist, and - a passion we both shared - getting the best out of Broadway show tunes (we were both pretty excited by Cole Porter and never stopped singing and playing his songs together).

Now 82 years old, Susie and I had not seen one another for twelve years (although we try - when we can - to speak on the telephone but with my schedule that isn't very often) and we had a grand old time catching up on long-lost friends and, yes, she sat at her grand piano and played for me to (attempt to) sing. It was a beautiful visit and one I'm very grateful to have had.

A wonderful vacation and, almost literally, a trip down the proverbial memory lane. Great fun.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Serendipity - New York Photos

When I'm visiting another country, I'm often asked what New York is "like." So this trip home I've decided to snap some pictures of my neighborhood - and perhaps the larger city as well - to show to my non-American friends and colleagues. I've been fooling around with the camera, trying to line up some photos of New York to share.

And, yes, there are some neighborhood shots I'm kind of pleased with, and I'll get around to posting them one of these days.

But not too soon, for I've found something better.

I just remembered the visit of Martina Reich and Antonio Martin to New York in May, 2008, when they had come for an extended stay for Martina's work and for Antonio to photograph New York. We shared many good times together, and I was delighted recently to receive these photographs from Antonio's very successful exhibition, "Serendipity - New York." And so proud that he took these photographs when he was visiting me!

Take a look. These are fabulous photographs and well worth viewing. Check out that gargoyle on the Chrysler Building in the first photo - just six blocks from my apartment! Or that sunset from Central Park! This is what New York is all about.

Well done, Antonio. Congratulations. These are beautiful pictures for all my friends, and not just my  colleagues beyond our own shores. Thank you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Virginia's Shenandoah and Driving Over the Mountains

The Internet is awash with vacation photos and ours might as well join the flow. It's summertime in America, and for colleague and friends throughout the world, this is a delightful opportunity to share views of what we see as we drive about our great country.

This particular family holiday began with a drive from New York to Virginia's lush Shenandoah Valley, especially green and lovely this year, since there's been so much rain (but none on our journey, thankfully). The Shenandoah National Park has been around since 1926 (fully established in 1935) as a peaceful refuge for Americans and visitors. According to one guidebook, "the creation of the park has allowed natural forces, combined with the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps, to regenerate an area of scenic mountain terrain." Now celebrating its 75th anniversary, the park is one of the many products of the great CCC, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous solutions to the Great Depression, to provide work for the millions of Americans who could not find work.

The best way to see the Valley, of course, is from above, and splendid views are available from on high - from near Winchester, Virginia (not far from Washington, DC) via the Skyline Drive, the Shenandoah National Park's scenic roadway which follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles. At its southern terminus, the Skyline Drive connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which stretches 469 miles to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For our holiday, we left the Skyline Drive at its endpoint, spending the night in Staunton (pronounced by Virginians as "stan-ton" not "stawn-ton"), and continued on the next day, via the Blue Ridge Parkway, to just beyond Roanoke to visit one of the St. Clair relatives, a childhood friend and music mentor (more about that later), and to re-visit family landmarks and the family cemetery.

But the point of this post is to lure readers to look at the fabulous views we saw along the way. These are captured in Mr. Guy's Shenandoah Album.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Back in New York - The Verdi Requiem - Many Musical Memories

Of course one of the pleasures of far away duty stations is the return home, and those pleasures have been probably doubled for me, since my return home was interrupted almost immediately with more travel. But now I have been in my beloved Manhattan for a little over a week, and enjoying it mightily.

Especially the music. My favorite local station - WQXR - is sort of the heart of classical listening in the city, and there's just no other station that compares with WQXR. Indeed, many of us have come to, well, almost swear by WQXR when we want to hear classical music in our homes.

And that was the case last night, with a recorded performance of Verdi's Manzoni Requiem from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by the fabulous Gustavo Dudamel. It was an amazing performance, with the pleasure only heightened for me because I had as my houseguest a colleague from Berlin who is as inebriated with music as I, and we simply sat and listened, sharing this remarkable experience.

Which - probably not so remarkably - brought back many happy memories of my earlier musical life. Having had a pretty soprano voice as a boy, I was singled out for voice training, which continued on through the high school years and even into university, interrupted only when I had to stop to let the voice change. I sang and sang and sang, in choruses, in church choirs, as a soloist for weddings and funerals and other occasions I can't even remember. But music and singing was my great love, for much of my life, and the choral singing just kept going, up until my professional responsibilities made it impossible for me to run a business and have a singing career at the same time.

Nevertheless, those years were blessed with many fine musical experiences, including some twelve years in St. Bartholomew's choir in New York City. Having come to the city in 1968 and having auditioned for the choirmaster at St. Bartholomew's - on the recommendation of my choirmaster in Richmond, VA, from whence I came to New York - I was hired to be part of the "professional" choir at this magnificent church on Park Avenue ("professional" in the sense that we were paid a per-service fee for each performance in which we participated).

It was a tremendous experience, and although my talents were not particularly impressive - especially in comparison with some of the others in the choir (including many folks who expected to be singing at the Metropolitan Opera and were only in the choir as a "temporary" activity), I had a wonderful time. And I learned so much repertory, for we were obliged to sing two services each Sunday, including - from the end of September to Easter - a major oratorio or other great choral work set up to be the "anthem" or "special music" for the church's regular Evensong service.

It was a pretty arduous schedule from time to time but, as I say, it was a terrific way to learn music. The choir was large, sometimes augmented for special occasions to bring us up to 80 voices, and while accompanied by one of the great instruments of the world (St. Bartholomew's organ was in fact world famous), the organ was often supplemented by instrumental ensembles and even - when the occasion demanded - a full orchestra for times when we sang such pieces as Beethoven's Missa Solemnis or the Verdi Requiem (which we did every season, enabling me to experience this remarkable piece of music 12 times!).

So by the end of my first season, I had a pretty good list (I am relating this from memory, so I hope I'll be forgiven if some of the details might not be totally accurate) and by the second or third season, I could join in the baritone line of any major choral work I heard on the radio by the fifth or six bar.

And in those twelve seasons, there were exceptional experiences, one of which will always stand out in my mind since because of it, I can state that I sang under Leopold Stokowski.

Here's how it came about:

St. Bartholomew's was always a musical church, famous for a strong dedicated endowment which supported a splendid array of musical activities, even in its early days (the church had been founded in 1835). In 1905, Leopold Stokowski was brought to St. Bart's (as the church became popularly known later in the 20th century) to be the organist and choirmaster, and although Stokowski left after a few years to pursue his conducting career, he left his mark on the church, including a fine set of service music which has stood up well over the years (it is often - or was in the days when I was in the choir - sung at St. Bart's as part of the regular service music cycle).

In 1972, a great service was planned in honor of the maestro's 90th birthday, with the choir to be supplemented with even more singers (I'm remembering in excess of a hundred people, but my memory might be embellishing the facts a little!) and a full symphony orchestra. I don't remember all the things we sung, except there was Mozart's ever-appropriate Ave Verum Corpus, the Stokowski Evensong, and many, many other important works. We had a magnificent dress rehearsal on the Saturday before (I'm remembering a very long Saturday spent in the choir of that beautiful edifice), and on the day itself, the place was packed with people, many dignitaries, and even Mrs. Mildred St. Clair, who had traveled many hundreds of miles to hear her son sing under Stokowski.

I gather we did her proud, for I heard about it for many years and it was always a special joy to me that she and I were able to share this wonderful experience. I had by that time become good friends with a wonderful old man, Ralph Walker, one of New York's most famous architects with an especially important career back in the 1930s and, particularly, after World War II. Sensing what the performance meant to me and to my mother, Mr. Walker made it his business to see that my mother and I were entertained in a style appropriate to the occasion. So following the performance he took us to dinner at Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astor, just across 50th Street from the church. A never-to-be-forgotten experience.

And the performance? It, too, I'll never forget. I have no idea how well we sang (although I expect we were pretty good) but what I remember best - both from the rehearsal and the performance - was the maestro's hands. What beautiful, gorgeous hands this man had! And to see them move so gracefully and flowing so gently as he conducted us in the Mozart? Splendid, splendid, splendid.