Thursday, December 25, 2014

Guy's Homage to WWI (3): Holiday Greetings from the Front


A reference in Mark Bittman's column yesterday (An Atheist's Christmas Dream) reminded me of a special World War I moment I had earlier in my life.

Here's what Bittman wrote:
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the “Christmas truce” of World War I, when soldiers from both sides left their weapons in the trenches and met in neutral territory to embrace, play soccer and no doubt drink to excess in the spirit of humanity. Although the acts were officially condemned, these “live and let live” moments were repeated throughout the war.
And here's how his comments connected in my (much more recent, of course) memory:

Among the precious little treasures I have tucked away is a group of three World War I post cards found in a shop somewhere down about Hythe or Folkestone, in the time when I lived in England. I was mostly in Canterbury (although my research work took me all over the country), and in Canterbury, my best pals were Sandra and Colin Ward. When we could, we would take a day off and drive to the sea (as the English liked to say in those days) and poke about in different shops and markets in the several seaside towns we liked to visit.

Hythe and Folkestone were favorites of mine, and I remember how pleased we were when Sandra found these cards, one cold winter day as we were walking around, mostly stopping in the shops just to get warm. We weren't really interested in buying much of anything, but Sandra had heard about these and I was very pleased when she told me the story behind them.

Apparently these cards were not all that unique, and I gather that during the 1914-1918 time period many of them were created (they show up - I understand - for sale to postcard collectors as simply "vintage sweetheart embroidered fabrication française" Paris postcards). Of my three, one card has a company name on it ("Paul Heckscher, Paris").

I gather the designs were embroidered on a fairly lightweight, sheer fabric and inserted in a cardboard-like frame to make a postcard. The embroidery work was done - I learned - by the ladies in France, and then sold (for hardly anything, I imagine) to the English soldiers stationed in France, to send home to England.

So like the more-famous Christmas truce, the postcards represent another of those humanizing aspects of an otherwise inhumane situation, the horrible wartime environment these people were experiencing. Even today I have a few friends - my generation or a little older - who had fathers who fought in World War I and they still talk about the awful effect the war had on their parents.

So I'm happy I have these little "pieces" of sentiment, and it pleases me to share them here.


This card (above) is very special because I'm able to read the message on the back. No date, sadly, but the message - in pencil - reads:
From Dad
To Willie
Wishing him a Cheerful Xmas and a Bright New Year
     With best Love


This one (above) is another Christmas card but all the writing on the back is gone. I would love to have known what it said.


And the final one (above). Not really a Christmas card I suppose, because the embroidered design is mostly spring flowers. I'm guessing this one is a birthday card. It, too, has a message, one that is now hardly legible because it's so worn. 

I've been able to make it out, I think, and here's what it seems to say:
Dear Olive,
Just a card to wish you many happy returns of the day
With love from
     Tom
It's nice to have these, now somewhere about 100 years old, and to think about what the men in the trenches and on the battlefields were thinking about. These notes now are, at least, some tiny remembrance of these men, as they wrote these messages to their sweethearts and children. Very poignant and, in a very different way, very lovely for us to have them as reminders of how much we and our loved ones mean to one another.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Guy's Homage to WWI (2): The Very Fine Exhibition at The New York Public Library


There aren't many times we get so caught up in an exhibition that we're afraid we'll get locked in.

That's what happened to me the afternoon I spent at "Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind."

And just to get my complaint out of the way first: This wonderful exhibition - one of the NYPL's best - is crammed into a tiny space, and if there are more then ten people in the room, it is really hard to move around, much less learn much from viewing the objects on display and reading the legends. The site is the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery, on the main floor of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (what we used to call "The Main Building" or "The 42nd Street Building") of the New York Public Library. Many thanks to the Wachenheims and to Mr. Schwarzman for the space. It's fine for some exhibitions but, sadly, the space is really cramped for an exhibition as full of content and learning as "Over Here."

OK. Complaint over. This is truly an amazing exhibition and it's on until February 15, 2015. And from what I've written, you can see that I think it's worth the effort to get into the exhibition and spend time taking it in. Visit the exhibition, and if you're able to go when there aren't many people about, you'll find yourself caught up in massive amounts of content about what was going on in the United States in the years leading up to and during our country's involvement in World War I.

The subtitle for the exhibition tells us what it's all about, the huge public debate at the time, as Americans struggled (and argued, sometimes not very pleasantly) about whether or not the country should be involved in the war. As the exhibition guide describes what was going on, the debate "was facilitated by an unprecedented array of media and performance outlets, including such recent inventions as recorded sound and motion pictures."

The result is an intellectual exploration - using materials from the NYPL collections - that teaches us a great deal about how public relations, propaganda, and mass media were used to "shape and control" public opinion. As you spend time with these items, you get the idea that such methods had not previously been used - at least not to such an extent - in any situation in which Americans found themselves. We learn about how "100% Americanism" became the popular phrase of the time, building a "hyperpatriotic" attitude (in the words of the exhibition guide's writers), and the whole shift from absolute neutrality (personified by the activities and leadership of Jane Addams) to total involvement (led by former President Theodore Roosevelt).

And needless to say, I loved that the cover of one piece of sheet music (left) was used as the wall-size poster to lead visitors into the exhibition (right). An impressive transfer indeed.

[Note: all images courtesy of The New York Public Library.]

For me, there were three special conclusions I took from the exhibition. The first - which I had not realized before - was that idea of "100% Americanism" I referred to above. Again taking a leaf from the exhibition guide, I was surprised to learn that "never before in the country's history had Americans been so widely, and energetically, courted. And never in its history had the concept of Americanism - of what it means to be an American - been so hotly contested." Is there, I might ask, some sort of connection between what in our time we hear referred to as American "exceptionalism" and this extreme pro-and-con discussion about patriotic loyalty? Did this sort of thing start with our citizens up to and during World War I? Certainly that subtitle ("WWI and the Fight for the American Mind") clues us in that this sort of thing had not been done before. And look where we are now, in the "fight" for the American mind.

The second conclusion I reached has to do with the amazing role of advertising, public relations, and similar citizen-influencing activities. While many of these started out - as noted - as individual or group activities taking advantage of the various new communications techniques, the effort became "official" on April 14, 1917 with the establishment of the Committee on Public Information (known as "the CIP"), created to bring the American people - willing or not - into supporting and participating in the war effort. And a result of this effort - again a new revelation for me, as I had not known this before - was the birth of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Founded in 1917 as the National Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB), the organization's main purpose was freedom of speech, especially anti-war speech, and on defending conscientious objectors. I had no idea this was where ACLU came from, but after viewing "Over Here" and learning about the particular tenor of the times, it's no surprise.

And the third thing that impressed me? No surprise here. I just hadn't thought about it before: the amazing growth and influence of posters as a means of communicating a particular point of view. The exhibition notes point out that the American government became especially proficient in communicating "targeted information to large numbers of people," using such artists as James Montgomery Flagg, Joseph Pennell, and Howard Chandler Christy. Not only proficient but prolific: by the end of the war, more than 20 million copies of some 2,500 distinct poster designs had been produced. As George Creel explained it in his 1920 book How We Advertised America, even those of us of a later era can see why posters were so important:
I had the conviction that the poster must play a great part in the fight for pubic opinion. The printed word might not be read, people might not choose to attend meetings or watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye.
So I suppose visiting "Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind" supports what I learned at the program (described here on December 11) at the Morgan Library and Museum, that World War I - despite what we think about it and read about and attempt to learn about, that war really did move us as a society from a way of life to one that was totally different after the war. Nothing was to be ever the same anymore, especially - as evidenced in this fine exhibition - how we've learned to live with a vastly different way of life as we moved toward and into the 21st century. Lots to think about.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Guy's Homage to WWI: Starting with "The Piano in Wartime: 1914-1918"


It has been a month now since we had what we used to call Armistice Day, and I have decided the conduct my own homage (if that word isn't a little overblown) to World War I. There isn't any particular reason. It's just that - in my opinion - this amazing and horrible event in Western history had such influence on our collective experience that it seems appropriate to stop and think a little about what it meant to us as people. How did the World War I affect us, as human beings? How have we spent the past 100 years? Has anything been gained from lessons learned from World War I (and, of course, what about the lessons learned but ignored)?

It's an awesome subject, isn't it? And none of these questions can be answered, not even - with any satisfaction - by the historians and the scholars who pour so much time and attention into their efforts. And certainly non-specialists like most of us can't add anything to the mix. We studied it, we read about it, we watched the films, but we amateurs can't really figure out what went on or what the results have been. But we can - if we pause a bit - pay our respects and try to connect what came from World War I with what we learned about humanity's history before 1914 and where we've come since 1918.

The Morgan Library & Museum
My own little tribute begins with an appealing program announced for last Tuesday at The Morgan Library and Museum. The Morgan happens to be around the corner from where I live, and anyone who knows me knows the role music plays in my life so I could not resist The Piano in Wartime: 1914-1918. Fifteen students from The Julliard School gathered to perform music composed during World War I, and these performances were interspersed with dramatic readings by actors from the school. It was an altogether satisfying evening, and I'm happy I had the opportunity to experience it.

The program was put together by Aaron Wunsch, Julliard faculty member and director of the PianoScope, the Julliard Piano Department's program that enables performances and other activities around a particular theme. Certainly that format came together for this program, with Wunsch providing a fine pre-performance talk on "Making Music during the Great War" and the performances of the splendid group of pianists and two actors (Therese Barbato and Max Woertendyke) grabbing (and keeping) our attention throughout the entire evening.

As it happens (as noted in the program notes) the period covered was a little more than the dates 1914-1918 usually associated with World War I because, as Wunsch pointed out, it was the overall era that provided the "range of creativity" that the program invoked. What was really being described (as pointed out also by Andrew as we were leaving the hall) was the impact that, a hundred years later, seems to be somewhat forgotten, that the war not only brought about "a gradual aesthetic change" (as Wunsch put it) in the creative endeavors of artists and like-minded people. The war, truly, changed how society was structured, with a totally different way of life emerging after 1918.

Because of the number of selections - both musical and written (poetry and letters) - it isn't possible to list everything and everyone involved, but I can provide a flavor of the program by mentioning the we heard performances of works as varied as Alexander Scriabin's Vers la Flamme ("Toward the Flame") of 1914, Igor Stravinsky's Souvenir d'une marche boche ("Souvenir of a German March") of 1917, and wrapping up with an almost-unbelievably athletic performance of Maurice Ravel's La Valse of 1919-1920. The readings, too, were equally varied, from the Anonymous "Shattered Illusions," from The BEF [British Expeditionary Force] Times of December 25, 1916 to an excerpt from Edith Wharton's Fighting France (1915), to Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" (1917).

A remarkable program, and I am happy to record here my gratitude to the PianoScope Program of the Julliard School's Piano Department and the Public Programs Department of The Morgan Library and Museum.


Friday, November 28, 2014

Personal History: Knowing Ralph Walker (2)


Today I honor Ralph Walker on the 125th anniversary of his birth.

Born on November 28, 1889, Ralph lived until January 17, 1973.

My friends and colleagues have heard me speak about Ralph recently, since I participated in the Ralph Walker documentary back in October (still online here). And a few weeks ago - on October 15 - I shared a few thoughts about my friendship with Ralph, memories from back when I was a very young man (and he was a very old man). These were published in a previous post, also called Knowing Ralph Walker.

It was a lovely experience, knowing this remarkable man, and the fact that he was an eminent and highly respected architect and one of the New Yorkers who helped define the shape of our city continues to impress me. I feel very privileged to have known him, even though he has now been gone for many years.

Much of Ralph's professional success was detailed in the documentary and, particularly, in Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century, by architecture scholar Kathryn E. Holiday and published by Rizzoli in connection with the 2012 exhibition of the same name. As it happens, I am in possession of several of the more "professional" (we might say) artifacts from Ralph's career, as he kindly gave me a collection of a number of things he wrote, including his self-published book The Fly in the Amber: Comments on the Making of Architecture. And of special interest to me was his fascination, from early childhood (thanks to his mother's influence) in the theater and the larger concept of the place of theater and theatrical performance and theater architecture in society. Perhaps I will write about these.

Today, though, I want to write a little about the more personal side of Ralph Walker, for (as might be guessed from his love of anything having to do with the performing arts), he was a great patron of the arts. What we used to refer to as the "liberal arts" played a big part in his personal life. He did indeed love the "softer," non-engineering side of life, and in his later years he gave full expression to this interest by composing "little" (he called them) poems about some of what he thought about.

One of these has special interest for me now (see The New York Summer Winds Down with a Special Happy Memory, about the Caramoor Summer Music Festival). Written in 1970, Ralph called it "Musique de Table by Georg Phillip Telemann 1681-1767: A Study in Baroque." He gave me a signed copy because, I suppose, of our many conversations about music and the place of music in our lives and I'm pleased to reproduce it here.

Ralph introduced the poems:

"At Caramoor in Westchester County the work was given under the direction of Julius Rudel. I felt the concert was muted and slow in tempo. I realized it was meant to be performed indoors and therefore some of the vibrancy was lost. The following is no attempt to adjust thought to the music. The music is light and gay with frivolity."

The poem is in eight sections, each with its title. The titles correspond, I gather, with the sections of the piece as played at Caramoor but as I'm not very familiar with the structure of the famous Musique de Table I can't confirm that. Perhaps Ralph made them up, or adapted them from the evening's program (the Britannica tells us that the piece, published in 1733, contained "three orchestral suites, three concerti, three quartets, three trios, and three sonatas." So I'm not sure how Ralph came up with eight titles for his poems).

As Ralph chose to print his poetry compositions in all caps, I follow his style.

Musique de Table by Georg Phillip Telemann 1681-1767: A Study in Baroque.



OUVERTURE

HOW INVITING IS THE MOOD
SHOULD I WONDER
     THAT I CAME
THESE LARGE AFFAIRS
     ARE SUCH A BORE
YOU SIGH AND SAY
     OH LORD HOW LONG

THE STRANGE PAUSE
     SOMEONE TO SAY
          GRACE
A BISHOP PERHAPS
          OR A RABBI
MAY HE WELL BE BRIEF

"MAY THE BLESS'ED BLESS US"

HOW QUAINT HOW OFFBEAT
      WHO ARE THE BLESS'ED
WHO ARE THE BLESSED
ONE OF THOSE OVERTURES THAT
WITHOUT REASON REQUIRE
     STILL ANOTHER AMEN

ATTUNED WITH DESTINY
A MUMMY HAS BEEN PASSED


BERGERIE

AS I LEFT
     AND THE DUSK CAME DOWN
A LONELY SHEPHERD LED HIS FLOCK
     TOWARD THE ENCLOSING FOLD
WHERE MOVING FAST THEY SOUGHT
     THEIR EVENING'S REST
THE LAMBS IMPATIENCE NUDGING
     SOUGHT THE TEATS OF DAMS

THE SKY WAS BRILLIANT
     AND THE RAYS
OF THE DYING SUN
     LEAPT TO AMBIENT BLUE
THE SHEPHERD ON HIS LITTLE FLUTE
SIGHED A THRENODY
     FOR THE PASSING DAY
TO END IN THRILLING NOTES
     ALMOST IN ELEGY
FOR THE EVENING'S QUIET

AS WE MOVED TOWARD
     THE SCRUMPTIOUS TABLE
HOW LIKE SHEEP WE SEEM
     EAGERLY SEEKING
OUR NAMES AND PLACES AND THOSE
     WHO BUT BEFORE WERE STRANGERS
NOW WE PLAY OUR PARTS
     SEEK THE SAVOR
           OF THE MEATS
     PERHAPS OUR MINDS


ALLEGRESSE

WHY WHEN IDEAS
     FLOW FLUENT AND SPARKLE
     RIPPLING IN DELIGHT
MUSIC STRIKES GAY BLATANT NOTES
     DISTRACTING THOUGHT
     ALL EARS AS WELL

A SIGN TO THE LEADER
     FLUTTERING HANDS DOWN
SAYING WHAT HE CANNOT HEAR
     DOLCE DOLCE
MISTAKES THE GESTURE
INCREASING TEMPO - VOLUME
IN EGOTISM OF VIRTUOSITY
     'TIL MINDS ARE SHATTERED
     IN ANGUISHED HOPED FOR
          SILENCE

CAN FAINT APPLAUSE MEAN PRAISE
     DELIGHT AT ENDINGS
NOW GRIM THE SILENCE

GONE FOR NOW THESE MOMENTS
     BOTH WIT AND NONSENSE


POSTILLONS

THEN FAIR IS SILENCE
     FOREGONE THE CHATTER 
           THEN COMES
THAT WELLCOMED PAUSE
     THE MYSTIC O'CLOCK
     WHEN ALL SPEECH WANES

MUSICIANS RETIRE
      SEEK REFRESHMENTS
IN A CORNER
      PLAYING SOFTLY AND LOW
A VIOLIN AND A CELLO SING
     THE SONG OF THE BIRDS
     THE WARMTH OF SPRING

EACH NEAR COMPANION
     IN SOFTENED MOOD
          LISTENS
HOPING TO FIND 
     IN THIS MOMENT'S PEACE
          ANEW TO SAY
AGAIN THAT SPARKLE
          SO WISTFULLY LOST 


FLATTERIE

OUT OF THE REVERIES OF THESE FEW MOMENTS
     RECALLS A PRESENT
A GLITTER OF SILVER A GLINT OF GLASS
     AN AWARENESS 
OF THOSE PRESENT NEARBY
AS FROM A DREAM YOU TURN AND SAY
     THERE IS SOMETHING FAMILIAR
SURELY I HAVE MET YOU BEFORE
     YOUR IMAGE IS CLEAR AND SAFE
WITHIN THE BEAUTIES OF MY THOUGHTS
     YOU SAY NO - BUT 
YOU SEEM THE SOURCE OF SATISFACTIONS
     BEYOND THE DAY'S REALITIES
WE MUST HAVE PASSED BRIEFLY
     AT LEAST NEARBY  APART
     EYES HELD BUT A MOMENT
AND THE FRAGRANCE OF THAT MEETING 
ENCLOSED YOU FOREVER WITHIN MY WORLD
A GRACIOUS WORLD OF LONGING
          AND DELIGHT


BADINAGE

          MARRIED
WITH HUSBANDS PRESENT
THE BIG ONE THERE
     WITH THE GREAT BEARD
THE SLENDER ONE
     A CURT MUSTACHE

     BOTH VERY HANDSOME
     SO OUTSTANDING
YOU DID VERY WELL
     HAPPY EVER AFTER
IF NOT IN HEAVEN
     AT LEAST QUITE NEAR

          FRIENDS
DID YOU EVER THINK
AND WONDER IF INSTEAD
YOU HAD THE OTHER'S SPOUSE

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES
     HE'S ALL RIGHT - BUT NO

NO WHISPER BEHIND THE EAR
     OH LADY WHY BE GOOD
NO PARTING HAND
     GIVING INVITATION
ARE THEY ALSO SO CONTENT
     NEVER MAKE PASSES
NO DARK CORNERS TO AVOID

THEN YOU ARE
          THE BLESSED

BUT YOU I WONDER
     REFLECTING NOW 
     AS YOU SEEK
          ACROSS THE CROWDED ROOM
WOULD YOU HAVE SOUGHT
     A MUSTACHE OR A BEARD


MENUIT

A LOVELY THEME
     STATELY IN ITS CADENCE
COURTLY BOWS PLEASANT CURTSEYS
SWEET INVOLVEMENT OF MAN AND WOMAN
A DANCE CREATED IN TIMES OF VIOLENCE
WHEN NO STREET WAS SAFE
     PERFUME PREFERRED TO WATER
AN AGE OF MANNERS
MADAME
     MAY I ENJOY YOUR FAVORS
SHALL WE SEEK A FRAGRANT BUSH
YOU WILL BE WARM WITHIN MY ARMS

HOW SLOW THE  MOTION
     HOW SWEET THE INVOLVEMENT

HOW STACCATO THE BEAT
     'TIS ROCK AND ROLL
GONE THE FESTIVAL IN SILK
     UNSOUGHT THE FRAGRANT BUSH
COME CHICK
     UNDER BLANKETS
          ENRICHED IN MUD
LET'S SHOW THEM OFF

OH SOUL - OH FLOWER
UNDER UNBEARABLE BURDEN
          THE ELECTRIC GUITAR
GIVES HARSH SHRILL SONG
      TO BIRDS CAUGHT
IN CAGES OF DISMAY
HOW IRRELEVANT THE MOMENT
SANS ELEGANCE
          SANS BEAUTÉ
MAIS TOUT EN LA BOUE 


CONCLUSION

SO STRANGE THAT QUIET
     NEAR MUSIC'S END
MIND AND BODY ASK REPOSE
EACH SPIRIT ONCE AGAIN
FINDS ITS OWN RECOURSE
WORDS LAG - WIT LONG GONE
IN SHALLOW GRAVES
          OF LAUGHTER

GAY MUSIC LULLS
     DOLCE FAR NIENTE
WARM CELLOS SOB, OBOES SIGH
SEEM TIRED AS THEY CLOY
O'ER HIS HARPSICHORD
FINGERS LISTLESSLY SEEK
          FINALITY

ON SHARP ASCENDING CHORDS
     AN EVENING CLOSED
MANNERS ASSERT COMPLIMENTS
     TO ACCUSTOMED PATTER
         IN PARTING

SELF-STARTERS HUM AND SIN
SONGS OF TUNED CONTENT



Sunday, November 2, 2014

Opera: Klinghoffer Comes to the Met


Despite the recent unpleasantness, John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer has arrived at the Metropolitan Opera. Andrew and I did not attempt to attend earlier performances but saved our performance - with great anticipation - for a little later in the run, expecting (and finding) that all parties involved in the performance would have had time to settle into their work and put aside the general feeling of nervousness we were reading about in the press.

Here's what I think, and I'll begin with the music: there is not a note misplaced, not a theme or sung phrase that does not connect specifically to the overall picture that Adams is painting. From the opening "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" performed with the most delicate and sympathetic quietness the listener is engaged. Then comes the "Chorus of Exiled Jews" - the two choral pieces make up the prologue to the opera - and the audience is equally brought in. It was a very smart move on Adams's part to open the opera with this introduction, and with the excellent visuals and stage direction, the entire prologue is mesmerizing to watch and hear.

Leading, not surprisingly, to equally beautiful music throughout the remainder of this difficult and upsetting opera. The music continually matches what's going on, and while the overall musical structure and content range from the quiet peacefulness just mentioned to frightening, almost explosive sound-making to match what's happening or being described, the great talent that John Adams brings to his composition never fails. I loved hearing almost every note, and I was constantly listening, as I had been two seasons ago with Nico Muly's Two Boys when as an audience member I found I could not "stop" listening (not that I wanted to) for an instant. Every element of Adams's composition has a purpose and you don't want to miss a single "piece" of what's happening, if you can help it.

The performances were almost beyond comment (but not for me, of course). This was an opera produced so carefully and prepared so seriously that not a single musician (both onstage and in the pit), singer, or dancer gave less that his or her utmost. Of course there were outstanding moments and I simply can't name them all. But I also can't forget some, too, such as Paul Szot as the ship's captain, Alan Opie as Klinghoffer, Michaela Martens as his wife Marilyn, and Maya Lahyani as the Palestinian Woman. Spell-binding was Opie's delivery of the "Aria of the Falling Body" and Lahyani's poignant song of the life of the Palestinians caught up in the terrible events of the story was equally moving. And Martens - whose final aria I'll describe later - is an amazing singer, combining acting skills and musical talent at a level that simply isn't seen very often.

The production - a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera - is superb, one of the best of the Met's modern operas. This one is made possible by an anonymous gift in honor of John Adams, and I can't think of a finer honor than this tribute in the form of the splendid production. Again, far too many outstanding elements to describe but - for me - special mention has to be made of the choreography of Arthur Pita. Many, many sections of the overall production are danced and these, combined with the sophistication of stage movement for so many choral singers, principals, and others made for stunning visual pictures. Of particular note were two. The first was a particularly beautiful sequence performed by Omar, the youngest hijacker. Dancer Jesse Kovarsky had great success in the role and this section - danced as Lahyani's song was sung - seemed to have special resonance with the audience as, to be fair, so did all the other opportunities when Kovarsky was "dancing out" Omar's feelings (and, I think, confusion).

The second remarkable choreographed piece was a large-scale ensemble in which two male dancers move quietly - in crouching positions - onstage, to be surrounded by chorus members representing the Israeli settlers. The chorus is singing the "Desert Chorus" and while they sing, the desert is described (and shown) to be transformed into a productive landscape. The two dancers eventually move their bodies toward and into standing positions, finally holding in each hand a branch with a leaf to indicate the desert coming alive under the settlers' care.

The opera is - as I'm sure I've made clear by now - not an easy opera. Intensity is built in to the music, the production, the performances, and of course into the horrible incident being described. Indeed, I don't think (and I wasn't alone here) I've ever sat in an opera in which every moment I was there I was filled with tension. You simply don't relax. Every nerve is on end, and you know you are witnessing and learning about things going on in our world today (perhaps even worse than in 1985) and - excuse the cliché - there are no easy answers. For me the opera's greatness is based on its music, and that music enables us to see and think about the kinds of things being described here from a different perspective. I see The Death of Klinghoffer as a plea as much as anything else, a plea that we - as humanity - move away from the hatred that has driven so much of our lives over so many years.

And yes, there was the controversy brought on by people who wanted to prevent the production of this important opera. Neither Andrew nor I likes to be told by others what we can and cannot see and hear. There's no doubt that the The Death of Klinghoffer is a very disturbing story, and hearing it was very intense, as I've indicated. But we didn't find it the anti-Semitic, pro-Palestinian defense of terrorism that those demonstrating against it  - most of whom have not seen the opera - had promised. Yes, the opera indicates that there are two sides to the Palestinian issue, and perhaps that's upsetting to some. It wasn't actually the kind of work that one can claim to have "enjoyed" and we don't feel the need necessarily to see it again, but we were glad to have experienced the performance and to have been able to make up our own minds.

And, surprisingly since I was so taken by the opera and so positively determined to judge it on its own merits, the one tiny fault I found in the opera was part of this conclusion that I came to. (and this might have been my own fault - I might have "missed" something in the narrative). Despite the very sophisticated sets depicting the radar screens, the information that the entire sky was - during the hijacking - a (what we now call, I think) no-fly zone, and other clues that were perhaps offered, I had not picked up on the fact that world leaders were not willing to intervene. Someday I suppose I'll do some research and try to figure out what was going on in diplomatic circles during the hijacking but now that I have that information, I see the point of the opera very clearly. It's sung about by Marilyn Klinghoffer in the final moments of the opera, when she sings something along the lines of "if all the passengers on the ship had been murdered and their blood following the ship like oil on the water, the world would have done something. But for one victim it did not."

Perhaps that's an oversimplification on my part but those final lines (despite my remembering only the general idea and not the specific words) tell me that's what The Death of Klinghoffer is all about, that when our humanity fails us and we stop caring about one person, it's time for us to re-think who we are.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Personal History: Knowing Ralph Walker


"One of the few living people who knew Walker personally."

I was greatly honored to be included in the recent documentary about American architect Ralph Walker (1889-1973), and, yes, the sentence above was used to introduce me (the film can be viewed online here).

Ralph Walker
sketch from
architectsandartisans.com
Sort of a new way of thinking about myself, I suppose. While I won't comment too much about the "time distance" between then and now, I was indeed very fortunate to have met Ralph when I was a young man. For some reason, when I first came to New York, Ralph took a great interest in the young man from Virginia, and for the next six years he and I had a very special friendship. He introduced me to many people he knew, and seemed to delight in having me - and my sometimes girlfriend in those days - come to Walkerburn - his beautiful home in Chappaqua - for week-end visits. With his housekeeper and cook Louise we had many good times (and shared wonderful meals) and had long, long conversations about ever so many things. He was a widower (his wife had died a couple of years before I met him), and he and Louise seemed to take a special interest in me (or us) as their guests.

And in New York itself - on his several-times-a-week days in the city - Ralph took on the very easy task of speaking with me about art, architecture, music, the theatre, New York's history, the Murray Hill neighborhood (where I lived - and still live), and the myriad other subjects in which we both shared interest. And it was an easy task, too, for I had never met anyone quite as knowledgeable about so many subjects as Ralph was. I was a very receptive audience and although he spoke often about how much he took from me - about young people, "modern life" (he loved to say that), and similar topics that emphasized our differences, now as I remember our friendship I'm convinced that I was the real beneficiary of this interaction between two people from such different times (we were 51 years apart in age I later figured out).

We also did a lot of things together, since he was an avid opera fan and enjoyed the theatre, as I mentioned in the documentary. He was an avid museum goer, and I certainly couldn't resist when he asked me to come along to one of the city's great museums (he specially loved the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not surprisingly since the "gentleman's office" he designed for one of his buildings was once displayed there in an exhibition of contemporary office design). And I have a memory of being told that he designed the Grace Rogers Rainey Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum, but I can't find the reference at the moment, and I'm not sure he spoke about it or if it's just something I remember).

But saying that seems to imply Ralph would have wanted to go to the Met from self-interest which, from my experience, would have been just about as far as we could get in describing Ralph's personality. He was not that way at all.

But he did have opinions, many of which are discussed in the documentary and in the writings about Ralph and his work and what he thought about other people's work.

The story of how I got involved in the documentary is perhaps of interest, at least from my point of view, because it's one more example of those serendipitous things that seem to happen as we go through life. For some reason, I heard that one of Ralph's buildings (the West 18th St. Telephone Building, now called Walker Tower) was to be re-purposed into residency apartments - makes sense, doesn't it, now that communication technologies have changed so drastically since the building was built in 1931? - and that an exhibition about Ralph's work was installed in the lobby of the ground floor of the building. So Andrew and I made an appointment (required) and went to see what we could see.

Walker Tower
We were thrilled. Even, perhaps, mesmerized (might be a better word for what we experienced) as we took in the very well-designed and well-installed items that made up the exhibition. Andrew is an amateur architecture historian specializing in American and, especially, New York architecture, so there I was - in the first exhibition ever about the work of someone I knew so well early in my life, and I had my own private expert to show me around.

We also had a very knowledgeable guide - whose name I've since lost - who give us a very informative background and introductory talk and then just turned us loose to walk around through the exhibit. We had a grand time and spent - I would guess - more time with the exhibit than any other visitors who came to see it. And as there was no one else there when we were, we just took our time.

The exhibition was called "Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century" and had been curated by Kathryn E. Holiday of the School of Architecture, University of Texas, Arlington (she also wrote the beautiful limited-edition catalog - published by Rizzoli in 2012 - which itself is turning out to be a valuable reference for studying Ralph's work).

We reluctantly finished our time with the exhibit, and as we were preparing to leave, the guide commented that although she hadn't been eavesdropping she did notice that I seemed to know a lot about Ralph and his work. I went into my "I'll-be-modest" routine but Andrew encouraged me to tell her more about knowing him when I was a young man.

So I jumped in and had a fine time talking about how I knew Ralph in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it was from that conversation (I assume) that my name got to the producers at WNET's "Treasures of New York" series. When they decided to put together the documentary, I was contacted and spent a delightful afternoon speaking about Ralph with one of the WNET Executive Producers at my home. That led to a call from the show's producer who indicated that the program needed someone who knew Ralph personally (I think they had plenty of academic and technical and architectural experts) and we were on our way.

Great fun, and as I've thought more about Ralph and his life and knowing him, I'm hoping to continue this commentary with some of Guy's thoughts about his writings, some of his philosophy and experiences that he shared with me (he was a marvelous story teller). Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Terrific Book for Elephant Lovers


And you know who you are.

Yes, we're the folks whose ears perk up when someone says, "Have you heard about this elephant...?"

Since I had my time in Kenya - and got to know the elephants there pretty well - I've enjoyed writing about my experiences and sharing photos and commentary from time to time.

Recently, on the recommendation of another member of the "thinking-about-elephants-a-lot" gang, I had the delicious opportunity to explore The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild by Lawrence Anthony.

It's a beautiful story, about a man whose life was built around animal conservation and who, when asked to take care of a herd of rogue wild elephants that had been causing problems at another private game reserve, he couldn't say "no." His Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand didn't have any elephants - they had left that part of Africa about a century ago - and even though he knew it would be a challenge to work with these troublesome wide animals, he took them on.

He worked very carefully to get to know the animals, and - more important - to have them get to know him. And trust him. He was eventually able to create a very special relationship with the animals - not all of them, as some of them (one in particular) had been badly damaged in previous interactions with humans. Nevertheless, the story Anthony tells - with co-author Graham Spence - is a story worth telling. There's humor, sensitivity, and, yes, a couple of "bonding" situations that remind me of my experience in the Kenya in Summer 2013, which you probably read about (if you didn't it's here).

Much is made in the book of the sensitivity of the elephants and their ability to understand things that we human beings don't usually expect animals to understand.

And one example of the elephants' sensitivity is the fact that they are known to mourn, so one of the interesting stories about Anthony's work and his death has to do with the animals coming to mourn him when he died. There are a number of versions of the story, and I happen to like the one told at a site called "The Delight Makers" (no, I had not heard of it either).

The story - Wild Elephants Gather Inexplicably, Mourn Death of "Elephant Whisperer - is sweetly told and gives a good picture of how animals deal with some of the same situations we humans are confronted with. I loved reading this description (just as I loved reading the book - in reading it and not knowing that Anthony had died just a couple of years ago, I felt a wonderful closeness to this fine man). I didn't so much love the advocacy message of the text of the film - but why would I, as I know nothing about the organization? - but the photography is splendid and made me anxious to head back to Kenya to visit my elephants.

So I recommend the book. It moves fast, and you get the feeling you're getting to know Lawrence Anthony well as you read the book. As well as the many interesting people with whom he is called upon to deal with (both positively and - ahem - some with some difficulty) during the course of the story. If you like reading about elephants. you're going to love this one.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The New York Summer Winds Down with a Special Happy Memory


Caramoor's Italian Pavilion,
overlooking the Butterfly Garden
Yes, the Metropolitan Opera and the unions seem to have settled the labor dispute, and we've been told that we'll have opera in New York again this autumn. And there's the usual array (the only word for it) of up-coming non-operatic events: the New York City Ballet, fantastic theatre offerings - or so the advance publicity tells us - and lots more. I personally am looking forward so some of the great choral works to be presented, the programs of the Chamber Music Society and, of course, the New York Philharmonic. But there's so much more. It's really tough being a music-loving New Yorker.

Summer was easy. Plenty of offerings but, well, it seems to be easier to choose in the summer. So our gang focused on one event, and from my point of view, it outdid just about anything I've experienced in a long time.

I'm talking about the Caramoor Summer Music Festival, this year celebrating its 69th Season with all kinds of good stuff, and we were able to go with friends to the first (of what we hope will be many) Caramoor Opera "Week-Ends." It was the week-end of July 18-20, and it was special. Opera is often on the schedule at Caramoor, but this was the first time a "package" was offered, and it was a delightful experience.

Caramoor is a beautiful estate located near Bedford NY, about forty miles north of Manhattan (actually the town is Katonah NY, but I think of it as Bedford - don't know why - probably because friends live there).

Will Crutchfield, Caramoor's
Director of Opera
It was a full week-end, highlighted needless to say by the opera performances. The choices couldn't have been better, or better "teaching" operas for those of us who love the medium. Will Crutchfield (pictured left), who directs the opera program at Caramoor, had chosen two operas with Victor Hugo "connections," you might say. Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia" was performed on Friday and Verdi's "Rigoletto" on Saturday. They are both champion bel canto vehicles and Crutchfield brought together the champions to bring it off.

Led by the Met's Angela Meade, already at her young age an accomplished bel canto specialist (and favorite), the entire ensemble brought Donizetti's dangerously challenging music to great success. Indeed, Meade and the company even provided an special encore, following the opera with a re-insertion of the aria and chorus “Era desso il figlio mio,” an incredibly "explosion of vocal fireworks" (as New York Times critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim described the encore in her review). Donizetti had cut the piece from the "Lucrezia Borgia" when he revised the opera seven years after the its premiere, which I have to guess had something to do with the demands on the performers. That did not stop the Caramoor folks, and - truth to tell - the piece was performed so spectacularly we were all left in a state of shock, disbelief, and, of course, sheer delight. This is what music is all about, isn't it?

And, yes, the next night was equally accomplished. We've all come to know and love "Rigoletto" so much that - for some opera goers - it is difficult to get excited about another performance of this grand old war horse (as some people describe "Rigoletto" - uninformed people, in my opinion). Yet with the combination of the right cast, the highest performance standards, and the right "mood" (to say nothing of the grand surroundings of a place like Caramoor), a performance like the one we heard can make it all come together with great success.

That's exactly what happened on Saturday night, and by using the complementary elements of both Victor Hugo's Lucrèce Borgia and his Le roi s'amuse, Crutchfield and crew were able to ring down the curtain on an amazing week-end of what can only be referred to as "high-end" bel canto music.

Spanish Courtyard of the Rosen House,
site of the lectures and recitals
And there was more. Saturday was chock full of pre-opera events, including a swell informative conversation between Crutchfield and his daughter Victoria (herself a recognized stage director of opera, theater, and - as she puts it - "everything in between"). The topic was "What Verdi Learned from Donizetti," and it was full of more of those "connections" I referred to earlier. Then there was a recital by Caramoor's Bel Canto Young Artists of various composers' setting of Hugo's poetry, followed by a staged reading of scenes from Hugo's Le roi s'amuse, and another recital, this one of trios for female voices by Caramoor's Bel Canto Artists and Apprentice Artists. Finally, before the "Rigoletto" performance, there was an "introduction" to the opera from Ken Benson, an artists manager with 25 years as Vice-President of Columbia Artists Management, following which we all trooped off to the splendid singing I described above.

What a week-end for us opera lovers! Good friends, good food, good music. What more could we ask?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Dateline Vancouver: British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology


Thursday was our day to visit the splendid Museum of Anthropology and we had ourselves a wonderful visit. As anyone who has been to Vancouver knows, this is one of North America's most beautiful cities, and we are definitely enjoying the harbor area (where our hotel is located) and watching the great cruise ships come in and out. We had discovered the ease of moving about in that part of the city, so the idea of riding out to the campus of the University of British Columbia, where the museum is situated, was anticipated with pleasure.  


Museum of Anthropology
University of British Columbia
So off we went - with friends Dale and Debi Stanley - to visit the museum. Andrew and I knew nothing about it, and even less about the history and artifacts of the Pacific Northwest peoples. We had of course (being New Yorkers) seen the very fine exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History but for some reason neither of us had ever paid much particular attention to what was on display there. That won't be the case in the future. We had no idea what to expect when we visited the Museum of Anthropology, and were we ever surprised! Both of us, and Dale and Debi too, were a little overwhelmed by the quality of the exhibitions and the stunningly beautiful setting at the Museum of Anthropology.




Another view, with house posts
and reconstructed houses
In my opinion - and I said so when I wrote to several friends from Vancouver - UBC's Museum of Anthropology has to be one of the best museums I've ever visited. For one thing, since I knew so little about the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest First Nations, I came away with a wealth of new knowledge about this fantastic history, and I'm sure I'll be reading about this subject for a long time. And when I visited the MOA (we arrived in time to join a guided tour, with a very knowledgeable docent) I had my eyes opened to beautiful carved wooden structures that I don't think I ever knew existed (or at least paid much attention to). I learned about how the canoes are made, about the different meanings of so many of the carvings on the totem poles (and which were used as house posts, with several different purposes), the carved boxes from a single block of wood. All absolutely fascinating. 

As noted in the university's catalogues, the museum is affiliated with the UBC Department of Anthropology and it is world-renowned for its collections, research, teaching, public programs, and community connections. We were most impressed with the impressive First Nations of British Columbia collection, but that is not to say we weren't equally impressed with the many other artifacts on display - through a partnership between the museum and the Laboratory of Archaeology in the joint Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI).


Of special interest at the museum is a sort of "centerpiece" work, sculpture commissioned by the museum and displayed in a special glass-roofed rotunda (hence the not-so-good quality of the photograph). Bill Reid was an amazing Haida artist, and this work - The Raven and the First Men - is a fabulous depiction of the Haida myth of the Raven discovering mankind in a giant clamshell. Carved from a laminated block of yellow cedar, the spectacular wooden piece catches the viewer's attention and frankly, for me, I found I was having great difficulty pulling myself away. A large collection of other Bill Reid works are on display at MOA, including lovely studies and other versions of this splendid work. Truly amazing to see. 

At MOA, there is an amazing, vast collection of study materials on display - in glass cases, sliding drawers, and huge cabinets, and all accessible (at least in the public areas) to visitors in the MOA Centre for Cultural Research and the Multiversity Galleries, with more than 10,000 objects from around the world. And for those of us specially interested in knowledge development and knowledge sharing (and in this case in knowledge utilization as well, in the development and sharing of this content for teaching and scholarship), we found the MOACAT digital catalog system - available throughout the galleries - a splendid demonstration of the MOA's focus on combining the museum experience with current scholarship. Well done. 

Random photos (not yet captioned) of our visit to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia can be seen here.


Friday, May 30, 2014

New York's Opera Season Ends (I)


Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center
We New Yorkers are fortunate to have opera year-round,
as some of the smaller opera companies - upon which we are going to depend more and more - perform during the June-September months.

For the most part, though, we tend to attach our opera "season" to the dates of our great Metropolitan Opera Association, usually from the last week of September through early May, and now that's over. Just three weeks ago I attended the final performance of the season, Bellini's grand old showcase "I Puritani" - a splendid performance bringing back very happy memories (more about that later).

I was impressed with Anthony Tommasini's comments on the season, published in The New York Times. On May 13, he wrote in A Look Back at the Year of Top Voices that - with all the worry about next season's performances - we've had a very good year, topped by the return of James Levine (for which we are all extremely grateful) and Peter Gelb's "fresh theatrical thinking" about presenting works for the Met's audience.

And in this essay Mr. Tommasini's focus on the season was on the singing, a point of view with which I couldn't be more in agreement: "...one takeaway from the season is that, as always, singing comes first in this art form."

So I'm thinking about what we experienced with our Monday series (and some specifically chosen additions). Coming with our pleasures at the opera house were several HDLive performances (which I note the Met has now started to refer to "movie theater transmissions" - sort of a silly description - it seems to me - but I guess their marketing people know what they're doing). By some people's standards, I suppose that's a pretty full plate of opera but since this is one of the major reasons - well, for some of us - for living in New York we're happy to have it, good singing and all.

And there used to be more. The season began with the sad news that our beloved New York City Opera was entering into bankruptcy and would close, after 70 years for performances. Mayor LaGuardia's famous "people's opera" succumbed to a lot of problems but from what most of us have figured out, it was simply bad management over the past ten or twelve years. We were so disappointed to have this news (at our house we had subscribed to NYCO as well) but the company simply couldn't be saved. I hope someone someday will write a full history of this wonderful company. It meant so much to so many of us. [And until then, we have Fred Cohn's very fair description of the sad story, "The Ballad of NYCO" published in Opera News in January 2012 and two months later Alex Ross's brief commentary remarking on NYCO and the dispiriting New York opera scene in The New Yorker, March 12, 2012.]

And we did have the opportunity for a wonderful send-off, right at New York City Center, where the New York City Opera had first performed. Put on by the musician's union (one of the very unions leading - as Tommasini describes with respect to the Met - "critical labor negotiations that have turned acrimonious"), it was a night to remember. Lots of good singers, wonderful orchestral playing, and a sweet ending when during the curtain calls Plácido Domingo - who started at New York City Opera - kissed his hand and leaned down to plant his kiss on the floor of the stage. A bittersweet evening indeed.

That's enough for now. More about this season's opera experiences below.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

New York's Opera Season Ends (II)


Back to the Met: I'll let Mr. Tommasini describe the singing (splendid - no disagreement there!). I'll share my thoughts about several wonderful highlights, including Nico Muhly's "Two Boys," a fresh and very modern spooky story set to a lovely score. Muhly writes in a wide-variety of "styles" and I'm especially taken with his choral music. Very important work (coming to New York - with slight revisions - from a 2011 premiere at the English National Opera) and I'm pleased we had it here.

We had three Strauss jewels, and since I'm a major Straussian I was very happy. I had missed my Strauss when his works were excluded to make room for the 200th-anniversary Verdi and Wagner performances (and truth to tell, the new Wagner "Ring" in the 2011 and 2012 seasons sort of got the lion's share of the attention - 'way too much for what we had in the cycle itself). But we made up for it this year, with the splendid and almost overwhelmingly beautiful "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" in the autumn. This has to be one of the most beautiful operas ever written, and this thirteen-year-old Herbert Wernicke production - not seen for ten years - must be one of the loveliest to look at of all the productions done for this opera. So well performed, and if the season had had a single highlight, this would have been it.

And we also had the last performances of "Der Rosenkavalier" - the beautiful but, yes, worn-out Robert O'Hearn production of 1969. A great, great lavishly visual production, but it was time to go and - quite coincidentally - we were there for the last performance. Of course I loved every minute of it, and since it was the first of many productions of this great opera I ever saw, I will miss it, but I will do without this production. And it will be great fun to see what the new production - when it comes - looks like. I'm wondering if any other production at the Met has lasted 45 seasons and still looked this good.

Our final Strauss was the gorgeous "Arabella," sung so well at the house just last month. Another well-done and long-lasting production (by Otto Schenk in 1983), the show looks good. I felt the cast was very good, although there were some commenting on these performance who would not rank the singing with Tommasini's singing highlights of the season. I didn't feel that way, and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

What else? Two very special new productions, in addition to "Two Boys," made us sit up and take notice. Like the Las Vegas rat-pack "Rigoletto" of last season, the new "Falstaff" blew us away. Replacing Franco Zeffirelli's 1964 production (yes, even older than that "Der Rosenkavalier" I referred to above!), this was set in post-WWII England and - as much as we resisted - it worked, with splendid singing and, well, just an overall fun and musically satisfying evening. The new "Werther" also pleased, and once again all of us were impressed with the overall ensemble work done at the Met.

And the happiest opera experiences, it seems, came at the end of the season. We had a great time with "La Cenerentola" and even though it wasn't a happy-ending opera like "Cenerentola," the last night performance for the season was "I Puritani," another one of the greats. And clever scheduling, on the part of the Met (although I'm joking - I'm sure it was only coincidental) the last day of performances was "standing-ovation" day at the opera house.

The afternoon performance was "La Cenerentola" and it proved - from the first performance in April - to be the popular hit of the season. We were at the first performance, with Javier Camarena singing the prince for an ailing Juan Diego Florez. Camarena was spectacular, and the ovation went on so long we thought we would have an encore (that happened in future performances). For the last matinee, Florez had come back to the performances, so that afternoon seemed to generate some excitement that carried over into the evening.

As I said, the last performance of the season was "I Puritani" and this time the spectacular tenor was Lawrence Brownlee in a performance that had us all on the edge of our seats with excitement. No encore this time, but his singing definitely ranked with that of Camarena and Florez in "La Cenerentola," giving lots of talk in New York about a new version of "the three tenors." Silliness aside, they were all just terrific as we ended the season. I think Mr. Guy gives a little bit of edge to Brownlee.

And what memories that old 1976 production brought back. Starring Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, and James Morris, it was one of the highlights of my opera-going younger days. And when brought back ten years later to celebrate Joan's 25th anniversary at the Met, it was still a delicious experience to hear. No matter that the production is not one of the Met's best productions, it works (and it worked then) and whenever I hear this splendid opera I can't help but remember the glorious singing of Dame Joan. Ah, she is missed.

So we move on. I love to hear older opera lovers talk about the "golden age" of opera (it's always the time when they were nearing middle age and were hearing that generation's best singers), and I love to think about how what we hear is different for all of us. I'm not threatened by the Met's sharing house performances with audiences in "movie theater transmissions," and, yes, for me and most of my generation, we prefer the opera house. But whatever the situation is, for viewing and hearing the opera, I think we're pretty lucky, as this past season proved. And for those of us living in New York, I continue to be amazed - and appreciate - what is done for us at our great opera house here in New York. We're very lucky.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Spring Visit: Canterbury Windows in New York


View from The Cloisters
across the Hudson River
Up in Fort Tryon Park, in northern Manhattan, we have a very special place that appeals to so many of us New Yorkers. It's The Cloisters museum and gardens and it has just completed the celebration of its 75th anniversary.

And it's been a splendid celebration, complete with a beautifully written and produced issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin devoted exclusively to the history of the Cloisters. "Creating The Cloisters" by Timothy B. Hubbard provides a wonderfully detailed description of this branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art specially devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. The collection was assembled from architectural elements, both domestic and religious, largely dating from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries.

Not surprisingly, the collection is full of many artifacts that each evoke a particular response from visitors (and it doesn't matter whether you are a believer or not - this is great stuff to look at and think about). I have a couple of favorites, but I'm not a scholar. So I've never taken the time to study the official guidebook or delve deeply to find out more about them (should do that one day). I just like them.

Wise old people
The first is what I like to think of as a group of kings or prophets or something like that, but who knows? Perhaps they are just wise old people (I started to write "wise old men" but I don't think the figure second from the right would be very happy about that!). I'm specially taken with the last figure on the right, as he seems to be pondering some special problem that is going to be very important to everyone who knows him once he solves it (and don't you sometimes sit with your cheek against your right fist while you trying to solve a problem?).

Two ladies
Then there are the two ladies topping off a column and providing substance to its capital. Just what is the lady who in not front-and-center thinking about? Could it be something along the lines of "Just who does she think she is, getting out front and getting all the attention when I'm the one people should be looking at?" I love that stone carvers in olden times could incorporate their own sense of humor in their work.

Now, with the 75th Anniversary celebrations ended and life for visitors to The Cloisters back to normal, we've just had another special treat. [And when I say "back to normal" I'm simply referring to life as "normal" as it can be for visitors - New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike - who thrive on learning all they can about New York's history and how it attached to special interests like those of John D. Rockefeller Jr. - who built The Cloisters - and George Grey Barnard, the person who brought together the original items that became the first collection at The Cloisters.]

Jared (left) and Phalec (right)
The special treat I'm referring to is this: In a special arrangement with Canterbury Cathedral, we've just had a wonderful opportunity to view six Romanesque-period stained glass windows that have never been away from the cathedral grounds since they were created in the 1178-1180 period. At Canterbury, the stonework surrounding the windows is being restored, and while the restoration work is being done, the windows have been on loan to us.

The exhibition was called Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at The Cloisters and there's this from a nice published description at the museum site:

Thara
"The windows are from the clerestory of the cathedral's choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. The six figures—Jared, Lamech, Thara, Abraham, Noah, and Phalec—were part of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, the most comprehensive stained-glass cycle known in art history. One complete window (Thara and Abraham), rising nearly twelve feet high, is shown with its associated rich foliate border."

I'm not an expert in cathedral windows, but I did enjoy the exhibition (sorry I couldn't write about it before it was over) and I was delighted to learn about a book on the larger subject of the saints depicted here: The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral, by Jeffrey Weaver and Madeline H. Caviness describes some eighty-six near-life-size figures of the male ancestors of Christ that once could be seen in the choir and eastern extension of the medieval cathedral and priory church of Canterbury.

With the windows here with us in New York, I recently took a day go to The Cloisters, to visit the windows to delight not only in the windows themselves but just to have another visit to The Cloisters, one of the highlights on any list of unique New York experiences. The visit also gave me the opportunity to have a delightful trip down memory lane, for earlier in my career I had been introduced to a delightful lady - now gone, sadly - who was something of an expert on Canterbury's windows. She came to America frequently to lecture to museum friends groups, civic associations, church and literary historical societies, and the like (not surprising that the list should be so long, since Canterbury Cathedral's history is so long and so connected to all Christendom).

On one of her lecture tours, I got to know her and of course, just by some sort of osmosis process I suppose, found myself interested in cathedral stained glass windows, cathedrals themselves, and - considering my profession then - cathedral libraries. I was extremely lucky, for just a few years after meeting Mrs. Brooks I was granted a sabbatical from my then employer to go to England and study English cathedral libraries with the goal (according to my book agent) of producing the definitive book on English cathedral libraries, a large coffee-table type book to be filled with splendid illustrations of artifacts held in the cathedral libraries. As it turned out I was in England for 18 months, living at Mrs. Brooks's house in Canterbury (although I was of necessity required to travel all over England and visit all the cathedral cities as I pursued my research). An ambitious project, and one I was delighted to undertake.

That 18 months was a spectacular time for me, living in Canterbury, traveling all over the country, spending enormous blocks of time at the British Library and even, when required, at the London Library - which I learned to love as a sort of "library home away from home." I even took digs in London for a brief spell, since I was so captivated by being in London and have available to me all that - as for many Americans - London "life" represents. Whether real or fantasy, that environment charms many of us, so to have the opportunity to enjoy London as a real person and not as a tourist was a special treat. I've never forgotten that time in my life, and for me London and Canterbury (and yes, to a certain extent other places I visited in England as well) are a big part of my adult "memory book".

And they were fun times. I made many friends - some of whom I keep up with and who will be reading this post - and I experienced so many good stories that I can't begin to tell them all. I will, though, close this post with a typical story, connecting the visit to the Canterbury windows in New York with Guy's life in Canterbury nearly thirty years ago, a very happy time indeed. And some of my friends will recognize this story, for I used to tell it often.

Kathleen Brooks was a delightful and always cheerful good friend. Whether she was one of the "typical" English eccentrics or not is beside the point, but she definitely had her ways. And often, with a total lack of self-consciousness, she would describe a situation that - for some - might be considered self-deprecating. Didn't matter. Whatever the story was, she described the situation and, with her listeners, laughed heartily.

One day, at the cathedral, she had been called to guide a group of visiting businessmen, all from Northern Europe. Protesting that she did not know any Scandinavian languages, she tried to decline but was told that the men all spoke perfect English, so she agreed to do the tour.

As was her usual habit, she walked the group (a pretty large one - about thirty people) about the cathedral, telling all the stories and of course, with her specialty, focusing on the stories illustrated in the magnificent stain glass windows.

Also as was her habit, she always tried to have her listeners stop from time to time for a few moments, just to take in the enormous space of the cathedral and all that it represented to society and to history. And to have a bit of a rest.

After the men were all seated, Kathleen herself decided to take a rest, so she sat down in the pew just behind the last few of the visitors. They were deep in conversation, and did not notice that she had sat down behind them. As it happened, she was so close that she could not help but hear their conversation, which was all about the tour and all that the visitors were seeing, and especially about her enthusiasm as a guide.

And then one of the men turned to the others and, without missing a beat, said, "And did you ever meet a lady with so much useless information?"

She told the story often, always roaring with laughter, and seeing the Canterbury windows in New York made me realize just how much she would have loved seeing them here.

End of day -time to head
back to mid-town Manhattan
So it was a special day at The Cloisters. Here's an end-of-the-visit photo. You can see it's still a winter's day - not quite the springtime warmth we would like to have had for an April visit to The Cloisters but, yes, down in the shadows is a crocus or two trying hard.

And a very nice day anyway, a day for re-visiting Canterbury Cathedral windows, a day of re-living special Guy-in-England memories, and a day for about thinking about a very special lady, a wonderful influence in my life. She taught me much, and gave substance to my love of English cathedrals.

Oh, and all that research about English cathedral libraries? I ended up following in Kathleen's footsteps and giving lots of lectures and telling lots of stories and having a few articles published. The proposed book that sent me on my journey? Didn't happen. Now generally referred to as "Guy's famous unpublished book on cathedral libraries." It was a grand idea, had lots of support from people I knew in America, including a very hard-working agent, and support from folks in the Anglican church (some, not all). My agent really tried had to sell the project to the art publishers but it wasn't to be. When my research work in England was finished with no publication in sight, it was time to move on.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ah, Paris: Pierre Cardin's Art Nouveau Museum at Maxim's


In a recent post, I commented that I would be writing about subjects that are of particular interest to me (well of course, Guy - isn't that what a personal blog is all about?). I noted that among these special interests was l'art nouveau, the great design style that began in the so-called belle epoch and quickly spread throughout most of the western world.

Ever since I first learned about art nouveau, I've loved all the sinuous botanical lines, the curved wood, the often-overly elaborate fabric designs and draperies for clothing styles, and, well, just about anything that evoked that period when - despite all the bad things that happened in the world - there was (among those who had money, as in all periods of history) a great deal of beauty. L'art nouveau was often embraced to express that beauty.

I once did a little study of my own, just to learn what I could about art nouveau. I had come to love the idea that one design "type" (we might say) had so caught the attention of society that it showed up in just about everything. Not just furniture and objets d'art as I noted above, but in architecture, interior design, commercial designs, printing and book design, construction elements (especially Métro entrances and apartment-house balcony railings and other building ornamentation in Paris and, of course, in many other cities as well), and just about everything else. It was, it seems to me, a great attempt to make just about everything look beautiful.

One of our great goals, with our recent visit to Paris, was to dive in and, once again, immerse ourselves (well, immerse Mr. Guy) in the Paris version of l'art nouveau. It's always a great adventure in Paris, and while I've had quite a few opportunities to explore this lovely style in that splendid city, this trip was particularly planned for seeing as much art nouveau as possible. And we did see a lot, and, yes, I'll probably write about some of the other art nouveau things I saw in later posts. For now, let's just focus on one special treat. It was a visit to Pierre Cardin's Art Nouveau Museum, and it came as a complete surprise.

Our visit came about in a sweet coincidence. When I mentioned my interest in art nouveau to the one of the staff I befriended at our hotel, she immediately asked if I knew about the museum (it happens to be just around the corner from the hotel where we were staying). I did not, so she gave us all kinds of information and we were able to make an appointment for a private visit (well, private only in the sense that we were in Paris in late November, with few tourists, so no one else had signed up for the visit - I presume anyone can call and reserve to visit).

As it turns out, I know little about Pierre Cardin and his personal life. Or his tastes. But apparently he has been fascinated with art nouveau, as I have been, since he was a young man. He began collecting a long time ago (I don't collect, except for a few scattered items that I either inherited or for one reason or another were made available to me).

With his success in his career, Cardin was able to branch out in a number of different areas, and it's no surprise that when Maxim's - the great (and much beloved) Paris restaurant - was for sale, Cardin bought it. That was in 1981, and in the years since, he has continued Maxim's great tradition as the place to go for an evening's entertainment.

It didn't start out as much. The story goes that the business was launched in May 1893 as a sort of meeting house (probably along the lines the coffee houses in different parts of Europe that had been around since the late-17th century or so and, later, in North America). The owner was a former waiter named Maxime Gaillard, who was given to encouraging beautiful ladies to sit in the place to add to its charm. A little later, Eugene Cornuché - the next owner - brought in the art nouveau decorations, all the rage at the time (as can still be seen all over Paris) and encouraged even more beautiful women to come in and "decorate" his establishment. So the stage was set, and Maxim's became the splendid place to be and be seen with the beautiful women of the day.

Cardin did more. When he purchased Maxim's, of course the famous restaurant continued - and does today - but he also used the building to house his collection of art nouveau artifacts, furniture, and design, combining the art nouveau items with other materials of particular and personal interest, including a considerable number of pieces relating to Colette and her writings and life. It's a fascinating place, and we highly recommend it for a visit, if l'art nouveau is of interest.

We were charmed. It's hard to describe all the beautiful things to see in the collection. There are several rooms - on several different floors - and the idea seems to be to arrange the rooms as they looked when one of the famous courtesans of those Paris days lived there (think Dumas' La Dame aux camélias or even Verdi's La Traviata). The grandeur is there, and some of the pieces on display are as good as any seen in any museum anywhere.

Part of the charm, for us, was our luck in our guide for the visit. She was Véronique Fourcaud-Hélène, an actress and singer and - I gather from the similarity of the names - connected in some way with the Art Nouveau Museum Director and art historian Pierre-André Hélène. While we're sorry we didn't have a chance to meet Pierre-André (I've viewed his introductory film which is very good - you can see it here), we were delighted to spend time with Véronique, and she went out of her way to make us welcome and to provide us with so much information about the collection and about the overall Maxim's environment. A distant cousin of painter Toulouse-Lautrec, Véronique performs at Maxim's, both in an original play by Pierre-André, connecting with Cardin's interest in Colette, I gather, and in musical evenings presented at Maxim's. Indeed, in one section of the promotion film clips at the Maxim's site, Véronique is referred to as "The Lady of Maxim's" and her musical performance ("The 1900 Spectacle") looks like a delight. I'm just sorry we could not attend a performance while we were in Paris.

I'm happy to share some of our photographs (Véronique graciously allowed us to take photographs, "as many as you like"), and you can see them here. At the same time, I'm very happy and delighted to refer you to the Maxim's site itself, especially for the several video clips there and, in particular, the beautiful photographs of the museum and its collections. We did not take photographs of the restaurant as it was not open when we were there and it was too dark (too late in the day) to photograph. Nevertheless, we had a lovely tour of the restaurant rooms, and the photographs of those rooms are seen at this page of the site.

So. Mr. Guy's advice for anyone going to Paris: Reserve some time for Pierre Cardin's Art Nouveau Museum. It's very special.