Thursday, February 24, 2011


If you ride an elevator often enough—especially to and from a high floor—you can turn this experience into a psychological study of your neighbors, both the two- and four-legged kind. Such close confines offer a focus on some of the most animal aspects of humans, and the most human aspects of some animals.
A damning revelation of human benightedness crops up both inside the elevator and just outside where people wait for it. Inside, the button for the ground floor has been pressed and is lit up. As a new passenger steps in on a lower floor, he or she does one of two things: Either look at the lit-up 1 button, and do nothing, the sensible thing to do; or supererogatorily press that button once or even, in a nervous staccato, several times. This, I am sorry to say, is stupid.
Outside, when the elevator door opens on the ground floor, there is all too often some wretched person smack in front of you, a mere foot or two away, and thus blithely blocking the egress. Of course, the person does eventually step aside or back, but not before having given excellent proof of mindlessness.
Then there is the matter of what conversation may arise during the ride. The most likely subject, the only one of sure concern to all about to go forth, is the weather. You will recall the saying ascribed—with no great certainty—to Mark Twain: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The joke is in the absurdity: how could anyone change the weather? But perhaps the absurdity is even greater: why even waste much time talking about something that you can’t control?
Well, like almost any other subject, the weather can be discussed intelligently or not. Just to utter the clichĂ© the characters sing about in the Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes musical, Street Scene, “Ain’t it awful, the heat?” is of very limited interest. But suppose someone says, “It’s funny. In the August heat we always think we can cope better with a severe winter cold. On a freezing January day, we always say that even the worst heat is better than this.” Not a particularly brilliant observation, but at least one remotely connected with thought.
And, incidentally, one can do something about the weather: dress accordingly. But in the elevator we usually see people dumbly dressed not by the weather, but by the calendar. It may be the most wondrously balmy winter day—65 or 70 degrees—but because the calendar says December, these folks are swathed in layers of clothing. And vice versa: on an unexpectedly frigid July day, with the temperature at an almost unheard-of low, these unfortunates go out in paper-thin batiste shirts.
But let’s get back to elevator talk. To begin with nomenclature, what about the very name “elevator,” which in my mind often conjures up those ugly elevator shoes worn onstage by short actors and singers? The British term, “lift,” adopted by several other languages, is much more attractive, even if you don’t get much of a lift out of the ride. The French ascenseur is quite melodious; the spondaic German, Fahrstuhl, too ponderously earthbound. To be sure, most people are not particularly sensitive to language; if the elevator were called glubglob, it would be just the same to them. Contrarily, the angel that frequently appears in the works of Cocteau, euphoniously called Heurtebise  (something like wind-repeller), derives his name from a model of the Otis elevator.
Anyway, talk. Some people will compliment a fellow passenger on his elegant Savile Row suit or her stunning Hermes pocketbook. Deep down, such compliments may please everyone, but the more discriminating person might take umbrage at them as flattery. A fond Dad or Mom may revel in your praise for a cute child; an owner, in admiration for his pure breed Afghan. But then again, must one fill two minutes involuntarily spent with a stranger with chatter? Isn’t a hello or a good-bye quite enough? As long as it isn’t that saccharine “Have a nice day.” But beware of persons who, you feel, cannot stand a couple of minutes of dead air. Those are the undesirably insecure.
Speaking of the cute child, however. Every so often there is the doting parent who must bestow a lesson in elevator science on his tot, explaining what button to choose, how and where to find it, and the way to press it. Or, as more commonly expressed, push it. This can fill you with apprehension: what if the darling presses or pushes the wrong button anyway? The resultant delay is not tragic, unless you are in a great hurry, but somehow, in the close quarters of an elevator even a minor deviance feels like a delinquency. Proximity, like a magnifying glass, enlarges things.
Now what about dogs on the elevator? There is a goodly difference between a well-behaved dog who cleaves to his master or mistress, and one that can’t be restrained from nuzzling you. But an even greater, mysterious difference is between  dogs who, upon arrival, respond only to a tugging leash, and others who actually sense the proximity of the desiderated ground or home floor, which will provide them with a walk or bring them back to their quarters. These know exactly when and where to position themselves with palpitating spout, ready to leap forth the moment the door opens. How do they do it? A mystery, like that of the migration of birds, I suppose.
Finally, there is the person with an elevator phobia who refuses to enter one, and not merely because it is too crowded or usurped by carts or strollers. Such a person is also unwilling to walk up more than a given number of floors, and if you live higher than that, won’t visit you. If it is someone you don’t care for, bless the elevator. If it is someone you like—well, what are restaurants made for?

Saturday, February 19, 2011


            We know, of course, that the dog is man’s best friend. But how reciprocal is this friendship? Is man also the dog’s best friend? When I see Yorkies being carried about by women in their pocketbooks, or sundry dogs constricted by fancy habiliments, or owners sleeping with their dogs between shared sheets, I begin to wonder. Is this truly mutual friendship or some sort of ego trip or ostentation on the owners’ part? Isn’t the coat nature bestowed on canines enough to keep them warm? Or do spoiled, overindulged doggies feel underdressed in the street without bejeweled glad rags?
            These and similar thoughts occurred to me the other day while watching the 135th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on television. This, as you may know, is the canine equivalent of the Miss America and other like shows, where a young woman is crowned the fairest in the country, or the world, or the universe. Is the winner in what is essentially a mere girlie show truly the most beautiful anywhere other than on television, and even there only on that particular show? And is the best-of-show dog at Westminster (the kennel club, not the cathedral) really the best dog of all? And what does “best” in this case actually mean?
            I love all sorts of animals including dogs and, perhaps most of all, cats. An ex-girlfriend of mine and I once even co-owned a coatimundi we named Humbaba (because its cage was lined with cedar shavings and the monster guard of the cedar forest in the Epic of Gilgamesh is called that), but which we probably shouldn’t have acquired; a coati, however smart and lovable, is meant for the wild, not for a domestic pet. So I wonder whether all that grooming and fussing, pampering and photographing, really benefits a dog. Or only the owners and handlers, who may thrive on all the hoopla.
            My first problem with the dog show is that the competing divas (for that’s what they are) come in seven categories: toy, herding, hunting, working, sporting, nonsporting and terrier. Now, I may be obtuse, but listening to the commentators’ descriptions of the numerous breeds (well over a hundred and counting) it seemed to me that the laudatory epithets that introduced them—such as child-friendly, rat-catching, rabbit-hunting, fox-unearthing, powerfully built and fiercely loyal—were verbosely and repetitiously applied to any number of them, and becoming monotonous. Would Miss America candidates be repeatedly styled bosomy, leggy, family-oriented, negligee-friendly, bedroom-eyed or whatnot?
            Above all, the winners in the seven rather tautological categories were all splendid specimens as they were paraded about before the ultimate judge, Paolo Dondina of Italy, who was carefully kept from eyeballing them until the minute he stepped into the Madison Square Garden arena to pick the champion of champions. Incidentally, all the dogs have elaborate names beginning in, or at least comprising, a Ch., meaning some sort of champion, without which they wouldn’t have been qualified to compete. Thus the Scottish deerhound who won this year is named in full Grand Champion Foxcliffe Hickory Wind, regularly abbreviated as Hickory, which is rather as if the Miss America contestants were referred to exclusively by their first names, Jeanie or Katie or Tiffany.
            Here, though, is the rub. When one looked at the seven finalists, they seemed not just different breeds, but actually wholly different animals. How on earth could a tiny Pekingese run against a mighty Scottish deerhound?  As soon have a contest pitting gorillas against hamsters. At least all Miss America contestants are young women, none of them dwarves or giantesses.
            And another thing. I fully appreciate Hickory’s pulchritude, even though, like others of her breed, she displays somewhat spindly legs under a mighty body. Surely no Miss America would combine a C-cup bust with shoe size five feet. But there is something even more problematic: Judge Dondina. For Miss America, there is a whole panel of ten or twelve judges—male and female, young and old, straight and gay—to crown the winner. That winner, then, has amassed the highest point score from a number of ecumenical arbiters, making her an across-the-board laureate. (I am not even mentioning the intelligence test with questions like  “If you were stranded in an African jungle, what would you ask for in your prayer?”)
            Hickory was pronounced dog of dogs by just one ultimate, ungainsayable judge, old Paolo Dondina. I stress old, because Dondina looked like a dodderer even if he wasn’t, and because the Times quoted him declaring, “I am a hound person. I had Afghans. I had whippets. I had Irish wolfhounds. I never owned a deerhound. This is my dream.” Well, should a fellow who for many years owned big dogs and dreamt about deerhounds be the single, supreme judge, rather than one of at least nine? Who would have been the winner if Paolo had dreamt about Pekes? It’s as if a buxom blonde became Miss America merely because the sole judge did not dream about willowy brunettes.
            Yet even this may be less important than what I read about Hickory and her likes. She is a five-year-old veteran of beauty contests, five dog years being the equivalent of thirty-five human ones. How many 35-year-olds would be allowed to, or even want to, compete for Miss America? If not disqualified for being over-the-hill, they would recuse themselves for having better things to do than spend the next year rattling around as poster girl for the title.
            Think of what a neurotic mess poor Hickory must be. In shows for five years, dragged hither and yon, exposed to hordes of photographers crowding or dare I say hounding her, with spotlights and flashbulbs, cameras and hubbub? Moreover, I read that she is owned by Sally Sweatt of Minneapolis, but lives on a farm in Virginia with her breeders, Cecilia and Robert Dove, when not, frequently, on the show circuit with her handler, Angela Lloyd. This means that the poor creature is parceled out among four parents and hustled left and right. It is as if Miss America had parents in two separate, distant locations, and were dragged to any number of others by an Argus-eyed guardian who scrutinized her and slept with her (see below) during all these travels and travails.
            Any compensation? Well, I read about all manner of absurd diets and cosmetics, routines and rituals, show dogs are heir to. Says the Times: “Hair is blown straight or teased into fanciful poufs. Snouts and paws are daubed with talcum powder. Wayward hairs and whiskers are trimmed with precision.” For Hickory, Ms. Lloyd concedes, this is quite an extreme experience, inflicted on a sensitive dog best suited to living on a farm and chasing deer and squirrels. No wonder Hickory will nudge Angela when the handler is watching television—“really nudge you”—enough to make you throw an arm up in the air. Indeed, she nudges the sleeping Angela even in the middle of the night.
            Right now Hickory is already booked into several events, starting at 6:30 a.m. What good is the fluffy bed she sleeps on and the extra biscuits she gets? Unlike some other show dogs, at least she isn’t walking with towels on her back and her ears pinned down. Yet even the less hysterical owners are apt to feed their pets luxury dog food, chicken livers, raw bison, and steak on a restaurant platter. During the post-victory press conference, Ms. Lloyd would blow gently on Hickory’s snout to keep her cool. Still, “growing tired of the paparazzi glare, she walked off the stage.” Hickory that is, not Ms. Lloyd. What’s more, Hickory, the day after her triumph, refused even a diced and elegantly served filet mignon at Sardi’s.
            It all goes to show that, however pampered a dog you are—and perhaps especially if pampered—it’s a dog’s life. Is that any way to treat your best friend? 

Monday, February 14, 2011


            School days, school days! Something just reminded me of good old Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, Pa., where I put in a couple of turbid semesters before transferring to the far superior Horace Mann School in Riverdale, New York City. It had been very nearly a waste of time, because I was put into a form according to my age rather than my aptitudes, which included a better grasp of English grammar than that of my classmates. No boasting here; they were a pretty dim lot.
            Why Perkiomen? My father had a business friend, Stephen Kiss, a good name in English, but not so much in Hungarian (which he was), where it means “small.” He had been in this country longer than our recently immigrated family, so my father asked him to recommend a private school for me. With small understanding, he picked Perkiomen for my sixteen-year-old self.
            Pennsburg was a burg indeed.  Not even a one-horse town—I certainly don’t recall seeing a single horse. As for the school, no one with horse sense would have chosen it. My having an assiduous, book learner’s grasp of English made me stand out somewhat undeservedly, which is how I, a junior, caught the attention of senior English teacher Homer Nearing. A smart young fellow he was, sophisticated, witty, very erudite, and as eccentric as his name. Why he was stuck in that Sargasso Sea of scholarship, Perkiomen, I cannot now comprehend.
            The only distinction the school seemed to have was the chapel, where the banners of many nations were displayed, purchased with the pocket money of hapless former students from the respective countries. Clarence Tobias, the headmaster, had sweet-talked them into forking over a hundred bucks per flag. I later learned that Tobias had embezzled from the school, and much of the flag money doubtless ended up in his pocket. He tried very hard to make me pay for a Yugoslav flag, but I didn’t bite--one of my extremely rare sound financial decisions.
            But back to Homer Nearing.  He and a girlfriend, a grad student in Philadelphia, were collaborating on an epistolary novel. It took place on a desert island, where two young lovers were stranded. Homer and Girlfriend wrote alternating chapters, but sometimes a favorite student was allowed to contribute a chapter as well.  I was such a one, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I wrote.
            Most likely it was something in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs, some of whose work, back in my Belgrade days, I devoured. (It made my worthy private English tutor wonder how my bookshelves could incongruously house, side by side, the collected works of Friedrich Schiller, in German yet, and Edgar Burroughs.) I had no use for Burroughs’s Tarzan novels (though I liked the movie versions), but I relished the Martian series. This chiefly on account of Dejah Thoris, a Princess of Mars, for whom the first of the novels was named.  She was extremely beautiful, and differed from Earth girls only in that her skin was strikingly pink. Schiaparelli pink, I imagined, a shade I liked.
            The good thing about these novels was that they were not sci-fi, which would have bored me. Thus Captain John Carter, the Virginian hero and Dejah Thoris’s lover, did not arrive on Mars by means of some complicated interplanetary contraption, but simply by loving the red (or perhaps pink) planet, often staring at it, and one day finding himself miraculously transported there.
            Ah, Dejah Thoris! How lovely a damsel she was, and how much in distress, always needing John Carter to rescue her. In looks and misadventures she was not unlike a much later favorite of mine, Dale Arden, the beloved of the eponymous protagonist of the Flash Gordon comic strip. Equally disaster prone, she was dependent on Flash to keep saving her. Needless to say, I projected myself into the shoes (sandals? boots?) of these gallant rescuers.
            I wonder what became of that epistolary novel. Unpublished, it almost certainly never got finished, and was, like Penelope’s web, useful merely as an ongoing project that warded off other lovers. Curiously, though, I have only two clear memories from my friendship with Homer Nearing.
           One concerns the pronunciation of the name of the Russian composer Borodin. We had a lengthy and lively altercation about where the accent should fall. Homer insisted it belongs on the BO; I plunked for the RO. When we finally looked him up somewhere in those pre-Wikipedia days, the accent was assigned, reliably or not, to the DIN. To this day I haven’t investigated which is correct, not wishing  either Homer or me to be tarred with the stigma of error. The other is Homer's response to someone's suggestion he take up equitation: "Why should I give a horse the useful exercise I need for myself?"
            Back, however, to Pennsburg. The prettiest girl around was named Florence, a waitress who went out with some of the Perkiomen seniors, she being, I guess, of their age. Though she liked me, I was too young to be of real interest, which filled me with pangs of jealousy. But my chance came. Florence was operated on for appendicitis, and was recuperating in her Allentown hospital bed. I bought some flowers and made a pilgrimage to her, by my boyish standards, distant bedside. None of her senior boyfriends had paid her the slightest visit, and she was duly touched. But not enough so to go out with me.
            Many years later, a man in publishing and common friend of ours, put us in touch, and a correspondence ensued, with--Florence being a divorcee with a grown daughter who favored the idea— her hoping for a possible renewed nexus. As it happens, at that very time a book of mine came out with a reminiscence of Florence. I described her as a charming butterfly getting involved with various students, a bit flighty but appealing. Well, I got a furious letter from her daughter saying how hurt her mother was to be accused of promiscuity, and that was the last I heard from either of them.
            However, to return to Homer Nearing. As I got to be somewhat known as a critic, a lady—I forget how she made the connection—wrote to me that my old teacher, now a crabbed recluse, was living in a suburb of Philadelphia, and would probably enjoy hearing from me. In those days, Pat, my wife, and I made fairly frequent trips to Phillie, partly for me to review some play, partly for us to dine at Le Bec Fin, our favorite restaurant anywhere.
            So, with such a trip impending, I wrote Homer, and he somewhat reluctantly agreed to a meeting at the hotel. I can’t recall why this didn’t happen, but, alas, I didn’t get a chance to acknowledge how much he had meant to me. Shortly later I was sent a newspaper clipping with his obituary.
            Thus, in compensation, I am making a point of thanking my wife for all I owe to her, my real-life Dejah Thoris. And I would strongly advise you that, upon reading this, you too give explicit thanks to someone from whom you have learned an important lesson or two.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In Praise of Concerts, However Imperfect

Far be it from me to put classical concertgoing above theatergoing, or vice versa. Both afford pleasure and have their important place in civilized life. But I must concede that concerts, even imperfect, tend to be more dependable than today’s theater, at least as experienced by a critic. Why is that?

Classical music has one distinct advantage: it cannot undergo the drastic changes inflicted by megalomaniacal directors, or idiocies served up by deluded producers. Even if, say, a Shakespearean text is adhered to, it is nowadays exposed to unwarranted changes of locale and period, fantastic set design, outlandish costuming, frantic mumbling or illicit pauses, quixotic casting and whatever other iniquities a text can be heir to. And let us not forget cases of egregious lack of talent.

Now take a piece of classical music. True, a conductor or soloist can, and perhaps should, introduce idiosyncratic differences. Yet the notes themselves might as well be written in cement as on paper, and no one wholly incompetent, unprepared or demented would dare to face a keyboard or raise a baton. A performance may be lackluster or hyperkinetic, but the sonata or symphony will still be recognizable. I have caught productions of classic plays, however, that left me wondering what I was seeing.

Thus the three concerts I recently attended were recognizably Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Knickerbocker Holiday, the same team’s Lost in the Stars, and Alberic Magnard’s magnificent opera Berenice. I propose to write about them not as a music critic, for which I haven’t the competence, but as a music lover, for which my book John Simon on Music should adequately testify.

For two evenings in late January at Tully Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra joined by the Collegiate Chorale, both under James Bagwell, put on a semi—no, quarter—staged concert version. The original Broadway production of 1938, directed by Joshua Logan, had a semi-successful run of 168 performances, mostly on the strength of Walter Huston as Governor Peter Stuyvesant.

The story is introduced by Washington Irving, on one of whose writings the show is based. We are in New Amsterdam in 1647, as Stuyvesant, the new governor, is about to arrive. The maladroit and unprincipled town council, to throw dust in his eyes, wants to stage a public hanging. The obvious candidate is young Brom Broeck, the town’s liberal and sweetheart of Tina Tienhoven, daughter of one of the disapproving councilors. Pieter cancels the hanging, but Brom will be jailed so that the elderly governor (a satire on FDR) can himself marry the protesting young woman, as her father commands.

But Washington Irving steps in with a warning about how history will judge Stuyvesant. Broeck is allowed to wed Tina, and the governor is induced to become more democratic. The whole show was a Republican satire on Roosevelt and the New Deal, most of which, however timely today, was lacking from the concert version written by Ted Sperling and Edward Barnes, and directed by the former.

Nevertheless, the orchestra and chorus performed compellingly, and only the characters of the defanged satire, mostly turned into farce figures, fared poorly.The heavy Dutch accent of the councilors clashed with the all-American English of Stuyvesant, though that was the least of Victor Garber’s unvirile personation. No more sturdy was the fussily gesticulating Irving of Bryce Pinkham. As the lovers, Ben Davis and Kelli O’Hara did all right by the indestructible “It Never Was You,” but, afterwards, neither O’Hara, an overdecorated veteran ingĂ©nue, nor Davis, a blandly colorless Brom, managed to prove much beyond that two sticks rubbed together require more than a couple of hours to strike a spark.  The supporting cast, largely because of the direction, was more hammy than incandescent.

Even so, it was good to hear a more or less complete Knickerbocker Holiday, of which, there is only a CD of a truncated 1938 radio broadcast starring Walter Huston in his signature role. Recording this 2011 version will be no help, considering how bloodlessly Garber rendered, with his fussy but desiccated approach, such a superb number as “September Song,” which only the Times reviewer managed to compare to Huston’s, and only his mother could love.

Encores! the laudable ongoing series of musical comedy revivals at City Center, offered a semi-staged version of the Weill-Anderson Lost in the Stars. Based on a novel by South Africa’s Alan Paton, this tells the story of Reverend Stephen Kumalo, from the South African hinterland, traveling to Johannesburg to retrieve his long unheard-from prodigal son Absalom (note the biblical allusion). The youth has impregnated his girlfriend Irina, and, desperate to provide for her and the coming baby, joins some unsavory companions in a robbery that goes awry as the panicked Absalom inadvertently shoots the son of James Jarvis, the powerful white supremacist landowner. Unlike the lying robbers, who get off scot free, Absalom, partly under his preacher father’s influence and aware of the consequences, tells the truth and is condemned to death by hanging. The two fathers, each with a lost son, manage to become friends.

This 1949 show, Weill’s last, had only a passable 273-performance run, despite a remarkable score blending European, American, and African musical elements, and comprising some marvelous songs. There is “Thousands of Miles,” sung by Stephen Kumalo , in which he reflects about family bonds thicker than geographical distance. Later, there is the minister’s touching title song, “Lost in the Stars,” about forlorn humanity adrift under the cold stars. Both songs were sterlingly rendered by Chuck Cooper, whose somewhat stiff acting did not match his vocal prowess.

Then there were the two terrific numbers for Irina: the deeply moving torch song “Trouble Man,” and the lovingly solicitous ballad “Stay Well,” unhappily damaged by the shrillness and mugging of Sherry Boone. Fine, too, was the song bearing the title of Paton’s novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” magisterially delivered by Quentin Earl Darrington as the Chorus Leader, and an endearing comedy number, “Big Mole,” for Stephen’s nephew Alex, irresistibly performed by the child actor Jeremy Gumbs.

Three characters who, for mysterious reasons, have no songs, were nonetheless incisively portrayed by Daniel Breaker as Absalom, Daniel Gerroll as James Jarvis, and John Douglas Thompson, as Stephen’s brother, John, a morally lax, successful opportunist. But I saw why the show didn’t have the musically merited success: despite its quasi-happy ending, it is too serious and sad for popular consumption.

As for me, the acceptable lyrics, shattering story, and seductive Weill score had me stellbound. Weill is one of those composers whose music is a calling card, unmistakably his alone, despite oodles of imitators. Gripping or caressing, declamatory or insinuating, laughing or longing, it targets the gut as much as the ear. Highly chromatic, despite or because of unexpected modulations, the melodies unfailingly hit home and, once there, never leave the ravished memory.

From the two shows discussed, everyone should own at least some of Lotte Lenya’s performances (a plague on Ute Lemper’s later, progressively worse mannerisms.) For Knickerbocker Holiday, there is a 1938 radio broadcast recording with Walter Huston. As for Lost in the Stars, there is a 1974 King Video DVD with Brock Peters and Melba Moore; a 1949 Original Cast recording; and a 1993 studio cast conducted by Julius Rudel.

We move now to Carnegie Hall, for a concert version of Alberic Magnard’s third, last and best, opera, Berenice, with the composer’s libretto based on Racine’s tragedy.  It is the story of the historic love affair between Berenice, queen of Judea, and Titus, son of Vespasian and heir to the imperial Roman throne. Though at various times Titus and/or Berenice think they can be happily married, Mucien (Mucianus), a fervent Roman general, keeps reminding Titus--especially after he has become emperor--of the need to send Berenice packing and marry some politically sanctioned Roman maiden.

Finally, the heartbroken Berenice herself  persuades the profoundly riven emperor that they must part. Sailing away, she makes an offering to Venus, for having allowed her a final tryst with a loving Titus:  she cuts off her gorgeous tresses and tosses them into the sea, whence, back when, the goddess had risen.

At the concert, Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra with his usual schoolmasterly baton in a rather foursquare rendition. The president of Bard College, he is an incomparable programmer, digging up neglected treasures such as this one with tireless taste and acumen. But as a too schematic conductor, he conducts himself less brilliantly. Yet even in imperfect packaging, his choices are worthy of welcome.

Magnard (1865-1914) was a man of great gifts and the highest principles. The son of the wealthy editor of Le Figaro, France’s leading newspaper, he scrupulously sidestepped his father’s wealth and potentially helpful contacts. A bit of a loner, but generous to a fault, he composed a carefully sifted, unvoluminous oeuvre, somewhat under Wagner’s influence, but ultimately his very personal own, and comprising orchestral, operatic, and chamber works of rare quality.

His death was characteristic of his bravery and highmindedness. It was World War I when an occupying German regiment arrived at Baron, not far from Paris, in front of Magnard’s baronial mansion. Rather than surrender, Magnard alone confronted the enemy troop, shooting one man dead. When fire was set to the building, the heroic defender and a sizable part of his works perished with it.

The Berenice music, with its leitmotifs and sustained intensity, is almost too much of a piece, but that piece, melodious yet also dramatic when needed, has only the lightest dustings of Tristan, and of Massenet and d’Indy, with whom Magnard had studied. It emerges, richly chromatic and lushly orchestrated, enticingly unique. Why it remains, like Magnard’s beautiful music in general, so little performed may be based on an initially uncomprehending and unsympathetic reception. If you can ferret out some of the fairly numerous but relatively hard to come by recordings, pick any and be enchanted. Berenice is available at the House of Opera website in a 2001 recording by the Marseille Opera company--now reduced to a mere $5.83.

At Carnegie Hall, the baritone Brian Mulligan was a forcefully projected Titus, but something in his would-be-heroic but merely haughty demeanor undercut his effectiveness. As Berenice, the mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens struck me as perfectly satisfactory, though the one review I caught (in the Times) was rather less than flattering. As Mucien, the bass Gregory Rrinhart fared better in the review, though to me his voice sounded a bit dry. Berenice’s maid, Lia, was sung without special distinction by another mezzo, Margaret Lattimore, but the part doesn’t require much distinction. As mentioned, Botstein’s conducting lacked pizzazz, or even variety, but the work held one’s gratified attention anyway for all its near three-hour duration.

There is something about French music that I especially respond to. Its lyricism seems to me particularly lyrical, airy but also with a quality for which Hungarian has a uniquely apt expression, fulbemaszo (I lack the necessary umlaut and accents), meaning creeping-into-the-ear, i.e., ambushingly tuneful. And there is in it often a playful wit leavening the sentimental—think Poulenc--which I am a sucker for. Furthermore, if the word “aristocratic” can be applied to music, it surely characterizes a work like Berenice.  Though not full of readily detachable arias, it is replete with vocal and orchestral beauties, the whole exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.

So there. This is what I like about concerts: even in imperfect performances, they remain enjoyable. I wish the same could be said for our theater, which is all too often perfect—that is to say perfectly otiose.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Fractured Memoir

Often I have been asked to write my memoir. My negative answer was always based on never having kept a diary, and not being anywhere near memorious enough. Example: What’s the good of having pleasurably lunched with the great writer Jorge Luis Borges, when all I can remember is how beautifully he spoke English, but not a single word spoken by anyone?

Now, however, a lesser possibility presents itself: retrieving some random fragments from an unrecorded past, starting with my first fifteen-and-a-half years spent, save one year at a public school in England, in what is now Serbia but was then Yugoslavia.

At age two, I moved with my parents to the capital, Belgrade, and along came my trusty nanny, Mia. My parents had the good idea of having me learn an important foreign language as it were from the cradle; this proved to be Mia’s native tongue, German. Much as I loved her, I remember only two things involving Mia.

One was her mysterious response to my insistent queries about how she, as  a female, comports herself on the toilet: “I never go to the toilet.” The other concerns a walk in the park (the gorgeous Kalimegdan at the confluence of two rivers) where we came upon a nest of insects. They may have been only ants, though I recall them as beetles. “What a multitude of beetles,” I exclaimed in German. And although the German Menge is less impressive than the English multitude, coming from a four-year-old it was thought to be cause enough to prophesy language playing a significant part in my future. 

Later, I was attending a German-Serbian elementary school, where we were taught in both languages. When the school participated in a program at the National Theater, my role was a mute one: To cross the large stage wearing long pants and an adult fedora, and, as I paced ostentatiously twirling a cane, impersonating “a fine gentleman.” Did this augur a theatrical future?

Now take the occasion of a school outing where I walked alongside Christoph von Heeren, the son of the German ambassador. I was about to eat the orange I took out of my satchel when I noticed the envious gaze of the young Teuton. I offered him some of the orange, but the greedy bastard devoured all of it. Not to seem offended or offending, I proceeded to chew on the rinds. “Isn’t it perfect ,” said the Nazi piglet, “that I like the orange while you prefer the peel.” Did this cruelty foretell what his country was to do to ours?

I recall also my being enamored of my Serbian-language teacher, Miss Orahek or Orehek. She was tall, brunette and beautiful, and I recall asking her whether she would wait for me to be old enough to ask for her hand in marriage. I can only guess at her answer, but the question surely portended something like a passionate future.  My real first love, though, was Ljiljana (Lilian) Nizhetich, younger sister of my school chum Branko. At thirteen, she was a delicate, porcelain-figurine beauty by whom I was never even granted a kiss. Years later, she was to tell me how envious her classmates were of her being Jovan (John) Simon’s love.

World War II induced our move to America, where my father had already established a beachhead. On a winter evening, my mother and I and another lady with her son, Tom, were to catch what somehow was the last train we could board out of Belgrade. The ladies and Tom were waiting at the railway station while I was saying my mournful good-bye to Branko and Ljiljana at their family home. Someone warned me about missing my train, whereupon I grabbed what I thought was my new hat (though it turned out to be someone else’s and way too big for me), and ran to the station, arriving fairly late, which earned me a slap from a family friend who was seeing us off. Luckily the train was even later than I, so we just managed to catch it.

Another comical memory. I had an older half brother from my mother’s first marriage. This George was a kleptomaniac, and on his rare visits we had to lock up our valuables. Anyway, on a certain night, George and I were in parallel single beds, and he devised a game: who could produce a greater number of farts, as we both held perfume bottles (where did we get them?) to our noses. I can’t remember who won, though in such a game the winner may be the real loser. George was in the Yugoslav navy and vanished during the war. I like to think that he was in our only submarine, the Fearless, on the day of its launch, witnessed by international dignitaries. The submersion was exemplary, but the Fearless proved totally unable to resurface.

As a very little boy I was sick with the flu. I was already enamored of a movie star, Jeanette MacDonald, and kept pestering my parents to get her to come to my bedside and speed my recovery. They assured me that they had wired her and she had wired back that she would come. She didn’t, but somehow I managed to get well anyhow.

Shortly before we emigrated to America, I was in the fifth year of the gimnazija (secondary school), and had already published in the leading literary journal a verse translation of “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, whom I took to be a woman. On that basis, I was exceptionally elected to the high-school literary society open only to older students. I was very proud of it, and bitterly resented having to forfeit this privilege even for the sake of mythic America.

Apropos literary efforts, a classmate of mine by the name of Feifer persuaded me to submit something to Film Journal, the Serbian film magazine, because I could translate articles from American movie magazines, which we all scoured for their pictures. Filmski Zhurnal was interested, and published a story I had invented out of whole cloth (finding the actual stuff too tame) and dictated to Feifer. It concerned a romance between Dorothy Lamour and Greg Bautzer, a Hollywood lawyer to the stars, particularly the female ones, because, as I was later to learn, he was reputed to have a penis that could compete in magnitude with the champion one belonging to Victor Mature. In my story, with fine disregard for both geography and biography—not to mention creature comfort--I had the lovers making out on a coral reef off the coast of Hawaii.

Our journey to America—to escape the foreseen conquest of Yugoslavia by the hated Germans—was a fraught one. We were stuck for long, frustrating times in both Genoa and Lisbon. On the plane from the former to the latter, with an overnight stop in Madrid, I developed a crush on a Swedish opera singer, Margit von Ende. She, in turn, was starting an affair with another fellow traveler, the famous Italian soccer referee, Barlasina. I paid dearly for my mental unfaithfulness to Ljiljana. On the beach at Estoril I spotted a girl who struck me as a dead ringer for my high-school sweetheart, whom, in that unknown girl, I lost a second time.

The only boat from Lisbon we could eventually get onto went to Havana. On board, I was smitten with an older woman, the Austrian Kitty, all of 18 or 19. In Havana, all passengers were confined for a sleepless night to a sort of concentration camp. This amused Tom and me, but had the frightened Kitty in tears. It made parting easier: I could not love a coward.

When we finally got to New York, I couldn’t quite believe that I was in that fabled land whose capital was clearly Hollywood, where all the movie stars lived. Only when I switched on the radio and heard another love, Loretta Young, so to speak in person, did I fully comprehend that this was indeed America.

That reminds me of another Belgrade activity. I was buying several of those foreign movie magazines and cutting out pictures mostly of my favorite actresses, regardless of whether they were stars or starlets, and pasting them into a scrapbook. This tome was so dear to me that I carried it with me to America in preference to some beautiful books I had received as prizes from my year in the British school. They included the Pleiade edition of Montaigne’s essays and a leather-bound copy of Kipling’s Kim. To be sure, I hoped our relocation would prove temporary—that life would soon be as before and I reunited with my books.

Well, there was no such proximous return, and there is even no Yugoslavia anymore, though Serbia still exists, like that scrapbook, now added to my papers at the Performing Arts Library in Lincoln Center. But there was one glorious long-ago evening when the late playwright-scenarist Peter Stone, Tommy Tune, Donna McKechnie, my wife Pat, and I were leafing and laughing through its pages. I think the greatest number of pictures showed blond Brenda Joyce and brunette Marsha Hunt, never major stars in Hollywood, but paramount in my affection. Only Peter vaguely remembered them, but in that scrapbook they live forever.

Quite a few of the pictures were also of Dorothy Lamour in her sarong. Also a few of male stars, but not a one of Greg Bautzer.