Dwyer plays Debussy

Gramophone (a classical music monthly from England) devotes its cover story to Debussy this month, and mentions in passing a wonderful performance of one of his most familiar pieces, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, reminding me of Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the principal flute of the Boston Symphony, one of the first female principals in any orchestra and a magical player.


Peter Hujar

One of the amazing things about the last 30 years is how underground artists are now old masters (I guess it was ever so).

Case in point Peter Hujar, now a prize of that most august of cultural institutions, the Morgan Library : http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/peter-hujar

One additional sign of his acclaim, the recent (and not very appetizing) novel that used one of his photos as a signature image.

And there was a sympathetic and wonderfully written review in the NYTimes that brought back what it was like to encounter him a generation ago.

“It’s hard to say which is more surprising: that Peter Hujar’s photographs of 1970s and ’80s underground life in New York life have found their way to the Morgan Library & Museum, or that this Classically-minded institution has become unbuttoned enough to exhibit them in a heartbreaker of a show called “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life.”

Words and Music: Sondheim on Lyrics

The Guardian has a nice feature called “How we made…” quick interviews of creators of cultural milestones.  Here is a bit from the West Side Story one, Stephen Sondheim on the lyrics he wrote for Leonard Bernstein’s songs.

When we worked together, Lenny would sketch out something that was purple prose not poetry. It screamed: “Look at me! I’m being poetic!” I’d learned from Oscar Hammerstein, my mentor, that the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself. Poetry makes, generally, very poor lyrics unless you’re dealing with a certain kind of show. It’s too allusive, that’s not what you want. When Lenny failed, he failed big. He was always jumping off the top of the ladder. When you’re young, you want to take chances but you get discouraged by failure. I learned, as a composer, to be less square – that you don’t always have to write in four-bar phrases.


I have some quibbles with the “the whole point is to underwrite” assertion, but the mix of text and music is no mean art, and achieving that elusive balance is rare, particularly when you weigh the narrative, dramatic, and formal elements. But it  is achieved often in West Side Story. (Here’s Something’s Coming…)

Here is the excerpt from Romeo and Juliet that inspires this…Romeo and pals have been discussing going to the Capulets’ ball.


Supper is done, and we shall come too late.


I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.

(Something’s Coming indeed.)

Another example of Sondheim’s dazzling ability with lyrics: Someone in a Tree from Pacific Overtures, reportedly one of Sondheim’s favorite songs. Certainly one of mine.

It’s the fragment, not the day.
It’s the pebble, not the stream.
It’s the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.
Not the building but the beam,
Not the garden but the stone,
Only cups of tea
And history
And someone in a tree.

Best Musicals: A Contentious Argument

Of making lists there is no end. Recently, I encountered a list of the 100 best musicals by Chris Caggiano (he of the now shuttered, but still pretty great, Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals blog).

Here’s his list (a little dated).


Top 3: Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and Sweeney Todd (with which I do not largely disagree except on the order, Eliza Doolittle is first for me, followed by the Demon barber, and “Just Where Would You Be…?”comes third. There is also a certain Bernstein musical that I would put before all three.

In general I agree with Chris (while noting that it doesn’t take into consideration the last decade).

Another crowdsourced list puts Les Miz tops.  Followed by Phantom and Wicked.

That these would never be in my top 50 probably reflects age more than any more reasonable criterion. Unlike the other two, Wicked at least is great fun.

But really, when there is this to compare it to:

Is there anything more to say?

Formal Matters: Sestinas

A love of poetry does not necessarily require knowing much about what is going on under the hood–formal concerns, rhyme, meter, and the like. Perhaps because I was a music major, it’s always been an interest of mine: like sonata form, poetic structures have their own low key, fascinating dazzle. For example, the verse form of the sestina.

Poetry Foundation gives a definition:

A complex French verse form, usually unrhymed, consisting of six stanzas of six lines each and a three-line envoy. The end words of the first stanza are repeated in a different order as end words in each of the subsequent five stanzas; the closing envoy contains all six words, two per line, placed in the middle and at the end of the three lines. The patterns of word repetition are as follows, with each number representing the final word of a line, and each row of numbers representing a stanza:

1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
(6 2) (1 4) (5 3)

Got that?

And yet, some poets manage to create miracles out of these ridiculous strictures:

First David Ferry, who has recently turned out a stunning version of The Aeneid.

The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People
By David Ferry

The unclean spirits cry out in the body
Or mind of the guest Ellen in a loud voice
Torment me not, and in the fury of her unclean
Hands beating the air in some kind of unending torment—
Nobody witnessing could possibly know the event
That cast upon her the spell of this enchantment.

Almost all the guests are under some kind of enchantment:
Of being poor day after day in the same body;
Of being witness still to some obscene event;
Of listening all the time to somebody’s voice
Whispering in the ear things divine or unclean,
In the quotidian of unending torment.

One has to keep thinking there was some source of torment,
Something that happened someplace else, unclean.
One has to keep talking in a reasonable voice
About things done, say, by a father’s body
To or upon the body of Ellen, in enchantment
Helpless, still by the unforgotten event

Enchanted, still in the old forgotten event
A prisoner of love, filthy Ellen in her torment,
Guest Ellen in the dining hall in her body,
Hands beating the air in her enchantment,
Sitting alone, gabbling in her garbled voice
The narrative of the spirits of the unclean.

She is wholly the possessed one of the unclean.
Maybe the spirits came from the river. The enchantment
Entered her, maybe, in the Northeast Kingdom. The torment,
A thing of the waters, gratuitous event,
Came up out of the waters and entered her body
And lived in her in torment and cried out in her voice.

It speaks itself over and over again in her voice,
Cursing maybe or not a familiar obscene event
Or only the pure event of original enchantment
From the birth of the river waters, the pure unclean
Rising from the source of things, in a figure of torment
Seeking out Ellen, finding its home in her poor body.

Her body witness is, so also is her voice,
Of torment coming from unknown event;
Unclean is the nature and name of the enchantment.

Of course Elizabeth Bishop could seemingly toss them off…

Miracle for Breakfast
by Elizabeth Bishop

At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
—like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds—along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
—I saw it with one eye close to the crumb—

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

And finally Donald Justice, overlooked, but one of my favorites:

Sestina: Here In Katmandu

by Donald Justice

We have climbed the mountain.
There’s nothing more to do.
It is terrible to come down
To the valley
Where, amidst many flowers,
One thinks of snow,

As formerly, amidst snow,
Climbing the mountain,
One thought of flowers,
Tremulous, ruddy with dew,
In the valley.
One caught their scent coming down.

It is difficult to adjust, once down,
To the absence of snow.
Clear days, from the valley,
One looks up at the mountain.
What else is there to do?
Prayer wheels, flowers!

Let the flowers
Fade, the prayer wheels run down.
What have they to do
With us who have stood atop the snow
Atop the mountain,
Flags seen from the valley?

It might be possible to live in the valley,
To bury oneself among flowers,
If one could forget the mountain,
How, never once looking down,
Stiff, blinded with snow,
One knew what to do.

Meanwhile it is not easy here in Katmandu,
Especially when to the valley
That wind which means snow
Elsewhere, but here means flowers,
Comes down,
As soon it must, from the mountain.

Some help on how to write your own, with yet another fine example from Anthony Hecht.

Library Words

A few words on librarians from writers and others.

Bates Reading Room at the Boston Public Library. (Spot of many happy hours for me.)

If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.–Frank Zappa

Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.–Ray Bradbury

Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.–Anne Herbert

Libraries always remind me that there are good things in this world.–Lauren Ward

Rule number one: Don’t fuck with librarians.–Neil Gaiman

Opera Tidbits: Don Carlo

Took in Washington National Opera’s Don Carlo this week.  The best Verdi singing at the company in a long time, particularly notable in this extremely challenging opera. It actually sounded like a real life opera company!  (It didn’t look like one, the clumsy production–particularly ill-fitting costumes and high school dramatic society level lighting on a borderline offensive set concept were something you just had to decide to overlook).

The Schiller play on which Verdi based the opera. By Egid Verhelst – Antiquariat Dr. Haack Leipzig → Privatsammlung Baden-Württemberg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4115888

But the singing was glorious. This is something you expect from Eric Owens and Jamie Barton, both of whom are Met regulars and possessed of glorious instruments that they put use in conveying meaning and character. But Quinn Kelsey, who was just a name to me, was a knockout Posa, manly, vocally secure and incisive, and also touching in his ability to add vulnerability to a role that some bellow through. Leah Crocetto has been in DC before, and proved her mettle in a dazzling “Tu Che La Vanità”–a bit general in her character, but gorgeous full top to her voice, and the requisite dignity for the pure, troubled Elisabeth. Russell Thomas will not banish thoughts of great Don C’s of yore (it’s a tribute the rest of the gang that they did put previous casts out of my mind, and particularly made the second half of this long opera fly by).  But although occasionally a bit under powered in this company, he had a wonderful “Hamlet” kind of thing going on, where you heard and saw his divided loyalties, fraught passions and terrible dilemmas of filial loyalty, political passions, and ardent love. (This particular Verdi opera lays all of this most political composers signature concerns on in excess. He really couldn’t leave anything out, and the auto-da-fé scene, always hard to stage, was just awful in this conception, with what might have been meant to be an evocation of 20th century totalitarianism, instead of coming off as sort of clumsy regie-dinner-theater.)

But never mind, it was a glorious performance musically and If you don’t know Don Carlo, it is something that grows on you, or at least did me, from once seeming unrelentingly dark and long (and of murky plot, since it is almost always significantly cut.) But it is one of his greatest works, and his perhaps his most concentrated take on men’s dilemmas (and his none too charitable view of how they respond).

Three excerpts to win you over:

The extraordinary Shirley Verrett singing “Oh Don Fatale” from a BBC broadcast.

Monserrat Caballé, who for me at least, was above all, a great Verdian. Here she is in a concert performance of Elisabeth’s aria, “Tu Che La Vanità”

Next, Sherill Milnes and Placido Domingo (Rodrigo/Posa and Carlo) in the duet in which they pledge eternal loyalty and friendship in the best “shoulder to shoulder” Verdi style.

And for a bonus, the same duet with the great Verdi baritone of the ages, Piero Cappuccilli (and the tenor, Carlo Bergonzi also a marvel). Listen to their words. They mean every one.

Photo Thursday: Developing Your Eye

I am taking one of WordPress.com’s courses, Developing Your Eye I, which gives you a photography prompt and some advice each day for ten days.  (And, of course, I am already behind.)

The first day’s prompt was “home,”  and here is my somewhat random response (didn’t have to leave home to get these shots, they were vistas or items nearby, a free  interpretation of the prompt, granted).