TSO Thais: via Massenet & Anatole France

The Toronto Symphony concert performance of Thaïs, recently released on Chandos, has me wishing we could see & hear more from Jules Massenet, the opera’s composer.  I begin to understand why the late Stuart Hamilton in his time with Opera in Concert produced a dozen operas by Massenet for Toronto audiences: including this one by the way. He would have said that Massenet is under-rated, his operas deserving to be heard & staged more often.

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There are elements to the story that may remind you of other operas. A man seeks to resist the temptations of the flesh. A woman embodies those temptations. Onstage or in the score we encounter communities embodying diametrically opposite approaches to life & to pleasure. Unlike Tannhaüser or Salome, there is a great deal more ambiguity to the text, some balance to this opera that doesn’t demand that you take sides or change your beliefs.

I’ve been having a great time exploring this opera from two sides:

  • Listening to the TSO recording
  • Reading the Anatole France novel (1889) that is the source for the opera (1894), in its libretto adapted by Louis Gallet

This is a pleasure I discovered in grad school, when teachers wanted a comparison between operatic adaptations and the original. Sometimes the source is so similar as to be mistaken for a libretto, as we see with Pelléas et Mélisande. Maeterlinck was not amused that he was identified as a librettist.  Sometimes the divergence is significant, the tone altered, variances among characters & in the way the piece is assembled as we see in Merimée’s Carmen.

I mention this because I stumbled upon a complete version of Anatole France’s novel Thaïs online in an English translation that you can download here.   It’s wonderful to read it while listening to the TSO recording of Massenet’s opera.

When you turn a novel into an opera, inevitably you have to omit some of it. There’s no way to include everything in the two or three hours onstage. And so when one of the characters engages in lengthy philosophical discussions somehow you have to capture that essence instantaneously.  Nobody wants to hear all that philosophy onstage.  It’s one of the qualities of opera that anticipates film, the necessity for economy. We see it for instance in Verdi’s Otello, when he skips a big part of Shakespeare’s original play, grabbing us from the first nasty note of the storm.

There was no way Massenet & Gallet could capture the subtleties of France’s novel. The enormous exposition that tells us who Thaïs was before she became a courtesan & an actress –including her baptism—is missing from the opera. Does it matter? I’m not sure. I think it would make the opera far more interesting, far deeper, if they had somehow managed to get this into the story, that the eventual Saint Thaïs of Egypt was baptized, at a time when Christians were secretive, hiding from persecution. The opera instead keeps its focus on her as an object of obsession, both in her community & in the eyes of Athanaël, the monk who would save her. Given that choice perhaps her internal adventure is expendable.

A producer of Thaïs can have their cake & eat it too, because the work offers one opportunities to put beautiful bodies onstage dancing & or posing in varying degrees of undress, even as the story includes protagonists who reject that philosophy. One can come to the opera as a Christian or a committed sensualist, considering the games the opera plays with its audience, inviting our gaze and exploiting our interest while trying to have it both ways with characters who deny their sensuality. With some operas you lose a great deal in making it a virtual performance,… But I’m not sure that Thais is one of those operas. The drama is largely in the head already, a conflict between different philosophies, different visions of how to live a life.

The composer created two large parts at the centre of the work. Thaïs is a soprano, a courtesan of Venus, eventually a saint. Athanaël, the baritone, is a monk from a religious order.  Athanaël is warned by his friend Nicias not to offend Venus, one of the places where the libretto follows the novel closely. In the opera Nicias says “Crains d’offenser Vénus, la puissante Déesse! Elle se vengera!” (or “Beware of offending Venus, the powerful goddess! She will avenge herself”) His cautionary prophecy tells all you need to know about how this story will unfold. Thaïs and Athanaël move in precisely opposite directions. She is the courtesan who gives up her riches & her life of pleasure (celebrating Venus), persuaded by the monk to choose instead a life of poverty & self-denial, eventually canonized as a saint. The monk Athanaël who lures her away from her hedonistic life to become a nun, becomes progressively more obsessed with her as a sensual object of contemplation. And of course with an audio recording as with a concert performance all of that is left to the imagination. Massenet’s score has exotic touches, a subtle delicacy & sweetness to inspire your imagination without being especially lurid or obvious.

You may have already heard a little bit of this recording played on the radio, namely the well –known violin solo known as the “Meditation”. I heard it the other day played by concertmaster Jonathan Crow, both because the TSO’s recording of Thaïs has already become a best-seller, and of course because it sounds so beautiful.

I was lucky enough to hear Crow play it at the ALS benefit concert last summer accompanied by members of the TSO.

Sir Andrew Davis is a bit of a wysiwig conductor. What you see is what you get.  Davis gets a wonderful committed sound from the TSO, big & bold when necessary but often with a child-like simplicity that makes me admire Massenet more and more. The textures are as transparent as the clothing covering the dancing girls. We can always hear the singers, the climactic moments are powerful, but never overdone. Davis makes a wonderful case for the opera & the composer. At times Massenet’s dramaturgy is subtle, at other times? you can see the wheels turning & the gears shifting. Davis pushes his soloists to the limit, to be dramatic & encouraged to compete with the orchestra. In the big moments that works well, and so what if it’s not terribly subtle. 

The principals? Joshua Hopkins as Athanaël sings beautifully. He has a lovely line, a lyric voice that’s very smooth in the middle, not totally convincing at the top, as the highest notes don’t quite blossom & grow as one would hope. The way it quiets & tightens at the very top suggests he isn’t quite right for this role, perhaps better off in lighter roles such as Figaro. But this sound is apt for the obsessive monk.   I think Erin Wall’s Thaïs is perfect the way the opera is written, given that all the amazing subtext I’m finding in the France novel is missing from the score. She seems to give up her life almost on a whim, won over by the passionate energy of a stranger who demands that she abandon herself to his guidance, like a spiritual Svengali. Wall is up to the challenges of the role, hitting all the notes.  Anthony Staples as Athanaël’s friend Nicias has a lovely direct sound, perhaps a bit lighter than what the role requires in an opera house, but a perfect match for the TSO.

David Fallis makes his contribution in getting a wonderfully ethereal sound from the chorus  (members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir) in the first part of the opera and again towards the end.

You can find out more about the TSO recording of Thaïs on Chandos here.

Posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough

I read Mary Trump’s book yesterday.

I couldn’t put it down, and no that’s not just a figure of speech. I confess it did take me past midnight, reading 200+ pages, skipping nothing, re-reading a few key passages. We bought the book because we expect to pass it around in the family, knowing there’s interest.

I love it when a title tells you what to expect: Too Much and Never Enough: How my family created the world’s most dangerous manBut the interviews with Mary Trump have been crystal clear.

Her uncle Donald & his supporters can’t be too happy with this book.

It’s a bit of a literary train—wreck. You can’t take your eyes off the unfolding disaster, and there it was this morning on CNN. I found myself looking at the players a bit differently, watching AG Barr answering questions. I think I understand the subtexts, as though this 42 month horror show were a psychological thriller. Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t be reached for comment.

Having a psychologist write about her own family might be interesting to begin with, if you didn’t already know the principals. Let me review the dramatis personae. Frederick Trump (“Fred” in the book) & Mary had five children, namely Maryanne (born 1937), Frederick or “Freddy” in the book (died in 1981) to distinguish him from ”Fred”, Elizabeth (born 1942), Donald (born 1946) and Robert (born 1949). Mary Trump was one of Freddy’s children, making her niece to Donald & grand-daughter of Fred Trump.

I heard an interviewer asking her why, why now, why this way.

If you’ve read the book you’ll know. Freddy is the older brother, who might have been expected to be the heir & logical leader of the family business. In the story we read, Fred and Freddy can’t seem to connect, although I suspect Fred’s version of this story would be different than Mary’s take. I find it very persuasive, given that Mary is relatively dispassionate in her prose, aiming to be factual. She’s a psychologist, and one of the few people in her family with real rather than fake credentials. I found it easy to roar through the book in one day, because it doesn’t disgress or go off on tangents. Of course we can hardly be surprised that Freddy’s daughter would seek to vindicate her dad, who opted out, first in a brief career flying jets for TWA, but gradually sinking deeper & deeper into alcoholism.

The pressure Freddy lived with is palpable in Mary’s account. She doesn’t sentimentalize.

Fred and Donald, meanwhile, seem to be on the same page of their dysfunctional story. From Mary’s perspective Donald is a complete liar & fake, whose image was a fabrication of the father. It’s then no shock to see on CNN this morning that everyone in the current administration are performers & fakers. Their chief skills are their ability to answer critiques. AG Barr’s reply to interrogation are consistent with what we read in the book.

The book is not a happy read, even if it does seem reasonable. But it lays everything bare, makes the news lucid rather than incomprehensible. I think any American reading this book will be voting Democrat.  It’s compelling even if it is also profoundly disgusting.

I was thinking after reading this that getting Biden as a president would be like resetting a computer to defaults. Even if you lose a lot you restore the default settings because your machine is messed up, and the alternative is unthinkable. It’s especially ironic considering Trump’s 2016 slogan “Make America Great Again”.  I think that’s very much what Biden wants, even if a red MAGA hat signifies an entirely different kind of “greatness” than what Biden & his supporters seek.

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An omen

On my visit today my mother asked me to bring her a book from another room, which she was going to read later.  And then she pulled out something else and started to read to me in Hungarian, asking me if I understood.

I answered “parts”.  I was listening to a poem in Hungarian.  I wasn’t picking up all the allusions or meanings.  When she starts remembering & storytelling I do my best to just listen, and try not to interrupt the flow.

She told me the story of the book.

During the siege of Budapest (at the end of 1944), my father used to visit her daily.  She described the adventure, how he’d shelter close to each building, methodical, carefully finding his way over to visit her.

There was a bookstore that had been hit.

She described how he looked at the damage, books scattered about everywhere.  Perhaps inside? Or outside. I don’t know whether this was a bombed out store or a place that was largely intact but with its windows destroyed.

As I sat listening to the tale, I realize I was like a 5 year old, my mouth agape, spellbound.

She held up a book for me.

Orosz resized

He had looked at the books scattered about.  And had picked up this one.

I saw the title, “Orosz Költök Antológiája”.  This is the book she had quoted to me, a brief verse.

“Orosz” means Russian.

I confirmed: “so these poems were originally in Russian but translated into Hungarian”…?

She nodded.

At this time when Russians and Nazis were fighting over the city, perhaps it was a good omen, to find this? Yes, in time the truth would emerge, that the Russians could be every bit as rapacious as the Nazis. But at this point? no one knew that yet.

And so he brought it to her…

He’s been gone a long time.

But there it is, a prized possession, a memory that’s very much alive in her hands.

Posted in Books & Literature, Personal ruminations & essays | 1 Comment

Walking the University of Toronto Campus Guide

I shouldn’t have needed a book to wake me up to the nuances & subtleties of my many connections to the University of Toronto. But it’s a bit like a family album, these beautiful pictures of loved ones to remind me of who I was, where I came from and ultimately who I really am.  This shiny volume is a most unexpected source of inspiration.

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I’m speaking of Larry Wayne Richards’ campus guide to University of Toronto, from the Princeton Architectural Press. The recent second edition was given to me as a gift, something I left on a shelf for awhile but am only now properly appreciating.

Can a book featuring architecture make you healthier? It can if you start doing daily walks around your community. My gym has been closed for months due to the pandemic. But never fear, there’s still this beautiful neighbourhood to walk through.

This is a book with a series of walking tours on an enclosed series of maps.

And so I’ve been going across the campus, walking up Spadina Avenue or down Huron St, across Hoskin, down Philosopher’s Walk usually in the early part of the day, before it gets too warm and when there’s plenty of shade to allow me to hide from the sun.  The campus is especially quiet right now with the current lockdown, stilled but alive & expectant, awaiting rebirth. In some ways it’s the perfect time to sample views of these buildings from front, back, sideways, contemplating the meaning of it all.

Richards’ book is very comprehensive as it touches on every single building, each and every place on the different campuses, a good chunk of our city in fact. It’s a lot like a travel guide. That may be its strength but must also be its chief weakness. It can’t supply the meaning that goes with each part of the institution. That ultimately comes from each of us in our lived relationship to each part. I remember where I was when I saw Northrop Frye speak or Jon Vickers sing, the gallery where I was struck dumb by Kent Monkman’s paintings.  The University of Toronto has shaped & shaken me many times over the years.

Is the updating of a book like this one a bit like painting a bridge, where you have to immediately start over again as soon as you’re done?  Perhaps they can’t cover everything, as the book omits the George Ignatieff Theatre that was added to the Gerald Larkin Building sometime around 1980, nor is there any mention of Lu Massey’s name on the Studio Theatre behind Robarts on Glen Morris. I saw an error, as the lovely little house I know as 123 St George St was identified only as #23, an address that doesn’t exist, likely due to a simple typo that, alas, gets replicated in the caption to the photo of the building & on the walking tour map (but shown in its correct location next door to 121 St George St). But oh my there must be an enormous number of details to track in every department or discipline, and lots of fussy people like me each with our own version of history & quibbles about what is or is not considered a priority. There are over 150 buildings even without the little ones that are under the radar.   And I can see how there is a political subtext to what is or is not included in a book like this one, as though Professor Richards has to somehow decide which of the clamoring children like me in the crowd will get his attention. The stories recounted here are of the official variety, the tales etched into the building’s stones, to identify the founders & builders.

A book like this is an ambitious undertaking, a handsome reminder & a keepsake.   I will keep walking and staring from the outside, while using the book as a reference guide when I want to look up the details and the history, peering at the map for variations on my daily walking tours. I look forward to the day when we are once again permitted to go inside these wonderful places. In the meantime I won’t be lost. Not only do I have the guide but I carry my memories inside my head.

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Books & Literature, Personal ruminations & essays, Reviews, University life | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The last three

When we speak of old films we’re usually looking at images of performers who died long ago. Some died young like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. Some had long full lives like Jimmy Stewart or Ginger Rogers.

There was a bit of an anomaly for awhile, in a film I treasure as a personal favorite. It might shock you to think that until recently three different stars of the 1935 Midsummernight’s Dream directed by Max Reinhardt with music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold were still alive: until recently that is.

Mickey Rooney was alive until 2014, the first to leave us & youngest of the three stars I have in mind, passing at the age of 94.

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Dancer & choreographer Nini Theilade lived past her 102nd birthday, passing in 2018.

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And today Olivia de Havilland departed us in her sleep. She just had her 104th birthday at the beginning of July.

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Dick Powell & Olivia De Havilland

Rooney was Puck.

Theilade was the principal female dancer in two extended ballet sequences, with one or two lines delivered in her accented English.

De Havilland was Hermia.

The film feels like a relic not just because this isn’t how we do Shakespeare anymore. I find it to be one of the most beautiful black & white films I’ve ever seen, and it sounds every bit as remarkable.  Korngold adapted his score from Mendelssohn’s music composed in the middle of the 19th century.

Posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Beethoven discovery, aided by my dog

I’m framing this analysis around Sam my dog. She’s a 13+ year old rescue, and in my opinion amazingly well-behaved.

Sam_reflected

Sometimes she’ll occupy the ottoman beside the piano, allowing her to read along with me if she so desires (no I don’t think she knows how to read music). Or I’ll be playing, and she’ll go to her den under the body of the piano especially with one of the big loud pieces, like the 8th of Dvorak’s Op 46 Slavonic Dances, or when I’m playing & singing something from a Wagner opera.

I take it as a compliment.

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Beethoven.

Since encountering Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven Marathon back in 2012 I have been in the habit of going through multiple compositions, intrigued by what I think I see in the sequence. It started with multiple sonatas, but lately –since Goodyear’s recording of the concertos—I’ll play from a lovely book I have, collecting the concerti, with big readable pages that are easy to turn.

So there I was on a quiet afternoon with Sam under the piano in her den. I didn’t want to be too loud. And so I thought to play a series of softer pieces.

What if…? Yes it was a preposterous idea. Instead of playing sonata after sonata or concerto after concerto, what if I were to play each of the slow movements from the concertos in turn?And that’s how I stumbled on the pattern.

Now of course in the world of Beethoven scholarship I doubt this is news to anyone. You might think I chose to bring Sam along on my voyage of discovery to blunt the edge of possible criticism, either to soften the critics’ hearts (as people tend to be nicer when there’s a cute dog in the picture) OR perhaps when they’re afraid of the snarly beast.

She is both (that is, cute but sometimes snarly…).  I have a neighbour who nicknamed her “Cujo” for the way she barks at him.

Be that as it may, this is exactly as it happened.  As I’m playing super gently–the first concerto slow movement, then the second concerto slow movement, and then the third’s slow movement– I wonder. Has anyone every pointed out that they’re very similar? No it’s not an earth-shaking revelation. But they all begin with a very similar chord (at least that’s whats you hear when you reduce it for the piano),  with a melody beginning on the mediant, the third note of the scale. What was weird was how the 4th concerto –which is the one that’s exceptional in its shape—seemed to confirm the pattern. For the 4th concerto it’s the opening movement with its slow piano introduction: again starting with that chord. And when we get to the 5th concerto, that’s more conventional in shape (faster louder outer movements, with a slower softer movement in the middle: like the first three concerti), ….and there it is again! The same chord to begin.

You think maybe Beethoven likes that chord? Sam wasn’t complaining of course.

That chord turns up a whole lot of other places, so much so that one might be tempted to call it his favorite.

I don’t deny –indeed I confess it proudly and without hesitation—that this is a literal-minded approach to the anthology, playing through from beginning to end as though the composer sat down and wrote it like a story with episodes. With some composers their readiness to return again and again to the same idea is front & centre. Mahler’s symphonies are in some respects like drafts for one piece of music, revised and reshaped over and over. At times I see something of this in Beethoven too.

I suddenly remembered a melody in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. We hear it in the overtures to the earlier versions of the opera, signaling that yes this is an important theme. We will hear it in the 2nd act when we meet Florestan the imprisoned hero. In a soliloquy he tells us about his predicament. After a recitative introduction (crying out about the darkness of his prison cell), he begins to sing about his life.

In des Lebens Frühlingstagen ist das Glück von mir gefloh’n; Wahrheit wagt’ ich kühn zu sagen, und die Ketten sind mein Lohn. Willig duld’ ich alle Schmerzen, ende schmählich meine Bahn; süßer Trost in meinem Herzen: meine Pflicht hab’ ich getan!
In the springtime of my life, happiness has fled from me; I dare to tell the truth boldly, and the chains are my reward. I willingly tolerate all pain, shamefully end my path; sweet consolation in my heart: I have done my duty!

What follows is faster & more intense as you might expect from the stage-directions:

(in einer an Wahnsinn grenzenden, jedoch ruhigen Begeisterung)
(In a fit of madness but peacefully… )

Und spür’ ich nicht linde, sanft säuselnde Luft? und ist nicht mein Grab mir erhellet? Ich seh’, wie ein Engel im rosigen Duft sich tröstend zur Seite mir stellet, – ein Engel, Leonoren, der Gattin so gleich, der führt mich zur Freiheit in’s himmlische Reich.
And don’t I feel gentle, softly whispering air? and isn’t my grave lit up for me? I see how an angel in a perfumed cloud stands comfortably at my side – an angel, Leonore, the wife who leads me to freedom in the heavenly realm.
(Er sinkt erschöpft von der letzten Gemütsbewegung auf den Felsensitz nieder, seine Hände verhüllen sein Gesicht.)
(He sinks exhausted down on the rock, his hands cover his face.)

As Beethoven shows us Florestan despairing in prison how intriguing that he chose to begin with that same melodic pattern, as in the chord that I have been talking about.  I am tempted to think of Florestan’s predicament as Beethoven’s own (and wouldn’t it sound apt, for Beethoven to say “In the springtime of my life, happiness has fled from me“), alone & despairing.  Does he identify with his hero? I think he does.  The romantic artist is ultimately about empathy taken to its extreme, namely identification.  No wonder that the composer expresses it this way.

And he goes on to build to a great exultant climax, an ecstatic vision of rescue by his angel Leonore: his wife.  As it turns out in the story she will indeed be the agent of his rescue.

It’s very inspiring.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An agnostic musing about leadership & talent

As I was tidying my office today, I fell into a book.

You know how it is. You open it and are seduced or abducted, suddenly lost to yourself, deep in the book.

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While Jim Fisher’s The Thoughtful Leader: A Model of Integrative Leadership (2016) might be a book about approaches to being a boss in the business world from a professor at the Rotman School of Management, it’s very suggestive to me, a person straddling worlds. I may be a manager at the University of Toronto but I’m also a musician & scholar. I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels between different disciplines, convinced that they should be talking to one another, informing one another. For example what can psychology & psychotherapy teach the realms of business management or collaborative artistic disciplines?

I sometimes wonder how to understand someone like the Canadian Opera Company’s General Director Alexander Neef.

  • a business man in the arts world?
    Or
  • an artistic leader in the business world?

That headline could refer to me or to Fisher. In his introduction he says the following:

In fact, when I started my career, I would have said that leaders are more likely to be born, not made, and that leadership was more about character than learnable skills. It was only in the teaching part of my life- interacting with students from around the world, younger and older, in all kinds of enterprises—that I came to find a more practical and useful definition and understanding of leadership. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that leadership is actually a teachable skill.

That is what I meant by agnostic. Yes maybe it’s the wrong word or sounds too harsh to apply to him. But I’m coming at this after a lifetime of hearing about gifted artists (had one in the family in fact), geniuses (I went to UTS after all), …born leaders.

There’s no question that some people show promise early, standing out from their peers. Once you heard him play you wouldn’t underestimate Mozart. I’m okay with the use of the word “talent” to identify someone who is so gifted as to show ability from the very beginning.

My problem with the word is when it becomes a short-cut or worse.

Suppose we seize on what Fisher was talking about, namely leadership as a teachable skill. I think his capsule summary of his earlier beliefs on the subject – that leaders are more likely to be born, not made, and that leadership was more about character than learnable skills—might be a reflection of a time when leadership was not well understood. In previous generations, when theories of management had not yet embraced a multi-disciplinary approach, especially in listening to psychologists, then of course the process was not yet understood.

What is a leader? a magician who can lead?  And so when it’s a mystery we place the good practitioner on a pedestal and call them “talented”.

In the book we encounter a paradigm shift: that one can learn how to be leader. Fisher’s model isn’t the only model out there although it’s a good one. But that’s what the discipline has become nowadays, as it studies & learns across multiple disciplines.

It’s very exciting.

I am inclined to think that the same sort of thing should be applied to the various disciplines in the arts. Yes some people start sooner & of course they gain confidence from their success. But one can learn how to act, dance, sing, toot, tint… you name it.

So I mean that I’m an agnostic as far as the word “talent” is concerned, as I think it’s unhelpful. I’ve seen performers give brilliant auditions, that sadly were the best thing that artist did on the whole project, as we looked back wondering: wtf?  I wonder, is that failure to progress a snapshot of a paradigm in need of revision: not unlike the one from the management world? It’s not enough to sound good at the beginning. One has to work, to collaborate.

While I love magic & mystery, a rehearsal process should not be so mysterious that we don’t know what we’re going to get.

No I don’t mean everyone can play as well as Stewart Goodyear or Yuja Wang, who are exceptional.

But I do think anyone can play the piano or sing or draw. The idea of talent (or more to the point, the idea that someone might be “untalented”) used to inhibit people, preventing them from going very far in their studies.  The old textbook ideas about leadership posited tall men with big voices, precluding more inclusive possibilities.

I hope that crippling inhibition will vanish. I am an agnostic about the importance of talent or the old-school type of leader. But I do believe in creativity & work.

And I do love to tidy my office.

Posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception, University life | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Barbecue genius @ The Kingston Social

I’m a bit looped, after eating an amazing meal.

It’s from The Kingston Social, a place here in the east end of Toronto.

One gets the menu a few days in advance, then places orders.  And one then picks up amazing cuisine.

Erika ordered this a few days ago, seeking to replicate something from earlier this summer. When she’s this certain? I don’t argue.

“Sure, order one for me too.”

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Ribs on top of a layer of rice & beans. The bigger container is the extra slaw for $3

So the dinner was ribs on a bed of rice & beans, with a slaw for $20 plus an extra side of slaw for $3 for us to share.

Speaking as a big eater, I barely managed to finish, and I am thrilled. I accompanied the ribs & slaw & rice/beans with Konzelmann Shiraz.

I am on my third glass –don’t worry mom I won’t drive anywhere – as I try to capture the experience.

The camera is invaluable for this.  Notice how much you get (above picture).  Notice how dry the ribs are in this picture.

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If I could somehow photograph my insides, I’d show you how amazing I feel. This isn’t like any ribs I’ve ever eaten. They’re clean & dry, with subtlety & spice.

We can’t be a sad deprived wasteland, not if it was a friend in the west end who told me about The Kingston Social. Previously at their recommendation I had tried the lamb shank & had a lovely barbecued salmon. Today took it to a higher level.

Sigh. Scarberia no longer.

Posted in Food & Nutrition, Reviews | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Douglas Chambers: The Reinvention of the World

I have been stuck on this one for awhile, not knowing quite what to write.

I’m trying to avoid being a downer, but it’s hard to see the silver lining when you’re deep in the dark clouds of a pandemic. A few days ago I started to watch the Met’s Wozzeck again (having seen it in the theatre early this year), but couldn’t make it through, overwhelmed by the darkness of the story.

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Peter Mattei in Wozzeck at the Met. (Photo: Paola Kudacki/Met Opera)

Last week, watching an old broadcast of Il trovatore starring Pavarotti & Zajick, I was struck by how melodrama, that medium of powerless protagonists with no agency in a world beyond their control, is a perfect reflection of the world of 2020.  No wonder melodrama was popular.

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I can’t get the Miserere out of my head.

In early May when I heard that Douglas Chambers had passed away, I took the opportunity to write a reminiscence of a rare individual.  I wrote about Stonyground, his inimitable book about his family property near Walkerton Ontario.

After that I compulsively, convulsively, looked about, needing another fix, wanting to again immerse myself in his unique discourse. A sci-fi novel long ago suggested that literature & poetry & art preserve the RNA of a person after they’re gone as though we were able to feel and see as they do.  To be deep in a text is to be inside the person’s soul & sensibility: or so it might seem.

In that spirit, I looked for & found something relatively obscure that I hadn’t seen before, namely The Reinvention of the World: English Writing 1650-1750, a book that first appeared in 1996, reprinted in the new century. A review of it inspired me to search for it and miracle of miracles, while I wasn’t able to find it in any of the U of T libraries [although later I discovered I was too hasty in concluding it wasn’t to be found here. Yes there are copies available…]  I was able to find a single copy via Thriftbooks, a used paperback that had been in a college library in Schenectady NY. Its spine was so solid, its pages so unbesmirched (I can hear Douglas telling me that’s not a real word. Or is it?), as to seem brand new. Talk about lucky. And it only cost me about $10 US. It was delivered earlier in June, I started reading and –argh – I regret that I finished it. There’s a kind of magical anticipation when you’re inside the book as it unfolds, an aura that wears off when you finish.

I must re-read it.

Of course it was like new because it probably scared off any possible readers. The back cover, that should serve to invite & inspire must have daunted the Schaffer Library patrons, when they saw this:

“At the centre of this book is the issue of power and its fictions, the ability to dominate with schemes of knowledge and the resistance to that domination. In his investigation, Douglas Chambers achieves a complex interweave of what have traditionally been thought of as ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’ texts, a distinction that in the past has served to privilege one sort of voice over another. In the process, there is a deconstruction of the familiar canon. Milton, Defoe, Swift, and Pope are fully present–but often in new guises and with emphasis on their involvement in contemporary cultural issues– along with many lessen known writers of the age “

In some respects it’s the most ambitious of all Chambers writings, promising a sweeping synthesis across multiple disciplines, as you might expect from such a portentous title, undertaking something remarkable even if it’s rare.  How does thinking change, and what cognitive spoor might we find in usage & literature for the changes in how we understand the world?  We encounter discourses & counter-discourses, framing the reasons why some books could seem inevitable or necessary at least after the fact.

Like I said: ambitious.

It’s doubly poignant when I think of Douglas’ end, not so much because he was in a seniors’ residence with COVID19 but thinking of his sophisticated grasp of reality. If we look at the number of balls a juggler could keep in the air at one time as evidence of virtuosity, with Chambers’ prose it’s more a matter of how many complex ideas he could sustain within a single paragraph, not just keeping them all airborne but making beautiful patterns. When a mind such as this passes over to the other side we lose something significant.

Full disclosure: I found the book, tantalized by a bit of Graham Parry’s 1998 critique in The Review of English Studies, found here.  It includes a passage that will resonate with those who heard him lecture:

“There is a considerable discrepancy between the contents of this book and the professed aims of the series Writing in History to which it belongs. The series professes “to give students of literature access to recent ideas about history”, but the students in question must belong to some super-seminar at the Academy of Lagado, for they are expected to be familiar with a remarkable range of topics, authors and fictional personalities. However, while The Reinvention of the World may leave undergraduates and most postgraduates bewildered, it provides a fitful stimulus to those already expert in the culture history of the period.”

reinvention_coverParry is not exaggerating.

Chambers lives up to the review, as you might surmise from the table of contents:
“1) Introduction: Methodically Digested
2) The Geographical Part of Knowledge: Mapping and Naming
3) Earth’s Distant Ends: Travelling and Classifying
4) The Garden of the World Erewhile: Husbandry, Pastoral & Georgic
5) Th’Amazed Defenceless Prize: Opening and Enclosing
6) Childhood’s Tender Shoots: Instructing and Imagining
7) Conclusion: The Discourse of Resistance
8) Postscript: What We Have Forgotten
Appendix of Original Documents
Index”

 

Sometimes we’re reading about Milton or Pope or Swift and how their great works capture shifts in the preoccupations of the culture. Sometimes it’s someone decidedly more obscure. The Index is especially important for me, allowing me to circle back to the mentions of the works I need to either read for the first time or to revisit. Chambers has made a kind of travel book, like a Frommers Guide to send you voyaging not in a boat or a plane to another country but in a library to another world, going back to the 1650s or the 1730s as well as many important antecedents such as Erasmus, Vergil or Longinus. In a real sense this is a book to take you back to the scene of the crime, to revisit & rethink what you read & studied long ago. Chambers feels very contemporary in his multi-disciplinary approach that seeks to properly contextualize writers not via mere allusions to other writers but by unpacking the assumptions about maps, exploration, land, property, family, children…. I found myself reading sentences and then stopping to re-read, afraid I had missed one of the subtle voices in his counterpoint.

evelynIn passing I now begin to understand the reason for his fascination with John Evelyn, leading to his great final project The Letterbooks of John Evelyn, finished by David Galbraith just a few years ago (and that one is in the U of T library).

With over thirty references to Evelyn, some across multiple pages, Chambers unpacks & deconstructs aspects of daily life in every chapter using this remarkable record. So in other words, not only are we sent back to my Milton, Pope, Swift, Marvell, Traherne or Bacon, but after looking at this book we begin to see why Evelyn’s letterbooks matter as a window on another world.

For now I’m mostly reading books or playing the music in books.  TV is the horrors of CNN or CP24, statistics to scare you & remind you not to take off your mask, and perhaps teach you to shut the damn thing off (given that it’s more or less the same thing every day).   Live performance done on the internet doesn’t really work for me right now, more of a reminder of what I’m missing than a proper substitute. I feel a bit like someone starving outside a candy store or a party full of celebration & feasting.

No.  Books are my solace right now.

Posted in Books & Literature, Dance, theatre & musicals, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, University life | Leave a comment

Ennio Morricone has passed

This is almost an insult, to post this short little thing in response to the passing of Ennio Morricone. I’m merely doing this to call attention to his range, to his influence, and yes, because it’s fun posting something moving & beautiful.

I wanted to show three different samples. In each case, yes yes, the music is interesting.

The first one really has little relationship to a sequence of film, because it’s not a score so much as an overture, to a film & to a whole style we’d see developed later in the films that followed. Yes this is the beginning of the collaboration between Morricone & Sergio Leone.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) may not be a great film, but the best thing about it is its score. We’re in the presence of something symbolic, or dare I suggest, symbolist. The violence & the machismo is powerfully invoked from the first note, in a gradual inexorable crescendo.

I recently wrote about the use of the wordless chorus but somehow forgot this example, a most intriguing exception to the usual rule in the choice to have the chorus be so male.

The second one is from The Mission (1986) the film most people think of when they mention Morricone. But as you watch this sequence notice how the drama and the music are so perfectly linked.  You almost don’t notice the music because it’s so organic.

And to finish, this is really two for the price of one. This tiny little sequence from The Untouchables (1987) has two very different moods. The first is the sort of thing we hear in several Morricone scores, the mournful melody that might represent goodness or humanity as a consolation for the horror of the story.  In this case it’s a melody associated with Sean Connery’s character, remembered in this lovely bit of nostalgia, on an intimate & personal scale.

And then we suddenly segue into exit music, suggesting something triumphant & grand. If the first mournful melody didn’t give you the shivers, this one surely will.

He may be gone but the music is still there to explore, more than 400 films with some of the greatest directors of the last century.

mission_image

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment