Monday, October 3, 2011


In the mid-sixties, I wrote a piece for Newsweek about the author-critic Renata Adler, then a staff writer for The New Yorker who had just returned from reporting in Vietnam. In setting down her background, I noted that she had attended Bennett Junior College. An editor decided that this naked fact needed some oomph and inserted the adjective tony. The copy desk, ever alert, refined matters further, thus introducing the magazine's readers to Tony Bennett Junior College.

I have told this story often, dined out on it, as my father liked to say. For him, everything was grist, even rejection. In 1953, after Saul Bellow published The Adventures of Augie March, the book that launched his reputation, my father urged my mother, who had worked with Bellow at the University of Chicago's Great Books project, to invite him over.

Would you like to come to dinner Friday night, Saul? she said over the phone.

No, replied Bellow, and my father, always adept at turning a debit into an asset, was off and running with another anecdote, which he dined out on cheerfully for years and that I have done my best to keep alive.

We all have our fund of such tales, which we roll out despite the rolled eyes of our spouses and close friends. The conventional wisdom is that we indulge in these stories more and more as we plunge deeper into our dotage, because our aging brains forget that many of our listeners have heard them before. This may well be so, but it doesn't account for what goes on when our synapses are firing on all cylinders.

Call it Ball Stealing. George and Mary are twenty-somethings who have just met at a party. She's still excited by the production of King Lear she saw the night before and is enthusiastically describing the mad scene when George says, "Yeah, Shakespeare's great; at college, I played Polonius, and because I stood behind the curtain in the wrong place I almost got stabbed. Really! Crazy, huh?"

Like a hustling point guard, he has grabbed the conversation. In my experience, it's mostly men who do this–myself, I fear, included. It's our way of commandeering the floor, of at once putting ourselves in the spotlight, and often an end to conversation that might actually have some heft–sober or witty–and intelligent continuity.

"That reminds me, when I was . . . ."

At the end of our recent travels, Diane and I stayed in London for two weeks with our generous and high-spirited friends Hugh and Julie Sandeman. It was there, after a number of twice-told tales, that we came up with the concept of The Spike, named after the prong on which newspaper editors used to impale stories they had killed. 

One evening there were nine for dinner. Cries of "Spike!" exploded like popcorn throughout the meal, as one of us after another started to recount stories that within seconds at least one diner, usually a spouse, decreed were covered in moss. 

As I sat there, I began to notice how often hoary tales rose for the telling, as if they were divers desperately coming up for air. I held back nonetheless, as did the others, and none of us drowned, as the conversation began to follow a more spontaneous and engaging course.

I even began shouting "Spike!" on myself, to show everyone that I had self-control (and, yes, to get attention, I suppose). I'm hopeful that if I remain disciplined my spikes can be treated as Starbucks does my cups of coffee, and that after censoring myself ten times I'll get a free shot at retelling one story from my repetoire. Maybe the one about . . . . 

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Until now, I have never fantasized much about having super powers. Even as a kid, all I ever yearned for in that department was a pair of Springshus, which were advertised in the back of comic books with the promise that once you tied them to your feet their steel coils would make you hop like a kangaroo.

Back then, I was content to see the bad guys collared by the stars of those comic books, with their Batmobile, "Up, Up and Away" and "Shazam!".  For one thing, I didn't fancy wearing a cape, an accessory that, a friend recently suggested, would look even less compelling on me now.

Happily, the super power I have hankered for in recent weeks requires no special costume. All I wish for is the ability to will automobile tires flat.

First, I would bring down this hex on all drivers whose souped-up car stereos constantly boom with rap and other high-decibel art, bringing to the Brooklyn neighborhood where I'm living temporarily the subtle amplification of Kiss performing "Shout it Out Loud."

I'm trying to be reasonable here. I'm not asking for the power to melt the offenders' radios, or even to have their engines get only one mile to the gallon. Making tires suddenly flat strikes me as an altogether modest, almost polite solution to the problem. And a safe one, too, for I would never deflate while a vehicle was moving.

The light changes. Sonicman guns his engine. He flop-flops across the intersection and, mystified, pulls into the empty bus stop. He gets out of the car and surveys the flabby rubber on all four rims. How can this be?  He looks for glass or nails where he had been waiting for the light. Nothing. Must be a crazy coincidence. But then it happens again, and again, and to his fellow racket makers also, again and again.

My son-in-law interrupts this reverie to ask, as only someone with a doctorate in anthropology might, if I'd considered the possibility that the targets of my gentle retribution might keep their radios on, even turn them up, while waiting for a tow. I tell him I think this unlikely, for reasons he doesn't find persuasive.

Perhaps he has seen the advertisements that makers of the special ear-splitting, window-rattling sound systems aim at their eager customers. Like these from Sony: "All New Ways to Offend," "Disturb the Peace" and ". . . the sound your neighbors fear." Or this from Prestige Audio: "Put the over forty set into cardiac arrest." (For more on this noisome topic, click here.)

I persevere. Soon, the mysterious flats have become epidemic throughout the city, because I keep extending my campaign: to cars that honk the minute the light changes, to trucks that park in the bike lanes, to limousines that idle in the Wall Street district, and, finally, to all Hummers, on principle.

"FLATULENCE REIGNS!" cries the Daily News on page one. The Times assigns its crack investigative team to the story, but it's the paper's dedicated chronicler of matters local, my friend Clyde Haberman, who spots me outside Barney Greengrass reveling in the hiss of the softening tires on a double-parked delivery van. "So it's you!" says Clyde, who doesn't own a car either, and recently reiterated online one of his keener observations:

"Years ago, I asked in a column if it would be all right for a New Yorker in a crowded apartment to put a chest of drawers on wheels and leave it at curbside–observing all parking rules and taking a chance on theft. The very idea was, of course, absurd; you can't store personal property on the street. Why, then, is it O.K. to do that when the wheeled property is called a car?"

Right on! . . . And yet, I've been exposed, and am forced to give up my crusade. Nonetheless, I have the bug now, especially after learning that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will soon make cell phone use available on the platforms at several Manhattan subway stations. I reach for my own cell phone, which, mirabile dictu, has become a magic wand: press 1 for melt.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Music in the Cloud

Not long before we departed on our travels last January, a friend urged us to check out the wonders of Spotify when we were in Europe. We never got around to it, so it was with some anticipation that we discovered upon our return last month that this music app, founded four years ago in Sweden, had recently become available in the United States.

Spotify promises to stream "all your favorite music," any artist, any album, any genre, anytime. The going claim seems to be that its catalogue has grown to more than 15 million tracks. This suggests that the service's cloud is all silver, and maybe even platinum, lining, which piqued my natural skepticism and set me to playing Stump Spotify.

I first threw the challenge at my grandkids. (Yes, I know, I said a couple of posts ago that I wouldn't write about them, but . . . ). They are seven (Rex) and five (Agnes) and deep into Grease, which proved a pushover for Spotify (six albums) and soon had the kids singing "Summer Nights" along with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, Agnes hitting the shu-pop-pops without missing a beat.

Next they tried their own names, hopeful, I suspect, that they would not be stumpers. To their delight, a search produced "Rex's Blues," a twangy number by Townes Van Zandt, and several albums featuring singers named Agnes, whose glamourous cover photos quite impressed their young namesake. She seemed less moved by "Agnes," a song written and sung by the British folk rocker Johnny Flynn, even though he professes to be inspired by Yeats and Shakespeare.

I lateraled the test to my friend David Rubin, whose shelves burst with CDs and LPs and whose knowledge of classical music arcana is so deep it includes an opera called The Tinker, by one Frantisek Skroup. David also emailed me the names of five other works he thought might flummox Spotify:
  • Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, arranged for piano duet by Max Reger
  • Handel's opera Love in Bath, re-orchestrated by Sir Thomas Beecham
  • "Concerto Pastoral" for piano and orchestra, by Rene Challan
  • The bass-baritone Samuel Ramey singing one of Argante's arias from Handel's opera Rinaldo 
  • Wagner's Die Meistersinger conducted by Thomas Schippers, with Theo Adams as Hans Sachs and James King as Walther
Frantisek Skroup, it turns out, wrote the Czech national anthem, in the 19th century; Spotify duly supplies this patriotic song, but not The Tinker, or any of the composer's several other operas. Nor does the catalogue include Challan's "Concerto Pastoral" or Ramey singing any of Argante's arias. But the Beecham-Handel Love in Bath and the Reger-Bach Brandenburg transcriptions came up pronto, as did the Schippers Meistersinger, recorded live at the Met.

I typed in Tubby the Tuba, the tale of a morose brass doomed to oompahs until a frog croaks him a cheerful melody that soon has Tubby soloing happily with his orchestra. This piece, composed by George Kleinsinger and Paul Tripp, was popular in the fifties and sixties, but by the time my daughter came along, in the seventies, Tubby had pretty much disappeared back into the section. Today, neither his oompahs nor even his melody stand much of a chance against shu-pop-pops and rock's noisier fare. Yet, to my surprise, I found a recording at Spotify, narrated with considerable charm by the British actor-writer Stephen Fry.

No such luck with the Brooklyn Baseball Cantata. This 12-minute hymn to the pre-Los Angeles Dodgers, also composed by Kleinsinger, describes an imaginary game in which Dem Bums beat the hated Yankees in the last of the ninth. It was sung by, among others, Robert Merrill, the Met's Brooklyn-born star baritone and an ardent baseball fan. You'll find no version at Spotify, but Merrill's is at YouTube here.  Concentrating on his performance is difficult, because for some reason he is wearing a Yankees uniform.

Besides the holes in its much-touted catalogue, Spotify has a few other glitches. Classical works recorded live often have irritating technical hiccups inserted to create tracks. And searches can prove frustratingly eccentric. Type in Porgy and Bess and up come sixteen albums, none the complete opera. Type in just Porgy and you'll find the full work, with Sir Simon Rattle leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus.

Then there is the occasional spoilsport. I was listening to Eugene Onegin, the fine recording of Sir Georg Solti conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when I realized that I had missed the sublime "Letter Scene." I assumed I had merely been distracted, but when I went back and clicked on the aria up popped this message: "The artist/label has chosen to make this track unavailable." Two other tracks on this Decca recording got the same treatment.

So Spotify isn't perfect, but it has a remarkably deep and varied reach. It's free if you're willing to put up with visual and audio advertising, and ten bucks a month if you want these pitches banished. It's reassuring, too. Thanks to Spotify, the libidinous fantasies triggered by Jeri Southern's "You Better Go Now" (high school) and The Four Freshmen's "How Can I Tell Her" (college) still percolate, lush strings and all.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

"No Man But A Blockhead . . .

. . . ever wrote, except for money." This 18th century admonition from the famously erudite Samuel Johnson looms above my laptop these days like a disapproving literary agent urging me to stop all the bloggy blockheading I have been at these past eight months and get down to something bankable.

This does not mean that I'm asking you, dear reader, to send me your spare pennies, but it does mean that I'm searching for a publisher who might be interested in a book expanded from the thirty-plus musings I've posted since Diane and I embarked on our global Wanderjahr last January. I'm pursuing leads already, but all suggestions welcome.

As for this week's post, this is it. Watch for my next entry September 16, and weekly thereafter, the good Dr. Johnson to the contrary notwithstanding.

Thanks for staying tuned.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Tree Falls in Brooklyn

New York City may be crowded, noisy, somewhat soiled, occasionally impolite, and, in general, a difficult place to live, but it has been virtually free of natural disasters over the decades. Katrina and her kin are for the Gulf Coast and the Carolinas, earthquakes for California, tornadoes, floods and killer blizzards for the middle west.

I returned from our travels with this Chamber of Commerce certitude undiminished, only to be shaken on August 23 by an earthquake that, though mild, had people evacuating buildings up and down the East Coast, including in Manhattan.

A supermarket aisle after the August 23 earthquake.
The temblors hardly had ceased when Irene began blustering in the Caribbean and heading north. Now it's Saturday night, August 27th, and she is approaching what the TV folk like to call the tri-state area. Irene will wreak havoc, if you believe those same TV folk, one of whom stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and predicted Irene would storm up the fabled boulevard like an out-of-control bus.

Havoc, cautioned Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has ordered the evacuation of the Rockaways and other low-lying areas, suspended subway service as of noon today, and urged Broadway theaters not to raise their curtains this weekend. Havoc, so the ominous silence in the streets would suggest. Havoc, worries Diane, who has just filled two pots and the bathtub with water, in case the power fails.

We are hunkered down in the Brooklyn house of my daughter Amanda and her husband Gustav, while they and their kids are battened down with his parents in Bethesda, Maryland. It is 8:30 P.M., the trees outside barely rustle, a slight drizzle falls. Lull before the havoc? Harbinger of something less? Details at . . . .

11 P.M. Spurred by an email from Amanda, we venture down the front steps and into the night, twice: because I failed the first time to fully comprehend her instructions to pull the air-conditioning tubes from, and shut the window of, the absent downstairs tenants. This we ultimately accomplish, but not before struggling with three recalcitrant door locks, our wavering flashlight signaling to any passerby the presence of burglars, at once dedicated and inept.

Between these damp adventures, we sit on the couch with laptop (me) and Kindle (Diane) and indulge the Anglophilia still percolating after our two weeks in England earlier this month. Diane reads The Guardian and I listen, via Spotify, to an enchanting Iolanthe: a remastered 1959 classic recording, Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the Pro Arte Orchestra and Glyndebourne Chorus. Not surprisingly, the English baritone George Baker nails "The Nightmare Song," as I wonder if Irene will soon make me, too, ". . . dream I am crossing the channel, and / Tossing about in a steamer from Harwich. . . ."

8 A.M., Sunday: I have not even dreamed of crossing the Hudson in a kayak. Nor has Irene caused enough fuss overnight to disturb either my or Diane's slumber. Amanda soon calls to say that winds in Bethesda felled a giant tree on her in-laws' property, tearing down power lines and leaving them without electricity. Typically, she sounds more concerned about us.

11 A.M.  The leaves still dance a bit but the rain has stopped; the sun even peeks out occasionally, as dog-walkers below our windows head for Fort Greene Park, cardboard coffee cups in one hand, ear-pressed cell phones in the other.

12:30 P.M. We go for a walk ourselves. Mothers stroll with babies in slings or on their hips, cyclists spin along Willoughby Avenue, the brunch crowd queues up at the restaurants on DeKalb and Myrtle Avenues. It's just a normal Fort Greene Sunday, sans havoc: until, three blocks from the house, we come upon this:

Photo: Diane

Under all the foliage is a black Range Rover SUV, the owner of which may be excused for cursing the havoc Irene wielded while we slept so serenely.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Back in the U.S.A.

We landed at JFK on August 16, after seven months and twelve days on the road through ten countries: China, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkey, Italy, Austria, Germany, France and England. Our journey put us on nine airplanes, eight intercity trains, countless buses, trams and subway cars, and one excursion up the Rhine. We slept in 28 different beds and dined out at least 400 times.

It is good to be home, even though we are not, quite. The couple who sublet the Manhattan apartment where we have lived for three decades is staying on a bit longer. That has given us the opportunity to explore yet another foreign land, Brooklyn. We've rented temporary quarters there, a third-floor walkup whose flights are ameliorated somewhat by the apartment's proximity to Rex, 7, and Agnes, 5.

These grandchildren, like most grandchildren their ages, are seven feet tall and already skilled at differential calculus, so I will do my best in coming weeks not to dwell on either them or their remarkable parents, one of whom is my daughter. Instead, I plan to . . . well, I'm not sure. For now, following are a few of the many photographs Diane took (save for the first one) on our travels. [Alert for email subscribers: please go directly to blog link for best photo display.]

The dog at center is Tulea. In 2009, on Broadway, she took an unscripted curtain call at the end of 33 Variations, the play that moved us to begin our Wanderjahr when it was revived in Los Angeles, in January 2011. Tulea managed to stay behind the scenes during the L.A. production, until posing for this shot backstage on closing night, March 6. Her colleagues are, from left, Zach Grenier (Beethoven), Susan Kellermann (Gertie Ladenberger), Jane Fonda (Dr. Katherine Brandt and Tulea's mistress), Don Amendolia (Anton Diabelli and Tulea's temporary handler), Greg Keller (Mike Clark), Diane (music director and pianist), Samantha Mathis (Clara Brandt), and Grant James Varjas (Anton Schindler). Photo: David Lober

After 33 Variations closed, we spent two-plus weeks exploring central California, from Santa Barbara to the Monterey Peninsula. This modest pool is, not surprisingly, a prominent feature of the William Randolph Hearst Castle at San Simeon. In 1924, the Chief, as he was known to his employees, told his architect, Julia Morgan, that "Mrs. Hearst and the children are extremely anxious to have a swimming pool!"

On April 5, we flew to Singapore for a reunion with our friends Tina and Jeremy Nixon. They took us, along with their daughter Natasha and Labrador puppy Holly, on a tour of the city-state's lush botanical garden, where I signed up this carefree girl as my cycling muse for the rest of our trip.

The rice, beans, fish, soup and other items at this Vietnamese market in the coastal resort of Hoi An all looked and smelled tantalizing, but Diane already had had an intestinal disagreement with street food in Ho Chi Minh City, so we passed.

Temperatures pushing 100 degrees at Angkor Wat made it hard to concentrate on these determined warriors, even though Charles Higham, the British archeologist and expert on the 12th century temples, has called bas-relief friezes like this one "the greatest known linear arrangement of stone carving." 

Bruce Lee and an enthusiastic would-be challenge all comers. The bronze statue of the martial arts movie idol, who died at 32 in 1973, attracts thousands of visitors daily as they stroll along Hong Kong's Avenue of the Stars.  

Gloves are almost as ubiquitous in Venice as gondolas and the pigeons in Piazza San Marco. We looked, but did not buy.

Viktoria-Luise-Platz in the Schoeneberg district of Berlin, a few steps from our hotel. The square, laid out in 1900, was a calm respite at the end of a long day of sightseeing, and also the site of wrestling matches between friendly canines.

In recent months, couples from all over the globe have secured their love by initialing padlocks, attaching them to bridges over the Seine, and throwing the keys into the river. This moved me to hum "I Love Paris" while waiting for the Tour de France finishers to sprint by on July 24.

London's Richmond Park, more than three times the size of Central Park, was established in 1625 by Charles I as a refuge for red and fallow deer. I biked for almost two hours one day without seeing any of the more than 600 that still roam among the trees and in the meadows. Then, there they were. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rinaldo at Glyndebourne

We have been staying in London with Hugh and Julie Sandeman, British friends we hadn’t seen in several years. Hugh was a correspondent and editor at The Economist when we first met in Brooklyn, but long ago stopped looking through the glass at businessmen and became a successful one himself. Julie . . .

Where to begin? She was a stockbroker in those Brooklyn days, but gave it up to concentrate on raising their three sons. Jun, Michi and Tomo are now engaging and productive young men, leaving Julie time to indulge her passions for The Guardian quick crossword, tennis and bridge, and to pull off such culinary wizardry on her seven-burner stove that Hugh is in constant danger of not getting the equal billing he deserves as a magnanimous host.

Which brings us to Glyndebourne, a festival that famously features not only sterling opera performances but picnics of such a high order that only the best bred ants dare invade the white and green tablecloths. By 10 A.M. on August 10th, the day we drove down into the East Sussex countryside to see Handel’s Rinaldo, Julie had turned out a salmon roulade, with less effort than I expended on buttering my toast.

We arrived at Glyndebourne by 3 P.M., our party including another friend of the Sandemans, John Graney, a doctor from New York, and his friend, Nicole Saïd, the director of a French ballet company. Dozens of picnickers already dotted the grounds as we set up our table next to the walled trench that keeps animals from wandering onto the festival’s manicured lawns. This indentation, called a ha-ha for reasons no one at table could explain, leaves the view unhindered, in this case of pastures where woolly occupants idled as “Sheep May Safely Graze” played in my head.

Tradition at the 77-year-old festival dictates that women don their finery and men wear dinner jackets. Hugh and John complied, and looked properly smart, as did several hundred other black-tie opera goers strolling across the croquet lawn, through the flower gardens, and among the topiaries and tall yew trees. I yearned for my own monkey suit, which I wore to my high school prom in 1948 and, mirabile dictu, still fits. But when I packed for our journey last January it seemed altogether expendable.

I made do with navy blue slacks, a blue linen sports jacket, blue button-down shirt, an Indian silk bow tie handmade by Diane, and, I fear, sandals.  My spiffed up companions kindly assured me this was a respectable outfit; still, I felt a bit as if I were singing in a chorus and had forgotten my robe.  

Fortunately, other sartorial dissidents soon put me at ease, among them two men in Mao jackets, two others in tartan kilts, and a tall chap in a black cutaway, white tie, and gray trousers draped around off-white spats. Nearby a suave Spanish visitor kept fixing his profile as if he were Valentino. A white scarf with blue polka dots the size of silver dollars encircled his neck; his chest hairs bristled in the V of his open-necked white shirt; his blue suit was set off by brown shoes, which made me feel much better about my sandals.

As a chilly wind whipped our tablecloth, Hugh broke open a bottle of champagne, filled the flutes Julie had carefully packed and I silently toasted whatever god manages the weather, in hope that he or she would fend off the threatening rain clouds that had begun to gather. I was quickly distracted by Julie’s salmon roll and a bowlful of ham and cheese tartlets she also had prepared for our pre-curtain sustenance.

These bite-size treats led to a reprise of the previous evening’s etymological struggle over the word tartle, the definition of which we could not find anywhere in the Sandemans’ well-stocked shelf of reference books. Google eventually came to our rescue, confirming a recent letter in the Times Literary Supplement from our friend Sir Sydney Kentridge speculating that tartle means being unable to recall the name of someone you're trying to introduce, as in: “I tartled when I couldn't remember what’s-his-name, the composer of Rinaldo.” 

After three bars of the overture, you knew he was Handel.  Rinaldo is his first opera, which debuted in London on February 24, 1711, the day after his 26th birthday. The libretto, by one Giocomo Rossi, involves lovers, thwarted lovers, imprisoned lovers, freed lovers, furious lovers, I-hated-you-but-now-I-love-you lovers and, inevitably, reunited lovers–plus Saracens, battles and an exceptionally sexy sorceress in black latex.

Luca Pisaroni as Argante and Brenda Rae as Armida
in Handel's Rinaldo at Glyndebourne.

This scenario, a major contender in any Silly Opera Plot contest, was rescued to a degree by the director, Robert Carsen, whose conceit makes Rinaldo a bullied British schoolboy whose revenge fantasies take him, complete with breastplate, back to the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century, where the opera was originally set.

Despite this time travel, it was British teenagers who did the warring, using lacrosse sticks (ladettes) and hockey sticks (lads) as weapons when they were not scrimmaging fiercely over a soccer ball or riding bicycles. These I presumed were supposed to represent earthbound steeds, until at the end of the first act Rinaldo pedaled high above the stage. Pegasus? E.T.?

No matter. It was the music that counted, played with brio by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Ottavio Dantone, whose hands were as deft on the harpsichord as they were in leading his players and the cast. Nowhere was the Handelian interaction more thrilling than when Brenda Rae, the wicked sorceress Armida, loosed her furioso coloratura in “Vo far Guerra” (“I will make war”) as Dantone’s fingers flew over his keyboard.

Julie served dinner between acts two and three, an interval the festival conveniently stretched to 85 minutes. The temperature had dropped and rain still threatened, so John and Hugh brought table, chairs and food from the ha-ha and set up on the covered terrace of the auditorium–six place settings with china, silverware and cloth napkins.

More champagne flowed, followed by a homemade parade that began with a vegetable terrine and a lettuce salad and continued with bowls of beets and butternut squash in a red onion vinaigrette, marinated eggplant, peppers and zucchini, and new potatoes and quail eggs coated with pesto. Meringues followed, bestrewn with fresh blueberries, strawberries and raspberries and dolloped with crème fraiche. 

There was coffee, too, but I didn’t need this stimulant to keep me awake through the final act, which ended with a triumphant Rinaldo back in his classroom, alone and looking as satisfied as I felt. 


Did I deserve to be satisfied–did any of us–given the rioting, looting and arson that had pocked  London and other British cities in the days just before we indulged in high art and fine cuisine?  Yes, because the Glyndebourne experience was magical from start to finish, and I wouldn't have missed it unless doing so would have prevented the explosion. No, because neither I nor anyone else in the well-fed, stylish audience does nearly enough when we're not listening to Handel's sublime measures to end the inequities that helped cause the rioting, and that afflict not just Great Britain but every corner of the globe.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Reunion in Yorkshire

At the end of July, Diane and I spent three days with Peter and Elizabeth Davies at their cozy, garden-caressed home in the Yorkshire village of Sleights, just up from the North Sea harbor of Whitby. One afternoon, as Peter and I walked along the busy quay, he looked out to sea with his practiced mariner’s eye and said, “There’s a box boat.”

Ten years ago, my unlikely haven was his box boat, a 60,000-ton container ship called the Colombo Bay that I boarded two days after 9/11. The terrorist attacks had taken place while I was high above the Pacific, en route from New York City to Hong Kong, where I unwittingly plunged to sleep in my hotel room high above Victoria Harbor. I awoke to an email from Diane back in Manhattan; the subject line read, “Don’t worry I’m safe.”

So, in Brooklyn, were my daughter, Amanda, and her future husband, Gustav. Yet it seemed absurd to go larking about the ocean to write a book about container shipping as the search began for the hundreds of mangled bodies in the debris of the collapsed twin towers, and my city steeled itself for who-knew-what follow-up punch Al Qaeda planned.

Go, said Diane and Amanda: hard as it may be, we all have to get on with our work; besides, you’ll be safe at sea. Reluctantly, I dragged my baggage up the gangway of the Colombo Bay on September 13, and that evening we inched out of the harbor for a five-week voyage via Suez back to New York, Captain Davies in command.

Peter saw immediately how undone I was by the catastrophe in New York, as we sat through awkward silences at our first meals in the officers dining room. Both he and Elizabeth, who often sailed with her husband and who had joined the ship with me in Hong Kong, clearly sensed how conflicted I was about not returning home.

On our second or third night out, Peter gathered the ship’s seven other officers in the lounge and asked for two minutes of silence to commemorate the dead. Condolence and anger filled the room as these British seamen bowed their heads, some in obvious prayer, and I fought back tears.

As we pushed through the South China Sea that first week, the short-wave radio on the bridge poured out the grim news from the BBC World Service: the mounting dead, which eventually would total almost 3,000; the anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States and elsewhere in the west; the U.S. threats to avenge the attack by invading Afghanistan.

I had decided to jump ship when we called at Singapore and fly home, but Peter and Elizabeth saw how pointless this impulse was. Stay the course, they urged, their encouragement repeated by the rest of the officers and many members of the 13-man Filipino crew. I sailed on and wrote the book.

The Colombo Bay was literally a vessel of compassion, the sympathy for my plight a microcosm of the support the United States was receiving from all corners of the globe. I was naïve enough to think it might last, that my country would seize on all this goodwill and turn it into a cooperative police action to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden.

But even before the voyage ended, George W. Bush was thundering ominously: “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail.” This Churchillian rhetoric led not to a focused international manhunt but to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that, ten years on, have left thousands more dead than perished on 9/11 and the United States wavering, tiring, faltering and failing, take your pick.

Peter and I shook our heads over this history, but didn’t dwell on it. The dramatic seascapes and undulating North York Moors, where sheep move slowly through the heather like cotton balls tumbling in the mildest breeze, discourage talk of war and death, like a Turner landscape hiding the cracks and dirt on the wall behind.

Peter is retired now, still the jovial Yorkshireman and more relaxed than he was on the bridge of the Colombo Bay. But he continues to exude the quiet command and efficiency that served him on ships as he organized our first outing, a walk along a rail-to-trail in the Esk Valley, our strides accompanied by the chuff and whistle of a steam train nearby.

On the trail with Peter and Elizabeth.
Photo: Diane

It was the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, carrying tourists on the short run from Grosmont to Pickering and back. I could not see it for the foliage, but the sounds alone took me happily deep into the 20th century. The tea and scones we had outside the Birch Hall pub in Beck Hole only reinforced this wishful imagining of a simpler, better time.

The next morning, we drove up the coast to Staithes Harbor, where Peter first went to sea on fishing expeditions. The tide was out, leaving boats tilted and angled on the bottom like toys in an empty bathtub. As we walked the narrow, cobbled streets, Peter reminisced about a back-then that, I sensed, he, too sometimes sees through the rosy filter of age.

We returned via the town of Hinderwell, where the annual scarecrow contest was underway. A nun in a black habit with a giant cross around her neck looked at us sternly as we passed, a betoqued chef seemed ready to serve us lunch, a life-size policewoman positioned by the side of the road appeared sufficiently official to suggest that we exceeded the speed limit at our peril.

At Runswick Bay we just missed a cricket match on the flats created by the ebb tide. But we did manage oatmeal cookies and other refreshments at the Sandside Café high above the water, where a solitary dog and a few brave children frolicked in the chilly waves. These were gentle at the beach, but rougher further out, where two kayakers struggling with their paddles looked as if they might soon need the attention of a rescue boat, the kind Peter now volunteers on in Whitby.

Elizabeth, too, is retired, a former caterer who has by no means lost her touch. Out of her kitchen one evening came a classic English dinner: roast beef and gravy, roast potatoes, broccoli and string beans, all perfectly cooked. Jim White, a golfing friend of Peter’s, and his wife Dorothy, joined us, having brought with them great good humor as well as a cherry crumble and a mountainous trifle with chocolate chips on its slopes and at the summit.

Before I could indulge in this welcome excess, Peter required that I pass a test. Could I  roll my napkin tightly enough to thread it through my napkin ring?  I fumbled this challenge several times on the Colombo Bay, much to the merriment of my shipmates, who charged their greenhorn to keep at it until I got it right.

It was at that moment, I think, that I realized how lucky I was, half a world away from the disaster at home, to be among people like Peter and Elizabeth, and the twenty other strangers aboard the giant ship. Ten years later, their healing laughter echoed at table as, with a ceremonial flourish, I deftly slipped my napkin through the ring.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Cycles of Time

I woke up one morning some ten weeks ago to discover that my wrist watch had stopped. So had Diane’s. We were in Turkey, whose proximity to Greece suggested that this eerie coincidence might be the work of Chronos, the Greek god of time. But a serpentine deity with the heads of a man, a bull and a lion, not to mention a full-time consort named Ananke, must have better things to do than indulge in cross-border practical jokes. So I finally decided that the culprits were probably the gods Timex and Swatch.

No matter. We decided to travel on without replacements, a decision that had solid precedent. My father not only eschewed watches but liked to twit society for obsessively checking its collective left wrist. He shared the view of Mel Brooks, the 2,000-year-old man, that one key to longevity was never to run for a bus. This attitude seemed sensible, but did not altogether explain why Dad insisted on getting to airports at least three hours before takeoff, an early-bird syndrome that also applied to social engagements.

Bob Pollak was never bashful about knocking before the appointed hour and frequently arrived when the husband was still zipping up his wife’s dress. I have inherited his proclivity to start out too soon, which always results in arriving prematurely. This happened twice before dinner with friends in their Bonn home recently. Diane adjusted matters by parading me around the block, the second time in the rain.

Nonetheless, we have done nicely without wrist watches these past weeks, not once asking a stranger for the hour, getting to museums when the spirit moved us, and letting hunger schedule meals. I had developed a comfortably cavalier attitude toward the tyranny of time when, on July 23, I found myself in the Strasbourg Cathedral standing before its astronomical clock, an instrument that tends to banish indifference to life’s inexorable tick.

The crown of the clock’s case rises toward the stained glass windows that, on this midday, refracted the sun’s rays into the south transept. Two other clocks preceded it in this corner, the first constructed in the mid-13th century and featuring a wooden cock that crowed and flapped its wings; the second, finished in 1547, replacing its demolished predecessor with the current case and new mechanisms.

Those movements worked until 1788, i.e., 241 years (Timex and Swatch, please note). The clock remained frozen for several decades, until a determined Strasbourg mechanical engineer named Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué devised all new movements, which now have been running pretty much without stop since he set them operating in 1843.

The clock is a marvel of 19th century science and technology. Golden hands show the local mean time, an angel-child strikes the first stroke of each quarter hour, another one turns over its hour-glass every hour. Seven planetary gods seated in chariots personify the weekdays, Apollo points out this Saturday with his arrow, an astronomical dial indicates the times of sunrise and sunset.

The signs of the Zodiac appear on the circumference of the planetary dial at the center of the case and designate the planets’ constellations. Just above, a lunar globe, half black and half gilded, shows the true phases of the moon, its rotation tracing the lunar month’s 29 days and 55 minutes.

I am gazing at this astonishing apparatus along with some 200 other visitors as we stand waiting for a 20-minute film about the clock to begin on an adjacent screen. It is alternatively narrated in French, German and English, and focuses almost entirely on the case’s Christian iconography and how its statuettes (e.g., of the four evangelists, of the Prophet Isaiah) and paintings (e.g., of the creation of Eve, of the triumph of Christ) should inspire us. “Time has no hold on His love,” sermonizes the English voice, as organ chords swell in the background.

It’s true that the case­–designed by one Hans Thomann Uhlberger, a statuette of whom sits atop the crown–is certainly a Renaissance beauty worth dwelling on. But a few more words about the genius of Schwilgué, whose scientific thrust created the clock and whose portrait adorns the case, seemed in order, as did more than a nod to the secular fascination with time dating to the 14th century that spurred the building of all three clocks.

I emerged into the sunlight with a new appreciation of time’s importance, a respect rewarded that evening when our TVG express left Strasbourg on the dot at 6:16 P.M. and arrived non-stop in Paris with like punctuality, at 8:34 P.M. As we walked by a kiosk in the Gare de l'Est, a headline revealed that the Tour de France would end at the Arc de Triomphe the next day.

In the morning, Diane and I bolted our hotel breakfasts and were at the finish line just after ten, only to learn that the riders weren’t expected until at least 3 P.M. By then the crowd would number in the thousands all along the Champs Élysées, so we gave up on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and went off on separate explorations of the city.

I was searching for a bike rental to help assuage my disappointment when I noticed that the Quai des Tuileries, which flanks the Seine, was cordoned off and heavily patrolled by the national police. I needn’t be at the finish line, the Tour would fly right by here!

I walked to the Louvre nearby, had a leisurely lunch in the cafeteria, spent an hour or so admiring or puzzling over the statuary and paintings in the Richelieu wing, at least once consulting my watchless wrist for fear that I would not get back to the Quai des Tuileries in time to claim a position on the rail. When a guard told me it was two o’clock, I dashed for the exit.

A cacophony of horns barked as I approached the Pont Royal. Cars passed garbed as Mickey Mouse or as a hell-bent cyclist in a yellow jersey; floats advertised everything from Bic pens to Nesquik; rock blared from most of them, as young women shook their tightly wrapped anatomies and the burgeoning crowd cheered.

This rackety parade–part Macy’s Thanksgiving Day and part Wall Street ticker tape, minus the confetti–rolled across the bridge for half an hour as I watched against a stone wall above the river that commanded an excellent view. Absent a hat, I protected my bald pate from the sun with the unfolded floor pan of Louvre, much to the amusement of four chain-smoking German tourists sharing the wall.

By 3 P.M., the preamble had petered out and I eagerly waited for the riders to come pumping by. And waited. And waited some more. In desperation, I began eying a TV cameraman perched on the platform of a cherry picker. He was sitting, reading a book. A volume of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu?

He was still deep in his pages when one of the Germans complained that it was now 4 P.M. Enough, I thought, time to go back to the hotel. Then the cameraman stood and aimed his viewfinder, as a phalanx of motorcycle police came down the Quai Voltaire on the left bank, crossed the Pont Royal and turned right before me into the Quai des Tuileries.

The peloton was hard behind, several dozen cyclists melded over their handlebars like a multicolored quilt. They had been pedaling furiously like this throughout the country for a month, including in the Alps. I am a passionate, if rank amateur, cyclist; to see these riders in this final stage, if only for 30 seconds as they sped across the bridge, was to witness the ne plus ultra of time.

Cadel Evans, of Australia, won the tour with a time of 86 hours, 12 minutes and 22 seconds.  I don’t know if he’ll be invited to endorse Rolex, but I’ve definitely decided to buy a more modest wristwatch.


Corrections: In Diane’s account of her visit to Beethoven-Haus (July 22), I edited the composer’s desk into the manuscript vault rather than into the museum’s second-floor exhibition space, where it is displayed. . . . In my post from Berlin (July 9), I wrote hanger, as for closets, when I meant hangar, as for airplanes. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

"There is the 'Moonlight Sonata' . . . ."

In 2009, during the Broadway run of 33 Variations, Moises Kaufman's play about Beethoven’s obsession with his “Diabelli Variations,” Dr. Michael Ladenburger, director of the composer’s archive in Bonn and the model for a character in the play, came backstage one evening to greet the cast. When it became clear that our travels this year would bring us to Bonn to see friends, Diane, who played the variations throughout the New York and other productions, made a date to visit the archive, on July 18. Her report follows:

Beethoven-Haus, where the composer was born in the attic in 1770, is a typically baroque yellow structure at Bonngasse 20, in the center of the city; the building and the one next door form a commemorative museum dedicated to the composer’s life and works.  Since I was a child and played “Für Elise,” I have performed many of Beethoven’s works, from the bagatelles and sonatas to his Fourth Concerto and the “Diabelli.” I feel as if I am entering a chapel.

Michael himself greets me. He is soft-spoken and bookish, and after a warm welcome he turns me over to a colleague.  In a room full of computers, she explains that the online archive here, unlike on your screen at home, offers audio music clips that are full-length rather than short samples, and high-definition close-ups of Beethoven’s original manuscripts.

The autograph of Beethoven's Sonata in E-minor, Op. 90.
Credit: Beethoven-Haus archive.

At our next stop, the library, another staff member brings out several facsimile editions, including a newly-published “Diabelli Variations” in a handsome, two-volume boxed set.  After studying them for a while, I am escorted downstairs into a small movie theater with no seats to see Fidelio 21st Century, a 20-minute interactive 3D presentation of five scenes from Beethoven’s only opera.

The characters Florestan, Leonore, Rocco and Don Pizarro are represented by moving particles outlining abstract shapes–a spiral, a blue wall, a red ball and white bars.  Controls allow viewers to move the shapes around to the music, performed by four singers and the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. I find this a bit jejune, but am nonetheless touched, especially when Leonore and Florestan’s shapes become intertwined at the end and cannot be separated, as the lovers sing “O namenlose Freude” (“Oh, nameless joy”).

Michael reappears at this point and takes me downstairs to the chamber music hall, which opened in 1989. It is a gem, a steeply raked, wood-paneled amphitheater with a 9-foot Steinway concert grand at the center begging to be played. Michael says, Go ahead. I play some Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert, after which he confesses that, though Beethoven is his scholarly passion, his favorite composer is Schubert. He also tantalizes me by revealing that I had been playing right above the vault that holds the original Beethoven manuscripts.

At lunch, he explains that he tells most scholars to use the online images for research. The original pages were side-lit when scanned, so that many details on the paper–false starts, erasures, faint pencil marks, ink blots– are, when magnified on the screen, much more easily discerned and interpreted. This was certainly the case when I viewed the “Diabelli” originals in the computer room, but I try to hide my disappointment as I fear there will be no visit to the inner sanctum.

At 3 P.M., my friend Nicola calls my cell phone to say that, as arranged, she will be by in fifteen minutes to drive me to an apartment where I can practice for a couple of hours. When Michael hears “fifteen minutes” he looks dismayed.  “I didn’t know you had an appointment,” he says, as if I had just slammed down the key cover in the middle of the “Appassionata.”

Charcoal drawing by L. O. Pasternak (1862-1945).
Credit: Beethoven-Haus archive.
“I was just going to practice,” I say, and quickly call back Nicola to cancel. As soon as I hang up, I find that we are standing directly outside the thick, black steel door of the vault. “Put your jacket on, it’s cool inside,” Michael says. He unlocks the door and we step inside. He gestures at one shelf and says “There is the ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ there is Op. 111, and the Missa Solemnis . . . .”

The first thing he brings to me is the “Diabelli Variations” autograph, encased in a royal-blue velvet binding, the pages inside darkened with age. It is a jewel of the collection, purchased from its longtime private owner only two years ago, after an intense five-year fund-raising effort that featured many benefit concerts by leading musicians. The Beethoven-Haus website calls the acquisition "the most important addition within the last 99 years." Michael discreetly does not reveal who had owned it, or the purchase price.  

Having looked at the digital version only a couple of hours before, many of the images are already familiar: the changes in spacing, from airy and wide open (Var. 20) to crowded and spidery (Var. 27); a blot where Beethoven overturned his ink bottle onto the page; the furious crossings-out in what was supposed to be a fair copy. Beethoven had begun to use it as a sketchbook towards the end, then realized what he was writing in.

Out comes the Wittgenstein Sketchbook, which contains Beethoven’s first drafts of the “Diabelli” and the Missa Solemnis, which he was working on simultaneously in the 1820’s. The mottled red cardboard cover is also familiar; I’ve seen the sketchbook stage prop fought over night after night by the actors playing Anton Diabelli and Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary.

Michael is reverential as he shows me more of the vault’s many treasures: Beethoven's massive wooden desk; a small oil painting of his hands, done at his deathbed by Josef Danhauser; an engraving of the composer that Beethoven particularly liked and autographed to a friend; a card with a lock of his auburn hair.

I ask to see Op. 111 since I’m studying it now. Michael takes out the autograph of the first movement and allows me to read through the piece as he gingerly turns the pages by lifting each one with a small note card. I listen to the music in my head as I follow this score, imagining Beethoven setting down these miraculous notes. The handwriting is vigorous throughout, evincing his determination to finish this final sonata as he struggled against illness and despair.

After Michael points me towards the permanent and special exhibits upstairs in the museum, which include pianos and string instruments owned by Beethoven, I assume the tour is finished. It has lasted over six hours, more than I ever expected, and I am enormously grateful. As I begin saying goodbye and my thanks, Michael surprises me.

The entrance to Beethoven-Haus,
where the composer was born in 1770.

He asks if I would like to play a 1824 fortepiano, from the period of the “Diabelli” and four Schubert sonatas I had recently recorded. He takes me to a small recital hall with two dovetailed fortepianos behind a velvet rope. He removes the rope and the signs saying “Do Not Touch,” then opens the lid of the Graf piano. I play portions of Schubert’s Sonatas in A-minor and B-flat, his Impromptu in G-flat, Beethoven’s Op. 78 and “Diabelli” theme, and Mozart’s Turkish Rondo. The piano is in superb condition inside and out, a 187-year-old wonder with a rich tone ranging from robust to subtle.

I had never played an instrument with five foot pedals, instead of the three I am used to.  From the front row Michael kibitzes gently, suggesting I experiment with the different colors the pedals produce: here a reedy bassoon effect for the bass line, there a drum and cymbal effect for the Turkish march. A few people wander in to listen as I revel in this unexpected bonus. O namenlose Freude!