Thursday, December 31, 2015

Travels with Cadfael: A New Year's Tale of Two Feasts, Rome and New York



Nothing exotic this New Years, but fond memories of a New Year's Eve in Trastevere, Rome, with my Benedictine monk friend Cadfael—whom I had met while I was studying chant in Solemes, which lead to a series of terrific travel adventures—while my then recent ex walked down the aisle in New York.

When you experience it, it’s not a cliche:

It was the best of times and the worst of times. We were in an epoch of belief and an epoch of incredulity, in a season of Darkness and a season of Light. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

There was to be a feast in Rome that I would attend, and one in New York that I would not. And so we will come to the end of the tale of the Talented Mr. Ripley and me (with no snide remarks from you, Steed), when he walked down the aisle with his ready-made family in my own parish in New York while I was in Rome getting some comfort from the monks.

Cadfael and I had spent Christmas in Galway,  and then landed in a Rome of grey skies and drizzle for New Year's. The weather fit my mood. We buzzed around town a bit on the Vespa to say goodbye and good riddance to the old year.

The plan was to have a late New Year’s Eve dinner in a small neighborhood place in Trastevere, with 2 of Cadfael’s English monk friends, Rupert and Lambert. For me it would be like having a monk shield against the sad thoughts of a disappointing year.

And what a shield it was.  Rupert is a dazzling dissipate. He is a living cross between Lord Sebastian Flyte and C.S.Lewis. A compact man, fortyish, his boyish good looks starting to fade, he is a compelling presence of sweetness and darkness. Lambert is a little younger and on the surface, very uncomplicated; he’s 6 feet 2 of warm openness.

The trio called for me at my hotel, the Villa San Pio on the Aventine, and we walked through the small, winding alleys of that most charming of Roman neighborhoods. We were led to a great table in the back of the taverna, where I sat against the wall looking into the room through the ring of Benedictines. In the deep haze of cigarette smoke the large Italian families were in full, noisy animation. I felt safe.

We got bottles of wine, and then more bottles. The monks reminded me of the sailors from my schooner sailing days. When they are on duty, it’s all business, but when they are off duty, they know how to relax, and drink. Our conversation danced to all corners—-American pop culture, Leeds, childhood stories, life in Italy. We laughed and laughed and at midnight sang a sotto voce “Auld lang syne” to each other. For a table of damaged people in a foreign city, we were doing very well as 2003 became 2004.

January 1 is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. I was in the church of Collegio Sant'Anselmo, where Cadfael was studying. It is a surprisingly modern church, all white inside. The sun was pouring in as I sat in the dazzling light tightly wrapped in my New York black coat, watching my dinner companions in their community, serving at Mass. They seemed familiar and unknowable at the same time.

After Mass, Cadfael said that the Abbott had granted permission for me to join Cad at the holiday meal. Visitors are only allowed in the refectory on special occasions, and it is an honor to be invited to eat with the community. We walked into the huge dining room with long tables set around its perimeter with almost 100 place settings for 100 men, and me. I was seated next to Cad, thank goodness, while a special holiday meal was served: classic antipasto, saltimbocca, potatoes au gratin, fresh bread, haricourt verts, spumanti for dessert, all with the correct wines from proseccio to champagne and a fabulous espresso.

Men eat faster than I do, and monks eat very fast. I tried to keep up but plates were flying around me left and right. The monastery is built on hierarchy: junior brothers serve, and everyone is seated by seniority. Usually a reader reads a text during a silent meal, but not on holidays.

After the meal, the assembly broke up pretty quickly. Cad and I went over to the Abbott, who is Spanish, so I could say thank you. We started to leave, when Rupert and Lambert came up behind us.

“Happy New Year”

Rupert sparked a conversation about Praxiteles, one of the greatest of the Attic sculptors, only for Lambert to jump in with the "Phidias was greater" argument. Did I mention they are both serious classicists. Their knowledge was startling, and they were showing off, but since it had the spirit of Monty Python about it, it was a riot instead of insufferable. We lingered in the room for two hours of nonstop cigarettes, chatter, and laughter. I wish I had captured it all on video--I would love to watch it again.

Finally we needed to go. Rupert walked me out, crooning an early Bing Crosby tune in his madly eccentric way:

Oh, Please.
Lend your little ear to my pleas
Lend a ray of cheer to my pleas
Tell me that you love me too.


Right words, wrong man.

Another wrong man was just starting his feast, his wedding reception in New York.  Ronald Coleman popped into my head as I imagined Ripley at the altar: "It was a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done." For a brief minute I wondered what could be going through his mind as he surveyed the buffet in the old, run-down parish basement as I enjoyed the magnificence of Rome.

That was not the end of it. I took a short break from my choir of 15 years—did I mention he was the choir director—and when I then wanted to return, he said he needed to regroup, and he couldn't do that if I were there.  So I was barred from my own choir, and I had no monks in New York to help assuage the hurt.

As for Cad and me, we had one more trip ahead of us, before things would change forever.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 Where Blogs Are Alive & Well: Vagabond Scholar's Yearly Round-up in Honor of Jon Swift


 From the Vagabond Scholar blog:

"Welcome to a tradition started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As Lance Mannion put it in 2010:

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. "

Satirist blogger Jon Swift/Al Weisel sadly died in 2009 of an aneurysm. Batocchio, who writes the Vagabond Scholar blog, picked-up the round-up mantle in honor of Jon Swift.

I was on the edges of Jon Swift's blog circle, via Tom Watson, and so I ended up in his round-up. It continues to be a wonderful collection of big/famous blogs and smaller/not famous blogs, all nestled together by Batocchio.  I submitted my post about stumbling upon the BBC Desert Island Disc website & Yoko Ono's song selections. One of which her mother sang to her, and my mother sang to me: The Songs Our Mothers Sang to Us.

What is most wonderful about the round-up is the clear evidence that "blogs are dead"—which has been hailed since shortly after they began  and heightend as Twitter and Instagram entered the scene—simply isn't true.

Happy Reading, you readers' readers, get thee to the Vagabond Scholar.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bill Murray Channels Bing & Frank for a Very Merry Christmas



There's no doubt: My Christmas spirits have been sagging. There is so very much pain in the world, it has taken my blogging voice away.

And then. I finally watched A Very Murray Christmas on Netfilx, and it woke me up, just in time. It spoke to my DNA, and with that connection I realized that I can't help the world at large. But I can be "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knows or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." Thanks Bill.

A Very Murray Christmas is a touchstone to my childhood. I know what he's doing with his 57 minutes, and it is not self-indulgent, the word I saw most often in reviews.

In the Beginning, There was Bing Crosby
Yes, I am a Bill Murray fan, from Caddyshack on. And I was weened on 1940s movies. When Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn was on WOR, Channel 9 in the 1970s, my father--a lifelong Crosby fan--said, "this is important you need to watch this." And I found it stunning. The towering talents of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, set against the glamour of NY nightclub life with those glittering white Christmas trees, was intoxicating. In high school I made my friends sit and watch it with me, and they were glad. High schoolers. In the 1970s.

Fast forward some decades: When I finally watched A Very Murray Christmas, I was immediately connected back to my Crosby heritage, which of course included every Crosby Christmas special from the early 1970s until his death, and his famous Christmas songs. No stretch there, since Murray used the most famous Crosby album graphic directly. (Although I think Bill looks oddly like Derek Jacobi here.)





But the Crosby specials aren't the most direct connection for me: instead it was to a special episode of Frank Sinatra's short-lived The Frank Sinatra Show, for Bulova, called Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank. The premise is that Bing Crosby is dropping by Frank's very chic apartment with some gifts.  The banter is scripted. Sometimes awkward (sound familiar?) while sometimes it's cool:

Crosby "Hey this must be in your key."
Sinatra:  "Well it's my ballpark."

They drink from a Wassail bowl in a visual quote of "Did You Evah" from The Philadelphia Story, and become inebriated enough to see Ye Old Merrie England outside the high-rise door. And they both enter this alternate universe (sound familiar?) in Dickensian costume to join in with the carolers. (To see Crosby wear a Dickensian top hat atilt is alone worth the price of admission.)

1957 friends get together; 1957 friends enter alternate reality.

2015 friends get together; 2015 friends enter an alternate reality.

Frank and Bing then return to 1957, and Bing thinks he needs to leave because Sinatra's table is set for an intimate dinner for two, which then Frank says is for him! (Not a date!).

This allows the duo to continue to sing Christmas songs solo and in duet, until Frank graciously gives the Bing the closing spotlight for "White Christmas." It's a lovely reminder that Sinatra idolized Crosby, even though he was to surpass him in cultural relevance. For sensibilities that love that classic singing, the 27-minute special is sublime.

Bill and His Friends
Many critics found Murray's special lazy at best, self-indulgent at the least. But the vision of combining famous friends playing themselves with others playing characters is neither. It's creative.

The premise of the live show is right out of the Mitch Glazer/Murray collaboration of Scrooge. It continues Murray's homage to the early days of live TV, something that Clooney is also interested in, bringing the 1962 film Fail-Safe live to CBS in 2000, as well as being in the live ER episode "Ambush" in 1997. There is no sense of parody here for Murray, it is a tip of the hat to TV's past.

Bill Murray, both the actor/singer and the "character," would not have the same kind of 1950s polish that we see in Crosby and Sinatra. That's not who he is. But I think he brought his own A game: his echoes of Nick Ocean lounge singer & Lost in Translation's Bob Harris, with some redeemed Frank Cross. So the tone is mixed but always genuine. That is part of its charm.

Murray and Glazer & Sofia Coppola capture the ersatz exuberance of "the Christmas special of Christmases past" beautifully with the chic sparkling white set and snow and cute chorus girl costumes. George "you shook Sinatra's hand" Clooney is the perfect friend to be in the dream sequence. He also has enormous respect and nostalgia for old Hollywood and early TV, which can be easy to mock.

Quick Music Nit-Pick Interlude
Paul Shaffer, musician extraordinaire, allowed two goofs on his watch:

•Jenny Lewis starts "Good King Wenceslas" and commits the age-old error of reading the 3 syllables of his name as though he "last" did something.

It's "Good King Wen-ce-las looked out."  NOT "Good King Wence-las LAST looked out."

•Having Miley Cyrus sing 2 verses of "Silent Night" and then sing the first verse AGAIN instead of the exquisite third verse is a gaff. She did a beautiful job.

•One funny thing in 1957. They altered the words of the 2nd verse of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" so that they did not have to say "a Virgin's womb."

CHRIST, by highest Heav'n ador'd; CHRIST, the Everlasting Lord; Late in Time behold him come; Offspring of a Virgin's Womb the favored one.

Big Finish: We Wish You a Merry Christmas



Bill wakes up from his glorious blackout to find himself on the couch, in his robe, with faithful Paul at the piano and Dimitri Dimitrov on call. He sings "We wish you a Merry Christmas" in his alcohol-wrecked voice. Then looks out the window to wish the greeting to all New York in a poignant, sad, grey shot.

Bing and Frank end their tableau sitting down to a festive dinner together as the camera pans back to a window with snow a-swirling, a shot right out of Holiday Inn.

Big difference between 1957 and 2015. In part, perhaps, because men, and I do mean the male gender, are now free to show their fears in a way Crosby and Sinatra would never have dreamed of.  And 2015 does not have the post-war optimism that the 1950s saw.

But what is most important is that we can still enjoy Bing & Frank's talent, and if you're in more of a Joni Mitchell "River" mood, pop into Bill's Very Murray Christmas. So many riches. God bless us, every one.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Master Celtic Interpretation of "A Christmas Carol"



Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol was published as a novella on December 19, 1843, in London. For me, the 1951 Alistair Sim film version--released as Scrooge in the UK--is one of the most perfect realizations of literature to film ever created. 

Wiki lists more than 100 adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for theater, radio, opera, graphic novel, TV, and including at least 21 films, starting with a 1901 British silent. That number doesn’t include the parodies and homages, such as the numerous TV series that have a Christmas Carol episode (looking at you Bewitched and The Odd Couple). The AV Club has a good list. Everyone has their favorites: mine are Scrooged (yes, Bill Murray), and the Alastair Sim version, which tops the list for many generations of holiday viewers.

What is it that sets the Alastair Sim version produced and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst  apart from the rest?

Well, I’d say it’s because it is the perfect Celtic marriage: a Scottish actor and an Irish director. Seriously. The Celtic DNA knows how to deal with ghosts, tormented souls, and redemption like no other race, and they would have a particular affinity with the creative genius of their Anglo-Saxon cousin Dickens.

Ireland's Most Prolific Early Director
Brian Desmond Hurst was born in East Belfast in 1895 into a working-class family of iron workers. In 1914, he enlisted in the British Army and survived the slaughter at Gallipoli with the Royal Irish Rifles. He went to Hollywood in the late 1920s and it’s not surprising that he became friends with John Ford — some accounts said he was one of Ford’s assistants — and had a cameo alongside John Wayne in Hangman’s House (1928).

In 1933, he moved back to England, and the films he directed were steeped deeply in the Irish and English literary tradition: a version of John Millington Synge’s great play Riders to the Sea (1935), which he shot in Connemara with actors from the Abbey Theatre; Ourselves Alone (1936), a love story set against the Irish War of Independence (and the translation of Sinn Fein, a factoid I first learned from a Columbo episode!); and The Tenth Man (1936) based on the play by Somerset Maugham. In the 1940s, he directed several war films/re-creations, some would say propaganda, working with the Ministry of Information. One is A Letter from Ulster (1943), where "Hurst was able to persuade one Catholic and one Protestant soldier to write letters home, explaining their impressions of their stay." Another, Theirs Is the Glory (1946), was about the British forces in Operation Market Garden.

I don’t know how the job of directing and producing Scrooge, as it was released in Britain, fell to Hurst, but it was an inspired choice given his sensitivity to literature. And then his DNA kicked in.


An Ulster man grows up believing that the supernatural simply coexists with the natural world. Hurst in his own words: "I don’t remember very much about my mother because I was only 3½ when she died, but I remember running into the house one day and asking her for a biscuit. I was still dressed then as a little girl, because in Ulster we believed that the fairies only stole little boys, and didn’t want little girls." Sure, everyone knows that.

From Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight — where he wrote down "true tales" of ghosts and spirits and faeries as told to him by various people — to the Conor McPherson film The Eclipse, with Ciaran Hinds as a volunteer at a literary festival who is drawn to an English author who writes ghosts stories — Celtic culture simply abounds with the dead and the undead sharing all sorts of things. Hurst’s literary nature combined with his Irish sensibility helped create magic on screen. The film’s atmosphere is authentically creepy, treating the ghosts with respect, and then truly joyous, as we know the Irish can be.

Alastair as Ebenezer
The other part of the magic, of course, is in the person of Alastair Sim. He was born in Edinburgh in 1900 to a mother from the Inner Hebrides who only spoke Gaelic until she moved to the mainland in her teens. Need I say more about Sim’s understanding of the Celtic soul? Like Hurst, there wasn’t much in Sim’s earlier work that hinted at such a perfectly realized lead performance. He was the clichéd "character actor" in the 1930s, moving up to lead in B pictures in the '40s. After Scrooge, his fame was for portraying — in drag — the headmistress in two St. Trinian’s films.

Under Hurst’s direction, Sim gives the naturally nuanced performance of a lifetime. Every line reading sounds like extemporaneous, unscripted dialogue. Nothing is caricature, even the difficult "humbugs." His heart of stone at the beginning is perfectly cold and icy, with no hint of camp. His interview with Marley completely comfortable once he gets over the shock. Sim beautifully realizes every fiber of Ebenezer. The Dickensian-named Bosley Crowther, critic of The New York Times in the 1930s and '40s, summed it up like this:

In short, what we have in this rendition of Dickens' sometimes misunderstood Carol is an accurate comprehension of the agony of a shabby soul. And this is presented not only in the tortured aspects of Mr. Sim but in the phantasmagoric creation of a somber and chilly atmosphere."

It’s the final transformation, then, into the light, that I believe makes Sim’s good portrayal superlative.

Giddy for Us All
One of humanity’s deepest fears is that of missing out: missing out on love, on a career or a creative dream. It’s a harsh reality for everyone at some point. You accept the defeats small and large because you have to; as they say, "what can you do?" As Ebenezer slowly begins to see how mean he has become, he fears The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come — the Phantom — and his own death.

"How are you?" said one [man of business: very wealthy, and of great importance]
"How are you?" returned the other.
"Well!" said the first, "old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?"

And to underscore that Scrooge's soul is headed to Hell, Arthur Rackham's illustration of this exchange shows an enormous cloven-hoofed Satan looming behind the two businessmen, with his long fingers gesturing to Ebenezer. The Phantom then leads Scrooge to the cemetery and the great scene of Scrooge seeing his name on the tombstone.


"Spirit! he cried, tightly clutching his robe. "Hear me! I am not the man I was. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?"

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"

In his agony he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit stronger yet, repulsed him.

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reverse, he saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bed-post.

When Scrooge wakes up back in his bed, he’s thrilled but doesn’t know what day it is, how long the spirits have taken. When he learns that he hasn’t missed Christmas he is elated, light as a feather. He hasn’t missed it!!! The joy at being given another chance is like no other. (And, if you believe that what you “haven’t missed out on” is the eternal salvation of your soul, the elation gets kicked up a whole other notch). Sim’s Christmas Day giddiness is one of the great gifts to cinema. (And George C. Scott's attempt at giddiness is the most leaden of the variations.) If Scrooge can become that happy, than surely there is hope — for everyone.

Hurst rounds out the film with a great soundtrack. Music. Another thing the Irish know something about.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Giving Thanks for John Thaw and Inspector Morse

"People who do crosswords..... have blanks in their lives, and no clue how to fill them"  

Adele to Morse, Death Is Now My Neighbour



My inaction to get a flu shot in October lead to--or at least contributed to--enduring a terrible bout of influenza in November. Maybe not of the magnitude of the pandemic of 1918 that killed more people than battlefields of WWl  (Wiki says 50 to 100 million, or 3 to 5% of the world's population) but it felt as deadly.

To make matters worse, I needed to keep going into work, as many do. And so began 14 days of a weird, feverish stumbling about between waking periods in pain and discomfort, and unrestful sleeping periods, not always at night. Living in the fog of the flu is the closest to being a zombie that I ever wish to experience.

Within the fog I was searching for anything to help me feel better, including surfing channels hither and yon, when I stumbled across CUNY NYC that was playing the second half of Inspector Morse, "Fat Chance."

Morse. 

Endorphins immediately flooded my brain at the first sight of John Thaw. Here the world made sense: it was visually beautiful and aurally sublime.  There was strength of thought and mind, not weakness of body (well, not yet).

I watched the 1991 episode with Zoe Wanamaker about theology students who wish to enter the Anglican priesthood (Church of England approved ordination of women in 1992, and the first are ordained in 1994) entwined with complications from a diet pill, with the Mozart Laudate Dominum playing throughout. 

That half episode transported me to a place where I felt a little better, for a little bit of time. And to try to continue any sense of well-being I launched into 2 weeks of a Morse marathon, from the beginning, through all 33 episodes. 

I watched sequentially, but it felt like a mosaic of bits & pieces as I dozed off here and there with the flu fatigue.

"You never married?" "You never married?" "You never married?"

"No,  I didn't, why do you keep asking?" I snap to no one. 

Oh, the fog of the flu. They're not asking  me. In the early episodes of the series someone is always questioning Morse about this. His answer: "Too choosy, too hesitant, too lazy, too busy."  I can go with that.

As I burrow into each story,  I meet several old friends. They are all so young, I first recognize their voices, and then the facial recognition snaps it. 



It's the 9th Doctor! (1991 Second Time Around)


It's Doc Martin! (1992 Happy Families)



It's Chief Superintendent Foyle! (1992 The Death of the Self)


It's Boromir! I mean Ned Stark! (1992: Absolution Conviction)

I knew none of these actors when I first watched Inspector Morse, back in the 90s. It was appointment TV for me, as for many.  You knew it was going to be a special series from its first distinctive opening sequence of The Dead of Jericho: glimpses of disparate scenes, which didn't yet make sense, intercut with black title cards, usually to the strains of some soaring piece of classical music.

The music was the most breathtaking for me. I had recently started singing with a choir and learning much of the basic choral repertoire.

Scene up on The Dead of Jericho, and we hear Vivaldi's Gloria.  It's actually very funny, given the later swipes that Morse will take at the piece, putting it down, particularly in relation to the greatness of Wagner.

There is lots of Wagner during the series.  Lots & lots of Mozart, Brahms, more Mozart, the cascades of the Allegri Miserere (years before it was overused).

No other episodic series has ever used classical music with such conviction of its worth, and implicitly, its ability to connect to wide audience.

There series is also imbued with poetry and poetic references of all kinds.  The one that jumped out at me was in "The Last Enemy"  when "the guy" [as Monk would said] is in hospital, and from his bed starts in with:

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
 I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
 I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
  Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
   I hid from Him, 

It is the very distinct opening of Francis Thompson's feverish "The Hound of Heaven."  (Well. everything Thompson wrote was feverish, as is wont for a Jack the Ripper suspect.)

Morse then jumps in with the end of the first stanza.

But with unhurrying chase, 
And unperturbèd pace, 
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, 
They beat--and a Voice beat 
More instant than the Feet-- 
'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.'


Ok. Maybe.  Then the guy continues

"Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds 
From the hid battlements of Eternity"

and finishes with couplets that actually come a little earlier, and is not the end of the poem:

My days have crackled and gone up in smoke, 
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream. 
Yea, faileth now even dream 
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;  

"The Hound of Heaven" is a very long poem. I fear that gone are the days when people committed stanza upon stanza to memory. But the series committed to poetry as deeply as it did to classical music.

The distinct cinematography and Barrington Pheloung's whistful, witty, haunting, Morse Code-influenced theme music, that beautiful Jaguar sliding through the canyons and exquisite spires of Oxford are all compelling, but the real draw are John Thaw and Kevin Whately.  

Thaw inhabits Morse with enormous authenticity: the misanthrope who accepts being alone, but continues to try to connect with women. The lover of logic and rules and law, who finds some release for his emotion in music. Who loves crossword puzzles (the Brit kind, not the simpler US type that I do) and good ale to a startling degree. 

And at his side, Whately's epitome of the "comfortable in me skin" man. Genuinely baffled by much of Morse, but drawn to the talent and a shared love of the rule of law.

Their work marriage--both the characters and the actors--is a joy to experience. 

In between watching episodes I was reading 30 years of articles on the series.  When the Blue-Ray 25th anniversary came out lots more articles were written, now with lots of comments.  One sentiment that I saw over and over was "I can't watch 'The Remorseful Day' again."  That is the episode where Endeavour Morse dies, set beautifully to the strains of the Faure Requiem.  I hadn't thought of it in years.

When my own marathon brought me to that point in the story, I thought I was ready. But my fellow fans were right.  It was terrible to watch again, to lose that special character again. My congested chest started heaving amongst deep sobs drowning out "Libera me Dominum . . ."

I knew what I had to do.  

A few clicks of the fingers, and Morse is back creating havoc trying to get his Jaguar fixed at the closed garage, set against the cheery Vivaldi's Gloria, intercut with a choir room rehearsal of Parry's "My Soul, There is a Country," until Morse slips into his front-row seat in the choir, and the story is off and running. All the sorrow of "The Remorseful Day" is gone, and I can visit Oxford again now whenever I want, outside of the fog of the flu. 





Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Orson Welles's War of the Worlds: First-hand Accounts from Steve Allen, John Houseman, and Howard Koch

'Twas the night before Halloween, 79 years ago in 1938, and America experienced a collective reaction to a media phenomenon—not unlike news flashes we now experience on Twitter—except the reaction was in "real life," not virtual.

They had been listening to the radio, surfing around the dial, when they alit on Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" broadcast on his radio series, Mercury Theater on the Air. The thing is many people didn't hear the program from the beginning, when it was announced that it was the weekly fictional adaptation of literature, this week was from H.G. Wells. Instead they came in to some orchestra band music playing, which was interrupted by news bulletins of an alien invasion of Martians in Grover's Mills, New Jersey.

The bulletins were so authentic sounding, and on the esteemed CBS broadcasting network, that people believed the outrageous claims.

I had the happy privilege of editing a catalogue about Orson Welles for the then-Museum of Broadcasting in 1988: we convinced Steve Allen to tell his own story about that night and got a great description of what it was like to be "victimized" by the broadcast when he was 17; interviewed John Houseman about it; commissioned a recollection from Howard Koch who wrote the radio adaptation (and great films like Casablanca); and reprinted Dorothy Thompson's brilliant article for the Herald Tribune, "Mr. Welles and Mass Delusion." The catalogue is sadly out of print, but below I offer juicy chunks of it.

Steve Allen: The End of the World, and High Time

In was in the year of our Lord 1938—the last year, I briefly thought, that the Lord was to vouchsafe to us—that my mother, my Aunt Margaret, and I (along with several million other Americans), went through an experience that not many will ever be privileged to share. We were on hand when the world came to an end.

The occasion was the famous Orson Welles "War of the World" broadcast. I have never before told the story of my own response to that broadcast, because I have seen the reaction of those who were not victimized by Welles to those who were. It is the standard reaction of the level-headed citizen to the crackpot. In my own defense, and in that of all the other crackpots who went squawking off into that unforgettable night like startled chickens, a word of explanation. Admittedly anyone who heard the entire Welles broadcast from beginning to end and believed a word of it should be under observation. Unfortunately millions did not have the opportunity. For various reasons a great many people did not hear the first few minutes. If some of these were in the mood for dance music, they accepted what a randomly discovered orchestra was playing, lighted cigarettes, or picked up magazines and settled back to listen.

In a room on the eighth floor of the Hotel Raleigh, an ancient and run-down hostelry on Chicago's Near North Side that was our home that year, I was lying on the floor reading a schoolbook. Feeling in the mood for background music, I turned on our radio, fiddled with the dial until I heard dance music, and returned to my book. In the adjoining room Aunt Margaret and my mother were playing cards.

After a moment the music was interrupted by a special "flash" from the CBS News Department—the authenticity of which there was not the slightest reason to doubt—to the effect that from his observatory a scientist had just detected a series of mysterious explosions of a gaseous nature on the planet Mars. After this fascinating bit of intelligence, the announcer said, "And now we return you to the program in progress," and music was heard once more.

There soon followed a series of news items, each more exciting than it predecessor, revealing that the strange explosions on Mars had caused a downpour of meteors in the general area of Princeton, New Jersey. One of them in crashing to the earth had cause the death of several hundred people. CBS at once dispatched a crew to the scene, and it was not long before firsthand reports began coming in.

With disbelief rising in his throat, a special events man on the scene near Princeton reported that one of the Martian meteors appeared to be no meteor at all, but some sort of spaceship. The National Guard had roped off the area, allowing no one near the gargantuan hulk.

By this time my mother and Aunt Mag were huddled around the speaker, wide-eyed. The contents of the news broadcast were inherently unbelievable, and yet we had it on the authority of the Columbia Broadcasting System that such things were actually happening.

But if our credulity had been strained up to now, it had yet to face the acid test. The network next presented an army officer who made a dignified plea for calm, stating that the National Guard and the New Jersey police had the situation completely in hand. The network interrupted his sermon with another report from the scene, frankly emotional in nature, which confirmed the suspicions that there might be life of some kind inside one of the rockets. The description of grotesque monsters by this time seemed in no detail too fantastic. Their slavering mouths, jellylike eyes, and the devastating fire they directed toward the soldiers who dared stand and face them were all minor details, no longer clear in my mind.

The National Guard troops dispatched to the scene were massacred almost at once by the hug interplanetary invaders (there were several of them now, for other ships were landing) and in the confusion of the battle the network's facilities were impaired and its man-on-the-spot was cut off in midsentence.

CBS, however, was equal to the occasion. Civic and government spokesmen were rushed to microphones; dutifully—and ineffectually, as it turned out—they instructed the populace not to panic. An airplane was set up over the troubled area, and the network continued with its blow-by-blow description.

My mother, my aunt, and I looked at each other, not knowing what to say.

"Why do you think we ought to do," I said.

"There's only one thing to do," my mother responded. We can all go over to church and wait there to see what happens," She referred to the Holy Name Cathedral, not many blocks from our hotel.

Just then we heard the word "Chicago" on the radio. "More spaceships have been reported over Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago."

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Aunt Mag shouted, "We'll be killed right here in this hotel. Let's get out of here."

"You're right," Mother said, "We'll go over to the church."

I was putting on my coat, still too shocked to say much. Oddly enough, and this I recall quite clearly, my predominant emotion was not fear, but blank stupefication. I remember saying "Gosh," idiotically, over and over, and frowning and shaking my head from side to side. I couldn't believe it, and yet I had to, on the basis of years of conditioning. CBS had never lied to me before.

Aunt Mag was still fluttering around the room. The door was now ajar, but she was like a bird that , with its cage opened, doesn't know just where to fly.

"Are you all right," my mother asked me.

"Gosh," I said resourcefully, and we headed for the door. By this time people all over the nation were having similar reactions. Many stayed glued to their radios and heard the reassuring conclusion to the program, but millions, like us, rushed off wildly. Police stations, newspapers, and churches were badly shaken by the first wave of frightened, fleeing citizens.

My mother and aunt ran down the hall. I followed at a slower pace, not because I was trying to maintain a shred of discretion, but because I was too stunned to move with speed. Rounding a corner we burst upon a dignified-looking young woman holding a little girl in her arms.

"Run for your life!" my mother cried at the woman. She looked at her with no expression whatsoever.

"Pick up your child and come with us!" Aunt Mag shouted, wild-eyed. The woman paused a moment and then laughed right in her face.

Mag was outraged. "Oh, yes, " she sputtered with withering sarcasm. "Go ahead and laugh! But for the sake of that dear baby in your arms don't you laugh. You ought to get down on your knees," she shouted like a complete nut, "instead of laughing at people. We're going to church to pray, and that's what you ought to be doing right now this minute, praying!"

We were now at the elevator.

"Hurry up and take us down," my mother gasped. "They're up in the sky."

"Who is?" asked the young elevator operator, aghast.

"How do we know who it is," my aunt shouted. "But you'd better get out of this hotel right now while you've still got the chance."

"Yes ma'am. What did you say the matter was?"

"They're up in the sky!" she repeated. "Haven't you been listening to the radio?"

"No, ma'am."

"Well, you'd better do something, let me tell you. The radio just said they're up over Chicago, so you'd better run for your life."

I am sure that if the elevator operator had been convinced that an interplanetary invasion was underway, he would have faced the challenge as bravely as the next man. But instead he apparently concentrated on the idea that he was cooped up in a tiny cubicle with three dangerous lunatics. Fortunately for his nervous system, we arrived at the main floor; he yanked the door release and shrank against the back wall as we thundered past him into the lobby.

Though we had been met with icy disbelief twice in quick succession, we were ill-prepared for the sight that now greeted us. The lobby, which we had expected to find in turmoil, was a scene of lobby-like calm. Nowhere was there evidence of the panic we had come to accept as the norm in a few short minutes.

The elevator man peered after us from what was now the safety of his cage as we raced to confront the blase desk clerk. "Is something wrong?"

"Well," said my aunt with a contemptuous sneer, "it's the end of the world, that's all that's wrong."

I started to explain that on the radio—and then in some clear, calm corner of my mind I heard something. It was a radio, making soft sounds in a corner of the lobby, and the sounds were not the sort a radio would make at a time of worldwide crisis.

A wave of shock passed through me, as, in the instant, I saw things as they really were. Turning to my mother, I began speaking very fast, explaining exactly what had happened. For a split second she wavered, and then for her, too, the ice broke.

Light, followed by painful embarrassment, dawned on Aunt Mag. Like bewildered sheep we retreated, excruciatingly aware that all heads were turned toward us, that the clerk was smiling at us in a frightfully patronizing way, and that never again would we be able to walk through the lobby without casting our eyes to the floor.

John Houseman: The Show's Producer


Q: You wrote in you book Run-Through about "The War of the Worlds" that there were factors why you thought people were so frightened.

Houseman: Whole books have been written about it. The factor I mentioned was the timing. The timing in the sense we had just had the Munich crisis. At that time, for the first time in the history of the world, people found that the medium from which they got their news more quickly and completely than newspapers was radio. So it was a time when "the box" had suddenly become very important and very vital in the life of the country. And, with Munich just over, there was a general air of fear and panic and a feeling of doom, and a sense that war, international war, was inevitable. So people were pretty well primed for this latest catastrophe. If our broadcast had happened before before Munich I don't know that it would have had the same effect.

Q: Did Campbell's Soup become your sponsor after WOTW?

Houseman: Not immediately. The immediate effect was that we thought we were going to be fired. Nobody was at all sure how they felt about us. We were heroes and we were also a disgrace. They couldn't make up their minds. I know I had interviews with Mr. Paley and Mr. Stanton. Somewhere in the back of their minds they thought maybe this would turn out for the good. Which indeed it did when Campbell's Soup decided that if we could sell the Martians we could sell chicken soup.So we became the Campbell Playhouse. As a result we all, especially, Orson made more money, but it wasn't as much fun.

Q: What made Orson Welles so unique?

In general my whole theory about him has always been that while Welles was a very effective actor and a brilliant director, first and last he was a magician. If you examine all his best work, including Citizen Kane, you'll find that what he was really doing was a magic act. That was true of his Julius Caesar and when he did Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. He was at his best when he had very strong material which he could develop and enrich as a magician.

Howard Koch: The Man Who Wrote the Script


My friendship with Orson began in the late thirties when I wrote the weekly radio plays for his and John Houseman's Mercury Theater on the Air on CBS. While many of us contributed to the broadcasts in our various ways, it was Orson's charismatic personality which gave them their distinction and popularity. He played the leads, directed the shows, and with Houseman's collaboration, selected what was to be done and how it was to be done.

It was Houseman who gave me the job—and job it was—of sixty or so pages to be written every week.The pay was the magnificent sum of $75 (raised to $125 after "The War of the Worlds"), but the experience was worth more than any salary.

When I wrote my first of the radio plays—a real-life saga of misadventures in the Arctic called Hell on Ice—I still had not met Orson and was not all certain of my tenure on the program. The day it was finished I got a call to come to his office. My first impression of him was one of size: he seemed to fill the room. His gaze was penetrating, more than a look—it was also an appraisal. There was scarcely any introduction, Orson having little time or patience for the amenities. In his hands he had my opened script and read aloud a line from one of the scenes, a poetic image that could be visualized by a radio audience. His question was right to the point: "Is that a quote or is it your own line?" When I said I had written it, he made no comment but I knew I was in, that Houseman's selection had been confirmed.

For my third assignment I was handed a copy of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, with instruction from Orson to dramatize the whole first section in news bulletin form and to make it contemporary. I rebelled. Written the way he wanted it meant practically a new story with only the idea of the invasion and a description of the Martian machines and weapons that could be used from the Wells material. In six days! I urged them to substitute a story by a friend of mine, but Orson was adamant. It was a race to the deadline with Houseman going back and forth from my apartment to the studio with whatever number of pages I had ready. The final pages went down just before broadcast.

To what extent Orson anticipated the public reaction to that broadcast neither I nor anyone else will ever know. The news photo which appeared in the press the next morning picturing a man overcome with remorse and contrition was not altogether convincing. Later than morning I was in the theater where the press conference had just been held when I was Orson coming out of one door and Houseman another, exchanging a congratulatory gesture which spoke volumes.

In a way, I was one of the victims. They had tried to reach me during the night to alert me to what was happening, but I was dead to the world, too exhausted to hear the phone. The next morning I went for a hair cut. Walking from my apartment down West 72nd street, I overheard ominous bits of excited conversations with such words as 'war" and "invasion" in the air. I rushed into the barbershop, "Has Hitler attacked? Are we at war or something?" The barber laughed and held up a morning paper with the headline: "Martian Invasion Broadcast Panics Nation." That was a moment I will never forget.

For the next several days it was an open question whether we would come out of the affair as heroes or villains. Police had stormed into the studio and, over Orson's protest, confiscated all the scripts they could find. Fortunately my working script, from which copies could be made, was safe in my apartment. Gradually the tide of public opinion turned in our favor, largely through an article by Dorothy Thompson, then a very influential columnist, in which she wrote that we had done the country a favor by alerting the people to the dangers of panic should a real enemy ever attack.

During the next month lawsuits were brought against Mercury and CBS by people claiming they had suffered injuries as a result of the broadcast, but none ever got to court. Although there were many minor accidents reported in the mass flight from the fictional Martians, we were relieved by the fact that there was no proof of an actual death. The American sense of humor eventually asserted itself in the many accounts of amusing incidents that have become part of the history of the event.

The "Panic Broadcast" as it was referred to at the time changed the course of our lives. After several months I left the program to become a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, and when the program ended, Orson and Houseman left for Hollywood where Orson directed Citizen Kane. he and Houseman parted ways, and that seemed to mark a turning point in Orson's career. I hope I do neither of them an injustice when I say that I feel Houseman was the base on which Orson's statue was erected. From the time they separated, Orson lived more the life of a celebrity than that of an artist.



Dorothy Thompson: Mr. Welles and Mass Delusion. New York Herald Tribute, November 2, 1938

"All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time. They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.

They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery.

They have cast a brilliant and cruel light upon the failure of popular education.

They have shown up the incredible stupidity, lack of nerve and ignorance of thousands.

They have proved how easy it is to start a mass delusion.

They have uncovered the primeval fears lying under the thinnest surface of the so-called civilized man.

They have shown that man, when the victim of his own gullibility, turns to the government to protect him against his own errors of judgment.

The newspapers are correct in playing up this story over every other news event in the world. It is the story of the century.

And far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important contribution to the social sciences. For Mr. Orson Welles and his theater have made a greater contribution to an understanding of Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism and all other terrorisms of our times than all the words about them that have been written by reasonable men. They have made the reductio ad absurdum of mass manias. They have thrown more light on recent events in Europe leading to the Munich Pact than everything that has been said on the subject by all the journalists and commentators.

Hitler managed to scare all Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words.

But Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all.

(snip)

If people can be frightened out of their wits by mythical men from Mars, they can be frightened into fanaticism by the fear of Reds, or convinced that America is in the hands of sixty families, or aroused to revenge against any minority, or terrorized into subservience to leadership because of any imaginable menace.

The technique of modern mass politics calling itself democracy is to create a fear – a fear of economic royalists, or of Reds, or of Jews, or of starvation, or of an outside enemy – and exploit that fear into obtaining subservience in return for protection. I wrote this column a short time ago that the new warfare was waged by propaganda, the outcome depending on which side could first frighten the other to death.

The British people were frightened into obedience to a policy a few weeks ago by a radio speech and by digging a few trenches in Hyde Park, and afterward led to hysterical jubilation over a catastrophic defeat for their democracy.

But Mr. Welles went all the politicians one better. He made the scare to end all scares, the menace to end menaces, the unreason to end unreason, the perfect demonstration that the danger is not from Mars by from the theatrical demagogue."

(Entire article transcribed here)

Postscript
Much has happened since this much ado from the original bad boys of media, Orson Welles and John Houseman, including the full Hollywood treatment of The War of the Worlds by no less than Tom Cruse and Steven Spielberg. Subsequent research has claimed that the panic wasn't as widespread or active as has gone into legend, but certainly many people felt "lied to" because of the early verisimilitude of the news bulletins.

For me, it was a thrilling scare from a lot of very talented people. The perfect gift for Halloween.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Kairos in Croatia, aka Carpe Diem, Trogir-Style

Left: Trogir, Croatia, Town Hall. Bas relief of Croatian hero, Petar Berislavić sculpted by  Ivan Meštrović. Right: Full-size bronze statue of Ivan Meštrović sculpted by American Malvina Hoffman.

I spent the week of Labor Day in the extraordinary country of Croatia, where history lives in layers and layers and layers.  And to these ancient layers I experienced current day, living layers of history that felt so dense I found it hard to think about, hard to write about when I got home. The trip was another in the series of "sing Renaissance polyphony and see the world."  I met up with a an international group of singers, brought together by an Englishman who runs Lacock Courses, in Trogir for a week of rehearsals, followed by a free concert in the famous St. Lawrence Cathedral.

When I got back to Gotham I found myself in the Brooklyn Museum, where I had not been in more than a decade, because a niece has moved into Brooklyn, right down the block.

It is a particularly wonderful museum. One exceptional feature is the Visible Storage on the 5th floor, where you can wonder amongst lots of the collection in storage while not on display. The space has a magical feel to it, like you have passed through some secret panel at the back of a closet into a realm of secret treasures.

The treasures are behind glass--that is how they store them. But in the middle of it all was a large-as life piece of sculpture. Because of the hand gesture I first thought it was Shakespearian of some sort. But the tag identified the figure as

Ivan Meštrović.

A month ago that would not have meant anything. But I now know that he is one of the master sculptors of the 20th century. And Croatian. And I have pictures of his work in Trogir. See photo above.

WHAT ARE THE ODDS?

Kairos Among the Winding Streets

Trogir was named a UNESCO Heritage site in 1997:

Because of the continuity of of its settlements since Ancient Greece. It is the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex not only in the Adriatic, but in all of Central Europe. Trogir's medieval core, surrounded by walls, comprises a preserved castle and tower and a series of dwellings and palaces from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Even a cursory synopsis of its history (courtesy Wiki) is dense:

Trogir was founded by Greeks 3 BC.  In the 9th century there were Croatian rulers, then 1123 it was nearly completely demolished by the Saracens. But the people rebound, and prosper. 1420 they are ruled by Venice, until its fall in 1797, when Trogir becomes part of the Hapsburg Empire, which ruled until 1918 (except for the French Occupation of 1806 to 1814). After WWI Trogir, along with Croatia, gets subsumed into Yugoslavia. During WWII it was occupied by Italy until 1944, when it was subsumed into second Yugoslavia. Croatia declared independence in 1991 and when the fighting stopped in`1995, it was a sovereign nation.


One of the city's treasures is a bas relief of Kairos, from the 3rd century BC.

Kairos is the god "of the moment" of the "fleeting opportunity."

He is an embodiment of the idea of Carpe Diem, from Horace's Odes. And he is almost a symbol of the city, you can find his likeness on every conceivable souvenir.

The poet Posidippos explained the iconography of the figure:

"He walks on tiptoe with wings on his feet because he's always in a hurry; clutches a razor because he is sharper than the tips of a knife; he has a tuft of hair over his forehead but he's bald in the back because people must grab him as they approach. Once he's gone by, it is too late."

And because of the layers of Trogir, this very important Hellenistic treasure is in the Benedictine monastery of St. Nicholas. I loved learning of this impish Greek god, the embodiment of the most human of desires to not miss out, and to see it everywhere in this ancient town.

Trogir is small, with narrow winding streets. I found it a little claustrophobic, and was very glad to be staying across the bridge, where there was more space, more air.

The church of St. Peter, where we had rehearsal each day.
The view of the walled city of Trogir from my B&B in  Ciovo, across the bridge

The Kamerlengo Fortress Castle, at the end of the town
Night in the Trogir town square


The Modern Layers Amidst the Ancient Stones 
As I wandered about this intriguing Eastern European nation, I was conscious of a complex intersection of current and recent tragedies. 

The exodus from Syria, which has been going on for years,  hit a new critical point the end of August/beginning of September. The coverage was wall-to-wall on BBC.  The enormity of the suffering, the impotence of "Europe" to deal with it, were juxtaposed for me with holiday makers of every nationality on the beautiful island that is Trogir.  For the most part, my fellow vacationers looked like the solid middle class trying to enjoy its measured time away from work.  And then the enormous yachts came in. . . . 

Burning Man 2015 paralleled my Croatian sojourn, Aug. 30 to Sept. 7.  70,000 + people choosing to wonder in the desert of Nevada, searching for creativity amidst the harsh conditions of the Playa,  paralleled 100,000 + immigrants in various deserts facing daily, literal,  life and deaths situations.  The two extreme ends of the human condition weighed upon my heart.

Hope in the Turmoil of Tudor England: This was the theme of the week, devised by Patrick Craig, an English countertenor superstar.  He has an extraordinary talent to bring the historical context that music is written in to life and  is the most empathetic person I have ever met.

Patrick described--from his imagination--what it might have been like for Catholics during the English Religious Wars (I'm paraphrasing): 'So you are having your Mass at home, because the government will not allow you to worship how you wish. If there is a knock on the door--because you have been ratted out---everyone in the room would have a job: you scoop the Bible & the chalice into a basket, you help the priest into the "priest hole," you hide any music. And the music itself, from the genius of Byrd, reflected a depth of conviction combined with a frisson of people under constant siege." And most poignant of all to me: Patrick isn't Catholic.

*14 year anniversary of 9/11: This was the first 9/11 I have not be at home, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It happened that the free concert the group was giving in the town's St. Lawrence Cathedral was on Sept. 11. And it happened that the dress rehearsal was at 3:00pm, which is 9:00am New York time.  And it happened that the first piece we rehearsed was a setting of the Lord's Prayer by John Sheppard.  So it happened that at 9:03 am NY time I was singing, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them which trespass against us." No one ever said Christianity is easy.  And then I was more than happy to sing "but deliver us from evil . . . "

8:46 first plane hit North Tower; 9:03 second plane hit South Tower; 9:37 Pentagon hit; 9:59 South Tower falls; 10:03 Shanksville; 10:29 North Tower Falls.

The concert on September 11, 2015 in St. Lawrence Cathedral, Trogir. 


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sing Polyphony & See the World. But not Cuba.




September 19, 2015: I'm watching Pope Francis arrive in Cuba, in advance of this visit to the US. I tried to go to Cuba 3 years ago, shortly after Pope Benedict visited, to sing in one of the polyphony courses I do around the world.  It was an idea before its time: the US Department of the Treasury wasn't having it. 

Here is my non-travel tale from 2012:


-->
Cuba: the Pope [Benedict] didn’t have a problem getting into the country, but this lowly American alto couldn’t make it happen.

This tale of non-travel amidst my usual travelogues begins late last year when I learned of a thrilling opportunity to sing polyphony in Cuba, at an international workshop organized by Andrew Van Der Beek, who lives in England and runs the Lacock courses in Europe.

The course is in Havana, under the direction of the Spanish conductor Carlos Aransay, starting on Palm Sunday April 1 and ending with a FREE concert in the main cathedral on Holy Saturday on the 7th.

Here is the course description:
 “A week for singers of all ages and nationalities in the historic centre of Cuba's capital city. The course will be directed in English and Spanish, and will end with a public performance in Havana cathedral. The general aim is to explore Cuba's musical heritage with a leading specialist conductor, in a relaxed and convivial setting.

"Our concert will be in Havana cathedral on Holy Saturday, so we begin with Alonso Lobo's Lamentationes Sabbati Sancti, one of the most sublime and vibrant settings of these powerful texts. The year 2012 is an important one for Cuba: the 400th anniversary of the apparition of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint and dedicatee of the church where we will be rehearsing. We will commemorate the event with two hymns to the Virgin: Ave Maria by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), one of the most beautiful settings I have come across, widely performed in Latin America; and Salve Regina by William Byrd, the five-part setting. Early English choral music is virtually unknown in Cuba, and this is just stunning with its canons and quick ascending scales.”

Wow. Choir nerd heaven. (I had no idea that the Pope would be in Havana just days before the course started.)

The wrinkle for me is that Americans cannot travel independently to Cuba because of the economic sanctions enacted 60 years ago. President Obama relaxed some of the restrictions in Jan. 2011, allowing for some travel under very specific, spelled-out provisions that are in keeping with “U.S. policy.”

And so I began my saga to try to attend this workshop.

Rest Easy: Our Wire Transfer Officers Are Very Alert

The first indication that this was not going to be easy was when I tried to wire the down payment for the course to Andrew. I was wiring the money from Chase, and I had put in the note “Havana” because I was registering at the same time for a second course Andrew is running, in Italy, and I wanted him to be able to distinguish the two down payments.

Now, I knew that I would have to apply for a license to travel to Cuba, which was going to be my next step, when my bank Chase called to basically say they had confiscated my $234 dollars, which they could neither pay to the beneficiary (Andrew) nor return to me unless I got a license from the Treasury department. They followed up with this email:

Please be advised JPMorgan Chase is required under the U.S. Treasury dept. Asset Control regulations to hold wire transfer funds USD $236.50 due to the reference Cuba . This reference may be associated with Cuban Sanctions. The funds are now in a JPMorgan Chase Blocked funds account. Chase cannot release the funds to the beneficiary nor can we return the funds back to you unless you obtain a license from the Treasury office. In order to obtain this license you should apply to the following address or website.

All triggered just because I put “Havana” in the notation. Comforting to know that Chase officers are not asleep at the wheel. But I was still surprised, because I was paying pounds sterling to an Englishman in England! Not much supporting of Communism in that.

Licensed to Travel

An American needs to apply for a “license” to travel to Cuba from the Treasury Dept., the Office of Foreign Assets Control to be specific—not the State Department—because the policy sanctions against Cuba are specifically economic.

The T-Dept. has a good website that spells out the sanctions, and spells out what provisions you can apply to travel under. There is a general license, and they specific provisions.

I applied under “31 CFR § 515.567 Public Performances, Athletic and Other Competitions, and Exhibitions,” which seemed to be dead-on for my situation.

“You may request a specific license authorizing certain travel-related and additional transactions incident to participation in a public performance, clinic, workshop, athletic or other competition, or exhibition in Cuba. The event must be open for attendance and, in relevant situations, participation by the Cuban public.”

The provision even specifies a workshop. And the course has a free concert, which some students from a local conservatory will participate in. I expected a slam dunk approval.
Instead, my application to travel to Cuba for this workshop was denied because the performance provision does not “contemplate” the specificity of this international workshop.

(Side note, “contemplate” is a very active verb for a provision. Who knew our government was such a fan of personification.)

Such is the downside of bureaucracy: it leaves no room for common sense interpretation.

I know that an international workshop of singers who are not in any sort of permanent group is not specified in the provision, but the spirit of this activity is absolutely within the spirit of the provision.
I felt so strongly that my request was actually within “U.S. policy” I appealed my rejection. There is no formal actual appeal, you just reapply again, and try to emphasize anything that will show that your request fits within the provision. In the appeal I played up being a Roman Catholic, going to sing a FREE concert on HOLY SATURDAY, for my fellow Catholics in Havana.

I made that new application on December 27, and three months later they still had not made a determination, which basically ran out the clock on me.

I respect that there are national interest situations that put the good of the country above the individual’s rights and liberties. And so I didn't go.

I am glad that my European musician friends will be in Havana next week, bringing the sublime music of polyphony alive amid the ancient stones of the Cuban capital cathedral.

Up next for me: Petitioning to to get my confiscated funds back. A least there’s a specific form on the OFAC website to apply. Bureaucracy at its most efficient when you need it.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Leaving for the Land Where "Games of Thrones" & "Doctor Who" Film: aka, Croatia


I leave tomorrow for an end-of-summer,  Labor Day weekend vacation. Destination: Croatia. Trogir, to be exact. The entire island is an UNESCO heritage site.

Why write new, when you can just quote Wiki:

Trogir has 2300 years of continuous urban tradition. Its culture was created under the influence of the ancient Greeks, and then the Romans, and Venetians. Trogir has a high concentration of palaces, churches, and towers, as well as a fortress on a small island, and in 1997 was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List. "The orthogonal street plan of this island settlement dates back to the Hellenistic period and it was embellished by successive rulers with many fine public and domestic buildings and fortifications. Its beautiful Romanesque churches are complemented by the outstanding Renaissance and Baroque buildings from the Venetian period", says the UNESCO report.
Trogir is the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex not only in the Adriatic, but in all of Central Europe. Trogir's medieval core, surrounded by walls, comprises a preserved castle and tower and a series of dwellings and palaces from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods. Trogir's grandest building is the church of St. Lawrence, whose main west portal is a masterpiece byRadovan, and the most significant work of the Romanesque-Gothic style in Croatia.

Pretty amazing, yes?
I am drawn there by the prospect of a Renaissance Polyphony workshop, lead by the extraordinary Patrick Craig.  The music and theme of the week he has chosen: "Hope Amidst Turmoil in Tudor England," with brilliant compositions by the usual suspects: Tye; Sheppard; Taverner; Morely; Weelkes; Tompkins; and my favorite: Byrd. Whom we Catholics claim as our own, though scholarship has placed him on various sides of the Reformation divide through the years.

After a week of rehearsal, we will give a free concert of this extraordinary music in the famous St. Lawrence Cathedral. Anyone in the neighborhood, please come by.

And as fate would have it: that concert is on 9/11. This is the first 9/11, I will not be home. And so for that day, I again offer my own witness.

If I have to be anywhere other than NYC on this most New York City of all days, giving a free concert in an Eastern European city that has known great strife and sadness itself seems like a good place to be.
And now for the pop cultural conundrum: Game of Thrones films in Split (nearby to Trogir), and there is a now a tour: "Get a behind-the-scenes look at the hit HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’ on this 3.5-hour tour of the show’s filming locations in Split. Hear insider gossip about the series, see where Daenerys Targaryen plotted her return to power, and creep around the cellars where the slaves conspired with the Unsullied Army to overthrow the masters."

Now, I don't watch Game of Thrones. But, it's unlikely I'll ever be back in the region. So, do I find time to take that tour? More importantly, I'm hoping to stumble on some of the streets from Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor in Trogir. 
Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor, recreating Van Gogh paintings in Trogir

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