Posted in Baseball

Bush League

An image of Major League Baseball hall of fame...
Teddy Ballgame, a Real Champ

No, I’m not referring to George H.W. or to George W. Nor to the baked bean folks. I’m looking straight at you, Jose Reyes, along with your tin ear manager, Terry Collins, for the bush league shenanigans that happened the other day at Citifield on the occasion of the Mets’ last game of the season.

OK, Jose, we know you were vying for the National League batting title, and that you and Ryan Braun of the Brewers had averages that were only a few one hundred-thousandths apart. And yeah, Braun sat a game or two out during the final week to better his chances of winning the title. But that in no way gave you license to leave the game immediately after your first at-bat, when you reached first on a bunt single.

Braun is signed to a long-term contract. Reyes’ contract expired at the end of the regular season, and Wednesday, September 28th, probably marked his last game in a Met uniform. The fans knew it, and those in attendance came to cheer Reyes and give him his due. Instead he bailed after one at-bat, without ceremony of any kind. He later topped it off by stating that “the fans need to understand,” i.e., they needed to let him be selfish and back into the batting title by coming out of the game (For the record, if Braun had gone 3 for 4 in his last game, which he has done a number of times this season, the championship would have been his. Unfortunately he took an oh-fer).

I was watching that game on TV, and the boys in the booth, especially Keith Hernandez, went ballistic. Reference was made to Ted Williams, who could have opted to sit on the bench for the last day of the 1941 season in order to preserve his .400 average. Instead Teddy Ballgame insisted on playing a double-header in which he went 6 for 8, finishing at his immortal .406. Keith went so far as to say Reyes ‘ coming out of the game at that point was an example of “what’s wrong with people today,” and quite honestly, I agree. Several days before this, Reyes refused to hang in at second and muffed a double play, contributing to a Mets loss. Yes, what else is new, but his gingerly play for the last month to avoid injury and cop his “Carl Crawford money” is in essence throwing sand in the fans’ faces. Yes, Jose–we know you’re leaving, and at this point I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.

Ron Darling’s solution to the last game vs. batting title dilemma was a logical one: Manager Terry Collins should have kept Reyes in the game after his bunt single, had him take the field for the top of the second inning, and then sent his replacement in. This way the fans would have had a chance to acknowledge Reyes’ contribution to the team and he could have doffed his cap and strolled off the field in a champ’s exit. Instead he, Terry Collins and the Mets all colluded to look lousy and to deprive the fans of their due.

Speaking of lousy, the Red Sox would be crazy to fire Terry Francona as their manager. Far better to give him a vote of confidence and clean house by getting rid of malcontents.

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Posted in Movie Reviews

Horror in Sunlight

I have a confession to make: I run from horror movies. Ever since I was a kid I’ve had a tendency to hide behind whatever’s handiest when the shrieks start sounding and the blood starts flowing. Despite all that, I’m glad the New York Times recently did an article on what scares even the horrormeisters, because director Joe Cornish mentioned a very fine Australian film from 1975, “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” which ranks way up there for me on the terror scale. To this day, the sound of pan pipes makes me shudder.

Unlike “The Exorcist”, which was the majority choice for scariest film among the Times interviewees, “Picnic” shows nothing. It’s all indirection and suggestion, and the girls and their teacher disappear in broad daylight. Nothing makes you jump in your seat except for that eerie pan pipe sound track. But the feeling of dread nevertheless creeps up the back of your neck and stays, so that later in the film when you catch sight of a tattered “MISSING” poster tacked to a tree near the Rock, you gasp. Those whom you saw as vibrant and alive at the beginning of the story have now faded into history and will not return.

I saw “Picnic at Hanging Rock” when it was first released in the late ‘70’s, and idiot that I occasionally am, I saw it alone. Big mistake. I was so spooked out I drove home from the theater with my head and neck practically retracted into my shoulders. Unfortunately the director’s cut DVD released a few years ago falls a bit short of the theatrical version. Why? What I think is a crucial scene is missing: a young man who rescues a survivor from the Rock attempts to question that very girl about what happened. What results is a head-on collision between a man who not only wants to know—he needs to know, and the only person who would know can’t tell him. Or is it that she won’t tell him?  Peter Weir, the director, explains on the commentary that he thought this scene slowed the film down too much, but I disagree–this is one instance when the audience needs more of the characters, not less.

However, this is a relatively minor blip that in no way diminishes the atmosphere of the film, which I can’t recommend more highly. The horror in “Picnic at Hanging Rock” comes not just from the events you see, but what you don’t see, and how people are forced to cope with the inexplicable. This, along with “Gallipoli,” “Breaker Morant,” and “My Brilliant Career” is one of the great Australian films from the 70’s and 80’s, and is a definite must-see, particularly with Halloween approaching.

Sleep tight and don’t let those pan pipes bite.

Posted in Music, Opera

Anna and Salome Arrive in Style

Anna Netrebko
The Diva Herself

Anna Netrebko is a peach. She’s also a star with a capital “S.” I’ve just seen the final dress rehearsal of the Met’s new production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” scheduled to open the new season next Monday, and Anna N. as Anna B. is amazing. She holds stage like nobody’s business, and that big, dark soprano of hers fills the house. Fortunately she’s matched by the Henry VIII of Ildar Abdrazakov, whom I had never heard live before. He’s got command and his rolling bass is a great complement to Netrebko’s sound. Mezzo Ekatarina Gubanova plays Jane (aka “Giovanna”) Seymour, and when the two ladies square off for their confrontation in the second act, there’s some superlative singing indeed. And I couldn’t care less that neither has a trill.

“Anna Bolena” was Donizetti’s big hit, pre-“Lucia di Lammermoor,” but I think the former is the better opera. The drama never stops. Donizetti threw in two plot twists that have no basis in reality–a prior marriage between Anna and Richard Percy, and a mad scene in the Tower of London before she meets the headsman–but so what. It’s not a documentary, it’s opera. I’m only sorry there’s no glass armonica to accompany Anna’s loony tunes as there is for Lucia, but hey–you can’t have everything.

This was the second dress rehearsal of a new production I’ve attended via a Met subscribers’ lottery, and I enjoy these tremendously. The audience is reminded at the start that this is a working rehearsal, not a performance, so the action may stop and repeat, which is what happened today. Things literally came to a screeching halt during the last scene change of the opera when the elevator stage apparently snagged on something and a 15-minute break was called. It was worth waiting out because Anna Netrebko’s mad scene, which immediately followed, was rightly cheered and “brava’ed” at length. Charmingly, she finally broke character, smiled and applauded, pointing directly at Marco Armiliato, a true singer’s conductor.

“Anna Bolena” is the first of this season’s Met HD telecasts, scheduled for October 15th. This one is definitely worth seeing.

Last night’s New York Philharmonic season opener came courtesy of PBS’ “Live from Lincoln Center.” While this Samuel Barber fiend was put out by the slow tempo of the Overture to “The School for Scandal,” I thought conductor Alan Gilbert and Deborah Voigt did an excellent job with his “Andromache’s Farewell.” But the big draw was the second half of the program, which consisted of three selections from Richard Strauss’s “Salome”–the “Intermezzo,” the “Dance of the Seven Veils” and most memorably, Salome’s final scene where she kisses the mouth of John the Baptist’s severed head. Deborah Voigt relished this, and after her somewhat constricted performance of Wagner’s “Dich teure Halle,” it was a relief to hear her soar in the Strauss. Alan Gilbert brought out all the weirdness and perversity of the “Salome” selections, and the orchestra sounded more involved than I’ve heard in quite a while.

PBS usually repeats these performances, so check your local listings as they say, as well as the New York Philharmonic website.

Posted in Baseball

Whither Thou Goest, My Mets?

The original Mr. Met costume in the Mets Hall ...
My Man, Mr. Met

It’s that time of year again: mid-September when you feel the first hint of chill in the air and you realize that baseball season is almost over. Yes, we’ve got umpteen rounds of play-offs, championship series and a World Series, but baseball is a summer game after all. That means short sleeves for fans and players alike. Watching October into November baseball is no fun at all when the fans look like football spectators and the players’ hands are frozen.

Once again the Mets are out of the money–literally as well as figuratively. My fondest wish is for the Wilpons to sell the club and be done with it. The Madoff bankruptcy trustee is on the verge of taking their wallets, their previously announced deal with a partner has collapsed and their baseball club needs a major overhaul. This last can not be done on the cheap, at least not in New York, but it has to be done now.

The Mets are not without talent. They’ve got a number of young players who are definitely worth watching–Ruben Tejada, who now has a bat to go along with that super glove, Justin Turner, a scrapper in the Wally Backman mode who’s a fiend for hitting with men in scoring position, and Lucas Duda, a longball hitter who nevertheless needs work on whatever glove he wears. Add them to the injured talent–Ike Davis and Daniel Murphy–and there’s definitely something to look forward to next season.

But the pitching, with the exception of R.A. Dickey and Chris Capuano, has been from hunger. It’s about time the Mets woke up and realized that Mike Pelfrey can not handle pitching in New York–trade him, please. The bullpen has all but collapsed during the second half, and it’s crazy to think Bobby Parnell can be a reliable closer, at least at this stage of his career. On top of that who knows what kind of pitcher Johann Santana will be when he returns? And the catching is problematical–Josh Thole really hasn’t developed to the extent the Mets thought he would and Ronny Paulino has been injured. Mike Nickeas, while an excellent defensive player, really hasn’t demonstrated that he can hit consistently.

All this on top of the eternal questions: Can the Mets re-sign Jose Reyes, and if they do, can he stay healthy? Will Jason Bay ever return to his Red Sox form? Is David Wright merely a good player and not the superstar we thought he was? What’s with Angel Pagan, whose head isn’t always in the game?

Who cares if “All My Children” and “General Hospital” are going off the air? We’ve got our own soap opera in Queens.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

Kurt Weill: That’s How You Tell an American

Kurt Weill

One of the best albums I’ve heard recently is something of a rarity: a new recording of the 1938 Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson musical, “Knickerbocker Holiday” issued by Ghostlight. This is the show that famously starred Walter Huston as Peter Stuyvesant and introduced “September Song.” It was never revived on Broadway, but in January of this year a concert version of the show was presented at Lincoln Center, starring Victor Garber as Peter Stuyvesant, Kelli O’Hara and Ben Davis as the lovers, and Bryce Pinkham as Washington Irving, the narrator and author of “Father Knickerbocker’s Stories,” the source material of the musical.

Kurt Weill’s contribution to the American musical has unfortunately been overshadowed by the popularity of Rodgers, Porter and Berlin–for want of a better term, more “native” composers. Although “Speak Low,” “My Ship” and “The Saga of Jenny” are now standards, Weill’s most famous song dates from his earlier career in Berlin, the “Moritat,” otherwise known as “Mack the Knife,” from “The Threepenny Opera.” Weill’s other collaborations with Bertolt Brecht–“Happy End” and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”–regularly turn up in revivals and on the opera stage, but his American works have not been that fortunate. Except for “Street Scene,” which has largely become opera house property, his other shows, such as “Johnny Johnson,” “Lady in the Dark,” “One Touch of Venus,” “Love Life” and “Lost in the Stars” lie dormant. Some of these shows predate the arrival of the original Broadway cast album as a marketing tool, and what some call his best score, “Love Life,” with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, lost out altogether because of a recording strike. Even worse, none of Weill’s American shows was ever turned into the type of blockbuster Hollywood musical that would have kept his work in circulation. And Weill’s premature death of heart disease in 1950 ended his work on a musical version of “Huckleberry Finn” that would have been fascinating to hear.

What I love most about “Knickerbocker Holiday” is the joy of hearing Kurt Weill trying out a new musical language–it’s the equivalent of a non-English speaker suddenly spouting American slang. Although he’s not yet the composer who could write the sinuous “Speak Low” or the jitterbugging “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed,” he’s well on his way.  To be sure, the “Threepenny” Weill is still present—there’s a tango (“Sitting in Jail”) and a dynamite rumba (“We Are Cut in Twain”), even though the show is set in the 1600’s, and some of his melodic inflections are straight 1920’s Berlin jazz—in “There’s Nowhere to Go But Up” the phrases giddily seem to alternate between American pop, operetta and pure “Bilbao Song.” It makes you wonder what the audiences of 1938 were thinking when they heard this show for the first time.

The performers are uniformly terrific. Victor Garber does a wonderful job as Peter Stuyvesant, and I only wish the conductor had given him more latitude in “September Song.” While I realize it’s easy to overdo the sentiment, the tempo is too metered–Garber should have been allowed more space. Kelli O’Hara as Tina, who finds herself betrothed to Stuyvesant, and Ben Davis as Brom, the man who can’t take orders, couldn’t be better. It’s worth the price of the CD just to hear O’Hara effortlessly float the end of their duet, “It Never Was You.” Davis and Bryce Pinkham’s song, “How Can You Tell an American?” once again makes you wish for more Weill revivals.

One can only hope. In the meantime, we’ve got this great new recording, and, if you’d like to hear more top-notch Weill, try the original cast album of “Lovemusik,” the 2007 show based on the lives of Weill and Lotte Lenya. Although the musical, which starred Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy, flopped, more than one critic recommended skipping the play in favor of the recording, also issued by Ghostlight. It’s terrific–the performances are virtually a perfect 10 and the orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick, the absolute master. One minor quibble: some day I’d like to own one Kurt Weill album that doesn’t feature “Surabaya Johnny,” just as a change of pace.

Enjoy.

Posted in Observations

9/11

I’m writing this as the names are being read at the World Trade Center site, in some cases by children who were not yet born when their fathers died. We hear surviving spouses, sisters, brothers, nephews, nieces and friends, and most inspiring, the children who are second and third generation responders, like the uniformed female police officer who after reading names, honored her firefighter father by stating, “Dad, we know you’ve got our backs.”

My plans for adding to this blog were derailed the other day when the New York Times posted excerpts from the 9/11 audiotapes that contained communications between air traffic controllers, Flight 11, NORAD and others who had to deal with the unimaginable on that day. Their shock, frustration and sorrow is evident, but their professionalism is still there, despite the persistent lack of accurate information and the issuance of contradicting orders. You don’t want to listen, but you have to–as difficult as it is to hear Flight Attendant Betty Ong report the hijacking of Flight 11 and the stabbing of at least two of her fellow crew members, you are compelled to hear this through.

So much has been written about 9/11 and so much has been said, but to me the most memorable remarks were those published by the New York Times in a collection of sermon excerpts several days after the attacks. The words that never fail to move me are those of Bonnie Myotai Treace, then Sensei of the Fire Lotus Temple, Zen Mountain Monastery:

Thousands of blossoms, red, brown, white, yellow, black scattered on

ground made tender by their falling. This human body, more fragile

than the dew drops on the countless tips of morning grass.

My wailing voice is the bright September wind and

in the dark night, silence speaks:

“‘I will die only when love dies and you will not let love die.”

Posted in Music, Opera

Going for Baroque

I was never much for baroque music. I did make exceptions, though—as a school-age violinist, I liked to play Bach and Vivaldi because they kept string players very busy. And when I discovered opera as a teenager, that year’s hot recording was the New York City Opera version of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” starring Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle. It didn’t matter to me that this was a version patched together by conductor Julius Rudel that made baroque scholars howl, what with the re-ordering and musical transposition of arias. Along with nearly every opera fan I knew, I listened to Cleopatra’s arias over and over again, just to hear Beverly Sills’ ornamentation and her ability to seemingly turn trills inside out. Aside from that, I found baroque music and especially baroque opera rather boring—it struck me as too repetitious and too much “stand and sing.”

Then, because of the work I started doing several years ago, I fell in love with baroque opera.

Let me explain: when I work as a contract attorney and not as a solo practitioner, I spend most of my time reviewing documents during the discovery phase of litigation. Since this means I’m a professional snoop looking for smoking guns, this process, always interesting at the beginning of a project, does have a tendency to become more and more routine over time. Music helps to keep me focused, but there’s a hitch—there are certain things I just can’t listen to while I’m working. For example, Mahler is OK, but Wagner is too cold; French and Italian opera are perfect, but Britten is out because his operas are in English, which is far too distracting (a major pain when I had a ticket to the Met’s new production of “Peter Grimes” and couldn’t brush up before the performance). Jazz is fine as are Broadway cast albums, and Stravinsky, especially “The Rite of Spring” can always keep me going. And baroque opera goes well not only with doc review, but on the commuter train in the morning when all is mostly quiet and “gentle” is the word.

I’m really enjoying Handel these days. He always takes non-obvious choices in his writing—you think you know where he’s going with a phrase and he’ll take a 90-degree turn instead. His “Alcina” is a wonderful work, filled with great opportunities for singers and the usual quotient of gender-bending trouser roles, but for me the highlight is Morgana’s gorgeous “Ama sospiri.” Natalie Dessay puts it away here:

I’m also getting more familiar with “Ariodante.” I’ll be writing more about Joyce DiDonato in the future, but for now take a moment to listen to her “Dopo notte” from that opera. The musicianship and artistry that mark this performance are amazing.

I still love “Giulio Cesare,” especially the recent Glyndebourne production reminiscent of the British raj. David McVicar staged it Bollywood style, and it’s a total hoot. This is available on DVD, and it’s more fun to watch than most movies. William Christie is the conductor, and the singers include Sarah Connolly (an excellent Caesar), Patricia Bardon (a refreshingly young Cornelia), Christopher Dumaux (wonderfully bitchy as Ptolemy), Angelika Kirschlager (hot-headed Sesto) and as Cleopatra, Danielle DeNiese–not known as Dancin’ Danielle for nothing–here at the conclusion of “Da tempeste.”

I just ordered a recording of Vivaldi’s “Ercole sul Termondonte” which features not only Ms. DiDonato and a bunch of crackerjack singers—there’s also Philippe Jaroussky, a countertenor who sings in the soprano range. Even after you’ve heard it, you won’t believe it. I’ll be reporting back.