Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Cats, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for an Endless Winter

As I write this the New York metropolitan area is gearing up for yet another wave of snow, sleet and freezing rain. How much of the above we’re going to be socked with this time is still up in the air (no pun intended). We only know that the weather forecasters have been predicting doom for the last five days. Well, my refrigerator is stocked, my car’s gas tank is full and my boots and snow shovel are once more at the ready. I saw a robin on my front lawn yesterday afternoon, and while I refrained from asking “You lost, buddy?,” I still took heart. Spring will arrive—sometime.

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No gown was ever better wrecked
No gown was ever better wrecked

“Downton Abbey” just completed its fourth season here. My opinion? Kind of meh.

I’m not saying the show was without its charms: I’ll be interested in Lady Mary’s doings until the cows (or perhaps I should say, the pigs) come home. I’ve always liked the character, even at her bitchiest, and she’s got the type of self-awareness that’s enormously refreshing—she cuts to the heart of things, no matter whose feelings may be hurt. Tom Branson is still fun to watch, as are Carson and Mrs. Hughes, and I’d like Paul Giamatti to make a return visit as Harold Levenson, Cora’s brother. But the show now seems stuffy and predictable, especially if you’re a fan of “Last Tango in Halifax,” whose characters in no way have consistency in their lexicon. At this point you’re assured of the following in every “Downton Abbey” episode: a cutting quip and a snark at Isobel Crawley by the Dowager Countess, a Lady Edith misfortune, a block-headed remark by the Earl, a blackmail attempt by Barrow and an ambiguously sinister shot of Bates. The pattern has yet to change.

Despite all this, I’ll continue to watch “Downton Abbey” until its end. I just wish it had a little more zest in its storytelling and a little more oxygen in its atmosphere.

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MetThat sound you hear is the rattling of sabres as management and labor gear up for contract talks at the Metropolitan Opera. Words are already being exchanged, what with General Manger Peter Gelb leading negotiations for the first time and Tino Gagliardi, head of the musicians’ union, vowing to seek oversight of the Met’s spending in order to prevent salary cuts and other givebacks.

There’s been a distressing pattern of musicians’ unions blinding themselves to significant changes in both the prevailing culture and the economy. This is no longer 1960, when arts programming was a regular feature on the handful of television channels in existence, Leonard Bernstein won Emmys for his “Young People’s Concerts” and most importantly, visual and musical arts were mandatory courses in public schools. Is it any wonder that audiences for classical music and opera have dwindled over the years, to the extent that box office receipts make up only one third of the Met’s income? Outreach programs are great, but nothing creates a lifelong interest in the arts like a thorough education such as my boomer generation received. Sadly, those times are gone.

I know very few people who weren’t impacted by the financial collapse of 2008 and its lingering aftermath. There’s a trickle-down effect on the arts after such disasters: over time contributions are curtailed if not eliminated, and patrons find themselves with less disposable income for ticket purchases. To put it bluntly, we’ve all had to suck it up during the last several years, and performers are not exempt from the new reality. If, as the Met claims, two-thirds of its expenses are labor costs, that’s the pool from which reductions should come first.

I would hate to see a strike or a lock-out at the Met. But the unions would better serve both their membership and the ticket-buying public by dealing in the real world.

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Gary Carter, N.Y. Mets
Gary Carter, N.Y. Mets

Once upon a time there was a future Hall of Fame catcher named Gary Carter. For five delirious years he was a New York Met, and a mainstay of that 1986 championship team. As a lifelong, diehard Mets fan, I loved watching him play.

Flash forward to a few days ago. I’ve been wanting to adopt another cat for several months, ever since poor Roger departed to the great litter box in the sky. I needed a mellow boy past kitten stage who could get along with Miss Teddi, a somewhat crotchety 16 year-old, and Gregory, a laid back 7 year-old built like a pro football linebacker.

Gary Carter, Cat
Gary Carter, Cat

Is there a better name for a polydactyl cat whose front paws resemble catcher’s mitts? I can’t claim credit for his name: it said “Gary Carter” on his cat cubby at the shelter. Under the circumstances I couldn’t not take him, so now Mr. Carter is comfortably ensconced in his new surroundings. This young man blended in immediately with the other feline residents, and is simply one terrific cat.

Now if I could just get him to wear a baseball cap……

Posted in Brain Bits, Cats, Movie Reviews, Music

Brain Bits on Back-to-School Day

It’s that time of year again—the school bus armada has hit the road, proud parents are taking photos of their kids at bus stops, new backpacks are on parade, and the silence is golden for those of us who work at home, at least between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. It’s an odd, sort of in-between time: the calendar says September, but the weather is still late August. In fact, today we’re expecting a typical hazy, hot and humid afternoon, well into the 80’s. But the signs are there—the days are shorter, the mornings are cooler and apples are beginning to evict peaches from my local farm stand, though my favorite Macouns won’t be appearing until the end of the month. There’s nothing like the transition into autumn, as fall foliage, the World Series and Halloween are just around the corner. Pure heaven.

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One of the funniest videos around, “Henri 2, Paw de Deux,” just won first prize at the Internet Cat Video Film Festival. Now, you may think pet videos are idiotic and/or cats are for crazy people (watch it, buster!), but this is one clever little gem that amuses on so many levels. The bad French accent, the world-weary intonation of the narrator, the maudlin piano track, the existential subtitles and most of all, the expressions of Henri—utter perfection. I’m hoping we see more of Monsieur Le Tuxedo in the future, along with “l’idiot blanc.” Well done, Will Braden, even if Henri has dubbed you “the thieving filmmaker” on his Facebook page.

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Do you think you have a good musical ear? If so, I’ve got a great skull buster for you—it’s been known to humble even professional musicians, at least those who haven’t played the piece or cheated by sneaking a peek at the score. Without further ado, I’m talking about the instrumentation of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” that absolute marvel of orchestral color.

The game goes like this: grab a piece of paper and a pen (or your iPad or whatever), cue up any recording of “Bolero” and list the instrument or instruments you hear every time the theme is repeated, in sequence. It’s harder than you think, even during the first part of the piece when one solo follows another—the sound alone may not always be indicative of what is being played. There’s also a trick situation of sorts, what I call a “sneak-in.” One instrument begins the theme, which is finished by another, entering unobtrusively to finish the phrase because the notes are below the range of the original soloist. And when Ravel begins to combine instruments, the layers of sound make it even more challenging—there’s one combination I never get, no matter how many times I try. The best hint I can give you is to remember that timbre can be changed by external means. Which unfortunately may confuse you even more. To see how accurate your list is, check out the solution here .

Unfortunately I can’t find a decent “Bolero” recording on Youtube that isn’t a video, which would of course give the game away. What I did find, though, is even better—a clip from the movie “Bolero,” that 1934 cheese-fest starring George Raft and Carole Lombard, which appeared on the scene long before Bo Derek’s “10,” and Torvill and Dean. I haven’t seen the full movie in years, but if I remember correctly, they’re a dance team that split when he went off to fight in World War I. He’s gassed during combat and is presumed dead, she marries someone else (Lord Whoever), and they meet again to dance once more. Only now he has a bum ticker, so this turns into his dance of death, complete with pounding drums:

Sigh. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Posted in Brain Bits, Cats, Observations, Opera

Babbling and Strewing Flowers

Bits and pieces on an April afternoon:

It’s Titanic weekend, yet summer returned again, three weeks after its initial appearance in March. People are shopping in shorts, I’ve got the ceiling fans going, but it’s been weeks since we’ve had a soaking rain. This on top of a snowless winter spells one big rude awakening come June when water restrictions are sure to go into effect. There’s never a free lunch.

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When did drinking beverages in your seat during a theatrical performance become OK? I must have missed that memo, because I was ready to strangle the girl sitting next to me on Friday night at the Signature Theater during Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque.” All during the first act she kept taking a bottle of water out of her voluminous bag and squirting a mouthful into her yap, the plastic audibly snapping back into place as the contents diminished. Now this is a small theater—not even the size of a high school auditorium—and we were sitting Orchestra, Row D, not quite under the actors’ noses, but close enough to enjoy a palpable eye-lock as they delivered the occasional aside. Geez Louise, it’s bad enough the slurping and snapping is disturbing to me, who’s paid good money for a ticket, but it’s beyond rude to the actors who are trying to earn a living up on stage. Fortunately the play, about coping with death, was too much for Miss Hydration, who looked to be all of 22—she left at intermission, and the silence next door for Act Two was truly golden.

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Roger

It would be lovely if our pets lived longer lives. I took Roger in when he was all of five weeks old, dumped to fend for himself in Petsmart and discovered hiding under a pallet on the store’s busiest delivery day of the week. He was quite a handful—tough, stubborn and a devil to my other cats. To the day she died, my cat Pepper hissed every time she laid eyes on him; once I even saw her wake up from a nap, screw up her face, growl at him and promptly conk out again, her job done. Jake, another of my cats, who was such a little daddy, actually raised him, though every so often he’d look at me as if to say “I did the best I could, but the raw material wasn’t so hot.”

Roger’s personality started to smooth out by the time he turned five, even more as he ascended the feline pecking order when my older cats departed to the Big Litter Box in the Sky. He’s always been a snuggler, and loves to curl up on the back of the sofa as I watch TV, using my shoulder as a pillow. Now he’ll turn 14 in August, and suddenly he’s become a sage old man. He’s lost some weight, and while he still eats like a little piglet, a trip to the vet is in the offing. Hopefully he’s got a few more years ahead of him, because it’ll be very difficult to say goodbye to this guy.

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Samuel Barber

I’ve been a huge Samuel Barber fan for years, since I was about the age of 10 and heard his “Second Essay for Orchestra” live. Several years later, when I went opera crazy and borrowed scores from my junior high music teacher, I fell in love with “Vanessa” and nearly wore out the studio recording released by RCA Victor shortly after the work premiered at the Met in 1958. However, there’s a far better recording available, from a taped Metropolitan Opera broadcast aired during the work’s first season. It features the same cast as the RCA version—Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnik, Nicolai Gedda and Giorgio Tozzi—but it’s like viewing a scene in color for the first time after years of being stuck  with black and white. It’s not just the energy generated by the singers performing in front of a live audience: Giorgio Tozzi is exceptionally funny as well as poignant as the Old Doctor, and Eleanor Steber’s portrait of the vain and self-deluding title character just burns in your memory. Perhaps the most astonishing part of her performance is the notoriously difficult “Skating Song” (coloratura-ed to the hilt) which few sopranos attempt when the work is staged. Yet Steber nails every single note. The box set is “Samuel Barber: Historical Recordings 1935-1960” ; the rewards, including Barber’s performance of his own “Dover Beach,” are endless.

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Thank you, Edna St. Vincent Millay, for “Spring” and one of the most vivid poetic images ever conceived (“It is not enough that yearly, down this hill/April/Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”) Ah, the enduring power of High School Accelerated English.

Posted in Brain Bits, Cats, Opera, Television

October Ramblings

Products of a mellow brain on a gorgeous Sunday:

Fall is New Jersey’s most beautiful season. I never used to think about it when I was younger, but now I glory in it: the snap in the air, the change in the sun’s angle that turns daylight to gold, and the colors. The colors! Orange, magenta, yellow, brown and above all, blue, blue sky and dry clear air.

Apples are a natural this time of year, but be careful if you buy them pre-bagged by store personnel. The labels they apply are not always accurate, even in stores that advertise themselves as the doyennes of all that’s fresh. When I recently bought a store-packed bag of what I thought were Macouns, I got a nasty surprise—Macintosh, as I found out when I bit into the first one. I like tart, but Macs can sometimes make my eyes cross.

Were mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and Claire Danes separated at birth?

Claire

Speaking of Claire Danes, I finally caught the first episode of “Homeland” last night, and this one’s a keeper. I never particularly cared for her before, but if Episode One is any indication, she’s going to be turning in an Emmy-winning performance. Her character, a CIA operative who pops anti-psychotics, is beyond obsessed. Damien Lewis, the target of her drive to find the truth, is appropriately cast as the man of mystery. I would hate to sit across a poker table from him–he gives away nothing. The central plot–has this heroic Marine sergeant been turned by Al Qaeda or not?–intrigues, and is an excellent building-block. Who are his contacts? Are there—gasp!—turncoats in the highest levels of Homeland Security? There’s an added bonus: Morena Baccarin, having returned from “Firefly” and “V” sci-fi land, has her own secrets as Damien’s wife. She’s such a changeling–I first saw her in “V,” and when I started watching “Firefly” on DVD, I couldn’t believe it was the same actress. Ditto for “Homeland”: I thought she looked familiar, but didn’t recognize her until she smiled, revealing that distinctive lip curl. And wonder of wonders, “Homeland” may have finally provided Mandy Patinkin with a role I can tolerate him in.

Gregory

Adopting an adult cat is an endless opportunity for discovery. My boy Gregory was 4 when I adopted him from the Monmouth County SPCA earlier this year, and it’s been a trip. His first quirk? A total fetish for anything that crinkles, especially cellophane. He used to climb up my legs to get to the goodies when I unwrapped a peppermint, but since he weighs a good 16 pounds, we put a stop to that, pronto. Soon after I found out he was an ace volleyball player: crumple up any piece of paper—used Post-It, losing lottery ticket, drug store receipt—toss it in the air, and up he goes, catching the ball with his two front paws, and spiking it to the floor. And aside from being such a handsome devil (and a total mushball), he’s become the resident go-to guy for my other cats. He soothes Miss Teddi when she gets upset, and wrestles with Roger as the mood takes either of them. Just a terrific addition to the family.

I like Halloween, but since when has this become such a major holiday? When I was a kid, it was for kids—now the merchandise and decor is out in the stores at the end of August and adults—who should know better—have basically co-opted the day and the festivities leading up to it from their own kids. What truly irks me, though, is that no one seems to care about Thanksgiving any more. It’s been reduced to a minor blip on the road from Halloween to Christmas. Well, guess what: Thanksgiving is, was and always will be my favorite holiday. Don’t get me wrong—I love pumpkins, witches, skeletons and all that, but it really doesn’t satisfy me. So go Team Pilgrim!