Entries in The Food of Love (36)


The Holy Glimmers of Good-byes

When I told Christian that Patrick and I were going to hear Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at Avery Fisher Hall, he asked, "What is it—a mass?" I answered that it was a choral piece set to the traditional liturgical text, but that the composer had also included several anti-war poems written almost a century ago by Wilfred Owen.

"Wow," Christian said. "It sounds like a protest song." He studied protest songs in his freshman songwriting class and has gained a healthy appreciation for the genre.

I agreed. "The War Requiem is the ultimate protest song," I said.

Wilfred Owen was no draft dodger; his poems draw on his own harrowing experiences in the trenches of France during World War I. Hospitalized for shell shock—what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder—Owen began writing in the hope that doing so would exorcise the horrors he had witnessed. Once healed and back on the battlefield, Owen was shot through the head by a German gunman and died just a week before Armistice Day.

Britten composed his Requiem in 1962 for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral. German bombs mostly razed the 15th century cathedral during World War II, and in 1956 a new structure was begun alongside the ruins. The British government turned the old cathedral site into a memorial monument; Britten hoped his composition would also stand as a monument, a warning to future generations against the senseless waste of war.

When my friend Tina Fairweather told me that her choir would be singing the War Requiem, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of the great Lorin Maazel, I couldn’t wait to get tickets. Benjamin Britten looms large in my pantheon of personal artistic heroes, and I knew hearing the Requiem live would be a transcendent experience. Saturday night’s concert exceeded my expectations.

The Requiem is a 20th century composition, perhaps not very accessible to the casual listener. The key to appreciating it is to let go of expectations of traditional Western melodic progression and instead glory in the way the gorgeous textures of the music highlight and underscore the poignant text.

Throughout the performance, the violins and the choral voices created almost palpable tissues of sound, great swaths of silk that arose and twined around one another. The honey-voiced tenor and baritone (Vale Rideout and Ian Greenlaw), along with some of the woodwinds, embroidered upon this rich fabric. And the brass: if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that the brass section was manned by a corps of angels: thrilling perfection.

During the third movement, the Offertorium, a boys’ choir pleads (in Latin) that the souls of all the faithful be delivered “from the pains of hell and from the depths of the pit: deliver them from the lion’s mouth, that hell devour them not, that they fall not into darkness.” The adult chorus continues the prayer: “But let the standard bearer Saint Michael bring them into the holy light: which of old Thou didst promise unto Abraham and his seed.”

Then the tenor and baritone sing a duet that tells of Abraham and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah. But Owen turns the traditional Bible story on its head: “Lo! An angel called [Abraham] out of heaven, saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him. Behold, a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not so, but slew his son—And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

“Half the seed of Europe, one by one.” As this refrain is repeated, the listener understands that Abraham in this telling represents government turning away from heavenly urgings of humility and peace. It’s a chilling, inspired moment, one of the high points of the piece.

The Requiem closes with another such transformative musical scene. In the sixth movement, the Libera Me, the tenor and the baritone represent two spirits of soldiers from opposing sides of a conflict. They meet in the afterlife and recognize one another.

“Strange friend,” one says, “here is no cause to mourn.”

“None,” answers the other, “save the undone years, the hopelessness….the pity of war, the pity war distilled. Now men will go content with what we spoiled….”

They dream of an end to war: “When much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, I would go up and wash them from sweet wells, Even from wells we sunk too deep for war, Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.

“Let us sleep now,” the two sing in counterpoint as the choirs chant the traditional words “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light eternal shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.”

As the last whisper of chord died away, as we applauded madly with the rest of the audience through three curtain calls, and as we drove the long, dark road home from the City, I thought about war and peace.

It is not enough to wash the chariot wheels; it is not enough to treat the symptoms of war. We must eliminate its cause altogether. War on a global scale will not end until we have cleansed hate from our hearts, until we have swept disharmony out of our homes, until we have replaced the filth of enmity with the sweet water of unconditional love in our communities.

We can march, we can petition, we can wear ribbons. But until we look inward, rooting out pride and intolerance within ourselves even when we are convinced of the correctness of our position—especially when we are convinced of the correctness of our position—we will never free ourselves from war.

Dona nobis pacem.


The Hills Were Alive

Q: Has there ever been a more handsome Friedrich in musical theater history?
A: NO!

Our oldest son, Christian, was absolutely adorable (don't kill me, hon) in his high school's terrific production of The Sound of Music last weekend. Stay tuned; I'm hoping to upload a video of him as "The Lonely Goatherd" as soon as technology will allow. Thanks for the photos, Mary!

**UPDATED** Here it is (the sound problems resolve themselves after a few seconds):


Only Just Out of Reach

I've mentioned before that one of the great perqs of Patrick's job is that we often get invited to the openings of Broadway shows. Last night was such an occasion: we saw the much-herald revival of West Side Story.

I had high hopes; Bernstein's brilliant score and Sondheim's genius lyrics are some of my favorite in all of the musical theater repertoire. I adore the tragic story (Arthur Laurents's retelling of Romeo and Juliet) and its gritty setting (mid-1950s Manhattan). Jerome Robbins's choreography is iconic, as are the rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets. I wanted to love everything about this production.

The show had some truly great moments. Laurents, who directed, took some inspired liberties with his 52-year-old book. He had most of the Puerto Rican characters' dialogue translated into Spanish; "I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That" were also sung in Spanish. This worked beautifully (with the help of some fabulous body language), giving the Sharks and their women both dignity and irony; the characters are more fully human now.

Josefina Scaglione was so lovely and convincing as Maria that I found myself thinking, "Natalie who?" Karen Oliva was nothing short of smoking hot as Anita; she went from sardonic to sexy to tragic with incredible ease and grace. I wish I could sit and watch her fantastico "América" over and over again. All of the Sharks were delicious to watch--whether they were mamboing or rumbling--ai, caramba!

Would that the Jets had fared as well. Matt Cavanaugh's Tony was my most bitter Broadway disappointment in many a moon. I could have forgiven how mousily unattractive he was (though you know it's bad when Chino, Maria's intended husband, is miles more handsome than her star-crossed lover is).

I have no such mercy in me for his wobbly, nasal singing or his brick-like delivery. I had hoped that "Something's Coming" or "Maria" would make me weep; instead I cringed as Cavanaugh dog-paddled through each of Bernstein's treacherous intervals and modulations. Bernstein's music is horrendously difficult, but you never want performers to make it sound harder than it is. The last thing the audience should be thinking at the end of the show is "Maria, honey, you can do better," but there it is.

Almost all of Tony's gang buddies were also lacking in charisma. Only three of "los Américanos" came through: as the tomboy Anybodys, Tro Shaw may have been channeling Susan Oakes (who played the character in the 1961 movie), but she chanelled well. Curtis Holbrook brought a 21st-century hyperactive viciousness to his portrayal of Action; he transformed "Gee, Officer Krupke" from slapstick to harrowing social commentary. Finally, as Kiddo, Nicholas Barasch sang "Somewhere" so angelically that the tears I'd been saving for Tony welled up unbidden.

To sum up, large portions of the show were thrilling; unfortunately, that meant that the awkward and flat moments stood out in greater relief. This revival wasn't the triumph I had hoped for, but maybe I've just gotten too picky.

Speaking of which, after nearly 15 years of opening nights in London and New York, we are now so jaded that being invited to the cast party after the show is no longer a thrill; we opted to drive straight home afterwards instead. But that didn't stop us from reaping one of our richest crops of celebrity sightings in a long while. Among those present in the theater last night were Christie Brinkley, Kathleen Turner, Vanessa Williams, Taye Diggs, Spike Lee, and Keith Carradine; celebrity couples Phil Donohue & Marlo Thomas and Diane Sawyer & Mike Nichols; and Sondheim and Laurents themselves.

I'm a lucky, lucky girl, I mused as we drove in the dark up the Palisades Parkway on the way home. I fully realize what a luxury it is to attend such events on the arm of a handsome man who loves me. I'll try to get over my guilt at not being able to pronounce the evening an unqualified success.


I Never Metafiction I Didn't Like

I've been pondering all things meta this week.

Well, not all things. But definitely many things meta-related-to-the-arts.

I've been playing a game inside my head as I've done the dishes or driven people to sports practices or tried to get back to sleep in the middle of the night after going to the bathroom for the fourteenth time.

(It's just one of the many crazy games I play all alone in this head o' mine, another being "List all the adjectives with the suffix '-id.'")

The game is this: list all the films about film. Now all the songs about songs. Now all the poems about poetry. Now all the theater about theater. And now (my favorite part) all the fiction about fiction.*

Ready? Go.

Films About Film
(or TV About TV)

The Player
Singin' in the Rain
The Truman Show
30 Rock
Studio 60
The Simpsons
Stranger than Fiction
(borderline: a film about fiction writing)

Songs About Songs, Singers, and/or Singing

"Hey, Mister Tambourine Man" (The Byrds)
"Thank You for the Music" (ABBA)
"Sing a Song" (Earth, Wind, and Fire)
"I Write the Songs" (Barry Manilow)
"If Music Be the Food of Love" (Shakespeare/Purcell)
"Piano Man" (Billy Joel)
"Rock and Roll Band" (Boston)
"Killing Me Softly" (Roberta Flack)
"The Day the Music Died" (Don McLean)
"This is Not a Love Song" (Public Image, Ltd.)

Poems About Poetry

"Essay on Criticism" (Alexander Pope)
"Don Juan" (parts of it; Lord Byron)
"Ars Poetica" (Archibald MacLeish)
"The Uses of Poetry" (William Carlos Williams)
"There is no frigate like a book" (Emily Dickinson)
"The High-Toned Old Christian Woman" (Wallace Stevens)

Theater About Theater

All That Jazz (Well, okay. It's a film about theater.)
Kiss Me, Kate
The Taming of the Shrew
The Producers
A Chorus Line
42nd Street
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Picasso at the Lapin Agile
The Mousetrap

Fiction About Fiction (and this would be my wheelhouse, people)

The Princess Bride (William Goldman)
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
Little, Big (John Crowley)
Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)
The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)
Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino)
Anything written by Jasper Fforde
The Neverending Story (Michael Ende)
English Music (Peter Ackroyd)
The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
An awful lot of Kurt Vonnegut
And a whole bunch of that Pratchett genius
Leaf by Niggle (J.R.R. Tolkien)
A Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket)
Atonement (Ian MacEwan)
The Dark Tower, etc. (Stephen King)
Possession (A.S. Byatt)
The Book of Three (Lloyd Alexander)
A Princess of Roumania, etc. (Paul Park)

What about you? Can you add to the lists?

*LDS readers, here's a fun study topic: revelation about revelation. And extra credit: revelation about Revelation.


Music Monday: That's Entertainment

Mondays can be rough, especially when your Sundays are as busy as ours are. Patrick had a very early and important meeting scheduled for this morning in the City, so we worked out a plan last night whereby I would get up at 5:40 and drive Christian to Seminary, and Patrick would take the 6:57 train into Manhattan. (Patrick usually takes Christian while I get the other kids up and make breakfast and lunches.)

Ah, the best-laid plans. Christian and I got home from Seminary at 7:00 and were rushing to get lunches made with James's help when Patrick walked back into the house. A state trooper had pulled him over and given him a speeding ticket, causing him to miss that crucial train. Now, Patrick can always admit it when he is in the wrong, so when he tells me that he wasn't, in fact, speeding this time, I totally believe him. He came home to check the schedule and see whether he could catch another train down in Croton that would get him to that meeting on time (he couldn't), then left again under a bit of a dark cloud, poor thing.

Daniel complained about breakfast. "We had this sixteen years ago," he cried in dismay, then got really mad and threw a fit when I started laughing uncontrollably (Daniel is three). I am now wearing sackcloth and ashes as I repent of mortally injuring his pride.

I'm tired, tired, tired, after hosting a bridal shower Friday night (dinner at our house for 25); working like mad Saturday on our donated gift baskets for the auction at the Youth Camp Fundraiser Saturday night; and teaching a tough doctrinal topic in Relief Society (the Church's women's organization) yesterday. But today is Needlework Group, so I've got to rally, clean up the usual weekend detritus, and make some treats for when the ladies get here at 10:00. There's no rest to be had today, unfortunately.

(Ladies, I love you and look forward to your terrific company, and I know deep down that you would never judge me for having unswept floors, an overflowing hamper, and no baked goods to offer. Still, I must forgo a nap and prepare for your arrival.)

But bright spots can get me through even the crummiest of Monday mornings. I got an email this morning from a long-lost friend with whom I've recently reconnected. He found my blog a few months ago, and it's been fun to renew our relationship after 20+ years. This morning he sent me a link to a video of "That's Entertainment," by The Jam, a song he first heard when we were driving in his Volkswagen Scirocco from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. (I had been a fan of the band already for several years; I've just always been hip that way.)

The Jam elevated the savoring of bitterness to high pop art; "That's Entertainment" is a great example of lead singer/songwriter Paul Weller's genius in the medium. Though the words are about life in a small, downtrodden English town, for me they will always evoke the memory of driving up Highway One, windows down and Doritos bag and Big Gulp wedged next to the emergency brake, me singing full-throated to the accompaniment of a poor-quality cassette mix tape with a good buddy at my side. And today the song reminds me that, after all, I've got it pretty darn good.

For more Music Monday, please visit its creative originator, Soccer Mom in Denial!

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