Three Books: New Russia, Old Mexico, and Imaginary, Rural Virginia (56 cents)

In my usual way, I recently read three random books (while everyone else was reading the books everyone else is reading).  Just to say what they were:

Alan Gurganus’ “Local Souls”, containing three novelettes taking place in a small town in Virginia.  The 15 year old impregnated by the respected older teacher, who is sent away to have the baby.  Seventeen years pass, she is now married with two young children, when her now 17 year old son (whom she has not seen since the day of his birth) knocks on her door and strikes up a (rather unusual) relationship with her.  A married woman, estranged from her husband, sees her teenage daughter go off to Africa for a summer of community service, and receives the dreaded phone call that she has drowned.  Plans for the funeral go forward, and then something surprising happens.  The respected town doctor grows older, and older, and older, until he isn’t even a shadow of his former self.  How does the town react?  Three interesting and evocative stories – worth reading, but perhaps not worth chasing down.  Published by Liveright Publishing.

Sascha Goluboff’s “New Russia”, set in the Central Synagogue of Moscow in the mid-1990s, after a large section of the Ashkenazic Jewish population of Russia left the city and country (with a significant segment of those remaining being elderly, impoverished or disabled), being replaced by Jews from Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia.  The Muscovite Jews were bred in the Communist USSR, while the newcomers were young, energetic and very business oriented.  Their customs were quite different; these different customs included different ways to conduct religious services, particularly different ways to read from the Torah.  Antagonisms arose at the synagogue, mostly quite petty,  But all reported by Goluboff, who attended weekday services for a year or so – something quite amazing not only because Goluboff is American, but because she is female.  A fascinating window on a unique part of Moscow Jewish life.  Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Edith Couturier’s “The Silver King”, the story of Pedro Romero de Terreros, the Count of Regla, the wealthiest man in 18th century Mexico.  Spanish born, he became the biggest landowner and biggest silver miner in the country.  Couturier (by the way, a friend) did extensive research not only to tell the story of Romero, but to paint a picture of colonial Mexico – a complicated place which is so different from the way the British colonies to the north operated.  Published by the University of New Mexico.

Bach and Britten at Epiphany (4 cents)

As the story goes, Benjamin Britten attended a concert with Dmitri Shostakovich to hear Rostoprovich play.  He had never heard him before, and was more than impressed.  After the concert, Shostakovich introduced the composer to the cellist.  Rostropovich was later to say that (and this was a long time ago), he had not heard of Britten.  But they got on well together, and Rostropovich asked Britten if he would write a piece for him.  The result was the Sonata for cello and piano in C major (actually it was the first of five pieces Britten wrote for the cellist who became his close friend), and I heard it (perhaps for the first time) this afternoon at the Church of the Epiphany, performed by pianist Jeffrey Chappell, and cellist Vasily Popov.

Before they started the piece, Popov gave an interesting (if sometimes hard to hear) introduction, talking about the seminal role Rostropovich played in establishing 20th century cello music.  Many pieces were written with his assistance, many pieces were dedicated to him and written with him in mind, and many pieces were the result of works that Rostropovich himself commissioned.  After the concert, reading a little about this piece, I learned that Britten was a little hesitant about writing for Rostropovich because he was, in fact, not at all familiar with the cello.  Perhaps, this was an advantage, because he seemed to push the instrument well beyond its normal breadth; his biggest concern may have been whether a cellist, even the Maestro, could perform it.  For his part, Rostropovich said that when they first tried out the piece, they waited until they had four or five drinks a piece.  Then, he said, we had a lot of fun.

I did not know what to expect.  It’s a five movement sonata and the first, and I think longest, movement is very fast, very loud, and (can I say it respectfully) very chaotic.  I wondered how much of it I could take (I couldn’t really make sense of it) but certainly admired the technical expertise of the musicians.  But with the second movement, the mood changed (and now I see how Rostropovich and Britten could have had fun) with the cello being plucked, and the piano following right along.

So you don’t go out of the concert hall humming the tune (ha, ha), but you have to admire what you have heard (and enjoyed) — two top notch musicians attacking a clearly difficult piece which stretches the cello to its limits, and challenges the accompanying piano.

Before the Britten, each of the performers played a solo number.  Chappell played one of Bach’s toccatas, again with great technical expertise.  I must say, however, that I had to transform the piece, as I was listening, from piano to harpsichord (what’s my trick?) to really enjoy.  Again, looking on line at some descriptions of Bach’s toccatas, I read that, because they are so exuberant (Bach wrote them when he was quite young), they are much better suited to the harpsichord, and rarely performed on the piano (and that you really need to be a good pianist to perform them well).  I think Chappell did a fine job – but his speed was matched by the decibel level – I am sure that this is the way to perform this piece, but because the piano can be so much louder than the harpsichord, the older instrument does seem by far more preferable.

Popov’s solo was also by Bach, a prelude (D major) from Bach’s Suite for unaccompanied cello.  Very nicely done.

Gone Girl at the Avalon – Meh Minus (44 cents)

The new film “Gone Girl” has received a lot of press and pretty good reviews (8.6 on IMDB, for example), and I went to see it yesterday anticipating that I would agree with the (apparent) majority.  Not so.

It’s a very well acted and directed film, and makes a better than normal use of flashbacks, but the plot line is not only weak and silly, it is disgusting.

All I knew is that a young wife suddenly disappeared and that her husband was pegged as the murderer but was innocent.  What I didn’t know is that the wife would turn out to be a sadistic, criminal lunatic, the husband only marginally better, the setting unbelievable, and that there would be a bevy of holes and inconsistencies in the story line.

So, it’s a horror movie (akin to, say, Fatal Attraction or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) in the guise of a thriller and……who needs it?

Amy Herzog’s “Belleville” – Quick Thoughts (25 cents)

I think that Washington Post critic Peter Marks got it right:  Amy Herzog’s “Belleville”, now at Washington’s Studio Theatre, leaves you “a bit creeped out but less than sufficiently gripped”.  Zack and Abby are newly married Americans living in Paris, where Zack has a job helping to eradicate pediatric AIDS.  But each is more neurotic than the other, their marriage was clearly a colossal mistake, and things obviously have to change.  They do, and for the worst, and what starts out as a fairly typical “can’t we just get along and start from scratch” romantic comedy into a sophomoric horror story, where everything leads to something more unsettled.  Surely, Herzog (and Studio) can do better.

What’s the back story?  It appears that Abby has suffered from serious psychological problems from the day she and Zack first met, and his goal has been to do everything possible to make his wife as secure and as happy as possible (this turns out to be a hopeless task, of course) but his codependency turns out to be largely a manifestation of his own (possibly even more serious) neurosis, which comes out of the proverbial closet leading to unimaginable tragedy.  But the play lacks verisimilitude (after starting as a believable story of just another troubled couple) as Zack’s actions are based on years of major deception, a scale of deception that just cannot be believed.

I saw one other Herzog play, also at Studio, “4000 Miles”, a year or so ago.  A young man stops to stay with his grandmother (an unrepentant Marxist, as I recall) on his bike tour across the country.  He and his grandmother come from different worlds – their lack of previous contact, and the nature of their unexpected contact now, left me cold.

Both these plays have received some strong reviews – but I guess that they are just not for me.

The Michael Obst Musical Score for the Silent “Nosferatu”

“Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” is a 1922 German silent film, directed by F.P. Murnau.  It is basically a retelling of the Dracula story, not authorized by the heirs of Bram Stoker, author of “Dracula”.  After the film was released (the story line basically the same, with some changed details and all changed names), the Stoker heirs sued and the court ruled for the heirs and ordered all copies of the film destroyed.  Most were, but one remained (I am not sure why or how this happened) and we are today able to see what is now a classic early horror film.

The film is not particularly enjoyable to watch in 2014, except for its historical interest.  The version I saw Monday night at the Goethe Institute in Washington had English subtitles and a musical score written about ten years ago by German composer Michael Obst.  Obst was at the showing, and spoke a bit about the art of creating a musical score for a silent film to the crowd (OK, not really a crowd; there were only about 20 in the theater).

I don’t know how (or if) the Obst score was reviewed when it was first heard, but I think that the composer completely nailed it.  It was a perfect accompaniment for the film.  And his explanation of how he went about writing the music was interesting.  If I remember closely enough, he said that there were three things he needed to accomplish:  first, he needed to portray the general atmosphere of the film; second, he needed to react to particular moments of drama – a fight, a flight, etc; and third, he had to go beyond what the actors were saying (or mouthing) and reflect what their characters would have been thinking.  In other words, he said, and I paraphrase, “the dramaturgy of the music must match the dramaturgy of the film”.

I had never thought of musical scores in this way.  Obst opened my eyes.

Two Notable Concerts ($3.25)

I think that Jeremy Filsell is one of Washington’s finest musicians.  Both a concert organist and concert pianist, he serves as Professor of Organ at the Catholic University of America, artist in residence at the National Cathedral, and music director at the Church of the Epiphany.  His concerts always mesmerize me.

Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to hear him twice, first a piano concert at Epiphany, and then an organ recital at the Cathedral.  Notable.  Why?

I thought his piano recital was notable because he had selected a series of pieces which were just filled with notes.  He played four fairly short pieces by Debussy (an arabesque and three preludes), which were each beautiful in different (but distinctively French) ways, and which shared one characteristic – an overabundance of notes, in each case creating the mood the composer was looking for.  He also played Rachmaninoff’s Sonata no. 2 in B flat major, a piece I did not know, but again one which contained note upon note upon note – this time (as Rachmaninoff is prone to do) the many notes are there to challenge the pianist (and to let Sergei R. prove to himself that he can write a piece with more notes than the last piece).  Filsell more than met the challenge.

Thirdly, Filsell played four short pieces by Francis Pott (British, born 1957), four unique pieces (I certainly had not heard them before, and knew nothing about Pott) that were delightful (and filled with notes).  Pott is a friend of Filsell, it appears.  Two of the pieces, a comic piece titled “The Church Mouse and the Organist” (the church mouse is a quiet little fellow enjoying a quiet little life, until he comes in contact with the sounds of the organist) and “The King Went Forth to Normandy” (a piece honoring the organist on his move to America) were dedicated to Filsell.  These pieces were wonderfully played and accompanied by a delightful explanation of each piece, written (I assume) by Pott.  (For example, speaking of the excitement at the end of the last piece, Potts says:  “The music is much more demanding technically than what has gone before, and represents a letting down of compositional hair….fitting celebration of Filsell’s triumphant progress towards the New World”.

It is not common for a musician to be top notch both in piano and organ. Yes, they are both keyboard instruments, but technically they are very, very different.  On Sunday afternoon, I went to the National Cathedral (part of its free Sunday organ concert series) because I wouldn’t want to miss a chance to hear Filsell play. I did look at the advertised program and saw that I had never heard of any of the composers of the pieces to be played; this gave me second thoughts about going.  And perhaps I should have listened to those second thoughts.

The program was developed as a part of a series of programs celebrating the Cathedral’s 100th anniversary, or some such thing.  Each of the composers was someone who had a connection with the Cathedral – perhaps a music director, or a teacher, or an organist.  Leo Sowerby, Richard Wayne Dirksen, Charles Callahan, Richard Roeckelein, Douglas Major, Calvin Hampton.  Know any of them?

The only composer at the concert was Roeckelein, which I believe still lives in the area.  He taught at St. Alban’s School, the Cathedral’s boys’ school.  After hearing the first three pieces, I was concerned that the entire program was going to be of third rate compositions, but I am happy to say that I enjoyed Rockelein’s Prelude, Elegy & Toccata.  It was the only piece I enjoyed.  The remaining pieces, I thought, ranged from “Let Me Outta Hear” to “Wake Me When It’s Over”.

They also did not seem overly challenging (of course, who am I to judge), and I got the feeling that this concert was a concert of obligation for Filsell (not begrudged, but none the less obligation), and not one of love.  Of course, I could be wrong. But because it was so much less inspiring that other concerts of Filsell’s that I have attended,  I found it notable.

Two More Interesting World War II Personal Stories (3 cents)

Odette Meyers has taught French literature at a number of California universities and colleges.  Not surprising, because she grew up in France, immigrating to the United States when she was a teenager, with her parents and younger sister.  She has published her story, “Doors to Madame Marie”, in 1997 (University of Washington Press).

Born in Paris to Jewish parents who had come to France to escape antisemitism in Poland, she grew up a somewhat precocious child in the City of Light, an impoverished but fulfilling childhood destroyed by the coming of the German Nazis.  Her father was drafted into the French Army and taken prisoner by the Germans.  For a long time it was not clear whether he was still alive.  To protect Odette, her mother had arranged that she was given false papers and sent to a country town where she was to be raised as a young Catholic French girl.  Her mother apparently also survived in Paris on false papers.

The story of Odette’s life as a young Catholic girl in a very provincial town, and her return to post-war Paris, reunited with her parents (secular, not religious Jews), but still at some level thinking of herself as Catholic.  The story of Paris and its treatment of its Jews before, during and after the war, as well as the tale of those who did not survive the war.  And the story of Odette’s relationship with Madame Marie, her childhood apartment building concierge.  All this makes fascinating reading, and gives the reader a different perspective of a young Jewish child during the 1940s in France.  Recommended.

An even different perspective comes from David E. Feldman’s “Pilgrimage from Darkness”, the story of Asher Eder, formerly Oskar Eder.  Eder, as a young man and a non-Jewish German raised in a small Bavarian town where Jews were non-existent, served in the German Army during World War II as a pilot and trainer, although somehow he didn’t see combat.  While the war was still going on, he met some members of the Polish resistance and, with a few other German officers, wound up supporting the underground.  He was never caught.  After peace came, he practiced law for a short while in Hamburg, but it wasn’t for him, and he began a lengthy spiritual quest, in Europe and for a long period of time in India.  One thing led to another and he found himself in Israel, a place he did not expect to visit, and he became surprisingly interested in things Jewish, changing his name from Oskar to Asher, studying and eventually converting.  When this book was written, he was acting as a tour guide in Israel (he still may be, although his years would be catching up with him).  The book was written by someone who took one of his tours, guessed that he wasn’t born Jewish, and, over tea, asked him his story.  Also recommended, the book was published by the University Press of Mississippi (why not?) in 2004.

“Long Goodbye” – a Book About the Right to Die, Highly Recommended ($1.53)

On January 11, 1983, 25 year old Nancy Cruzan was involved in a one car automobile accident on Krummel Nursery Road in Carthage, Missouri.  Still breathing but unresponsive, she was taken to a nearby hospital.  She remained alive, but unresponsive and in a coma and a persistent vegetative state, until the early morning of December 26, 1990, when she died.

Nancy Cruzan was very close to her parents, her sister and her nieces, all of whom wanted the best for her, and each of whom became convinced that her condition was not going to change for the better.  Although Nancy could breathe on her own and did not need a respirator, she could not eat on her own, even if fed by hand.  So a feeding tube was inserted to provide her with nutrition.  After much thought and discussion, her family decided that Nancy’s best interest lay in removing the feeding tube, and letter her die a natural death.  They were convinced that the death would be painless and that Nancy would die comfortably.  They were certain that this is what Nancy would have wanted.

The facility in which Nancy spent her final years did not agree.  While they acknowledged that medical care could be eliminated in a case like this, they concluded that nutrition was not medical care and that removing the feeding tube could be determined to have been the first step in her murder.  In addition to the potential criminal liability, hospital officials had moral or ethical objections to removing the feeding tube and it appeared that, even if a court determined that it was possible to disconnect Nancy from her food supply, they might not be willing to actually perform the act.  They would, in such a circumstance, however, not object to Nancy being transferred to another facility where the ethical conclusions were different.

William Colby, a young lawyer with a large Kansas City firm, was asked by his firm’s pro bono committee if he would be willing to represent the family and bring litigation to get permission for Nancy’s feeding tube to be disconnected.  He agreed, not knowing what he was getting himself into.  In 2002, Colby published his account of this tragic situation, “Long Goodbye: The Deaths of Nancy Cruzan”.  It is a fascinating book because of the underlying story and the many issues the story raises.  It is a book I highly recommend also because Colby’s writing is so readable, so clear, and so compelling, and he writes both with the dispassion of a lawyer, and the passion of someone who became very close to his clients.

This was a case without bad guys.  Everyone sympathized with the Cruzan family, even if their own personal ethical beliefs, or their interpretation of Missouri law, put them in opposition to the Cruzans in court.  There were a number of issues involved – the Missouri law, whether a feeding tube is a medical instrument, how can one determine the intent of someone who cannot express intent, what – if any – constitutional rights of privacy against state intrusions into medical decisions exist.  The state opposed the Cruzans in court.  At the trial court level (actually probate court), the Curzans won.  On appeal, they lost.  They applied for a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.  At the last minute, it was granted.  The Supreme Court heard the case.  On a 5-4 decision, they ruled against the Curzans, upholding the appellate court decision.

But the Supreme Court case contained a loophole.  The court determined that there was insufficient evidence presented that would require a court to conclude that Nancy Curzan would have wanted her nutrition halted in these circumstances.  If additional evidence ever turned up………..

And it did.  Two new witnesses appeared – women who had worked with Curzan years before and had spoken with her about her end of life medical care beliefs.  A new case was commenced in the state courts.  The state determined this time not to intervene.  The feeding tubes could be pulled and Nancy died, almost eight years after the accident.

The toll on her family was enormous.  They never recovered from the ordeal.  Her father, persistent in his attempts to do what was best for his daughter, persistent in the attention he paid to her and to her care, committed suicide six years after his daughter’s death.  His wife died of cancer a few years after that.  Her sister, after dealing with serious depression, apparently recovered – and devoted her time to running a foundation to help others deal with difficult end of life decisions.

There were, of course, other cases involving similar situations; Nancy Cruzan was not the only person to wind up in a persistent vegetative state.  What should be society’s role in these decisions?  What should be the role of the immediate family?  What is the line between stopping life-saving processes and murder?  These issues will come up again and again, particularly as medical care becomes technologically more advanced.  Opinions – all well intentioned – run from pro-life, to pro-personal autonomy.  The Living Will movement is meant to deal with this situation, as are the laws of all of the states (which of course differ from each other – why should this be?).



Today’s concert by Cha Park – a few notes (42 cents)

Today’s concert at Church of the Epiphany was a triumph in several ways.  Young Korean born, Washington resident Cha Young Park was cursed during her playing of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 by a couple of disruptive people in the back of the church.  They were part of a small group of mentally challenged individuals who were brought to the concert, but who could not help themselves from groaning and making other sounds as the music went on.  It is very generous to invite these people to attend, but when they can’t control their sounds, it becomes very disruptive to the artist and to the audience.  Mid-way through the piece (after further disruption by an irate older man yelling “get out right now.  you have no right to insult the pianist,as he bolted from his seat and went out the door) the group left the church and the concert continued.  This is the second time this has happened this year, and I think that this particular group should be discouraged from coming back. I am not sure why this has already not been done.

While Ms. Park did not appear to have let the disruption disrupt her playing, I am sure that, in subtle ways, it did.  Not the technical aspects, but the emotional ones.  Certainly, as an audience member, I was continually distracted.  Perhaps this is why I thought that something was lost from the obviously talented playing.  I don’t think it was because of anything the soloist did herself.

From the Beethoven, Ms. Park went to Chopin, selecting his Andante and Grande Polonaise Brillante.  Her playing of this was magnificent, from the softness of the opening portion to the brilliance of the latter half of the piece.  Could not imagine it being played better.

She then chose, as an encore, a Scriabin left hand doctrine.  She explained that she had been looking at the repertoire for left hand only, and discovered this particular piece that she described as beautiful.  She said she was still learning it, used the music, and apologized in advance for any missed notes (if there were any, they passed right by me).  Again, beautiful playing of a piece that I do not remember hearing previously and which, as she says, is an extremely appealing (and obviously challenging) work.

Ms. Park teaches at the Levine School.  Her descriptions of the three pieces she played were informative, as far as I could tell.  Without a microphone, her somewhat soft voice did not carry well, at least to where I was sitting.

I did not write about last week’s concert by the United States Army String Quarter.  They played Beethoven and Ravel, and again it was a wonderful concert.  I especially enjoyed the Ravel.

The Wisdom of the Ancients (3 cents)

A few years ago, I read Graham Hancock’s “Fingerprints of the Gods”, a very intriguing book which looked at the various myths that are pervasive across Latin America, based on the appearance in times far past, of a red headed white man from an unknown civilization.  Hancock talked about the similarities of the traditions of communities that existed at different times, in different places, with no contact with each other, thus concluding that there might actually have been some truth to the myths.  He went on and looked at certain other places in the world, particularly Egypt as I recall, and showed some similarities between the traditions in those places and the traditions he studied in Central and South America.  He then developed a most unusual premise – that being that there was at one time, before the last ice age, when a civilization existed on the continent now known as Antarctica, an advanced civilization the knowledge of which has been completely lost.  And that the visitors to Latin America, and Africa, came from this civilization, leaving behind on traces of their visits.

Well, this was very interesting to think about, and I am waiting for the time that enough ice melts at the South Pole to test Hancock’s theory.  The publication of “Fingerprints of the Gods” did not end Hancock’s study of the subject, and his further research and thoughts are set out in his “Heaven’s Mirror: Quest for the Lost Civilization”, which he published with his photographer-wife Santha Faila.  I must admit that I did not read this entire book, only the sections on Mexico and Central America, the on Egypt.  He goes on to look at Cambodia, the Pacific (Easter Island) and South America.  Looking at ancient buildings and structures, he finds again many similarities, including many common elements based on astronomical observations that are thought in common knowledge to have begun in Greek times, but which he believes were being observed thousands of years earlier.

Again, he posits the existence of an advanced earlier civilization, now lost.  It does not look like he is here suggesting that the civilization was Antarctic (he does refer readers to “Fingerprints of the Gods”), but he does believe that such a civilization existed, being wiped out about 10,000 years ago, before the time of any civilizations about which we have affirmative records.

Another book written by Hancock, “The Mars Mystery”, dealt with the placement of ancient temples and other buildings in reference to the positions of the stars (as those positions have changed throughout the centuries). “Heaven’s Mirror” builds on this as well as on “Fingerprints of the Gods”, and he pays a lot of attention to the placement of structures, and their sizing, in connection with very sophisticated celestial measurements.  Is it possible that this was the common basis of virtually all ancient religious sites?  Of course it is, but whether it is likely, I don’t know.  But this is a topic that tantalizes many, and not only in this context.  For example, I also recently ran through (its details make “reading it” too difficult) “The Secret Architecture of Our Nation’s Capital”, which claims that the street system of Washington DC, and many of its public buildings, were also designed to fit into astronomical, and astrological, patterns, in order to bring the world into balance and help bring about human fulfillment and success.  The book is filled with measurements, and calculations, and you can read it (as you can read Hancock) and conclude that the book’s conclusions are obvious.  But, on the other hand, the possibility that those involved in the design and construction of governmental Washington were both educated in and fixated on creating a city on this basis seems illogical.

So, there is a conclusion to be reached about all of this.  Unfortunately, we human being (and especially me) are not intelligent or knowledgeable enough to discover it.