Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tempest at BAM

More Shakespeare. Always more Shakespeare. Is he really that good? Don't we ever get tired of him? Can we really be expected to properly digest still another helping of the Bard?

My view is that Shakespeare is overdone and overrated. But only in the sense that after a while we lose sight of what part of his oeuvre is really worth savoring again and again and which part can more profitably be set aside. Honestly, I have probably seen all the productions of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost that I care to. Just because it's Shakespeare doesn't make it good. And even something like, say, Measure for Measure, which we saw recently, is so rough and flawed that I doubt it merits all the attention it sometimes gets.

Which sort of brings me to the current production of The Tempest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, part of the Bridge Project, which combines casts of English and American actors in classic plays by Chekhov, Shakespeare, and the like. We saw an earlier Bridge Production play about a month ago, Shakespeare's As You Like It (another non-masterpiece, by the way). The Tempest, on the other hand, has come to be regarded as one of Shakespeare's greatest, sort of the culmination of his art.

This production stars Stephen Dillane (so good in "The Hours" as Virginia Woolf's husband) as Propero, Juliet Rylance as Miranda, and a wonderful Ron Cephas Jones as the half-man, half-monster Caliban. Ariel, the sprite who does just about all of Propero's dirty work, is played by Rylance's real life new husband, Christian Camargo. Somehow, though, I couldn't really find much room to be moved by this play. Prospero is too forced, Miranda too weak, Caliban too one-sided, Ariel too worldly. But could it be that the play itself is overrated? That the scenes between Prospero and Miranda are inevitably moving and the relationship between Prospero and Ariel kind of interesting, but that much of the maneuvering for power in the middle of the play is, well, just pretty uninvolving, something we have to get beyond to get to the conclusion when Propero can unite his daughter with her suitor, Ferdinand, and the Duke can be forgiven for usurping Propero's rightful place. You know all the reassuring, tying the loose ends together that Shakespeare is so good at, and that leaves us walking out of the theater with a smile. By my smile this time was only partial, as I found myself wondering once again whether this is still another example of a Shakespeare play that is greater in reputation than in actuality.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Next Fall

We saw the play "Next Fall" when it was off-Broadway this summer. We thought it was sensational. We wanted to see it again but it sold out its run before we could. Now, in one of those rare cases of an unknown play making the leap to the Great White Way, it is in Broadway previews and we saw it again last night.

It's a simple love story between two gay men. One is older and a bit plain looking, the other youthful and attractive; one a cynical atheist, the other a Christian fundamentalist. It is not easily summarized, as the brilliance of the play is in the particularities of character and conversation and situation. In his rave review of the original play, the Times theater critic Ben Brantley was sensitive to the hackneyed tendencies of this set-up when he wrote: "You can imagine its concept being pitched to a television producer as a sort of “Will & Grace” with an ontological conscience: He’s a committed Christian, while he’s a committed atheist, and it’s driving their crazy friends even crazier!"

Yet, as Brantley went on to explain, this story is told so artfully that it feels like a long and completely unplanned conversation. Suffice it to say, that every actor is perfect in her or his role and as an audience member I did have the sensation of overhearing real exchanges about issues, dilemmas and conflicts, however raw and unresolved, that struck me as everyday and yet profound. Perhaps the most interesting part of the relationship between the two men is that the fundamentalist really does believe his partner is damned, and his real love for his atheist makes this concern all the more touching.

The plot does hinge as well on a possibly fatal accident with most of the play being told as a kind of flashback, so having a death weighing in the balance would seem to make this cliche-inclining piece even more rickety, but somehow it all works. We really do end up caring about the people on stage and see ourselves indirectly reflected in all of them as well. All the fundamental things apply. Theater at its best reminding us about what matters most and what vulnerable and exhilarating creatures we can be.

Friday, February 26, 2010


It's snowing again in New York City. When you add it all up, this is more snow than New York City has seen in a long time. For those of us walking on sidewalks or traveling by subways and ferries, it doesn't matter much, though the shuttle from the Ferry to Wagner College has been suspended a couple of times recently. But the driving is impossible and the repeated closings do take their toll on some institutions. I don't personally worry about it a whole lot, though. I just enjoy the big flakes that stick to my black overcoat. I should add that since the damp snow makes for excellent packing, snowball fights are breaking out with shocking frequency on Amsterdam Avenue. And winter boots are finally getting a real workout.

Which leads to a topic that has caused me considerable consternation. Umbrella use in the snow. Never have I encountered so many people who use umbrellas in the snow as they do in New York City. Why do they do it? Don't they understand that umbrellas, given their inconvenience and cumbersomeness, especially in big cities, are to be reserved strictly for major downpours. Umbrellas are useful and necessary in the rain, but in the snow, they just create needless clutter, while severely limiting your ability to catch snowflakes in your mouth. Nothing should interfere with something that important, certainly not the very umbrellas whose edges have left scars on my cheek and nearly decapitated me once or twice. I'm thinking of starting a campaign to outlaw umbrella use in the snow. Maybe I can convert the whole city to my way of thinking like the "pooper scooper" lady did during the 1970s. All I have to do is convince New Yorkers that umbrella are a blight and health risk, just like stray dog crap. Shouldn't be hard at all.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Who is Deborah Kenny and How Do We Encourage More Like Her?

As reported by Bob Herbert in the New York Times on Tuesday, Deborah Kenny has won national attention as a school reformer for creating three charter schools in Harlem that follow one simple rule: hire and nurture teachers who share her passion for learning and reading and who want, more than anything else, to imbue their students with that same passion. These three schools that together are called the Harlem Village Academies are obsessed with "developing people," Deborah Kenny says. Too many schools have put their energies into curriculum or testing or organization, while neglecting the most important piece by far. Recruiting remarkable teachers who are "talented and passionate and given the freedom and support to teach well," Kenny affirms, is "just 100 times more important than anything else."

During his visit to Kenny's schools, Herbert found schools that were energizing but calm, enthusiastic but peaceful. A great deal of attention had been paid to establishing the conditions inside the schools for thinking, active, engaged learning, and for the students to work well together. Bullying and violence of any kind are strictly taboo. When Herbert asked one boy why there were no fights in the school, the boy answered matter of factly, "Because it's not allowed."

Kenny insists that putting the focus on great people is the starting point, but you also must create a culture, so sorely lacking in other schools, that supports ongoing learning and helps teachers, each day, to get better at what they do. This really does mean that the teachers' learning is as important as the students' and, as Kenny emphasizes, that they have the "kind of freedom that allows their passion for teaching to [continue to] flourish." The more passionate the teachers are about learning, adds Kenny, the more passionate the kids become.

The schools have been phenomenally successful in raising standardized test scores, but, as Herbert explains, no one is teaching to the tests. Five goals drive the school. 1. Character Building 2. Developing a Sense of Social Responsibility 3. Acquiring Broad, General Knowledge 4. Having a Passion for Reading 5. Becoming Critical, Reflective Thinkers. Kenny insists these goals are possible for everyone, whether students come from affluent suburbs or poor urban neighborhoods. She is making it her mission to create as many such schools as possible in the unlikeliest environments imaginable. President Obama and Secretary Duncan take note. Maybe, just maybe, Deborah Kenny has the answer to one of our nation's most intractable problems.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rain in New York

We enjoyed our special New York day yesterday, though the persistent rain, poor planning, and a bit of bad luck did slow us down some. With respect to the planning, the main unanticipated problem was that our goal to see MoMA's Matisses (Karen's favorite painter) was thwarted by the simple fact that it is closed on Tuesdays. Whoops! The bad luck descended when our favorite breakfast place at Columbus Circle couldn't cook breakfast at all, because of some kind of power failure. Yet, filet mignon was not out of the question, so we opted for filet. Delicious!

As for the rain, the more we walked and the more it came down the more our feet got soaked, causing that mildly uncomfortable squishy feeling in our shoes. But that was okay and once we hit the Met, we hardly noticed. We toured the contemporary galleries, stopping to gaze at the existential sculptures of Giacometti, the surpassingly beautiful interiors of Bonnard, and the inexhaustible genius of Matisse captured in numerous works. Speaking of inexhaustible, we then went searching through the maze of European galleries, pre-19th century, for the 17th century Dutch. We finally found them and especially the Rembrandts (Steve's favorite). Two in particular stand out, his Self-Portrait of late middle age from about 1660 and his Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer.

We left the museum, pensive but satisfied, but the rain continued to fall and we still faced a walk across Central Park before ducking into our Barnes and Noble on the other side and then heading home to prepare for our final Beethoven. Because everyone else wanted a cab, too, it was impossible. After quickly considering a downtown bus and then transferring to a crosstown, we embraced the rain, which had lessened a bit, and enjoyed a beautiful and solitary walk hand in hand through that greatest of parks. That simple walk, splashing down the lanes of Central Park, was the best part of our day yet. And if a cab had been available, we would have missed it. Good luck this time and all in all a fine day.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New York Day

What should go into a day celebrating New York and ourselves? A delicious New York breakfast for sure, topped with bagels and lox. A journey to Central Park, darting in and out of bridges and tunnels, standing under the canopy of trees leading to the Bethesda Fountain, and hearing the birds in all their pre-spring vivacity. The museums for sure are a must, but which ones? MoMA and the Met, the Paley and the Museum of the City of New York. N-Y needs at least passing mention, as does the great public library. Our beloved Barnes & Noble has to be included where a new New York book can be bought or a DVD about the Examined Life examined. No plays this day, but many to be remembered and scenes to be read that give us happy pause. Poems are the order of the day, about love and life and work and love and play and serious savoring. And great music must be heard, the final concert of that great cycle of concerts that has caused us so much trouble and given us so much joy. And the day must end with loving appreciation of all that New York and one another can give. To New York and to us!

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Little Night Music Mishap

It started out as an exciting and festive evening. My niece Micaela was visiting and we all had tickets to the much acclaimed revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical, "A Little Night Music." We enjoyed a cheese plate and some hummus before the show and we were all jaunty and chatty as we fairly skipped to the theater, just a few blocks away. Micaela had acquired her ticket in the usual way and already knew where she would be sitting, so we sent her into the theater and we all agreed to meet during intermission. Karen and I had gotten our tickets through the discount group known as TDF, so we got into a surprisingly long and slow moving line at will call and impatiently wondered if we would get our tickets in time for the curtain. When we finally reached the front of the line, we were told somewhat curtly that our names were not on the list for tickets. This, by the way, had never, not once, happened to us before. Karen dug into her blackberry and actually showed them our confirmation number which then led them to explain that the tickets had actually been sent to us by mail ahead of time. Stunned that perhaps they had gotten lost but also just a bit chagrined that absent-minded Steve might have tucked them into the little purse where we keep all our tickets and proceeded to forget about them, we hurried back to our apartment, grabbed the forgotten tickets, and then hailed a cab back to the theater entrance. We showed the usher our tickets, who looked at his watch, noted we were 40 minutes late, and then smiled and added sweetly that the best parts were still to come. They let us right in to the back row of the orchestra section which is where our seats were located. We watched the end of the first act, first with a taint of disappointment, but then with increasing pleasure as we settled into the story and the clever musical numbers.

At intermission, we never did see Micaela, in part because the theater is so small and gets incredibly congested when everyone leaves their seats at once to go to the bathroom or buy refreshments. During the second half, we almost forgot that we had missed the whole first half of the first act, and derived considerable pleasure, not only from the great Angela Lansbury, but also from the very fine singer who was the substitute for an absent Catherine Zeta-Jones (this had been announced beforehand which is why we got such good seats.

When we finally reunited with Micaela at the end of the show, we all exclaimed how much we had enjoyed ourselves. But when we explained to Micaela how we had missed the first 40 minutes, she hesitated and at first hinted that we hadn't missed much, and then enthused about her favorite numbers, all of which seemed to be in that first 40 minutes! Karen and I smiled at each other and silently agreed that's what you get for not being more careful. But, hey, we were glad for Micaela, and that even we, despite missing all the best stuff, had, in the end, enjoyed a delightful, well performed show.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sidewalks and Gum

Have you ever noticed how much chewing gum gets ground into city sidewalks? Well, I have and when you start looking for it, it turns up everywhere! Just think about a busy big city sidewalk for a moment. Wouldn't you say at least 1000 people go by any particular segment of that sidewalk every day? Let's say that's true and that 5% are chewing gum and 2% of that 5% discourteously throw their gum down on the sidewalk as they pass by without even considering the impact of such an act on others. Okay, so 5% of 1000 is 50 and 2% of 50 is exactly one person. Thus, it follows precisely that one person each day drops his or her gum onto any random piece of sidewalk in the big city. Within a month that's 30 pieces of gum that have been deposited on the pavement in front of your favorite Starbuck's or whatever to mar the otherwise lovely concrete that so graciously receives our happy, sojourning feet.

But thankfully, there are power washers who with a combination of highly pressurized water and gritty sand can magically remove all that gummy grime from your walking space. I mean all that gum can get depressing, so it always brings a smile to my face to see the man with the power washer emerge from his cocoon to make our city look new again. What would we do without him? And when will all these nasty gum throwers halt their nefarious ways, so that the power washers can get on with the far more important work of keeping all of the other crevices of our city as gleaming as they should be.

So anti-gumthrowers unite! Stop the indiscriminate disposal of chewing gum on our city streets and come together to celebrate what a city can look like when it is really clean and utterly gum-free.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Beethoven Beatitude

Last night the Pacifica Quartet performed the fourth concert of a cycle of six Beethoven String Quartets being presented at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall from February 5 to February 23. Now the Quartet in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (used to be the Guarneri, so this is a big deal), the Pacifica was in fine form, especially playing Beethoven's God-like Op. 132.

The third movement of Beethoven's Op. 132 string quartet is an unusually slow and meditative adagio and is, without question, the heart of the entire quartet. Much of it seems to be designed to provide the build up for the two times that the instruments surge to a breathtaking height of immense emotional release. If I were a musician, I could tell you about it in musical terms. If I were a better writer, I might be able to describe what the instruments are doing during those two great surges of emotion. Beethoven meant the whole movement to be a hymn of thanks for continued life, and it does leave one exhilarated and drained. These brief surges of stringed glory are truly monumental moments in the long history of classical music.

What makes those two brief sequences especially dramatic is that the instruments are very quiet for a long period before suddenly bursting into a crescendo of sound that turns quickly into a kind of echoing fugue of joy and appreciation. It is so beautiful and such a striking contrast with what has come before, it often induces tears in me even though I know exactly when it's coming.

Finally, this movement of something like 17 minutes ends in a very long repetition of a simple but beautiful prayer-like melody. Playing it over and over again with different emphases and highly creative use of dynamics, the quartet plays this song plaintively but also with deep appreciation. The song, taken to extremes of pitch and sound by all the instruments, brings this part of the quartet to a mournful but awe-filled conclusion.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Enjoy the show"

When you go to the theater these days it is common to hear a recorded announcement that asks you to shut off all electronic devices and to refrain from photography and that concludes with the words "enjoy the show." I found myself thinking about the word "enjoy" in this context as I listened to still another of these announcements the other day. Somehow, given so much of the theater we have been seeing lately, the word "enjoy" didn't quite capture what we have been experiencing.

Now, don't get me wrong, enjoyment is an almost necessary outcome of any theater going experience, but since I also think it is often so much more than that, it feels inadequate, an only partial description of what we expect from theater. We do expect to be entertained, to be diverted, to allow time to pass in a pleasant manner, which is largely what I take enjoy to mean. But we, or certainly I, often want something more. I want to be educated, enlightened, even transformed, at least occasionally. I want to see things I don't necessarily get an opportunity to see in my everyday life, and even more, I want to witness conversations that transport me beyond the everyday, to a different place or time, to mingle with people I don't often get to meet, and to be a part of exchanges that are new to me, but also help me see my own life in a new light. I want a lot, it's true, but what continues to amaze me is how often I actually experience the things I say I want, how often theater seems to change my outlook on the world.

If all that can be covered under the verb "enjoy," so be it. As it turns out, in at least one dictionary I consulted, "enjoy" means not only to experience pleasure, but also to derive some benefit, which is closer to what I have in mind. Still, since enjoy may not be as comprehensive as the theater experience actually allows, I want to amend that recording, to come up with a parting remark that shows deeper respect for what theater actually does for it and what we do for it.

So here it is: "Savor the show!"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Miracle Worker

We saw the revival of "The Miracle Worker" at Circle in the Square on Monday night. It is still in previews and still needs work, particularly in getting the young woman who plays Helen Keller to express the explosive pent-up energy that made Keller such an irresistibly fascinating character. Still, it is a fine play and the Annie Sullivan role is played beautifully by Allison Pill, an actress we have come to admire quite a lot since we saw her in a play by Neil LaBute called "Reasons to be Pretty."

The best parts of the play are in the stage directions that are expected to be enacted by the actors. Early on in the play, there is a long scene, in which no words are spoken but which takes up four pages of text, where Annie and Helen spar brutally for dominance over the breakfast table. Annie insists that Helen learn table manners, that she learn to fold a napkin and use a spoon. And Helen resists her at every turn. Even to read these directions is to get a sense of what a titanic conflict of wills was at work here, and how indefatigable Annie Sullivan was. In a very real sense, "The Miracle Worker" is about refusing to give up (Annie called it the "original sin"), no matter how crushing the challenge.

Here are a few, but by no means all, of those stage directions:

"Annie now removes the plate of food. Helen grabbing finds it missing, and commences to bang with her fists on the table. Annie collects a fistful of spoons and descends with them and the plate on Helen; she lets her smell the plate, at which Helen ceases banging, and Annie puts the plate down and a spoon in Helen's hand. Helen throws it on the floor. Annie puts another spoon in her hand. Helen throws it on the floor. Annie puts another spoon in her hand. Helen throws it on the floor. When Annie comes to her last spoon she sits next to Helen and gripping the spoon in Helen's hand compels her to take food in it up to her mouth. Helen sits with lips shut. Annie waits a stolid moment, then lowers Helen's hand. She tries again; Helen's lips remain shut. Annie waits, lowers Helen's hand. She tries again; this time Helen suddenly opens her mouth and accepts the food. Annie lowers the spoon with a sigh of relief, and Helen spews the mouthful out at her face. Annie sits a moment with eyes closed, then takes the pitcher and dashes its water into Helen's face, who gasps astonished. Annie with Helen's hand takes up another spoonful, and shoves it into her open mouth. Helen swallows involuntarily, and while she is catching her breath Annie forces her palm open, throws four swift letters into it, then another four, and bows toward her with devastating pleasantness."

"Annie says Good girl.

"Annie lifts Helen's hand to feel her face nodding; Helen grabs a fistful of her hair, and yanks. The pain brings Annie to her knees, and Helen pummels her; they roll under the table, and the lights commence to dim out on them."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Helen Fisher at the Goog

Works and Process at the Guggenheim on Sunday night focused on Emotion and Motion. More specifically, on sex, how it gets expressed, and the extent to which ballet can capture it. We love these events at the Guggenheim, not least because of the wine, sandwiches, cookies, and nuts they lavish on us afterwards. But, once again, as much as I loved the lecture by the incomparable Helen Fisher, one of America's leading biological anthropologists, and the three short ballets put on by the Paris Ballet Theater, I couldn't quite make out the connection between the two. Oh, but who cares, really? Fisher was fascinating, particularly when she told us about her latest research regarding the four sexual temperaments - Explorer, Builder, Director, and Negotiator - and revealed that the Northeast is just loaded with Negotiators and the South, on the other hand, simply riddled with Builders. If you want to know more about what she means by these temperaments and even take a little test to determine your own predominating tendencies, go to the following link: Also, the short ballet segments that they featured were beautifully done.

For the record, it turns out that at this point in my life I am an EXPLORER/negotiator, with the Explorer personality type predominating. My primary, Explorer traits are that I am:
* Novelty seeking
* Impulsive and spontaneous
* Curious
* Creative
* Flexible
* Open-minded
* Energetic
My secondary, Negotiator traits are that I am:
* Seeing the big picture
* Imaginative
* Intuitive
* Verbal
* Empathetic
* Trusting
* Introspective

What neither of these sets of traits refer to are my lack of discipline, tendency to daydream, inability to stay focused on a consistent exercise program, difficulty putting ideas into action, and adoration of cheese, any kind of cheese.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New York Run

Much to our surprise, Karen and I are already well into our longest, uninterrupted run of Manhattan culture that we have been able to sustain in our short history together. Beginning Friday evening, February 12 and continuing through Monday, March 1, we are scheduled to attend at least one play, musical event, lecture, or film each afternoon or evening. Our calendar looks something like this:

February 12 - Enemy of the People (play)
February 13 - The War Room (film); Happy, Now? (play)
February 14 - Emotion and Motion (Sex and Dance at the Guggenheim Works and Process)
February 15 - Miracle Worker (play)
February 16 - Gladwell and Gopkin (lecture - 92nd Street Y)
February 17 - A Little Night Music (musical)
February 18 - The Underground Railroad (Lecture - New York Historical Society)
February 19 - Beethoven
February 20 - Fredrick Wiseman's Domestic Violence (Film)
February 21 - Beethoven
February 22 - Skip Gates at Barnes and Noble (lecture)
February 23 - Beethoven (last in the string quartet cycle)
February 24 - Special Show at MoMA
February 25 - Playwrights on Plays at Barnes and Noble (reading)
February 26 - Next Fall (play)
February 27 - Tempest at BAM (play)
February 28 - Leipzig Symphony Doing Beethoven at Carnegie Hall
March 1 - Recalling the Broadway Musical Fiorello at New York Historical Society

You got to admit, that's a lot of culture. And when you add in that I am already beginning to do a little side research on Annie Sullivan (Helen Keller's teacher), it gets very hectic, indeed. But, hey, we wouldn't have it any other way.

Please do look for commentary in this blog on many, though not all, of he various events indicated above.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Philip Roth (Part 4)

So there I was sitting in this cold, lonely jail somewhere on the Upper West Side and wondering how I would ever get any sleep when I heard loud, angry, disruptive voices coming my way. It turned out I had three visitors: Karen, the Sergeant on duty, and Philip Roth. They had all come to liberate me from my waking nightmare.

"Oh, dear love," Karen began, "I got here as soon as I could, but then Philip" (My quick thought: Philip?) "insisted on coming with me when he had heard what had happened and how badly things had gotten out of hand."

I looked over at Mr. Roth, who still wore that dour look, said nothing, but did nod encouragingly. The sergeant unlocked the cell and apologized quietly under his breath. Before I knew it we were standing in the cold night air and I could tell for the first time in hours that things were pretty much back to normal.

"But how did Mr. Roth find out about this?" I inquired. "I ran back into the theater," Karen explained, "and it was intermission and I saw him and told him the whole story. He was very sorry. During the cab ride on the way over here, we became fast friends."

Roth speaks: "She is quite a girl, your Karen."

"Yes, I know," I answered warily, "but what about all that has happened between us?"

"Well, right, of course, it was all a terrible misunderstanding," Roth says, all the while looking at Karen as if seeking her permission to add something special. "Can you ever forgive me? In a way, it's really quite amusing, you know. I was thinking I might even insert this whole incident into the novel I'm working on. What do you think of that? Karen thought it was a wonderful idea."

"Isn't that thrilling, darling, that Philip would want to put you in his novel?" Karen asked enthusiastically. I couldn't think, so I just nodded. I had to admit I liked the idea of being a character in Roth's novel, and really, all in all, very little harm had been done.

"So, what do you say?" Roth asked. "Shall we part as friends? I'll go home and turn a few sentences around and see if I can't figure out a way to put all this into my book." Roth smiled at this point for the first time in my presence, though something told me he hadn't stopped smiling during the whole cab ride with Karen. Still I couldn't resist returning his smile.

"Sure, it's all behind us and we're all friends now," I said magnanimously. "So what's the novel about?" I asked with genuine curiosity.

"Not sure yet," Roth answered tersely as he slipped into a cab he had just flagged, "but it will have something to do with how absurd life is in contemporary New York City. Really, you'll fit right in."

As his cab sped away, we kept our eyes on the back window to wait for some acknowledgement from Mr. Roth, a wave or a smile or something. There wasn't any. But that was okay. We'd see him again soon, the next time we all showed up for another chamber music concert at the Starr Theater in Alice Tully Hall.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Philip Roth (Part 3)

When we reach the precinct, the supervising sergeant appears to be in a particularly peevish mood. Nothing is going right for him that evening, and he's not going to put up with a whole lot of nonsense. As I begin to tell my story, it strikes him as pretty trivial and he cuts me off.

"Ah, I don't really give a fuck about the tickets you say you lost. All I know is you became abusive and the theater had no choice but to throw you out. Now you're doing the same thing again, which may very well land you in jail for a few days." Utterly baffled, I inquire how that could possibly happen, and the sergeant replies, "easily, very easily."

But when I say that I will cooperate in every way I can, the sergeant takes this as a sarcastic affront. "I am not going to take any shit from you, got it? Either you cooperate with me or I really will book you."

I whine, "What have I done? I understand that you won't accept any more objections. I'm cooperating. I don't want to be a nuisance. At this point, I just want to go home."

"Well, don't count on it, buster," the sergeant retorts. "As far as I'm concerned you are a nuisance and a quick trip back home is not an option."

"This can't be happening," I groan. "Can I at least make that one phone call I'm entitled to."

"Oh, right, that one phone call. You mean the one the Miranda decision guarantees. Well, my dear fuck, guess what, there is no such right to a phone call. It is a privilege sometimes extended to the well behaved. But by bringing it up in such a disrespectful manner, you have just sacrificed that privilege. Maybe tomorrow we'll give you a private moment to contact your loved one or a lawyer. How's that?"

"Frankly," I interject, "I would characterize what's happened to me as official abuse. If there were a recording of this conversation, you would be found guilty."

"Of what, asshole?" The sergeant swears again and then repeats with disgust, "Found guilty! You really are dumber than you look. Oh, and by the way, we turned off the recording machine for this little encounter. There is no record of it, so it's your word against ours. Go ahead and guess which party has more credibility in this particular case."

The sergeant guffaws and then adds with special scorn, "Ever spent a night in jail. Well, tonight you will. It's the perfect little experience to be able to add to your precious little Life List." (To be Continued)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Philip Roth (Part 2)

When Mr. Roth finishes conferring with the usher, he steps into the shadows of one of the theater entrances while the usher walks towards us. He explains that although we have no obligation to cede our tickets to Mr. Roth, he is disappointed to learn that we are canceling the arrangement we had made with him without explanation. I reply that we have made no such arrangement, that it was only for the one night. The usher, however, wants to know why we had not objected when Mr. Roth showed up in our seats a second time. To the usher and Mr. Roth, it seemed, we were acting out an implicit agreement to trade seats for the entire series when we allowed the switch to continue. When I suggest that this doesn't make any sense, the usher responds that this is about common courtesy, not making sense. At that point, I twist my face into a bewildered expression and am on the verge of saying something profane when the usher warns me not to become hostile, that he would have to ask us to leave if I made a scene. I am now so exasperated I can barely speak in sentences. I begin to sputter and babble almost incomprehensibly but with an elevated volume which the usher takes as a threat.

"I really am going to have to ask you to leave," the usher indicates in a low but solemn tone and as he says this he motions to Mr. Roth and his companion that it is now okay for them to occupy our seats. Karen can't believe what is happening and herself begins to sputter and fume. The usher moves swiftly now, sensing an even greater threat, and before we understand what is happening, find ourselves deposited on Broadway with no tickets to re-enter the Hall. When we go up to the box office to express our dismay about this whole situation, we are told that management always reserves the right to eject disruptive patrons. We shout that we never became disruptive, which prompts the cashier to say that we have already crossed that line. He then turns away from us and invites the next customer to step up.

Crazed now with anger and frustration, I cry out that this is like some kind of surrealistic novel. I grab the first policeman on the street that I can find to recount our dilemma. I speak rapidly and as I tell my story my voice grows shrill and desperate. The police officer, of course, can do nothing about what has happened in Lincoln Center, but he regards my ire as both suspicious and dangerous. Even as I continue to register my complaint, I can tell he is deaf to my words and focuses instead on my somewhat hysterical manner.

"Sir," he intervenes calmly, "I think you would be much better off telling this whole story to the Sergeant down at the precinct station. Come along with me. We can be there in five minutes." When Karen objects, the police officer puts her off and explains that I need to go alone. I will have the chance to call her later. As the police car pulls away, I see the worried look on Karen's face and wonder if she can make out the terror on mine.(To be Continued)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Philip Roth (Part 1)

Philip Roth likes chamber music as much as we do, which is why he appears in the audience at just about every chamber concert we go to. He was there once again for the Beethoven quartets on Tuesday night, sitting in about the 15th row of the orchestra section at Alice Tully's Starr Theater. Now, it just so happens that we have better seats than he does. We're only five rows back and a little to the right facing the stage, giving us a clear and vivid view of the two musicians sitting stage right and a decent view of the closest musician stage left. Unfortunately, our view of the fourth player, usually the cellist, is mostly obstructed. Still, given that Roth is also fairly far to the right and much farther back than we are, our seats offer a distinctly better view overall.

Given this, imagine that I approach Mr. Roth, conceivably the greatest American novelist of our time, and invite him to trade seats with us, so that he and his companion can get a better view of the featured quartet. Imagine, too, that we are doing this, as we tell Mr. Roth, to show our appreciation for his contribution to American letters and to honor his consistent literary excellence. And imagine he at first declines our offer, but, upon further urging, finally agrees. What if, too, we assure him that we have no wish for further interaction with him, that we are not seeking special favors or an autographed copy of his latest novel, nothing like that. We just want to do something special for him. He listens without expression, maintaining a kind of dour look on his face that, in our experience anyway, seems to accompany him everywhere. With only the most glancing acknowledgement of what we are offering, we exchange seats. And, as far as we know, anyway, everyone enjoys himself.

When we show up for the next installment of the cycle of six Beethoven quartet concerts and begin to wade into our fifth row seats, we are stunned to see Mr. Roth and a different companion already occupying our seats. He sees us, rises, and with just a hint of a smile and a quick bow, thanks us for making this switch possible. We start to object, that this trade was just for the one concert, but he is already reseated and chatting amiably with his seatmate. We stand there, just a bit numb, and decide to retreat to Mr. Roth's original seats. They are very good seats in any case and we still enjoy the concert enormously. We even rationalize that we get a better view of the entire ensemble from this more removed perspective.

As the next concert approaches, we wonder if we can expect Mr. Roth and his friend to be sitting already in our seats. We decide that our best tactic is to arrive as early as possible and to beat Roth to the punch. We grab our seats a full half hour before the concert begins and enjoy the pre-concert anticipation. With about 10 minutes to go before the start, Roth and his friend show up, looking bewildered, as if we have inappropriately reneged on some deal we had made. I explain that we did not mean to do this for the entire cycle of concerts, just the one, but he objects that since we have already done it for two concerts he assumed we would continue in this way to the end of the cycle. I now object to this, asking by what reasoning this would be the case, and he retorts that it has nothing to do with reasoning, just common courtesy. I'm starting to raise my voice now, and I get the feeling that he is advancing toward our seats in an almost menacing way. I lower myself into a crouch, as if to defend my already vulnerable position. But Mr. Roth continues to proceed in our direction toward the seats. Then, just as suddenly, he reverses his path and begins to confer quietly with a nearby usher. (To be Continued)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

New York Blizzard

Even before the storm came, on the day BEFORE it was all supposed to descend on us, in anticipation of the monster storm, everything was set to close. The public schools and most colleges and universities closed, transportation services were suspended, businesses were scheduled to start late, to get ready for the big blow - the white-out that would halt everything. Better to prepare everyone ahead of time, even if the worst didn't occur, better to keep everyone at home, whether or not the predicted snow arrived, rather than deal with the chaos that results when people go into school or work and then get trapped inside inhospitable institutional structures, unable to escape, because of severe weather.

Thus, the Mayor declared at 11:00 AM on Tuesday that the New York City Schools would be closed on Wednesday in anticipation of a major snowstorm. Not long after that, the New School University announced it would be closing on Wednesday. That Tuesday afternoon, sometime between 3 and 4 PM, Wagner College notified everyone that it, too, would close on Wednesday. One by one, they all conceded that Wednesday was a lost cause. Shut everything down, stay at home, work online, which is pretty much where you'd be anyway, whether at work or not. So was it worth it? Was it a good bargain to close it all down in expectation of that killer blizzard?

As I write at about 11 AM on Wednesday, the answer appears to be yes and no. There is enough wind and snow to warrant these closures; it would have been tough to get around. But, frankly, at least from the vantage point of 69th and Amsterdam in Manhattan, not all that bad. A fair amount of wind but still surprisingly little snow accumulation. Other days, where no closures were even entertained, have been considerably worse. But, hey, this is the best that could have been done, given how uncertain and unpredictable meteorological science remains. And just think how much pressure there is on the Mayor to keep parents satisfied. If the storm had panned out and schools were in session, families would have been quite upset. By preempting such anger and by creating the good will that comes from declaring a snow day in which everyone enjoys the privilege of imagining the good time they'll have (which is at least half the fun), the Mayor and Mr. Klein, the Chancellor of the Public Schools, come out looking pretty good. So let's call it a reasonable decision and thoroughly enjoy that day off.

Footnote: On the day of all the closures, tickets to a number of ordinarily popular plays were available on the TDF site, where educators and others can get special discounts. We thought it amusing that most of these tickets were gone almost as soon as they showed up on TDF, no doubt grabbed by all those Manhattanites who walk or travel by public transportation. We were not, unfortunately, one of those lucky Manhattanites.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Arguing the World

How do four Jewish working class boys who go to college for free in New York City in the 1930s and who dedicate themselves politically and intellectually to anti-Stalinist Marxism end up so differently as middle-aged adults? One becomes a neo-conservative and another strongly leans that way; a third turns into a middle of the road liberal; and the fourth stays true to socialism, though he finds himself at odds with 60s-style radicals. That is the story behind the film "Arguing the World" that we saw last week at MoMA. The four men, all of whom were loyal to Marxism when they went to City College in the 1930s, would go on to distinguished careers as four of America's best known public intellectuals. Irving Kristol became an advocate of the Reagan revolution. Nathan Glazer, a Harvard policy analyst, eschewed Reagan but still came to doubt the wisdom of affirmative action and other progressive policies. Daniel Bell, an incredibly insightful scholar whose liberal roots would be shaken by the student demonstrations at Columbia in 1968, at first attacked liberal politics and then, to a certain extent, re-embraced them. The outlier, Irving Howe, who would remain one of America's most stalwart socialists, never lost his taste for fierce debate but also retained his dream of a far more egalitarian America.

Howe, ever the outsider, never became a permanent resident of any university and started the radical magazine Dissent. Daniel Bell threw himself completely into the academic life at Columbia University, and when the students turned against it during the demonstrations of 1968, he turned against them. Glazer, never entirely his own man, became a circumspect sociology scholar and repeatedly took the cautious way forward, never seeming entirely comfortable with any position, and thus always on the verge of revising his viewpoint. And, of course, Irving Kristol, more than anyone, launched the neo-conservative movement. He, too, evaded academe for the most part, and unlike Glazer or Bell, he knew what he wanted and it had something to do with a laissez-faire state that took little responsibility for the least well off and used American's military might to frighten half the world for what he believed was a much greater global good. What Kristol lacked in logic and clarity of thought, he made up for with arrogance and unwarranted certainty.

In the film, the one holdout, the socialist Irving Howe, expresses some understanding and sympathy for the shifts in Bell's and Glazer's thinking, but he admits that Kristol makes no sense to him, having gone completely over to the other side where corporations are always in the right and ordinary people are usually in the wrong. In Howe's view, Kristol seems especially transparent about his hatred for participatory democracy.

What makes "Arguing the World" a great film is that we are given a picture of how these political positions evolve. It is one of those rare films that somehow gives you a sense of how change over time occurs, how people make shifts in their thinking, and how their personal experiences help to determine their political and ideological preferences.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure, one of those late Shakespeare comedies that critics often call a "problem" play, was presented at the 42nd Street Theater for a New Audience the other night by a very accomplished cast. The theater is a quite small performance space, with just a few rows of seating on the three sides of the stage, so just about every seat provides a good vantage point. We were on the left side as you enter or stage right in the third or fourth row, and we could see everything quite vividly.

But why a problem play? Because as in so many of these later comedies there is scarcely any comedy and a veritable panoply of knotty problems. Measure for Measure takes place in Vienna, of all places, and in the story as Shakespeare tells it, Vienna has become a corrupt place where loose morals and vice run rampant. The Duke of Vienna who exudes an air of sternness but who is actually quite permissive has let things go over time and now he thinks a remedy (a word constantly used in this play) for his city's growing depravity must be found. He leaves control of the city to his cousin Angelo, known for his strict Puritanical morals and sturdy self-discipline, and remains in the city disguised as a monk. Angelo takes the helm gladly and immediately begins to impose some order by shutting down houses of ill repute and jailing petty thieves. One of the citizens he catches in his crimebusting net is a fellow called Claudio who has impregnated his fiancee well in advance of their wedding. The punishment on the Vienna books for this "crime" is death and Angelo plans to enforce it. Enter Isabella, beautiful and virginal sister of Claudio, who pleads for her brother's life, at first to no avail. But as Isabella's beauty and grace slowly melt the icy exterior of Angelo's remote manner, Angelo, whom we all expected to maintain the highest of morals, informs Isabella that he will save her brother only if she agrees to sleep with him - Vienna's most upright citizen.

Of course, in the end, everything turns out all right, thanks in large part to the intercession of the Duke who exposes Angelo for the man he truly is, returns Vienna to a more humane and civil society, and finds himself wooing Isabella as the play concludes. But as in all problem plays, it is the lingering worries about human nature and the means some think are needed to correct a corrupt society that stays with us. The title Measure for Measure, which seems to be a synonym for the dictum an eye for an eye, must ultimately be seen as ironic, for simple and formulaic solutions only seem to mask deeper troubles. Everything is out of joint, you might say, and only the Duke can set it all right. But the solutions seem half-hearted and temporary and this story seems to remind us that fundamentalist panaceas will invariably not only fail but do far more harm than good. That should probably remind us of something, but I've lost track of exactly what. Still, Measure for Measure does stand as a cautionary tale, and we would do well to consider the things that it cautions us against. The law is always a blunt instrument and by itself is never the long-term solution to our deeply ingrained and immensely complex problems.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Passing the Time on the Subway

One of the things that savvy subway riders learn over time is when it is wise to board the express and when it is better or just as well anyway to get on the local. My ride to the Staten Island Ferry from 72nd Street has been pretty much a no-brainer in this regard. Take the express to Chambers (which involves only 4 stops) and then the local to the Ferry (another two stops), versus the local all the way (requiring something like 16 stops by the time you reach the Ferry). Of course, one of the things that has to be taken into account in these calculations of time efficiency is the additional time it takes to transfer from an express to a local and wait for the next train to arrive. And it goes without saying that on the return trip, from the Ferry to 72nd Street, the same calculations have to be made. Is it worth it to leave the local for the express, knowing that it may take a few minutes for the next express to arrive, while, in the meantime, if you had stayed on the local, you would have been making slow but steady northward progress all along?

Well, when it comes to comparing the two routes using real time there is really not much of a comparison. It almost always makes sense to take the express whenever you can, unless there are unanticipated delays, and, unfortunately, you won't know about them in any case, as communication on the subway system is so poor, or least so inconsistent.

But here's the thing that I've been starting to discover. Real time is one thing but psychological time is quite another. And when you add in the fact that your chance of getting a seat on the local is significantly better than getting one on the express, the situation is further problematized. So here's what I mean. If you are standing on the express and so cramped that you can't even take out something to read, the amount of time that seems to pass is large. A 12 minute ride, say, can seem pretty long. But, if you're sitting reading a good book or a good magazine article, or even if you're standing while perusing something interesting, the time goes by with often shocking rapidity. Indeed, I have found that as I monitor my reactions in both situations more closely, (to the extent one can, as I'm supposed to be engrossed in my reading in the case of the local), I learn that if I'm not very careful, I will miss my stop when I'm reading because the time goes by so quickly.

Consequently, I am finding, particularly in the evening (when both express and local trains are less frequent), that once I'm on an often sparsely populated local, ensconced in a corner somewhere and focused on some good read, I would rather just stay where I am, even if it does take me an additional 10 minutes of real time (at most) to arrive at my destination. It is worth it in terms of comfort and reducing stress, and it definitely helps in getting more reading done. So I guess I'm surprised. Maybe I'm not a savvy New Yorker, but I thought by now I'd be looking for every opportunity to grab the express. Now, more and more, I'm thinking that the steady local, which is rather slow in reality but SEEMS awfully fast, is usually the way to go, at least for this subway rider who always seems to have still another interesting text to pull out of his bag to get lost in, a realm where having more time is invariably a good thing.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Alice Tully Hall

We heard our first series of Beethoven String Quartets on Friday night played by the Brentano String Quartet. This quartet that has been around since 1994 played the op. 127, the 18, no. 1, and the 59, no. 3 with tremendous authority, vigor, and passion. It was a terrific concert. Both the 127, which opened the show, and the 59, which closed it, were particularly fine.

As I listened, though, my eyes were often drawn to the warm, glowing interior of the Starr Theater, the grand performance space of Alice Tully. Apparently, just about the entire theater is covered in an extremely thin layer of an African hardwood known as Moabi. It is a very beautiful wood and finish and the thinness of the wood allows light to shine through it. As a result, the space often seems suffused in hues of soft orange and light brown, which create this very welcoming, comforting effect, as if the entire hall were warmed by a large, low burning fireplace.

Also, the walls and the ceiling that are covered in this beautiful wood are molded in such a way as to avoid flat surfaces and hard angles. Everything curves smoothly and gracefully. The walls on the side of the stage continue this pattern and you really can’t discern any crack or opening in those walls. So I am always just a bit startled each time one of the walls pushes open to reveal the musicians striding confidently toward center stage. You sort of wonder, how does that beautifully curving wall hide that opening so imperceptibly?

Also, the ceiling of the Starr fairly soars with a series of overlapping, wing-like surfaces that also look a little like great masts that are meant to fly or sail you away to some impossibly beautiful and remote island. It is truly an auditorium designed to transport audiences and in our limited experience, anyway, it still hasn't come close to missing yet.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Intractable Hiccups

A friend reports that he met a fellow on the train the other day who can't stop hiccupping. He has suffered through a year of what physicians call "synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (SDF)"! Imagine: hiccuping for an entire year without letup. It may not be life threatening, but such a condition has to be unbelievably annoying. Attention needs to be paid and a remedy needs to be found!

Do you suppose it would be any consolation to this fellow to know that one man named Charles Osborne actually hiccupped continuously for almost 69 years?! From 1922-1990! Amazing, but, you have to admit, definitely not consoling. Apparently, in another appalling case of difficult, long-term hiccups, a young girl hiccupped nonstop for five weeks at the rate of 50 times a minute. Such cases are known as Intractable Hiccups or IH. Our poor fellow on the train definitely qualifies as one of those rare victims of IH. How horrible!

Is there any documented cure? Standing on your head, being suddenly frightened, and eating peanut butter all have their defenders, though nothing in the literature to support them as cures. However, the December 23, 1971 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine did indicate that a solution containing sugar when placed on or under the tongue may extinguish troublesome hiccups. In the worst, most persistent cases, certain drugs have been prescribed, sedatives have been recommended, and even digital rectal massage (something we all should try at least once in our lives) also has had a favorable effect. In one particularly intractable case, the victim was found to have a tumor that upon removal produced almost immediate relief from hiccups that had lasted something like three years. Not only wasn't he going to die; he no longer wanted to either. I just hope the fellow on the train is reading this. Perhaps you should speak to your physician about digital rectal massage. It has to be better than IH!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Wallace Shawn

I have always liked Wallace Shawn. Although he is primarily a playwright, he has appeared in quite a few movies, most notably for me: Manhattan, My Dinner with Andre, and Vanya on 42nd Street. His part in Manhattan is tiny but memorable; he is the "homunculus" who is described by Diane Keaton as a devastating ladies' man. He is, of course, the important secondary character in "Dinner," the ever-patient Wally who actually encourages Andre the existential romantic to recount his elaborate tales at considerable length. And he is none other than Vanya himself in the filmed Chekhov play produced by Andre Gregory (As in My Dinner with) and directed by the great filmmaker, Louis Malle.

No matter what role he plays, though, he tends to be likable, the kind of fellow whom you would enjoy having dinner with, even if he does get just a bit irascible at times. But since I am ashamed to admit that I have not seen or read his many plays, I was stunned when I encountered his new book of collected essays. They are magnificent: funny, harrowing, principled, and devastatingly honest.

We also went to see him at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday night, and although he seemed both lethargic and overly deliberate in his speech (sometimes the words came very slowly), he was likable and funny and utterly forthright. There were two related things that I found especially fascinating. One, that in answer to a question about whether he would do "My Dinner with Andre" differently now if he were making it today, he said that the Wally character in all of his smug complacency would be impossible. Too much has happened since then, he averred, and the sense that we are in a worldwide crisis makes such complacency absurd, even inconceivable now. Second, he was downright voluble about the fact that he has moved pretty sharply to the left politically. This is linked to the subject of a number of the essays in his new book, and, in essence, stems from the stunning realization that the enormous privilege he enjoys as an inhabitant of the "Mansion of Arts and Letters" is made possible by an imperial power that is feared throughout the world but that ensures, in the process of asserting its hegemony, that Wallace Shawn and others like him will have all the goods and resources they need to continue to lead their lives of art, creativity, and leisure. This idea that he depends on the unprecedented power of the United States to make his own incredibly cushy life possible has been utterly transforming for him and he is still reeling from its implications. The one thing he is willing to venture, however timidly, is that artists can and must make a difference in helping to change the world. It just won't do any more to claim that art is separate from life. It not only never was, but, in fact, artists, in Shawn's view, has a responsibility to make life, which includes ensuring that everyone has opportunities for creative endeavor, better for all.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


The same day I went to witness those bizarre but fascinating happenings at the Guggenheim, I also stopped by the Met to see a new exhibit of some 60 drawings by the Renaissance Mannerist artist Agnolo Bronzino. If the Guggenheim's show is the cutting edge of contemporary conceptualist art, then perhaps the Met's show represents the sturdy traditionalism of beautifully crafted, perfectly proportioned representational painting. To me, anyway, manerists like Bronzino are seeking to put forward a perfectly marbled, super-real representation of human beings. Every muscle is ideally flexed, every vein raised to underscore the subject's impressive muscalature. The poses show heads turned in strange and unlikely ways and sometimes, as in Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man, the two eyes are cast in opposite directions to attract attention, not necessarily to accurately capture reality.

There is no question that Bronzino is a master draftsman, able to put on canvas faces and bodies that are supremely beautiful. But in the end I'm not that dazzled, because I don't think he is able to show us distinctive personalities with his art. His faces are a bit too bland, a little too perfect in terms of proportionality, but with surprisingly little effort devoted to what makes his subjects stand out as human beings. Perhaps it is always wrong to compare any other painter to Rembrandt, but with Rembrandt, his subjects come alive. They have personalities and character flaws that really do remind us of real people. I don't get this sense with Bronzino. Another way to say this is that the psychology of his subjects does not come through at all. How they have lived, what they are thinking, and what they expect from the future is entirely absent. And without these hints, these wonderful portraits, as beautiful as they are, can never fully command my attention or appreciation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's New at the Guggenheim

So what's new at the Guggenheim? Plenty, I'd say. On the main rotunda floor, two young people are locked in what at first seems like a passionate embrace. They move slowly toward each other, their lips meet and they do not part for some time. But all the time they are kissing, they are in continuous movement. Their hands, their feet, their torsos, their legs are all turning and twisting. They are, I guess you could say, a living, constantly changing work of art. Like works of art, there is a conscious attempt to represent line, shape, color, motion, perspective. The difference here, of course, is that there is no record of the event. The subject is not only forever in flux, no part of what is momentarily seen is ever permanently captured. No video or photography is allowed. Indeed, it is the impermanence of it all that especially seems to fascinate the artist who has conceived this exhibit. Nothing lasts, nothing remains. We have only our recollection of the event, the fading images of our memory to bring it back to life. By the way, there is no wall label or signage of any kind to indicate what is going on. Unexpectedness and spontaneity are what pique our interest

And as if that isn't enough, as you climb the familiar ramp of the Guggenheim from the bottom up, you notice there is no art of any kind on the wall. But just as you're trying to figure out why this is, a young boy of about 8 comes up to you, introduces himself and asks you in a muted voice what progress is. If you're like me, you begin to give a serious answer and you are just a bit stunned when the boy repeats back to you what you have said and asks what you mean when you say that progress is when everyone has the housing and the food and the health care that they need. But before you can unreel your full spiel about progress and as you continue to climb up the Guggenheim incline, you are handed off to a teenaged girl who asks you whether there is enough space in the world to provide really adequate housing for everyone. Continuing toward the top of the Guggenheim, you begin explaining that development can proceed up as well as out and that it should be easy to ensure housing for everyone without overcrowding. But then you are turned over to a thirty-something woman who asks whether people's rights to certain minimal material conditions can really be legislated. You discuss this with her a bit and somehow you find yourself invoking the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights before she introduces you to an older man with a shock of white hair who seems to be the artist. He asks you what you think of all this and you admit to being fascinated. He then tells you that the kissing couple down below are in continuous movement just as the museum's patrons climbing to the top of the empty Guggenheim Museum are in constant motion, and even the whole idea of progress, which is also about consistent movement, mirrors this theme of unyielding change. You aren't sure how to respond but say thank you and then begin the walk back down. You wonder if you really have just met the conceptualizer of this entire project and then you notice all these small groups of people in conversation as they ascend the ramp and you realize that there are dozens of volunteers stationed at various points of the museum trained to engage visitors at key points on their upward journeys. You entertain a quick thought about what art is coming to, but you also can't stop smiling and that seems like a very good thing as you proceed to the lower rotunda to espy that kissing couple still going at it. You pause to ponder the conditions under which this could be a really good gig, and then head out into the cold but sun-drenched afternoon thinking about art, and well...kissing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Beethoven String Quartets

This coming Friday we will once again begin the process of hearing live all of the Beethoven String Quartets over a relatively short period of time. In this case, we will hear the 16 quartets spread across six concerts that will take place during the month of February, all at Lincoln Center. Each concert will be played by a different, highly acclaimed quartet. Back in the summer of 2007, we heard the great Emerson String Quartet do them all at Carnegie Hall.

To hear the Beethoven String Quartets in this way is, in my humble opinion, one of life's great pleasures. I have now been listening to these quartets for almost 35 years, and I continue to be amazed not only by how much is in them and how much is to be learned from them, but also how increasingly dear and familiar they have become to me. They are beautiful and challenging, but they also include some of the most gorgeous melodies I have ever heard. Beethoven isn't just being cerebral with these quartets, he is allowing his whole personality to be on display. They are by turns playful, funny, solemn, clownish, ostentatious, spiritual, absurdly fast, maddeningly slow, optimistic, God-like, and tragic. Everything is there in all its variety and comprehensiveness like a microcosm of a rich life well lived. The only thing I know that is comparable to Beethoven's achievement with these quartets is, well, Shakespeare's tragedies. Both convey every possible emotion and both provide a genius with a canvas to express the entire range of human experience. What a privilege to be able to hear them again. How fortunate to live in a city where music such as this is played at least every week in a public performance by some group of outstanding musicians. How Beethoven would have loved New York and how much his public here in this great City continues to revere him.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Ah, Rosalind, what a wonderful character you are. Your wit, your charm, and your compassion are all so beautifully intertwined in Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and you shine so brightly as the spirit animating all the key developments in the play. You are its true center and you provide us with our best evidence that Shakespeare was one of our first feminists who understood that in intelligence, charm, and spirit, you surpass any man. As played by Juliet Rylance in the current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, you remind us of all those gleaming qualities that compel us to keep our eyes on you whenever you are on stage. We watch for your wry smile, your clever retort, your alert concern, your hesitant advances toward Orlando, It is you that we most want to win happiness and to return from the Forest of Arden with a new found appreciation for both the foolishness and the profundity that drive human experience.

In the end, as you declaim the charming epilogue that brings the play to a close, we hang on your every trope and image. Your lovely movements and your smiling utterances nearly causing us to forget the actual words you release to the air, but a few of your most memorable observations persevere. Not least that your goal is to conjure us, beginning first with the women and then with the men. And conjure us you do, leaving our present behind however fleetingly, to ponder this misty forest world where you are its most magical inhabitant and we its most admiring trespassers.