Monday, January 28, 2013

Lunedi Lunacy

After this morning's struggle with the booties, the coats and - in Nicky's case - the muzzle I'm just trying to imagine doing this with either one of the Hounds from Hell.

Thanks to my friend Laurie for sending these on.  I'm not sure where they were taken but even I, who hates the idea of dressing animals up like dolls, have to admit its a hoot!

28 January - 1754: Horace Walpole coins the word serendipity in a letter to Horace Mann.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mercoledi Musicale

When my friend Cathy posted this cartoon on Facebook earlier today it brought to mind one of those pieces that can easily become an ear-worm. And to be honest I'd never thought of the poor percussionist stuck on the snare drum for the full 15 minutes of Ravel's Boléro.

Though it is most often heard as an orchestral piece in the concert hall it was originally composed as a ballet for Ida Rubinstein in 1928.  Choreographer Bronislava Nijinska set her dance patterns to a rather flimsy scenario about a female dancer (Rubinstein) who mounts a table in a taverna in Spain at the insistence of the other dancers and becomes more and more abandoned in her movements.   Maurice Béjart, in perhaps the most famous version created in the late 20th century, echos some of that in a 15 minutes choreographic workout for a solo dancer (sometimes male/sometimes female) with some assistance from the corps that proves that dancers are more athletes than most athletes.

But I will be honest as much as I love the Béjart work I posted it once before several years ago; so when I went searching for a dance version on YouTube I was hoping to find a record of the piece that Peter Gennaro choreographed for the great Hollywood dancer Juliet Prowse.  It was the finale of her Las Vegas act for several outings and I recall seeing it at the MGM Grand back in the 1970s.  I still have the image of the complex finale - a stately procession across the stage, Prowse held aloft as her great black sequined cape (a Spanish funeral cape????) spread across the width of the stage and the whole (her and some 30 dancers) slowly descending from view into the depths of the stage floor.  It was the sort of thing that Las Vegas - and Prowse - did incredibly well before it all became a branch of Cirque de Soleil.  Though I recall she once performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show sadly it appears to not have been archived - though as I've found with YouTube you should never say never.

Unable to find the Prowse-Gennaro and not wanting to repeat the Béjart I found a version created by the French choreographer Roland Petit in 1997.  Danced by Lucia Lacarra and Massimo Murru on a barge in the harbour of Marseille, I find it lacks the dramatic intensity of Béjart's version.  I've always found Petit's choreography, with the exception of his Carmen,  had a certain coldness to it and often seemed mechanical and I'm afraid his Boléro is no different.  But then Ravel never liked Nijinka's creation - he felt it should have been set in the open air with a factory in the background and choreographed to reflect the mechanical nature of the music.  The barge setting definitely meets the open air requirement but that glorious night view across the Vieux-Port towards Notre-Dame de la Garde is magical more than mechanical.

Should you want to compare the two - and hear more of that insistent snare drum - here is a link to a performance by Nichola la Riche with the Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris. 

23 January - 1943: Duke Ellington plays at Carnegie Hall in New York City for the first time.
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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

We'll Take Manhattan

Over the years I've subscribed off and on to The New Yorker - first in print then after a decade or more of just picking up a copy occasionally at a news stand I began subscribing online last year.  At one point I purchased a 5 CD set of the complete New Yorker - from its first edition through until 2006.  Sadly it was one of the most cumbersome, badly designed programmes I had ever seen.  Yes a treasure trove was available but the awkward search engine and a habit of system crashing made it so frustrating that I simply shelved it never to be inserted into disc drive again.  Which was a crying shame as it can be argued - and I think successfully - that no magazine has influenced writing in America as strongly as The New Yorker.   Over its eight-seven year history it has introduced short stories, profiles, poems, commentaries, reviews and essays by many of the greats of the English literary world - and it has also introduce the world to many of those greats before their greatness was recognized.  Given that rather inauspicious use of technology I wasn't sure what to expect with the Internet edition.  Well someone at Condé Nast learned their lesson - the tablet version of the magazine is a welcome and successful marriage of the old and the new.  

"View of the World from 9th Avenue"
Saul Steinberg's iconic cover from March 29, 1976
First published in 1925 as a weekly magazine,  founder Harold Ross announced in its prospectus "that it is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque."  Its accent was to be on sophisticated humour as an anecdote to periodicals like Captain Billy's Whiz Bang and other "humour" magazines of the time.  Though primarily aimed at a New York - more specifically a Manhattan - readership it soon became a successful publication even in Dubuque.  And despite ups and downs is still thriving when other magazines have faded from the scene.  According to recent figures 53% of its current circulation is outside the New York area and its current renewal rate stands at 85%; one of the highest in the magazine publishing field.

In those early years as a subscriber I always turned to Andrew Porter for the classical music scene, Penelope Gilliat or Pauline Kael for movie reviews and John Lahr (son of everyone's favourite Cowardly Lion) for theatre.  But there was also the short stories - Mavis Gallant being one of my favourites - and fascinating Profiles of people in the news.  And of course the cartoons - the marvellous grotesques of Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson and sly social comments by William Steig and almost dadaist renderings of Saul Steinberg.  Steinberg created - after Eustace Tilley - the best known cover in the magazine's history: the 1976 "A Parochial New Yorker's View of the World" - which guyed the self-centred view New Yorkers had of the world.  So many of the covers were classic in their own right - for years we had a series of culinary covers from the magazine hanging in our various kitchens around the world.

Does anything really have to be added to Barry Blitt's cover for the January 21, 2013 issue?
I think it pretty much says all that has to be said about the current situation in Washington.

As I say after more than I decade I began to subscribe again on-line - 47 times a year (they changed the publication schedule a few years ago) I get The New Yorker delivered to my iPad/iPhone.  Though many of those contributors I enjoyed when I first started subscribing have disappeared from its pages a new crop has appeared to take their place.  The writing is still the crisp New Yorker style as are the fascinating little vagaries of spelling and punctuation (my Lara would be so pleased at the use of the serial comma); the cartoons are still funny (if the language a bit saltier) and the covers still make some of the most powerful statements on the current world.  The content has become more political, more attuned to current events - this past week's Letter from Jerusalem included a profile of Jewish Home Party candidate Naftali Bennett - and even perhaps a little less - gasp - New York.  But in the past year I can safely say there has not been one issue that I haven't found three or four interesting essays, commentaries or stories - and the humour quotient is still pretty high for the cartoons.  And some of those covers - this week's internet animated version shows how far they've come at New Yorker since those pathetic CDs - are sure to become classics.

Our Nora loves this Charles Barsotti cartoon and highly endorses the sentiment.

 Renewal time is shortly - looks like  I'll be amongst that 85%.

All images on this post come from The New Yorker magazine published by Condé Nast.

While working on this post I found an interview with Mary Noriss, a copy editor with the magazine.   It gives insight into what goes into creating one of the most assiduously fact-checked and edited magazines published today.

22 January - 1877: Arthur Tooth, an Anglican clergyman is taken into custody after being prosecuted for using ritualist practices.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Does She Know Me Or What?*

My friend Vicki suggested that Chris Browne the creator of Hägar the Horrible some how or other knew exactly what I was thinking as I waited at the #14 bus stop in -28c (-18f) this morning. And I can't say she - or he - was far wrong.

* She should she's known me for 50 57 years.....

January 21 -1976: Commercial service of Concorde begins with the London-Bahrain and Paris-Rio routes.

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Lunedi Lunacy

For Marco who wishes ever Bear was a Polar Bear.

With thanks to Vicki who passed this on.

January 21 - 1948: The Flag of Quebec is adopted and flown for the first time over the National Assembly of Quebec.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Songs of My People

As I mentioned last week our Nora believes that the Songs of Her People should be shared with the world. And songs she has - songs for all occasions! Songs of greeting - joyful and wary; songs of loneliness; songs of need; songs of captivity; and songs of battle. A full repertoire of cries and calls from the canine heart.  And share she does - often only in parlour performance with her intimate circle but on occasion the wider world has indeed heard her song!

Here's one that suggests neglect and inattention on the part of someone she cares about - as long as he feeds her - deeply.  Sort of a "blues" tune. And you will notice that the song has the required effect. The inattentive object of her affection responded and gave comfort and a commodious lap to nap on.

15 January - 1919 – Boston Molasses Disaster: A large molasses tank in Boston, Massachusetts, bursts and a wave of molasses rushes through the streets, killing 21 people and injuring 150 others.
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Monday, January 14, 2013

Lunedi Lunacy

A delightful piece of animation but do watch the whole thing - right through to the end of the credits!

Many thanks to my friend Larry for posting this on FB a few days ago.

14 January - 1514: Pope Leo X issues a papal bull against slavery
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Sunday, January 13, 2013


Sir Thomas Beecham was fond of lollipops - not the colourful sweet you find on the end of a stick that delights young and (frequently) old but the often colourful and sometimes sweet pieces of music that he could conduct to delight his audience. Though he introduced Richard Strauss's Salome and Elektra to London and championed the music of Delius, Sibelius and Berlioz he had his lighter side.  He was famous for including slight pieces as encores or often in suites he had arranged himself as part of his regular programming. 

His recording career began in 1910 and his first recordings were music from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann and Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus - not exactly the heavyweights that were to follow in his discography.   Fortunately along with his many recordings of the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss and Delius he included many of his (and his audiences) favourite "lollipops".   One of my treasured Beecham discs is a compilation of "French Favourites" he made between 1939 and 1957 with his London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras and with the Orchestre National de l"ORTF.  

In an 1956 session with the RPO he recorded a suite of ballet music from André Grétry's Zémire et Azor.   The "Pantomime" based on the 1st Air de Ballet from this enchanting "comédie-ballet mêlée de chants et danses" was a great favourite, both as part of the suite and as an encore "lollipop".  In a relay from the 1956 Edinburgh Festival, during a performance of the Suite the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end of the "Pantomime" and radio listeners were startled to hear Beecham's voice break in: Ladies and Gentlemen, I deeply regret to say that we have not yet come to the end of this piece...."  The response was a doubling of the applause and an uproar of laughter from audience and musicians.

Beecham held Grétry's music in high regard and said that he found in it "a lightness, a grace and a melodic invention surpassed only by Mozart".  At the Bath Festival in May of 1955 Sir Thomas conducted what was to be his last operatic performance in England: Zémire et Azor.   Leading an all French cast in a production that was designed by Oliver Messel, that most magical and elegant of British designers, the Belgian composer's charming version of the Beauty and the Beast story was a hit of that year's Festival.

At the time the reviewer in the Daily Telegraph wrote, "The production … is marvellously ingenious, and turns the smallness of the stage to positive advantage. Oliver Messel’s décor has a Cocteau-like whimsy, and Sir Thomas nearly deceives us into mistaking the tinselly patches in the score for pure gold."  I recently downloaded a radio broadcast of the opening performance and, despite Sir Thomas's enthusiasm for the piece,  I have to agree that there are certainly "tinselly' bits and I do question the Mozart comparison but it is indeed light, graceful and filled with melodic invention.

I had hoped to use the beautiful Messel designs from that 1955 production in this video but they are under copyright (and sadly hidden away in storage) at the V and A.  However a left click on the above link will take you to their collection and give you an idea of the beautiful designs that Messel created which to my mind go far beyond "whimsy" and perfectly wed the Oriental and the Rococo and look the way Grétry's music sounds.

I was able to find quite a few delightful designs from a production in Paris in 1824 on the website of the La Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF)*.   The costumes - very reflective of their period rather than Grétry's - were designed by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, son of the famous Jean-Honoré Fragonard and the scenery was the work of that genius of 19th century stage design Pierre-Luc-Charles Cicéri.  On the BnF's remarkable site I was also able to find, amongst 2,000,000 (yes that's 2 million) items, a print from the first production in 1771 as well as livrets from later productions of a work that was much loved and performed until the end of the 19th century.  Both display the most famous scene in the opera-ballet - Azor allows Zémire to see her father and sisters in a mirror; seeing her father ill and possibly dying she begs him to allow her to return if only for a week.  Probably managed by the use of a silvered scrim it had a tremendous effect and was the talk of theatrical Paris at the time.

I'm not sure how much of the effect of this lovely piece of "melodic invention" can be attributed to Grétry, how much to Sir Thomas's arrangement and how much to the playing of his Royal Philharmonic players but like that audience in Edinburgh I always feel like breaking into applause at the end.

13 January - 1842: Dr. William Brydon, an assistant surgeon in the British East India Company Army during the First Anglo-Afghan War, becomes famous for being the sole survivor of an army of 4,500 men and 12,000 camp followers when he reaches the safety of a garrison in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
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Monday, January 07, 2013

Lunedì Lunacy

And our Nora supports this arts programme 100%:

Sunday, January 06, 2013

One Fine Day I Met Upon My Way .....

... Three Great Kings in their bright array.

This rather fanciful, and busy to the point I couldn't get the camera to focus, scene is an Adoration of the Magi cutout that I bought at the Tirolervolks Museum in Innsbruck.  This little "creche in a perspective box" was the work of the Engelbrecht Brothers some time between 1712-1735 and is very like the tradition of the toy theatre.  Prints could be bought plain to be hand-coloured or already coloured and ready to be cut out and assembled.  I also have the Visit of the Shepherds - which is not quite as busy - shepherds bring with them only sheep not a royal entourage.
I remember this from my choral music class in grade 9 and being told by Mr Livingstone that it was based on music from Bizet. Being the smug little bastard I was I probably told him that it was incidental music for a play and based on an old Provençal carol. How he then resisted the urge to jam his baton down my throat I will never know.

Of course the tune, Marcho dei Rei, is known outside Provençe as a theme that runs through Bizet's music for L'Arlésienne. In its best known appearance Bizet combines it with Danse dei chivau-frus a traditional folk-dance melody that may have roots as far back as Le bon roi René.

Can there be anything as exuberant as this lovely pop-up Presepe by the genius that was Emanuele Luzzati?
His jewel-like colours and the lively faces of his people and animals are filled with the joy of Christmas.
King Balthazar's horse seems as pleased as the Kings themselves to arrive at their destination.
And rather ingeniously they are hidden away in a slot and drop down in time to arrive on  January 6th.
One of my great regrets is being with a few feet of the Museo Luzzati in Genoa and not realizing it
because of the pounding rain.

The Second Suite, arranged four years after Bizet's death by Ernest Guiraud, has been recorded many, many times but my favourite is one of the older recordings made by one of the great conductors of the 20th Century - Sir Thomas Beecham.  Behind his facade of English eccentricity lay the ability to reach into music, particularly French music, and bring out colours that allow you to hear old favourites anew.  He was a true "amateur" - one who loves.

Of course what inspired my listening to this piece is the celebration today in the Western Christian Church of The Feast of the Epiphany. The day when tradition says that the word was revealed to the Gentiles:
    Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
    Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
    When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
    And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
    And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
    And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
    Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
    And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
    When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
    When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
    And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
    And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Gospel of St Matthew 2: 1-12
Matthew is the only Gospel where the visit of the Magi or Kings or simply Wise Men is recounted. But out of it came a mythology rich in tradition and symbolism for the Christian Church.

These three Polish glass ornaments have been on our tree for many years:

It is uncertain when the tradition of Balthasar
coming from Africa began as in earlier mythology
he was said to be an Arabian scholar.
Though first accounts say that Melchior was a Persian
wise man over time he came to represent Europe and tradition
said he was the King who came bearing gold.

Gaspar was said to be an Indian sage and he came bearing
frankincense but again in time his origins changed and his
homeland has various been portrayed as China or Mongolia.

Matthew does not tell us how many wise men there were but he does say that they bore three gifts; as early as 500 AD the writer in a Greek document assumed that three gifts meant three kings.  An 8th Irish manuscript not only gave them names but the countries their journeys began in as well. It was said that Melchior was from Persia, Gaspar was from India and Balthasar started his travels in Arabia.  Though their names remained essentially the same as Christianity spread their countries of origin were adapted to reflect an expanding world.   Balthasar was said to come from Africa (perhaps Ethiopia), Gaspar from Asia (Yemen or possibly China or Mongolia) and Melchior from Europe, his origins being either Celtic or Frankish. 

The figures in our Polish creche have a more serious mien but I find the rather weary looks on the 
three royal travellers faces touching.  Their journey has taken them far and having reached their 
destination they gaze onthe object of their search with obvious adoration.

Unlike their birth places the gifts of the Kings (Wise men, Sages) have never changed: gold and frankincense and myrrh.  It has been thought they have a spiritual meaning of Jesus as King and God and Sacrifice: gold - signifying earthly kingship; frankincense - an offering of sweet smelling incense to a deity; and myrrh - an ancient embalming oil symbolizing death.  But it has also been suggested that the gold could stand for virtue, the frankincense for prayer and myrrh for suffering.   What happened to these gifts is never made clear in the gospel but stories developed around them.  One legend said that the gold was stolen by the two thieves who were crucified with Christ; another says that Mary and Joseph used it when they fled to Egypt; a third has it being entrusted to Judas who used it for his own ends. Another story says that Mary kept the myrrh and used it to anoint his body after his crucifixion. 

06 January - 1907: Maria Montessori opens her first school and daycare centre for working class children in Rome, Italy.

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Saturday, January 05, 2013

Viva La Befana Viva

And once again this evening, as she has done for millennia, La Befana flies from house to house in Italy - and I've been told in some part of Canada too.  On her first journey she searched for the Christ Child but being told that she could find him in each child she made it her task to reward children for their good deeds with sweets, oranges and small gifts.  But being a wise woman she knew that no child was ever always good so she keeps a supply of coal and turnips (?) for those times when behaviour deserved not reward but a reminder to be better next year.

La Befana has had a place on our Christmas Tree since our first Christmas in Italy back in 2007.
Now she serves as a reminder of the love and friendship of all our dear friends, who we miss so much, in Italy.

I've written on several occasions about the many stories of how La Befana became, for one night of the year, the guardian of all the children.  Each variation makes the story of this old woman richer and more endearing and I can only hope more enduring.

January 2008 - An Italian Christmas Tradition - La Befana 
January 2009 - Ephipania II
January 2011 - Viva La Befana! La Befana!
January 2012 -  The Flight of La Befana

To all my friends and loved ones in Italy, I hope with all my heart that La Bifana rewards you for your goodness and is forgiving of those bad times.  Viva La Befana Viva!

05 January - 1925: Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming becomes the first female governor in the United States.
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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Mercoledi Musicale

Though not quite as famous as its counter-part in Vienna, the Concerto Capodanno at La Fenice in Venezia is a popular New Year's Day celebration in Italy. And its presented in one of the loveliest opera houses in the world (second in my humble opinion only to San Carlo in Napoli). I've posted several times about  the senseless torching of La Fenice in1996 and its subsequent rise from the burnt out shell I recall seeing that same year.  Though there was much discussion - to the point of fisticuffs - about rebuilding to slavishly replicate the destroyed house the traditionalists won and the theatre was rebuilt in 19th-century style on the basis of a design by architect Aldo Rossi and using still photographs from the opening scenes of Luchino Visconti's 1954 film Senso, which was filmed in the house, in order to obtain details of its design.  I must admit that on my one visit there I tended to lean towards the side of the critics who complained that the colours were too bright - but perhaps with the passing of time and the neglect that is known in maintaining Italian opera houses it will acquire a dulling patina.  But even with its slightly faux air it is a lovely venue to celebrate the New Year.

This year's concert left no doubt who's bicentennial birth was being celebrated in 2013 - there was a bit of Rossini, a Tchaikovsky symphony but the main works were all Verdi - all the time.  This year the conductor was Sir John Eliot Gardner and the featured soloists Desiree Rancatore and Saimir Pirgu.  And during the Brindisi from La Traviata which traditionally brings every Concerto Capodanno to a close Italy's premier danseur and poster boy that we all love Roberto Bolle strutted his stuff.

I'm not sure where the dance sequence was staged it - Laurent seems to think it is one of the grand hotels along the Lido. This year's concert was peppered with dance numbers staged at various locales; though they gave us an opportunity to see some stunning interiors and an opening that showed our Roberto is as fit as a fiddle and ready for whatever they did seem a bit extraneous.

At last year's concert under Diego Matheuz with Jessica Pratt and Walter Fraccaro toasting the New Year the dance sequences were filmed within La Fenice itself. There are some great shots of the main staircase and assembly rooms and that final shot on the Grand Canal gets me every time!

 A belated "Auguri" to my darling friends in Italy - I still miss you all very much.  Bacissimi e dopo!

02 January - 1976: The Gale of January 1976 begins, which results in coastal flooding around the southern North Sea coasts,

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happiest of New Year's - 2012

To all my family, friends and foes as we turn the page on 2012:

This lovely animation is courtesy of a lady who goes by the moniker lenabem-anna over at flickr.

January 1 - 1772: The first traveler's cheques, which can be used in 90 European cities, go on sale in London, England, Great Britain.