Saturday, April 26, 2008

Stacey and Nicole

Kudos to Rob Russell and his vision for the Colony Hotel’s Royal Room. What used to be a storage room at the famous Palm Beach boutique hotel has been transformed into what the Oak Room is at the Algonquin, or Feinstein’s at the Regency, or call it the Great American Songbook South. Last week we were fortunate enough to see Stacey Kent there. She may well be regarded as the new first lady of the genre. Very talented musicians back her up, in particular her husband, Jim Tomlinson, a superb saxophonist who produces her albums and is her business manager. He and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro wrote several new pieces for Stacey’s recent album, Breakfast on the Morning Tram, four of which she performed.

What catapults an artist like Stacey Kent to the top of her field? First, she is completely dedicated to the genre, living the music. When she says that her very favorite lyric is from People Will Say We're In Love, “Don't keep your hand in mine; Your hand feels so grand in mine” you feel it deeply when she sings those words as she did the other night.

Then, she articulates the lyrics while singing them, and when listening to the Great American Songbook selections, the words are as important as the music itself.
Every nuance intended by the songwriter surfaces in her performance.

Stacey came to her art somewhat by accident, studying for a Masters degree in comparative literature in Europe where she met her husband who also arrived on the music scene via an academic labyrinth. Her perfect phrasing is reminiscent of Sinatra’s who was the master. But she is a one-of-a-kind; just listen to her rendition of The Boy Next Door: .

After her performance at the Royal Room we chatted with her and Ann gave her a big hug, which was reciprocated. It’s as if we’ve known her forever.

She reminds us of another great jazz singer, Nicole Pasternak, whom we’ve befriended and regularly see perform when we’re in Connecticut, as the Northeast is her home base. In some ways Nicole is a more versatile performer, belting out a Patsy Cline song as readily as an Irving Berlin classic. Stacey by contrast has honed a distinctive style, restricting her performances to the very songs and style she can make immortal.

It is hard for a regional performer such as Nicole to bring her talents to the national scene. I’ve been trying to find the right gig for her in South Florida without success. I’m more disheartened by this than Nicole who mostly sings just for her love of this unique musical treasure we call the Great American Songbook. Thanks to her dedication and to artists such as Stacey Kent this distinctively American cultural experience lives on for future generations.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fifty, Going On…

Last April I sent a 50th birthday greeting to a friend I worked with, Pat. I had remembered her 40th birthday party at the office ten years before (or so I thought), festooned with black crepe paper and black balloons. Imagine my embarrassment when she told me I was one year early with my greeting. Well, like a broken clock I can confidently now say Happy 50th to Pat.

Coincidentally, my friend Martin is turning 80 (pictured here, playing Scrabble with Ann), so I am exactly midway between their ages, a triangulation that tripped a “growing old” electrode in my brain, conjuring those immortal lines on the topic I’ve carried around with me since I read them: Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I grow old … I grow old …I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and John Masefield’s poem I inexplicably memorized in its entirety when I was a teenager, perhaps for a moment such as this, On Growing Old: “Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying, Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.” It is perhaps the most eloquent poem on aging.

When I turned 50, I wrote Martin a letter, part of which covered the way I felt about that birthday at the time. Hopefully, Pat is more sanguine about the occasion than obviously was I:

Yes, I am watching middle age fade in the sunset as I approach my 50th birthday next month. I have never been sensitive to my age, perhaps because I have always been among the youngest of my peers -- in business particularly. Suddenly, as if someone flicked a switch of a grotesque neon light, I am caught in the glare of my own impending senior citizen status. No longer am I among the youngest. Even my boss is younger than I. Everyone calls me "sir" and I do not like it one bit.

I can't imagine how I am going to be able to adjust to this unwelcome shift in status. Originally, I thought it might be fun to gormandize my 50th head-on by giving a funky country music party -- ten-gallon hats and all.

Now, I've convinced Ann that it might be best if I just slip-away into the oblivion of seniority by doing nothing. Even though you are a few steps in front of me, you need not feel honor-bound to point out all of the wonderful reasons it is to be 50. The only one I can think of is not to be 70!
(Post Script: We had that party anyhow. Glad I did. Now, 70 doesn’t seem so onerous.)

But, my favorite 50th was Ann’s (pictured to the right just a "few" years earlier). It was special as it was a surprise party, and it was not the first time I had successfully pulled one off for her. For Ann’s 40th she thought she was going to a wedding. Friends of ours who had been living together had agreed to serve as the bait and we printed one wedding invitation, which was of course sent to us. So Ann was dressed to the nines and we had to drop off our young son at another friend’s house on the way for babysitting, thinking she was going to a big “wedding.” But at our friend’s house everyone from Ann’s past had gathered, including her mother and relatives from California. Her knees buckled when the door was opened.

So it was with much pleasure I was able to engineer another surprise party exactly ten years later. That afternoon we were out on our boat ‘Swept Away’ at our favorite Crow Island anchorage, the tiniest island in the Norwalk chain, where we literally lived during summer weekends, year in and year out. Many of our friends were there too on their boats but gradually they left and I had persuaded Ann to stay to enjoy the waning hours of the languid Sunday late afternoon. That should have been her first hint something was up, as I was the one who usually left first, to clean up the boat, and then return home to get ready for the workweek.

Unknown to her, our friends and many relatives were waiting at a restaurant at our marina where I had reserved a private room. Upon our return to the slip I suggested we go out for dinner, something I knew she would jump at after a weekend on the boat. I said I preferred the restaurant at the marina, that I was too tired to go off someplace else, and so she was ambushed by another surprise birthday celebration, this for her 50th.

Here is my toast to her at the gathering. While some specifics might make sense to those who have been close to Ann over the years, the gestalt paints a picture of a special person, without whom birthdays would be meaningless to me:

Welcome, friends and relatives, to Ann's 50th birthday celebration. Thank you all for helping to make this a special day for a special person and thank you to Patti, who was my co-conspirator in arranging this celebration.

The relationships one forms weave the fabric of one’s life; by this definition, our Annie has a real reason to celebrate on this special day. And those relationships are as much built around many small detailed moments as they are around life's more momentous occasions.

How many languid afternoons have there been -- on the 'Afternoon Delight' -- at our beloved Crow Island, with Annie, Betty, Tony, Cathy and John locked in mortal battle over a scrabble board, Ann suddenly exclaiming, "I can put all seven letters down and my word has a j,x, and z!" Publicly, I have contended that Ann cheats at Scrabble. (After all, she is always clutching that book that lists one million two-letter words and one billion three-letter words.) The truth be told, though, she has always been a fierce competitor and has a real love of reading and words.

Then, there were those times with Sue and Ray, their Donzi skimming over the Long Island Sound at nearly 60 miles an hour, Ray smiling demonically with his hat turned backwards, Sue employing Ray to slow down, and Annie in the rear seat screaming, "Raymond, Raymond, RAYMOND!" Be assured, Ray, she loved every minute of it, but not as much, perhaps, as those quiet, harbor cruises as the sun was setting at the Great Salt Pond, Block Island.

Potluck suppers on the 'Swept Away' and the 'Our Dream' (or, as Richard and I have sometimes referred to our boats as an "Eggaton") also stand out among these special moments. Watching Annie cook -- and as you all know she is a great cook -- is quite an experience. It gives new meaning to the word "hyperactive" and watching Marlene and Annie in tandem entitles us mere mortals to reach for the Valium.

Nancy and Betty-- in the New York arena, and Marge and Peter -- in London territory -- know of Annie's love of the theater, eating, and, let's not beat around the bush, fine, EXPENSIVE, things in general. And, as in other matters, going to a restaurant or the theater with Annie is an experience, ranging from her crying out "BRAVO, BRAVO, BRAVO!" at the end of a performance, to turning to a stranger in a restaurant to ask for a bite of his meal, or, even, his life history. Annie has no shame in a restaurant and even has been known to ask for large take out portions of the Fried Calamari from La Bernadine.

So, it is no wonder that Annie's friendship with Arlene began in a restaurant on 14th Street, La Bilbania, in 1964. Annie's love of travel was fostered by this friendship. Together they braved the vicissitudes of Montezuma's revenge in Mexico and left most of the men in Spain and Italy pining for their early return. Their antics at the Pensione in Spain have been written about in some of the world's most notable tabloids.

But being a friend of Ann's is not always like trying to follow a big brass band. Patti and Ann, while ostensibly taking their dogs for a walk, engage in secret "girl talk." In fact, if there is one single, attribute that makes Ann Ann, it is her capacity for intimacy, for understanding human nature, for giving and helping. She has touched many lives.

But with that great gift is also an innocence, even gullibility. Exactly 10 years ago we orchestrated a surprise 40th birthday party for her. She was easily convinced that our friends, Carole and Terry, were going to be married. One wedding invitation was printed and sent to us, and that is where she thought she was going when she arrived at her own party.

Of course, Annie is no different as a Mother, Aunt, or Cousin. Cousins Mimi and Sherman have watched her grow, since she left Atlanta, Georgia in 1959, for New York City, to find her life. When you think about it that was either an extraordinarily brave act or one borne out of naiveté. Annie was one of the original "women's libber" but did not even know it.

Mimi and Sherman were nurturing to Annie in her early New York years and, in fact, she ultimately inherited their rent-controlled apartment at 33 West 63rd Street. This became our first apartment.

As a young, single woman she made a career for herself, first as a receptionist and ultimately as a Customer Service Manager at the publishing organization where we met in 1965. In between, she dated men with simple names such as Takeshi, Schlomo, and the one I have the most difficult pronouncing, Jack. Favorite activities in New York were bicycling, exploring the Village and dancing the Mambo at the Palladium. Simply put, Annie was a beatnik, a bohemian who chose the path most of her Atlanta high school classmates could hardly imagine.

To her niece, Regina, and her Cousins, Suzanne and Michael, Aunt Ann has been an inspiration -- an accomplished career women, who has traveled around the world and, of course, let's not kid ourselves, she married well.

But that strong nurturing, zest-for-life instinct in Annie is never more evident than in her role as Mother to Chris and Jonathan. She stood by Chris while he went through some difficult transitional years. She was, and is, always there for him.

Her relationship with Jonathan is, as many of you can attest, a very complicated one. Perhaps that is because they are in many ways alike. Jonathan, I can think of no better compliment.

Finally, the most incredulous thing about Annie is that she puts up with me. That qualifies her for Sainthood! So to my best friend, I raise my glass to say, "Happy 50th Birthday, and here is to the next 50!"

Post Script: While posting this, I realized that today would have been my dad’s 92nd birthday. I included a piece about him at the conclusion of one of my first blog entries:

Monday, April 7, 2008

Hunger Artist Redux

Last Friday we went to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, where we have had a season subscription since the theatre opened five years ago, to see Master Class, Terrence McNally’s Tony prize-winning play about the great soprano, Maria Callas. The play was based on classes she gave at Julliard at the end of her illustrious career.

The theatrical productions at Maltz have been inconsistent. Some are chosen to appeal to its diverse, mostly retirement age, audience and as such they are merely a pleasant way to pass the evening. But Master Class was unlike anything else this season or in prior ones, with a soaring performance by Gordana Rashovich who plays the iconoclastic diva. The review that appeared the next day in the Palm Beach Post provides the detail:

We knew we were watching an extraordinary performance, one that vaulted a very good play into greatness. During intermission I stepped out into the breezy, balmy Florida night and was surprised to see a number of people leaving the theatre, overhearing objections such as they felt they were being lectured to, the play was too confrontational, or, even, disappointment there was not more music. These criticisms of course missed the whole point of what this play is about. It was a lecture; the audience is attending a “master class” which by the very definition is a place where students come to be taught, but the play is a conceit for us to see into the very soul of a true artist, the remarkable opera soprano, Maria Callas. And we are confronted by Callas’ caustic observations about art and life, and her inner musings about her rivalries and her love affair with Aristotle Onassis.

The comment about not being “enough music” jogged a memory, while standing there in the Florida night, of the Franz Kafka’s short story I read so many years ago in college, A Hunger Artist. Those details came flooding back as I watched a few people getting into their cars, driving off. Kafka’s allegorical work portrays a “hunger artist” – a man in a circus sideshow who is a fasting artist, one who is literally starving himself to death for his art and for the spectacle of the masses. They ignore him, streaming past his cage, going off to see the lions being fed instead.

And similarly Master Class is about the artist’s relationship to society and the sacrifice required to attain a level of perfection, one that Callas achieved in her career, and now Gordana Rashovich finds in portraying Callas. All art is a solitary journey, for the creators and the performers, although in the performing arts it is a symbiotic relationship, somewhat of a contradiction for the performer who on the one hand must be a vessel for the creative artist’s intention, and this was at the heart of Callas’ performances (“listen to the music!” Callas demands of her students in the play), but on the other hand feeds on the approbation of the audience. McNally says, and Rashovich states with such conviction, that the performer must dominate the audience, in a sense to bring the audience to a level that the artistic creator intended. McNally and Rashovich make you actually feel the gut–wrenching sacrifices and demons that possess a great artist such as Callas and the artists for which she serves.

Rashovich’s performance prompted my wife to write her first ever “fan letter.” It says volumes about this extraordinary performance…

Dear Ms. Rashovich:

I'm 66 and this is my first fan letter. I've been a devoted theatre lover since I was 16 and spent a summer visiting NY from my hometown of Atlanta, Ga. and saw a string of fantastic plays on Broadway that left an indelible mark. I moved to NY on my own in 1959 and saw every conceivable play I could afford and have been an insatiable devotee of live performance all my life, both in this country and abroad.

But last night, I felt privileged and blessed to witness what I can only say was such a tour de force as to leave me breathless. Your performance was so outstanding, nuanced and powerful, that it reincarnated Diva Callas before my eyes. I had seen this play years before in NY, but the actress was completely lacking in your ability to possess the role, body and soul.

I just want to say thank you, for all your hard work, years of dedication to your craft and for giving my husband and me such a thrilling evening, which we will never forget.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Interesting Reading

As I write this, and read the links provided below, the Joint Economic Committee is questioning Ben Bernanke. He finally alludes to the “possibility” of a recession, generally defends the Fed’s recent actions, but mostly looks like a deer in the headlights. I feel sorry for him, as the mess he inherited was not his doing.

Here is some interesting reading regarding the current economic situation, particularly the Federal Reserve’s recent interventions and the Bear Stearns “bailout” (in quotes depending on one’s viewpoint). The first two are from bloggers I follow, usually light handed views on the markets, and then views from the always erudite bond king, Bill Gross, and, then, finally, the weekly commentary from John Hussman, an economist who practices what he preaches managing a mutual fund by the same name…

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Photo Ops

Distance, light and shadow, and color (or the lack of it), make for interesting representations of scenes in two dimensions, particularly without much in the foreground.

Madeira Cliff

Placid Beach

Tortola Scene

Asheville Flower