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July 11, 2007

TT: Men at work

I announced back in May that Paul Moravec and I had been commissioned to write an operatic adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Letter. Of course we'd been working on it for some time before then, but the only thing we had on paper at that point was a draft of the first five scenes of my eight-scene libretto.

Paul retired to the MacDowell Colony last month to start writing the music. He drove back to New York two weeks ago to play me his first sketches. We've known each other for more than a decade and are close neighbors and good friends, so I had every reason to expect that our collaboration would be a reasonably smooth one. Nevertheless, I was feeling a bit nervous when I knocked on the door of his Upper West Side studio, and I nearly jumped out of my skin when he put a sheaf of rough pencil sketches on the music rack of his piano. Would I like the way they sounded? Would he be open to criticism? Would I be open to it?

I'm delighted to say that the answers to these questions turned out to be yes, yes, and yes. I was thrilled to hear my words set to Paul's brilliantly apposite music, and no sooner did he finish playing through the sketches than the two of us rolled up our sleeves and started revising words and music on the spot. Any mutual apprehensions we may have had about our ability to collaborate were dispelled at once: we were entirely frank with one another, and the fruits of our joint labors are already the better for our frankness.

So far, our working process appears to have more in common with the making of a musical comedy than the writing of an opera. In fact, we did something two Sundays ago that comes straight out of the Broadway playbook. Paul had already sketched the music for an aria whose words are not yet written, so I knocked out on the spot what professional songwriters call a "dummy lyric," a piece of nonsense verse that matches the rhythms of the pre-written music exactly, thus allowing the lyricist to work more easily on his own after the fact. The most famous of all dummy lyrics is the one Ira Gershwin wrote for "I Got Rhythm": Roly-poly/Eating solely/Ravioli/Better watch your diet or bust. Here's the one I wrote for the first stanza of an aria in which one of the characters in The Letter laments the death of her lover:

I am a toad,
Green, grey,
In a dark, dark, dark wood,
And I'm longing for light.

Needless to say, there are no toads in our opera--at least not in singing roles.

Once I'd penned these soon-to-be-forgotten words, Paul packed up his sketches and returned to the MacDowell Colony, there to resume the writing of the score to The Letter. Composing, like writing, is a solitary business, and a major composer doesn't need to have a wordsmith peering over his shoulder as he grapples with the knotty problem of snatching notes out of the air and putting them in the right order. But it's a lonely business, too, and I suspect that Paul, like me, found it immensely exciting--and reassuring--for the two of us to sit down in a soundproof studio and face the music jointly.

To be continued...

UPDATE: As the next-to-last paragraph of this story in today's Guardian reveals, The Letter will be staged by Jonathan Kent, who directed last year's Broadway revival of Brian Friel's Faith Healer.

Cool, huh?

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TT: Almanac

"Audiences are rarely on the same wavelength as performers. In fact, two very different things are going on at once. The musician is wondering how to get from the second eight bars into the bridge, and the audience is in pursuit of emotional energy. The musician is struggling, and the audience is making up dreamlike opinions about the music that may have nothing at all to do with what the musician is thinking or doing musically. If audiences knew what humdrum, daylight things most musicians think when they play, they'd probably never come."

Dick Wellstood (quoted in Whitney Balliett, American Musicians II: Seventy-one Portraits in Jazz)

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July 10, 2007

CAAF: 5 x 5 Books I Press Upon Thee

5 x 5 Books ... is a recommendation of five books that'll appear here on Tuesdays.* Sometimes I'll make the list, sometimes the list will come from someone else.

Here is where I confess I have a terrible weakness for lists. Always have. A picture from the fourth grade shows me at a desk in my room with a list of what I hoped to accomplish over the Christmas holiday (one of the items was something like: "Read pgs. 60 -100 of The Outsiders" ). If there were a List Fancy magazine I would not only subscribe, I would try to work there, so I could spend glorious status meetings with my coworkers, drinking coffee and making lists of everything we had to do ("1. Make lists").

So of course I love reading lists that suggest books to read, and I like making them. As with all such lists, sometimes the relationship between the books is obvious, but it's more fun when the relationship is unexpected but, on examination, completely apropos. Example: I'd put M.T. Anderson's Feed, recommended below, on a list of "Great Books About Failing Empires" alongside J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, Meg Rosoff's young-adult novel How I Live Now, and Jared Diamond's Collapse.

For this inaugural 5x5, a list of books I press upon thee. If you yourself are someone who likes to press books upon people, you probably have certain books you like to give again and again. In college, my favorite books to give were Katherine Dunn's Geek Love and Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. These are five current favorites, books that, while they're not new, I read for the first time this year:

1. Jeremy Thrane by Kate Christensen: At one point, the eponymous Jeremy says, "The better a book, the more frantically I dog-eared it, the more food I spilled on it. I almost couldn't tolerate too much verbal brilliance flowing past my eyes; I was driven very nearly mad by my inability to physically ingest every word." That's how I felt about this book: It's so good I wanted to eat it. Christensen's fourth novel, The Great Man, comes out in August. Read Jeremy Thrane while you wait. (Maud provides an overview of Christensen's novels.)

2. The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy: The adventures of one Sally Jay Gorce in Paris in the 1950s. Reading this novel was, for me, like watching a great old screwball comedy. Frothy and funny on the surface, and beautifully constructed underneath. The plot does a bit of a 23-skidoo at the end, but that's almost beside the point (again, like an old comedy). It's Sally Jay I loved -- her healthy animal egotism (a nice break from self-effacing Plain Jane narrators), her acute yet rapturous observations. (If you haven't already, see Terry's introduction to the NYRB's reissue of the novel.)

3. Feed by M.T. Anderson: I'm a little obsessed with Anderson right now. His most recent book, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, won the 2006 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, but I prefer this earlier novel, an incredibly smart & chilling satire/love story that takes place in a future world where a media "feed" is hardwired into people's brains. Even if you think you don't like science fiction or young adult novels, I urge you to give this a try. (A charming interview with Anderson.)

4. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca: A nonfiction title that deserves to be a classic, in my opinion. Like Alma Guillermoprieto (The Heart That Bleeds, Looking for History), Fonseca is a marvelous synthesizer, combining first-hand reportage with history, linguistics and other disciplines, to present a picture of modern Gypsy (or Rom) culture in Eastern Europe. Fonseca has a novelist's eye for the enlivening detail and a gorgeous writing style; she also can write with a great (and contagious) fury when the occasion calls for it. (Gossipy side note: Fonseca is married to Martin Amis, yet profiles of him often neglect to mention that she's an author too. Now that I've read Bury Me Standing, this makes me bristle.)

5. A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons by Robert M. Sapolsky: Another nonfiction title. This may seem an odd compliment to pay a primatologist, but as an author Sapolsky reminds me of a rather wonderful, intelligent monkey: Deeply curious and alert to the absurd, kind without being pious. Here he recounts decades of study of a single baboon troop in Kenya. Over the years he traveled extensively around Africa, and these sections are especially fascinating. The description of teaching himself how to tranq. baboons as a student at college is one of the funniest things I've ever read, like a lost chapter from James Thurber if Thurber had a yen to study monkeys.

* Yes, it's a Buffy reference.

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TT: Me, too! Me, too!

Like CAAF, I am and have always been a compulsive list-maker. Aesthetic listmaking is only a game, but a good one, because when it's done right, it helps to focus the mind and sharpen your sense of discrimination. To be sure, I think the postmodern journalistic fad for reducing all aesthetic experience to a series of lists has gotten way out of hand, but even so, I rarely resist the temptation to draw up another one whenever asked.

Carrie's first "About Last Night" list is a good one, in part because I would have unhesitatingly chosen two of the items on it myself, Jeremy Thrane and (naturally) The Dud Avocado. Not surprisingly, it makes me feel the itch to get in the game again. I am, alas, too damn busy to put together a Really Reflective List, so instead I'll offer you a quick and dirty one. Here are five CDs I recently acquired and plan to play at the earliest opportunity:

• Ornette Coleman Quintet, Complete Live at the Hillcrest Club

• Giovanni de Chiaro, Scott Joplin on Guitar

The Best of the Fairfield Four

• Morton Gould, Showcase

• Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, Beethoven Complete Symphonies and Selected Overtures (a newly remastered reissue of the 1939 broadcast cycle)

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TT: Survivors

Here's a trivia question for readers with long memories: what musicians who are still making commercial records today started recording in the 78 era? Bear in mind that the long-playing record was introduced by Columbia in 1948 and replaced the old-fashioned 78 single shortly thereafter, so it's been a very long time since anyone last cut a commercial 78.

I haven't thought it through carefully, but the only people who come immediately to my mind are four jazz musicians, Roy Haynes, Lee Konitz, Marian McPartland, and Sonny Rollins. (Oscar Peterson and Max Roach date from the same era, though their recording careers now appear to be over.)

Presumably there also are some classical performers who qualify--but who?

UPDATE: The ever-alert Ethan Iverson chimes in with three names I should have come up with on my own: Hank Jones, Clark Terry, and (drumroll) Earl Wild.

I just thought of two glaringly obvious omissions: Dave Brubeck and Horace Silver.

Michael Hendry throws another name into the hat: Charlie Louvin, the surviving member of the Louvin Brothers, one of country music's all-time great duet acts. This in turn caused me to remember that bluegrass giant Ralph Stanley, who began recording in the late Forties, is still very much alive, well, active, and making records.

Walter Biggins says that B.B. King cut his first record in 1947 or 1949, which means it was almost certainly a 78 (though it might well have been recorded on magnetic tape).

Mark Stryker says that Sir Charles Mackerras, the British conductor, "got in under the wire at the end of the 78 era and is still recording." He also shoots and scores with Gunther Schuller, who played French horn on several of the Miles Davis Nonet's 78 sides--the "Birth of the Cool" records--and continues to record as a conductor.

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TT: Almanac

"The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives. The people who you think are conservative might really be radical."

Morton Feldman, Morton Feldman Says (courtesy of Alex Ross)

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July 9, 2007

TT, OGIC, and CAAF: New face of 2007

Today "About Last Night" welcomes a guest blogger, our first since Our Girl in Chicago became a permanent fixture three-and-a-half years ago. Litblogger Carrie Frye, better known as Ms. Tingle Alley, joins us to comment on books, reading, and whatever else may happen to be on her mind. The headlines of her postings will be signed "CAAF," just as Terry's are signed "TT" and Our Girl's "OGIC."

Carrie's presence adds a point to the "About Last Night" compass, since she hails from down south. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, a community hailed by Rolling Stone as "the New Freak Capital of the U.S." We'll let her tell you the rest herself.

Take it away, CAAF!

* * *

Hello and howdy, greetings from Asheville, N.C. As Terry and OGIC said, my name's Carrie Frye and I keep a quasi-literary blog called "Tingle Alley," which was named after an obscure little street downtown where I used to live. I now live on the east side of town, one door down from the national forest, where there are fewer meth heads, more bears.

The best thing about Rolling Stone's line about Asheville as the "New Freak Capital of the U.S." is imagining the shivers of delight that must have thrilled through the Chamber of Commerce at its publication. Otherwise, it's not the most apt description. Asheville is an eccentric town, a motley town, weird & charming--but not in so strident a way as "freak" suggests. My memory is foggy but at the time Rolling Stone was here, there was a much-tattooed guy who liked to rollerskate around downtown in nothing but his skivvies, and I've always thought we owed the "freak" designation to him. He was like our own Naked Cowboy Guy, a ringer for the tourists.

I'm not sure I'm getting it right either, however. I'll try to describe Asheville better for you in the next few weeks as well as write about books and whatever little projects and outings strike my fancy. For now, I just want to say how wonderful it is to be writing here. "About Last Night" was one of the first blogs I discovered and it's remained a great favorite. It's a thrill to be on summer-share with Terry and Laura, like being invited to stay in a house where everyone likes Barbara Pym and Dawn Powell and is willing to cool it in the rec room watching re-runs of Buffy.

Terry has asked that I "explain about the initials": "CAAF" is the nickname I go by here in Asheville. It was given to me when I was working as a reporter at Mountain Xpress and publishing all my stories as "Carrie A.A. Frye." (I always ask for my initials as I'm always afraid people will forget who I am without them.) For a round-up feature my contributions were marked as "CAAF" and some friends glommed onto that, and so CAAF it's been. And as someone who has stood in a video store and said in all seriousness to her (non-blog-reading) companion, "We should get this, OGIC said it's good," it's pleasing to use it here and continue "About Last Night"'s fine tradition of acronyms.

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OGIC: Star in our midst

For the most part, I find it impossible to recall how I discovered the blogs I regularly read or to remember the first time I encountered them. They seem to have permeated my consciousness undetected, like vapors. Tingle Alley, the home of our new co-blogger CAAF, is a rare exception. I remember reading it the very day it debuted, directed there by Maud among others, and instantly being charmed into bookmarking and blogrolling this handsome new site with its oddly arresting name (explained here). Tingle Alley has remained a frequent and favorite stop. Carrie's smarts, wit, and unflagging good nature have made it a reliably sunny retreat on the internets.

It's a happy occcasion, then, to welcome her to ALN to blog beside us. Make yourself at home, Carrie! This is going to be fun.

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TT: Liar, liar

Beverly Sills was just before my time. I saw her give a recital in Kansas City in the late Seventies, but it made no impression on me--recitals were not her medium, and I can't even remember what she sang--and she'd long since retired from the operatic stage by the time I finally made it to New York a quarter-century ago. Alas, Sills is poorly represented by her records, few of which were made when she was in her prime, and in any case the bel canto repertory in which she specialized has never appealed to me strongly. Nor did I see her on Tonight or The Muppet Show, or interview her in her latter-day capacity as celebrity arts administrator. For all these reasons, her death meant little to me personally. Several critics, including Tim Page, Tony Tommasini, and Manuela Hoelterhoff, have written eloquently about her in recent days, and I commend their pieces to your attention, yet they make me wonder how long she will be remembered by those who, like me, never saw her on stage.

Most of the obituaries made prominent mention of the fact that Sills' TV appearances brought classical music to the attention of millions of people who might otherwise never have heard of it. I wonder about that, too. She was by all accounts a charming on-camera buffoon, but I've never met anyone who got the opera bug from seeing her swap stories with Johnny Carson. Yet these appearances, taken together, may nonetheless have added up to the most consequential thing she ever did.

I wrote a few months ago in The Wall Street Journal about a concert in which my operatic collaborator Paul Moravec took part:

Last Sunday I went to a concert by the Amelia Piano Trio, an exciting young chamber-music group whose fresh-faced members teamed up with the great clarinetist Richard Stoltzman to perform Tempest Fantasy, a piece by Paul Moravec that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for music. Mr. Moravec, who lives in New York City, was there as well, and he talked to the audience about his piece, explaining in a clear, no-nonsense way how its various themes were musical portraits of the characters in Shakespeare's play. As Mr. Moravec spoke, the musicians played the themes associated with Ariel, Prospero and Caliban. Then they played the whole piece from start to finish, and when they were done, Tempest Fantasy received the kind of ovation that any composer of modern music would die for.

It occurred to me as I listened that what Mr. Moravec had to say about Tempest Fantasy, illuminating as it was, was no more important than the mere fact that he was willing to get up on stage and talk about his work in so plain-spoken and unassuming a manner. Most concertgoers, after all, have never met a major classical composer, much less heard him tell a self-deprecating joke.

All at once I remembered another Sunday afternoon years ago when I tuned in one of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. The topic was American music, and at the end of the program Bernstein introduced an ordinary-looking man in a business suit who proceeded to conduct the finale of a symphony he'd written. The man, Bernstein explained, was Aaron Copland, and the piece was his Third Symphony, one of the permanent masterpieces of American art. Young as I was, I got the message loud and clear: art doesn't just drop from the skies. It's a normal human activity, something that people do for a living, the same way they paint houses or cut hair. It is a message that every artist in America should be sending as clearly--and frequently--as possible.

Beverly Sills was sending that message at a time when comparatively few American artists thought that it needed to be sent. Now we know better.

Greg Sandow blogged the other day about his belief that "the [fine] arts--as an enterprise separate from our wider culture, and somehow standing above it--are over....any attempt to revive them (this includes classical music, of course) will have to mean that they engage popular culture, and everything else going on in the outside world." Up to a point, I think Greg is right. If we want to see a revival of anything remotely resembling the middlebrow culture of the pre-Vietnam era, in which most middle-class people who were not immersed in the fine arts were nonetheless aware and respectful of them and made an effort to engage with them, then artists will have to shake off what I have called their "entitlement mentality" and go where the audiences are.

Should they? There's a serious case to be made for not doing so, the case for elitism in the arts, and I don't need to restate it here. Clement Greenberg put it best when he claimed that "it is middlebrow, not lowbrow, culture that does most nowadays to cut the social ground from under high culture." True enough--but if you care about the continuing fate of museums, symphony orchestras, ballet, opera, and theater companies, and all the other big-money institutions that were the pillars of American high culture in the twentieth century, you're going to have to accept the fact that these elitist enterprises cannot survive without the wholehearted support of a non-elite public that believes in their importance.

Sills understood that, and did something about it. Perhaps more than any other American classical musician of her generation, she did her best to communicate to ordinary Americans the idea that the making of high art is a normal human activity, one whose fruits are accessible to all who make a good-faith effort to understand them. That's not quite true, of course, but it's a noble and ennobling lie, and I wouldn't be greatly surprised if Beverly Sills is remembered for telling it long after the particulars of her performing career are forgotten.

UPDATE: A friend writes:

Beverly Sills was my mom's age, and for a time in my early teens we saw her perform during her years at the New York City Opera, before she went to the Met. This was long before English subtitles, and I knew next to nothing about opera, but I remember her work very well. She didn't have a big voice, but she was a fine actress and knew how to use what she had to make the story real. I think my folks included me in their opera subscription to keep me out of trouble, which in hindsight is hilarious, because most opera plots are full of good clean fun like murder, adultery, treachery and such. Her Lucia will stay with me forever. I can still see her doing that mad scene in a long white nightgown, smeared with blood, arms raised and head cocked slightly as she sang in ecstasy to a lover who was clearly not present. I thought it was nifty. She gave me a greater appreciation for opera, which up till then had been a noisy collective of fat people stumping across the stage, booming in other languages. I totally bought her because she made me believe her story, which is the performer's job. I've always felt that a classical singer who can also act is a powerful thing.

Me, too. I wish I'd been there.

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TT: Good housekeeping

Several months have gone by since I last tidied up the links in the right-hand column, so in honor of the impending arrival of CAAF, I spent an afternoon working on them. I combed through our blogroll, pruning out the sites that are no longer active and changing the addresses of the ones that have moved since my last visit. Then I tested all the links in the audio and video sections, removed the ones that were no longer available on YouTube due to copyright restrictions, replaced them wherever possible with alternative selections, and added a couple of dozen new links while I was at it.

If you've never explored our bulging cache of arts-related videos, I strongly suggest you do so. As I wrote last year in a Wall Street Journal column:

YouTube, like the other new Web-based media, is a common carrier, a means to whatever ends its millions of users choose, be they good, bad, dumb or ugly. You can use it to watch mindless junk--or some of the greatest classical and jazz musicians of the 20th century.

In recent months, jazz-loving friends have been sending me YouTube links to videos by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and other celebrated artists, most of them drawn from films of the '30s and '40s and TV shows of the '50s and '60s. Some of this material is available on DVD, but most of it lingered in limbo until Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, YouTube's co-founders, made it possible for anyone with a computer to post and view video clips at will. Fascinated by the links unearthed by my friends, I spent the better part of a long weekend trolling through YouTube in search of similar material. When I was done, I'd found hundreds of videos, some extremely rare and all compulsively watchable, posted by collectors from all over the world.

I discovered along the way that using YouTube's literal-minded search engine to track down high-culture links--or anything else--can be a tricky business. (It doesn't help that so many YouTube users are poor spellers.) To ease the way for first-timers, I posted the fruits of my labors at www.terryteachout.com, where you'll find a list of links to performances by Armstrong, Ellington, Count Basie, Pablo Casals, the King Cole Trio, Miles Davis, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Benny Goodman, Jascha Heifetz, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Andrés Segovia, Bessie Smith, Arturo Toscanini and numerous other musicians of comparable significance. All can be viewed free, whenever you want....

I went on to say that "by posting this list of links, I have, in effect, created a Web-based fine-arts video-on-demand site." True enough--and it remains, so far as I know, the most extensive such listing of arts-related video links to be found anywhere on the Web. All of the aforementioned artists are still represented in our video section, along with hundreds of others, and while some of the clips will be reasonably familiar to connoisseurs, others are likely to surprise you. If you've ever longed to see Noël Coward singing "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," or Dmitri Shostakovich playing piano, or Jackson Pollock painting a painting and talking about how he did it...well, you're only a click away.

Our list of audio links is scarcely less comprehensive and no less full of buried treasure. Among other astonishments, it will allow you to hear the speaking voices of Guillaume Apollinaire, W.H. Auden, William Jennings Bryan, Stuart Davis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edward Hopper, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, Philip Larkin, Huey Long, W. Somerset Maugham, Dorothy Parker, George Bernard Shaw, and Evelyn Waugh.

What are you waiting for?

UPDATE: To the reader who kindly sent me an mp3 file of the speaking voice of Max Beerbohm, would you kindly write and let me know whether there is a Web-based source for this file?

Also, I've been looking in vain for a downloadable copy of the 1948 recording of a radio interview with H.L. Mencken. (I have an old cassette of the interview, but I can't upload it.) Can anyone oblige me?

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TT: Almanac

"Music may be yet unborn. Perhaps no music has ever been written or heard. Perhaps the birth of art will take place at the moment in which the last man who is willing to make a living out of art is gone and gone forever."

Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata

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July 6, 2007

TT: Whatever happened to regional critics?

I was traveling today and almost forgot to post the teaser for my biweekly "Sightings" column in Saturday's Wall Street Journal. This time around my subject is the drying-up of regional arts criticism. All over the country, newspapers are cutting back on book reviews, laying off classical-music critics, and replacing locally written film reviews with wire-service copy. What's the problem? Who's to blame? And what effect--if any--will this apparent sea change in American journalism have on the fine arts?

To find out, pick up a copy of tomorrow's Journal and turn to the "Pursuits" section.

UPDATE: Here's a little taste:

One of the most important civic duties that a newspaper performs is to cover the activities of local arts groups--but it can't do that effectively without also employing knowledgeable critics who are competent to evaluate the work of those groups. Mere reportage, while essential, is only the first step. It's not enough to announce that the Hooterville Art Museum finally bought itself a Picasso. You also need a staffer who can tell you whether it's worth hanging, just as you need someone who knows whether the Hooterville Repertory Company's production of "Private Lives" was funny for the right reasons.

Can bloggers do that? Of course--and some of them do it better than their print-media counterparts. You won't find a more thoughtful literary critic than Houston's Patrick Kurp, a more imaginative commentator on music than San Francisco's Heather Heise, or a better-informed art writer than Tyler Green of Washington, D.C. But blogging, valuable though it can be, is no substitute for the day-to-day attention of a newspaper whose editors seek out experts, hire them on a full-time basis, and give them enough space to cover their beats adequately. The problem is that fewer and fewer newspapers seem willing to do that in any consistent way. I don't care for the word "provincial," but I can't think of a more accurate way to describe a city whose local paper is unwilling to make that kind of commitment to the fine arts....

Online Journal subscribers can read the whole thing by going here.

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TT and OGIC: Stay tuned

Don't forget...we have a surprise for you on Monday!

See you then.

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TT: History under the stars

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column, I report on two North Carolina outdoor dramas, The Lost Colony and Unto These Hills:

Not only is North Carolina the undisputed capital of historical outdoor drama, but it's the home of the oldest such show, Paul Green's "The Lost Colony," a freely fictionalized recounting of the saga of the 115 English colonists who sailed to North Carolina's Roanoke Island in 1587, made camp there, and were never seen again. (Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the Western Hemisphere, was one of them.) "The Lost Colony," which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, is performed at a waterside amphitheater in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, a park located on the site of the Roanoke colony. Its better-known alumni include Andy Griffith and Steve Kazee, now starring opposite Audra McDonald in the Broadway revival of "110 in the Shade," and the show remains one of North Carolina's top tourist attractions....

"The Lost Colony" remains a wonderfully old-fashioned period piece whose unabashed patriotism and frank religiosity are redolent of a long-lost age of certitude. "Paul Green has written history with a compassion that turns his characters into unconscious symbols of a brave new world....Mr. Green's wisdom is rooted in a poet's love of a fair land." So wrote Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic of the New York Times, in 1937. I wonder how many critics would feel moved to use such language today....

"Unto These Hills," America's third oldest outdoor drama, has been playing since 1950 in a steeply raked, stunningly beautiful rustic amphitheater carved out of the side of one of the Great Smoky Mountains. Cherokee, the tiny tourist town that serves as headquarters of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, has evolved over the years into something resembling an Indian theme park, complete with an outdoor drama, a museum, a replica of an Indian village and (naturally) a casino.

The "Unto These Hills" now being performed in Cherokee's Mountainside Theatre is not the same show my parents saw and loved a half-century ago. That show, written by Kermit Hunter, a protégé of Paul Green who is briefly dismissed in the program of the current production as "a non-Native," was a traditional plot-driven outdoor drama about one of the most shameful events in American history, the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from North Carolina to Oklahoma by the U.S. military in 1838. The new "Unto These Hills," unveiled last year and rewritten for this season, jettisoned Hunter's script in favor of a less downbeat, more historically accurate show in which a pair of Cherokee oldsters tell their grandchildren tales of the past that are acted out by the 75-person cast....

As usual, no free link, so act accordingly. Either buy today's paper or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my column and the rest of the Journal's extensive arts coverage. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

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TT: Almanac

"She owned, as I had put it to her, his heart. She had that and everything else--if she could only believe it. What I had to tell her was that in the whole world there was no one who ever would need his heart, his mind, his hand. It was a common fate, and yet it seemed an awful thing to say of any man."

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (courtesy of The Rat)

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July 5, 2007

TT: So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

Avenue Q * (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
A Chorus Line * (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
Frost/Nixon * (drama, PG-13, some strong language, reviewed here, closes Aug. 19)
Old Acquaintance (comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Aug. 19)
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)

Beyond Glory (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Aug. 19)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)

110 in the Shade * (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here, closes July 29)

Romeo and Juliet (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Sunday)

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TT: Almanac

"He listened with the intense interest one feels in a stranger's life, the interest the young mistake for love."

Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter (courtesy of The Rat)

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July 4, 2007

OGIC: Fortune cookie

"I was aware of an unexpected drift towards intimacy; although this sudden sense of knowing her all at once much better was not simultaneously accompanied by any clear portrayal in my own mind of the kind of person she might really be. Perhaps intimacy of any sort, love or friendship, impedes all exactness of definition....In short, the persons we see most clearly are not necessarily those we know best. In any case, to attempt to describe a woman in the broad terms employable for a man is perhaps irrational."

Anthony Powell, A Buyer's Market

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TT: Almanac

"The American mind exasperated the European as a buzz-saw might exasperate a pine-forest."

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

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July 3, 2007

OGIC: Out and about

During my long absence from the internet, as you might imagine, I amassed a small fortune in linkable blog posts. Here are a few highlights:

• Carrie of Tingle Alley reads Milton, here and here, as only Carrie of Tingle Alley can read Milton.

• James Marcus riffs on discovering his allergy to grass in a diverting post that begins with one acute parenthetical observation--"A couple of weeks ago, I got a phone message from my doctor: I'm allergic to grass. Since I live in Manhattan, this won't change my life in any substantial way (luckily it wasn't concrete or carbon monoxide or untrammeled ambition.)"--and ends with another: "Every hour wounds, the last kills--but at least [Cyril Connolly's] The Condemned Playground is still available in paperback. (By the way, if you seek it out on Amazon, you'll find the following listed as a Statistically Improbable Phrase: "elegiac couplet." What is this world coming to?)." The middle is good, too!

• Alex Ross posts a short essay by Carl Nielsen that's brimming over with aperçus. For example: "Nothing in all art is as painful as unsuccessful originality. It is like the twisted grimaces of vanity. We see the spirit everywhere. Some of us know it, but have no word for it; we exchange looks and shudder, like children at the sight of a skeleton."

• Here's where your cup runneth over: not just a post but an entire blog, Where the Stress Falls is the new site of M.S. Smith, whose previous venture CultureSpace was a longtime ALN favorite. I've been remiss in not mentioning Smith's new home sooner--but then, I've been simply remiss.

• Michael gives the Blowhard treatment to the next DVD in my Netflix queue, Criterion's fresh release of Chris Marker's films La Jetée and Sans Soleil, two mesmerizing films that come around to the cinemas only once a blue moon, even in a fairly cinema-stocked city such as Chicago.

• Kate of Kate's Book Blog discovers that a favorite book of mine, and one of which I'd fairly fancied myself the only reader of my generation, is actually again in print: Elaine Dundy's follow-up to The Dud Avocado, The Old Man and Me--and, by the way, unless you wish to have the latter ruined for you, I would studiously avoid reading the plot synopses that appear on the Virago page and the Amazon page, both of which essentially give the game away, Amazon in an astonishingly efficient single sentence. That said, Kate has some interesting observations on how Dundy's representation of sexual mores in the 1950s contrasts with a more recent treatment of similar issues in the same decade, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. Good stuff.

More where these came from soon. In the meantime, happy haunting.

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