Sunday, September 24, 2017

Homecoming with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Kicking off my 47th season with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra -- as audience member -- was like Homecoming.  Maestro Robert Spano bounded onstage to warm applause, and the orchestra started to play before he even reached his podium to conduct us in singing the anthem. When we cheered at the end, my friend Suzanne said, "Play ball!"

[Photo: Robert Spano]

We were all the home crowd, ready to appreciate everything.  Looking back from Row C and up into three balconies, I saw all rows packed, and lots of smiling faces of different ages and races. The chair of the board, without mentioning the cutbacks and cutthroat politics of some previous seasons, told us that we're back on track with hundreds of new subscribers (!), new music from our composer-in-residence Michael Kurth (who got appreciative tappings of the bow from fellow bassists), and young new hires to fill out our orchestra. In the program, we saw glam head shots of these young musicians and read about their music, guilty pleasures, and how they keep fit.

The program included Bernstein's Symphony #2, based on W. H. Auden's Age of Anxiety; Kurth's rocking arrangement of the national anthem and his new piece 1000 Words; and Gershwin's American in Paris.  All pieces are products of American males under the age of 40 -- or young for 46, in Kurth's case.  There was a lot of head-banging and aggressive drama in the pieces.

Our guest performer is a favorite of the Atlanta audience, French pianist Jean - Yves Thibaudet, playing the solo piano part in Age of Anxiety.  Bernstein's symphony requires a lot of pounding, and extreme virtuosic display in Bernstein's elaborations on a honky-tonk theme; but mostly, Thibaudet struck plummy dissonant chords in space, ruminations of the young man Bernstein.  It's a thankless job, as Bernstein wasn't going for the big hand when he wrote it; he was going for expression.  There's a break-through of warmth in the end, but for sheer beauty and feeling, the opening of the piece is best, a duet of woodwinds.

The movements of Kurth's piece all fascinated, with changes of texture and coloration, best when the percussion wasn't overwhelming the other instruments.

Gershwin's piece struck me as richer than I'd remembered, motifs layered intricately, surprises sprung regularly, melodies growing out of each other.  Hearing it live, you catch things you don't get when you don't see the bows sawing, the percussionist sweating, the conductor cajoling.

At the end, Spano ran about the orchestra, highlighting soloists.  Our tuba player got big applause for his rare moment in the spotlight.  Our composer Michael Kurth seemed shy of the acclaim, but grateful and affectionate when it came to hugging Spano and fellow musicians.

It all felt so good! 

(I wrote about the ASO, Kurth, and Bernstein, too, in an article about the ASO and audience as a "family."  See also my consideration of another fraught work by Bernstein,  "The Weight of Bernstein's Mass.")

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Hidden Brain: Under Current Events

Offered a choice of books to read for faculty development, choosing Shankar Vedantam's The Hidden Brain was for me a no-brainer.  I know Shankar's papery voice and affable manners from his reports on sociological research for NPR's Morning Edition.   So I was shocked to hear mostly negative reactions from colleagues who didn't share my personal connection.

Our group discussion didn't go too deep, so I can only guess that the response was defensive, because the book attacks a belief at the core of our whole political system.   Hamilton, Madison, and the other founders trusted that free debate, plus balance of regional economic interests, minus prejudice from religion or caste,  would equal reasonable decisions in legislatures and juries.  Free marketeers have the same faith in reasonable self-interest. Vedantam leads us gently to the conclusion that we humans choose first, reasoning second, only to justify our choices.

I first heard this critique of enlightened self-interest from Jerry Herbert, a political scientist at Duke University.  He represented an evangelical political organization now known as the Center for Public Justice.  In his seminar, he led us from Isaiah and Jesus to The Federalist Papers, to then-current events of the Carter - Reagan - Anderson election, to show how our system sidelines those outside the mainstream unless they become "reasonable" by denying their core  faiths and cultural identifications.   

The fiction writer Robert Olen Butler made the same observation from another angle.  A veteran of the Vietnam War, he denied that his writing was "political" in the sense of pushing policies and party. Our political beliefs, he said, are established very early in life and run much deeper than party.   (See my reflection Anticipation and Dread in Butler's fiction.)

Vedantam anticipated the blowback, announcing early that he would save the "hard" chapters for last. He front-loaded the book with anecdotes about unconscious bias on a more personal level.  Even black children attributed bad qualities to the black character in a story, though he rescues his white friends; and managers evaluating job applicants were much less likely to choose subjects who merely sat near an obese person in the waiting room.  Unconscious forces accounted for the fateful choices  at the doomed World Trade Center; people on one floor escaped together, their friends on the next floor stayed and died.

Vedantam saved for last the stickier kinds of unconscious bias that have partisan implications, drawing ire of my Republican colleagues because those unconscious, unreasonable biases seem to favor banner Republican policies.   The party of individualism naturally favors the "common-sense" belief that individuals are safer when they are in control of their own lives, despite facts and figures that show the opposite.  That bias explains my own dislike of ceding control to a pilot, though I'm much more likely to be hurt driving myself. And owning a gun makes us feel like we're in control, but Vedantam provides extensive numbers and dramatic anecdotes to show that a family's firearms are much more likely to be used on a member of the family than on any invader.

The story of a puppy illustrates our bias towards the particular.  At the very same time that tens of thousands of Rwandans were massacred by their neighbors, the world was focused on saving a puppy marooned on a derelict tanker in the Pacific.  The generalized, long-distance threats such as climate change don't get our attention, because of that same kind of bias.

For me, Vedantam's rare personal anecdote was the most memorable part of the book.  Long afraid of water, he learned to swim, and was proud to swim at the beach, feeling the power in his expert strokes.  Turning back, he recognized that he had been carried along by a current, and he could not make any headway against it.  It's his analogy for the way some Americans fight their whole lives against the current of unconscious bias, while the rest of us believe that we ourselves are responsible for our successes.  The phrase "white privilege" is a red flag around my community; Vedantam's anecdote, taken with the rest of his book, gives me a sense of how this white blogger's privileges, like politics, are deeper and broader than mere party and policy.  

(Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller Blink covers a lot of the same ground as The Hidden Brain. Read my reflection How Words Distort Vision.)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Missing Glen Campbell

"I know I need a small vacation," sings Glen Campbell on one of his early monster hits, composed by Jimmy Webb, "but it don't look like rain.  / And if it snows, that stretch down south / will never stand the strain."  It's a man on the job, worried about his work.  Without any transition, the lyric and music take us to another level: "And I need you more than want you/  And I want you for all time."  At seven years old, this didn't mean much to me; at 40, hearing jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson cover the song,  I had to pull over to the side of the road, weeping.  Where the heck did that  come from? "And the Wichita Lineman," sings our working man, "is still on the line."

Fifty years after Campbell recorded that number -- alongside hits "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and "Gentle on My Mind," I appreciate the mastery of this song by Jimmy Webb, but also the arrangement by its singer that includes violins in an appropriate lineman's Morse - code tattoo, the dissonance in the broad lines for strings that suggest both the spaciousness and the loneliness of that Kansas landscape.  Glen Campbell, that pop icon, that country boy in a California  / LA world, arranged the song and sold that lyric.  I get it now; I took the voice and the personality for granted.

Only now do I appreciate the odyssey of a country boy, one of twelve children, ingratiating himself to musicians as varied as Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys, then becoming a star parodied in his own hit song "Rhinestone Cowboy."

Only a few months before his death, I heard how his dementia overtook him, and I bought my first Glen Campbell recordings:  "Adios," a set of covers from his last tour and his conscious good-bye; and "Ghost on a Canvas," a set of songs co-written with buddies who helped him to express his fears, regrets, and gratitude for career, family life, addiction, recovery, and faith.

In 1967, Glen Campbell was my ideal of the handsome man, the friendly guy, the great singer.  Now I appreciate what I've been missing for 50 years.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Disarming Confederate Memorials without Disowning the Past

The ongoing debate about removing Confederate memorials has its personal parallel in a mother I know who kept photos of her ex on display.  Friends were dismayed, but she told us of the night, late in the marriage, when her son overheard his father say, "Nothing good ever came from our marriage!"  The boy asked, "Dad, what about me?"  After a pause, the man growled at his wife, "Nothing!"  The boy was devastated.  The mom concluded, "If I disowned our past together, I'd be disowning a part of my son." 

As psychologists from Jung onward would say, to deny our shadow side is, by definition, to disintegrate, both futile and unhealthy, for communities as well as for individuals.  To accept the whole past, unpleasant and undeniable, is both honest and healthy. Our language connects health, and integrity.  Integrity  derives from Latin, integra, "whole"; and health, from Old English "wholeness."

As another friend pointed out to me this past week, it's no accident that statues of Confederate heroes stand near courthouses, institutions of higher learning, and legislative bodies, all saying to people of color, "Stay away:  We here honor a past when you were considered little more than an animal, and we put up this memorial to the 1860s in defiance of federal interference in the 1950s."

Let these memorials be where they no longer serve their purposes to intimidate, but where they can teach.  Set in a park where they tell a story, set in a museum where there's a guide, they serve a higher, necessary purpose.   Own the past, and disarm it.

[Photo:  During warm seasons, I ride around Stone Mountain, GA, hardly taking notice of the carving dedicated to Lee, Jackson, and Davis.  The mountain had nothing to do with the lives of those guys, but it was the re-birthplace of the KKK following federal actions to recognize civil rights of African Americans, and the carving coincided with the civil rights era's most dramatic years in the 1960s.]

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Give Me That Organized Religion

Fr. Roger Allen told us Sunday about a tour he made some years ago, following in the footsteps of Paul.  Two guides schooled in history and theology arranged the trip, looked ahead to accommodations, pointed out features, answered questions, told stories. He could have arranged the trip himself, and could have had a good experience, but he was grateful for the guides, their expertise, their planning, and the company of the others on the tour.

Fr. Allen spoke at the celebration of our patron saint James, who is often depicted on pilgrimage.  Our own youth group just returned this month from their own pilgrimage across Spain on "The Way of St. James" (Camino de Santiago). 

"Pilgrimage" also applies to the individual's walk through life.  So many say, "I'm spiritual" or even, "I'm a believer," and then add, "but I don't go in for organized religion."  By his personal anecdote, Fr. Roger gives us reason to value the support, institutional memory, expertise, liturgy, and procedures afforded us by the Church, with a capital "C," and companionship within our own church.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Frank Loesser's Musical Martinis

Frank Loesser would mix his martini at sunrise, having worked on songs through the night while friends and family slept.

As a fan of both Loesser and the martini, I was gratified to hear that tidbit from an interview with his widow Jo Sullivan, because it fits.  Loesser explains why, in the only song of his I know to mention the cocktail:  
To see the cool clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet with the slam, bang, tang
Reminiscent of gin and vermouth --
Oh, I believe in you,
I believe in you!
      - Frank Loesser, music and lyrics, from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Loesser's work, like his favorite cocktail, is always fresh.  Many Loesser songs have that "slam, bang, tang" every time we hear them.  Here's an example of a lyric I know by heart that still takes me by surprise.  It's "Adelaide's Lament" from the musical Guys and Dolls:
You can spray her all day with the Vitamin A and the Bromo fizz,
But the medicine never gets anywhere near where the (sniff) trouble is.
If the girl has been getting a name for herself, and the name ain't his --
A person can develop a cough.  
Loesser wrote lyrics, or lyrics and music, for hundreds of popular stand-alone songs, and songs for forgettable movies.  Four unforgettable Broadway musicals are graced by his music and lyrics, Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.  

Stephen Sondheim writes early and often about Loesser in his memoir - cum - lyricist's manual Finishing the Hat.  Loesser had been first choice to write music and lyrics for a show called Saturday Night, but young Sondheim got the job. He admits to imitating Loesser unconsciously in his first professional score (Sondheim p. 6).   Loesser, he writes, was a master of writing "conversational lyrics" that he "tailored" to characters, "able to perform the rare trick of sounding modestly conversational and brilliantly dextrous at the same time, a skill only [Dorothy] Fields and occasionally [Irving] Berlin possessed before him."  Sondheim calls Loesser "The Idea Man," because his notions for songs were, and still are, funny, growing naturally from character and situation. Later in his book, Sondheim brings Loesser into thumbnail assessments of other Broadway lyricists, citing Loesser as equal to some, superior to others. (see my Sondheim page)

From American Songbook specialist Michael Feinstein, I learned that Loesser originally had a reputation for writing off-color specialty songs, such that Hollywood producers were leery of hiring him.  Erotic currents flow just under the surface of Loesser's "Slow Boat to China," especially at the slow tempo that Cleo Laine purrs, "I'd love to get you / on a slow boat to China / all to myself, alone,"  though she hits at a plaintive note when she sings of "melting your heart of stone." (Cleo Laine and Laurie Hollowell, Loesser Genius).

Other songs play with fire.  A friend of mine hears date rape in the charming duet, "Baby It's Cold Outside," a conversational song of lines for Her and Him (left and right, below) that overlap and rhyme prodigiously:
My mother will start to worry - Beautiful, what's your hurry?
Father will be pacing the floor - Listen to the fireplace roar
So really I'd better scurry - Beautiful, please don't hurry
Maybe just a half a drink more - Put some records on while I pour

The neighbors might think - Baby, it's bad out there
Say, what's in this drink?      (from Frank Loesser, "Baby It's Cold Outside")
Loesser probably got whoops from the troops when he wrote a lyric for a Hollywood entertainment aimed at boosting morale during the Second World War. For "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," Bette Davis speak-sings constantly surprising variations on the title.  With young men overseas, the lyric says, her soldier boyfriend needn't be jealous:  
What's good is in the army.
What's left will never harm me...

I'm either their first breath of spring
Or else, I'm their last little fling
I either get a fossil or an adolescent pup
I either have to hold him off
Or have to hold him up.
  - (lyric by Frank Loesser, music by Arthur Shwartz)
But Loesser wanted to be remembered, not for sexy and funny songs, but for love and passion.  Sondheim suggests that Loesser failed when he tried too hard to be meaningful or touching.  Sondheim introduced me to the word "twee," which applies to every cut on the cast album of Loesser's forgotten show Greenwillow, which starts with the very "twee" lyric, "'Twill be a day / borrowed from heaven."

I've heard somewhere that he thought "I Believe in You" was going to be a great love song, until the director gave it to the young leading man to sing to his own reflection in the mirror of the men's restroom for How to Succeed.... 

Feinstein tells Terri Gross that Loesser's older brother Arthur had some classical music cred and that he disdained his brother's work.  Challenged, Loesser wrote a near-operatic score for The Most Happy Fella, for which he created songs in counterpoint, a modern madrigal ("Song of a Summer Night"), full-throated arias for an operatic baritone in the leading role, and this delicious comedy song for the Broadway singer who portrays a waitress in the opening number:

Oh, my feet, my poor, poor feet,
Betcha your life a waitress earns her pay.
I've been on my feet, my poor, poor feet
All day long today.....
(four "piggies" in)  This little piggy feels the weight of the plate
Though the freight's just an order of Melba toast.
And this little piggy is the littlest little piggy,
But the big son of a bitch hurts the most!
    (- lyrics and music by Frank Loesser, "Oh My Feet" from The Most Happy Fella)

But Loesser didn't have to try so hard to be touching.  Look no further than poor Adelaide, years into her relationship with Nathan Detroit, who sings to him,
When I think of the times gone by...
And I think of the ways I cry...
I could honestly die.

   (-"Sue Me", music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls)
It's a funny song, but there's no doubt, she's wronged, he's a jerk, and something has to change -- and it does.  Funny as it is, I feel that line more each time she sings it.  It just stops being funny -- until Nathan sings his last rhyme for "sue me" - "Shoot bullets through me!  I love you!"

With so much to his credit that's clever, showy, funny, and sly, it's a little throwaway number that makes me think of Loesser as one of Broadway's greatest artists.  Here's the cocky gambler Sky Masterson singing about New York in the early morning:

My time of day is the dark-time
A couple of deals before dawn
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with the mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone
When the smell of the rain-washed pavement
Comes up clean and fresh and cold
And the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold
That's my time of day
My time of day,
And you're the only doll I've ever wanted to share it with me.
 - "My Time of Day," music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
That's the entire song, music meandering and short on pattern, designed to sound like natural speech. It's almost recitative; it's almost a song; it's straight from the heart of the character, down to the reference to gambling ("just a couple deals before dawn"), and it's as touching as any song I know.

I've heard that Loesser fought unsuccessfully to get Sinatra to sing his music as written for the film of Guys and Dolls, that he called his first wife "the evil of two Loessers," and that he was so unsure of his own composition skills that he would call his wife in to hear any new composition, to tell him if she recognized the tune from some other songwriter.

But, at his best, he was the best.  Here's a toast to you, Frank Loesser, with my third martini of the night.

Fresh Air interview with Terry Grose / Michael Feinstein  Loesser's 100th birthday, June 29, 2010.

From memory, I'm citing anecdotes from singer Jo Sullivan, Loesser's second wife, who spoke with Gross another time.  That show isn't archived on the web site. 

See a website devoted to Loesser with involvement from his children at

[Photograph: Young Loesser's face on a recording of his own renditions of songs, including "Heart and Soul" with music by Hoagy Carmichael; Loesser's image on a stamp in a series honoring the classic American songbook writers; and Loesser during the War with a young Frank Sinatra.]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Let the Poetry do the Work":
Kwame Alexander with Rachel Martin on NPR

Waking every morning from a nightmare of disappointing the students who will fill my classroom in a couple weeks, I was inspired by something I heard on NPR's Morning Edition.  Host Rachel Martin swapped lines of poetry with poet-educator Kwame Alexander.

[Photo: Pictured with fans with one of his novels - in - verse The Crossover on his website.]

Martin called their session "Poetry play" and, later, "our poetry party."  She wanted to know how we can get kids not to be scared of poetry.

Alexander observed that parents learned in high school to be scared of "Auden, Frost, Shakespeare." They learned to forget the fun, "whimsy, joy, passion" of poetry that his mother instilled in him when she'd come into a room and quote Nikki Giovanni or Lucille Clifton to him. For instance, he threw out "Advice" by Langston Hughes:  

Folks, I'm telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean-
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.
Martin and Alexander shared a laugh and made his point.  Martin requested a reading from Shel Silverstein's "My Rules," and then she shared a wonderful bit of "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes....

Martin skipped to the last lines:  "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"  Listening to this while I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, I felt amused, involved, convicted, all at the same time.  And I saw the grasshopper!

Alexander tells students to "distill it into a few digestible words to get [at the same] feeling."  I can imagine asking kids to think of a time they had a strong or mixed feeling, and to list all the ingredients that went into making that moment.For teaching poetry, Alexander says "Let the poetry do the work."  He read a poem, no attribution given, that drew us in with Seuss-like rhymes, "I love to ride on a plane, I like to take the train," and so on, but "if I had my 'drothers," he concluded, "I'd get my exercise in your arms."

For the pièce de résistance, Alexander challenged Martin to improvise a poem on-air.  He prompted her with questions. "What's an age you remember?  What did you see?  What was that like?"  When she said that summer evenings on the porch at age eight were "green," and "like grass," she wasn't satisfied.  He kept pushing her until memories bubbled up that got her excited - sweet tea, lemons, "sweet like my mother's smile."  Suddenly, Rachel Martin, Kwame Alexander, and I were satisfied.

I'm more convinced than ever that reading poetry aloud and writing poetry are the most important things an English teacher can do at any age.  At least do it before the kids learn that poetry is a problem to solve for credit. 

"What about essays?" ask some educators.  "Stories?  Novels?   Don't kids have to learn to walk before they can run?"

That last analogy is a bad one, not least because kids do run before they learn to walk, stumbling all along.  Kids also speak gobbledygook with the inflections of whole sentences before they learn words, crayon full pictures before they learn techniques, compose songs before they read music.   Kids play games of basketball before they've "mastered" the "fundamentals."  The teacher who says, "No, don't try to learn that thing you want to learn" should be suspended for malpractice.

Besides, any halfway decent poem gets its effect by doing all the things that a good essay would do, mixed with the things that a good story would do.  The poet will necessarily make choices about how to focus the reader's attention, how to draw the reader on to something that builds to a conclusion.  That's called structure.

The halfway effective poem will also use clues in diction and details to conjure a sense of character, and some kind of story. 

For grammar, there are the tricks poets use to link ideas and minimize verbiage.  Mostly, they reduce clauses to phrases and cut out the dull verbs of being.  I've seen grammar books that don't get that far into practical grammar.

And if any given poem doesn't do all these things, well, poems are short.  What one lacks, another will provide.

I'm refreshed, thinking how I can make poetry a part of our regular routine, not just a now-and-then thing.

Read my earlier reflections on what students learn from responding to poetry without teacher's active involvement, Plentiful Payoffs from Poetry Playoffs.  One of my biggest "hits" on this blog is my reflection on Mary Oliver's book Thirst.