Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy, Gratefulness

Leonard Nimoy was remembered today on NPR for bringing gravitas to his role as Mr.Spock.  I treasure 48 years of memories of him in that role, embodying so many qualities I've admired.  I think he may have been a role model for this geeky little boy back in 1967.

But my favorite memory is most recent, when he joined the NPR comedy game show "Wait,Wait,Don't Tell Me." After lots of jokes, many at expense of uber-geek host Peter Seigel, Nimoy gave a heartfelt response to a question about the actor's famous frustration with his being so identified with one character.  (His first book was titled I Am Not Spock.)  "Not a day goes by that someone doesn't come up to me to tell me what a difference the character of Spock has made in their lives.  I can feel nothing but gratitude for playing that role."  (Paraphrased from memory.)

I tear up every time I repeat this anecdote, even now.  I'm not sure why.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thrilling Conclusion to Kavalier & Clay

(I just finished reading Michael Chabon's wonderful novel, and know that I've got to catch up with everything else he's done since 2000.  I reflected on the first half a few days ago in Midway Through Kavalier and Clay. I've also rhapsodized about The Final Solution in an essay called Michael Chabon's Sherlock Holmes Novel: Short and Sweet.)

In our last episode, our reflective blogger had just written about how he loved the interpenetration of comic book fantasy and the "real" lives of the comic book creators.  Little did the Blogger know what lay in store:

Reality and meta-reality merge when we read how the arch-villain The Saboteur booby traps a gala where The Escapist performs on stageWe can read between the lines to see that it's a sad sack would-be Nazi getting even with Joe Kavalier at a bar mitzvah.  The fun works both ways, in super-sizing the action, and in appreciating how plausible it all is.

Over-the-top events are made easy to believe when Sammy Clay does his patriotic duty to scan the night sky for panzers from atop the Empire State Building.  A storm is brewing, and clouds "like zeppelins" send forth lightning and sparks, on the occasion of his first kiss (ca. 372). In a novel about comic book creators, it fits.

Radioman Defeats the Nazis!  Joe Kavalier, motivated throughout the first half of the novel by anger at his impotence to rescue little brother Thomas from the Nazis, does his part for the war effort at the South Pole, with a ham radio, a crusty mechanic, and a one-eyed dog named Oyster.  In a way, it turns out to be every bit as miraculous as one of his alter-ego's adventures.  

It all fits!  Chabon contrives a comic-book climax with costume, human flight, police, orphans, every important character present.  As we approach that climax, tropes from other parts of the story double back again, as when Joe becomes magic teacher to young Tommy Clay, echoing both Kavalier's boyhood, and the origin story of the Escapist. 

After the climactic scene, Chabon takes a few chapters more to answer all the questions that have kept the story going forward, in ways that leave us feeling good, and warm, and happy to have known these guys (and the gal, Rose).

Chabon mixes in these last chapters a great deal of commentary on the relationship of the comic book world to the world of his characters.  All are "escaping" from guilt, from being "a fairy," from a loveless marriage (into Rose's romance comics).  Chabon incorporates the history of comic books here, saving for next-to-last the real-life Senate hearing on the depravity of comic books inspired by the real-life book Seduction of the Innocent by Fred Wertham.  He relays the observation that Super-heroes are all golems, all Jewish (Superman himself, from the old country, takes on a gentile identity). Comics are certainly "escapist" entertainment, as charged.

So, what's wrong with escapist entertainment?  Chabon throughout the novel demonstrates the idea that even a "cheap" genre can transform reality into art, and can be done artfully.  An earlier chapter is an essay on the topic disguised as the protagonists' attendance at the premier of Citizen Kane.  But among the most arresting passages of the novel are those in which Chabon describes an artist's work for us: all the rage that goes into Kavalier's painting of The Escapist giving Hitler a jaw-breaking punch; Rosa's turning the frustrations of her life into a romance comic about a wife at Los Alamos who discovers that "the other woman" in her husband's life is the A - Bomb, its mushroom cloud salaciously curved; Kavalier's magnum opus, a 48 chapter graphic novel about the Golem.  Nothing beats the early description of Kavalier at work drawing the naked woman (Rosa) whom he surprises in a showy leap from the fire escape through a window into her room -- so much feeling goes into the strokes of the pencil!

I read the acknowledgements with avid interest, recognizing so many of the names from my own years of comic book fandom.  Named last, and "above all," is the great comic book artist who, like Sammy Clay, finished the last years of his career working from the West Coast, who shares his initials with Joe Kavalier, the great Jack Kirby.

I must read more by Chabon;  I also need to look into the recently published bio of Kirby. [Link to my reflection on the biography of Kirby.]

Believing, Beloving: Diana Butler Bass, "Christianity after Religion"

Look to the roots of words to see how far the popular understanding of religious "faith" and "belief" have strayed from their points of origin.  Our English word "to believe" comes from belieben, "beloving."  Our word "doctrine" comes from the same root as doctor, and should have something to do with healing, not with separating goats from the Good Shepherd's flock.  Credo was chosen for the start of our creeds over the alternative opinor, the difference between "I set my heart on" and "I have an opinion."  The ubiquitous verse John 3:16 would be better translated as a promise of eternal life to all who entrust their lives to Jesus, not those who agree with certain statements about Jesus.

[Image: Thanks to Robert Talbert and wordle.net for the Creed, most-repeated words largest]
This etymology for our language of "faith" (itself related to fidelity, personal loyalty) comes from an excerpt of Diana Butler Bass's book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and The Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (2012).  She subscribes to Harvey Cox's idea that Christianity has passed from an  age of "faith in Jesus," when faith was the way a community lived, through an age of "belief about Christ" when adherence to dogma determined who was in or out, to the present age characterized by "experience of Jesus."  (excerpt 126).  "Fundamentalisms," she quotes Cox as saying, "turn out to be rearguard attempts" to stem a tide that has already overrun the battlefield, the way the last Roman Emperor tried to reclaim authority (127).

Bass bolsters the claim that Christians are moving beyond belief with a brief reference to polls and a little history.  Americans self-identify as "spiritual" more than "religious."  She looks at Jonathan Edwards' call for return to "affections" in worship as a start for this latest age, back in 1740.  She skips ahead to Pentecostalism's origins around 1900, at the same time that William James was concluding that "religious experience" is helpful to an individual's life, regardless of dogmas.  She tells about how reason "hardened" into rationalism, and how fundamentalism arose in reaction.  That's when beloving became believing in the sense of agreeing to a set of statements.


Bass tells us that the Creeds are an obstacle to those who think of themselves as "spiritual," today, but she offers a compromise to those like me who want to hold on to the Creeds.  Bass tells us that we encounter God through words, by which she means prayer.  She suggests that the Creeds, far from being Cliff Notes for a quiz in the afterlife, are actually prayer, when read, "I trust in God the Father...." (140-1).  She presents a creed remade to speak to the Maasai people, which describes Jesus as "a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe" who invites us "on safari" to look for good to do. "All who believe in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love...." (143).

Bass anticipates my uneasiness replacing the creeds and rites of religion with "spirituality" and "experience" when she relays worries expressed by her audiences.  Didn't Hitler's followers claim "experience?"  Can we be just "cafeteria Christians" who pick only what we want to believe? [For more on faith v. belief, and how to "believe in" hell and heaven, see my post on Meditations by Fr. Frank Wade]

Bass's answer emerges from an observation that no young clergy-in-training cited authoritative figures when asked how they go about dealing with important issues of faith. Rather than authority, these young clergy sought authenticity, by which they meant the sense of a broader community -- community found via internet, perhaps, but widely dispersed, nonetheless.

Reflecting on all this, I find that theater helps me to find my own balance between adherence to a set of credal statements and more fuzzy "experiential" faith.  For example, when a young actor of evangelical background was my choice to play Hamlet, we studied both Shakespeare's text and our own experiences to arrive at a living interpretation of Hamlet as truth-teller who attempts to bring healing to rotten Elsinore, neither madman, nor avenger.  Our interpretation emerged from engagement with the text and life, both; it required no distortions or elisions; it was consistent within itself; yet it was different from what others have done with Shakespeare's text.

This reading by Bass comports with "theological reflection" promoted in the rest of the book containing it, the Reading and Reflection Guide published by the Education for Ministry (EfM) program out of the School of Theology at the University of the South at Sewanee.   We are exhorted to use reason to consider experience, shared thoughts and feelings, connections to our religious traditions and texts, and what may be part of our culture.

Bass writes that "what" we believe is less important than "how" we believe.  Whether one "agrees" with the Creeds that "He rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures" or one claims personal "experience" of resurrection, the essence of "faith" is in Bass's paraphrase of Jonathan Edwards' question: how does the resurrection make a difference in our lives?  

Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  Excerpted in Education for Ministry. Reading and Reflection Guide, Volume B: Living Faithfully in a Multicultural World.  Sewanee, TN:  The University of the South, 2014.
Find links to many more of my reflections on the Episcopal church, scripture, and on others' perspectives of the same topics at my page Those Crazy Episcopalians

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Midway through Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Halfway through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I'm as swept up by Michael Chabon's style as I am caught up in his story.

Will young Josef Kavalier, graphic artist who creates the panels for comic book hero "The Escapist," truly be able to redeem his promise, made as he escaped Prague, to rescue his little brother Thomas from Hitler's Europe?  Will his cousin and friend, American-born Sam Clay, stave off the selfish businessmen and corporate lawyers who have sought to cheat him and his partner Joe from the profits of their creation?  Has he found some kind of love at last in the radio actor who embodies "The Escapist" in both voice and form, named Tracy Bacon - epitome of Gentile All-American manhood?   Will Joe marry the lovely, spunky Rosa Luxemburg Saks, inspiration for Joe's character "Luna Moth?"

While these questions draw me onward, the style stops me time and again, just to appreciate the novel's texture.

Part of the texture is its underpinning of fact, legend, and pop culture references.  The ancient wish-fulfilling fantasy of the Golem, a clay man animated to avenge pogroms, is the ur-text for this novel about Sam Clayman and his partner Joe Kavalier, who has escaped Prague in a crate with the actual clay golem.  Subtext for the story is the sad real-life exploitation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Jewish teens who waited their whole lives to receive more than a sliver of what their creation Superman earned for their publishers.  There's another real-life comic book connection:  When our character Joe breaks into the office of the American Aryan League, he discovers a comic book fan, reminding us of the horrible truth that Hitler and his closest minions were failed artists who drew the world into their adolescent revenge fantasies.

Chabon plays with the interpenetration of his characters' stories and the comic book universe they create.  The "origin stories" of the super-heroes mirror the histories and fantasies of Chabon's protagonists.  Sam Clayman has gimpy legs; his hero is lame, but for a magic key.  Rosa in her office job wears modest clothing and glasses, a female Clark Kent or "caterpillar girl" who will inspire "Luna Moth" (258).  One page after we read that Joe depicted "The Escapist" chained in a tank of electrified sharks, "the shark of dread that never deserted its patrol of Joe's innards rose to the surface" (180).

Chabon's narration manages to have the slightly ironic detachment of commentary on pop culture, at the same time that it exults in the purple, punning, wise-guy prose of the comics, pulps, and movies.  Here's what Joe sees from across a crowded room:
And yet in [Rosa's] eyes there was something unreadable, something that did not want to be read, the determined blankness that in predator animals conceals hostile calculation, and in prey forms part of an overwhelming effort to seem to have disappeared. (237) 

The scene that follows is what Hollywood calls "meeting cute."  Rosa's entourage of young men parts stagily for Joe and Sam, and then groan at the cliched dialogue:  "Have we met?"  "I am certain I would have remembered someone like you."  It gets worse, or better:  She takes a drag on his proffered cigarette before he reminds her that it hasn't been lit, yet.  Later, describing Joe's fingers preparing a magic trick, Chabon indulges happily in a pun about "prestigious digits" (317).

I'd say that I can't wait to finish the book; but I keep taking time out to savor its pages.(Read my post about the Thrilling Conclusion.)

Michael Chabon.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Picador, 2001.

Monday, February 23, 2015

"You have kept the good wine till now."




John 2.10   You have kept the good wine till now.

The parable of strangers at a banquet was Fr. Daron’s text, and his sermon made an important distinction between meaningful celebration and mere “partying," but we were distracted by one of our most grandfatherly parishioners leading a tiny girl by the hand down the center aisle back to her seat.  Grey heads everywhere turned, cooing aww

We older parishioners love to see the little children at St. James’.  The parade from Children’s Church at the “peace” is a highlight of our 10:30 service.  We like to see the younger adults, too, and the downward trend in average age among ushers, choir, and Vestry.

But I wonder what we with bad eyes and aching joints have to offer the young?  There are serious answers to that question in recent books by theologians Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolheiser. (Link to my reflections on those books.) They write that the first half of life is about defining our identities through the homes we make, careers we build, and principles we defend.   Popular culture promotes the fight to build our lives, but tells little about what should follow.  Many of us just keep fighting, to our detriment. Carl Jung wrote, "What is a normal goal to a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age.”

We can learn how to make a gift of the second half of life by considering that grandfather in our congregation:  give support, listen, tell stories of the ways it used to be good, laugh about the times we got through worse, and leave all the correction and criticism to the parents!  Let the young see us at church often for meaningful celebration. Rolheiser writes, “Live in gratitude.”

You readers who may still be fighting your battles, take comfort from the sign Jesus performed at the wedding in Cana:  with God, the best may come last.


Readings appointed for the day:  Ps 41,52; 44         Deut. 8.11-20     Heb. 2.11-18       John 2.1-12

[This is my contribution to this year's Lenten devotional booklet sponsored at St. James' Episcopal Church of Marietta, GA, by The Pilgrimage at St. James'.]  

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Laughing Stock the Perfect Middle School Play

[Photo:"Mime" after show; "Psychic" behind]
Bradley Hayward's one-act comedy Laughing Stock is listed in Brooklyn Publishers' catalogue as 45 minutes long with flexible cast "from 24 to 72," making it very appealing to a middle school teacher with a drama club of around 24 mostly younger members.  After our performance last week, a mother said it gave lots of kids lots of chances to get laughs, and "just enough" bathroom humor to keep the boys interested.  It has a moral, "Life is only as boring as you make it."  She called it "the perfect middle school play."

I'd had my doubts.  Was it funny, or just "middle school funny?"  Would parents be shocked to hear the word "sucks" five times on the first page, or to hear a stereotyped rapper  say "dayum?"  Two-thirds of the script pass before our protagonist's life story advances beyond "I was born...."  But now I'm a believer.

"Michael" enters a black stage empty except for a stool, a cube, and a pair of smiley-styled drama masks for a backdrop.  To graduate, he must perform a play made from his own life story, but nothing's prepared.  "I don't even know any jokes," he apologizes.  A Writer from the audience -- in our production, played by a pert young woman -- offers to "spice up" his "humdrum life" with stock characters:  pirate, gunslinger, femme fatale, elves, cheerleaders, a pop star, psychic, lawyer, hillbilly, mime, mad scientist.... For the next forty minutes, twenty-some actors make grand entrances in colorful costumes, do their bits, and run back to the dressing room to prepare for their next entrances.   

Rehearsals were frustrating for the leads until the day that I dismissed the rest of the cast early.  I had Michael and Writer rehearse just their dialogue without the madcap interruptions.  We found a kind of "boy meets girl" drama:   Boy welcomes Writer's help, Boy begins to doubt the Writer's shallow approach to drama, Boy opposes Writer with help from William Shakespeare -- a young woman in our production, sporting a Shakespeare tee-shirt.  Our leads found new energy in each segment:  Michael's hopefulness at the start, Michael's swelling self-confidence with Writer's encouragement, then growing mutual hostility.

Just when the arrival of new stock characters begins to look like a formula, Hayward introduces the "Greek Chorus."  Enthusiastic sixth and seventh graders played "follow-the-leader" with their lines, experimenting with inflection and movement.  Over a few weeks, we rehearsed the chorus alone for over two hours to perform a bit that, in the end, lasted around three minutes.  The boost in energy and laughs made the chorus worth the time.

I came away pleased with what had happened offstage, too.  With so many kids, costume changes, and props, the show was virtually guaranteed to have distracting hubbub backstage and flubbed entrances.  We did have both during the last two weeks of rehearsal. But, without adult direction, the kids pulled their acts together and missed not one cue in the final performance (not counting curtain call:  no one wanted to be first one out, and they all piled up at the door).  This show made pros of them!

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Imitation Game: Finding the Man in the Machine

To learn how a machine works, you treat it as a puzzle: take it apart and see how the pieces fit together.  For The Imitation Game, screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum fracture the life of Alan Turing so that we can see connections between its pieces.  With understanding comes affection, humor, and pathos.  

One piece is the "code."  By now we've all heard how mathematician Alan Turing led a team of puzzle-solvers under cover at England's "Bletchley Radio Factory" to design a rudimentary computer that broke the Nazis' machine-generated "Enigma" code.  But in Moore's screenplay, schoolboy Turing, obsessive, inexpressive, bullied, asks Christopher, his one friend, about a book on cryptography: "How is code-breaking different from normal speech?  People never seem to be saying what they mean."  By his mosaic treatment of Turing's life, Moore has flanked this piece from the 1920s with other conversations from 1941 and 1952, so that we have ample demonstration of this genius's difficulty picking up sarcasm and social cues coded in normal speech.

Another piece is the eponymous "Imitation Game" proposed by Turing in a theoretical paper, much in the news lately as "the Turing Test."  A machine that successfully fools an interrogator into thinking its answers are human has crossed the threshold of "thinking."  The story is framed as the interrogation of Turing by a detective investigating an apparent break-in at Turing's home in 1952.  Bits of that interrogation are woven in and out of scenes that show us Turing's obsessive behavior at school and among teammates at Bletchley.  Through fine writing and actors with conviction, we also see schoolboy Turing struggle to express love that he feels for Christopher at school, and adult Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) learn how to be human from Joan (Keara Knightley), sole woman on the team.  Much of the humor in the film arises from Turing's mechanical imitations of jokes, flirtation, and kindness.

The other piece has to do with secrecy.  Even in youth, Turing knew to hide his love for Christopher;  in 1952, exposed by a male prostitute, Turing was convicted and sentenced to chemical castration under the United Kingdom's "immorality laws." The entire Bletchley operation was secret during the war, expunged from the record for another fifty years afterward.  Turing also learns that one of his teammates is spying for Stalin.  But the core of the movie is the irony that, once Turing's team could decode every Nazi plan of attack, their knowledge still had to remain secret, even from officers who could prevent massacres, lest the Nazis get wise.  Moore dramatizes Turing's dilemma when a convoy ship is sacrificed to secrecy.  Director Tyldun makes sure we see the human cost in lives and loss.  Later, we see a close-up of Turing's pencil marking his statistical analysis of how many Allies to sacrifice on a given day to keep Nazis in the dark.

Every piece of Moore's screenplay falls in place at one simple line.  Turing asks his interrogator, "So, now that you've heard my answers, do you think I'm human?"

Thanks to fine writing and fine performances, we all have our answer.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Saint Odd: "As it was in the Beginning..."


"As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." - Gloria Patri

 In Saint Odd, the affable young man named Odd Thomas returns to his small home town of Pico Mundo; and author Dean Koontz returns to human-scaled action, unencumbered by conspiracy theories and apocalyptic visions that encroached on the later novels of his series.  The story is simple: Odd searches for clues to thwart a cult's scheme for mass murder while the cult's assassins pursue him. 

Being Odd, he can also ask the spirit world for a hint.  He sees (though he cannot hear) dead people; he has a sixth sense to guide him to any goal that he can picture; and he is haunted by prophetic dreams that give him a vague idea of the cult's plan.  He also has a premonition of his own death.  No spoiler alert:  Odd, our narrator, is up front about the end of his story. "I came home to die and live in death." 

More than a plot device, Odd's sense of worlds beyond this one gives substance to the story.  Otherwise, it could be just a video game, our protagonist picking his way through unfamiliar terrain -- a canyon, a derelict shopping mall, an almond orchard, a farmhouse -- trying to shoot bad guys before they shoot him.  But digital avatars don't climb down into the canyon "in Good Samaritan mode" to check on the faceless driver who just ran off the cliff trying to kill him (12): "I couldn't let him bleed or burn to death just because of his idiocy behind the wheel of the SUV."  On the brink of surprising the bad guys, in the grip of "cold, controlled fury," Odd considers that he is now two Odds:
...the fry cook who had written poetry for the girl he loved and wept at movies like Terms of Endearment, but also the ruthless killer who could shoot men in the back.  The darker Odd Thomas thought his violence must be righteous... .But the other Odd wondered if the claim of righteous purpose, exerted so often in the past two years, was always true -- or might be overused. (262)
In pain, expecting to fail, Odd lunges forward, believing that his efforts matter: "In this world, Evil works through countless surrogates.  Its name is Legion.  But Good works through surrogates, as well, and they are legion, too" (325).  

In an interview at Beliefnet.com, Koontz tells how Roman Catholic theology gives the world "shape and form and function and meaning" (Beliefnet interview, p. 1).  Odd's girl friend Stormy, lost in the first novel of the series, but ever-present in Odd's thoughts, is quoted often speculating that the universe has a structure.  This world is like a "boot camp," for a battle that continues in another world that she imagines will "out-Tolkien Tolkien" before arrival at final peace.  There's no need for a reader of the series to get hung up on the doctrine of Purgatory, just to share in Koontz's vision of good as eternal, creative, long-suffering, but destined to win over those who, cultists or not, are motivated by the thought, "Can't be me made a mess of my life, must be your fault, so you're gonna pay" (196).  The entire series has been a fleshing-out of that vision.

Asked if he weaves his faith into his novels consciously, or if it's second-nature, Koontz says it's both: 
"I would say it happens because of what your world view is. And it's going to happen automatically without your straining to do it. The way I sometimes begin a story is with a premise, just an odd little thing."  (Read more at http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Books/2008/10/Dean-Koontz-interview.aspx?p=4#UwUx5dfJOPqrud1E.99)  

For all the mayhem and dark ruminations, Odd's own humor and appreciation of beauty keep the reading light and uplifting.  "I have a tendency to hope always for the best," he tells us on page one, "even when I'm being strangled ...by an angry, three-hundred-pound Samoan wrestler" (3).   Kind and brave people leaven the story, and, late in the game, one dog that lays a benediction on him:
Muggs scrambled off the backseat.  Standing with his hind feet on the floor, he pawed forward between the front seats and came face-to-face with me.  I would have been fine with a dog kiss, as long as it was on the cheek; but Muggs had something else in mind. His eyes met mine, and he grew very still, his gaze penetrating, his demeanor solemn.  ...I thought, This is A Moment, stay with it.  ...Then the dog shook his head, flapping his floppy ears, and terminated our moment with a sneeze.  (302-3)

That little scene resonates with one early in Koontz's memoir of his dog Trixie.  In Koontz's world, inside and outside of book covers, angels are everywhere, in friends, strangers, and dogs.

Dean Koontz.  Saint Odd. (New York: Bantam Books, 2015).  
For an index of my reflections on other books in the Odd Thomas series, see the section on Dean Koontz on my Crime Fiction page at this blog.  

Monday, February 02, 2015

Beyond Being Right: Two Episcopal Church Services in One Day

We laughed when Father Daron Vroon said, "Proving that you're right and someone else is wrong always leads to peace and harmony."  He was preaching on I Corinthians 8, one of those where Paul embeds distinctions within clarifications within disputations. But Fr. Daron summed it up this way: "You're right; there's nothing wrong with eating meat leftover from sacrifices to imaginary gods; but don't do it."  That got a laugh, too.

Paul's letter turns on the word "knowledge," as in a "knowledge" of right and wrong.  But he tells us that anyone who claims such knowledge to lord it over others mustn't "know" anything:  for "knowledge puffs up; love builds up."  Fr. Daron Vroon's sermon took off from that phrase, applying it to something former Archbishop Rowan Williams recently said,  that most of today's public discourse is mired in controversy on technical issues that are beside the point of any policy.  For example, Fr. Daron pointed to emotional disputes over which set of standards to use in education.  Fr. Daron opined that we'd benefit from drawing back from our narrow focus on the right or wrong technical solution to problems, to see real people and relationships that are the real core of any social matter.  We don't have to get stuck just in the duality of right and wrong. 

As our liturgical calendar marks today for remembering the Presentation of baby Jesus at the temple, we had an evening "Candlemas" service, too, where rector Fr. Roger Allen preached on another duality, "body v. spirit."  He knows that the Church rejected dualistic heresies centuries ago, that we no longer deny that the Creator could and would participate in our lives, fully human.  But he warned that such dualistic thinking lives in us when we try to separate our spiritual lives from our daily work.

Our small, mostly over-50 choir reached a spiritual place beyond our own physical limitations in two anthems yesterday, too.  We sang settings of Latin texts Ubi Caritas and O Nata Lux by contemporary composers Gjeilo and Lauridsen.  Both works are like Renaissance motets, sung a cappella,  developing more from interweaving of independent lines than by chords.  But they are contemporary-sounding in the lushness and occasional dissonance of the harmony that results.  What makes them challenging is something beyond the notes on the page: both pieces change tempo and dynamics often, punctuated with breaths and fermatas.  We had to watch director Peter Waggoner all the time, not just at ends of phrases. 

Very intense, very lovely to be in the middle of it all:  When I was singing it, I knew that we were doing something "right" that transcended disputes, doctrine, and our individual limitations.

Find links to many more of my reflections on the Episcopal church, scripture, and on others' perspectives of the same topics at my page Those Crazy Episcopalians 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Color and Lightness: Elegant Evening at ASO

[Photo: Cameron Carpenter (The Verge.com). Inset: conductor Jun Markl]
When the music started, we could forget all the hoopla about a fit young organist who likes to show off his fitness and youth and his custom-made high-tech organ.  It was a program of elegant French music, colorful and transparent.  Petit conductor Jun Markl conveyed clear sense of controlled momentum with firm beats from the baton and sweeping gestures to bring in waves of sound from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

First we heard L'Ascension: Quatre Meditations symphoniques pour orchestra (1933) by Olivier Messiaen.  Like so many of his pieces, it begins with a dry fanfare for winds, colorful chords that rise and fall in a stately pace.  I had to smile: though I'd never heard this piece before, I knew from that first beat exactly where we were in the majestic, God-lit terrain of Messiaen-land.  Next up, I thought, has to be bird song; and there it was.  Familiarity doesn't take the edge off this composer's idiomatic composition style, but makes me more appreciative of his effects. Mystical, synesthetic, theoretically rigorous, Messiaen is yet a showman with a sense of humor and a love for surprise, atmosphere, dramatic climaxes, and happy endings.. 

The star of the evening was Cameron Carpenter, pictured on our program in a wife-beater, glistening with sweat.  But tastefully dressed in a trim black suit, smiling, always attentive to the conductor, he seemed a modest team player, notwithstanding the Elton-John-spangled organist's pumps and the poofy Mohawk.  The organist gets the first word in Poulenc's Concerto in G minor for Organ, and that word is (I think) a joke:  it's a stereotypically doom-filled, room-filling G-minor chord that announces:  "We're going to play with big sounds, darkness and light, and we're going to put on a show."   Many portions sound like they might have been accompaniment for a car chase in a film noir; I loved it best when the sound and fury subsided subito a few times to gentle passages that sounded like sweet little hymn tunes being improvised at the keyboard.

Atlanta audiences are guaranteed to go wild over music that reminds them of church, so Carpenter was called back for a solo encore.   Naturally, he launched into that effervescent French showpiece, Vidor's toccata from the fifth organ symphony.  There seems to be so much going on, as the organist's feet play ponderous pedal, the left hand bounces in a perky little rhythm, and the right hand prances in a persistent arpeggio.  But it's  proto-minimalist music that rings changes on just one phrase - do, ti, la, ti.  When you  you think you've heard it all, Vidor surprises you again with a variation in the chord, or a sudden change in register, or a drop in volume.

After the break, Markl led Saint-Saens "Organ Symphony", a familiar piece that predated all the music in the first half of the program, but clearly rooted in the same creative soil.  Same mix of color, same attention to textures -- my favorite moment being the shimmering piano keyboard against luminous strings right after a stentorian organ passage -- and same sly showmanship.  For this number, Carpenter and his organ stayed discreetly off to the side, by the double-basses, only the tip of his Mohawk visible over the console.