Friday, January 30, 2009

The Book in Hand – A Thread of Grace

Once in a while, I find a book that is satisfying in every way: great story, compelling characters, a detailed and accurate historical backdrop, and exploration of deeply important questions important to people in any time or place.

I’ve just finished reading A Thread of Grace, a novel by Mary Doria Russell (New York, Ballantine, ©2005). The story is terrific, not only because it is well-told, but because it is based on the truth. Set in Northern Italy during 1943-1945, the book tells the story of Italian Catholics who sheltered Jewish refugees, at great cost and great risk; the German occupying army and their execution of a war strategy created in far-off Berlin; and the Italian partisans who sacrificed everything to defend their homes and freedom against the invading Germans.
The characters are compelling: A German doctor, deserted from the German SS, who must face his role in the murder of more than 91,000 innocent Jews. The Italian priest who cannot bring himself to absolve the doctor’s sin. A 15-year-old Belgian Jew who, in crossing the Alps on foot to escape the Nazis, walks away from her childhood and into womanhood. The charismatic Italian Jewish pilot, veteran of World War I, who must grapple with his own guilt that differs only in scale from the stain on the German doctor’s hands. The Italian rabbi who struggles to protect and preserve his community as it falls to Hitler’s grasp. The rabbi’s wife, who tries to support her husband’s work even though it puts their own family risk.
The trajectory of Russell’s narrative rises steadily from the opening pages, arching across four years and leading us to the inevitable conclusion. With a sure and brilliant lyricism, Russell spares no detail in depicting the brutalities and savagery of modern warfare, though there are moments of beauty, too, made all the more poignant interspersed as they are among the ugliness and sadness.
Underlying the narrative are questions of morality, forgiveness, and salvation. Is it permissible to kill one person, that hundreds or thousands of others may live? Will God forgive every sin, even a murder? Or the murder of 200? Or the murder of 91,000 innocents? Must a Catholic priest offer absolution to anyone who enters the confessional? And what must the priest do when the confession includes information that could save more thousands from certain death?
The centuries-old tension between Jews and gentiles pervades the novel, both in the overshadowing terror of the Holocaust, and in the sometimes-strained relationships between Jews and Catholics in the towns and villages in which the story is set. But there are also deep and loving relationships between the different groups, as well as significant acts of cooperation and collaboration against the common enemy, Hitler and Nazism. In the light of this collaborative spirit, the efforts of the Nazis to discover and deport all Jews from Italy seem all the more pathetic and small-minded.
For me, the mark of a really good book is this: That I don’t want it to end. That I am sad, even bereft, when I have read the last page and closed the book. That often, I immediately turn to the first page and start reading it all over again.
I finished this book last night, and I missed it so much that I started reading it again today.
Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Archived Performances

The weeks after the Christmas holidays are an opportunity for a fresh start. For many people, it’s the time to start a new diet or exercise routine or perhaps even a new job. With all the extra holiday concerts, services and rehearsals in December (23 this time around!), I’m usually so busy that I can’t keep up with office work during that time. For me, the first few weeks of January are an opportunity to wrap up business accounts and files for the old year, file old materials away, set up accounts for the new tax year, and generally clean up my office in preparation for new projects and consulting work.

One of the jobs I enjoy most is gathering, organizing, and filing away the materials for each of the performances in which I’ve participated. I’m rather a sentimentalist when it comes to preserving memories of my performances. As I’ve written here before, even my performance scores – marked with pre-rehearsal edits and embellished with notes taken during rehearsals, – are preserved as tangible records of my musical experiences. As I said earlier, “It can be deeply moving to page through a score, years later, and re-live those musical memories.”

I also keep a folder for each performance project. Here I file the concert program and any reviews, of course, but what I really treasure are the many behind-the-scenes communications, including explanatory and interpretive notes from the director, congratulatory notes and emails that arrived after the concert, and other memorabilia, such as ticket stubs and even advertisements. If I've blogged about the performance, then I might also print off and file my essays. If I've prepared program notes for the concert, I'll include a copy of my final edited essay, as well as and longer essays that I might have prepared for the singers or director.

My filing project gave me a wonderful opportunity to review the riches of the fall concert season just ended. I was so fortunate to sing in several amazing concerts:

— “American Voices” with the all-professional choral ensemble CONCORA, performed on October 19, 2008 at the First Church of Christ, New Britain, Connecticut. This was a musically satisfying and intellectually enriching project. For this program, CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey programmed a delightful mix of American choral music, ranging from new works by Gwyneth Walker and Nancy Galbraith (read more here) to superb settings of traditional folk songs and African-American spirituals. The ensemble gathered for this performance included most of CONCORA’s best musicians, and we worked well together to achieve spectacular musical unity and beauty. I prepared the program notes for this performance; read some of my essays about this program here and here and here.

— Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with The Hartford Chorale, CONCORA, and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, performed on October 24 and 25, 2008 at The Bushnell Memorial in Hartford, Connecticut. In its end-of-year arts review, The Hartford Courant called this concert “The most extraordinary orchestral concert in Connecticut during 2008 — the Hartford Symphony Orchestra's soulful performance of [Beethoven’s] Missa Solemnis with The Hartford Chorale and CONCORA in May.” Read The Courant's end-of-year comments here , and read the entire review here.

— Music for a Great Space by Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus. Long a favorite of Hartford audiences, the annual Music for a Great Space concert showcases the soaring choral sounds of Chorus Angelicus and Gaudeamus in some of Hartford’s acoustically finest sacred spaces. This year’s performance was on Sunday, November 2, 2008, at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Hartford. Many beautiful moments.

— American Harmony: Readings and Music from Colonial New England, presented by an ensemble of thirteen CONCORA artists. This program offers glimpses of Colonial New England through readings and music from the period. We performed this program for the members of the Mansfield Historical Society on November 14, 2008. Though this was our fourth or fifth performance of this program, it was our most compelling, and I was deeply moved, both by my colleagues’ performances and by the warm reception by our well-informed audience. (I am a charter member of this CONCORA ensemble.)

The Hartford Chorale’s “Harvest Song” concert on November 22, 2008 at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford. This concert included the debut of the Hartford Chorale Chamber Singers , of which I am a charter member. I also prepared the program notes for this performance.

— “Christmas in New England” with the all-professional choral ensemble CONCORA, presented on December 14, 2008, at Center Church, Hartford. This was a delightful program of Christmas music by New England composers and authors. I also prepared program notes for this performance; you may read some of my extra-musical reflections here.

— “A Candlelight Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” offered by the outstanding Chancel Choir of historic South Church in New Britain, Connecticut on December 21, 2008. This remarkable and memorable service was presented as part of The Music Series at South Church. (Our post-festival party was also remarkable and memorable. Too bad that a foot and more of snow prevented many people from attending the service.)

And that was just the fall season! Much excitement also lies ahead for the spring, as I’ll describe in a soon-to-be-posted essay.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bad Language

Our language is dynamic and ever-changing. We devise new words, we use familiar words in new ways, we borrow colorful words and phrases from other languages. I welcome and embrace the changes that enrich our language and our understanding of it. But I shudder when I hear (or read) misused words, and I feel a little sad when persistent misuse of a word leads to the eventual acceptance of the “mis-usage” as correct usage.

Here are two of my favorite — or rather, least favorite! — examples:

Enormity – An enormity is “an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act” (source) or “an act of extreme wickedness” (source) or “the quality of extreme wickedness” (source). However, many people confuse enormity with enormousness or immensity, mis-using the word enormity to denote large size or immense numbers. I suppose that the immensity of evil implied in enormity has, over time, “translated” to mean immensity of dimension, size, or number, and thus enormity has come to be used to mean “anything of large size.” This is how our language develops. Nevertheless, it was startling — even shocking — to hear a television news person comment on the "enormity of the crowd" at President Obama’s inauguration.

Decimate – This word means to reduce by ten percent. Specifically, it means “To kill one man chosen by lot out of every ten in a legion or other military group; to reduce anything by one in ten, or ten percent.” (source) It does not mean to annihilate, to ruin everything, to eliminate entirely. If an army is decimated, one in ten soldiers has been killed. If a crop is decimated by hail, one tenth of it has been damaged.

Here are a few other common linguistic perversions that drive me nuts.

No Problem! – I’m beginning to think that all young cashiers and retail clerks are trained to use this phrase when responding to customers.

CASHIER: Here’s your change.
CASHIER: No problem!

CUSTOMER: Thanks for bagging my groceries carefully.
STORE CLERK: No problem!

Though “No problem” can be offered with a smile, the very phrase implies that a problem may exist. When I hear this, I often wonder if the cashier or clerk is implying that he or she has interrupted some other activity in order to wait on me, even though his or her sole function is to be there to give me change and bag my groceries and help me to spend money in the store. Whatever happened to a more positive response such as “You’re welcome” or “Happy to help”?

Adjectives and Adverbs— Many people don’t know the difference between an adjective (a word used to modify nouns and pronouns) and an adverb (a word used to modify verbs or adjectives); consequently, they often confuse these parts of speech in written and spoken English. Poor grammar makes the speaker or writer sound ignorant.

One common example of this confusion is in the use (or mis-use) of the common words faster and quickly.

Fast, faster, and fastest are adjectives, words used to describe people, places, or things. In these examples, fast, faster, and fastest (or their synonyms, quick, quicker, and quickest) describe the people:

Barack is fast. (OR “Barack is quick.”)
Barack is faster than George. (OR “Barack is quicker than George.”)
Of the two, Barack is faster. (or quicker)
Barack is also faster than John. (or quicker)
Of the three, Barack is fastest. (or quickest)

Quickly is an adverb, a type of word used to modify a verb, that is, to describe action. (There is no adverb “fastly” to describe rate of speed. The archaic word “fastly,” which means securely or firmly, is rarely used.) In these examples, quickly describes the act of thinking, not the people:

Barack thinks quickly. (NOT “Barack thinks fast.”)
George does not think quickly. (NOT "George does not think fast.")
John does not think quickly, either. (NOT "John does not think fast, either.")

We can add adverbs such as more or most to modify an adverb:

Barack thinks more quickly than George. (NOT “Barack thinks faster than George.”) [This is the most common mis-usage.]
Barack also thinks more quickly than John. (NOT “Barack also thinks faster than John.”)
Barack thinks more quickly than John or George.*
Of the three, Barack thinks most quickly. He is the fastest. He is also the quickest.

Even the reporters and writers at National Public Radio seem not to understand how to use these common words correctly. I find myself editing out loud as I listen to the newscasts!

* Barack probably thinks more quickly than John and George put together, but that's material for another day.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Woodpecker Wars

One of the benefits of working in a home-based office is that I can watch the birds at our backyard feeders.

One of the disadvantages of working in a home-based office is that I can watch the birds at our backyard feeders. Why is this a disadvantage? Because too often, the goings-on out there are so interesting that I simply can’t tear myself away from the window to go to my office. Several days ago, I spent several hours watching the woodpecker wars outside my kitchen window. Here’s the story.

About ten days ago, a very lovely adult male Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker  started coming to our suet feeder. We’ve had juvenile Sapsuckers stop in for a day or two during fall migration, but this was the first time we’ve had an adult, and the first time that one has stayed this long. The bird showed up on a bitterly cold day, when, with temperatures in the single digits, birds need to eat pretty much continuously in order to survive. I’m sure that the prolonged cold snap drove this bird to the feeder, as Sapsuckers are generally rather shy birds.

A wealth of woodpeckers visits our suet each day during the winter —Downy Woodpeckers (up to 8 individuals), Hairy Woodpeckers (3-4), Red-Bellied Woodpeckers (3-4), and just this week, a boldly beautiful male Yellow-Shafted Northern Flicker. And other birds enjoy the suet's high-calorie nutrition, too: White-Breasted Nuthatches (2), Blue Jays (about a half-dozen), Tufted Titmice and Black-Capped Chickadees (several of each), and even the Dark-Eyed Juncos, seed eaters who every once in a while fly up to the suet and chip off little crumbs.

In the far-too-many hours that I’ve spent watching “our” woodpeckers, I’ve observed that they have sorted themselves into a pecking order, with the older male very assertive Red-Bellied Woodpecker at the top. Downies make way for Hairies, who make way for the Flicker, who makes way for the Red-Bellies. Twice, I’ve seen a Hairy approach the suet where a Downy was feeding, seize the Downy by the bill and shake him into a black-and-white blur, then throw him into the air! (The Downy flew away dizzy but unharmed.) But when the Red-Belly flies in, all the other woodpeckers scatter. They learn to wait on nearby branches for opportunities to feed, and they actually get along pretty well.

All this changed when the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker arrived.

When the Sapsucker found the suet, it immediately became very territorial, defending its newly-found bounty against all comers. The Sapsucker would sit quietly just under the suet, not always feeding, but refusing to let any other bird near. It would raise its wings, fly at the newcomer, and leave its post to chase them up and down the tree trunk before returning to post guard again. (With its smart red-and-black-and-gold uniform and upright posture, the Sapsucker does look rather military!) Even the Red-Bellies and Blue Jays were helpless against it. Only the chickadees were allowed to sneak in to grab a crumb or two.The Sapsucker's defense created havoc among the usually cooperative woodpecker flock. Now, they tussled with each other, jostling for position to sneak in to the suet whenever the Sapsucker took off after a rival. Everyone was ruffled!

I watched these battles off and on for an entire morning, feeling more and more distressed that the other birds could not get to the suet, their accustomed food source. And it was about 10°F outside! Finally, I put out two more suet feeders, locating them at some distance away from the Sapsucker, so that all the birds could get something to eat! This worked out well for all the birds, and I was finally able to get to my office.

Why would the Sapsucker engage in this behavior, when the other woodpeckers were willing to take turns? Here’s why: During the warmer months, Sapsuckers feed by drilling holes in living trees, both to drink the sweet sap that flows forth (hence the name “Sapsucker”), and to feed on the insects that are attracted to the sap. (Did you know that Sapsuckers have fringed tongues, the better to lap up the sap?) The Sapsuckers defend their sap-and-insect bars very vigorously, so it seems natural enough that they would also defend “their” suet bar once they find it.

The woodpeckers are among the most interesting of all our feeder visitors.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dashing Through the Snow

While preparing program notes for CONCORA’s “Christmas in New England” concert in December, I had a chance to learn more about the genesis of the popular winter song “Jingle Bells.” Of course, it was not intended as a “Christmas song” at all, but rather a “sleighing song,” which was a popular genre at the time. “Jingle Bells” did not become wildly popular until the later 19th century, when it gained its exclusive association with the holiday season. (It’s certainly not a carol, and of course, it has nothing to do with Christmas per se.) With its imagery of the one-horse open sleigh “dashing through the snow,” the jingling harness bells, and the unspoken but likely promise of a roaring fire at home, perhaps some steaming chocolate or hot cider, and a comely companion, we continue to love “Jingle Bells” as a reminder of our “old-fashioned” New England Christmas and of the love and good cheer that come to us at this season.
Preparing this program note brought back a wonderful childhood memory of “dashing through the snow” in our own “one-horse open sleigh.” I grew up on a large farm (90 acres) in a rural town in northeastern Massachusetts. We always had several horses, and enjoyed taking them out in harness. In summer, we sometimes went out in an old doctor’s buggy; this felt so stylish, with its high wheels and folding leather top. In winter, when the roads were snowy, we sometimes went out in an old pung, a one-horse sleigh or sledge, essentially a long box on runners, with a bench for the driver and an open area behind. Pungs were used to carry wood, feed, and other loads, as well as people. Sometimes extra benches could be placed in the back, as in this picture of a pung that is very much like the one we had:
When we’d had a heavy snow, and if the weather stayed cold enough to keep the hard-packed snow crisp on our country road, we’d go out in our “one-horse open sleigh.” Our old horse Betty loved to go out in the pung or buggy. She was a piebald horse with an intelligent eye (yes, only one eye, but what look she could give if she were angry or disappointed in you!) We’d pile plenty of hay in the back of the pung, into which we could snuggle, harness Betty, hitch up the pung, and off we’d go.
What an exhilaration! If you’ve never had a sleigh ride on a quiet country road, on a sparkling blue and white winter day, you can only imagine the sights and sounds unique to this experience. I can still hear the sleigh runners squeaking over the snow, the steady breathing of the horse, our laughter, and of course, the sleigh bells, big brass bells nearly two inches in diameter, affixed at intervals to strips of old leather six feet long – oh, what a happy sound they made! I can recall the cold on my face, my red tingling cheeks, the scratchy wool mittens made by my grandmother, and the sway of the sleigh, in tempo with the horse’s strides. I can still see the gathering dusk, those clear, clear skies that one sees only in winter, and the sharply-edged traceries of trees, black against a Maxfield Parrish sky.
I remember wondering — Did Betty mind pulling us all along? But when I watched her, I saw her ears pricked forward, her tail arched (no bobbed tails for us!) and occasionally waved with what must have been joy, and her prancing steps as she trotted along. Clearly, she enjoyed the outing as much as we did.
When we returned home, Betty rejoined her stablemates, the pung was returned to its spot in the corner of the barn, and we tumbled into the kitchen, dazzled by the light and warmth. Boots, coats, hats, mittens, were heaped on the floor by the old cast iron kerosene stove in the back hall that led from kitchen to barn. My mother would have the hot chocolate ready! And oh, the crowning glory: marshmallows on the hot chocolate!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Book in Hand – The Man Who Invented Christmas

As I wrote in a recent posting, I’ve been reading a lot of books, particularly the works of Charles Dickens. Yes, A Christmas Carol draws me to the shelf each December, and I do re-read the novella each Christmastide. This year, a series of circumstances led me to explore Dickens’ other Christmas writings, and to consider their lingering effect on our lives.
It was my privilege to prepare program notes for CONCORA’s recent holiday concert, Christmas in New England, a delightful program of Christmas music by New England composers and authors. As I began sketching out the notes, I wondered about how our “New England Christmas” traditions got started, and I started reading and learning.
In an interesting coincidence, the very day after I drafted the CONCORA notes, there appeared in our newspaper a review of a new book: The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, by Les Standiford (Crown, © 2008). I immediately wrote to Santa to request the book for Christmas, and it was under the tree on Christmas morning.
It was an interesting book, though insubstantial and ultimately unsatisfying. I was hoping for a big book, a scholarly exploration; what I got was a smallish book (240 pages, but in large-point type and printed on small paper, just 5.5 x 7 inches) that gave a pleasant overview of the topic but not much more. No illustrations? No index? It was like getting Wonder bread when I really wanted whole wheat.
Worst of all, I found several factual errors in the book which called into question the veracity of all the information in the book, and worse, which made me doubt the knowledge, skill, and reliability of the author. Most of these errors were in the author’s summary of the characters and actions of A Christmas Carol, including misattributions of dialog and mistakes about the locations in which specific actions took place. In my mind, it is inexcusable that a study about a book has errors about that book.
Inexplicable errors like these seem to occur in new books with increasing frequency. One of the books that I gave my husband for Christmas (How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein) contains errors in dates, place names, and maps. And these are in a book which is entirely about places, dates, and maps!
Where are the editors and fact checkers? Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that so many books are published each year. It's too bad that publishers and book sellers seem to strive for quantity rather than quality.
It seems that some books, like The Man Who Invented Christmas, are “manufactured” in order to generate profits rather than to communicate important ideas in new and interesting ways. The topic of Dickens' “inventing” Christmas has been covered in earlier publications, including Christmas and Charles Dickens, a 355-page study by David Parker (AMS Press, 2005); Dickens’ Christmas, by John Hudson (Sutton, 1997), and Dickens’ Christmas: A Victorian Celebration by Simon Callow (Abrams, 2003). And how about this intriguing title: A Midnight Carol, A Novel of How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas, by Patricia K. Davis (Macmillan, 2000) – this book is not even included in Standiford’s bibliography.
So, why do we need this new, light-weight (in more ways than one) book on Dickens and Christmas, which just happened to be released right before Chri$tma$? I wish that I had not purchased it so quickly: I assumed (wrongly) that it added to previous knowledge in some way, or summarized existing information with a new and important analysis or perspective. It didn't, and I wish now that I had just borrowed library copies of earlier works on the same topic.
Despite these criticisms, the book is interesting and worth a look. You can find it at your public library or purchase them.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Charles Dickens and Christmas in New England

“…The day arrived. A raging winter day, that shook the old house, sometimes, as if it shivered in the blast. A day to make home doubly home. To give the chimney-corner new delights. To shed a ruddier glow upon the faces gathered round the hearth, and draw each fireside group into a closer and more social league, against the roaring elements without. Such a wild winter day as best prepares the way for shut-out night; for curtained rooms, and cheerful looks; for music, laughter, dancing, light, and jovial entertainment!” (Charles Dickens, The Battle of Life, 1846; description of a party held at Christmastide)

Though it is more than two weeks past Christmas, I am still listening to music of the season, savoring goodies left over from our holidaycelebrations, and finding childish pleasure in the Christmas lights still twinkling from neighbors’ yards. And with a fall of snow just starting to overspread Connecticut this afternoon, as I write, it still feels very Christmas-y.

I’ve also been reading a lot of books, of course, particularly the works of Charles Dickens. Yes, A Christmas Carol draws me to the shelf each December, and I do re-read the novella each Christmastide. This year, a program annotation project led me to explore Dickens’ other Christmas writings, and to consider their lingering effect on our lives.

It was my privilege to prepare program notes for CONCORA’s holiday concert, "Christmas in New England," a delightful program of Christmas music by New England composers and authors. As I began sketching out the notes, I wondered about how our “New England Christmas” traditions got started, and I started reading and learning. Here’s what I found.

Our vision of the traditional New England Christmas — frosty weather, holly and mistletoe, sleighing and fireside games, turkey and plum pudding, and, of course carolers at the door — seems to come straight out of Charles Dickens’ Victorian-era novel, A Christmas Carol. This should come as no surprise, since it was about the same time that Dickens’ story was published in 1843 that Americans began to celebrate Christmas in much the same way that we do today.

In New England’s earlier days, lingering Puritan sensibilities had suppressed any celebration of days not specifically named in the Bible; thus until the 1850s or so, the 25th of December was generally treated as a normal workday, unless it happened to fall on the Sabbath. This was true in England, too, where, since the Puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell, the old Yule traditions (not a little colored by the ancient pagan Saturnalia festival) had been frowned upon. The Industrial Revolution, too, exacted a toll on Christmas, as factory and mill workers, with little money and almost no family time, did not have the means to celebrate.

Dickens and his stories — especially A Christmas Carol — enjoyed enormous popularity in America. On each of his two journeys here (1842-1843 and 1867-1868), Dickens drew large crowds eager to hear him read from his novels. On his second tour (during which the photo at right was made), he gave seventy-six readings of A Christmas Carol and other works, performing to capacity audiences in Boston and in what he called “the two or three best New England towns” (Providence, New Bedford, Hartford, New Haven), as well as in other Eastern cities.

Dickens, who was in Boston for Christmas in 1867, was charmed by New Englanders’ enthusiastic embrace of the Yuletide celebrations described in A Christmas Carol. In a letter to a relative at home, he wrote, “When we got here last Saturday night, we found that Mrs. Fields had not only garnished the rooms with flowers, but also with holly (with real red berries) and festoons of moss… The homely Christmas look of the place quite affected us. Yesterday we dined at her house, and there was a plum-pudding, brought on blazing, and not to be surpassed in any house in England. …A piece of English mistletoe [was] laid upon my breakfast-table. And there it was this morning. In such affectionate touches as this these New England people are especially amiable.”

Dickens’ tour manager George Dolby was also affected by the scene: “This was our Christmas dinner… A most brilliant company had been invited to do honour to the occasion, and all the well-known features of an English Christmas dinner-table, in the shape of roast beef and turkey, were placed before us, even to the plum pudding, made in England, and sent over specially for this entertainment. All feeling of depression at being away from home at such a time was dissipated by the geniality of our host and hostess; and there was universal regret when the hands of the clock pointed to the small hours in the morning, suggesting most painfully that the time for breaking-up had arrived.”

The “Dickensian” Christmas survives, and thrives, as “our” traditional New England Christmas. A few years ago, I prepared a Fezziwiggian feast, with turkey, goose, roast beef, capon, plum pudding, wines and ales to match, and everything else you can imagine.

It is important to remember, however, that Dickens’ conception of Christmas embraced much more than feasting and merriment. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens (in the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred) describes Christmas as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” This was what Dickens described for the rest of his life as the “Carol Philosophy.”
* * * * * *

“Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment, which abound at this season of the year? A Christmas family-party! We know nothing in nature more delightful! There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas.” (Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836)

In an interesting coincidence, the very day after I drafted these notes, there appeared in our newspaper a review of a new book: The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, by Les Standiford (Crown, © 2008). I immediately wrote to Santa to request the book for Christmas. It was an interesting book, which I’ll explore in a future posting.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reflecting on “The Blue Bird”

[originally posted January 7, 2009;  reposted for technical reasons]

This Sunday, January 11, I’ll be singing in a memorial tribute for Catherine Stockman, arts advocate par excellence, who died suddenly in October. You can read more about her life here, and about the memorial service here.

One of the musical selections that CONCORA’s Artistic Director Rick Coffey has selected for the service is The Blue Bird by Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1954). Rick’s choice of this music for a memorial service is wholly appropriate, in so many ways. The evocative, ethereal verse is by British poet Mary Coleridge (1861-1907):

The Blue Bird

The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue,
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

Stanford sets the text for five unaccompanied voices (SSATB); the lower four voices rise and fall gently, much like the surface of a lake, while the top soprano soars and floats over and around, catching and reflecting motivic fragments, much as Coleridge’s blue bird, and lake, and sky catch and reflect the “blue in blue.”

I saw some bluebirds last week and thought of this music, and about the fleeting nature of blueness. Did you know that blue birds (of any species) do not have blue pigment in their feathers? Their feathers are constructed in such a way as to reflect the blue portions of the light spectrum (as opposed to birds with other colors, where colored pigment is actually present). (You can read more about this at Cornell University’s wonderful web site, here.)

Truly, in the plumage of blue birds, we see a bit of the sky — and perhaps a bit of the Great Beyond. Coleridge's text gives us the image of the bird as reflected in the water, and contemplates (reflects) on what has been seen and is now gone. In Stanford's setting, the top soprano line captures and reflects fragments and colors from the music below, much as a blue bird's plumage captures and reflects the blue portion of the light spectrum. This poem — and this particular musical setting — are wonderful textual and aural images for a memorial service, where the gathered people will reflect on a life that has passed.

Here's a picture of a Mountain Bluebird, which I have seen in the U.S. Rocky Mountains. Coleridge was British, and I'm not sure what bird she might have seen that was blue. Perhaps she visited a distant clime and saw a blue bird over the water, in which the blue of the sky was reflected…

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

“The most extraordinary … concert in Connecticut during 2008”

On New Year's Day, The Hartford Courant published a an article that reviewed 2008 highlights in the Greater Hartford arts community, listing the best offerings in theater, film, books, jazz, rock, and, at the very end of the piece, classical music. Below, I've pasted the entire entry for classical music. It is extraordinarily wonderful that a concert of choral music is judged to be the classical highlight of the year, and even more wonderful that The Hartford Chorale and CONCORA, two ensembles in which I sing, are named so prominently.

Here's the excerpt:

"The most extraordinary orchestral concert in Connecticut during 2008 — the Hartford Symphony Orchestra's soulful performance of [Beethoven’s] Missa Solemnis with The Hartford Chorale and CONCORA in May — came alongside the announcement that the symphony would center the 2008-09 season on a performance of the complete Beethoven symphony cycle. Anchored by the monumental Ninth, performed from memory by both conductor Edward Cumming and The Hartford Chorale [and CONCORA] (prepared by Richard Coffey) in October, the remainder of this series was placed within the smaller Belding Theater. The performance of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony in mid-November demonstrated the clarity and appeal of this space's acoustics. The Beethoven symphony cycle will be completed in June." — Jeffrey Johnson

"The Year In Arts: Economic Uncertainty, Loss Of Paul Newman; Here Are Some Highlights Of The Arts Scene In Connecticut For 2008."The Hartford CourantJanuary 1, 2009
Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant,0,5612204.story