Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bloggo Doppelgango/Dramatico: Ernest in Town, Jack in the Country, complete with coda

By now, anyone who has been reading La Vita e Troppo Breve per Dottore Gianni knows that the good doctor is fond of doubles, doppelgangers, alter egos, and the like. This particular post, which could be rather brief – please don’t snort or chortle! It IS possible that it could be brief…though perhaps you’re right to chortle and snort…we’ll see – this post has to do with doubling. In fact those of you savvy about great plays, particularly great comedies of manners, will recognize doubling from the title of the post. “Ernest in town and Jack in the country” is part of an important, plot-revealing line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

The play, briefly (hmmmm…), deals with a debonair young Londoner, 
Perhaps the great production in the world
of The Importance - yes, that's Dottore Gianni
as Jack/Ernest on the right, and
the excellent Bruce Ward as
Algy on the left
John Worthing, nick-named Jack, who is in love with and wants to marry the fair Gwendolyn Fairfax. She is enamored of him as well, but she happens to have a mother, Lady Bracknell, who, to say the very least, does not approve. In the first scene Mr Worthing’s friend Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff, who knows John/Jack not by that name but by the name of Ernest, and who happens to be Lady Bracknell’s nephew and thus Gwendolyn’s cousin, produces Ernest’s (Jack’s) cigarette case and grills his friend on it, as it seems a present from a “little Cecily, with her fondest love, to her dear Uncle Jack.” Algy forces Ernest/Jack to admit that:

I am called Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given me in the country.
He further confesses that Cecily Cardew is his ward, and that as her guardian
one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It’s one’s duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.
By now you’d be right to think that there is nothing “pure and simple” going on in this play! Deceptions and complications (the stuff of any fine comedy of manners) abound, and ensue almost instantly, as who should enter but Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell! When Algy manages to get Lady Bracknell into another room, Ernest/Jack, on bended knee, proposes to Gwendolyn, and she accepts him. But complication number one rears its ugly head when Gwendolyn tells Jack that:
my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.
He protests, arguing that
there are lots of other much nicer names. I think Jack, for instance, a charming name.
Gwendolyn responds with one of my favorite speeches in the play, perhaps because my own name is Jack (well…one of my names, along with John, Dottore Gianni, and soon, for a time at least, Ernest – deception!):
Jack?... No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations... I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude. The only really safe name is Ernest.
In response to which he blurts out:
Gwendolyn, I must be christened at once – I mean we must get married at once.
 Almost immediately complication number two rears its even uglier head
Doctor Jack as Jack being grilled by
Lady Bracknell
 (that of Lady Bracknell) for while Ernest/Jack is still on his knee to Gwendolyn, Lady Bracknell returns, sees him kneeling and commands:
Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous.
Gwendolyn announces that she and her “Ernest” are engaged. Lady Bracknell replies:
Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.
Lady Bracknell then dismisses Gwendolyn and begins to grill John/Jack/Ernest on his roots…but! If I continue with this tale I’ll reveal the entire plot of play, which was not my purpose – it is filled with more and more ludicrous complications, as any fine comedy must be, for example you’ve not even got out to the country yet to meet Cecily, Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism…as Gwendolyn says late in the play:

“The suspense is terrible! I hope it will last…”

Jack again, with the
terrific Amy Hohn as
Miss Prism, who for a moment
Jack believes to be
his mother
 If I’ve sparked your interest I insist that you read it, or see the wonderful film version with Michael Redgrave (Vanessa’s and Lynne’s father) as Jack and Dame Edith Evans as a brilliant Lady Bracknell.

If ONLY you could have seen the production in which yours truly (but who IS yours truly? Is it Jack? John? Gianni? Deception! Me in any case…) played Jack/Ernest. I was extremely good.

I hope this helps to explain part of why I titled the post “Ernest in Town, Jack in the Country.” Now to explain the other part, which is really the crux of the post, though it may not be as interesting as what you’ve already read. After all, what’s coming is hardly a great comedy of manners, at most a farce to make you sad, then possibly, happy.

For alas, after a mere ten months in residence I am forced to leave my digs at McBee Station in downtown Greenville, SC for a place outside of the city called The Vinings at Duncan Chapel. Furthermore, in order to take possession of the apartment I want at the latter, I will for a time be the lessee of two different abodes…one (McBee) in town, the other (the Vinings) in the country.
my building at McBee Station

AAAH! You sigh! Paragraph after paragraph of print to make that one feeble point? Tsk, tsk Dottore Gianni!

But that’s my way, so on I go about it. I only wish I had the ability to be wicked in town, moral in the country. The latter I can handle, and once upon a time I might have been wicked in town (admit it man you WERE), but no longer. However, even if it’s only for one month, I shall possess two residences.

What’s interesting about all of this is the reason for which I am making this move. I decided on retirement in Greenville at the gentle coaxing of my brother Phil and his wife Kara, but was convinced that if I were to settle here it would have to be in town. The “country” around downtown Greenville is of course not really country, it is miles and miles of strip malls and gas stations, apartment complexes and condos, chain restaurants & fast food places – middle America at its worst, in my opinion.

So with the help of brother Phil and brother Tom (who was visiting Phil from Florida just as I was visiting from Ithaca NY) on a day just after Christmas 2010, I found the perfect place. McBee (how would you think that would be pronounced? I’m betting “mick-BEE” right? But you and I would be wrong, as in the South they say “MAC-bee” – yup!) Station. 

Tree-lined Main St, Greenville
aas a bicycle race is beginning
A five to six minute walk from Main Street, a charming street filled with restaurants and bars, several shops as well, tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly; about the same distance from Falls Park, complete with a great pedestrian bridge over, you guessed it, scenic waterfalls, a beautiful expanse of green right downtown, and leading to other parks as well, via the colorfully titled Swamp Rabbit Trail; 
Falls Park and Liberty Bridge
and the same distance from the Peace Center, where Broadway musicals are shown, concert artists such as Joshua Bell and the Boston Pops perform, and where the Greenville Symphony is the resident orchestra. 
The Peace Center
Not to repeat myself, but perfect! Add to this that within three minutes’ walk of me is a Publix supermarket, the place I get my hair cut, my dentist and my bank!

So why leave? Rent! Not the famous musical, more like a nineteenth century melodrama, many of which exploited the theme of a nasty, Snively-Whiplash style owner who threatens the innocent couple unfortunate enough to be his tenants with a monthly fee they could not possibly afford. Happily for me the repercussions would not be what they were as the melodrama played out, for the lovely young wife would be propositioned by Snively the landlord, and/or the good-looking but somewhat inept husband would be driven to drink (particularly in the peculiar brand of theatre known as temperance melodrama). In fact it would seem that all is lost…until the very last moment, when all, almost miraculously, ends well.

The skyline of downtown Greenville
the buildings you see are on Main St,
just a few minutes from where I snapped
this photo, in a parking lot next to McBee Station
For me it was simply a matter of money. When I looked at McBee in 2010 the rent of the smallest studio on the lowest level (flatteringly called the Terrace instead of the basement) of the complex (the unit is named the Picasso – they’re very artsy here at McBee) was about what I was paying in Ithaca, just under $900 a month. The shocking difference was that instead of the $20-40 rise in rent per year that I, a lifelong renter, was used to and anticipated, the price of the Picasso jumped a bit more than $200 per month in less than two year’s time (from the time I first priced it until I made my application). I live now on a fixed salary that hasn’t left me all that well…fixed! So, dear readers, this rise in rent put the modest Picasso at the very, very top of my affordability scale. But I took it, thinking naively that once IN the apartment more modest rate rises would occur, similar to those I’d been used to in 40 years of renting apartments. Imagine then my surprise and disappointment and continued shock when I found that my rent would be raised beginning in March 2013 by a whopping $105, bringing it to $1200 per month. Now, location is everything, but Greenville is, no offense, Greenville, not New York City or Washington DC.

For a time I despaired. First, I didn’t want to make another move. It’s not even been 12 months since my most recent move from Upstate NY to South Carolina, preceded by a move a mere ten months before that from Ithaca to London. Second, I didn’t want to consign myself to the land of strip malls outside the city proper. Should I head off, away from the buckle of the bible belt? Should I seek as I had in the past, to retire abroad? Should I head in the direction of my brothers Tom and Rob (Florida) or my sister (California)? All options seemed daunting, but as I crunched the numbers I knew that I could not afford to stay another year in a place where most of my income would go to paying rent. All seemed lost (as in the rent melodramas described above) BUT! I then came upon a solution that just maybe I COULD live with.

The Vinings at Duncan Chapel, office and at left
the building I will live in - my porch is visible,
on the top floor
 The Vinings at Duncan Chapel, rather pretentiously named but quite nice really, is the spot I landed on. A very easy 6 ½ mile drive from the center, this apartment complex is not located in the crush of other apartment complexes, strip malls etc; instead it’s out on its own, off the short Duncan Chapel Rd for which it is named in part (as for the other part, what a “vining” is I know not). It is located less than a half mile (and therefore an easy walk) from a Publix Supermarket. It is .8 mile away from the Swamp Rabbit Trail, making it, if not quite as easy a journey to my favored place for health walks as I now have, certainly able to be reached on foot.

What is even better is that closer than the Trail is the beautiful campus of Furman University. The nearest entrance is a mere 1/3 mile from the Vinings,
Fountains at Furman, and behind them
 the university library
 in fact the complex is owned by Furman. I must admit that, while I have not much missed teaching, I do somewhat miss the energy and youthfulness of a college campus. I have often worried that it was my students that kept me “young” and that without them I should instantly shrivel up into an old prune. While I will not have students per se, I will be in a collegiate atmosphere, able to attend the many free or nearly free lectures, concerts and other events that are part of life on this campus. And unless it is raining violently I will be able to walk to them.

Another reason to be near the university is due to an organization with the slightly odd appellation OLLI. It stands for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (the Osher family having contributed generously to it), and by golly, OLLI is located in the first building you see when you enter the campus from the entrance nearest the Vinings. OLLI offers courses all year long, it also features reading groups, outings and a host of activities, all aimed primarily at seniors.

Now, I am a notorious loner. I once called myself the Hermit of Cayuga Heights, then the Hermit of Northwood, now the Hermit of McBee (also the Pauper of McBee, you can glean that from reading just above) and in one month, I will dub myself (for who one else will?) the Hermit of the Vinings.
Dottore Gianni
as the Hermit of Cayuga Heights
 I am very dubious about how active I will be in OLLI, but for $35 dollars a year I will have access to the university library, discounted lunches in the faculty dining room, and for $50 a course a wide range of classes that I might take. The spring term (each term is about 8 weeks long, classes meet once a week for an hour and a half) begins on 18 March, the day I move into the Vinings. So, we’ll see…

I plan to take anywhere from one to three classes during the spring term. There is a T’ai Chi class that is of some interest (I studied this in Ithaca during the 1990s, but alas have forgetten even the first, most basic moves), a class on astronomy, a subject about which I am clueless, another on Frank Lloyd Wright, one on early railroads in Upcountry South Carolina, one on three jazz icons, and finally a class on Russia: pre- and post-Glasnost. A wide, nearly weird variety, right? But why not? I’ll hope to learn a little more about subjects with which I am already familiar and/or branch out into areas about which I know almost nothing. If I don’t like the classes I can still access the library, and if I like, the faculty dining room.

The campus is set in a lovely location, complete with its own man-made lake
The lake at Furman, and the bell tower behind it
 featuring a rather incongruous Italian Renaissance-style campanile or bell tower (with no church next to it, hmmm) on its banks, a replica of Thoreau's cottage at Walden, a Chinese Pavilion (?), lengthy walking trails and other amenities along with a few oddities that I think I might enjoy.
Replica of Thoreau's cottage at Walden Pond
Finally, the entire setting is located north of the city of Greenville, closer than I am now to the mountains of North and South Carolina, so trips to beautiful areas will be even more available to me than they are now.

Happy ending? After suspense, disappointment, panic even – all is theatre, right? I think my new life at the Vinings will be happy, that I will be happy, at least I hope so…a report to follow soon after I’ve actually moved in. And for the next month I will be Dottore Gianni in town, and Jack in the country.

Coda: In the summer of 1990, thanks to friends in nearby Cortland, NY, I got the deal of a lifetime in Ithaca. I lived on the top floor of a lovely house in the classy neighborhood of Cayuga Heights. The place belonged to Irv Lewis, who ran his own upscale men’s clothing store on The Commons. He made it all mine for $400 a month, and said that, “As long as I live, I will never raise your rent.” Then of course he died…but several years later, and after him his son ran the place. The son DID raise the rent, but only to $500, so that for a bit more than ten years I was paying very little rent in a high-rent district. Rest in peace, Irv Lewis! Then the place was sold, and while the new landlord, who also lived in the lower level of the place (while Dottore Gianni had the room at the top, thank you very much), liked me, he needed to make room for his mother-in-law, and had to let me go.

So! I was cast down and fell heavily, precipitously from the Heights! 
It was a long, hard fall, into a tiny basement apartment in a complex called Northwood, near the Ithaca airport. It was cramped, dark and expensive. I lived there for the rest of my time, a good ten more years, in Ithaca. Then, after a blissful rent-free year in London, living atop the London Center, I moved back to the U.S. and into another small studio on the “Terrace” level of McBee, in other words back down in the basement. The high price of that fall made it even harder to bear than the first.

However, I am rising again, moving back to the top floor!  No footfalls
the front of my building at The Vinings - 
you can see the entrance to the right of the 
lamppost, in brick - a reminder that Dottore
Gianni will be on the UPPERMOST level!
from overhead, no large dogs galumping happily but noisily (as one is now, even as I write this) from one unit up. In the Vinings I shall have a view of the pool in the center of the complex, and I’ll be high enough up that I can see the woods and a even a wee bit of the mountains beyond. I’m back! I have arisen! All for $450 a month less than I’m paying now. Hallelujah!

That Resurrection/Ascension might alone make this move a happy one in…

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bloggo Musico Ro-(manti)-co-co: Gounod, Liszt and Dvořák at the GSO

Ah, romance! A state of being Dottore Gianni remembers only dimly, but there you have it. The Greenville Symphony Orchestra (GSO) concert he attended last Sunday was named Romantic Nights, slightly off-putting in that the good doctor was present not of an evening but of an afternoon, 
at a matinee, more off-putting in that it was timed to coincide as closely as possible to a day that will live in infamy for Dottore Gianni, St. Valentine’s Day! To him that v-for-vile day is about a gangland massacre in Chicago, nothing more. He likes this celebratory day even less than he likes Halloween, about which he has written in an earlier blog. The GSO, however, had no idea of the doctor’s feelings and made use of the proximity of the most “romantic” day of the year to offer a concert featuring three “Romantic” composers.

Now, as any schoolboy knows (certainly any schoolboy or girl taught theatre history by Dottore Gianni…and that’s quite a few), the Romantic Movement with an upper-case R is not the same as romantic love with a lower-case r. The upper-case R word was coined by German poet/translator/ 
critic August Wilhelm Schlegel in the late eighteenth century as an apt term to characterize the new style that began to sweep Germany and the rest of Europe at the time. Schlegel was the first great apologist for the movement, and contrasted the emerging Romantic style with the classical style, using the works of Shakespeare (translating them excellently into German) and of Spanish Golden-Age poets as forebears of literary Romanticism.

In contrast, the lower-case romantic love is a very elusive term/practice (at least one that has eluded the good doctor through one marriage 
Doomed Couple 1: Dottore Gianni & his bride Joanne
and two other long term relationships, 
Doomed Couple 2: Jack on stage
with Brigid Cleary
Doomed Couple 3: Jack on stage
with Pat Nesbit
after which he threw in the towel and retired not all that honorably but quite rapidly from the field) having to do the amorous, a passionate and usually sexual affection, caring, devotion between two people.

So the GSO’s premise was off-kilter at best, I’m sure ALL of my readers will agree.

In spite of that caveat, it was quite pleasant to hear the work of saintly Gounod, the libidinous Liszt and the Slavic Dvořak on the same program.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) spent a good bit of his time writing religious music, the best-known example the Ave Maria (which Dottore Gianni loves much more than Shubert’s version). This Parisian nearly became a Roman
Charles Gounod
Catholic priest in his 20s, but perhaps because of his artistic lineage (his mother was a pianist, his father an artist) returned to musical composition. He wrote masses and motets, two symphonies and other instrumental music including a short piece for piano called the “Funeral March of a Marionette” (evocative title, yes?) that became in the 1950s the mysterious theme music for the Alfred Hitchcock show, which I am humming as I type this. He also wrote more then ten operas, the most famous of which was based upon and named for Goethe’s gigantic dramatic poem, Faust. Interesting that the religious Gounod would become known for an opera that features the devil! But leaving that conundrum aside, it was a portion of the opera Faust that opened Sunday’s concert.

I can’t promise a short digression about Faust. Oh, I will digress, Dottore Gianni is bound to digress, but it will most likely be a lengthy digression, not a brief one, as Faust is one of the most utilized story lines in performing arts. Would you like a few examples? Of course you would! The first dramatic versions of this tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil were penned in German, in the late sixteenth century. How Christopher Marlowe
 got hold of the tale I’m not sure, though he was sent to the continent on her majesty’s secret service by Sir Francis Walsingham, and could certainly have picked it up there. Marlowe wrote a work in English, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which is still quite playable today. Jude Law performed the title character a few years ago in London, I myself had several small roles in a rather dreadful wild-west musical adaptation of the play called The Ballad of Dr Faustus, set in the Gold Rush, and performed in Washington DC’s National Cathedral in the late 1970s. 
Jude Law as Faustus

Two fine actors from Arena Stage, Stanley Anderson (as Mephistopheles) and Howard Witt (as Faustus) played the leading roles. Later I made my directing debut at Ithaca College with a production of the A-text of Marlowe’s play starring Mark Leneker in the title role and Sarah Chalmers (who is now teaching at Ithaca) as Mephistopheles.

Other lesser variations for the stage followed Marlowe’s (including John Rich’s The Necromancer, or Harlequin Dr Faustus, an early eighteenth century British pantomime) until the next great version of the tale (upon which Gounod’s opera is based) was written in German during the first years of the nineteenth century by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. 
Marlowe’s and Goethe’s are easily the two greatest theatrical versions, but many others tried their hand at it, including Alexander Pushkin, Dion Boucicault, W.S. Gilbert, and in the twentieth century, among many others mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers (The Devil to Pay), Gertrude Stein (Dr Faustus Lights the Lights, a libretto for an opera never composed that has been adapted/deconstructed by practically every avant-garde performing artist or group in the U.S. including Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, the Living Theatre, the Wooster Group – the last of which I saw), Vaclav Havel (Temptation), the sharp British group Punchdrunk (Faust in Promenade) and more.

Operas other than Gounod’s include Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel and more recently John Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Randy Newman’s Faust
Gwen Verdon as Lola in
Damn Yankees
The devilishly delicious Broadway musical Damn Yankees is another variation on the theme…whatever Lola wants… Of the numerous film spinoffs we have Bedazzled and Barton Fink, as well as too many German versions to begin to mention (though most of them are titled Faust). Novels include works by Ivan Turgenev, Thomas Mann, and Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, one of my favorite novels ever). There are mangas and animes based on the story, even video games!

End of lengthy digression…though I’ve only just touched the surface.

What we heard of Gounod’s Faust last Sunday is a ballet based on the Walpurgisnacht portion of Goethe’s play – that is the last night (nacht) in April, when witches galore are said to dance the night away on a high mountain in northern Germany. It’s fifteen to twenty minutes of fine music, but which has little to do with the main action of the play/opera and so is usually cut from productions. However, it makes a fine opening piece for a symphony concert. It was written in seven sections:

         Dance of the Nubian Slaves
         Cleopatra and the Golden Cup
         Antique Dance
         Dance of Cleopatra and her Slaves
         Dance of the Trojan Maidens
         Mirror Dance
         Dance of the Phryne

If the above listed don’t strike you as witches, in the opera the dance of the witches becomes transformed into a feast attended by legendary beauties of the ancient world, all of whom attempt to seduce Faust. Of the Trojan Maidens, Helen of course is the seducer-in-chief, reminding any of us who love Marlowe’s play of the famous words:

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!

Dottore Gianni has always dreamed of a kiss that would suck forth his soul…many of you have as well…but of course it does SUCK FORTH thy soul…and when thy soul is sucked from thee where are thee? In hell, my friends, the fiery pit of hell…

However, the Greek courtesan Phryne seems to suck forth Faust’s soul even more successfully than even Helen, and wins the good doctor’s (Faust’s, not Gianni’s) affection, at which her rivals become furious and the piece ends in chaos, illustrated wonderfully in Gounod’s music. The most familiar sections musically, to Dottore Gianni’s ear at least, are the two involving Cleopatra. In characterizing the different groups that vie for Faust’s attention (and then some), Gounod is able to provide wide variations on his theme, and the orchestra takes excellent advantage of the contrasts. I’m nearly certain that I’ve never heard the entire piece, and was glad to have the chance.

You want Dottore Gianni to move on, don’t you? But he’s not going to! Instead, he offers another digression, because until today he was unfamiliar with the courtesan Phryne (pronounced more or less “freeny”). 
Phryne revealed! by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Admit it, you don’t know her either – but if you did! Reminds me of the old song, “If you knew Phryne, like I know Phryne, oh, oh, oh what a whore!” (heh heh) Briefly (heh heh again), for there are MANY stories about the exceedingly alluring Phryne, the most famous tale has to do with her trial, for profaning the Eleusinian Eysteries (some of the most sacred and secret yearly religious ceremonies, to honor Demeter and Persephone). The trial was held on the Areopagus, a rocky outcrop just below and northwest of the Acropolis where a council of elders passed judgement on those accused of capital crimes. Dottore Gianni has seen this outcrop with his very eyes. 
The Areopagus is on the right of my
photo and below the Acropolis, 2007
As a point of reference, the Areopagus is the place where, in the Oresteia of Aeschylus, Orestes is tried for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra. So…Phryne seemed to be about to lose her case when her advocate tore her clothes from her, revealing her in all her astonishing beauty. Whether out of pity, or because it would not do to condemn a priestess of Aphrodite, OR because seeing her in all her splendor rocked their world, Phryne was freed.

Now that’s not a bad lower-case romantic tale!

On now to Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Romantic icon extraordinaire, 
Franz Liszt
and also a man who had several lower-case romances as well. Did you ever see the 1991 film Impromptu? If not you should, a film about the Romantics with a great cast including Hugh Grant as Chopin, Judy Davis as George Sand, Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset, also featuring Emma Thompson and Bernadette Peters (see it just for the cast, for heaven’s sake!) and last but not least Julian Sands as Franz Liszt. It’s a great, over-the-top look at several of the Romantic movement’s most famous figures, as they run roughshod over convention and polite society.

Julian Sands
as Liszt
There is so much to say about Liszt that I will only race through the highlights – the greatest pianist of his generation, inspiring the appellation “Lisztomania,” an expression of the wild responses from audiences at his concerts – he was as close as you get to a rock star in his day; a prolific and innovative composer, inventor of the form known as the symphonic poem (one of which was played by the GSO last Sunday), but also Hungarian rhapsodies, songs, dances (mazurkas, polonaises, waltzes), numerous piano etudes; transcriptions for piano of many works by other composers; and a teacher of many, many pupils. In common with Gounod he composed pieces on the Faust theme – the two Mephisto Waltzes and a Faust Symphony – and also got religion, although much later in life than Gounod, possibly to atone for his drinking and smoking and dangerous liaisons with married women and students.

Whew! I may need to read a biography on him (the Wikipedia article threatens a book-length account, and is a very dull read), or re-visit the film Impromptu, or perhaps Song Without End, an earlier film about Liszt, who is played by Dirk Bogarde, or possibly even the Ken Russell film Lisztomania, in which Liszt is performed by rock star Roger Daltrey (who?).

But for now I’ll just quote Wikipedia’s description of Lisztomania:

Roger Daltrey as Liszt
in Ken Russell's Lisztomania
 “The reception Liszt enjoyed as a result can be described only as hysterical. Women fought over his silk hand-kerchiefs and velvet gloves, which they ripped to shreds as souvenirs. Helping fuel this atmosphere was the artist's mesmeric personality and stage presence. Many witnesses later testified that Liszt's playing raised the mood of audiences to a level of mystical ecstasy.”

and note that Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems were pieces

“of orchestral music in one movement in which some extramusical program provides a narrative or illustrative element. This program may come from a poem, a story or novel, a painting, or another source. The term was first applied by Liszt...because they dealt with descriptive subjects taken from mythology, Romantic literature, recent history or imaginative fantasy…The form was a direct product of Romanticism which encouraged literary, pictorial and dramatic associations in music. It developed into an important form of program music in the second half of the nineteenth century.”

The symphonic poem we were treated to last Sunday is one of the least performed, No. 7, the Festklange. The “fest” in the title refers to Liszt’s wedding to his mistress and already wedded Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein. She thought she had accomplished successfully an annulment of her first marriage, and so did Liszt, but alas, when he arrived the night before his wedding (score of Festklange in hand, no doubt) all set for the ceremony he found to his dismay that the Pope had refused to grant it, and the wedding never took place. We hear none of the bitter disappointment in the music, as it was composed in exuberant expectation of the nuptials. It begins with a festive fanfare and moves between lovely lyrical passages and fiery and exciting portions, including a polonaise in honor of the princess’s Polish roots and a Hungarian recruiting dance tune called a verbunkos, alluding to Liszt’s origins. The orchestra handled the musical twists and turns with confidence, Maestro Tchivzhel was nearly dancing himself as he conducted the work, finishing with a terpsichorean flourish and the work was received warmly by the audience, including Dottore Gianni.

But it leaves this Slav, a sometimes blank Czech, wondering about an alliance between a Pole and a Hungarian. Liszt certainly seems the brunt of a Polish (or Popish?) joke practiced on an unsuspecting Hungarian, or as we called them in a completely non-pc manner, “Hunkies.” 
Scary Lady! 
my Aunt Anna C
In fact this brings Dottore Gianni to recall the “Hunky” weddings he attended as a youth back in Bethlehem, PA. The reception for one of these was held in a place actually named Hungarian Hall – no air conditioning, when the dancing makes you sweat you open the windows and hope for a cool breeze! At this reception I remember being taught the Csárdás (a Hungarian folk dance derived from the verbunkos – see above in my description of Symphonic Poem No. 7 – by my huge Aunt Anna C (for Chenafalsky) whose breadth and artifially painted exceedingly high eyebrows scared the hell out of me. In this instance Anna C “taught” me the dance by flinging me around the dance floor like a sweaty wet rag. I believe I cleaned a cleaned up a good bit of the floor as I ended up sliding across it quite often through the dance – Or did Anna C mop up the floor with me? In this case I felt more like a rubber Czech than a blank one.

Speaking of Hunkies and Poles and Czechs (oh, my!), I should now move on to one of my favorite composers, the famed Slovak Antonin Dvořák, whose 
Symphony No. 8 closed the concert last Sunday.

About Antonin I have already and recently written (in my Bloggo di Musico – Taffanel & Dvořák in the hands of the GSO, 14 January 2013), so I’ll not repeat any biographical notes. Instead we’ll focus on the work performed at the concert. Dvořak wrote nine symphonies in all, the most famous of which is the last, titled “From the New World” and referred to more frequently as The New World Symphony than as No. 9. No. 8 was written in 1889 to celebrate the composer’s election to the Bohemian Academy of Emperor Franz Joseph for the Encouragement of Arts and Literature and sits somewhat in the shadow of No. 9, but for all that it is a bright and cheery piece. For those of you who like that sort of thing, here are the markings of the four movements:

     Allegro con brio
     Allegretto grandioso - Molto vivace
     Allegro ma non troppo 

Caricature of Dvořák -
for the boids?
I was intrigued by the GSO program notes, which got a bit carried away by the “bird” theme of the music. Paul Hyde, author of the notes, quoted Dvořák on the songs of birds: “These are the real masters. Before I die I shall write a fine bird symphony.” Hyde then suggests that Symphony No. 8 is the closest the composer ever came to that plan, and goes on to elaborate on the bird sounds that can be picked up throughout the piece. To Dottore Gianni at least there is a marked difference between the number of bird-like passages Hyde identifies and anything the doctor heard, though Dvořák does make much use of flute and piccolo in the piece. You might say that in Dottore Gianni’s opinion Hyde’s notes are “for the birds (“boids”, if you hail from Brooklyn).

I must say that while I enjoyed the piece I came prepared to place it as the highlight of the concert. While it was well performed and while my Czech nationalism takes second place to no one (well, except maybe to Dvořák, who was ardent in its cause) I must admit that Tchivzhel seemed trying to coax more out of either the music or the musicians or both than was to be had. Therefore, I was most pleased last Sunday with the Liszt…though I won’t characterize my response to it as mania.