Friday, May 31, 2013

It's game on! at the symphony this weekend

Wearing the old-maestro mantle is not composer William Bolcom's style.  In his newest piece, at least, there is no autumnal quality, no mellow summing-up or assumption of an elder-statesman pose. It's just as well his muse is cheeky, given the difficult position classical music occupies in the larger culture. Newly turned 75, Bolcom never seems to have cared for categorical thinking in musical theory or practice. Why should he start now?

Games and Challenges: 'Something Wonderful Right Away received its world premiere Friday night from Time for Three and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by music director Krzysztof Urbanski. The work looks backward only insofar as its inspiration is Bolcom's involvement a half-century ago with the improvisational-theater ideas that led to Second City and many less famous applications of games and spontaneous scenes. It's not about nostalgia, but rather the fresh application of some durable performance ideas.

Applied to music, such theatrical language requires enormous flexibility on the part of the participants, not to mention an ample supply of good material.  It was no surprise to note once again that Time for Three has this quality to spare, but to see such spirited cooperation from the whole orchestra, with no apparent loss in ensemble quality, was heartening. 

Gifted mimes at the start, the ISO musicians entered from the wings, meandering among the chairs, looking about in wonder, merging their initial soundlessness with a soft staccato pulse, then chanting "Indianapolis, and the Acropolis" — sonorous nonsense from a piece by William Walton to verse by Edith Sitwell. If that choice of text was an ironic commentary on depleted meanings of the word "classical" in a contemporary context, it worked:  It set up acceptance that something so absurd as linking the Circle City with a famous ancient hill in Athens might also be something wonderful, and right away, too.

Time for Three, clad in streetwear and behaving like a comical juvenile gang that just happens to play string instruments divinely, dominated the front of the stage after Urbanski's shouted "Play ball!" made clear that even the most free-form games need a few rules. Zach De Pue, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer put forth several virtuoso outbursts amid the foolery in the course of the 25-minute work.

Whether vying for supremacy in a hoedown context or being vaguely soulful in a spoof of high art called "Poetry," Time for Three not only seemed to thoroughly know the work, but also to have come into existence as a band trailing clouds of Bolcomesque glory, just waiting to express it all in "Games and Challenges" in physical comedy and solid musicianship.

William Bolcom and Joan Morris in lobby



Particularly impressive about Bolcom's composition is how well the succession of nine games and challenges fits together.  The theatrical reach of the piece is so broad, with so many gestural and musical components, that one came to it expecting at best a charming mosaic.  But in performance it seemed tightly put together, an oratorio of purposeful fun.  It also struck me as much more than musically off-hand, despite the homage it pays to off-hand art and its rewards. The coherence was of a high order, whether  the course went through the authoritative percussion and brass as king and court in "Diplomacy" or in the hubbub brought to a boil by the woodwinds in "A Gibberish Scherzo."

The piece's fun-loving flow never sounded overcalculated, nor did the parade of staged events seem to thwart what symphony orchestras are all about or give way to musical anarchy in the service of Bolcom's inspiration in the work of Paul Sills, Viola Spolin and Andre Hajdu. One despairs of an eventual sound recording capturing the work as it is meant to be enjoyed, but even in that limited form, the piece has enough integrity and communicative power to win fans far and wide. 

The program's second half was devoted to music of George Gershwin, of whom Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris (they have been in town all week) are seasoned exponents. Awadagin Pratt was on hand as soloist in Rhapsody in Blue, offering a far from crystalline performance that had other virtues. It was ruminative, aggressive and whimsical by turns; there was lots of left-hand emphasis to lend the well-known piece a sense of coming out of native soil, not pulled from the air as the word "rhapsody" often connotes. Gershwin's original transmutation of black American music was genuine and nonexploitative, and we need performances like this one now and then to remind us of that fact.

Urbanski led a polished accompaniment that stayed in rapport with Pratt's sometimes headlong manner. He and the ISO then closed the program with "An American in Paris," presenting an incredibly detailed account of the picturesque score.  Boisterouness and suavity were well balanced against some tender solo playing, chiefly from principal guest concertmaster Alexander Kerr and new principal trumpeter Ryan Beach. Acute rhythmic sensitivity was on display throughout: the soft shuffle of percussion that introduces the plaintive trumpet solo was particularly seductive Friday night. All told, it seems  the fresh vision of a Pole in Indianapolis had something new to bring to An American in Paris.


Phoenix Theatre: Cross-country on two wheels for a meeting of two hearts

Portrayals of old people are hazardous in the theater. Will the signs of decrepitude be so obvious that the performance seems hedged about with a few tricks? Is there a person underneath those handy  gimmicks and mannerisms that readily tempt the actor?

When the playwright is guilty of putting forth a narrow view of aging, actors may have little choice but to accept the constraints, even if the result is caricature. When vibrant individuality is built into the script, however, there's a heavy responsibility to find it, display it and keep the conventional markers of old age from taking over.


That responsibility is fully assumed and triumphantly carried out by Martha Jacobs as Vera, an aging Greenwich Village widow living with feisty independence who abruptly has to respond to the unannounced visit of her footloose bicyclist grandson Leo. Jacobs' success is set up well by the playwright, Amy Herzog,  in 4000 Miles, which entered its penultimate weekend Thursday evening at the Phoenix Theatre.

Come to think of it, old age in real life tends to smother individuality. Voice characteristics become  reduced to a telltale scratchiness, the personality expressed in how we walk subsides into a careful, generic shuffle, hearing loss mutes idiosyncratic ways we have of responding to what's said to us. Jacobs, while mastering such physical characteristics, plus Vera's frustration with her failing memory, finds the sparkle in Vera, a widowed leftist and urban survivor achingly aware that the links to her best years are being snapped one by one.

Herzog's play, a series of vignettes cunningly constructed to keep us eager for the revelations that are sure to come,  avoids making Leo's development in 4000 Miles the result of steady applications of grandmotherly wisdom.  Vera's reliance on old memories and her struggle with new realities don't permit rubber-stamp sympathy with Leo and the way he's chosen to live. She's blunt, untactful and easily irritated.

Under the direction of Bill Simmons, Jacobs and Andrew Martin (Leo) struggle to achieve a difficult rapport, with obstacles including family problems stirred up by his mother. Martin's portrayal of the athletic, self-centered bicyclist all too eager to escape sticky situations amounts to a model of virile charm blended with what Vera identifies as the main problem with men: stupidity.

Sound designer Tim Brickley's choice of recorded interludes includes songs by Woody Guthrie, the patron saint of the romance of drifting. Eager for adventure and the chance to learn new things as long as no one's directing him, Leo finally finds a poignant way to connect with the demands of ordinary life in his new environment.

Many good people lack a moral compass, a deficiency they can't get away with for long — and remain good. Leo is such a person, and the wreck of his relationship with fellow cyclist Bec (touchingly played by Jacqueline Keyes) sends up flares about his hidden desperation.

His attempt at a one-night stand with another woman (given firecracker intensity by Arianne Villareal) fizzles when this garrulous daughter of Chinese immigrants, who now sit atop a "dim sum empire" in San Francisco, discovers she is surrounded by Communist books and memorabilia.  Leo tellingly tries to calm her down by saying  Communism was "like recycling" for his grandmother's generation. At some point, naivete and detachment threaten to send every rolling stone over the brink.

Vera is around to keep that from happening to Leo. Fortunately, this production's finesse and the combination of suspense and pure heart with which Herzog tells her story liberate it from signaling too soon how well she'll manage this unsought assignment.








Thursday, May 30, 2013

Three stalwarts on the storied Chatterbox stage, and a tribute to 'Grew

I took in a good portion of the second set Zach Lapidus' trio played Thursday night at the Chatterbox Jazz Club. The passing street scene outside the decorated front window gradually acquired density and variety, realizing the fabled Massachusetts Avenue vibe.

With Nick Tucker on bass and Greg Artry on drums, pianist Lapidus was in good company — the kind he deservedly attracts on the bandstand with regularity. The first number, familiar-sounding but not anything I could put a name to, showed the spacious command this trio exercises over whatever it sets its mind and heart to.

Artry's roiling solo introduction to the second tune gave no particular hints that the group was about to sail into Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are." A favorite of jazzmen since the beboppers, the standard is typically taken at a frisky pace. This performance was no exception, but Lapidus and his mates unpacked the song as though it came with instructions reading "Some assembly required, batteries not included."

Lapidus treated some of the wistful rising phrases of the song to a dizzying series of sequences. Following a well-grounded bass solo, the rendition gradually moved into a long coda, with just hints of that drooping tag applied to it since the '40s, mainly in Tucker's line. Artry and Lapidus kept the performance highly charged right to the end.

Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013) 
The romantic mood settled in for Ellington's "Solitude," which followed.  The tender treatment was sustained throughout, and a hush seemed to fall over the aptly dubbed Chatterbox.  I suspect that's rare, but I admit I'm not a club regular.

The pianist noted the passing yesterday of a post-bop master of his instrument, Mulgrew Miller, dead at 57 from a major stroke. The trio chose a fast-paced blues for a tribute, but not so fast as to lose its inherent dignity.  The drive was uppermost, though you can always count on a Lapidus blues to reach for something essential while avoiding the hackneyed. Tucker's solo was masterly, and, following full-chorus exchanges with the drummer, his colleagues sat out as Artry took a fiery, ingeniously inflected solo.

It amounted to a great eulogy in an idiom that never grows old. Miller's adept work (on record, at least) seemed to acquire greater stature in the past decade as he shed some of his early decorative playing. His live MAXJAZZ CDs repay repeated listening, with Derrick Hodge on bass and Karriem Riggins on drums. I'll mention just one example from a recording made at Yoshi's in Oakland, Calif., that I listened to again a couple of days ago when I learned of the severity of his stroke. Because of its witty lyrics, "Comes Love" can easily be thought to require a singer to make any kind of effect. But this piano-centered rendition brims with great ideas, all of them laced with humor, as if Miller were channeling the lines that mention one fixable annoyance after another, contrasting them with "love, (about which) nothing can be done."

Miller's birthplace was amusingly misidentified in the fifth edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz, the encyclopedic critical survey of jazz recordings written by Richard Cook and Brian Morton. It's fun to think of this elegant, soulful pianist as having been a product of "Greenwood, Minnesota" (no such place exists), but Miller was in fact a child of the Delta, and that probably allowed him to banish the merely pretty playing he fell into at times. Greenwood, Mississippi, with Memphis the musical lodestone to the north, proved to be indelible in a career cut off too soon.






Top Ten Reasons Arts Administrators Leave Their Jobs

The Indianapolis arts community has been stunned by resignations at the top of three local arts organizations announced within the past few days.
Two of these have been on the administrative side, one on the artistic.

What follows is a purely hypothetical list, not to be connected with the departures of Kirk Trevor from the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, Steven Stolen from Indiana Repertory Theatre, or John Pickett from Indianapolis Opera. (Although the list focuses on the woes of running an arts organization [I use "Administrator" as a generic job title], some items on this Letterman-style list potentially have lots to do with resignations on the artistic side as well.)

10.  To save money, the board eliminates one or more staff positions and expects Administrator to carry out those duties, too.

9. Board blames Administrator for failure to secure major grants.

8. Some of the blame in #9 is generated by annoyance at Administrator for seeming to expect board members to contribute more.

7. Board divides into factions and Administrator must attempt to please two or more cabals.

6. Administrator chooses the wrong side in such a struggle, usually (understandably) the one more loyal to him/her.

5. Administrator  and artistic director get into irreconcilable conflict, and board decides one of them has to go.

4. Administrator and artistic director get along too well, so board faults Administrator for not vetoing more of the artistic director's ideas, which are generally assumed to be less practical.

3. "Mission drift" on board leads to pressure on Administrator always to go with the most popular programming, regardless of how much or little it fulfills the organization's mission.

2. Snobs gain control of board and resist Administrator's efforts at outreach and broadening the fan base.

1. Stress caused by any combination of the above is so aggravating that even if Administrator is managing conflicts and contradictions pretty well, burnout results.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Kirk Trevor will retire as Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra music director after 25 years

After a quarter-century leading Indianapolis' other professional orchestra, Kirk Trevor will step down as music director and principal conductor of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra at the end of the 2014-15 season.

Executive director Elaine Eckhart made the announcement Wednesday afternoon, adding that Trevor will take the title of conductor emeritus after the next two seasons are completed. Among his accomplishments in the time remaining will be to conduct the premiere of a new piece to be commissioned within the next year "to reflect on the ICO's growth as an ensemble and to celebrate the artistic future of the ICO as it begins a season in the new Schrott Center for the Arts" at Butler University.

The announcement launches the search for Trevor's successor, beginning in July.  Up to two years to find a new music director will be needed; the process  will include final candidates conducting concerts during the 2014-15 season. Only three seasons in the orchestra's history have taken place without Trevor at the helm.


A native of the United Kingdom, Trevor was trained as a cellist, winning honors at the Guildhall School of  Music in London. In the U.S., he also served as music director of the Knoxville (Tenn.) Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 2003, and since 2000, has held a similar position with the Missouri Symphony. He is extensively represented as a conductor on disc and has long been involved in the training of conductors.

ISO closes its classical, pops seasons with a good deal

A major local supporter of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has made tickets at a reduced price available for the final three weekends of the 2012-13 season.

A gift from Printing Partners, a donor to the ISO's annual fund since 1999 and, since 2006, title sponsor of the orchestra's Pop Series, has allowed the ISO to offer all remaining tickets to May 31-June 1 and Jun 7-8 classical concerts and the June 14-15 pops concerts at $20 each.

The offer is available from noon Thursday, May 30, until midnight June  9. It applies to newly purchased tickets for concerts only on the three weekends mentioned above.

How to get a ticket in exchange for a government-issued portrait of Old Hickory? Visit the ISO's website or call the Hilbert Circle Theatre box office, (317) 639-4300. Outside Indianapolis, call (800) 366-8457.

Changes come to Indianapolis Opera


Still adjusting to a lingering recovery from the 2008 recession, Indianapolis Opera today announced some top administrative changes, chiefly the resignation of executive director John C. Pickett to take on a new role as consultant.

Carol Baker, active in arts adminstration for many years with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Center for the Performing Arts, has been on the opera company staff since last August.  She becomes interim general manager, overseeing a budget of about $2 million for the 2013-14 season. The company's 35-member board will complete a strategic plan before setting up a search committee to find Pickett's successor, she said.

Baker sounded optimistic notes repeatedly in an interview with me Wednesday afternoon."We have a really strong board now," she said, "and we've undertaken new strategic planning to propel us into a stronger position. We've been through some difficult times, but I think we're in an upswing."

Pickett served 16 years as Indianapolis Opera's executive director.  During his tenure, the 39-year-old company acquired a new performing and rehearsal home, the Basile Opera Center in the 4000 block of North Pennsylvania Street. Three of the upcoming season's four productions  — Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, Weill's The Threepenny Opera, Britten's Albert Herring and Puccini's Girl of the Golden West — will take place there. Season subscriptions to the all-20th-century season are on sale now: More information is at www.indyopera.org. Single tickets go on sale Sept. 1.

Returning a call Wednesday from his home in Columbus, Pickett, 55, said that the consultancy arrangement was his idea. "I didn't want my departure to be disruptive," he said. "I knew I could help with donor relationships, the cash flow is good and I feel the company is turning the corner."

Pickett expressed high praise for James Caraher, the company's artistic director since 1995, and Baker, whom he called "one of the best, most well-rounded arts administrators I've worked with."

He said he expects his work as consultant will conclude by Dec. 31, and he plans to turn his attention more to volunteer work with the Columbus mayor's office getting statewide cultural-district status for downtown Columbus and helping his partner, Jeff Baker, run his gift store there.

Baker said her charge from the board includes helping with restructuring and "aligning the Opera with what the community needs and wants. How can we help it grow? Relevance is key."

Working with neighborhood organizations on events at the Basile Opera Center and using the Indianapolis Opera Ensemble in ways beyond presenting set programs are among the ideas being explored.

Having Caraher become "more involved in telling our story in ways that we haven't done before" is another avenue Baker will be developing. "He can be the proverbial face of the company," she said. "He can lead conversations with donor prospects.  When he talks about opera, he can light up the room."






Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The ISO and its star resident trio open themselves up to "something wonderful right away"

In recent years, Jennifer Higdon and Chris Brubeck have written wonderful pieces for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and Time for Three. But the latest one,  William Bolcom's  "Games and Challenges: 'Something Wonderful Right Away,'" perhaps best meets the genre-busting string trio on the group's  own turf. Comfortable interaction with audiences and collaborators, freedom from rootedness in the classical tradition, at its best when the synapses between spontaneity and preparation are firing:  Tf3 seems made for such a work.
William Bolcom plays games with ISO.

The new concerto, to be given its premiere May 31 and June 1 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, allows the prize-winning composer to reach back to his nourishing roots in musical theater and cabaret. It also draws sustenance from one of Bolcom's fellow students of the prolific French master Darius Milhaud, Andre Hajdu, author of several volumes "exploring the creative tension between limits and freedom in improvisation," as Bolcom's program note puts it. Here are some of the explicit, more amusing ways "Games and Challenges"  explores that tension.
  • A movement at "Spring Training Tempo" features mimed ball-tossing as musicians exchange material after having entered the hall chanting a few words from the Walton-Sitwell piece called "Facade 2."  The text? "Indianapolis, and the Acropolis."
  • Instructions for a "Gibberish Scherzo" include these reminders: "Remember to converse with others using your 'gibberish'" and "KEEP EVERYTHING FROM GETTING LOUD."
  • Challenge #3, "Diplomacy," sets up byplay between a Comedian and a King (played by four horns), running into  trouble when the Comedian "steps over the line, making musically obscene gestures."
  •  Game #5, "Slow and easy wins the race," tips the balance of a word-heavy score all the way toward verbal directions, including this triumphant conclusion to a process it would be a shame to describe: "The last one left ascending to the highest note wins, probably always the piccolo."

Retired after more than 30 years on the music faculty of the University of Michigan, Bolcom long ago wrote two "operas for actors" with lyricist Arnold Weinstein.  Both were directed by Paul Sills, whose most famous creation is the Second City troupe in Chicago.  Sills' mother, Viola Spolin, wrote "Improvisation for the Theatre," considered a classic of instruction in what has become a major part of an actor's education.

Having recently listened to a recording of "Casino Paradise," one of the Bolcom-Weinstein collaborations, I was struck by how much the goings-on really need to be seen. As excellent as Bolcom's music is, this piece is properly described as "opera for actors."  Bolcom can be a dangerously theatrical composer, yet it's a safe bet the new piece will not be musically thin because of its theatrical bent, but all the richer for it.

"Asking an orchestra to improvise isn't generally a good idea,"  Bolcom told me by phone last week. "It's a very time-intensive thing." That's why the groundwork for "Games and Challenges"  was laid with the participating musicians back in January, when the composer came to town and supervised his score's introduction to the ISO and Time for Three. Of course, Zach De Pue, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer have been studying the music fairly consistently for months in the midst of an active touring schedule playing their own music.

"I was very concerned whether it was working at all," Bolcom admitted about the composition's playability, given the strict limits on rehearsal time for new music under which American orchestras work.  "But I'm very happy about it.  The orchestra was open, and they are hip to it."
Since Bolcom intends to have the work performed by Tf3 with other orchestras, he faced the challenge of making the score intelligible beyond the premiere contingent.  "I had to find a way to write it so it could be done without much rehearsal —something that a non-hip orchestra would be able to do.  It was the hardest writing I've ever done."

Bolcom has devoted much of his performing and creative life to taking the starch out of the musical  profession. A conspicuous sideline over the past four decades has been duo performance of the American popular song — before, during and after the heyday of Tin Pan Alley — with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris.

Orthodoxy in musical training is on the wane, he is pleased to report. "We're getting over it,"  Bolcom said.  "I probably had a lot to do with it. I got dinged for it, and I  endured.  I always hated to be restricted by other people's notions."

He added that his biggest influence as a teacher has been "to help people find out what they are.  If you played in a garage band, why isn't that in your music? It should go in your music," he said.

Bolcom also encouraged his composition students to stay active as performers, as was common practice for centuries before the last one. "Keep up your instrument, I'd tell them."

There is nothing remotely professorial about one of Bolcom's recent composing-performing efforts, a YouTube video of him singing and playing "Aren't You Ashamed?" an original protest song written in the wake of the U.S. Senate's refusal to pass a bill requiring universal background checks as a condition of gun purchases.


"I've had pretty positive reaction, and 7,000 hits," he reported.  "I was channeling Woody Guthrie in that song." Not a name high on most composers' lists of influences, probably.








Thirteen Ways of Looking at "The Rite of Spring" (on the eve of its 100th birthday)

(With apologies to Wallace Stevens, Igor Stravinsky, and readers who may wonder what's the point of apologizing to dead people)  


1. The original ballet version of "The Rite of Spring" takes place in a tropical jungle.
My initial impression of the ballet's scenario was hard to shake, because the first recording of it I knew as a teenager had a reproduction of Henri Rousseau's "The Snake Charmer" on the cover, with a dark-skinned flute player beguiling serpents in a chlorophyll-intensive setting. Remember how we used to listen to LPs staring at the cover art? No wonder that's how I pictured the "Rite" milieu as I listened to the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux, on RCA Victor.


2. Maestro accepts the benefits of fame, but never the vehicle.
 Monteux, who conducted the premiere, suggested to the composer that he arrange a concert version. Stravinsky readily agreed, according to the conductor, thus putting the work in the symphonic repertoire and leading to Monteux's feeling constrained to perform it more than he wanted to. But it made his reputation, as impresario Serge Diaghilev predicted it would.  He never really liked the "Rite," telling an audience at the Eastman School of Music in the 1950s: "I detested it. I still detest it."


3. The ballet involves peekaboo costumes with a Hollywood touch.
Another early recording I own could have misled many because of its cover art. The jacket photo of  Ernest Ansermet's recording with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande shows a burly almost bare-chested fellow (he's wearing a Tarzan-style leopard-skin garment with dangling chains) sporting a forked beard holding aloft a bare-breasted maiden as if she is the Chosen One being carried to her sacrifice. His armpits are shaved, and he looks ready to toss her into a pit. The scenario's finale makes her selection an honor, and she dances herself to death.


4. Speaking of cinema, the best thing about "Igor Stravinsky & Coco Chanel" (2009) is the movie's opening re-creation of that famous "Rite of Spring" riot.  
It captures the shock of a high-society audience on May 29, 1913, encountering a piece that overturned choreographic and musical convention in one fell swoop — "a world in which a 'civilized' aesthetic often exhausted itself in dying affabilities," as Pierre Boulez once put it. Performances in the starring roles are excellent and the film looks good throughout, but nothing matches the splendid chaos of the first 10-15 minutes.



5. "The Rite of Spring" opens with a high-register bassoon solo on which everything depends. Bassoonists have learned to make this solo sound both easy and authoritative, which is good. Stravinsky had a knack for creating openings that function as distinctive calls to attention. Go have a listen to the start of "Symphonies of Wind Instruments,"  "Symphony of Psalms" and "Symphony in C" (each of which uses the word "symphony" to mean a different thing, by the way). Even when he sets out a simple introduction, as in "The Soldier's Tale," you sense something interesting is going to unfold. Minor works, too, like the "Tango," seem to take you right into a special world.


6. Stravinsky eventually embraces a system he had long considered alien because he likes the attitude displayed by one example.
In 1951, his influential secretary, Robert Craft, played for him  a tape of the premiere of Boulez's "Polyphonie X." The next year he composed his first piece ("Cantata") using the technique developed by his rival for top position in 20th-century music, Arnold Schoenberg, of whom Boulez was an advanced (and sometimes critical) adherent. Craft wrote that it was the "nose-thumbing force of the work that impressed the composer of The Rite of Spring, who may have been reminded of his own 1913 premiere, for Polyphonie X was at times all but drowned out by the laughter, shouts, hoots, and whistling."


7. "The Rite of Spring" puts to rest the notion that important modern music needs a long time to win over the public.
By 1914, concert performances of the score went over well in Moscow and London. World War I knocked high culture into a cocked hat, of course, but by the 1920s, the "Rite" had a permanent place in the repertory, despite its technical demands and huge orchestra, which it has never lost.

Boulez felt the need to deny the sentiment expressed in a New York panel discussion he convened in 1970 that good new art takes 50 years to be properly appreciated. He put forward two examples, according to his biographer, Joan Peyser: "The Rite of Spring" and Schoenberg's "Erwartung," one immediately popular, the other not. The moderator of the discussion ignored Boulez's comment, repeating fondly the modernist bromide that real quality in serious new art has to struggle a long time for recognition.



8. The public life of "The Rite of Spring," as of tomorrow, runs precisely a century, from 1913 to 2013.
Wallace Stevens wrote "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and later denied the musical idea of variations was useful in understanding it. He was not being defensive; the poem is too disjunct to support the analogy. Why 13 ways? Possibly to ward off superstitious resistance to the poem; blackbirds and the number 13 both betoken bad luck in Eurocentric cultures. Similarly these, my 13 ways of looking at the "Rite," are disjunct and sometimes contradict each other.

Stravinsky's perpetual rival Schoenberg had an acute fear of the number 13. Yet his birth and death dates both include that number.  He respelled the name of the biblical leader Aaron as "Aron" so there would not be 13 letters in the title of his opera "Moses und Aron." The only other famous "Aron" in 20th-century musical history is the purported middle name of Elvis Presley. This was Elvis' frequent spelling of the name that appears on his birth certificate as "Aaron." An odd parallel, isn't it? Two seminal musical artists finding something disturbing about the name "Aaron." Either way, if Presley's name is given in conventional legal form with the middle initial, guess how many letters that totals.


9. "The Rite of Spring" is without rights as a piece of music, and the composer should perhaps be strung up.
 The Boston Herald published some indignant doggerel in 1924 that questioned Stravinsky's right to compose such a work "and then to call it Rite of Spring, / The season when on joyous wing / The birds melodious carols sing / And harmony's in everything."


10.  There is nothing sweet and soft about the onset of the season in the true setting of "The Rite of Spring."
This is not the spring associated, authentically or not, with names attached to certain works by Vivaldi, Schumann and Beethoven. The season whose return is celebrated in the "Rite" is "the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking," the composer told Robert Craft.


11. Many listeners (Stevens' "bawds of euphony," perhaps?) have grumbled about the lack of melody in "The Rite of Spring," but it contains at least nine traditional Russian melodies.
A musicologist specializing in Russian music, Richard Taruskin, identified every one of them in a 1994 scholarly gathering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and drove the point home by writing: "Far from the purely intuitive abstract music Stravinsky later claimed here to have written, there had never been a music more completely Russian in manner or attitude."



12. If you can imagine the joy greeting spring's return after the harsh Russian winter,  you'll hear it throughout "The Rite of Spring."
"My object was to present a number of scenes of earthly joy and celestial triumph as understood by the Slavs,"  wrote Nicolas Roerich, an authority on the ancient Slavs and collaborator with Stravinsky on the ballet scenario, in a letter to Diaghilev. Stravinsky quickly tired of association with  Roerich's semimystical assertions, but he was trying to position himself in the modernist mainstream, and suggestions that his revolutionary score was steeped in "the Georgics of prehistory" (Jean Cocteau's phrase) impeded his progress. Still, 100 years after it was new music both acclaimed and assailed for its violence, we can rightly hear it in an exalted frame of mind.

13. Forces of darkness  and light will forever coexist in "The Rite of Spring."
As Stevens' stanza VIII says: "I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know."





Saturday, May 25, 2013

Indiana Wind Symphony season finale: "Trumpetissimo!"


The title's Italian suffix and exclamation point gave fair warning that a display of "extreme trumpet" would be a major feature of Saturday night's Indiana Wind Symphony concert at the Palladium in Carmel.

And that's what guest soloist Allen Vizzutti provided in both halves of the program. The Seattle-based musician's most expansive showcase brought the opening set up to intermission. It was "The Rising Sun," an evocative concerto for trumpet and concert band inspired by Vizzutti's visits to Japan.

In the second half, Del Staigers' arrangement of the virtuoso chestnut "The Carnival of Venice" put the soloist's agility and accuracy to the test in variations on the familiar theme. An encore of the final variation included the deft showman's trick of rotating the horn slowly until he was briefly playing the horn upside down, pushing the valves up.

This seemed wholly appropriate to Vizzuti's brisk tour of a piece that dependably emphasizes a trumpeter's flair and rapid articulation. More questionable was the hyperbole threaded throughout a long cadenza  in the finale of "The Rising Sun." The fleetness of the solo  part and the accompaniment worked well-synchronized to characterize shinkansen, the "bullet train" that lends its name to the last movement. When it came to the cadenza, however, the soloist's outsized display of registral leaps and figuration so swift that pitch was sacrificed tended to spoil the picture  of "one of the world's fastest and safest trains." At this point, the performance nearly went off the rails.

The first two movements got some of their distinct character thanks to the use of different trumpets. Vizzuti first brought out the sweet, plaintive nature of the piccolo trumpet, with the solo nicely ornamented, in a portrait of the iconic Mount Fuji. The atmospheric percussion introducing the middle movement ("The Temples of Kyoto") framed a meditative solo on flugelhorn, attractively set against the ensemble, restrained and warm in tone as conducted by founder and musical director Charles P. Conrad.

When Vizzuti was not onstage, the best parts of the program had vitality without the superlative connotations of the concert title. James Barnes' "Symphonic Overture" didn't excite large expectations, but Gustav Holst's First Suite in E-flat for Military Band had the poise and sturdy character that are proper to it, despite some scrambling to stay together in the Intermezzo.

Otherwise, the only lesser-known work to come close to the Holst in its eloquent use of wind-symphony instrumentation in concisely laid-out material was Joseph Turrin's "Scarecrow Overture." The composer's arrangement of his chamber-opera overture seemed to have no wasted motion about it, and the performance danced merrily.

Despite the composer's invitation (in a program note) to "imagine Bernstein, Gershwin and Stravinsky in a convertible speeding down a highway," nobody in particular seemed to be driving Adam Gorb's "Awayday." It was a cheeky but rather faceless piece of work.

David N. Baker, revered head of jazz studies at Indiana University, was on hand to receive the IWS' annual James B. Calvert Award, given to an outstanding music educator.

Jacques  Press' energetic Wedding Dance from "Hasseneh" ended the concert with a bravura air of celebration and a shouted "hey!," eminently suitable for sending this all-volunteer ensemble into its summer break.







Friday, May 24, 2013

Going down to St. James Infirmary: Mourning as self-assertion

Spent a lovely evening at the Jazz Kitchen as the Tuesday night shrimp boil resumed its place on the schedule. A neo-trad band dubbed the Red Hot Whiskey Sippers provided the music, and I enjoyed sinking into the environment of "St. James Infirmary Blues" in particular. For bands that feel comfortable accessing this music, the song invites adherence to Lester Young's advice to soloists: "Tell me a story."

That's what trombonist Rich Dole and guitarist Bill Lancton did especially well in their solos. The melody seems to imply a narrative, though the story the words tell (some singers still do the piece, but not on this occasion) is oblique and somewhat mysterious. Another odd thing is that while the tune is blues-saturated, it's not really a blues at all. It's in four-line stanzas in the shape of a ballad, so it seems to call up its own world, through which runs a narrative thread.

The version that brought the song its popularity was recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1929. It's got a slightly jaunty feel that cuts across its mood of lament. As in most musical matters, Armstrong is unerring in choice of tempo and in his vocal and trumpet solos. The world of "St. James Infirmary" presents a sobering view of the conventions of mourning to think about this Memorial Day weekend. Here's what that view seems to be:

Speaker/singer goes to a neighborhood hospital, and his emotional reaction to viewing his loved one's body "stretched out on a long white table" is almost hidden in the terse description "so sweet, so cold, so fair." The next verse quickly transitions from the scene to the mourner's attempt to pull himself together and assert his own unique charms:

Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be;
She can look this wide world over,
She'll never find a sweet man like me.*

In the third and final verse, the lover's thoughts are still on death, but they dwell on his own. He describes the fine clothes he wants to be laid out in and ends with the imperative "Put a 20-dollar gold piece on my watch chain / So the boys'll know I died standing pat."

A well chosen phrase borrowed from poker, "standing pat" means playing the hand you've been dealt. The message is that for this guy, standing pat was a good outlook on life and brought a certain amount of prosperity. It also suggests an integrity that helps mitigate the conceited tone of the second half of the second verse.

Are there any other songs or poems that react to loss of a loved one with such an assertion of ego? It doesn't seem in good taste, but it stands to reason some mourners have felt this way in real life. After all, a serious loss is a threat to one's identity and sense of wholeness. Various coping strategies tend to come into play, including some that aren't fit for polite discourse.

Is it surprising that a need to shore up one's self-esteem would follow a lover's death? So strong is that desire in this song that the dead lover is imagined as searching the world over to find the equivalent of the couple's surviving half  — and failing.  Not a socially acceptable attitude for a mourner, but somehow it rings true. So, a real question for readers: Does anyone know of another song or poem that approaches what "St. James Infirmary Blues" accomplishes so vividly and concisely?

 *In a later recording of the song, Armstrong — dependably at one with his material — inserts after this line in his speaking voice: "Ha-ha — braggin'!"


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Money Honey: What happened to Daisy Buchanan on the way from Fitzgerald to Luhrmann?

Though I riskily admitted to being a dilettante in yesterday's post, I'm not going to go all-out and comment on areas I'm not well-versed in. I have too much respect for the accumulated knowledge and insight of (to mention only local examples) Chris Lloyd, Ed Johnson-Ott and Matthew Socey to set up as a movie critic.

This post about "The Great Gatsby" is justified mainly as a follow-up to May 7's "Cashing in on a 'voice full of money': The promise of Luhrmann's 'Gatsby.'" Having seen the film just last night, I came away disappointed that the line in the novel that intrigued me — Gatsby's description of Daisy Buchanan, "Her voice is full of money" — is not among the many of Fitzgerald's words quoted in the movie.

The angle from which I came at the May 7 post was my interest in how adaptations of novels work with the raw material on stage or screen. Particularly when one major character says something about another, how does the adapter use that? In this case, the disappointing answer is: Not at all, unless you read really deeply into Carey Mulligan's Southern-belle portrayal as Daisy.

I think I know why neither Gatsby's revealing interpretation of his beloved's enduring charm nor narrator Nick Carroway's revelatory gloss on that remark makes it into the movie: Luhrmann's take on Daisy is too wrapped up in Gatsby's fantasy about her. Not until the end are we allowed to absorb how corrupting Daisy's background and its values are to her character.  Some other famous words about Daisy and her husband Tom — Nick's description of the couple's carelessness and destructiveness — do make it into the screenplay, but they stick out without much context.

The beautiful thing about Gatsby's concise, poetic description of Daisy is that it is so open-ended from a moral point of view. Is it in praise or criticism of her?  In Fitzgerald, it is both. Gatsby loves Daisy in part because she represents the life of seemingly effortless wealth he covets. Everyone in the novel, including Nick Carroway, is in love with money. A beautiful woman who seems to have a voice "full of money" is thus inherently desirable. But to the degree such a voice is surfeited with money and what it can buy, there's not much room for anything else. And the part of Gatsby's character that demands something more is thus destined to go unfulfilled.

That's why the omission of that line (and Nick's reflection upon it) seems a serious flaw in Luhrmann's often poignant spectacle.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

And worth every penny, too: The mixed pleasure of being an unpaid writer


As a newcomer to the blogosphere, I'm grateful for the warm welcome I got on May 20 from Hope Baugh, a veteran in that arena (Indy Theatre Habit). One sentence in particular gave me a fresh perspective that will be useful as I continue: "Even if he doesn't have to worry about earning a living, Jay may get tired of writing for free once the rush of writing whatever he wants to write wears off."

That's certainly a realistic prospect, especially daunting when set against a personal history of nearly 42 years of writing for pay. Deep in my memory lies the thundering judgment of the inimitable Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): "No man except a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

The literary-minded do not brush off lightly the stamp of authority that clings to just about everything Dr. Johnson said, even when he seems to have been wrong (viz., his famous dismissal of female preachers). But a context needs to be put on this particular remark that may be helpful to us self-directed bloggers who make our "content" available without cost to all: Johnson struggled for many years to make a living in London, and was well-acquainted with the desperate need to make writing pay.

One of the great critic-lexicographer's most distinguished biographers, Walter Jackson Bate, described as nearly unique among literary critics Johnson's "direct knowledge of  what we might call the underworld of publishing and writing — of the large number of people, often living in extreme poverty, who did writing and publishing work in order simply to stay alive in the most rudimentary way."

London's Grub Street provided the delicious name for this scene — an actual place where writers trying to position themselves between patronage and entrepreneurial status often lived in unheated garrets. So I choose to interpret Johnson's remark as a warning that writers shouldn't allow themselves to be taken advantage of by exercising their skills freely and assigning the results no market value. Don't set yourselves up for starvation, his advice could be put.

I'm comfortable with the quite different situation of today's blogosphere, where being gullible is less of a danger, where the more pertinent charge that can be laid against unpaid bloggers is that they're doing it all out of vanity. That imputation hurts a bit, because I've decided to continue commenting on the breadth of areas assigned to me at the Star. Few people can claim to be equally conversant with theater, dance jazz and classical music. I may also let fly with a piece on literature or film, too.  Oh, the nerve!

I can only offer in defense my  lifelong dilettantism. The word "dilettante" is in bad repute, sort of parallel to "amateur." Both words are rooted directly in the love of some activity, usually artistic. Directors of amateur groups have learned to substitute the word "volunteer," which sounds nobler, more self-sacrificing.  What's love got to do with that? Best not to say, if you have to use the word "amateur."

No substitute has come along to replace the implications of irresponsible dabbling, shallow engagement and knowledge that are wrapped up in the word "dilettante." But I choose to adhere to its original Italian roots in "delight," and years ago was pleased to see (in the booklet with an LP set)  a reproduction of the dedication page  of the 1712 edition of Antonio Vivaldi's "L'Estro Armonico" concertos, boldly headlined: "Alli Dilettanti di Musica" (to the lovers of music).

Ah, my people! I thought. It's not my fault that the word has declined in status over three centuries. It's happened to many other words as well: A knave was once merely a male servant, "silly" originally meant blessed.

So it's time that I here and now embrace being a dilettante. And dilettantism will inevitably be an aspect of this blog, whether favorably regarded or otherwise. If that makes me a silly knave, that's just something I'll have to add to the list of humbling labels attached to me.

It will be harder to live with  "blockhead," though, whatever the 18th century's foremost content provider may have thought.



Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Icarus Ensemble: Their romance

By the time the men of the Icarus Ensemble got to their amiably churning arrangement of the Rodgers-Hart chestnut "My Romance"  in the second set Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen, it was clear their blended musical backgrounds have by now coalesced so well around a fresh band identity that they don't "need a castle rising in Spain" or any of the other desiderata the song lists.

Their romance is with the music they make together — three of them colleagues in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the other two on the music faculty of Butler University. In its six-year existence, Icarus has put together a distinctive book of originals and arrangements. The songs are well-crafted, but not staid: full of surprises of phrasing and shifts of momentum and texture.

The group has to schedule carefully around the prior obligations of ISO members Peter Hansen (bass), Dean Franke (violin) and Mark Ortwein (reeds) and Butler teachers (with other performing demands, too) Gary Walters (piano) and Jon Crabiel (drums).

Icarus' total of 16 appearances so far at the Jazz Kitchen is indicative of the fan base it has built up. The reputation has been enhanced as well by three public performances with orchestra — the latest last weekend with the Wabash Valley Youth Symphony in Lafayette under the direction of David Glover, who is also on the ISO's conducting staff.

With Hansen's son Ian recording the most recent JK gig, Icarus is building up the focus it needs to enter the recording studio later this year and make the best use of the time there.  "We finally have the resources together to do this," Hansen told me before the second set.

With such catchy originals as "Lunar Love"  and "Circle Dance" in its book, Icarus is in a position to grab widespread attention. Improvisation is held within a framework of ear-catching melodies and those glittering bits that the pop world calls "hooks." You're likely to find as many sudden pauses and winking transitions as in Joseph Haydn — and here's hoping many Icarus fans are familiar with both jazz and Haydn.

The bandstand balance seemed a little off Monday night. It's clear Icarus has given lots of attention to its unique blend, especially given the large proportion of arco playing by Hansen. So it's likely that a good mix will be achieved in the recording studio, bringing up Franke's violin  more, both in unison with Hansen and Ortwein's bass clarinet or sax as well as when the violinist is playing in counterpoint. It would be good to hear that balance in live performance, too.

The Icarus romance with music seems genuine and well-founded. Hansen compared his extracurricular Icarus work to what he learned to appreciate more when his "day job" was imperiled last fall. "You have to think of the joy of music" amid challenges like the ISO lockout and the musicians' need to accept deep contract cuts, he said.

 "When we were playing on the Circle," he recalled, "I got so appreciative of all my colleagues in the ISO. They all got into this because they love it, and there's a lot that's challenging in the ISO. But as Tim Adams (former ISO timpanist) used to say, 'Don't let them take the joy away.'"

The way Icarus makes music shows that the band has plenty of joy in reserve.











Monday, May 20, 2013

Tentative guidelines for visitors to this blog


As you probably noticed if you frequently visit this blog (thanks so much!), I devoted two posts to Dance Kaleidoscope's  "Barefoot Renegades" program. This kind of occasional "slice-and-dice" approach to performances fulfills  one of my aims: to make "Jay Harvey Upstage"   different from my Star reviews, interviews and features. There, for instance, I typically covered all of a program in one published story, unless its very diversity forced omission of one element or another.

Part of the personal stamp I hope to put on this blog will involve delaying remarks on one or more parts of the same performance, or coming back to a performance for the sake of a topical post.  Also, I may not always observe the loose requirements that govern making a proper first paragraph, or "lede," as newspaper custom has termed it. That's a hard habit to break, but I'll work at it.

In the  Dance Kaleidoscope program I wrote about Saturday, my post focus was deliberately on the brand-new piece, "Les Noces,"  and the one from the guest choreographer, Brock Clawson. I was going after the program's novelty for local audiences. Yesterday's post allowed me to isolate some of the fascinating aspects of "Afternoon of a Faun." I liked the program's other piece, the duet from "Electric Counterpoint"; I just have nothing worth saying  about it now. There will be an occasional gap of this kind, which I hope will not be interpreted as a snub.

In the spirit of adventure and welcoming your feedback, here are a few caveats about checking in with this blog:
  • I will sometimes be wrong.
  • Being wrong will sometimes mean getting facts wrong.  This is bad, and should be brought to my attention for immediate correction.
  • Sometimes "being wrong" could mean that  your interpretation differs from mine.  That spells "success" in my book, to the extent that I'd like to encourage the arts community (let's be optimistic and call it "the vast arts community") to talk about public expressions of opinion on the arts hereabouts and add their own.
  • Sure, I'm after readership, but not routine endorsement. I like to imagine folks saying, "Did you read what Harvey had to say about this?"  And to suppose they're also discussing what Aldridge, Alvarez, Coyne, Shoger, Harry, Baugh, et al. had to say! And not to decide that so-and-so is an idiot or a genius, but to examine why they agree or disagree with him/her.
  • I'm energized by the arts, but that doesn't mean I'm in love with my opinions.  I am in love with my experience of the arts, however, and hope to make it better all the  time.  I've changed my mind about performances from time to time; sometimes I'm only dimly aware of the shift. The easiest way for me to check this is to reread an old saved clipping when I've pulled out an LP or CD (where I've tucked it into the sleeve or booklet). Occasionally I've been so annoyed by what I had to say upon hearing the recording again that I've torn up the old review, embarrassed by something harsh or dense or dull or petty I wrote long ago. It's silly to be embarrassed when no one else is around, but it happens. And that's better than to be embarrassed in public, but that will happen too — especially in today's maniacally interconnected world.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Revisiting "Barefoot Renegades": "Afternoon of a Faun"

Zach Young in "Afternoon of a Faun"
Crafting an erotic work of art without coarseness cannot be easy in today's vulgarized cultural environment. And to do so in a piece strongly implying autoeroticism is even more daring.

David Hochoy has achieved this in "Afternoon of a Faun," a 2008 work revived for this weekend's "Barefoot Renegades" program at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Using Debussy's music originally composed for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1912, Hochoy removes the mythological context of Vaslav Nijinsky's original and also seems to skirt the focus on narcissism of Jerome Robbins' 1953 setting for the New York City Ballet.

A glowing white Pilates ball serves as a totem for the magic of growing self-awareness in the sexual realm that grabs all but the unluckiest human beings.  Hochoy concentrates on one male dancer's relationship to that ball, which is so intimately engaged with by Zach Young that the audience rightly sees the exercise prop elevated to a symbol for all potential relationships that promise fulfillment. The central figure is not doomed to remain locked within himself; the onset of sexual arousal in a maturing person is the best kind of gateway drug, the work seems to say.

Hochoy's choreography only hints at frustration in a life process often loaded with it. The three women who enter the scene (Jillian Godwin, Mariel Greenlee and Caitlin Negron) have a nice ambiguity.  They are both distractions from the solo dancer's self-absorption and a way for him to go deeper into it, then beyond it. Far from being the tempting nymphs in Nijinsky's scenario, they seem more like projections of the male dancer's mental and physical restlessness. Like many mental states, they are elusive without having to be; they are not being pursued so much as evoked as guides.

Thursday's preview performance by Young had poise, elegance and what William Blake called "the lineaments of gratified desire." It received vivid support from the women. The piece passed before us like a dream, but somehow a dream we have all had and will never entirely outgrow.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra concludes season in its new home

"It's a real concert hall," Elaine Eckhart said with almost a sigh of relief about  the place the durable Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra will now get to call home: Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts.

As the post-concert reception crowd milled about  in the lobby of the new facility, she spoke of the just-announced 2013-14 season with a sense of satisfaction about the bright, enveloping sound the ICO can count on enjoying, even though the orchestra will be heard in five other places as well.

The Schrott's warm sound, which (granted) contends with a brightness that can verge on hard-edged, was much in evidence in a program of Villa-Lobos, Mozart and Copland conducted by music director Kirk Trevor Saturday night. To start with, the hall probably flattered the Brazilian composer's "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 9, making it seem more cunningly constructed than it is.

No reason why a work of this type shouldn't introduce a pair of masterpieces. But it must be a marketing matter for the whole program to have been branded "ICO Masterworks."  Villa-Lobos' short piece for strings is far from that.  The moody prelude projected the right atmosphere in this performance, but Villa-Lobos' trademark fascination with J.S. Bach and Brazilian folk music wasn't piquant enough here to lift the fugue that followed.

The piece seemed well enough played, but the fugue subject had little beyond its lively rhythms to recommend it. As the material became thickly developed, the broad folk melody that overlaid it lent chiefly a smothering weight that nearly neutralized the enlivening mission of those syncopated rhythms.

And how stodgy Villa-Lobos' handling of dance rhythms seems compared to Aaron Copland's open, springy pulse in the middle of his "Appalachian Spring" suite, which closed the concert! Performed alertly (except for a false string entrance) and with ample variety of ensemble color, the well-known suite had little in common with the curtain-raiser except its origin in the Western Hemisphere in the middle 1940s.

Trevor managed the tempo shifts smoothly and drew from the orchestra an exuberance and lyricism that summed up Copland's popular "Americanist" phase. The performance concluded with an exquisite diminuendo in the final measures — a triumph for the strings, following many passages when the winds shone.

The woodwinds also interacted superbly with the piano soloist in Mozart's Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, K. 595, which brought the concert's first half up to masterpiece level. The gathering cohesion of the first movement was capped by ingenious exchanges between orchestra and piano — passages that could serve as reference points (there are so many) of Mozart's genius.

Pianist Dudana Mazmanishvili played the fast music with brisk authority, sometimes knotting up the thread a bit.  But her tone and control of dynamics was first-rate.  In the second movement Larghetto,
the aura she put around the notes in the simple theme brought out some of the orchestra's best playing of the night. That wonderful tone dappled the sunny finale, so who could blame her for being all too ready to deliver a substantial  encore? It was Chopin's Barcarolle,  offering a rewarding exhibition of her clear concept of structure and dramatic contrast, but chiefly showcasing that rare, enchanting tone.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Dance Kaleidoscope: "Barefoot Renegades"

The  program title hints that turning one's back on social and artistic conventions is liberating, and the consequences are likely to be better than expected. "Barefoot Renegades" — people who go unshod after turning away from something that once commanded their loyalty.


David Hochoy's new "Les Noces" delivered on that positive promise in its preview performance Thursday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre. It was supported by the three older pieces that preceded it.  Nothing dark in mood or crabbed in gesture intruded on the scene, but the works before intermission nonetheless declared that, contrary to what Tolstoy said about families, all happy dances are not alike.

Hochoy's setting of the rough, exuberant score  Igor Stravinsky subtitled "Russian Choreographic Scenes" swerves into contemporary relationship freedom and makes it clear that personal fulfillment is the outcome. Two male couples and three female couples progress from ambiguous partnerships and group games to tender unions. Embraces and circling about the implied center of their love confirm its power. The tensions are momentary, and the ritual element is celebratory. Stravinsky was looking back from the war to the lost life of his homeland, Russia, as he did so often during those years. For Hochoy, the scenario involves rather a looking forward, to the long-hoped-for acceptance of marriage equality.

The most impressive part of "Les Noces," featuring a glowing twilight look to the stage in the breathtaking design of Laura E. Glover, introduced a Celebrant standing behind the dancers.  The episode prepared the audience for the calm radiance of the finale, when the couples enter majestically in translucent white robes and the previously excited music subsides tenderly as loving arms are raised. Without the Celebrant's entrance earlier as a foreshadowing, the last scene would have seemed abruptly sentimental.


It was thrilling to see the company in same-sex pairings. Longtime DK fans will be certainly impressed at the counterintuitive rightness of the Liberty-Harris-Gillian-Godwin duo.


As for  the guest work "Nine," I was encouraged to stop trying to count anything by the choreographer himself.  Brock Clawson said the title has to do with the expression "to be on Cloud Nine.'   Many solid Hochoy fans probably enjoyed seeing a different style. Hochoy's choreography can take in fluid movement without pain, while retaining enough hallmarks of Martha Graham's angularity and thrusting to make Clawson's kind of lyricism quite a contrast.

Since the scenario of "Nine" involves lying down looking up to the sky it's a  technical triumph to make something of the undancelike position of lying supine on the floor. But Clawson finds ways to keep reminding us of that posture while allowing the company, at 10 strong, plenty of latitude. He has a style less overt in aiming for results than Hochoy's, yet the relative calm of how "Nine" proceeds will hardly make anyone antsy.  That hopeful restlessness you can feel to your heart's content as you think about how many more people have to work at marriage than used to as you take in the world premiere of "Les Noces."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Newspaper Days at -30-: Anecdotes with Questions


The stories about photographers in the last post were longer than I had announced, so maybe I have less of Montaigne's declared advantage of a short memory than I thought. I can tell long stories, just like all too many people.  So  here's an end to that as well as an end to the blog's "Newspaper Days" series. The title can go back on the shelf on H.L. Mencken's memoir, from which I filched it. And who can feel bad in this business about being left with questions, in honor of which I offer these stories in which the questions are as impertinent as they are sometimes pertinent?

=======

Before computers, storage of information was bulky and time-consuming. Newspaper libraries had books on shelves around the walls, but much of their space was taken up with large metal cabinets containing file after file of newspaper clippings, scrupulously organized by topical, organizational and personal titles. In those often bulging envelopes with the tops open for easy retrieval were years of newspaper articles, carefully clipped out, folded neatly after being stamped with the date and a few words circled or underlined to match the category found for the clipping. "Check the clips" was the direction often given when a story idea was pitched or as it started developing.

Once before 1979, Flint was visited by the man in charge of the Shah of Iran's music. The Shah, to his eventual sorrow, looked West for the cultural trappings of his rule, from ceremonial fashion to torture. Assigned to interview the ruler's music man, I wanted to see what the Journal had published about the Shah; sometimes wire stories about important people were collected in clip files. It was not necessary to suppose the Shah had ever come to Flint, but he could still have had a file.

So, one day I walked into the library and asked: "Got anything on the Shah of Iran?"

The library assistant, eager to help, paused and looked puzzled.  "Is that a local group?" she asked.

========

Another time, before the universal adoption of "911" as an emergency phone number, Genesee County (of which Flint is county seat) adopted a new seven-digit emergency phone number. A reporter was assigned to write a brief story and it was placed under a banner headline on page 1, right under the nameplate. The headline contained the number. The story contained the number. It was the wrong number.

Next day, the largest correction in Flint Journal history was published. It appeared in the same position and with the same-size headline as the original story. The number was correct this time.

"How'd that happen?" I asked the reporter later, honestly supposing he'd been given the wrong number and that his source was to blame.

That wasn't it, his glare told me. "I f****d up," he said in the tone one uses when answering dumb questions.

===

Josef Brodsky was an eminent Russian poet kicked out of the Soviet Union for vagrancy. About the first place he landed in the United States was Ann Arbor. A University of Michigan professor was his chief translator and saw to the publication of his work here. Flint was favored by a Brodsky visit; his English was good and Cold War stories involving culture were an easy sell, even if they failed to excite the masses. Hardly anything I ever covered did. Brodsky eventually won the Nobel Prize.

Assigned to his reading and talk afterward,  I included in my account something provocative Brodsky said about "the giants of the Russian novel, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky." I was shocked when the phrase appeared in print as "the giants of the Russian novel, Alexei N. Tolstoy and Fyodor M. Dostoevsky." This was the era when first name and middle initial were usually de rigueur on first reference; it was not commonly applied to world-famous cultural figures, however.

I asked the copy editor who'd handled my story where he'd gotten the extra parts of those "giants'" names. "From the encyclopedia," he said. "But I'm sure Tolstoy's first name was Leo," I protested. He shrugged and I went to the source to look for myself. Sure enough, there was a writer named  Alexei Tolstoy, with about a four-inch entry. But turn the page and you found several full pages on the author of "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace," a relative of Alexei's named Leo.

Returning to the responsible copy editor, I conveyed my findings. "Didn't you think for a moment that perhaps the first giant of the Russian novel Brodsky mentioned had to be Leo, not Alexei?" I was getting the idea the copy editor had never turned the page. But he offered the perfect, blandly "objective" copy-editor response:  "Well, something like that is always a matter of opinion, isn't it?"

I immediately counted myself lucky there wasn't a writer named Boris Dostoevsky.

===

There'd been an accident at an elementary school about the time of dismissal, with lots of school buses and kids thronging around. A little boy had been injured in an encounter with a school bus and taken to the hospital, where he was in stable condition. The reporter had written an account for the next day's paper and gone home. The editor assigned to the story in the evening had a few questions, points she felt needed clarifying. But the reporter didn't answer his phone; in those days, there was only the home phone number available for reaching a staff member after work, unless he was known to have a favorite bar. The editor was becoming frustrated. Finally she reached him and started asking her questions. Then, filled with the importance of her mission to move the most accurate possible story into the paper and chafing at the delay in getting it into shape, she asked one more question just to be sure:  "Was the bus moving?"

===

The Journal had a smart but somewhat excitable reporter assigned to day police. He'd bounced around a bit; he was an excellent political reporter but had capsized his career more than once because of an alcohol problem. One day he was at police headquarters at City Hall and called the newsroom.
He had to speak to the city editor, he asserted loudly. He was told that hardworking but untypically placid person was unavailable. The reporter insisted that every effort be made to find the city editor and get him to the phone pronto. The assistant who'd answered the phone said indulgently. "All right, Ray, calm down. So whaddaya got?"

"What do I got?" Ray shouted in reply. "I'll tell you what I got:  I got two cops out back behind headquarters shooting at each other. That's what I got, and I need some help."

The newsroom was suddenly galvanized: The city editor was pried away from his meeting or his cafeteria card game, Ray was kept on the line to give to the rewrite man whatever he'd been able to gather,  and several staff were dispatched to City Hall to get the story. What was it all about? Well, you can't make this stuff up: A young black female officer with an attitude and a 'fro and a beefy white middle-aged veteran were assigned to go out on patrol together. And what brought about the gunplay? The answer involves more symbolism: disagreement about who was going to drive.




Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Newspaper Days: Shout-out to the shooters

So into our home mailbox a few days ago drops the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, to which I've subscribed for over 20 years. And there's a poignant feature on the thankless job of being a photojournalist in Iraq during our war there, with a long quote from the introduction to Michael Kamber's new book, Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories. After a sentence lamenting the lack of interest among Americans in that horrendous conflict comes this one: "There was plenty of good reporting out there, and good photojournalism."

Now, I'm not about to play "gotcha" with a man braver than I (he "covered the war from beginning to end," says CJR), but that's an unfortunate sentence, and it leaped out at me as I thought about my gratitude to the newspaper photographers I have worked with and admired.  Yes, it's true that "reporting" is commonly linked to the job of a reporter, someone who delivers the news through words, but it's crucial to ask from time to time: If photojournalism isn't reporting, what the hell is it?

Have we cleared the air now?  Good, for I want to praise what I've learned about reporting from photographers. First, I have never met a cynical photojournalist. (Pause for derisive laughter.) No, really: They may have cynical moments, but they seem to draw on reservoirs of curiosity, ingenuity and eager instinct that nature has supplied only fitfully to reporters. That's amazing, considering that the story idea usually springs from the brain of a word person, and the bias in favor of words rules.

I wish I had had more opportunity to go on assignments with photographers, because I can see right off what the good ones do, and it's thrilling.  Upon arrival, they're drinking in the scene or the setting, trying to tease out its visual eloquence. William K. Zinsser in one of his essays offers this warning to writers: describing a scene with attention only to accuracy and clarity tends to make for dull reading. Better to discover the point of the scene, and make your description serve that point. Photographers instinctively work at finding what the scene, including the human subjects at home in it, is all about.

Besides alertly registering this information silently, they are also on the job making small talk with the people they'll be shooting. Many of them are geniuses at this, including the shy ones. In features photography, getting the subjects relaxed is particularly important, because the essence of the assignment rarely involves showing people ill at ease. Some of the small talk seems idle, but often it exerts almost magical control over the person being photographed and interviewed. I've looked back afterward and marveled at how innocuous chatter had given the photographer vital information that showed up in the images turned in—always glossy black-and-white prints back in my Flint Journal days.

Jerry Lewis: Photographer got him to "do the faces."
Here's an odd example, because the subject was a self-important celebrity. I had the assignment to interview Jerry Lewis, who was part of a weekly summer series of shows called Star Theatre of Flint. Most of Star Theatre's book comedies were wretched, but occasionally you'd get a Vegas-style star turn by an old pro who still had his stuff. Lewis was that in the 1970s, with an ego to match. The Journal photographer—Barry Edmonds— couldn't have been a better partner for me; I was tickled whenever he shared an assignment with me. One of the most respected Michigan photojournalists of the time, he was utterly unassuming, and his work  unfailingly brilliant.

So Barry sat beside me, not saying much during the interview, just getting candid shots of Lewis talking. The comedian, like many famous people a control freak with paranoid tendencies, was in charge. He wanted to talk about how tough he was as a director of his own movies on "the kid," as he called the goofball persona that had made him wealthy in film after film. "If I look at the rushes and I don't like them, I say, 'Get the kid back in here and let's reshoot this.' I don't let him get away with sloppy work."

I'm afraid I was almost impressed that Lewis was such a stern taskmaster of himself. Maybe he was a great artist after all, as the French famously thought. Only later did it dawn on me that Jerry Lewis finding fault with Jerry Lewis was a closed circuit: The mock tyranny of the director and the slipshod tendencies of the actor formed a little play surrounding one big ego. I was getting boilerplate interview stuff that a lot of reporters had doubtless lapped up before me.

As the interview reached a natural end, Barry put his camera down. "Could I get you to do the... faces for me?" he asked, in a respectful yet not pleading tone. Lewis said, "Sure, you mean like..." and bam-bam-bam, in the next 10 seconds the star—one of the few comedians ever who could make just his face do pratfalls—went through about 10 idiotic expressions, each one different. And Barry's going click-click-click, of course, and Lewis the goofball  is running his silly-putty repertoire two feet in front of me.

I was just as impressed with Edmonds' mastery as Lewis'.  He knew when to ask for the silly faces. He knew how to ask. He knew when to raise his camera and when to lower it. And that ellipsis I inserted up there in his question? That was the briefest of pauses as Edmonds flashed a knowing look at Lewis and instantly connected. OK, maybe Lewis would have been hurt if he hadn't been asked, but it took the photographer to make the connection and come away with the real Jerry Lewis. My written interview was decent work, but I immediately knew where the heart of the reporting lay—and it wasn't in my words.

Me in the 1970s: Tie in place, hair out of.
Edmonds, whose unexpected death at 51 shocked the newsroom like nothing else in my 15 years at the Flint Journal, loved above all to shoot football and ballet. That was to my benefit; as chief photographer he could get his pick of assignments, and he always saw the point of a ballet, down to the most telling moment.  Prowling the sidelines of a Detroit Lions game, he had the reputation of never missing a nuance. I think he had the attitude of many news photographers, especially where there's action involved, the excitement of thinking, "My very next shot could make this whole story."  Now, how often does a reporter think, "My very next question—depending on the answer—could make this whole story"? More power to the ones that do.

Barry liked bodies in action, which is why he also admired ballet, despite the absence of the accidental factor that pervades football games. In both the art and the sport, his images didn't seem to be "frozen motion," but to somehow be actual motion, because he brought  the stretch and the striving out of bodies into the light around them, the way Michelangelo classically released human figures from marble.

The photo of me on this page is part of the Edmonds legacy. I had just come in out of the wind and sat down at my desk, the hair gel having held in some places and being a total loss in others. Barry was passing by and told me to look up. I did, of course, and he captured an untypical smile, bold and almost leering, that has never shown up on film since. In all my 67-plus years, it's the only photo of me I'm tempted to call sexy. My wife is wild about it. One such image is probably enough.

Bill Gallagher's Pulitzer shot of Adlai Stevenson
A different kind of excellence, marred by a casual, fun-loving attitude toward his work that kept him from  being consistently the top of his game, characterized Bill Gallagher. On a pedestal at the Journal because he had brought the paper its only Pulitzer Prize, Gallagher was too down-to-earth to seem vain about his lucky, intuitive shot showing the hole in the sole of Adlai Stevenson's shoe during the 1952 presidential campaign. But that famous image was typical of his strengths. He was a street photojournalist almost in the Weegee tradition; he liked the offbeat, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't bits of life, the eccentric and unpredictable.

He had no use for art, and I frankly dreaded his name on photo assignments where I was down as the reporter. He could make an art-gallery installation look like a crime scene; all that was missing was the yellow police tape. Gallagher missed the point of art galleries.

He was the assigned photographer at one of the poetry readings I used to go to when a famous poet came through Flint; this kind of story was thought to be "Harvey's hobby." While we were waiting for the poet to be introduced, Gallagher said cheerfully to me: "I did another one of these poetry readings once." He paused, then asked in astonishment: "Ya know some of that son-of-a-bitchin' stuff don't even rhyme?"

I allowed as I had heard of such stuff.

Marlene Dietrich, long before she snuck into Flint
But Bill Gallagher was capable of admirable work, some of it self-assigned and unlikely to fascinate others on the staff. Once the legendary Marlene Dietrich came to town — I'm not sure what for. But the word went out there would be no interview and no photographs permitted. She was said to be determined to avoid publicity. That was like throwing down the gauntlet to Bill, and called for only one response: Stakeout!  He must have spent the better part of a day waiting for Miss Dietrich to emerge from her hotel, one of the newer places, slightly swanky, with a lush, thick sodded lawn around it.

Gallagher knew better than to be near the front entrance, and his patience paid off. Avoiding the paved walkways, Miss Dietrich snuck out of the hotel toward a waiting limo, holding her high heels in one hand and walking carefully through the grass, watching every step. Gallagher snapped the perfect picture of an imperishable star unsuccessfully evading notice and looking elegant about it.

In my mind's eye, that picture has always seemed like excellent reporting — one of those that justifies the "worth a thousand words" cliche.










Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Newspaper Days: Gratitude

The French essayist Montaigne indicates somewhere that one benefit of a poor memory is that one cannot tell long stories. You're in luck, dear reader. The stories in this and the next post will be short, more in the nature of thumbnail sketches. In this post, I want the names standing out and the verbiage  trimmed back, garden sculpture in an understated garden.  Tomorrow, when I salute the newspaper photographers I have known and allow myself room to meander, there will be more stories, but each will be digestible and arguably worth telling as my newspaper career comes to a close.

This is about The Indianapolis Star: I'm grateful to Bo Connor for hiring me in 1986, recognizing that I could contribute  something The Star found useful, chiefly about classical music. This was expressed through a few early raises that moved me up the reporter's scale comfortably. I honor too the memory of Corky Richmond, who had the difficult task of running a department that was nominally headed by the grand old man of Indianapolis arts journalism, Corbin Patrick. Pat had started working for The Star in 1925 and became the arts doyen five years later, successfully promoting the formation of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. More than six decades later, his gentle manner hid a fierce territorial impulse, and I had to work my way in with circumspection.

Thanks too to my subsequent supervisors as a reporter:  Dick Cady, Dennis Royalty and (after my copy-desk sojourn), Shelby Roby-Terry, and finally Amanda Kingsbury and Neal Taflinger, whose passion and focus in blazing new trails in arts/entertainment coverage I could not follow as well as required.

About that desk detour: Thanks to Jim Lindgren, John Hawn and Maureen Gilmer, who brought me to the very brink of adequacy as a features copy editor over a 13-year period.

Finally, gratitude is in order to the leaders of the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild, starting with Dave Remondini and including (this list is not exhaustive) Abe Aamidor, Marc Allan, Dan McFeely and Tom Spalding, concluding with our media-hallowed Superman Bobby King. I have always believed that the value of labor must be collectively protected and defended, and I'm enough of a Marxist to believe unions in a free society are needed to win for labor some of the surplus value of capitalist goods and services that would otherwise go wholly into profits.

I have admired so many reporting and editing colleagues at The Star during the  past 26-plus years that I will name no names here. I'll follow the same practice tomorrow with Star photographers, using examples from my former paper, The Flint Journal, instead. But my appreciations of them will be recognized as applicable to Star photojournalists as well, mutatis mutandis. (You could look that up, but I'll tell you that like most Latin phrases, it's designed to neutralize quibbles.)


Monday, May 13, 2013

Newspaper Days: The Groaning Board


I'm stealing the title of this post (before the colon) from H.L. Mencken, whose nostalgia rested on firmer ground and whose abilities dwarf my own. (That statement is so easy to check I can scarcely lay claim to a disarming modesty.)

The newspaper's ambiance in Mencken's day was close to that in most of my career, oddly enough.
But my nostalgia has a more ironic cast,  perhaps, because the days when newspaper companies put out mere newspapers for public consumption are forever gone. In Mencken's case, though  he had become a national figure in magazine journalism and popular scholarship (The American Language) years before, reminiscing about newspapers didn't require nearly the suspension of disbelief for readers just before World War II that it might today.

His lively accounts of a vanished world in "Newspaper Days" (one of three volumes of high-spirited memoirs) resonated in the lives of people in and out of the profession back then. Clattering typewriters and type-setting machines, roaring presses, mass circulation on street corners, newspapers tossed onto doorsteps or into bushes ran through the decades.

Leaving aside the immense technological changes that have overtaken newspapers since I got into the business in 1971 is easy; in the long run, technology very nearly did me in. So here I'll focus on the successful business model that made arts journalism viable even in the blue-collar middle-sized city where I started out: Flint, Michigan.

I'm alluding to the domination newspapers, including the Flint Journal,  used to have over their media markets, with several results: a spongy but pretty sturdy wall between the editorial and advertising sides, a firm enough lock on the advertising dollar to make editorial budgets comfortable (not usually reflected in reporters' salaries, though), and thus the ability to hire a large enough staff to really cover their communities, subject to the reigning prejudices of the time.

Thus, the predecessor who got me hired (a friend of my father's) had established the notion that the arts were worth covering. Traveling far from Flint, though scrutinized before approval, was then  practicable outside the sports staff.  Within three months of going through personnel and getting my parking pass, I was in Washington, D.C., covering the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

It was a big deal, and I don't mean just personally. The nation's presidential widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, had commissioned a new work from Leonard Bernstein, the nation's classical superstar, to open the cultural palace named for her husband. Spanking new cultural edifices were big news anyway, and here was one in Foggy Bottom on the Potomac, not far from the undulating facade of the hotel where I stayed, a place called the Watergate, with a neighboring office building extending its seductive design and unknowingly primping for its place in history.

Bernstein had been mocked the year before by an upstart New Journalist, Tom Wolfe, in "Radical Chic." The book set the tone for sneering at "limousine liberals" that persists to this day. The large, Catholic Kennedy family was a bit scandalized by the leaked information that the climax of "Mass," a theatrical spectacular built on the holy rite, included a symbolic desecration as the Celebrant goes berserk.

There was also buzz about the decision of President Nixon and his administration not to attend the premiere. Nixon, exquisite in his nursing of resentments, was still feeling 1960 too keenly. So he and the First Lady went instead to the inauguration of the concert hall the same weekend, where he subjected himself to a National Symphony Orchestra program including Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," a considerable stretch from his preferred idea of highbrow music, Richard Rodgers' "Victory at Sea." It's the only time in my career I've spent a couple of hours in the same room with a sitting U.S. president.

This was heady stuff, but the Flint Journal smiled benignly on a cub reporter's efforts and supplemented my coverage with a wire story and several photos, including a weeping Bernstein, overcome by the premiere after having hugged and kissed every member of the cast during the curtain calls for "Mass."

Over the years, nothing so spectacular came my way, but as music critic I would trek down to Detroit every time the Metropolitan Opera came through. In the summer I went slightly less far from home to cover the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in its summer home, Meadow Brook, a place with as good a natural outdoor amphitheater setting for classical music as any I've ever known. The very first classical concert I reviewed there featured piano soloist  Andre Watts, now on the faculty of IU's Jacobs School of Music.

Once I added theater to my other beats, there was the privilege of covering the opening week of the Stratford Festival in Ontario every June, sending back reviews in the cumbersome telephone-line technology of the time. This was the thinking: Though only a small fraction of the Journal's readers would be interested, it conferred some prestige on the newspaper to have its man on the scene, giving his  perspective on Peter Ustinov as King Lear, Brian Bedford as Richard III and Maggie Smith as Rosalind in "As You Like It." The Journal was also interested, officially at least, in what its critic had to say about late-career recitals by Vladimir Horowitz in Ann Arbor and Arthur Rubinstein in Detroit.

It's important to note that some of this privileging of arts coverage continued for years after I arrived at The Star in 1986.  Though there was much more of a reviewable arts scene in Indianapolis than in Flint,  I got to go up to Chicago to see the remarkable, chic production of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and down to Louisville to catch the Kentucky Opera's latest production and review Broadway tours of "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" before Indianapolis had been favored with either of those hits.

I had benefited from another change in American journalism. Thirty years ago, newspapers were experimenting with changing their women's, or society, sections. The Flint Journal's was even called (boys, keep out!)  "For and About Women." They began to mix harder-edge features in with the advice columns and the fashion and society news. Our model in Flint was the Chicago Tribune's Tempo -- and guess what we called our renamed section.

In the late 1970s, the Journal's editor called me into his office:  "You're a good writer," he said,  "but I think you're being wasted in the arts." (All that waste had been so much fun, too.) I was transferred to Tempo, doing long-form features and profiles, while hanging on to my arts beats. Within  a few months, I got my first huge assignment: to profile a triple murderer after his sensational trial. Sentenced to life in the state prison way up in Marquette, he was the linchpin of the story, and we got approval to interview him. I had done extensive preparation, interviewing his friends, family, an ex-girlfriend and the trial judge, so I could make the most of my time with him. The company readily footed the bill for mileage, lodging and meals for me, my wife and our infant son.

The convict had said OK, but what if he clammed up or was hostile once I turned on my tape recorder? Well, as many of my colleagues know, people who have messed up their lives sometimes have a positive mania for self-justification and explanation, so I didn't have to worry. His narrative, which had many moments of pathos and unintentional comedy, flowed  out and filled in all the gaps in the story of 20-some misspent years. "Mike said your story made him look like a fool," his parking-lot attendant brother told me shortly after publication. I guess I must have nailed it, I thought.

And journalism nailed it for me more years than not. The self-perception of newspapers up until the digital age may have been a little complacent. We thought we were paid to decide what was important, interesting or just entertaining; we were fulfilling our obligations to The Reader (an allegorical figure, I suppose, like a character out of Pilgrim's Progress) as long we offered endless variety to fill  the news hole. The  newspaper should present a big banquet, a smorgasbord, to anyone who picks it up. You don't expect the hungry consumer to devour everything, but maybe he or she will try something interesting because it's next to the meat loaf.  And if you keep putting  out the same stuff and notice that nobody is touching the tomato aspic, OK, you remove the tomato aspic.

But you are proud of having set it out there in the first place, and you also are glad you can arrange on the groaning board such an appetizing feast. Of course, that requires the wherewithal to pay for the tempting abundance and compensate the people who prepare it. That depth of resources is a beloved memory in today's media world. The onrush of online competition can't easily be countered. It's ushered in by stunning digital technology and sustained by the public's short attention span and devotion to what each segment already knows and loves.

Small wonder, then, that journalists in my generation may feel uncomfortably closer to  Mencken's than the one we hope will figure out how to save journalism.