Sunday, August 29, 2010

Italian Hours: Updated

Henry James made fourteen visits to Italy, his first in 1869, his last in 1907. His travel essays were first printed in magazines, and some were collected for Transatlantic Sketches (1875) or Portraits of Places (1883). In 1909 William Heinemann published all the Italy essays as Italian Hours, complete with an index.

Yes, it was a marketing ploy to make the volume something travelers would bring along to consult during their own travels. It's a Lonely Planet guide for crazy English majors!

This intro by James for Italian Hours is manna from heaven for a travel blogger:

"Who shall analyse even the simplest Roman impression? It is compounded of so many things, it says so much, it involves so much, it so quickens the intelligence and so flatters the heart, that before we fairly grasp the case the imagination has marked it for her own and exposed us to a perilous likelihood of talking nonsense about it."

And so, with an authority like Henry James assuring me that it's easy to start babbling about Rome, about Italy, because of their extraordinary nature, let me tell you about my recent vacation.

This visit had a lovely scheme: four days in Rome, then the train to the Tuscan Casole d’Elsa (via Florence to Poggibonsi) for the polyphony workshop and concerts, then back to Rome for another day and night.

My time in Rome is extra wonderful because it’s in the company of my American friend Ric and his Italian partner Mau. They are a witty, engaging couple: Ric is a writer and film buff (when he’s not teaching ESL), and Mau is a composer. They live in Magliana, of Banda della Magliana infamy in the South-West periphery of Rome. It’s a great neighborhood for real life: on the metro line to the airport, great produce even in August when all Italians abandon the city, reasonable parking for the Vespa and car, a balcony on their apartment. In short, la dolce vita attained.

Sperlonga: In the footsteps of Ulysses

We took a day trip to the sea side town of Sperlong, a small, white-washed village on a promontory high above the sea, playground of the international jet set in the 1960s—think Warhol, Bridget Bardoe, Arthur Miller, Marlene Dietrich, Raf Vallone, Lucia Bose— but its deeper nature is ancient and mythical. The emperor Tiberius (AD 14 to 37) built a villa there, called Sperlunca in Latin, around a large grotto that opens to the Tyrrhenian sea. In 1957 an excavation of the site found enormous sculptures that had decorated the grotto, all depicting scenes of Ulysses.

The coast in the Lazio region between Rome and Naples is known as “the Ulysses Riviera” (Riviera di Ulisse), with Roman legend placing many of the scenes from the Greek Odyssey geographically in their own country: so Ulysses was imprisoned by enchantress Maga Circe on the wild slopes of Mount Circe (in Cicerco), and his men where eaten by the giant Laestrygonians in the Golf of Gaeta (or maybe Sicily), but you get the picture. Just as there are Roman versions of Greek myths, there is a geographically correct Roman version of Odysseus’ journey, as well as the Romans version of the hero's name: Ulysses. (I always wondered about that. Not surprising that Joyce, who lived in Italy much of his adult life, chose the Roman over the Greek for his novel.)

The sculptures from the Tiberius villa are in an exquisite museum on the grounds—-the blinding of Polyphemus is the most enormous and dramatic—but the highlight is going into the grotto itself, walking on the very surface that Tiberius and his guests trod, while themselves enthralled by the feats of Ulysses. In a twist of fate, while the emperor was banqueting in his grotto there was a sudden rock slide that killed many of his servants. Tiberius miraculously survived, then abandoned this summer palace and took up residence at another summer palace on Capri, where he will die.

The town of Sperlonga is a series of narrow walkways and stairs high above the beach, perched as a means of protection against the Saracens (and others), a scene which is repainted in the town every year. To get out of the blinding sun we had lunch in a cool, cavern bistro before we walked to the grotto.

On the way back to Rome we stopped in San Felice Circeo for a home cooked meal with Mau’s family. The national park wilderness of Circeo may have seen Ulysses centuries ago—the area certainly feels magical enough for it.

We stopped off at a lighthouse that has been in use since 1866. There was something about its single light that made me think of the blinding of the Cyclops. Those ancient stories, they have a way of sticking with you.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The New Yorker Snapshots My Vacation

Home to a rainy New York after two weeks in Italy. First day back filled with sorting laundry and mail, starting the transition back to daily life.

Sitting amid the pile of junk mail catalogues is The New Yorker double week issue, August 16 & 23.

And the cover is ”Tuscany” by Lorenzo Mattotti, with the classic Tuscan countryside and a medieval hilltop town which could easily be Casole d’Elsa, where I was. (Here’s an interesting site to talk about cover art of all kinds.)

I flip through casually to see the offerings, and squeal with delight when I see Joan Acocella’s article on Agatha Christie, “Queen of Crime.”

Why? Because I brought The A.B.C. Murders and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to read in that Tuscan countryside. I hadn’t read Christie since high school, but she popped into my head when I was thinking about what to books to bring. Easy, engaging reading, and so very English, which of course has its own tradition in Tuscany.

A little nod from the universe, perhaps, that holiday and “real life” don't have to be such separate spheres. Something I hope to remember when my vacation glow fades. Much more about both Italy and Christie after the jet lag.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Choir: My First Reality Show: Now Coming to USA?!

“I love to hear a choir. I love the humanity to see the faces of real people devoting themselves to a piece of music. I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the human race when I see them cooperating like that.” Paul McCartney

Have I mentioned that I have never seen a single reality show? Yup, I deny the entire genre. Until now. I've broken my own ban to watch the BBC series The Choir. It’s a cinema verite/reality show, with lots of “real” footage edited down to a constructed, voiced-over narrative.

The premise is that a young, talented, elite music director (in that he’s a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music) Gareth Malone starts a choir at a London middle school-—yes, teenagers--that has never had a choir. It’s a daunting task, looking for the modicum of talent that will be able to perform basic choir repertory. And don’t underestimate the power of schools that have a tradition of choirs versus those that don’t. Around the world there are schools that take singing very seriously, and that itself fosters talent. When it’s cool to sing in your microcosm, no good voice gets left behind.

The Choir is a great series because it captures the individual stories of the teens who take this on with no formal music training. One caveat: you have to be able to bear the opening motif to Vivaldi’s Gloria ad nauseum (they use it as a bumper between almost every scene!).

Not only does Malone start a choir, he takes it to the “choir Olympics” in China. That’s kind of crazy, thinking that this makeshift choir could possibly compete with world-class choirs, but for the teens from Northolt High it’s truly the opportunity of their young lifetimes. And that’s Malone’s real goal: to show youth that classical music is not some boring, old thing, but a vibrant scene that can enrich their lives for the rest of their lives.

To compete the choir needs to sing something in a foreign language. He chooses Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine, a choir chestnut. (And, for fans of the film Babe, it’s what the sisters are singing when the Farmer is watching TV.) The tenors are stumbling and Malone dubs them “problematic tenors,” thus uniting them with their pitch brethren the world over. In their defense the inner voices—tenor and alto-- are harder to “hear” and sing.

The choir’s other piece is “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which they do well with. But it’s them singing “I get by with a little help from my friends” during a team building weekend that got me teary-eyed. There’s something about young Brits singing the songs of Lennon and McCartney that’s just so damn wonderful.

Malone has already done more shows, The Choir: Revisited, The Choir: Boys Don't Sing, The Choir: Unsung Town, which I haven't seen, bringing more and more people into the fold.

And he went on (from The Independent):

"Malone, credited with leading a nationwide revival of community singing through his television series, topped the charts with the Military Wives, the choir he formed from the partners of serving military personnel in Afghanistan."

The Malone Invasion

Now I see commercials while watching Suits and Burn Notice that Gareth is coming to the USA on USANetworks.  I'm not loving this. His choral tradition is not ours. I fear that what is charming in his homeland will devolve into trite US whacky characters by the light of UK platitudes. To keep the integrity of the original I would rather have the current director of the Whiffenpoofs or the choirmaster of a Broadway show search out nonsingers and produce a concert.  The production company that's bringing the series over produces Supernanny, TRHONY, Bethenny Ever After, and Basketball Wives. So that already speaks to a certain crass perspective.

Yes, I am a choral snob. But, if it brings one more viewer to join a local chorus or choir, then there's no argument.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Professor Grampy Meets the Mad Men

This Mad Men episode tells us "Christmas Comes But Once a Year." So, Christmas in August. SCDP is breaking all the rules, even the one that usually puts Christmas in July. What iconoclasts.

The title of this holiday bonbon is such a specific cultural reference: it’s Max Fleischer’s 1936 animated short "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" (with that really catchy eponymous song) about the children in the orphanage. The tots wake up on Christmas morning, all happy because “it’s Christmas!” When they play with the toys left in their stockings, everything is so old and patched that they fall apart, and the little ones start crying. (The teddy bear that disintegrates in the little girl’s arms has to be one of the saddest sights in toondom).

Professor Grampy, from Betty Boop’s universe, is passing by, hears the sobs, and stops to see what he can do. He creates imaginative toys from the appliances, dresses up as Santa, and saves the day. The orphans all become truly happy with the new “toys” and they have a very Merry Christmas.

It’s a short that would be part of the childhood of all the adults in the Mad Men universe (along with World War 1, for Cooper, at least, and the Depression). The theme of desire and happiness is an underpinning of the entire series--Dick Whitman desired to be Don Draper; Joan desired a doctor/good provider for a husband; Pete desired to be taken seriously as an account rep. etc. The attainment of these desires has had mixed results.

The idea of Christmas just makes the theme more focused. The episode title reference is then paid off with Lee, Mr. Lucky Strike, a bore of a man who has everything and wants to manipulate others, like making Roger wear the Santa suit. When he opens his present, it’s a Polaroid camera. He says “As a kid, you ask for something and you get it and it made you happy,” betraying a sense of nostalgia for his own childhood, when getting something actually made him happy. The orphans playing with the vacuum cleaner and the kitchen-made sled know more real joy than he does. It's not an original idea, but the presentation of it is unique. And I think it's great for Weiner to bring Fleischer back into the spotlight, even if it's just for Maddicts.

And Beneath all the Tinsel

•Dr. Atherton and Faye Miller are brought in to ride the wave of psychology-based market research, juxtaposed against psycho teen Glen, who is vandalizing the Draper house to express his feelings Sally. Shades of the turbulence that will rock the decade in just a few years.

•We don’t know the exact date of this office party, but it’s worth noting that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was first shown on Dec. 4, 1964, and the party was probably later on in December than that. Could have been a nice reference.

•I LOVE Roger’s office. The white tulip tables, the vortex art, the bright orange and green accents. Wow. That’s the 60s. Don’s office still has paneling.

•Don is losing it. When Phoebe comes over, he pretty much insists that they haven’t met before (maybe you weren’t wearing your uniform), and with Allison the next day, he is unbelievably cold. All that drinking isn’t good for the grey cells.