Thursday, December 29, 2011

These are program notes I've written for CATCO/PHOENIX's production of James Phillipp's play The Rubenstein Kiss-based on the trial and execution of Julius an d Ethel Rosenberg. See



By Christopher Purdy

“I was with Ethel in the women’s house of detention. When the van came to take us to court, Ethel and Julius would be in there. It was pitch black. One time a prisoner lit a cigarette, from the flare we could see Ethel and Julie trying to kiss between the gate.”—Miriam Moskowitz

At first glance, there was nothing remarkable about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They married in 1939, and lived a lower middle-class existence not far from where they each grew up on New York’s lower east side. Both sets of parents were immigrants from the pale of Eastern Europe. Families grew up in unheated tenements with toilets down the hall. It was a crowded life, and a poor life.

Julius Rosenberg disappointed his parents who hoped he’d be a rabbi. He graduated City College in electrical engineering, near the bottom of his class. Morton Sobell, a classmate and later a co defendant with the Rosenbergs, said, “As an engineer, Julius would have made a very good rabbi”.

The high point of Julius’s life was his first meeting with Ethel Greenglass in early 1936. Ethel worked as a secretary in a Manhattan shipping firm. But the stage was her passion. She dreamed of a career in opera-and her heart was not with shipping but with the amateur dramatic societies she joined, and with New York’s prestigious Schola Cantorum, to which she aspired. There no encouragement at home. “There’s no room in life for arty people”, sniffed her mother.

But there was Ethel, pacing a corridor before going on at an amateur night to sing ‘Ciribiribin”. And there was Julius, introducing himself and talking quietly to encourage her. The two were an item from that night. They married in 1939. There were two children, Michael born in 1943, and Robert in 1947. The young family eventually moved to a three room apartment at 10 Monroe St. Ethel’s dreams of the stage receded (she never stopped trying). Julius went to work in the U.S. Army Civilian Signal Corps.

In 1942, Julius was fired. It was discovered he had been a member of the Young Communist League at City College. Ethel had joined before their marriage. Julius for years told everyone how proud he was that Ethel, then 18, had led a strike at her job, which left her unemployed.

If Julius and Ethel were penalized for membership in the YCL, so most of half the lower east side must have been indicted. Julius went further, and the couple moved from the hum drum to the dangerous. Julius was recruited by a Soviet agent early in the 1940s. He was chosen as a “friend of the party” and because he had one important recourse, Ethel’s kid brother, David Greenglass.

“Doovey” was adored by his older sister and was the pet of the family. He married Ruth Prinz in 1942. The army sent David to the machine shops at the nuclear testing facilities in Los Alamos. There he made sketches of fission lenses which were passed to Julius who presumably passed them on. Julius was arrested by the FBI on June 17, 1950; Ethel was arrested seven weeks later. They never left prison.

The charges were “Conspiracy to commit espionage”. Over the years it’s been argued that the Russians received from Julius nothing they didn’t already have. David Greenglass was told by the authorities, confess or you and your wife both will be prosecuted-1950 was not a time to be a political radical in the United Sates. A deal was made. David testified of Julius’s involvement and went on to say that Ethel was present and typed his notes. This testimony was crucial to the government’s case. The Rosenbergs were convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair. David Greenglass got ten years and served seven. Ruth was never prosecuted. Appeals for the Rosenbergs ran out in the summer of 1953. Pablo Picasso and the Pope were among those who asked for clemency. Pro Rosenberg rallies were held all over the world. There was a vigil in New York’s Foley Square on the night of June 19, 1953. It was the Rosenberg’s 14th wedding anniversary. At Sing-Sing there was a last mintue appeal. The executions had been scheduled for 11 PM. But it was Friday. Honor the Jewish Sabbath and give them one more day. Instead the executions were moved forward to 8 PM. Julius and Ethel were allowed to spend thirty minutes together, with a heavy mesh screen between them. The guards came for Julius and he touched Ethel’s finger through the mesh-until they both bled. Thirty minutes later the couple was dead. Their sons had been sent to live with a kindly foster family. Michael was playing outside on that terrible night. He knew about the 8 PM deadline. “I stayed outside until it was two dark to see the ball. Went I went in I was told the television stations all said the same thing.”

Debate over the couple's guilt never stopped. In 1995 the VENONA report was released. These were encrypted cables between the U.S, and the Soviet Union. From these we learn that Julius Rosenberg was indeed a spy for the Russians and had involved David and Ruth Greenglass. Ethel’s role was considered minimal. She may have been put to death for typing.

Not surprisingly, the Rosenberg case has long encouraged writers, composers, film makers and dramatists. Ethel comes back to haunt Roy Cohn on his deathbed in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel The Book of Daniel tells the story from the point of view of the Rosenberg children. Sidney Lumet directed the 1983 film Daniel, with Timothy Hutton, Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse. Donald Freed’s play Inquest starred George Grizzard and Anne Jackson on Broadway in 1970. Billy Joel references the case his song, We Didn’t Start the Fire. The Rubinstein Kiss by James Phillips was first performed in London, in 2005.

David Greenglass has lived under an assumed name since 1960. He surfaced briefly in 2001 on 60 Minutes II, (disguised) where he contradicted his trial testimony against his sister, but expressed no remorse to her fate. Sam Roberts’s book The Brother tells the tale form David’s perspective. Ruth Greenglass died in 2008. Neither had any contact with the Rosenberg sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol. The brothers co-authored We Are Your Sons in 1975; Robert’s memoir An Execution in the Family was published in 2003. That same year a video indispensible to anyone wishing to know more about the Rosenberg case, Heir to an Execution, was produced by Michael’s daughter, Ivy Meeropol.

Most recently, Walter Schneir has updated Invitation to an Inquest, co- authored with his wife Miriam in 1965, with Final Verdict, What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, published shortly after Walter’s death in 2009. This book discusses the Venona cables at length, and admits to Julius’s role as a spy-but makes clear that Ethel’s involvement was minimal, and argues that in neither case did the terrible punishment fit the crime.

The Love Goddess and The Piano Player

Question: What movie siren tamed up with a piano player to develop a new radio controlled device used to guide torpedoes? Mae West and Paderewski? Marilyn Monroe and Horowitz? Nope. The answer is Hedy Lamar and George Antheil. And okay, the youtube clip probably gave it away.

The Lamar Antheil partnership and the resulting patents are discussed in a fascinating new book, Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes. Mr. Rhodes has written extensively on nuclear warfare. Even so, a discussion of the love goddess and an esoteric composer must have been a departure for him. His is a fascinating blend of high science and show business.

Hedy Lamar was born Hedy Kiesler in Vienna. She began in the theater and in 1931 appeared in a film produced in Czechoslovakia, Ecstasy. You bet. The film became infamous for Hedy's limbs and considerable charms and attributes. It was banned in the States. Rhodes goes so far as to quote Louis B Mayer, who on his first meeting with the actress told her, "You'd never get away with that stuff in Hollywood. Never. A women's ass is for her husband, not theatergoers. You're lovely, but I have the family point of view. I don't like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around a sixteen."

Nice. God got him. Hedy was rechristened and went to MGM and was a name in pictures for 20 years. She was not a star of the first rank, but she was good enough for Clark Gable and Charles Boyer.

Meanwhile, composer George Antheil and his wife Boski were living in Paris upstairs from Sylvia Beach's bookstore. His Ballet mechanique required sixteen synchronized player pianos-and when he couldn't get them to run properly the performance of this , well, different work became infamous. There's no such thing a bad publicity. Antheil too arrived in Hollywood to write film music-but the studios were slim pickings for him. He composed, he taught and he wrote-about the effects a man's glands have on his sex drive-and he wrote a book which accurately predicted World War II.

Hedy had been married to an Austrian weapons baron called Friederich Mandl. She was the trophy wife and the marriage was a gilded prison. Nevertheless, she listening carefully to the dinner table conversations as the munitions big wigs were helping birth Nazi Germany. She got away, but between takes at MGM-plus five more marriages and two kids-Hedy remembered everything. She had a penchant for invention. A cube morphing into soda pop with a little water was an early flop.

George Antheil was at loose ends in Hollywood but he knew his way around mechanics and physics. Hedy Lamar was bored. The two got together. It is suggested that Antheil,while quite the horndog, was never romantically involved with Hedy Lamar. They spent their time together drawing and designing a device to guide torpedoes-there was 60% failure rate, and this along with the wartime death of Antheil's beloved kid brother, motivated the two towards invention. Patents were awarded to Hedy Kiesler Markey (a quickie marriage) and George Antheil in 1942. And the patents were buried, though the navy held on to them. Hedy's film career continued. George's music began to attract a lot of notice. Patents ran out in 1959, a year after George Antheil's death.

Hedy retired and lived on to 2000-she died at 85. Toward the end of her life the story of her invention was reintroduced by scientist/army colonel Dave Hughes. Hedy was awarded a medal from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Great movie beauties do not parade around in their 80s. She sent a recording to the awards banquet, "I hope you feel good as well as I feel good about it, and it was not done in vain. Thank you."

But there was more. "Never a letter. Never a thank you. Never money. I don't know. I guess they just take and forget about a person."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Who's Woody Hayes or How I Learned to Spell TBDBITL


This is Script Ohio, originated in 1936 at The Ohio State University. The precision is killing and the effect sensational, for those lucky enough to score OSU tickets and their friends in TV land.

When I first came to Columbus twenty years ago I recall driving around The Ohio State University campus. I work on campus now, I'm an OSU alumnus-in my dotage, taking classes with my 'grandchildren'-and I live two miles from the 'Shoe.' I can hear the band warming up from my front yard. That's today. In 1991 when I crossed Woody Hayes Boulevard I thought, Oh yes, I can live here. They must love music. They've named a street after a big-band leader.

(A digression: I've worn a beard since I was 17. My beloved Grandmother, when she first saw more than peach fuzz-an orchard, a dirty one!- on my face, said, "Oh no. You look like Gabby Hayes." So that name remained iconic for me even though I didn't know who the ---- was Gabby Hayes. He was a character actor in Westerns, much loved. He died in 1969 and never led a band in his life.)

Woody Hayes was the sainted coach of The Ohio State University football team. You loved him or hated him. You can have all the block Os and scarlet and gray you like but Woody Hayes was and is the "brand" of The Ohio State University. He was forced to resign in 1976 for striking a player. May not have been the first time. He died in 1987. If there is a God, at least in college football, his name is Woody Hayes. And I'm confusing him with Gabby Hayes, who was never a big-band leader. Sheesh.

Al ll the more reason then for me to try and make it right. Dr. Jon Woods, the beloved Director of The Ohio State University Marching Band, is retiring in April.

I've produced a broadcast special in his honor-to air on New Year's Day at 3 p.m. I don't know if Woody Hayes goes second to The Best Damned Band in the Land (hence TBDBITL) but its really, really close. The band is sensational. Woody or Gabby, the band is great. Dr. Woods is an inspiring leader and music educator. Mrs. Woods came on the show to add some pepper. There are tributes from a few (very) high profilers in the community-and Dave Carwile, The Voice of TBDBITL, provides insight and continuity. I enjoyed meeting Dr. woods and I really enjoyed, after 20 years, immersing myself in the band, on CD and on Youtube. Script Ohio is nothing if not operatic. But that's another story.



Thursday, December 15, 2011

O Holy Night - Leontyne Price

This is my idea of Christmas! Enjoy. God bless.

MUSIC THERAPY: In memoriam: Clive Robbins 1927-2011 - Nordoff Robbins - Music Transforming Lives

I'm placing the obit here because I had not known of Mr Robbins-I'm way late to the party, having become fascinated by his work on the basis of his obituary! I want to learn more. Music therapy study is a goal for me.

In memoriam: Clive Robbins 1927-2011 - Nordoff Robbins - Music Transforming Lives

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

RIP Tony Amato and Amato Opera

The wonderful Amato opera went on for sixty years on the Bowery in New York. The tiny theater held maybe 80 people, 100 if you don't mind laps-and few did. Tony Amato was the founder and artistic director. He staged and all the operas-and he knew them cold: Handel, Mozart, Bizet, Puccini and of course Verdi..Donizetti, Rossini-he could sing all the parts in all the operas and often he did!

People who came to laugh got over themselves quickly. People pay good money today to hear many artists who began at Amato Opera. Mrs. Sally Amato was the business person..Maestro Tony did the rest. It was not always so. Sally met her husband in the 1940s when she was singing Madame Butterfly on the Lower East Side Side. New York is so great!

I saw many Amatro productions, including rarities like Alzira (Verdi) Poliuto (Donizetti) and L'arlesiana (Cilea). Backstage and upstairs there were trunks, scores, notes and meatballs and probably several singers long deceased who couldn't bear to leave.

You know the song 'What I did for love?' Go sing it (try to sing well) and think of Amato Opera.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


The Metropolitan Opera will present an archival broadcast on January 14: The April 4, 1970 performance of Bellini's Norma with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Carlo Bergonzi and Cesare Siepi. The above clip comes from December of that year, but gives a good idea of what is to be heard in January, 42 years after the event.

I remember hearing this broadcast-live, on that 1970 date-on a transistor radio. (Go look it up or ask your grandparents.) I had a battery operated reel to reel tape recorded from Radio Shack ($29.95. A fortune! Unheard of!) By holding the little plastic mic up to the hand- held radio I got a complete recording of this broadcast. What did I know from audio quality and who cared? It was good enough for me-and when, after repeated playings...and playings..and playings..the tape (go look it up or ask your grandparents) began to disintegrate I resorted to duct tape and when the tape joins would stick in the machine I'd just get up and shove it damned well through.

The tapes were good at least until 1974 when I went to college. They lingered in my Uncle's basement for nearly forty years until I recovered them after his death in 2010. And yes,I since acquired this performance of clear sounding CDs. I listen to it seldom, but I'm listening to it now-seldom because it remains special to me: I vaguely knew what this was in 1970 and who these people were but nothing prepared me for the sheer beauty of the music and singing that afternoon.

The Met brought Norma to Boston on tour a few weeks later. I got to meet Joan Sutherland. She was very gracious and sweet, even after a long tough sing. I was 13 and I came up to her, well, I got quite the look down the front of her low cut dress (she had make up on 'em). "They" were extraordinary. so was the singing.

Carlo Bergonzi and Cesare Siepi didn't come on this tour. Bergonzi was and is my favourite tenor. The sweetness of tone and above all his impeccable line are ravishing-then and still. I suspect Pollione was a bit of luxury casting for Bergonzi. He was a stand there and sing guy, but my God sing and sing he did! I saw him later during my New York years. The bloom was long gone but he went for every note and spared himself nothing: in Ballo, Trovatore and Pagliaccii. Remember when he came onstage during the Met -Levine tribute in 96? He was an old man but who was to touch him singing Verdi, even with half the voice that had been.

Good for the Met for bringing this Norma back to the public. Thank you for giving me back one glorious afternoon over forty years ago!

Joan Sutherland died last year. Cesare Siepi died a few months before Dame Joan. Carlo Bergonzi is 87 and has been ill. Miss Horne has had cancer treatment but is active as a -fantastic-teacher and advocate for young artists.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Lucking Out: A Terrific Book

I've enjoyed reading James Wolcott's new memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York. I didn't know seventies New York. I knew eighties New York. But Wolcott takes me back there with stops at Max's Kansas City, CBGB-and the New York City Ballet.

There are four subjects covered at length: Film criticism and Pauline Kael (subject of an intriguing new bio by Brian Kellow; punk rock; ballet; and literary criticism. Wolcott saw all of this and participated in a great deal, from one of several roachy 'man cave' apartments in and near alphabet city. Remember in the 70s New York was moribund, bankrupt, broke. There's the infamous Daily News Headline: Fored to New York: Drop Dead, when the hope of government assistance, not for a bank but for the world's greatest city was blown off. Ford wasn't re elected (or elected once!) New York City today glitters, and shuns those of us not pulling down a high six figures.

Never mind. It was great to be there. (It was great to be there!). Wolcott sets out the age perfectly:

You might see Balanchine himself strolling toward the State Theater,
his head and neckerchief jauntily yachting across a choppy sea of mundane heads belonging
to non-geniuses patronizing the sidewalk. It was an inspiring sight, just knowing he
was briskly alive, Bernstein was alive, Martha Graham was alive, Agnes de Mille was
alive--they hadn't forsaken us.

These and Patti Smith, the Ramones, Tina Brown (later and not happily) Robert Christgau, the Velvet Underground-they are encountered vividly and shared with a reader still thrilled and incredulous by the New York that was. Lucking Out ends eerily on the night John Lennon was killed ( December 8, 1980--where were you?). The seventies were really over.

Thank you, James Wolcott for so excitingly reminding me what i just barely missed.

Handel's 'Rodelinda' live in HD

I'm looking forward to hearing Rodelinda this Saturday on the Met's live in HD program. Handel and popcorn! Fleming and diet Coke! What could be better?

I saw this production in New York in 2004. I believe it was my last visit there to date. (I'm no longer drawn to New York) I loved Stephen Wadsworth's fine production. The show told the story in movement, gesture and settings as well as in music. No precious posing in this staging. The full title of this opera from 1719 is great: Rodelinda, regina de' Longobardi. It's based on a French play by Corneille and as with many opera serie the plot is, well...fantastical! I gave up figuring a lot of it out. I enjoy the music and the singing and in this case, the staging.

Renee Fleming sings the title role. I don't like her recordings much. I'm the only person in the world not to get the memo. When I've seen her live however, I'm captivated by her vocal and physical beauty. Stehpanie Blythe, a contralto force of nature who can sing anything appears along with David Daniels, a passionate countertenor. Harry Bicket conducts. I expect to enjoy this-again.

Rodelinda to me has always meant Dame Joan (not her late career recording for Decca). I wouldn't surrender her 1959 performances from London nor her 1973 extravaganza from Amsterdam. Friends tell me that the battered old 3 LP set from Westminster, withTeresa Stich-Randall and Maureen Forrester, is the recording to have. We of a certain age were used to hearing this heavy-Handel and I'm sorry the Westminster recording has yet to make it on to CD. I'd like to hear it again after 40 years.

But again with Handel, it is always a luxury to sit and listen (and watch, at least Wadsworth's production) without working so hard to understand who is married to whom and killing who and married to someone else and sleeping with another's brother in law. It's like an 18th century version of Judge Judy.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Don Giovanni and Souvenir

Arts marketers have caught on that most of us are stir crazy of a Thanksgiving weekend when the endless turkey variants and the love and kisses from dear ones near and far all go stale, and its time to get out of the house.

Here is Columbus we're lucky to have an enforced afternoon of, well-not rest, I'm not sure what it was-The Game with That school Up North takes a lot of pre-season bulking and post game trauma and soothing. What a weekend this was to sate any emotional needs!

Friday night saw the official opening of CATCO/Phoenix's production of Stephen Temperley's Sovenir at the Riffe Center. Steven Anderson directed the play with clarity and love and without a shred of condescension or eye rolling. Souvenir tells the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) and her quest for a career with the opera and art song greats. At a time when Rosa Ponselle, Lotte Lehmann, Ezio Pinza and Jussi Bjoerling were going strong, Mme. Jenkins, out of Wilkes-Barre, PA saw herself in the pantheon. Indeed. She had no talent whatsoever. When we meet her, she's been giving private recitals for er h200 best friends for years. There are plenty of cheers...of derision rather than for a well turned musical phrase. The lady was tone deaf.

It would be too easy to make fun, and to enjoy a cruel sneer at one person's happy illusions. That doesn't happen here. Florence loves music and she wants you to love music, too. Kudos to Linda Dorff, a beloved actress hereabouts, who never stooped to parody. Nor did the multi-talented Matt Clemens, whose portrayal of Cosme McMoon, Madame's accompanist-and enabler?- lets us in the joke but assures us the joke isn't very good.

Souvenir is very good, blessed by two wonderful performances. Go see it. Laugh and have a good cry for yourself. Linda and Matt's final four minutes are worth the price of admission.

Saturday was The Game. Couch potatoes all, with plenty of lo-cal Gatorade, and turkey sandwiches, turkey hash and turkey ice cream,. The Game was enjoyed at home. Enough said.

Sunday afternoon was the second of two performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni . This was the reconstituted Opera/Columbus (thank you, CAPA) presenting the Canadian Company Opera Atelier at the Southern Theatre. The Southern spoils the audience for hearing music anywhere else in town. Opera Atelier presented a cast of dishy young artists, with (blessedly) the Columbus symphony and several familiar faces in the chorus. There was not a bad voice among the soloists. Quite the contrary. The staging reflected the giocoso element of dramma giocoso. Movements owed a lot to baroque dance and were charming and funny rather than affected and phony. I will say that in none of the homes of regie-opera, not in Cologne, Braunshweig or Baden-Baden have I seen Leporello spanked by Don G. Only in Columbus.

Opera Atelier brought us a fine production to see and hear. The excellent voices made the excising of three great arias all the more regrettable. (Don't talk to me about Prague and Vienna versions. I know. I was nearly there. You got the voices...let 'em sing!)

The packed house cheered the artists, from Canada and Columbus to the walls. More! More!

OK, one caveat: Weight Watchers flunkees like me should not audition for this company. They would send the Pav to the gym and Dame Joan herself to a fat farm.But again, this Don Giovanni sounded and looked wonderful.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A letter from a listener

...As I listened to your fine program on Sunday night (I was doing construction out in my garage at the time) I realized I had been away from this incredible music for too long.

In this, my 40th year of teaching, I have been telling my wife, family and friends that I have grown tired of music. Filled to the brim, ears worn out, had enough and all that. But after thoroughly enjoying your program, II suspect that I am not so much tired of music as I am bored with the smallish repertoire if standards I have been teaching for too long.

You helped me out of my rut and I thank you. I promise to write a check to WOSU before years end.


I told this person: "Talk about making my day!"

The Real Housewives of South Boston

Hysterical and true to life. There's no place like home!

Monday, October 17, 2011


I was at a concert yesterday and during the intermission I was standing by myself for a breather, reviewing the program. I noticed a very old man, elderly and frail, making his way toward me. Since I was on the way to the exit I thought little of it. People were filing out.

Instead this gentleman came over to me. He put his arm around my waist and said Oh, Mr. Purdy, thank you for all you do on the radio and especially in your symphony talks. I try never to miss them. I learn so much and I enjoy it so. I got teary. I really did. This man had slowly and painfully crossed a concert hall to speak to me. We embraced and I was a tad weepy. I'm so grateful for this gesture, and for being able to share music with folks of all ages!

Gratitude. It's a blessing to feel gratitude.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Justin Torres and 'We the Animals'

I gobble up the New York Times Book Review and anything related to books and then I go to the library and reserve myself a shelf full of new releases. Eventually these titles arrive and I have no memory of wanting them, no idea why I asked for them. I can't even remember how I heard about them. Such is the case of We the Animals by Justin Torres

Well, I thought. It;s a slim book. Why not give it a shot. I read it in one sitting and was nailed to the floor. This is a memoir as fiction or fiction as memoir tale of a young boy growing up in the boonies, with two brothers. There's a n abrasive, violent and adoring Latino father and a long suffering devoted white mother. There';s poverty and despair, violence, hope, love and most importantly: wonder. This young boy, our protagonist, learns and discovers-people, the country, trees, sex and sexuality.

The boy and his bothers are spanked, yelled at, loved protected and cared for. Papa leaves for another woman and returns. The kids at least take this as business as usual, but the juxtaposing of their acceptance against their mother's anger and depression is remarkable.

I say this all the time. Make me care about your characters and you get yourself a loyal reader. Bravo to Justin Torres!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

We Needed Some Music

I could have taken a course with this guy at Boston University.
A wonderul opportunity, sadly missed.
Stupid was stupid in 1975.

"One semester I learned that there were several classical musicians signed up in my course. For the very last class of the semester I stood aside while they sat in chairs up front and played a Mozart quartet. Not a customary finale to a class in political theory, but I wanted the class to understand that politics is pointless if it does nothing to enhance the beauty of our lives. Political discussion can sour you. We needed some music."

---You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

One of my favorite pictures

My beloved maternal grandparents, Anne and Patrick Duddy, in the back yard of their house in Arlington, Massachusetts, around 1960. Until I met my wife and my daughter was born, they were absolutely my favorite people. Brogues thick as honey, wonderful dry wit and filled with love. I miss them and think of them often .

They would have loved their great-grand daughter!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

My Other Grandmother

I grew up with my mother's family and I loved her parents dearly.
I never met my father's parents. They died before I was born.
He never spoke of his childhood; it was as if there was a horrible secret.
I'm told by cousins that their mothers (my father had six older sisters) never said much either.

My cousin Deborah has become the family historian and every so often she shares a new discovery. Today its this picture of my father's mother, Florence Leora Curtis -taken around 1887. She died in 1947. My father adored his mother, I know that much (from letters). Florence had her first child at 16. The baby was taken from her and raised by her mother-in-law, the legendary (to us) Grandma Smith.

Five more daughters followed and even Grandma Smith probably gave up.
My father was last in 1919-the only boy.

I only have one photo of Florence taken toward the end of her life, sitting on a stoop in Ithaca New York. Her hands appear to be crippled by arthritis.
It's nice to look at this lovely child and see my own daughter in her eyes.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Great Eva Turner!

When was the last time one great soprano published a biography of another great soprano? I wish Mary Garden had written about Melba ("I never saw such a fat Mimi in my life") or Lili Lehmann about Emma Calve ("You've improved a great deal.")

Soprano Linda Esther Gray was a leading British soprano from the mid 70s to the mid 80s. She sang internationally, the big girl Wagner and Verdi roles, and she recorded Isolde with Reginald Goodall. So far, so good. Linda's career ended prematurely due to illness-and now she's an a fine teacher and writer Linda has just published the biography of her teacher, Dame Eva Turner (1892-1990).

Eva Turner was the first British born singer-if you exclude the Australians-to have an enormous international career. She had humble beginnings, and spent years touring the U.K. in road shows of everything from La boheme to Tannhauser. She was admired in Great Britain, but in Italy she was loved. For years she sang in Milan, Rome, Naples, Lugano, Brescia-you name it-she was Aida, Fidelio, Sieglinde, Amelia, etc. Her appearances in the States were limited to a few years with the Chicago Opera in the early 1930s.

Turner made a sensation with Puccini's Turandot-no question that with her huge, gleaming voice she owned the role. She sang it for twenty years, and ended her operatic career with Turandot in 1948.

But there's a lot more. The venerable, then downright elderly Turner became a national icon-with clipped, beautifully precise spoken English (rrrrround tones, dear). She was a favorite on radio and TV, was a a famous teacher; a steely combination of Miss Marple and Puccini's Chinese Princess. She lived to be 98-. Her private life she kept private. She never married. Early on she had a working relationship with a musician called Richard Broad (nicknamed 'Plum'-how English) but his tastes did not run to women. Dame Eva lived for over 40 years with a full time secretary companion named Anne Ridyard. Linda Gray makes the case-respectfully- for the two ladies being intimate and why not? They were inseparable until Miss Ridyard became seriously ill in the early 1990s.

Eva Turner: A Life on the High Cs is no prima donna bio, thank God. It's the story of a greatly talented artist who was feisty, outspoken and under appreciated. Eva lived nearly a century-and those years are placed in context of worldwide events-not just in music-in Linda Esther Gray's lavish book. It's complete with copious photos, and the sound of Dame Eva's own voice, both in the text and in an accompanying CD. Don't miss this.

P.S. Dame Eva's voice was sensational. Sensational. And Linda Esther Gray was terrific herself.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Long Drive Home: My Latest Must-Read

Will Allison is a product of the Creative Writing Program at The Ohio State University. I enjoyed interviewing him a few years back when his first novel, What You Have Left was published. He integrated beautifully a multi generational tale surrounded by racing cars-a NASCAR type fantasy where you were led to care deeply about the characters. It was a very auspicious first novel.

Will's Long Drive Home has just been published. The premise is rather simple: a joy riding teenager with a few drinks in him careens around a residential neighborhood in his mom's Jag-music blaring, oblivious to safety-his own or anyone else's. He runs Glen Bauer, good guy, husband and father, off the road. Glen has finally had enough and deliberately swerves-the kid slams into a tree and is pronounced at the scene. End of story.

No it isn't. It's the-tragic-beginning. Glen is at first totally exonerated. Only he knows that the accident was partly his fault. His seven year old daughter Sara, riding in the backseat-also knows the truth.

Slowly, inexorably , Glen's world starts to disintegrate. He is apologized to by the dead boy's mother. A local detective isn't satisfied and continues an investigation-he knows the truth. Glen's wife Liz insists on a legal separation to protect the family assets in the event of a law suit. It comes out--well--it comes out at a terrible cost.

This is a short book-yet I hated to reach the end. Allison develops a momentum with great subtlety (I know that can be a contradiction) but the reader is caught up in Glen's stomach churning guilt and crumbling existence. All in 200-which I would up rationing myself.
Will Allison is loaded with skill and technique but you notice only the story-and instead of a true catharsis you are satisfied being left with questions.



Thursday, August 11, 2011

A wonderul clip of Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean. I'm deeply moved by this clip.
The people I most admire are those with a passion, who live that passion.
Sisters' analogy between capital punishment and the gospels-"crystal clarity" is wonderful
and devastating.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sigurd Islandsmoen Requiem: SEE BELOW

Say this name three times, fast: SIGURD ISLANDSMOEN

I can't do it.
Can you?

After years in the study of-and love of-music, I had never heard of Norwegian composer Sigurd Islandsmoen ( 1881-1964.) I was browsing through our record shelves the other day. I come up with some of my best programming ideas just filing through the CDs. There was a Requiem by Islandsmoen, a new recording with the Norwegian Soloist Choir. At first I asked myself, "Why a setting of the Latin liturgy from Lutheran Norway?

In fact, Islandsmoe (no, I don't really know how to pronounce it) was known for his music for the Norwegian Church. Ironically, this Requiem was the composer's best known work, though it didn't travel out of Norway. If was completed in the late 1930s and premiered in Oslo in 1943. Another irony, to have this Requiem performed at the height of WWII, when much of Scandinavia was occupied by the Nazi-with the Quisling government collaborating with the Germans.

Islandmoen Requiem is melodic and serious without being solemn (or dull.) No, its not the most original choral work out there, but its worth a listen, and Islandsmoen is a composer worth knowing better. I'm putting this Requiem on air this weekend. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Grandparent's house

Here's a picture of my grandparent's home. What happy memories I have of this house-tho Grandma and Grandpa have been gone for over thirty years. The house is now for sale. It's been in the family since 1930. I'm glad I no longer live in the area. I wouldn't be able to drive by this house to see a For Sale sign on the front lawn. Uncle Jack died a year ago at 87 and lived in this house all of his life. My Grandparent's had the same tenants in the downstairs apartment for sixty-two years!

Now the place is empty.

The backyard statue of the Madonna has been taken to a cousin's home nearby.

Here's the nicest memory. I was seven or eight years old. My grandparents, Annie and Pat-came from Ireland around the first world war. They never lost their brogues or their dry, spot on Irish humor. My grandmother was a rather steely woman, very beautiful in her old age with a core of sweetness. I remember her homemade biscuits, warm from the oven that she would press against my cheek. Her touch and that aroma and that house were all magic.

The house needs a good bit of updating. The location is perfect. The spirits in that house will grace its new owners. Begorrah.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Did you have the lunchbox?

The final launch of the space shuttle had me thinking.
John Glenn lives here in Columbus. He turns ninety next week.
I've seen him a few times, had a few words and did a brief interview with him a few years back, at the Symphony!

I remember when Glenn orbited the earth in 1962. I was five, but I remember it.
The big excitement was to get the John Glenn lunchbox.
EVERYONE had one.
Harrington School was awash in John Glenn lunchboxes.
I wonder if they go for thousands on e-bay today.

The girls didn't have John Glenn lunchboxes.
The girls had Patty Duke lunchboxes
The 'Patty Duke Show' was all the rage on TV.
Several years ago I interviewed Patty Duke on the phone about mental health issues.
She was smart, funny and candid.

You can find the interview at

I asked Patty Duke if she had any of her own lunch boxes.
She laughed a lot and said, no-she didn't even know there WERE Patty Duke lunchboxes.

There were, I'm here to tell ya.

So here I am in my dotage and I have interviewed not one but TWO people who had their own lunch boxes.

Take THAT, Spider man!!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Marjorie Lawrence's Interrupted Melody

Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979) was not just another big voiced opera singer. She was a farm girl from Australia who went from the Outback to Paris, New York Buenos Aires and back all through Europe. She had a terrific career in the world's greatest opera houses. That's nice, you say. It was seventy years ago, but what the hell, that's nice. And it is. But it's only part of the story.

In 1941, during a rehearsal in Mexico City, Marjorie collapsed. Polio was diagnosed and she never walked unassisted again. Her despair, especially after a great career, is vividly described in her memoir Interrupted Melody. Life is too short to go reading prima donna memoirs-trust me-but this is an exception. Marjorie sat home in her wheelchair despondent until she was shamed for singing "for the boys" in a local army hospital. From there, she and her wheelchair toured the military hospitals in the Pacific fr the USO.

Eventually Marjorie was able to return to the Met, singing Venus in Wagner's Tannhauser reclining on a couch (this works when you are the goddess of love.) She went on to sing Isolde. Eventually the Met grew uncomfortable with Marjorie's physical limitations. They were concerned about taking advantage of her for publicity reasons, and she left the company in 1944.

Marjorie went on to years of teaching and singing, her voice and spirit unimpaired. Interrupted Melody was filmed by MGM in 1955, with Eleanor Parker as Marjorie and the voice of Eileen Farrell.
It's a terrific picture-a little hokey now but Hollywood 'camp' at its best. Miss Parker shows all of Marjorie Lawrence's determination....and guts!

Here's Marjorie Lawrence, singing Wagner-in French!-during her years in Paris

Monday, July 04, 2011

Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' at Oberlin College

The Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin College celebrated its fortieth anniversary with a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, at the Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin College, Oberlin Ohio on July 1st. Kenneth Slowick, artistic director of the BPI conducted.

You were put on notice the minute you glanced at the program with its quote from Igor Stravinsky:

"Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion is written for a chamber music ensemble.
Its first performance in Bach's lifetime was perfectly realized by a total force of
thirty-four musicians, including soloists and chorus. That is known. And nevertheless
in our day one does not hesitate to present the work in complete disregard for the
composer's wishes, with hundreds of performers, sometimes almost a thousand...."

Stravinsky was writing in 1942. By that time, nearly 200 years after Bach's death, the large scale forces for the Bach and Handel oratorios were the norm. Those of us of an age to grow up with recordings by Koussevitzky, Mengelberg, Klemeperer and Bernstein-not to mention the early Karajan, heard large choruses, inflated orchestras and operatic soloists. And some of us loved it this way. More was more and more was better.

Joshua Rifkin changed all that thirty five years ago with his performances and later recordings of Bach one on a part and an orchestration close to what Bach would have known. Today, a Klemepereresque 'St. Matthew' would be an aberration. (Too bad). Still what one hears in historically informed performances today is the intricacy of the writing, the drama of the story and the beauty of the music.

I wonder if 'beauty' is a facile phrase today to use in discussing music. I not only want to hear music played beautifully, I also want to hear beautiful music. The St. Matthew Passion
may be the score we save from Noah's next Flood. One needn't be religious or Christian to appreciate the drama in this music: the halo of low strings surrounding Jesus's spare lines, the advanced-for the time-chromaticism of "Warlich dieses ist Gottes
sohn gewesen (Truly this was the son of God) or the insistent dialogue between Peter and the maids who recognize this distraught apostle. It's perfectly possible, indeed nowadays imperative to play this work with a reduced chorus and chamber ensemble.

At Oberlin, the soloists blended into the chorus. There were nine singers on stage and a quartet of sopranos in the choir loft. The singers were some of the best in the baroque music business: Ellen Hargis, William Sharp and Max von Egmond as Jesus. It was a joyful night for tenors, with superb singing by Thomas Cooley-the Evangelist, and by Derek Chester. His 'Geduld, geduld' (patience) was a high point of the evening.

The orchestra looked to include students and well regarded professionals, including Christopher Kreuger, flute. Kenneth Slowick's conducting was energetic-not fast but energetic. He didn't skim over the music in a flurry of white tone: he let the singers and instrumentalist tell the story. The occasional ragged ensemble and hard to tune instruments were more a testament to the student environment and I'm sure limited rehearsal time for a such an imposing work.

The St. Matthew is long-pity the souls and posteriors of the first hearers in a cold church in Leipzig-but Slowick and his artists were as fresh and spirited at 10.45 pm as they had been three hours earlier. I imagine they could have performed the entire work all over again, right away, and I know the full house-with a lot of young people, praise God!-would have been delighted to stay put.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Stanley Ann Dunham

Right off the bat you have to ask, who the hell names a girl 'Stanley?'
(Remember 'A Boy Named Sue'?)

Stanley Ann Dunham appeared in no way handicapped by her unusual first name. Indeed she comes across as a strong, determined woman who thrived living off the grid.

Who is Stanley Ann Dunham?

She's Barack Obama's mother. Born in Kansas, her parents moved to Hawaii and Stanley met Barack Obama Sr. at the University there. They courted briefly and Barak was born in 1961. Papa Barack soon returned to Kenya. That was it, except for a one year visit some time later. She raised her son alone, in Hawaii and in Indonesia. Stanley Ann's life's work was not as a wife and mother but as a cultural anthropologist. She had a second marriage to an Indonesian, and a daughter, Maya. But as determined as she seemed to get the best out of her children, she was equally determined run her own race. And work she did for years, as as researcher, student and teacher of women's business initiatives in Indonesia.

I most admire people who have the guts to follow their own way and to live the lives they want. These lives cost people and who's to say what's worth what at the end? Stanley Ann became a large, dramatically dressed woman. She is described as being entirely 'present. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there was quite a there there. From Kansas to Hawaii to Indonesia. Marriage to two men of another race. Mixed race children. The devotion of co workers. She labored for years on a doctoral dissertation-the final document ran over one thousand pages. She was awarded her Ph.D. in 1994. She was fifty-three years old. Her son had graduated Harvard Law, married and moved to Chicago to work in community organizing. She had worked under the auspices of the Ford Foundation for years. It was a life of high achievement, if two marriages and children raised at a distance. Her kids did okay, without her constant presence. I imagine Stanley Ann's influence was very strong.

Stanley Ann Dunham didn't have long to appreciate her hard work. She died of cancer in 1995, aged fifty-four. Janny Scott's book A Singular Woman takes us on quite a ride of this woman's life. Read it, and go break some molds.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Get to know Thomas Schippers

If you wait a bit in viewing the above clip you'll see a blurry image of Thomas Schippers (1930-1977) conducting Cherubini's Medea at La Scala, Milan. Maria Callas had returned to Milan to claim her greatest role, and the thirty-one year old Schippers, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, was there to join her.

Thomas Schippers is forgotten today. Shame on all of us. His conducting career began in 1950. He conducted Gian Carlo Menotti's operas, The Medium and The Telephone on Broadway. Schippers led the world premiere of the most performed opera of all, Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors on NBC television in 1951. That was the first year he was eligible to vote or drink legally. His debut at the Metropolitan Opera came in 1955. Soon he became a great favorite of impresario Rudolf Bing and of the public. Recordings followed-mostly of opera. Schippers was a founding father (or grandson) of the Spoleto Festival. He conducted the premiers of Samuel Barbers two operas, Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra -the latter for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. The highest profile gig in music for years to come.

Schippers had it all. He was an astonishing musician who more than passed muster with Callas, with Zino Francescatti, Gyorgy Czifra, Dimitri Mitropolous, Leontyne Price-some of the greatest names in music of the time. He was devastatingly handsome. It as rumored that Rudolf Bing-not known to be so inclined- was besotted with him. He was a member of the Barber-Menotti (who were so inclined)
for years.

And then there was Eileen Farrell. The great American soprano took the maestro under her wing and more than once he got a talking to. After a recording session where the young conductor had roundly alienated the orchestra, Farrell took him aside and said, "You are loaded with talent. There's no need for you to be such an asshole!" Schippers took the hint and peace was restored.*

Even in the performing arts, being gay was dicey in the 50s and 60s and being openly gay was impossible. Schippers married the young heiress Nonie Phipps in 1965. They seemed to live happily until her death from cancer in 1974. By that time the couple was living in Cincinnati, where Thomas Schippers was the Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony. I image they loved him in Cincinnati. Looks, charm, charisma and musicianship were his-important to the community in that order. He commuted to the Met and to gigs worldwide. His last performance at the Metropolitan was conducting the belated debut of Beverly Sills, in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth.
He and Sills had re introduced this work to La Scala in 1969 and went on to collaborate on a wonderful recording of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Thomas Schippers died in New York in 1977. Cancer took him as it had taken his wife three years earlier. He left a legacy of opera recordings, lots of them-and a few syphonic discs. He died before video concerts and operas were the norm.
He deserves to be remembered better. If you are an opera lover, seek out his recording s of La forza del desitno, La boheme, Carmen, The Siege of Corinth, Lucia, und so weiter. If you're not an opera lover, get over yourself and listen anyway.

*Later on, a tongue tied Farrell, exhausted from a long rehearsal, looked down and cried "Oh! I see its Pippers in the shit again!"

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kevin Spacey and a Few of his Friends

I've always loved people who can do impersonations. Kevin Spacey is a favorite actor of mine. What I didn't know was that he's an impersonator par excellence. Unbelievable. I just worry that most audiences today won't know Jimmy Stewart, Johnny Carson, Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando. They're all hear in this one balding fella-have a laugh, marvel and enjoy!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Read This Book: 'Galore'

Galore is a new novel by Canadian writer Michael Crummey. If you've ever wanted to own a home on the ocean, to sail in a big yacht, pick ripe peaches off a tree in the back yard by the pool and eat catered lobster extravaganzas every night, this is not the book for you.

If you want to learn about people and a rough and not altogether vanished way of life by the sea, grab this book . I've seldom encountered a writer so gifted at defining place. Not only do his characters feel like relatives-whether you like 'em or not-the locale is a close cousin.

Crummey's novel is set in Newfoundland over a 100 year period, from the early 19th century to World War I. I think. He dates himself with the WWI references but how far he goes back is a bit vague. No matter. The opening premise ha a man being cutout of the belly of a whale. He's alive. The whale no longer is. 'Judah' is albino like, reeks of fish and never speaks. He lives to be a very old man, marries, has a son and is most content in isolation. Over the next century or so we encounter generations of feuding families, horny priests, Calvinist minsters, and deprecate fishermen. Judah brings with him mountains of fish and economic prosperity. It doesn't last.

Galore is about the ebb and low (pardon the pun) of life. The language can be a little rich, a la Dickens or Trollope but in no way do any of the characters or situations become caricature. This is a long, slow, read. There's much to savor. I suspect its the type of book you want to read once a year, and repays the effort in different and wonderful ways, each time. The salt will sting your eyes, the stench might invade you but the land and the sea will captivate. Buy this book.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Very Worst Met Broadcasts

There are two Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera that live on in infamy forty plus years after the facts.

One is the February 1, 1969 performance of Lucia di Lammermoor with Anna Moffo. There was always a lot of hype around Moffo. She as good copy: gorgeous, nice voice, good actress, and a self described jock from Pennsylvania. She went on with no voice and her career never recovered

The second is the January 29, 1966 performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni . I'm listening to it now. The great Cesare Siepi repeats the role he owned. Gorgeous. Geraint Evans is a gruff Leporello, more dangerous than funny. The trouble begins with soprano Teresa Stich Randall as Donna Anna. This lady had a very distinguished career. On this blustery Saturday afternoon the tone is white and pinched and grating. The beloved Jan Peerce is an impeccable artist but he sounds his age-62- as Don Octavio. The tone has gone from dry to brittle.

And then there's Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the Elvira. She sang this broadcast and left the Met for good the next day. Her voice simply doesn't respond. The timbre is there, and she is warmly applauded, but every note costs her. There is no 'flow' to the tone. She went on for several more years, so if this was just a bad day who can say? But I often find that these gleefully received-by some-disasters have many a fine point as well. Moffo had the stylish Nicolai Gedda and Renato Bruson in his Met debut. Don Giovanni had Siepi, and well, Mozart!

In Southie, Bulger Was Legend

James J. ("Whitey") Bulger was arrested earlier this week, along with his girlfriend, both on the lam for r16 years. They were picked up in Santa Monica CA. Whitey was a crime lord. He was a sadistic, murderous psychopath who pumped drugs and mayhem in to South Boston.

South Boston? I remember the anti busing riots erupting there back in 1974. It was my first day of college and the papers were filled with images of black children being stoned and threatened. The whole city was mortified and embarrassed nationally. I've never been to South Boston myself. It's only tow or three subway stops from downtown. But in my day you didn't go there without a reason. It was okay if your grandmother or your uncle lived there, but if you didn't know your way around, you were marked as an outsider and that was no good. For years there was a ferocious pride in the neighborhood as street after street succumbed to Whitey's drugs and violence.

That Whitey's brother Billy is the former President of the Massachusetts Senate, from whence he became Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts is less of an outrage than it is a comedy. Boston was like that in my day. We loved irony and giving the finger to ...well, just about anybody. "Vote early and often". Today people are outraged but mine is the last generation to find it unsurprising and funny.

I imagine its different now. Whole sections have been gentrified (groan). Who can afford to live thee? What were leaky triple deckers are now chic and expensive. If the long time residents get a piece of the do-re-mi, then good. Southie is always depicted in the movies as a violent "I didn't see nothing" culture. I wouldn't know, but I guess it sells movies. Hopefully with the Bulger case nearing resolution the community will have some peace. I don't know about the families of his many victims though, God bless them.

Rita Hunter- Melbourn 1989.~ Great sense of humor.

Rita Hunter (1933-2001). She was a big lady with a large, gorgeous voice, one of my favorites. I came across this on Youtube. If you want to read a hoot of a memoir look for Rita's "Wait til the Sun Shines, Nellie'. For all her humor and fun, don't forget this was a fine musician and a great artist in Mozart, Wagner and Verdi. She was Reginald Goodall's Brunhilde in London and repeated the role in new york. I wish she'd done more in the States. Her size worked against her I fear-this was thirty-five years ago. Still, I love this voice and get a kick out of this clip. Enjoy.