A Spectacular Thousand-Year Journey

Wayfaring StrangerEvery once in a while, I’ll catch an episode of The Thistle & The Shamrock on a public radio station. Seems to me, the show has been on forever, but I’ve never thought much about the program’s title. Of course, it refers to music from Scotland and from Ireland, but that’s a very small part of the story that its host / producer tells in her new book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. (From the start, I should point out that this is a fabulous book, a work deserving of all kinds of awards and many quiet hours of reading accompanied by many more spent listening, preferably to live music.) In fact, it’s not just Ms. Ritchie’s book: storytelling and scholarly research duties are shared by an equally talented music lover, Doug Orr, whose Swannanoa Gathering is, among many good things, the place where the idea of the Carolina Chocolate Drops took shape: “they have helped revive an old African American banjo tradition that was fast disappearing.”

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

Beginning in the 1600s, long before America became a nation, there was an African American banjo tradition in Appalachia. Mostly, the musicians were slaves brought to America to work on the plantations.  The “banjar” evolved from stringed instruments played in West Africa, and eventually became known as the banjo. The instrument lost its luster when it was adopted by musicians performing in blackface in minstrel shows. That’s why the old African American banjo tradition found itself in need of revival.

Of course, the term “minstrel” is rooted in a much earlier tradition. They were dancers, mimes, jugglers, wrestlers—all-around entertainers who wandered Europe, from backwoods village to royal court. By the time Christopher Columbus voyaged to the new world, that minstrel tradition was fading. By 1700, minstrels were hard to find, but the idea of a traveling musician, accompanying himself (sometimes, herself) on a stringed instrument (very portable) was taking hold. It was enabled by new technology: the printing press. Broadsides (single sheets) were printed, then sold. They covered news and opinion, and often, featured lyrics to songs meant to be sung by groups of people in public, for fun. The most popular type of song was the ballad: “a narrative poem that tells a story meant to be sung.”

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

The serious journey begins in the North East region of Scotland known as Aberdeen. Separated from the rest of Scotland (and England beyond) by the Cairngorms to the west and the Grampian Mountains to the south, its culture was much affected by sailors who came across the North Sea from Scandinavian, Nordic and Germanic people; the trip was only a few hundred nautical miles, less than the distance from Aberdeen to London. Although this history is more than 800 years old, some of the music survives, not as museum pieces but as traditional repertoire in the Appalachian hills of the U.S., in Ireland, in Scotland, and on my stereo system. Often, the fiddle (imported to Scotland from Italy) was the instrument of choice because it was portable and versatile—but it was not without controversy (by the time it reached the Appalachians, some Baptists called it “the Devil’s instrument.” There are so many styles of fiddle playing, each broadly associated with a region: the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, Highland fiddle and its kin heard on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which would be the Acadian fiddling that makes its way down to New Orleans with the corruption of the term Acadian now called Cajun.

“Connecting hollow bones and sticks to an animal bag…” begins in primitive times. Nero played the bagpipes. It’s been traced back to early Egypt, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, and India, used by shepherds and herdsman who had easy access to the necessary materials. The troubadours of France and the minstrels of the Middle Ages made bagpipes part of the traveling show. “By the 15th century, the bagpipe had displaced the harp (!) as the instrument of choice especially in its role as a call to battle.”

The trail of connections extends over an extremely wide portion of time and space. These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The connection between Sweden and North Carolina is, perhaps, not so far as anyone might think.

These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The distance between Sweden and North Carolina may not be so far after all. Click to watch a performance video.

About 8,000 years ago, people began traveling the narrow channel between Scotland and Ireland. Of course, they brought their music along. “Common language, common culture, the whole fiddle tradition, and the whole music tradition is all very, very similar and connected. The history and the geography have all played a part in it. You know the shamrock, the rose and the thistle—meaning the three—England, Scotland, and Ireland—all contribute to what we know call the Ulster song tradition…,” explained Irish traditional singer and song collector when he was interviewed by the authors at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina.

Some had heard of the land far across the Sea of Green Darkness, the Ocean Sea, the Western Ocean, the Sea of Perpetual Gloom. Some knew of the early Viking passages to to Vinland, now Newfoundland. In 1717, Ulster Scots (Scots who had migrated to Ulster) were beginning to migrate to Boston, and in 1729, the first Highland Scots were arriving in Cape Fear, North Carolina. In 1745, Andrew Presley travels from Aberdeen to North Carolina; 190 years later, his family tree would include the birth of Elvis Presley. In 1768, James Ritchie and his five brothers set sail from Liverpool and eventually settle in Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas; in 1922, Appalachian singer, song collector and scholar Jean Ritchie is born to a branch of the family well-established in southeastern Kentucky. In the 1770s, Doc Watson’s Scottish ancestor Tom Watson leaves Edinburgh for North Carolina. As they travel, and when they settle, they sing melancholy songs about parting ways with the family left behind, sing about the hardships and the good times. Parts of their stories are reassembled by the song collectors who travel to learn them by heart, write the songs down, perform them, and record the elder folk before they, and the memories, pass.

DIVI077The authors have done just that, and so, in their way, have Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and dozens of others whose names may be less familiar. But the authors have accomplished more. They’ve managed to weave a very complicated story together, a saga of migration and evolution, Viking travels and minstrel shows, song fragments that survived for nearly a millennium, wonderful artists from Scottish poet Robert Burns to Kathy Mattea. There is so much love and passion for the history, the music, the instruments, the people, the land. There’s a CD bound into the back cover so you can hear the music, with every track explained in fascinating detail. There are dozens of handsome full page photographs that provide a sense of the land, plus illustrations of the instruments. Every time I wanted to know more about an interesting concept, I’d turn the page and find a very comprehensive briefing on, for example, “The Ceili, or Ceilidh” (a social event with music that originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland); the dulcimer; “Child ballads” (Scots and Irish ballads classified by Harvard Professor Francis James Child, and often referred to by their numbers). I had never heard of The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. but now I understand its importance. Before Ellis Island, Philadelphia was the American point of entry for most immigrants from Ulster. They’d travel this early highway west and then south, ferrying across the Susquehanna River to Winchester, Virginia (home of Patsy Cline) and the Shenandoah Valley and on to the Yadkin Valley terminus in North Carolina (think in terms of today’s Boone, NC); Daniel Boone extended the trail to what became the Wilderness Road out to Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap.

When I first noticed this book, I figured I’d learn something about music history. Certainly, the authors covered that territory with great skill. That was only the starting point. I’m reminded that there is no such thing as music history, just as there is no such thing as art history or political history. Everything is intertwined. It’s an unbroken circle.

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians."

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians.”

 

 

I want to go to Provence. In 1970.

There was a secret shared, and in time, the secret was widely shared. It was beautiful. Tasty and life-affirming, too. And many of us benefit from it every day of our lives.

Before 1970–give or take a few years either way–we ate frozen and canned foods, modern conveniences for the busy family. Fresh food wasn’t on the radar (and certainly not on the Radarange). Restaurants weren’t modern, not yet focused on locavores, or for that matter, shared cuisines beyond, say, a local pizza or Chinese restaurant.

What changed? Lots of cultural norms–greater awareness, shifted sensibilities, a focus on nutrition and fresh foods. This didn’t happen magically. It may have begun, in earnest, in 1970, when several iconoclasts gathered in nearby homes in the south of France. They changed the way we think about food, and if food is life, they changed the way we think about life, too.

They were Julia and Paul Child, whose rough contours were sketched in the film Julie & Julia. And, to a lesser degree, Simone Beck, who co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Julia, and whose insistence upon classic French tradition emboldened Julia to think more clearly about the real world of American moms (few American dads cooked–except outdoors). There was the travel / food / free spirited writer M.F.K. Fisher and the American food expert  James Beard, struggling through an extensive survey of our unique and sometimes inexplicable cuisine. And several others who cooked together, argued, and savory the good life that was making its way to Sonoma and Napa.

Their story is told by Ms. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr in a book that’s becoming quite popular. It’s called Provence, 1970, and it provided a  winter weekend’s entertainment. There are menus, and they lead into wonderful stories of friends building meals together– serious cooks experimenting and showing off for their foodie friends. It’s loose and informal, and I kept fantasizing about what it might have been like to join them, if just for a night. Few nonfiction books draw me into the story in quite this way, and it was fun to be a part of it, if only as an observer nearly fifty years later.

It’s now available in paperback, but there’s something about the hardbound edition that’s even more appealing.

Enjoy!

BTW: The complete title is “Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of NPR.

M.F.K. Fisher, clearly enjoying life.P.S.: I think I need to read more by M.F.K. Fisher. One intriguing title is a 1942 book called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I found a review of the book when it was new in the digital catacombs of The New York Times. They wrote:

Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her books creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.”

Beyond the Decisive Moment

Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Best known as a prolific street photographer (for whom color was a commercial concession, not an aesthetic option), HCB’s life story is no less compelling than his lifetime of images. His career and personal commitments were well-described last year at an extensive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Happily, the exhibition has been packaged as a coffee table book by Clément Chéroux and published by Thames & Hudson. It’s expensive ($75) and it’s worth the money, in part because Mr. Chéroux curated the 2014 exhibition.

Students of photography associated HCB with “the decisive moment. Just as Martin Luther King (okay, “MLK”)’s life work far exceeds the brief period of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Cartier-Bresson’s infatuation with the precise instant when a photograph ought to be made is only part of an expansive range of artistic and journalist expression.

Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a comfortable Parisian household; the family owned a large cotton and thread manufacturing company. 1908 was also the year that, in England, Robert Baden-Powell published “Scouting for Boys” to support his new progressive approach to education known as the Boy Scouts. The organization’s combination of an active life for boys, with ample freedom and discipline, was a good match. At age 14, as a Scout, Henri began to experiment with photography, but only as  hobby. The family’s plan for Henri was all business—he was sent to the best schools so he could, sometime, lead the large family business. Of course, things didn’t work out as planned. Instead, with the blessings of his family, he studied art. Mostly cubism. Which he found “boring” because it was “too systematic.” He preferred the more expansive world view offered by surrealism. In October, 1930, by now free from both his formal education and military service, Cartier-Bresson followed Europeans curious about “the Dark Continent.” He spent nearly a year in Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, the French Sudan, Togo, and along the Niger River, he photographed children on the streets and people at work—avoiding the exotic and tribal imagery, just focusing on the day-to-day. Over the next few years, his casual interest in travel photography became a passion, then, a career. He traveled to, and photographed street activities in, Paris, Marseilles, Milan, Florence, Sienna, Trieste, Madrid, various parts of Mexico, and more.

Along the way, he learned by copying the styles of Eugene Atget (streets of Paris, store windows); European photographers intrigued by the geometry of city life (mostly); the golden section that is key to classic composition; various less-than-compressible surrealistic sketches and distortions. In time, he worked out his own style. Before he turned 30, he had created enough distinctive images to display his work in a successful exhibition.

The story becomes more interesting as HCB moves from travel photography and street work (often one and the same) to work with a more specific purpose: often, related to his attachment to the ideals of Communism. Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini, and the utter transformation of Europe are among the best stories—supported by some of the best images—in this book. He becomes concerned about poverty and tells his visual stories so they will provoke attention. He attends to the facial expression and behavior of crowds, often ignoring (and needing to caption) just what they are looking at. He documents free time—a relatively new idea in 1938 France, at least for the working class—and this is probably my favorite selection of his work. For example, a Sunday on the banks of the Seine from that year:

sfmoma-hcb-03-near-juvisy-1938

In truth, what I love about this book is the arc of the creative story. It begins with a smart teenager who decides he likes art and photography better than college and business, who grows up quickly as he travels and makes stunning pictures. Then, he finds his political and social conscience, and plays a very active role, using his photography as a very effective tool. Then, he realizes that his political affiliations will become a career problem, so he co-founds Magnum, a journalistic photo agency with Robert Capa and several other extraordinary photojournalists, and becomes one of LIFE magazine’s active contributors. Then, he explores topics that interest him: the growing connection between people and machines (a project for the IBM of the 1960s, for example), icons of power (very powerful—and decidedly odd—image of a giant Lenin in front of the Winter Palace in Leningrad as a man and his small child stroll in the foreground), and the ways that crowds behave. And then, in this 60s, he begins to slow down, to take images that are more focused on the feeling than the moment. And he begins to draw, picking up on something he loved to do as a child. He visits art museums, and spends hours sketching great works. He takes pictures of the family with his legendary Leicas. It’s a lovely life story, wonderfully punctuated by his pencil on paper self portraits from 1987 and 1992. One of the better free bios on the web is here. And there are a lot of smaller books filled with specific HCB projects that you can find on Goodreads, along with the compendium Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and His World, also from Thames & Hudson.

Henri-Cartier Bresson was born in August, 1908 and died in August, 2004—he lived, and documented, the better part of a century. And nobody did it better.

On the left, a picture of an American woman in 1947. On the right, “Giant Effigy of Lenin” from 1973.

american_woman-and-lenin

 

 

An Authentic, Modern Meal in Venice

Venice is a small city overrun not with cars, but with tourists. It is a charming place to stroll, romantic in the dark alleys of the  night, a bit spooky when a rat crosses the path (the place is filled with canals and infrastructure that pre-dates Columbus), charming in so many ways. Venetian cuisine differs from traditional Italian cuisine—this is not the place where you will find fried breaded meats in tomato sauce covered with mozzarella cheese. Instead, it is a place where fish dominates, and cuisines have been shaped by constant trade with the far east, the near east, northern Africa and the rest of Europe. You’d never know it to walk into just any restaurant in touristy San Marco, but I headed to the edge of town to enjoy a proper meal of Venetian specialties prepared by a gloriously obsessive restauranteur whose past history includes years as a session musician (a bassist) in the recording studios of Paris, GP Cremonini.

My meal began with fish. Not one fish. Lots of small crudo (raw) pieces of fish that resembled, but did not taste like sushi.

FishTray

On the upper left, that’s salmon covered by stracciatella and alfalfa sprouts. I savored the red snapper—number two on the top—but I could not figure out what the green flavor might be—it turned out to be a very fresh lime, a delightful companion. The strawberry rests on a morsel of sea bass, and it’s followed by a piece of sea bream with a bit of fresh mint. The second row begins with sea bass and wild fennel, then swordfish with a slender stick of vanilla, and finally, that’s passion fruit relish on amberjack. There were eight fish—the one that I ate before I took the picture was tuna with a bit of citrus, probably orange. Overall, a wonderful introduction to the region’s fresh fish, and a clever way to present their flavors in a fresh and inviting way. But there’s more to the story…consider the level of commitment to ingredients, the experimentation to find just the right combination. That’s the obsession that plays out with nearly 200 food suppliers to Riveria. GP had spent much of the day meeting with his grappa supplier, and talked to me about the herb gardener whose tiny backyard garden is the best in the region. He cares a great deal about the food. We’ll see what comes next.

Scallop-SaladIt’s a salad with the obvious fresh greens and toasted scallops, smaller than the ones we find in the U.S., and a bit saltier, too. There are bits of a local bacon, too, which enhances the salty favor. The sauce is a red pepper puree, which adds the necessary sweetness to balance the salty flavor. Bit of polenta toast complete the dish.

Along the way, wine with the early courses—but in time, I felt I ought to focus on the food, so I slowed down. I started with a Bianco Secco from Quintarelli, then moved on to a more robust unfiltered white wine called Sassia from Angiolini Maule. “Only the grape, you’re tasting only the grape,” GP explained and instructed me about the importance of simplicity in this wine and in his whole approach to food. Unadorned, wonderful, carefully selected ingredients are his secret, and Venice and the Veneto region is superb place to find them. But it takes a great deal of time to find these ingredients, to get the mixes right, to train the staff to do things differently. For the first six months, the staff struggled to understand GP’s unorthodox approach and his combinations of flavors, and his working style, but in time, they came to understand what he was doing, and why it was important to both preserve and update the Venetian traditions. This was decidedly different from the routines at other area restaurants where they had worked, so it took time. It was great fun to understand the backstory and enjoy the highly-evolved meals. There are nineteen tables here, and 173 suppliers—“one for the bread flour, another for the mozzarella,, for the polenta.” Everything is done properly, nothing is rushed. It is the way that GP and his partner want to run their business.

On the previous night, I had sampled Sior with local sardines, and they were tasty, but not extraordinary. Here, the dish of Venice’s fisherman—preserved fish with onions—took on a different character. The key was the scampi—the word translates as our langostini, not as an Italian restaurant’s garlicky butter sauce for shrimp—“one is a scampo, more than one is scampi,” GP explained. He went on, “this is a very traditional dish, with any available fish. Sailors would take it to sea. Here, we prepare it at least a day in advance.” With thin slices of fresh apple.

Fisherman

The next dish was my favorite. Gnocchi, but a gnocchi unlike any I have tasted before. This is pasta made with potato flour, but most preparations tend to be heavy, thick and gummy. Riviera’s gnocchi was light and airy, and as prepared with a thin basil pesto with crackling fresh broccoli and bits of sea bass and small tomatoes, it was the kind of dream dish that one hopes to encounter in a superior restaurant.

Gnocchi

I’m beginning to fill up. Our strategy of small dishes was working well—until the gnocchi showed up. I ate all of it, and that curtailed my ability to try another half-dozen courses (good reason for a second visit). Still, there were two more dishes that I was destined to try. The first was a single large ravioli colored by squid ink and filled with scallop. You’ll excuse me—I took a first bite before I remembered to snap the picture. The dish is called cappallechi, and the tomatoes are called detereno. The sauce is lovely, but I don’t recall why I loved it so (my notes are limited to “lovely sauce.”

Black-Ink-Ravioli

We’re still going. Next and last among the mains is a sea bass with a pool of pumpkin sauce. There are tiny poppy seeds on the side of the fish to add punch and texture. The salty slivers of fresh artichoke complement the mild fish flavor.

Bass

Time for dessert. A lineup of five small portions, each one special in its way. Once again, I’m impressed by the care and creativity associated with so many different presentations. Here, the lineup includes a hazelnut mousse, then the best sachertorte I have ever tasted (noting that my time in Venice was followed by a short week in Vienna), a cream puff with a bit of strawberry, a pannacotta (texture of flan but a vastly different sweet flavor), and a tiny tiramisu with fresh espresso dust. Not pretentious—just simple preparations made by a very skillful baker and pastry chef.Dessert-Row

And just when I thought the meal was ending, another small taste of sweets to complete an extraordinary session. The biscuits were standard issue, but oh those little chocolate balls! Cold and alcoholic (rum), with coconut overtones, they’re called puncetti, and I wish I could find or make them at home. What a nice way to end a meal.

GP invited me to sample a deeply personal, thoroughly modern excursion through traditional Venetian dishes. The meal came with more than a few friendly conversations and background stories, making it that much more special. Riviera is not standard tourist fare, and it requires willingness to walk perhaps fifteen minutes beyond the tourist section, but the restaurant is part of a larger story. Venice is sacrificing its authentic past, its artisanal approach to the arts, because tourists expect less. Here, it is reasonable to expect more, and to engage in a conversation about the Venice of the 21st century.

Here’s how to find it. Be sure to reserve—everything in Venice becomes busy when the tourists arrive.

Strolling through Everyday Venice

The day began, as it should this time of year, with a stroll through the ancient streets of Venice: the paths along the canals (“fondamenta”), under the occasional tunnel to somewhere or nowhere (“sottoportego”), and, of course, over the many tiny bridges (“ponte”).

On one particular ponte that I could never find again (many look alike), there is a border collie and a man who likes to dress in New York Yankees sweats. I never got the dog’s name but I will always remember his wonderfully obsessive behavior. When he spotted an oncoming gondola, he would stick his head through the ponte’s iron work, stare for a moment, then race over to the other side of the ponte (not more than two meters) to watch the gondola emerge out from under the bridge and out the other side. He did this over and over and over again, and enjoyed it every time. I suspect he does this every day of his doggie life. Here’s a picture, just as the process begins.

Dog gondola

220px-CaffeflorianJust keep walking. Morning tea at the Florian, an old and not especially crowded coffee house (the first two weeks of December, nobody is in town, so I had the place to myself). It’s a landmark on the Piazza San Marco, and has been since the 1720s, when the Turkish invaders introduced coffee to the city. Casanova, Proust and Dickens hung out there, and now, so have I. The place is gorgeous, inside and out. I enjoy my $15 tea—it’s served in a clear teapot with a blooming cluster of leaves that open up as the tea brews. I contemplate the pigeons on the far side of the square—and the San Marco Basilica which seems to need a good cleaning. The treasured mosaics do not sparkle in the sunny day. They are obscured, in part, by inevitable scaffolding. The place is surrounded by expensive Fifth Avenue fashion shops, and Italian brands (Loriblu, for example, with splendidly silly crystalline boots in the window). Time to move on to more interesting surroundings. I keep walking. Time for lunch. Closed on Sundays (today is Thursday), the place to go is Dal Moro’s, which is not so hard to find if you simply follow the calles (alleyways) and trust your instinct that this tiny storefront really is around the corner. And there it is, perhaps the finest pasta in all of Venice. The pasta comes with an urging to eat it hot, but there is no place to sit down. One eats the pasta standing up, as this couple is doing. Pasta CoupleWe chat for a bit, then I move on to a favorite campo in the Santa Croce area of town. It’s square dominated by a very old church called San Giacomo dell’Orio, and it dates back to 1225 (“Tradition says that the church
was founded in 555, but the first documented reference dates it to 1089.”) The bell tower (“campanile”) was last repaired in the 1300s. I love this campo for several reasons, all related to a sense of real life for real Venetians—there are only about fifty thousand of them who actually live in the city, and it is here that I was able to watch children on scooters, dogs out for their daily walk (and tie-up to a post while the owner picks up supplies at a local market), great gelato down the main street, wonderful pastries and soup at Majer nearby, aging women gossiping about everyone they know. Every day I was in Venice, I spent at least an hour just sitting and watching life go by. On this particular day, I sketched for a while, then just sat back and took it all in. Somehow, this seemed like a better way to spend the afternoon than staring the art that the Venetians had stolen from other countries when they had the power to do so. It fills the museums, and there would be time, in a day or two, to fully absorb myself in the gold-leafed grandeur.

Santa Croce campo 2

Santa Croce campo 1

The day is beginning to wind down—or, at least, the sunlight is beginning to fade away. That happens around 430PM this time of year, but so much of Venice sees so little sun (small alleys and enclosed campos), it’s only about 4PM, but it seems to be getting dark. I keep walking, and sure enough, by the time I reach the bridge to dell’Accademia, the Grand Canal is fading to a deep blue.

darker Venice from Bridge

I wander around the Dorsoduro—another of Venice’s districts—and poke around the shops. There are shops everywhere, and most of the them sell tourist stuff. I keep an eye out for the work of craftsmen, or, at least, local artisans (most of what is sold in Venice’s shops is made in China—an odd historical turnabout). Somewhere along the way—Venice being so confusing, it’s difficult to recall which shop is in which district and which day the visit occurred—I found a local print shop with its own old-time Heidelberg press, asked far too many questions, and left with a satchel full of bookmarks and a lovely three-color print of the Grand Canal made on the shop’s printing press by the two men who own and operate it. I wish there was more of that in Venice, but the economics and the government policies tend to discourage local enterprise. Still, it can be found, if one takes the time, does the research, asks the questions, and, gets lucky.

Walking along the watery edge of the Dorsodoro, I watched cruise ships in a dredged waterway that was too small for their bulk, and wondered about the Las Vegas style hotel building across the way. I found out that the odd Stucky building had been a wheat mill (Mr. Stucky became Venice’s richest citizen before he was murdered—so much drama!) Sure enough, the place is now a Hilton hotel. I was walking along the Giudecca canal (“guidecca” was the name of the island where undesirables where kept—the word refers to those who are judged). I was headed for dinner at Rivera, an upscale restaurant that serves a modern version of traditional Venetian cuisine. Stay tuned…

Night at the Operas

If I had arrived several weeks earlier, I might have seen “La Traviata” or perhaps “Simon Boccanegra,” but I was only to be in Venice for a few days, and there was no opera scheduled at Teatro La Fenice. I was happy to settle for a Diego Matheuz conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony—just to spend an evening listening to music in one of Europe’s most extraordinary concert halls. Unfortunately, Matheuz did not perform because there was a general strike on Friday. I did, however, manage to attend a Saturday night performance of a contemporary work. More on that later.

DSC01491loc-grande-guerra-page-001-344x1024Why did I care about this particular theater? The history, mostly. And the way it looks on the inside. Just being there, even if there isn’t the same there that was there before. This is the opera house where Verdi’s “La Traviata” made its debut. Same for “Simon Boccanegra,” where Maria Callas became a star. It is, or was, a remarkable place in the history of music. Why the dancing verbs? Because the place has a history that’s as crazy as any opera plot. Originally built as the San Benedetto Theatre in the 1730s, it burned down in 1774, and was rebuilt as Teatro La Fenice (“Fenice” translates as “phoenix”) to begin anew in 1792. Immediately, there was squabbles, the theater survived and by early 1800s, it was a world-class venue, mounting operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, the big names in Italy at that time. In 1836, it burned down again, and was quickly rebuilt a year or so later. That’s when Verdi started writing operas for La Fenice, including “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata,” which debuted there. So began a century and a half of magic—until 1996, when two electricians burned it to the ground. Remarkably, engineers had measured the theater’s acoustics only two months before, so the theater was rebuilt sounding much the same as its predecessor.

DSC01752That’s the theater that I visited, the 1,000 seat theater that hosted the premiere of “La grande guerra (vista con gli occhi di un bambino)” – a tale for men’s chorussopranonarrator and instruments with music by Claudio Ambrosini, featuring Sonia Visentin (soprano), Sandro Cappelletto (narrator), Matteo Liva (piano), Alberto Perenzin (trumpet), Giulio Somma (percussion), Coenobium Vocale (Maria Dal Bianco, choirmaster ). The title translates as: “The Great War (as seen through the eyes of a child”). The instrumentation was carefully chosen: the soprano Visentin represents the voices of the mothers and sisters and aunts who bore unceasing sorrow as they lived their short lives. The child, who wrote the World War I diaries, is manifest in the percussion work of a twelve-year-old musician who masterfully handled the xylophone, tympani and other instruments. The men’s choir—rather flawless in their relentless soldiering on through the era’s music—represent the soldiers. Capalletto’s narration tied everything together in the words of the child. So painful, so affecting. So frustrating—I wanted to understand every word, but I could only understand some of what was being said and sung.

DSC01772It was a beautiful performance in a beautiful place. But it was not my only engagement for the evening. Fearful of seeing no music in Venice, I also booked a seat at the tourist-oriented Musica a Palazzo, just a few dark alleyways, a campo (plaza), and several bridges away from the opera house. I raced over in the dark to catch the final act of an intimate staging of the story in an old mansion–the last Barbaggio family member died in 1804).  Each act is staged in a different room of the mansion. I arrived in time for Violetta to die in her bedroom, the men in her life beside her, three performers singing their hearts out for perhaps a hundred people with the accompaniment of a quartet (violin, viola, cello, piano). The intimacy of the performance, and the the familiar strangeness of the setting in the old mansion, turns out to be a delightful for a tourist to spend an evening in Venice—but you must be willing to buy into the schtick. The audience seemed to delight in doing just that.

DSC01499The contrast was fun to contemplate. On the one hand, a classic old opera house rebuilt from its own ashes less than twenty years ago presenting material from World War I in a 21st century setting. On the other, an old mansion dating back two centuries— Ca’Barbagio presenting an opera that debuted at La Fenice in 1853 for 21st century tourists visiting an old city of just 50,000 permanent residents whose long decline probably began more than 500 years ago. Today, the city exists mostly for its history and tourism—more than 20 million people visit Venice every year. I was lucky enough to spend my time at La Fenice sitting next to a local woman, Mirella, whose love for La Fenice has less to do with classic old operas and more to do with the many contemporary works, like those by Ambrosini, for this is, after all, her neighborhood music house.

Heads Up for Everyone

NavdyMaybe twenty years ago, I remember my friend Harry, who knows a lot about cars, telling me about a magical idea called a “heads up display.” Harry explained that data and images would be projected on every car windshield, and if I understood him correctly, instrumentation would move from the dashboard to an ultra-simple visual presentation directly in the driver’s field of view. No more looking down, no more looking away from the road. I became vaguely aware that some truck drivers were using this technology, but I wondered whatever happened to the consumer side of the idea.

Next year, we can all buy a dashboard mounted video projector called a Navdy. It costs less than $30o, and it does what Harry promised, and more. Navdy projects very simple graphics and just a few words directly on the windshield, directly above the steering wheel. The projector is set up so that your point of focus on the data is also your point of focus while driving, so the information is always easy to see (I’m curious how those with bi- or trifocals will respond).

We all know that picking up a phone while driving (or stopped at a light) to read a text message is a bad idea, and that sending a text is an even worse idea. So now, the text shows up immediately in front of you, perhaps with a little iconic picture of your texting buddy (who is, hopefully, on a coach, not driving a big rig while texting). To reply, you either speak (Navdy will recognize what you have to say) or gesture (a favorite but simple way to interact with Navdy).

You can use your existing cell phone (Android or iPhone). There is no monthly service fee. You only need to buy the device.

So what else does Navdy do? It can display your fuel level, speed, and other information about your car. It allows you to make phone calls and to respond to them without touching a telephone. Ditto for text messages. If your phone is playing music, you can stop and start the stream. It responds to voice control, just as Siri does (hopefully, it’s better than Siri).

New idea? As an add-on, sure. But those who follow the car industry report several million HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) already in cars that are on the road, and have been for several years.

Although there are lots of questions about what we should and should not be doing while driving, whether Navdy is a help or a hindrance or something else entirely, whether this sort of thing will become standard in every vehicle, and, of course, whether most of us will actually be driving a car in a future where cars are probably going to be driving themselves. In the mean time—there’s at least a ten year gap between today and the future—this is a device that will become a buzz item in 2015.

Do watch the video. It’s irreverent and fun.

 

 

Creepy Tale in an Lovely Setting

In 1905, Grace Brown drowned in Big Moose Lake. In 2005, the Metropolitan Opera debuted an opera about what happened to her. This past weekend, just about 100 miles from the tragedy, I watched the story come back to life, at my leisure, on the shores of nearby Lake Otsego. In fact, the whole sad affair took place in Cortland (75 miles away) and Utica (40 miles away). To this day, nobody is completely sure what happened to Grace Brown, but her story is as captivating today as it was when her love letters to Chester Gillette were revealed in connection with his 1906 trial. Did Chester Gillette lure his pregnant fiancé up to the Big Moose Lake to kill her? Probably. Did he swat her with an oar and send her to the depths; or did he lose faith in his plan at the final moment and lose his wife-to-be in an unfortunate accident? Whatever happened, it was kind of cool and kind of creepy to sit through a retelling of the story not far from where the real thing captivated newspaper readers a century (or so) ago.

You may recall that journalist-novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a very fat novel called “An American Tragedy” about this unfortunate turn of events. Chester was hired by his uncle to supervise a skirt factory in Cortland, NY; got one of the worker girls pregnant and promised to marry her; captured the attention and the heart of a wealthy and pretty socialite; got himself all confused; and figured out that the best way to solve the problem was to end Grace’s life.

i-ftZBWGQ-LThe next character in what turned out to a fascinating Saturday night at the Glimmerglass Festival just north of Cooperstown NY is Tobias Picker. If you don’t know the name, you should. “An American Tragedy” is his fourth opera (and one of several he has written with Gene Scheer’s libretto—you may know Scheer from 1998’s “American Anthem”). Picker’s other operas include “Emmeline,” which is excellent and available on CD, originally a Judith (“Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) novel; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (same Roald Dahl story that gave us the animated film); and “Dolores Claiborne”) based upon the Stephen King novel. Which is to say: Tobias Picker is writing contemporary American operas about American stories (not many people are doing this, so it’s well worth noting).

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Two wonderful women—what’s a guy to do? Keep the one with the money, and kill off the other. His downfall: he kept the working girl’s love letters.

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As for this particular performance, a good solid brava! A solid cast of about fifty performers benefitted from very articulate direction (and especially good lighting design). The production was lifted by several nice turns by Vanessa Isiguen as the most unfortunate (and richly voiced) Roberta Alden (the Grace character, renamed, and shown in the blue frock, above), a fetching Cynthia Cook as the socialite who owns the bad guy’s heart (the blonde, appropriately placed above our Grace), and an impressive final act performance by the bad guy’s God-fearing, God-loving mother, Elvira, by Patricia Schuman. I should note that Glimmerglass is well-known for a superior Young Artists program, and many of the performers in this production are among this year’s class. BTW: Lots more photos of the performance here.

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

I believe Glimmerglass is one of my favorite places to enjoy opera in the United States. The opera house (built in 1987 but still looking new) is about eight miles (and another world) north of baseball-crazy Cooperstown: peaceful, easy, civilized. The Alice Busch Opera Theater is handsome and easily navigated, a tremendous relief for the seniors who may find other opera halls far less sensibly designed. The acoustics are wonderful, the seats are comfortable,  and the dedicated musicians, performers, and staging staff do a great deal with a budget that would be a fraction of some big city companies. When the weather is hot, the exterior walls open up to cool the place down during intermission (how great it that?!).

Every summer, the  Glimmerglass Festival produces three operas and one musical. This year, I missed “Carousel” (the musical), almost managed “Madame Butterfly,” and “Ariadne in Naxos.” Next year—I vow to make plans early—the bill will be “The Magic Flute,” “Macbeth,” “Candide,” and the far more obscure, “Cato in Utica” (by Vivaldi). And I learned a very important lesson: if you are planning to go to Glimmerglass, do not assume that it’s easy to arrange for a hotel room (unless you are working well ahead of the desired date). Tickets for next year are available now—and presumably, you can arrange for a room long before next season begins.

And in case you’re curious, the name Glimmerglass comes from a James Fennimore Cooper novel involving Lake Otsego. Cooper’s father founded the town that bears the family name. It’s a beautiful place, as lush and green and perfect as a summer’s day. I’m sure Grace was thinking the same thing when she and her husband-to-be floated out on July 11, 1906. Creepy enough that I almost drove up to Big Moose Lake to see what there was to see. But I thought better of it, and spent just a bit more time hanging around Lake Otsego, probably all for the best.

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High-Flying Book Report

Alaska_Airlines_Boeing_737Three across, seats A, B, and C in a exit row. All three of us reading a book. The ten year old girl who happened to sit in the window seat: a fat novel by Rick Riordan. My wife: The One Hundred Mile Walk, now being released as a Helen Mirren motion picture. Me, a terrific long novel by New York City newspaper legend Pete Hamill, who writes about his city with street smarts and an appealing sense of mysticism.

I never sit through an entire transcontinental flight. I always stretch, and always take a good slow walk. I like to see what other people are doing to occupy their minds during a flight that lasts a few hours or more. I didn’t write down the precise numbers, but here’s a reasonably reliable survey based upon a hearty attempt at serious snooping:

There were about 200 passengers on the plane (3o rows, 6 per row, plus some additional people in first class behind the curtain). About 50 people were fast asleep, many for the entire flight (I’m always impressed by people who can sleep more than two or three hours on a plane). About 25 were playing video games on their phones (as screens become larger, this becomes easier to do, and more fun, too). About 50 were watching movies, maybe half on tablets and the other half on portable computers (I would have expected a higher percentage of tablets). Maybe 25 were awake with blank stares. Add another 25 who were doing some work on their computers (few on tablets), and another ten eating while I was walking the aisles.

Here and there, somebody was reading a magazine (I think I remember two people reading the airline magazines—I wonder how much long they’ll exist.) How many were reading books? I counted the three of us. All in the same row. Maybe I missed another two or three book readers, but there weren’t ten on board. I suspect I selected an odd flight, but I also detect a what may be a trend. Digital devices offer more options—they play music, display the text of a book, show movies, enable videogame play, and help to get work done. Books are just books. For the price of an inexpensive tablet—say, $199—you could buy twenty good used books, but it still wouldn’t be able to play music, show movies, or help you get work done.

Still, books are lightweight and relatively inexpensive (and you can share them with friends, something you can’t [yet] do with music or an e-book). Books are wonderful traveling companions–they tell a good story and they communicate only when you’re interested). I cannot imagine traveling without at least one book in my carry-on bag. When we take forever to lift off or maneuver to the gate, I keep reading. When the flight crew requires all digital devices to be shut down, I just keep reading.

I guess I’m surprised that so few people (or, perhaps, simply fewer and fewer people) do the same.

Perfect Summer Days

The sun is still low in the sky, so the lake sparkles. I’m hungry for breakfast, but I want to walk along the water for a while to study the shape of the hills on the far shore. A quarter mile on the promenade and I can’t keep myself away from the farmer’s market. It’s an garage, open from 7:00 am until 11:0o am. I tasted yesterday’s coffee cake and it was spectacular. This morning, I want to try a scone before they’re all gone. Local strawberries, too, because the season doesn’t last long enough. Walking back to the town square, I grab a Daily from the news hawker—he’s probably fourteen years old, wearing a flat eight-panel cap, canvas bag drooping from one shoulder, shouting something unintelligible as if he’s been at it for decades.

Like yesterday, today is going to be a busy day.

2014-07-03 17.01.42Yesterday afternoon was busy with reading on the Hotel Atheneum’s wraparound porch, studying the lake, selecting the perfect rocking chair, becoming distracted by what sounded like a full orchestra nearby. Wandering is what folks do on a summer’s day at Chautauqua, so I followed the music to the amphitheater where a rehearsal of Madame Butterfly kept me and perhaps two hundred other people busy for an hour. On Saturday night, the theater will be filled with nearly four thousand people, mostly residents who either spend their summers here, or, at least, several weeks each year. I was reluctant to linger: I wanted dinner before heading to the theater. Back at the Hotel Atheneum, I wanted to sit outdoors and watch the lake while eating my local trout, and that was best accomplished by taking a seat at a community table where the conversation was both lively and reminiscent of first days at college when everybody I met was a potential buddy.

Off to the theater. It’s a standalone building on what amounts to a square mile of campus, passing hundred-year old houses whose facades were painted with bright colors, almost always adorned with bright flowers, a celebration of Western New York’s relatively short—but absolutely fabulous—summer season. Crossing the town square, noting the location of the bookstore for later on, I made it to the theater with minutes to spare (nothing new about that, not for me, anyway). A few hundred seats in a purpose-built structure with exposed beams and seeming endless depth on the stage, the Bratton Theater is everything a summer theater ought to be. The play: A Raisin in the Sun, which I had just happened to watch as a movie in June. The stage setting was so striking, there was an article about its design in the next morning’s Daily. It’s the story of a low income family trying for the American dream, a story that seemed dreary in high school, but here, consistent with Chautauqua’s mighty arts tradition, the play was both compelling and provocative. And, as is so often the case in this tiny summer town by the lake, it was the subject of rocking chair conversation for the next few days.

My first full day began, once again, at the farmer’s market, then at a brief spiritual ceremony—every morning offers a choice of several (Zen Buddhist, Episcopalian, peace)—followed by “Morning Worship”—in essence a few announcements, a few hymns, and a crackling good sermon from The Reverend Raphael Warnock, a brilliant fellow who now fills the job that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once filled, in his official capacity, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. He talked about Adam and Eve, and the existence of God. What began as a relatively calm and thoughtful lecture became a sharp, energetic jolt of intellectual and spiritual power—very much in the style of Chautauqua at its best.

The amphitheater, orchestra on stage, rehearsing. Note the houses nearby (left and right). The amphitheater is just another site in the Chautauqua neighborhood.

The amphitheater, orchestra on stage, rehearsing. Note the houses nearby (left and right). The amphitheater is just another site in the Chautauqua neighborhood.

There was no reason to leave the amphitheater because the 9:15 am session ended more than an hour later, and at 10:45AM, the morning lecture was set to begin. Curious title: “For Cod and Country.” It was about fish. Which fish to eat. Which fish we shouldn’t eat. To be honest, I confuse what I learned from this lecture, by National Geographic’s Barton Seaver, with the one I attended on the next day, by the University of Minnesota’s Jonathan Foley. That’s what the programmers intended. Both are part of a week-long lecture series on closely-related topics about feeding everyone on the planet. Several interesting points: there is a lot more food available on the planet than we choose to eat, but our decisions about what to eat and just how far we are willing to ship that food is more than a little crazy; we need to eat more mussels, clams, oysters, herring, anchovies and sardines, and less salmon, tuna, and swordfish, and now I think I understand the reasons why. Fortunately, many of the Chautauqua speakers—there seem to be about 200 per season—have written books about their life’s passions. A good reason to spend an hour browsing in Chautauqua’s bookstore, if you can find a moment to do so.

2014-07-04 10.04.10-1Me? I’m off to Sol Messinger’s “Yiddish Language Conversation” back up near the main road at the relatively new (few Chautauqua structures are new) Emerson Jewish Life Center, built in 2009. Sol is sitting at a conference table with four or five people, interviewing each of them, each of us, about our family history. He is speaking in Yiddish. I understand only a bissel—the tiniest portion—but just the act of listening is joyful. Here and there, one of the people at the table translates key ideas for me. The conversation drifts in and out of English. The people are not young. I wonder what will happen to Yiddish, but only for a moment. My head is filled with ideas, but the yellow broadsheet—the detailed schedule for this Chautauqua week, contains far too many things for me to do, so I keep moving, grab a quick quiche at the informal lunch place above the bookstore (not wonderful: Chautauqua’s food for short-term visitors is a weak link), and manage to get to Philosopher’s Hall in time to get a seat just on the perimeter. It has been raining, so some seats are wet. I sit on my Daily, my bun is a little wet for a while, but I quickly forget my personal issue when the speaker begins. He’s compelling—John Hope Bryant, advisor to U.S. presidents, another brilliant guy, this time focusing on financial literacy, improved credit scores, the end of payday loan stores, and a realignment of neighborhood banks to provide services for the lower-middle and lower-classes. There is tremendous power in his idea—and a strangeness that feels unique to Chautauqua. Bryant is a passionate Black entrepreneur, not so distant from the Reverend we heard this morning—but the vast majority of his audience are white, and no longer the successful businesspeople they may have been a decade or two ago. No matter: Bryant’s presentation is digging deep into their souls, and they will carry the word. He mesmerizes. They listen attentively. The reason to go to Chautauqua is to learn, to take notes, to remember what was said, to learn because learning is a productive activity that makes life worth living. That spirit runs deep in Chautauqua’s soul: it’s part of the complicated set of reasons why this Institution was founded in 1874. And it’s the reason I visited: to get a sense of how recreation, learning, culture, and time to sit on a rocking chair might, in their way, be a better way to spend a summer afternoon than reading blog posts on the internet.

2014-07-03 17.07.15No time to linger. A Chautauquan keeps busy, does not lollygag (except when the day is beautiful and there is a book to be read under a century-old tree while children are racing around on bicycles and otherwise living a perfect small town American life). That glimpse of what America might have been is just that—a glimpse—for there is music to be enjoyed in one of the old churches. An hour of art songs performed by students from Chautauqua’s music school on the north side of town (no time to visit, but I understand practice sessions and rehearsals are open, and a bit like Tanglewood). Then, at 5:00PM, I wander back to the hotel for a daily wine tasting. I was invited by my new friends at last night’s Community Table. Mostly, my contribution to the table of six chatty people was recommendations of novels by Reynolds Price because one of the women was interested. Then, we headed down to dinner in the hotel’s main dining room. Steak dinner. Fresh cut.

Finished up just in time for the concert. Big concert tonight: a July 3 pops concert. Big fun! The 80-piece orchestra decked out in Americana, red white and blue everywhere, and because I was a solo act this time around, I got to sit right in front. Guest conductor Stuart Chafetz was a marvel, a musician so completely enthralled by the music, so joyful, so in touch with the orchestra and the audience… The first half was the stuff you’d expect from an Independence Day Pops Concert—Sousa, a few movie themes, a Beatles medley (which felt remarkably modern here). Second half: a song-and-dance team, husband and wife, Beverly and Kirby Ward. Selections from the American Songbook (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Johnny One Note,” etc.) and MGM musicals. Kudos to Kirby for his step-perfect recreation of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain dance routine, not easy to do without (a) water and (b) much space to dance.

And it’s late. The stars are out. The lake is dark and a nighttime promenade is the only possible way to end the day. And then, sleep.

2014-07-04 10.01.57Next morning, it’s up at 7:00 am for the Farmer’s Market, then a spiritual bit, then a visit to the Methodist House (many religions, many houses, used for residents and for small events) for a July 4 lecture about the specific wording of the Declaration of Independence. I intended to stay for just a few minutes, but stayed for an hour and learned a lot about what Thomas Jefferson wrote and what Richard Henry Lee wrote. Half of the people in the audience seemed to know the speaker as a friend. I suspect he was a long-time Chautauqua resident or visitor, and that revealed one more piece of this fascinating puzzle: the people who attend Chautauqua are not just visiting because the lake is pretty in July. They attend because the combination of leisure and learning, family and fellowship, curiosity and creativity is, for nine special weeks every summer, available here and almost nowhere else.

There is so much to learn, to be learned, about this way of thinking and experiencing the world. I wish there was more time. I wish it was nearby. I want to see the constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar on July 21, and the opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, later that week, and the author E.L. Doctorow on August 7, and my list goes on. But in terms of both space and time, Chautauqua seems too far away—it clings to parts of the 19th century as it figures out what its 21st century life might be. I know one thing Chautauqua  ought to be: more accessible to me. I want to carry a part of it with me all summer long. I can’t help but wonder whether the magic of the internet might make that possible, someday.

Stuart Chafetz conducting the Chautauqua Orchestra.

Stuart Chafetz conducting the Chautauqua Orchestra.

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