In 1995, Jacques D’Amboise received the Kennedy Center Honor. D’Amboise was a ballet dancer and choreographer, and I suspect is not extremely well-known today. But then most ballet dancers aren’t as well-known as movie stars and singers even at their height.
But I post this for two reasons – but one above all. It’s because the first number of the tribute is a superbly choreographed and fun dance to the tune of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave”. Oddly, the video cuts out Walter Cronkite’s introduction of the performers, which is a huge shame, since the two of them are his children, Charlotte and Christopher D’Amboise. Christopher has had a successful career as a dancer, choreographer and director, and Charlotte is a highly-accomplished dancer and actress who’s received two Tony nominations on Broadway. (In fact, I’ve posted a glorious video of her in the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Mary Martin, where she recreated the number she was then-performing in the revue Bob Fosse’s Broadway, superbly singing and soaring in “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan.) The two siblings are absolutely great in the number, but the best part is whenever the camera cuts back to their father -- with the biggest beaming smile you can imagine. Let me put it this way, I don’t particularly like dancing…and I absolutely love this. It’s great. And it’s topped by the glow from the father watching them honor him. Very nice as this full video is, this number and that reaction alone are the reason I’m posting this.
But I do also like the finale number in the segment – which is a lot of fun for a reason you’ll discover – but I specifically like it, too, because it’s sung by a performer I like a great deal, Judy Kuhn.
Okay, as a bonus, here's the performance I referred to above, the re-creation of the “I’m Flying” number from Peter Pan with Charlotte D'Amboise. Notable for me is that they do the full number, which includes the great (and rarely seen) Flying Ballet at the end, which I dearly love. And you'll note the reaction from the audience here -- and these are all sophisticate adults in tuxedos and ball gowns, not a child in sight.
Back in 2008, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about new discoveries surrounding the holiday classic, Handel's "Messiah." Several months later, I followed it up with additional revelations. Given that 'tis its season yet again - it seems like a fine time to repeat the story, as just another of the many holiday traditions. Sort of like a very early, 18th century version of "The Grinch."
But have a glass of nog, as well. Fa la la...
Over the passage of years, we lose track of the conditions that existed when artworks were created. When those years become centuries, the history vanishes, and all that remains is the work itself.That is, until someone researches that history, and puts the piece in its original context.
And that brings up Handel's "Messiah."
By any standard, it's a brilliant piece of music, which has understandably lasted 250 years. Even to those who don't share its religious underpinning, the music is enthralling, and part of the celebration of the Christmas season.
Now comes this detailed, deeply-researched article in the New York Times by Michael Marissen.
"So 'Messiah' lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the 'Hallelujah' chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel's day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God's promised Messiah."
Mr. Marissen does an impressive, scholarly and even-handed job uncovering the history of Handel's "Messiah." If anyone is interested in that history, do read the article. At the very least, read it before stating an opinion on it...
To be clear, this is not about political correctness. This is about correctness.
The truth, we are told, shall set us free. Either we go out of our way to learn the truth in our lives - and embrace it - or we bury our heads in the sand and listen to the sounds of gravel.
People will still listen to Handel's "Messiah" for centuries to come, whatever the reality behind it. The music is glorious. The words? Well, be honest, it's a fair bet that most people don't know exactly what's being sung about anyway - it's 2-1/2 hours, for goodness sake. Most fans wouldn't listen to "American Idol" for that long. People tend to tune out Handel's "Messiah" about six minutes in and let the music wash over them. When the "Hallelujah Chorus" is about to begin, they get nudged and sit up straight. And even at that, the only words most people know are "Hallelujah" and that it will "reign forever and ever." (Some people probably think it's about Noah's Ark.)
So, in some ways, the libretto of Handel's "Messiah" is not of critical importance 250 years after the fact. And that might be the biggest joke on Charles Jennens, who wrote the text and apparently saw the work as a way to confront what he believed was "a serious menace" in the world By having his friend Handel set his pointed tracts to music, Jennens felt that would help get his point across more subtly to the public. The result, of course, was that the spectacular music swamped over the words, and over time they took on a completely different meaning.
This is known as the Law of Unintended Consequences. Or also, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
Somewhere up in heaven, or more likely down in hell, Charles Jenniens has been pounding his head against a wall for the last couple hundred Christmases, screaming, "No, no, no! Don't you people get it?!! It's supposed to be about celebrating the destruction of heathen nations, not the embracing love of mankind. You people are so lame!"
And it gets worse, because starting the day after Christmas - until the next Christmas when Handel's "Messiah" starts playing again - Jennens berates himself all year, wondering if he screwed up his work and didn't make it clear. Like maybe he used too many metaphors, or commas. Or perhaps in Scene 6, when he wrote, "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron," he should have explained who "them" was or described a different bludgeon.
No doubt there will be some people aghast by the revelations (no matter how valid) about the writing of Handel's "Messiah." I also have no doubt that almost all those who are aghast have never sat through the 2-1/2 hour work. Nor that most of those ever paid attention to what the precise words actually were. But they will be aghast anyway.
On the other hand, most people who have sat and sat through a 2-1/2 hour performance of Handel's "Messiah" likely welcome having an excuse now not to have to do so again.
Mr. Marissen concludes his study with a thought on the subject.
"While still a timely, living masterpiece that may continue to bring spiritual and aesthetic sustenance to many music lovers, Christian or otherwise, 'Messiah' also appears to be very much a work of its own era. Listeners might do well to ponder exactly what it means when, in keeping with tradition, they stand during the 'Hallelujah' chorus."
And while singing along, they might want to add a "Hallelujah" for the truth, as well.
And that, I thought, was the end of the story. But it wasn't.
A few months later, while reading Volume 9 of Will and Ariel Durant's majestic Story of Civilization, entitled "The Age of Voltaire," I came upon their extensive discussion of Handel. After the passage on "The Messiah," the Durants continue on with the composer's life and eventually reach five years later, April of 1747, when Handel had hit hard times. Not only had he written a string of failures and needed to close his theater, but he went into a sort of retirement, and rumor passed that he may even gone insane, though perhaps it might have been mental exhaustion. (The Earl of Shaftesbury remarked, "Poor Handel looks a little better. I hope he will recover completely, though his mind has been entirely deranged.") However there was yet more to Handel - and to the story relating somewhat to the controversy today about "The Messiah." The Durants write --
"...Handel, now sixty years old, responded with all his powers to an invitation from the Prince of Wales to commemorate the victory of the Prince's younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland, over the Stuart forces at Culloden. Handel took as a symbolic subject Judas Maccabaeus' triumph (166-161 B.C.) over the Hellenizing schemes of Antiochus IV. The new oratorio was so well received (April 1, 1747) that it bore five repetitions in its first season. The Jews of London, grateful to see one of their national heroes so nobly celebrated, helped to swell the attendance, enabling Handel to present the oratorio forty times before his death. Grateful for this new support, he took most of his oratorio subjects henceforth from Jewish legend or history: Alexander Balus, Joshua, Susanna, Solomon and Jephtha. By contrast, Theodora, a Christian theme, drew so small an audience that Handel ruefully remarked, "There was room enough to dance."
No doubt, Charles Jennens, author of the text for "The Messiah," is spinning even faster and deeper in his grave. But quality does win out over time. And so does transcending decency. And that, perhaps, in part, and in the end, may well be what we're left with.
We take a point of personal privilege today, and in doing so also take a blessed, momentary respite from the woes that is Trump.
I’m mentioned in the past my cousin Diana Leviton Gondek, who’s a very talented artist back in Chicago. (Actually, she’s a very talented artist wherever she is…) I’ve noted her getting a commission from the City of Chicago to make several large, wonderful horse sculptures to honor fallen Chicago police officers that were placed around the city, including the lobby outside the mayor’s office, when Rahm Emanuel was His Honor.
She also was commissioned to design the 50th anniversary poster for the Special Olympics (which I never knew until then began in Chicago). And just received a grant from the State of Illinois.
I bring up these few items of many to make clear it’s not just my bias saying what a very talented artist she is. But rather my honesty…
Diana is now involved with a project on behalf of epilepsy, the Hidden Truths Project, which is dedicated to engaging and empowering those with epilepsy through the arts. (Founded in 2012, they've raised over $500,000 for epilepsy research. You can read more about the organization here.) And on behalf of that, she was interviewed by the local CBS television station that did a piece on the exhibit.
You’ll see her with a painting she had in the show – her new style is one I particularly like. And happily, she sold it, and proceeds will go to the charity. You can see more of her work here.
And so, using Squatter's Rights on my own website, here's the two-minute video.
After the July 4 shooting massacre in Highland Park, I wrote a couple of article about my close overlap with the place, growing up next door in Glencoe. My dad’s medical office was in Highland Park, his hospital was there, my first real job was in Highland Park, as was my mother’s favorite grocery store, and much more.
I know two people on the Highland Park City Council, including my long-time friend Tony Blumberg, whose family lived down the block in Glencoe but later moved to Highland Park, and was a camper at Camp Nebagamon when I was a counselor at the summer camp. I’d been in touch with Tony, asking about plans Highland Park had for the 4th of July this year, and what he said they came up with seemed very respectful and moving for the occasion – including commissioning a piece of music to be played at a memorial, a walk down last year’s parade route and flying drones at night over Lake Michigan, instead of fireworks.
Tony sent me a link to the music piece, “Repair the World” composed by Stacy Garrop. It was written as a piano trio, though she transposed it for string quartet (which is how the piece was played at the ceremonies by members of the Highland Park Strings), as well as an arrangement for solo piano, performed here by Susan Merdinger.
It's been a very long time since I posted a video of the quartet of four German women who perform their unique brand of classical music as Salut Salon, so I felt I should finally rectify that.
This is an impressively fun, short piece they call "Akrobatik. It comes a bit of Verdi's "The Four Seasons," some Mozart, other classical tidbits, and a dazzling touch of "Mack the Knife."
I’ve had a few Gerard Hoffnung references and pieces here lately, and in one of them I mentioned how he was sort of a precursor (or even likely an inspiration) to Peter Schickele -- pronounced Shick-uh-lee. And I realized that many people probably don't know him either -- though I suspect more will, since he’s much more recent and had many successful albums and even performed live with symphony orchestras for years.
He joking went by “Prof. Peter Schickele,” whose career was supposedly dedicated to the work of P.D.Q. Bach, the fictitious illegitimate son of J.S. Bach. (Schickele’s reasoning was that Bach has so many legitimate children, what’s one more?)
Though it helps to have an understanding of classical music to get his humor in full, what’s more important is to haven an appreciation of it. (The latter is my category…) Like Hoffnung, would often use using odd objects as musical instruments in his “discovered” pieces by P.D.Q. Bach.
Like Hoffnung, too, not everyone will Schickele/P.D.Q. Bach, because their work is focused on a specific area, that being classical music. As such, they’re sort of in the vein, as well, of Victor Borge or even closer to the joyous Anna Russell who toured for decades, most famously given comedy “lectures” on things like “How to Write a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta” and analyzing Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Though Borge and Russell were more “traditional-ish” comedians.
If you don’t know Schickele’s work – but even if you do -- I will toss in what is easly my favorite of his works – and probably his most popular – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony presented like the broadcast of a football game, “Orchestra vs. conductor,” complete with referee, play-by-play announcer and color analyst.
I’m going to provide two separate links to it, for reasons I’ll explain. This first is the version he made for his album, P.D.Q. Bach On the Air. It’s wonderful.
Schickele would also perform this in concert, which I saw once. (A friend worked for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and invited me to the rehearsal of it…) This is a video of the piece , which in some ways in a lot more fun than the album version, since it has the visuals – like all the orchestra members with numbers on their backs, cheerleaders, a penalty box, and many other bits thrown in that you couldn’t possibly do on a record -- but I think the comic timing on the album is significantly better. (But also, this in-concert video starts late and leaves out the introduction that sets the piece up.) However, I’m going to post it for those who prefer to watch it performed. BUT -- if you do decide to watch the live concert video, I’d still suggest listening to the album introduction up to the point of when the announcers call out, “And they’re off!!” – and then switch over to the in-concert video. The intro is only about a minute, but it helps, I think.) For that matter, I found that it’s fun even watching them both. The album version is impeccable for the timing and performance – but watching the concert version afterwards adds a lot of visual fun.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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