Monday, April 28, 2008

I left for New York City early Friday afternoon, so I missed the Fire Chief’s revisit to the house to do the follow-up inspection. So, I got the word from Fritz by phone that when he’d gone up to the house to see how far the stone masons had gotten on Saturday morning, there was a signed Certificate of Occupancy waiting for us on one of the kitchen counters. It’s done! It’s finally ours to move into.

I had tickets for Friday night and Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera and an appointment to visit a very old, very dear lady in an assisted living facility in central New Jersey on Saturday morning.

The trip through southern Connecticut showed spring at its height. Flowering ornamentals were in full bloom everywhere. Trees of all kinds were just opening their buds, with soft pastel oranges and deeper Chinese reds highlighted against the mass of fresh yellow-green.

The Friday night performance was Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, one part of an epic three-opera look at influential thinkers who have changed the world (the other two panels are Einstein on the Beach (which lasts all day and which I haven’t seen performed—yet) and Akhenaten, a lovely work dealing with the monotheistic heretic Egyptian pharaoh.

Glass’s take on Gandhi’s development of non-violent protest as a powerful weapon for social change is set to a text in Sanskrit taken from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Mahatma’s favorite religious epic. Instead of having the translation on the back of the seat in front of us as usual, this production projected the text on the set. Giant caricatures of the forces of oppression (political, social and economic) appeared at intervals, made of newspaper, which also carpeted the stage.

The production was witty and inventive, and excellently performed, particularly by American tenor Richard Croft as Gandhi. His serene and magnificently sung final scene was alone worth the price of admission. Conductor Dante Anzolini got a big ovation for his work. He had conducted our symphony orchestra at MIT for five years, so I left a note congratulating him on this, his Metropolitan debut, at the stage door before the performance began.

I stayed at a motel by the Garden State Parkway Friday night and drove to Whiting Saturday morning. You have to want to go to Whiting for some specific purpose—there’s not very much that would draw you to the town otherwise, and it’s location is a bit remote out in the scrub pine barrens. I was visiting a 96-year old lady who, along with her late husband, had given me my first-ever job. It was an afternoon after high school position at their gift shop on Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens, New York that funded my early theater, opera and concert-going.

I had done this trip last spring and was anxious to see her again. She’s in superb condition, bright, active and in great health. Her only problem is a slurring of speech due to a mild stroke a couple of years ago, but she was easier to understand this year. I brought her a Chinese red Gerber Daisy plant, spent a pleasant hour or so with her and then got on the road back to New York.

My Saturday matinee was Donizetti’s pastoral comic romance, The Daughter of the Regiment with the enchanting French soprano
Natalie Dessay and handsome Peruvian superstar tenor Juan Diego Florez.

Both were in top form. The production took full use of Dessay’s now legendary acting and physical comedy skills (she can sing a two octave run while doing a pratt fall), and the supporting cast was top notch. A delight. I drove home Saturday night right after final curtain.


A friend of ours from way up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont sent us a copy of the 2007 Darwin Awards (thanks, Paul!). I didn’t think they were all up to some howlers from previous years, but here are my favorites:

Yes, it's that magical time of year again when the almost Darwin Awards are bestowed, honoring the least evolved among us.

Here is the glorious winner:

1. When his 38-caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended victim during a hold-up in Long Beach, California, would-be robber James Elliot did something that can only inspire wonder. He peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again.

This time it worked.

And now, the honorable mentions:

2. The chef at a hotel in Switzerland lost a finger in a meat-cutting machine and submitted a claim to his insurance company. The company expecting negligence sent out
one of its men to have a look for himself. He tried the machine and he also lost a finger. The chef's claim was approved.

3. A man who shoveled snow for an hour to clear a space for his car during a blizzard in Chicago returned with his vehicle to find a woman had taken the space. Understandably, he shot her.

(This could easily have happened in Boston, except the woman would have had to remove the kitchen chair used as a space keeper and then parked in the space. Mayor Mennino tried to ban the use of the “parking chair” a couple of years ago but found that butting heads with one of the most deeply ingrained icons of Boston culture was a losing battle).

5. An American teenager was in the hospital recovering from serious head wounds received from an oncoming train. When asked how he received the injuries, the lad told police that he was simply trying to see how close he could get his head to a moving train before he was hit.

6. A man walked into a Louisiana Circle-K, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register, which the clerk promptly provided. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving the $20 bill on the counter. The total amount of cash he got from the drawer... $15. [If someone points a gun at you and gives you money, is a crime committed?]

8. As a female shopper exited a New York convenience store, a man grabbed her purse and ran. The clerk called 911 immediately, and the woman was able to give them a detailed description of the snatcher. Within minutes, the police apprehended the
snatcher. They put him in the car and drove back to the store. The thief was then taken out of the car and told to stand there for a positive ID. To which he replied, "Yes, officer, that's her. That's the lady I stole the purse from."

9. The Ann Arbor News crime column reported that a man walked into a Burger King in Ypsilanti, Michigan, at 5 A.M., flashed a gun, and demanded cash. The clerk turned him down because he said he couldn't open the cash register without a food order. When the man ordered onion rings, the clerk said they weren't available for breakfast. The man,
frustrated, walked away. [*A 5-STAR STUPIDITY AWARD WINNER]

Thursday, April 24, 2008

This was sent to me by my oldest and bestest friend in the world, who said he got it off one of the late night talk shows:
The Pope left the White House, to go say Mass at the baseball stadium--in the Popemobile.

And Bush followed him--in the Dopemobile.


It’s been a while since I checked out what Italian fashion and interior designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have been up to. Fortunately, more of the same:

Stefano in the guest bedroom in their palazzo on the island of Ibizia.

I’ve been searching the web for some shot of this fantastic room ever since I saw a full page spread of it in Vogue. Only a bit of it’s shown here in the close cropping, but the entire room is finished in gold plated furniture and the mosaic tiles on the walls are covered in gold leaf like the tiles used in Byzantine mosaics. You catch just a bit of the shimmer in this shot. There’s a gold-plated sculpture of a clump of three slender palm trees in the room and in the Vogue shot. The light pouring in the window made the room shine like the sun.

Italians have always had a great sense of the theatrical in their architecture and design and I’m rather proud to be one and to have inherited that quality. Here’s the upstairs bathroom, all deco in black, white, metallic silver and gray:

The general contractor informs me that we’re ready to be revisited for inspection leading to a Certificate of Occupancy. I have no idea when that will happen but it’s going to be soon..

Speaking of getting ready, I was delighted yesterday to see two guys from Comcast show up and do all the work necessary to get the various cables up through the underground conduits, install the signal boosters and ready everything for the crew that will do the installation inside the house on the 30th of this month. I’d been jerked around for months and told that the work could only be done in the spring (although the conduits have been in the ground since October).

I’d been promised a call telling me when the cables would be run but there wasn’t a call, just two very personable technicians, partially undressed in the 86 degree heat yesterday afternoon, who showed up and finally got service to a terminal box they installed just below the house. One more thing crossed off the list.


Spring has come all in a rush. A week ago the peepers began their all-night mating ruckus in the woods around the various ponds that we and our neighbors have on our properties. Peepers are tree frogs, very small but very loud. It’s actually a great sound and a real sign of the change of seasons.

Everything has blossomed at once. The daffodils are not almost at their height (this is a very small group) . . .

. . . and the flowers on the big magnolia in front of Fritz’s house popped all at once in the sudden heat.


I’ve begun moving cartons and some small furniture items up to the house. A lot of kitchen stuff can be stored in the cabinets and be ready for us when we decide the time has come to start cooking there. I’m also setting up my studio as I’m very anxious to begin a normal life again, with access to my reference books, records and CDs.

I started collecting operas and symphonic music recordings when I was seven and I never abandoned the vinyl I own—much of it has never been transferred to digital, and even if it had, the cost would be enormous. I’m lining my studio with continuous work tables and designed their bases to store my collection.

The weight of all the LPs makes these work tables extremely stable and secure. The collection is interrupted for my computer station (just barely seen, far right) then resumes, turns the corner and extends another five feet down the opposite wall. It’s the best storage arrangement for the collection I’ve ever had.


Ted (The Neighbors Will Hear) posted this Know your Bible quiz, which I took and here are the results:

You know the Bible 95%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

The last question was “Do you read the Bible?, and I answered honestly that I do not. I attribute my score after all this time to the twelve years of hard indoctrination I got at Catholic school and to the fact that when I was younger I had close to a photographic memory—which I’m delighted to see seems still to be working!

Monday, April 21, 2008


Dance from New Zealand; A Big Problem with the House; Life becoming Louder

House Update, Wednesday morning:

The meeting this morning at Fire Headquarters lasted half an hour and was quite civilized.  Some very interesting facts came out, and it wasn't too difficult to get the inspectors to discuss where they finesse the system and why.

Issues on the town's side: they really didn't know what to make of a lot of my house; it's been at least five years since they had dealt with a unique, architect-style design.  Everything else they review is very standard, straight up "stick house" construction "like it's stamped out by a cookie cutter" the plans for which they can sail through very quickly (I drew a warm laugh by ad libbing that I've never done anything by cookie cutter in my life).  They do not have the time to examine each page of the construction drawings in detail or they'd approve no more than three houses a month and residential construction gets much looser scrutiny than commercial anyway.  

Yes, the plans should have been sent to the fire department for review, but no they weren't in this case.  So, the building inspector did in fact rule on fire egress, which is really fire department jurisdiction, by issuing the building permit.  But ultimately they held fast because the issue at hand is under the umbrella of state building code, not local regulations.

Issues on our side: even though there was a detail sheet devoted to this particular window, the reason why it was built outside the code, the solution M had come up with and how it had been approved elsewhere, he hadn't accompanied the plans with a letter pointing out the need for a variance along with the page number of the detail drawing within the hefty sheaf of drawings. Also, when the single step leading up to the window in the drawings was changed to the two steps seen in the photo below, the town was not given the required notice of any change in the approved design.  

In our favor, the scheme of the steps and high window sill had been explained to the framing inspector on site when he could look at the thing right there before him and he had given verbal approval.

It was now obvious that there were pros and cons on both sides and a simple solution proposed by the fire chief (who's been sympathetic to us from the very beginning) resolved the issue.  He asked how far the door of the bedroom was from the door to the outside.  Sixteen feet.  The state fire marshall would probably grant a variance on that distance IF there was no barrier between the bedroom and the exterior door.   Based on a hint the deputy fire chief had dropped for me last week, I asked if we were to give up the door on the bedroom, removing the barrier, would we need to go through the lengthy process of appeal to the state.  No, the fire chief could sign off on that right away, since both the bedroom and my studio would thereby become one big space with outside access.

The door and all its hardware have been removed, and stored elsewhere on the property.  The inspectors will return very soon and issue a Certificate of Occupancy, after which they will leave the house never to return.  And whatever might happen in that open doorway in the future . . . happens.


One of the joys of liking so many performing art forms and going to various theaters, concert halls and opera houses a lot (and I mean A LOT) is the fact that there’s much more of a chance to encounter truly memorable performers and companies. That happened to Fritz and me on Thursday night when we drove to Boston to see the Black Grace dance company from New Zealand.

What sounded good in the Celebrity Series brochure last year turned out to be a thrilling experience live in Boston University’s Tsai Center. Black Grace was founded twelve years ago by Neil Leremia to fuse traditional Maori music and dance with contemporary dance. Their music mixes the heavily rhythmic traditional chant of NewZealand and Samoa with rock and the work of an A hip hop artist. In addition to dancing, company members stamp, clap, chant and sing.

The company was originally all male. Women are now welcomed as guest dancers for particular works, but three quarters of the program last Thursday featured the six superb male dancers who are Black Grace’s core. We were especially taken by the work of Luke Hanna. While not breaking the tight, exuberant ensemble that marks the company’s work, Hanna still draws the eye particularly for the strong but elegant specificity of his movement, the extension that’s just a hair’s breadth fuller than that of his colleagues, and that intangible quality of joy in performing that telegraphs clearly to an audience.

A dozen years into its history, Black Grace is still Neil Leremia’s company. He choreographs all the “full length” dances and everything on he Boston program was his. He has a sure sense of rhythm and how it can be used to animate motifs in Maori art. He obviously understands and appreciates the male body, energy, and beauty. Some pieces were danced in simple unconstructed white shirts and pants, others in Polynesian sarongs, and one in the dancewear version of speedos. The guys looked great in anything.

Black Grace’s site has info on the short remainder of the current U.S. Tour. After Boston they play Norfolk, VA, Washington DC and they wind up in Toronto before heading home. Anyone who loves great dance or just great performing should get a ticket fast if they live anywhere near the cities remaining on the tour. There are also a number of performance clips on YouTube.

Check out this clip which begins with a charming short talk by Leremia followed by a complete performance of “Minoi” which shows off a variety of the guys’ talents:


I'm beginning to replenish the winter-depleted wood pile. I’m about half way through the day’s cutting and stacking.


Stone being applied to the concrete piers across the façade of the house on Saturday.


OK, let’s get this over with. I hoped I’d never have to write something like this but there is a major glitch with getting a Certificate of Occupancy for the house. It’s caused by a very murky situation in terms of responsibility among the building inspector, the fire inspector, the general contractor and M, the architect who made my concept drawings and floor plans into a buildable house. The worst case scenario, one that is a real possibility, is that part of an exterior wall and the adjoining roof on the second floor will have to be torn out and restructured.

Here’s the deal. I thought that we were more than covered in terms of fire exits by the fact that there’s an exit from my studio out the back of the house and across a bridge to the hillside. However, the guest bedroom that opens off my studio is required by law to have window egress because as a guest room it will have a door that guests can close. The code therefore kicks in, requiring a window whose sill is no higher than 44” above floor level.

Now, there is a window in the guest room, seen in the picture below, the double pane window (both panels crank out) to the right of the three windows (one clear glass, two glass block) of my studio:

Since the house is built to be as green and solar as possible, deep overhangs are required to shade all windows from the summer sun, and that requires a roof of proper pitch to start four feet away from the building. And where this roof joins the second floor exterior wall dictated a sill height of 55”, 11” over code height. However the architect planned a device, seen in the picture below, that he’d used in similar situations in other houses in the state, whereby a step or two would be built inside just below the window to allow anyone inside to get out in an emergency.

He did a preliminary drawing and consulted with the assistant building manager for the town who told him that this approach would satisfy the code. The steps and the high window sill went into the construction drawings, which were reviewed by the building and fire inspectors, given approval and a building permit was issued. Furthermore, as the building inspector came by at intervals, he was able to see the framing of the window and could have said anything about it at any time in the proceedings, but said nothing.

The situation that has developed is as follows: during the occupancy inspection, the fire inspector declared the high sill and steps unacceptable. When it was pointed out that the assistant building inspector had passed on this approach, the building inspector said that any such statement was irrelevant as only the fire department has any jurisdiction over fire egress issues, and the assistant is now having problems remembering any such conversation with M. The fire inspector and his department are maintaining silence about their apparently having approved the building drawings—“apparently” because there’s now some question as to whether they actually did review them as part of the building permit process.

A significant part of the mess we’re in is that every part of this is on a “he said, he said” basis. M never got the assistant building inspector’s approval in writing, although he rightfully points out that the construction drawings with the high sill and steps clearly explained were approved, and that the building inspector never stopped construction during any of his periodic visits to the house.

We had already learned that this town’s requirements are not the same as elsewhere in the state (thus M seeking out the inspector’s office in the first place), and that the building inspector is capable of digging in his heels on things and not budging. Therefore, M has arranged a 9AM meeting tomorrow at fire headquarters to sit down with building and fire and work out some compromise and/or get someone to admit responsibility for allowing the arrangement to be fully built and finished.

Of course, should they admit that the assistant spoke out of line or that fire hadn’t actually reviewed the plans, they might be making themselves liable, and we certainly have no hard evidence. The building permit is our one ace in the hole, but it’s the building inspector who holds the Occupancy Certificates and if he refuses to issue one, we have a derelict house—a very expensive derelict house--on our hands.

Rebuilding will have to involve bringing several different subcontractors back depending on their availability and I wouldn’t expect to be able to have a new inspection and move in before mid-May at the earliest.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, there’s another major issue to be thrashed out. Should the town officials not back down and grant a variance, the wall in the guest room have to be torn apart, the window lowered a foot and the roof cut into and reshaped to allow for it, along with all the interior refinishing necessary—who is to pay for it all? Among the four of them who had a hand in designing, building and passing on the high sill/step –up arrangement, somebody or other or a combination of them made a big mistake. The only one involved who made no mistake was me—and I’m not willing to have to pay very big bucks to rectify their blunder.


This issue in classical music has been coming for a long while: in the opera house it’s generally accepted that many conductors are just letting their increasingly virtuosic orchestras roar out at top volume and frequently lack consideration for their singers. Much though singers revere him for the way he works with them, James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera is a frequent offender. And magnificent though Levine’s work is with the Boston Symphony, it's frequently astonishingly loud (Sir Colin Davis recently got equally great playing in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius at considerably more realistic volume levels and never once covered any of his singers the way Levine routinely does).

This article is from Sunday’s New York Times arts section:

No Fortissimo? Symphony Told to Keep It Down

Published: April 20, 2008

LONDON — They had rehearsed the piece only once, but already the musicians at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were suffering. Their ears were ringing. Heads throbbed.

Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, “State of Siege,” by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and a violation of new European noise-at-work limits. Playing more softly or wearing noise-muffling headphones were rejected as unworkable.

So instead of having its world premiere on April 4, the piece was dropped. “I had no choice,” said Trygve Nordwall, the orchestra’s manager. “The decision was not made artistically; it was made for the protection of the players.”

The cancellation is, so far, probably the most extreme consequence of the new law, which requires employers in Europe to limit workers’ exposure to potentially damaging noise and which took effect for the entertainment industry this month.

But across Europe, musicians are being asked to wear decibel-measuring devices and to sit behind see-through antinoise screens. Companies are altering their repertories. And conductors are reconsidering the definition of “fortissimo.”

Alan Garner, an oboist and English horn player who is the chairman of the players’ committee at the Royal Opera House, said that he and his colleagues had been told that they would have to wear earplugs during entire three-hour rehearsals and performances. “It’s like saying to a racing-car driver that they have to wear a blindfold,” he said.

Already there are signs that the law is altering not only the relationship between classical musicians and their employers, but also between musicians and the works they produce.

“The noise regulations were written for factory workers or construction workers, where the noise comes from an external source, and to limit the exposure is relatively straightforward,” said Mark Pemberton, the director of the Association of British Orchestras. “But the problem is that musicians create the noise themselves.”

Rock musicians have talked openly about loud music and ear protection for years. The issue is more delicate for classical musicians, who have been reluctant to accept that their profession can lead to hearing loss, even though studies have shown that to be the case. At the same time, complying with the law — which concerns musicians’, not audiences’, noise exposure — is complicated. In Britain, big orchestras now routinely measure the decibel levels of various areas to see which musicians are subject to the most noise, and when.

Orchestras are also installing noise-absorbing panels and placing antinoise screens at strat egic places, like in front of the brass section, to force the noise over the heads of other players. “You have to tilt them in such a way so that the noise doesn’t come back and hit the person straight in the face, because that can cause just as much damage,” said Philip Turbett, the orchestra manager for the English National Opera.

They are also trying to put more space between musicians, and rotating them in and out of the noisiest seats. At the Royal Opera House, the management has devised a computer program that calculates individual weekly noise exposure by cross-referencing such factors as the member’s schedule and the pieces being played.

Musicians are spacing out rehearsals and playing more softly when they can. As the Welsh National Opera prepared for the premiere of James MacMillan’s loud opera, “The Sacrifice,” last year, the brass and percussion sections were told to take it easy at times in rehearsal to protect the ears of themselves and their colleagues, said Peter Harrap, the orchestra and chorus director.

Conductors are also being asked to reconsider their habit of “going for a big loud orchestration,” said Chris Clark, the orchestra operations manager at the Royal Opera House. Composers, too, are being asked to keep the noise issue in mind. “Composers should bear in mind that they are dealing with people who are alive, and not machines,” said Mr. Nordwall of the Bavarian orchestra.

And companies are examining their repertories with the aim of interspersing loud pieces — Mahler’s symphonies, for instance — with quieter ones. They are also buying a lot of high-tech earplugs, which are molded to players’ ears and cost about $300 a pair. Many orchestras now ask their musicians to put the earplugs in during the loud parts of a performance.

But these remedies can bring problems. Some musicians in the brass and percussion sections resent being screened off from their colleagues, as if they were being ostracized. Musicians, even if they accept the need to use earplugs occasionally, tend to hate wearing them. Mr. Garner, the Royal Opera House oboist, said: “I’ve spent nearly 30 years in music and I know all about noise, and occasionally, if I’m not playing and there’s a loud bit next to me, I might shove my fingers in my ears for a few bars. But I have yet to find a musician who says they can wear earplugs and still play at the same level of quality.”

The modern noise-level-conscious orchestra is also dependent, of course, on the indulgence of the conductor. Arriving at an orchestra to find that decisions have been based solely on musicians’ noise exposure can be galling to the sort of conductor who likes to be in control, which is most of them.

Although Switzerland is outside the European Union, an extraordinary noise-related argument between the conductor and the Bern Symphony Orchestra disrupted the opening night of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” in March.

The piece called for 30 string players and 30 wind and percussion players, all crammed into a too-small pit. When the stage director complained in rehearsals that the music was too loud, the conductor didn’t order the orchestra to play more softly, but instead asked for a cover over the orchestral pit to contain the noise, said Marianne Käch, the orchestra’s executive director.

That meant the noise bounced back at the musicians, bringing the level to 120 decibels in the brass section, similar to the levels in front of a speaker in a rock concert. The musicians complained. The conductor held firm. But when the piece began, “the orchestra decided to play softer anyway in order to protect themselves,” Ms. Käch said. That made the conductor so angry that he walked off after 10 minutes or so, Ms. Käch said. Told that there had been “musical differences” between the conductor and the orchestra, the perplexed audience had to wait for the two sides to hash it out.

In the end, the orchestra agreed to return and finish the performance at the loud levels. For subsequent performances, a foam cover that absorbed instead of reflecting the sound was placed above the pit, and the conductor agreed to tone things down. “This is the problem you find in many places, that the conductors are conducting more and more loudly,” Ms. Käch said. “I know conductors who have hundreds of shades of fortissimo, but not many in the lower levels. Maybe the whole world is just becoming louder.”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

He came, he inspected, he said “no”. The building inspector didn’t issue our Certificate of Occupancy on Monday for a variety of relatively small, fairly minor problems. I’m told this is a fairly routine situation; by the end of the day, two of the issues had even been cleared up over the phone.

The rejection of a flush pump on the water softening system (needed to rid our water of high levels of iron and manganese) was made irrelevant when the building inspector told the assistant who’d made the judgment that the inspection wasn’t interested in water softeners. The fireman on the team had to recall his rejection of a fire exit on the second when he learned that the building inspector had pre-approved it with the general contractor during construction.

Beyond that, a roof vent was found to be too close to the cupola, a standard electrical outlet in the mechanical room needs to be exchanged for one that has its own safety circuit breaker—that sort of thing. None of it’s serious; none of it will take a long time to correct. I don’t know when the inspector will come back but we should get the certificate on the second try.

Meanwhile, here is the first of the piers in the great room sheathed in natural New Hampshire stone:


Here are a couple of views from this year’s Japanese Penis Festival. It’s wonderful that there’s a culture on this earth that doesn’t demonize the penis but celebrates it right out there in public.


Although known for shedding clothing on stage at the drop of a conductor’s baton, barihunk Nathan Gunn also performs fully clothed when giving recitals. The art of the solo recital with piano or small ensemble is considered endangered. Listening to a largely still soloist standing next to an immobile piano played by a constantly seated pianist is apparently not enough stimulation for a modern audience. Never mind that the music may be extremely dynamic and that the imagination is being engaged by text and voice (oh, that’s right—kids’ toys do everything by themselves these days. We’re raising a society that doesn’t have imaginations).

So just as orchestras are using video, dancers, semi-staged concert performance of opera and other music, recitals are striving to become more kinetic. Here’s the New York Times review of Nathan Gunn’s approach to the art of recital as a motion and visual experience.

Exploring Solitude, With Help From Others
Published: April 17, 2008

It is not often a baritone and a pianist share billing for a song recital with a dancer and choreographer, a video designer and lighting designers. But on Tuesday night at Zankel Hall the excellent American baritone Nathan Gunn, admired for the honesty and physicality of his portrayals on the opera stage, tried to enhance the dramatic allure and philosophical richness of the song recital format by adding elements of dance, video and lighting.

With his wife, the accomplished pianist Julie Gunn, Mr. Gunn presented a compact 60-minute program with songs by Samuel Barber and Frank Ferko that explored the monastic life and the heightened awareness that can come through contemplation and solitude. Between songs Ms. Gunn gave sensitive performances of three solo piano pieces from Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus,” music that juxtaposes stillness, mysticism and frenzied ecstasy.

If the experiment was not a revelation, the performance was involving, courageous and touching. The combination of elements worked best when things were kept simple. The program opened with Ms. Gunn playing the first piece from the Messiaen work, “Regard du Père” (“Watch of the Father”), pensive music built from subdued, steady and mystical chords.

As Ms. Gunn played, phrases from the poem settings that were about to be sung — words by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and theologian, who died in 1968 — were scrolled slowly along the rear wall of the stage in video projections: “Be still,” “Listen,” “The insupportable knowledge of nothing” and more (the work of Laura Chiaramonte, a video designer and choreographer).

Mr. Gunn, wearing a loose-fitting black suit, maintained a steadfast watch, gazing upward, lost in thought, full of wonder yet a little wary. Then Sonia Warfel, a dancer and choreographer in black tights and top, circled him, enticing him to join her in a dance of simple arm gestures and strolling steps.

Mr. Gunn then performed the first vocal work, “Five Songs on Poems of Thomas Merton” by Mr. Ferko, written for him in 2004. He began aptly with a song, “In Silence,” that evoked Messiaen’s cluster chords. There were humorous episodes in the music and the staging, as in “Reduced to This,” Merton’s exasperated depiction of writer’s block, which Mr. Ferko conveys through fidgety music and sputtering riffs.

The concert concluded with Barber’s affecting “Hermit Songs” (1952-53), settings of 10 poems by medieval Irish monks, written mostly in the margins of holy books they were copying. Mr. Gunn was in his element here, especially in the whimsical works. “I do not know with whom Edan will sleep,” one cagey, sly short song begins, before Mr. Gunn sang the concluding phrase with an insinuating turn: “But I do know that fair Edan will not sleep alone.”

In the plaintive final song, “The Desire for Hermitage,” he conveyed the longing for monastic solitude, in a little cell, far away from the houses of the great. Solitude is not something he has much of in real life: the Gunns are the parents of five young children.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Several years ago in Boston I joined a gay book group and soon fell in love with the entire concept as well as with the men who were members. In addition to the social aspect, the group got me into reading novels again (most of my reading had become history, biography and—surprise!—play scripts).

Among my favorite meetings were the ones where local gay authors who had been published agreed to give up a Sunday afternoon to sit with us and discuss their work. One who seemed anxious to meet with us was South Boston native J.G. (Joe) Hayes who came three times, on the occasion of two collections of short stories and finally the successful publication of his first novel.

I was concerned when I moved up to new Hampshire that my ability to take part in the meetings might be compromised and it was, not so much by the trip down to Boston and back as by the fact that work on the house and my schedule here always seemed to conflict with the dates they chose to get together. I regret that a lot and once Fritz and I are settled in the new house, I may see about starting a similar group in this area.

But I’m at least in touch with the guys via email and I received a link last week to a site they’d set up listing all the books and plays that had been read since the group started. I clicked and immediately got an adult site warning and had to click an “I am over 18 years of age” button to get in.

(Sidebar—does anyone truly believe that a randy fifteen year old boy when faced with such a warning actually thinks to himself, “Gee, I’m underage. I guess I’d better wait patiently for three years until I’m old enough legally to visit this site.”)

I scanned the list and confirmed my memory that all the titles were more or less mainstream, and that none contained obscenities and none was porn. I hit the “reply all” button and wrote:

Interesting the "adult content" warning on the site. I skimmed the list and can only assume that the very occasional occurrence (twice) of the word "gay" is now considered something the under-18 crowd has to be protected from. If we'd ever read The Vagina Monologues or the script for Puppetry of the Penis, I wonder if they'd have shut down the entire site. Sad--and stupid.

I also wonder if sites and blogs that are devoted to Leonard Bernstein or Broadway Musicals have an adult content warning because of the song “Glitter and be gay” from Candide. We are a frighteningly paranoid nation.


I went up to the house early one morning last week and the assistant stone mason, generally somewhat quiet and keeping to himself, couldn’t wait to tell me about his visit by a female mallard duck. He’d arrived around 7 AM to set up equipment and materials and shortly thereafter, he’s heard a quack from nearby. She was on top of a pile of logs that are seasoning for firewood and she kept him company for quite a while before flying off.

A duck is new in our experience of wildlife near the house site. We’ve had wild turkeys, Canadian geese, foxes and deer but no ducks. When I told Fritz about it later, we both laughed and simultaneously said to each other, “The Greeter Duck!”

Several years ago on our first trip together to Denmark (where there’s always a lot of water from lakes, ponds and fjords) we noticed that wherever we visited—a Neolithic burial mound, a major castle, a Viking site or an historic church—a duck would suddenly come running toward us, quacking loudly and doing a little dance in front of us. We weren’t naïve enough to think it was anything other than a blatant play for a food hand-out, but we had fun creating the myth of The Greeter Duck who’d always appear wherever we went to welcome us. Fritz decided that since we’re on the verge of moving in, the duck materialized that morning to let us know we're welcome to our new home.


This notice appeared in a little highlight frame on the Metropolitan Opera’s website:

The Metropolitan Opera Shop will close for renovations on April 30, 2008, and will reopen in time for the start of the 2008-09 season in September. You will be able to place Opera Shop orders by phone and internet through June. We look forward to welcoming you back to an exciting new retail destination for the best in music, design, and the opera lifestyle [emphasis mine].

That phrase “the opera lifestyle” is one I hate because I feel it perpetuates the idea that all people who like opera attend for social reasons and have large amounts of disposable wealth. It’s true that like all art forms, opera needs patrons and donors and I’m quite grateful to them because their generosity makes my satisfying my obsession possible.

But the heart and soul of the audience, the real fan base, is made up of ordinary people who are often of limited means. They don’t dress up to attend, they sit in the upper levels of the opera house (where the prices are low and the acoustics are the best in the entire theater), or they get standing room tickets and are on their feet for all four and a half hours of Wagner’s Parsifal or Die Meistersinger. They’re there because the HAVE TO BE THERE.

I suspect that the real reason for the MET Shop’s renovation is to follow the closing of Tower Records and Virgin Megastore by giving up the sale of CDs, probably to sell only HD DVDs for the eighteen months or so before THAT technology is declared hopelessly obsolete as well. The “opera lifestyle” may well be catered to by the sale of even more expensive jewelry (with opera themes if possible), of Madame Butterfly saki sets in cloisonné, and La Traviata cocktail napkins.

And people will pass by and think to themselves that opera sure is an irrelevant, elitist art form for the wealthy just as they’ve always been told and not the big, passionate popular art form that inspired revolutions and stood at the heart of western world culture.


Thanks for this to Joe of Joe.My.God:

Speaking to the annual Log Cabin Republicans convention in San Diego, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that if the current initiative to ban gay marriage in California makes it to the November ballot, he will fight against its passage.

Gay journalist Rex Wockner quotes Schwarzenegger as saying: "Well, first of all, I think that it would never happen in California because I think that California people are much further along with that issue. And, number two, I will always be there to fight against that. I think we need a constitutional amendment so that foreign-born citizens can run for president, but not about gay marriage. That's a total waste of time."

The Governator's pledge drew loud cheers from conventioneers, with LCR president Patrick Sammon saying afterwards, "The topic was planned, the answer was not. I'm excited and delighted." This was the first time Schwarzenegger has spoken out against the ballot drive, although his spokesperson said that he has held the view for some time.

Given Arnold’s opposition to gay marriage itself in the past, this development would seem to signal either a change of heart or a realization on his part that writing discrimination into a constitution
Is an extremely bad idea. It will be interesting to follow his actions on the subject in future.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Spring finally, looking for a god, getting stoned, returning to high school, and an island for Lewis

Fritz and I could have kept on sugaring for another three weeks. The weather's been perfect for it--days in the 40s and low 50s, nights down in the mid 20s. That means the sap flows up the sugar maple by day and back down by night, with the tap that's been set into the tree flowing 24 hours a day.

But we hadn't the time to devote to all that effort nor the wood for boiling off not enough jars. But we did hear the value of the six gallons that we made--in New Hampshire, syrup is going for $60 a gallon, much more than last year because the cost of labor and fuel is now so high. So, we made our selves $360 worth of pure,home-made 100% maple syrup--and Fritz has been making maple pies topped with walnuts or pecans that that are pure, sinful self-indulgence--and wonderful beyond words.


It's finally spring here, however. Last night when we went to bed it was 40 degrees and this morning when we got up it was 40 degrees. Sap won't flow without the freezing nights but the property is alive with new growth.

The crocuses are out everywhere now.

And the daffodils, which are now estimated to number around 50,000 are probably less than a week from making the entire place look like a famous shot from the movie Doctor Zhivago. By the middle of each morning on those days with sun I've been working outdoors in my shirtsleeves.

I spent yesterday ripping scrap v-groove pine plank (left over from the cathedral ceiling of the great room and the underside of the four foot wide roof overhangs) into the right widths and lengths for the work table that's going to line my studio on three sides. All the cut pieces are banded together by length and labeled (Myers-Briggs type J here) and ready for sanding and assembly. I've salvaged every scrap of wood that was dumped in huge piles by the carpenters--a fortune in usable lumber and firewood for the wood stoves that would ordinarily have been hauled away and dumped somewhere.

It's good to be saving this kind of money because I got a rude surprise yesterday. Our general contractor has scheduled the town's building inspector to come next Monday morning at 8 AM to inspect the house and--big drum roll--ISSUE A CERTIFICATE OF OCCUPANCY! This is a huge moment, somewhat but decidedly marred a bit by the news that I have to pay $4322 for something called an Impact Fee before the Certificate will actually be placed in my hand.

In "tax-free" New Hampshire there may not be sales and income taxes but there are many, many fees that sure look like taxes to me. However, when the money's paid and the certificate's in hand, we can do a huge clean-up in the house and move in!!!!

So I am, of course, looking for a Chinese kitchen god. The kitchen is very important to me and I want it properly blessed. I always had a kitchen god in my house in Boston--a handsome fellow in red reverse painted on glass that eventually broke in an incident having something to do, I suspect, with one or the other of my cats.

I want a new one for the new house and went on line looking to buy one from an on-line Chinese kitchen site or gift shop. I spent the better part of one afternoon searching all over the web, typing in every combination of "kitchen god" and "gift" or "for sale" or whatever I could think of and may finally have found something you really can't buy on the web. All I found was this picture of the god, but nothing for sale.

I'll have to hit Chinatown on my next trip down to Boston, although I'm a bit worried. The number and quality of gift and kitchen stores in Chinatown has declined markedly over the last several years and the huge super market there that used to have such things including small altars and other devotional items, now has a big new deli department and no kitchen gods at all.


Stonework has begun on the outside of the house. I'll have pictures in a couple of days. A couple of mistakes were made at various stages of construction, one of which was that the ground around the foundation was back-filled without any masonry pedestals having been built to support the stone facing for the piers. So, our stonemason has had to dig down (fortunately through relatively easy crushed rock) to the footings and build up with concrete block. Setting of actual stone may begin either today or tomorrow.


Quite some while ago, I was blueskying with Fritz about the house in relationship with the local community. It's a unique type of structure in the town of Raymond, although solar and other varieties of sustainable housing exist throughout the region, as we found out when we were a stop on the NESEA home tour last fall. I wondered out loud if science teachers at the local high school would be interested in in monitoring the house with their classes for energy consumption, electrical generation from our photovoltaic arrays, and the economic reality of living as green as possible in with the technology available today.

A month or so ago, Fritz introduced me to a teacher from the local elementary school who's a student here in one of the Masters Degree In Creative Arts and Learning classes. I spoke with him about how I hoped the house could be a learning tool for local students. He thought it a great idea and, in turn, got in touch with the high school science department.

To make a long story short, as soon as the school day ends next Wednesday a group of at least ten teachers will come here to the Center for an orientation session on the house and the history of its development. I've prepared a two-page summary of all the sustainable and other green components of the structure that we'll give out, along with a front elevation of the house and plans of both floors. Then we'll go up the hill and take them through in detail.

Most encouraging is the real excitement we've felt from the teachers for making this an ongoing study. One of the middle school English/social sciences teachers has even asked to become involved as she's the faculty adviser to the Environmental Club. If this all works out, as it looks it might, a lot of what I had hoped the house could do will be fulfilled.


This is for Lewis in Portland, Oregon, a lovely man we've been lucky enough to have here as a guest. His blog is The Spirit of Saint Lewis, which is always a joy to read. It's a picture of the Isle of Lewis, one of the Outer Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland. I discovered the Isle of Lewis this morning as we pulled yesterday's page off a table-top calendar pad and there it was, looking very beautiful in a picture of its harbor. Above is a stretch of the lovely, unspoiled coast--quite appropriate for such a lovely, unspoiled and friendly guy.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A couple of fun items today, and an article from the Boston Globe on a new social phenomenon spearheaded by gays and lesbians that's come to the city.


Headline from an English newspaper:
Picasso found in British bedroom
Associated Press, London, March 31

That Pablo certainly does get around.


When Fritz and I got together, my cat kept her distance and took a long time to accept him into her idea of the family. Gradually, as I began to take her up to New Hampshire on long weekends, she came around and decided that he wasn't so bad.

Now, after I've been up here full time since July, she's developed her own relationship with him. At night when we're watching TV, she'll stretch out on his legs and sack out for a nap. I've even seen her wake up and roll over on her back which is the big invitation/command to have her tummy tickled.


Dictionary definition:
Trompe l’oeil
noun- from the French, "deceives the eye"
1. visual deception, esp. in paintings, in which objects are rendered in extremely fine detail emphasizing the illusion of tactile and spatial qualities.
2. A style of painting that gives the illusion of photographic reality.

A friend of ours sent this to Fritz. The set up is that you're at a party in a chic high rise condo, have had quite a bit to drink, and need to use the bathroom--which just happens to have a painted floor.



And here’s the Boston globe story on Guerrilla bar-going:

Take over this bar often?
Tired of the same old hangouts, gay clubgoers hit the 'straight' hotspots - and all party on

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / April 3, 2008

Amy Scofield stopped by the Bell-in-Hand Tavern at Faneuil Hall on a recent Friday to hang out with friends and, maybe, find romance. But while there was no shortage of good-looking men, Scofield could quickly tell it wasn't going to be her lucky night.

"We were trying to figure out why there were so many gay guys here," Scofield said, looking around the bar, usually packed with straight college kids and young professionals. "It's a lot of fun that they're all here, but it kind of hurts my chances, you know? I don't think the gay guys are that interested in me."

It's called Guerrilla Queer Bar, and the concept is simple: On the first Friday of every month, gay men and lesbians take over a club that usually draws a straight crowd, and turn it into a gay bar for the night. The event has quickly mushroomed into a local phenomenon, drawing hundreds of clubgoers. In the chilly drizzle outside the Bell-in-Hand last month, the line stretched several blocks.

Organizers attribute the night's growing popularity, in part, to a dwindling number of gay clubs in the city and a pervasive feeling among gays and lesbians that the local nightlife scene has stagnated. The takeovers - which are both social statements and ice breakers - introduce throngs of gay clubgoers to hotspots they might never visit on their own.

"It gives gay people an opportunity to feel comfortable in a space that they may otherwise feel discriminated against in," said Josh Gerber, who helped launch the monthly event. "And it gives straight people a chance to be welcoming and friendly to the gay community on a Friday night."

It's activism, he says, "with a big, rainbow smiley face."

Though Guerrilla Queer Bar is new to Boston, the night is a regular fixture in several other cities. It took off in San Francisco eight years ago, and now places such as Denver, Detroit, and Philadelphia stage their own versions.

It's not the first time such takeovers have been staged in Boston, however. A few years ago, a now-defunct organization of African-American professionals calling themselves Friendly Takeover would stream into predominantly white bars around the city once a month in an effort to diversify the city's nightlife scene.

The number of people participating in the Guerrilla Queer Bar takeovers has quickly multiplied in the six months since it started here. The first event, which took place at the People's Republik in Cambridge last fall, drew just 70 participants. Organizers estimate that nearly 700 people were part of the March takeover of the Bell-in-Hand.

Some say the size of the gatherings has soared because there are surprisingly few places for the city's gay population to congregate. Clubs such as Avalon and Embassy, both of which hosted gay nights, closed last year. Gay nights around town, such as Thursdays at the Estate, have taken up some of the slack, and a handful of smaller dance nights, such as Gross Anatomy at the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain, boast long lines of their own. But many in the city's gay community are still on the prowl for places to party

"There's not a huge gay bar scene in Boston," said Amy Bishop of Somerville, as she waited in line at the Bell-in-Hand. "So it's fun to be able to go out and take over a straight bar. It's also nice that it's mixed. It's not only girls or not only guys."

more stories like this"Honestly, a lot of people are tired of the existing options," said Tim Matthews, who was standing in line nearby. "I think the excitement of taking over a straight bar brings out a lot of new faces. There are people here who wouldn't normally go to a bar."

The "guerrilla" portion of the title comes from the element of surprise. Clubs get no warning that a gay takeover is eminent. Organizers call bar management the day before an event and vaguely suggest that additional staff might be useful because a large number of people will be visiting, but no other information is given. Participants are informed of the location through Facebook or a Google Group listserv the day of the event.

The next takeover is set for tomorrow night at a Fenway area bar. The location will be announced in the morning. Organizers say that to date, the local bars that have been taken over have been quite welcoming, particularly when it means a full house so early in the evening.

"We're happy when anyone comes in," said Hugh McGowan, bartender and music coordinator at the Burren, which was taken over in February. "From all reports, it was a great night."

Guerrilla Queer Bar's mission of good-time activism is summed up in its logo, which features pop diva Cher dressed up like revolutionary Che Guevara (she's known as Cher Guevara).

Boston's Guerrilla Queer Bar is the result of a chance meeting between Gerber, 28, who operates the 1369 Coffee House in Cambridge, and 24-year-old Daniel Heller, a technology consultant, at a party last summer. After discussing the Guerrilla Queer Bar of Washington, D.C. - both men lived there at one time - they drunkenly pledged to bring it to Boston.

"I remember my older brother coming to Guerrilla Queer Bar in D.C. with me," Heller said. "My older brother's in the Army. And he's not gay. For the two of us to go out together was an anomaly. More specifically, for the two of us to go out together with his friends and my friends pretty much never happened."

There have been a few anecdotal reports of verbal harassment at these events, but mostly the takeovers are peaceful. They have been so successful, in fact, that organizers are facing the new challenge of finding venues that are big enough to take over.

So many people are interested in being a part of Guerrilla Queer Bar - its Facebook group now has more than 900 members - that Gerber and Heller are toying with the idea of taking over a whole neighborhood of bars rather than a single location. They are also in the early stages of planning an additional event, something that would give fans of Guerrilla Queer Bar a chance to gather more than once a month.

"This city has an enormous gay population, and very few gay venues," Heller says. "I really don't know why. Simply put, this provides another venue. Honestly, though, what I love about it is that it has a purpose. When you go to Guerrilla Queer Bar you're a part of something."

Back inside the Bell-in-Hand, Amy Scofield and her co-workers decided to stick it out and dance with the capacity gay and lesbian crowd.

"It's very interesting to be in the minority, because I never know what that's like," she said. "But it also kind of stinks because who here is a single heterosexual male? Anyone?"

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Not too much today but I didn't want too big a gap to open up again between posts.

Spring seems finally to be winning its arm wrestle with winter. The many thousands of daffodils are well up here although at least a week away from blossoming, but the crocuses--white, purple and yellow all mixed together and scattered across green areas
everywhere--are in full bloom.

Finishing work continues inside the house but is excitingly close to being finished. With the spring thaw roaring along, the focus is shifting to the exterior of the house again. Our stone mason of choice arrived this morning to consult with us on his schedule and working methods. He'll start inside with the two piers in the front corners of the great room, then move outside to shape and sheathe the six exterior piers with native New Hampshire fieldstone, a lot of which will come from what we blasted out to set the house into the hillside.

Here are some pictures taken yesterday afternoon:

Cabinetry is now complete in our master bathroom. By this evening when the vanity sink is hooked up, plumbing will be absolutely complete throughout the house.

The bookshelves in the staircase alcove are progressing well.

Here's a look into the upstairs bedroom, complete with the art deco theater poster that is the basic inspiration for most of the second floor. Colors and the deco style are coming right off this poster and being used throughout the three spaces up there. I've even begun the layout of the wall treatment in the bathroom, a deco design in gloss white, medium charcoal gray, pale metallic silver, and black.

The poster is mounted on what's been dubbed "the Thing." The Thing is necessary to house the Aga's vent pipe and for some reason I've been able to grasp fully, the pipe has elbows that make its journey through the guest room much wider than it should be. This was a make lemonade from lemons situation, so I designed a cover for the pipe that would highlight the poster and include two cut-out compartments, each of which will hold a piece of African sculpture.

For the rest, I'm cleaning up and sorting out the huge scrap wood pile in front of the house, storing it all in the barn. We'll have kindling for at least two more years for all the wood stoves, and enough scrap fir 2x stock to boil off next year's entire maple syrup harvest. It's very hard work and my abs are showing very well for it, thank you very much!

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