Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thursday of this week -- the 16th -- marks the 50th anniversary of what was at that point in time the worst air disaster to strike a heavily settled city in the U.S.   I was 15 and a junior in high school; I've remembered the event vividly for all these years and was surprised and impressed that the New York Times is featuring articles all this week on various aspects of the disaster.

This was part of the scene in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY after the collision of a big United jetliner and a smaller commuter-sized TWA plane in fog and snow about a thousand feet over New York City.  Both planes went down, the smaller one in a Staten Island neighborhood with no survivors, the United liner destroying several buildings as chunks of it crashed to earth with numerous deaths on the ground and, seemingly against all odds, one survivor. 

This is the picture that appeared on the first page of the N.Y. Daily News, taken as Stephen Baltz, an 11 year old Illinois boy, was being cared for by passers-by before police could get him to hospital.   Stephen, traveling alone to New York to join his parents who had flown earlier, was sitting in the lap of a flight attendant for landing when the TWA prop plane clipped the bigger jet which began to break apart.  When the section carrying Stephen hit the street it cracked open and he was thrown onto a snowbank.

He lived for just over 24 hours.  Hospital staff marveled at how his father could sit with so badly injured a child and speak to him calmly, encouragingly and sweetly, breaking down only when he was out of the room.   But the burns and other injuries were too severe and the medical staff knew from the beginning that it was only a matter of time.   In the end, the chief physician said, Stephen just smiled and "went to sleep. "

Brooklyn has always had closely knit communities.  For the day that he lived among them, Stephen became everybody's foster child and his death hit hard.  He was mourned as one of their own along with those of their own they lost when destruction rained down on them fifty years ago this Thursday.


The legendary Swiss tenor Hugues Cuenod died sometime between the 3rd and the 6th of this month  -- at the age of 108.  The fact that none of the news services is able to peg the date with certainty is somehow appropriate, as if he went on so long that nobody's sure he's actually gone. 

Hughes Cuenod (pronounced Kwe NOH), Hughie to his friends, was born in 1902 and had a false start by training as a baritone.  Eventually he found his true voice, a high, clear, elegant tenor perfect for French and French-influenced music.  He became the darling of composers and musicians at the top of the profession.  Nadia Boulanger, one the most influential and prolific musicians and music educators in history, chose him for a series of recordings of late medieval and Renaissance vocal music to spearhead a rediscovery of "ancient" music.  On the other hand, he sang Alban Berg's twelve-tone opera Wozzeck in Italian at La Scala in Milan, and living composers loved writing for him.  Igor Stravinsky insisted he appear in the premiere of his 1950 opera The Rake's Progress, and Benjamin Britten wrote a number of songs for him.

Despite the wide range of styles and eras that Cuenod mastered, he was not interested in all composers by any means: "I leave Beethoven alone," he revealed in a New York Times interview.  "It always seemed such unnecessary music."

But Hughie wasn't about to be limited to just "classical" music; he did a hundred and twenty or so performances of Noel Coward's musical Bittersweet on Broadway -- in a role especially written for him, of course.

Cuenod, unlike most singers, never had a vocal crisis at any point along the way and his voice never really went into decline (jokingly, he said he never lost his voice because he never had one to begin with).   The above photo, taken in his 70s, shows him on the lawn of the estate at Gyndebourne in southern England, home of a famous summer festival at which he gave somewhere between 470 and 500 performances.  His last documented performance occurred when he was 92 in Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin in a famous cameo role as the sweet, slightly befuddled Monsieur Triquet, tutor to wealthy 19th century Russian family.

But Cuenod himself never became befuddled and he staved off frailty for another couple of decades.  He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1987 at age 85 as the ancient Emperor in Puccini's Turandot, becoming instantaneously the oldest artist ever to sing there.  A member of the chorus at that time spoke of how amusing it was to see him working to play a doddering old man as he himself was lithe and energetic off stage.  A year later he met Alfred Augustin who was 45.  The two fell in love and settled down together.  Well, "settled down" might be a bit misleading.  Three years ago Opera News did an article on Cuenod who said he liked to go for rides in Augustin's convertible sports car at high speeds, letting his long white hair fly out behind him.  That was also the year that same-sex marriage was begun in Switzerland and the two men married after twenty years together.

Cuenod was active pretty much to the end.  Cause of death hasn't been announced.  Perhaps after such a long, rewarding, varied and amazing life, he decided it was time to try something else.


My daughter sent this picture of my granddaughter earlier his week.  At sixteen months old, she's getting into art -- with both hands.  

What a tragic event, that plane crash.

The picture of your granddaughter is so cute!
Hugues Adhémar Cuenod died monday Dec. 6th, early in the morning in Vevey. Hugues Cuenod and his companion Alfred Augustin were not "married" but partners in a civil union which the tenor signed at the ripe age of 104. As far as I know, Switzerland is the only nation where the civil union (pacs) for same-sex partners was granted by a citizens' vote. Marriage is still to come.
Thank you, André, for the clarification on marriage vs civil union on Switzerland. As you may know, our country is a patchwork in this regard, some states having marriage for same-sex partners, rather more having civil unions or domestic partnerships, the majority having none of the above.

Press comment here on Maitre Cuenod's passing has been universally admiring and rather awestruck at his great longevity and vigor in advanced age.
children and art; lovely pair.
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