Saturday, December 27, 2008

Thais - A Meditation

Last week's Live in HD opera was "Thais", starring the diva de jour Renee Fleming. I knew nothing of this opera except that beautiful violin piece "Meditation from 'Thais'", which I used to do my Tai Chi routine to, along with the adagio from Mahler's 5th symphony. (They worked perfectly with the moves and I could imagine that I was looking graceful but probably wasn't.) The story of "Thais" is as old as the hills: Bad woman (in this case a courtesan), good man (a monk). Good man tries to convert bad woman. She becomes good, he goes bad. She dies.

It was nice to see a performance in which the lead singers are actually very attractive. Renee Fleming is gorgeous, Thomas Hampson, who played the doomed monk, is very handsome. The music was as beautiful as the singers. It was just lovely. Renee Fleming has the most wonderful voice with an amazing range. She's not much of an actress, performing and singing mostly to the audience instead of her co-stars, but who cares.

There's one thing I wish someone would tell her. She claims to have sung with a jazz group while she was in school, and she has recently made a CD of popular songs and has performed on Garrison Keillor's radio show and other places. Oy! She is TERRIBLE, laughably so. Her voice swoops in an attempt to sound bluesy and guttural, and she is trying to be soulful and it sounds like hell. I think she has reached a point in her career where no one will tell her the truth. If anyone reading this knows Ms. Fleming, please tell her to cut it out and stick to opera or lieder and never, never, never try this again and to collect all those CDs and have a bonfire. Oy!

The violin solo comes in between scenes when Thais is meditating on her sinful life and making a decision to be a good woman and give up her evil ways and all. It was played by a young man who is one of the first violins in the Met orchestra and it was so beautiful you could die. He took a curtain call at the end along with all the stars and got tremendous applause, including from many people in the audience in Akron, Ohio, who seemed to be under the impression that he could hear them.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Merry Christmas to All

The lazy person's way to save stamp money: My Christmas card, featuring yet again, Dupree, the wonder cat. Actually, he is too old to get interested in baubles now, but he did have his day as a tree wrecker.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The House Almost Without a Christmas Tree

John is always in charge of the Christmas tree, the getting of it, the putting it into the stand and the stringing of the lights. He usually does this a week or two before Christmas, unlike the old days, when I got the tree a couple of days before Christmas, and put it up on Christmas Eve, giving the children something to do besides whine about how long the day was, and how they wouldn't be able to sleep that night, etc., etc. It did keep them busy, but there was always the annual what ornament to put where fight, resulting in a few slammed doors. Peace finally reigned, though and they went to bed happy, as did I. Since there are no kinder about, John likes to have the tree around early.

This year, however, he and Cynthia got back from visiting Emily in Germany barely a week ago and has been dealing with the inevitable jet lag. In fact, every night he has wanted to watch a Christmassy videos, but hasn't been able to stay awake past 8:30 (2:30 a.m. German time) or so. Cynthia comes over for dinner, I put on the video and end up listening to the two of them snore while I watch the movie by myself. So Monday, he said that he didn't think he was up to getting a tree this year and would I mind terribly if we didn't have one. At this point I hadn't even put out the manger or the little cheap lighted village, so I said it was okay with me if we didn't have a tree.

Then yesterday, he decided he could not have Christmas without a tree and bought one of three left on the lot and brought it home. He said it was deformed and I think he felt sorry for it. He managed to get it up and straight in spite of a very crooked trunk. After dinner, Sally, Cynthia and I added the ornaments and, of course, it looks beautiful. Every Christmas tree we have ever had is the most beautiful tree we've ever had.

The manger is up (Joseph is missing his crook) and the little lighted village is aglow and there are candles everywhere, including bayberry. Gifts are wrapped and right now we are roasting chestnuts, which just set off the smoke alarm. Tonight we'll go to the Unitarian-Universalist candlelight service. They were just given a brand new concert grand piano, so the music should be outstanding.

One of our favorite old TV movies is "The House Without a Christmas Tree", which of course, ends happily (I mean it's a Christmas movie), and we just missed being one of those houses. I guess a person could survive, but it's nice not having to.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Good Movies You Might Not Like At Christmas

Good movies are always piled up at the end of the year to make the choosing of awards easier for those who select the winners of Oscars and Golden Globes and Critics' awards. I have recently, after a bit of a movie drought, seen three very fine movies. Unfortunately they are not the sort that will get one all cozy and ready for the holiday season.

The first is "Rachel Getting Married", which has some great acting, even though it is about those precious, wealthy kinds of people who live in large houses probably in Connecticut. It's hard to figure out exactly who these people are, since they seem to know a lot of musicians (It was written by Sidney Lumet's daughter, who is also the granddaughter of Lena Horne), and a racial mix of vaguely theatrical and academic types. And the wedding itself is a sort of "Monsoon Wedding" clone, for no apparent reason. Anyway, it involves a spectacular case of sibling rivalry and is fun to watch. If you think Mom liked your sister best, you may not enjoy it.

The next movie is "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." It's a Holocaust story and heartbreaking, so it's hardly "The Christmas Story". It did come out quite a bit before the holiday season, but just reached this area around Thanksgiving. The acting is fine and it is something that could have happened - but probably didn't. I have been trying to think of what we called that horror before it started being called "Holocaust." I remember when the book and then the TV mini-series came out that it became the name of the tragedy. I think after the war, we called it "the death camps" or the "concentration camps" but didn't give it a name. "Holocaust" fits because that's what it was, of course, or genocide. It is just unbelievable still. The movie doesn't explain anything, because I don't think it is possible to explain such a terrible thing. It is worth seeing.

The best movie I have seen in a long time is "Slumdog Millionaire,"even though it, too, has some parts that are very hard to watch. The premise is so clever, even though it seems implausible: a poor street kid, who has had to fight to survive, gets on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and is able, because of his experiences, to answer more and more difficult questions. He is accused of cheating, and tortured by the police. In telling how he knew the answers, we see his life and find out. It's an amazing story and though fictional, you know that there are hundreds, probably thousands of children in Mumbai and other large cities where small children have a daily strugglem, often brutal, to survive on their own. It's funny and sad and just such an absorbing story. There is happy ending, a downright joyful ending.

Of course, I shall watch "The Christmas Story" for the zillionth time and laugh and all, because it is the season for that sort of thing. But is was good to see a few fine flicks for a change.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stuff, as in Too Much Of It

Once in a while, if I wake up around 3 a.m., I start thinking about all the stuff I have in this house, and what I am going to do about it. I envision renting a Dumpster, opening a window and throwing, throwing, throwing until the dumpster is full. Then I think, wait a minute, some of that stuff is probably worth something, and also that some of that stuff belongs to my far away children, as well as those close by. I have told them that I am not running the Burnell Museum of Childhod Stuff. And I know that they also have vast collections of stuff where they live, too.

Most of it is my own stuff, of course. I have in my living room three antique pieces of furniture: an old school master's desk, a pie cupboard, and a washstand. They are all full of stuff: LPs, videos, photographs, family letters, scrapbooks, and odds and ends. That's just the living room. I have two closets full of clothes. I always wear the same things, and most of the other clothes are things I might wear some day. And twice a year I send bundles of clothes to the Vietnam Veterans clothing drive. I have shoes and shoes, which seem to breed.

I don't consider my books stuff. They are sacred, even though they are in every room. I have taken some to the library for their book sales, but most of those are books I bought for research when I was writing in the pre-Google days. I have pledged not to buy any more children's books and have avoided the Antiquarian Book Fair for the last 4 years. I have reference books I could probably get rid of. I don't think I really need the World Book Encyclopedia I bought for the kids back in the 60s - or the the Britannica I bought at a yard sale many years ago. (It's not that valuable edition of the early 20th century anyway - the 15th edition? )

The worst collection of stuff is in the basement. There's a cupboard under the stairs which contains God knows what. I do know that there is a copy of the Atlanta Journal from December, 1939 containing an account and pictures of the premiere of "Gone With the Wind," when all those real movie stars came and paraded down Peachtree Street in open convertibles, and my sister and I got to see them all. I guess I snagged it when my mother was getting rid of her stuff. I haven't seen it for a long time, because there is a lot of stuff in that cupboard: toys from the 50s and 60s that are no doubt collectible, but which no one wants to go through or get rid of. And there's a closet down there that has a lot of things in it which no one remembers. Oy! Sometimes I feel like Miss Havisham without the wedding dress or cake.

I made a small start this Christmas. I am giving recycled things to my family as gifts. Nothing ratty or awful, just things that I don't use but that they may enjoy, and that are small enough that they won't add to their own piles of stuff. I think of all those people frantically shopping at this moment, getting stuff for people who don't need it. I mean, we all like to give and recive, but we have become inundated with stuff, those of us lucky enought to have a place to put it. We live in a consumer economy and we certainly do consume a lot of stuff. There must be a better way to manage.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Intro to Christmas

Last night was the annual Christmas concert of the Kent State Chorus, an event which , for me, kicks off the Yule season. (They actually perform closer to Christmas than the tradition of right after Halloween so common these days.) The chorus is comprised of both university and community members and it is always a lovely way to get into the spirit of the season. It's also an antidote to the ubiquitous and annoying racket in shops this time of year, where one can't avoid hearing things like Elvis singing "Blue Christmas" or Burl Ives warbling "Holly, Jolly Christmas" blasting from hidden speakers. ."

There is a new, young choral director and he started things off with a bang and a laugh. The first number was "Jalapeno" sung to the "Hallelujah chorus. It was hilarious, full of food references and included kaopectate, too. I don't know who the clever lyricist is, but it was much enjoyed. There were a number of lovely carols, including "Still, Still, Still," a favorite of the Burnell Family Singers, who recorded it a few years ago for the Kaffee Klatsch annual Christmas CD. (We have not done a song this year for this prestigious CD, but hope we are still on the mailing list.) There were opportunities for the audience to participate in a couple of traditional carols

The final presentation was the Christmas section of "The Messiah," with the real "Hallelujah" chorus as the finale with the audience joining in. The soloists were a bit iffy, unfortunately. They were all students and one or two were a bit insecure. It's a difficult thing to do those highly ornamented arias and the bass in particular seemed to have lost his way a few times. Young or amateur singers, especially those in the lower range, tend to have a definite touch of the Cowardly Lion's wobble. Hard to keep a straight face at times and best not to sit toward the front where one can be seen to shake while trying to stifle guffaws. But all in all, it was a lovely evening and I am so glad to live in a community which provides so much good and accessible music.