Saturday, May 26, 2007

Korea Report: The Final Countdown

Only 11 days left (June 6) until a flock of crockheads head for Korea to celebrate the traditional wedding ceremony of eldest son, Jeremy, and his new wife, Bomina. We'll be there a week and then come back, bringing Bomina with us. Ten days after that we'll have a reception here, the Lord willing and the restaurant doesn't lose our reservation again.

We'll have plenty of reinforcements in Seoul. Besides The Wife and both sons, we have Two Brothers, Two Sisters and Two In-Laws traveling with us. Chris is flying out of San Diego; the Two Sisters are flying out of Washington Dulles; the rest of us will leave from our local airport; transfer in Detroit and then head north (yes, north, not west as we go up over Alaska, the Arctic Circle and then head back down south on the other side of the world. Amazing, the way flat maps distort our perceptions.)

Our longest time in the air will be 13 hours from Detroit to Tokyo, where we will change planes for the short hop (2 and 1/2 hours) to Seoul. It will be close to 24 hours from the time we leave Willard Airport until we arrive in Seoul, although by Seoul time it will be more like 36 hours. (Since we cross the International Date Line, on the trip back, by official time we get here four hours after we leave Seoul.)

A day after we get there, we will have the traditional Korean ceremony on the grounds of a palace in Seoul. I'm a little surprised that although our new daughter-in-law and her family are devout Catholics, there is apparently not a requirement that the ceremony be in a cathedral, or even that a priest participate.

We will spend the weekend hanging around Seoul and then have an overnight at a Buddhist monastery on an island off the coast of Korea. Some time during our stay in Seoul, I want to visit the DMZ, although no one else in our party seems interested in the idea. I'm not sure why my fascination with the DMZ, other than I've been reading about it all my life, and our president has labeled it the most dangerous place on earth. (I doubt that statement is any more true than thousands of other lies he has told in the last six years, but I want to check it out for myself.)

I have a new laptop on its way from Dell, and, assuming it gets here on time, will try to give a day-by-day, if not hour by hour account of our trip for the blog. So, stay tuned. I'm getting excited.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Theater Report: Parasite Drag by Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts is a home town boy who has made it big in Hollywood. He grew up in the little bedroom community of Tolono, got involved in the community theater group, The Celebration Company at The Station Theater, worked locally and then in Chicago as a comedian, and then surfaced in Hollywood a few years later as a writer and actor. Now he is a writer and executive producer of the Emmy-award-nominated Two and a Half Men, and has acting and writing credits for a host of other television shows and movies.

Like a salmon returning to its spawning grounds, Roberts keeps coming back to Champaign to introduce new plays he has written. Welcome to Tolono, introduced at The Station Theater several years ago as a play, and now about to premier as a movie was his first effort. It is about addiction in a small town and does a wonderful job of combining humor and pathos. I thought it was a masterpiece and can't wait to see the movie. A year ago, Roberts introduced here another new play,Rantoul and Die, Rantoul being the name of another area small town. This effort was less successful, and I panned the writing, which sounded too Hollywood-sit-comish, the acting, the set and the directing. Other than that, I still didn't like the play.

Roberts is back this year with a new play, Parasite Drag, (the name is an aeronautical term referring to drag by airplane parts which are not lift producers) and it is not only his best effort, but a masterpiece that I predict will get attention outside this small area. It reminded me most of Tennessee Williams's classic Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which won a Pulitizer Prize 50 years ago. This play is in that class. I realize I'm gushing, but I have to tell the truth. (Interestingly, the next production at The Station will be Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starting June 14th. I definitely want to be there and compare more closely that play with Parasite.)

Cat was a story of a Southern family in crisis; Parasite is a story of a Midwestern family in crisis. The crisis in Cat, comes to the forefront when the family gets together because Big Daddy is dying of cancer. In Parasite the family has come together because the sister is dying of AIDS. Cat pushed the boundaries 50 years ago of what was acceptable in theater in terms of language and sexual situations. I don't know if there are any boundaries anymore in theater, but Parasite pushes the bounds of socially acceptable language and behavior; in fact, one word that was used is not socially acceptable, and gets people fired from radio stations.

Although the family has "come together" in physical space, it is far from "together" emotionally. Two brothers, Gene, played by Gary Ambler, and Ronnie, played by Roberts, have taken entirely different life paths. Gene works at the University and is about to be ordained as a minister. They haven't communicated in many years, ostensibly because Gene disapproves of Ronnie's lifestyle, which is heavily into drinking, drugs, sex and cussing. As the play unfolds, one quickly sees that the "good brother" and the "bad brother" are not who we initially thought. Joi Hoffsommer plays Susie, Ronnie's hot little wife who can't believe that Joellen, played by Anne Shapland Kearns, hasn't had sex for eight years. (The audience can't believe it either because we have just witnessed her on the kitchen table with Ronnie, in a rather graphic scene for local theater.)

The dying sister is never on-stage but as we learn about her from the other characters, we see that there is a reason for her wasted life and that reason is the cause of the brothers' estrangement. The play is very intense, made bearable by Roberts's use of humor, but the humor is used more deftly than it was in Rantoul. Thanks to the humor, this is a serious play about a serious subject, for mature adults, but it is not maudlin and it is not depressing.

The audience on Friday night when I saw the play was an older audience; way more than half older than 50, but it was not offended by the language which was about as raw as anything I have heard in the theater and on television. It leaped to its feet for a standing ovation when the final scene went black, not like those standing o's where the friends and family of the actors get up after the first curtain call, and then gradually, one by one, the rest of the audience begrudgingly finally give a standing ovation.

The set is interesting. It is a very realistic glimpse of part of the living room and kitchen of the inside of tens of thousands of Midwestern homes. It was designed by David Harwell, who teaches theater at the University of Alabama. He also did the design for Rantoul that I panned last year. I am not sure the forced perspective used to give more depth to the small stage was really necessary, and the odd angles look odd.

The audience recognized, as the reviewer for our local newspaper, The News-Gazette, recognized that it had seen something special; something that we will remember and want to be able to say years in the future, "I was there." Roberts has certainly proven to me that he is more than a Hollywood sitcom writer, and I hope he gets the recognition that he deserves because of this play. I gave this play 5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

I Got Them Wedding Blues

As regular readers know, our oldest son is having a wedding in Korea on June 8th. We (8 other crockheads and I) are going to Korea for the traditional Korean ceremony and then we're all, including the bride's family coming back here for a reception on June 22nd. My wife, peace be upon her, is taking the opportunity to plan the reception we never had. (We got married under the weeping willow tree in her parents' back yard 36 years ago with only immediate family present, ate a meal cooked by her mother, and then left on our honeymoon trip to Toronto and Montreal to get on with the good stuff.)

I haven't been much help with the planning and preparation since it's mostly humbug to me. But my wife, peace be upon her, has spent a lot of time checking out reception possibilities, dresses, flowers, getting invitations made and sent out, and a million other things that I know nothing about. (Peace be upon me.)

So, in late summer last year, after visiting or talking with every possible place in our twin cities to have a wedding reception, my wife, peace be upon her, settled on the very elegant and lovely Kennedy's at Stone Creek. She went there several times with my sister-in-law, peace be upon her, figuring out things (don't ask me what; I don't even know what needs figuring out.) (Well, I know once when they went there they figured out how to help the staff get a snake out of the foyer, but I can't imagine what else would need so much figuring out.)

On Tuesday of this week, my wife, peace be upon her, and my sister-in-law, peace be upon her, went back to the lovely and elegant Kennedy's at Stone Creek to make the final menu selections. There was a slight problem. The woman they had been working with was no longer there. The new person knew nothing about our wedding reception and had booked the banquet hall to another party. There was no record that we had ever spoken with them. Things started getting a little tense. Invitations had already gone out several weeks ago. RSVPs have been coming in. About 100 people, maybe 120 people are thinking they have been invited to a wedding reception at Kennedy's at Stone Creek.

But, luckily, my wife, peace be upon her, found her receipt for a $500 deposit. And, Kennedy's, peace be upon them, agreed to do the right thing. So, they're closing the restaurant for the evening and we can have the reception in there. The restaurant is nicer than the banquet hall, anyway. Both have nice windows overlooking the golf course, but the restaurant has more character; and will set up as a nicer place for the reception, or so my wedding planners, peace be upon them, tell me.

After arriving home from that near fiasco, which turned out okay, my wife, peace be upon her, decided she better double check with the music guy, to make sure he's still lined up. He wasn't. Oh, yes, he remembered talking with my son about the reception; oh, yes, my son had sent him a playlist of songs, but somehow he had not written down a reservation. That, too, turned out okay because he did not have a competing booking.

So all's well that ends well. (Except this thing hasn't ended yet.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ask Aunt Tillie: Do You Love New York?

Blogger's Note: Since this blog is somewhat Amishcentric, I get questions from time to time from readers about Amish life and culture, which I refer to my Aunt Tillie, an opinionated, but humble Amish woman. Here is a recent question and answer. Please leave a comment or email me if you have questions you want me to refer to her in the future.

Dear Aunt Tillie:

As you know I went to New York City a few weeks ago to see my son perform at Carnegie Hall. One of my readers thought I should offer to take you along. But, since we were flying instead of taking a van, I knew you couldn't be talked into it. But I do think I remember you telling about visiting New York once. Have you ever been to New York City? What did you think of it?

Signed, Amishlaw

Dear Nephew:

You're right, I did visit New York City once, a long time ago, before I was married. I went to see my sister, your aunt, Emma, who worked in New York City as a registered nurse. Emma always had a wanderlust, going off to pick cotton in Oklahoma several summers before finally leaving home for good to go to nursing school. I still don't know exactly how she wound up in New York City, of all places, but I guess she probably wanted to prove she could make it in the big city and they don't make cities any bigger than New York, at least not in this country.

Emma would come home with her clickety little high heels and tight skirts and flirty little comments when any man was around, which some of my sisters didn't appreciate, but I didn't mind because I knew she wasn't after any of the slow-talking men in our community. She used to tell me that I should come visit her, so one fall after we had the corn shucked, I told my father, your grandfather, Obed, that I was going to take off a week and go to New York City.

Surprisingly enough, Obed didn't say too much against it; I guess probably because when he was a young man, his father let him visit New York City and it sure didn't corrupt him. Obed's father, Andrew, gave him $2,000, which was a lot of money in 1915, to go to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to look for a wife. He decided he was going to see New York while he was out east, so he took the train in and got off in Grand Central Station. He walked out of the station, looked around at the big buildings, said, "There's nothing here that I want to see," and went back and got the next train out, on to Lancaster.

(Obed wound up corrupting the Amish young people of Lancaster County, as it turned out. After he returned to Illinois, the bishops in Lancaster sent a letter to the bishops in Illinois, asking them not to send any more of their young men to Lancaster. They were upset because he had taught their young people how to dance.)

Anyway, I spent a little more time in New York City and had way more fun there than Obed, probably because I had Emma as a guide. She met me at the station and took me to her house in Queens, and then took me to see all the sights. We went up on top of the Empire State Building, where I bought a little commemorative medallion that I still have somewhere around here, and we took a boat ride and saw the Statute of Liberty, although we didn't climb up inside.

Emma wanted to take me dancing, but I was afraid that I would look foolish because I really didn't know how to do ballroom dancing. The dancing the Amish young people did was more what you would call "square dancing." Emma got to be pretty good at ballroom dancing,and would enter and win dance contests. (Dancing turned out to be Emma's downfall, but that's a story for another time.)

Even though I wouldn't go dancing, Emma and I had a good time in New York. She took me out to eat in an Italian restaurant and a Chinese restaurant. We didn't have those kinds of restaurants when I was growing up, and even if there had been any in our little Midwestern town, there would be no reason to eat at a restaurant when we had plenty of food at home, and besides who had money to pay for restaurant food.

I could see why Obed didn't think much of the place, with all those tall buildings, you didn't see the sun until about 10 o'clock in the morning, and with all the cars honking their horns and people shouting and running around like ants in an anthill that a cow just stepped on, it was pretty nerve-wracking. But it was interesting to look at the strange people, and I guess they thought I was strange too because they were looking at me, just like I was looking at them. I wouldn't mind going back some day if my health holds up and you can find a train that goes there, but I don't think I'm ready to be squeezed into a van for 10 or 12 hours, or however long it takes to drive there and I know I wouldn't go up in an airplane. But if your son goes back out there to play his fiddle again, you let me know. I might just figure out a way to go listen to him.

Aunt Tillie

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bus Driver Report: Mind Taking My Poop?

Paul, my early morning walking buddy for more than 15 years, recently took a part time job as a bus driver. He doesn't blog, so unless I relate the story he told me this morning, it would be lost to the larger world, and that would be a shame.

Paul is driving north on Vine Street in Urbana earlier this week, when a young woman with a dog flags down the bus. The dog is clearly not a seeing-eye dog so she is not going to be able to board the bus with it, but Paul stops anyway, assuming the woman must be in some kind of distress. He opens the door and notices that she is carrying a plastic bag with dog poop in it. She doesn't try to board the bus, but gestures toward the bus's trash container with the dog poop and asks, "Do you mind?"

"Yes, I mind," Paul replies and closes the door and drives off.

The writer, Ian Frazier, has a funny essay in the May 7, 2007 issue of The New Yorker about the difference between being an idiot and idiocy. Idiocy can be committed by people who do not meet the technical definition of being an idiot. So, I will leave it to my readers to decide -- was this an idiot, or merely idiocy?

Saturday, May 05, 2007

JACK Report: The Reviews Come In

Friday night, JACK performed locally in the Music Building Auditorium. This was a different program than they performed at Carnegie, despite the U. of I.'s breathless news release, which got some facts wrong. (JACK did not perform the same program at UIUC that they did in NYC, and they were not the winners of the Kronos Young Artists Concert.) This was a program more designed for academic musicians, with less mass appeal than the one in New York City. "Deconstructionism," one of Chris's former piano teachers was heard to sniff.

They played Eclats Cycle by Aaron Travers and String Quartet by Aaron Cassidy, both young composers in their early 30s affiliated with Northwestern University. Cassidy was present for the concert. They also played their signature work, String Quartet No. 3 "Grido" by Helmut Lachenmann, the German composer who is in his 70s and who is a self-proclaimed "believer" in JACK. Cellist Kevin McFarland wrote in the program notes that this piece is JACK's raison d'etre, because JACK was formed to perform this work at a festival in Mexico. The title, "Grido," is derived from the first names of the then members of the Arditti Quartet for whom it was written (Graham, Rohan, Irvine and Dov.) They joked at the time that had the piece been written for them, it would have been titled, "Jack." The last work was Tetras, by a dead composer, Iannis Xenakis. That was my favorite piece of the night, mainly because the virtuosic violin solo at the beginning reassured me that all my money for music lessons had not been wasted. Some of the other pieces, which involved playing with the back of the bow and every surface of the violin, had me wondering whether all those drives to Chicago for lessons were really necessary.

My friend and Chief Critic, PG was there with his wife and emailed me a review, which he gave me permission to use (along with their pictures.)(You can just call my photography "Deconstructionism.") Here is their review unexpurgated:

"Event: JACK Quartet, Music Building, University of Illinois, Friday, May 4, 2007

Aaron Travers, ECLATS CYCLE
Helmut Lachenmann, STRING QUARTER NO. 3 "GRIDO"
Iannis Xenakis, TETRAS

Program notes: Voluminous and ponderous

Critics: Lee, the midwestern Bjork, and her spouse PG, the Matthew Barney

REVIEW #1, by Lee
"It is like our house, the washing machine and the dryer, squeaky things, the basement. You know, sort of dysfunctional environment music."

REVIEW #2, by PG
"This concert by Chris and friends totally rocked. The only way it could have been better would be if they had performed a la Charlotte Moorman and, at the end, kicked over their music stands a la The Who."

(Extra notes not incorporated into the reviews: the question of intentionality in the performance; the look of the score; the quietness that allowed for audible intrusions in the audience of chairs squeaking, face scratching, and farts; the ability to differentiate between styles in the composers, we could do it but we did not know how.)"

JACK performed at Northwestern University on Thursday night and that performance was reviewed by Marc Geelhoed, in his blog, Deceptively Simple, (scroll way down) The money quote: "JACK’s fearless performance of Xenakis’ Tetras is something I won’t forget soon, given that they played with a great deal of energy and, even, expressivity."

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Third Day Book Report: "A Changing Light"

This month's Third Day Book Report is on A Changing Light, by Nora Gallagher, which is set in Los Alamos, NM during the mid-1940s when scientists there were inventing the atomic bomb. By coincidence, at the same time I was reading Changing Light, I was listening in the car to Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which deals with the early 1940s, prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. I really liked both books, but they're completely different, except for their time periods and the subject of World War II.

Changing Light looks at the little picture, the relationship between a New York artist, a Georgia O'Keefe type of painter, who has moved to New Mexico because of the perfect light for her art and to get away from her domineering husband who envies her success, and a Hungarian Jew who took to Einstein his idea for an atomic bomb and is having second thoughts about what he is doing, as the bomb nears completion. There is a love story, told delicately, but passionately, like an O'Keefe painting of a pistel and stamen.

Roth's novel imagines a big picture that could have, but didn't happen. He writes about what could have happened if Charles Lindbergh, an admirer of Hitler, had run for the presidency in 1940 and defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although written from the point of view of a boy,The Plot Against America is more about the country and the latent anti-semitism that runs rampant with some encouragement from the political powers that be.

Changing Light is Gallagher's first novel, but she is an experienced writer and this book is written with a deft hand, almost a painterly touch. Roth is not subtle, and although he writes passionately, it is not a love passion but a political passion, at least in this book. I have really gotten to enjoy Roth the last few years, particularly Sabbath's Theater and Everyman. The plot of The Plot Against America gets a little farfetched at times, while Changing Light also has some improbabilities. I really enjoyed both books and gave them my highest ratings of five stars each.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

JACK Report: A Carnegie Smash

Okay, here is my unbiased report on the Kronos Young Artists Concert at Carnegie Hall on April 28th.

Carnegie Hall is a cultural icon. It was built in 1890 with money from Andrew Carnegie. Everyone knows the joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice, practice, practice.) The Young Artists Concert was on one of three stages (Carnegie's website says, "Three Great Stages; One Great Hall,) Zankel, the medium sized auditorium that holds about 600. It was about two-thirds full, so I would estimate that there were 400 people in attendance.

Kronos is an icon at least as revered as Carnegie, among devotees of modern classical music. It has been playing together for more than 30 years, but still maintains a youthful persona and vitality. They consistently sell out Krannert when they play locally. More importantly, the quartet members are generous with their time and prestige, commissioning new works by young composers and holding events to promote young performers, like this particular concert.

Four young quartets, average age under 30, were chosen by audition to participate in a week of coaching by Kronos, culminating in the concert on Saturday night. All of the music was very listenable, although I did not like each piece equally.

The others to perform were EnAccord, based in the Netherlands; the Pangea Quartet, based at Stony Brook University; and the Afiara Quartet, which is in residence at San Francisco State University. Each of the quartets had four 1-1/2 hour sessions (a total of six hours a day) with rotating members of Kronos every day last week. They played various pieces and then were assigned by Kronos what to play on Saturday night.

JACK was in the third spot on the program. Its first piece was "Escalay (Waterwheel)" written for Kronos by Hamza El Din, an Egyptian composer who was living in San Francisco at his death in 2006. He is quoted in the program notes as trying to create the sounds and images of the ancient society of Nubia, in southern Egypt. He describes the music system as Afro-Arab, "a bridge, musically and culturally, between Africa and the Middle East." The piece was hauntingly beautiful.

The second piece was a string quartet called "Oculus pro oculo totum orbem terrae caecat (An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.)" It was written for Kronos by Alexandra du Bois, a 26-year-old composer now living in New York City. She wrote the piece in 2003, and my wife and I heard it that year at Ravinia in Chicago, played by Kronos. It is very sad and we took it as a commentary on the war in Iraq, although I have not heard Ms. DuBois state that as behind the piece. There are places in the composition where one gets an overwhelming desire to weap. Ms. DuBois was in the audience and came out and kissed each of the quartet members when they were taking their bows.

The third piece was a light-hearted composition called "Twilight in Turkey," written by Raymond Scott and arranged by Randall Woolf. The program notes state that although Scott never wrote specifically for cartoons, his music is best known for its adaptation to accompany Warner Brothers animation. It has many playful melodies. The arranger, Mr. Woolf, was present and took a bow with JACK. At the end, everyone came out and took a bow.

Afterwards there was a reception, the entrance to which was guarded by a sad sack doorman who didn't have our name on his list. Unfortunately, he was trying to guard an entrance 10 feet wide and while he was poring over the list on one side of the doorway, people were pouring into the reception area on the other side. I wasn't about to be kept out of a reception after traveling all the way to New York City to hear my son play, so I intoned the magic name of my son, who was on the list and while he was carefully checking that name off, I swept my entourage in behind me. Because of the tender sensitivities of my wife, however, I stayed away from the free sandwiches and wine until we were sure there was enough for everyone. (We did stay until the very end and since there were lots of big fat brownies left, I had two big fat brownies.)

All of the Kronos people were there. Here is a shot with one of their violinists, David Harrington and son, Chris. We started talking with a friendly couple about our age, who were telling us about their twins, just younger than Chris, and it turned out to be Fred Kaplan, whose political writing in the on-line magazine, Slate, I have long admired, and his wife, Brooke Gladstone, who is an editor and co-host of NPR's On the Media program. Harrington is a friend of Kaplan and Gladstone, and calls them up whenever Kronos is in town to go get matzoh ball soup at the Carnegie Deli.

I am not qualified, either musically or emotionally, to make any critical judgments of the Young Artists concert. I was impressed, but then I was bound to be impressed. Whether any of these young quartets become the new Kronos remains to be seen, but they certainly got a strong boost to their careers. And I got a strong boost in my parental pride (although it probably didn't need any boosting.)