Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Garden of Song: Boston Camerata Crosses 'The Sacred Bridge'

            It's Passover on Friday, and Easter on Sunday. A perfect time to hear the Boston Camerata's "The Sacred Bridge" concert program.
            Many of the works in this program, originally created back in 1982 and performed last Sunday in Cambridge, were produced "by religious minorities within Christian Europe," the Camerata tells us in the program notes. "Yet Jews, Muslims and Christians, though separated and in frequent conflict, were in many ways dependent on each other."
            The concert highlights a lot of musical borrowing along with the communities' shared monotheistic tradition, with its common cultural motifs, characters, and stories to celebrate in song. We hear examples of commonality throughout the program. Jewish worship services gave to the Early Christina church ancient melodies. The sound of Hebrew Psalm recitations survive in Gregorian chant. A Christian wrote down the oldest surviving example of written Jewish music, "The Eulogy of Moses," composed by a monk from the Mediterranean world of Italy and Egypt who converted to Judaism and took the name Obadiah. Jewish minstrels wandered through medieval Europe, among them the outspoken "Matthieu le Juif," who ends a complaint of unrequited love with a curse on a false mistress, asking God to make her so wrinkled that only he will love her. Another, minnesinger (German minstrel) Sueskint, decides to return in old age to "the Old Jewry with long coat and hat."
            Another strand in this rousing and astonishingly rich music are the texts and songs that refer back to Abraham, the patriarch of all three faiths -- that common root whose existence often surprises people today in our divided world. In one tune from a Bosnian folk tradition, a Sephardic community rejoices in the appearance of a star over Abraham's birthplace, an example of popular syncretism (the amalgamation of elements from different cultures). The tune in this Jewish song with a Christian epiphany comes from a traditional Arabic/Ottoman musical mode called hejaz-al-kabir.
            The concert begins with solo voices, then a solo instrument, and builds into lively, soulful, percussive jams involving all the singers and a half dozen instruments.
            The first offering, a verse from The Koran, is chanted by a Moroccan singer with a stirring purity resembling "The Call to Prayer." The words say "We narrate unto thee the story of Moses and the Pharoah." Another setting of verses from the Koran tells of Moses' vision of "Allah" in the burning bush. Two settings of Psalm 114 ("When Israel came forth out of Egypt"...) are sung in Hebrew and Latin.
            "Stories of Abraham," were told in songs from the Koran, from an 18th century Jewish source, from a 13th century German composition, and by a Sephardic community in the Balkans.
            The second half of the concert was devoted to the music of medieval Spain or Andalusia (Moorish Spain), especially the Christina court of Alfonso the Wise where all three communities participated in a relative paradise of tolerance, learning and the arts.
            The Boston Camerata has authored scores of programs since the seventies, but "The Sacred Bridge" is the one most often requested. 
             Last week's participants include current artistic director Anne Azema, a dramatic soprano with a timeless voice, music director emeritus Joe Cohen, who sings and plays the lute, Shira Kammen on the vielle (an early violin with a bow that looks like you could fire an arrow from it), Jesse Lepkoff on flute; truly amazing percussionist Karim Nagi (director of the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble) who makes a tambourine sound like a full percussion ensemble all by itself, Boujemaa Razgui who chanted the Koranic verses, and Mehmet Sanlikol, both a wonderful singer and lute player.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Garden of Verse: Five Poems About White Days, Dark Thoughts and -- Oh No! -- Weather

I have a sequence of poems this month in the April edition of the online literary journal "Verse-Virtual" on a subject I'm sure we all want to hear more about: weather! What, you're sick of it already? You've heard enough about "The Great Boston Snow" of the winter of 2015, in fact you're trying to forget about it, and block out the fact that March has been way more productive of snowflakes than snowdrops, or crocuses, pussy willows, green leaves of any description, or the color green of any origin whatsoever such as the astro-turf increasingly used on kids' playing fields?
         And here I am evoking images of icicles and shadows on the snow (or complaining about icicles and snowstorms), making fun of people who complain too much about winter weather, and congratulating those who find pleasure and solace in the simple things -- despite all this unremitting, record-setting, isolating, back-breaking, spring-postponing, don't-get-me-started unseasonable cold and persistent snow cover!... This fixation may merely be an example, Anne points out to me, of  the widely observed "snow obsession disorder.
         Nevertheless, here are the poems, introduced in Verse-Virtual as "Five poems about white days, dark thoughts, and a possibly unhealthy absorption with weather."

 The first one, "After a Death" begins... 

Anne strikes back at February
taking a hammer, whaling away at the ice
that sucks tight to the house like some glittering coral
of ravenous cold, reefing the house with winter

"Do you want to know what feels good?" she asks
after a loss, a contemporary loss,
that shocking preview of the sins of old age
"Pounding away with a hammer
at the ice,"
the ice, it may be, in your soul

Here's the link to the poems in the April edition of Verse-Virtual, an issue that includes contributions from a dozen or so state poet laureates in honor of "Poetry Month."

As always I'm grateful to this online journal, a sunny place to hang out on the Internet.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Garden of Art: Crossing Boundaries in Somerville

            Phantom, Phantom on the wall. Who's the strangest of them all?
            We went to Somerville last weekend and found experimental art from a group offering a space and encouragement for art "that crosses boundaries and genres."They call their experimental performance series "phantom phantom." (http://phantomcollective.tumblr.com/mission)
            The series organizers, they call themselves "curators," 
like the "experimental." On their website they say: "We prize unfamiliarity and would rather see an artist create something strange, absurd, confusing, or even repulsive." An experiment is “a test, trial, or tentative procedure; an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc.” 
            They're looking for the "strange" and the "wondrous" -- two of the characteristics classically attributed to serious works of art.... but perhaps not so much found in commercial entertainment.
             We heard three examples of new works at The Green Room in Union Square (62 Bow St.), Somerville: a poet reading his work and two theater pieces.
            The reason we came was Natanya -- she has other names, but one has always been enough in our family to establish who we're talking about. When we were living in Plymouth, Mass., where our daughter Sonya grew up, Natanya Ruth Silverman was part of our lives. She blew in like the weather, a juvenile force of nature about a year younger than Sonya but with enough personality (and hair) for several considerably larger people.
            Her piece came last at phantom, phantom. Natanya is now a theater professional, artistic director, teacher and founder of The Clearing, which according to its website "is a burgeoning, NYC-based, physical theater ensemble with a holistic approach to collaborating. Through meditation, yoga, movement, dramaturgy and lots of talk and laughter, The Clearing devises original pieces that resonate with each member of the ensemble, with the aim of provoking, inspiring and connecting the audience...."
            Having seen the theater piece created by Natanya with two of her actors, Megan Caniglia and Caroline Lyons, I may not be to tell you what "physical theater" means, except to declare with greater confidence that words alone, at least those I've been trained to use, will never fully convey much of the appeal of this style of performance. I can report it was superbly entertaining to watch the two actors, dressed in black, moving and speaking in perfect time with one another, their movements and speech doubling or dialoguing.
            Titled "PEEL," the piece is described by The Clearing as "a short devised exploration of Transformation... compiling narratives of change, imagery, song and dance."
            In this work Transformation appears tricky, fraught, and productive of many warnings and advisories of a dark or negative weight. Regarded from the perspective of the audience's older members (Anne and me, that is) -- with many transformations behind us -- the "narrative" seemed to carry the weight of negative messages passed on, intentionally or not, to the young.
            A part of us wanted to say, "No, no, it's not like that. Transformation is growth, satisfaction, achievement. You'll like it, trust us." We're looking forward to a piece about the "the butterfly stage" that follows the transformation.           
            Of the three pieces we saw last Friday -- each of them enjoyable, quality art -- The Clearing's piece was the most clearly representative of the series's goal of "combining" arts. The stated goal is to promote movement-based collaborations; translation; hybrids in form, language, genre; in short, art that crosses boundaries."
            As the playwright whose highly entertaining piece "Creatures of the City" commented afterwards, "You sure got a lot of the arts in there."
            "Creatures of the City" was written by Walt McGough who credited the three actors who performed it in a staged reading with considerable share of the authoriship in shaping the piece. It was funny and on the mark, as the inhuman 'creatures' exhibit human needs and foibles in their hospital-based encounters.
            Included, also, were singing including a vocal exercise -- -- a memorable piece of targeted screaming -- that appeared to turn (or "transform") the linked voices of the two actresses into three or four.

          Poet Peter Covino led off the evening by reading some new works, still in progress, that were attractive for subject subject matter and dcition. Because I don't have the text, I can't offer any examples -- but precisely because, unlike collaborative theater, texts of Covino's published works, including the book "The Right Place to Jump," are available for me to get hold of. And I will.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Garden of Literature: A Clear Success for 'A Twisted Misson'

Judy Campbell's new book, "A Twisted Mission," is the eighth book in her series of Olympia Brown mysteries. It comes as a prequel to the others and treats the period in Olympia's life when she is deciding whether to continue as a college religion teacher or look for a more pastoral position. A divorced parent of children now living outside the home, she's also considering how to expand her social life and stir up some male companionship.
The author's practice in these books is to take on important contemporary social issues while placing Olympia in the midst of a life-or-death crisis. In "A Twisted Mission" Olivia has taken the job of chaplain for a church-run summer camp in Maine. Campbell has a strong feel for the details of summer camp life, its routines and rhythm, as well as for the delights and hardships of roughing it on the rural New England coast. As one of her characters remarks, a religious summer camp can be "a good place to learn life lessons."
Set during the AIDS crisis of the nineties, the book is also particularly strong in dealing with sympathetic connections between gays and straights. Chief among these is Olympia's friendship with the gay priest Jim, an attractive character able to give advice and understanding of the crisis that develops when a camp staffer is humiliated and harassed for his sexual orientation. On this score, the book widened my understanding of the male shaming of gay sexual preferences as a destructive and all too common form of bullying.
The novel also offers a hint of midlife romance while affirming the consolations of friendship and the joys and satisfactions of good fellowship on one hand and restorative solitude on the other, though this novel also contains snakes in its garden, storms in the summer skies, and human fallibility among the campers. I recommend this book for any reader seeking likable characters, a good story, and a deftly embedded moral universe. Olympia Brown might be a minister, but her stories are never preachy.

The Garden of Friendship: Richard Pecorella

            We were both fathers of daughters. We both married Jewish women
            Our daughters met some time in the early grades of the local public schools. Our wives belonged to the local Jewish congregation, and Richard and I took part in the congregation's activities as involved "fellow travelers," Richard embracing these, as he did so many things, with a whole and open heart.
            One of the first things I learned when Anne and I began spending time with Nancy and him was that Richard would keep us entertained. He was a storyteller. Of growing up in his extended Italian family, he once told us of his grandfather's habit of exploring the distant corners of this vegetable garden and then deciding that his wife needed to climb down three flights of stairs to turn on the water for his garden hose. Richard demonstrated both the manner of these imperious padrone-like commands and his grandmother Francesca's infuriated obedience, huffing, puffing, and muttering all the way down the stairs.
            Naturally Richard, being Richard, devised some way to rig up an extension so that Francesca could turn on the water for the garden hose without having to climb down and up those rickety old stairs.
            Richard also told us about serving in Vietnam, recounting a stretch of nighttime sentry duty that would scare anybody to death, and of his efforts to persuade some of his underprivileged fellow draftees to go with him to the camp movies when they were screening a film that might show them something about life. Richard's decision to serve in armed forces had been a difficult one; this was a subject of considerable personal interest to me since I had done all I could to stay out of the army in those days.
            In our own ways both of us got through that difficult era, found someone to love, became fathers. And as devoted daddies we both drew pleasure from sharing our interests with our daughters. At Richard's Memorial Service last week, his daughter Karen recalled the nightly sessions in which her father read to her all the way through "The Lord of the Rings" -- for what seemed like years. I prescribed the same medicine to both of our children. Sonya never seemed troubled by the length of the tale, though she felt profoundly betrayed by its imperfectly happy ending.
            Thinking of Richard last week, I recalled some words from that book about the prospect of life "ending," shared by the wizard Gandalf to Pippin, the least thoughtful of the doughty Hobbits as the two face the prospect of death from the evil invading horde.


            PIPPIN: I didn't think it would end this way.
            GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
            PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
            GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
            PIPPIN: Well, that isn't so bad.
            GANDALF: No. No, it isn't.

            So now I can envision Richard on another path, one we will all someday take, exploring "the white shores" and the "far green country."
            Still, that's not quite the last word on the subject, because what we do in this world, on this path, however long or short our stay, matters.
            In describing Richard to those who didn't know him, Anne and I point out that after he retired from the federal Health and Human Services department, he volunteered for a local human service that provided nighttime winter shelter for the homeless in Plymouth churches. Helping out here was not just a matter of writing a check, we told Anne's mother, but providing the supervision necessary to keep the program going.
            "He stayed with them at night?" Anne's mother asked.
            "Then he was a good man."
            That seems to sum it up. Whether you heard it from his brothers, his co-workers, or some acquaintance whose car broke down, the bottom line was that Richard always helped people. He was a good man.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Paradise of the Birds

            You know the kind of birds you don't see much of in New England or the Northeast -- pelicans, storks, ibis, spoonbills, anhinga? We found them in Florida. You could hardly miss them.

            Given there size, I wouldn't want to see the birds we saw in Delray Beach, on the Atlantic coast side of the Florida peninsula, up here in the North. I'd hate to see them trying to get around in all this snow.

            These water-loving birds belong down there. Big and boldly marked, beautifully plumed and designed avian models built to last, revealing their reptilian roots in their long, sinuous necks; living by and in and off the water. Nesting. Poking around in the twig and branch furnishings of their recently constructed domiciles; feeding their young, stalking the shallows for prey, diving like ducks. And keeping up a three-note querulous squawk when the alligator, fat and sleek and silent, floated ominously over to a prime wetlands nesting site, the busy, multi-species, densely populated, cypress island I deemed "the Paradise of the Birds."[Top photo]

            This breeding spot was a mere dozen feet from the promontory of the pedestrian boardwalk, roofed as a viewing stand. Someone should have been selling scorecards.

            The tiny island was filled with infants in nests, already well hatched, constantly hungry, some adults walking among them. Other adults just -- big white, fluffy storks with dark, mottled-necks and heads the proportion of not so fat erasers on long pencils -- just hanging out, it appeared, taking up valuable space on the cypress tree-island, maybe waiting to see if they were needed. Perhaps to make a delivery?

            Babies on the way? Go get the stork. Here's a question: Who brings the stork's babies?

            The last of these bird names cited, 'anhinga,' is a word I could not pronounce. Surely I'd seen the name on paper, but never the bird in the flesh. Florida took care of that.

            According an the source online anhinga "sometimes called snakebird, darter, American darter, or water turkey, is a water bird of the warmer parts of the Americas." The name comes from the Brazilian Tupi language and means devil bird or snake bird.

            Stay with me as I try to match up photos of the birds we saw in the "bird paradise" of the Delray Beach water division recharge area (in an area called The Wakodahatchee Wetlands) and in a federal conservation area described as the northern border of the Everglades (called the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge) with the identifications I found one place or another, the signboards down there or the internet back home.

            We saw the the anhinga in various states of plumage, including the tan serpentine neck on the dark body.[second photo]

            We see great egrets -- sleek, white, long-legged wading birds -- up north, mostly in summer. In the Delray Beach wetlands we found a number of big white birds looking like great egrets but with a green coloring on their heads near the beak. [third photo] Certainly not a marking on the great white egrets I have regularly spied on and tried to photograph in the salt marshes of Quincy.

            Here's the answer: During breeding season for great egrets, "lores" (the area from the bill to the eyes) turn lime green.  In other seasons these spots are "primarily a dirty yellow." So, what we have are great egrets dressed for a season we never see up north.

            The roseate spoonbill: We saw it in the distance, the reddish coloring glimpses as it opened wings to fly and glide down to a perch at the edge of something. We have never seen a white bird of such size with red on its wings. It took finding a picture of it on a signboard for me to figure out what it was. [fourth down, internet photo]

             The white ibis, its beak curved downward, a gentle scimitar. [fifth down, internet photo]

            And ruling over the cypress island nesting areas, the wood storks. I could see why it was believed to be good luck to have a stork nest on your roof, something shining and bright to look at through the dark months of early winter.

            Cormorants, nesting in those same cypress trees, we do see up in our parts [sixth down].
            Many great blue herons stalked and flew in these wetlands as well[seventh down]. We do see these where they live, wetlands, ponds, rivers. Some of the largest, most spectacular wild birds we see, during migratory season, or summer or when the water stays open. Not, I think, this winter.


            And though we never see them up north, we somehow no difficulty at  identifying the alligators. [71]

            The birds hooted a three-note rhythm, again and again, keeping up the warning siren for as long as the alligator lurked in the water below the island. Mr. Gator was not in a hurry to vacate the premises. We could hear the continuously repeated warning cry even as we finished our loop of the boardwalk built for land-locked creatures and headed to the parking lot.

            'Later,' I thought.