Dilettante's Diary

Nov 4/05

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Reviewed here:  In Performance (Nov 2/05); Dame Edna: Back With A Vengeance (Show); Junebug (Movie); Author, Author (Novel); Winter on Diamond (Memoir)

CBC Radio Two: In Performance (Nov 2/05)

CBC radio has a way of wrecking my plans now and then. Like this Wednesday evening (Nov 2nd). A fat biography of Lord Byron was waiting to be read but I happened to catch a promo for "In Performance" that mentioned baritone Peter MacGillivray.* Now perspicacious readers of Dilettante’s Diary will remember that he’s the young Canadian singer whom I nailed for second place at the Jeunesses Musicales Vocal Competition in May. It so happened that the judges agreed with me. (Check Dilettante’s Diary, May 18/05) And the promo for "In Performance" offered a smidgen of "La Ci Darem La Mano" from Don Giovanni. Any time you get a chance to hear a Mozart aria, you should take it. So I tuned in to the program, just for a taste, then a little more, then a little more and before you know it, there goes the evening.

This broadcast of an earlier "Debut Atlantic" concert turned out to be an evening of discoveries for me in more ways than one. The other featured singer, along with Mr. MacGillivray, was mezzo soprano Christianne Rushton whom I’d never heard.  She’s been studying at the Julliard and singing in productions there. The singers were expertly accompanied by the distinguished Robert Kortgaard, playing on what sounded like a very good piano indeed; in any case, he coaxed the sweetest sounds imaginable from it

Mr. MacGillivray led off with selections from Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ Songs of Travel which showed off the young baritone’s voice to great effect. He has a very bright, ringing high register, his lower notes are scary and powerful, and everything in between is mellow. The only thing that bothered me was a slightly wavy sound in the long, sustained notes, as if he was pushing too much. But the main thing is that he persuaded me – quite unexpectedly – that I liked these songs. That's no small accomplishment, given the fact that Mr. Vaughan-Williams’  violin piece "The Lark Ascending" has occupied top spot in my classical music hate-list for many years. (As for his symphonic music, some of which was played by host Andrew Craig after the concert – well, let’s not get into that!)

Ms Rushton’s first solo offering was a selection from Hector Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’t. It has to be said that dear, demented Berlioz, for the sake of sublime music, placed demands on the human voice that no singer should ever have to meet. Ms. Rushton coped with them as competently as anybody I’ve heard. Her voice has a wonderful range of colour and expression. I wasn’t catching many of the words, but that’s probably more the fault of Berlioz than of Ms. Rushton.

By way of operatic duets, there were the piece from Don Giovanni and "Dunque Io Son" from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. In the Mozart, I wasn’t getting quite the velvety tone that I wanted from Mr.MacGillivray; he was a touch more aggressive than seductive, for my taste. And I didn’t get much tentativeness from Ms. Rushton, not much of a feeling of teetering on the brink of terrible temptation. Of course, that may have come across very well in the visual aspects of the performance, but my radio doesn’t handle that department very well. In the Rossini, though, both performers hit their stride perfectly. Tons of humour and flirtatiousness came through in Ms. Rushton’s singing. Mr. MacGillivray’s voice was perfectly focused and shaped, not a hint of the wavy stuff that was bothering me earlier. But a couple of rapid coloratura passages shook me up a bit; Mr. MacGillivray seemed to slide off track like a downhill skier not quite making all his turns.

The most amazing part of the evening for me was Ms. Rushton’s performance of the "The Confession Stone", Robert Fleming’s setting of poems by George Proctor about the life of Jesus from the viewpoint of his mother. I wasn’t feeling quite ready for another artistic take on that theme. (Maybe Mel Gibson did it to me.) However, with her dramatic and extremely direct style of communicating, Ms. Rushton made me pay close and respectful attention. The first song is a sort of lullaby to the baby Jesus; just when you think you can’t stand any more of the repetitious, simple language, the music suddenly stops with a "Sssh!" from the singer (that finger-to-the-lips thing) followed by "You need your rest." (Can’t guarantee that the quote is 100% accurate, as I didn’t have my tape recorder running.) The astonishing thing about Ms. Rushton’s voice is that she ranges back and forth from a full, rounded operatic sound to a plain, casual tone, almost a speaking voice, without any jarring break or any sense of incongruity or inconsistency of character. These songs (they were written for Maureen Forrester) perfectly suited Ms. Rushton's voice. On top of which, she handled the language so well that I caught every word, except in one very rapid piece that mentioned Martha and knitting.

In his second solo sequence, Mr. MacGillivray gave us some songs from Sibelius – a delightful find for me and, I expect, for many listeners. In them, Mr. MacGillivray caught all the young man’s bravado and raillery that were promised in his spoken introduction to the songs.

In the final songs, a selection of cabaret numbers by William Bolcom, both singers conveyed oodles of character. Mr. MacGillivray was especially good at bringing out the sarcasm in a number about "My Uncle Murray." Ms. Rushton’s performance of a "Waiting", a plaintive piece like a spiritual or a hymn, was so beautiful that I wanted her to sing it again right away. The encore, Noel Coward’s "I’ll See You Again", sent us to bed (or to the computer keyboard, in my case) on waves of lush romance.

* His name appears on the Web as "Mc" and "Mac", so take your pick!

 

Dame Edna: Back With A Vengeance (Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, until Nov 6)

It seemed a report on the cultural phenomenon known as Dame Edna would be in order for readers of Dilettante's Diary. Since this kind of shtick is somewhat out of my range, however, I invited my dear Aunt Agnes McGrath to see the show with me. What you will read below is her review of the show. This "guest review" is a first for Dilettante’s Diary.

It was so sweet of my nephew Patrick to take me to see this lovely show. It’s not often a person gets a treat like this. Where can you go to get a show that’s really sophisticated and tasteful now that Liberace is gone? The sight of that grand piano, all the flowers and the sparkle – it warmed my heart. And I was thrilled to see the Royal Alex packed to the gills with loyal followers of the great Dame; it restores your faith in people.

First of all, let me say how delighted I am with Dame Edna’s wardrobe. Such colour and pizzazz, quite rare in such a mature person. There’s apparently something very Canadian about Dame Edna. She’s just like the autumn leaves – the way they turn more colourful before they drop. And I must say, I’m so glad to see that blue rinse is coming back. I’ve always believed there’s no problem a blue rinse can’t fix. Some people might think it was a little mean of Dame Edna to pick on Torontonians in the audience for their sub-standard clothes, but it was all in fun, wasn’t it? Besides, some of them could use a good kick in the behind when it comes to appropriate dress. There were very few of us in the theatre wearing gloves and a nice hat.

I was very touched to discover that Dame Edna is very spiritual, in an intellectual way. That was a side of her that I hadn’t known about before. She puts a lot of thought into things. For instance, she explained that the original Aramaic for "disciple" means "someone who wants to get picked on". (She said Mel Gibson told her.) And she commented that the four gospels were the Harry Potter books of their day. Now who would have thought of that? Shows you how profound she is.

She’s also very caring, as we saw in her attempt to help a troubled young married couple from the audience. She brought them up on stage to give them some counselling. But first she admonished all of us: "What you hear here, let it stay here." I must say I fully approve of that admonition. And no doubt that guarantee of privacy made the young couple much more comfortable in front of the 2,000 of us. Sometimes people think the audience members Edna brings up on the stage are plants but this young couple couldn’t have been, because when she asked them where they were married and by whom, they mentioned a priest that I actually know!!! Edna intuited that the youngsters were having terrible trouble with interfering mother-in-laws on both sides. You wouldn’t believe the pain! But Dame Edna spared no effort or expense to help them. Right there on stage, she actually got the number of one mother-in-law and phoned her just to give her a good talking to. The nice thing about that is that we all have the number now, so we can phone any time to check on how things are going.

Now my nephew Patrick was saying that he thought the set was a little bit of a letdown compared to the one for Dame Edna’s previous Toronto show. (He pretends that this kind of thing is beneath him; he’s very clever in some ways, my nephew, but you can’t believe everything he says!) Last time, he said, Dame Edna made a great entrance down a sweeping staircase. He also felt this show was a little less amusing than the one five years ago. But as far as I could see, he never stopped laughing, so what could be better than that? Afterwards, he made a lot of pompous remarks about how he goes to the show not for the jokes but to study things like clown technique – all about how Dame Edna moves her body and how she can milk a laugh just by turning her head a certain way. And then he got into some falderol about how the end of the show reminded him of the spirit of the old Music Hall – with everybody singing and clapping and waving the gladiolas Dame Edna had so graciously handed out. What he would know about Music Hall, I don’t know, because it died long before he was born. All I can say is that everybody was having a very nice time. There’s something so wonderful – and old fashioned! – about a performer standing up there and giving her all, pouring out her love to the audience unstintingly. Patrick said he found an undercurrent of sadness to it all. Something about how Dame Edna seems a little less agile than she was five years ago, thoughts about how hard it must be for her to keep going, how maybe this will be the last time.... But enough of that! Me, I think it’s simply wonderful to see a person like her refusing to accept the limitations of age, pushing on with glamour and vitality. It’s so inspiring to all of us!

Now I must mention a delicate matter. Apparently, there are people who think it was a man impersonating Dame Edna in this show. I even overheard a few murmurs to that effect in the powder room. I can tell you for a fact that that simply isn’t possible. Dame Edna is far too classy ever to allow anything as crass as a man impersonating her. As a matter of fact, at one point she was saying she didn’t like the show Hairspray because "men in dresses make me sick." So that settles it for once and for all!

 

Junebug (Movie) directed by Phil Morrison, written by Angus MacLachlan

As usual, I avoided reading anything about this one beforehand, but a few hints came my way suggesting that this might be my kind movie. For the first few minutes, I was wondering if it was a documentary. It opens with grainy shots of guys in a rural setting letting loose with some strange kind of hollering or yodeling. Suddenly, the scene shifts to a chi-chi art gallery in Chicago where a hot chick, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz),  pairs up with studly George (Alessandro Nivola). He’s from North Carolina, we eventually find out. So, I guess, the opening shots were establishing the contrast between the big city and the world he came from. On a business trip south, the lovers decide to drop in on his family who are, to put it diplomatically, simple, unsophisticated folk. Given that Madeleine has the looks and manners of a Julie Andrews, with an accent to match, she and the family don’t make what you’d call a great fit.

This is the kind of family that tends to stop everything and break into prayer on the spur of the moment. Which is not to suggest that they’re necessarily creepy. Dad (Scott Wilson), a patient, long-suffering kind of guy, asks himself, when he’s misplaced a tool, "Now where would I be if I were a screwdriver?" Mom (Celia Weston), a dominant presence in more ways than one, has one of those faces that the camera reads volumes into. Obviously she was very beautiful – minus 30 years and 50 pounds. She can seem harsh but, as Dad says, that’s only the way she is on the outside. The venom of her remarks is softened by that cloudy face that tells you she’s seen a lot of hard times; she has reason not to go all syruppy. Unlike her daughter-in-law, Ashley (Amy Adams). This girl is so innocent, gushy and dumb that I kept wondering why she wasn’t insufferable. Ms. Adams manages the trick of almost over-dosing on saccharine but always pulling back just in time. Ultimately, I think what makes Ashley likeable is that you sense genuine goodness shining in her eyes. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that she eventually shows heroic goodness in the face of great unhappiness. Just a small foretaste: Madeleine wants to admit that she broke a kitchy plaster ornament of Mom’s but Ashley insists on taking the blame because, "I want her [Mom] to like you."

The flaw in the movie – for me – is the character of Ashley’s husband Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie). A pre-sentence report on this guy would read something like: passive-aggressiveness alternating with violent outbursts, universal hostility, sexist mindset, rudeness, minimal articulateness and extreme dim-wittedness. I wanted to grab this guy by the throat (except that I’m too nice) and ask: what’s your problem, buddy? In fact, his problem never is elucidated. One assumes that he’s envious of his more successful and more attractive brother, George. But is George in the wrong for having learned to look people in the eye and to speak in other than in truculent monosyllables? Almost every time Johnny appears, he pulls the movie away from believability and pushes it into grotesque caricature.

For the most part, though, it’s a lovely movie. On one level, it’s about how the lovers from Chicago balance their relationship with family allegiances. In a more profound way, it’s about the business of getting along with people, the business of rubbing along day after day with others. When Mom gets off one of her caustic remarks to Dad, you wonder: why does he put up with it? Because of the mystery of their marriage, it appears. Many fine touches help to set the contemplative mood for such thoughts. There are long, silent shots of interiors. At one point, we watch a lawn jumping with grasshoppers, then we see a neighbour standing  across the street, watching the goings-on. The scene is held for a long time -- not what you’d call really dramatic but very true. Classical music, especially chamber music, provides elan to scenes where you’d least expect it – a scene in a factory, for instance.

For me, the high point of the movie is a church supper, where the pastor persuades George to favour the home town folk with a hymn. Abashedly, George gets to his feet, and, after a bit of fumbling with the hymn book, launches into a rendition of "Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling." A couple of local guys join on the chorus, one singing a high, almost falsetto line and the other providing a rich basso. The camera pans around the hall, showing how George’s singing affects various parishioners, particularly his mother. The moment is so perfect, the singing so exquisite, that if the whole movie had sustained that level, I wouldn’t be able to say anything about it; I’d still be trying to get my breathing going again.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")

 

Author, Author (Novel) by David Lodge, 2004

When two eminent writers happen to publish novels on the same subject, it turns into a competition, no matter how high-minded you try to be about it. Colm Toibin’s The Master (see Dilettante’s Diary page for April 8/05), an imaginative approach to the life of Henry James, appeared last year. So did David Lodge’s novel which sticks closer to the facts of James’ life. I was planning to say, with regret, that Mr. Lodge comes out the loser. However, on checking my review of The Master, I find it wasn’t all that favourable. (Funny how memory works or doesn’t work, as the case may be!) Still, in spite of its faults, it’s the more successful of the two books. It feels as though Mr. Toibin immersed himself in the life of Henry James and came up with an impressionistic version of it. Artistically, it’s the more satisfying book, whether or not it’s true to the historical reality of Henry James.

I have enjoyed several of Mr. Lodge’s novels in the past. One of the best, an amusing look at the sexual hang-ups of young Catholic intellectuals in the 1960s, was called How Far Can You Go? (Imagine nice Catholics asking such a question!) Mr. Lodge’s more recent Therapy offered fascinating takes on contemporary life. The major drawback of Author, Author is that it feels painstakingly constructed, rather than inspired. Prosaic dialogues don’t sound like the work of an accomplished novelist. In one scene, a friend’s long speeches are interspersed with lame interruptions from James: "No," said Henry truthfully.... "The trapeze!" Henry exclaimed.... "My dear fellow," Henry said, compassionately.... "My dear fellow," Henry murmured again... In one instance, we are informed, unfortunately, regarding a certain man that, "the ends of his grey moustache seem to droop even more than usual in sympathy with this sad story." You have to wonder if Mr. Lodge is striving for touches of James’ prissy style. The original was bad enough but at least it was authentic.

Still, I enjoyed this book. Not that all the thoughts Mr. Lodge attributes to the great man seem apt; some are banal and predictable. But it’s always fun to read about a famous writer’s ups and downs. Mostly downs, for James, it would seem. According to Mr. Lodge, James felt, in the end, that he was a failure, at least in terms of public acceptance and critical recognition. While his foray into play-writing proved disastrous, it gave him the idea of writing a novel in scenes, almost as if they were to be staged. (Good idea, that!) Details about the historical period are entertaining. Such as James’ learning, in middle age, to master that amazing new invention – the bicycle. While diligently practising his cycling one day, he took a painful fall as a result of a near collision with a youngster named Agatha. One day, that child would grow up to write mysteries that would make her far better known than James. The grandchildren of his good friend George Du Maurier turn out to be the kids that J.M. Barrie befriended and used as models in Peter Pan. It was Du Maurier’s novel Trilby (an enormous hit, inexplicably so, in James’ view) that gave "Svengali" to the world. And it was the stage version of Trilby that introduced the fedora we know by that name today. The most amusing note for me was that, when James’ blighted play Guy Domville was taken off after a dismal run, the company manager explained that they were planning to try out a new script by that Wilde fellow: The Importance of Being Earnest.

 

Winter On Diamond (Memoir) by Soren Bondrup-Nielsen

When a book of yours gets a lousy review, friends will try to console you by saying that the review will stir up curiosity about the book and that people will want to read it no matter what the reviewer said. I can tell you from personal experience that, by way of consolation to the author, this observation is useless. It is, however, a true observation. The review of  Winter on Diamond that came my way wasn't very favourable but the subject matter fascinated me: the story of two young guys who spent a winter in the 1970s in a cabin at an abandoned lumber camp in the Temagami wilderness of Northern Ontario. What did they eat? How did they spend their time? How did they get along?

It would be easy to make fun of this book. The two guys in question, Hap Wilson and Soren Bondrup-Nielsen are such bland characters that they make the Hardy Boys look like creations of George Bernard Shaw. Dialogue between Soren and Hap runs along the lines of: "Sure is cold, eh, Hap?" "Yep, sure is Soren!" They claim Thoreau as their hero. In terms of lifestyle, they emulate him pretty well but they fall a little short in the insight department. We’re treated to such gems of wisdom as: 1. You should have dry socks handy; 2. A cup of hot tea hits the spot when you come in from the cold; 3. When you have to start a fire in the stove, it takes a while to heat up the cabin but when you come in and the stove’s already roaring, that’s great! (A final chapter from today’s perspective offers mostly familiar platitudes about learning to live in harmony with nature.) Two young guys alone in the woods, far from civilization – you might think it would get a bit raunchy at times. Well, there’s talk about going outside to do their "business". Eventually the word "pee" appears. When they do get around to talking about sex, Hap allows that he tried it once; he didn’t like it much. You could say the captions on the photos sum up the tone of the book. A photograph of a stream with open water bears the caption "Stream with open water" and a shot of snow covered trees is labeled "Snow covered trees".

But I wouldn’t say any of that because I loved the book. The bland, literalness of the writing takes on a certain charm that eventually creates a kind of spell. I got fully absorbed in the quiet day-to-day routines: the porridge and tea every morning, the wood chopping, the tromps through the snow, the cribbage games every evening by the fire. Constantly whipping up another batch of bannock in the frying pan. I wouldn’t have lasted a week living the way they did but it was fun to fantasize about it. These are very resourceful fellows. They can build just about anything they need from wood that they find; it’s no trick at all for them to fashion a portable stove from an abandoned oil drum; they can trap a hare for dinner if necessary. Much of their time is spent building a cabin at a hidden location that they hope to return to for the rest of their lives. In quiet moments, Soren brings his journal up to date, including his close observations of nature. (Apparently the book is based on those notes.) Hap works at his drawings.One of his very beautiful pictures of the cabin is reproduced just inside the front cover of the book.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story is the relationship between the two guys. They’d been high school friends, sort of loners who found companionship in hiking and canoeing together. They had that mysterious communication between good friends that meant one could anticipate the other’s intentions; this made for great teamwork. It also meant that they were comfortable spending long times together in silence. Even so, cabin fever eventually raises its ugly head and we get a swear word or two before winter’s end. Towards the end of the book, some visitors cause a bit of drama; there’s even a near-death episode.

Much as I enjoyed the book, I can’t imagine its being a huge seller. Could anything have been done to make it more marketable? Lots of cutting, maybe. Mr. Bondrup-Nielsen, a professor in the biology department of Acadia University, writes clearly and organizes his material well. But he seems to have a scientific scrupulosity about meticulous detail. Very admirable from an academic point of view but it gets in the way of effective story-telling. After all, one tromp in the snow is much like another and the naming of the different kinds of trees encountered on every hike blurs after a while. When a pilot starts to fly a plane, we don’t need to know absolutely every move he makes before getting the plane in the air. And it doesn’t help much to be told repeatedly that the sound of a plane’s motor is deafening. Removing such unnecessary detail might help to make each chapter distinct from the other. But then it probably wouldn’t be the book that Mr. Bondrup-Nielsen wanted to write, would it? I remember hearing that some of the survivors of that famous plane crash in the Andes were displeased with Alive, the book that Piers Paul Reid wrote about their ordeal (which included eating the flesh of passengers who had died in the crash). Never mind that Alive was possibly the best book ever written about a true life adventure; the disgruntled survivors felt that, by the time Mr. Reid was finished with the story, it wasn’t theirs anymore.

You're welcome to respond to patrick@dilettantesdiary.com 
 
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