Fateful Voyage

dead-wake Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of one of history’s most famous maritime disasters Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania features Erik Larson’s typically thrilling you-are-there narrative style, adding to his noteworthy list of previous bestsellers that includes Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm.
Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Dancing with Wolves

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall,” airing on PBS

In Wolf Hall, the acclaimed series based on Hilary Mantel’s award-winning books about that Machiavellian manipulator of Tudor politics, Thomas Cromwell, the atmospherics consist of shadows. With sets lit only by candlelight and looking like something out of a Rembrandt painting, it brilliantly captures the dark and tangled web of intrigue, deception, and betrayal that characterized one of the most discussed periods in English history.

I left a comment the other day on the New York Times blog that’s been providing a weekly recap of the episodes, where I took umbrage with the writer’s observation that Wolf Hall is “Showtime’s ‘The Tudors’ without the bare breasts.” To compare thatwolf hall mayhem of outrageous historical license with this effort is — to hurl a common epithet from the Tudor era — heresy.

The production rests almost entirely on actor Mark Rylance’s engrossing portrayal of the man who rose to be Henry VIII’s right hand —  and hatchet man —  in the turbulent period of England’s separation from the Catholic Church, an event whose seeds were planted in 1527 with Henry’s request to the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The king was ruthless in his desire to marry and make Anne Boleyn his second queen with the purpose of procuring a male heir, and tragic fates awaited many who dared to stand in his way. (Which ultimately included the very same woman who was the catalyst for all the bloodshed, as we know. There are no more apt words than Shakespeare’s “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” when it comes to the eventually decapitated Boleyn.)

Throughout history, Thomas Cromwell has been portrayed rather one-dimensionally as an opportunistic facilitator for a monarch whose power lust grew to know no bounds. What sets this revisionist characterization apart are the psychological undertones that lend a certain humanity to a figure who’s been basically pigeonholed as a cold-blooded consigliere whose main job was handling Henry’s dirty work. (Indeed, the famous depiction by the court painter, Hans Holbein, of the stern-faced chief minister shows a man you probably wouldn’t want to cross.)

The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is keenly self-aware of his more devious personal traits (“Born sneaky. Can’t help it,” he impishly imparts at one point) yet is seemingly more wise pragmatist than cutthroat predator. Born of a blacksmith father who inflicted horrific beatings on a terrified son, losing a beloved wife and two daughters to the dreaded “sweating sickness” that played roulette on the English people throughout much of the 16th Century, Cromwell had seen enough to render him cynical of any of life’s illusions.

His world-weary eyes survey with precise intuition the characters at play in a royal court brimming with duplicity and covert machinations. But say what you will about his intentions, Cromwell was perversely loyal to those whom he pledged allegiance (though some may argue only as long as it served his purposes; he quickly threw Anne Boleyn under the horse when he saw Henry’s interest waning in her). That flagging interest paved the way to the Wolf Hall of the book’s title: the family estate of Jane Seymour, the woman next to be pursued by Henry as the plotting began to rid himself of Anne, with Cromwell as assiduous enabler.

Spoiler alerts don’t apply to historical events, so no warning is necessary to reveal that Cromwell was to meet the same destiny he so zealously imparted on others, when Henry had him executed in 1540. It’s just one of those twists of fate that are part of the reason the Tudor period has held a permanent fascination through the ages: the irony of Anne Boleyn, discarded and killed for failing to produce a male heir, but triumphing from the grave by way of her daughter Elizabeth I, eventually one of Britain’s greatest monarchs; the death soon after childbirth of Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour, who managed to produce a boy but lost her life in the process; her son, the future Edward VI, dying at the premature age of 15.

In another irony, Cromwell once wrote, “My prayer is that God give me no longer life than I shall be glad to use mine office in edification, and not in destruction.” Not sure many of his victims would have concurred with that thought, but it’s the side of Cromwell that Hilary Mantel chose to explore in Wolf Hall, and it’s what makes both her novels and this series, anchored by a magnificently nuanced performance, so memorable.

Wolf Hall (which wraps up on PBS next weekend) is a refreshingly intelligent and thoughtful recreation of a period of history which is so often farcically drawn with reckless disregard of the boundaries between truth and fiction. It’s a treat for serious-minded Tudor aficionados everywhere.

Horse Whispers

horsesThey’ve been a source of inspiration for artists since the beginning of time, and for Czech-born photographer Jitka Hanzlová, a deeply felt affinity for horses led to a series of images that focus on the enigmatic side of this most spirited of animals. A wisp of an ear, shown right, an omniscient eye surrounded by shadows, left, are parts of a moving whole both detached and quietly affecting. The artist, whose works often feature elements of distant isolation, says of her equine subjects, “Their stillness seems to be endless, far in their own time.” An exhibit featuring the pieces, entitled One to One, is on view at New York City’s Yancey Richardson Gallery through early next month.

Simply Sinatra

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“Reinvention” as it applies to an artist’s career is a term that’s been thrown around a lot (Madonna and Lady Gaga are obvious examples), but I also couldn’t help but have it foremost in my mind as I watched HBO’s new two-part documentary on Frank Sinatra, who would have turned 100 this year.

Nicknamed “The Voice” many decades before the current talent show of the same name, Sinatra was a proverbial phoenix who rose from the ashes at a critical professional (and personal) juncture in the early 1950s, when, as the broadcast reminds, it looked like the Elvis Presley of his generation would be relegated to the dustbin of pop sensations whose time had come and gone. But with an unlikely Oscar in tow (supporting actor for From Here to Eternity in 1954), he sprung open the doors on a remarkable renaissance and never looked back, all the way to his death in 1998.

The musicologists and historians can take care of the details of an unparalleled career, but I like to remember what Sinatra meant to a teenager a bit out of touch with her contemporaries, via a fondness for a vocalist whose ascendance in the public consciousness came in an epoch long before I was born. I recall that my fellow adolescents found it a little odd when I made a cassette with a song set of Sinatra’s on one side, and a selection from David Bowie – more in keeping with my generation – on the other. Far from antiquated, Sinatra’s music was like a silk tonic to me; his interpretations of the timeless standards by the impeccable songwriter Cole Porter were particular favorites, with an elegance and genius of musical phrasing that were indelible. (No, my young friends didn’t get it. Maybe they do now.)

A handful of years earlier, at the just out of tweens age of 13, I had found myself in a London restaurant with the film femme fatale (and Sinatra’s great passion), the actress Ava Gardner, on my first trip to Europe. It’s an experience I wrote about in another post, but suffice to say Ol’ Blue Eyes has been on my radar from quite an early age.

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All is not a perfect documentary (its four-hour running time could have been trimmed considerably) and perhaps more could have been made of Sinatra’s interest in expanding the pop genre (the “concept” albums of the ’50s, for example) or the many composers who influenced him deeply. (His collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim is an album I cherish, as fresh today as the breezy Brazilian wave it rode in on in the ‘60s.) Still, the biography serves well as a primer for new generations to assimilate a talent whose likes, alas, will probably not be seen – or heard – again.

To paraphrase the title of the book by the journalist Pete Hamill… Sinatra will always matter.

Starry Nights

devils towerIn one of those artsy coincidences that harbors a touch of the unexpected, I ran across the picture shown above, which was taken last month with a multicamera rig and a 360-degree time-lapse technique to create a phantasmagoric scene of celestial splendor above the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.
van gogh starry nightOf course, Vincent van Gogh didn’t have to go to so much trouble when he painted the highly reminiscent The Starry Night from 1889, above. I wonder whether the photographer (who also shares a first name with the Dutch post-Impressionist) had the masterpiece in mind when he fashioned his strikingly similar digital image.

Or maybe just a case of lucky stars?

Photo: Vincent Brady / Caters News

Glass Act

PhilipGlass3Among love ‘em or leave ‘em lists of contemporary classical composers, Philip Glass is one of those who usually ranks equally high in both categories. I would describe his work as an acquired taste, and one that I will admit I happily acquired as a teenager, thanks to his crystalline Glassworks, which mesmerized me with its hypnotic repetitions and abstract contours that created a blank slate for the imagination.

Start a discussion amongst classical music aficionados about Glass (whose memoir, Words Without Music, is published next month) and you can be sure it will be nothing if lively. For every one that considers him among the greatest composers of the 20th Century, you can find many others with opinions similar to that of a critic at London’s Telegraph, who once wrote, “Listening to Philip Glass is about as rewarding as chewing gum that’s lost its flavour.”

As is the case with most classical composers, mass consumption usually comes via popular media, and to the general public, Glass is primarily known for his contributions to numerous films, perhaps most notably his score for The Hours, nominated for an Academy Award in 2002, and more recently, the Russian production Leviathan, from last year.

Glass is one of those artists whose work I’ve continued to dip into on and off through the years, long since the classic Glassworks was etched into my creative consciousness. Case in point is a new recording of Glass compositions for solo piano, Mad Rush (nicely performed by Lisa Moore, who’s been called “New York’s Queen of Avant-Garde Piano”). As usual with any great creator who’s marked by the longevity and prolificacy of Glass, you’ll invariably manage to find some gems.

Here, it’s Metamorphosis, a piece in five movements that’s a self-contained primer on all that’s idiosyncratic about Glass’s work. It’s loosely inspired by the Franz Kafka novel of the same name (the literary masterpiece, one will recall, is about a man’s transformation into a cockroach).

Metamorphosis is all about evolvement; yet this interpretation is ultimately more about a journey out of one existence only to metaphorically retreat back to where it began. The playful arpeggios that are sprinkled against a background of the signature Glass repetitions seem to signify wonder at the mutation, but the last movement, almost identical to the first one, implies more stasis than transition. Not surprisingly, as with anything by Glass, it will leave you pondering as to its true meaning.

Speaking of pondering, it’s inexplicable to me that Glass has yet to be recognized with a Presidential Medal of Arts, or at the very least a Kennedy Center Honors award. I’ll assume those will come (though Glass is already 78, so let’s step it up). Surely he ranks up there with past recipients like American composers Elliott Carter and William Bolcom as far as his influence on modern music.

Meanwhile, time to give the evergreen Glassworks yet another listen — for old time’s sake.

Creative & Otherwise