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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Columbus Symphony: Britten, Mozart and Beethoven w. Milanov and Morales! Nov. 20 and 21 2015

REMINDER: David Thomas and his CSO colleagues play Mozart's Clarinet Quintet K. 581 immediately following the Saturday night program, so stick around!

Rossen Milanov conducts The Columbus Symphony this weekend in the Southern Theatre. Ricardo Morales is the soloist for Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, K. 622. Also on the program are Benjamin Britten's Simple symphony, and Beethoven's Symphony 4 in B flat, Op.60 Friday and Saturday 8 pm, November 20, 21.

Ricardo Morales

We're in the Southern Theatre this weekend for a program of nothing but beautiful music.

What are you talking about? Of course its beautiful music.Last week we had a great ride with film scores by Max Steiner, Maurice Jarre , Bernard Hermann, Elmer Bernstein. The evening culminated in a performance of Prokofiev's cantata Alexander Nevsky, fire and ice and one of the finest performances I have e'er heard in the Ohio Theater, if not any where. And I've been around.

If you want to be comforted and soothed and cuddled (musically) Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and Beethoven's 4th Symphony are for you.

First of all, clarinetist Ricard Morales is our soloist this weekend. No kidding, this guy is the real deal. He was practically a kid when named first chair clarinet to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He moved 90 miles south to the same first chair, this with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I've never met him but some facebook correspondence an my inane questions about what the hell is a basset clarinet have been answered with friendliness and humor. You need to hear this guy float a Mozart adagio. Like butta:

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto k. 622 was his final completed orchestral work. Its inspiration was the composer's friendship with fellow Mason Anton Stadler.Biographer Wolfgang Hildesheimer-has descirbed Stadler as a leech and a hanger on. Indeed Mozart loaned Stadler significant amounts of money-. But Stadler's gifts both as a clarinetist and his development of the instrument itself made him a perfect match for Amadeus's sole concerto for the clarinet.  Stadler had worked on La clemenza di Tito, Mozart's 1791 opera for Prague. He had done a great deal to popularize the clarinet and without his concerts and virtuosity we may have waited longer for the instrument to take its important place in the orchestra.

As for beautiful music, what can be more beautiful then the second movement of Mozart's Clarinet concerto. At the time it was written Mozart was still writing exuberant letters to his wife, following the progress of  Tito, and watching his latest-and last opera The Magic Flute attain hit status Vienna. He had two months to live.

Not so cheery are the letters of Beethoven twenty years later! In 1806 he was working on his opera Fidelio.  "This opera business is the most tiresome affair in the world" thundered the composer. Plus ca change.

Later in that year Beethoven wrote the fourth piano concerto, the three quartets Razumovsky, the Fourth Symphony, the Violin Concerto, the Coriolan Overture, the C Major Piano Variations, the Fifth Symphony, the A major Cello Sonata and the Ghost Trio*

The Fourth Symphony has been called Beethoven's Cinderella, or lyrical, calm, lovely, endearing. It doesn't storm the heavens, and might be an emotional antidote to the Eroica. That said it lacks nothing of Beethoven's flair for drama:

The principal key is B flat Major, described by Nicolas Slonimsky in Lectionary of Music as

"...the key of the universe...Most machines of modern industry, electric motors, fans and washing machines-buzz, whir and hum on the 60 cycle B flat, corresponding to the lowest note of the bassoon....and then there is that glorious uninhibited sweep of the clarinet-in b flat of course, that opens Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue...Can there be a special psychological reason in Mahler's exclusion of B any of his symphonies...Was he inhibited by its aggressive character?"

Prince Karl Linchowsky didn't hold a grudge
The Fourth Symphony was commissioned by the fabulously wealthy Count Franz von Oppersdorf. Beethoven and Oppersdorf had met at the home of Prince Karl Lichnowsky, the composer's patron. The visit did not end well: His worship kept asking the composer to play something and Beethoven kept refusing, finally driven to yell, "There are many princes but only one Beethoven!" before stomping out into the dark and stormy night. Prince Lichnowsky did not hold a grudge. Oppersdorf got his symphony, Beethoven got just  about US$ 10,000 and so we have the Symphony number 4. Lovely and lyrical indeed!

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) completed his Simple Symphony in 1932, at the age of 19. Already at that young age he had a store house of tunes he recycled into a delicious four movement work for strings. Songs and piano sonatas by the lad Britten were retooled into the 18th century dance movements favored by Bach and Haydn:  A boisterous bouree and the slow sentimental sarabande. But you'll be especially grabbed by the playful pizzicato of the second movement:

*As listed in Jonathan D. Kramer's Listen to the Music, A Self Guided Tour Through the Orchestral Repertoire.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Harmony Project on All Sides Weekend

UPDATE: Thank you to David, Michelle, Sandy and Hannah for a great interveiw. The program is archived at

All Sides Weekend is heard Fridays at 11 a.m. on WOSU 89-7 NPR News. The program is archived at and is televised by Ohio News Network.  Book and Arts based programs are hosted by WOSU broadcast manager Christopher Purdy

Friday November 13 at 11 a.m.: THE HARMONY PROJECT

Guests: David Brown, Harmony Project Founder and Creative Director, 
Michelle Hermann, OSU Professor of English and creative Writing and HP Member, Sandy Frey, LEED Green Associate and Hannah Powell, Principal KIPP 

Don't miss Michelle Hermann's essay of Harmony Project, and more in her new collection, Like A Song, published by Outpost 19, San Francisco

I've been a fan of HARMONY PROJECT since my writer-teacher-diva mamaleh Michelle Hermann wrestled me to the ground and insisted I listen to HP sing. I did. Very nice. Then I learned more. Harmony Project's 200 voice choir is an important part of the organization, but not the whole story. Membership requires joyful singing and a commitment to make Columbus better. HP members volunteer in programs citywide benefiting the homeless, the ill, the neglected, the lonely and anyone whose live can be improved with an friendly hand, a smile and music.

In other words, Harmony Project helps people help other people using music as a catalyst.
What's not to love you may ask. Nothing apparently. Just try to get in to one of their concerts or even join the choir. Sold out houses and waiting lists are heartening. So many people want to sing and want to help.

I met David brown for coffee a few years ago. The man burns to make music and connect with others. His need may come from many areas, personal and professional. It's a need that brings talent and energy to many to give to many others. I understood why people will leap tall buildings in a single bound or give up chocolate for this man.

THIS JUST IN: The Arts Innovation Fund of The Columbus Foundation has awarded a Columbus Performing Arts Prize to David Brown, founder and Creative Director of The Harmony Project to support a dynamic multi cultural finale at its performance at the Ohio Theatre on December 1 2015..... 

Columbus Symphony Takes us to the Movies

Rossen Milanov conducts the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in music for the Cinema by  Max Steiner, Bernard Hermann, Maurice Jarre and Elmer Bernstein. The program includes Prokofiev's cantata Alexander Nevsky based on Prokofiev's score for Sergei Eisenstein's film of the same name. 

Pre-concert talks by yours truly one hour before each performance. Ohio Theater, 8 pm.
November 13 and 14. (Talks at 7)

What was your first movie? I mean the first time you went to a movie theater complete with popcorn. Mine was Lawrence  of Arabia and had I paid my way in I certainly would have gotten my money's worth. Alas, it was 1962, I was five years old and the baby sitter cancelled. A night out was a night out and I was brought along. Five is too young to appreciate a three hour plus movie filmed in Technicolor-Egyptian splendor, and I can't say I recall the first run of Maurice Jarre's music, much less Peter O'Toole. I do remember a scene where a young man drowned in quicksand.Not much else.

I can catch up this weekend, at least with Maurice Jarre (1924-2009). He was born in Lyons, and had a gist of color in music necessary for his Oscar-winning scores to Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India and Mad Max, Beyond the Many. I was ready to say Jarre was not interested in simple romance when he could have the pyramids, the gulag or outer space, but it is Maurice Jarre's music featured in Ghost. Love music got complicated in his scores to Fatal Attraction, The Mosquito Coast and The Year of Living Dangerously. 

Bernard Hermann's (1911-1975) scores Psycho for Alfred Hitchcock. He went on to compose for Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone.  Hermann was a staff conductor for CBS in New York by 1935. As conductor of the CBS Symphony, Hermann introduced music by Franz Liszt, Charles Ives, Herman Goetz and Niels Gade. He worked with Orson Welles during that star's radio years -including The War of the Worlds  broadcast that panicked America. Other film scores by Bernard Hermann were for Citizen Cane, Jane Eyre, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, North by Northwest and Taxi Driver.

Max Steiner (1888-1971) became the Haydn-Mozart-Wagner of Hollywood. He won Oscars for his scores to The Informer, Now Voyager, and Since You Went Away. Born in Austria, Steiner outgrew his child prodigy years and went to Hollywood in 1929-just in time for the talkies! (singies?). Steiner's godfather was no less than Richard Strauss. He had success composing and conducting operettas, but sound was coming in and for young Max operetta was going out. How much do you need to know about the man who wrote the music to King Kong?

Steiner joined Warner Brothers in 1937, and wrote film scores for that studio's reigning diva. Jack Warner told the composer, "When Bette Davis walks into a room, I want audiences to know that Bette Davis had walked into a room."   It was good advice. Steiner wrote the scores for The Letter, Dark Victory, A Stolen Life and Now Voyager.

But Steiner had already immortality when he wrote this score, which still has people nearly saluting the flag:

Sergei Prokofiev didn't need much from Hollywood. In fact I doubt he would have fared well on the coast. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman and Max Steiner had European cred to match Prokofiev when they went to Hollywood and Sergei pursued a parallel career composing and performing.  

In 1937  Stalin's Soviet films turned to Sergei Eisenstein, who had flopped on Hollywood, for a film base on Russian history. Said film must have relevance, use to 1937 audiences. The choice of Prince Alexander Nevsky was brilliant. Alexander had routed the German Teutonic knights out of old Rus'. Stalin was still making nice with the fuhrer, but one never knew. Eisenstein's German knights wore sinister metal helmets. The Russian people were a great unwashed, winning a glorious battle on the ice

When Germany and the Soviet-Union signed a non aggression pact, Alexander Nevsky was taken out of circulation. Not for long. The are jubilant choruses exhorting the Russian people on to victory, either in 1242 of 1937. And a magnificent prayer for solo contralto, The Field of the Dead. 

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Sarah Mesko, mezzo -soprano in Classic Film Scores November 13 and 14 Ohio Theater.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Columbus Symphony: Beethoven, Brahms and Bermel

The Columbus Symphony presents Beethoven's Piano Concerto 1 in C, Op. 15, Brahms Symphony no. 2 in D, Op. 73 and Derek Bermel's A Shout, A Whisper, A Trace in The Southern Theater, Friday October 30 and Saturday, October 31 at 8 p.m. Columbus Symphony Music Director Rossen Milanov conducts, with Shai Wosner, piano

Derek Bermel (b. New York, 1967) was unknown to me until this week. That only proves my Bermel ignorance. Bermel is a composer, impresario, clarinetist and musician who produces concerts and writer in an  idiom embracing funk and world music. Bermel trained at Yale as an ethnomusicologist. He follows composers like Bartok-a model for A Shout, A Whisper, A Trace who went about the Carpathian mountains ninety years ago writing down the songs he heard wherever he stopped. Taverns, churches, cat houses with no cats, Bartok had an ear for music hungry to get back to the earth.Mr. Bermel's travels have taken him throughout Central Europe and South America,. His interests and influences (dare I say) include the Brazilian caixxi, the Thracian folk style of Bulgaria, and even the uilean pipes from my people in Dublin.
Derek Bermel
advanced age. I need to get out more.

A Shout, A Whisper, A Trace was written in 2009 for the American Composer's Orchestra and the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra. The scoring is for 2 flutes, 2 horns, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 clarinets, strings and percussion.The rhythmic propulsion make this an accessible piece. The use of layering, of laying one sound atop on another keeps our attention.

Beethoven (1770-1827) moved to Vienna in 1892. Mozart had just died, not long after encouraging he younger man,  telling the doubting Papa Beethoven, "Your son will make a great noise in the world." The elderly Haydn, newly freed from his elegant indenture in Esterhazy was accepting pupils in Vienna. They young Beethoven made his way to Haydn's influence, where he was no doubt reminded to revere Mozart as well.

Young Beethoven
If in 1792 the young Beethoven was untried as a composer, nobody doubted his sublime gifts as a pianist. One assumes he was not the unkempt and unwashed angry man of his later years. He would have gotten nowhere fast among the Viennese nobility.  It was a pianist that Beethoven introduced himself to Vienna.. His gifts at the keyboard aroused enough interest for him to play his own C Major Piano Concerto, first in Prague (Boston to Vienna's New York) then in Vienna in 1798.

I suppose its necessary to tell you that this concerto, labelled number 1, was the third the composer wrote. Number two was first and there was one more, a piece of juvenilia not published. Never mind. Beethoven thought very highly of this work.. He kept it from being published until 1801. He wanted it for his own concerts, a calling card useful in announcing his strong new talent to new audiences.

The C Major concerto owes a lot to Haydn's tight sense of structure and Mozart's grace. Still, original touches begin with the solo entrance, two and a half minutes into the first movement, playing a theme unrelated to the orchestral introduction. Nevertheless, Beethoven at this point wasn't afraid to use a Mozartian delicacy in his writing, even if he couldn't always match that master's subtlety. The second movement is understated compared to later Beethoven, but offers a loveliness that would have kept the public from going off the rails

As for Brahms, always remember to take your summer vacation! Brahms would repair lakeside in the mountains outside Vienna-as Mahler did a generation later-using his down time away from teaching, conducting and performing to create new work. In 1876 he wrote the felicitous Symphony number 2. The tortured fifteen years it took to get a first symphony out of the composer are here nowhere evident. This is the work of a mature man who is happy to be set in his ways. He knows his craft, and he knows how to please an audience. Not for nothing has this 2nd symphony been compared to Beethoven's 6th, the Pastorale.There's a serenity in Brahms's, D Major Symphony. Shafts of light bleed through the sometimes thick orchestration. Brahms loved his doubled and tripled brass and winds. He liked a thick texture where a lot was going on. Here, the writing is more grateful to the ear, with an immediacy that says "go ahead, enjoy!"

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Columbus Symphony: Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss

The Columbus Symphony conducted by Rossen Milanov performs Richard Strauss's Don Juan, Tchaikovsky's Symphony 4 in f minor, and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto 2 in the Ohio Theater on October 23 and 24.   Haochen Zhang is the piano soloist. I give pre-concert talks one hour before each performance.

I'm doing some pre- concert listening for the Columbus Symphony programs this coming weekend. I'm struck initially by Richard Strauss's sounded effortlessly, almost nonchalant music making, and the torture and uncertainty that stalked Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky's Fourth symphony,from 1876-1877 would be a mixed emotional bag for the composer. Would the memory of it sicken him, or fill him with relief?

Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894)
Work on the Fourth coincided with admiring letters from one Nadzheda von Meck, a fabulously wealthy widow and mother of 18 children. The lady was probably bored to distraction counting her money and her kids. Tchaikovsky's music became an  obsession. Not so the man himself, who she never met. Rather, Meck found herself a reason to live as long as Piotr Ilyitch continued to produce the music she deeply craved. Tchaikovsky dedicated the Fourth symphony to her, and by the time work was proceeding he was receiving 500 ruble a month stipend from the lady. This allowance would last, along with a voluminous correspondence until 1890. In those fourteen years the two never met. There's a lovely story that once out riding they recognized one another-how?-
from a distance. The composer tipped his hat and rode on.

Tchaikovsky met another lady at nearly the same time, with disastrous results.This was Anotnina Ivanova Milyukhova. She had been a pupil of his at the Moscow conservatory-probably one of a spate of young girls taking his classes, of which he complained mightily for their communal silliness. Antonina too, fancied herself mad-almost literally-for Tchaikovsky. He was foolish enough to believe that marrying her would cause her crazy attentions to desist. This marriage was an unmitigated disaster. Tchaikovsky literally fled the city.

It was to Mme Meck he turned, in gratitude for her money and approbation, as he began to recover
Tchaikovsky and his wife Antonina Ivanova Milyukhova
from his ridiculous marriage. "Our symphony" he described the Fourth to her. She agreed to accept the dedication, asking only that her name not be mentioned publicly.

The sinister brass figure beginning the work Tchaikovsky has described as fate-with a sword of Damocles hanging over one's heard. He didn't need to be a disastrous marriage to feel pessimistic. Except there's an exuberant dance like theme for the winds glowing early out of the fire.
The fourth symphony develops the fate motive gradually and incompletely...there's a second movement of almost deep sadness and a wild, almost militaristic finale. Tchaikovsky liked to deny that his music had any "program' "Just listen to it." To colleagues he agreed that fate, exhaustion, despair and exuberance were to be heard in this music. I like the finale, where he said "Go out among the people and learn from their joy!"

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Richard Strauss would have had little use for Tchaikovsky's emotionalism . He wrote his music like a businessman, from nine to five in his study five days a week, with a generous lunch break. He was delightedly henpecked by his wife Pauline, and nothing in Strauss's correspondence betrayed any angst in what he regarded as his profession and a way to get on, writing music. The closest to exasperating would be parts of his correspondence with his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who admired Strauss's music and considered him rather low rent socially. A laid back temperament didn't keep Strauss from writing orchestral music on a heroic scale.

The tone poem Don Juan comes from 1888. The composer at 24 was already conducting in Weimar and led the Don Juan premiere in that city.  He was expanding the tone poem work-the one movement symphony telling a story that had been popularized by Liszt.  The opening moments of Don Juan is not the music of either a beginner or a neurotic

Tchaikovsky's moodiness and Strauss equanimity each produced sensational music One emotion driven, the other filled with color. What would have happened has the situations been reversed. Would we listen as intently to a mellow Tchaikovsky or a neurotic Richard Strauss? Happily, we can only imagine.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Columbus Symphony: What do we do about Carl Orff?

The Columbus symphony Orchestra, Columbus Symphony Chorus and Columbus Children's Choir present Carl Orff's Carmina Burana as season opener this weekend in the Ohio Theater.

Rossen Milanov will conduct with his usual skill, charisma and energy. Bring towels. These will be hot nights in Columbus.

This humble writer (!) gives pre-concert talks one hour before every CSO Classical season performance.Come in early and (hopefully) enjoy.

Carl Orff (1895-1982)

In 1944 Josef Goebbels, the Nazi's Minister of Propaganda, discovered Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.

   "In the case of Carl Orff we are not at all dealing with an atonal talent.  On the contrary, his Carmina Burana exhibits exquisite beauty, and if we could get him to do something about his lyrics, his music would certainly be very promising. I shall send for him at the next possible opportunity."

Goebbels was late getting on the Carmina bus. The cantata was seven years old by then. It had a sensational series of performances in 1940 conducted by Karl Bohm, and a triumph at La Scala, Milan in 1942. Carmina Burana was a hit from its very first performance, and remains so today.

In fact, Carmina Burana was hardly admired following the s1937 premiere in Frankfurt. Volkische Beobachter, the Nazi newspaper-soon to be the only newspaper-called the work "Bavarian niggermusik. Even the Third Reich couldn't stop the wild popularity of Orff's new cantata, based on the satirical writings of 12th century students rebelling against the church. 

Orff's name is not often added to the top artists who remained in Nazi Germany: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano,  not only benefited but dismissed charges of collaboration as "Nothing, like being in a labor union." She acted as an informant on her colleagues at the Deutch Oper Berlin. Herbert von Karajan also had Goebbels as a fan, who crowned him, "Das wunder Karajan", the miracle Karajan. Wilhelm Furtwaengler didn't need the Nazis to promote his fame. He was older, well established and a conductor of the finest order.  Richard  Strauss stayed in Nazi Germany, and accepted a post from the Third Reich.Wags like to say he was protecting his copyright. He also had a daughter in law with Jewish relatives, and did keep her safe.

In preparing talk on Carmina Burana for the Columbus symphony, I'm at a loss of how much time I should spend on Carl Orff in Nazi Germany. The composer was born in Munich in 1895, By 1944 he was hardly a dilettante.  Earlier he had distinguished himself by raiding long forgotten cupboards of Italian and German music from the 15th and 126th century, often re-working them to suit 20th century audiences. It's largely because of Orff that we know the music of Monteverdi today.

In addition to CarminaBurana, he had prepared a follow-up work, Cartulli Carmina ad  would go on to produce Trionfo d'Afrodite.

Schulwerk, Orff's comprehensive study on music education was published in 1949. Its tenants are in use today. His work inmusic educaiton, and his founding of a new school in Berlin in 1924 may be Orff's most important legacy.

Orff never approached the success he had with Carmina Burana. This hour long cantata, originally intended to be staged, uses 12 th century manuscripts to depict a riotous countryside of horny peasants, lots of wine and song, lots of dancing, a swan who sings beautifully while being roasted, and a chugging, persistent rhythm that is irresistible. Who doesn't like a little debauchery?

What's surprising was getting this work past the Nazi censors. One imagines they were too stupid to recognize the alt deutch Orff was using, not to mention Latin and lapses into the Provencal of the troubadours.  These are the people who thought jazz was entarete musik (degenerate music) What did they make of Orff's driving rhythms and  texts leaving little to the imagination:

So successful was Carmina Burana with the public that the Nazi propaganda machinery decided an all out battle wasn't worth it. There was fear that people would seek out broadcast performances from elsewhere.

Orff never left Nazi Germany. His career thrived. His work in music education has taught generations of children all over the world. It seems as if Carmina Burana is being performed somewhere every five minutes. Not so the rest of Orff's oeuvre. These indulged his romantic attachment to ancient music, and lack the gut level appeal of Carmina Burana. The closest parallel might be Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, but Carmina is more fun. Orff may have been too clever for the regime.

Orff quaked during the de Nazificaiton tribunals immediately post war. He made much out of an acquaintanceship  with Kurt Huber, executed by the Nazis in 1943 as a member of the White Rose resistance. In fact, Frau Huber maintained for decades that Orff did nothing to help her husband once he had been arrested. "I would be ruined!".

Indeed he would have. Those of us lucky to have never experienced a criminal regime can't judge others for their behavior. Orff's place in music is guaranteed by Carmina Burana.The same work alienates many, among them conductor Edo  de Waart. In a lecture years ago, I  remember de Waart telling us that O Fortuna was the sign on/sign-off music for Radio Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. He dismissed the work as "that Nazi music."

Still, Orff knew what he was doing. The combination of rhythm,volume and debauchery makes Carmina Burana irresistible wherever its performed.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gethsemani 2015

Gethsemani Abbey is home to forty Trappist Monks, the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, located on 2500 acres near Bardstown,  Kentucky. The Abbey was founded here in 1848. I made my first visit in 2013:

I recently made a three day retreat.

Monday, September 14

Uneventful four and a half hour drive from Columbus on a beautiful day.

Gethsemani Abbey offers clergy and lay people retreats of silence, prayer and reflection. There is no fixed schedule. You could spend the entire time asleep. Retreatants are not required to join the monks for the daily office, which begins at 3 a.m. The Monastery sits on 2500 acres of farmland, featuring small hills (called 'knobs') and several walking trails through the woods. You seldom see monks outside of the Abbey Church. A chaplain and guest master are available.

I was glad to catch sight of the Abbey after a six mile drive down Monk's Road, like a huge white ship coming up on the left. Parts of the Abbey Terrace are being repaired, so I was greeted not by peace but by power washing! Imagine 100 leaf blowers magnified 100 times! I was furious!

Ah, those of us needing silence don't think of others with a job to do, not to mention keeping the terrace from falling down. A good first lesson.

(This before I had parked my car!)

I was assigned  room 204 in the guest wing. A simple, well appointed room with private bath. There is no charge to come to Gethsemani. Offerings are accepted.

I climbed the hill just across the street, the one with a statue of St Joseph holding the Christ Child. St.
 Joseph is a favorite of mine. I think of him as the patron saint of fathers. It seems to me he gets less than his due in scripture. He disappears when Jesus goes wandering off to the Temple at at age 12.

The view of the Abbey and the surrounding lands was splendid. Nothing but fields, remains of the
corn harvest and wildflowers, yellow and purple, wherever you looked. I was sweating and huffing but looked out joyfully. I was a short breathed mess, too! But whaddaya know? The power washing had stopped! But there was an old man with a sun hat mowing the monastery yards on a huge and noisy machine (Fucking silence! Fucking contemplation! Come on!) No total silence yet. I did stop to watch him maneuvering around the graves in front of the monastery and he did beautifully, never missed a blade.

None was at 2.15, the Ninth Hour. Cleopatra seduced Marc Antony at the Ninth Hour but this was the liturgical hour.  The church slowly filled with about 20 monks, sitting on either side of a central aisle. Visitors do not sit in the church proper, but in the balcony or a partitioned area in the back. The monks take their place in the same choir stall. I think you are assigned the same stall for life.  So the seat and the desk become part of a home.

The monks chant the psalms seven times a day, in addition to a daily mass. They cycle through all 150 psalms every 2 weeks.  Its a deep, manly sound. Some of these monks look quite brawny. The congregation has many older monks but there are a fair number at age forty and under. Two postulants look very young. There is a young man, has to be 20 at the mos, t in mufti who works with the monks but eats with the guests. He is an "observer." You can come observe for a week at a time, up to threw times. Then if they like you,  you can be accepted as a postulant.


We had Vespers at 5:30 concluding with the Magnificat, which I have always loved.  Earlier I wondered if we were listening to recorded chant, since it was hard to tell if the monks mouths were moving! No. It was real chant. They keep together perfectly with dark, untrained voices.  A masculine sound suited to a no frills chapel and a life of work.

Supper was penitential. Fish, tomatoes, mashed potatoes and fruit cake. About 20 of us retreants eating in silence. Earlier, I was reading over by the cemetery. A man was sitting near me. When leaving I felt compelled to offer a handshake.

Compline at 7.30, then the grand silence (what have we been doing all day?) until the bell rings for Vigils at 3 a.m.

Tuesday, September 15

Up at 3:00 a.m. for Vigils at 3:15

The bells tolls deep in the belly of the Abbey, and hits you in the same place. It is a warm sound, comforting but insistent.  I counted 37 peals of the bell!

Very few of my fellow visitors made it to Vigils.  I figure that as long as I've come all this way its silly to miss out.,  It seemed like the longest of the services. No doubt the hour and the pitch darkness contributed to this.  The church was at one point completely dark, the only light coming from the lector's's stand.

The acoustics of the church make the words difficult to make out.  Every few seconds you get Lord--sinner--Jerusalem, like bad phone service.

We have a retreatants conference at 9 a.m. with the guest master, Father Seamus.


Father Seamus is 83 years old. He let us know, "They don't let us drive any more when we're past 80. You have to get someone to take you if you have a doctor's appointment." (Medical appointments seem to be the only reason any monk ever leaves the monastery). Fr. Seamus was delightful. He's a former diocesan priest from Florida who entered Gethsemani at age 70. I didn't know anyone could enter at 70!  He mentioned Brother Norbert and a few others who entered right after high school and have been at Gethsemani well over 60 years.

What keeps them here?  "It's not the building, or the work or even the prayer life.  It's the love for the community."

Father Seamus told us about Brother Martin, now living in the monastery infirmary with dementia.   He needs to wear diapers.  He wouldn't cooperate with a nurse who was trying to clean him.  "You know, " said Fr. Seamus, "Sometimes people with dementia get a little reason, and Brother Martin did not want this woman to wipe his bottom. She tried and tired until he snarled at her, "Go wipe your own ass!"-The Abbot apparently had to walk away to keep from cracking up laughing. "There's a lot of humor here!"

I took a one hour walk through the woods.  Gethsemani owns 2500 acres, including some land leased to farmers, "A great source of income" says Fr. Seamus.

I met one of the other retreatants on my walk, a Byzantine Catholic priest. He had worn florid orange robes earlier. I was a little taken aback when he called out to me to say hello (Silence!) but enjoyed a brief exchange with him.

Took a nap and skipped None (2:15) Then an hour outside reading and climbing hills.  So far, I find Thomas Merton's letters more interesting than his contemplative writings. He seems more peevish and less "on." It's quite something to be reading Thomas Merton's words sitting fifty feet from his grave.

Fantastic weather continues.  You feel forced to be outside "doing". The reason you come here is NOT to feel forced to do anything. I'm tempted to say I have work to do!   The silence is not hard but sometimes the lack of action is.

Wednesday, September 16

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a monk here who became world famous for his many books on The Seven Storey Mountain is a "must read"-and you should. Merton was finally allowed to travel away from Gethsemani in 1968. He went to Asia to study Bhuddism.  Merton died in Thailand on December 10, 1968 in a freak electrical accident. He was brought back to Gethsemani in a plane filled with the remains of soldiers killed in Vietnam, a war he was criticized for deploring.  Merton was also very concerned about nuclear weapons and sweated out the Cuban Missile Crisis with the rest of the world. He too was astonished with the suggestion of "limited nuclear war" that was discussed at the time.
theology, politics and the contemplative life.  His autobiography

Merton permeates the gift shop and the library.  No doubt the Abbey benefits from Merton's royalties. All of his books are in print. They are widely read and taught. A few of the older  monks remembered him. "He wasn't much of a hermit., with rabbis and the Dalai Lama and Joan Baez and Leonard Bernstein coming to see him."

This is Merton's centennial year, but I heard of no special plans to commermorate what would have been his 100th birthday.

There are several women among the retreatants.  Three nuns are staying down the hall.Several priests are here. Another man says he's been coming here every year for fifty years! Another just got out of prison and may be going back for"drugs and alcohol and fights". He calls this place heaven on earth.

The warm, dry days continue.  Perfect weather.  I've been outside a lot, walking many trails on the Abbey's acreage. Fr. Seamus said, "In spring time we have black snakes two feet long. And ticks! They get in everywhere!" (All clear so far) The woods are deep and utterly silent. You cross several small knobs and lots of perilous looking foot bridges. They are worth the vertigo.

The monks walk with real purpose. The outer life never changes, from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. Prayer-study-prayer-work-work-prayer-study-sleep. They must have incredible inner lives. The idea is to be in constant conversation with God. I have never seen a monk look bored or unhappy. For the right person  this must be an incredible life.

I wonder what is going on in the head of the very young man who is here observing.  He carries around the writings of the 12th century Cistercians. If this book nourishes him at his age, more than friends or sex then he is indeed  "blessed".

Father Carlos says you kow you have "the call" to this life when "You are willing to give everything up, with joy." The days never change.

Thursday, September  17

Leaving for home after breakfast. Skipped VVigils at 3 a.m., but made it to Lauds at 5.30, Mass at 6.15 then Terce at 7:30. Took a walk until the gift shop opened at 9.. Bought bourbon fudge and a few presents. One for a beloved friend who has had a lousy year, who I hope will come to Gethsemani.

I'll be back.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Remembering Jon Vickers

Jon Vickers as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio
I've never seen such a dark stage in my life. The blackness was so intense that being in the wings was a hazard. You could step on a mouse, or knock over a light board,  or knock down a beefy stage hand and you didn't want to to do that. I doubt safety rules would allow such a Stygian environment today, but oh my it was dark. The curtain went up on nothing. Utter darkness. I remember hearing a nervous rustling in the capacity audience. It was midnight dark in the theater, too. Had the Boston Edison bill gone unpaid yet again?

There were lights coming from the musicians stands in the pit, but they did nothing to relive the
blackness. I'm here to tell you, it was terrifying being in that theater  that day. You were waiting for an apocalypse.

Then it came. There was a large, tragic chord and a voice cried out from the gloom. "Gott!" To my dying day I won't forget that sound, that word coming out of nothing. It was a tragic sound, huge, strangled, desperate and beautiful. "Gott!" God! "Gott! Welch' dunkel hier"! God! How dark it is! It was one note, this Gott! and it was nothing but despair.

The voice belonged to Jon Vickers. He was singing the tortured Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio, in Boston around 1976. Florestan only sings in Act II. His release from prison is engineered by his wife, who works in the prison disguised as a boy the better to find her husband and bust him out. Which is what happens. But 'Gott!' shook the walls and left the theater long after the happy ending.,

Jon Vickers died on July 10 at 88. He'd had Alzheimer's disease for several years. His, to me was not a beautiful, loving, friendly voice although he could paint in those colors. His was the voice of despair, the voice of the outsider, the voice of long, of hope, of anger and of love. He was known to be a contradictory and a difficult man. He may have been hard to live with. But if you loved words and music, if if you responded to power and sincerity on the stage, Jon Vickers was your man. I was lucky to hear his Otello, his Peter Grimes, shattering, and his Parsifal. To my dying day though, no other artist, not even Callas, punched me in the guts and broke my heart as Vickers did with that one word in Fidelio: Gott! God.