Saturday, May 23, 2009

Journal: The Met Museum and Sondheim Cabaret

Woke at dawn after very little sleep (due to annoying noises all night), intending to go to the Met Museum in the morning when it’s empty-ish, only to find an offer of a proofreading job I knew I'd love, so I had to wait till noon for the messenger (sleeping mostly), but it came and then I took the bike by subway to 81st Street and biked across the Park – in shorts, a mistake, as there was a deep puddle on the transverse – and brought along carpet slippers to change into for the museum.

Saw the show on French Renaissance bronzes (which closes on Sunday), quite fine, lots of gods and goddesses and Bourbon kings (half the things labeled “model for the famous equestrian statue destroyed in the Revolution” or some such), lots of items never much seen, from the Louvre and from Dresden, and from HM Elizabeth II, having been collected post-Revolution by George IV, the aesthete king – aesthete kings like Charles I and Richard II have never been popular in England. Far too many historical errors in the signage - who, pray tell, is Tsar Paul II? and Charles I was not Henri IV's brother-in-law, he was his son-in-law. Like that, but lots and lots of it.

From that through a show on “Muses of Fashion” – great fashion models of the post-WW2-to-now era and the dresses they wore, which was crowded but did not interest me except in the last room there were half a dozen Galliano party gowns from the nineties with elegant hand-stitching in the style of Met Opera costumes from the early 1900s, and I loved those (too fat to wear them, though), and a few gown-ish photos from the 1940s and ‘50s, a strange era to me (and most of the far younger crowd, I suspect).

Then to the Francis Bacon centennial show, which has just opened and was even more crowded, so I’ll go back later in the summer. My favorite paintings were not reproduced on cards: a naked man slipping through a diaphanous curtain, and a tweed coat over a chair - but I also liked some self-portraits and a pope or two. When asked why he painted self-portraits, Bacon snarled, "Everyone else died."

Ducked through European painting to say Hi to a few friends like Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja, and overheard a bit of a lecture by a charming white-haired lady on Vermeer’s Woman with a Pitcher of Water. Then happened to pass the Byzantine aisle beside the great staircase, though I object to their signage here too: “The empire gradually came to be known as Byzantium” – no, it never did, its inhabitants always called it “the Roman Empire.” “Byzantium” was invented by a German historian in the late 16th century, because idiots get confused if you call it “the Roman Empire” as late as 1453, which I do anyway. Noticed a wonderful panel in opus sectile, just dug up at Caesarea in Israel, and a marble bust of the Empress Flacilla (who?) which looked exactly like my bulldyke cousin Amy. She will not be happy to hear me say that. Flacilla, if you are curious, was the first wife of Theodosius I, that nasty Spaniard who outlawed pagan practices in the empire in 391 c.e.

Then I biked home (about nine miles), pausing at 23rd Street to buy fruit from a Bengali (cherries, apricots, red peppers), wondering how to pass the evening - but at 6pm I fell on my bed and died. So I was up at 11, and went out at midnight. I went to Ty's, which was not interesting, and then wondered what might be interesting at that hour on a Friday night. The answer was clearly Sondheim Cabaret, where I have not been in a year or so.

Sondheim Cabaret at the Duplex (upstairs, Fridays, after 11:30) is an awfully young crowd for me, and you never know whether they're going to sing American Idol sort of stupid stuff or too many renditions of "Being Alive," but on this occasion it was actually a great success. Kate Pazakis and some fag were hosting it, and they played "Diva Tag," which is to say they sang "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," each one emoting and then tagging the other at the most embarrassing moment, whereupon the other had to be right on the note or melisma or whatever, and this was quite funny. They also did an open sing of "525,600 Minutes," which I am too old to know (but I do). A number of volunteers shanghai'd from the floor did uninteresting songs from recent shows, and I did "Necessity" from Finian's Rainbow impressively badly if I do say so myself, and a guy finally did sing "Giants In the Sky" to assert our Sondheim credentials, and someone named Roger Crom (unknown to me) sang a song about Spanish boys and then his version of Sondheim's version of Oklahoma (Oklahomo), which was quite sublimely witty and sophisticated and well performed, and then some rather sweet little guy named Dom Giovanni who claims to be the gayest person in New York sang a dynamite Rose's Turn, and the MC attempted to flirt with a really hot hetero Scottish actor I'd never heard of who was just sitting with his girlfriend in the audience (but the emcee checked him out on Wikipedia right there on the stage), and I had had a couple of Long Island ice teas by this point so it was time to go before I attempted "Begin the Beguine."

But I was feeling full of energy on a warm New York night so I biked over Houston Street to the bike path on the river, which is fun to bike on because it is pretty well kept, no potholes to watch out for, and there was hardly any pedestrian traffic either at 3am, so I biked as hard as I liked up to 28th Street to consider going to the Eagle (I was in a leather vest and boots), but it was past 3 already, so I turned around and biked very hard to Canal Street, then home. Still not sleepy. I can always proofread crime writing till dawn.

Still haven't made the Picasso show in Chelsea. The Met has a show coming in from the Kabul Museum end of next month – yum! (Truly.)

I want to go bike around Ridgewood Reservoir before it gets hot. Never been there – it’s on the Queens-Brooklyn border someplace. Queens is full of parks I do not know. (Manhattan, the only borough I know well, is much the smallest of the five.) I wish I'd had my bike when I was in Rome.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mahler and the Shekinah

Went to hear Boulez conduct the Mahler 8th the other night - that's the one you probably have not sung in the shower, as it is the Symphony of a Thousand and they wouldn't all fit. They didn't fit in Carnegie Hall either. (And Loren Maazel is doing it next month as his farewell to the Philharmonic - or rather, four farewells - he never can say goodbye, no no no.) The text of this leviathan (or do I mean behemoth?) is in two parts, first a setting of the 8th century hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus ("Come, Creator Spirit"), the second a setting of the last scene of Goethe's Faust, Part 2: Faust's soul saved from damnation by the intercession of A Penitent (i.e. Gretchen from Part 1) with the Triple Mother-Virgin-Goddess (so addressed), and the Eternal Feminine Calls Us On from above.

That was appropriate, as I'd sneaked in without a ticket and had to climb the stairs to the top of the building (puff puff puff). At the first performance of this work in New York, Anna Mahler was present and said to an usher friend of mine, "Not one of Papa's best." I have to agree with her. Though I thought otherwise the last time I heard it, under Levine, with the BSO. (Another friend suggests the Metropolitan Opera House would be the right size for this symphony. John G, who was present on this occasion, says only the Royal Albert Hall is the right size with the right size organ, and we all know how important that is.)

As I reached the top of the stairs, I found the evening's usher was a stranger (to me), a tall, lanky, sexy, long-haired youth. Before I'd located an empty seat (sparse at these Mahler concerts), a guy I know slightly named Greg arrived, and began to harangue the young usher on the Faust Legend, its medieval and operatic and Goethean variants. As I'd written about the Faust legend for Opera News and the Met Opera program, I listened intently; later, Greg explained to me that the usher is a young genius and leader of a "dark metal band" (whatever that means) which has dealt with satanic themes (don't they all?), but that he is also interested in the late romantic orchestral-operatic equivalents for death-thrash-metal (equivalent may be the wrong word here), and Greg is trying to introduce him to unfamiliar mythic concepts (such as music without electronics), which desire is perhaps lust-inspired on his part, but what the hey? A natural adjunct to pedagogy in many ancient societies, is it not? And this kid is definitely of age. (Plus, I think Greg is hot, frankly: chunky bronze Sicilian.)

Then Greg turns to me and says, "How do YOU think the parts connect in this symphony? Why did Mahler put them together?" really not knowing. And I hadn't ever thought about it myself (late Mahler not being my specialty).

But suddenly it was all very clear, because I'd just been reading Carl Jung's Answer to Job, which discusses the "divorce" between God the Will and God the Creative Spirit, and how that Creative Spirit is personified in Jewish mysticism as the Shekinah, and in Greek-Christian mysticism as Sophia, and how that spirit was necessary (and necessarily feminine) to God's creation of life itself, and his plans for the earth, and his assault on Job took place because Sophia was on sabbatical or something (Satan merrily slipping into her advisor's place), and her return and unification with God solved Job's dilemma by assuring him that God would be born as a human and find out what he'd been missing, an event only made possible because Sophia was to be incarnate as Mary. (I'm very dubious about all this as EVENT, or theology, but it makes sense as MYSTIC BELIEF.) (Mystics will believe ANYTHING. As you know.)

And suddenly it seemed to me that what Mahler was up to (a Catholic convert of somewhat mystical bent, and married to a femme fatale named Alma, of all symbolic names) was to join the invocation to the Judaeo-Christian god as Creator Spirit to Goethe's guilt-ridden self-invented pardon for Faust (his own questing, amoral, inventive spirit) by an eternal feminine who is given many names and many roles in the poem (Mater Gloriosa, Maria Egyptiaca, etc.) but who is clearly, in all cases, a synthesis subdivided by whole in the supernal Mary (bearing a very slight resemblance to any human Mary), queen of heaven, consort of God and (since God can only be one) his female alterity, anima to the divine animus, in short Sophia-Shekinah. Thereby invoking pardon for his (Mahler's) sins (whatever they were) and justifying his life as the manifestation of God's creativity, just as the original text (completed only a year before Goethe's death after forty-odd years of work, was a similar justification of his life as such a manifestation. (Could Goethe believe in a God who was not an aspect of Goethe? I mean, we all have that problem, but he had it especially rough because it seemed so very obvious to everyone that He was.)

So entirely by chance - the chance that I was reading Jung (on the recommendation of my friend Fritz Muntean of The Pomegranate magazine) - I think I have solved Greg's and everybody else's problem about why Mahler put these two texts together in his magnificent setting. Even if it's not one of Papa's best. (As, say, Das Lied von der Erde or the Wayfarer Songs are.)

Of course Jung's interpretation of Job as a prelude to the necessity for God's incarnation as Christ is, well, Jungian mingling of anima and animus, and does not entirely convince (probably because I don't believe the author(s) of Job had the slightest notion of an incarnation down the pike). But it's a terrific book nonetheless, and a terrific key to certain theological mysticisms.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Lineage of a Cab Driver

As you may know, I always look at the cab driver's name (and photo) on their license and guess where they're from. If I get it right in one guess, I get a point. Otherwise - no point. This is only possible in New York - no other city I know of has a visible license with a name and picture on it - I have to ask where they're from, and where's the fun in that?

(My friend Suzanne, from Milwaukee, asks New York cabbies where they were on 9/11; that always gets her a good story.)

This guy's name was "Luis Seixas," pronounced "Seyshas." The "x" puzzled me. I thought, it might be Basque - someone with a Basque surname might be from anywhere in the New World. However, "X" also exists in Brazilian Portuguese, and "Luis" is the same in Portuguese as in Spanish (as I knew because Portugal had a king named Luis in the 19th century - 1855-1889, or something like that).

So my guess was "Brazil," and I was wrong. (No point.)

But the guy's story was very interesting. He was born here, father from Ecuador, mother from Puerto Rico, but the family name fascinated him, so he researched it - very few cab drivers (or anyone else) do that! He was especially intrigued because Sephardic Jews kept telling him the name was Sephardic. It is!

His father had gone to Ecuador from the Dominican Republic. His father's father had gone to the DR from St. Thomas. And at some point an ancestor had come to St. Thomas from Curacao. Turns out (I didn't know this) both islands have very old Sephardic communities, going back to when Portugal re-took northern Brazil (Bahia, Recife, etc. 1647-54) from the Dutch, who had possessed it for some decades. (That's when Jan Mauritz of Orange-Nassau, who was the Dutch governor, made enough money from sugar planting and export to build the Mauritshuis in Den Haag and fill it full of gorgeous paintings.) The Jews had lived quite happily in Bahia when the Dutch ruled it (Recife was called "the Jerusalem of the New World"), but when the Portuguese got it back as part of the peace settlement, they imposed the Inquisition (having acquired that bad habit during Spain's 60-year rule of Portugal), and the Jews mostly fled - though some converted, and Seixas continues to be a popular surname in Brazil, where those who hold it are mostly unaware their families were once Jewish.

The Jews of Recife scattered widely, especially to former Dutch colonies (where they were safer), among them New Amsterdam (the first Jewish presence on future U.S. soil), Curacao and (I didn't know this before) the then-Danish colony of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. And there was lots of communication and business and marriage between the different Sephardic settlements, as there always was. One of the Seixas became an important leader of the New York Sephardic colony in the 18th century - "Abraham Seixas," said Luis. "You know the little Sephardic cemetery below Chinatown?" "Sure." "Well, the big stone in that one is him. And his brother went to St. Thomas, and I'm descended from the brother.... My father sort of knew about it, it had been handed down in the family that we were Sephardic once, but no one knew any details, and we've been Catholic for centuries. You have to go look it up, and I did. But I did because when I came to New York and began driving a cab, all these Sephardic guys asked me if I was Jewish, and if I was related to Abraham Seixas - of course I'd never heard of him then."

So I didn't get the point, but it was one of my most interesting cabdriver ancestry stories.

Current reading includes a biography of Proust's mother, née Jeanne Weil, daughter of a very well-to-do Jewish family that had come to Paris from Alsace two generations earlier (after the National Assembly liberated religious minorities) and were in the process of assimilating/not assimilating - terribly involved in French culture and ever more distant from religious Judaism, culminating in a great deal of intermarriage, such as Jeanne's to Adrien Proust. But questions, every step of the way, of what neighborhood to live in, of what professions to pursue, of whom to associate with, of whom to think of marrying. And then Dreyfus hit, and everyone had to rethink things. Which is excellent background for reading Proust, hein? Who was passionately devoted to his mother and grandmother, and thought about all these matters a great deal.

Proust's grandmother and Karl Marx were fourth cousins! And his greatuncle, Adolphe Crémieux, was a lawyer who led the fight to persuade the various French governments to discard the remaining disabilities placed on Jewish citizenship and full participation in the life of the nation.