Notes on Messe Solennelle by Vierne 7-8 May 2018

May 10, 2018

As I sit listening to (cramming for!) a performance of Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, two things come to mind.

One, this piece has really grown on me. I admit at our first rehearsal I was a bit… underwhelmed.  Sit with it a while though, I cajoled myself – and my inner Francophile decided to let the piece sink in before making judgment.

Two, it’s such a privilege to know Mass not just from its musical movements, but through their liturgical functions, ie the Ordinary. After study and rehearsal I can see how Vierne knit the very theology of the liturgy into his work as a whole. Choral masses are most familiar to the listening public as performance pieces, but being able to enrich the experience of the composer’s opus with knowledge of the liturgical function is truly a special grace for the performer (and informed audience member).

Like much of French music, the tonalities are “all over the place” but not in an overt way.  To the casual listener the transitions in key will sound for the most part natural – not an ‘event’ to be perceived as an obvious shift.  But to those singing the piece it’s a constant existential game of “What Key Are We In Now And How Do I Fit Into It?” – hence the copious notes in my music like, “3rd [mediant] of the V[dominant] EMm7[E Major minor seventh]”. Ah, c’est si français!

One would expect a piece originally scored for double organ (which churches have a double organ nowadays??) to be fairly bombastic.  But the only true organ bombast in the entire piece is at the very beginning which starts and ends on an emphatic C# minor chord (the final cadence Picardy’d, of course) – this is the great Kyrie Eleison which liturgically comes very shortly after gathering to worship; no wasting time here – we confess our sins collectively and ask The Lord’s mercy. Vierne’s organ setting perfectly juxtaposes the majesty of Our Lord before the littleness of the choir’s pleas for mercy – first mustering vocal courage from the organ’s tones through lower register of the basses, then adding the pleading tone of the tenors, ceding to the warm temerity of the altos, then adding the cutting treble of the sopranos. By the recap, all four parts have gathered enough strength and courage to confidently ask for mercy, holding hands across two octaves, then capping their plea with a grand C# major cadence.

The Gloria is just that – a glorious statement of the grandeur of Our Lord, whom we laud, bless, adore, and glorify in bright A Major and E Major tones.  Unlike many mass settings which quickly run through our proper worship verbs – Laudamus, Benedicimus, Adoramus, Glorificamus – Vierne gives each verb its own separate phrase outright, framed by snippets of the opening dancing motif of the organ. The middle section softens, with the individual vocal sections according the Lord His right titles: King of Heaven, God Father Omnipotent, Only Begotten Son, Lamb of God – Son of the Father. Then the ‘nadir’ of the Gloria, as it were, shifts back the focus to the penitent choristers, who in diminished and closely voiced harmonies invoke the sanctifying action of the Lamb of God (“qui tollis peccata mundi”). The glass-like segue “qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” then culminates in the recap, both melodically and thematically, proclaiming the Holy, Only, Highest Trinity.

The Sanctus is fairly straightforward and here the choirs of angels introduce themselves in the same order as the Kyrie – bass, tenor, alto, followed shortly by soprano, each trumpeting a single “Sanctus” before proclaiming their collective Sanctus ‘Lord God of Hosts’, ending in a BFDS (Big Fat Dominant 7th) chord.  Then, in emphatic octaves again, all four phalanges of ‘angelic hosts’ state what they know and live through eternity: heaven and earth are full of Your glory – before recapping the moving rhythm of the opening Sanctus during their Hosannas, and ending in the classic plagal “church” cadence.

In the present day, within most masses the Benedictus is appended to the Sanctus, but in some high solemn traditional liturgies it is reserved for immediately after the Consecration [of bread and wine to the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord].  Most settings of the Benedictus, particularly those of Palestrina, feature consonant melodic lines, often with voices in trio – we are, after all, singing about the “blessed man”, The Second Person of The Trinity, Who comes in The Name of The Lord [via the Eucharistic gifts]. But not so Vierne’s melody, which is rather plaintive, even haunting — it brings to mind the ‘beatus vir’ of the Old Testament Psalms who also comes in the Name of the Lord, now in New Testament glory.   And this might be my favorite movement of the entire Messe Solennelle.

Vierne’s Benedictus movement is like an in-one scene of a stage play, with the actor wandering in front of a blank slate of a curtain but looking around as if lost in an imaginary wood. The organ introduces a peregrinating line, leading trios of voices, in minor triads, representing the blessed man (beatus vir) wandering, amazed and stunned, after having witnessed the most miraculous and awesome feat – the Consecration. And happily, after making his way carefully through a thicket of minor diminished/augmented tonalities, he hearkens back to the familiar “hosannas” of the angelic hosts.

Most of Vierne’s Messe Solennelle is in common or cut time – however, the Agnus Dei shifts gears both rhythmically and tonally, set in a lullaby-like ¾ (waltz) meter, and sung in more consonant 3rds and 6ths with even a touch of Romanticism in the sopranos’ and tenors’ pleas for mercy (“miserere nobis”). In contrast to the Kyrie, we find ourselves in a more personal musical and rhythmic relationship with Our Lord, still humbly asking for mercy, not as distant persons as in the opening Kyrie, but as His children approaching with child-like trust. After twice asking (in threefold fashion, in minor keys) for mercy, the plea for peace (“dona nobis pacem”) shifts into the final D-flat major – the enharmonic major of the opening C# minor Kyrie: we are the same persons as in the beginning of the piece, but changed by participating liturgically in the an-amnesis, the re-presentation of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Consecration.  The Agnus Dei, and therefore the entire work, ends with a lilting lullaby in the organ and an a cappella section of the choir falling into a blissful peace (a gently crescendo’d final “pacem”), now ready to approach Our Lord in intimate Communion.


The Cross from Inside

November 24, 2013

I had driven by the stylized trio of crosses dozens of times. To and from Oakland airport and the Bay Area, on I-580, with my family. Always noticing them from a distance, in an “oh isn’t that nice” kind of way.

Little did I know that I would see those crosses, and the Cross, from the inside. Life works that way. The Cross works that way.

I got the text from my sister: “Dad collapsed. Unresponsive.” Frozen in the realization that “that day will come” was here, I held my breath suspended. After cobbling together information as things were unfolding medically, I subconsciously started to plan my emergent trip to care for my father and my family.

He was intubated and taken to a local trauma center, in Castro Valley — right off the freeway exit next to those 3 crosses. Being an internist, I assumed that he had had a primary vascular event and that the trauma was secondary; I had imagined already in my mind a hemispheric CVA from which he would not recover. Fortunately, a friend reminded me: he’s sick, he’s not dying. Difficult to make that distinction in the heat of the moment.

My father and I talked about “his wishes” years ago. Spontaneously he told me “if I have prostate cancer I don’t want any treatment”. I readily agreed without protest. I also knew, had that collapse been his terminal event, he would have gone in relative peace, given the rifts that have involved our family over the past decade — rifts that are, thankfully, in the healing stages, like his head injury.

For days we kept vigil while he was on the ventilator. “Squeeze my hand”, “Hold up two fingers”, and “Give me a thumbs up” were buzzwords previously uttered so casually at work that then became personal. Amazing how the simplest command became the entire world for us.

We welcomed a baby into the family. That was the whole reason Dad was visiting in the first place. Children save our lives, in so many ways. Had he been alone, he would be dead. Ironically, we looked for the same signs in both my baby niece and Dad — opening eyes, engaging a face, grasping a hand or a finger.

The hospital, its doctors, and the nursing staff were a Godsend. Tragedy and suffering open up so many opportunities for Grace; as a friend once admonished me, after I had refrained to tell her of a recent ailment of mine, “you deprive others their right to help and minister unto you” when you choose to suffer alone. So I had half of Dallas (and friends from all ends of the earth) storm heaven with their prayers and well wishes. People were open and sympathetic, and wonderful. They gave me strength to be the medical liaison for the family.

That first night, upon seeing my father on the ventilator, on pressors and tube feeds, I truly saw a patient. What drips are running? At what rate? Are feeds at goal? What kind of volumes is he pulling on the vent? But the next day, I saw my father. Keeping vigil at his bedside, I came close up when his eyes would try to open. “Hi Dad, it’s [me]. Mom is here. You fell and hit your head. Try to relax.” How scared he must have been in ICU, fleeting from un- to sub- to bare consciousness. How scared he must have been upon regaining those precious moments of consciousness, when he felt the brunt of his skull fracture — the searing pain of his muscles, bones, brain having suffered a freefall from standing.

I imagine in those tenuous twilight moments he too saw the Crosses from inside — as we all do, during our lifetimes. Our glimpses of the Crosses form our own cross. And the act of accepting, being purified by, and giving back the fruit of those crosses can be our supreme gift to God.

Back to that trio of crosses off highway I-580. It was no small coincidence that my father’s superb nighttime ICU nurse, Rachel, who took care of him 4 nights in a row during that tenuous immediate post-injury period, was a churchgoer at Neighborhood Church of Castro Valley — the very church that owns and maintains those 3 crosses that were first just a landmark, but then my anchor — my visual focal point of meditation and reflection after my father’s injury, and now a sign of my gratitude for the care the people in that small sleepy town of Castro Valley offered to my father and my family, in our time of need.

We often reflect on The Cross, but less often on the crosses. There would not have been A Cross, His Cross, without the crosses that flanked Our Lord. With His, the crosses of the good thief & bad thief comprise a microcosm of the grand drama of humanity: those who deride Our Lord for not indulging their individual wills, those indifferent to or perplexed by His Sacrifice on Calvary, like the Roman centurion, and those who, like Dismas the Good Thief, see Our Lord for Who He Is (and what we are), and beg mercy — uniting our crosses with His.

Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis [Faithful Cross, above all others, the one noble Tree].


My Conclave Memories

March 5, 2013


When I was born, Paul VI was pope. I don’t remember the 1978 conclave that elected John Paul I, but after he died just 1 month into his papacy, I have fuzzy memories of seeing a photo in the Akron Beacon Journal of him on the papal balcony — my father telling me, with incredulity in his voice, “The pope died and the Cardinals have to go back to Rome to choose another“. I was 6 years old.

In 2005 I pretty much watched every moment of the proceedings after John Paul II’s death, including each consecutive requiem mass (9 in total), in addition to the colossal funeral mass. I recall just how amazed I was by Josef Cardinal Ratzinger’s homilies, particularly his conclave homily, during that time. I was watching all this beautiful pageantry and liturgy during one of the absolute lowest times in my life (“Jesus and I both had a really rough time in our 33rd years”, I used to joke to myself). I had nothing to do except soak in every beautiful moment of the 2005 Interregnum. And with a premonition that he might just be the leading papabile, I started reading everything that Cardinal ‘Ratzi’ had published. Introduction to Christianity. Salt of the Earth. The Ratzinger Report. Spirit of the Liturgy.

And on April 19, 2005, my mother and I happened to be at the local library as the conclave’s 4th vote emerged as the white smoke proclaiming the news — Habemus Papam! A crowd gathered around the TV in the library lobby, as we watched the crowd at St Peter’s erupt as soon as the name ‘Josephus’ was proclaimed. My stomach leapt, as if to say “It’s Ratzi!!” Then we saw Benedict emerge onto the portico with his delightful “Rocky victory salute“, proclaiming himself a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of The Lord.

Everyone in the library lobby looked perplexed, even my mother — with puzzled faces tacitly saying ‘who is this guy?’ I laid my hand on my mother’s shoulder and murmured “This is good. Really good.”

“Do not do this to me!”

February 13, 2013


These were the words that crossed Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s mind during the Conclave of 2005, after the final vote for John Paul II’s successor — at the moment he realized the succession to the See of Peter would fall to him. This was his deep, groaning, visceral prayer to God in that moment, wafting up toward Heaven like the white smoke that heralded his election. How many times have we all prayed variations of this same sentiment? The Pope is human, too.

But he dutifully complied, in his own understated way. While the mainstream media spun on, dismissing him as an antiquated “mere placesaver” after the gargantuan papacy of John Paul II, he sought the Still, Small Voice that allowed him to be our still, small voice during these blessed 8 years.

How fitting his first encyclical was entitled “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”), because all the great lessons he has given over the years can be distilled into that one fact.

His still, small voice served as all these voices:

– The voice of the teacher, the professor, whose simple, elegant words explained the most vexing of theological debates.

– The voice of the penitent, who made it a point to meet personally with the victims of abuse every time he visited the United States, to beg forgiveness for the “filth” (his own description) of his brother priests.

– The voice of bravery standing up for truth in “politically incorrect” situations. As in his brilliant Regensburg Address.

– The voice of “dialogue” — to Lefevbrists and arch-conservatives, to Lutherans, to Episcopal priests, to the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

– The voice of beauty when speaking of music or art, or of liturgy. Of Latin and Gregorian Chant, of Bach and Mozart.

Millions speculate on his reasoning for renouncing the See of Peter. The last thing he wants, or that he believes the church needs, is another deathwatch at St Peter’s Square, wasting energy and attention that are better spent in evangelizing the world. Nothing will compare to JP2’s deathwatch and funeral — arguably the largest funeral in all of history. But he is not bowing out of because of pride, that he is not as “popular” as JP2 — he does this out of humility, always recognizing that his Petrine ministry was fundamentally different than that of the gregarious JP2. More introspective. More monastic. More eremitic.

He senses an urgency in the Church in today’s globalized world — an urgency characteristic of modern times and one which he is eager to hasten and hand on the torch. He has molded the College of Cardinals, guided by the Holy Spirit, into a body of men who can bring the Church beyond “modern [and post-modern] times” and evangelize this finite world of immortal souls through the timelessness of the Catholic Church. He knows the ‘Papabili’ are ready.

He has always seen himself as the old European guard. He — the once prisoner of war, on the “wrong side” of World War II — knows that the New World is the center of gravity of today’s Church. And pushing forward into the New World, he has faith that this rejuvenated Church will spark the Old. Ressourcement through Aggiornamento. His own original idea from the Second Vatican Council come full circle.

And now, having served and given himself for the Lord’s Church, he awaits the only reward he has ever desired: the Face of The Lord.

We can honor his service to us through prayer, and by study of his writings: encyclicals, Wednesday audiences (particularly his series on the Church Fathers), and his mainstream publications. We will find so much that we have taken for granted these past 8 years — treasures we may never have noticed, were it not for his great act of humility.

Benedict XVI is telling us the time has come. Christ must increase; he must decrease.

Lance Armstrong: The story that was too perfect for too long

January 18, 2013

The recent phenomena of Lance Armstrong’s doping confession and the release of the movie Les Misérables have more in common than just timing. And no, it’s not because Lance’s story is indeed misérable, which it is. It’s that everyone comes to each entity from a different level of intellectual and emotional investment (including none of either). I happen to know and care deeply about both entities. Both events have given me ample opportunity for reflection on the process of metanoia — of conversion — which, contrary to popular belief, is rarely if ever instantaneous, but instead a soul-gutting process which proceeds in stages, with each stage asking tougher and tougher questions to strip away a man to his truth. Lance, meet Javert; Lance, meet Valjean.

* * *

I hate TV. But I love the Tour de France. For years I would call Time Warner Cable every June to hook up my cable, only to call them back in August to disconnect it.

I continued this routine when I moved to Texas. Every year the cable guy would offer me free upgrades to deluxe channel packages, followed by puzzled looks when I would tell him no thanks, I just want the basic plan that has OLN (which morphed to Versus, then NBC Sports Network). I would tell him, “Look, I’m just going to call you guys in August to have you disconnect my service anyway; I do this every year just so I can watch the Tour de France.”

Most years that earned me looks askance, but once I moved to Texas, that line became the opener to a conversation with the cable guy, who almost always had some childhood connection to Lance:

“I went to high school with him. Man, did he have a chip on his shoulder.”

“I was his wide receiver on our middle school football team. He was quarterback, and a damn good one. His stepfather belittled him, and Lance took it out on the field.”

I thought of these conversations tonight in his much anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey when Lance said “I’ve been like this [a bully, a fighter] my whole life”, then citing his birth to a young unwed mother.

Most everyone knows Lance was born and raised in Texas. Some know that he was raised in Plano, a northern suburb (annexed exurb, really) of Dallas. Few know that he was born in Oak Cliff, TX — dubbed “The Brooklyn of Dallas” in the early 20th century. It’s long since been incorporated into Dallas proper, but it has always retained its own character — a true down-to-earth neighborhood among the high-rises, McMansions, and sleek-haired Dallasites walking around in peep-toe heels year-round. It also happens to be my adopted neighborhood.

Though neo-gentrified in recent years (read: influx of DINKs/SINKs/gay couples, most of whom are upwardly mobile professionals) and recovering from a reputation as the “South Central LA” of Dallas throughout the 80’s-90’s, it was and remains an enclave of working class, primarily white & Hispanic, families. You know — just folks. From my yard, you can hear the Adamson High School marching band practice, and most of the elementary school children in my neighborhood still walk or bike to school.

Lance Armstrong was born into this neighborhood — at Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff, just across the Trinity River from downtown Dallas — to an unwed high school senior at Adamson. He was estranged from his father from his toddler years and was adopted by his stepfather, whose surname he bears. He and his mother for their whole life had to, to paraphrase his words, always fight to survive.

It’s a common theme we hear from many people who have overcome adversity. But what of people who only know adversity? Those who were born into it? How can they know any other way? Only when circumstances or grace (circumstances through grace?) allows that person to step out of himself and see his dead-end trajectory for what it is. And this insight seems to be dawning — finally — on Lance.

Many have criticized the fact that he’s “confessing” in the pop forum-phenomenon that, like him, goes by one name — Oprah. Some argue that he should have first confessed to WADA or USADA — spill the dirt to “help cycling”. These arguments, though well-meaning, seem to be put out by people who think that cycling per se is the center of the world. I have news for those insular-minded people: the most important thing about this affair is not that Lance save or pay back cycling for the damage he’s done; the most important aspect is repairing the damage done to his own psyche, his soul, and thereby make amends with the other souls he has hurt or brought to scandal. Cycling is just an activity, a vehicle, though some treat it (like many other finite, worldly things) like a religion. But the human element is what is most important. And in our culture, icons can only be matched with icons. Ergo, Lance talking to Oprah, like it or not, is the most efficacious way for Lance to confess and begin his making amends process. His input to WADA/USADA will come in time, particularly if he is serious about being the “first in line” for a proposed “Truth and Reconciliation Committee”. But Lance the Man must have this catharsis of his human nature before Lance the Cyclist can do so. It’s the proper priority.

I was quite surprised by the level of sincerity he displayed throughout most of the interview. There were shaky points to be sure, but the most telling line (in part 1 anyway) was his reply to Oprah, when she expressed surprise that he would say he is happier now [in his current circumstances] than when he was winning his Tours de France: he then emphatically clarified his statement, saying that he is happier “today, not yesterday” than he was at the height of his cycling career. That indicated to me that he viewed this interview as his de facto confession.

And “Fr.” Oprah did not disappoint. I was impressed by her command of the salient procycling context, as I doubt she is a diehard cycling fan (though she should be — it rivals any of the dramas on her network, I suspect). She did her research, including reading Tyler Hamilton’s book and the USADA report and affidavits. And she didn’t throw Lance any softballs. She asked about Michele Ferrari, and his efforts to make amends with people like Betsy Andreu and Emma O’Reilly; she made him clarify his points (“So are you a bully?”), and called him out on his attempts at sophistry when downplaying his mafia don-like grip on the USPS doping culture or whether or not he hurled demeaning verbal insults at Betsy Andreu.

After watching this first chapter of his interview, I’m giving Lance the benefit of the doubt and believing, along with Oprah, that he is telling his story and expressing the level of contrition at the level he is capable of at this moment. I’ve trusted my gut about Lance so far. I’d like to think that despite mucking daily through the barrage of toxic Tweets in my timeline, that I have not become so cynical and intransigent to think that people can’t genuinely change. I’m going to invoke the spirit of Pascal’s Wager and side with the joyful father of the Prodigal Son, rather than his bitter brother.

I think it’s time to watch Les Misérables again. I’ll take Jean Valjean over Javert any day.

Story of Fern

January 9, 2013


This is Fern. She is a little girl trying to beat the odds.

She’s already beaten the odds merely by being born and surviving her puppyhood — most white boxers born under breeding conditions are destroyed, as they are not breed standard. (In every respect except for their color they are 100% boxer!)

But she survived, and her tale (and her tail!) remains a mystery.

She ended up in a shelter, scared and alone. You see, she is deaf; the shelter was a house of horrors for her.

Being taken in by a rescue organization was Fern’s only chance from being euthanized. She was on the fast track, as she was ‘defective’.

Even within rescue organizations, she was a risk. As a female, she could not be adopted out to a house with another female dog. As a young dog, but past her puppyhood, she didn’t have as much ‘Awww’ factor for potential adoptive families. (She’s still pretty darn cute, though.) And, of course, she is deaf.

But being deaf “special needs” dog is not necessarily a bad thing. I have a deaf white boxer, Gus, who is so keen to his surroundings that you would never know he was deaf, except for the fact that he is able to snooze soundly on the floor with a vacuum whizzing by his head.

Otherwise, he is as smart and playful and mischievous as any ‘normal’ boxer. I’m beginning to learn the same about Fern. (Actually, I think she is smarter than Gus — she is a girl, after all.)

Fern had terrible separation anxiety when I first took her in as a foster dog. (Being a first time foster dog parent, I had some separation anxiety too!) Her first night she followed me everywhere, even into the shower, she was so scared. She wouldn’t even go to the backyard to do her business without me right beside her.

But she made good progress after realizing she would be safe, and not abandoned to a shelter again. Eventually she felt comfortable enough to explore the backyard on her own. She even took to the crate rather easily, considering.

And lest you think Fern is a shy flower, watch out. She has a sassy streak! Strong as an ox and runs figure eights in the backyard like a greyhound. But she is happiest taking a walk or jog, or just lounging around with her human nearby.

While there are still some goals to work toward for during her foster period, she is eager to be someone’s best girl!

Want to know more about helping out Fern? Browse her website at NorCal Boxer Rescue, and/or leave your questions below in the comments. And stay tuned for the next chapter of “Story of Fern”!



(musical) Review: Les Misérables

December 30, 2012

First, full disclosure. I am a 100% lifelong musical theater nerd. Decades before Glee (which is really show choir, a pseudo-genre in which I never deigned to participate), my sister and I were acting out, in our den, all the great mid-century classic movie musicals: West Side Story, The Music Man, Oklahoma!, etc. Our parents took us to stage shows as far back as I can remember. In 6th grade I was piano accompanist for our grade school musical and have played leading roles in high school, college, and semi-professional musical productions. My senior year of high school I would come home every day and listen to the soundtracks of Les Misérables and Phantom, in their entirety, before beginning my homework. My family, instead of playing I Spy on road trips, sang entire musical theater scores — in parts. You get my drift. So if I’m a bit picky about the vocal performances per se in my review here, you understand why.

Arguably, the stage production of Les Misérables ushered in the modern era of “sung-through” musicals — with all intervening dialogue sung in recitatif style. The melodies and leitmotifs are not musically complicated, but are memorable and skillfully woven together thoughout the entire score. As for the libretto, it hardly compares to the wit of Stephen Sondheim, but it does have moments of impeccable timing (“To love another person is to see the face of God” is, rightly so, the final and most memorable lyric of the show).

So why has this beloved musical endured to celebrate its 10th, then most recently 25th anniversary? First and foremost is the story. Victor Hugo’s behemoth of a novel is a classic for a reason, and the musical version has made it accessible to the modern masses (and people who just cannot sit down and read a book in its entirety, like your humble scribe). Sweeping themes like absolute justice vs mercy, radical idealism, and unrequited love… well, they just WORK.

I must admit that since the R&H era, the movie versions of present-day musicals have failed in comparison to their stage production counterparts. (Hairspray is a notable exception, with Sweeney Todd an honorable mention.) This might arise from my bias toward live stage productions, but I have found that many movie versions just — how should I say? — well, they try too hard, usually at the expense of solid vocal performances. Many movie adaptations of stage musicals are like overwrought dough producing a pastry that should be pleasant in texture, but instead is heavy & tough. On stage, an actor must understand and convey the essence of a character without the voice-overs, special effects, countless retakes, and other accoutrements available in the movie industry. This is both harder and easier than it sounds, and some actors “get it” and others don’t. That’s why there is little overlap between movie and stage actors; their craft is sufficiently different as to even warrant two separate actors unions. In general, most theater roles must be performed simply and honestly to satisfy a discriminating audience paying $120 a seat. They don’t pay that money to be titillated (that’s what movies are for), but to be ravished. And this takes a special kind of actor who understands both genres.

An actor like, say, Hugh Jackman. He is the quintessential crossover actor. And though I so would have loved to see Alfie Boe reprise his Valjean for the big screen (watch his beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home”), I recognize that for star power and talent, Hugh Jackman was the best and only choice. While other people were watching him in the X-men movies, I was swooning over his performance in Oklahoma! as Curley — a performance that is happily (legally) captured on DVD for posterity. So in my mind Hugh Jackman is a fine stage actor who happens to do movies (I’ve never seen the X-men films). But most of the Les Misérables movie audience will feel conversely — “Wolverine can sing??”– which is why he is the best choice to satisfy both audiences.

Where was I? Oh yes, the movie. On the whole, I enjoyed it. Very much so. There were definite moments when my critical eye was sufficiently sated that it could rest and let me soak in the performances. It felt very much like a stage production, except for the cinematic action sequences for which I sorely needed some anti-vertigo medication. To the director’s credit, the individual numbers were shot very simply, with little if any use of the usual distractors we see in movies during musical numbers (montage, flashback, electronically altered sound, and the like) — the focus was on the vocal/acting performances solely. The quality of the singing overall was excellent, particularly with the ensemble and chorus numbers; The chorus produced a very clean, balanced sound with understandable lyrics (this latter quality is more elusive than one would think).

Hugh’s acting of the role of Jean Valjean was splendid throughout the movie, but particularly during his conversion scene in the chapel (after being exonerated by the kindly bishop) as well as during his deathbed scene. His vocal performance was not as nuanced as it had been for the filmed stage version of Oklahoma!, particularly for “Bring Him Home” — a number that most Les Miz groupies expect to hear delivered tenderly; but instead of floating the C’s and that final high-F, Jackman tossed them out like Tim Wakefield knuckleballs clunking into the dirt. But overall, as the one marquee name who is a legit musical stage actor in his own right, his performance was pretty much what I expected — solid.

Russell Crowe on the other hand, though he has a passable singing voice, saw his acting suffer as a result of having to sing. Note, this is not the same as saying that his singing voice was poor — it is pleasant enough — but it seemed that his best acting was done in those moments when he did not have to sing, and of course in a sung-through musical these moments are few and far between. Once he opened his mouth to sing, his face became mask-like and lost all the nuance he looked like he wanted to build behind his character (and which he surely could have done had this been a non-musical). For this reason “Stars” was the dullest number of the movie — ordinarily, with a really good stage Javert, this is a riveting number when he establishes pathos with the audience, showing us how his heart aches for absolute justice.

Now for Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Wow. I was stunned by her performance — ravished, even. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was absolutely heartwrenching. It is the one and only time I’ve witnessed that number as a true window into Fantine’s character, and not just a perfunctory diva number before her death scene. She, unlike Russell Crowe, did a fine job melding her acting with her singing. Her singing served her acting, and this is the goal to which all musical theater actors ought to aspire. That she is a primarily ‘straight’ (non-musical) actor and able to do this so effectively was a most pleasant surprise. And while she doesn’t have the big voice for which most Fantines are cast, her voice had an honesty and simplicity about it that belied the fact that Fantine really was a child, and not a mature belt mezzo-soprano. And she died a consumptive’s death as well as any I’ve seen on stage or film.

As the cunning but feckless Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter nailed the physical pickpocket humor (often missed because of the Blair Witch Project-like cinematography), but their characters were a bit schizoid otherwise — particularly Cohen’s. He sang intermittently with an odd accent with Latino overtones that I found distracting. And for an actor who knows how to cut to the core of the comedy of any event, I expected a bit more depth to his character. But perhaps he intentionally wanted to play him mainly as a simpleton. Helena Bonham Carter has made a recent name for herself playing psycho bitches (Bellatrix Lestrange, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, and now Madame Thénardier), and she delivers here, helped by a singspiel-like approach to her performance. Though the vocal part is far less demanding than that of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd (in which her voice sounded wan and insipid), her singing voice seems to have more ‘meat’ on it in her present role.

As for the non-marquee supporting actors, happily they seem to have been taken directly from stage productions — notably Colm Wilkinson (who originated the role of Jean Valjean in 1986) as the kindly bishop, and Samantha Barks, who also was given the honor of playing Eponine for the recent 25th anniversary concert performance. Eddie Redmayne, cast as student revolutionary Marius, was fantastic — handsome, with a classic Irish tenor voice (not often heard from most Marius’s (Marii?), who tend to have either a booming belt tenor or a boy band pop-like whine). The movie scenes helped to better establish his character as a true brave revolutionary, and not just a love-besotted boy reluctantly going along with the crowd.

I’m sure I’ll think of some other points on which to elaborate, but here are a few more quick bullet points of what I liked and didn’t like in this movie version.

First some of the ‘didn’t likes’ (they are mostly musical):

– Omission of the lovely third series counterpoint based on “Castle On A Cloud”, sung between Valjean and young Cosette as they wander through the wood — this series of “la” syllables establishes their nascent father-daughter relationship far more effectively than the mawkish composed-for-the-movie song intercalated into the original score. Sung by Valjean about his anticipated life as a father, my initial reaction to the new song was “Is this from a Hallmark movie?”.

– The editorial slash job on the student rebels’ initial ensemble number in the cafe (I call this the “Hotties Plan Mischief” number – it’s the banter that precedes “Red and Black”). Cutting this scene watered down the leadership role of Enjolras which, in the stage version, is much more prominent. It also minimized the role of Grantaire, whose constant drunkenness during the stage version of this ensemble number introducing the student revolutionaries makes his subsequent “Drink With Me” all the more poignant.

And some ‘likes’:

– I loved how no matter where he was on the lam, Valjean always kept the candlesticks ‘gifted’ to him by the kindly bishop. Whenever he packed in haste, the candlesticks were always the first item packed. Lovely cinematic touch.

– Whereas in the stage version Fantine and Eponine appear to Valjean on his deathbed, in the movie it is Fantine and the kindly bishop who greet him. Not only was this a nice touch, but it made more sense for the character of Valjean, bringing things full circle in his life.

In sum, nevermind my (mostly) picayune criticisms of the vocal performances — I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and plan to watch it again to catch some details that I noted on the first viewing but could not recall for this review. For diehard Les Miz fans, it is well worth your time to watch this version, which is true to the original, largely untinkered. For casual fans and those not familiar with but curious about all the hubbub about Les Miz, it is worth the 2.5+ hour time investment. For those of you who just don’t ‘get’ musicals (“Why are they always singing?”), this one might have enough drama and plot to draw you in. I am most curious to see what LesMiz-naïve moviegoers think. What was your impression of the movie? Please leave your comments below…

October 5, 2012

A beautiful piece from one of my most beautiful friends.

Soulful Wandering

To my first love, my mother, Brenda Joy Buchanan-Sherrod

Born: September 26, 1956
Angel Wings Declared: October 5, 2001

“But there’s a story behind everything. How a picture got on a wall. How a scar got on your face. Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin.” ― Mitch Albom, For One More Day

On this day, eleven years ago, I said the first of many good byes to my beautiful mother. Today, I realize that she continues to live with me each day of my life. She will always have a special place in the landscape of my heart that can never be replaced.

A love letter to my mother:

I remember the day of your passing as if it were yesterday. The telephone rang at 5:00 a.m. I…

View original post 980 more words

Cycling’s Most Controversial Rider

July 28, 2012

And exactly who is “cycling’s most controversial rider”? Despite NBC’s attempt to paint him as such in their like-named Vuelta advertisement campaign, it is hardly Alberto Contador.

And I daresay it is not Lance Armstrong – at least for today. For once.

Today, the fascinating career of Alexsandr Vinokourov made its final bow in the grandest fashion, winning the 2012 Olympic road race Gold Medal in his characteristic stealthy & wily racing style, upending the hopes of the host nation and nearly everyone’s expectations.

Similar to what happens after major Lance news, most cycling fans on Twitter saw their timelines fractionate after Vino’s Olympic road race win – exposing personal loyalties, doubts, & antipathy towards the 38 year old Kazakh cyclist. Today the factions seemed to fall under one of 4 categories:

1. Vino is a doper and never deserves to win because once a doper always a doper.

2. Vino is an unrepentant doper and never deserves to win for being unrepentant.

3. Vino is a doper who served his time and deserves to win; though I may or may not happy about it.

4. Vino is a doper who served his time and deserves to win; all the more so because of his comeback from [doping ban, grave injury, etc.]

(I did not include the “They all dope” cynics incapable of nuanced reasoning.)

My personal stance is that of Group 4, but with an asterisk.

Vino grew up in under the heavy shadow of Communism’s Iron Curtain, in one of the former Eastern Bloc nations. He entered one of their sports ‘schools’ from an early age. As such, he was fully steeped in their mentality of utilitarian totalitarianism, particularly in terms of doping in sport. Scandals such as the doping of East German females are well known. What’s important to remember is that these young athletes were trained in a different moral milieu than the standard western mores that many of us take for granted today. In a communist totalitarian state philosophically dominated by utilitarianism, the ultimate end is what you can contribute for the good of the state as a whole, regardless of methods (the “good” being glory for the State within international athletic competition). There is much less (if any) of a role for Western ethical standards of right and wrong as we know it. If the State is your ultimate authority, you do what it says – that IS your ethical code.

I believe this was the case for athletes like Vino, Ullrich, & the East German swimmers. They doped because that was part of the methodology they were taught. They learned from a young age how these things were done. They therefore had little to no sense of what they were doing was wrong in and of itself. This was likely reinforced by the fact that this era was during the time of rampant doping use. Though technically there were rules codifed, we all know as humans actions speak louder than words.

Now, I am not putting forth this argument as an apology or excuse for his actions. Vino was banned and rightly so. But a more nuanced look at his culpability within his own life’s context might help explain the apparent lack of remorse shown publicly, aside from any temperamental difference from more Western-influenced, vocal & emotionally effusive riders such as David Millar. Additionally, it is logically inconsistent to fully expect someone growing up within the mores of Vino’s social environment to understand why he should be ‘repentant’ – remorse is not strictly a cardinal or even defined virtue within utilitarianism.

Now one can argue the universal human existence of guilt/remorse through conscience and the natural law, but even that, like other innate human tendencies, can arguably be arrested in development or suppressed by environment. One can also make an argument that his free will was impaired in actively choosing to continue what he was taught by example during the height of Omertà. This is not necessarily the case for others who willingly thwarted the rules of their own accord, with full knowledge and consent. Again, Millar’s book is a fascinating exposé into this psychological process.

So consider giving Vino a break. At least in part. As soon as he burst on the scene, Vino was an explosive, exciting rider. Unlike other riders, he has never been mired with regret about nor carried vendettas (at least overtly) over his years in doping. It simply was a phase in his life and career that he suffered and paid for, before returning to do what he knew best – racing a bike.

For all the bellyaching from cycling fans about conservative boring tactics, It is refreshing to have been witness to Vino’s reckless, carefree attacking style throughout his career. And that instinct, the mark of a true racer, is undeniably real.


Tour de Hermit, Day 5. Stage 20. Paris.

July 23, 2012

Champs-Élysées, looking down toward the Arc de Triomphe. This was our turf for 10 hours.

0730. Champs-Élysées day. Have no idea what to expect. Whereas yesterday was pretty straightforward – get on a train, then watch 160 or so guys trickle in one by one to Chartres, today I have really no idea what to expect for the final stage.

For weeks I had been planning to hang out with Twitter pal and Stage 20/21 veteran Helene Barrette, who camps out at her favorite spot starting at 8:30 in the morning.

I agree to this proposition, but in the back of my head am saying, NO WAY am I camping out in the sun like a crazy person waiting for 8 hours for the race to come in. Then Helene sends me a message that gives me pause, as I mentally rehearse how to wriggle out of such an early meeting. To paraphrase:

“Come whenever you can, but I’ll be there at 8:30 as usual to get my front row seat. Remember, you didn’t come all the way to Paris to watch the race from 5 rows back!”

Then I think, she’s absolutely right. She’s a veteran at this; who am I to question her methods? Plus I am rather short. My chance of seeing anything from any place other than the front row is practically nil. So I plan to meet her early – 9:30 is the earliest I could muster.

With the official Tour de France Nutella crêpe in hand (I’m serious about this – Le Tour puts up its own food vendors), I make my way to The Corner. Along with yesterday’s Nutella beignets in Chartres, I make Fueled By Nutella™ my new motto.

I arrive, meet Helene for the first time, as well as 6-7people present; amazingly but not surprisingly perhaps, some of them had met there in the same spot in recent years.

“The gutter”, halfway between Arc de Triomphe and Concorde. Almost a lane wide in this part, unlike the part of les Champs-Élysées closer to Concorde. Yes, that’s my shadow, Mystery Science Theater 2000-like, in the bottom left corner.

Dramatis personae: me, Champs-Élysées rookie. Helene, Ryder Hesjedal fan nonpareil and Champs veteran of 5 years. Ravikiran, Champs veteran of 1 year. Two girls from Netherlands wearing “Shut up legs!” shirts and clearly expert European stage chasers. And Taleshi, Camino peregrino from Japan, who has been surviving in the parks of Paris, armed solely with his iPhone and solar phone charger.

Taleshi from Japan, and Arashiro’s proud countryman. Two girls from Netherlands, who have great stories about interacting with the riders at various Euro races!

Our little group has Europe, America (US and Canada), Japan, and India represented in our little corner. Who needs the Olympics?

Taleshi’s credencial! He truly is a fellow peregrino to Santiago de Compostella.

We were a cadre of fans about to be surrounded by a sea of British fans, like a landlocked country.

Beer and stick-on muttonchops were de rigueur. As were Union Jacks.

The Manx flag stood out from the crowd.

Guess who else is in the neighborhood? The Nibali Fan Club – Forza Squalo!

Slovakians were also nearby, proudly clad in green, for their son Peter.

View from the front row! Get there early to stake your claim. Bring snackies.

1100. Sun is starting to beat down. Glad I brought the sunscreen (learned my lesson yesterday). Start mentally rationing in my mind the small amount of snackies I brought – 1/4 chocolate bar, Haribo gummies from Chartres, and prunes (don’t laugh – constipation prevention is the key to good travel).

1220. Shade is approaching! and now the opposite corner gets their turn to languish in the sun.

I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree…

1330. Daydreaming how sweet it would be if this stage actually had GC implications. I get a chill imagining being here to see the 1989 time trial with Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon. Of course, I was a kid then and would not have put up with something as dumb as standing for 8 hours waiting for a race. Then I come completely down from Cloud 9 remembering that Peter Sagan and Thibaut Pinot hadn’t even been born then.

Almost 2pm. The stage hasn’t started yet and already people were standing 5 rows back.

1400. The stage starts, and it is televised on giant video screens (that are of much better quality and strategic placement than at the Amgen Tour of California – AEG, take note).

1500. The Caravan arrives!

And now the caravan! Led off by who else, le Maillot Jaune…

…who led out the Crédit Lyonnais Lion…

Here comes Haribo! This S’mores float was my favorite one.

Even Luxembourg helped sponsor Le Tour. Even though neither of our favorite Luxembourgers made it to Paris.

And here is the Boxerdog! The swag wagon I was most looking forward to seeing.

This… well I have no words for this one.

Helene offers some of her apple chips, and I nonchalantly say ‘sure’, hoping she didn’t notice the roar of borborygmi emerging from my belly. I play it cool, trying not to give away that I am not truly human, but a Hobbit.

Now thirsty, I remember my swag stash of Haribo Orangina Pik candies from Chartres. I acknowledge the underappreciated hydration capacity of one’s own salivary glands.

Paris Stage 20 survival kit. Haribo for hydration, and earplugs for the Caravan (It’s REALLY loud).

After about 20 caravans, you realize this is one long live action commercial/advert break, before the stage begins in earnest.

We watched the pre-Paris race action on a screen over by the VIP tents. The tree was slightly inconvenient. But worth the tradeoff of several hours of shade.

By this time I am still famished! But we dare not move lest we lose our primo spot in the front row. No saving places here!

Reminding myself that this is a circuit race in which we will see the riders 16 times helps give some encouragement to wait in the sun and heat.

Helene (@HeleneBarrette) and I hid behind her Canadian flag for a respite from le soleil.

Helene makes note that this is the most sedate Paris crowd she’s seen in her 5 years of attending Stage 20/21. We discuss why this might be the case.

This was a nice view to have for 6 hours.

ASO apparently has chosen the man with the thickest French accent to announce, and his über-Frenchified pronunciations of non-French names is nearly inscrutable. No Dave Harmon here to strive for native language name pronunciation.

Ravikiran offers some biscuits! Hobbit stomach is sated, albeit fleetingly.

For all the talk about proper race hydration for the cyclists, equally important is the hydration strategy for fans holding their place in the front row for 8 hours without taking a ‘besoin naturel’. It’s best to arrive ever-so-slightly dehydrated (with bladder empty, of course), and stay just ahead of your insensible losses (mainly sweat and respiratory losses from trashtalking with the Brits about Wiggins – kidding! kidding!) throughout the day.

It is hot. We really start to melt. Miraculously, people are still civil, and no one passes out of heatstroke. Would be a shame to lose my front row spot in order to do BLS/CPR.

The Aujourdhui en France (newspaper) caravan plays the song Champs-Élysées as they ride by. It is a nice change from the usual club music blating from the speakers. Everyone sings along, “Oh, Champs-Élysées… OHHH, Champs-Élysées…”, then forgets the rest of the lyrics.

Finally someone from the caravans says “Where are zee Eeengleesh?” to get the crowd going.

I finally figure out what this caravan is missing. Marching bands!

“Tres chaud” – announcer. Yes indeed. Ah, finally a cool breeze. Fangirling is such a sacrifice.

60 km to go. Almost within Paris city limits. The anticipation after so many hours of waiting descends upon the crowd, as we watch the Peloton cross the Seine. Word gets out that Sky “plans to do something for George” on their Champs entrance.

As the race approached the Champs for the first circuit, everyone was at the ready.

We see on the screen George Hincapie and Chris Horner emerge from the Concorde tunnel in front, knowing that they will soon pass us. We all wonder aloud, “Why Chris Horner?” along with everyone else watching the race.

George & Chris whiz by, and I miss a photo of them. I curse technology.

Jens in the break. Of course, how perfect. The Peloton eases the chase. In the back of my head I’m thinking, how can they let Jens go? If anyone is wily enough to steal the Champs from the Peloton, it’s him…

I ponder how awesome it is to be here in person to witness Jens in the breakaway for nearly all the circuits.

Each circuit, I concentrate on picking out one rider in the Peloton blur that passes. Sagan, Nibali, Menchov, Pinot, Millar, Cav, George…

During the last few circuits, I count the time between the breakaway and the main group, like lightning before thunder. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three…

Helene and I realize how inaccurate the reported time gap on the video screen is. I think, is that true of every race we watch on TV?

Finally the bell lap. Their speed is exhilarating to see from our front row vantage point.

When Wiggins takes his turn in the train, the Brit fans roar. It does look pretty cool on the screen.

And the entire crowd erupts when Cav crosses the finish line. By this time I am leaning completely over the fence cheering toward the Champs, using my navel as a fulcrum. It’s a minor miracle I don’t topple over. The crowd is ecstatic and so is Cav as he rides by us.

Meanwhile, the non-Sky teams convene in little ad hoc meeting areas in front of us, discussing their coulda-woulda-shouldas of their race.

Lotto a bit subdued immediately after the race.

The Lotto Boyz seemed none too happy about the sprint. Hendo most of all. I tried to yell out a congrats to him for finishing his first Tour, but he still had smoke coming out of his ears. Don’t think he heard me.

Argos Shimano had a similar team debriefing after the stage.

Big George is interviewed after his record-setting 17th and final Tour. What is next for him???

Stage podium with Cav. Right before this we had a glimpse of him showing off Delilah to the press corps. We saw him, Papparazi-like, as he handed her off to Peta before the podium.

The jersey podiums are next. As we are non-VIP plebes (though well-positioned ones), we see the podiums only from the back. Still it’s a thrill to see them live and witness how they effect the vision trick that makes them look like they are right under the Arc de Triomphe (they are a good km or two from it).

Peter Sagan’s Maillot Vert is first. I sigh, thinking of the days of his relative obscurity when he first started winning stages in the Tour of California in 2010. He has arrived, big time.

Thomas Voeckler’s Maillot à Pois is next. The French faithful show their gratitude to their Chou-Chou. At one point he brings up his kids, one in each arm, each child clad in dots. Podium Kids is one of the best things about the podiums.

Then Tejay gets his Maillot Blanc. I admit I’m equivocal about his win, even as an American. I’m still mentally processing the psychology of his non-support (how’s that for a doublespeak term?) for Cadel during TackGate. But I’m reserving judgment for now, positive and negative.

Then the final podium. Nibali-Froome-Wiggins together. From our view behind the podium, Chris Froome appears very subdued and still. Or maybe we’re just projecting. But I suspect not.

Oh dear. God save “God Save The Queen”. And I’m not even talking about the performer chosen to sing it. [Why didn’t they just play Queen’s guitar version? It’s the best one.] I’m talking about all the British isles of fans surrounding us, all singing in different keys and tempi. At one point I had a 360 degrees video of their caterwauling, but I botched that recording too. I curse technology again.

This was our view of the Podium presentation, during God Save The Queen. We couldn’t see Wiggo’s look askance, sadly.

For many fans, the best part of Paris is the Lap of Honor, in which each team (in reverse order of team placing, then ending with the Maillot Jaune winning team) rides the Champs circuit at a slow, leisurely pace, waving hello to the fans, taking photos/videos of the crowd with their phones, toting their children in their arms or the handlebars, and even riding to the curb to interact with fans and their flag-waving fellow countrymen. I’ve included a few photos here, but will likely detail my particular Lap of Honor observations in a separate post.

BMC’s lap of honor, with Tejay carrying the Stars and Stripes, and Cadel with little Robel in tow.

Pierre Roland acts as emcee, drumming up some chees for Thomas Voeckler’s entry during Europcar’s lap of honor.

And then Mr. Pois de Panache himself.

My personal highlight (hey, it’s my blog so I get to highlight whomever I want): Liquigas rolls by for their Lap, and I gasp as I see Nibali ride over toward us to greet his fan club just around our corner. Unfortunately he is just out of our sightline as he meets his flagbearers, but then he rides by us with a wave and a smile. I swoon. Helene concedes that he is indeed quite good-looking. (See Helene, I told you!)

After the festivities are over, Helene and I bid each other enchantée/adieu until the next race we meet up again (perhaps Montreal??). I am FAMISHED and scarf down an official Tour de France footlong:

Don’t you dare put ketchup on that dog! Extra mustard, SVP.

I make a weak attempt at stalking the team buses, foiled by sundry barricades and gendarmerie. I’ve never taken to groupie-ing, but I do get insanely jealous when I see people with great pictures & stories from their stalking efforts. It’s just not my skillset. So on the way back to my flat I fill the void of incipient post-Tour blues by stalking Hermès bags instead.

Ooh, that Birkin Vert will go nicely with my souvenir Sagan Maillot Vert…

Next: Tour de Hermit Epilogue. The Lap of Honor.