Sunday, January 27, 2008

Extreme times call for extreme measures

Moby DickAye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth till he sprouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.
Herman Melville, "Moby Dick, or the Whale"

Captain Ahab had a boatload of earnest accomplices on his quest for the Leviathan. Thus it ever was with change we can believe in. The presidential campaign has taken on rising stakes and a meaner tone. Any sign of nuance, from Mitt Romney's benchmarks for Iraq to Barack Obama's thoughts on Ronald Reagan, are taken for signs of weakness. Extreme values are the measure of unlikely behavior.

When Barry Goldwater said, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," his words to the 1964 Republican Convention were a strange echo of Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" a year earlier: "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?" Whatever your concept of liberty, it's bound to be something worth fighting for.

Tribune Company's liberty was at stake whenSam Zell took over at yearend, and the company's core values changed nearly overnight. At least the 1991 corporate mission statement got a grand rewrite. It's hard to pledge yourself to "Create premier branded content." I'd rather "Play to win," particularly when the Sun-Times is spelling out the price of failure.

In catching up with the Sun-Times buyouts, I missed the news that the Sun-TImes is abandoning its Booster weekly newspapers. Oak Park's Wednesday Journal will extend its city footprint by taking over over the former Lerner imprint, along with the Booster and News-Star. East Village/Wicker Park is one of the few neighborhoods in which the two chains currently compete. Likely that will not continue. Update: The Booster's new owner confirmed that its coverage area was retreating to Lake View. )

One rogue trader may have lost the Societe Generale bank $7.14 billion, spooked futures exchanges worldwide and escalated the Fed's extreme makeover of the U.S. economy. Playing to win is sometimes literally going for broke. Said Mr. Starbuck: "God keep me!—keep us all!"

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Marsalis' slow turn on Ellington

Wynton MarsalisWynton Marsalis gives "Cabin in the Sky" his thumbs-down. Still, his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, in Chicago on Friday, couldn't resist dusting off "Going Up," Duke Ellingon's contribution to the thinly plotted 1943 race movie. "He must have thought, something better come of this mess," Marsalis said.

Rookie director Vincente Minnelli seems to do more than go through the motions (note the nice dance-hall tracking shot). But it's good to have even a cheesy M-G-M document of Ellington's heyday, just as putting slapstick standards to celluloid elevated the Three Stooges to historians of burlesque. (Watching my dog launch himself at parkway squirrels still triggers my recall of "Slowly I Turn").

Maybe Marsalis came to Symphony Center via ... Niagara Falls! The Jazz at Lincoln Center band was dressed in gray suits matching the Ellington clip, ready for fun with standards and obscurities on an assortment of instruments. Elliot Mason took an uptempo turn on bass trumpet; "The Single Petal of a Rose" featured Joe Temperley on bass clarinet alongside a dukish Dan Nimmer. Ali Jackson's brushwork on "Solitude" was a simple display of skill. Marsalis not only channeled Leonard Slatkin in a music appreciation lecture but flirted with audience members seated onstage. A swinging time was had by all.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Doctor Atomic: It's the Bomb

Doctor AtomicIt's a gray sun brooding over the proceedings, a diving bell to hell, a sacred-heart monstrance in a monstrous benediction. The atom bomb hanging over the New Mexico desert cyclorama in Lyric Opera's "Doctor Atomic" looks like it came at once from government-archive photo and stage director Peter Sellars' dark fantasies. Act One of this San Francisco Opera co-production has dancing electrons and an Anvil Chorus of physicists, but "The Gadget" steals the show.

Sellars' libretto for the John Adams opera is a pastiche, but with a striking range. J. Robert Oppenheimer speaks in his own words and in the poetry of Baudelaire and John Donne, whose poem Batter my heart, three person'd God becomes a Faustian killer aria for Gerald Finley. His wife's dialog is elegaic poet Murial Rukeyser, who apparently is not represented in the Chicago Public Library collection. A Greek chorus quotes The Bhagavad-Gita in their fear of what Man hath wrought.

This has been a fine season for Lyric Opera, perhaps because we've cut our subscription back to four operas to avoid yet another "Boheme" or "Traviata." (OK, we don't mind another "Barber of Seville.") Handel's "Julius Caesar" cornered the market on countertenors, trumped by Danielle de Niese's Cleopatra as a Bollywood ingenue. And Christine Brewer dueled diva Deborah Voigt to a draw in "Die Frau ohne Schatten."

But the Lyric's late first attempt at a John Adams opera matched these considerable feats. As a dramatic slice of recent history it resembled "Amistad", which debuted at Lyric a decade ago and only now is being revived for Spoleto. But while Anthony Davis' high-atonal score did the impossible, creating an opera on slavery that could not bring you to tears, "Doctor Atomic" used a similar musical language to speak the unspeakable with both force and intimacy. Bring your hankies.