Monday, December 28, 2015

Spenser's frame of reference

Ace Atkins has written a fourth novel in his continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser franchise. This one is called Kickback , and it's based directly on the kids-for-cash scandal that played out a few years ago in Luzerne County, Pa., my proud home state.

(About that title: toward the end of his life, Parker skimped on his prose. The page count stayed the same, but the type got bigger, the margins wider, the leading deeper, and the titles were mostly reduced to one word. He seemed to be a race against time. The hireling author has filled out the pages again, but he has turned bi-syllabic titles into a tradition.)

Of  Atkins' attempts to inhabit the Spenser universe so far, this is the first  one that doesn't fall apart at the end, although he does feel the need to introduce organized crime into the story, the one element not drawn from real life,  just to he can set up an obligatory bloodbath. Just once, I'd like to read a Spenser novel in which goons are not sent sent to scare the hero off. The crime bosses never seem to realize that if they just left him alone, he'd have no leads to track down.
As with the last Spenser book, I couldn't help thinking about Spenser's age, which is never nailed down numerically, but which has to be over 80. Parker, who used element his own life in fashioning the character, was born in 1932, and Spenser was already in his forties when he was introduced in 1973. Do the math. Our urban knight errant is now dealing with a reconstructed knee, and he's gone on a diet, cutting out his beloved donuts (though he'd lose weight faster if he stopped drinking). Barring a complete reboot a la Star Trek, he'll soon be breaking down doors with a walker.

What drove the age issue home most forcefully, however, wasn't Spenser's physical condition, but his cultural references, which seem stuck in a time warp. Parker had a lazy way of describing characters, especially women, by comparing them to celebrities of the day, but at least the names he used were of the day. Atkins reaches back into the pop culture past, as though he knows he's writing for an aging demographic.

But to be fair, he's writing about a character who still listens to Artie Shaw and wears a Brooklyn Dodgers cap.

Here are a few examples, with page references. See how many you recognize.

A haggard woman missing two front teeth got up to slow dance with a man in a flannel shirt and unlaced boots. They could have taken a lesson from Arthur Murray. (44) Is that even around anymore?

The hood lay loose around his neck, making him look like Nanook of the North. (44)

All this sleuthing was exciting as hell. If only Bulldog Drummond had the Internet. (75)

Only myself an Warner Oland could sleuth over a plate of scallion pancakes. (78)

"I know you," I said, snapping my fingers at the old guy. "You were in the Mickey Mouse Club. You, Chubby and Annette. Wow. Brings back some real memories." (121)

"Enough," I said. "Not that I don't enjoy the Lux Radio Theatre ..." (134)

He looked about as menacing as Howdy Doody on a buckboard. (186)

His thick, curly hair had been cut shorter than Daddy Warbucks's. (232)

I waited for the purse to clock me with all the ferocity of Ruth Buzzi. (245)

He looked like a young James Caan without the looks. (290)

There was also a reference to Madonna in there someplace.


Monday, December 14, 2015

A lovely Sunday afternoon in the wilds of suburbia

Taking part in the Salon Extraordinaire in Gladwynne Sunday are, from left, Qin Qian, erhu; Rollin Wilber, piano; Tom Kozumplik, perciussion; Anndrea Clearfield, emcee; Karthryn Woodard, piano; Michele Cann, piano; Joe Soprani, accordion; and John Byrne, leader of the John Byrne Band.

Yesterday I attended my first (and I hope not my last) Salon Extraordinaire, a free concert organized by the composer Andrea Clearfield and held in the comfortable confines of the Main Line Reform Temple in Gladwynne.  Eclecticism was the order of the day as the performers, each of whom got about ten or so minutes to perform, comprised two classical pianists, a Celtic band, a Chinese violinist (that is, a woman who played the Chinese violin, though she also happened to be Chinese), an Italian accordionist (that is, an Italian-American who played the accordion, though on this occasion he happened to play Italian music), and a percussionist-composer who in performance also uses electronic effects, such a voice loops and digital echoes.

Everyone was a standout, and I sat grinning dippily through the whole affair, but the performers who made the deepest impression on me at the time were Qin Qian (pronounced Chin Chan), the erhu player  who was accomanied deferentially by pianist Kathryn Woodard;  and the percussionist, Tom Kozumplik. Not that they were any better than anyone else. It’s just that something about my mood or the novelty of the sounds provoked a stronger response.  Qian played three selections, all composed in the 1960s, but all employing traditional Chinese materials. The first mimicked the galloping of Mongolian horse racing, the last bird song, and the one in the middle, while not specifically imitative, evoked moonlight on a stream as only pentatonic scales can.  Together, they made a small sonata in three movements – fast, slow, fast – and Qian was great fun to watch, grinning slyly as she tore into the rapid figurations. The erhu has a rough sound to match its rough look, and Qian’s facial expressions made it clear that what seemed to Western ears like screeches and wrong notes are all part of the tradition.

The afternoon closed with the young piano virtuoso Michele Cann playing Adolf Schulz-Elver’s  “Arabesques on ‘An der schönen blauen Donau.’” The music itself is either dazzling or hilarious, depending on your definition of taste, but Cann was a marvel, and a great audience favorite. It should be mentioned that the piano at the temple was used by Samuel Barber during his days at the Curtis Institute, purchased and donated by a pair of congregants.    

I enjoyed meeting the accordionist Joe Soprani, whom I interviewed for my preview piece on the salon, but he was rather difficult to hear in performance. He played two pieces ― Julie Giroux’s “Italian Rhapsody” and Rachmaninoff’s “Italian Polka” ― and was, in each case, accompanied by recordings of the US Air Force Band. It was an unwise decision, in my view. On the one hand, the sound system didn’t really convey the kick of big band, and on the other, it seemed at times Soprani was holding back, afraid he would drown it out. He’s a great musician who's had the most remarkable and varied career of anyone onstage yesterday. Next time, I’d like to hear him go it alone and find out just how much volume he can squeeze out of that box.     

One word on the notion of salons: Andrea Clearfield likes to say her own salons were inspired by the salon culture of the 17th and 18th centuries in Italy and France, which themselves, she said, trace their roots all the way back to ancient Greece. She also asked if me if I could recommend any books or research on the subject. It might be grist for an interesting historical discussion, but it seems to me all the justification is unnecessary. How much precedent, really, do you need to bring musicians together for an afternoon?  

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Andrea Clearfield's Salon Extraordinaire

Andrea Clearfield
Here is a link to my article on the Salon Extrordinaire, a public but informal get-together organized on occasion by the composer Andrea Clearfield. The Salon will be held this Sunday, and it's free.

I had not heard of the Salon, and I had not heard of Andrea, but after interviewing her, I was glad my editor threw the story my way. She is currently working on an opera, she tells me, with a libretto by the playwright Jean Claude van Itallie, author of America Hurrah and Mystery Play, which I acted in a few years ago..  

Another 'Sleigh Ride' Watch

I've said in the past that Christmas isn't Christmas until I've heard Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," and on the condition that hearing it must be as close to accidental as possible - such as over a store's loudspeaker, or in a TV commercial. Radio does count, even though one Philadelphia station plays Christmas music for a month, and hearing "Sleigh Ride" is inevitable if you tune in for any length of time.

Today, I was pleased to discover that the tunes means as much to the young musicians of Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, in Whitemarsh, Pa., as it does to me. The concert band plays the piece ever years at its winter concert, and the band members apparently regard it as a rite of passage. Digital first's own  M. English has written an lively, informative article on the students and their relationship to the music, and I must say I'm jealous she beat me to the story. You can read it here, and I suggest you do.

By the way, my first exposure to "Sleigh Ride" this year a couple of weeks ago, before Thanksgiving, when it was broadcast over the TV in the newsroom. I forget which station. It might have been CNN, which would prove that even a network as fatuous as CNN is good for something.

The New Colossus - a footnote

With apologies to Emma Lazarus:

The Woman with the torch looks out to sea
And tells the world, "I'm changing my criteria.
Send all your homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
Unless they come from Mexico or Syria."