Remembrance of Things Past

Postcard of the West Side Market in Cleveland,...

This afternoon I went to the West Side Market to order the roasting chickens for Thanksgiving. (No, no turkey for us this year. Neither of us is very fond of it, and chicken tastes better.) I’ve been shopping at the Market regularly (as in several times a month) for over 25 years. What a dispiriting affair it was today. I remember when people used to go there to actually BUY things. Now that Cleveland has been turned into a foodie city, the Market has been turned into a tourist destination. Traffic was backed up to gridlock in the parking lot, which meant circling around ad infinitum. The one Cleveland police officer eventually in sight was shooting the breeze with a vendor inside the market. I eventually gave up and had better luck on a side street south of Lorain Avenue.

I knew that this parking dilemma did not bode well for my shopping experience, so I was not surprised to find the place mobbed with tattooed hipsters with their coffee cups, Beachwood ladies in wildly inappropriate outfits for the West Side Market (Prada, massive jewelry and full make-up are not necessary), suburban people with young children in strollers gawking, stopping dead in their tracks to take photos. As I was leaving, I witnessed the downtown Embassy Suites shuttle van dropping off people. Despite the milling hordes, quite a few of the vendors did not seem to be selling much.

Ohio City, Cleveland
Image via Wikipedia

Until quite recently (i.e., until a year or so ago) the West Side Market had a kind of tacky, rundown charm, where poor people mingled with the middle class eastern European ethnic population of Cleveland’s west side, whose families had been patronizing the market for generations. George and I were relative newcomers, shopping there regularly only since 1983. But over time we have built lasting relationships with various of the vendors, whom I have now patronized and recommended to others for decades.

I know I sound like a grumpy old man, and I should be happy for the Market’s success. West 25th Street and the West Side Market are being promoted like crazy by the city and the other businesses on W.25th Street, and the street is no longer the sketchy and relatively dangerous place it once was. (The Jay Hotel and its unsavory cast of characters is long gone. The hookers and most of the drug dealers have moved on.) But over the last year, it has become such a hassle to park and shop at the Market, that it makes me not want to go there. It’s easier to go to Whole Foods. But the experience is not the same. Tourists are transient, and if the Market loses its historical Cleveland character, including its local shoppers, what will it have left? I hope it doesn’t become Disney-esque, like Legacy Village, Crocker Park or other “lifestyle centers.” It won’t be for real shopping by real people.

Enhanced by Zemanta

“The Social Network” – Better than I thought it would be

The Social Network

I had resisted watching the movie The Social Network for no particularly good reason, other than why would I want to watch a fictionalized (and, presumably, sensationalized) version of the creation of Facebook. But last night I did finally watch the DVD of the movie, and I confess that I found it riveting. Whether or not any of it is true is irrelevant, because it was a good story well told. Jesse Eisenberg caught that socially inept quality that a lot of computer geeks have. (The character reminded me in his argumentatively brilliant way of a brilliant person I used to work with, where whatever you said would be met with some challenge.) I can see why he was nominated for an Oscar. It will be interesting to follow his career and see if his acting range is greater than a 20-something computer guy.

About John Adams’s “Nixon in China”

The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross pointed out this blog post by Daniel Stephen Johnson about the recent Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams’s Nixon in China. There has been a lot written in the last few weeks about the 1987 opera, but this one is the best I’ve read. I recommend it without reservation:

P.S. Check out the advertisement for the T-shirt in the upper right corner of the page. It’s how I feel sometimes.

“Nixon In China”—finally at the Met after all these years

Last night, February 2, 2011, John Adams’s iconic 1987 American opera Nixon in China finally had its Metropolitan Opera premiere, with the composer conducting his own work and with James Maddalena, the baritone who created the role of Richard Nixon at the opera’s first performance, making his Met debut as the U.S. president who visited the People’s Republic of China in 1972 and set in motion a chain of events that only now do we see fully expressed.

I listened to the performance via SiriusXM’s very steady, high quality stream. The Met also streamed the performance from its own web site. The opera will be performed on the Met HD video series on Saturday, February 12, at 1:00 PM.

The opera was given in a production modeled after the first production at the Houston Grand Opera. Peter Sellers made his Met debut as director. The widely published image of the production is that of the Air Force One 747 nose “landing” on the stage, with Dick and Pat Nixon (Scottish soprano Janis Kelly, in her Met debut) and Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) then descending the stairs to greet the Chinese delegation, including Chou En-lai (in the Met performance played by the elegant German baritone Russell Braun).

Nixon in China was John Adams’s first opera, and the music he composed—for both singers and orchestra—is fiendishly difficult. The orchestral parts are fraught with rhythmic difficulties; and the vocal lines have many repetitions, often at a very high range. There are several set-piece “arias,” including Nixon’s antic “News, news, news” at the beginning; Pat Nixon’s “This is prophetic” during the second act, and, most astonishing, Madame Mao’s coloratura triumph, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung.” The characters of Mao and Kissinger are treated more as caricatures, without being fleshed out as much as some of the other roles. (In the third act, Henry Kissinger has what must be the most humiliating exit in all of opera, when he asks Cho En-lai where the toilet is and exits for the rest of the opera.)

The performance itself was for the most part spectacular. James Maddalena’s Nixon must be considered definitive. However, the singer seemed to be struggling with a bad cold. His voice sounded very husky, he had trouble maintaining the lines, and his voice cracked several times during the impossible music that Adams composed for Nixon in the first act. It is a marathon for a singer at the peak of form; it must have been torture to feel not up to par. Janis Kelly played a very sympathetic Pat Nixon, who tolerates the slights she receives from her husband, but who displays spunk during the Chinese opera performance of the second act, when she steps into the action to “protect” a Chinese peasant being beaten by a sadistic man not yet “converted” to communism. Kathleen Kim (who also performs coloratura biggies as Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Strauss’s Zerbinetta) tossed off her big showpiece aria at the end of Act 2 as if it was a little ditty.

The music of third act has a sense of greater repose than most of the rest of the opera. The principal characters, the Nixons, the Maos, Kissinger and Chou En-lai play the act on six single beds spread across the stage. It is at the end of the Nixon visit; all are exhausted. The act is one long intertwined ensemble in which each of the characters express regrets of the past and comment on what might be in the future. Chou En-lai has the last words, in which he ruminates on the coming of the new day. The opera’s libretto by Alice Goodman is highly poetic. The singers did an excellent job with their diction; the words were understandable, but much of the context is lost without benefit of the printed libretto. (Poet Alice Goodman is an interesting character. She is a friend of director Sellers and had never before written an opera libretto. After Nixon in China, she went on to collaborate on the libretto for Adams’s second, highly controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer. In more recent years, she converted from Judaism to the Anglican branch of Christianity and now serves as a chaplain at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge.)

Pride of place must go to the incomparable Metropolitan Opera orchestra for their precision and beauty of sound. John Adams has long been a convincing conductor of his own works. He is clearly a skilled conductor, and this was not just a vanity engagement.

I’m looking forward to the HD video broadcast. That will be the fourth performance of the run. We can hope that the cast will be restored to full health. Nixon in China is an important musical work of the twentieth century. We can celebrate its appearance at the Met.

Germans vs. Italians | Leuchtturm1917 vs. Moleskine

I’ve long been a fan of Moleskine ( notebooks, those ubiquitous little black books that people write in in coffee shops to look cool. Lately, however, I’ve been using a similar pocket notebook by Moleskine’s German competitor Leuchtturm1917 ( The pocket size is slightly larger than the equivalent Moleskine, and the binding and paper seem to be a slightly higher quality. They are approximately the same size and can be ordered from And they are now slightly more exotic than the Moleskines. (I started using those when they were hard to come by and couldn’t be bought everywhere.) I’m sure they both have their partisans.

La mano dell’architetto

Moleskine La mano dell'architetto
Moleskine La mano dell'architetto

Moleskine Hand of the Architect – Twin Set (Moleskine Books)

I am currently reading/perusing the book La mano dell’architetto / The Hand of the Architect, which combines three of my interests: architecture and design; book design; and office supplies. It is a catalog of an exhibition of architectural sketches that was organized in Milan for the benefit of FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano–literally, “The Italian Environment Fund,” but generally translated as the “Italian National Trust.” The FAI is charged with preserving important examples of Italian architecture. The exhibition documented in this catalog was mounted in aid of the preservation of the Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan, and features sketches from more than 100 architects, many from Italy, but representative from around the world.

The exhibition catalog is published as a dual set Moleskine A4 journal. (Moleskines are those ubiquitous little black notebooks that everyone carries in their pockets. Moleskine has in recent years greatly expanded their line of products to include these special products, as well as an online site where one can type in text and print it out to the correct size to paste into a Moleskine notebook.) The first volume is hard bound with lavish color reproductions of the architectural sketches and several brief introductory essays on the nature of the architectural sketch (in Italian, with English translations). Brief biographies of the architects conclude the volume. The typography and design are elegant and understated. The second volume is a soft cover plain Moleskine A4 cahier sketch book. The set is banded together with a specially designed paper band.

This is a book worth dipping into over and over again, because the various sketches reveal themselves in different ways as one looks at them repeatedly. The essays are thought-provoking. And it is a beautiful set to touch and hold.

Karen Armstrong, a mighty thinker for God

The Case for God

Today on NPR’s Fresh Air Terry Gross interviewed the great scholar of world religions, Karen Armstrong. Armstrong has written numerous books, including a history of Islam, biographies of Buddha, Mohammed, among others. Her latest book, The Case for God, is about religion as practice, of learning about the transcendence of God—however God is defined by the individual—and how religion teaches people how to develop a sense of compassion towards others. She points out that The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) is found in all of the great religions of the world, and especially in the three faiths descended from Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

As usual when I hear Karen Armstrong interviewed, or when I read her works, I am left in awe of her intellect and scholarship. It seems that she knows everything about religion; almost nothing is too obscure for her. Interestingly enough, she is not herself an observer of organized religion. In the ’60s she spent seven years in a convent preparing to take holy orders, but she had a crisis of faith and left the convent. Her study of the world’s religions has become her religion. She is the Pope of her chosen field.