Greenwich Gossip

Saturday, May 31, 2008

James Kennerley Outdoes Himself

Last evening was the final recital in the Christ Church organ concert series founded by Wunderkind James Kennelley, Associate Director of Music and Director of the Men and Boys' Choir. As faithful readers of these pages know, James came to us from St. Paul's Cathedral in London, where he played for HM The Queen, among countless others. He is, in your scribe's humble opinion, by far the finest organist ever to serve at Christ Church, and last night's concert was yet more proof, if any were needed, of his outstanding talent.

He began with a Suite from Bizet's "Carmen", arranged for organ by the Englishman Edwin Lemare (1865-1934). According to James's excellent program notes, Lemare was an important part of the Victorian movement to bring culture to the masses, most of whom would have known Bizet's music only by transcriptions such as this. Inasmuch as a large organ has virtually all the resources of a symphony orchestra, the full range of Bizet's music came through wonderfully well. "Toreador, en garde..." - the rafters were ringing with the glorious sound.

Next came Bach's "Fantasia in G", a tripartite work requiring great keyboard virtuosity, from rushing arpeggios to a dense mass of five-part harmony. Contemporary Czech composer Petr Eben's "Moto Ostinato" stretched our ears as well as James's arms; the final section had his hands leaping sequentially up and down three keyboards while the chancel and gallery organs echoed back and forth across our heads.

The grand finale was three-fifths of Widor's "Symphony No. 5 in F Minor", one of the landmark compositions of French organ literature. The opening "Allegro Vivace" is one of your scribe's favorite pieces; he has been known to wear out a CD by playing that one track over and over again. James himself has played that piece on Widor's own organ, the magnificent Cavaille-Coll at Saint-Sulpice. He reports that it sounded just the way it should have. And while Christ Church's Austin organ dates from more than 100 years later, James gave us a rendition that came as close to Widor's own as artist and instrument could manage. Magnifique!

The quiet "Adagio" helped to set the stage, by contrast, for the brilliant and ever-popular "Toccata". This virtuoso piece is unique in organ literature: one can hear it played at Easter, at weddings, and even at funerals. Its triumphant strains speak more eloquently than words of the glorious truths of the Christian faith: joy, hope, and love that live beyond the grave. James's performance - with the deft assistance of the talented and nimble Isabelle Demers - was outstanding in every way. He played it from memory, absolutely note-perfect - and oh, by the way, he was blindfolded. Widor himself had failing eyesight in his later years, and his contemporary Louis Vierne was blind from birth; James gave us a first-hand demonstration that lack of sight is not a fatal handicap to great organ-playing.

What a bravura performance! James received a well-deserved standing ovation from what appeared to be the largest crowd yet at this concert series. It was a fitting conclusion to a series that James began a year or so ago as a way of sharing his love of music with the community at large. Sadly, this was his final recital, as the powers that be at Christ Church have decided that his services are no longer needed. Many in attendance last night expressed their shock and sorrow at learning of this incomprehensible development; one man said, "It's like throwing out the family silver."

But the Episcopal Church is well-known for its boneheaded decisions; older residents of Town may recall when Seabury House on Round Hill Road was the national headquarters of the Church and home of the Presiding Bishop. This 93-acre estate, formerly known as "The Orchards", had been given to the Church in 1946; by the 1970s the Church was in such financial trouble that it sold this irreplaceable jewel for a mess of pottage. Similarly, the Church once owned the former Masonic Temple on Havemeyer Place, which was the National Christian Education headquarters. But that was sold off in the 1960s, and it has been owned by a succession of banks ever since.

Thus, dear reader, Greenwich was once the home of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America. Hard to believe, isn't it? Today those buildings and acres would be worth well over one hundred million dollars - and probably closer to two. But bit by bit the family silver has been frittered away, and now one of the most brilliant musicians in the world has been given his walking papers. Is there no end to the idiocy of Episcopalianism in Greenwich? Apparently not.

The past year has been the Golden Age of music at Christ Church. Under the leadership of Acting Director of Music Geoffrey Silver, the program has never been stronger. The choirs have never been better. The music has never been more glorious. It is not quite over yet; James will be taking the Choir of Men and Boys to England this summer, where they will sing in his old stamping-grounds at St. Paul's Cathedral. The boys will climb Christopher Wren's great dome and whisper messages to each other across the Whispering Gallery. The baroque arches will reverberate with the ethereal sound of our Greenwich youths' voices at Evensong. James will play the mammoth organ again, and the lengthy reverberations will echo on and on in the great space of the cathedral.

But the echoes will eventually fade, just as the echoes of James's wonderful recital of last night have already faded. What will not fade, however, are our memories of a handsome youngster endowed with incredible skill, a ready smile, and a burning desire to share his love of music with everyone he meets. We have been lucky to have had James Kennerley in our midst, and we can never adequately repay all he has done for us here in Greenwich. God bless you, James!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Shocking Developments at Greenwich High School

Your scribe has followed with interest the top local news story of the past several days, namely the use of a police taser gun on an 18-year-old senior at the high school.

The student, Victor Hugo Londono, was under a one-week suspension for throwing water balloons as a senior prank. Wow. Pretty serious stuff. Certainly a worthy reason to suspend the malefactor for a full week less than a month from graduation.

When your scribe was in high school, water balloons were an inescapable part of the rites of spring. Walk out a doorway, get doused from above. Swallow your chagrin, put on a smile, and deal with it. And then turn the tables on your oppressor. Faculty members knew better than to get involved with such pranks, just as students knew full well there was no point in running to them for assistance. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and water-balloon training was just another part of the educational experience provided to all students in those halcyon days.

And so, upon reflection, your scribe finds himself faulting the school for issuing such a harsh punishment for such a trivial event. Does the unspeakable Betty Sternberg's code of student conduct now criminalize water balloons? Kinda makes one yearn for the old days, when some right-thinking student might have concocted an indelible-ink balloon and lobbed it in the direction of a particularly unpopular faculty member or administrator. Now that might have called for some form of punishment, not to mention economic reparations; but the lobber would have become an instant hero, and a legend in his or her own time.

Mr. Londono, however, was punished for tossing garden-variety water balloons. The "damage" probably dried within 30 minutes, after which it was basically a case of no harm, no foul. But no - he was publically humiliated and disciplined by the high school administration.

Would that it had all ended there. Alas, it did not. Mr. Londono, in a scene straight out of his namesake's great novel of social injustice, Les Miserables, had the temerity to kick a chair. And that led directly to his being tasered by the "school resource officer", a bureaucratic euphemism for the Greenwich cop who has been assigned to the school full-time since last year.

Tasered in front of his friends. Tasered in front of a crowd of fellow students. Tasered not once, not twice, but three times - in the shoulder, the abdomen, and the thigh. A burly cop against a 140-lb. teenager - was the use of a taser necessary? The cop says yes. Common sense says no.

What kind of message does this incident send to our kids? Play a prank and expect to be taken down by brute force and electroshock in the middle of the student center? Kick a chair and be handcuffed and arrested for breach of the peace? Lord only knows what the students who witnessed this scene must have thought. What kind of message do you read into this, dear reader?

And what kind of judgment did the highly-trained adult police officer show when he tasered an unruly teenager three times? Might he have lost his cool, too? Might he have overreacted?

Your scribe was not a witness to this incident, and so he has no anwers to offer. Only questions.


Update 5/22/08

Your scribe was as shocked as Mr. Londono to read that the latter's bail was set at $50,000. Fifty thousand dollars! One almost never sees a bond set that high in this Town. Here are some examples from today's paper:

11 counts of credit card theft, 11 counts of identity theft, 11 counts of forgery, and a bunch of other charges related to thefts and illegal use of credit cards: $10,000.

Smashing a woman's cell phone, shoving her into a car door, putting her in a headlock and choking off her air supply, and throwing her to the ground: $2,000.

Slamming a woman's car door on her hand, jamming her thumb in the door and breaking her nail while screaming obscenities at her on Greenwich Avenue: no bond at all - just a PTA (promise to appear).

It would seem to any disinterested observer that the Greenwich Police Department has a vendetta going against Mr. Londono. Fifty thousand dollars! Unbelievable!

What do the students at Greenwich High School think? The paper reports sit-ins in the student center where the incident took place, boycotting of classes, tee shirts supporting Mr. Londono, and a lot of emotional distress. One student, Meghan Kerwin, said, "If there is a gun or something, by all means protect us. When it's a water balloon, the circumstances do not call for a Taser."

Go to the head of the class, Meghan. You sure got that one right.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Bye, Bye, Mario

After nine years of inept "management", highlighted by the misdeeds of his unsupervised deputy, convicted thief Inga Boudreau, and his own "dictatorial, controlling, and bullying" reign of terror over the rest of the employees, library director Mario Gonzalez has finally thrown in the towel. He and the library board have fought long and hard to try to prevent a recent consultant's report, which detailed the abysmal morale at the library and the reasons therefor, from ever seeing the light of day. But you can't fight that kind of rear-guard action against the truth for very long, and on Tuesday night Mario told the board he was jumping before he was pushed.

Well, perhaps not in those exact words, but that was clearly the general idea. He will be "pursuing other opportunities," the standard formula used to gloss over a forced resignation; what those oppotunities may be and just how, with his blemished reputation, he plans to pursue them is a matter for conjecture. Mario talks optimistically of "other opportunities that will come to my door," but if your scribe were he, he would not be holding his breath.

Meanwhile, the sigh of relief that has gone up from the library staff is clearly audible. Years of tyranny and mismanagement are now behind them, and while the library board has not been noted for its brilliant choices of directors since Nolan Lushington left, there is at least a fighting chance that the next director will not be as obnoxious and inept as Mario and his predecessor Beth Mainiero (whose deputy director also made off with tens of thousands of library dollars and was likewise convicted) have been.

And so, dear reader, bit by bit the Augean Stables in the Town of Greenwich are being cleansed. Whitby School has rid itself of the late unlamented Michele Monson; Greenwich Library has set Mario Gonzalez on the road of looking for "new opportunities"; and the unspeakable Betty Sternberg's contract is up next year. Maybe if she keeps her nose clean she, too, will have the chance to resign gracefully and "pursue other opportunities."

Or maybe the townspeople will simply tar and feather her and ride her out of Town on a rail. There was yet another demonstration at the Board of Ed headquarters yesterday - one would think that dear Betty might get the message. How many other towns, dear reader, have regular protest demonstrations outside their Boards of Ed? Can you name a single one?

So there's still some fecal matter left in the Town's stables, but the trend is clearly moving in the right direction. With luck, the day will soon dawn when we here in Greenwich can be proud of our senior administrators instead of spending our energies trying to put out the never-ending brushfires they cause. Wouldn't that be a nice turn of events?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On a picture-perfect May morning in 2008 a man stood next to a Greenwich Avenue building erected by his grandfather in 1925, and with his proud parents, wife, and daughter beside him, announced his plans to change history.

Greenwich has not had a Democratic representative in Hartford since 1912. In effect, one might say, Greenwich has therefore not had a functioning representative in Hartford for 96 years. Why? Because the Democratic party has a heavy majority in the State House of Representatives, and we here in Greenwich insist on sending impotent Republicans to "represent" us anyhow. And so we are effectively unrepresented.

Ed Krumeich plans to change all that. He ran against "the Doll" two years ago, and came within a whisker of beating her in our strongly Republican Town. Many independents and Republicans voted for Ed in 2006, and your scribe believes that "the Doll" saw the handwriting on the wall. She decided not to run again - one of her smarter moves during her many utterly unproductive years in public office.

For she never got a single piece of legislation passed. Sure, she sponsored some bills; but either they never got out of committee or they died on the House floor. She can look back on a legislative record that amounts to a big fat goose egg.

Ed, on the other hand, is an experienced lawyer who can use his training to Greenwich's advantage. As a member of the BET, he was a consensus builder, acting not so much as a member of a political party as a citizen of the Town working for the betterment of the Town. As a member of the majority party in Hartford, he would be able to sponsor bills that actually (gasp!) get passed. And he would be able to bring the same common sense that has marked his career on the BET to the somewhat chaotic budget process in Hartford. Here's what he had to say on that score:

"I would like to see the State of Connecticut run more like the Town of Greenwich. We carefully balance the needs of our residents for services and the taxpayers' interest in avoiding abrupt, steep and irregular tax increases. For the past eight years we [the BET and the Town of Greenwich] have been able to limit tax increases to the rate of inflation. The State of Connecticut needs to do the same thing."

Oh, my! Fiscal responsibility in the State of Connecticut? Your scribe admires Ed for his courage.

So why should we in Greenwich change course after 96 years? Ed offers this as one reason:

"[My opponent] wants to go to Hartford to oppose, attack or criticize the majority. I want to work with the majority to get things done for the people of Greenwich."

No wonder Ed is a successful lawyer. He thinks clearly, reasons well, smiles often, and indeed "gets things done." So why would someone with a comfortable six-figure income want to take a substantial pay cut and spend untold hours commuting to and from Hartford?

"My family has been in Greenwich for a long time and Greenwich has been good to us. In return there has been a long tradition of our family giving back to Greenwich."

Well, let's see if the citizenry of Greenwich wants to take Ed up on his offer. One thing is certain: he could hardly be any less effectual than his predecessor, and the odds are pretty strong that he could in fact make good on his campaign promise of "getting things done for the Town of Greenwich." Wouldn't that be a nice change of affairs?

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Local Rag Starts to Clean Up Its Act

As faithful readers of this column know, the Local Rag, aka Yellowwich Time, has had a pretty poor history of truth-telling and fact-reporting in recent decades. The reason was not far to seek: it was locally owned, locally run, and well versed in the mythology that Greenwich is Disneyland East, where nothing nasty or dishonest or untoward ever occurs. And if it does, the theory went, their readers certainly didn't want to know about it.

An ostrich with its head deep-buried in the sand would have been an apt image of Yellowwich Time. There was a rumor circulating for many years that the paper was published in the basement of Town Hall, so that all the bent or incompetent politicians could censor everything before it was printed. And woe betide anyone who dared to question the status quo or rock the boat in Town; all the blunderbusses of the illiterate reporting and editorial staffs would be leveled at him or her in a effort to belittle, discredit, and smear the offender. In this town in those days it was lockstep or nothing.

Which is why your scribe once told Bill Rowe, the then-owner of the rag, that the paper should change its masthead color from green to yellow. Why, he wanted to know? So that it would reflect the color of the journalism you publish, replied your scribe. Rowe walked off in a huff; and from that day forward the Local Rag has adamantly refused to publish anything written by your scribe - who had thitherto been one of the more popular letter writers in Town.

But bit by bit karma has reasserted itself, as it always does. Bill Rowe sold out to a chain; that chain sold out to another chain; and pretty soon the new owners and stockholders decided it was time that Greenwich had a real newspaper. The illiterate reporters were replaced by ones who knew how to write English; the middle-level editorial staff like Mike Sweeney and Bruce Hunter vanished into the sunset; and now - finally - the ax has fallen on senior editor Joe Pisani.

Your scribe remembers nostalgically the arguments he used to carry on with Joe in his ground-floor corner office: your scribe would castigate him for printing rumor and slander as fact, and Joe would scream back that he would print anything he damn well pleased. The entire staff would gather in the bullpen to overhear these exchanges, which provided great entertainment to the masses. But Joe was the boss, and whether any of the staff agreed with your scribe or not, they knew that he buttered their bread. Anti-scribalism became the official unwritten policy of the Yellowwich Time.

Well, Joe's chickens have now come home to roost. The new owners apparently believe that biased and inaccurate reporting should be a thing of the past. Likewise, slavish knuckling under to powerful interests, be they Town Hall, crooked police chiefs, or the Kennedy family (as in the Martha Moxley murder), are no longer considered proper journalistic behavior. The era of Joe Pisani has, thankfully, come to an end.

Predictably, the mandarins and Poo-Bahs of Town have reacted with shock and dismay. Their pet editor has been fired! How will they ever be able to control the news in this Town again?

Good question. One hopes that the "good-old-boy" school of sanitized stories and hatchet journalism will now go the way of the dodo, and that we will never have another Joe Pisani in our midst, bending and shaping the "news" to fit his personal predilections and those of his handlers. Greenwich deserves better than that.

Let's let Joe have a few last words. "I'm not that good of an editor," he is reported to have said the day the ax fell. Nor a grammarian, one might add. In yesterday's Yellowwich Time he wrote his final column, which he aptly thought might be labeled "this tedious and tendentious and pontificating column." No doubt he thought he was being cutesy and ironic; but as far as your scribe is concerned, these were about the truest words he ever wrote.

He also talked about how newspaper-writing allowed one "to sit in judgment on the world as you know it. Being a weak man, I've never resisted that temptation...." Once again, some refreshing last-minute honesty and truth-telling after a long career of biased and slanted "reporting". Do you think that practicing Roman Catholic Pisani is finally making his confession, dear reader? It certainly seems so.

Fittingly, the Yellowwich Time building on East Elm Street has also been closed permanently and sold to a new owner. Perhaps it will be torn down for condos or retail stores or a combination of both. But for the moment, as your scribe walks past the windows of the corner office, he can still hear echoes of Joe Pisani yelling, purple in the face, "I'll publish anything I damn well please!" But the echoes are growing fainter, and soon they will cease altogether. Karma has prevailed, yet again.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Unspeakable Betty Sternberg Strikes Again

Probably no Town employee is as wildly unpopular as the unspeakable Betty Sternberg, who continues to make new enemies at every turn. Now she has managed to p*ss off the Boy Scouts - the organization, the kids, and the parents. What will she pick on next, one wonders? Motherhood? Apple pie? When, oh when, dear reader, will the Board of Ed finally get the message and fire her, as they should have done many months and many millions of wasted dollars ago?

Even the First Selectman, Peter Tesei, has finally gotten off the fence and let his opinion be known: "I think it's an example of her not understanding our community," he said; "To pick a fight with an organization that has served the community for decades is just not sound judgment in my opinion."

Right on, Peter! So would you please follow through and get rid of her while we still have the remnants of our neighborhood school system and a few dollars left in the kitty? Please, pretty please?

Peter's mention of the "decades" of the Boy Scouts' service to our community is accurate as far as it goes, but there is much more. The Boy Scouts of America was founded right here in Town, at the Cos Cob estate of Ernest Thompson Seton. Seton wrote the first Boy Scout handbook, and his daughter, Anya Seton, later became a best-selling novelist. Her book The Winthrop Woman is about the early days of Greenwich, and well worth reading if you haven't done so already.

In one of the wisest decisions in recent years, the Town bought Seton's estate and saved it from the developers. You can get lost in the woods barely a mile from I-95, dear reader, and you can even visit the erstwhile Seton mansion, perched high overlooking a lake. Unfortunately, in one of the dumbest decisions in recent years, the Town evicted the lovely Swedish family that had been renting the mansion for $6,000 a month, and the house is now a shambles of broken windows and peeling paint. From historical landmark to local eyesore in a few short years - doesn't say much for the Town of Greenwich as a landlord, does it?

Other local officials besides Tesei are now - finally! - speaking out against the unspeakable Sternberg. Selectman Peter Crumbine noted that the relationship between the school system and the Boy Scouts has "been going on for 70 years. What's changed?" Former Scout and RTM District 1 member Ed Dadakis was even more direct: "This is really outrageous, and it seems that Mrs. Sternberg and her school administration are totally out of touch with the Greenwich community."

Well, maybe it's time for the Board of Education to cave in and admit they made a dreadful mistake in hiring the unspeakable Betty. The damage she has done during her tenure thus far is incalculable; the spiralling costs and mismanaged building projects are unrivalled in Town history; and the degree of opprobrium she engenders from every quarter (except her pet Board of Ed) surpasses that of any local resident since the days of the notorious "Boss" Tweed, or "the Witch of Wall Street," Hetty Green. Let's hope that the days of "the Witch of the Greenwich School System" are finally drawing to a close, and that very soon she will be invited to mount her broomstick and fly out of Town forever, leaving only enormous unpaid bills and a plethora of hard feelings and bad memories behind her.