Greenwich Gossip

Monday, October 20, 2008

First-class Music at First Presbyterian Church

Your scribe is beginning to think that London and New York need to scootch [oops - make that scooch] over a bit and make room for Greenwich when it comes to top-level musical performances. Faithful readers of these pages already know about the choral program at Greenwich High School, led by Patrick Taylor - and if you want to see, or rather hear, what it's all about, just show up at GHS on Wednesday evening at 7:30. Likewise, the outstanding Christ Church organ concert series started by English phenomenon James Kennerley continues unabated. And now the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich is joining in under the leadership of Minister of Music Kevin Estes, who last Saturday brought us the brilliant Andrew Yeargin in a memorable organ recital.

Andrew is barely out of college (Westminster Choir College in Princeton) and is currently studying for his Masters at the Manhattan School of Music. But his technical mastery is already well in evidence. He has brought back the art of playing from memory, which is somewhat less usual these days than it was back in the last century, according to your scribe's observation. The ability to sit down at any organ, at any time, and play dozens of masterworks without music is an enviable skill. Andrew makes it all look easy.

For the second time in two weeks, your scribe was treated to a performance of Bach's D-major Prelude and Fugue that would have earned the composer's own seal of approval. Andrew chose a fairly light registration, centered himself on the organ bench, and went to town. He played both prelude and fugue at a fast clip, using bright, staccato rhythms. The performance was light and crisp and virtually note-perfect - a real tour-de-force.

The next piece, Herbert Howell's "De Profundis", was new to your scribe. Andrew prefaced his performance with an elegant commentary, showing himself to be a master of verbal as well as digital dexterity. He described the piece as moving from quiet sadness and despair to a fortissimo "primal scream", and then proceeded to demonstrate it for us. This was followed by another elegaic piece, Durufle's "Prelude et Fugue sur le nom d'Alain." Jehan Alain was a student of Durufle's, and was killed at an early age in World War II. This was his teacher's memorial, or "tombeau", as Andrew described it - a brilliant virtuoso piece paying tribute to a life full of talent cut tragically short.

Mozart's "Fantasy in F Minor" is another virtuoso piece, showing the composer at his imaginative best. It has all the energy that Mozart himself embodied, and requires great energy from the performer as well. If Mozart had been in the balcony, he would doubtless have rushed downstairs to wring Andrew's hand afterwards.

Then came another piece your scribe has not heard before: "Miroir" by the Dutch composer Ad Wammes (b. 1953). As Andrew explained it, the constant motif in the right hand is offset by movement in the left hand and pedal. It's like looking in a mirror: each day the reflection seems to look the same, and yet it changes constantly, however imperceptibly. The piece ends abruptly, almost humorously - until one pauses to reflect that the ending probably means that the person looking in the mirror has died.

Not one to take it easy on himself, Andrew concluded his program with Cesar Franck's "Grande Piece Symphonique". This lengthy virtuoso piece was one of Franck's attempts to make the organ sound like an entire symphony orchestra, and indeed Andrew's constantly-varied registration brought out the full range of colors of the organ, even incorporating the brilliant trompette en chamade at the end. The audience gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.

Which, as it turns out, was enough to produce an encore, best described as flashy, French, and brilliant. Later your scribe learned it was Vierne's "Toccata" from his "Fantasy Pieces", another of which is the well-known "Carillon de Westminster". All in all, it was a program that presented both staple masterworks of the organ repertory, along with pieces that are only beginning to be heard, or re-heard, as the younger generation begins to spread its wings and expand our knowledge of the rich and ever-expanding body of literature for the instrument.

Afterwards, Kevin Estes and his wife Jenny hosted a reception in the narthex, at which your scribe was able to chat at some length with Andrew. It turns out he will soon be playing a recital at James Kennerley's new church in New York City. Even at his young age, Andrew has won numerous awards, and has played widely across this country and in Europe. Your scribe was, in a word, utterly delighted that Andrew came here to Greenwich, and reiterates his belief that New York and London had better start looking over their shoulders. Greenwich is gaining on them!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

She's Gone!!! (Except She's Not)

Our topic today is Betty Sternberg, of course. A scant few days before the Board of Ed was to meet to review her contract, Betty has bailed. The Board raises its hands in professed surprise. "We had no idea," is the gist of their comments.

If so, they are even more mentally challenged than your scribe has previously supposed. Practically since the day she came, Betty has been receiving negative reviews from parents, teachers, and the community at large. These were recently codified in the Harris Survey in which Betty received a failing grade in every single category from every single constituency.

And so she has jumped before she was pushed. And the Board of Education is taken by surprise? Spare me.

The real problem, of course, is that she will continue to be around to plague us and drain our Town treasury dry right up to the middle of next year. Why the Board of Ed doesn't just buy out her contract and give her the boot is one of life's great mysteries. Perhaps they're curious to see just how much more havoc she can wreak before the door finally hits her in the rear end next June 30.

Your scribe predicts that she will do considerably more damage to our already-reeling school system before then. She is like* the pilot of a burning airplane who has no parachute. She is certain to crash and burn. Will she head for an empty field, or, more likely, yet another school full of young children? She has already all but destroyed Hamilton Avenue, and Glenville School exists in name only. That's two down in two years. But she still has almost a year to go, so she has time to target one more school here in Town.

Will it be New Lebanon? Parkway? North Street? Julian Curtiss? Cos Cob? North Mianus? Dundee? Riverside? Old Greenwich? How about the middle schools? Or perhaps even Greenwich High School itself?

How many more talented faculty members and administrators can she drive away in the next nine months? How many more falling test scores can we expect to see between now and then?

Since Betty is unable to do the honorable thing and just resign immediately, the Board should simply bite the bullet and fire her. By any standards of job performance, she has been and continues to be a miserable failure. Why should she stay on the job even one more day?

That is a rhetorical question, dear reader. Everyone in Town, with the obvious exception of the Board of Ed, knows the answer. She should not.

*N.B. This is what is known as a simile, a literary device that is not to be confused with objective fact. It is meant to help clarify something to the reader, in this case the gravity of the ever-burgeoning train wreck in our Town's educational system. In no way is it meant to suggest that Betty knows how to pilot an airplane, or even how to steer one.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Musical Mastery at Christ Church

Last evening saw another in the organ recital series at Christ Church, which is to say an outstanding performance that was both seen and heard, thanks to the usual technological wizardry of Neil and Joanne Bouknight. The action at the console was projected onto a wide screen on the chancel steps, allowing one a visual as well as an aural treat.

The new Christ Church Director of Music, Jamie Hitel, acted as our host, explaining some of the complexities of organ playing. He should know; he will be playing the recital on December 12.

The recitalist was Jo Deen (Jody) Blain Davis, who hails from the Congregational Church in neighboring New Canaan. Many members of her church came to hear her play, and one imagines they were most impressed with how her playing sounded on a large organ in a large stone church. And even if they weren't, your scribe was.

The program, like the performance itself, was designed with great artistry. It showed off not only the wide range of organ literature, but the wide variety of tonalities of which the organ is capable. Jody had spent hours of preparation with her registrations in order to achieve this, and it paid off very well.

The first piece, Petr Eben's "Molto Ostinato", was written about fifty years ago by a Czech composer who survived the camp at Buchenwald and is today approaching his 80th birthday. A restless, driven piece, it is meant to symbolize the endless struggle against evil, according to Jody's program notes. Her antiphonal use of both the chancel and gallery organs, as well as her technical mastery in leaping back and forth among three manuals in split-second intervals, made for a stunning opening selection. This is the second time your scribe has heard this piece played at Christ Church, and he hopes it will not be the last.

The performance of Sweelinck's "Variations on 'Est-ce Mars?'", a popular 16th-century tavern song, was probably a Christ Church premiere. Again, there was much backing-and-forthing between the two organs, with a wide palette of colorful tonalities. To give Jody full credit, at least one or two of her registrations were also probably a "first" for Christ Church, producing Baroque sounds your scribe has never heard before. Fun!

Bach's great "Prelude and Fugue in D Major" is a showpiece, beginning with a bravura pedal scale and including later pedal arpeggios that provide an ultimate test of a organist's skill. Jody took this difficult piece at a goodly clip, showing that she was not about to be intimidated by Papa Bach's challenges. In fact, she played the Prelude pretty much the way Bach would have in his prime, giving us a clean and straightforward interpretation and adding a few interesting ornaments your scribe has not heard before. Her registration was light and crisp, allowing one to hear and enjoy every note.

The Fugue was taken at an even faster clip, which if one were to hear on a record or CD might lead to suspicions of retro-engineering (you know, taping it at one speed and speeding up the tape for the recorded version). But no, Jody was playing in real time, and again her technical mastery was vividly apparent. As before, she kept the registration light and clear, avoiding the muddiness that often seems to be associated with performances of this work. Your scribe seemed to sense Papa Bach nodding approvingly up in the balcony.

Charles Ives' "Variations on America" have been a staple of the concert organ repertoire ever since E. Power Biggs popularized them back in the mid-20th century. Ives was a local boy, having been born in Danbury and graduated from Yale. If you want your ears streched, dear reader, look no further than this piece; and then imagine, if you can, how it must have seemed to an audience back in 1891, when it was composed at the peak of saccharine Victorian hymnody. Blasphemous? Unmusical? Like cats caterwauling on a fence? All that, and more. Even today, when Ives is recognized as one of the true American musical geniuses, you can still see first-time hearers wince at this piece.

"With Highest Praise", written by Texan J. Todd Frazier (b. 1969), was premiered by Jody four years ago this month. And this time, for sure, we were treated to a Christ Church permiere. It begins in a quiet and meditative fashion, using both organs, then builds and builds before again ending on a quiet note. It is a piece that needs to be heard more than once, your scribe believes; and he is grateful to Jody for his first hearing.

Then she blew us all out into the night with a fine rendition of the first movement of Widor's Sixth Organ Symphony. This piece is a favorite of your scribe's, and he has been known to wear out more than one CD by playing this track over and over. Once again, Jody's registration was on the light side, which while again allowing for tonal clarity also fell slightly short of the rich sonorities of the great 19th-century Cavaille-Coll organ at Widor's church, St. Sulpice. But by the end, she had the crescendo pedal flat to the floor and the organo pleno piston in play, so there was no doubt that she had, literally, pulled out all the stops.

Afterwards there was the usual gracious wine and cheese and salmon reception, hosted as usual by the tireless Bouknights. This gave the audience a chance to meet and greet Jody, and for us all to tell her we hoped she would come back for another recital someday soon.

Finally, your scribe wishes to give a tip of the hat to Geoffrey Silver, who led the music program at Christ Church for the past two years, and who set up the organ recital series this year as his parting gift to us. Geoffrey, a former chorister at Westminster Abbey, will be marrying a Greenwich girl, Elizabeth Robinson, in twin ceremonies in England and at Christ Church this month. They met on a Christ Church choir trip to England some years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history. Here's to the bride and groom!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Betty Sternberg Gets a Raise?!

Well, a "performance" bonus, at least. Yes, dear reader, incredible as it sounds, the Board of Ed voted Betty a salary bonus of $3,500 by a vote of 6-2. At least one of the negative votes came from someone who thought the bonus should have been larger.

At this point, Betty's salary and benefit package is reported to be in excess of $290,000 per year. That's almost $25,000 a month, dear reader. About $6,000 a week. Well more than a thousand dollars a day. And for this we get falling test scores, construction cost overruns, two homeless elementary schools, unprecedented dissatisfaction and unrest among teachers and townspeople, and no end in sight to any of it. What's wrong with this equation?

Your scribe will never understand why the Board of Ed doesn't bite the bullet and simply fire Betty. It would have saved the taxpayers of this Town well over half a million dollars and incalculable anguish if the Board had just left the position vacant for these past two years.

But now they have given her a bonus, and apparently plan to keep her around to wreak more havoc for a third year. What's the old phrase about putting the inmates in charge of the asylum? Sounds like a pretty good metaphor for what's going on in Greenwich these days....

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Revolving Door at the Local Rag

The citizens of this Town suffered for many years under the idiocy of Local Rag (aka Yellowwich Time) editor Joe "I Control the News and Don't You Forget It" Pisani. Finally, the Hearst people realized what a turkey they had on their hands, and fired him. A large collective sigh of relief was heard to go up from the right-thinking inhabitants of Greenwich.

In June a new editor, David Warner, arrived on the scene. And suddenly, before your scribe could blink, let alone meet the man, he is gone.

What's going on at the Local Rag? The proffered excuse, that he'd rather live someplace else, was used here in Town by various Superintendants of Schools when it became obvious that their presence was no longer desired by the community. (So far Betty Sternberg hasn't taken the hint, but then, since she's "earning" more than $1,000 per "working" day, why should she?) And just as it didn't ring quite true in the case of the S's of S's, it's not ringing quite true to your scribe's ear in the matter of ex-editor Warner.

Perhaps we should call this the "Greenwich Excuse", dear reader. If it's time for you to go, suddenly that long-distance commute that was "no problem" when you took the job becomes the reason you finally throw in the towel.

But ex-editor Warner has set a new land-speed record for using the "Greenwich excuse". In his case, he borrowed a line from the late W. C. Fields, saying "I'd rather be in Philadelphia." In Fields' case, of course, the line was ironic, having been his own suggestion for the epitaph on his gravestone. But in ex-editor Warner's case, it apparently isn't.

Did he jump or was he pushed? The question is inevitable, of course. Maybe he saw what a mess he'd inherited from turkey Joe, and decided to bail. Maybe he realized that the handwriting is on the wall, and that the publication days of the Local Rag will likely come to an end ere long. Or maybe he simply disagrees with Mr. Fields about the attractiveness of being in Philadelphia - hey, it's a free country, after all, and everyone is entitled to their own opinions.

Or, maybe it was also the fact that a shopping and dining cameo on Greenwich Avenue by none other than tabloid queen Britney Spears became front-page news in the Local Rag that caused ex-editor Warner to throw in the towel. "This is journalism?" he may have thought to himself. "Who's next, Paris Hilton?" Perhaps we can hardly blame the poor man for handing in his resignation a day or so later.

And so the saga of Yellowwich Time continues to amuse the citizenry of Greenwich. Since no one takes the rag seriously, its chief function these days is pretty much geared to its entertainment value. No wonder the Hearst Corporation will probably be closing it down before much longer.