REVIEW POTPOURRI – Author: Eleanor Sterling

Internet photo: Auckland Museum, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Eleanor Sterling

The 1987 anthology Maine Speaks contains the short story “Whale!” by Eleanor Sterling, originally published in 1974 as part of a Yankee Magazine collection. It depicts, as the author beautifully puts it in her opening paragraph, the following situation:

“On an afternoon in mid-August, a very large gray whale appeared up out of Casco Bay and swam between the rock ledges off Harpswell Island, scattering the perched seagulls to the winds, and washed ashore finally in little Dingley Cove; there it lay on its side like a stone half in and half out of the water, blowing lazily and dreamily through the opening in its head.”

This paragraph is not just good writing; it’s very good writing. It quietly, almost unobtrusively, sets the scene for a momentous event in this bucolic location on the Maine inlet waterway.

The second paragraph then lists the floating trash that had wound up on the cove in the past…”strips of old linoleum, spars, wooden crates and kegs, broken lobster pots, buoy markers, plastic beach bottles, dead fish of all kinds, and once even a dead seal pup all fat and spotted, but never before a whale.” The Coast Guard’s already on its way along with most of the Harpswell citizens.

The story then shifts gears to the point of view of a little boy Willan, whose family has lived on the island for generations and whose own personality is one of “laconic” reserve as were his ancestors and so many New England Yankees such as former President Calvin Coolidge. But, as was Calvin, he is observant and curious about everything and is already soaking in a lot of information through reading, overhearing conversations and asking his Mam lots of questions, most of which she answers endearingly and affectionately.

We find out that Mam is Willan’s guardian since his mother died the previous year, that she owns the Island’s only diner and that Willan helps her with picking blueberries for baking pies to sell and with other chores.

Meanwhile as the gray whale is in its death throes, a baby calf emerges from the side crying for its mother. Willan is suddenly thrown back to the painful memories of when his own mother died and is fearful something terrible will happen to the calf if it sticks around trying to arouse its mother. Willan was with his mother when she died and empathizes with the calf’s desire to stay with its mother but knows it too must leave for its own survival, as Willan had to go live with Mam.

The brief biography of Sterling in Maine Speaks mentions she was born in 1937 in New York City, moved to Maine in 1961 as a wife of a Bowdoin College professor, wrote about Maine people and happenings for the former Brunswick Record and, as of 1987, had moved just north of San Francisco, California, where she and her husband bought a farm, growing grapes for wine and raising German shepherds for physically challenged people.

I have not been able to glean any information on her whereabouts since then.

In July 2020, a woman was mauled and killed by a Great White Shark while swimming 20 yards from shore on Bailey’s Island in Harpswell. It was the first such fatality in the island’s history.

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Stephen King & Calvin Coolidge

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph V. Williams

I first became attracted to the music of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) back during high school when I heard a recording of his London Symphony at a friend’s house and shortly after ordered it by mail from King Karol Records in New York City, now long closed.

The London Symphony was composed in 1920, is the second of his Nine Symphonies and is a celebration of the panoramic beauty of London. He used the full orchestra to convey its sights and sounds – the early morning awakening of the city, the streetcars and trolleys rushing its citizens to work, the hush of quiet side streets during the afternoon lull and at twilight, and the movement of ships down the Thames River towards the ocean. The Big Ben Clock chimes its 12 notes at the end of the Symphony in an exquisite manner.
The Barbirolli recording is available on YouTube.

Other works of VW well worth hearing include the other eight symphonies, especially the 1st or Sea Symphony for chorus and orchestra, the 3rd Pastoral Symphony, Symphonies 5 and 6 from the World War II decade. His ballet Job, the operas Pilgrim’s Progress, the Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra and his arrangements of English hymns and folk songs, etc. All on YouTube.

Stephen King

Stephen King

Maine’s own Stephen King’s latest novel Billy Summers deals with a hit man who only shoots truly bad guys. The story line deals with a two million dollar contract in front of a heavily guarded courthouse and the … but enough said.

President Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge

YouTube also has several news reels showing former President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) at work and on vacation. Because he was very gifted with managing the government with low taxes and a man of few words, he would be worthy of further study by those currently in power.

 

 

 

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Actor: Charles Durning

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Charles Durning

Charles Durning

A select number of actors and actresses could enhance mediocre films and television shows with their contributions; in vehicles worthy of their talents, the nominations for Oscars and Emmys came pouring in.

Those no longer living (excluding the obvious superstars) would include Max von Sydow, George Sanders, Robert Ryan, Jo Van Fleet, Susan Hayward, Lee J. Cobb, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Judith Anderson, Everett Sloane, Martin Balsam, Alastair Sims, Jeannette Nolan, etc. (Those still living will be saved for another day.).

I add Charles Durning (1923-2012) and give a brief summary of his background.

When he served during World War II, his unit was part of the D-Day invasion, at Omaha Beach, and all of its members were killed except for Durning, who was severely wounded. A few months later, he recovered and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded several medals for bravery under fire and would be a popular speaker at Memorial Day and 4th of July commemorations.

While working as an usher in 1951 at a Boston burlesque theater, he was asked to replace a drunken actor on stage, thus beginning a part time career in mostly minor roles in such plays, until the famed Shakespeare-in-the-Park producer Joe Papp saw him and liked what he saw.

Work on stage and in films and television began pouring in more often.

I jump ahead to my first experience of Durning in the mid-’70s Burt Reynolds film Starting Over, as the brother-in-law of Burt’s character. Durning brought an understated reserve in his performance that drew attention away from Reynolds and his leading lady Jill Clayburgh.

Next would be Durning’s appearance in the early ‘80s TV film Night of the Scarecrow as the leader in the lynching of an innocent, educationally-challenged man under wrongful suspicion in a rape case and dressing his corpse up as a scarecrow.

The scarecrow becomes a night of the living dead creature and members of Durning’s lynch mob start mysteriously turning up dead. He worries, but not enough, and is home by himself after dark watching television in his recliner when he starts hearing shuffling noises in the dining room.

The choreography of his leaping out of the recliner and skating all over the floor before he’s executed by the scarecrow was absolutely hilarious.

Other notable roles:

Durning’s one man show on a Boston University stage as baseball legend Casey Stengel, which was hosted by the legendary actor George C. Scott in the audience and televised live on National Public Television.

His role as the sadistic warden in 1987’s HBO miniseries The Man Who Broke 1000 Chains.

His appearance as a governor of Mississippi in the Coen brothers O Brother Where Art Thou; the manner in which Durning stared at stupid sycophantic underlings is worth the viewing.

A guest appearance on a 2004 NCIS episode as a shell-shocked World War II veteran undergoing flashbacks.

In a Parade magazine interview, Durning stated the following about acting:

“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about. There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. The place that no one knows about – horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”

Charles Durning died from natural causes in 2012 at the age of 89. The New York Times paid tribute to him and Jack Klugman as “extraordinary actors ennobling the ordinary.”

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Author: Truman Capote; TV: Benidorm; Conductor: Bruno Walter

Truman Capote

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Truman Capote

Truman Capote (1924-1984), when asked in a 1957 interview which can be read in Malcolm Cowley’s fascinating anthology Writers at Work, if he “read a great deal,” replied: “Too much. And anything, including labels and recipes and advertisements. I have a passion for newspapers – read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions, and several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at news stands. I average about five books a week – the normal-length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies. It doesn’t bother me to read while I am writing – I mean, I don’t suddenly find another writer’s style seeping out of my pen. Though once, during a lengthy spell of reading Henry James, my own sentences ‘did’ get awfully long.”

Capote’s reading of newspapers may partly explain his trip to Kansas two years later when the Clutter family was murdered and the six years after writing In Cold Blood.

Introduction to Benidorm

After finishing the final episodes of Last Man Standing recently, I was introduced by a friend to the BBC comedy series Benidorm which, to put it mildly, is over the top, quite twisted and perverse in its humor and very frequently hilarious in its depiction of Brits on vacation at a Spanish seaside resort.

Bruno Walter

Bruno Walter

The great conductor Bruno Walter left two studio recordings and a broadcast of Dvorak’s 4th Symphony; his 3rd one, released the year this much beloved Maestro died, at 85, in 1962, is a charmingly-paced and phrased performance of a Symphony that, more than any other, sounds like the countryside meadows, streams and woods on the most beautiful day of the year, only equaled by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

While Dvorak was in London conducting the English premiere of this piece in 1890, his friend Hans Richter, who led the Viennese premiere which the composer missed, wrote him a letter stating, “Certainly you would have enjoyed this performance. We all felt it was a splendid work, and consequently we were all enraptured. Brahms had dinner with me after the concert, and we drank to the health of the unfortunately absent father of No. 4. Vivate sequens!”

When the first four previously unnumbered Symphonies were assigned 1 through 4 during the mid ‘60s, this one became #8.

I have the original LP, which also contains the Brahms Academic Festival Overture. Walter’s Columbia Symphony studio musicians consisted of members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Columbia Masterworks MS 6361.

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Soprano: Dorothy Maynor; TV Show: Last Man Standing; Poet: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Dorothy Maynor

African-American soprano Dorothy Maynor (1910-1996) sang at the inauguration of Harry S Truman in 1948 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953; however, while singing frequently in concert and on radio and recordings, she was never invited to the Metropolitan Opera during her peak years.

In 1964, she founded the Harlem School of the Arts, which provided low cost music education to African-American students, and served as director for many years. Its enrollment had gone up to 1,100 students by the time she retired in 1979. Interestingly, while the Metropolitan Opera would never engage her due to prevailing racism in earlier decades, she was invited in 1975 to become the first African-American to serve on its board of directors.

A 1950 78 rpm set of three 12-inch discs, Sacred Songs (RCA Victor Red Seal M 1043), features arias by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Mendelssohn in which her uniquely warm, very heartfelt soprano voice is a special pleasure. Unfortunately, only a couple of the selections from this album are available on YouTube but there is a sizable number of others and, in time, somebody may post the other four sides.

Last Man Standing

I recently finished watching all 9 seasons of the comedy show Last Man Standing, starring the incredibly gifted cast of Tim Allen, Nancy Travis, Hector Elizondo, Jay Leno, Amanda Fuller, Molly Ephraim, Kaitlyn Dever, etc. Even the facial expressions and body movements were distinguished by brilliant timing, as well as the dialog and constant insults and repartee.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

The Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was born in Rockland and spent her adolescence in Camden.

After graduation from Vassar College, she found her way to Greenwich Village and published books of her poems, achieving fame and being awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Although, and very unfortunately, little read today, her writing had a particularly extraordinary power and eloquence, as seen in the closing stanza from Renascence:

“The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,-
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That cannot keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat-the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.”

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Jazz & Christmas

Keiko Lee

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Keiko Lee

Keiko Lee is a 56-year-old jazz singer, born in South Korea and now living in Japan. She has rightfully achieved fame for her understated performances in concerts and on CDs since 1995.

A 2010 CD, Smooth (Sony Music Japan S70614C), contains 10 songs that include Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You, Burt Bacharach’s A House Is not a Home, Stevie Wonder’s Weakness, and John Lennon’s Across the Universe. Several of her performances are on YouTube.

Kheigh Deigh

Kheigh Dhiegh

In addition to Jack Lord’s (1920-1998) very persuasive Chief Steve McGarrett of the Hawaii State Police on the first Hawaii Five-O, which ran for over 12 years on CBS from 1968 to 1980, I was very entertained by Kheigh Deigh (1910-1981) as the frequently appearing Chinese Communist spy Wo Fat who conveyed both sly wit and slimy malevolence in his fierce determination to loyally serve Mao’s government.

Jack Lord

Earlier in 1962, he gained fame as the doctor supervising experiments on kidnapped American soldiers in Frank Sinatra’s classic film The Man­chur­ian Can­didate, in which he states, “We not only brainwash our subjects, we dry-clean them.”

Deigh also appeared as Genghis Khan during the late ‘70s on Meeting of Minds, Steve Allen’s talk show in which historic figures discussed major issues.

Kheigh Deigh was born Kenneth Dickerson, in Spring Lake, New Jersey, to a man whom he described, “as Portugese, Italian and Zulu, while Mother was Chinese, Spanish, English and Egyptian.”

Great Songs of Christmas

For several years starting in 1961, Columbia Records, in conjunction with Goodyear Tires, released the annual Great Songs of Christmas, an anthology of Xmas favorites performed by different artists in Columbia’s record catalog, and sold them for $1 per record.

I first encountered Album 2, from 1962, at a friend’s house almost 60 years ago and now own it and this gentleman’s other records; his widow left it to the Vassalboro Historical Society, after which its representatives made me an offer I just couldn’t refuse.

That particular Album 2 consists of 21 Yuletide favorites performed by Columbia’s musical stars – Percy Faith, Eileen Farrell, Andre Kostelanetz, André Previn, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Leonard Bernstein, etc. Particularly enjoyable were Faith’s Hark the Herald Angels Sing, the Norman Luboff Choir’s The Holly and the Ivy, and Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker excerpts.

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Composer Richard Wagner

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Composer Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was an egomaniac who, as my high school glee club director put it succinctly, knew he was great. His 16-hour Ring of the Niebelungen was premiered at Bayreuth, in Germany, in 1876 and has been produced many times since then. It is a mammoth quartet of four operas – Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung; and, depending with whom you speak, it is either a windy, bombastic spectacle of Teutonic screeching, screaming and shrieking or a masterpiece of operatic genius.

After listening off and on for over 40 years, I hold with the masterpiece view but plan to focus on my current favorite of the four, and one which has been a shade less popular than the other three, Siegfried.

The basic premise is simple. The Ring is one that enables its owner to control the world and its owner is the Niebelungen, a dwarf named Alberich who creates the ring, is robbed of it and tries to get it back. The 15 or 16 hours deal with an array of mythological gods and goddesses, giants and good and evil humans in this life/death struggle.

Siegfried is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, who fall in love and create this son before they find out they are long lost twin siblings, and becomes a central hero who is eventually killed by the treacherous Hagen , son of the dwarf Alberich.

Other details of this ever thickening plot are too detailed to go into but synopses are available on the Internet.
The opera Siegfried deals with Alberich’s brother Mime, a dwarf who found Siegfried as a child abandoned in the woods after his parents were killed and has been raising him. Unfortunately, Siegfried detests his foster father who meanwhile is plotting to steal the Ring from another thief. As stated earlier, the rest of the story can be enjoyed elsewhere.

The music in this opera has a savage, growling brilliance in its large-sized orchestra with extra brass and percussion and the singing when done well. And for me, the best listening approach is to forget about reading up on the plot ahead of time or follow the scripted libretto; simply let the music happen. It is some of the most piercingly eloquent music to be heard anywhere with a phenomenal range of emotions and dynamics from tenderly soft to climactically exhilarating.

The performance I have been enjoying for a while is a 1949 broadcast from the Vienna State Opera which has been available in a set of three CDs since 2009 (Myto, 00190) and also accessible on YouTube. The recorded sound is very good for its era while the musical cast was one of the finest, in particular tenors Gunther Treptow (1907-1981) as Siegfried, and William Wernigk (1894-1973) as Mime, soprano Gertrude Grob Prandl (1917-1995) as Siegfried’s sweetheart Brunnhilde and baritone Ferdinand Frantz (1906-1959) as Brunnhilde’s father Wotan, who is also King of the gods and temporarily in disguise as the Wanderer.

Maestro Rudolf Moralt (1902-1958) and, for several years music director of the Vienna State Opera, led a very exciting performance.

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Winter poetry

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Winter poetry

Christina Rossetti

As winter’s balmy freeze approaches with increasingly grim ur­gency and inevitability for the next six to seven months, some brief depictions of the ice cold season are offered.

Poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) gives a slightly humorous perspective in the following lines from Winter: My Secret:

“Today’s a nipping day, a biting day;
In which one wants a shawl,
A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:
I cannot open to everyone who taps,
And let the draughts come whistling through my hall.”

Edwin A. Robinson

Gardiner’s native son Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) conveyed the following contrasting images in his 1923 poem, New England:

“Here where the wind is always north-north-east
And children learn to walk on frozen toes,
Wonder begets an envy of all those
Who boil elsewhere with such a lyric yeast”

Robinson’s slightly younger contemporary Robert Frost (1875-1963) pulled the following long evening of November in his ironically titled Desert Places:

“Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.”

John Crowe Ransom

Southern poet John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974) wrote in his Winter Remembered of the loss of a once true love, preferring the less painful numbness of the outdoor frostbite:

“Better to walk forth in the frozen air
And wash my wound in the snows; that would be healing;
Because my heart would throb less painful there,
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling.”

Will Rogers

Will Rogers (1879-1935) succinctly commented, “I was just thinking, if it really is religion with these nudist colonies, they sure must turn atheist in the wintertime.”

The footage of the Russian wilderness during winter in the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago has, for me, never been surpassed, although the Coen brothers 1997 film Fargo comes awfully close.

My favorite portion of Antonio Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons has always been Winter and numerous performances of it abound on YouTube.

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Poet: Abbie Huston Evans

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Abbie Huston Evans

Abbie Huston Evans

The 1989 anthology Maine Speaks has a poem from the Bristol native Abbie Huston Evans (1882-1983). Before sharing it, I offer the biographical details on her life provided in the above text, as they give a good maximum summation with minimum paragraphs:

“As a teenager, Evans moved with her family from her native Bristol, an area her mother’s family had settled in 1730, to Camden. She realized she wanted to be a poet when she heard her father read William Wordsworth’s Ode on Some Intimations of Immortality one Sunday in his sermon at the church where he was pastor. Fate set back her plans, however, when she was 18 years old; an illness that threatened her eyesight kept her from reading and writing for ten years. She spent a great deal of her time outdoors, in particular walking the Camden Hills with a young friend who had been her pupil in Sunday school, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

“Evans entered Radcliffe College at 28, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She worked as an English teacher, a Red Cross volunteer during World War I, and a social worker among the families of miners and steel-workers. She eventually went back to teaching, in Philadelphia, coming back during the summers to Maine.

“Recognition as a poet came slowly to her. She remained in relative obscurity until the 1960s, when she received an honorary doctorate from Bowdoin College and several poetry prizes. Her Collected Poems, published in honor of her 19th birthday, at which time she was still writing, has received wide acclaim.

“Evans said of the Maine countryside, ‘It’s the kind of place I would have made, had I been God. ‘ She studied the natural world so as to understand the place of the human spirit within it, and to understand the relationship of any small part of it to the universe at large.”

The anthologized poem is Silhouette from 1950. It has a narrative power of exceptional dimensions in its depiction of the combination of acceptance and regret we all might feel at the end when we try to assess our own lives. The rhythms of its stanzas are quite captivating:

“The lamp flared in a quick gust. -“Yet,” I said,
” ‘You’ve had a full life, Sarah. “-“That depends;
” ‘If you mean busy, I suppose so. Yes.
” ‘What with the old folks-and Aunt Jane-and Mandy.’
“She took her basket and got up to go,
“Her hand a gaunt root wrapped about the handle.
“Nothing ever took me off my feet.
“That’s the whole story. -Well,’ she said, ‘good night.’
“I held the lamp to light her down the path.”

REVIEW POTPOURRI: E. B. White & A Star is Born

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Scott Elledge

Scott Elledge

Scott Elledge’s 1984 E. B. White: A Biography, was published when White was still living (he died in 1985) and is well worth dipping into for those, like myself, intrigued by the man who contributed to the success of the New Yorker magazine, wrote unsurpassed prose and raised ducks and geese on his Brooklin, Maine, farm.

E. B. White

The book mentions White supervising renovations on the farmhouse, consisting of 12 rooms, which he and his wife Katherine purchased for $11,000 in 1933 and included a barn and other outbuildings, along with 40 acres of land that ran down to Allen Cove, not far from Blue Hill:

“On a day like this it is inconceivable we should live anywhere but here. The spring began yesterday afternoon: I was working down by the cow shed in the pasture (the turkey house I mean) and suddenly the frogs began. The wind dropped, the sun concentrated on my back; from the woods came a thrusts pure composition; and into the cove sailed a vessel and came to rest in the calm illuminated evening. Today was a continuation, with warmth, new green, NW breeze bluing the bay, and in the afternoon a sun shower and rainbow.”

The book recounts much information about his marriage to Katherine for over 40 years and his friendships with the irascible founder/editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross, and the legendary James Thurber. It goes into absorbing detail on the process by which his most famous book, Charlotte’s Web, came into being between 1949 and its publication in 1952.

Judy Garland

A Star is Born

I have not seen the 1954 film classic A Star Is Born since I was a kid but recently listened to the CD transfer of the soundtrack (Columbia/Sony CK 65965) with the magnificent songs of Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen and the top notch singing of Judy Garland who poured blood, sweat and tears into every single note.