In 1951 television was very new. Programming concepts were new. Viewing was new. Ed Sullivan was hot. It would be 13 years before the Beetles appeared on his show. Out of this TV primordial soup came an astonishing show: Amahl and the Night Visitors. Producers at NBC believed there was a market for opera on television, and that a live performance would succeed. Most operas were too long for the already established schedules of hour blocks interspersed with commercials. Anticipating a large audience for Christmas programs, they commissioned a new opera. It was to be on a Christmas theme, fit on the stage in NBC production studios and suitable for family viewing. They turned to Gian Carlo Menotti. Inspired by Hieronymous Bosch's painting, The Adoration of the Magi, Menotti nailed the assignment. Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first production on the Hallmark Hall of Fame and was shown for many years during the Christmas holiday. Here is the Bosch painting
And here, for a trip down memory lane, is the original broadcast with an introduction by Menotti from the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the Bosch painting hangs.
If you live in Minneapolis you might already know about this theatrical concert. I have just learned of it. Playwright Peter Rothstein and musical arranger Erick Lichte collaborated on this production which opened in Minneapolis shortly before Christmas in 2007. All is Calm tells the story of the truce initiated and celebrated by men from the trenches - opposing armies mired in mud and snow with a life expectancy measured in weeks. In November of 1914, the first year of the war, men dug in on both sides of "no man's land" began to offer impromptu concerts. They sang patriotic songs, army ditty's, and as Christmas approached, they sang Christmas carols. On Christmas eve a German first, and then men from both sides stood up, stepped out and offered their hands. They sang, exchanged greetings and small gifts, and played soccer. Ordered back to their trenches they retreated to four more years of slaughter. All is Calm is an intimate and honest account of this truce. It is based on, and narrated by letters home, war journals, radio broadcasts and similar first hand accounts. Here is a link to the website where you can learn more and watch the trailer. I hope it comes to a theater near me.
We are forever promised that holders of high office will cut budgets by going after waste, fraud and abuse. Recently we heard about members of the Soviet diplomatic corps cheating the US Medicaid program. The scam was repeated by so many over so many years that it was apparently considered one of the perks of office. Lie about household income; qualify for Medicaid, receive pre-natal care and hospital delivery, and then blend back into the New York City glitter of shops and high living. Here's the story from the New York Times. Don't think the Russians are the only foreign nationals who know how to defraud Medicaid with this abuse. Ask those you know in the immigrant community. They know who else has babies this way. How does Medicaid miss these cheats? This is not something new. Each successful theft from the United States tax payer emboldens the next perpetrator. If I had heard about this long before the Russian scandal broke, why doesn't Medicaid know? Are we afraid of profiling? Are we uneasy about careful scrutiny of applicants with foreign passports? Too bad. There are plenty of needy people in our Medicaid programs who could use the money.
The monuments and myths of our earliest ancestors bear witness to their spirituality. The solstice is central to much early worship marking the end of darkening and beginning of new dawn. I believe that the great light of a new star and the belief in birth of hope incarnate are of a spiritual whole with centuries of earlier solstice celebrations. Poetry and music kept belief and tradition alive long before the printing press. The words and music to an old song were transformed by Johann Sebastian Bach into his beautiful Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. I offer below the chorale, Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light, and then a link to a full performance of the Oratorio. I chose a 2007 recording by the All South Jersey Senior High Choir for the chorale. Here is the link
If you are interested in a closer listen to the harmonies that float the chorale, here is an interesting version recorded by one young man, four times, so that he presents each voice part.
And finally, the Christmas Oratorio. Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir. Stonehenge offers a bold, but silent tribute to renewed hope. This piece is a full of the sound of glory.
I will be meeting a friend that morning. She and I meet every month to take a long walk. And talk. The sun will have risen at 7:55. At 9:11 here in the Pacific Northwest, the sun and earth will mark the winter solstice and daylight hours will begin to increase. The tilt of the earth on its axis will again draw the Northern Hemisphere into alignment to receive more direct rays from the sun. Above the Arctic Circle where my professional work took me, the sun would again appear above the horizon after the winter solstice. (The 24 hour night in the Arctic is not the black of midnight. The sun remains below below the horizon but the rays create a dawn and dusk that lighten the sky.) My friend and I will talk about our families and ourselves. The inconvenience of the short November and December days does not keep us from the busyness of retirement. We are carefree in comparison to the millennia of ancestors for whom hope for survival was renewed with the sun's return. If we are not alone in the Universe - if there is another planet of just the right mass, orbit and distance from its sun - if there is intelligent life - do they understand yet the cause of the daylight cycle? Are they building a Stonehenge? Or is their science and technology taking them into exploration of their universe? I will tell my friend, as I do every year, that I am a cave woman at heart. My spirits lift and I feel a surge of renewal - this year at 9:11 AM on December 21.
KCNA, North Korea's official news agency has described the reasons for the execution (without trial) of Jan Song Thaek. He is the uncle of dictator Kim Jong Un. As our political season ends, however briefly, for the rest of 2013, it is worth reading every word. We, and others in the free world, have choices about our relationship with North Korea. Those choices should be informed by this glimpse into the mindset that would author such a message. We fool ourselves if we think we understand. Here is the link.
This is a "must read" subject. Here is one of many stories, this one from the Washington Post, about the 16 year old who drunkenly drove his Ford truck into a group of people who were assisting with a breakdown at the side of the road. He killed four of them. His lawyer's defense was that he suffered from affluenza, the ennui and depravity of certain of the very rich whose wealth enshrouds them in a sense of entitlement. In such a privileged frame of mind they should be excused from the consequences of poor choices. I am dumbstruck that a judge bought this line. Beware. There might be such a person driving in your lane.
A friend keeps a little notebook in his breast pocket. He writes down things that I forget. Such as the names of people to whom he has been introduced. The departure time for the next train. The items he is going to pick up at the store. I don't have any shirts with breast pockets. I recommend his little notebook. I add my own advice:
Assign a place for everything you care about.
Always put the item back in its place - immediately.
Empty the pockets of coats and jackets before you rehang them.
With my friend's notebook, and a place for everything and empty pockets, you will save yourself time and gain considerable peace of mind.
While you were hard at work earning a living your government was demanding 20 years worth of documentation in pursuit of evidence of anticompetitive business practices. The "perp"? The Music Teachers National Association. The absurdity of this investigation is not apparent to the FTC. Alert agents learned that the Music Teachers' Code of Ethics, followed dutifully by members since their incorporation in 1876, contains language which could create coercive monopolies to the disadvantage of prospective music students. Here is the language in which danger lies: "Members....will respect the studios of other teachers...(and refrain from) actively soliciting (their students)". You can learn more about the MTNA here. You can learn more about the consent decree from the Music Trades online Journal. I feel especially well protected knowing that an anti-trust disclaimer will be read at every future MTNA event. There may be a recital in your future. Will you be comforted to know that your grandchild, seated at the large piano, legs not touching the floor, tiny fingers bent in concentration, has entered a musical community that has been cleansed by Federal vigilance? In case you don't have a music student in your life, here is a video which I particularly like.