Monday, January 26, 2009


Photo:Bruce Damonte/

Today’s posting is a real grab bag of topics. But I guess that’s why this blog is called POTPOURRI.

Yesterday was not only the 250th birthday of Scotland’s national poet, but it was the final Sunday for my Dean, Alan Jones, of Grace Cathedral. The two major services seemed almost an installation—or even coronation— rather than a farewell. We had four trumpets, four trombones, tympani and assorted percussion with two choirs and full organ for the eleven o’clock service. I sang with the Choir of Men and Boys. Three of the pieces were actual English Coronation anthems, I guess because Alan Jones as a young boy had sung at the coronation of Elizabeth II, and had premiered both the Vaughan Williams and the Walton pieces. The Parry was a holdover from the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. At Evensong we premiered a newly commissioned Mag & Nunc (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) by Stephen Paulus. It was commissioned by Donald Runnicles, the opera conductor, in honor of The Very Reverend Alan Jones, Seventh Dean of Grace Cathedral. (I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve been at Grace for four of the seven Deans.) Both services went very well. Alan Jones had been installed as Dean on Michaelmas 1985—just three months before Dennis and I got together. So it was a poignant remembrance and completion of that whole period of my life.

Saturday I visited the new Contemporary Jewish Museum before seeing the new Daniel Craig film Defiance. The museum opened a few months ago, but this was my first visit. It’s a fascinating building with its blend of old and new. The older building is a handsome brick Renaissance revival style built as a PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) Power Substation in the “City Beautiful” tradition by Willis Polk just after the great earthquake and fire of 1906. To me its style looked more Venetian Renaissance than Roman or Florentine, so I guess that makes it appropriate for a Jewish Museum, since the term ‘ghetto’ was first used in Venice.

The new addition was designed by the Polish architect Daniel Liebeskind, and features among other things a stainless steel blue cube.

Since its founding in 1984, the Contemporary Jewish Museum has engaged audiences of all ages and backgrounds through dynamic exhibitions and programs that explore contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. Throughout its history, the Museum has distinguished itself as a welcoming place where visitors can connect with one another through dialogue and shared experiences with the arts.

In 1990, the success of the Museum prompted its leadership to plan for a more expansive facility to meet the growing interests of the local community. The Museum began formally exploring real estate options when the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (1994-1995) invited the Museum to develop the historic Jessie Street Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Power Substation, a 1907 landmark designed by architect Willis Polk.

In 1998, the Museum selected architect Daniel Libeskind to design its new home. Envisioned as a dynamic and welcoming space, the new 63,000-square-foot facility was planned to be a place to experience art, music, film, literature, debate, and — most importantly — other people. Daniel Libeskind's design for the Museum does not simply house this programmatic vision; it enables and inspires it.

I particularly enjoyed the inside of the blue cube, which is not what I had expected. The exterior is blue stainless steel. The inside has white walls, and is an open space, used not for display of art, but as a listening hall currently for commissioned music based on several Hebrew letters.

From a new building by a modern Polish architect, to a Hollywood movie about Jews in Belorussia during World War II. Defiance is a gripping film, though I’m not sure how accurate it is. Daniel Craig was terrific. With the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day coming up tomorrow, it somehow seemed appropriate to see it now, even if it is somewhat a Hollywood, cleaned up version of real events. When I wrote about the second partition of Poland the other day, I mentioned World War II only in passing. A sense of the horror of that war can be experienced in several other films: The Pianist, Schindler’s List and one of my all time favorites, Sophie’s Choice.

Meryl Streep won the Screen Actors Guild award last night for her portrayal of the headmistress nun in Doubt. She was wonderful in it. I shouldn’t be surprised-- I guess I am gullible-- but I am continually amazed at the power of her acting. One of my favorite performances of hers was Sophie in Sophie’s Choice. It’s hard to believe that that was her last of only two Oscars for best actress, since she’s done so many memorable roles since. (She’s just been nominated for her fifteenth Oscar!) I loaned a DVD of Sophie’s Choice to my Polish friend Adam. I asked him how good her accent was. He said he didn’t notice she had one. I guess that’s the proof in the pudding. (I think Meryl Streep and I overlapped a couple of years in New Haven. I’m sure I saw her in several productions of the Yale Rep.)

Meryl Streep has an extraordinary capacity to immerse herself in a role and deliver lines in impeccable accents. I loved her as the Danish writer Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. The only disappointment in that movie was Robert Redford. He played an Englishman... with an American accent. I’m sure he felt he couldn’t compete with Meryl Streep in that category, but I feel it would have been preferable just to make his character an American, since he didn’t use a British accent. By the way, I adore the Romantic score from Out of Africa by John Barry.

Then last night I watched the new Lifetime made-for-television-movie “Prayers for Bobby” starring Sigourney Weaver. I had read a preview of it in the blog “Loose Ends” by New York actor Patrick. (His blog is one of several I follow. I have a link to it here and recommend it highly.) The film is not perfect, but it was very moving.

It brought back memories of my own crisis at twenty. Oh, how I felt I was utterly alone! I didn’t have fire and brimstone Fundamentalist parents – but my Dad was a United Methodist minister and Mother, a very rigid and uptight moralist. It was fortunate I tried other means. I never had the courage or nerve to jump. I liked the Keats' quotation: “To cease at midnight with no pain.”

Over the weekend I finished the new Steve Berry novel The Charlemagne Pursuit. It's a whopping good tale. I first got interested in him with The Venetian Betrayal. I had read in reviews that it contained the premise that Saint Mark in the crypt of San Marco in Venice was actually Alexander the Great. Well in the novel it turned out not to be the case. It got much more complicated and very interesting. But I think there's a decent case that Alexander may really be there. And providing that Philip II was Alexander's actual father (a debatable point in itself) you could prove it by DNA analysis, since Philip's tomb was discovered about thirty years ago. Of course, I know that the Roman church would never allow such analysis. And I would personally miss the patron saint of Venice. After all, that's the lion on the Venetian flag!

Final thought for the day: “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” on this first day of the Chinese New Year, in the year of the Ox. Greetings as a new year begins!

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Titian in the Frari (Venezia)