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Emily Dickinson: our first language poet

    I died for beauty, but was scarce
    Adjusted in the tomb,
    When one who died for truth was lain
    In an adjoining room.

    He questioned softly why I failed?
    "For beauty," I replied.
    "And I for truth, — the two are one;
     We brethren are," he said.

     And so, as kinsmen met a night,
     We talked between the rooms,
     Until the moss had reached our lips,
      And covered up our names.
Just opening a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems to any random page is likely to turn up poems that will not only surprise and amuse you, but may also lead you reexamine your ideals, your blind allegiance to authority, even your assumptions about grammar and the transparency of language.  More than any other 19th century American poet including Whitman--whose expansion vision of nation and self gave rise to free verse--Dickinson's minimalist dissection of received ideas contains the seeds of 20th century literary modernism.  You can draw a direct line, for instance, between these three verses and the plays of Samuel Beckett.

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Considering 'Little Amadeus'


When I was a kid, I fell in love with Mozart because of public television. It was "Sesame Street" that did it for me. They had a short film of bridges they used to show -- kids running over bridges, riding their bikes over bridges. And they would play the "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."

The music just clicked with me. I always loved when they would show that film, because I couldn't wait to hear it again. Thus began what I have to say has become a lifelong obsession. I still love the "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and I still love Mozart. Just hearing the music was all it took.

That is why find this "Wunderkind Little Amadeus" cartoon (it airs locally Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. on WNED-TV) such a frustrating mixed bag. It is supposed to get kids to love Mozart and classical music. But the music is the one thing that is missing.

The show's title theme -- which has dumb lyrics including "Little Amadeus, your music and your sound/Little Amadeus, they make the world go round" -- is not even Mozart. It's the kind of annoying grating theme that sticks maddeningly in your head, with bits and pieces worked in of the beautiful baby sonata in C, K. 545, that Mozart wrote for beginners.

They couldn't just play that sonata!

The animated episodes are cute to an extent. They show the precocious 8-year-old boy composer facing various sitcom predicaments in 1768 Salzburg. That is a picture of the cartoon Little Amadeus up above.

Salzburg is depicted with admirable precision -- you've got the Mozarts' dog, Bimperl, and their landlords, the Hagenauers, and Mozart's sweet-natured buddy Kajetan Hagenauer, who was just a tad older than he and grew up to be a priest. The episodes do a beautiful job also of establishing Salzburg's 18th century ambience, with everyone's lives centered on the Catholic Church -- portrayed, for once, as a force for good.

Everything flies off the tracks, though, with the bad guys. The cartoonists apparently worried they couldn't keep kids entertained with gentle humor, so they threw in a fictional villain who lives in a dark castle and is trying to foil the Mozarts' every move. A touch of this sort of stuff might be appropriate -- Mozart always had this belief in the back of his mind that enemies were out to get him, and he might have been right. But the bad guys in "Wunderkind Little Amadeus" become boring and annoying, and they dominate.

And for heavens' sake, the kid went by Wolfgang, not Amadeus. Sorry. The bad guys annoyed me so much that the name business began to bother me, too.

It's nice to get kids thinking about Mozart. But in the end, it's the music that is going to awaken their interest. That's what did it for me. And in "Wunderkind Little Amadeus," for all its research and good intentions, the music is the one thing that's missing.

--Mary Kunz Goldman

Brahms and the Buffalo Chamber Players

Brahms The Buffalo Chamber Players' concert Wednesday is unusual in that the Chamber Players are being joined by a choir, the Freudig Singers -- and also by Sebnem Mekinulov, who will be singing a famous pair of songs by Johannes Brahms, set for voice, viola and piano.

I was just looking around for performances of these songs on You Tube and I found two beautiful videos, with images and translations.

There is a certain art to this kind of craft. You do not want the images to be too distracting. You do not want pictures either that are going to stick in your head so vividly that the song will be forever associated with them in your mind. I have always thought that is a problem with pop music videos. You see the video, and you cannot hear the song again without picturing it.

Anyway, I am posting these videos of these two exquisite Brahms songs, to get everyone psyched for the concert.

Here is the first song, "Gestillte Sehnsucht" ("Stilled Longing").

Here is the second, "Geistliches Weigenlied" ("Spiritual Slumber Song," more or less).

Above is a hip poster of Brahms that the Buffalo Chamber Players have been circulating.

The concert takes place Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Buffalo Seminary. Admission is $15. For more information, visit the Chamber Player's Web site or call 462-5659.

--Mary Kunz Goldman

Alice McDermott's skein of stories

Rereading  Alice McDermott's National Book Award-winning novel Charming Billy in preparation for her Hassett Series reading tonight at Canisius College, I was reminded of how much we are not only products of our own circumstances, but also of the stories we choose to tell about ourselves, the stories that are told about us, and which of these stories we choose to believe or disbelieve about ourselves and others.  For McDermott--one of our finest weavers of the skein of stories that form the shadowy interiors of domestic life--the idea of family is as much a narrative construct as it is a genetic and socioeconomic one.

McDermott, who will read from and discuss her work tonight at 7 p.m. in Canisius College's Montante Cultural Center, excels at what one critic once referred to as "the literature of wry sorrow," a compact, unsentimentalized, contemporary retelling of material that has mythic roots and impulses--almost all of it set in Irish-American, Catholic neighborhoods of Queens, New York and Long Island from 1940 to the present.  One of the issues Charming Billy asks us to consider is whether or not an entire life can be undone by a single well-intended lie.

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An Astonishing Horn of Plenty

A colleague reported that when she first heard about the upcoming "Babel" series of writer appearances, she was in her car and nearly drove off the road in excitement.

I know what she means.

I was on vacation and periodically checking my office E-mail when I found out and my immediate thought was "that is the most spectacular local literary series yet."

Which is one reason why Just Buffalo has moved the series from Babeville to--yes--Kleinhans Music Hall beginning with Isabel Allende's appearance closing out the series this season.

In case you missed the announcement in last Friday's Gusto, those to come in the 2009-2010 series are: A. S. Byatt, the sister of writer Margaret Drabble and the author of "Possession" the tour de force that many would nominate as the most absorbing and virtuosic of the past 20 years on Oct. 9; Ha Jin, author of "Waiting" on Nov. 20; Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Teheran" on March 5; and returning to the "Babel" series, the star of its first season, Salman Rushdie, in this instance, reading from his first novel "Midnight's Children" on April 16 next year.

This is, in fact, an uncommonly rich season in general for literary appearances and announcements in Western New York. Reading from her work this evening at 7 p.m. in Canisius College's Contemporary Writers series is Alice McDermott, frequent Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the National Book Award in 1998 for "Charming Billy." She will read and discuss her work in Canisius' Montante Cultural Center.

And novelist/humorist Greg Ames, whose "Buffalo Lockjaw" is one of the most impressive novels in a sudden wave of them about Buffalo, begins a series of readings and book signings in Buffalo at 7 p.m. tomorrow in Talking Leaves Books on Main St. Another Ames appearance reading from "Buffalo Lockjaw" and signing books will be at 7 p.m. Thursday in Borders in Cheektowaga.

--Jeff Simon


Harold who?

This piece by Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout comes highly recommended by former Buffalonian Liz Dribben, and it's a definite must-read.

In the column, Teachout gives a quick and sharp analysis of the work of Harold Clurman, co-founder of the Group Theatre and an incredibly perceptive (if underappreciated) drama critic. His power, Teachout writes, came from his intimate knowledge of what it took to put a play onstage. And through the column, Teachout does his part to rescue Clurman's genius from the obfuscating force of history:

You'd think that so productive a writer would be better remembered, but you'd be wrong. Though it's still in print, "The Collected Works of Harold Clurman" goes unmentioned in Clurman's Wikipedia entry, which concentrates all but exclusively on his work as a director. I'm ashamed to admit that it was only a couple of weeks ago that I belatedly got around to reading it, and in the process I came to realize that Clurman was one of a handful of American drama critics whose reviews are now of more than purely historical interest. That's putting it mildly: He was one of the best critics of his time, as good on theater as Otis Ferguson was on film, Edwin Denby on dance, Fairfield Porter on art and Virgil Thomson on classical music.

Read the whole piece here.

--Colin Dabkowski

Amherst resident wins National Geographic contest


A photograph by Dena Bowman, one of 20 winners of the National Geographic "Visions of Paradise" competition.

This slipped by me when it was announced a few months ago, but it's still of definite interest. Last year, National Geographic held a nationwide photography contest as a sort of pseudo-promotion for its periodic "Visions of Paradise" photography book. And Dena Bowman, of Amherst, was one of the final 20 contest winners. The prize -- a free copy of the book with the winner's photograph on the cover -- isn't much, but the recognition is priceless. Check out the other winners here.

--Colin Dabkowski

Poets Theater at Burchfield Penney Art Center

Poetry and theater are inextricably linked dating back to their common roots in religious ritual. The term "Poets Theater," however has a specific contemporary meaning.  It refers to a body of work composed as avant-garde theater by post World War Two American poets exploring the performative aspects of language and poetry.
In their forthcoming book, The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theatre: 1945-1985, co-editors Kevin Killian and David Brazil explain: "With new interest in poetry as a performative art, and with prewar experiments much in mind, the young poets of postwar America infused the stage with the rhythms and shocks of their poetry. From the multidisciplinary nexus of Black Mountain, to the Harvard-based Cambridge Poets Theater of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, to the West Coast anarchy of Robert Duncan, Helen Adam, and Michael McClure, these energies manifested themselves all at once, and through the decades have continued to grow and mutate, innovating a form of writing that defies boundaries of genre."

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The talented Mr. Ruminski

Valerian I recently spoke on the phone with Valerian Ruminski, the bass baritone who has gone forth from Buffalo to make a noise in the opera world. That is Valerian smiling at left.

It is always fun to hear about Valerian's fast-paced life. He was recently hired as a professor voice at SUNY Westchester. And he is fresh back from two months in Hawaii, where he sang in "Carmen" and "Manon Lescaut" for the Hawaii Opera Theatre. He will be returning to Hawaii shortly to sing "The Marriage of Figaro." Valerian draws praise wherever he goes. One reviewer, covering a performance of Handel he gave last year in Avery Fisher Hall, pointed out his "outstanding coloratura facility."

And here is good news for us back in his hometown: Valerian has returned to his dream of arranging opera productions in the Buffalo area. For years, he has been kicking around the idea of a production company called Nickel City Opera. And now, he is arranging a co-production between this entity and a Canadian company, Ottawa Pocket Opera. They are planning a production of "The Barber of Seville" at North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre on June 26 and 28.

Singers are still to be announced, but the production will feature the Eastern Festival Symphony, a student orchestra from Westchester. "They're good," Valerian says, "and they want the experience."

Mark your calendars, because this should be fun.

--Mary Kunz Goldman

Problems in Phoenix


This bulletin just in from Musical America, involving West Seneca East grad Michael Christie, above, who is now in his fourth year as music director of the Phoenix Symphony.

Efforts by Phoenix Symphony Music Director Michael Christie, 34, to “upgrade” the orchestra have resulted in a barrage of legal challenges. Eight players have filed age-discrimination complaints with the EEOC, including principal cellist Richard Bock, 62, who was fired in January, and principal violist Peter Rosato. Further, the local office of the National Labor Relations Board “has issued a formal complaint against the Phoenix Symphony's leadership, including Christie, alleging violations of the federal National Labor Relations Act…. The complaint charges that the symphony has been discriminating against its employees, punishing them, demoting them, and sometimes firing them because they have come to each others' defense, spoken out, and/or have made complaints against the symphony to the EEOC.”

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