Felsenmusick - The Weblog of Daniel Felsenfeld
The Web Log of a Certain Daniel Felsenfeld: Composer, critic, avid reader, aspiring
bon vivant, capricorn, shadowy figure, advice for the lovelorn

Monday, October 30, 2006

Shakespeare Wars

Ron Rosenbaum's new book The Shakespeare Wars has been bothering me for some time now. I dove in with unadulterated enthusiasm, being a huge devotee of his prior outings (Explaining Hitler, a dark odyssey into the weird underworld of Hitler scholarship should be required reading for the world; The Secret Parts of Fortune, a collection of reviews and articles is a madcap embarrassment of riches; and even the book he edited about Israel, Those Who Forget the Past, is fascinating and as complex as his topic warrants, agree with him or no) and after reading found myself slightly soured. Why, I could not tell for some time.

Perhaps it was too short: at around 600 pages, any attempt to not only explain Shakespeare but the people who explain (or interpret) Shakespeare is still merely going to glance the surface. Perhaps it was too narrow: glaring omissions (Kenneth Brannagh, actors aside from Kevin Kline, the entire anti-Stratfordian movement) made the book come off as light rather than tendentious. Perhaps it was too much about Mr. Rosenbaum himself: I do appreciate that he was knocked sideways by Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream (in an era before documentation so nobody who wasn't there could possibly know--which came off as charming, wispy elusiveness to Mr. Rosenbaum's credit). Perhaps it was too spiteful: more space was devoted to the bonehead who misclaimed the arduous Funeral Elegie to be Shakespeare's and the vivisection of Harold Bloom (ouch!) than to the entire profession of acting.

Mostly, I think it is because the project has such promise--exploring not Shakespeare but those who explore Shakespeare, just as he did previously with Hitler--that it could not deliver. I will no doubt get into a wooly thoughthole by saying that it is easier to dig at the heart of Hitler (who was pure, unadulterated evil, not open to interpretation because, should you disagree, you too are pure, unadulterated evil) than the genius of Shakespeare (whose genius, because it comes in the form of art not murder, annihalation, or occupation, is more difficult to get a bead on). Perhaps his unbridled enthusiasm for the Swan of Avon makes him unable to get past his hero-crush and on to a serious look at what is a rather rich topic: in other words (those of the bard, sort of), he loves his subject not wisely but too well.

What was most niggling was his own inability to get over himself, his past projects, his early, swoony days in college where the world laid before him like a sonnet, ready to be parced, interpreted, splayed, formulated, and ridden home on the wings of language's ineffable beauty. His animosity toward Bloom's notions that Shakespeare not only outlined human nature but had a hand in inventing it--bardolatry, this is often called--seems to stem from some uncomfortable moments in his Yale seminar with the professor (or a discomfort with Bloom's celebrity). I have to give him credit for not launching, Joseph Epstein style, a full assault on Mr. Bloom, but I did get the sense that was an editorial choice more than anything. Really, the tone of the book feels (and this he does share with Epstein) like the nagging reflectiveness of someone who cannot stop reminding you he caught that pass in high school.

Clearly, this is a book that needs to be written, and the force of my criticism--the fact that I could not stop thinking about it--means that Mr. Rosenbaum was (is) on to something. Believe it or not, I look forward to the next volume (if one is to be) because perhaps he's heading somewhere, a vast somewhere, I cannot understand from close viewing. I certainly hope so, because he's unleashed something really precious here, something that truly needs to be said--eventually.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Two Documentaries

Watching Frank Scheffer's documentary about Elliott Carter A Labyrinth of Time and Tony Palmer's Renee Fleming was unsettling for one reason: both make disturbing, gratuitious use of the image of the burning site of the World Trade Center. Carter seems, in this pretentious documentary, to spend a lot of time gazing out the window on the site of the disaster; Fleming did, in fact, sing "Amazing Grace" at the site, but the film slaps you in the face with it, the famous ruinous facade following hot on the heels of the complete footage of her appearance on Sesame Street (the film's opening sequence).

I think these two artists should certainly be documented, but as someone who survived the crash, why use it? It does not help to understand either one.

That aside, both films are certainly worth watching, typical fripperies aside (Carter acrimoniously laments the lack of talent among American composers as he dotters around his apartment; Ms. Fleming explains why it's tough for her to land a man with her vagabond lifestyle), because how often do we get even glimpses into the private lives of people along these lines. At that point, the quality of the filmmaking--and I have serious issues with both projects--is immaterial. Even the wort, most Frenchified shot of Carter scratching his inscruitable notes carefully onto huge paper with shaking hand, or the footage of Fleming eating a diet bar with Valery Gergiev while listening to their playback of a Verdi Requiem recording, is still needed in a world wherein these activities contain too much mystery. So bravo to both for taking on such "unpopular" subjects and making them a little more available to us, even if the effort is a bit quaint, a little smooth around the edges.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Once Again, Sorry Felsenreaders

Between a spate of holidays, the commencing of several new jobs, some due commissions, and the proofing of my new book, it seems my poor little blog has fallen off my own charts. There's so much I've wanted to write about which is now old hat because time has yet again gotten the better of me. I even wanted to review some books--Mark Z. Danielewski's epoch-making (and traversing) Only Revolutions, Clare Messud's fantastic The Emperor's Children, Ron Rosembaum's The Shakespeare Wars, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, and the six volume set of Huxley's essays--and write about some amazing new records (too numerous to list in an offset em-dash way), but that will all, I suppose, have to wait.

In the meantime, allow me to insert a plug for an upcoming concert this weekend: the American Composer's Orchestra will be playing in Carnegie Hall this Friday (the 13th, so prepare to be scared), a whole spate of interesting new repertoire, pieces by Michael Gandolfi (a favorite, an old teacher, a friend), Brad Lubman, Evan Ziporyn, Michael Gatonska, Susie Ibara and Corey Dargel. Should be a rangy show, an unpredictable, crossover venture from the ACO as we've come to know them. Details here.

In the meantime, accept my apologies for not writing more.

And lastly (is that even a word?), kudos to Steve Smith of Night After Night blog fame for winning this year's prestigious Deems Taylor Award, well-earned and much deserved. Good for Steve (who is also lucky enough to have become engaged to someone quite wonderful) and good for blogs. Nice to know these scribbings, from some, are actually noticed.