Friday, September 26, 2008

My Lenny

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm not entirely sure what the occasion is for "Our Lenny," a celebration/retrospective of the legendary musician Leonard Bernstein that's airing on WNYC, New York's public-radio station; sure, it's the 90th anniversary of his birth in 1918, but why 90? Why not 100? That number sounds more "celebratory," to me. Whatever. The program started a couple days ago, it's running for a little over two weeks, and it has recently gotten me to reflect on how Bernstein, in a certain way, affected my own way of looking at music, art and the world. If the following personal testimonial sounds like fanboy gush, I apologize, but in this case, the man is, for the most part, worth the gush.


I don't remember exactly which year it happened---it was probably during one of my middle-school or junior-high-school years---but one day, I was browsing through the classical-music section of my local library, and I came across a box set they had available that piqued my interest. It was Leonard Bernstein's second complete Mahler symphony cycle on the Deutsche Grammophon label, and the first thing I noticed was that each jewel case of the 13-disc set was a photo of the grand old man Bernstein, always in the midst of symphonic rapture, eyes closed or face in a half-smile, living the emotion of a particular musical moment onstage.

But I didn't pick the set up primarily because of the conductor. At the time I had developed a mild obsession with Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony (his second, for those who aren't hip to it), especially its finale, a visionary 30-plus-minute epic narrative that plumbs the depths of, well, sonic and spiritual death and transfiguration (to borrow the title of a Richard Strauss tone poem). I had heard one previous CD recording of the work---a reasonably fine Teldec disc with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic---but Bernstein's interpretation was something else entirely.

In the finale, about 10 or so minutes in, after a brief hushed moment from the lower strings (this coming after a powerfully sustained orchestral tutti), a drumroll materializes from the ether and begins a gradual crescendo, underpinned by tam-tam. At the peak of its crescendo, the brass punches out three notes; Another gradual-crescendo drumroll/tam-tam combo occurs, followed by the brass punching out two more notes until the entire orchestra bursts in---the "march of the dead" has begun. It's a breathtaking passage, and Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic played it in suitably impressive fashion. But then I turned to the equivalent passage in the Bernstein recording and it was like hearing something from another world. As he and the New York Philharmonic played it in their 1987 DG recording, he stretches out that initial drumroll to about 20 long-drawn seconds before the brass enter; I'm not sure I could ever do it justice in merely trying to describe it, but the effect, as executed by Bernstein and his orchestra, was exhilarating, alive and absolutely nuts---a total fulfillment of the "Christendom gone mad" characterization Bernstein articulated in an essay about Mahler that was included in the box set.

That week I rabidly devoured the rest of that box set, and each recording provided one profound emotional epiphany after another: the glowing hymn to love that rounds off Mahler's gigantic Third, the terrifying depths of despair and tragedy covered by his Sixth, the modernistic weirdness of the Seventh, the bleak leave-takings of the concluding Adagio of his Ninth (answered with a bit more affirmation with the opening Adagio of his unfinished Tenth). All these delirious sounds were coming out of my radio, being channeled from the pages of Mahler's score through Bernstein's baton through my speakers. Under Bernstein, Mahler's music embraced profound emotional extremes, and that certainly spoke to me during a time in my life---adolescence---when I couldn't help but feel those extremes and embrace artworks that expressed exactly what I felt, or what I wished I could feel, in raw, uncompromising terms.

Bernstein's emotionally generous, yet never crude, approach to Mahler---and to just about all of the music he composed and conducted through his long and illustrious career---is not the only one, of course, and one could certainly make the argument that, as an interpreter in general, Bernstein had a tendency to put himself above the music he was supposed to serve, especially in concert when he made his own athletic podium manner a part of the attraction. Egotism and exhibitionism? Maybe. And yet, I think it would be short-sighted of me to deny the profound effect Bernstein's music-making had In one fell swoop, he helped open my eyes to a certain way of approaching art: an approach that isn't afraid of feeling, of finding rough beauty in ugliness, and, above all, isn't overly concerned with maintaining good manners at the expense of human warmth. (It's a temperament that, by all accounts, extended into his personality and personal life---his desire to bring the joy of music to everyone's life.) Perhaps I've been unduly spoiled by his openhearted, soul-baring emotionalism, but it's the kind of feeling I can't help but crave from artworks these days---music, movies or otherwise.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't take the time to mention that this is one of my favorite records ever, and that if you haven't heard Bernstein's live 1988 take on Shostakovich's much-maligned "Leningrad" Symphony, as performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its pulverizing brass, oh boy, are you missing out!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sense and Sensibility?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Man, what a week!

I don't think I have to recount for you all the whole host of bad news that came out of Wall Street this past week. Turns out Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were only the tip of the iceberg, to say the least, as firms like Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG all seemed to fall like dominoes, one after another. The latter two got some help, either from another investment firm or from the Fed; Lehman, however, ended up having to fend for itself and file for bankruptcy. (After bailing out those first three organizations, I guess the Fed had to draw a line somewhere, though, of course, tell that to all those people with families who are in grave danger of losing their jobs because of the Chapter 11 filing.)

Anyway, all this turmoil in the financial markets found something of a mirror reflection at The Wall Street Journal---lots of late lock-ups, lots of last-minute decisions to be made, etc. Some of this, no doubt, has to do with the restructuring that's going on at the Global News Desk, which has meant a short staff in general and thus lots of responsibilities being heaped upon less people than usual. But I can't help but think there's still some kind of correlation between this financial crisis and some of the fresh stresses at my little corner of the journalistic world. Has to be, right? We are The Wall Street Journal, after all...

As ever, I'm maintaining positive thoughts in my head: from simply a dispassionate-observer point-of-view, all of this is rather fascinating to watch and be a part of. And at least I still have a place to go and earn my keep every day (a place where I'm fairly well-respected as well---that certainly helps).

And to what's going on in the markets right now...well, I apologize if this sounds flippant or snarky, but I can't help but echo something an NPR anchor uttered earlier in the week, when he said that even his six-year-old daughter knows not to lend money to people you suspect may have trouble paying you back (or something to that effect). Seems like plain old good sense, doesn't it? But apparently good sense is the first thing to fly out the window, for lenders, borrowers and regulators, when times are good financially...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lucky Me

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Next week I'll probably put up a more substantive post, especially after seeing the Coen brothers' latest film, the farce/tragedy Burn After Reading, which I enjoyed immensely and which once again has me reflecting on just what kind of "contempt" is seemingly acceptable among many film critics these days. (Once again, I'm seeing adjectives like "snarky" and "condescending" popping up in critics' reviews, and it's enough to make me tear out some of the hairs from my head in frustration.)

In the meantime...well, I might as well link all of you readers to a link to a personal essay I recently wrote for what I guess one could unofficially call the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund '08 blog, created not only for the current crop of copy-editing interns that went through Professor Edward Trayes's rigorous (to put it mildly) two-week residency at Temple University, but also for past Trayes alumni like myself. Basically, it sums up what has happened to me at Dow Jones in the past few months, amidst all the talk of relocations, layoffs, consolidations and such.

It also had a concluding section of personal advice that was apparently cut out of the post as it finally appeared I'm going to reprint that truncated final two paragraphs or so below---just because I feel like it.

Thus, I come to the part of my entry where I guess I’m supposed to offer some advice to all you Trayes vets out there reading this blog. Well, I’m not the one for advice; I don’t think I’ve really lived enough to have much interesting advice to impart. Still, I have gotten something out of my recent experiences that I would love to share with you all, if you haven’t figured this out already for yourselves.

Basically, it’s this: don’t be afraid to just go wherever the wind takes you. You never know where you will end up, and that way of thinking just makes life much more colorful and interesting. This isn’t to say that you should take a passive approach to your own life and career; certainly, it’s good to have a long-range goal in the back of your mind to guide you in your decision-making. But be eager to take on a broad range of tasks, expanding your skill set, even stepping out of your own comfort zone once in a while. Such an attitude of openness can only help as your career rolls along. And if you ever become worried that all this experimentation may lead you astray from your long-range goals…then I can only suggest that, with a combination of smarts and luck, yes, it’s quite possible to be confident that eventually things will work out in the end, whatever issues you will come across. It has certainly worked out for me up to this point, in more ways than I ever dreamed.

Friday, September 05, 2008


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I know, I know: it's been about two weeks since my last update.

When I've taken such lengthy breaks between posts in the past, it's because I haven't been able to work up the enthusiasm to blog about anything in particular. This time, however, I think I can honestly say that I've been legitimately too busy both at work and outside of it these past couple of weeks to have the time to sit down and compose a thoughtful, substantive entry. Yes, readers, I have actually, for once, been living it up! (We'll see how long that lasts.)

What have I been doing, some of you might be wondering (if you haven't abandoned this blog already)? An accounting of events and impressions is in order...


Over the years, I've developed a bit of an allergy to the institution of the Broadway musical---not just because Broadway has recently been putting on too many revivals, revues and movie-to-stage adaptations to my liking, but also because I've just found the genre increasingly irrelevant: too many glitzy, empty spectacles, too little connection to anything resembling reality or art. That said, I've still attended a good amount of local musical productions: at Rutgers, the Livingston Theater Company made musicals its raison d'etre (even though their productions rarely ever approached anything beyond the agreeably second-rate), and every summer a friend and I check out generally high-quality productions at Plays in the Park, a state government-sponsored theater that stages musicals outdoors at dirt-cheap ticket prices. Thus, I've had more than my fill of Broadway musicals---but precious few of them have made such a profound impression on me that I would rank them aside, say, some of the more revelatory movie-watching experiences of my life. Perhaps a Livingston Theater Company production of A Chorus Line was the closest I've ever come to actually feeling something close to rapture at a Broadway musical. That show, with its tough-minded portrait of backstage Broadway life, broken dreams and artistic compromises, felt deep and humane in ways that other hit shows I've seen---like Cats, Miss Saigon, and The Producers---don't even bother to approach. Those three---among many others I've seen---may make for great tourist attractions, but they're high on glamour and short on humanity. And as for actually going to New York to see these shows...well, do I even have to remind you all how expensive those tickets can get? (Oops, I guess I just did.)

But a few weeks ago, a friend of mine brought up the idea of finally biting the bullet and plunking down our hard-earned money to see a show in the city---Spring Awakening, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's 2007 Tony Award Best Musical winner. My friend's main interest in seeing it mostly lay in glimpsing a new cast member, Hunter Parrish, the MILF-loving son in Weeds. I had heard other friends rave about the show, so I figured I'd take a chance on it (a $94 chance, to be precise).

Folks...Spring Awakening is so good that it provided an awakening of sorts in me: a reawakened thirst for more theatrical experiences, and in general more of the culture, high or low, that New York has to offer. Frankly, the idea of seeing art-house films after a tiring day at work just isn't exciting me anymore (I almost dozed off at the last one I saw, Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon; that doesn't mean the movie was bad---the parts I was fully conscious for were actually quite breathtaking---just that I had a really long day); it's time to branch out. As Frank Sinatra famously sang: I want to be a part of it---New York, New York!

Oh yeah, back to Spring Awakening. My theater-going companion, in typical ad-blurb style, simplified it down to a cross between Rent and The History Boys. Um, well, I haven't seen the latter, in either its stage or screen incarnations (although, having heard something about its plot, I think I get what he means by evoking the title), but if you're going to bring in Jonathan Larson's much-acclaimed rock musical into the discussion, then allow me to go against the grain and state that, at its best, Spring Awakening, in its excoriating view of both teenage sexuality and damaging adult prudery, strikes me as a hell of a lot less sentimentalized and false than Rent. Larson threw in a lot of superficially "edgy" topics---homosexuality, AIDS, the vagaries of living the bohemian lifestyle---but failed to bring anything resembling social insight or even many memorable tunes ("Seasons of Love" notwithstanding), leaving it a rather shallow celebration of youthful artistic rebellion.

Some of that sentimentality admittedly underlies Spring Awakening: For the most part, the adults in the story are portrayed as either broadly villainous or just plain clueless in their overprotective nature. (That all the adult roles are taken on by a male and a female actor suggests a view that all adults, at least in the show's universe, are pretty much the same.) Spring Awakening is, to put it simply, all about the kids. On the other hand, to criticize the show for being adolescent-centric would be missing the point not only of this show, but also the 1891 Frank Wedekind drama on which it's based (side note: I haven't read or seen the play, but I've heard that it's even more provocative and daring in its depictions of budding sexual confusion than the musical)---one of its more plangent points being that to shield young children from the truths about sex and adolescence is not honorable good taste or good manners, but has its own set of possibly tragic consequences.

Tragedy certainly befalls the characters in Spring Awakening...and Melchior, the appealing rebel at the center of the show, isn't exempt from experiencing it. Not that he perhaps didn't bring it upon himself. Melchior clearly prides himself on his "adult" knowledge of sexuality; he's the most thoughtful and well-read character. One can see why his male peers and the girls find him attractive: Melchior's frankness and open-mindedness provides a breath of fresh air from their parents' collective cloistering. But then, as the drama unfolds, the truth eventually reveals itself: Melchior doesn't really know as much about adult behavior as anyone else. Just because he knows the truth of where babies come from doesn't mean he's better equipped to deal with sex and the messy consequences of it. He passes on his sexual knowledge to straining overachiever Moritz, but even he can't prevent Moritz's eventual mental decline as this knowledge more or less tears him apart. Even more tragically, Melchior beckons the shy girl Wendla to let go and give in to her passion as they have their first bout of consensual sex---it's gloriously liberating in the moment, for sure, but the consequences turn out to be dire and, by its conclusion, fatal. Sexual repression may be damaging, but Melchior's single-minded idea of "freedom" turns out to be its own dead end. Adolescence as both a time of exhilarating discovery and a time to realize the agonizing complexities of adulthood---that is Spring Awakening's proposition, one that is put across with just enough nuance, and with no small amount of sympathy and feeling, to make it seem honest and convincing rather than sentimental and pandering.

Certainly, it helps that Duncan Sheik's score is richly varied---hard-driving rock numbers alternating with folk-like ballads---and Steven Sater's lyrics and book psychologically acute. I don't think I've ever seen quite as gut-wrenching a moment in any Broadway musical as the scene in Spring Awakening where Wendla, realizing that she feels nothing at all for a friend's abuse at the hands of her father, meets Melchior and goads him into beating her with a stick---"to feel something," she says. The fact that she expects to feel some kind of pleasure from this will stick in your throat. (Is this how S&M fetishes start?) The shock of the moment, and the hard truth it revealed, left me gaping at the stage.

But that isn't the only revelation this show has to offer. My friend noted that nearly all of the songs---numbers which, rather than merely advancing a plot or providing some cutesy respite from the gloom, serve as expressions of the characters' private emotions, sometimes in deliberately florid, impenetrable flights of poetry, always sung directly to us in the audience (Brechtianism in a Broadway rock musical?)---cut off before their natural endpoint. It's actually another brilliant touch, suggesting the abruptness and fluidity of people's thoughts, the way a thought may simply stop when you're interrupted by something back in real life. And of course there's the fact that the show's makers made no attempt to try to clumsily "update" Wedekind's controversial play beyond having the American cast speak in their natural accents. The fit sometimes comes off a little awkwardly---early on in the show, some of the actors at the performance I went to seemed to be overdoing certain emotional emphases in their speech, as if they were actually trying to preserve something of the feel of the German spoken language while speaking American English---but otherwise the lack of a strong historical component works marvelously to give the story a universal quality that somehow enhances its power, even if the world it creates may feel far from our own.

I could go on, but I'll just end this quasi-review by saying that if you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth the trouble. Dark, unflinching, moving and sometimes quite beautiful, it's a powerful evocation of adolescence on the cusp of adulthood, the limits of freedom and rebellion, and the danger of repression. Spring Awakening ends with its own bit of Broadway-style uplift ("And all shall know the wonder of purple summer," the entire cast sings in its concluding number), but the catharsis is tempered somewhat by the realization that it's not so much a resolution as simply an unresolved cutoff point. Melchior is perhaps no closer to truly understanding the adult impulses that torture him, and the society that surrounds him is arguably no closer to understanding the tragedy of its attempt to shelter its children. The really the only thing left to do is to keep living, because Melchior at least hopefully has his whole life ahead of him, whatever troubles he's dealing with now (and it's a lot of tough shit). When you're an adolescent frustrated by feelings and impulses you don't understand, sometimes it's hard to remember that.


Consider my venture into the U.S. Open last Friday, then, as a pleasant postscript. One of my Wall Street Journal co-workers apparently makes it a ritual every year to buy a bunch of tickets to a day session of tennis at the U.S. Open and then offer them up to people at work. Mind you, I'm not a tennis fan---heck, I'm not much of a sports fan in general---but I figure this would be a nice opportunity to not only mingle with co-workers outside of the workplace, but also spend some decent quality time with one of my younger brothers, who is very much into tennis himself (he played it nearly every day during the summer). Anyway, it was a fun time, although the warm weather blindsided all of us---the weathermen were all saying last Friday would be overcast with a chance of showers; much of the day turned out to be hot, sunny and humid instead. Neither of us were prepared for the bright sun beating down on us; for that reason, we've been battling dry skin on account of the sunburn we both acquired this past week. But my brother seemed to get a kick out of seeing Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the flesh. No Nadal or Venus or Serena, alas. Maybe next year.