Saturday, December 22, 2007

Eclipse: The Voice of Jean Langlais

Jean Langlais lost his sight at 3, was a devote Catholic and experienced the trauma of occupation in Paris during World War II. These elements had a profound influence on shaping him into one of the foremost composers of sacred music in the 20th century. Now the choral group Gloriae Dei Cantores has honored the centennial of his birth with a newly released two-disk CD, “Eclipse: The Voice of Jean Langlais.”

“There’s a high level of truth in his music,” said James Jordan, an assistant director of the choir and one of the organists on the recording. “What Langlais was about, we try to go after music like that.”

The choir sings three of Langlais’ masses spanning 32 years: the well-known “Messe Solennelle” of 1949, evoking the terrors of occupation and yearning for peace; “Messe en style ancien” from 1952, demonstrating his love for Gregorian chant; and “Grant Us Thy Peace,” set in English and commissioned from the famous Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, England in 1981.

“The voice of someone like Langlais is something we feel very strongly about keeping alive,” Dr. Jordan said. “His grasp of the elements of church is so important. It was a big statement of faith on his part. He was a strong Catholic and devoted to the Blessed Mother.”

He also was devoted to Gregorian chant and improvisation. His music reflects this, as well as the events in his life. He chose to stay in Paris during the war and because of his blindness, his musical gift “was keened up even more.” Dr. Jordan says this is heard in “Messe Solennelle” -- “the noise, the marching, the breaking of glass, then the silence when it was there. It’s a musical response to the world. You can hear the tension, the clashes in harmonies, the chords, the absolute outcry. Because he could not see, the music became a reflection of what he heard. It was what he saw while he couldn’t see, what he was able to express because he had to get it out through sound.”

The choir chose the title “Eclipse” as a way to capture this emotional range.

“He had an aural sense of great contrast, lightness and darkness,” Dr. Jordan said. “What he tried to capture in his music is light and dark. It demands that you grapple with him and what he’s saying.”

The organ works of Langlais, who continued to compose until his death in 1991, constitute the largest body of music for that instrument other than the works of J.S. Bach. Dr. Jordan says it’s important on two levels. “It speaks to people’s spirits as they listen, but it also teaches. He believed music had a role to teach in the church. This isn’t a CD for highfaluting people with music education backgrounds, but a musical statement to everybody that liturgy and worship must be in all ways beautiful and truthful. Langlais was heartbroken by what he called the revolution in Catholic music in the 50s. He felt so strongly about the gems the Catholic church had.”

This recording, featuring 40 choir members, three organists, two directors and several brass players, has been well received. Steven Ritter, writing for “Audiophile Audition,” said: "These two CDs are about as good an introduction to [Langlais’] art as I know of, and the fabulous GloriƦ Dei Cantores sing with the enthusiasm and devotion that their fans have come to expect. . . . Great singing and one of the few ways to come to know this man’s work. The sound, taken down at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, is first rate." 

Maybe even more significant is the response of Langlais’ widow,  Marie Louise Langlais: "I have been amazed by the very high level of the performances, the choir, the brilliant brass, and the organists,” she wrote in an e-mail to Paraclete Press, which released the CD this fall. “The accompaniment, for example, of the ‘Messe Solennelle’ is absolutely magnificent, as are the very good tempi: not too slow, not too fast, the perfect tempi in a beautiful acoustic. And the Grand Orgue interventions are striking. I should say, one of the very best performances of this mass I ever heard. In my opinion, GloriƦ Dei Cantores are a top choir, certainly one of the best in the USA, and Elizabeth Patterson’s direction of my husband’s music is absolutely wonderful. She understood everything, in the big vocal works as in the more intimate motets."

Langlais’ music is well known in this country because he performed here often, prompting many Americans to go to France to study with him. They are his greatest legacy, Dr. Jordan says.

“All his students passing along everything he believed, passing on a spiritual life he was so dedicated to that is in his music. He was such an incredible man.”

Related web sites:

Gloriae Dei Cantores
Paraclete Press

Sunday, December 16, 2007


I haven’t seen so many people leaving a performance at intermission since “Drowning Crow,” which had created a near stampede. The crowd exiting the Beaumont on Friday night wasn’t exactly a stampede, but my friend Mary Sheeran and I had plenty of company as we passed up sitting through an hour and 45 minutes more of “Cymbeline.”

As Mary said: “I’ve seen this show before.” She didn’t mean that literally, it’s just that this late play of Shakespeare’s, one of his four romances, repeats so many themes from his earlier plays that it seems familiar. It’s got lovers and a drug that mimics death -- “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” -- a conniver who plants the seed of jealousy -- “Othello” -- and a willful father and an independent daughter -- “King Lear” -- to name a few of the been-there-done-that plots in “Cymbeline.” Of course, being a dramatic romance and not a tragedy, the outcome is different, but maybe that’s the trouble. I like the drama of those earlier plays. I’ve never cared for the romances.

It would seem others feel the same way, judging by the audience, or lack thereof. Plenty of seats were empty in the orchestra and I saw no one at all in the balcony. When you consider Lincoln Center is subscriber-based, meaning guaranteed bodies in seats, and that it was a press night, meaning all of us and our guests who wouldn’t otherwise be there, it doesn’t appear that many people chose to see “Cymbeline.” This in spite of a cast with always dependable theatre pros like Phylicia Rashad, John Cullum, Michael Cerveris and Martha Plimpton.

Unlike Mary, I had seen “Cymbeline” before, many years ago at the Delacorte. The only things I remember about it were Liev Schreiber and the mystical set, which included pools of water and lots of candles. It was no challenge to sit through it then, although not for reasons of the play. It’s just always so pleasant to be outdoors on a warm summer night, with a few stars and the moon overhead, plus a picnic first with a couple glasses of wine to mellow the mood. Those elements were missing at the Beaumont.

Too bad. The cast deserved a bigger audience, or maybe just a different play.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Is He Dead?

I don’t usually like silly shows, but this one is so over-the-top goofy that I got caught up in it and was laughing out loud throughout. In this newly discovered farce by Mark Twain, the art world is mocked with acerbic wit and social commentary, as well as a great deal of low comedy.  The fabulous Norbert Leo Butz stars as Jean-Francois Millet, who would go on to be known as one of France’s greatest painters -- think “The Angelus” and “The Gleaners.” Twain portrays him as a struggling artist who stages his own death to drive up the price of his paintings.  As the zany scheme unfolds, the play poses questions about fame, greed and the value of art, and pokes Twain’s mischievous fun at everyone involved.

At first Millet balks at the idea of being locked away while his paintings fetch high prices from collectors who, upon hearing of his illness and impending death, suddenly value the same work they had passed on earlier in his studio. But then his gang of cohorts cook up a ploy that will allow him to intermingle and enjoy the fun -- they remake him as Daisy, an identical twin. Imagine Shakespeare’s cross-dressing identity switches and add in a little Marx Brothers and you get the idea. Craziness and sheer fun.
Butz (in photo with Jenn Gambatese) is a riot, just as he was in his Tony-winning role as the sleazy con-man Freddy in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” He is energy personified, yet even though he is the star character, he doesn’t come across as the star of the show, and I mean that as a credit to him and to the whole cast. It felt more like an ensemble piece -- there wasn’t a weak performance anywhere. Bryon Jennings is delicious as a melodramatic villain and Millet’s fellow schemers all bring their stereotypical characters to life.

“Is He Dead?”, which had never been performed or published, was tucked away in a university collection of Twain’s papers. The version on stage at the Lyceum Theatre was adapted by playwright David Ives and directed by two-time Tony Award winner Michael Blakemore.

It’s nice to know Mark Twain’s work is alive and well, and living on Broadway.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Love’s Pure Light

Karen Burgman’s new CD of piano improvisations, "Love’s Pure Light," is exquisite, reverential and prayerful. It’s also joyous, especially in her interpretation of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Most of the 17 selections are Christmas classics, brought to new life through Karen’s playing. Three of the songs, “Mary, Did You Know?”, “One Small Child” and “Emmanuel” were new to me.

I knew the first time I heard her first CD, “The Impulse of His Love,” that she was playing from her soul. Then I was fortunate to meet her this fall through her work on the new musical “Amazing Grace: The True Story.” She’s just as much a blessing in person, with an incredible story of faith and persistence behind her recordings. When her hands were crippled by tendinitis she was told she would never be able to play the piano again. But with her openness to God’s grace, she found a way to again praise Him with her music. Her playing couldn’t be more beautiful! Check out my interview with her in the Sept. 5 posting.

Karen's career as a pianist has taken her all over the world.  Her sensitivity as a musician has won her numerous awards in accompanying and chamber music, and she has played in venues including Carnegie Hall and Jordan Hall, MA, where she performed a work commissioned in her honor.  She has been recognized for her innovative work in the area of music therapy to autistic children, and as an arranger/composer she continues to explore new projects. She graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory in 2005 with a Bachelor of Music Degree in piano performance and now maintains a private teaching studio, serves as artistic director and conductor of the Sola Gratia Musicians Choirs, and manages the Cantabile Concert Series at Hilltown Baptist Church.  She and her, husband, Michael, live in North Wales, PA.

To order this beautiful CD, visit To book Karen, visit and for publishing information, visit

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Colonial Nutcracker

The Dance Theatre in Westchester does an impressive job of presenting its “The Colonial Nutcracker” given the strain it’s under, traveling from place to place for a performance here, a performance there. I caught yesterday’s one-appearance only at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts and enjoyed its interpretation of Tchaikovsky's ballet, even though, with its recorded narrator relating the tale in a storybook-telling voice, it’s much more suited to children and families than an adult dance-lover.

All of the performers were good; Tomiko Magario as the Snow Queen and Amanda Theunissen as the Sugar Plum Fairy were standouts. The company makes good use of painted backdrops and a few props. The music, of course, was canned, but that’s all right. The hall was PACKED with children who remained quiet and, for the most part, still throughout the nearly 90-minute performance. Tickets were only $12, about the cost of a movie, so parents were able to introduce their children to the performing arts at an early age, which is certainly a good thing. The afternoon was underwritten by Target, which is opening up nearby in March. (Yea! I love that store and wish we had one here in Manhattan.) Carolers sang in the theatre’s lobby beforehand, which was a lovely touch.

For information about upcoming performances, including ballet, visit or call (718) 951-4500.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Taking the long view

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.

Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
Between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.


-- Archbishop Oscar Romero

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Farnsworth Invention

It’s a tribute to Aaron Sorkin’s talent that he could write a play filled with lots of talk of science and technology about a subject I am not the least bit interested in -- television -- and have me completely involved. He does this by telling the stories of two brilliant, driven men and the conflict that divides them.

Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson, in photo), a boy genius from Idaho, invented television as a high school student in 1927. David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) was a Russian immigrant who fled the Cossacks as a child and ended up as the head of RCA and founder of NBC. The legal fight between Farnsworth and RCA became known as one of the great, tragic examples of legal and industrial force combining to crush a rightful patent owner. The play, under the direction of Des McAnuff, is a fast-paced presentation of a race to produce an invention that would change the world forever, as these two men battle one another to be first.

Azaria and Simpson are excellent, as are all the cast members. Sarnoff and Farnsworth narrate parts of each other’s stories before they are enacted, which adds to the sense of competition. In these parallel lives we see young Farnsworth present his high school science teacher with the whole year’s worth of homework on the first day of school. He only wants to work on his invention, television, a name he coined using the Greek “tele,”meaning from a distance, with vision. He knows he can make it happen; he just needs time and financial support. 

Sarnoff’s story is more dramatic, including his escape from a shtetl and resettlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he obliterates his accent by the time he’s 14. Through smarts and chutzpah, he works his way up through the communications world, starting as a clerk in a telegraph office where he is the only one to present the names of the Titanic’s survivors after muscling all the other companies out of the way. It’s natural for him to head from there into radio, where it’s interesting to see how passionately he opposes using the airwaves to promote products; he wants music and news. “It’s gonna change everything,” he says. “It’s gonna end ignorance and misunderstanding.” That gets a laugh. If only he had been able to achieve that goal we wouldn’t have to suffer through all those commercials now to listen to our news and music!

My sympathy, and I’m sure most people’s, went to Farnsworth as we see him get screwed out of his patent by Sarnoff. But then, “Farnsworth” is too good a play to be that black and white or sentimental. As my friend Trixy Treat e-mailed me this morning: “I woke up thinking about the play and still am, so that is a good sign of how much I enjoyed it.  What I woke up chewing over was the thought that the forces that go into successful invention and possibly creation are not always good ones.  As the story is laid out, it is unlikely that television would have arrived when it did if it had not been for the addition of Sarnoff's total drive for power and success.  I shall be wrestling with this one all through the day!”

How many plays can you say that about? All too many are forgettable even before the next morning. I never saw Sorkin’s other play, “A Few Good Men,” but I saw the movie and found it a lot more involving that I thought I would considering it’s a show about a military court trial. I’ve never seen his television shows, but I know many people loved “The West Wing.” Television for me exists only so I can do my Pilates, yoga, power body sculpting, dance and cardio workouts now that I’ve dropped my gym membership. I couldn’t watch it even if I wanted to because I don’t have cable and where I live in Manhattan you can’t get reception of even the main networks without cable. That’s why I said it would be unusual for me to be interested in a play about television. But I was -- from start to finish.