Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Classics, Literary and Musical: Sister Carrie and Star Turns and Cameo Appearances

Two Reviews today! Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser and Star Turns and Cameo Appearances by music critic Bernard Jacobson.

The Classic American Novel

Our local library book club read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, a book I had never read. It is considered one of the 100 best novels by The Guardian. Dresier's style, called 'Naturalism', was hugely influential. His books had to be a big 180 for readers used to Victorian novels. His characters lacked morals, followed their baser desires for love or material things, and they don't all get their just desserts in the end.
"The critics have not really understood what I was trying to do," Dreiser said later. "Here is a book that is close to life. It is intended not as a piece of literary craftsmanship, but as a picture of conditions done as simply and effectively as the English language will permit … It makes one feel that American criticism is the joke which English literary authorities maintain it to be. When [the novel] gets to the people, they will understand, because it is a story of real life, of their lives."
Sister Carrie was published in 1900 and the book begins in 1880 when unsophisticated, pretty Carrie leaves her rural Wisconsin home for her sister's home in Chicago. On the train she meets a 'masher,' Drouet, a traveling salesman with a golden tongue who eventually sells Carrie on the idea of moving in with him when she can't make it in the big city. Under Drouet's protection Carrie enjoys nice clothes, good food, and a comfortable apartment. Her prettiness becomes beauty, her provincial simplicity is replaced with more worldly manners. She also badgers Drouet about marriage, which he deftly rebuffs with hollow promises.

I had trouble with Dreiser's writing style. I was being told about the inner lives of the characters and their personalities instead of being shown. Until this point I "had" to read the book. Then Hurstwood comes into the picture. He manages a swell bar that Drouet frequents, and the two have an informal friendship. When Hurstwood meets Carrie he becomes infatuated with her. He is wealthy, a workaholic, with a distant wife and children with whom he shares little but a house and income. Hurstwood decides he deserves a little love and pursues Carrie. Carrie gets starry eyed. Hurstwood is not only of a higher class than Drouet; she believes he will bring her social legitimacy and give her the life style she covets. Hurstwood has one problem: his money is in his wife's name as a tax protection and divorce means impoverishment, loss of social standing, and employment. One night he has an opportunity to steal money from his boss.

It is the best scene in the novel, bringing the character to life. Carrie has kicked Drouet out, and he tells her that Hurstwood is married. Hurstwood can't let Carrie go. He grabs the money and lures Carrie away on false pretenses. Carrie is ignorant of what he has done, and blames him for their fall into poverty.  Hurstwood's story and tragic end makes Sister Carrie a page-turner. And Carrie? She ends up on stage, becomes famous and wealthy, but is distrustful of men and lonely.

We had a great discussion of the book. Themes of class and the lure of upward mobility especially interested us, as well as how women's options have changed in 100 years.

One lady said she couldn't put the book down. Another said she would had never chosen to read Sister Carrie, but was glad she did.

"Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh blind strivings of the human heart!...Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content."

A Career in Classical Music

Bernard Jacobson's memoir of a life in music, Star Turns and Cameo Appearances, has an index over 20 pages long. "Blessed or cursed" with "nearly total recall," he drops that many names, performances, and works. 

I requested the book because he was as the Philadelphia Orchestra's  "Manager, Publications and Educational Programs," later changed to "Program Annotator and Musicologist," under Riccardo Muti. Our family joke was that we moved to Philadelphia for my husband's favorite orchestra, then under Eugene Ormandy. Muti succeeded Ormandy and we enjoyed several years of his conducting before leaving Philly.

I enjoyed his stories about Muti. It was interesting to learn more about the man behind the baton.

I was thrilled when Jacobson mentioned the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia which he joined for a while as a Bass singer. Sean Diebler organized Choral Arts in 1982 as a 120-200 voice choir. My husband and I had been singing with The Mastersingers choir under Bob and Gail Reilley for years when we auditioned for Choral Arts. We sang with them in their second and third seasons, 1984-5. This was before Jacobson's joining.

The Choral Arts Society participated in a Concert for Humanity at the Academy of Music. The Concert was organized as part of the Nuclear Arms Control Movement. Riccardo Muti conducted members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Orchestra, and Concerto Soloists.  On November 11, 1984 my husband and I were on stage as the chorus sang Kodaly's Hymn to St. Stephen, and two pieces we had sung before, Virgil Thompson's Alleluia, and Vaughn Williams' O Clap Your Hands. The concert ended with Ravel's Bolero. The program notes for several pieces, including Bolero, were written by Jacobson! I am writing this right after seeing Leonard Slatkin conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in Bolero last evening. Very cool!

As Jacobson notes, Deibler was demanding but exciting. We sang The Messiah with the Philadelphia Orchestra under William Smith at the Academy of Music, an incredible experience. We also sang in a  Rodgers and Hammerstein pops concert at the Mann Music Center under Erich Kunzel. I was used to Masses and Requiems and enjoyed letting loose with Oklahoma! Another highlight was singing Ralph Vaughn Williams' A Sea Symphony. Incredible. We also enjoyed singing The Brahms Neue Liebeslieder. My husband took a position in New York City, commuting from Philly, and we left the choir. Soon after I became pregnant and my choral singing days were over! Interestingly, Diebler graduated from my grandfather's alma mater, Susquehanna University. Diebler died in 2009.

I also got a kick out of Jacobson's mention of David Grossman of the Temple University Cinematheque screening private viewings for Riccardo Muti. We frequented the Cinematheque and loved seeing those classic films on the large screen. It was here that I first viewed classic films like Casablanca. Grossman's introductions enhanced our enjoyment. We started attending while I was still a Temple student and before the showing Grossman would encourage us to enjoy a cup of coffee without payment. He knew we were poor students. 

Frankly, most of what Jacobson talks about is beyond my ken and made me quite dizzy and overwhelmed with information. His career took him from his native Britain to Holland, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the West Coast. Those intimately involved in the world of orchestras and classical music will better appreciate his stories. But from the start he has an upbeat, excited voice and you feel a sense of his personality and love of music. 

I received a free ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Star Turns and Cameo Appearances: Memoirs of a Life Among Musicians
by Bernard Jacobson
University of Rochester Press
$34.95 hard cover

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