‘Babes’ in Review

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Look two heads to the right of Kelli O’Hara, hovering over the female cellist in the second row of the chorus: c’est moi! 

Our two performances of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland took place this past week at Carnegie Hall and the Tilles Center; the reviews are in, and — by and large — they’re all great!  I want to contribute my thoughts to the conversation with the chorister’s-eye-view of the experience, but it’s late on a school night, so for the moment let it suffice that I merely round up the official opinions.

Broadway World

Theaterscene

Berkshire Fine Arts

Classical Source

La Scena

Huffington Post

Voce di Meche

ZealNYC

 

Babes in Toyland

Toyland” is possibly the first song I ever learned.  I’m not sure.  I only know that it entered my repertoire at some time before I have memory of it doing so.  I don’t remember if it was a snow globe or a music box or what it was that put it there, but that tune has been in my head for a very long time.

Which isn’t to say I ever imagined getting to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall in the company of Broadway and theater legends like Bill Irwin and Kelli O’Hara, but that’s exactly what will happen later this month when my choir, MasterVoices, presents Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland as part of our 75th anniversary season.  Babes is a show that has remained popular since its creation in 1903, yet hasn’t had a showing in NYC in over 80 years.

Might be 80 more before you get another chance to see and hear this fun show with its iconic score, so don’t miss it!

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Jane Weber (1927-2016)

Today, 2 April 2017, is the one-year anniversary of my grandmother, Laura Jane Boyle Weber’s death.  She died surrounded by family shortly after her favorite show, Lawrence Welk, ended.  As my Grandpa liked to say, “Why…Lawrence Welk went off at 7:00, and Jane went off at 7:01.”  (I realize that reads a bit callous, but it was really loving and endearing when he would say it.)

She was tapping her fingers to music she loved as she died.  May we all be so lucky.

Here is the eulogy I read at her funeral service.  Hard to believe she’s been gone a year already.

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My grandma with her cousin, circa 1938

Good morning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the time I got to spend with Grandma and the important ways in which she helped to shape my life.  I’d like to share some of my memories, offer a bit of reflection on them and, I hope, honor her by expressing what she means to me.

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Grandma and I, 2014-ish

At family gatherings, like Grandma and Grandpa’s anniversary party, people often compliment me for coming all the way from New York City to be with everyone on these occasions.  But I’m not a New Yorker by birth.  When I was a boy I lived right down the street at 1922 Madison Avenue right here in Mt. Healthy until the age of five, in a house which Grandma’s mother owned before my dad bought it.  While my mom and dad were at work, Grandma would watch me and Greg.  I enjoyed it when she would come over – we’d watch the Price is Right and we’d both be excited when that alpine game with the yodeler came on (we, of course, would yodel ridiculously along with the TV).  As we ate our lunch we’d watch her soaps – All My Children is the one I remember most – and I remember asking her questions about the characters and the sordid details of their lives.  To her credit, I don’t think she fully explained the ins and outs of the adult world to me, but she let me ask the questions and we’d talk about the characters – she liked to gossip.  Truth be told, so do I.  But that sounds negative, doesn’t it?  Let me rephrase that: we both love stories, and discussing the lives of others is a kind of storytelling.  Through this storytelling she developed my love for the drama of daily life which would find its way into my love of writing and theater, subjects which I currently teach.

Despite the fun we had, there came a point in the afternoon when I sensed that it was almost time for my mom to get home from work, and, like most kids, once I suspected she was close I would get agitated and want her to be there right away.

“Where is she?” I’d ask, impatiently.

Grandma would reply, “Let me look…” and then she’d go to the window, look down the street, and tell me, “She’s about fifteen blocks away.”

“How do you know that?” I’d ask.

“I have magic glasses.”  That answer was reasonable enough to me, and I accepted it.

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Looking effortlessly relaxed in the early-mid-1940s.

I remember one particular time when I was maybe three or four years old going to get a zweibach from Schultz’s Bakery on Pleasant Avenue – which I have always referred to as Grandma’s Bakery – then driving to Harbin Park – a place I loved because, at the time, it was where we held the Weber family reunion where I’d get to see, Aunt Alma and Uncle Al, Uncle Barney & Boomer (that’s what I called Aunt Bert for some odd reason), Aunt Gert, Eugene and Betty, all my dad’s cousins and all their kids.  Anyway, on the hill at Harbin Park, Grandma and I parked while I had my snack and looked out at the clouds in the distance.  They were choppy and extended for miles.  Grandma said they looked just like waves on the ocean.  I had never seen the ocean, but I had seen the grand prizes on the Price is Right that featured fabulous vacations to Hawaii and Acapulco.  I didn’t quite see the parallel, but she said the clouds were like the whitecaps on the waves, and that if I used my imagination I’d be able to see them.  And then, all of a sudden, I did see it.  It made perfect sense.  I looked at the sky and saw the ocean; it was my first poetic thought.  I don’t know that grandma was a big fan of poetry, but by making metaphors with the sky and seeing the world through her magic glasses, she helped shape my imagination and my inner world in ways that would give – and continue to give — a lot of color to my life.

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Whatever happened to baby Jane?  (You knew that was coming…)  Early 1930s.

Many years later, when I was in 7th grade, Grandma and Grandpa were living in Florida.  I flew down to see them on my very first flight all by myself, which probably planted the seeds of my love of travel and my strong sense of independence.  Anyway, they took me to Daytona Beach; I’d visited the Gulf of Mexico before, but this was my first time seeing the Atlantic.  Whereas the Gulf was usually brown and looked like a big lake to me, the Atlantic looked like the ocean of the Price is Right – cerulean blue and crested with white.  “Don’t you remember?” she said, “I told you they looked like clouds.”  All those years later, she remembered that conversation.

For those of us in her immediate family, there’s a very special place about an hour east from here called Lake Lorelei.  For a period of time in the 80s we would spend every weekend there together, boating, swimming, cooking out – just being together as a family.  Some of my favorite memories from my childhood were the Saturday nights at the clubhouse at Lake Lorelei where there would be a band playing jazz standards and big band swing tunes that we all associate with grandma and grandpa.  In fact, the moment I hear the opening notes of “All of me…. Why not take all of me?” I immediately think of the two of them.  I loved watching everyone dance; I loved sitting with my family, drinking my ginger ale and eating pretzels while singing along with the band.  These experiences made me want to study music and perform, which I’ve done for my entire life.  I’ve even made it to Carnegie Hall – a few times – but I can tell you that singing there, as special as that is, is not as dear to me as singing along with grandma and grandpa and the band at Lake Lorelei.

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Grandma and Grandpa — Jane and Norb — late 1940s-ish

Before Lake Lorelei was a part of our lives, I would stay with her and Grandpa – and a teenage Kimmy, and their dog, Buffy – at their house on Evalie.  If the weather was nice we would walk across the street to visit Bob Kay and swim in his pool. We’d do word searches together and other puzzles — she loved a game, and she saw that I did too (still do!).  I remember her telling me when I was very small that one day I would be big enough to go to bingo with her.  After years of waiting – which only made it seem that much more glamorous – that day finally came.  I remember entering the bingo hall and being amazed as I watched Grandma in her natural habitat.  She greeted all the other ladies – her friends and adversaries – with pleasant hellos (then told me who to watch out for because they win too often).  She bought 30 bingo cards for herself and one for me.  “How come I only get one?” I’d ask. “Let’s see if you can keep up with one before we add to it.”  I quickly graduated to three cards, but never made it past six. She had a bag filled with metallic chips and magnetic wands to remove them quickly; dabbers of ink for the single card rounds.  And good luck charms: trinkets and trolls that she would set up like guardians of her cards.  “Do they work?”  “They do.  They’re magic.”  Again, this seemed reasonable to me because she did win the money.  Sometimes quite a bit.

She was a winner.  And a wit.  The life of the party.  She had a wonderful laugh and smile, and I know we would all love it if she could walk through the door right now and tell us that she was fine.

Well…

Grandma left me her magic glasses, and in case anyone here is worried about her, I want you to know that I can see her.  Shortly after the moment of her death, she thought, “I went peacefully…surrounded by loved ones…I even made it through tonight’s episode of Lawrence Welk…and I’m ready.”  So her spirit, with all her might, yelled out, “BINGO!” to that great Bingo Caller in the Sky, St. Peter.  He called her name and she approached, thinking to herself as she rose through the clouds that they still look like the ocean. She’s

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Jane and Nancy

young again, and beautiful.  Her hair is long, her lipstick is very red.  “Laura Jane Boyle Weber,” he commanded, and she said to him, “Who wants to know?” She was a bit surprised because her voice was healed and wasn’t shaking.  St. Peter wasn’t in a joking mood, so he just looked at her sternly, and she decided to behave.  He looked over her bingo card and said, “Laura Jane,” (she looked a bit nervous) “it appears that your time on earth was fun.  You made people smile.  You made people laugh.  On the whole, the world was a merrier, wittier, richer place because you were in it.  You are welcome into heaven.”  When the gates opened and she walked inside, her mother, Iva Pohlar Backus, gave her an entire chocolate cake.  “Is this whole thing for me?” she asked.  “Of course,” Grandma Backus said, “and don’t worry – there’s no diabetes in heaven.”  Laura Jane replied to her mother, “Doesn’t matter, I was going to eat it anyway.”  Her Grandpa Pohlar, a bar owner here on Earth, poured her a beer knowing that she hadn’t had a drink in many years.  She smiled, and as she took her first, glorious bite and her first delicious sip, Lawrence Welk struck up the angelic band – “A one, a two, a three!” – and she sang along with them and all her relations in heaven: “You took the best, so why not take the rest?  Why not take all of me?

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Jane through time. 

 

 

Mahler for Vision

Funny how certain pieces of music have a way of appearing in our lives just when we need them.

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Emil Orlik’s etching of Mahler (1902)

After my grandmother died last year and her funeral was over, I was eager to get back to normal life.  At that time MasterVoices was hard at work rehearsing Mahler’s 2nd Symphony — the “Resurrection” symphony, written in honor of a friend of his who died unexpectedly.  We’d started the season with it, performing with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and we ended the season with the same piece, then with the New York Youth Orchestra — just a week or two after her funeral.  The piece was a vessel for my grief, exactly what I needed to sing at that moment.

Well.  As I noted in my previous post, my grandfather died last month.  Just a few days before it happened I got an email from MasterVoices saying that we’d been asked to participate in another performance of Mahler’s 2nd, this time under the baton of George Mathew as a benefit for HelpMeSee, an organization that is fighting to end cataract blindness.  I wasn’t going to sing it — we just finished Bach’s St. John Passion, this concert will take place four days later.  I figured I might need a break (and, more importantly, I need to finish my novel draft by the end of the month to submit it to Jersey City Writers to be workshopped in March!).

But then my grandfather died.  I remembered how much the piece helped me after grandma’s death, it seemed wrong to turn down the opportunity perform it once more — and coming so soon after my grandpa’s death, it just felt like more than a coincidence.  Like they say, you can ‘call it odd, or call it God,’ but coincidences like this can’t be purely accidental.

So I said yes.  The performance will take place this Monday at Carnegie Hall (click here for tickets).  It is truly one of the most glorious pieces of music to sing.  When we sang it with the IPO I didn’t have the loss of loved ones weighing on me, and even then I couldn’t sing it without tearing up by the end.  I’ll probably look a mess after the concert this Monday, tear-filled as I’ll surely be, but I’m looking forward to it.

Please attend and support a wonderful cause!

(Somewhat semi-unrelated, but a few years ago I wrote a piece on Verdi’s Requiem and how it has had a similar way of calling me to it under interesting circumstances.  I looked it up just now and saw that it was written on 11 February 2015 — two years ago to the day!  Call it odd, or call it God.)

Here’s a link to a video of the final movement of the symphony, the part that features the chorus.  (WordPress has changed its structure and won’t allow me to insert the video into the post as I used to do without buying an upgrade package.  Grrrrr!!)

 

Norbert Weber, 1925-2017

My Grandfather’s 92nd birthday is today, and he almost lived to see it.  He was famous for calling everyone in the family on our birthdays to sing to us, and I think I speak for most of the family when I say my own birthday this year will be bittersweet without having him here to mark the occasion.

However, the fact that he’s no longer with us seems a poor reason not to honor his day. Below is the eulogy I read at his visitation along with a few pictures.

Happy Birthday, Grandpa!

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Grandpa was one of the few people to be the Commander of the American Legion post 513 twice — with an almost 50 year gap between his years of service!

 

Grandpa’s priorities in life were simple: to serve God, country & family.  And I would say that these were the secret to his longevity; his dedication to service and living a life of purpose helped him to survive all kinds of health issues that would have taken down a weaker man. 

So I would like to reflect on these a bit. 

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Grandpa with my brother, Greg (left) and I.  From their house in Fairfield, OH.     (ca. 1982)

Grandpa was, above all, a family man.  My earliest memories are of family gatherings downstairs at Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Evalie in Fairfield, not just for holidays, but because it was…Saturday.  These were not quiet, tea-sipping affairs.  First thing you would see at the bottom of the steps was a bar that sat four or five at least, a pool table to the right, and a living room to the left where everyone could gather comfortably.  Grandpa might be drinking one of his beloved Manhattans, or he might have filled his glass from the keg refrigerator. Their house was fun; full of laughter and argument — everyone had an opinion, and everyone was free to share it. 

 

As I’ve sorted through my memories of Grandpa these past few weeks, It surprised me to realize how many of them are of him — and all of us — by water.  When I was very young we spent many weekends of the year at Lake Lorelei on the pontoon boat or grilling out in the yard along the water.  If we were staying local on summer weekends, then it was a sure bet that we’d be swimming in Grandma and Grandpa’s neighbor, Bob Kay’s pool — a privilege we all enjoyed because Grandpa was Bob’s pool man, more or less. 

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Grandpa with my cousin, “Baby” Ryan — and Grandma swimming in the background.  

When they moved south to landlocked Ocala, Florida, even there the majority of our activities were near the water — renting cabins along or boating on the Rainbow River where we saw all sorts of wildlife I’d only seen on TV.  The first time I saw the Atlantic was at Daytona Beach with them, and we even made a stop at Weeki Watchee where they had live mermaid shows.  Grandpa insisted I should get my picture with a mermaid…and then Grandpa insisted he and I should both get our picture…(…and then he got one with just him and the mermaid.  He was always a charmer.) 

 

In his later years, however, he traded mermaids and pool equipment, lakes, rivers and oceans for the small pond behind their apartment at Regency Run.  Whenever I visited, if the weather was nice, I’d see Grandpa as we pulled in from John Gray Road, sitting quietly, watching the fountain and the ducks and the traffic with a statue of St. Francis next to him as his only companion (Grandma was more likely to be found inside playing online poker with college kids from across the country).  He was still the life of the party, but it became clear that he had a quieter, contemplative side.

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The complete caption reads: Norbert and a glass of beer.  Aug. 1944

I got to experience this side of him up close shortly after Grandma’s funeral.  My cousin, Nikki arranged for him to meet with Father Tharp, and I tagged along just because.  I got to hear Grandpa tell Father in his own words just how much his long life, long marriage, and all the blessings that sprang from them meant to him.  He spoke, too, of his military service, which I believe was an extension of his love for his family.  Mark Twain said, “Love the country always; love the government when it deserves it.”  Today too many people see country and government as being one and the same thing, which makes one very cynical, but grandpa didn’t: he could be very critical of the government, but he loved the people.  He treated people with kindness and he served in the military on behalf of the people.  Nikki, has described Grandpa as having a servant’s heart, and I think this is an apt description, because he never seemed to demand anything in return. 

 

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Grandpa saluting the flag, 2015

Case in point: On our way out from that meeting with Father Tharp, a young man in his twenties was walking towards us.  He saw Grandpa walking with a cane, saw his WWII Veteran hat, and promptly took a few steps back to open the door for Grandpa, and said nothing more than, “Thank you for your service.”  To this Grandpa replied, “No, why…thank you!”  And then he continued on — no further conversation, no smug, self-satisfaction.  Something about that exchange was deeply moving, and it was connected to the fact that, while he was able, he would raise and salute the flag on his flagpole every morning when he woke up, and salute it again before he took it down in the evening.  When he saluted the flag, he saluted the people.  He didn’t force others to do the same, and he didn’t care if anyone judged him: he did it because honoring and respecting people is what you do.  It’s why he participated in more than a thousand military funerals; it’s why he called you every year, without fail, to sing “happy birthday” to you.  Because honoring and respecting people is what you do.

 

I can’t say if Grandpa was always this kind of exemplar of grace — I only knew him for the last forty years of his very long life — but I think he was an excellent model to the rest of us of the things that really matter. 

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He had the heartiest laugh.  

It has been said that living with the knowledge that you’re dying is like leaving a party early when you’re having fun and really don’t want to go.  There has to be some truth to this, and Grandpa, as stated earlier, was the life of the party, but he was also a devout Catholic who firmly believed in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  For him, we hope and believe, the party has not ended, that it’s only just getting started because now he’s there.  He’s left us here to mourn him, but he’s joined Grandma and loved ones he hasn’t seen in many years: his brother Bernard and Aunt Bert; his sister Alma & Uncle Al, their parents, Rose and Clarence.  After catching up with all of them, laughing and probably having a bit too much to drink, he’ll step outside to look at the shimmering expanse of heaven as he looked at his pond here on Earth, and he’ll see us in the distance on the other side.  Grandma will join him, and so will St. Francis — not the statue, but the man himself — and they’ll raise their glasses in a toast to us, as we raise our glasses in a toast to them, and they’ll continue to watch over all of us in the days, months, years and decades ahead, until we’re all reunited in that celestial home where water is turned to wine — or beer if that’s your preference — where our tears are turned to laughter, and where Grandpa — or Dad, or Uncle Norb, or just plain Norb — will turn to us with that gigantic smile of his, letting us know how honored he feels that we found our way back to him. 

 

Grandpa, we salute you, we love you, and we thank you for your service in all the ways you served this world.  We miss you, but we take comfort in the knowledge that we’ll meet again one day.

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Christmas 2016

Given Grandpa’s fondness for St. Francis, I would like to end today by reciting the St. Francis prayer.  If you know the prayer, please feel free to recite it along with me. 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled
As to console.
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen. 

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“Bach’s Holy Dread”

mv-sjp_horizontal-1If it’s a coincidence, it’s a rather remarkable one.

The New Yorker published Alex Ross’s fantastic piece on J. S. Bach’s religious beliefs — with a heavy focus on the St. John Passion — barely more than a month before our (MasterVoices‘) presentation of this incredible work at Carnegie Hall (Feb. 9).  Whether you intend to come to our concert or not, you should really check out this article.

(And you should come to the concert…I mean really, why wouldn’t you?  It’s so easy: You can buy tickets right here.)