farrago, n. — A confused group; a medley, mixture, hotchpotch.
1912: soprano/mezzo-soprano Göttin Martha Mödl is born in Nürnberg. After making her debut in Remscheid at age 30, she later became a superstar of the Hamburg and Berlin ensembles before emerging as one of the postwar period’s greatest singing actors at the Bayreuth Festivals. An Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Kundry of great ferocity, she later shifted to mezzo roles which showed her talents in arguably equal, if not greater, depth. Like Astrid Varnay, Mödl was a rare appearance on studio recordings, but the world is all the better for the long roster of live performances she left behind. Two selections: first, her historic and effortless “Verklärung” (yes, you read that correctly) from the end of Tristan und Isolde from Bayreuth in 1952 under Karajan; and a later performance of great interest to me, Waltraute in Götterdämmerung from Bayreuth in 1967 under Böhm. Waltraute to some might seem to make act 1 of this work interminable, but in fact, she may be among the most crucial characters in the entire drama for relaying to Brünnhilde the penultimate steps in the twilight of the gods. Say what you want about her voice here, this is casting for the gods and Mödl acts the shit out of it.
“It’s the fragment, not the day.
It’s the pebble, not the stream.
It’s the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.”
1930: Stephen Sondheim is born in New York City. I can’t add anything more, and I’m not being obsequious. The work says it all. Below, an essential excerpt from the CBS Camera Three documentary “Anatomy of a Song” wherein Sondheim breaks down one of his masterwork moments “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures. Music is at its best when in transcends time in all its facets and that’s what this song does more than any other.
1910: Akira Kurosawa is born in Tokyo. All roads in the history of cinema connect with him, arguably the greatest of film auteurs. Image, character, and sound are epically connected in his work, which is based above all, on story and writing.
1953: Everywoman Chaka Khan is born in Chicago.
“My lord I am tied with a chain of iron about my neck… I am tied, and the case is altered with me.”
1603: After forty-four years of rule, Elizabeth I—Gloriana—departed this life.
Out Bess, in James. Out rose, in thistle.
1939: Fashion and costume legend Bob Mackie is born in Monterey Park, California. You know a Mackie rag when you see it and that is the mark of a true artist. Below, talking about his work on The Carol Burnett Show, where fashion met story and comedy brilliantly.
1881: Composer, pianist, pedagogue, and ethnomusiologist Béla Bartók is born in Sânnicolau Mare, Romania, then Nagyszentmiklós in the Kingdom of Hungary. That order of occupations is by no means fixed for, indeed, Bartók moved between so many musical endeavors it is hard to close him off in one particular cell of activity. In all of Bartók, one finds a universe of thematic, structural, and dramatic ideas whose complexity often seems at odds with the photographs of the very timid, slender man. Or, perhaps, the photographs complement the elegance of his depths, for there is hardly anything gratuitous in Bartók. Every effect evolves with the most natural construction, finely wrought over time as the sketches show. I am always struck and stopped by the notion of Nachtmusik (night music) in Bartók, those mysterious creations of shadow where time is transmuted into something that is deadly and inviting. Like Schubert, however, there are moments of terrific jollity, something either lacking or otherwise absent in the music of his contemporaries. His music has helped me through so many rough periods professionally and personally. I don’t think there will ever be an act of musical release stronger than the Fifth Door in Bluebeard’s Castle, but few collections are more meditative and conducive to thinking than the piano and chamber works, particularly the quartets.
1942: The Queen forever, Aretha Franklin is born in Memphis, Tennessee. Nuff said.
“I was once asked why I travel so much, and I said, ‘Because it’s harder to hit a moving target!'”
1911: Thomas Lanier Williams, known to eternity as Tennessee Williams, is born in Columbus, Mississippi.
1919: Strother Martin is born in Kokomo, Indiana. Among my favorite character actors, Martin was always at his best as the superciliously bitchy, though his Captain in Cool Hand Luke showed how venomously effective he could be. Here sparring with Kim Darby in the original True Grit: “I wouldn’t pay that for winged Pegasus!”
1949: Vicki Lawrence is born in Inglewood, California. Whether serving us Mama or turning out the lights in Georgia, Lawrence is the consummate entertainer. Above all, she knows that even more than timing, a good comedian needs to know how to wait:
1924: Jazz phenomenon Sarah Vaughan is born in Newark, New Jersey. Superlatives will forever fail to do her justice.
1934: Dance legend Arthur Mitchell is born in Harlem. The first African-American principal for Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, Mitchell later founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 in association with Karel Shook. Below, the famous pas de deux with Diana Adams in Stravinsky’s Agon.
1950: Maria Ewing is born in Detroit, Michigan. Opera was never the same again.
Dutch Reporter: “You were the ‘box office poison’, it was called?”
Dirk Bogarde: “No, I never was that.”
DR: “I read it in the newspaper.”
DB: “You mustn’t read papers. They’re all rubbish.”
1921: The ever-eloquent and urbane Sir Dirk Bogarde is born in West Hampstead, London.
1999: Philip J. Fry freezes 1000 years into the future on Fox and Futurama is born. Animation rarely had such wit, whimsy, and heart in one series.
Until next week!