Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bill Moyer on Beethoven Nine

Bill Moyer has written a piece on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which previews a documentary titled,
"Following the Ninth."

One of the performances he posted is a flashmob I did with my students at The Hartt School last spring.

You can see the piece here:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bernard Haitink

Last Sunday, I heard the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under the direction of Bernard Haitink. It was easily the finest performance I have ever heard of this work.

Granted, this is the kind of piece that guarantees a rousing ovation at the work's conclusion, and so any conductor could be excused from thinking that all of the plaudits are for him (or her). But the Tanglewood crowd can be a discerning crowd, and they were not going to stop applauding after two or three curtain calls. And much, if not all, of the credit, must go to Haitink.

When I am asked for my favorite conductors living today, I have never mentioned Haitink's name. His reputation is beyond repute, and even the composer/conductor Gunther Schuller -- who is tough on all of the greats -- places Haitink among those at the top of the heap. This was only the second time I have seen Haitink live; the first time was over thirty years ago, conducting Holst's Planets at the BBC Proms. I thought it was a good performance, but I quickly forgot about it. When I saw him on television with the Concertgebeow Orchestra, his work seemed first rate, if sometimes lacking spontaneity.

That's all changed now. Among the great conductors today, he is totally devoid of ego. The score was in front of him, and he turned every page, though I doubt he needed it. But the tempos were all right -- even when they were a bit on the slow side (the scherzo in particular), they still seemed right. He is 84 years old, but conducts like someone much younger. The third movement was glorious. And the finale, which in the wrong hands can be an unholy mess, was the most cohesive and persuasive account I have ever heard. (Stravinsky did not like the Ninth, but he might have liked this one.) The Turkish March had just the right combination of spit and humor, and the double fugue was super-charged, every voice crystal clear. There was never a moment when Haitink did nothing less than guide the players, and reveal the music as Beethoven wrote it.

Afterwards, a player told me that Haitink stopped just once in the dress rehearsal, after a few bars of the slow movement, addressing the first violins: "Yes . . . . but can it not be more beautiful?" That's the only thing he said all morning. Many of the players agree that, were it not for his age, Haitink would be their next music director.

After the performance, I spoke briefly with Mark Volpe, Executive Director of the BSO, who said the players were very tired, running on fumes, but because of their enormous respect for Haitink, they played like it could be their last performance. After several curtain calls, Haitink came out twice more, and both times the orchestra refused to stand, rapping their stands and stomping their feet in approval -- the ultimate compliment for a conductor.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Promise denied, promise fulfilled at the U.S. Open

The PGA tournament is the last of the four major tournaments in the golf season, and it's never had the same kind of panache and excitement as the previous three. The Masters is like a spring awakening, the only major held yearly at the same course, where so many golf fans know every hole as if we've played it ourselves. The US Open and the British Open are different tests -- the former demanding accuracy and the ability to scramble out of deep rough; the latter requiring great shotmaking on open, links-style courses, with nary a tree in sight. By the time the PGA rolls around in mid-August, most of us would rather just play golf than watch it.

But at the 1999 PGA at Medinah, a 19-year old Spaniard announced his arrival on golf's finest stage, declaring his worthiness with a dramatic shot from the base of a tree that somehow found its way to the green. Sergio Garcia was in a duel with Tiger Woods, who at that time was the winner of just one major, the 1997 Masters, when he was barely legal. I was on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and for every moment when we weren't in rehearsal or performing, I was glued to the telly in Dublin hotel.

So this PGA was unlike many before and many that followed, because there was so much promise in the air. After Nicklaus/Palmer there was Nicklaus/Trevino and then Nicklaus/Watson, but after his dramatic (and last major) victory at the 1986 Masters, Jack moved on, and many of us moved on with him. The golfing scene had cooled considerably.

Then Tiger arrived and, close on his heels, Sergio Garcia.

Garcia is still a young man today, his enormous gifts still well intact. In the Ryder Cup, Garcia is characteristically brilliant in the team format. Sadly, when he's on his own, he's in a constant battle with himself. We want to root for him, because we love to see great shotmaking. He's had trouble with his putting, but more than anything, Garcia has a unique proclivity for getting in his own way. He's 32, and it already feels like he's past his prime.

At the 2002 US Open at Bethpage, Garcia displayed an annoying habit of gripping and regripping his club while addressing his ball, such that rude spectators would count out loud, "1, 2, 3 . ." for each time he did it. At the 2007 British Open, he spit into the bottom of the cup after a 3-putt bogey. Earlier this year, at the The Players Championship -- where he won memorably in 2008 with a brilliant shot to the island green at 17 -- he hit three balls into the water on the last two holes, catastrophically knocking himself out of the lead. Moments later at a press conference, he insinuated that his difficulties were caused by improper on-course protocol from Woods. Whatever Tiger may have done -- and I wouldn't put it past him, given his arrogance and gamesmanship -- it certainly did not warrant Garcia's racially insensitive remarks.

Like Garcia, Justin Rose, also 32 (or soon to be), announced himself to the golf world as a teenager around the same time. At the age of 17, he holed a wedge from the fairway on the last hole of the 1998 British Open, finishing in fourth place. With Nick Faldo at the end of his fine career, England was united in placing their hopes in Rose as the heir apparent.

After turning pro, Rose missed 21 consecutive cuts. He won a couple of tournaments in his native South Africa, but his struggles continued. After moving stateside and dedicating himself to the PGA tour, he finally broke through in 2010, and since then has won at least one tournament every year. With his win yesterday at the US Open, he has joined golfing greats Lee Trevino (1971) and Ben Hogan (1950) among other great US Open winners at Merion. His win may not have been as dramatic -- Lee beat Jack in an 18-hole playoff, and Ben needed a late one-iron on a string to get himself in position for his playoff victory. Like Garcia (and Hogan), Rose is not a great putter; he 3-putted four times during the tournament. But he was still good enough to outlast Jason Day and Phil Mickelson, who thrilled the galleries with an eagle 2 on the 10th. But this and a lone birdie were not enough to overcome several bogeys on the finishing holes. His 43rd birthday would end with a record 6th second place finish at the U.S. Open.

Rose will never be a household name like Garcia. He lives his life quietly, without fanfare, without controversy. And he has something that still eludes Garcia -- a major championship victory.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mining the data: What film will you next see?

In the May/June issue of Intelligent Life, there is an article on algorithims which shows how the company, Epagogix, uses data to determine who is a bankable movie star. Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Will Smith are actors who have demonstrated over time to bring a return on the investment. This has nothing to do with whether the film is any good, or if it's even art. But algorithims help Epagogix guide studios in their decisions. (The article went on to say that a certain unnamed A-list actress is guaranteed to lose money. I wonder if it's Julia Roberts?)

The Hartford Symphony recently did a popular all-Mozart program, and it was difficult to get a ticket -- even with four performances. Later in the season, a program featuring two pianists in music by Gershwin also did well. Unfortunately, the season closer, featuring Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps, did not draw audiences of similar magnitude.

The Hartford Symphony is right to perform The Rite of Spring, and like most orchestras, they wanted to schedule it when the rest of the world was celebrating the work's centenary. But honoring that date -- May 29, 1913 -- means that you must close your season with it. And Stravinsky is never going to sell like Mozart or Gershwin. However viable artistically it may be, closing your season with Le sacre is a calculated risk.

Enter algorithims. Again, we are not talking about the artistic level of these performances, but rather the interest these programs would likely generate within the community. (For what it's worth, I attended the Mozart program -- featuring concertmaster Leonid Sigal as soloist and guest conductor -- and it was very good. Sometimes box office and artistic merits can be on the same page.)

Creating a symphony season is quite a puzzle. During my years as music director of the Hartford Symphony, there were always checks and balances to what I planned. Initially, the process was a bit arduous. The year before I arrived -- without a sitting music director -- the Program Committee had planned the entire masterworks series. With their newly minted success, they wanted to continue having an active role. What they did not understand is that programming is one of the most important things a music director does. I wanted to play to my strengths, and to that of the orchestra, and who would know better than a conductor?

Once you have a first draft of a season, then it's time for careful scrutinizing. And one of the first questions will be, "will it sell?"

Mozart always sells. Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony are guaranteed box office hits. But you can't fill your whole season with these works, otherwise. . . . what are you going to do the following season? You must be judicious, and plan ahead.

There is also the matter of concertos -- for an orchestra that does several masterworks programs over the course of a season, the HSO always features at least one or two pianists, sometimes more. Then you must decide which concerto will be played -- will it be one by Rachmaninoff? Audiences love just about anything by Rachmaninoff, but they also have preferences: the Second or Third concertos, for instance, or Variations on a Theme by Paganini. But if you schedule the First or Fourth concertos -- both wonderful, if neglected works -- audiences may not come (and the less discerning ticket buyers may feel cheated).

Sometimes you get a surprise hit. With the help of Christopher Stager, a marketing whiz who continues to guide me and many other orchestras and opera companies, he suggested that if I wanted to do Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet, it would be best to position it near Valentine's Day. Now, there are lots of people who love Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, and maybe even one or two works by Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique, for example), but few would admit more than a passing knowledge with this great work. Well, Valentine's Day arrived, and sure enough, just as Chris had predicted, scores of young men brought their beautifully-coiffed dates to the Bushnell, hoping to get tickets. Some did, but many others were denied entry, as the box office staff were caught completely off guard by the last-minute onslaught. Chris's suggestion had been a master stroke; if we had put Romeo and Juliet on any other month of the year, it would have gone by with nary even a dull roar.

If you need a sure thing, put Brad Pitt in the movie, or put Carmina Burana on the docket. But for the rest of the year, you'd better have the data on your side. Without it, you can only hope to get lucky.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Tiger's lost opportunity

Earlier this month, the golfing sensation, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods was given a big chance to bring back millions of fans forever lost to him, and he threw it away.

On the second day of the Master's Championship -- the first of golf's four major tournaments, and for many fans, the most compelling golf on television all year -- Woods hit into the pond fronting the 15th green. Instead of playing his next shot from a drop spot (a much harder shot), he elected to go back to the place where he originally hit the shot. Where he broke the rule was in the placement: he (incorrectly, as it turned out) thought he could drop his ball a couple of feet behind the original location, and did so. After he finished his round, he signed a scorecard that was incorrect, because it did not account for the 2-stroke penalty he incurred with his improper drop. Since he signed an incorrect scorecard, he should have been disqualified. But because of some new rule established in 2011, a rule which is still unclear to me, he was able to take the 2-stroke penalty and continue playing through the weekend.

Whether or not he should have been disqualified is not the point. Tiger ought to have removed himself from the tournament.

Imagine what would have transpired if Tiger had won the tournament by one stroke, or even two strokes -- the win would have probably been dubbed his Masterisk victory, because of the controversial ruling. Why does Roberto de Vicenzo lose out, but not Tiger? In 1968, De Vicenzo was tied for first place with Bob Goalby after 72 holes, but was denied victory because he signed an incorrect scorecard. (His playing partner, Tommy Aaron, gave him a '4' on the par-4 17th, which De Vicenzo had birdied.) I understand that these two instances are not the same thing, and the rulings (new and old) are different for each instance. Still, they both involve an incorrect scorecard.

This is the nature of Woods's arrogance. We applaud it on the course -- his singleminded, win-at-all-cost nature is what propels him, and it is what compels us to watch him. Golf is more thrilling to watch when Woods is in the mix.

But if he had even taken just a moment to realize the situation, to realize that he was not going to blow away the field as he had done in his first Masters victory in 1997, when he beat his closest pursuer, Tom Kite, by 12 strokes, the picture would have come more clearly into view. Who, after all, wants a victory that is tainted? How do we feel about Barry Bonds now, who has the all-time home run record? If you're like me, you're still rooting for Hank Aaron.

If Tiger had disqualified himself, many people who had given up on him after his transgressions of several years ago might have come back. (There is a segment of the female population that will never forgive him.) America is the land of second chances -- look at Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (dogfighting scandal), or former governor John Rowland (corruption scandal), both back at work in the public eye. We want to see people like them pick themselves up and make a fresh start.

If Tiger had addressed the press on Saturday and told them, "I signed an incorrect scorecard; if I had checked with an official before I signed my card, I would have recorded the 2-stroke penalty and continued playing. But I did not know of my error until it was too late, so I must, by the rules of golf, bow out of the Masters."

Nike, his $100 million sponsor, would have gone through the roof. People's jaws would have hit the floor. Here was Tiger, like every other golfer before him, playing by the time-honored rules of golf, in which most players call penalties on themselves, even when they are not visible to the millions who watch on television. (The penalty on Tiger only came about because of a phone call from a viewer, who pointed out the error to Master's officials.) Tiger, that cad off the course, was showing a side we had never seen before. He was fair. He was professional. And in April 2014, everyone would be looking forward to his return, talking about how he had taken a few steps up the ethical ladder, preparing himself for another stab at the green jacket.

But no, he played on to a forgettable top-ten finish. Heck, few of us will even remember that Adam Scott (whose caddie, Steve Williams, formerly worked on Tiger's bag) won the tournament.

Regrettably, it was a lost opportunity for Tiger.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Colin Davis 1927-2013

I last saw Colin Davis a couple of years ago, when he conducted two works of Sibelius: the Violin Concerto, with Nikolaj Znaider, and the Second Symphony. He and the London Symphony were in New York, where they would also perform Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.

Anthony Tommasini reported in the New York Times how he looked frail conducting the Berlioz Requiem in London last summer. If he wasn't frail when I saw him, he was certainly not at the top of his game. But what he did that night was better than most of what I have ever seen on the podium. From the LSO players, you could feel a love in every note they played. Znaider said a few words before his encore that evening, and they were all about Davis; his remarks suggested that this would be the last time we would ever see him conduct again.

I met him years ago, taking an orchestra tour off-day to observe him in rehearsal with the LSO and chorus in Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict. Over and over again, he would turn around to ask the choral conductor (seated in the audience) how things sounded, if the balances were okay, etc. He was dressed impeccably, blazer and tie, but very informal in his manner. The Pittsburgh Symphony's Executive Director, Gideon Toeplitz (who also recently passed away), introduced me to Maestro Davis, who could not stop talking about his family. For a man notable for his temper, he seemed to be very much at peace with himself the day I met him.

”Conductors,” Davis once said in an interview with The New York Times, ”are paid to think, and that’s what the job should be about: sitting at home thinking, what is this piece? How can I set it up to sound its best and live on, because there’s nothing to replace it with just yet? This is what absorbs the mind. Especially in old age.”

Beethoven's Eroica, part two

The finale of Beethoven's Symphony no. 3, Eroica, does not get the attention it deserves. We often read about the length of the symphony, the funeral march, the hilarity of the scherzo, the horn coming in 'too early' before the reprise of the first movement, among other things. But what about the finale? How great would this symphony be, really, if it were not for the brilliant manner in which Beethoven closes this epic work?

The last movement utilizes a theme from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus; the theme also appears as no. 7 in his Contredances, but Beethoven is not on record anywhere having said or written anything about the appearance of this theme in the finale.

In all of his symphonic music, the finale is the closest he comes to sheer theatricality. The opening is all ablaze, fast and furious, before it comes to a halt on a dominant chord. (If you don't know what the dominant is, no worries -- just think of it as a chord that desperately wants to drop the other shoe.) The tension resolves in the most curious way: a skeletal, bare bones theme (if you can call it that). Beethoven aficionados know this to be a specialty, starting with something so banal that it can only go up from there. What ensues is a series of variations on the skeleton, before he unveils the Prometheus theme.

In the finale of Symphony no. 2, Beethoven uses a hybrid form first used by Haydn in the finale of his Symphony no. 85, La Reine, combining the rondo with sonata form. In the Eroica, Beethoven goes one better, conflating sonata form with theme and variations. It is a structural tour de force. Early in the development, one of the variations is a fugato, with lots of call-and-answer, similar in style to the first variation. Later, the basses play the skeletal theme in a Hungarian style, with heavy boots, bringing the development to an apparent close (but not really). When the second violins get another chance at the bare bones theme, they play it . . . upside down! What's going on here? And why are we getting yet another fugato -- wasn't one enough?

The reason may be in the structure; it feels like a return, and the harmonic homecoming would suggest it. But again, not really. Only when Beethoven arrives at another big cadence, again on the dominant, tension filling the room, does he truly announce the real return. But this statement is in a completely new tempo, slower, more stately, and unimaginably beautiful. For me, it is the most beautiful passage in all of Beethoven's nine symphonic masterworks. This is the Beethoven who loved Mozart, who often employed operatic turns in his instrumental music.

It is Beethoven at his most theatrical, his most courageous, his most vulnerable. No wonder this was his favorite.

I think it's my favorite, too.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Beethoven's Eroica Symphony

What is it about this piece that separates it from the other eight masterworks by Beethoven in this genre?

I am not speaking of those qualities we learned in music history -- it being so much longer than any other symphony up to that point in time, by Haydn, Mozart, or even Beethoven himself. Nor am I speaking of the other things that distinguish it -- the funeral march, the outrageous laughter in the scherzo, or the theme and variations, more common in chamber music finales than ever before in symphonies. (Besides, the theme and variations idea reappears in the finale of the Ninth.)

Actually, I'm thinking more about what it is about this symphony that may have made it Beethoven's favorite. Someone once asked him this, after he had written all nine symphonies, and his response was immediate. "So, LvB, if you had to choose, which one would it be?"

No. 3.
Next question.

Let's look at the way it begins -- it has an introduction of sorts, not like the previous two symphonies, or the one to follow, which have slow introductions, as does the Seventh. Even the way the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth begin suggests the feeling of an introduction, if not structurally so. Only the Eighth symphony jumps out of the starting gate with boundless joy.

But the Third has an introduction unlike any other: two short tonic chords. (My teacher likened them to Beethoven telling his audience: "SHUT -- UP!") This is Beethoven in a hurry, with much to say, and seemingly little time to say it. Look at how many different thematic statements there are before we finally arrive at the second subject, only to discover later that there is still another new theme introduced in the development. Then, when you get to the coda (latin for 'tail'), the damn thing is so long that it's wagging the dog.

Then there is his penchant for sudden dynamics. (The conductor, Daniel Barenboim, links this quality to Beethoven's courage: As a conductor, I always feel like a nag when I rehearse this symphony, because playing a subito dynamic is difficult to do. You're going along fine, and then, right at the cadence, when you expect a musical passage to end accordingly, Beethoven pulls his punch. Sometimes, he even asks for a sudden soft after a crescendo (gradually getting stronger and stronger), which is even harder to do. And so, I stop orchestras frequently in rehearsal, asking them to honor Beethoven's dynamic shifts. These sudden changes can go the other way, too, from forte to fortissimo (strong -- very strong), without warning. These moments also require great concentration from the players who, as a group, are often quite content to not make such a big deal between the two if it isn't pointed out to them.

Then there are all those accents! So many of them, and mostly on an offbeat, creating tension through syncopation. Sometimes, Beethoven gets stuck on one of these rhythmic ideas, to the point where we lose all sense of the pulse. The first and third movements are riddled with a device known as hemiola (no, not a blood disease), which also upsets the metric apple cart.

In the marcia funebre, Beethoven emancipates the basses from the celli for the first time. Never before in a symphony had basses been treated in such a soloistic manner. Without them -- the anchor, limping along, in their own dreary world -- this music is unthinkable.

After the first two movements, the scherzo brings some release to all of the tension built up to that point, if only marginally so. In the finale, Beethoven, as he does in the finale of the Second, he let's it all go. He leaves the symphony hall, crosses the street into the theatre, into a world of dance and play. More on this, in my next segment on Beethoven's Eroica.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

the film, "A Late Quartet"

It's unfortunate that two films have come out recently with similar titles. Dustin Hoffman has made his directorial debut in "Quartet," featuring the great Maggie Smith, and this is the one everyone is telling me to see. I will get to it in due time.

But my attention now is on "A Late Quartet," focussing on the trials and tribulations of a string quartet. The film sometimes teeters on the edge of soap opera, but it is for the most part a captivating story on how four intense, opinionated, brilliant musicians spend day-in and day-out together, over the course of 25 years. The film begins near the end of their run, so they have a history. But that's only the beginning, because there are surprises still in store, for the viewer and the members of the ensemble.

There is one moment that caught my attention, when Christopher Walken, the cellist in the quartet, ruminates on thoughts of his late wife (in a beautiful cameo by Anne Sophie von Otter), who has died within the past year. During a master class with his students, he brings his hand to his face and gazes at his wedding ring, thinking of her. Only problem is, it's on the wrong hand.

Most married string players wear their wedding ring (if they where one at all) on their right hand, so that their left hand is free for all of the complex fingering they must do on the fingerboard of their instrument. The right hand holds the bow, so a ring on that hand doesn't present any problems. Not so for the left hand.

But Walken's ring is on his left hand.

It made me wonder, because certainly the director knew this, given that there were so many experts and consultants working with Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir, all non-string playing actors who did a credible job making us believe they really could play. But perhaps a ring on the right hand would have confused most viewers, who don't know this about string players?

And so the ring stayed on the left hand.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Big East Women's Basketball

Two years ago on this blog, I wrote about a basketball game between the women of Villanova and Providence, in which the former came from behind at the end to win. The win featured sophomore Laura Sweeney, a 6' 2" forward who was emerging as the team's star. Last week, Georgetown ran into a Villanova squad that began by raining 3-pointers; I had never seen anything like it, not in college hoops or the pros. (By the end of the night, they had made 17 shots from beyond the arc.) Lauren Burford contributed mightily, as did Sweeney, who suffered a concussion. Unfortunately for Villanova, Sweeney would not be able to play in the next game against Syracuse, and they sorely missed her.

But I will remember the Villanove/Syracuse game more for Harry Perretta's inappropriate behavior. At one point early on, Burford was taken out of the game, and as she took her seat on the bench, Perretta said something to her so everyone could hear. (He shouts a lot, to anyone who will listen.) Burford was clearly unhappy with having been pulled from the game, and I was close enough to the bench to hear her make some passing comment to the coach as she took her seat.

Perretta then lit into her, at one point screaming at her, "YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH!" I thought I was watching a parent scold his daughter. Better for him to have sent her to the end of the bench and dealt with her later, concentrating on the game at hand. (Burford did not play again.) But Perretta wasn't done. A few moments later, the coach looked behind the bench towards some Big East officials -- no doubt sitting in mild horror at this point -- and continued his verbal barrage, suggesting that if Burford's parents were in the stands, he would send her into the bleachers to sit with them. Perretta had not just lost his temper (acceptable), he had crossed the line. If I were Villanova's athletic director, I would have sanctioned him. At every time out thereafter, Laura Sweeney was encouraging her teammates, cheering them on at every opportunity. But there was no mistaking the fear in the eyes of many of the young women.

It reminded me of when I assisted a team my daughter played on years ago, when she was in the fifth grade. The coach was shouting at the girls all the time, on the court, off the court. One time I asked Carolyn if the team paid much attention to what their coach was saying. To which she responded, "Dad, we can't even hear him." Perretta is always shouting, most of the time yelling HIGH-LOW! HIGH-LOW! but it wasn't making much of a difference. His players made a run at the end of the game against Syracuse, but it seemed to me that it was happening as much in spite of him, rather than because of him.

Every coach has his/her own style. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw clearly inspires her players, but they also have a free-wheeling quality about them which makes them even more dangerous. Without a real big woman in the post, Notre Dame still had an answer for everything that UConn threw their way in the Big East final. Kayla McBride came out shooting like she was in a game of H-O-R-S-E in the local playground. Both she and Notre Dame's star guard, Skylar Diggins, had a first step off the dribble that was so quick, UConn couldn't keep up, and they frequently had to foul just to prevent the shot.

But more than anything else, Notre Dame clearly got inside of the UConn women's heads. Every other game they've played this year, even against Stanford, they play like there's no tomorrow. But against Notre Dame a few weeks ago, and again in the Big East final, they played scared.

At the end of the final against Notre Dame, with 18.5 seconds to go, after having been outplayed most of the game, UConn had somehow worked their way to a tie. Time out. UConn ball. Worst they could do is not score, preserve the tie, and go into overtime. Best outcome would be a winning basket before the buzzer. Instead, the inbounds pass nearly went over Breanna Stewart's head. Somehow, the 6'4" freshman one-handed it, but you could already sense the trouble, as Notre Dame's defense had been tenacious all night. Best thing would have been another short time out, but instead the players were taking risks, dribbling along the baseline under the basket, tossing the ball towards corners, generally playing anything but UConn basketball. Then, as they had done several times earlier in the game, an ill-fated pass landed in Diggins's hands, who, double- and then triple-teamed, still found a way to get downcourt before she dished it off to a teammate for the winning basket. Notre Dame, like all great teams, found a way to win.

UConn is a very fine team, but they have yet to demonstrate an ability to win the close games. When they do this again, hopefully in the upcoming NCAA tournament, they will once again be the great team we know them to be.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lincoln, by Spielberg

I loved watching Lincoln, but I don't think it's a great movie.

Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant, of course. He makes Lincoln human and believable. By extension, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book "Team of Rivals" was Kushner's primary source, are also behind-the-scene stars, as well as Janusz Kaminski, cinematographer, for taking grand subject matter and making it so intimate.

Viewers may fidget during the scenes in which Lincoln's son begs his father to let him fight, but it does set up a pivotal scene between Day-Lewis and Sally Field, who plays Lincoln's wife, Mary.

Anthony Lane is right when he writes that Spielberg lost an opportunity for a great ending: watching Lincoln walking away from us, down a long hallway, shuffling along, uncomfortable with his gangly stature, preparing for his last night out. What a coda that could have been. Who in the world doesn't know how Lincoln spent his last evening? Instead, Spielberg takes us to the Second Inaugural Address. It's like asking Day-Lewis to play Henry Fonda playing Lincoln.

Same for the stage of surrender, where Robert E. Lee's only appearance in the film is accompanied by strings and voices in the distance. (Whenever you hear a chorus in a Spielberg film, it's because he's asked for it. And who is John Williams to say no to Spielberg?) Spielberg was even able to corral another president into introducing his film at the Golden Globes.

At the ceremony, when all of the best actor nominees were announced, you could see on the faces of Richard Gere, Joaquin Phoenix, Denzel Washington et al, 'what's the point of this charade?' They knew Day-Lewis would win, and he will win at the Academy Awards as well. And it will likely be the only Oscar the film garnishes there, too.

I loved this movie, but it could have been so much better. Still, that won't keep me from watching it again.

Clarence Thomas speaks, after seven years of silence

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