Monday, March 15, 2010


In the New York Times (March 8, 2010), Janet Maslin reviewed Ron Rash’s new collection of short stories, beginning “Ron Rash was the seasoned author of nine books of fiction and poetry before his 10th, the stunning 2008 Serena, established him as one of the best American novelists of his day.” March 9 was the release date for Burning Bright, and I bought it at Malaprop’s Bookstore. I finished reading it on March 10. Two years ago, I did the same thing with Serena. Literally, I couldn’t put the books down.

I first met Ron in 2004 at the Hendersonville Library, where he read from his poetry and intrigued us with the first two pages of his then-forthcoming second novel Saints at the River. I immediately read two books of his poetry and his first novel. One Foot in Eden is set on the Jocassee River before Carolina Power turned it into Jocassee Lake. The plot is heart-rending, and I cried over it. Considering the virile masculinity of his poetry, I was surprised that he was totally convincing when writing in a feminine voice in one of the five sections of that novel. One Foot in Eden is barely 200 pages in length. Every word signifies in Rash’s novels, just as in his poetry.

Since then, I have read all eleven of his books: his poetry (Eureka Mill, Among the Believers and Raising the Dead), his short stories (The Night that Jesus Fell to Earth, Casualties, Chemistry and Other Stories and Burning Bright) and his novels (One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, The World Made Straight and Serena).

Saints at the River is set post-World War II on a fictional river that highly resembles the Chattooga. It begins in the first person of a thirteen-year-old girl as she drowns in the river, and then necessarily shifts point of view. Wealthy tourists, newly arrived environmentalists and pragmatic Western Carolina natives populate the novel. The nuances of each character are depicted by his or her use of language. Vocabulary and construction reflect background.

The World Made Straight concerns the modern-day descendants of two families (one pro-Union, one pro-Confederacy) that were involved in the Shelton Laurel Massacre in Madison County during the Civil War.

Serena takes place in Haywood and Jackson Counties during the 1930’s. Rapacious lumber barons include a young anti-heroine of mythic grand ambition and her husband. Think “Macbeth.” Their goal is the clear-cutting of as much of the virgin mixed hardwood forest as possible before the Department of the Interior creates Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Janet Maslin listed Serena as one of the ten best books she reviewed in 2008.

Ron Rash’s ancestors have lived in Southern Appalachia since the 1700’s. He was raised in Boiling Springs, SC. After 2003 when he became the Parris Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University, he moved near Sylva. He now lives at most a few miles from land that his ancestors owned, perhaps even on it. He has internalized the history of the region, and his works provide a fictional and poetic representation of Southern Appalachian culture that is unparalleled. At the time of his WCU appointment, he commented on his own writing by quoting Eudora Welty: "One place understood helps us understand all other places better."

If you want to understand the geology, botany and history of this region, read Wilma Dykeman’s exemplary 1955 work of non-fiction, The French Broad. If you want to understand the people, read Ron Rash’s poetry, stories and novels. I highly recommend you start with Among the Believers, Burning Bright, Serena and One Foot in Eden.

© 2010 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #468
March 15, 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010


For most of twenty-five years, I lived in Rochester, New York. Here, the Garth Fagan Dance Company got its start. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra was a major symphony orchestra presenting concerts at Eastman Theatre. The Eastman School of Music’s two student orchestras also performed there. Chamber music concerts were frequent at the exquisite middle-sized Kilbourn Hall of the Eastman School of Music as well as at other venues. I heard my first complete cycle of Beethoven quartets presented one season by the Cleveland Quartet in the days when Donald Weilerstein was first violin.

For two brief periods, I lived in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City. I was ninety minutes from the cultural riches of Manhattan. The Paul Taylor Dance Company, the New York City Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet were among my favorites. There were operas at the Metropolitan Opera House and at New York City Opera (where Beverly Sills presided). There were visiting symphony orchestras at the acoustically wonderful Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic at their acoustically challenged Avery Fisher Hall. Finally, there were many chamber music concerts at a variety of venues.

When I retired ten years ago to Western North Carolina, I expected to encounter strength in visual arts and in fine crafts. I was not expecting the profusion of chamber music that I have experienced. I have been delighted with concerts in Asheville, Hendersonville, Brevard, Waynesville, Hickory and Boone as well as in neighboring Greenville, SC and Spartanburg, SC. (Greenville is closer in time to Asheville than Carnegie Hall is to New Canaan, CT).

On the weekend of March 5-7, 2010, I had to choose among concerts by the Chiara Quartet, the Lomazov/Rackers Piano Duo, the Opal Quartet and an all-Chopin solo piano recital by Doug Weeks. I can’t make it to all the high-quality offerings that are offered in Western Carolina. I elected to attend the two string quartet concerts, and was not disappointed.

On March 5, the Chiara Quartet appeared as part of the Asheville Chamber Music Series. Members of the Chiara include first violinist Rebecca Fischer (whose father was cellist in the Concord Quartet) and violist Jonah Sirota (whose father Robert heads the Manhattan School of Music). The program included works by Haydn, Robert Sirota and Beethoven. Since I was still recuperating from surgery, I appreciated Beethoven’s Opus 132, whose middle movement is entitled “Heiliger Dankesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit” (“Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a Convalescent”).

On March 7, I returned to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville for a Sunday afternoon presentation by the Opal Quartet. This young quartet contains three principal players from the Asheville Symphony Orchestra (violinist Amy Lovinger, violist Kara Poorbaugh and cellist Franklin Keel, all graduates of the Eastman School of Music) and violinist Qiao Chen Solomon.

What was special about the weekend was the repertoire. The Chiara Quartet featured Robert Sirota’s Triptych, an engrossing piece written after September 11, 2001. The Opal Quartet featured Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 5, a work in which Glass rises above minimalism, using that technique as only one arrow in his well-loaded quiver of compositional skills.

This was not a weekend for old warhorses, but a time to revel in American composers of the 21st century.

© 2010 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #467
March 13, 2010


Regular readers will have noticed that Arts Spectrum has been strangely silent in recent months. Since moving the column to the web after eight years of print-based journalism, I have established a policy of publishing weekly. There were forty columns in forty weeks beginning March 27, 2009. Then there were only three postings in December, two in January 2010 and none in February or March (until today). What was going on?

Perhaps this poem will explain:

Forty-seven Days

First sighted on birthday seventy-six
perhaps never seventy-seven?

She says “don’t name it” as if a name bestows reality
on a twelve-centimeter monster.

I protest, acknowledge and own Malvolio,
after patient decades growing, let’s get rid of him

Fifteen days hiatus while MD’s vacation in
Aspen? Aruba? Argentina? mid-winter bliss.

Two more scans: not this, not that.
Good as it gets.

Anchor in a safe cove
that meditation chose.

The large intruder departs
taking one kidney as a trophy
of his Olympic quest for mortality.
Ted McIrvine ©2010

What is this cove I speak about? Guided meditation led me to adopt as my “safe haven” during the day of surgery my favorite anchorage in the whole world, one that stimulated another poem a few years back:

Otter Cove, Lake Superior

On late arrival, almost dangerous dusk
we weave our wake past granite hazardous ledges
and touch the velvet wheel to face the wind
no longer strong midst sheltering slopes.

The battened sails now nest in lazy jacks,
the rattling roar of anchor chain is past,
the loudest sound the burbling cataract
where water sorts between three falls.

Beaver slaps his tail and dives
to join his family snug in lodge below;
moose drink here, and shy deer forage close
alongside awkward woodland caribou.

As sun slants slowly beneath four walls of pine,
the August sky displays its Northern lights.
We’re snugged at anchor, joining but two boats
in space would hold two hundred craft.

A sense of peace, and distance from the horde
settles now upon my tired crew.
Danger overcome,
now we’ve solitude.
Ted McIrvine ©2007

Add six weeks of recuperation to the 47 days between initial detection of the cancer and the ensuing surgery, and you can understand why
Arts Spectrum was silent for three months. It is good to be back.

© 2010 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #466
March 15, 2010

Thursday, January 21, 2010


This remembrance of the late Hildegarde and Sibley Watson was originally published December 15, 2002 in the Times-News of Hendersonville, NC.

Last month, I was poring over traditional Appalachian carols, characteristic French noels, German Lutheran alternative tunes to well-known carols, English hymns by Arthur Sullivan and Gustav Holst, even a carol by jazz great Dave Brubeck (in 5/4 time, no less, with drums). From my pile of Christmas music, out popped a little carol for voice and piano inscribed to me by American composer David Diamond. Entitled “A Christmas Tree,” this 1970 composition is a setting of a poem of the same name by E.E. Cummings. The music is most appropriately dedicated to Hildegarde and Sibley Watson.

Suddenly my thoughts leapt to an entirely different topic: the movie The Fall of the House of Usher filmed in 1928 in Rochester, NY. David Curtis calls directors James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber “the first truly avant-garde American filmmakers.” This 14-minute film and the later Watson film Lot in Sodom remain landmarks in filmmaking. The cinematography is by Watson and goes beyond the effects used by Murnau and other German expressionists. The use of miniatures, superimposed images and the almost total avoidance of subtitles are outstanding for the silent film era. The adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story is by Sibley Watson, Webber and E.E. Cummings.

In 2000, The Fall of the House of Usher was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry to preserve America’s best films. Dale Davis of the New York State Literary Center remarked on the relationship of the films to Watson’s other major achievement, the literary journal The Dial. Along with Scofield Thayer, Sibley Watson had revived the transcendentalist political magazine The Dial and converted it into a literary journal that was without equal in its period (1920-1929). The journal was the first to publish E.E. Cummings and Marianne Moore’s poetry and the first to publish T.S. Eliot in America. Ezra Pound, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and Thomas Mann reported from Europe, as The Dial published American authors Hart Crane, Amy Lowell, Kahlil Gibran, Sherwood Anderson, and Van Wyck Brooks during the first year alone. It was from that aesthetic background that Watson entered filmmaking.

My first exposure to The Fall of the House of Usher is unforgettable. In 1975 James Sibley Watson seldom left his house in Rochester due to illness, but his vivacious wife Hildegarde was very much present in artistic circles. Discovering one day at a dinner party that a number of her younger friends had never seen her husband’s movies, Hildegarde arranged a special showing at the George Eastman House for a month later. Hermine Weill, another grand lady of Rochester, hosted a dinner after the screening, and (almost fifty years after the filming) two-thirds of the cast attended! Melville Webber had passed on, but Hildegarde Watson and Herbert Stern came to dinner and reminisced about the filming. Herbie even wore the very clothes that he had worn for the film.

Composer David Diamond (in the 1970s on the faculty of Juilliard School of Music but living in Rochester five days of the week) knew of the intimate connection of E.E. Cummings to the Watsons. Scofield Thayer, James Sibley Watson, and E.E. Cummings had attended Harvard College together, and Cummings had lived at the Watson house in Rochester for several years to assist with The Dial. So it was particularly meaningful for Diamond to dedicate a setting of a Cummings poem to Sibley and Hildegarde Watson. And my copy of “A Christmas Tree” will always bring back to me a rush of memories of composers, poets, filmmakers, and actors that I knew during my twenty-five years in Rochester.

© 2010 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #465
January 22, 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Early on, I recognized several things about high-tech digital approaches to the distribution and storage of serious music:

(1) The rapid evolution of the Internet would result in a transition in the preferred formats for transmission and storage.
(2) The market for popular music would dictate the “winning” formats.
(3) Niche markets such as classical music and jazz would have to accommodate.

Consider the storage of recorded music. In my time, I have owned 78 rpm shellac discs, 45 rpm and 33-1/3 rpm vinyl Long Playing discs and digital Compact Discs. My music library consists of some 600-odd CD’s and 100 LP’s that I haven’t the heart to abandon. I don’t intend to transcribe the CD’s or LP’s to MP3.

I am not a Luddite. I first used a mainframe computer 50 years ago using machine language. At Xerox, I had on my desk a $75,000 research prototype of the world’s first personal computer beginning in the early 1980’s. My administrative assistant had a duplicate unit at her desk, and we used the Arpanet long before the World Wide Web was conceived.

MP3 simply does not have the audio quality that I require. MP3 is optimized for playing rock, rap and C&W music on low-cost players. For serious jazz or classical music aficionados with high fidelity equipment, there are higher-quality music recording formats. If I transcribed to them, the quality would be there but I wouldn’t know what to do with all the commentary printed on liner notes and CD inserts. So for the time being, I continue to buy CD’s ... usually chamber music purchased after concerts directly from the artists ... and think about shifting to digital storage.

But I have shifted from listening to National Public Radio on my Bose radio to listening to simulcasts on my Imac. The icon for WCQS (88.1 Asheville) is in my Itunes menu, and so are icons for WNCW (88.7 Spindale) and WDAV (89.9 Davidson). I am researching the purchase of external speakers with higher audio quality. Speakers have always been the weak link in any high fidelity system, and you can’t spend too much money on upgrading them.

Listening online to a variety of NPR stations, both in North Carolina and nationwide, makes me realize how many have shifted emphasis to programs such as Talk of the Nation, Car Talk and This American Life. News, humor and commentary seem to be crowding out classical music and jazz on these stations.

One North Carolina station stands out with its continued commitment to classical music. That is WDAV, associated with Davidson College. General Manager Benjamin K. Roe arrived at WDAV in July 2008 after twenty years with National Public Radio in Washington, DC, where he was producer of Performance Today and served as Director of Music and Music Initiatives. Among his accomplishments there was an Internet portal that provides access to streaming music on NPR stations nationwide.

Since Roe’s arrival, WDAV has taken over production of National Public Radio’s World of Opera and in collaboration with South Carolina ETV/Radio will co-produce a new program Carolina Live, a weekly two-state regional review of classical performances similar to Performance Today. WDAV shows signs of becoming the Carolina regional powerhouse for classical music programming.

Other stations continue to provide gems of programming. Dana Whitehair, General Manager of WNCW 88.7 Spindale, recently emailed me to say that at 8:00 pm on Monday, 1/18, WNCW will re-broadcast the 1983 Eastman Philharmonia world premiere of Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World. This piece celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. in the same way that Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait celebrates the 16th President, through narrative readings that punctuate the piece. I attended that 1983 concert in Rochester, NY, conducted by David Effron and featuring baseball great Willie Stargell narrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. passages in an exemplary fashion. This is a fine piece of 20th century music. You may be sure I will be listening online Monday night, MLK Day.

© 2010 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #464
January 16, 2010