My New Yorker, a touching Traviata, Whiplash, and sparkling new ballets

by Rob Tiller

As I’ve noted before, The New Yorker magazine was for me a formative influence, having given me my first job out of college, my True Love, and weekly jolts of literacy ever since. Thus it was with mild shock I received the February anniversary issue, which for 89 consecutive years has reprinted the same cover, and saw that Eustice Tilley, the top-hatted dandy, had been replaced by multiple new covers of various ages, styles, and ethnicities. But after a few deep breaths, I let it go and moved on: the new covers were bold and entertaining.

There were several good short pieces on the history of the Magazine (as it was called by editorial staff then and perhaps now), and one longer one that I particularly relished. Mary Norris, who joined the Magazine around the time we did, contributed a piece about her career there as a junior minion and eventually a senior copy editor. I wouldn’t say Mary and I were close friends, but when I also was a minion, we were friendly, and would talk companionably at parties as we kept a lookout for potentially more exciting adventures.

It was a pleasant trip down memory lane remembering how we put out the Magazine and some of the now departed editorial figures of our world, like Eleanor Gould, Bob Bingham, Pat Crow, and William Shawn. And Mary successfully communicates the spirit of grammatical fanaticism that is part of what makes the Magazine unique. I’ve never seen a more humorous discussion of the serial comma, a punctuation practice that in those days I took as serious business. Thanks to Mary and her colleagues who have kept the fussy but proud tradition alive.

Raleigh is not New York, and it is hard to believe, even for people who live here, that Raleigh is producing world class opera and ballet. But it’s true. In the last week, we’ve been treated to both.

The N.C. Opera’s production of La Traviata was really beautiful and moving. The story is simple in a way – a party girl and a playboy unexpectedly fall in love, break various social conventions, are separated by misunderstanding, and reunited, just as she dies. It works in large part because Verdi’s music is highly evocative – of joy, love, and tragedy.

I was especially moved by this production, which had a marvelous Violetta in Jacqueline Echols. She had an extraordinarily fine voice, as well as musicality and expression. She is a rising star. I also particularly loved the singing of Joo Won Kang as Giorgio. The costumes and settings were lovely. The staging was a bit meandering and uncertain, but it didn’t undermine the force of the performance. Conductor Timothy Myers was outstanding, always serving the music, but creatively, with flexibility of tempo and sensitivity in tone. In the sad parts, this strange thing happened with my eyes – they got all watery.

Also last week, we saw the movie Whiplash at home via streaming service. The story is about a music conservatory student (a jazz drummer) and a sadistic/idealistic music teacher who do battle and try to make great music. Aspects of it were pure Hollywood – no half-sane performer would ever sabotage a performance as here – but there was something true about it that drew me in. As a former conservatory student myself, I was reminded of the highly competitive aspect to music education, and the intense drive for perfection.

The student (Miles Teller) was believable, and reminded me of the hidden and scary sacrifices that all serious musicians make for their art. And J.K Simmons as the foul-mouthed professor was wonderfully evil. I’ll say, though, I could have done without the anti-gay slurs, which were copious and ugly. We’ve quit tolerating nigger, and we should quit tolerating faggot._DSC8412_edited-1

We saw the Carolina Ballet’s new program, Master Composers: Music for Dance, on Saturday night. The program of new works by Robert Weiss and Zalman Raffael featured dance music by Chopin, Byrd, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Granados, Brahms, Stravinsky, Adams, and Tchaikovsky. As Weiss’s program notes noted, there is there is a wealth of music in the classical tradition that is, in some sense, dance music, but has never been used for ballet, and this program mines those riches.

This company has so much talent! It was delightful to see some of the junior members shining in solo roles, including Elizabeth Ousley, Ashley Hathaway, Alyssa Pilger, Amanda Babyan, and Rammaru Shindo. There were moments of moody drama, particularly with Lara O’Brien and Cecilia Iliesiu, and also light-heartedness,with Sokvannara Sar having fun with six ballerinas. I thought that the Mozart and Brahms sections could have been trimmed a bit without loss of effect, but there was nothing I didn’t enjoy.