March Letters: Zoe Strauss…

Readers respond about Zoe Strauss, Curse of the Starving Class, education and The Wild Bunch, Ellsworth Kelly at the new Barnes, Pelléas et Melisande, cave dwellers and interior design, the Jerusalem Quartet, 'Beyond Ordinary Still Life,' Schubert vs. Beethoven, Clybourne Park, Bob Levin's heart attack, Valentina Lisitsa, Rick Santorum, China's success story, conceptual art, Beethoven's Eroica, Pennsylvania Ballet's Messiah, rock 'n roll, Jeremy Lin, radioactive love, Take Shelter, campaign spending, 'The Clinton Years' and Samuel Hsu.

Zoe Strauss at the Art Museum

     Re “The selling of Zoe Strauss,” by Tom Goodman—
     Thanks for the insightful review. Artistically, Zoe Strauss has little to say, even though her subject matter has a world of potentiality.
     Seeing that dance tape from the Art Museum’s opening night party made me realize that Timothy Rub has become a "carnival barker" like too many others in the museum world. I wonder who made him do it.
Victoria Skelly
Wayne, Pa.
March 20, 2012

     Thank you, Tom Goodman, for pointing out that just because it’s not gold doesn’t mean it can’t glitter. Strauss’s work can be summed up in one word: depressing. Personally, I prefer Strauss’s billboards over the Art Museum’s retrospective; you get to see more of the blackheads and tattoos.
Jackie Atkins
Cape May, N.J.
March 21, 2012

     I don't see much difference between this review and Ed Sozanski's in the Inquirer. In both cases, the critic missed the forest for the trees.
Libby Rosof
West Philadelphia
March 21, 2012

     Editor’s note:
The writer is co-editor of

     Your comments may be valid if you are looking at Zoe Strauss as a "photographer." From what I know, Strauss considers herself as an installation artist and social activist. While some of her landscape photos lack impact, they’re part of Strauss’s gestalt, and not necessarily to be evaluated as individual works.
     If one must evaluate her photographs as individual works, I think her portraits are her strongest photographs, and they are not all "straight on" shots with tattoos.
Stephen Millner
Yardley, Pa.
March 28, 2012

Curse of the Starving Class

     Re Dan Rottenberg’s review of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class at the Wilma—
     Thanks for the history lesson. But this is a play about family, not a historical drama, and on that level it fails.
     The characters are repellent, Shepard makes little or no effort to make you sympathize with any of them, and the acting at the Wilma— with the exception of the daughter, the bar owner, and the lawyer— was mediocre: strangulated shouts or monotones, with little in-between.
     I am amazed at what critics in Philadelphia think is wonderful.
Michael Harrah
South Philadelphia
March 19, 2012

     Your take on Curse was interesting. Pico Iyer contends that Canadians are the first global citizens. And to think that those egalitarian Frenchies went for their squaws, preparing all Canucks for Pierre Trudeau, while the tight-assed Brits fancied themselves Exceptionalists. Call it the White Man's Boredom. As a Detroiter, forever tuned into CBC radio, I considered myself spiritually a Canadian.
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
March 17, 2012

Education and The Wild Bunch

     In “Education and The Wild Bunch," Andrew Mangravite makes a good point about education. (Click here.) We all learn better when we can see the immediate value of the knowledge we’re acquiring.
     Unfortunately, in a modern society children must learn things, like basic arithmetic, that can only pay off when you enter the adult job market. If you’re born into a family with the right attitude, you’ll receive an immediate payoff in the form of parental approval. Your parents may even explain the long-term advantages.
     But children who lack that kind of parent pass through the school system with their brains on idle and join the ranks of the unemployable.
     The “PBS Nightly Business Report” recently ran a segment about a Chicago high school that’s offering a course that prepares students for factory jobs. Students who can barely read and write when they enter high school navigate a course that includes math through calculus.
     Many people may be surprised to hear that factory workers need calculus nowadays. But in a modern factory, people working on the factory floor essentially supervise several computerized machines. (The Atlantic recently published an article about a similar course, at the community college level, that also includes calculus.)
     According to the PBS piece, manufacturers say they could hire several thousand more people if they could find trained prospects. The employer interviewed on the show mentioned jobs that pay $30 an hour— $1,200 a week, more than $60,000 a year.
     Our public school system is heavily influenced by the ideal of the liberally educated adult. It’s a good ideal. I favor it. But it’s a pointless goal if most of the students drift through their classes without learning anything. We might be better off if we put more emphasis on demanding vocational education focused on the realities of the modern labor market.
Tom Purdom
Center City/ Philadelphia
March 27, 2012

     Andrew Mangravite replies:
Also, I firmly believe that things like language skills should be taught at the elementary level (when a child’s mind is malleable) and not when the student is in high school. Instead we try getting them to conjugate Spanish verbs or memorize the Periodic Table during their teen years, with their hormonal intensity. All that creative energy goes to waste. Sad. Sad. Sad.

Ellsworth Kelly at the new Barnes

     I am saddened, but not surprised, by Robert Zaller's response to the May opening of the Barnes Collection on the Parkway and to the addition of Ellsworth Kelly's Barnes Totem to the new facility.
     Robert and I have been adversaries in good faith in the long run-up to this inevitable outcome. In our one public debate, one joint radio appearance on Marty Moss-Coane's "Radio Times," and multiple exchanges in BSR, I have found him to be a fair, knowledgeable and civil opponent. To be sure, at times he has been overly dramatic in his claims, but I can forgive someone for hyperbole who believes passionately in a cause.
     Robert thinks his opponents never raised a single valid argument against his position; I, in turn, believe that he never made a persuasive case for thinking that keeping the Barnes Collection in Merion was "easily sustainable for a fraction of the cost [of the move]."
     Robert insists that he doesn't welcome the failure of the move to the Parkway, an outcome he fully expects. It saddens me that his disavowal comes across as Schadenfreude. How much more convincing it would have been if he had expressed good wishes for the success of a project he opposed and his commitment of support for that success!
     Instead, he proclaims his excessively confident and dire belief that the "destruction of the Barnes has been a tragedy long in the making, and its final chapters... have yet to be written."
     I am doubly saddened by Robert's hope to avoid ever looking at Ellsworth Kelly's art again. What lost opportunities for a good, decent man.
Gresham Riley
Old City/ Philadelphia
March 12, 2012

     Signs of the times: The SS insignia is a suitable icon for the Barnes bunker on the Parkway. For another view, see what one friend calls the trailer on the top from the back: a twilight bonus is a perfect image of the Pizza Hut sign that glows from within.
Mary E. Hazard
Center City/ Philadelphia
March 14, 2012

     Perhaps artists have not protested the Barnes move because they figure that Cézanne, Braque, Renoir, Van Gough, etc. al., were no different than themselves: They would want their paintings seen by as many people as possible. In this light, the Barnes move may "desecrate" the collector (Barnes) but does immeasurable honor to the artists he collected.
     I vote for the artists, and think the Barnes move, which will expose their work to millions of more people, is wonderful.
Thomas M. Goutman
Center City/ Philadelphia
March 14, 2012

     Zaller’s is a childish and myopic review of a great addition to the Philadelphia Parkway-- a move that in all likelihood “saved” the Barnes collection from its incompetent managers.
Jim Donohue
Avalon, N.J.
March 14, 2012

     Robert! Let it go!
Carl A. Anderson
Yeadon, Pa.
March 23, 2012

     The Barnes Foundation was only truly known by the faculty and students who worked and studied there. Albert Barnes and John Dewey are dishonored by what has happened in Philadelphia. I honor Professor Zaller for continuing to speak out against this dishonor. Barnes on the Parkway is not about making art available to the general public; it's about corporate greed and power taking precedence over education and the common man.
     I suggest that those who disagree ask the people who won't be able to afford the price to visit the Barnes.
Bill Snyder
Los Angeles, Calif.
March 27, 2012

     Robert Zaller replies: Thanks for all comments. 'Tis better to be read and loathed than never to be read at all.
     To Thomas Goutman: Writers wish for maximum exposure, but do artists? For better or worse, they create a unique product or at most a limited edition. The purchaser of an art work is under no obligation to show it to anyone, ever.
     To my friend and sometime sparring-partner Gresham Riley: The Greeks still want the Elgin marbles back after 200 years, and, whatever one's views on the subject, no one blames them for it, or argues that the marbles are better off in the British Museum because more tourists will see them.
     To Carl Anderson: Let it go? It's the citizens and public officials of Montgomery County who let the Barnes go.

Pelléas et Mélisande

     Robert Zaller’s comments about Pelléas et Mélisande were interesting, as his articles always are. And I love it when a second review takes a totally different approach from any earlier review of the same work. But one point needs correcting.
     It’s not accurate to say that the opera is “rarely produced outside of France” when the Met, for one, has presented Pelléas in 12 of the past 40 years. This is a significant number for a house that likes to rotate (or juggle) many operas.
     Also, it’s a shame Zaller didn’t attend a performance at the Academy of Vocal Arts where John Viscardi sang the Pelléas part. His outstanding interpretation might have caused Robert to somewhat elevate his opinion of that role.
Steve Cohen
King of Prussia, Pa.
March 26, 2012

Cave dwellers and interior design

     Re “Why cave dwellers didn’t hire interior designers,” by Caroline Dunlop Millett—
     What a fascinating subject. The article reads like a novel. If I had a cave in Philadelphia, I'd certainly ask Ms. Millett to decorate it.
Louise Mohardt
Lancaster, Va.
March 20, 2012

     What a great article--and right on in every way! Thank you.
Susan Catherwood
Bryn Mawr, Pa.
March 20, 2012

     Well said, Caroline. We are very happy here in Powelton, adorning our humble, happy homes with objects we love as opposed to status symbols, which I am sure we could embrace if thrown our way.
     We are so lucky to be in such close proximity to the University Museum and its limitless resources. Maybe we could hold a cave dweller decorative arts seminar there.
Elizabeth S. Lindsay
Powelton Village/ Philadelphia
March 22, 2012

Jerusalem Quartet

     Re “Jerusalem Quartet plays Shostakovich,” by Robert Zaller—
     The Jerusalem String Quartet will perform all the Shostakovich String Quartets in four performances in the 2012-13 Lincoln Center Chamber Music season— March 2013, to be exact.
Linda Ginsburg
Huntingdon Valley, Pa.
March 20, 2012

‘Beyond Ordinary Sill Life’

     Re “A farewell to fruit,” by Andrew Mangravite—
     Thank you for your kind words regarding my painting at the Artists' House Gallery, The health of the eye demands a horizon. With each of the three paintings I have in the show, “Beyond the Ordinary Still Life,” I tried to play with the traditional construct of the genre and push it to some less evident places. I am so pleased I was able to give a sense of that to Andrew Mangravite. His essay made my day.
Frances Donnelly Wolf
Washington Square, Pa.
March 19, 2012

Schubert vs. Beethoven

     Re “Schubert vs. Beethoven,” by Dan Coren (April 2008)—
     Schubert's early symphonies are not dull. They only pale by comparison with late Schubert and Beethoven.
     The "symphony with the horses" is actually Schubert's Second, not his Ninth. Listen to the last movement of the Second and you will hear the horses.
     I agree that the last movement of the Ninth suggests a Marathon runner traveling on the tireless legs of youth, finally arriving at a gathering of all the nations with flags flying, marching arm in arm in peace. It’s suggestive of Beethoven's choral conclusion to his Ninth, but strictly orchestral.
Thomas Andrews
Angola, Ind.
March 21, 2012

Clybourne Park at the Arden

     In my review of Clybourne Park, I suggested that its best audience would be older people who had gone through the trauma of investing in home ownership and then trying to sell their property. But I attended the play a second time, at a matinee largely attended by high school and college students— clearly, not the demographic I named. Most of them were black. And they were enthusiastic about the play.
     One of the teacher/chaperones said: “Out of the four or five plays they’ve seen this year, Clybourne Park was the most engaging, because it seemed the most real to them. They didn't notice actors (mostly talking about the second act here) as much as they noticed real people dealing with real issues of race and the marginalization of sub-cultures in America.”
     One student observed that in a strained and "hot" world, the supposed heat of the room in Act II added to the scene, making it a microcosm of America.
Steve Cohen
King of Prussia, Pa.
March 20, 2012

Heart attack, Part 4

     Re “The prospect of surgery,” by Bob Levin—
     Holy shit, Bob— scary stuff. The mangled care system knows no bounds. Glad Adele is having interesting dreams and that she's there for you. That's quite an organ recital.
Chuck Gallun
Germantown/ Philadelphia
March 14, 2011

Who needs concert halls?

     Re “The greatest concert pianist you never heard of,” by Dan Coren (January 2011)—
     Valentina Lisitsa has stated in a YouTube interview that audiences come from around the world to hear her live performances. She states that YouTube was partly responsible for this. I can understand the widespread interest to see her live. Just listen to her Totentanz or the Chopin Etudes, and don't forget her piano recital in Salzburg.
     On the other hand, the interviews show a personal side of Valentina that gives the listener a better-rounded appreciation of this artist.
Francesco Serio
Belgrade, Me.
March 15, 2012

Fan mail

     â€œMy pal, Rick Santorum,” by Gerald Weales (August 2011), is my favorite BSR piece ever. Thanks, Mr. Weales!
Charles McMahon
Center City/ Philadelphia
March 16, 2012

     Editor’s note:
The writer is artistic director of the Lantern Theater Company.

     Talk about a scary blood and guts mystery story!
     At least Dr. Hammer has his chops if you need to become his nail. Cold comfort, I know.
Carol Alice
Vancouver, Wash.
April 4, 2012

China’s success story

     Re “China vs. the West: Who has conquered whom?” by Benjamin Olshin (December 2010)—
     The argument put forth is sound. Whatever is good for the development of the nation is acceptable, as long as identity and environment and equity are kept in mind.
S.C. Kumar
New Delhi, India
March 18, 2012

Conceptual art

     Re “The ‘death’ of a conceptual art,” by Victoria Skelly (January 2010)—
Conceptual art is an elephant and will take a while to go away. 3-D printing will do more to put paid to it than anything else. This is also true of many things besides conceptual art.
Meika Loofs Samorzewski
Hobart, Tasmania
March 17, 2012

Eroica’s hero

     Tom Purdom’s Chamber Orchestra review (“Eroica without the hero worship") was a fine review that so well connects to the issues of today's values and dreams as well as the conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn’s commitment to portraying the schizophrenic dilemma that inhabits Beethoven's music.
Marlena Santoyo
West Mount Airy/ Philadelphia
March 8, 2012

     Tom Purdom's commentary on Beethoven's Eroica Symphony points up the difficulty, not to say the absurdity, of tying statements in sound to statements in prose.
     Yes, it's true that Beethoven may have had Napoleon in mind— or rather his own mistaken conception of Napoleon as a liberator rather than a conqueror— while writing his Third Symphony. Composers have all sorts of things in mind while they work, and all sorts of notions to get them going. What counts are the notes they put on paper for musicians (who may also, perhaps, be thinking of dinner) to realize from a score.
     Music is its own language. Calling Beethoven's Third Symphony a paean to the human spirit or the possibilities of human enterprise— God help us— adds absolutely nothing to the notes themselves, or the sonic experience they convey. Even music that sets a text, like Beethoven's Ninth, stands or falls on what it says with the sound patterns it deploys.
     How many listeners are moved by the Ninth without understanding a word of the German text they hear? The Ninth is almost a national anthem in Japan, and I would wager very few listeners there have been exposed to German.
     This isn’t to say that the text is unimportant, or could simply be replaced with nonsense syllables. What it does say is that the text acquires musical meaning by being interwoven in a mesh of sounds and becoming, as sung or even spoken, a part of the sonic effect.
     Jazz musicians respond to each other by improvised sound that extends the texture of the music. Mere listeners have only applause, foot-stomping, hooting, whistling or, in more reflective mode, commentary such as this letter.
     It's all well and good to put music (and any other work of art) in historical, biographical or other context. I do it all the time myself. But music expresses itself, and itself alone. That is its glory, and also its solace for us.
Robert Zaller
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
March 7, 2012

     Tom Purdom replies:
I too have complained about writers who try to connect a composer’s work to his biography, assuming they compose happy when they’re happy, sad when they’re sad. The wife of the late crime writer Donald Westlake said that when he emerged from his study, she could tell if he’d been writing one of his bylined comic caper novels or the grimmer works he wrote under a pseudonym.
     But we know that Beethoven indicated that he thought of some of his music as an expression of his emotions. We know he wrote the Eroica with a specific subject in mind. I have listened to the Eroica as pure music, but its title and its history invite us to look at in other ways.
     When composers use music to express their feelings, they communicate through a language without specific referents. A work that was composed with a specific person in mind can be generalized to a broader celebration of greatness or heroism, or applied to any individual you happen to admire.
     I’ve listened to the Eroica as a musical biography of Napoleon and found it works rather well. Some writers find it odd that the funeral march comes near the beginning, but novelists play that kind of trick all the time, hopping back and forth through a character’s life without respect for chronological order.
     Once, when I was listening to the final movement— which is a set of variations on a ballet dance— I found the idea of a dancing hero intriguing. George Washington, I reflected, was noted for his love of dancing, and he came closer to Beethoven’s ideal than Napoleon. He rejected a crown at the end of the American Revolution and voluntarily stepped down after two terms as president. Years later, at a Philadelphia Orchestra chamber music program that included a reading by Bernard Jacobson, I discovered Byron had drawn the same comparison.

Pennsylvania Ballet’s Messiah

     Re Janet Anderson’s review of Pennsylvania Ballet’s Messiah—
     So bummed I missed opening night. My friend went and said that the dancer portraying Jesus had a fall near the end. Is he OK?
Thomas Southmoor
Center City/ Philadelphia
March 11, 2012

     Janet Anderson replies:
Zachary Dench did not suffer an accidental fall. It was part of the choreography— specifically, Jesus being carried off on a human version of the cross. He began to sag to the ground, whereupon two other dancers supported him under his arms.

Rock 'n roll

     Re “Rock ‘n roll: Doomed to disappoint,” by Kile Smith—
     I've always understood funk as having an emphasis on beat one (not one and three). At least that's what Bootsy Collins says.
     The Beatles liked switching meters (“We Can Work It Out”), hemiola (“A Day In The Life”) and occasionally swinging (“When I'm 64” and “Good Morning”). That's what happens when you make art.
Kevin Linehan
Center City/ Philadelphia
March 7, 2012

     Kile Smith replies: Yes, with art, anything can happen.

The meaning of Jeremy Lin

     Re “The larger meaning of Jeremy Lin,” by Dan Rottenberg (Editor’s Notebook)—
     Dan, I think you cast your net way too wide in seeking comparisons to Jeremy Lin.
     I, no admirer of today's professional athletes, have become a Lin fan because of his exceptional skill, his humility and his minority status. OK, I'll add "team player" as a plus.
     Joan of Arc might fit this description, too. But Napoleon? No way.
Bruce Pearson
Center City/ Philadelphia
February 29, 2012

     Please don't use the word "miraculous" so freely. The word suggests Divine intervention. Unless you are prepared to argue and defend the likelihood of a Divine presence and that Divine's involvement in each of your examples (which will lead us down another path), permit me to suggest you use other words, like perhaps, "amazing," "curious," "mysterious," "remarkable" and " strange."
Andrew Kevorkian
West Philadelphia
February 29, 2012

Radioactive love

     Re “When your boyfriend becomes your girlfriend,” by Maralyn Lois Polak—
     During Dick's hormone phase, I hope Jane and Dick went shopping, took in a chick flick and finished up the night with a chocolatini at a nearby bar, then spent the rest of the evening talking about the stuff men do that drive women crazy. What wasn't reported was how Dick ran up his credit card bill with buying shoes at Nordstrom’s, getting his roots treated at the local hair salon, followed up with a mani-pedi and then his trip off to the cosmetics counter at Macy's.
     It was noted that he did get over his hissy-fit with his neighbor, who keeps parking too close to the yellow line between their assigned parking spaces.
Marlene Goodman
Wheeling, Ill.
March 6, 2012

     Holy moley, what dangerous lives we try to lead. Thank God, I was prematurely de-ejaculated: I voluntarily celebrated the nation's bicentennial of freedom with a vasectomy at a suburban Philly hospital. My cruel girlfriend phoned me the next day with a curt question: "Does it hurt, honey?" What I answered, only she will ever know.
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
March 4, 2012

On the beach with Take Shelter

     Judy Weightman's review of Take Shelter properly remarks on how director Jeff Nichols sustains tension by leaving the audience uncertain as to whether the film's hero is second-sighted or merely schizophrenic. Leaving aside the question of how one properly distinguishes between the two— if there is a distinction— it seems to me clear that the film comes down firmly on the side of Curtis's "vision" at the end, when his wife Samantha and daughter Hannah see the same apocalyptic storm rolling in toward an exposed beach.
     The only question is whether this is happening in real time— i.e., apocalypse now— or whether the vision is becoming apparent to others, and thus constitutes a shared warning of our approaching ecological fate.
     In this context, one may recall the end of Stanley Kramer's 1959 apocalypse film, On the Beach, in which the minatory banner reading "There Is Still Time" flutters in the breeze after the last, doomed survivors of a superpower nuclear exchange have gone off to commit suicide with state-administered pills. Nichols seems to say the same thing about our present trashing of the planet, and the only question in terms of his film is whether, as in On the Beach, it’s already too late for the characters themselves (the storm is an actual event that will destroy them) or whether it’s a warning that they, like us, may still heed.
     Of course, we don’t know what the consequences of the climate change we've already induced will be, and whether in fact they can be contained short of massive ecological disruption. Nor, one may add, have we dealt with the problem of nuclear proliferation, as the daily headlines about Iran remind us. So we are ourselves "on the beach" with Curtis, Samantha and Hannah, wondering what the future will bring and whether it hasn’t actually arrived.
Robert Zaller
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
February 29, 2012

     Judy Weightman replies: Certainly your interpretation of the film makes a lot of sense; it’s probably even what the filmmaker intended. What I found more intriguing, though, was the possibility that Nichols was using the fact that we as a cinema-savvy audience have certain expectations about how a film will be resolved, and that he then pulled the rug out from under us.
     In a musical, we accept that people sing and dance at random moments; in noir, we're in a badly lit world filled with people with equally murky motives; and in certain kinds of thrillers, some characters may have prescient visions.
     If Take Shelter is such a thriller, then the explanation would work out pretty much along your lines. If, though, the director is messing with those conventions and those expectations— which I think he might be— then what we are experiencing is how the world looks from inside the brain of a schizophrenic. Thus the third act of the film, from the Lions' supper through the scene in the shrink's office, is about saying, "No, he is in our reality, and there's not going to be a resolution in which he is right."
     That's why I found the ending disappointing. If Nichols is making the film I'm perceiving (where Curtis really is just nuts), then the ending (where Nichols returns us to the genre world of the apocalyptic thriller) is kind of a cop-out.

Campaign spending

     Re “What’s worse than big money in politics?" by Dan Rottenberg (Editor’s Notebook)—
     Of course journalists like Max Frankel favor restrictions on campaign spending, under the cui bono rule (“Who benefits?”). Less power for campaigns to define themselves means more power for journalists to do the defining. Journalists, like the rest of us, can't stand to lose power!
     But that's your field. Is there anything to that?
Kile Smith
Fox Chase/ Philadelphia
March 3, 2012

     Editor’s comment: Certainly not. All journalists, before being sent out in the field, must divest themselves of their earthly goods and spend five years in a seminary to assure their absolute fidelity to truth.

‘The Clinton Years’

     Re Robert Zaller’s review of “The Clinton Years” on PBS—
     We could have used Hillary's later diplomatic skills in Somalia, Uganda, and Bosnia. 2016, here she comes!
     Bill's reported horniness is more a messy media fault, as we’re reminded by the recently long-delayed revelation that JFK had a Miss Porter teenager not only sleeping in Jackie's sack but also coolly watching his personal adultery planner aide getting a blow job in the White House pool.
     It was also an interesting conjecture that the upwardly aspiring Shamrock Jack was after upper-class ass. As a sometime scummy Irishman, I recognize that vice.
     Bless me, Father. And, for sure, let's get more of the BS out of PBS!
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
March 1, 2012

Samuel Hsu remembered

     Re “Samuel Hsu: A polymath’s giant shadow,” by Kile Smith—
     I looked up the meaning of Atanasiu, and discovered that it means "immortal" or "noble." Which describes Dr. Hsu to a T. As a Christian, he believed in the immortality of the soul, and he was most definitely noble.
Laura Powell
Feasterville-Trevose, Pa.
March 5, 2012

     Kile Smith replies: I didn't know that. Thank you!