A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Remembering Jennie

This is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War.
I visited Gettysburg last year, seeing places whose names still resonate in the national memory: The Wheat Field. The Peach Orchard. Little Round Top. Devil's Den.
But the place that moved me the most was the Jennie Wade House at 548 Baltimore Street.
Think how overwhelmed the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg must have felt when their little town was invaded by 93,000 Federals and 75,000 Confederates slugging away at each other in their front yards.
When the battle broke out, 20-year-old Jennie was helping her mother care for her sister Georgia, who was bedridden after giving birth a few days earlier.
The Federals formed a skirmish line behind the house, exchanging fire with the rebels two blocks away.
Moved by compassion and patriotism, Jennie baked bread for them and brought them water. It was dangerous work, but she said, "If there is anyone in this house that is to be killed today, I hope it is me, as Georgia has a little baby."
On the morning of Day Three - 150 years ago today -she was in the kitchen, kneading dough for more bread, when a Confederate bullet smashed through the front door and pierced her heart, killing her instantly.
Her mother, who was taking loaves out of the oven, turned around and saw Jennie sink to the floor.
In shock, she staggered to the bedroom and told Georgia, "Your sister is dead."
Georgia let out a scream, which alerted the soldiers outside. They burst through the door, sized up the situation, and decided they had to get the family out of there as soon as possible.
They led the survivors – Mrs. Wade, Georgia, her newborn baby, Jenny's little brother Harry, and a six-year-old neighbor boy named Isaac - through the rear of the house into the cellar, where they might find some protection from the gunfire.
And there they stayed for the next 18 hours, with Jennie's body lying on a wooden bench beside them, while the battle raged above their heads.
When they finally emerged, the house was pockmarked by more than 150 bullet holes, which are still there today. (So is the hole in the front door from the bullet that killed Jennie.) The horror and terror they must have experienced during this ordeal is unimaginable.
They buried Jennie in the front yard, with dough from the bread she had been making still on her fingers.
The Civil War turned brother against brother, friend against friend. Two Gettysburg boys named Jack Skelly and Wes Culp, best friends since childhood, chose opposite sides – Jack fought for the Union and Wes fought for the Confederacy.
They were reunited two weeks before the battle, when Jack was wounded and captured by Confederate troops. Wes found out and rushed Jack to a hospital, where he nursed him night and day.
But it was no use. Jack died from his wounds. But before he died he asked Wes to deliver a message to his sweetheart in Gettysburg.
Wes tried his best, but he was killed on the second day of the battle before he found her.
But even if he had lived, he wouldn't have been able to deliver the message. Because Jack's sweetheart was Jennie Wade.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Music Hath Charms

Thirty-nine years ago, the great conductor George Cleve was relaxing with some friends over a few beers after they had finished a rehearsal of Mozart's opera "The Abduction From The Seraglio."

Nobody remembers who, but somebody said, "Wouldn't it be fun if we could play nothing but Mozart all the time?"

They all looked at each other, and presto! The Midsummer Mozart Festival was born. Under Cleve's masterful baton, it has blossomed into two weeks of sheer, unadulterated pleasure every year.

And this year's lineup looks better than ever, chock full of sure-fire crowd pleasers like "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," the "Paris" Symphony, the sizzling Violin Concerto No. 5 featuring the great Mayuko Kamio, the sublime Wind Serenade in C minor, and, because it's the festival's 39th year, Symphony No. 39, all performed by the world-class Midsummer Mozart Festival Orchestra.

But for me, the prime attraction, as it has been every year since she floored me four years ago at the tender age of 13, is piano-playing sensation (and she's not too shabby on the violin, either) Audrey Vardanega of Oakland.

Anybody can play all the notes right, but Audrey has the ability that only the greatest have – to bring the listener into the music and make you feel like there's a direct pipeline from Mozart's mind to your soul. Listening to her will make you weep – not only at the beauty of the music but also out of joy that a human mind was capable of creating it.

Audrey will perform Piano Concerto No. 14 in E flat, and she says it's the most difficult piece she's ever played.

"It's unassumingly demanding. There are very few notes, very few technical passages, but the phrasing is very difficult. It demands a luminous, warm tone, so you don’t want to come off as too quiet on stage.

"But at the same time you don't want to be too forceful, or you're going to lose the whole tonal quality that Mozart goes for. You have to be paying close attention to what you're doing every single second, or you're screwed."

So what can we expect?

"The first movement is very noble. When I play it, I imagine trumpets, a fanfare introducing the whole piece.

"The second is one of the most gorgeous slow movements Mozart ever wrote – diminished chords with a beautiful, painful melody on top. It's so sad, but you can't play it that way. You have to hold in the pain that's threatening to burst out in spite of yourself.

"And the final movement is really happy, very characteristically Mozart. It's really cute. Usually it's the first movement that's cute, but this one is so effortlessly happy and carefree, you forget all the drama in the second movement."

The festival will run for two weeks from July 18 to 28, with two completely different programs each week.

And good news for longtime festival goers: After an absence of several years, the festival is returning to the beautiful Mission Santa Clara and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, in addition to the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma and my favorite, First Congregational Church in Berkeley. (Wait until you hear the acoustics!)

 Check the festival's website, midsummermozart.org, for details. You can also buy tickets on the website or at the gate.