More from my Christmas notebook

Favourite Christmas Music

The first has to be the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin, for the sheer joy and celebration of Christmas. It includes traditional carols, familiar and unfamiliar; some great Irish dance music; and a list of guest artists that includes Elvis Costello, the McGarrigle sisters and Jackson Browne, among others. Great fun!

Rockapella is one of my favourites (or five of my favourites?) anytime,
and their first two Christmas CDs are no exception. The first, Rockapella
Christmas, comprises great arrangements of modern Christmas songs,
including “Silver Bells,” Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song”  (“Chestnuts
roasting on an open fire…”) and a reworking of the Mills Brothers’ hit,
“Glow Worm/It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”  The second,
Comfort and Joy, is more of the same (by popular demand of their fans), and
includes a rollicking “Jingle Bell Rock.”  Both CDS also include new Christmas songs by Scott Leonard. All of Rockapella’s albums carry the following statement: “This is a contemporary a capella recording; all sounds on these tracks were produced by the voices and appendages of Rockapella.”

For more tradtional Christmas music, you can’t beat English cathedral choirs. Some of the best recordings are the old Musical Heritage Society CDS, if you can get hold of them: A Festival of Lessons and Carols from King’s (King’s College, Cambridge University), is a wondrous version of the traditional Anglican Service of Nine Lessons. Also by the King’s College Choir are Christmas Collection and O Come All Ye Faithful, both with lush and glorious performances of traditional Christmas carols.

 Something a little different, you say? What about Elizabethan Christmas Anthems, by Red Byrd and the Rose Consort of Viols? Then there’s  Christmas Guitar, carols arranged for guitar and played by Stephen Siktberg– great background music for Christmas dinner or opening  presents. (Both also Musical Heritage Society.)  Another good, softly playing CD is The Christmas Harp, featuring Andrea Vigh, Deborah Sipkat and Marion Hofmann. Pieces by Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and  Pescetti  are delicately ethereal on this album.  For livelier, but very  mellow, renderings of Baroque and Classical Christmas music,                there’s Christmas Brass, by the Galliard Brass Ensemble.

Finally, there’s Chant Noel, by the now famous Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, who made church music all the rage in the 1990s. There is something mesmerizing about Gregorian chant, and these chants for the Christmas season are no exception.

Acting with Soul

Over the past year or so, I’ve been re-connecting with friends from my Berkeley Rep days, twenty-five and more years ago. The quest to do this began with a benefit performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, given by their “long term” company for a member who had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. The solidarity of the company, clearly forged by the deep work they had done together, brought memories flooding back to me of the extremely tough times the Berkeley Rep had in the early ‘70s, and the similar deep connections formed among the company  through those experiences.

This coincided with my studying to be a Spiritual Companion, and set me thinking how I might, as a Spiritual Companion, be of help to actors in their work. I haven’t formulated this yet, but am still working on the idea.

I have always thought that theatre can be a sacred event; that actors and audience can connect on the intangible level where consciousness meets heart. And, like Michael Leibert, who founded the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I’ve seen that actors do their best work when they’ve been working together as a company for a long time, a couple of years, at least

I also agree with Michael that the purpose of theatre is Truth. If what happens on stage is true, then “it works.” If it isn’t true, it “doesn’t work.” When actors reach that inner source of creativity and bring it to the physical–the voice, the body, speaking, movement–that is Truth. And that’s when the audience is lifted up and experiences that Truth with the actors. That’s the transcendent moment. A sacred event.

Many of those moments washed over me during this benefit performance. Here is what I wrote to an actor friend several days after the show.

I’m just getting back to “normal” after an exhilarating afternoon last Sunday. The emotional memories I had then were what got me started thinking about the old days at the Berkeley Rep.

Preface: The Royal Shakespeare Company sign actors up for a minimum of two years in an ensemble. They work together for the two years,  “as cast” in all the shows. Stratford is not a big city, so they probably are in each other’s pockets a lot of the time they’re not working, too.

We went to a benefit on Sunday for James Gale, a member of the company who has leukemia. The ensemble got together and did a couple of hours of songs, dance, magic, etc. and auctioned things like an opportunity to work backstage for a day and help run a show.

The audience was full of actors, so it got wonderfully raucous at times. Man, what a treat to be in an audience that really participated with those on stage. English audiences are so sedentary and non-responsive in general. What really hit me in my solar plexus was the fullness of the affection these people had for James, that it was not one iota part of the acting. We were all crying together when the emcee read the note from James at the end of the show.

Before the show, actors circulated with red buckets to collect change from the audience. We had paid only £10 for the tickets so I decided to put a fiver in the pot. I looked at Sam Troughton, a young actor who is doing Romeo right now, and played Brutus last season (and, of course, as cast in other shows, including “Gentleman” and Dion in Winter’s Tale).  Seeing him in the crowd, I realized he’s only about 5’6″ or so. His presence is so big on stage, I’d thought he was at least 6′ tall.

I smiled at him and waved my fiver, and he came over. I told him that his stage presence far outstrips his physical size and he was pleased. We chatted for about ten or fifteen minutes. He’s bright and he’s very good, in a small family dynasty of actors. (If you get the recent BBC Robin Hood, he played Much in it.) His dad, David Troughton,  is an actor, and his grandfather, Patrick Troughton, was the second regeneration of the Doctor in Doctor Who, among other roles. Anyway, we talked about interpretations of Hamlet, and about my seeing his dad in Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic, and how his dad was brilliant in it and how Kevin Spacey was disappointing. [He “played” old instead of inhabiting the role. Disconcerting, to say the least.]

Sam is about 28 or 30 years old, I’d say, and I told him he ought to try to play Hamlet in the next couple of years.  He said he wishes his dad would do Lear soon. I said that his dad should play James Tyrone. He didn’t know the name; I had to tell him the story line of Long Day’s Journey into Night. So he’s going to go find the play and read it. I commented that he was very smart, signing on for two years with the RSC right after doing the TV Robin Hood, when he could have gone for the money in TV. He said he was very lucky to work at the RSC and that he knew how lucky he was. Got his head screwed on very straight. It felt good talking theatre again with an actor who knows what he’s doing

Anyway, they raised over £7,000 on the one afternoon. Not bad, but they project that James will probably not be able to work for about two years after the marrow transplant, so I think there may be more benefits.

As I say, seeing the company actors outside both before and after the show, having that sense of connection, was a real upper. Made me remember those times at BRT when Mitzi and the rest of us “admin” people postponed our salaries so the actors could be paid. Difficult days, but also joyful in the work people were doing on stage and the friendships forged there.

Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Bloomsburys in Leeds

Even in southwestern Yorkshire, the countryside is rolling hills and the dales,  lushly green in September. Think of those peaceful  long shots in All Creatures Great and Small and you’ll get the idea. We saw a lot of this natural beauty as we drove from Leeds to Saltaire, and to Bradford, and to York, and returned to Leeds, which was our home-from-home  during our brief vacation.

Leeds is an interesting and architecturally fascinating city. It’s a small city, human scale, and the new buildings, with their reflective windows, mirror a  skyline of Georgian and classical revival facades built during the industrial revolution of the last half of the nineteenth century, alongside the angular and spare geometrics of its new renaissance of the last 20 or 30 years.

But I was on a quest to see the art of this region, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I was astonished to find the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, and outdoor installations of Henry Moore sculptures all around such a small  city.  Very exciting to see them there, in unexpected places, unmistakably Moore’s work.

The Leeds Art Museum’s collection, not surprisingly, was very poorly maintained. I kept saying to Ian, “That one could do with a good cleaning.” But they have some unexpected pieces, including (of course) a lot of Henry Moores, several Francis Bacons (both painting and sculpture) and some gorgeous Pre-Raphaelites. It’s a small set of galleries, and you can see the most important works in less than an hour. But many of the lesser know paintings, and much of sculpture, is worth seeing as well.

There’s also an unaffiliated shop in the basement selling local crafts and small art works. Some of these are near museum-quality, and the prices reflect this. The museum shop itself couldn’t be in a less advantageous place, hidden back behind the gallery/classroom where they hold children’s programs.

We also visited the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds. What a treasure trove! This small collection was curated for many years by Quentin Bell, who managed to gather a nice cache of Bloomsburys, including portraits by Roger Fry, several paintings by Duncan Grant and a stunning collage by Vanessa Bell. Going through all the postcards I collected, I managed to find only one without copyright notice, one of the many portraits by Fry of Nina Hamnett:


Nina Hamnett, 1917


The painting is significant because of the Omega Studios connection. The dress fabric and the cover of the pillow at the right were both designed by Vanessa Bell and are exemplars of  Omega Studios style.

In this collection is  also one of the famous floating women sculptures that Quentin  Bell repeatedly sculpted throughout his career,  and some pieces of his brilliantly coloured pottery.  The permanent collection is very small, but very choice, and the information provided for each work includes not only the title, date and artist, but also a context of history and place.  There is also a gallery for student works, and the exhibition there was on the theme of place, sense of place, in abstract works. Absolutely fascinating what some of the students did. It’s a wonderful gallery for any art lover, not just Bloomsbury afficionados.

Henry Moore information:

Henry Moore Institute:

Henry Moore Foundation:

Tribute to Henry Moore (including photographs of some of his works:

Francis Bacon information:

Estate of Francis Bacon (including paintings):

Web Museum (with a few paintings):

Leeds Art Gallery

Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery:

David Hockney, Yorkshireman

My husband and I took a brief vacation in Yorkshire, where he grew up. We stayed in Leeds, a stone’s throw from Bradford, his home town. He took me to his grammar school, a beautiful old Victorian building surrounded by rolling lawns and many playing fields, with tree lined avenues and perfectly tended gardens to complete the picture. Bradford Grammar School, Ian’s alma mater, boasts quite a few famous “Old Boys,” from writers and teachers to judges and prime ministers. But arguably the most famous today is David Hockney.

So seeing the Yorkshire gallery that holds a permanent collection of Hockneys, in addition to special exhibitions of new works,  was at the top of my list–even over seeing York Minster and the medieval city of York.

The gallery is in the small town of Saltaire, a short drive from Leeds,  housed in an old woolen mill, in an excellent adaptive reuse renovation that includes several art galleries, shops and restaurants– not your typical mall experience, but a real sense of walking around in history as you move from room to room. The web site is great fun to go through:

The main gallery, where Hockney’s works are exhibited, is a gigantic dual-purpose space filled with art books, sculptures, ceramics and art materials for sale;  as well as the paintings, drawings, collages and other works by David Hockey. (I saw at least five art books I coveted, but restrained myself.)

The majority of the paintings and drawings are from the 1980s, but the works do span many years. There are some very early works, and I was especially taken by the early pencil and charcoal drawings.  Here are also shown some fascinating and sometimes disturbing photo collages. His body of work is astonishing, but most touching for me were two very early self portraits of very young man, clearly aware that he is “different” and tentatively but clearly showing that awareness  in his face and body language. They were the most vulnerable self-portraits I’ve ever seen.  Brought tears to my eyes.

Upstairs, via an ancient elevator that crawls at a snail’s pace and creaks and groans, is a set of smaller galleries; and here, too,  is the famous photograph of Hockney with playwright Alan Bennett (of Beyond the Fringe fame), in which they look startlingly like twins separated at birth.

Here is where Hockney’s latest works are shown: Five wonderful, revealing portraits of friends, painted using Photoshop on his computer. They are so good they look like paintings. Amazing.

Hockney loves technology; he’s always doing something experimental and imaginative with new technological toys. He tries any medium that strikes his fancy, from pencil and charcoal, to Photoshop– even huge works made of faxed pages put together like a mosaic.

All of David Hockney’s works are copyrighted, so I won’t reproduce any here. His web site, however, is huge, and  you can see hundreds of his works there:

Christmas Music

Colonial Christmas, Barry Phillips & Friends

Barry Phillips is a cellist, composer arranger and recording engineer whose CDs have included a series of collections of early American music.  In 2008, Barry released Colonial Christmas, (Gourd Music) a CD of instrumental carols and dances from the American colonial period. Barry’s CDs always have thoroughly researched and beautifully written notes, and each carol in this collection has a story. The pieces are, as always, beautifully played, Barry on cello, with Shelley Phillips on oboe and French horn, and additional musicians on bassoon, double harp, fiddles and other period insruments. The music is lilting but mellow, perfect for accompanying Christmas dinner or as background for present opening.

Christmas Classics, Solitudes

Since 1981 Solitudes had made CDs that incorporate natural sounds (birds, wind, sea, etc.) with music. The Christmas offering here is characteristic of their style. The selections move from light classics (“Skater’s Waltz”) and familiar seasonal favourites (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”) to traditional carols (“Greensleeves”), all interlaced with nature’s own music. If so-called “New Age” music is your style, this  CD is definitely meant for your collection.

McKellen, de la Tour and the ex wife

Theatre, for me, has often been a spiritual exercise. Even in the midst of real life turmoil, there’s theatre. Most of my enduring friendships began in the theatre, as did this one.

Date: Fri, 02 May 2003
From: Ramona Silipo
To:  Cheski
Subject: Re: Give an Actor a Chance…

Things are going well here in most ways, but I. has had to get a solicitor involved in order to get to see his children. We are, at this point, waiting for his ex wife to reply to a letter from I’s solicitor. In a last ditch effort, after about half a dozen requests, I. proposed again that they go to mediation. If she refuses again, then he goes to court. We really wish she would just stop all the animosity and avoid the tremendous COST of going to court. But she is one of these short sighted women who is so vengeful she will shoot herself in the foot if it means making more trouble for her ex.

We saw [Ian] McKellen and Frances de la Tour in Dance of Death last night. Amazing stuff. McKellen has changed radically since Richard III and Enemy of the People. This is the first time I have seen him allow a role to inhabit him, instead of imposing himself on a role. Do you know what I mean? It was brilliant.

And I am now a real fan of Frances de la Tour. Her Cleopatra is the only one of about half a dozen I’ve seen that I believed every moment. She was hysterically funny in Fallen Angels. If I were 30 years younger, I’d be writing her a fan letter. God, she’s good. There was a moment last night, a gesture or inflection or something, when she reminded me of you… a kind of vulnerability with huge depths of strength underneath.

A Nude Mary Magdalene – Unusual Sculpture in the L’Ouvre

This portrayal of Mary Magdelene is in a small out-of-the-way gallery in the L’ouvre. I was moved by the sadness in her face, and at the same time comforted by her peaceful resignation. It’s also extraordinary because it is a nude. It is carved in wood, apparently from one tree, then burnished, painted and gilded. The workmanship is faultless.