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February 2006 Archives

February 1, 2006

Attention must be paid

With his ten-work, ten-decade Pittsburgh play cycle, the late August Wilson set out to produce an African American epic. In Fences—his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama set in the 1950s, now at Court Theatre in a production directed by Ron O. J. Parson—the heroic nature of Wilson’s protagonist is clear from the moment he comes on stage. Troy Maxson is a big man, fenced in by racial prejudice.

Like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Troy Maxson has two sons and a long-suffering wife. Unlike Loman, however, Troy—a Negro League baseball star who still wonders what might have been—does not encourage his younger son’s interest in football or his older son’s interest in music. His own dreams deferred, he has trouble believing in theirs. Late in the game he takes one last swing at happiness, entering into an affair that leaves him with a daughter but costs him his wife.

Yet the somber trajectory of Wilson’s plot is shot through with humor, forgiveness, and heroic triumph.

Fences runs through February 12. On Thursday, February 2, U of C English professor David Bevington leads a post-performance discussion.


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Photos (left to right): Every name tells a story: Troy Maxon (A. C. Smith) spins a yarn to his good friend Bono (John Steven Crowley). Jacqueline Smith plays Rose, Troy’s loyal, strong-willed wife. Victor J. Cole is Troy’s brother, Gabriel—wounded in WW II, he thinks he is God’s angel.

Photos by Michael Brosilow.

February 10, 2006

Prodigal poet

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“As much as I recognize the value of poetry,” confessed poet and award-winning Sextus Propertius translator Vincent Katz, AB’82, at last Thursday’s Poem Present talk, “it is hard for me to believe in it.” Titled The Poet’s Fate, Katz’s lecture—part poetry reading, part autobiographical snapshot—confronted the psychological realities of being a poet in a society that often views the art as a “marginal occupation.” Sampling from his own pieces as well as those of influences such as Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg, Katz took the Rosenwald 405 audience through his development as a writer and translator.

The son of painter Alex Katz, he recounted a bohemian ’60s childhood, when the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the “subliminal force” of his father’s paintings laid the groundwork for his later work as a poet, musician, curator, and translator. Katz even shared the first short poem he’d ever written: “I catch a cricket and a grasshopper in the same hand.”

Sipping tea, he described himself as a prodigal son of poetry who had ventured into translation, curating, editing, and other endeavors yet always returned, whether adapting the elegies of Propertius for a contemporary audience or pairing his own lines with the work of visual artists. For all its challenges, he mused, “poetry fills a need” to unlock the power of language. In writing poetry, Katz believes in getting it right the first time. “Only once,” he claimed, “have I successfully edited a poem into being.”

Although he still finds it difficult to say “I’m a poet” to anyone other than close friends, Katz cited the craft as his defense against the world, “a cushion from negative things.” His parting thought on the poet’s destiny: “You don’t find your fate, it finds you.”


Photo: Vincent Katz © Vivien Bittencourt.

February 13, 2006

The names behind the buildings

A decade or so ago, when Jules Knapp first called the University to inquire about making a gift, he told a Wall Street Journal reporter last Friday, a receptionist misunderstood his purpose—and transferred him to the University Hospitals gift shop.

But Knapp, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side and whose first jobs included paper delivery boy, Marshall Field’s stock boy, and shoe salesman, is nothing if not persistent. The founder of United Coatings (he sold it for $108 million to Pratt & Lambert in 1994; two years later Sherwin-Williams bought the merged company), Knapp eventually got through to the right person, and the conversation resulted in a $10 million gift to establish the Gwen Knapp Center for Lupus and Immunology Research, housed in the five-story Jules F. Knapp Research Center.

The gift’s impetus was personal: diagnosed with lupus in 1981, Joy Faith Knapp, one of Jules and Gwen’s three daughters, was treated at the Hospitals for several years before dying from the autoimmune disorder in 2000 at age 37. “We were so frustrated by the lack of knowledge about lupus,” says Gwen Knapp of her daughter’s illness. “We wanted to find a way fill those gaps, to learn about the disease, what causes it, who is at risk, how to treat it, and how to prevent it. Our curiosity led us to the University of Chicago.”

Now the Knapps have made a second landmark gift to Chicago—$25 million to help fund a ten-story, state-of-the-art biomedical-research facility. The Jules and Gwen Knapp Center for Biomedical Discovery—along with the Knapp Research Center and the Donnelley Biological Sciences Learning Center—will be known as the Knapp Research Complex, recognizing the family’s decades of biomedical-sciences support.

“My mother always dreamed that I would go to the University of Chicago,” Jules Knapp told the Journal. Her dream didn’t come true—Knapp attended the University of Illinois before leaving to start his career—but her son is definitely a Big Man on Campus now.


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Photos (left to right): Toasting future discoveries (from left): Jules Knapp, University President Don M. Randel, Biological Sciences and Pritzker Dean James Madara, and Gwen Knapp; To keep the ten-story Knapp Center for Biomedical Discovery from overpowering its neogothic neighbors, glass-curtain walls will balance height with translucence and openness; Under construction: Gwen and Jules Knapp pose in front of models and cranes.

Photos by Dan Dry

February 15, 2006

Musical aesthetics


“I’m really nervous,” quipped James Kallembach, conductor of the University Chorus, Motet Choir, and Rockefeller Chapel Choir, “I don’t usually talk.” As attendees at today’s Divinity School lunch finished off rosemary potatoes, tomato and onion quiche, and dark chocolate mousse, he kicked off his talk, Mysticism and New Choral Music, with a disclaimer. “I don’t know much about mysticism,” he confessed, explaining that “contemplation” was a more apt term for his intended subject—the philosophy of aesthetics.

“Aesthetics,” Kallembach observed, “is what musicians chat about in the undergraduate cafeteria” before they’re trained with the scholar’s analytical tools. He compared the process to a Brita water filter made so complex that one forgets the existence of the water itself. Mourning this “crisis of meaning and value,” the U of C director of choral activities encouraged listeners to appreciate art’s “radiance of form” rather than forever trying to explicate its usefulness. “It’s OK that art is useless in the way a shovel is useful, and art is good in and of itself, in the way a shovel is not,” he said. “Utility,” Kallembach concluded, “need not be made into an idol.”


Photo: Kallembach speaks in Swift Hall.

February 17, 2006

Honest Abe’s legal might


Toting an armload of books and papers to a Law School podium Wednesday night, Duke University law professor Walter E. Dellinger III reminded Chicago students and faculty that just two years before winning the presidency, Abraham Lincoln considered himself a failure. On June 16, 1858—the day he delivered his famous House Divided speech against the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision—“Lincoln would have awakened a very disappointed man,” Dellinger said. His marriage was sputtering, his wife was slipping into mental illness, and his son was slowly dying. Depression overwhelmed him. Little known outside Illinois, he was beset by creditors and a failing business. His state-legislature career had proved unremarkable, and at 49 years old he felt his youthful ambitions ebbing.

“But that night,” Dellinger said, “what Lincoln did changed the history of the nation.” His speech “destroyed the middle ground on slavery” and catapulted Lincoln onto the national stage. It also, Dellinger insisted, offered a glimpse into the 16th president’s legal acuity. During his hour-long talk, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Dellinger parsed Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas, his House Divided speech, the Gettysburg Address, and his second inaugural address, declaring him “America’s greatest lawyer.” He attributed Lincoln’s greatness to “deep humility, astounding candor, and an extraordinary ability to conceptualize or reconceptualize questions.” Lincoln, he said, “could look at a group of stars everyone had always seen as the Big Dipper and say it was Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer. And he could convince others to see something other than what they saw before.” With the Gettysburg Address, Dellinger said, Lincoln recast the very founding of the nation, tracing America’s conception not to the Constitution but to the more stirring Declaration of Independence.

Sometimes, Dellinger said, Lincoln’s strengths introduced themselves as weaknesses. In the courtroom—and later in speeches—he would concede point after point. Just when he seemed on the verge of giving his whole case away, he would raise a single issue of disagreement, Dellinger said, “and that would be the point on which the whole case would turn.”

During the post-lecture Q & A, Chicago law professor Geoffry Stone asked what Lincoln, an “aggressive proponent of commander-in-chief powers,” might think of George W. Bush’s warrentless wiretapping. “There’s war and then there’s war,” Dellinger replied. “If Al Qaeda were occupying Baltimore or Richmond, it would be a different situation.” Constitutionally, the wiretapping is problematic. “I happen to think we should be getting this information. … But we’re passing through a troublesome period when there appears to be a violation of a statute intended to apply to the president and no necessity to do it.”


Photo: Dellinger speaks in the Law School's Weymouth Kirkland Courtoom.

February 20, 2006

White out

The only snow missing from the current Renaissance Society exhibit, Forecast: Snow, is the cold, wet, and real kind. Knowing Chicago weather, it’s probably not far behind. In the meantime, synthetic white stuff blankets a small forest of genuine pine trees in the Renaissance Society’s galleries on Cobb Hall’s fourth floor. In one corner a bulbous, outsized snowman smiles beatifically from atop a pair of skis; how his boots and bindings are attached is a mystery. Highly magnified snow crystals float overhead (in two-dimensional drawings) and dot the gallery floor (in three-dimensional acrylic and plaster sculptures). What appears to be a vast baked Alaska turns out, on closer inspection, to include a collection of Tic-Tac–sized buildings along one edge—and to be, in fact, a sculpture of the Swiss Alps at St. Moritz, complete with village and ski lifts to the nearest peaks.

These are some of the sights to be found in Japanese artist Yutaka Sone’s show, which transforms the Renaissance Society into a temperate winter wonderland through April 9. As a whole, the exhibit provokes a child’s sense of discovery on waking to find the world transformed the morning after a snowfall. The placement of the trees creates winding paths and hidden spaces. Sone veers between scales, zooming in on individual snowflakes and panning out on a ski lift and entire resort. Single snow crystals are revealed as evanescent natural sculptures; snowmen and snowballs trigger nostalgia; and heaps of snow form the settings for upscale vacationing. Whether visitors approach Sone’s work reflectively—pondering the connections between all these themes—or as pure recreation, odds are they’ll leave with a plastic flake or two clinging to a hem or a cuff, a reminder of a winter idyll.

Laura Demanski, AM’94

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Photos (left to right): Faux snowflakes abound in the gallery; detail from a marble ski lift; the peaks of the St. Moritz installation.

Photos courtesy the Renaissance Society.

February 22, 2006

Rack it up


Last Friday night Hutch Commons’s vaulting expanse made room for table after table of $3 shirts and $4 pants—part of a rummage sale benefiting Darfur relief efforts. The doors opened at 6 p.m., and within an hour the checkout line stood five and six customers deep. Weighed down by backpacks, students wandered among slightly scuffed shoes and loosely folded jeans, or logged silent-auction bids for a digital camera, television, and sound system. A pair of girls in boots and ponytails took turns modeling scarves for each other, while a man held up a sweater to check its size. At the other end of the room, members of the University’s Middle East Music Ensemble plucked out a sprightly Arabic melody on ouds (pear-shaped lutes), zithers, and hand-held drums. (As the evening wore on, a handful of student rock bands and an African-Brazilian performance group from the student organization Gingarte Capoeira took turns providing live entertainment.) Meanwhile, cardboard displays near the register exhorted shoppers to help quell the crisis in Darfur.

Coordinated by students from the University’s Amnesty International club—with help from Giving Tree, the Muslim Students Association, and Hillel—the rummage sale raised $1,800. The money, said co-organizer Alice Sverdlik, will go to Oxfam projects to supply clean water and sanitation for Sudanese refugees. “Oxfam is a nondenominational charity, and that seemed important, since organizations from different faiths were part of the rummage sale,” said Sverdlik, a fourth-year student and Amnesty International member. "Plus, it’s one of the few charities still working in the Darfur region.” Volunteers dropped off unsold clothing and books at local shelters. “It was a very successful event, and honestly a very simple event to set up," Sverdlik said. “We just sold stuff people gave us.”


Photos: Scenes from the rummage sale.

February 24, 2006

Arctic arias


It could have been mistaken for last weekend’s weather report. “Winter has done his worst,” sang soprano Jessica Cullinan at Thursday’s noontime concert in Fulton Recital Hall. Accompanied by pianist Patricia Spencer and attired in a long, black dress, Cullinan, a member of the Hyde Park group Chicago Chorale, serenaded the audience of about 30 with winter-themed music, ranging from Samuel Barber’s mournful “Must the Winter Comes So Soon?” to a soaring Copland etude. “This one doesn’t have any words,” the singer warned of the latter, “so don’t be shocked.”

Shadowed by drab winter gray peeking through the window behind her, Cullinan brightened up the hall with Pietra Cimara’s dreamy, waltz-like “Fiocca La Neve” and a powerful rendition of Roger Quilter’s arrangement of Shakespeare’s poem “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind.” Nostalgia about softly falling snowflakes was balanced with desperate pleas for deliverance. “And at times like this,” Cullinan belted to a Sondheim tune, “I think I would gladly die—for a day of sky!” She concluded the program with Molly Carew’s upbeat homage to spring, “Everywhere I Look,” before sending listeners out into the February cold.


Photo: Cullinan and Spencer at Fulton Recital Hall.

February 27, 2006

Ragtime revival


Toward the end of composer and pianist Reginald Robinson’s 90-minute ramble through ragtime’s history and music—punctuated by dizzying renditions of seminal songs and a digital slideshow of genre greats—the 2004 MacArthur “genius” award winner tried to describe ragtime’s rapturous hold over him: “It’s just something I had to play,” he said. “I wanted to play ragtime before I knew I wanted to play piano.” Seated at Fulton Recital Hall’s grand piano last Thursday night in a Chicago Society–sponsored event, the 33-year-old offered a full house of listeners a presentation that was half-concert, half-lecture. Sketching the contributions of ragtime composers like Scott Joplin, Louis Chauvin, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, and James Scott, he explained ragtime’s particular rhythm, its use of syncopation, and its journey from New Orleans’s Congo Square to brothels and dance halls across the country and, later, onto concert stages. He argued for the continuing significance of ragtime in a hip-hop era. “This is music that black people created and then forgot about,” he said. “We tend to make music and then move on, but if you talk about the blues, jazz, hip hop, you’ve got to talk about ragtime too. I hear ragtime in hip hop every day. During Black History Month, everybody wants to talk about how George Washington Carver made the peanut. What about Scott Joplin?”

Robinson was 13 when he wrote his first rag—a short, simple piece he played for the audience. By 16, his work was more sophisticated; that year he wrote a song called “Just Trying to Escape the Devil.” As a grade-schooler on Chicago’s West Side, he’d been entranced when a group of musicians came to his school to offer a demonstration that included ragtime. “I’d heard this music on the ice cream truck plenty of times,” he said. “I thought [Joplin’s 'The Entertainer'] was just the ice cream song.” When he found out it was serious music, he began pestering his mother for a piano. All she could afford at first was a tiny keyboard. “Just two octaves, with small keys,” he said. “But I didn’t care. I didn’t know what an octave was anyway.” Piano lessons were out of the question, so he taught himself, learning to read and write music by using a songbook to follow along with a Joplin recording. “Each piece I composed I tried to make into an exercise,” he said. In 1992 he took a demo tape to Delmark Records, where the producers immediately signed him. Today he gives lectures and concerts across the country. “I’m trying to put ragtime and Scott Joplin’s legacy in front of people.”


Photo: Robinson discusses, and plays, ragtime.

Photo by Brian Morris.

About February 2006

This page contains all entries posted to UChiBLOGo in February 2006. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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