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"Amazing Grace," Mackenzie Melemed, and MLB Musings: Thoughts on Music and Movies and Baseball On The Cusp of May

Spring has come to the Big Apple with flowers blooming and increased daylight. The bummer is that temperatures are below normal - there have been more clouds and dampness than sun. Though I yearn to pack away my warm sweaters and mufflers. can't do it yet.  

 

I know you can't always get what you want.  But aha! the phrase is a nice lead-in to the wonderful church concert film "Amazing Grace" I saw the other day. You see, Mick Jagger is shown a couple of times looking awed at the renditions of Aretha Franklin who is backed by a gospel choir in the Rev. James Cleveland's LA Baptist church.

 

At 29 in January 1972, Aretha was at the peak of her powers. "Amazing Grace" was supposed to be released along with Aretha's album of the same name but technical problems prevented it.  Young director Sydney Pollack - years before his success with "Tootsie" - did not yet know how to coordinate spoken words with the sound of music.  

 

Thanks to 21st century technology we now can see as well as hear the precocious Queen of Soul. She is fascinating to watch, a picture of deep intensity and quiet confidence. One touching moment shows her father the famed Detroit Reverend C. L. Franklin wiping his daughter's brow after he delivers an impromptu sermon. 

 

I also enjoyed recently a sublime classical music experience. Young pianist Mackenzie Melemed gave a memorable recital at the Juilliard School in Lincoln Center where he has studied for the last six years. 

 

I first heard the 24-year-old from Worcester Mass. last fall in the Greene Space in Soho. He knocked me out with a rendition of one of my favorite pieces of classical music, Sergei Rachmaninoff's  haunting "Moments Musicaux." I was impressed when he told the WQXR audience that it took him eight years before he felt ready to perform that piece.

 

Last week at Juilliard he played the Rachmaninoff B-minor prelude Op. 32 #10 and an encore of "Moment Musicaux #5".  But the bulk of his ambitious program was devoted to brilliant and well-thought-out interpretations of varied masters of the classical repertoire. 

 

I was impressed by Melemed's choice of his opening piece, Beethoven's powerful and unusual two-movement Sonata in F major, op 54. It was followed by Scriabin's short but delicate Five Preludes. The Rachmaninoff prelude followed and the first half of program ended with the dissonant difficult Sonata #2 by the contemporary Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman. Though the piece was not as jazzy as Melemed claimed, the technical challenges were handled adroitly. 

 

After intermission Melemed performed the rarely heard "Trois Pieces" by Francis Poulenc (he said that maestro Vladimir Horowitz never played he last two). He concluded with Schumann's early masterpiece "Symphonic Etudes, Op 13. 

 

Do remember the mellifluous name of Mackenzie Melemed.  After performances in Finland and China, he'll appear again in Our Town on Thursday August 1 at the DiMenna Arts Center on West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenue).  He'll make his Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Recital Hall on Fri night December 13.   

 

Before I end this blog, I must put in my two cents of evaluation of MLB a month into the 2019 season. There are no surprises that woeful teams are woeful and will never glimpse the good side of .500 in 2019.  I mean the Orioles, Royals, Marlins, and the Giants. 

 

I hate to say "never" about the wonderfully capricious sport of baseball but I fear a permanent underclass is emerging in MLB.   The lack of productive farm systems with Baltimore and San Francisco could mean years in the wilderness.

 

The Royals and Marlins have better farm systems but it says here they lack the veteran core and the financial resources to compete. Kansas City is a good baseball town and fans will return if the team improves.  I really have doubts that Miami will ever support that team.

 

 

On the plus side in baseball, Tampa Bay is already 10 games over .500 and they could be for real. Sadly, they will play before sparse crowds in indoor Tropicana Field whose upper deck was just closed for lack of fan interest. 

 

The San Diego Padres are another surprise team so far.  They are fighting the loaded heavily favored Dodgers for first place in the AL West. 

 

I saw newcomer Manny Machado on TV Sunday afternoon make one of his patented astounding defensive plays to keep San Diego in a close game they ultimately did lose in extra innings.  With reportedly one of the best farm systems in baseball the Padres could stay up there for a while.  Again too early to say for sure. 

 

On the college front, Columbia and Harvard just completed a three-game series for the ages that Harvard won Sunday afternoon in a 9-8 14 inning classic in Cambridge.  The Crimson  are becoming masters of the comeback, winning this battle after falling behind 6-0 early and 8-3 entering bottom of the 7th.  

 

The two teams are tied for first place with Columbia at Penn this coming weekend and Harvard traveling to Brown in Providence.  Harvard owns the tie-breaker because of their series win.  The best-of-three championship series will take place on Sat May 18 with a doubleheader.  If split, there will be a championship winner-take-all game on Sun May 19.

 

Back in New York, St. Johns in the Big East and Rutgers in the Big Ten still harbor hopes for post-season play.  More on those developments in the next blog.

 

 

That's all for now - always remember: take it easy but take it. 

 

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April May Be The Cruelest Month But Don't Tell That To The Mariners, Rays, and Plucky Ivy League Nines

There is an old Russian proverb about illusions that heal and illusions that kill.  We have seen too many of the latter in our public life these days from the top down.

 

For baseball fans, there is nothing like a good start to a season to bring hope, however illusory. When I started this post, the Orioles - unanimously picked for last place in 2019 - had won two series on the road, in Toronto and New York. 

 
Improbable dreams of flirting with .500 at least through the spring danced through my head. The Yankees, who have lately treated the cozy confines of Camden Yards like batting practice, quickly dispelled that illusion with a three-game sweep.   

 
Two games were winnable by the O's but there is no reliable arm on the pitching staff, either starter or reliever.  "Without pitching you have nuttin'!" Sparky Anderson once wisely said.

 
Not that the Oriole offense is potent with the media now swooping down on the record-breaking futility of first baseman Chris Davis. He hasn't had a hit since last September but is still bound to the club with four more years left on his seven-year $161 million contract. 

 

He occasionally lines the ball hard to the outfield but they are only outs.  Then he relapses into his alarming pattern of striking out, both looking and swinging. 


Enough of these somber tones. Let me praise for now the surprise team of 2019 so far, the Seattle Mariners off to a 12-2 start including its opening two victories in Japan over the Oakland A's.   

 
They are scoring runs in bunches with uber-streaky shortstop Tim Beckham blasting homers and outfielder Mitch Haniger determined to prove that his excellent 2018 season was not a mirage.  I do wonder if they will have the pitching and defense - are you listening Tim Beckham? - to hold off the defending AL West champion Houston Astros who just swept the Yankees at home and are riding a six-game winning streak.  


The rise of the Tampa Bay Rays to the early AL East lead is not really a surprise. They won 90 games last year and their home-grown players are beginning to mature.  They made a great trade with Pittsburgh to obtain outfielder Austin Meadows and starter Tyler Glasnow - both have contributed mightily to the Rays' fast start. 

 

Alas, no one expects the exciting product on the field to improve home attendance. Rays management is so resigned to the lack of support at Tropicana Field, its indoor mausoleum in St. Petersburg, that the upper deck will be closed.

 

The Rays are following in the footsteps of the Oakland A's, a 97-game winner in 2018 that also sealed off the upper deck because of weak attendance.  New stadiums are nowhere in sight for either franchise, and I wonder if even new facilities will boost attendance.

 
Speaking of lack of fan support, college baseball in the Northeast is usually played in front of friends and family.  That doesn't mean the competition isn't high quality and fiercely contested. 

 
Last weekend, the Penn Quakers and Dartmouth Big Green played a historic 21-inning game in Hanover that set NCAA records for ABs and plate appearances.  Penn won 21-15 and went on to become the first team in 2019 to sweep a three-game series.

 
The Ivy League pennant race is building to a roaring climax in the next four weekends.  Defending champion Columbia, Harvard, and Penn are tied at 6-3 with Yale just a game behind.

 
Hard to beat the drama of the Yale-Harvard series in Cambridge last week.  Harvard pulled off a dramatic comeback by rallying with 9 runs in bottom of the 9th to stun the Bulldogs 10-8 in the first game. Senior slugger Patrick McColl capped the rally with a grand slam.

 

The comeback was so reminiscent of the Crimson's amazing late inning rally last May against Dartmouth that erased a 8-run deficit and enabled Columbia to make the post-season playoff against Yale. (In the 8-team league, the first two finishers qualify for a best-of-three championship series.)

 
Facing a sweep this past Sunday, Yale rallied with 3 in the 9th to salvage one game in the weekend series. Columbia also got stunned by a Princeton 6-run bottom of 8th rally but the Lions rebounded by winning a rubber match 2-1 squeaker between southpaw Ben Wereski with Jim Smiley getting the save. 

 

This weekend Yale hosts Columbia in a big three-game series - a rematch of last year's championship series swept by the Lions. Lots of scouts will attend the likely first game matchup of aces Josh Simpson (Columbia) and Scott Politz (Yale).  

 
More on this and other sizzling events on many levels of baseball next time. Finally weather seems to be getting as warm as the competition.

 
For now always remember: Take it easy but take it.

 

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