Thursday, June 23, 2022

Book Review - The Midwife of Venice


The Midwife of Venice

A Novel By Roberta Rich

I found this splendid volume in a book box, and was intrigued by the title, and the time and place of the action: Venice, beginning in the Jewish ghetto in 1575. The author is a Canadian who lives in BC, and winters in Mexico.

I rarely read fiction, and expected it to sit on a shelf until my wife Bernie picked it up.  However, one day I found myself short of reading material, began reading, and was immediately hooked.  About 325 pages long, it took me just over a week to read.

A romantic novel, this book sheds light on a society we can hardly imagine. The main story is that of Jewish midwife Hannah Levi who – against the religious laws of the time – assists the wife of a count (a Catholic) in delivering a child.

Already segregated because of their religion, the lives of Jewish women in Renaissance Venice were concealed from view. I can’t find the place where this occurred in the book, but in one scene the body of a woman is found in a Venetian canal, and she appears to be a Gentile. Catholic men prepare to destroy the ghetto and its occupants until a Jew arrives at the Ghetto gate and cries, “Good news! She was a Jew!”

Roberta Rich delves into the lives of people in that period with this book, which is neither an intense social drama nor an over-the-top adventure. The Midwife of Venice is a blend of both.

The year is 1575. Word about Hannah Levi's expert skills in midwifery has spread even to the Venetian nobility, which prompts a late-night visit to her apartment in the Ghetto Nuovo. The Conte di Padovani's wife, Lucia, lies close to death in childbirth, and he desperately needs Hannah's help.

Hannah agrees to accompany the Conte to his palazzo goes against both her rabbi's wishes and the papal edict of Catholicism, which is the dominant religion. Jews are forbidden to treat Christian patients. If either the mother or the child dies, she could bring down the wrath of Christian Venice upon everyone in the ghetto. And should anyone in the Conte's household discover her birthing spoons – a new technology she had developed to assist with deliveries – she could be charged with witchcraft and tried by the Inquisitors.

In return for this high-risk endeavour, she strikes a bargain: As payment, she asks for enough money to rescue her husband who had been enslaved by mercenaries and languished in Malta, until someone paid his ransom.

So begins a lively tale involving love, blackmail, family, murder, plague, intercultural compassion, dramatic last-minute rescues, and imaginative disguises. There is a lot going on, and the brisk pacing ensures ever-changing action.

Ms. Rich skips back and forth between the couple's stories: Hannah helps Lucia give birth to a healthy son, Matteo, then safeguards the infant from his wicked uncles in his parents' absence. Isaac is sold into slavery, passed from owner to owner, but keeps himself alive through his writing skills and wit. Despite the great risk to themselves, Isaac and Hannah hold fast to their faith and mutual devotion.

There is a great deal of intellectual subtext to this book. For example, she depicts the strength of women and the precariousness of their lives, regardless of status or religion. She also makes clear the plight of the Jews, who survive in a world that views them with suspicion and hatred. This book blends Jewish lore and Mediterranean history into a riveting story.

Something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a novel before occurs on pages 327-329: A list of two dozen academic books, “for further reading.”

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Book Review -- Maestros and Their Music


Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting, 

by John Mauceri; 

262 pages; published in 2017; Alfred A. Knopf

As you know from some of my previous presentations to this book club, I am a great fan of “serious music,” as it’s sometimes called: opera, ballet and symphony. My library, which now includes Mauceri’s book, holds sixty-five books about composers and their work, and our entertainment centre has stacks of DVD and Blu Ray discs of musical performances – music composed from the ages of Handel and Bach through the classical and romantic periods to the present day.

A close friend told me about this splendid book, which enables the music lover to understand the art and craft of leading an orchestra, putting it in historical context. Himself a renowned conductor, Maestro Mauceri’s career has involved conducting for the world’s top orchestras and opera houses. The latter include New York’s Met, where he had a close working relationship with Leonard Bernstein for 18 years; Teatro La Scala in Milan, and London’s Royal Opera House. He conducted the recording of more than 50 CDs, and has received awards in the US, the UK, France and Germany.

The book is bursting with anecdotes interspersed within a serious discussion of art of conducting. While the amount of detail is huge, there are few footnotes. I suspect that this is because Mauceri has a photographic memory.

The first of its ten chapters is ‘A Short History of Conducting.’ The conductor as we know him (rarely her—and that only in recent decades) is a creature of the 19th century. The increasing complexity of scores required that someone be in charge. The two founders of modern conducting were both great composers – Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner. It was obvious that no matter how detailed the notation and instructions in a musical score, the room for interpretation was such that the conductor’s success in realizing its composer’s vision could vary extensively from one conductor to another.

Yet the conductor is the only person in the hall or theater who doesn’t make a sound. The players play; the singers sing; the audience applauds. So how does a man influence the quality of a performance by gesticulating standing on a podium, waving a baton from the right hand and supporting those movements with his left. with How the conductor affects players and singers is what Mauceri’s book is about.

His most important requirement is keeping the performers working together. To get an idea of the challenge, think about the realities. The orchestra may comprise one hundred or more players, playing numerous different instruments: The string family includes violin, viola, and cello; among the woodwinds are the flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet and cor anglais; brass instruments include trumpet, French horn, and trombone. Then there are keyboards, harps, and the harpsichord. Percussion instruments range from the tympani to the triangle. Then there are soloists and a chorus which can cover a range of voices from basso profundo at the low end to coloratura soprano at the high.

Add to this confabulation of voices and instruments the musical score itself. After the variety of instruments began to multiply two hundred years ago, musical scores became more complex, full of ambiguities and with markings that have no literal meaning. The conductor’s job is to realize a performance that brings out all the meaning in a score: good conductors will develop different interpretations of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, say, or Verdi’s Aida.

Mauceri’s depictions of the path to leading an orchestra, the demands of the job and its satisfactions, and everything that can go wrong are the essence of this book. Anyone interested in the workings of symphonic, operatic, and other forms of serious music will find this maestro’s book an illuminating read.

To end this review, these two paragraphs from page 196 – chosen almost at random – will give you both a sense of his writing style and a perspective on his work.

You may well ask, when all is said and done, is this a lone journey, a communal one, or perhaps a cosmic one? Yes. Yes. Yes. Sometimes it is truly glamorous. I have conducted Walton’s Orb and Sceptre for Queen Elizabeth II, which had been composed for her coronation, and, as I said Turandot at La Scala for Prince Charles and Princess Diana; performed for two presidents of the United States – and had Paul McCartney say it was cool to meet me. Returning home and sitting in seat 3A of a Jumbo jet, drinking a mimosa, feet resting on the wall, and awaiting a good meal does make one feel like a very successful person indeed. We easily forget the stresses that just preceded our arriving in that very special seat. We easily forget the stresses that just preceded our arriving in that very special seat. We have already moved on to the next challenge and we are going home.

However, we suffer when we are not working – “between engagements” – and we suffer when we are engaged, from the stress of leaving home and family behind and the unknowns that lie ahead of us. We must therefor find a certain contentment in what we are privileged to do that will override the massive challenges and expectations – those we bring to the job and those brought by the musicians, managers, and public to our art.

Read this book. In my view, it would be hard not to enjoy it.