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Soprano Singer Julianne Baird.

Soprano singer Julianne Baird. Her new CD is "Fanny Mendelssohn Lieder" (Newport Classic). She is an expert musicologist of 18th century European baroque music. But she also explores music of other periods, including contemporary works and 19th century popular tunes. She recently toured France, Poland, Austria, Germany and Holland in recital. Her discography includes more than 85 recordings. She is on the faculty of Rutgers University in New Jersey.


Other segments from the episode on March 16, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 16, 1999: Interview with Julianne Baird; Interview with Andrew Rangell; Review of Wendy Lesser's memoir "The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters."


Date: MARCH 16, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031601np.217
Head: Julianne Baird
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Julianne Baird has been described in "The New York Times" as one of the most recorded and distinguished sopranos of the early music movement. Classical music critic David Patrick Stearns (ph) wrote, "her voice gives a distinctive incandescence to everything she sings."

Baird has performed with many major orchestra including the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. She's also a scholar of early music and has taught at Princeton University and the New England Conservatory of Music. She is now on the faculty of Rutgers University.

Her recent recordings have focused on fascinating themes in and beyond early music such as English songs about madness, music from Jane Austen's songbooks, parlor songs, lullaby's and her latest, a collection of Lieder by Fanny Mendelssohn.

Let's start with a song from the Jane Austen songbook. This is "Silent Worship" by Handel.


GROSS: Julianne Baird, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JULIANNE BAIRD, SOPRANO SINGER: Thanks. Glad to be here.

GROSS: Now you specialize in what's described as "early music." So what period are we specifically talking about when you use the word "early music?"

BAIRD: Well, I think these days when we talk about anything from Middle Ages through -- certainly through Mozart. And of course with people like Roger Norrington and the recordings of Beethoven and Berlioz, its been extended with Brahms all the way through the Romantic era. And that we generally call "historically informed performances" or "performances on original instruments."

GROSS: What do you love about that period?

BAIRD: I think what I love the most is the fact that the performer had a voice. Music was regarded as the blueprint and without the performers input to bring it alive it wasn't considered a complete art. And what I experienced in Conservatory, and I think a lot of my colleagues did too, is that there was a kind of a holy attitude about music that one must totally prostate oneself -- prostrate oneself to. And that individual input was not valued.

And of course in baroque music without it you're not really performing it correctly. So I think it reflects my desire to put my two cents in.

GROSS: Are there differences in singing early music technically? What are singers expected to do -- the quality of voice he or she is expected to have compared to more contemporary classical singing?

BAIRD: Well, certainly you need to have a lighter voice, I think, in general than what we think of as the kind of voice that would cover -- that would be strong enough to fill the Met -- the Metropolitan Opera. Because there you need -- volume is probably the first criterion. It's most important to be loud.

Maybe beauty is also important, but maybe not even as important as how loud you can sing. And so to be an early music singer, to able to get around those fast passages, you have to have a certain amount of flexibility.

So an easy kind of production that allows for a lot of agility -- you can't be too quite. We know that styles of music changed. For example, certain ornaments that they did in Monteverdi's era, which were in a small room and easily able to be heard, did not work in a 500 seat opera house.

Even when they moved to houses that only had 500 seats the styles changed to a certain extent. So we get, in some of the books on singing, them making fun of singers who were still doing what they called "chicken cackling." Namely, something -- they said that it was the sound that a chicken made after laying an egg.

But that same style was exactly what you wanted in 1600, whereas in 1700 it was truly a laughable thing.

GROSS: Could you demonstrate that chicken cackling?

BAIRD: Sure. They were talking about a kind of light -- we might call it a sort of giggle against the soft palette, which books call a trelow (ph).


It's kind of a quick motion of the glaudus (ph). And of course that's not an ornament that's going to carry in a big room. And so they began to make a lot of fun of that, and they wanted a more, I'd say, projected sound. Probably -- they even talked about differences in the way the articulation should be done so that whereas a very distinct articulation might have a lot of vowels said on each note.


By the time we get to the middle baroque they're not wanting that anymore. They want one -- one articulation follow through.


If that helps to describe a little bit.

GROSS: Let's talk about vibrato. Do you use a different kind of vibrato or anymore or less of it when you're singing early music than when you're singing more contemporary art song?

BAIRD: Well, I'd have to say yes. For one thing the -- in the instrumental treatise as we learned that vibrato was to be used sparingly, and they tell you specifically. It's not until 1750 or so that we get a book on violin playing that says you should make vibrato all the time.

And even in Brahms, violin concertos there are places where you -- it was marked that he made the vibrato. So this is -- this concept of vibrato all the time even wasn't the case in the 19th century in the Romantic era, which is kind of fascinating for people.

But in singing, and particularly in singing early music, there are written out ornaments that we know were specifically for vibrato. I showed you the trelow, which is that kind of throat articulation, there was another kind of trelow for Monteverdi's era that involved more diaphragmatic articulation and in a way a kind of "vibrato."

May be like -- if I can demonstrate it, sort of like this.


If you will. What I'm doing is just kind of contracting my stomach muscles to make a sort of intensity vibrato. And they would use that kind of technique on a word like "tears" or "suffering" or "crying," "weeping."

And so that's a specific kind of a vibrato think get used in certain situations. Even by the time we get to Bach, he writes out a vibrato -- he calls a "babum" (ph), and it looks kind of like a wavy line that goes on and on. And he recommends, for example in "St. John Passion," that's the kind of ornament that is used on the word "death."

So it's interesting -- there are specific ways of writing vibrato. And also it was used in Purcell to indicate cold.


Sort of fearing cold. So they actually used it.

GROSS: So it was like a dramatic underscoring.

BAIRD: Mmm-hmm. Very much. So if you're using -- it's really hard if you're vibrating all the time to make that a special effect, you see.

GROSS: Now I want to play another song from one of your records, and this is a CD entirely given over to what you described as "English Mad Songs and Ayres." And these are also songs about madness and depression and suicide. And this is a song by Purcell -- are you doing any of the things that you talked about in this song?

BAIRD: Yes, a lot of note bending, if you will. A lot of sliding between notes. That's another thing we think of as the kind of a later phenomenon, but they had this strange kind of glide and slide. And the whole point was to a proceed from one note to another imperceptibly so you didn't really realize when you got from one to the other. So its kind of this real slow slide.

GROSS: Well, this song is called "With Thick and Famish'd Eyes." Would you just recite the lyric for us?

BAIRD: Sure.

With sick and famish'd eyes
With doubling knees and weary bones
To thee my cries
To thee my groans

To thee my sighs
My tears ascend
No end
My throat

My soul is hoarse
My heart is withered like a ground
Which thou does curse
My thoughts turn round

And make me giddy
Lord Lord I fall yet call

GROSS: This is Julianne Baird.


GROSS: That's Julianne Baird with Colin Tilney at the harpsichord from Julianne Baird's album, "English Mad Songs and Ayres."

Julianne, how come you did a whole album of songs about madness? They're really interesting songs.

BAIRD: Well, I think it had to do mostly with loving Purcell so much.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

BAIRD: And also the realization that it was a fascinating time in English history because the insane asylums for the first time were open to the public. For a penny you could go through the insane asylums and look at the most strange cases of madness.

And instead of going to the zoo, that's what the English did during this time. So there are diaries full of descriptions of what the insane asylums were like. Especially "Bedlam," which was "Bethlehem," was one of the most notorious of those. And the prisoners slept on straw and naked.

But most interesting is the fact that women were locked up at a rate three times to what men were. And they judged the kind of inmate duty that they had to do by the degree of their insanity. So the melancholy ironed, and those that were really violent had to do the heavy washing. You know, the sort of grasping of the fabric and moving it around. So it's just a fascinating era.

GROSS: Was there an actual genre called "mad songs?"

BAIRD: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: And who wrote them? Just the composers of the day or are these people who had themselves been institutionalized at some point?

BAIRD: Well, Jonathan Swift became very fascinated with the whole idea because he was institutionalized in such a place. But Purcell and Blow and other composers of that time...

GROSS: ...we're talking 17th-century.

BAIRD: ... 17th-century.

GROSS: Very interesting. And did you find that the music was colored by the melancholy of the lyrics?

BAIRD: Yes. In fact, their word "melancholy" they used for our word "depression."

GROSS: Right.

BAIRD: And so they had the different states of madness depicted -- sometimes in one song you'd have four or five different kinds of madness. So they really loved going from these variety of states. It meant that the pieces often are very sectional -- very short sections all kind of glued together. So you get mercifully mad and melancholy madness and stark madness, etcetera.

GROSS: Were these pop songs of their day?

BAIRD: In as much as they were performed probably in a court setting and they were probably performed for people that were rather privileged. I don't think the hoi polloi probably heard these so very much. We know that -- you had to have a little bit of money to go through the insane asylum. It had become kind of the idle pastime of the rich to go to the insane asylum. So I think it probably reflected what they were seeing and hearing more than the common people.

GROSS: My guest is soprano Julianne Baird. Her latest CD is "Lieder by Fanny Mendelssohn." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is soprano Julianne Baird.

There was a period in your career when you described yourself as a musicologist who sings.


GROSS: I'm not sure you still describe yourself that way. You're a kind of acclaimed enough singer that you are a singer who's a musicologist, I think.

BAIRD: That's right, I think.

GROSS: But why did you shift the balance toward musicology earlier in your career?

BAIRD: Well, to tell you the truth part of it was that I didn't trust that I could become a singer.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

BAIRD: And I had plenty of indication. It wasn't that I was being told, "you're going to be a singer -- just be a singer." And it was also my own cautiousness and needing to have a good day job as it were. And I came from an academic family were that was a natural course of behavior. You know, studying and going to libraries kind of thing.

And to tell you the truth, in the discipline that I chose its valuable because you need to do a certain amount of your own research and finding pieces. For example, that piece the "Sick and Famish'd Eyes" doesn't exist in any regular songbook for singers. You have to go digging to find that piece.

GROSS: Now I believe that you started singing by singing shaped note singing. And why don't you describe what shaped note singing is.

BAIRD: Well, my family of origin lived in Appalachia. Still -- my grandfather's still alive and still living on the old family homestead. And singing was one of the things that we did for fun. It was entertainment. And my grandparents were both very much into the Baptist Church and they loved to sing hymns as a pastime, but neither one could read music.

So what they did -- basically what shaped note singing is is there are certain shapes to the notes which indicate what pitch they are. And even though these days they're written on a staff so that me, today, I could look at it and say that's "G." It's written on one line and it's therefore a "G."

They didn't know that that was a "G," they just knew that it was a certain shape and that that meant to sing that note. So it was interesting, they loved to sing and they just howled away. It was really very a piercing kind of vocal production that goes with that.

GROSS: How did you find classical singing?

BAIRD: Well, when I was in middle school my mother suggested that she thought I had a voice and that I should go and sing to the music teachers in school. And before that I guess it had been commented on in my family that I had a nice voice.

But it came to be something that I could do that not that many other people were doing. At least it was a way for me to distinguish myself. And so I sang through high school and applied to a couple of Conservatory's -- several Conservatory's. I was rejected by some, but then ended up going to the Eastland School of Music where I immediately changed out of being a voice major.


BAIRD: Because I -- I felt like I was no dummy. I could tell that what they really wanted was a big vibrato and a huge voice. And I knew I was a square peg and I was never going to fit. And so rather than have them try to tell me you're not going to make this work, I said, OK, I'm going to change my major. I'm going to be a musicologist and then I'll get to sing, and no one can attack me for singing what I want to sing.

GROSS: Well, it worked.

BAIRD: It did. It actually did.

GROSS: Well, speaking of not singing with the loudest voice, you have an album of lullabies.


GROSS: And I thought this would be a nice opportunity to hear a lullaby -- some soft singing. And this is from a CD called "Lullabies: A Songbook Companion." And it's produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in conjunction, I guess, with a show that they did.

BAIRD: Well, they decided to publish a book on lullabies, and they wanted to have some of the lullabies demonstrated so that people, maybe who didn't read music, could buy the record.

GROSS: Well, this is a familiar lullaby we're going to hear, "All Through the Night."


GROSS: That's Julianne Baird singing "All Through the Night" from the CD "Lullabies: A Songbook Companion." That's really lovely.

BAIRD: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Did you sing lullabies to your children?

BAIRD: Sure.

GROSS: In a soft voice?

BAIRD: In a soft voice. It's true. In fact, it's tough being a singer with kids in the sense that they also recognize that that's part of your profession and it's the thing that makes a mom go away also. So I think kids -- children of singers probably have a -- not a love hate relationship -- but they recognize that it's two sided.

You know, mom sings. She sings to you. But she also goes away to sing.

GROSS: Julianne Baird, it's been a pleasure to talk with you.

BAIRD: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Julianne Baird's latest CD is "Lieder by Fanny Mendelssohn."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Julianne Baird
High: Soprano singer Julianne Baird. Her new CD is "Fanny Mendelssohn Lieder." She is an expert musicologist of 18th century European baroque music. But she also explores music of other periods, including contemporary works and 19th century popular tunes. She recently toured France, Poland, Austria, Germany and Holland in recital. Her discography includes more than 85 recordings. She is on the faculty of Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Julianne Baird

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Julianne Baird

Date: MARCH 16, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031602NP.217
Head: Andrew Rangell
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has described Andrew Rangell has a stellar pianist. We often play Rangell's recordings in between interviews on our show, and when we do we usually get calls from listeners who want to hear more. So we invited him on the show.

In the '80s, Rangell took on the monumental challenge of performing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. In a review of a Beethoven recital, music critic Anthony Tomasini (ph) wrote that "Rangell has some of the best most polyphonical independent fingers around."

Unfortunately, Rangell's hands rebelled with tendinitis seven years ago forcing him to take a break from recording and performing. In the past couple of years he has been making a comeback. Before we meet Rangell let's hear a selection from his latest CD, "Intimate Works." This is Mozart's "Rondo in A Minor."


GROSS: Andrew Rangell, welcome to FRESH AIR. In the liner notes of the CD -- "A Recital of Intimate Works" -- the liner notes that you wrote; you quote Francis Bacon who said, "there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." And I'm wondering how that intriguing quote relates to your interpretations of music and your choices of music.

ANDREW RANGELL, PIANIST: That quotation came up as a kind of an afterthought or an after impression as I considered what was included in that repertoire on that disk. Of course the disk is called "Intimate Pieces," even that designation was added on later as a title.

But the works that are on that disk all do have a kind of particularly interior and probing, searching quality for the most part. And an intimate quality that was, in fact at the time, a practical reason because all of those things were recorded at a point in my career when I was undergoing tremendous physical problems. And wanted, in fact, to gather together a group of works which meant a great deal to me.

But -- and which I wanted to record and perform, but which I felt constituted less of a potential problem of execution than certain other pieces.

GROSS: What actually did happen to your hand that forced you to stop performing for a while?

RANGELL: Well, the problem was precipitated in the spring of 1991 during an especially stressful sustained five day recording session during which I was trying, with increasing difficulty and increasing alarm, to record the last three Beethoven sonatas. Very demanding pieces of immense personal importance to me.

And as you can imagine this is a highly pressurized situation. There are time constraints. And I noticed certain small stirrings in my right hand that produced considerable anxiety. At that time they were not disabling problems, but I would just say that five to six weeks later, as I was trying to prepare for a very important recital, I really had a full-blown case of tendinitis where, you know, I could barely open and close my hand or hold things.

And at that point that was a real -- a real trauma. And that sort of set in motion a kind of downward spiral which I didn't really anticipate would last a long time. Unfortunately, it was a nightmare which lasted many years.

GROSS: What advice did you get from doctors?

RANGELL: Oh, well that -- my desperate attempts to find doctors is a saga that is kind of amazing. I got, of course, a huge variety of advice and suggestions and every kind of test. The problem was that I couldn't, at the outset, really find exactly the right kind of doctor or therapist.

Over the course of weeks, months and then years ended up consulting everyone from neurologists, rheumatologists, acupuncture people, accupressure, muscular therapists, physical occupational therapists, even -- well, hand surgeons.

And I had everything from, you know, blood work done to MRIs because the problem itself was not easy to detect. It was not a gross problem. It was subtle and a lot of well-informed and well-intentioned people had, what I think in retrospect, was perfectly sound advice. And yet I went for years really without discovering what I now think may have been the right key to try to undo the damage over time, and with a certain perspective and with a certain effort.

GROSS: And what was that key?

RANGELL: Well, there remains a certain degree of mystery about it, but I think that the best advice that I got in five or six years of looking came from an unexpected and rather humble source. A Feldon Christ (ph) and practitioner -- are you...

GROSS: ...Feldon Christ is a kind of body education technique.

RANGELL: Exactly. Exactly. It's often very closely linked with the Alexander technique.

GROSS: Right.

RANGELL: Which has to do with body use and body posture. And this particular therapist, a young woman in San Francisco, seemed to be able to somehow detect a kind of a pattern of holding and of blockage in a way that -- she gave me certain kinds of stretching exercises to try that, in contrast to other stretching exercises I had been trying and which were suggested to me, these ones seemed to be kind of compound stretching exercises.

They involved an awareness of three, four, and five parts simultaneously stretching. And somehow the experience of mobilizing and moving everything from the pelvic area through the back, shoulders, neck and then down the arm which was really the site, so to speak, the local -- the locality of the problem.

Very very gradually over a very long time I somehow managed to regain the use of my hand by incremental degrees. And at the same time had a sort of greater bodily ease and health you might say. So there remains for me a kind of -- a kind of blessed mystery about it.

GROSS: My guest is pianist Andrew Rangell. His latest CD is called, "A Recital of Intimate Works." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is pianist Andrew Rangell.

You injured your hand while recording Beethoven's sonatas in the early '90s. Now in the mid '80s you had learned all of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, and during much of the second half of the '80s you were performing the whole cycle over a series of concerts.

Since this was such a formative part of your career and since, in the recording of it, you injured your hand I'd like to talk with you about these sonatas.

First of all, why did you want to take on such a really ambitious project? I mean, that's -- it's -- it must be very thrilling and very frightening and consuming to take on 32 Beethoven sonatas.

RANGELL: What impelled me to take on this enormous commitment and task was in fact the loss of a sort of secure academic position at that time. I found myself out of that job, and frankly very upset by that dislocation and in some distress about what to do.

And I actually kind of retreated in a way. I mean, it's odd to describe the undertaking this task as a retreat, but I felt that spiritually it could only be good for me to take a year -- more than a year actually -- because we're talking about a period from May of 1985 to a first concert at the end of September 1986 to examine and to, in effect, live inside all of the Beethoven sonatas in some fashion. And then to systematically perform them in a sequence of concerts the next year.

GROSS: Well, I'm wondering what affect -- you know, you said it could only help spiritually to do something like that. It could also drive you crazy.


How did the balance finally weigh out there?

RANGELL: Well, I think that to some extent you have to already have the temperament and the wish to explore something in a kind of overwhelming and consuming detail and depth. One might say that the madness is already present.

I did in fact live for a year -- well, just on a musical level there is a price to pay for that kind of specialization, which is that you in effect really remove yourself from many other realms of -- and I felt that the richness to be gained in the one really kind of offset, for the time being, what was sacrificed in terms of -- in terms of all the other repertoire I would have to forsake.

I actually have no regrets about that. And also, the pressures and the difficulty of eventually performing all of these sonatas was a kind of rigor which in a way I was new to in terms of just the professional reality. And that was a very bracing and challenging and anxiety-producing experience. But ultimately a very positive one.

GROSS: In your liner notes to one of your Beethoven sonata CDs you describe one of the pieces as, "a journey to the innermost places of the heart." And I'm thinking in order to actually achieve that through your interpretation of music you must have to first really learn the mechanics before the heart can really enter into it.

RANGELL: Well, the two processes are intertwined and integrated in a very profound way from a very early age. There is, I think, perhaps a notion out there that one learns the notes, that one employs the strategies that makes one able to deal with the physical problems of playing a piece of music.

And then one attends to the interpretational or emotional or spiritual or the inward side of the music. I think in any serious musician those two tasks are fused together inextricably from a very very early age.

And in fact in that particular movement, which I am sure is the slow movement -- the largo movement of the "Hammerklavier" sonata which is a journey of 18 to 20 minutes -- the problems are not purely or even primarily physical. You know, I mean, there are no extravagantly difficult physical problems in that movement. In contrast to the rest of the sonata which is overwhelmingly difficult.

But it has to do with all kinds of subtleties of balance and sound and emphasis and pacing and timing that are, you know, gradually learned over, if not a lifetime, at least a long time.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that. This is the Beethoven sonata No. 29 in B flat major. This is the "Addagio Sostanudo Largo." (ph)


GROSS: That's my guest Andrew Rangell at the piano.

During the period when you couldn't perform were you playing in your mind? Were you just rehearsing in your mind?

RANGELL: Oh, I would say incessantly in a way.

GROSS: You were rehearsing at the piano too, actually.

RANGELL: Sure. I was trying very hard to grapple with, and in fact wading back into the repertoire that I wanted to be performing and which I am performing now. I was struggling with things that I couldn't legitimately do.

But even before that while I was playing at all I was listening to music, thinking about music. But I seemed to be deprived of being involved in just the way I needed and wanted to be. Although I did try turning to some other things.

And I don't know whether it can be, or ought to be, included in the interview, but apart from several other things -- children's books and some other things I became involved with -- one of the things which I actually pursued in an odd way over several years was playing basketball out on the streets.

GROSS: With tendinitis?

RANGELL: Well, this was at a point when I was in such despair about my hands. I mean, this may sound unbelievable to you -- even I look back with a kind of amazement that, in the wish to kind of somehow free my body and my mind, I started engaging in a very dangerous, you know, enterprise of running around with the neighborhood kids. Some of whom were very big, strong, tough and fast.

And this was a kind of a -- almost a drug for me. And it was quite wonderful, but I actually did sustain further injuries which were a kind of setback. So now I have sort of more or less definitively abandoned basketball.


GROSS: Wow. It wouldn't have been the first thing I would have thought of to help get over a hand injury.

RANGELL: Well, it was something that I had always loved doing as a kid.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

RANGELL: I did athletic things and played tennis also for many years, which I actually am doing now. But it was something that, you know, that was also very interesting for me because I developed a whole relation with an assortment of people that was utterly different from any other connection in my life.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad that you're performing again. And I thank you so much for talking with us about your music. I really appreciate it.

RANGELL: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.

GROSS: Andrew Rangell's latest CD is called "A Recital of Intimate Works."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Andrew Rangell
High: Pianist Andrew Rangell has emerged as one of America's best interpreters of the works of Beethoven and Bach. His latest CD is "Andrew Rangell: A Recital of Intimate Works." It includes six Beethoven works, a work of Bach and others.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Andrew Rangell

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Andrew Rangell

Date: MARCH 16, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031603NP.217
Head: Maureen Corrigan
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

TERRY GROSS, HOST: It's an all too rare phenomenon in this country when a small journal of literature and the arts not only survives but flourishes. Happily though, that is the story with "The Threepenny Review" which will soon be celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Its founder and editor-in-chief, Wendy Lesser, is herself a rare phenomenon: a writer who has made her literary career outside the mainstream of publishing and academia.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Lesser's appropriately unconventional new memoir called "The Amateur."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: I've taught a lot of students over years who've said they wanted to be writers, but I never had one who declared that what he or she wanted to write was the great American novel. In the midst of our seemingly inexhaustible autobiography craze that ambition has grown unfashionable.

Instead almost all of my aspiring writers want to be like Wendy Lesser, although they don't know that because most have never heard of her. They want, like a Lesser, to write occasional first person nonfiction essays for some wonderful arty magazine. They think they can make a living doing this.

Maybe, to give myself a break from forever sounding like Professor Killjoy, I should assign the next starry eyed Belle Lettres who walks into my office Lesser's latest book to read. It's a kind of literary memoir called "The Amateur" that's loosely constructed out of a series of essays.

In it, Lesser talks about founding "The Threepenny Review" while she was still a Ph.D. candidate in literature at Berkeley. After 10 years, Lesser says, "The Review" eventually got an arts grant that allowed her to pay herself a nominal salary. Today, almost 20 years after its founding, "The Review" has about 9,000 readers and a staff of one and a half people.

And it still operates out of Lesser's old graduate student apartment. I'd like my students with literary ambitions to read "The Amateur" to see what a successful independent life of letters looks like. And to see the tough love that literature demands these days.

Those of my students and other readers who aren't scared off by Lesser's tale will be invigorated by it. In her introductory essay, Lesser refers to herself as "an 18th-century man of letters. The one who happens to be female and lives in 20th-century Berkeley."

Lesser's witty penetrating writing style, as well as her stickler obsessions with the origins of words, do qualify her as a latter day inheritor of the Enlightenment tradition of Dr. Johnson. Very occasionally though a contemporary smugness creeps into her essays.

It's that attitude that Al Pacino in "Sea of Love" so memorably dubbed "the wondah of me." That's the omnipresent danger in all first person writing. I like the essays in "The Amateur" best that don't distractingly herald Lesser's own unique sensibilities, but instead just demonstrate what a terrific close reader she is of other people's lives and work.

She writes discerningly here about subjects ranging from Mark Morris' choreography to the late Mario Savio's voice to, of course, literature. Here, for instance, is how Lesser defends Dickens' novels against the familiar charge of sentimentality.

"Most sentimental writing," she says, "leaves you sick to your stomach so that you feel ceded but sullied when you reach the end of it. Dickens wounds you and then he soothes you. But he leaves you with a residue of what it felt like to be wounded. A tangy bitterness that cleanses the sweetness of the happy ending."

That's such a smart contained observation about Dickens. Lesser's essays are filled with similar smart contained observations. Ones that I savored especially because there is such a pressure in publishing these days to bloat the smallest insight into a grandiose tome about literature, culture, the millennium.

In contrast, most of the essays in "The Amateur" will help readers rediscover the beauty of small proportions. Lesser is aptly named. As a writer and editor she recognizes that less is often more.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Amateur" by Wendy Lesser.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters," a memoir by Wendy Lesser the founder and co-editor of "The Threepenny Review." It's a journal of literature and arts which will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Spec: Entertainment; Culture; Lifestyle; Wendy Lesser; Maureen Corrigan

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Maureen Corrigan
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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