Postscripts: Amid drumbeats of war in Ukraine, Mook’s cello is a purveyor of peace
By Steven Slosberg Special to The Sun
My friend Lisa Starr, of Westerly, the artistic director of the Arts Café Mystic, reliably puts on a good show, and the other Friday night she presented a worthy collection of some 20 poets and writers, including Margaret Gibson, of Preston, Connecticut’s poet laureate, and Melanie Greenhouse, formerly of Noank, who, a couple of decades ago, was a founder of this poetry showcase staged six times a year at the Mystic Museum of Art.
The occasion was conceived as a “jubilee” gathering of poets who participated in recording a virtual program of readings two years ago, at the outset of COVID hibernation, to celebrate National Poetry Month, which is celebrated in April. After the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, however, the tenor of the evening took on an ostensibly more serious theme, but the participants nevertheless provided an admirable range of poetic expression, both understandably somber and thankfully humorous, too.
The Friday night series at the Arts Café also includes interludes of music. On this particular evening, despite the moving words and heartfelt appeals to humanity, to my ears, and no doubt those of others in the crowded main museum gallery, the most absorbing performance was that of cellist Theodore Mook of Wood River Junction.
A trim and affable man of 69, with a tiny earring in his left lobe, Mook and his Italian cello of weathered spruce and maple constructed in 1893 by Vincenzo Postiglione in Naples held the room still through four pieces ranging from “Song of the Birds,” a folk song arranged by Pablo Casals, to a Bach cello suite. But it was the third piece Mook performed that captivated in its flow, as Mook later explained, from noise to sound and back to noise. It is called “In Manus Tuas” by contemporary composer Caroline Shaw who, at age 30, became the youngest person to win the Pulitizer Prize for Music.
The piece, which spanned eight minutes of solo cello, was accompanied, briefly, by Mook vocalizing along with his bowing, which, he said, is part of the composition.
“In Manus Tuas,” says an online biography of the composer, is based on a 16th-century motet by Thomas Tallis.
The fourth piece deftly offered by Mook was from the composition “Three High Places” by John Luther Adams.
A few days later I paid a visit to Mook and his wife, Tracey Dillon, an architect and artist, in their home on Switch Road in Wood River Junction. It once had been a Congregational church, built in 1895 and decades later converted to a residence with a makeshift performance hall fashioned out of the former sanctuary when it is not a large and comfortable sitting room with a home office and electronics hideaway in what had to have been the choir loft above.
The room is also enhanced by hanging sculptures of branches here and glass there made by Dillon, who has decorated the walls with a few of her paintings.
From time to time Mook and Dillon host house concerts — part of what they do at home along with recordings and videos under the banner of “SwitchArts” — for friends in that downstairs space. The Sunday after he performed in Mystic, they welcomed some 50 folks and perhaps another 30 musicians for a casual evening of ensemble music and camaraderie and vegetarian chili afterwards.
Mook, who was raised in upstate New York, attended the Boston University School of Music at the suggestion of a young cellist he befriended one summer at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. That cellist, a few years younger than Mook, was Yo-Yo Ma, a child prodigy and today one of the most renowned and recognized musicians on the planet.
Mook was still fiddling with guitar and rock star ambitions then, but he had taken up the cello during high school — Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. — and asked the young Yo-Yo Ma, already celebrated, what he should do. Pursuing the cello, as it happened, worked out.
He has performed with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, the Providence Baroque Orchestra, in venues throughout this country, including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and around the world, from Europe to Australia. He has taught at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School.
He and Michael Bahmann, a pianist living nearby in Hopkinton, are tentatively scheduled to perform in the Music Matters series at the La Grua Center in Stonington next January.
Mook met Lisa Starr, once poet laureate of Rhode Island and lately the Arts Café Music director, through the poet Coleman Barks, a close friend of Starr’s and with whom Mook performed. In turn, Starr, then living on Block Island, introduced Mook to Tracey Dillon, who was also living on Block Island. They each have children from an earlier marriage. They married several years ago. Mook bought the home in Wood River Junction in 2015 from a friend and professor at URI.
When he puts down the cello, Mook is a devoted student of Tai Chi and studies at the Rhode Island School of Tai Chi in Warwick with master John Conroy. At home, he also gardens with his wife.
So thank you, again, to Lisa Starr for introducing us to Ted Mook that Friday night, and to Mook, too, for sensing what to play, reflectively and respectfully, on his cello.
MYSTIC, CT (Jan. 7, 2022) — The Arts Café Mystic was awarded a $6,500 CT Cultural Fund Operating Support Grant (CTCFOSG) from Connecticut Humanities (CTH), the statewide, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
The Arts Café, celebrating 28 years as a regional venue, features a series of readings in spring and fall by nationally acclaimed poets and writers, complemented by music from New England's best musicians. Until the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted its schedule, the programs took place in the main gallery of the Mystic Arts Museum in downtown Mystic, with cafe-style seating.
“This funding will help us to come back even stronger when our next season opens this spring,” said John Sutherland, Arts Café board president. “With support from the Museum, we were able to present several outdoor programs on the patio the summer and fall of 2021. However, we are excited to put this funding to work to help us feature an exciting schedule of the best poets, writers and musicians to enrich the arts offerings in our region.”
The Arts Café Mystic was one of 624 organizations in Connecticut that was awarded CT Cultural Fund support totaling $16M from CT Humanities. The CTCFOSG are part of $30.7M of support allocated to arts, humanities and cultural nonprofits through CTH over the next two years by the CT General Assembly and approved by Governor Ned Lamont. The CTCFOSG will assist organizations as they recover from the pandemic and maintain and grow their ability to serve their community and the public.
“We are grateful for this generous financial support from the state, and just as thrilled by the continuing support we’ve received from our Café members, friends and community members,” said Lisa Starr, Arts Café artistic director. “When we re-emerge in the spring, in whatever shape or form, we will need the arts more than ever as both beacon and balm."
This grant was administered by CT Humanities (CTH), with funding provided by the Connecticut State Department of Economic and Community Development/Connecticut Office of the Arts (COA) from the Connecticut State Legislature.
About The Mystic Arts Café
In its 28th year, The Arts Café presents programs featuring readings by nationally acclaimed poets and writers, complemented by music from New England's best musicians. The series is set in the main gallery of the Mystic Arts Museum in downtown Mystic, with cafe-style seating. Poets and writers presented over the years include Poets Laureate of the U.S. and winners of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and MacArthur Genius Award. Music heard at The Arts Cafe has ranged from opera and classical, to jazz and rock, and many other styles and genres. For more information, visit https://theartscafemystic.org.
About Connecticut Humanities CT Humanities (CTH) is an independent, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. CTH connects people to the humanities through grants, partnerships, and collaborative programs. CTH projects, administration, and program development are supported by state and federal matching funds, community foundations, and gifts from private sources. Learn more by visiting cthumanities.org.
About Connecticut Office of the Arts
The Connecticut Office of the Arts (COA) is the state agency charged with fostering the health of Connecticut’s creative economy. Part of the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, the COA is funded by the State of Connecticut as well as the National Endowment for the Arts.
By Rick Koster
Publication: The Day
These are brittle times for folks in the fine arts business. Which is sort of understandable: if the economy collapses, a lot of people are more worried about making the car payment than subsidizing, oh, a community string quartet series.
At the same time, the arts provide great spiritual and aesthetic comfort. And Christie Williams, artistic director of the Arts Café - Mystic series of poetry and music, is a fervant advocate who faced grim prospects at the dawn of the recent recession. In 2010, the café, which he co-founded 18 years ago with friends Melanie Greenhouse and Albert Kausch, was in serious trouble of folding.
Williams, though, simply thought the organization was too important a thing to let die - and followers of the series agreed.
"It really did seem we were done for," Williams says, "but members of our audience came forward and proposed we reconstitute the Arts Café as an independent not-for-profit. And some committed to making generous donations and serving on our board of directors."
Williams also met with local community civic and business leaders, learned how to write grant applications, and basically went into survival mode. Late last year, the café was registered as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit outfit - and Williams just announced a full slate of three programs scheduled for this spring.
It's a welcome comeback for a series that has hosted a rather amazing array of writers, including U.S. and Connecticut Poet Laureates, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners and Guggenheim genius grant honorees.
Donald Hall, Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Katha Pollit, Marie Howe, Philip Levine, Sue Ellen Thompson, Rennie McQuilkin, Stephen Dobyns and C.K. Williams - an iambic pentameter-y equivalent of the 1937 American League All-Star team line-up - are just a few who have read at the café.
Tonight's spring season kicks off with a benefit: "An Evening With the Marcy Kelly Quartet." In addition to the Kelly band's jazz and standards, there will be a complimentary open bar and hors d'oeuvres, and free parking.
Williams is humbled by the support and relieved that the programs will continue.
"There's something to be said for hearing poetry well-read by brilliant poets," he says. "Poetry is one of the places our culture packs its wisdom. And there's a texture to the sound of great poetry being read aloud - a sensuous and seductive texture. We fill our house because our audience wants the wisdom, but I think they're beguiled by the aural texture of our common language raised to its highest level."
Regarding the conception of the Arts Café - Mystic, Williams considers himself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. A native of California, his was a slow but steady journey across the country.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California at Berkeley and received an MFA from the University of California at Irvine. After school, he worked as an actor, scriptwriter and director in both Los Angeles and New York, and spent years in a variety of senior and freelance capacities including writer/editor for the National Audubon Society and as chief development officer for Project Renewal, a New York City organization dedicated to ending homelessness.
Ultimately, Williams moved to Mystic with his wife, Cate Moffett, daughter Tess Williams and son Cody Williams. In addition to his Arts Cafe post, he is the director of development and communications for Glynwood, an organization dedicated to the preservation of farming communities.
All along, Williams says, he read voraciously and wrote and "sometimes even published" poetry and essays. When he integrated into the Mystic area, he was delighted to find a great little poetry scene happening - open mic nights at bars and coffee houses, and Rich Martin publishing local poets at his Hozomeen Press.
"It simply occurred to me that it might be fun to create a venue, which would present big-time poets and good music, while also providing an audience for local poets," Williams says. After he and Greenhouse and Kausch brainstormed, the Arts Café was born. Greenhouse served as the artistic director for the first 10 years and then Williams took over.
Williams says the Arts Café takes pride in choosing musical acts for each program that's thematically empathetic to the headline poet's work - and provide an opening slot for area poets or high school honorees.
In terms of booking poets, he says, he figured he might as well shoot for the stars.
"It's simply more fun to present the greats. When I took over directing the café, I was working in New York City where, to my astonishment, I could open the phone directory and find the names of famous poets who lived there," he says.
He would call them out of the blue, he says, and invite them down to Mystic.
"Over the years, we've built a reputation among the poets for having an audience that listens intelligently and gets their humor. There's a lot of laughter at our shows," he notes.
For all the spectacular writers and musicians who continue to grace the Arts Café stage, Williams says, he's most grateful for the connection they've established with the community.
"My hunch is that most members of the Arts Cafe - Mystic's audience would say they don't especially like poetry and don't read much, if any, poetry between shows," he says. "But they keep coming back to hear the poetry and music we serve up, which suggests to me that there is something special about the experience of hearing poems read aloud - and maybe something special about the celebratory feeling our shows have."
Photo by: Tim Martin/The Day
— Mystic, jots down a few anecdotes about interacting with some of the esteemed poets who have read at the series.
“A couple years back, Philip Levine — who’s the current Poet Laureate of the U.S. — headlined one of our shows. We were walking from dinner to the Arts Center when he asked me if I had two of his books with me. He wanted to read some poems from them but he’d neglected to tote the books with him to Mystic.
“It happens that I own almost all of his books and was carrying them in my satchel, so with some pride I fished them out and handed them to him. They were older books — one had won the Pulitzer Prize, the other the National Book Award. So, later, Levine was at the podium turning the pages of one of the books, when suddenly I recalled that it was dog-eared and marked up with my marginalia — and Levine looked up at our audience and, turning his bemused gaze at me, said into the microphone, ‘So, you really read this s***!’”
“Katha Pollitt is an important, inspiring poet but also among the nation’s foremost political essayists, especially on gender issues. It happened that a while after she performed for us, I was traveling with my family through New Haven’s Union Station. We had descended the stairs from the train platform and I noticed a small woman beginning up with a large suitcase. Bounding up to her, I announced that I was going to help her, and then, despite her mild protests, grabbed her suitcase and lugged it up the stairs.
“When she finally made it up I observed that it was Katha Pollitt! Flabbergasted, I realized that I had just committed unwanted chivalry on one of the leading feminist voices. In panic, I babbled something about how much The Arts Café hoped she would grace us with a return engagement — to which she smiled her luminous smile and to my amazement replied, ‘I would love to…’”
“We had the privilege of presenting the great Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate of the U.S. and recent recipient of the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama. Hall is one of the gods of American poetry, but he is also a very fragile man, wheelchair bound, in evidently poor health, appearing much older than his 83 years. Yet over our pre-show dinner it was clear that his intellect and curiosity were undiminished. His eyes were bright and his voice animated, but from time to time he would steal a look at his companion, which spoke of weary panic. Would he make it through another performance?
“I found myself wondering what sort of man would arrive at the podium that night. In fact, because Hall can no longer stand at a podium, we sat him at a table before our audience, and after my introductions, it was his show. Suddenly this gnome-like man, whose face was almost masked beneath a full beard and long hair, lit up with a charismatic energy that could power the Northeast grid. He became somehow sexy. His eyes were riveting, his voice strong and dramatic. He seduced and charmed his audience, and there was a palpable feeling in the audience that we were witnessing something memorable — perhaps greatness.”
— Christie Williams
Photo by: Tim Martin/The Day